Chapter 14: Avatars, Part One
Holy crap, man Parker says, tugging fruitlessly on his end of the Broomstick. This thing is heavy.
Poor guy; its painful to watch him try to move it; hes weak as a leaf, more of a hindrance than a help, really.
And by the way, if any of you are chuckling about the tugging fruitlessly on his end of the broomstick bit, cut it out. Were all adults here.
Well, except maybe the guys dressed as Scorpions, Spiders, Octopuses and Vultures, demons from hell and aliens from the vast darkness of space.
Because thats all this sad superhero world of ours is in the end. A bunch of little kids (you normal types) watching a minority of adults playing dress-up games to decide who lives and who dies, sometimes even deciding the fate of the planet itself. Look at it objectively; if you were in a galactic council or something, how ready would you be to admit that yes, your planet was the one regularly saved by grown men in spandex?
Uh-huh. I knew youd understand.
Just try to get the tip, I say, and lean forward on the back of the Broomstick, scrape-sliding it along the asphalt; weve been moving it from parking structure to parking structure, trying to keep out of sight, which is rough with Parker; hes sick, some kind of cancer maybe, and he keeps coughing and stumbling.
I asked him about it; he said, Work related.
And what work it is; apparently he works for Tony Stark, even lives in the building uptown with his wife, get this, Mary Jane motherfucking Watson.
Thats right. Lobster-Man Mary Jane Watson. Mary Jane on freaking magazine covers throughout the country Watson. Mary Jane I-used-to-beat-off-to-her-Vogue-shoots Watson.
As if that isnt mind-blowing enough, Parker also happens to be the guy who photographed me and Rhino going toe-to-toe with Bullseye, though he says hes not a professional photographer.
Which is ridiculous, by the way; Ive seen his stuff. He makes me look
And to make a guy like me look like a hero, thats talent. Thats fooling your audience.
Just get your hands around the shaft, Herman Peter says, and heaves up the back end of the broomstick, suddenly surprisingly strong. And were off; two guys carrying a rocket down the street. After a couple of blocks Peter asks if I know where were going, and I realize I dont.
Heading back to my apartment would be suicide; Punisher said it was gone, so its gone, and theyre probably having it watched.
Which means the Tube or the Olmec, my two best hide-outs.
But for now: Food. I havent eaten since what I hope was yesterday morning, and Im fucking famished. Peter and I drop the Broomstick noisily on the sidewalk outside of a McDonalds, and go in; Peter doesnt order anything, but he does pay for me. A nice and necessary gesture, since it seems the Punisher stole my wallet.
The Olmec is in the back of the Smithsonian, above the long closed Legacy of the Olmecs exhibit, shut down after a tangle between the Morlocks and the X-Men smashed the place up. They keep saying theyre going to repair it, but Ive got inside sources that say the whole room is mildly radioactive, and the half-life doesnt end until 2010.
Not like Im worried about a little radiation poison; diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and depression. Hell, nothing Im not accustomed to already.
The hide-out itself is inside of a 1/50 scale Olmec Pyramid Building; in a space the size of most peoples closets Ive got a computer, a full set of tools and scraps, a wall-bed and a radio. On the wall is a framed news-photo of myself, in Shocker gear, being led away by police after a sound beating by Spider-Man.
I dont know why I framed it. Hell, I dont know why I even put it up in the first place; just looking at it makes me sad. But sometimes I think I enjoy being sad; thats fucked, I know, but its there, in my head and it wont go away. Whenever I talk to Aleksei about this sort of thing he always says something along the lines of Jeez, Hoiman, mebbe you shud see a sigh-shyatrist.
Yeah. Right. A shrink.
Back when Leonard Samson was doing his series on the minds of super-villains for the New Yorker, a sign-up sheet was passed around the Metahuman Block in Morricone-Correctional Facility. By the time it got to me, it already had some pretty heavy hitters on it.
Otto Octavius. Probably signed up thinking he could outsmart Samson and make an escape. His interview went down without a hitch, however; in the New Yorker, Samson describes him as a brilliant but megalomaniacal loner, forever isolated by his own arrogance.
Adrian Toomes. Oy vey. The Vulture will talk to anyone wholl listen. My best guess is that he treated this as a kind of half-assed appeal hearing: Oh, look at the poor old man! He looks so sad in prison! A sad little caged bird! All he wants to do is fly!
And of course, were all supposed to forget the fact that less than five years ago the guy had de-aged himself to twenty and was slashing his way through the NYPD like a lawnmower on a layer cake.
Cletus Cassidy. A fucking head-case of the highest order, better known to the public as Carnage, Cassidy was most definitely just scouting an opportunity to kill some people, probably Samson if he could.
I heard about a month ago that hes been killed by the Sentry, and honestly, good fucking riddance. All that stuff about honor amongst thieves? Well, sorry, jackass. I dont apply it to serial killers, metahuman or not.
I signed the sheet at the bottom: Herman Schultz. And then in the second column, where it said ALIAS, I wrote in The Shocker.
Im not sure why I signed up; I guess it was because Id been in the hole so long any opportunity to get out was to be arbitrarily taken; hell, Id have signed up for Massaging the Morbidly Obese if it would have gotten me out of that cell.
Two weeks later they called out who theyd need to report to C Block for transportation to a SHIELD operated security station, where theyd be interviewed by the oh-so-fucking-prestigious Dr. Leonard Probably-Has-Green-Pubic-Hair-Too-Bet-You-Never-Thought-About-That Samson.
Out goes Otto.
Out goes Toomes.
Out goes Cassidy, grinning all the way.
And poor old Herman sits alone in his cell.
I escaped later that day; set off a vibro-bomb that damn near blew up the whole D-Block. But sometimes I wonder what wouldve been better in the long run: spending two days out in New York City before getting caught, pummeled and incarcerated by Iron Fist and Luke Cage, or spending two hours with Dr. Samson.
I know you probably think Im stupid, but shit like that bugs me late at night.
It shakes me.
So, Peter says, putting down his coffee. Why the change?
What change? I say, almost whispering. People are passing by, pointing at me and smiling, waving, saying, Hey, Shocker! or Rock on, Shocker! or even I love you, Shocker! I shrug. I aint changed.
Oh? Peter says, raising his eyebrows. Because I dont hear many people shouting out I love you to any of the other third-rate super-villains.
I wasnt third-rate, I was Peter does this oh, really? thing with his eyebrows, and I laugh. Its hard not to laugh when youre around Peter. Okay, so maybe I was third-rate.
You were. You know that photo of you pantsed, hanging upside-down, webbed to the front of the Sheridan Plaza? I took that.
Oh, did you? I say quietly.
Hey, Herman, its strictly business. I dont take the pictures for fun; its not a hobby.
Then howd you start? I thought most photographers started out doing it for fun, and then
No no no, not me. For me, photography was always about the money. That and the memories; Id imagine its about just the memories for most people, but Jonah Jameson says I have the eye, so Peter shrugs and smiles. Really, photography was just a way to fund my real hobbies.
Peter shifts oddly in his chair, and looks out the window.
I dont know what that means, but it means something, and its worth remembering. He wasnt on that dock by accident, that much Im sure of. Hes not going to try to kill me; he would have already, and he probably knows that in a straight-up fight, Id beat him easy. A spy for the Bugle? Maybe.
Maybe someone Felicia sent to keep an eye on me. Or maybe Im flattering myself.
Like what were your other hobbies? I say again.
I feel like Im on a date.
Really? What science?
Peter laughs, but still seems uncomfortable. Does it matter? I was a dork.
Hey, you aint a dork unless you tell yourself youre a dork. You can be a failure, a success, or you can tread water. Those are the only three classifications people can have, Peter. Someone calls you a dork, or a nerd or a fuck-up, thats them talking.
Peter blinks. Were you a dork? he asks in a way that sounds like he wants me to say yes.
I I wasnt anything, really.
I tell him about high school, what a bundle of laughs that was.
High School Picture: a dumpy, unpleasant boy with brown hair parted straight down the middle. His eyes are squinted shut from the flashbulb, his long, narrow nose wrinkled up, his mouth half open in an attempt at a smile that seems to have died on the way to his face.
Take that kid and put him in a cafeteria. He sits and eats on the floor, because he doesnt know who to sit with. Hes madly in love with his science teacher, Ms. Rickles, whos twenty-three, blond and probably fucks like a bunny. Hes been in her class for three years, but she still doesnt know his name.
Hes obsessed with an old out-of-tune banjo someone threw away behind the school, and during the breaks between classes he just sits outside the library, plucking the strings, listening to the sounds and watching the steel cord vibrate.
Some of his teachers think hes a little retarded, maybe because his parents did drugs or because he got fucked in the gene-pool. The only class he really talks in is history, and thats because he always has to go to the bathroom by fifth period, two hours after lunch on the floor in the cafeteria.
On the way back from the shitter he always breaks into every locker in the hall. It comes easy to him, almost as easy as fighting, which hes gotten used to in his household, where his father regularly invites neighborhood thugs in to brawl with his son in order to toughen him up.
One day, the father says, one day his son will be a master criminal. Everyone will fear him, yes, but he will have everyones respect.
This is what he shouted to his terrified son as he worked out of the maze of safes in the basement of the house, the lock in the series requiring the use of a blow-torch, sucking away the boys air and permanently burning his unprotected hands.
The school administration never did find out whod break into all the lockers in the third floor hallway almost every day from 1987 to 1991. But it certainly wasnt unobtrusive little Herman Schultz. Not fat, not thin, not smart, not dumb, not handsome, not ugly, just there.
All my life, the only really impactful thing Id ever done up until a couple of weeks ago was invent the gauntlets and the suit.
Being the Shocker was everything to me; even before The Shocker existed.
Spider-Man once said to me: Everyones life is hard. Thats not an excuse. And he was probably right, but theres something wrong with me; people like me, Aleksei, Otto, hell, Charles Xavier, Steve Rogers, Tony Stark.
Were destined to lead extraordinary lives.
Not good lives, necessarily, Im proof of that.
But some of us are just different. Usually were born that way, I think.
You could call us Premature-Metas when were young.
And then what happens to us happens; we invent something, were exposed to radiation, we join a government program
And things start to make sense.
Otto becomes Doctor Octopus. Steve Rogers becomes Captain America. Tony Stark invents Iron Man. Xavier founds his school, and makes the world a hell of a safer place.
I become the Shocker, joke of the week on the cover of the Daily Bugle: Shocker trounced again!
So you want to know why?
Well, fuck you, youre asking the wrong question: the question is WHY NOT?
What have I done as the Shocker?
Hell, lets be honest, what have I done as Herman David Schultz?
Nothing. I was long overdue for a change.
When I finish speaking, Peter looks like hes going to cry.
Herman I didnt know, he says, a little shakily.
Its weird. He almost looks I dont know, ashamed.
Calm down, man. I know I got a little soupy, there, but
Peter raises a hand.
Im cool, he says. You know, youre smarter than you have any right to be, Herman.
Oh? I say, laughing.
Yeah. You went outside of yourself, looked at your situation, and made a call. I just hope it doesnt kill you.
Huh? I say, not feeling very smart at all.
I heard about this thing, this FPS thing. Im just saying, its a pretty big fish for someone new to the game, isnt it?
I laugh again, but its a choked, nervous sound.
Parker, you dont know jackshit about what it means to be a superhero, I say, only half joking.
He takes this in, and then says something very simple but very profound all at once.
I know one thing: with great power, comes great responsibility.
After weve paid the check and were just sitting around, Peter and I have one more little back-and-forth I feel is worth mentioning.
So, you and the Black Cat, are you guys an item? Theres too much interest in his voice.
What, you mean, like, fucking?
Yeah, Peter says, dropping his eyes.
No. I wish man, I wish. Peter laughs, but its not a ha-ha laugh. Its a laugh of relief.
Theres something really weird about this kid. I think he might be gay.
Two hours later Parker and I have said our goodbyes, after exchanging cell numbers, and Im dragging the Broomstick along through the sewers, towards the abandoned subway stop I call the Tube. Im feeling good, bad, great and awful all at once.
Good: I made a friend. I didnt even think I knew how anymore. Granted, he and his wife are apparently headed to Latveria for a while, part of some kind of world trip, but Peter Parker is a good guy, and its nice to know that I have someone in the Stark building on my side, in case Spider-Man and the New Avengers get on my case.
Bad: My whole body hurts. Mind-Controlled Rhino + Fun With My New Friend the Punisher = A whole lot of hurt for poor old Herman.
Great: Im free, at least momentarily, of people in my direct vicinity trying to kill me, and any moment now Ill pass through the quadruple-locked-doors to my favorite hide-out, where I can watch a Marx Brothers flick on VHS, make myself a salami sandwich, jerk off, and go to sleep.
God knows, I need it.
Awful: My best friend, as of now, is missing, last seen tumbling down the side of a nervous breakdown after committing multiple homicides. Im completely alone in the superhero world (aside from my new buddy IWILLKILLANDEATYOU Punisher), so theres no way for me to communicate to anyone that Aleksei wasnt himself. Which means people like Solo, Luke Cage and their ilk will be trying to use deadly force, and theyre probably gunning for him pretty hard right about now; as I understand it, the second-stringer heroes havent liked it that Im getting more press than them with only three weeks of hero-ing under my belt.
Add to that the ever-present thought gnawing at the back of my head that when I shoved my hand through the spot on the back of Rhinos head and opened fire, I seriously fucked with FPS.
Which means theyre probably going to seriously fuck with me right back. Bullseye, the worlds deadliest assassin, was just their first shot. Do I even want to know what else Arcades got up his sleeve?
If Arcade is even the one in charge. For all I know, he could just be another pawn; totally untraceable and utterly complete mind control is a definitely hot commodity, and honestly, Id think the method itself is beyond Arcades understanding. Im thinking hes just the one who came up with the application, not the technology.
A list: People implicated in FPS so far.
The Spot, Johnny Ohnn.
Three people who have no connection I can see whatsoever. I shake the problem, and nothing. Just blank space.
Shit, it hurts my head to think about it.
Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, I say to the vault door at the end of the sewer tunnel, and then punch in a thirty-digit combination, quickly scroll through three twist locks, draw out my key and open it up.
The Tube is, as always, beautiful.
Beautiful walls. Beautiful carpeting. Beautiful chandelier. Beautiful lighting. Beautiful furniture. Beautiful enormous gray man on the couch. Beautiful
Hello, Herman, Aleksei says quietly, not looking up from his child-in-the-corner slump, his head hanging between his giant knees.
The Tube was built around 1927, as near as I can figure. Its main feature is the foyer/lobby, where I now stand. Its an enormous, coliseum-shaped room, with hallways, offices, boarding rooms and engineering posts honey-combing the walls. It was built to be the central hub of a vacuum-based subway system, funded by the Rockefellers. But after a fight between the Human Torch and the Norseman spun out of control, most of the tubes themselves were wrecked, and some way, somehow, the Tube was abandoned.
Yes, thats right, abandoned. All pathways to it were closed off, all the remaining tubes cemented shut. All the furniture, machinery, electrical wiring and plumbing was untouched.
One night, I get into a tangle with Tombstone, a deeply nasty albino motherfucker Spider-Mans probably never even seen before. Im minus my suit, so its a pretty one-way affair, with the exclusion of one nasty shot I got in, a straight brass-knuckles punch to the face.
They were his knucks, and I only got them away from him for a second, but it was still a brutal hit, and worth remembering.
Anyway, he kicks my ass and shoves me face-first into a cement crevice under the Brooklyn Bridge, about eight inches high and three feet across. I cant pull myself out, because my arms are trapped above my head. Its dark, I can barely breathe, and it smells like mold. I lie there for a day, realizing that Im either going to suffocate or starve to death, when a boat light shines on me; no, they dont see me, and Im not rescued, but the light does shine down past my body further into the crevice, revealing it to be deeper than the tip of my grimy, sweat-covered nose.
Its an eight-inch-tall cavern.
I start to use my fingers to drag me deeper, deeper and deeper into the darkness.
I wasnt trying to escape. I was trying to entomb myself utterly and completely, so that when I did die this sweltering, cramped death, no one would ever have to know.
I remember very well the way the grit of the concrete tore off my fingertips, cracking and peeling away my nails.
I remember the stinging, and picking the gravel out of my wounds later with tweezers.
But what I remember most is that, after nearly two hours of dragging, how surreal it was to go smashing through rotten plaster and onto a king-size bed. Dust went everywhere.
Since then Ive fixed the Tube up; got running power, StarkLimited Cable Internet, over two thousand television channels, and an eight-by-eight-foot digital TV that Ive yet to turn on.
Aleksei has taken care of that, though; the TV is on, showing the Rhino tear through two police officers; this must mustve been before I arrived. All the gore is blurred and censored, but its still very clear whats going on.
Aleksei shifts on the couch, and I hear one of the legs crack a little.
Hello, Aleksei, I say quietly, taking a tentative step towards him. He doesnt move much, just lifts one of those enormous hands and points at the TV.
Did you see that, Herman? I just stabbed one of those policemen with my horn.
He looks up, and I get a look at his rectangle of a face.
He is, put gently, a fucking wreck. His eyes are swollen and red, with large purple circles under them from lack of sleep. His eyes, cheeks, brow and nose are still a little swollen in places from the level-three hits he took straight in the face during our tussle. There are primitive bandages on his arms, chest and back where the acid hit him, all stained the brown-red color of dried blood. Theres some gauze on the side of his head where the acid hit him; it actually looks pretty nasty.
Aleksei, we have to get you to a hosp I start to say, but he just slowly shakes his head.
I aint never stabbed anybody with my horn before. Never ever. Hes quiet for a moment. You remember, you remember when Kingpin tried to send me out to kill that pretty mob lady, what was her name
Rosalie Carbone, I say quietly.
Yeah, her. Remember what I said to Kingpin?
Yes, I do remember. It was one of the bravest things Ive ever seen anyone do; Aleksei stood in front of Kingpin, looked him dead in the eye, and said no.
I told him I dont kill people. I told him that aint what I do, that I just smash things, I wreck things, and, if you pay me enough, sure, Ill hurt somebody, break a couple of legs or whatever. But I dont His voice cracks. I dont kill nobody.
Theres a pause, and he looks at the TV; were at the fun part where he rips the dog in half. He speaks again, even quieter now.
I aint never killed anybody. He glances at the TV again, and then mumbles, Never killed anybody.
Thats not you, Aleksei, I say, but I dont think he hears me. How long have you been here?
Aleksei looks up again, finally.
Two days. I used the secret entrance you showed me. And I hope you dont mind, I drank all the beer and ate all the Cookies and Cream. I am very upset and when I am very upset I drink a lot of beer and eat a lot of ice cream, and
Aleksei, stop, I say, and somehow Im laughing. Not a polite laugh, or a sarcastic laugh, or a bullshit laugh for the sake of laughing.
Im laughing because Aleksei, no matter what state or I may be in, makes me happy. I plop down on the couch next to him, and the entire left side gives out, followed by the right, dropping the bottom of the couch onto the floor.
I start laughing again, and Aleksei laughs a little, too, but its that shocked, empty kind of laugh that comes from someone whos recently lost all hope. I try to put an arm around his enormous shoulders, but its useless, so I sort of pat him awkwardly on the knee.
Ladies, trust me. Its not easy being a guy.
I can pay you back for the ice cream, but
Aleksei, I already said no worries. You and me are completely square, yeah?
Yeah. His voice is so pained it hurts to listen. We sit there in silence, watching on TV as he and I, as the Rhino and the Shocker, battle it out in midtown. I aint never killed anybody, Aleksei says again.
I know, big guy, I say, and pull off my boots, kicking them out into the center of the lobby, where they sit like tiny, steel-toed monoliths. That wasnt you out there.
Theres a pause.
Aleksei lets out a low, baritone sob, and I pat him on the back. I never really thought about what being mind-controlled would be like before, but now that I am thinking about it, I wish I wasnt.
Then who was it? Aleksei says, touching the bandage on his arm that covers not only an acid burn but also a bullet wound.
I dont know, I say, looking up at the enormous mural on the domed ceiling. But, after I get you to a hospital, my first order of business is going to be finding him, and smashing his weaselly little face in.
Aleksei looks up at me, those beady little eyes big and soft.
You sure are a good guy, Herman, he says, and starts crying like a little kid.
Yeah, he thinks Im a good guy.
Something tells me that after I pull all the crazy shit I have planned for FPS tomorrow, Arcade will disagree.
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