Chapter 3: Prelude To: Devolution

“I just wish I could’ve been there,” Aleksei says, looking mournfully at his oversize pitcher of beer. His little beady eyes look ridiculous in that giant head of his, especially when he’s got his face all scrunched up; what is that expression? Disappointment? Regret? It’s impossible to tell.

That thick, mushmouthed way he speaks mixes up all his words. “Could’ve” becomes “cudda.” “There” becomes “derh.” Most people think it’s an accent, but I don’t; I’m convinced Aleksei is a high-functioning autistic.

I’m one of the few people who knew Aleksei Mikhailovich Sytsevich before he was the monster, the atrocity called “Rhino.” Sure, Aleksei thinks it made him special. The only reason people know who he is, is because of one stupid, stupid decision back in the Eighties.

Aleksei was a small-time thug, a goon, a henchman at best. I was a safecracker, and the Kingpin, our main employer back then, used to put us out on jobs together. I’d started inventing already; it was a constant, addictive thing. When I wasn’t out on a job, I was in the workshop, tinkering with my picks, trying to make them better, quieter, quicker … and Aleksei was right there with me.

Then one day, everything changed. These two Russians, old-school KGB Mafioso creeps, show up in the Kingpin’s office, asking to “borrow” his biggest guy. Of course, Aleksei, their countryman, signs right up.

He vanishes for a while, and in that time I manage to get myself locked up. While I’m in, there comes my one true inspiration, the one thing that’s made me different from everyone else.

The suit. The gauntlets. My children. My only real family.

And I built them right there in the workshop at Southgate Correctional; the idiots watched me, the stupid fucks, as I built tools powerful enough to blow any safe. Coincidentally, they’re also quite useful when it comes to smashing through the walls of Southgate Correctional.

And that’s always been the beauty of my technology, in my eyes: it’s so goddamned versatile. My suit dispenses both vibration and impact, and, to a degree, friction. It can’t get dirty, it can’t get wet, and you need a hell of a powerful impact to tear the damn thing.

And the gauntlets … oh me oh my, the gauntlets. They throw vibrations so hard they can shake apart almost any conventional wall, and knock down any conventional person. At a midlevel setting, they’ll shake you so hard the next day your teeth will still be chattering. Maybe some broken bones, maybe a little nerve damage, and definitely a sour mood, but nobody dies.

And that was the beautiful thing about it; nobody had to die. No more guns in hold-ups. Hell, no more guns at all! I could sell them to armies, and just think, a vibronic war, a bloodless war, a …

And then Kingpin called me. And I’m back to doing bank jobs.


Then he told me about Aleksei.

See, Aleksei wasn’t Aleksei any more. The Aleksei I’d known was 6'5", maybe three hundred and fifty pounds. The Aleksei standing behind the Kingpin in his office was 7'7", over seven hundred pounds and covered in what looked at first like thick gray leather. I later found out that this strange, hard covering was permanently bonded to all the skin on his body except his face, which was now just a minor distraction from the enormous curved horn protruding from his forehead.

They’d disfigured him, and he was happy about it. Ecstatic even.

So this was supposed to be a Russian “super-soldier?” This was their low-rent Captain America? They’d taken some poor slag without a brain to his name and turned him into a walking tank.

It’s this walking tank that sits across from me in the bar. He’s “naked”, as per usual, and though it’s getting some weird looks, nobody’s gonna say shit; this is a Villain Bar. In comparison to most of the folks here, we’re normal.

“You couldn’t have changed anything, Aleksei. Don’t sweat it,” I say, and try a smile. Christ, even smiling hurts.

“I would have smashed his face in, that Ravage guy wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

I can’t stop myself smiling, now that I know that Ravage “wuduna stuhd chance.”

“Aleksei, how many times have you fought Hulk now?” Aleksei thinks for a moment, and his face scrunches up again. He even cartoonishly scratches his head, and I wonder if he can feel it through that armor of his.

“Ten, I think.”

“How many times have you won?”

“Uh … One.”

“This Ravage guy, he was at least as strong as Hulk. Maybe more.”

“It don’t matter. S’long as you were there, we could’ve taken him.”

This does that horrible thing to me that only Aleksei can do. It makes me feel … Cheery. It makes me feel like someone believes in me, and it’s fleeting, and it’s infuriating.

Because whenever it happens, I have to remind myself that it’s Rhino.

And Rhino only believes in me because I talk to him. He’d be undyingly loyal to Ghost Rider if he was willing to have a drink with him.

Here’s Aleksei in a nutshell, or a Rhino-shell if you will: You know those nine-hundred numbers, (900)CUM-GIRL, (900)LIC-DICK?

Ninety cents a minute, right?

Rhino makes about a hundred grand a year on commissions; bodyguard work, robberies, etcetera, etcetera …

I write his checks, do his bills and all that.

Last year? Thirty grand on those damn sex lines.

Now, he’s my friend, so I call his favorite one, (900)HOT-FUCK, and ask to talk to a manager. They all know Aleksei by name. I ask them about him, and they give me a piece of information that I think will help you understand him:

He just calls to talk. He talks about all sorts of things; the shell, his life, Spider-Man … He even talks about me.

“Maybe. This guy was pretty big.”

“I’m telling you, Herman, you gotta make me your sidekick. I could help you out.”

Oh, great, this again. Aleksei’s face lights up; the face of muddled inspiration.

“You could stay the Shocker, and I could be the Vibrator.”

Oh, sweet Jesus.

I manage not to laugh, but Aleksei spoke a little too loudly, and I hear Boomerang and Critical Mass chuckling. Aleksei notices, but doesn’t make the connection.

“I don’t think so, Aleksei.”

“Nah, you just don’t get it; when I stomp, or hit things, they vibrate, right? So I’m the Vibra–”

More laughter from Boomerang and Critical Mass.

“I get it, Aleksei.”

“So, are you still gonna try?”

Aleksei does this sometimes; just randomly switches topics without cause or warning. You’d think after a dozen years with the guy I’d get used to it, but I haven’t.

“Try what?”

“You know.” He leans across the table and whispers loudly. “The … hero-thing.”

Wow. He cuts me right down to the quick. I’m silent, and Rhino repeats himself, thinking I didn’t hear him, but then realizes I’m thinking and shuts up.

Is this me? What the hell did I do today? No money to show for it. No glory. Ravage killed eight people. Did I stop him? Did I even slow him down?

Did me making a change … Did it even make a difference?

“I don’t know,” I say, and I’m being completely honest. Aleksei frowns.

“Well, I think you should. I think you’ll be good at it.”

There’s that feeling again.

“You think so, Rhino?”

“Herman, you’re smarter’n me. Do you think you can do it?” A moment of clarity from a cluttered mind. I’m touched.

“I … I hope so.”

Aleksei smiles; that big-toothed, gentle smile.

Someone turns the volume up on the TV.

“— autopsy shows that the creature called Ravage died when a nickel sunk into his brain, hemorrhaging him beyond repair. It’s thought to be an injury sustained in the battle with Spider-Man, and J. Jonah Jameson is calling for a manslaughter investigation. Earlier today, he —”

They didn’t even mention me. THEY DIDN’T EVEN FUCKING MENTION ME!

“Hey,” Aleksei says. “You won.”

I have no idea what he’s saying to me.

“You saved the day.” I laugh out of confusion; You saved duhday, he says. What the hell is he …

Oh, my God.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god.

My legs stiffen, and my body stands without my permission. I saved the day. There was no way Spider-Man could’ve beaten him alone, no way, no how.

I did it. I won and I didn’t even know it.

No one did.

But for some reason, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need the fame. I don’t need the glory. This is just like crime; all that matters is that I got away with it.

But it’s different from a heist, just a little. Suddenly I’m playing out all these scenarios in my head; Ravage, unhindered, takes out Spider-Man and storms through the city. How many would be dead? Ten more? Twenty more? Fifty? One hundred?

Oh, my God.

I’m filled with this sort of weird glow, a kind of nauseous euphoria, and I don’t know what to do with it. Aleksei has this look on his face, like a dog watching a human laugh, unsure of how to react. I let out a harsh, barking cry, sort of an ecstatic-yelp laugh, and everyone in bar is suddenly looking at me. I slowly sit down.

“Congratulations,” Doctor Octopus says from a dark corner booth. “You’ve just killed a brilliant man.”

When I get home, it’s still sinking in.

It’s not that Octavius knew I was there, and that I was responsible; that doesn’t surprise me at all, really.

What gets to me most is that he’s right.

I’m a murderer.

Panic attacks aren’t fun. You can’t breath, you can’t move.

I’ve gone on the internet, done some research.

Professor Gregory Crawford. Born November 12th, 1945.

Every muscle in your body just contracts up into immobile steel bands, heavy and rusty under your skin. You feel like you’re falling both up and down at once.

Professor Gregory Crawford, advanced physics at Desert State University. Considered a genius, especially after his revolutionary paper on gamma mutation’s effects on damaged DNA.

I lie on my bed. There’s no furniture in the room, just me and the computer. I want to go back to the computer, but I can’t. I lay down thirty minutes ago, and I haven’t moved an inch since.

Professor Gregory Crawford, who, through some insane teleportation device he cooked up, spliced his own DNA with that of Bruce Banner and turned himself into Ravage.

And that’s what finally gets me up off the bed:

TV says he was a Smart Hulk.

They said he could talk, that he retained his human personality; drunk with power and on a destructive and homicidal rampage, but still smart.

That wasn’t the creature I saw today. I mean, it was, but this thing was a grunting, roaring monstrosity, not a college professor.

They say if you spend enough time in this business, the super-villain business, you get a sixth sense for when another villain is at work.

My Shocker-Sense is tingling.

Something stinks.

I sit up, wipe my face, snort up some of my tear mucus, and take a moment to think.

“Ravage SMASH!”

Something stinks. Something definitely stinks.

Previous Part               Chapter Index               Next Part