“We managed to capture high-speed camera footage of the dramatic aerial escape from the helicopter,” said the news anchor.
The news cut to a slow-motion view of the helicopter, blades whooshing slowly through the air. Legion stood up. He’d seen this already. He strolled out of the lounge, mumbling some excuse about taking a shower to the room at large. Once the door was shut behind him, he sighed quietly. He meandered aimlessly down the hall. The storage room was just down the hall from the lounge, so he stopped there, shoving the door open with a shoulder. He strolled down the row of large, almost closet-sized lockers to his own and stopped to pick up his backpack and civilian clothes where they’d been deposited at the foot of his locker. After a moment of rifling through his pockets, he retrieved his civilian cell phone, to see that there was a missed message.
Your prescription needs filling, it said. Stop by Bristlecone Pharmacy today. Legion deleted the message after a moment.
“No, thank you,” he muttered under his breath.
He scanned his palm on the fancy locker security system and the door popped open. He tossed his backpack inside, after sneaking the pistol back into it where the camera couldn’t see. He slammed his locker shut with his foot, then threw his civilian clothes over his shoulder and hit the showers.
There weren’t any cameras in the showers, which suited Legion just fine. He wouldn’t have put it past them, though, if it weren’t illegal. He stripped out of his costume and threw it across the bench.
I gotta get something new, he thought as he looked at the red bodysuit with an “L” emblazoned on it. Seems so juvenile now. Maybe something green. Lose the L if I do that, though. Don’t want to break any trademarks. He ran a few ideas through his head and made a mental note to talk to Dr. Mind about it later.
Luke entered the shower and let the water run. After a moment, he looked down at the blue-within-red pills he held in his hand that he’d grabbed earlier.
“Ehh, fuck it,” he said, and swallowed them all.
A moment later, he watched himself overdose on the floor of the shower, struggling to breathe with a smile on his face. His eyes were inevitably drawn to the scars. Most of them were faint, but a few stood out. The one from where he was shot at that bank, just above his hip, was puckered and red. He checked the same place on himself to find it was gone. He searched himself and found the one under his chin, the first one. On his dying self, there was just smooth skin. He shivered. They were always different.
His duplicate looked up at him, eyes full of fear, the smile vanished, then dissolved into dust, which faded into nothing as it swirled in the water. Luke spat to clear the bitter taste from his mouth and looked down at the the now unused pils, tempted, then shook his head and put them back in the bottle.
Some time later, Luke exited back into the locker room, now wearing his civilian clothes- jeans and a hoodie.
“Luke.” Jet was standing in the locker room. “We need to talk.”
“Not now-” Luke started to protest, jimmying his locker door open with his free hand.
“Now,” said Jet in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Fine.” Legion turned to face Jet, having deposited his costume in the locker. “Let the lecture commence.” He raised his arms, mimicking someone giving a speech.
“I wasn’t going to lecture you,” said Jet, exasperated.
Luke raised an eyebrow skeptically. “You weren’t? Excuse me if I don’t believe you.”
“Okay, I was going to lecture you, but you seem to be set on making that impossible.” Jet raised a hand to his forehead.
“Look, you can take this to Jamisson if you want. I won’t stop you,” said Luke. “Just don’t bother me, okay?” Luke started to push past Jet.
Jet grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Dammit, Luke, I’m trying to help you!” he said. Luke looked away.
“Well maybe I don’t want help,” he said flatly. After a moment, he pulled himself away from Jet and stalked out the door. When he had gone, Jet sat down heavily on the bench that ran between the walls of lockers.
“That’s how I know you need it,” he whispered to the air.
Though Dr. Mind’s specialization changed, seemingly randomly at times, there was one thing he was always good at. He supposed it was because of the low level Joker classification- Jokers almost always had one minor thing they could always rely on. Myriad had her eyes, Arkady had his teleportation, Dagon had strength, Tipping Point had stability, a resistance to mental effects. All of them had something. Dr. Mind could always understand other tinker’s work, though it took time and was quite a headache sometimes. Despite this, even a damaged sample of MetaTech… it was worth it. It was worth it a hundred times over.
The Cherub lay on the table in the center of the sterile operating room, peeled open around the burned and pitted scar left by Dame Danger’s malfunctioning tinker device. He had managed to pry off most of it’s chestplate, thanks to the cracks radiating from where Emily had shattered it’s outer shell, which was awaiting chemical analysis on a metal cart at Dr. Mind’s side, along with a small sample of the coolant fluid, one of its eyes, and several of the black, synthetic muscle strands. The cart also held a tray of various surgical tools, an eclectic combination of scientific tools, and a rather out-of-place hammer and chisel.
Inside, the Cherub looked nothing like human. There was no ribcage, or nothing resembling such, just layer upon layer of interlaced synthetic muscles. At the center of its chest, whatever power source it used had burned out due to the loss of coolant. The muscle strands had evidently absorbed the explosion when it overheated, leaving a gaping cavity where its heart and lungs should have been. The throat was nightmarish, lined with razor thin blades, which it took Dr. Mind a moment to identify as heat sinks, no doubt doubling as a surface for absorbing chemicals from the atmosphere and expelling waste. It had no stomach, no digestive system, just more muscles and reinforced plates, with the tube that started at its throat appearing to continue down directly to its anus- though it was difficult to tell, as the abdomen was severely damaged. Dr. Mind had gotten a good laugh from the idea of this thing expelling waste gasses when he’d discovered that. It was efficient, he had to give it that, but it would absolutely ruin any intimidation factor.
The ridges along its head also seemed to serve as heat dissipators, rough to maximize surface area, unlike the rest of the machine, which was polished smooth. They, like the rest of the machine, seemed to be extremely conducive, both to heat and electricity, he’d discovered after testing its conductive properties with what amounted to a glorified voltmeter. It would act as a faraday cage, he realized, shielding it from electrical attacks. Heat, though, could be a problem. Given the sheer number of heat dissipation apparati, it must have been a serious design flaw early on- most tinkers were known for over-engineering, after all. It didn’t make much sense though, because anything that could conduct heat out could conduct heat in as well. He would have to figure out how that particular problem had been solved later, once he had everything opened up. From what he could tell, the control mechanism was located in the head; a strange design choice, and not one he would have made. His palms itched with curiosity.
Dr. Mind made a note of his findings so far and prepared to crack open the skull. This would be difficult, he assumed, given the absurd strength of the rest of the machine, so he had prepared an assortment of various cutting implements. Removing the eye had been difficult in and of itself, and the rest of the head was far more sturdy, so it appeared. Dr. Mind picked up the hammer and chisel and placed the hardened metal spike against the white surface of the Cherub’s head with a *click.* He drew back the hammer, a heavy metal mallet, and slammed it down onto the chisel with a powerful stroke. A clang of metal ringing on metal rattled through Dr. Mind’s hands and he winced at the backlash. He removed the chisel and inspected the pale white flesh. Nothing. The surface was still shiny and smooth, the glossy surface not even marred. The chisel was another matter. The force of the blow had bent the tip, blunting it beyond usefulness.
“Of course it’s not that simple,” he chuckled. “It’s never that simple.” He threw the hammer and chisel aside, rather amused at himself that he’d tried the less sophisticated equipment first. It did have the lowest chance of torching the contents of the skull, so it was at least worth trying.
Over the next half hour or so, he tried all the equipment he’d brought out. A diamond saw, a laser cutter, a plasma torch. He had to be careful to avoid cooking the contents of the skull- given the cooling ridges on the cranium, it was likely to be heat sensitive. All attempts failed.
“How on earth,” he mused, “did Kismet manage to crack one of these?”
He’d already figured out that Dame Danger had only been able to destroy the Cherub because the outer casing had already been damaged by Emily. It would have overheated eventually, but it wouldn’t have been cut in half as dramatically as it had been. An idea struck him, and he spoke to the intercom system.
“Jamisson,” he said.
“Yes?” prompted Jamisson’s voice from the speakers after a few moments.
“See if you can send in Emily, would you? She might be useful.”
“She’s still here. I’ll ask her if she can spare a moment.”
While he waited, Dr. Mind started running tests on the coolant sample, separating it out into a number of even smaller vials. Two would be stored in different temperatures, one at room temperature, one at a low temperature. The others would be subjected to various chemical tests- one put through a centrifuge, one put through an X-Ray diffraction test, one a mass spectrometry, and a battery of other tests. He came up short as he was filling up the seventh vial, each barely a milliliter. He swore under his breath. He’d have to skip the rest of the tests and hope for the best. He hoped he would be able to produce more of the substance to continue testing once he determined its chemical structure.
“If only I had more,” he muttered. The blue liquid had started evaporating immediately upon exposure to the air, creating a plume of foul blue steam when he peeled the chestplate off of the Cherub’s torso. He’d had to scramble to collect a sample before it had all evaporated.
“You rang?” said Emily as she walked into the lab. She was still in-costume, though the mask was off now.
“That I did,” replied Dr. Mind. “I need some help.”
“Woah, you really went to town on that thing,” said Emily as she approached the operating table.
“That was mostly you two,” confessed Dr. Mind. “I’ve just been pulling the pieces off.”
“Yeah, no shit,” she walked around the table to get a closer look. “Wow. That’s…” she paused and leaned over the partially dissected Cherub. “That’s messed up.”
Dr. Mind remained silent, allowing her to inspect the corpse.
“Everything but the head.” She knocked on the head, which rolled around to face her.
“That’s what I need your help with,” Dr. Mind explained.
“Goddam coconuts,” muttered Emily, then chuckled. Dr. Mind looked at her, confused, so she explained. “My dad always hated opening coconuts. Thinking about it now, he probably wanted to just use his power to crack them, and it, you know, reminded him that he was keeping it secret from us.” she frowned. “God, I can’t believe I didn’t see it until… Even when I did figure it out, I couldn’t tell Mom. If she knew how he was supporting us, she would absolutely die. So every time we got a coconut, he’d get all melancholy.”
“I forget you didn’t always live in Collswell,” remarked Dr. Mind.
“Long time ago,” Emily replied curtly, avoiding Dr. Mind’s gaze. “Alright, let’s do this.”
She placed her hands on the top of the head and concentrated, drawing out runes beneath her hands. They were more precise than before, because she could take her time about it, neatly symmetrical, and contained within a circle trailing around the top of the head.
“Okay, this shouldn’t be nearly as explosive as usual, but it does take a shitload of force to get through this stuff, so it might be a little dangerous,” said Emily once she was complete.
“I know, I had to pick shrapnel out of Dame Danger earlier,” said Dr. Mind with a bemused grin. Emily looked uncomfortable at that. “She’s fine,” Dr. Mind reassured her, and she relaxed slightly.
“We need to clear the room,” Dr. Mind said, “and point this guy away from anything valuable.”
Emily nodded. “The pieces are all going to fly outwards, ’cause you didn’t want to damage anything inside, so that’s probably a good idea.”
A few minutes later, they were in the observation room looking in at the wrecked Cherub through bulletproof glass. They had pointed it away from them, towards an empty wall, which now had a thick foam pad leaned against it.
“Ready?” Emily asked, not looking away from the Cherub.
“Fire away,” Dr. Mind prompted.
The *Bang!* reached them through the glass, though muffled, followed by a sound like hundreds of dice rolling as the fragments of the Cherub’s cranium clattered to the floor. A plume of blue steam rose from the exposed contents, and Dr. Mind silently cursed the missed opportunity to collect more of the coolant.
“Explosive brain surgery,” Emily quipped. “That’s gotta be a first.”
“You’d be surprised,” replied Dr. Mind slyly as he turned to the door.
“No way,” said Emily, shaking her head. She followed Dr. Mind as he exited the room, returning to the operating room.
“You can go, if you like,” said Dr. Mind over his shoulder.
“Nah, you got me curious,” she replied, and they walked around the table to see what their mystery box contained.
As the contents came into view, Dr. Mind leaned against the operating table, knees weak. His stomach roiled uncomfortably, rebelling. He exhaled sharply through his teeth with a hiss as he fought to suppress his shock. After a moment of stunned silence staring at it, Emily stumbled over to a trash receptacle in the corner and retched into it, emptying her stomach of its contents.
“Christ,” said Dr. Mind his voice tight.
“Fuck,” replied Emily quietly, wiping her face on the sleeve of her costume. “Should’a taken you up on the offer and just left.”
“I had no idea,” said Dr. Mind, disbelieving. “This is not what the official reports say.”
“Is that what I think it is?” Emily asked, risking another glance at the contents of the Cherub’s skull. “Don’t answer that, I know it is. Remind me to thank my dad for getting us the hell out of there.”
Inside the skull of the Cherub, was a human brain. It was stained a dark purple by the coolant, and steamed gently as the remaining coolant evaporated. Whole sections of the brain had been removed, replaced with blocks of strangely reflective metals, which Dr Mind assumed were ultradense three-dimensional circuitry. Where the grey matter connected to the implants, thousands of tiny fiber-optics wove into the brain tissue, connecting to neuron bundles in various parts of the brain. At the base of the skull, circling the brainstem in place of the first vertebra, was the cortical stack.
“This thing is…” Dr. Mind paused. “This was once human.” Behind him, he could hear Emily dry heaving again.
Jamisson’s voice interrupted their thoughts. “Mind, there are Feds heading your way. I don’t know what they want.” Jamisson paused. “They didn’t even ask to come in, they just overrode my system. They have full clearance.” Jamisson went silent for a moment, then added “It’s Agent Flax,” with a note of annoyance in his voice.
“Thanks for the warning,” Dr. Mind said, coming to, then rushed to the cart of samples he’d taken. He set to work frantically hiding the samples among the lab equipment- none of it looked too out of place among the clutter of scientific instruments and experimental substances.
He walked quickly over to the metal cart and drew out what appeared to be a pair of disposable rubber gloves, pulling them on deftly. Emily watched in disbelief as he stepped up to the corpse and grabbed a hold of the cortical stack, yanking it sharply off, severing the brainstem in the process with a sound like a wet paper towel tearing.
“What the hell are you doing?” Emily asked.
“Need to… retrieve the stack,” he grunted. He grabbed the plasma torch, flipped the safety and depressed the trigger. It ignited with a *wumph* and created a spike of white-orange light. The flesh sizzled and blackened as he brought the torch down on the brainstem, burning away the torn ends. “Like it burned itself out when the power supply did, see?” he explained.
“Damn that stinks,” said Emily, her voice raw. The sterile, chemical smell of the evaporated coolant now had an added bitter note, the odor of burned flesh.
Dr. Mind ignored her. He threw the plasma torch back onto the cart, and wheeled it back into the main lab. He roughly shoved it into one of the storage closets and slammed the door, tossing the cortical stack into a pile of unfinished circuits on his way past a prototyping bench. He barely made it back into the operating room when the door of the lab swung open and four men in dark suits barged in, flashing badges and sunglasses, along with a gurney pushed by the man in the back. For some reason, the sunglasses seemed to come with the suits; Dr. Mind was pretty sure Jamisson had a pair around somewhere, though he didn’t wear them around much.
“Dr. Mind, so kind of you to retrieve the specimen for us,” said the man at the lead. He glanced around the lab and seemed to find it wanting. “You won’t have it cluttering up your workspace much longer. Boys,” he snapped and directed the two large men on either side of him to lift the Cherub off the operating table and onto the gurney pushed by the fourth man. They brushed past Dr. Mind without so much as a glance.
“Why are you taking this specimen?” Dr. Mind demanded angrily.
“Oh, just national security and all that, nothing important,” said the man offhandedly, flipping his blond, well-groomed hair with one hand. “The powers that be want to get their hands on this one real-bad.”
“I am one of their top researchers. I have the right to examine this specimen,” protested Dr. Mind.
“No. You don’t,” said the man, peering over his sunglasses. “They have a team for that now. In-house. Since you’ve been so forthcoming with your results in the past.” He shot a meaningful glance at the Disast-O-Beam mounted on the wall. “Doc, you’ve had a good run, but your team is broken up, you’re slowly but surely losing funding, and you’re trying to blanket half the city with a club of acne-faced teenagers. Personally, I think it’s about time you retired.”
“I’ll retire once I’m dead, Flax.”
“Well, don’t stick around then, old man,” said Flax, cocking his head as if explaining the obvious. “Caio!”
“You always were a dumbass, Flax,” said Dr. Mind, patience exhausted, as Flax whirled and followed his flunkies out of the lab.
“So you keep telling me,” replied Flax as he passed through the door without a backwards glance. “I’m not so sure you’re one to talk.”
“Try getting a Ph.D sometime,” Dr. Mind retorted, but the door was already shut.
“God, what a perfect asshole,” said Emily. “Are they all that douche-y?”
“Pretty much everyone from central, yeah, though not quite all that bad,” said Dr. Mind crossly. “They just love to pull authority.” He sighed. “Flax, well, he’s always been that way. Absolutely insufferable.”
“Hm. Fuck that guy then. We got all the good bits anyway,” Emily pointed out, looking pointedly towards where the cortical stack was resting atop a pile of circuitry.
Dr. Mind just laughed. “There is that.”