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Mutagen

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Symbiosis

1.1

August 28th, 2010

With a cough and a splutter, I awoke to police sirens blaring in the distance, echoing off the brick masonry of the alleyway walls.

Sucking in air, I pushed myself up out of the wet puddle of dirty alleyway water and got to my feet. I wasn't just in an alleyway, I was outside the back of the Downtown Mall. I couldn't recall how I'd gotten here and there were notable gaps in my memory.

How the fuck did I get here?

Looking down, I recoiled.

All down my front, my clothes were drenched in blood and holes dotted my jacket. Disgust and confusion raged as I tried to make sense of the situation. Frustration burned as my mind blanked on any important information.

Who's blood is this? Can't be mine… can it?

I couldn't walk home looking like this.

With my breath coming more quickly, I shoved my hands beneath my jacket to find any signs of a wound – the distinct lack of any pain setting me at a fragile unease. My fingers caught on the various holes in my clothing – enough to start a new fashion trend – but my skin was unblemished, smooth even.

No pain and no bleeding. There isn't even a scratch?

The last thing I remembered was walking into the mall and heading towards the electronics store to pick up a new sim card, then heading off to go pick up Mom's meds.

Or was it the other way around?

My stomach clenched and I felt the familiar sensation of hunger pangs. It was bad enough that my hands were shaking.

Shit, why am I so hungry? I definitely had breakfast this morning.

It was an odd thought to have at a time like this.

A door slammed open behind me and I spun around and caught sight of an armed man.

Like me, he was covered in blood and sporting bullet wounds in his leg and shoulder. He took one look at me and just about voided his bowels as he stumbled back, his wounded leg barely supporting his weight. The lack of uniform and bandana around his mouth cemented what kind of person had run into me. He was a gang member.

"Oh, fuck! Cape!"

What?

I'd never had a gun pointed at me before, but I did what any sane teenager would do when placed in such a situation. I screamed like a bitch and tried to wave him off with my hands in a desperate attempt to preserve my life.

"WAIT–!"

Crack!

I doubled over like I had been punched in the gut, just without the pain that followed.

Slowly, I straightened up and looked down. My front was bleeding… or had been. The holes that had just been made in my chest sewed themselves together before I had a chance to process what was going on.

I looked up. The man pumped his shotgun.

Crack!

My left shoulder jolted back as chunks of flesh and bone were sent flying.

Why doesn't this hurt?

"Fucking die already you freak!"

Why am I so hungry?

I surged forward, compelled only by instinct. Lashing out, I threw all my weight into my fist only for it to bulldoze a hole straight through his chest. The action didn't register until the man coughed blood onto my face.

Dark red and black tendrils like solidified blood burst from my back and arms – thousands of them greedily latching onto the dying man. He came apart like candy floss in the mouth, his body getting smaller with each passing second. In a few moments the man had disappeared – clothes, hair, eyes, arms, legs, everything.

When it was done, there was no man. There was only me—

F̴̙̝̽̓̒͊̅e̵̱͕͈͔̻̻̊͒̿̆́͘ǎ̶͖̦̀̄̎r̸̨̞̮̽̆̽͑̄̚P̶̼̈́͂̓͐͜a̵̝̝̽̈́ͅĩ̷͈̩ǹ̴͉̗͚̠͙̣̿̽͝L̶͚͉̍̎o̵̥̰̦̙͖̿͒v̷̹̳̙̯̈́̏ͅe̵̤͉̫̖̽̎̊̚Ḩ̷̩̋̌̆̾͘a̵̧͗̈͐͠͝t̵͇̤̠͛e̵̞͠E̶̤̼͆̀̍͛͝ṅ̸̮̙̇ͅv̸̬̱͖̘̀̍͋̓y̴̫̼̲͛̇̋́̕A̶̢̟̬̻̠͂͌n̷̹͙̭̟̄̃̊͜͜͝g̷̜̺̰͚͚̜̍e̶͖͍͑̚r̸̜͓͑́͘T̴̨͈̯̯̑̚e̶͔̜͗̓́̅̕ͅr̸̛͙̲͖̯͆̓͝r̶̛̲͚͗̒ỏ̴̧̖̜̃͗͜͝r̸͉͊̚͝

I winced, clutching my head, sharp pain like an ice-pick spearing through my head. Then the throbbing came as the migraine arrived, bringing with it something unexpected.

Memories swallowed and ripped me off balance like a crushing tidal wave with a violent riptide.

I saw life from a point of view that wasn't mine, conversations I never had, and people I had never met but considered friends and family. Like watching a movie on fast forward, understanding every disorienting second of it. Names, culture, language – as though I had lived them myself.

As quick as it came, the memories were gone, pushed into the back of my mind.

Vertigo smashed into me and I had to desperately squash the urge to vomit.

He tried to kill me. Shot me twice. I had to do it — he had to die.

I stepped away in a haze from the spot the man occupied a few seconds ago. There wasn't a spec of him left – not even a drop of blood. Just a shotgun lying on the ground. Even my clothes had somehow mended, in better shape than when I put them on this morning.

All the evidence was gone.

What the fuck. What the fuck!? I'm a cape! A fucking parahuman!?

When?

Where!?

HOW!?

I frantically scanned the area to see if anyone had witnessed the brutal event. The sounds definitely echoed into the street, gunshots were hard to miss. I half expected an audience – maybe a squad of PRT soldiers flanked by a Protectorate Hero.

But there wasn't anyone looking down at me in horror. If anyone had seen me, they were probably running for their lives.

I ate a guy – just like the Siberian.

At least that thing had the decency to look like some dude fucked a zebra.

In a panic, I observed myself again, patting myself down just to make sure all the important bits were still there. My arms and legs were the same length and I still looked as pale as a ghost.

I felt like one too.

There was no explaining what I had just done. Turned a man into a smoothie and slurped him up like I was dying of thirst. I felt my entire body shake, cold dread overwhelming me.

I'm not hungry anymore .

I ran out of the alley just in time to watch a parade of police cars and PRT vans zoom past me. I didn't stand around to watch, opting to beeline it back home.

With every corner I turned, there were more PRT vans. I tried not to stare but I couldn't help it. Besides, I'd probably look more suspicious by trying to look like nothing's wrong given the atmosphere. There was a tenseness in the air with all the police sirens and PRT personnel rushing about.

Barriers were being set up and traffic rerouted. Horns were honking as frustrated people tried to get where they needed to. Bystanders were gossiping as police desperately tried to control the situation. Even Velocity zoomed onto the scene to try and calm down the more desperate civilians.

You could feel the chaos in the air.

The roar of an engine startled me.

Snapping my head to the right, I and many other pedestrians stopped and stared as Armsmaster blitzed down the curb atop his motorcycle. He made a sharp turn, honking his horn before accelerating and disappearing from sight, heading towards the mall.

Oh, shit… shit shit shit.

After hopping past the police barrier and assuring them I was unharmed, I took off home, sprinting the rest of the way once I was out of sight. I made it home in record time. Just another piece of evidence that I was a cape. I had run more today than I had in years and I wasn't even out of breath.

I made it into my apartment building and halfway to my floor before I slowed to a stop. Without all the buzzing, honking, and loud insanity of Brockton Bay, I was finally able to hear myself think.

Cursed with a moment of clarity, I was able to analyze the memories that I had stolen from that man's corpse.

Xiao was his name.

His memories were vague and lacked any context. I saw a flash of myself from his perspective. I leaped up a full story and landed on the second floor of the mall. Then I saw Xiao get into a stand-off with security, which was when he tried to escape and came face to face with me.

My head fell into my hands and I started taking deep breaths.

This was so messed up.

I could sift through the memories of a dead man so easily. He had two brothers and a sister. I knew all their names and that they didn't live in Brockton Bay. He had run away from home after joining a gang. He even had a girlfriend who lived on the other side of the city.

He had promised to take her out next Saturday to a taco shop she liked on the boardwalk.

And I just killed him.

I felt like screaming.

I didn't waste any more time in the stairwell. There was the ever-present fear that I'd hear a door slam open a couple of floors below, accompanied by the thundering footsteps of PRT soldiers and a Protectorate Hero – Armsmaster if I was particularly unlucky. So I moved on, making haste towards home.

Opening the door, I heard Mom's voice ring out.

"You're back early. Can you give me my medication please?"

I didn't have any idea what I had picked up before everything went to hell but I fumbled around in my pockets just to check. I had nothing on me – not even the sim card I wanted to pick up.

Shit.

Short-term amnesia was a serious bitch. You never realize just how much panic comes with even a few minutes of memory loss until you're actually thrown into the middle of it.

I moved at a thoughtful pace as I made my way to the kitchen. Lying was never my strong suit and Mom always knew when I was telling even the smallest white lie.

It was every parent's superpower, apparently. Huh, maybe I'm one of those second gens?

My brain might as well have been on dial-up because I hadn't thought of any decent half-baked excuse to explain that I had returned home empty-handed. The truth was obviously the simplest way forward, but that would likely give her a heart attack… again.

Lying would spare her the pain but she'd almost certainly take my head off when she eventually found out the truth.

"Excuse me, am I being ignored?" Mom chides as I enter the room. I stare at her blankly. She was halfway through the process of buttering her toast in her pajamas. "Yoohoo. Earth to Michael. I will flick this butter at you if you don't say something."

"Uh, no."

She scowled at me.

"What do you mean 'no'?"

"I mean I forgot your meds," I replied. She groaned and rolled her eyes. "–and my sim card."

"What the hell were you doing, looking for fairies?" She said, making her annoyance very clear. "I swear to God if you were out chasing skirts, I will wake you up with ice water over your head—"

"No… no, no. It's not like that."

Mom flicks her hair back and crosses her arms, patiently waiting for an explanation. How does one explain to his mother that he woke up in an alleyway, got shot twice, then punched and liquified a guy?

It's not easy.

"Who is she?"

It was less of a question and more of a demand.

"There is no 'she'. I wasn't out flirting with girls— stop looking at me like that, I'm being serious here!"

"Do you seriously expect me to believe that you go out to the mall for the sole purpose of picking up two things and come back with— AHHHHHHH!"

My frustration and anxiety had been building until her scream.

Mom stumbled back, almost slipping on the tiled kitchen floor, eyes wide with horror. She backed away so suddenly that she bumped into a bunch of cabinets and sent a bunch of glasses and cutlery crashing to the floor.

Her hands covered her mouth to cut off the scream but I could see what she had reacted to.

My body was rippling with the same black and red tendrils that had eaten the gangster alive. They coiled around me and my clothes like hungry snakes.

All it took was a single thought to dismiss them. They melted back into my body. I'd need to be more aware if all it took was a little frustration to activate my power.

"Yeah," I looked back up at Mom. She hadn't moved, frozen to the spot like a statue. "Something happened at the mall, I think."

"You think?" Mom hissed, her hands falling away from her mouth. She took a single tentative step toward me, her voice softening. "Michael… what the hell happened?"

"I got powers… somehow," I explained slowly, trying to recall any information that would have led to me getting superpowers. It wasn't an event you'd just forget easily. "And I… might've killed someone."

Despite Xiao's preferences and choice of occupation, he was still a human being at the end of the day. One who had made many terrible choices and led to a lot of suffering. He had hurt people – killed even.

I knew the weight of his sins but that didn't make my taking of his life any easier. It hung over my head – the knowledge that his death would cause grief to people I'd likely never meet yet had always known.

These memories were a curse.

I felt Mom take my hand, her words distant and distorted as she led me over to the couch and sat me down. I leaned on her for support and like always, she acted as the pillar that kept me upright.

This wasn't pain but it hurt me. I'd never forget this.

Not ever.