From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Pour shame all over us
Harden into a crust
Forget the glamour and
Mumble a jackhammer
under your breath
Hide your face in the curtains
Better unsaid so close
And it rolls off the tongue
The world expects a pose
Smearing wet concrete and
Swearing you'll never be
At your weakest, etched in stone
And we're frozen here, peeking
Up to my neck
I confess in quicksand
"But it's so easy for you"
"Yeah, there's always one thing"
"Do you have something to tell me?"
I'm warning you
I'm warning you
I'm fucking you
I'm warning you
"It's just a phase"
"You'll grow out of it"
Believe anything anyone ever tells you
It's not funny anymore
It's the thing you hate the most
The thing you hate the most
The thing you hate
- Faith No More, 'Caffeine'
It’s pouring rain, water cascading from the heavens, a deluge.
This is Paragon? This is the Row?
He is sick, hungry, and exhausted. In a dim red haze, he had made his way through the streets, trying to ignore the ache in his guts, trying to compensate for his altered perceptions, overheard conversations much like the audio in a slow motion sequence in a movie.
He could see every rain drop, individually, slowly descending droplets in a never ending suicidal collision course with whatever happened to be underneath them. Every movement is jerky, exaggerated, too fast and then too slow as his brain fought to correct itself, then a brief period of deliberate movement, focused and careful, before some environmental stimuli triggered his nervous system. Gunfire in the distance, a blur of movement then, as he moved to protect himself. The flash of something metallic in the dim murk of the ghetto, a flood of adrenaline and neuron-chemicals designed to facilitate stronger neural transmissions dumps into his bloodstream results, and he is hyper-aware, jacked up, his body a hair’s breadth away from brutal, blinding violence.
He is dressed in rags – bit of his Council uniform, shredded in the escape, supplemented by what he could find in dumpsters and off the few unfortunates he fed upon in the trek from Talos Island to here, King’s Row. Drenched by the rain, shivering from the cold and the seemingly random jolts of neuron-chemicals, Subject 007 is not what one would call a well man.
The King’s Row Zone was a prime example of compartmentalizing urban decay. The War Walls were freshly constructed, in some spots the concrete wasn’t even fully cured, to prevent another invasion like the Rikti had inflicted from over running the city. Access in and out of the Zones was fairly controlled with the obvious exceptions of the sewers and the skies. What had occurred was that some sections, like King’s Row and Independence Port and Skyway City had been effectively sealed off from the prettier sections of the city. Isolated to a degree, the already poorer sections of the city began to fester. The gangs grew more brazen. The dead, it seemed, were walking the streets, led by grotesque ghouls in gore caked surgeon’s aprons. The rooftops of the tenements were host to the whirring, clicking automatons of the Clockwork King, or worse – the ruthless and amoral mages of the Circle of Thorns.
The self-styled ‘Heroes’ seemed to spend little time here, as if the squalor and filth here was beneath them. As if the subtle prejudices that had been slowly wearing at them throughout their lives had caused them to prioritize other areas of he city as having more worth. Or maybe it wasn’t so much as subtle as it was bitter – maybe, like most children born after the 1970’s, they had been raised to erroneously believe the namby-pampy lies their textbooks and teachers and television programs had told them, that black, Latino, and every other person other than white was intrinsically more noble or worth more, by simple virtue of their skin, like the ‘noble savage’ lie in 19th century literature. That a black person was merely oppressed and every wrong done to them had been perpetuated by a mythic cabal of white men who were all Southern, looking like a strange hybrid of Colonel Sanders and Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazard.
And when these noble minorities break into their cars, or beat up and rob them, or in the case of the crime fighting community, constantly be involved in crimes, that idealism dies fast, and the sociopaths they deal with end up painting their perceptions and prejudices, and they become embittered and callous. Bitter that the ghettos weren’t filled with singing Negroes and hard-working Latinos like they all saw on television – they were bitter because they were dealing with real people, frustrated people, frightened people, and people who thought it’d be easier to bust a car window and steal a radio that try to better their situation.
Because in the intervening years between the civil rights movement and now, white America had not suddenly become enlightened and had an epiphany of racial harmony – no, far from it. It merely, though a combination of ignorance and guilt, swung the pendulum of racism the other way in many respects. Barring the dyed in the wool racists, for most white people, minorities were noble and possessed these mythical qualities that simply did not exist – which would be fine, except it did not change the basic fact that black, Latino, etc, were people. And no after-school special, or apologists, or species of white guilt would ever change that.
And because nobody ever took the time and see what similarities there were between these groups of people, that poor whites put the same tuna fish in the macaroni and cheese like poor black people; and that rich blacks bought the same ridiculously expensive cars and homes as rich white people did, the only thing anyone could see was color. Again, everyone is painted with the same broad strokes.
An area like King’s Row is a monument to failure – the white majority, who set up the circumstances for this to happen, and the minorities for allowing it to keep happening. And the culture, the highly profitable ‘urban culture’ (too profitable to exclusively urban, the suburban white teens could find nothing better to rebel against their middle class parents with than an inner city thug), is a culture of failure. It celebrates crime, drugs, the breakdown of the family structure, ignorance, and hate. Low expectations and hopelessness, generational depression.
What greater shame than, in a city of heroes that such a place, such a culture, could exist? That in a place of so many superhumans, white, black, Latino, Asian, Indian – a Benneton ad with colorful tights, that the culture of failure could exist.
It exists because of defeatism on both sides, they feel that they can’t change things, that there is nothing they can do. Heroes feel they can’t stop the petty crime, or are made to feel that they can’t affect positive change in the community. The poor feel that they can’t get out of the ghetto, that in a city of limitless potential, they cannot better themselves. And when they see the big shiny white people with capes beating up their friends and relatives, it’s easy for the young and disenfranchised to look past the fact that their friends and relatives were torching a car, or mugging someone, and it’s too easy just to conclude that the white cops, the white superheroes, etc, hate them. Racism runs the other way, too, ignorance and hatred are not exclusively a white phenomenon. The end result? Nobody does anything, and the problem just gets worse.
It was into this environment that Miguel Sanchez was raised in, while his mother worked nights at a plastic injection molding plant, and worked days as a cleaning lady, he was out learning the ways of failure. Already a strike against him, he was mixed, white and Mexican, and if you’re under the mistaken impression that minorities aren’t racist, ask a mixed kid. With no supervision and peer pressure being what it is, he soon fell into the petty block gangs, and later, the Skulls, where he would remain until he was gunned down when he was 23. Now, he picked his way through a trash-littered alleyway, his whole body shivering violently. It had been four years since he had walked these streets, four years of darkness, vats filled with oxygenated fluids and endorphin induced compliance, life altering surgeries and treatments, turned into a killing machine, an inhuman spider-thing that existed solely for the purpose of hunting and killing and feeding.
But now, he was home, back in the Row, and he had a few objectives in mind.
Saint, the hulking Caribbean man who had, along with a white guy with a MAC 10, thrown him off an expressway, but only after riddling him with bullets. In his dreams, he had relived that moment over and over, his ribs and kneecap crushed by Saint’s tire iron, Saint holding him up by his neck, his feet dangling in nothingness, and how they had laughed at him, told him it was nothing personal, just business, and that Marrowsnap had decided to end this business arrangement.
The MAC 10 barking, flames shooting from the muzzle, his torso riddled with rounds, and then Saint letting go, the long fall off the overpass and into the black nightmare of the years to come.
Marrowsnap, too. Oh yeah. The leader of the Skulls. He would receive in return what the four years of hell had done to Miguel, and he would see what his little ‘lay-off’ would cost him.
Miguel looked down at his hand, and his fingertips had elongated and hardened into the chitin-like talons the Shadow Spider program had so generously given him.
He shuddered in anticipation.
Miguel sat bolt upright in the bed, shivering. He blinked, panting. His body was slippery and sticky with perspiration.
Oh God, he thought. What the hell was that?
He released a pent up breath and looked at the clock – 3:39 am. He was still in the bed at the hotel, he was still in Los Angeles.
He felt the sheet covering him – it was rent and shredded, sliced into ribbons.
He looked down, and the expensive hotel sheets were so much rags now. He looked at his hands – dumbfounded. He had no nails to speak of, much less the blackened talons in his dream.
And what the hell was that dream? A city with glowing walls, he was in a ghetto, something about spiders… it was like a nightmare on crank.
He shook his head in wonder, at his own fevered imagination, and the shredded sheets on the bed.
“Did you get any sleep?” Tyler yawned, blearily looking over at Penny, who sat on the couch in the small living room area outside of the control booth. She looked haggard, bags under her eyes, her makeup rubbed off by a paper towel in the bathroom. She shook her head. It seemed she had aged overnight.
“Penny, ya gotta get some sleep, alright? Aatiya will be here soon with the stuff ya need, like I promised . You’re safe here.”
Her voice was scratchy and raw. “We’re not safe. Nobody’s safe.”
Tyler curled his lip in derision and said nothing. He turned and padded over to the kitchenette to fix a pot of coffee.
This was aggravating. Penny shows up after years of running off being a big time reporter, and now she’s on his doorstep, acting crazy. Talking about spider men coming along and eating people. He stuffed the filter into the machine, halfway filled with the grounds. He furrowed his brow, sighing.
He looked at the clock on the wall – nine AM. Miguel would be here soon, and having Miss Crazy in the studio would only complicate matters.
Maybe it would be best if he told Miguel to take off for a couple of days, make an excuse to get Penny taken care of. Of course, Miguel was paying a lot of money for studio time, and this would look real shoddy, unprofessional.
Damnit. What, did he have a sign up that said ‘Crazy Women Welcome’?
He turned around, leaning on the counter of the kitchenette, frowning at Penny, and regretted it – she saw the frown and her expression darkened.
“You don’t believe me.”
He sighed. “Penny, look…”
“Tyler, I’m telling you, I saw them…”
“I saw them tear through my friends, everyone I worked with.” Her voice was slowly rising with anger, frustration, hysteria.
“I SAW THEM, TYLER! I have proof!”
“ALRIGHT! OKAY! Just mellow out! Aatiya’s on her way!” he shouted, louder than he intended.
Penny looked at her hands in her lap.
Tyler exhaled. He didn’t mean to lose his temper. But this was getting on his nerves.
Steady, Tyler, he thought, inhaling deeply. Steady. Steady as a rock.
“Suh… suh… SAINT!”
The Skull dropped to the ground, clutching his throat. He was soaked with blood, his clothes shredded. Marrowsnap snarled, and pulled a .45 caliber pistol from his belt.
“What about him?” the co-founder of the Skulls grunted, clicking back the hammer of the pistol.
The underling coughed, and got on his knees. “This guy… dressed all… freaky, he busted into the house and tore everyone up, asking bout Saint….”
Marrowsnap grimaced. Saint had been sent out west, courtesy of some Heroes beating him down. Federal pen and such. Saint’s partner, Davis, was rotting in the Paragon City morgue. Enemies caught him off guard.
“This man, is he a Cape?”
The underling, a black man in his mid-twenties, shook his head, still clutching his throat. “Nuh… no sir, he wasn’t in no spandex, just, like, rags. He moved so fast, cut guys up…”
Marrowsnap grinned, a sight most men in the Row felt was not a happy tiding. “And what did you tell him?”
The young man swallowed hard. “Ah…. I didn’t tell him nothing, man…”
A slow, deep, guttural laugh. “Yes, yes you did, didn’t you? You told him where to find me instead, and rushed here to distance yourself from culpability. You have the soul of a cockroach, Darnell. But I’m not mad.”
“Sir, I swear…”
“I’m not mad.” He repeated, flicking his attention up into the rafters of the warehouse where Marrowsnap ran his Superdine smuggling operation. “You saved me the trouble of finding him.” Marrowsnap looked up into the shadowy recesses of the ceiling, rubbing the barrel of the .45 across his chin, bopping the braided growth of beard there.
“You see, that’s how the Heroes work. They like to let one go, to trail them back to the source, and now, the Hero will come to me, on some foolish crusade to rid us from the streets. But Darnell, do you think the Heroes can? Every Skull they brutalize gains me three more converts. Every person they put in jail, their relatives and friends join me. Because the Heroes have no grasp of what they’re dealing with. They’re out of their depth. They see crime, they want to stop it, but by them ‘stopping’ it, they unwittingly strengthen my cause. The denizens of the Row hate the Heroes because they take away their friends, their loved ones, lives destroyed. Every father taken to County leaves a poor family destitute, and who is there to fill the void? Not the whitebread Heroes. No… Me. Now the fatherless look to me for protection, guidance… a father. And if not me, then someone like me. So let this Hero come. Let him try to dethrone me. He will only make me stronger.”
A blur of movement from behind, and a strangled cry. Marrowsnap turned expectantly, raising the .45, smiling.
Perched on a crate, a man, dripping from the rain, clad in rags. His face covered in strips of a torn shirt, his long black hair tangled and slick with water, his glowing red eyes and blood smeared mouth visible between the bands of cloth. In his clawed hands, a Bone Daddy, Tyreese Jones, limp, his eyes open but rolled back to white, a confused and dumbfounded expression on his dead face, his throat savagely torn out.
The man growled. “Not here… to stop you… here… to kill you.”
Miguel woke with a start, a gasp escaping his lips. The cab driver looked back irritably.
“I said we’re here.”
Miguel looked around, blinking. The cab, sure enough, was parked in front of Hockey Goon studios. He patted his shirt and produced a wallet. He gave two twenties to the cabbie. “Keep it.” He muttered, laboriously getting out of the cab.
He was drowsy and exhausted from the night before, and these dreams! What the hell was all that about? He shook his head as the cab drove away into the morning rush hour traffic. Just a dream.
He stretched, yawning. Well, maybe it was just his nerves. He was nervous about recording here, but he had never had dreams like this before. He slowly made his way to the entrance, when he saw a punky young woman, Filipino, maybe, with spiky red hair. She was holding a Wal Mart bag filled with what looked like a camcorder and other sundries. She looked at his, bemused, and waved.
“Hi, uh, you coming in?”
Miguel squinted a bit, looking every inch like he was hung over. “Si, yo… I mean, yeah, going… in.”
The woman smirked. Apparently this was nothing new to her. She opened the glass door. “Rough night?”
“Something like that, yes.”
Tyler greeted them not too long after. He hugged, and rather expressively kissed the red haired woman.
“Honey, this is Miguel Sanchez, the guy I was telling you about. Miguel, this is my wife, Aatiya.”
Miguel nodded, the lights hurting his eyes. Things seemed awfully bright today.
“Rough night?” Tyler asked.
“I already asked him.” Aatiya grinned, and held the bag out. “You wanted this?”
Tyler nodded and took the bag. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll show ya in a bit. Hey, Miguel, you’re not looking too hot today, and something’s come up. Whaddya say we hold off till tomorrow?”
Miguel rubbed his eyes. “Ah… we cannot record today? Is something wrong?” he stifled a yawn.
Tyler grinned insincerely. “Ah, just a computer foul-up, gonna take a bit to get fixed up. Nothing to worry about, just have to do some fiddling with it.”
“Ah.” Inwardly, Miguel was relieved. He wasn’t up to doing this today, especially after last night’s strange dreams. “Ah, is there any way I can use your phone to call the taxi?”
“Sure, here you go.” Aatiya thrust a cell phone into his hands.
“And telephone book?”
Quick as a cat, Aatiya swept the still shrink-wrapped Yellow Pages off of a stack of mail on the kitchenette. “Here ya go!”
Tyler cleared his throat. “Well, ah, let me go back to work, sorry about this…”
Miguel held the phone and the book, looking quite befuddled. “Yes, it is all right. Thank you.”
The couple went into the recording booth.
Miguel sat down on the couch, which stank of cigarettes, spilled beer, and God knew what else, and clumsily opened the shrink-wrapped phonebook, and began pouring over the entries for a taxi service. English not being his native language, it took him awhile.
During the laborious process, and through the muddled haze of the hangover and lack of sleep, something caught his attention, a soft murmur of voices coming from the control booth. Squinting, he shakily stood up, and paddled over to the door, peeking in.
Inside, he saw…
… Marrowsnap burst through the drywall and 2X4 stud partition, landing with a bone jarring thud into the abandoned office. He grunted with pain, and tore away the shattered mask of bone that was the Skull’s motif. The fragments had shredded his face when the ragged man had flashed out, impossibly quick, and smashed his fist into Marrowsnap’s face. Cursing in his native Slavic tongue, he got to his knees, taking inventory of himself. Still, business was business, he thought darkly, pulling a pair of throwing knives from his boots.
A burst of gunfire, very loud in the enclosed space of the warehouse. Marrowsnap, a mask of blood replacing the mask of bone, snarled and crept towards the door.
The glass upper half of the door exploded inward, a pulverized face appearing for a moment, a blood ruin, before being wrenched out. Blood accented the edges of the shattered remnants of the frosted glass. A heavy thud, the clatter of a firearm on concrete.
Marrowsnap curled his lip. This was getting messy.
He wrenched open the door, and the man in rags was crouched there, hauling up the body of one the Skull lieutenants. Marrowsnap’s hand arced out, and the man in rags used the body as a shield, the steel blade burying itself in the man’s ribcage. Flinging the corpse aside, the man in rags advanced, but the other knife was hissing through the air, the blade lodging in the man’s shoulder. Hissing in pain, he leapt away, up and back, and clung to the wall. This gave Marrowsnap enough time to pick up his lieutenant’s submachine gun. The Skull leader grinned, slapping the magazine of the Uzi to ensure the impact of the ground hadn’t dislodged it, his face a mask of blood and madness.
“Out. Of. Your. Depth.” He laughed, low and deep, as he raised the Uzi, firing a burst at the man, rounds punching through the wall. Marrowsnap furrowed his brow. He dodged that?
The blur again, and the man ripped the Uzi from Marrowsnap’s hands, snapping his trigger finger in the process – a brittle, wet snap, like a branch of a green tree breaking. The Skull roared in agony, and lashed out with his boot, smashing into the groin of his attacker. The man in rags grunted, and scooped up the still extended leg, much faster than the Skull’s eyes could track, and hurled him over his shoulder, the Skull leader colliding with one of the tables where an array of glass tubes and beakers sat, where the Skulls cut and measured the drugs they received and put out on the street. He landed bodily on the table, the glass shattering under his weight, driving shards into his flesh. A ragged, rusty scream seemed to wrench itself from his chest, rolling over in a red haze, more glass tinkling and breaking, and he fell off the stainless steel examination table, accompanied by a cascade of bloody glass fragments.
The man in rags tore the throwing knife from his shoulder, snarling in pain. Throwing it to the ground, he advanced upon his quarry, who was struggling to get to his feet, back, sides, and arms glinting with glass, a crimson wreck. The man in rags snarled, baring dripping, translucent fangs.
“You… orrrderrrred… the… hit….” The man… no, THING, hissed, and the air was thick, hard to breathe, Marrowsnap’s body shivering violently in a chemical reaction. It loomed over the gang leader. But Marrowsnap was no stranger to agony, no fear. He lunged up, both hands clasped together, smashing his fists into the thing’s jaw. Blood spurted out, and the thing rocked back on it’s heels, stunned.
“YOU THINK YOU BAD?” Marrowsnap roared, enraged. He scopped up the thing and body slammed him on the table, onto the painful shards of glass. The thing landed with a grunt and slid off the other side, smearing the metal surface with a trail of blood. Marrowsnap screamed and upended the heavy table, letting it fall on his attacker, the weight of the table pinning him to the ground. The Skull blew out a mouthful of blood, and turned to one of his fallen minions, nearly falling himself, and wrenched the pump shotgun from the man’s nerveless, dead fingers. Grunting, spitting out another mouthful of gore and phlegm, he pumped the shotgun, ejecting a spent shell.
“HUNNNNGH! YOU THINK YOU BAD, HERO BOY?” he roared, staggering back to the overturned table. The thing was attempting to crawl out from under it.
“YOU AIN’T SHIT! COME… hunnngh… YOU COME INTO MY HOUSE? BUST UP MY SHIT? I FUCKING KILL YOU!” The gang leader swung his booted foot back, and it connected with the thing’s jaw with a satisfying crunch. The thing rolled on it’s side, snarling. A hand shot out, vicious claws sinking into Marrowsnap’s ankle. He shrieked in agony, and the shotgun went off close to the thing’s face, skin and hair burning from bits of flame and cordite erupting from the muzzle. It hissed and yanked the Skull off his feet, the boss landing on his back, driving glass deeper into his flesh. The cry of pain was ungodly, and Marrowsnap writhed in agony, struggling to bring the shotgun up.
The thing hissed, it’s features altering, skin hardening, black bristles pushing out. From each shoulder, two cruel looking spines shot out with a spray of red mist. It’s jaws wide, gleaming with wet, dripping death. Marrowsnap screamed, shucking out the spent shell, but the thing threw off the table, hauling itself onto Marrowsnap’s body. A taloned hand slapped away the shotgun, and it was soon perched on Marrow’s chest, glistening fangs inches from the Skull’s throat.
“Kill… you… forrrr…. Thisssssss…”
A glaring spotlight popped on, blinding, on the two, the spider-beast atop the bloody gang leader.
From around them, cops were everywhere, guns drawn, screaming a cacophony of commands. They seemed to come from everywhere. The spider hissed in rage at being denied it’s kill. The taloned hand swept down, the curved talons slicing into Marrowsnap’s face, rending apart flesh and skin and muscle, and then it was gone, disappearing into the shadows.
Now, Marrowsnap’s screams joined the chorus of the cops, the bloody horror of the gang leader thrashing as he attempted to hold the remnants of his face together.
“Jesus Christ…” one cop gasped as he drew near. “What the hell was that?”
… a blonde woman pointing at the screen of Tyler’s computer, a wide flatscreen, while Aatiya backed up the tape, a camcorder hooked into the computer with some multi-colored cables.
Tyler watched grimly, as the monsters on-screen moved with hideously fluid grace, annihilating Penny’s co-workers.
Miguel silently backed away, confused. They stopped recording so he could watch a horror movie? Still… those… things… Like the one in his dreams, like the shadow spiders that were a modern day bogeyman. He shook his head and quietly crept out fo the studio into the harsh, blinding light of the morning sun.
These strange dreams only served to tire him more. They made no sense. Talk of a city he’d never seen before, gangs, spider beasts. He ambled down the sidewalk in a daze, and it was three blocks away when he realized he still had Aatiya’s cell phone in his hand. I forgot to call, I must be more tired than I thought.
He turned back to the studio, and then something made him stop. An odd feeling of familiarity, danger, of… something. He shivered. I must becoming down with something…
“Huh. Feels like I’m being watched…” he muttered, glancing up and down the street. Huh. Nevermind…
As he made his way back to the studio, he didn’t look up. Mostly because of his eyes being so sensitive, but if he had, he would have seen the hazy forms of creatures clinging to the buildings in the shadows, dark carapace-like skins mutely reflecting the California sun. Creatures that licked their lips in anticipation for the fun that would begin.
For the feeding to come.