Chapter 11: Devolution, Part Eight

And life goes on, with or without an ear.

Let’s talk about Aleksei.

People often ask:

“Why, if you’re going to cover a man’s entire body with impenetrable armor, would you leave his face entirely unprotected? Doesn’t that leave his most valuable asset, his brain, entirely vulnerable? What’s the point of being bullet-proof if you can still get shot in the head?”

Well, that’s simple. See, what most people don’t know is:

Rhino’s brain isn’t in his head.

Yes, you read that right; when the Russians modified Aleksei, turned him into Rhino, they surgically removed his brain and compressed it down into his neck, just behind his trachea and in front of his spinal cord. I’d like to say that this is the reason for his … ahem … “unique mental processes,” but fact is, I knew Aleksei before he was Rhino and he hasn’t changed a goddamn bit.

How’d they do it? You’ve got me; I’m an engineer, not a surgeon. As I understand it, though, they moved around a lot of his bones, added muscles and tendons, maybe even added bones. That certainly would explain how an eight-hundred-pound man can pull nine miles an hour on foot, right?

Make no mistake, buddy, the transformation from Aleksei to Rhino was no simple slap-and-spray job. The original intent was for him to be a prototype Russian Captain America, a new soldier for the already long dead Cold War. If Aleksei was a little smarter, Spider-Man and the rest of those bums would be in a hell of a lot of trouble.

Did you know he hasn’t seen his penis in twelve years?

He pisses through this little drill hole.

Not that Aleksei would have much use for his penis other than for pissing, but still, it’s a sad state of affairs.

There. Now you know shit not even Spider-Man knows.

Don’t you feel special?

I’m cleaning my apartment; I’m not afraid to say it, it was a shithole. But I’ve got energy, I’ve got this kind of insane manic feeling; the kind of feeling that comes from winning a fight.

And winning a fight with Bullseye feels especially good. I’m dancing around like a goddamn idiot, piling more and more filthy clothes

Old Superman cartoons are playing on AMC, and I’ve got the volume up all the way. It’s the one where he fights the Tyrannosaurus, and I look up at the screen to see the left hook he hits the Rex with that crashes him through Times Square (in Metropolis, no less).

The thing that makes me most worried is that I keep finding food items; no bugs yet, but underneath the garbage, dirty clothes and porno mags, I’ve found three slices of pizza, one Egg McMuffin and six, yeah, six half-eaten (and now crunched into an orange mess) bags of Cheetos.

So far, six bags of trash. Three more already have had more than they can take, but I’m still shoving crap in; if I can finish without using more than nine bags, then I’ve still got two left over.

It’s been two days since the Rhino, the Black Cat and the Shocker took on Bullseye, smashing up a residential area in Manhattan.

The headline of the Daily Bugle lying on the table has a great picture, taken by someone named “Parker,” who’s way too good to be working freelance.

It’s me, all on fire, punching Bullseye in the chest, while Aleksei is sprawled out on the pavement nearby, his face blurred so that the horrific details of his wound can’t be seen.

It’s from a couple of seconds before I lost my ear and half my mask, and I’m lucky they didn’t use any photos from after it. Even though that’s when I started winning the fight, and even though the fuzz already know who I am and what my face looks like, it’d be best if the whole city of New York couldn’t point me out in a line-up.

I’ve been out for the majority of my time at home, and it’s only just now that I’ve noticed Felicia laying butt-naked on the couch in what passes as my living room. She’s got a gauze head-wrap, big bandages on both shoulders where Bullseye stabbed screwdrivers through her levator scapulae muscles, and casts on her left hand and right ankle, where he sliced her Achilles tendon.

Her body is like a joke; every muscle is sculpted and hard; her shoulders are broad, and without a shirt it puts her breasts in better perspective, makes them look less balloon-freakish. She’s got this great, long neck that segues seamlessly up into her head; I dated a girl with a fadeneck, one that fades into the chin, in high school and I’ve never forgiven myself. Her legs are long and elegant, muscular but not masculine, every part of them lovingly crafted by some higher power.

Maybe a plastic surgeon, but an amazing one. That and a superhuman body-sculpting routine.

Waxed all over, of course.

Her stomach is a smooth plane, a tiny bit of thin white peach-fuzz on her paunch and on the center of her chest, her bellybutton pierced with a little ornament of … Spider-Man. Who else.

He ruins everything else, so why not have him ruin my hard-on, too?

Aleksei must’ve put her there after whichever villain doctor he got patched us up; there are bloodstains all over the kitchen table. She’s sleeping peacefully now; I reach out a hand, towards her face, but then stop myself, and trace the hand through the air just over her body.

“Jesus,” I say quietly.

She stirs, grunts a word that sounds like “Peter,” and rolls over, and her ass is just boom, right there.

I have to go to the next room, lest I do something stupid.

I finish cleaning the kitchen (i.e., windexing the hell out of everything), and go reset the alarm system.

See, ever since Bullseye first shattered my window, I’ve been tightening up security round my place. Its all vibration-based (go figure), but since I figure they’d be counting on that, I’ve added a bunch of laser and mechanical stuff; I even got Otto to loan me one of his old torn-up tentacles to automate for the hallway outside my front door, plant it in the wall and as soon as somebody tries to break through, they’re going to have some serious problems.

Cold as ice, man. Cold as ice.

I’m walking back through my once over crowded now positively desolate kitchen/living room when, for the first time, I notice the headline on the Daily Bugle and stop dead.

There it is, in big white type.


I stand there frozen; the Shocker. Legit?

Ten minutes and forty read-throughs of the article later, I still don’t get it. How did J. Jonah Jameson, who penned the article himself, turn a foiled assassination into something so much bigger. Suddenly I’m not just trying to save myself and my friends; I’m purposely targeting Bullseye.

Jameson posits that Rhino and the Shocker attacked Bullseye before he could execute a hit on Senator Daltry, a liberal who, nonetheless, is one of the most vocal supporters of Proposition 318, which would fund the creation of a device to track teleportations throughout New York State to try to put a lid on Mutant Crime.

How they paint Aleksei and me as heroes in this baffles me, considering we did more damage than Bullseye ever could have. They talk us up by calling us “outclassed and outgunned.” Outclassed, I understand, it’s true. But outgunned?

Aleksei has unbreakable skin and can bench-press a mail truck.

I have gauntlets that can throw vibrations that, when over-amped, can literally shake a person apart.

Bullseye … Bullseye throws stuff.

Outgunned? Fuck outgunned. We were OVERgunned.

See, apparently since the fight outside Felicia’s brownstone apartment, they found Bullseye’s hide-out, where there was a pay-off from something called “First Person Shooter” to put a walnut through Senator Daltry’s brain.

First Person Shooter.


Thank you J. Jonah Jameson.

Ever since I was little, my brain’s done this weird thing; I call it overclocking. It happens when I’m picking locks, or cracking safes, or working on the VibroSuit. Everything around me blurs away, and all that remains is the problem.

And my entire brain focuses on the problem, heats it up, spins it around, and then shakes it shakes it and vibrates it and twirls it until it tears itself apart.

The black spot.

Brian Cordwell and his goddamn piece of Rebar.

The destruction of the body.

Senator Daltry.

The dead husband.

Ravage SMASH.

First Person Shooter.

Proposition 318.

Rigged super-villain fights.

And out rolls the answer.

And suddenly I get it. I totally get it. I’m not sure how it works yet, but I understand the basics, and they’re ugly as sin.

I know where the big money is coming from. I know how First Person Shooter supports itself.

I’m going to need bigger gauntlets.

I dial the phone without even looking at the pad.

“Huh?” Aleksei says. This is his version of hello, how he always answers the phone, like he’s not sure exactly how it works.

“Aleksei, I know what FPS is.”

“Oh, hi, Herman.”

“Aleksei, I know what —”

“I heard you the first time.”

“It’s a video game,” I say, but I say it so quickly I’m not even sure what it means. I think as I talk, words spilling out of me. “The money doesn’t come from the people paying to fight the villains, they’re just a device.”

“A device?”

“Yeah; the real money comes from people paying to control the villains. FPS is an acronym for First Person Shooter, a type of video game where the player sees through the eyes of the person or unit they control. That’s why they act so crazy; they’re acting the way people think they should act; Ravage says smash, like Hulk, because people see Ravage and they think Hulk, and Grizzly roars, because people see Grizzly, and they think grizzly bear. It’s just people playing the part, getting into the role. That’s why the Grizzly didn’t seem to be feeling pain; because, when your character gets hit in a videogame, you don’t feel it. Somewhere, someone is paying the Spot to keep a portal open to the villains’ minds, and they’re somehow sending commands through the subdimension and … Jesus, Aleksei, don’t you see the implications of this?”

There’s a moment of silence on the other end of the phone.

“But … Herman … Remember on the receipt, it said ‘power lines.’ Why would they tell Cordwell how to kill the Grizzly if someone is paying to control him?”

Well, that’s a damn good question, Aleksei. I hadn’t thought of that.

“I don’t know.” I hear that big, deep chuckle over the phone.

“You will soon, buddy; you got such a brain in your head, there ain’t nothin’ you can’t figure out. You want me to —”

There’s a click.


No response.

“Aleksei, big guy? You there?”

Silence. And then:

“If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and dial aga–”

I hang up.

This happens sometimes with Aleksei; he shifts the wrong way and crushes the receiver, or sits down on the phone line, or stretches the cord until it snaps. Nothing new. He’ll either come over or call back, so I might as well just —

Thwip. Thwip thwip thwip.


I’m pinned to the fucking wall. Pinned to the wall, crucified by that sticky grey glop.

“Hiya, Herman,” Spider-Man says, flying in through my shattered window.

“Get me down, you fucking asshole!” I scream at him. He smiles underneath the mask.

“I saw your little throwdown with Bullseye. You must’ve found a penny.”

“Huh?” I’m always so thick when I talk to him, it’s like my brain slows down.

“I mean you were lucky. Bullseye was aiming on killing you, you and Rhino both.”

“Yeah, lucky,” I mutter.

“What’re you up to? Who’s paying you?” I blink and shake my head.

“Paying me for what?”

“To be a superhero.”

“Ain’t anybody paying me.”

“Oh,” he says, laughing under the mask. “So you just up and decided ‘Today is the day I’m going to play Captain Justice?’ I don’t buy it. People like you don’t change, Herman. You’re all about you, and you always will be. Whatever this little mission you’re on is, Ravage, Scorpion, Grizzly … My advice to you, if you genuinely want to stop being an asshole, is to just give up the meta world entirely. Go make vaults in Sweden or something. ’Cause sooner or later, you’re going to realize there’s no money in being the good guy, and you’re going to go right back to crime to pay the bills.”

“Whatever,” I say. What a brilliant conversationalist I am, especially considering that what he’s saying is probably right.

“Just stay off my radar, Schultz, or I will take you down.”

Ooh. He’s being scary Spider-Man.

“It’s so adorable when you go all Luke Cage on me,” I say, finally coming up with a somewhat witty response. Those big white eyes narrow. He smells like woodchips, cotton and pepper. It’s actually pretty nice.

“Are you sniffing me?” he says.

I have no response to this.

Felicia steps out of my bedroom, still entirely naked.

“Herman, you’ve got to … oh, Spider-Man.” She stops short, and then a very interesting thing happens, something that merits more thought when I have the time.

Spider-Man deflates.

His body sags and his face clears, the mask going smooth; he looks like he just came home to find his wife fucking the dog.

Are Spider-Man and Black Cat together? I know they were during the Eighties, but …

Felicia doesn’t even seem to notice, or, if she does, she doesn’t care. She doesn’t even look at him, just goes back to talking to me.

“Herman, you need to get in here and see this.”

I look at Spider-Man, who still seems to be in shock.

“Well, asshole?”

Spider-Man mumbles something and tears the webbing off me. I drop down and jog merrily into the bedroom, past naked Felicia.

I don’t know what just happened, but it upset Spider-Man, and that feels good.

The good feeling stops as soon as I see the TV.

Jesus Christ. This isn’t happening.

I yank my closet open and practically leap into a VibroSuit. It takes me a second to figure out where I left my newest set of gauntlets (under the kitchen table) and then I run past naked Felicia and still stunned Spider-Man to grab them.

They lock around my wrists and my forearms, and the squeeze triggers pop into my palms.

“Hey …” Spider-Man says weakly as I charge back into the bed room, past naked Felicia, to get another look at the TV.

I watch as Aleksei, no, not Aleksei … I watch as the Rhino impales a police car on his horn, flips it, then grabs one of the fleeing officers and tears off his leg, laughing an insane, high-pitched cackle.

“Get out of my way, jackasses! I’m the freakin’ Rhino!”

I feel vomit rise up in my throat, but push it back down, charging up the gauntlets to five.

They’re uptown. No time to get on the subway, or a cab.

I need to be there NOW.

How do I …

My eyes drift to the Flying Broomstick, sitting in the next room next to Spider-Man, who still hasn’t moved.

I almost jump onto it, kicking a leg after, grabbing hold of the ridiculous “OH SHIT” handles. I press the Green Button down with my thumb, and then turn to Felicia. “Don’t let him steal anything,” I say, nodding at the Spidercreep.

“Under control,” she says. Felicia can handle herself. I just hope she’s still here when I get back.

I shove down the lever, and suddenly I’m out the window, streaking across the New York sky.

Hold on, Aleksei. I’m coming.

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