Chapter 23: Prelude To: Everything Is Lies

“That’s my dad,” I say, the words coming out in a soundless mumble.

“I thought you said your dad disappeared?” Aleksei says, and I shush him. On the psychic recording, the young man’s voice speaks up again.

So what’re you saying we should do? We can’t kill him, not directly, and Arcade is botching the hell out of this; his Nine-Twenty-Ones are dying left and right, and the Ditko-42s are going to start to take notice.”

“God,” my father’s voice says tiredly. “I wish we could just put a bullet in his head. Make things so much simpler.”

“Gee, thanks, Dad,” I murmur. Inside me, something shakes.

“I’ll say again, it’s undoable. I mean, as soon as we kill him, Parker will start looking for answers; he doesn’t like it when people go missing. And once he’s involved, he’ll drag in every Ten-Twenty-One out there.”

“What the fuck?” I say aloud, but Aleksei, embittered, puts a finger to his lips and exaggeratedly goes “SHHHH!”

Peter Parker. What the fuck. Peter Parker. What the fuck.

“I say we kick it up a notch if Sytsevich can’t take him out. I say we bring in contractors; have Arcade contact someone in the mob, get some meta-hitmen swarming him.”

Thus entered Hammerhead.

The young man pipes up.

I’ll get right on it. But once the Shocker is dead, someone might trace it back to Arcade, and —”

Dad laughs, really laughs, and if there was any doubt in my mind that it was him, it’s gone. It’s Dad’s deep, friendly laugh, unmistakable even through the static of the neuron-record.

Please, Hughes, be serious. Once we’ve violated Sytsevich like this, if Herman ain’t already dead, he’s going to be on a goddamn mission; the mercenaries are only going to slow him down. If they kill him, more power to them, but I’ll put ten-to-fifty odds against it. You should contact Control and give them an update; with him rooting around down there in the sewers right on top of the Flim-Flam, it’s only a matter of time before he finds it and figures out what it is. And then the shit will really hit the fan. I suggest we —”

The recording abruptly cuts out with a burst of static that startles both me and Aleksei, and both of us jump a little, Aleksei managing to take out a lamp. It shatters on his armored elbow as though it was made of dust, and Aleksei looks at it for a moment, and then shrugs. Miss Peelo falls back into her cushioned chair, exhausted, the pink-gramophone dissipating into nothing.



Parker dragging in the Ten-Twenty-Ones.

The Flim-Flam in the sewers.

And then there was that word: Control.

No, “Control.

He said it the way religious Christians say “God.”

What does any of that mean?

“Hey, Herman. I know part of that,” Aleksei says, trying to distract me as he sweeps the remains of the lamp under the couch while Miss Peelo recovers. “I think I’m a … a ‘Nine-Twenty-One.’”

“What does that mean?” I say to him, only to get another one of those big dumb shrugs.

“I dunno. But when I heard it, I just knew: Hey, nine-twenty-one. That’s what I am. Like a type of car or something; some people are nine-twenty-ones. Some people are ten-twenty ones. Like, uh, Luke Cage. I think he’s a ten-twenty-one; or maybe, wait, no, he’s a ten-twenty.”

“Luke Cage?” I say, baffled, and then I realize that it’s happening again: I’m hearing something terribly important, it’s sitting right in front of me, but it’s starting to unfold so quickly I’m getting left behind. “Aleksei, how did you know that?”

He shrugs again.

“I dunno,” he says, and smiles his big dumb disarming Aleksei smile. “I think it’s like there’s a safe in my head, and it’s opening up.”

“Well said, Aleksei,” Miss Peelo says, smiling weakly. “Now, gentlemen, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. That took a lot out of me.”

As we’re leaving, I ask her how much she wants, and she just laughs; this light, tinkling grandmotherly laugh that I’ve never heard out of her before.

“Be serious, Herman. You and darling Aleksei have got my mind percolating for the first time in twenty years.” She smiles her fat, goblin smile. “There’s no charge.”

On the way back to the tube, I buy Aleksei a jumbo lollipop and get to mentally vibrating.

Who are these people? Why would they give Aleksei the Rhino armor? Control must be some kind of super-high-level government organization to monitor super-people, but then why would they finance FPS?

Why would they hire Arcade, of all people? Why use Johnny Ohnn; surely they have some kind mind control better than opening a portal directly into someone’s head, and somehow inputting a complete control over them?

Why make it a business? Why bring in the rich and powerful, and where does that money go? Surely these people have money behind them … Why would they need pay-offs from goons to mind-control villains?

And why won’t they just have a sniper gun me down from the roof of a building while I’m walking down the street? Parker would “drag in all the Ten-Twenty-Ones,” what the hell does that mean?

My father, my insane, evil father, where does he fit in? Who’s the twentysomething kid he was talking to, Hughes? What about Generals Ross and Slinkard? That torture device made in Alamogordo; what the fuck does it do? And who does it do it to? Ohnn? The people controlling the FPS’d villains? No, no, no …

Where does “The Trust” fit into this? Why would they pay to free that psychotic fuck the Punisher from prison? Does Control control the Trust, or is it the other way around? Why hasn’t Reed Richards discovered all this, I mean, shit, I have and I’m THE FUCKING SHOCKER! I don’t even have powers, I just —

My mental rant stops dead, remembering something my father said on the recording.

Something to the tune of “he’s not going to off himself like Beck, or retire, like Brown.”



No powers.



Quentin Beck. Mysterio.

Hobie Brown. The Prowler.

Neither of them had any metahuman powers; they were just humans with gadgets playing dress-up, like me.

Quentin Beck was a hot-shot special effects man with a talent for using technology to make people whole-heartedly believe that whatever he wanted them to believe was totally and absolutely the only thing to believe.

See “Green Planet, Red Sky.” That alien thing is uncanny.

But Quentin tired of Hollywood, and moved on to bigger, more nefarious things. He got in contact with Phineas, and, after upgrading his arsenal of special-effects tricks, put a fishbowl on his head and went after Spider-Man.

No alternative motives here. No interest in money, power, none of that.


“Hey, you know what would be a good idea? If I put a purple cape on and just slipped into this green jumpsuit and went and tried to fight a super-strong, super-fast guy who can climb walls, dodge bullets, shoot adhesive webbing out of his wrists and detect danger a good fifteen minutes before anyone’s even thought about harming him. Dangerous, you say? Foolish? Hah! He can’t harm me; you see, I’ve put this fishbowl over my head, and …”

Remember how I said sometimes asking why is more trouble than it’s worth?

And there you have Mysterio.

Well, the first Mysterio, anyway.

Hobie Brown was just another bright-eyed kid with very little dough but a lot of ambition when he (very accidentally) created “The Prowler.”

Hobie was a window washer on high rises, and also a bit of an amateur inventor. To make his job easier, he created three deceptively simple-looking devices:

Hydraulic steel claws for climbing concrete, plastic or wooden surfaces.

Hydraulic clawed boots for much the same.

Wrist and ankle bracelets to quick-deploy cleaning fluid.

But, after being fired from his job, Hobie found a new use for his toys. Those claws could tear flesh. Those boots could send him leaping over twenty feet. Those bracelets could quick-deploy a hell of a lot more than cleaning fluid.

I met Hobie just before his first (and only) outing as a super-villain; he was buying potent sleeping gas pellets off the black market.

Hobie wasn’t a bad guy, really; just kind of disenfranchised with the world around him. He didn’t fit in from the start; us super-criminals are mostly angry white boys with an ax to grind, and a tendency to become verbose and theatrical whilst maiming anyone in our way. Hobie’s quiet, black face and ferocious adherence to a policy of minimal violence set him on the outs from the get-go.

One encounter with Spider-Man later, and Hobie’s criminal career ended. He still threw on the suit occasionally, joining up with a group of “good guys” (creeps if you ask me) called ‘The Outlaws.’

These days Hobie is fully retired, living happily with his wife, subsisting on the money he makes from the revenue on his patents.

Work in any high-rise these days, and you’ll most likely eventually see a minimum-wage guy wearing toned-down versions of the Prowler’s gear, wiping birdshit off a sparkling glass window.

A lot of less-psychotic super-villains, myself included (usually), feel like Hobie is living the dream. Of course, Hobie got lucky; he quit before he got himself in too deep. Me trying to take out a patent on the gauntlets or the suit would be ridiculous, especially with (get this) seventeen outstanding warrants on my head.

I’m just lucky Richards and Stark didn’t ask about that, because that’s a seriously uncomfortable conversation that I don’t know if I’m ready to have.

Especially not around Richards; I get giddy as a little girl around that motherfucker.

It radiates off him, like it’s infectious.

So, what’ve we got: We’ve got the Shocker, Mysterio and the Prowler all lumped in together.

None of them have powers.

All of them were (or, in my case, are) considered direct threats to FPS, but Beck and Brown no longer.

Wait, why not Hobie? He’s alive, isn’t he? Not chasing FPS around New York like I am, but alive, so what … What is it that makes him a “non-threat?” Just because he doesn’t put the costume on, or …

Or is it that he doesn’t interact with metas anymore?

Yeah, wait, there’s something to that.

The number of metas I interact with, when put alongside any average Joe, is simply fucking staggering.

I know that Control/FPS/The CSA caused Aleksei Sytsevich to become the Rhino.

How many metas have they …

I mean, surely they can’t have tabs on every single meta, so how do they know everyone’s secret identity? I mean, shit, some of the accidents/incidents/experiments that gave these guys powers messed them up so badly even they don’t know who they are anymore … How could the CSA possibly …

This is giving me a headache. I turn to Aleksei.

“Aleksei, do you think —”

There’s a blue burst of light, and then an explosion goes off so loud and so hard that the subway car we’re in is thrown off the tracks, and goes smashing up against the left side of the tunnel.

Aleksei shrieks, grabbing hold of a sturdying bar and effectively ripping it apart; he rocks at the center of the car, trying frantically to balance himself, like a dog trying to stand up in the back of a car.

The subway train continues its mad slide, and one of the impacts must cut some kind of electronics cable, because the all the lights on the train shut off, throwing us into a shaking, humid, pitch-black hell.

The friction is too much for the sheet metal of the subway train to stand, and it peels away in a shower of sparks on my left, one of which lands in my eye. I yelp in pain, but manage to hold it together well enough so that when a forty-something woman in an orange sweater is thrown towards the tear in the side of the car by a particularly vicious bump, I reach out and hook an arm around her waist, throwing her out of out of harm’s way.

Who the fuck am I kidding, we’re on a crashing subway train, there is no “out of harm’s way.”

The train comes to a turn and begins to full-on crash into the embankment. Aleksei’s giant body loses its balance, and he stumbles forward, his left arm going between the train and the wall, passing us at sixty miles an hour. It yanks him forward, up to his shoulder, and I realize I’m screaming.

“Herman! Help me!” Aleksei shrieks, and then he’s dragged out of the car. I watch the metal siding of the car bend inwards as his massive body is rolled along the outside of the car, crushed against the wall of the subway tube.

I jump into the air, still screaming, and fire a level five straight backwards; we’re only two cars from the back, so the car blows apart and I’m pitched out onto the tracks, along with three or four other people. One of them hits the third rail, and lights up like a Christmas tree before his skin turns black and he stops moving.

I roll once over the rails, bounce against the wall, and then press myself as hard as I can, gripping an older man against me as the two remaining cars go crashing by, mushing a black woman who only has time to sit up and scream.

I’m bleeding from two dozen places; jumping out of a subway car going sixty-five is never a good idea. The older man is in shock; either that or he’s having some kind of attack, shit, I don’t care.

I get to my feet, and do this stumbling crazy-legged towards Aleksei’s crumpled body, curled into a gray fetal ball.

“Arhekslo!” I screech; that’s what “Aleksei” sounds like after you’ve fallen out of a train; I trip a little; there’s something wrong with my right leg, maybe my hip. It aches all the way from my knee to my waist, shooting little jets of pain any time I put pressure on it.

I fall a little, and then a little more as the entire subway tunnel shakes with an enormous series of crunches and bangs; it’s the subway train we were on going full-throttle smashing into 5th Street station, probably crashing right up onto the platform.

When I manage to get to my feet again, Aleksei is stirring.

“Alehei!” I shout, coming closer this time, but still not quite getting it. My head must’ve bounced off the steel during my bail-out, and I’m just not feeling it yet; these kind of verbal disruptions are characteristic of a concussion.

Or brain-damage.

And I’ll never speak properly again. Doomed to a life of “Arhekslo” and “Alehei.”

“Aleksei!” I force it out, just to prove to myself that I haven’t been knocked retarded. It’s at this point I realize that I’m still not seeing fully out of my left eye, where the spark hit me. It’s starting to itch terribly, and I realize with a little twinge that the spark probably wasn’t a spark at all, but rather a small piece of metal or plastic that tore free of the side of the subway and is now embedded in my cornea.

Great, that’s, that’s fucking beautiful.

I stagger further towards Aleksei, who’s starting to stand up.

“ooo,” Aleksei says, rolling over, clutching his ribs.

I notice, without a bit of irony or humor, that the shard of toilet seat has been torn free of Aleksei’s butt, and now rests a couple of dozen feet up the track.

I kneel down alongside him, and my right leg screams in protest, dropping me backwards onto my butt; there’s also something terribly wrong with my already hurt left arm. It doesn’t seem to be responding to my commands any more, instead having decided to take a vacation to Dangling Limply World.

“What hurts, Aleksei?”

“ooo,” Aleksei says, and his big eyes pop open, wild and scared.

“Aleksei, just be cool, and —”

Aleksei grabs me by the (unhurt) leg and flings me aside, throwing himself to his feet, swinging all his enormous weight into a haymaker punch straight to the jaw of someone behind me.

I roll, moaning in agony, and watch as Aleksei is hit by a flurry of punches from none other than Calvin Zabo.

You’d know him as Mister Hyde.

Well, not the Mr. Hyde; not the one from Stevenson’s story.

Calvin Zabo was once a plain old dork scientist, like so many of these creeps are, but he had this brilliant experiment, something went wrong, blah blah blah. It all melds together after a while, doesn’t it?

Everyone devolves into avatars, general ideas of what a villain should be.

Bottom line: He’s now six hundred pounds and nine feet tall, with a face like roadkill and a body that looks like it was carved from pink silly-putty meant to look like the Hulk.

He’s usually got on this ridiculous green over-coat deal, but apparently he left it at home, or FPS didn’t feel it was “appropriate.” Because, as it stands, Mister Hyde is buck naked.

Except for the helmet.

He’s got on some kind of weird-ass bondage helmet, very literally bolted onto his head.

It takes me a second to figure out why, but then it hits me: this is their very practically minded way of preventing me from reaching into the spot. They just whipped out a heavy-duty nail-gun and pow, easy as pie.

The sick motherfuckers.

I stand up and raise my gauntlet; or rather, I try to raise my gauntlet. The one sleeve of the Shocker suit I’m wearing is on my defunct left arm, and all trying to move it does is trigger a sunburst of pain throughout my body that drops me onto my knees, my teeth biting into my tongue, blood rapidly filling my mouth.

Hyde just keeps hitting Aleksei, no form or style, just wailing on him like a little kid having a tantrum. Normally I’d think Aleksei could handle these hits no problem, but in the condition he’s in, he’s fading fast, and after that first punch it’s just been a beat-down.

Hyde grabs Aleksei by the horn and uses it like a handle, drag-slamming his head against the subway wall, one, two, three times, and then Aleksei elbows him right in the sternum and then the nose, knocking him back.

I realize, with a blurry pride, that I was the one who taught Aleksei that move.

Aleksei gets to his feet as Mr. Hyde charges at him again, and manages to dodge a left punch that then shatters a crater in the concrete wall of the subway tunnel. He comes back with a sort of crazed jumping uppercut; his giant gray fist catches Hyde where his jaw meets his neck, and drives him upward; Aleksei threw so much of his body into the jump that the punch carries Hyde up to the low ceiling of the tunnel, his head being abruptly smashed between Aleksei’s bull-dozer knuckles and prefabricated concrete laid over fifty years ago.

Hyde’s head rattles so hard he’s actually thrown out of the crushing, momentary vise, landing on his chest on the tracks a few feet away. Aleksei lands, but then stumbles; he’s hurt, something inside him is broken, probably more than one something.

Hyde springs up, his jaw completely shattered, hanging at a bizarre right angle. He grabs Aleksei by the neck and smashes him to the ground, Aleksei rolls them so he’s on top, but Hyde doesn’t let go; applying even more pressure to Aleksei’s throat with those thick, subhuman fingers.

Aleksei’s eyes have gone watery, and I realize that Mister Hyde is, in effect, crushing his brain.

I try frantically to think of a way to help him as Hyde rolls Aleksei onto his back, and straddles him, still choking him but now also occasionally smashing his head against the tracks for good measure.

Aleksei’s eyes go wider. Christ, the motherfucker is going to squash his brain up out of his mouth.

I grab my left wrist with my right hand, yank it up, aiming it like a gun, and use my right hand to squeeze the pressure trigger in the palm of my left hand.

It happens in three stages:

First, I feel all the fingers on my unprotected right hand break, bending and cracking at a variety of unnatural angles.

Second, my left arm convulsively jerks back due to the vibration, and causes my body to bang against the wall of the subway tunnel in a way that hurts so bad I actually pass out for a couple of seconds.

And third, though I only see it through a painful red-haze, a level five blast hits Mister Hyde straight in the face.

He flips like a football punted for the field goal, flying an easy forty feet down the subway tunnel, one of his eyeballs, his tongue, his remaining teeth and a good portion of his skin abruptly abandoning ship with a with a single loud “VRMRMRMRGRGLE.”

He lands and skids on his back, but whoever’s controlling him forces him to his feet yet again.

I’m screaming. I’m screaming so loud and so hard it hurts my throat. I’m not even saying words as he lumbers towards us, and suddenly Aleksei is on his feet. He lets out this long, guttural growl, and falls into a three-point stance.

Oh, God, it’s been so long since I’ve seen him do this.

Even through the pain, I force out a little chuckle; of all the amazing shit my big friend can do, this is by far the most heart-stoppingly incredible. This is a “power.”

Someone at FPS headquarters must tell the person controlling Mr. Hyde what’s about to happen, because he suddenly turns and starts running up the tunnel, away from Aleksei and me.

Yeah. Right. That’s gonna help you a whole hell of a lot, pal. You keep going with that.

Aleksei lets out that trademark nutjob yell, and launches.


Watching nearly a ton of giant gray man accelerate to seventy miles an hour in the space of thirty feet is nothing short of heart-stopping. This is his trademark, and with good reason.


This is the Rhino’s Charge.

He hits Mister Hyde horn-first, something I’ve never actually seen him do before; usually he catches them on his right shoulder, a sort of insane foot-ball tackle. He must realize how dire the situation is, because I can’t imagine him doing it otherwise.

I feel the ground beneath me shake with the impact as the horn blows straight through Mister Hyde’s chest, practically cracking him in half, and then the two of them go careening into an engineers service stairwell, the concrete and metal bursting apart like an ice-sculpture hit with a sledge-hammer.

There’s a thunderous “BOOM” as they hit the wall behind the wreckage of the stairwell, and little pieces of dirt and dust fall down from all over the ceiling of the tunnel.

I lie there in silence, and wait.

And wait.

Fifteen minutes later, the pain is so bad I’ve pissed my pants, vomited and am now on my sixth fit of tears, but still no Aleksei.

If only fucking Felicia was here.

I … I think maybe I love her.

But that’s probably just my cock talking.

Talking over the pain. Talking under the pain.

Jesus, Aleksei, please be all right.

And then, footsteps.

I’m having some trouble turning my head, so I’m relieved when whoever it is squats down in front of me.

The relief switches abruptly to terror as I realize who it is.

“Herman,” Eddie Lavelli says. He’s wearing the Eel suit, but his mask is off, held limply in one hand. He’s pale, and his eyes are sunken, red-rimmed and framed by dark blue bags. He’s sweating badly, greasy, slimy sweat. The kind that only someone either very high or very afraid drips with.

I try to talk, and find I can’t. I hurt too much.

“I figured it out, Herman,” he says, his voice high and strange, like a person just coming out of a horrible car accident. “I didn’t mean to; I’m not smart, not like you. I didn’t mean to, but once you overhear enough, it’s pretty easy to put together. And you would’ve figured it out, too, and you would have ruined everything. I … I know now, Herman. I know why I have to die, and why you have to die. You don’t … You can’t understand … Herman … Everything is lies. Everything is lies.”

He’s completely fucking lost it, that much is clear.

“Eddie …” I force out. “The hell are you … talking about?”

He raises a fist so that it hangs just in front of my face.

“Everything is lies,” he says again, faintly, like someone in a trance.

He’s going to blast my head off.


Don’t lose your shit. Don’t lose your shit.

I’m losing my shit.

And then all I see is bright blue light.

Previous Part               Chapter Index               Next Part