(cw: police brutality, magical suffering)
Coffee soaked into the McDonalds napkin and I was transfixed. The drugsight came into focus. Caffeine molecules clung to the golden arches like barnacles on a great ship, gold slowly turning to brown as the paper firmament disintegrated. I practiced the big trick once more, willing the caffeine molecules to first multiply, then transform to alcohol, then morphine, before winking out of existence completely. I sneezed and wiped my nose with the damp napkin before tossing it out the window. It turned to pulp in the rain.
To be honest, my powers scared me. Ever since I got that sting, I could see the drugs floating inside people. Folks walking down the streets are thick with chemical information: medications, hormones, narcotics. A whole vocabulary had opened up in my brain and the world screamed it everywhere I went. My own thoughts were a trap. If I wanted coffee, caffeine molecules would start growing in my blood. What if I accidentally thought someone looked like they could use a drink? Hell, what if someone ended up infected because of me?
My hand certainly didn’t help. My best guess was that the oily black pus that inflated it made some kind of chemical brain, memorizing all of the different substances that showed up in my drugsight. That part worried me the most. My hand looked downright grotesque, and power suppression didn’t affect the deformities your infection had already inflicted.
It was hard coming in. Sure, an infection is dangerous, but I grew up on superhero stories. Who wouldn’t want to be the big special guy, helping people with abilities only they have? Even I knew it didn’t work like that, though. Maybe it used to for a little while, back when Spacebrother first showed up, before Bigley made everything so political.
The sound of rain disappeared as I rolled into SubTropolis. When I was a kid they used to have a sort of science park down here that we’d go to on field trips. They’d ‘grade’ our class on how much waste our packed lunches generated. That was years back, though. It was all Twin Saints auxiliary offices now.
Diana would never have let me sign up for suppression if she’d known about it. Other-natural infections are like gold in the Posse. It was already treachery not letting her know that Purrgle had an infection of its own. Too bad for her. I wasn’t about to wind up a pawn in some punk’s rebel fantasy. If that meant acting like her new pet had ‘merely’ maimed and disfigured my hand, so be it.
Besides, who ever read a story about a superhero with drug powers? What would I even call myself? Doctor DARE? The Booze Hound? Captain Crack-Baby? I’m sure the comics code authority would love that. Maybe someone could do something good with powers like mine but it wasn’t gonna be me.
My heart rattled as a cop waved my car into the lot. I briefly, stupidly, wondered if I had any drugs in my car before remembering that I was basically a walking possession charge. Still, they can’t just arrest you for what you are, right? Oh yeah, Shan, the cops would never. Idiot.
Of course a cozy operation like Twin Saints would have police backing. Chances were there were two or three secret police for each uniformed cop on-hand. Just don’t give them any pretext. Stay calm.
Careful to keep my mutant hand tucked in my jacket, I crawled out of the car. It was awkward going but I figured the sight of the thing would only draw unwanted attention. This plan felt very cunning for all of the twenty seconds it took the cop to notice the nervous Iranian kid with his hand tucked in his coat.
I began to walk faster.
I did. Not because it was the smart thing to do, not because I could feel the gun pointing at my back, but as a genuine panic response. Maybe I had some opossum DNA. Maybe God needed me alive for something worse. Measured footsteps closed in behind me. “Hand out where I can see it, kid.”
My hand stung as it grazed the zipper of my coat. The gauze was thick and sticky with black pus. I couldn’t stare at it for too long. With my new sight, the mess of chemicals looked like a Bosch painting made of glowworms. I focused on the pavement instead. Even here I could catch traces of molecules with the drugsight, scattered patches of pharmaceutical run-off tracked in from the rain. The cop slowly circled into my peripheral vision.
“You infected?” he asked. I nodded. I told him about my powers: the stew growing in my hand, the chemicals I could see and name for the first time in my life, the way I could turn a cup of coffee into a cup of heroin. I told him I didn’t want any trouble. I wanted to be a good citizen.
I was a man. I did not cry.
He listened, face hard, before barking at me to keep my eyes on the ground and my hands behind my head. He radioed for backup and soon six cops joined him to escort me down a white hallway.
They took me into a room with no furniture and instructed me to sit on the floor. A TV panel glowed on one wall while a giant mirror hung opposite next to the door. One of them wrapped a tight plastic collar around my neck.
Once they filed out, I was alone with my churning guts. You’re just here for a simple procedure. They’ll want to help you stay out of trouble. I racked my brains for anything they might have on file for me, any ill considered books I might have checked out, purchases I might have made. Nothing came to mind. I had nothing to hide. Could Diana or one of her friends be traced to me? God, would they try and make me rat?
The screen blinked on. A middle-aged white woman with large glasses and a short perm gazed down at me. “Name?”
“The officer described to me the nature of your infection. Pharmognosis and transmutation. Mister…. Sir, to better assess your condition it’s critical that you are honest, and that you listen carefully. Do you understand?”
“Think of your transmutative power specifically. Can you recall a point in time where you’ve used it on any living animal or human?”
“Just myself,” I admitted. “That was how I first found out. I uh, felt like I really needed a drink, you see.”
She didn’t laugh. “Does anyone else know you’re here today?” I shook my head. “And what is your place of work?”
I coughed, and indicated the tattoo over my sternum. “Twin Saints, chronic.” I’d had to sign up a couple of years back when my loans kicked in. Turned out that one year of college was the worst amount of college.
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m afraid you’ll have to get that removed first, unless you consent to a waiver..”
“Twin Saints’ chronic employment and power suppression programs work with the same tech. Interfacing two of the Other-petals at once is unpredictable. Depending on which petal your infection is attuned to, there could be complications.”
“Geeze. How much does it cost?”
She told me.
“Holy shit!” Then, after a moment. “How frequently do people die of these complications?”
“Well, there’s not really good data on it yet. But I haven’t seen it happen since I started here.”
My hand pulsated. “Fine. I’ll do the waiver.”
She nodded and clicked a button off-screen. “Now, how did you come to acquire this infection? Do you know the strain and symptoms of your vector?”
I looked down at my raw, gigantic hand. My own stupid fault. Diana said, don’t touch the damn shoggoth. She said even if it was playing at being a cat it would never have the mind of a cat inside. It happened so quickly. One minute my hand was hovering above its back like I was about to pet it, the next I was tangled in a black forest of wet, pumping stingers.
The truth would probably get us all tossed in the Error Zone. Shoggoths only came from the Posse. Diana shouldn’t have been hanging out with terrorists and rioters, but Diana was good. She cared about things. She didn’t deserve to end up in a federal prison, not because of my worthless ass.
Time to say something stupid instead. “I was visiting Topeka last Tuesday. I got caught in that mass fugue attack.”
That got her attention. The surge in adrenaline was as sharp to my eyes as if she’d been sitting right in front of me. “Sir, our people were on the ground after that attack. We’ve already discovered three personality subverting sinister-strain infections. How did you escape the quarantine?” She slowly slipped one of her hands off-screen. Was she rummaging for something? I knew ‘sinister-strain’ was bad news. That meant my powers came from New Pandemonium, which was a goddamn nest of spacemen and Draculas. Everybody knew that sinister strains were more likely to make you go all strawman.
“I uh, dunno. I woke up from the fugue outside of city limits. I don’t really know how I got there.”
“Sir, I need you to be honest with me.” Her adrenaline continued to spike. She was pissed. I probed at the collar around my throat. Could it be some kind of lie detector? “How did you escape the HOMEFRONT quarantine?”
“I’m sorry, I lied!” Don’t be a snitch. “I was stung by a monster. One of those shoggoth-things the Posse uses.”
A pause. She took a hard look at something just off-camera. Then, “Go on.”
Of course. She wasn’t going to let me just skip how I wound up bumping uglies with a terrorist weapon. “It… One of them was robbing a liquor store near my house. He stung my hand to make a point.”
She sighed. “Sir. Do you not understand the gravity of our work? The mercy we provide? We are trying to manage a public health crisis of unknowable proportions. We are putting ourselves at great risk to offer you treatment. Surely you understand that we insist on your cooperation.”
“No, no, no.” She was agitated. Paranoid. I could calm her down, right? I imagined alcohol molecules assembling in her blood. “It’s the t-t-truth. See, the guy had it disguised as a cat, and I went to pet it and-”
“The lies, sir, are… uh…” She slouched in her chair, face flush. “What are you doing?” she slurred. “Shit.” She lurched back up and fumbled off-camera until the viewscreen shut off. As she blinked out, five of the cops stormed in, now armed with rune-inscribed riot shields.
“On the ground!” one of them screamed. Oh, no. I triggered a massive dose of heroin in the first one through the door. He dropped to his knees in an instant but I took a baton to the jaw before I could try a second one.
My teeth were a clusterfuck ringing in my skull. I staggered back. I took another blow to the temple. I was down.
Three cops went to town on me while the other checked on his colleague. Tasers bit my skin and boots smashed into my kidneys while the stray cop shouted, “call medic!”
Over the roar of my own pain I could hear the cop I juiced seizing violently on the floor. “Motherfucker!” another cop yelled. He jabbed the tranq right in my neck.
Black bag over the head. Angry muttering. The words “Carnation Room.” Pain swimming in a fang-lined loop from torso to brain. The sedative. I could hear it swimming inside me- Benzodiazepine. A beautiful name I’d have never learned otherwise. Disintegrate, I begged. Break down into particles and sublimate to somewhere else.
They planted me in a chair. My mind swimming back. The drugs were out of my system, but that only made the pain and panic worse. “Carnation like the flower?” I managed to ask. Stupid. They laughed. One of them snatched the bag off my head.
Oh dear God.
I saw this video once, back during the Internet. It showed this dish you can get in Japan, a name I can’t remember now. They’d cut a fish apart real carefully, laying its flesh out in raw petals without letting it die. It was like someone had done that to the three folks hanging before me, then attached thin silver zippers at the edges of each cut.
“Tranq him again,” a new voice rang out. It was scratchy, like it was coming over an intercom. The cop who first stopped me in the parking lot was rolling out a table outfitted with three obsidian blades and a nest of silver zippers. I tried to conjure some benzodiazepine into his bloodstream. He faltered. Electricity pierced my side and I lost my grip of the cop’s blood. Another one loaded the tranquilizer gun.
“Please don’t,” was all I had left in me.
Some of the cops cursed. Others just laughed. “You can get away with two out of three: Aggressive, powerful, disloyal.” The cop with the taser growled. “You’ve already attacked three of our people. Three strikes.”
The cop with the tranquilizer took aim at me again. “Don’t worry.” He smiled. “This isn’t technically an execution.”
I stared up at the hanging skins, searching for some sign or reassurance. My neck stung. Their eyes bulged, their mouths quivered, and I fell asleep to the tinkling of zippers.
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