Chapter 20: Avatars, Part Seven

They say you only use ten percent of your brain.

Some people claim that geniuses, like Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom, use up to thirty.

I always thought Aleksei used about four, leaving the remaining six percent open for those bursts of clarity he sometimes has.

I was wrong. He was using the rest for storage.

In a single hour, Miss Peelo tells me more than I ever wanted to know about Aleksei Mikhail Sytsevich; a lot of it is stuff I had inclinations of already, but then there’s oddball shit that throws me for a loop.

For instance:

Did you know that last year, while I was doing high-pay vault jobs in Europe, Aleksei underwent a brain surgery that boosted his intelligence by five hundred percent? He beat Spider-Man, turned into a crime-lord, read all the classics of Russian literature and poetry in less than three weeks.

The operation went bad, though; Aleksei began to go through fits of depression, sometimes pushing him near to suicide. So Aleksei did the Aleksei thing to do and had the operation reversed, dropping his IQ down like a barometer in an ice storm.

Everyone believed the depression to be a side-effect of the operation, but Miss Peelo’s reading of Aleksei’s mind tells a different story.

Apparently, Aleksei did some kind of high tech CAT-scan on himself, and uncovered a portion of his brain had been locked off; psychically blocked. Aleksei, with his new super-genius brain, opened it up.

Apparently, he didn’t like what he found.

Miss Peelo says that he hit himself with some kind of home-made neurochemical Molotov cocktail; a good portion of these hidden memories, and even the memories regarding them, were physically scorched out of existence.

Then he went under the needle, and he was plain dumb old Aleksei again.

No memories of being a genius.

No memories of whatever he found in that thick gray brain of his.

Just shreds.

“All lies,” Miss Peelo says, her eyes closed, focusing, as though reading from a book.

“Excuse me?”

“It says ‘All Lies. Everything is a lie.’ It’s just a shred, but mentally it’s hooked into a good three-fourths of the destroyed memories.”


Well, that helps.

“Miss Peelo, I can’t help but say that ‘it’s all lies’ is a pretty fucking average thought. Everyone thinks that at some point; about society, about love, or —”

“No,” Miss Peelo says simply. “Not like this.”

“Um … Oh?” I say, chastised.

“This thought, this single slice of comprehension, it meant something very important to your friend Aleksei. I told you; it has silent links to almost every worthwhile memory that’s been wiped.”

“Silent links?” I say. “You can see that? Like connections between thoughts?”

She smiles.

“To me, a psyche is laid out like a computer interface; there are deleted files, but nothing is ever gone. Not really gone.”

Mutants are so fucking cool sometimes.

“What’s it linked to that you can see? Can you recover anything?”

She’s silent for a moment, concentrating.

“One thing.”


“An image.”

I wait, give up, and say “… Yeah?”

“Here,” she says, and presses a finger to her forehead. The shimmering pink tendril snakes out of her eye again, and widens into a kind of soft-light projection beam onto the wall; it’s like she’s showing me slides of her summer vacation.

The image itself is so blurry and marred that at first I can’t tell what’s going on at all. Then the image tightens up a little; it’s like a photograph with a wavy line down the middle, taken through a smudged lense. So, this is what a memory looks like.

I can’t say I’m terribly impressed.

The picture shows a very bright light shining directly at the viewer, almost totally concealing the figure of a man who appears to be a professional surgeon, holding some kind of hose. The hose disappears off to the right edge of the picture, and looks to be either pumping or draining something gray-black.

“The suit,” I whisper, louder than I mean to.

“What?” Miss Peelo says, and the image flickers for a moment.

“That thing, that gray thing on his skin,” I say, waving a hand at the still slumbering Aleksei. “This must be a memory from when they were putting it on … Wait … What’s that?”

It catches my eye, and I realize that it’s exactly the sort of thing most people wouldn’t give a second thought; in the protective glasses of the surgeon, a small white reflection stands out.

“What’s what?” she says, and opens her eyes a little.

“That thing in the glasses. The white thing.” I tap its place on the wall. “Here. Can you magnify that?”

“Mr. Schultz, you have to understand, I can only enhance the memory so much; it is damaged after all, and —”

“Can you do it or not?”

I say it so quick and hard that she stops dead in her tracks.

“Maybe. Give me a minute.”

The image warps, twists, and then rapidly zooms in, shaking back and forth; it’s as though the picture isn’t a picture, but instead a ten-millisecond clip of a movie.

The white thing in the image is clear; it’s a list, lying on some kind of desk or medical table off to the side of the room, past the arms of what must be several other doctors.

From what I can see of the blurred writing, it reads:

Proposed Pseudonym: “RHINO, The”
Planned Direction: CRIMINAL

“Any idea what that means?” Miss Peelo asks, but my brain is a million miles away, vibrating so hard I actually feel the skin on my face heating up.

“When is this memory from?” I hiss, my teeth clenched together involuntarily.

“Oh, it’s an old one. Fifteen years ago, maybe ever more.”

“Eighteen,” I sputter. “Eighteen years. The day he got the suit.”

Well, I don’t know who J. Blaze or T. Sallis are. But the names I recognize are enough to set dozens of alarms off in my head:

Zebediah Killgrave. Purple Man. The sociopath with the ability to vocally hypnotize in a single sentence.

Carl “Crusher” Creel. The Absorbing Man. Another case of insane power with little ambition, I’ve seen him change to steel and go toe-to-toe with the Hulk without breaking a sweat.

And speaking of the fucking Hulk, there’s Bruce Banner. Everyone’s seen the TV specials, the archival websites; poor Dr. Banner was caught in the radioactive shockwave of the gamma bomb he invented, and thus transformed into a Jekyll-and-Hyde monstrosity, who, still at large, is essentially Public Enemy #1. With over fifty billion dollars worth of property damage behind him (and more than a few lives), the Hulk is one of the A-List players on the metahuman scene.

Janet Van Dyne is one I’m more familiar with from her features in Redbook and Us Weekly than the news. As far as I know, she’s only around because she married Hank Pym, Ant-Man and absolute fucking genius, and he turned her into a superhero who could shrink. Wow, big whoop. Somehow this entitled her to be on the Avengers (but this was back when anyone could join), but she left when the group disassembled.

And I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that S. Williams is none other than Simon Williams, the superhumanly strong Hollywood darling and corporate mouthpiece formerly known as Wonder Man.

These people have nothing in common.

These people have everything in common.

They are not mere mortals. But nor are they gods.

The public sees them as either lovable celebrity freaks or terrifying inhuman monsters. The press sees them as cheap meal tickets, real-life special effects. The assholes who pay FPS see them as avatars, because really, that’s what they are.

The ability to do what others can’t. The ability to invoke a power.

The chance to be relatively unique.

Strip away all humanity, and the power remains.

That’s how FPS sees them; simple avatars for manipulation.

Action Figures.

But whoever’s behind FPS, whoever put the suit on Aleksei …

They view metahumans as something very different.

Not as Avatars.

Maybe not even as humans.

They’re lab rats.

I don’t know what this means.

But it means something, and that’s a goddamn start.

I jot down the entirety of the list on my notepad, and, though she moves on, my brain doesn’t.

“No memories of the night he had his suit analyzed, and no memories of his subsequent rampage. His mind seems to just sort of shut off after arriving at a warehouse in Yonkers.”

“You got an address?” I say.

“Yes, but it won’t help you much. He was just meeting a car.”

“A truck?”

“No, a car.”

A car that could transport Aleksei. That’s a sight to see.

“Show me,” I say, and the pink energy tendril splays out onto the wall again.

I see a dark street through Aleksei’s eyes, and watch as a car approaches; a black sedan, the standard government looking scary-mobile. It pulls up, and I hear what sounds like a faint recording of my friend’s voice saying:

“I dunno if I’m gonna be able to fit in there …”

The back door on the right side swings open, and there is only darkness inside. A voice from beyond says, “Get in.” A big gray arm reaches into the blackness, and everything goes black.

My God. It was a Spot. He stepped into some kind giant spot.

“What about the names I gave you? Did the names get anything at all?” There’s a silence as she thinks, and I do a little sort of retard half-prance around the room.

The Absorbing Man.

The Wasp.


The Hulk.

Purple Man.

The Rhino.

Op. Checks must mean Operation checks, or maybe operative checks? “Proposed” Pseudonym; I thought Aleksei chose Rhino? And as for “Planned Direction” … Jesus. Whoever these people are, when they gave him the suit they knew he was going to use it for his own gain.

Doesn’t quite match up with Aleksei’s story of a KGB experiment gone wrong.

Just what the hell is going on here? When Lavelli said it was “big,” I didn’t take him seriously. But the Incredible Hulk? The Wasp? These aren’t FPS nobodys. These are big kids on the playground.

“Nope,” she says. “The names got nothing. Whoever originally wiped his brain got it spick and span clean; must’ve had absolute professionals. A dozen telepaths, maybe more, working in conjunction with machines and chemicals. It’s only because your friend is a little mentally impaired that I managed to find anything at all. Had we searched another person, a mentally average person, who’d undergone the same treatment …”

“We’d be shit out of luck,” I say, and start forking over the cash.

As I’m ushering a still very groggy Aleksei out the door, a thought strikes me.

“Uh, Miss Peelo …” I say, grabbing onto her list a little too hard as I hand her one hundred thousand in cash. This whole FPS thing has been hell on my Swiss bank accounts. “You might want to … Shit, I don’t know, leave town for a while. There are a lot of people looking for me, and …”

“Shh. It’s okay; nobody is looking for you.”

“Ohrly?” I say, crashing three words together in my spurt of idiot confusion.

“No. These minds that seek you, these very guarded minds, covered in psychic blocks, security locks, and even some mind wipes … Well, they make one thing clear: they don’t need to look; they know exactly where you are at almost all times. They’re just not sure how to go about killing you without causing too much of a fuss.”

Well, that’s not boxer-browning horror-movie shit right there.

Nope, not at all.

She smiles, and her top eye seems to wink at me.

“But I don’t think you’ll need to worry about me, Mr. Schultz. If anyone comes to visit me beckoning after you, I’ll tell them everything I know. Which is really nothing at all, correct?”

It’s nice to know people like Miss Peelo exist.

“Correct,” I say, and try to give her a “good-guy” smile; it comes out as my standard super-villain sneer, and I actually blush a little, ashamed. She just keeps smiling, and gently closes the door.

Aleksei stays quiet on the way home, occasionally peeking at me out of the corner of his eye. I’m thankful for this, because it gives me time to think.

After particularly “stressful” sessions of ritualistic torture thinly disguised as criminal training, my father always used to tell me that the world was changing.

“Herman,” he’d say. “The fish are going to get much bigger and the pond is going to get much smaller. People like you and me, the normal people, the boring people, the insignificant people, we’re coy in a pond of sharks and piranha. You seen those mutant kids on TV? Soon they’ll be robbing banks and killing cops. Soon they’ll own the underworld.

“Soon every mob head, all the old families, will be at the mercy of superhuman criminals. It’ll be mixed for a while, and then, when the shit really hits the fan, people like you and me are going to be obsolete. It’ll just be puppets and puppeteers, more even than now.”

At this point he’d usually give me his drunken grin and say:

“Now stop crying and get me another pack of Luckys. We’ve got a busy day.”

Just how much has the world changed?

There was no “superhero community” when I was born. Just individuals; Captain America and the Invaders, the occasional enemy super-soldier.

And then, boom. Almost overnight, the world is flooded with heroes and villains, cartoon archetypes battling for the fate of humanity, letting humans sit on the sidelines.

As we go down into the sewers, Aleksei speaks up.

“What did you see in there?”

“In where?” I drop down off the ladder, my boots splashing into the raw shit.

“In my head.”

“Well …”

At first I ponder not telling him anything, but then I rethink it; I mean, it is his head, right? And it ain’t like he’s got Down Syndrome or anything; he’s just a little slow.

He listens to me, his big face frowning the whole way.

And when I’m done, to my surprise, he doesn’t ask any questions.

“So you didn’t … I mean, Aleksei, you never even wondered —”

“Herman,” he says, using a tone I’ve never heard Aleksei use before. “When something’s not in your head, feels as though it’s never even been there at all … You can’t question its absence.”

Whoa. Aleksei just correctly used the word “absence.”

“What do you think the list means?” he asks once we’re in the foyer.

“I don’t know yet, Aleksei. I need to think.”

“Do you think it’s connected to FPS and all that?” I roll my eyes, and Aleksei nods, happy, vindicated. “I thought as much. I knew having my mind read was the right thing to do, Herman. I knew it all along!” He smiles about this for a second, and then inspiration strikes him. “I’m gonna go count all the tiles in the downstairs men’s room!”

He notices my reaction, and looks ashamed. “I’m sorry. You wanna help?”

“No, Aleksei,” I say, tossing my jacket onto a vast, empty coat-rack. “I think I’m gonna catch some Z’s. Have fun.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure!” he says, and trundles off towards the smashed doorframe of the men’s room; I had to shatter it to allow Aleksei easy access.

Every once and a while, he has to drain his shit and piss through this tube that he puts in his gooch.

And again it hits me, and it burns me: Who did this to him?

The KGB story at least made sense; looking for an untraceable test subject, they outsourced an American goon, had their fun experimenting on him and, when the results where less than satisfactory, they left him twisting in the wind.

But that list … that doctor …

It changes everything.

Three new messages on the 1980 Sony Box. That’s an all-time high for the Herman Hotline.

I turn on my messages; I don’t actually have a ground-line down here, just an old eight-track answering machine. I guess it’s just me watching my ass, but nonetheless, I got to update the damn thing. It’s not voice-mail; it’s the Voice-Shout-At-One-Another-Across-A-Canyon.

I listen to my messages as I start undressing.


“Herman? I hope I got the number right.” I smile immediately at the voice. That’s Peter Parker. “Look, I’m back in town; I got a little sick, but I’m over it now, and I’m just trying to reconnect with everybody. My number in the Stark Building is 555-138-1212, so just give me a ring and let me know what’s happening. I was thinking maybe we could catch lunch, play spin the bottle, mug an old lady, you know, whatever. Get back to me.”


“Uh, yes, Herman!” Reed Richards practically shouts. “I’m sorry, I’m not terribly used to phones, or leaving messages. I guess that’s ironic in some way but …” The voice fades away for a moment, and then comes back, talking to somebody else, frustrated. “Well I thought we had some kind of speaker phone on the darn thing, Sue, I didn’t know I had to hold it right up to my mouth. Is this close enough?” A silence. “I’m not being sarcastic, I’m just frustrated by this whole, this whole telephone venture.” Another silence, and this time I can clearly hear a woman’s voice faintly talking. “Oh, right! Damn it all! Herman!” He’s back to talking to me, thank God. “I’m just calling to let you know that I’d very much like to give you the test I mentioned, within the week if possible. These gauntlets of yours, the suit; it’s exciting stuff! Sincerely, Reed.”

He signed his answering machine message.

Fucking awesome.


“H … m …” Silence, and then Marty Blank’s lilting, monkey-voice comes through the phone. He’s clearly on enough pain killers to take down Juggernaut, but he’s making a noble effort to speak clearly. “I hope thisss is the right number … Schhuuuuulllltz. I should’ve known, maaan, that when the shit hit the ffffan you’d show up to saaave the day.”

My face is turning red; for some reason I’m getting angry, really truly angry.

Stop it, Marty. “People like yooouuu, Herman … They don’t make many, y’know? You got … something spessshal.”

The only thing I’ve got is apathy, Marty. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

“You’re brrrave. Like a knight. I remember …”

He drifts for a moment, and I pray he drops the hospital phone, or passes out, anything to shut him up.

“I remember,” he continues, and something inside me feels like it’s on fire. It’s like I can’t face the fact that I saved this guy; like my emotions, the ones I’m not supposed to have, are breaking apart. “I remember Max always used to say about you … most of the guys, you know, the boys, they kept going back and fighting Spider … Spider-Man, cuz they were stupid … You know, stupid, and they always thought it was about him and them. And Max said you … You were different. And I met you and he was right. You were like … Like a goddamn … shit, I don’t know. You were so different from the resssssht of us. So fucking … smart.”

Stop it, Marty, stop it. I can’t take it. My fists are squeezed so tight they hurt.

“I saw videossss, man … you were a friggin … machine out there. You saved my life, Ssschhhullltz.” There’s a weak, monkey-chuckle. “I owe you one.”

It beeps, and I’m left, shaking in what feels like anger, shame and panic combined.

It slowly fades, and I start getting ready to sleep; as I pass the big wall mirror in the VIP over-night suite I call my room, I stop dead.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve never liked my own naked body. I’m not as heavy as I once was, not as ugly either. But what I see in the mirror is a new low:

The right side of my face is black and red from where Blitz punched me three days ago.

My nose, which I’d hoped was starting to heal, looks rather like a flattened cabbage attacked to my face by a mass of bruises.

My left ear is little more than a ragged lump of torn skin; you can practically see right into my eardrum.

I had put bandages on the gash Elaine left on my leg when I was still in Miss Peelo’s apartment; when you’ve a super-villain, you learn to start carrying heavy bandages everywhere with you. Now they’re dark red and crusty; I can’t tell if the slice underneath has scabbed over, but I doubt it; that tail was sharp, and I worry for a moment that she may’ve hit an artery.

There’s little scabs on my face, chest and arms from where Bullseye hit me with the hooks, and little pale gray bruises cover my torso like polka-dots from the various hits, kicks and falls I’ve taken since going legit. The worst of them is, by far, the one on my stomach from where Blitz punched me when we wound up on the roof.

It’s a warped purple, blue, red and yellow thing that looks like a sort of twisted triangle; there are little red wavy lines coming off it like when someone’s really mad in the comics.

There’s another bad one on my shoulder from where Elaine kicked me, but it can’t compare, and the cuts from where Hydro-Man tried to tear me apart criss-cross my head like a patchwork quilt.

It takes me three seconds longer than it would for any average person to realize that, with my bald head and my new injuries, I look a hell of a lot like a grotesque flesh version of the Shocker mask.

I remember making that thing, hiding it behind the cinder-block walls of my cell, staring at the double-sided lenses over the eye holes, back before I had them bullet-proofed. I remember thinking; this is it.

This is me.

This is the man my father meant me to become.

And now, seeing it inadvertantly torn into my skin, I have no doubts.

Criminal or not … I’m still the Shocker.

Christ, I must’ve looked like a fucking lunatic to Reed Richards; no wonder he didn’t take me seriously. I look like a train wreck.

“Nice butt, Herman,” Felicia says, and I let out this little scream and hop three feet to the left, effectively swinging my flaccid penis at her like a salute. Both hands drop to my crotch, and I stand there awkwardly knock-kneed and suddenly very cold.

“Aleksei let me in. Sorry if I scared you,” she says, playing with her hair. She’s got a long slice up the right side of her face, held closed by a dozen sutures. There’s also a large dark red contusion on her chest, just above her left breast, and a thin laceration that runs from the side of her neck down out of sight under her costume around her armpit.

“Sorry, Herman!” he shouts from downstairs. “I saw her on the screen, and I thought —”

“It’s okay,” I shout.

Felicia smirks, those thick, soft lips parting to reveal just a bit of pearly white teeth.

“I thought you’d say that,” she says, closing the door. “You look like shit.”

“You don’t look much better,” I say, nervously turning my body, trying to somehow make myself less naked. “Felicia …” I say. “What’re you doing here?”

“I told you the other night; I don’t have anywhere to stay.” She looks at the satin king-size and shakes her head. “You’ve been holding out on me, Herman. I didn’t know you had a bed up here.”

“I’ve got a couple of beds, actually. You can have your own room if you want.”

“It’s cool,” she says. “I don’t want. You’re a pretty cuddly guy, sleeping with you should be fine.”

It’s getting harder to hide my penis.

I tuck it between my legs and awkwardly shuffle over to the dresser, where I hurriedly put on a pair of “Thunderbolts!” boxers I stashed here last year.

At this point, they don’t help much.

She rolls over onto her stomach and goes into a glamour girl pose: head supported on her palms, cleavage up so that I can see down the canyon between her breasts, her legs crossed. She reaches into a pocket on her skin-tight suit, and draws out a small white box.

“Get over here, kid,” she says.

“Uh, Felicia, are you …”

She just smiles, and for some reason I’m a little scared.

I mean, I’ve been dreaming about this since … Well, since I met her.

Then she opens the box and most of my hopes fall apart; it’s a medical kit. She peels off the destroyed bandage on my thigh, and starts in on me with the needle.

As she works, she tells me about the last two days.

She hasn’t slept.

She hasn’t eaten.

She’s just been running, rooftop to rooftop; apparently, without a fortress like the Tube to hide in, New York has become a very dangerous place for people who get on the wrong side of FPS.

The wounds are all from a single bout with an assassin called Razorfist. No hands, just blades, apparently. She says she barely got away with her life, and I believe it.

She asks how my meeting Reed went, so I tell her. I tell her about the money and Ohnn’s clue, the White Rabbit and the Punisher. I tell her about Miss Peelo and Elaine, the New and old Enforcers, Hammerhead and Aleksei’s brain.

I tell her the list, and, thank God, she’s got something to say.

“I know who J. Blaze is.”

“You do?”

“Sure. He used to be big in the extreme sports crowd; he was a stunt motorcycle guy, pretty hot shit for a while, and then he just sort of … Vanished.”

“Why would he be on this …” She tucks in the last suture, and I hiss through my teeth. “List?

“Well, that’s the thing; after he disappeared, there was a lot of speculation that he was Ghost-Rider. I guess his name being on the list kind of proves it.” She leans forward so that her entire head is in my groin, and gently kisses the stitches. “All better.”

She flops her body backwards so that her head hits the pillows, and, in one supine motion, wriggles out of her suit, leaving her in a white bra and a thong. Again, it shows how fucking retarded I am that I don’t even look at her body; I’m too busy looking at the gray-blue splotches all over it.

“Jesus, Felicia …” I say, sitting down on the bed next to her and stroking her shoulder a lot more intimately than I’d meant to. “You are fucked up.”

She laughs, and sniffles a little. Her eyes are wet, but not crying.

“Yeah, well, I’m not the one with the nose that looks like a broken puzzle piece.” She’s silent for a moment, and then says quietly: “Herman, could you turn off the light? I mean, I don’t mean to impose, I know it’s only ten, but I —”

“No, it’s cool,” I say, and flip off the lights. “I’m tired anyway.”

I slip under the covers, and feel her climb on top of me, resting her chin on my chest; I can just barely see her hair in the light that comes under the door.

“Herman …”


“I’m sorry I left like I did … I feel like I gave you the wrong impression. I wasn’t bailing on you, it’s just —”

“Let me guess: Spider-Man.”

There’s a silence, and she turns her head and rests her ear on my chest.

“I can hear your heartbeat.”

“Yeah. Probably deafening right about now.” I blush a little in the darkness; it’s like she’s carved of soft, smooth stone, and she’s straddling me and pressing her body into mine.

“No …” she says, and sighs happily. “It’s slow. You feel calm.”

“It’s you. I guess you just relax me. It’s funny, ’cause this is the closest I’ve been to a woman in a while.”

I chomp down furiously on my own tongue. What the fuck is wrong with me?

Luckily, she lets it pass without comment.

There’s a silence, and then:

“You ever think we’re in the wrong business?” she says quietly. “So much hatred. So much violence. So much death. So much goddamn drama.”

I smile up into the darkness.

“Felicia …” I say, smelling her hair. “Tell me: Would you rather be in the thick of it, standing in the line of fire … Or would you rather be one of those hapless schmucks blown away by energy-blast cross fire, or running screaming from the Hulk, or realizing that no matter how much TV you watch, no matter how many newspapers you read, you will never, ever, really know what’s going on?”

“You know what?” she says as we both start to drift off to sleep. “Aleksei is right: you are smart.”

The Absorbing Man.

The Wasp.


The Hulk.


Purple Man.

The Rhino.

Smart, maybe. But not smart enough.

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