[A story inspired by a picture.]
[A story inspired by a picture.]
The half-dozen causeway-connected floating skyscrapers called ‘Tower City’ floated high above Metropolis, their own micro-community, containing businesses, habitation, hotels and recreational facilities, so that the residents of the ‘sky-clave’ never had to leave their floating community, high above the rest of the city. Brin Londo, aka Timber Wolf, crouched atop the easternmost of the buildings, two hundred and forty floors above the base of the building, held in position (and from crumbling under its own weight) by powerful antigravity generators, three thousand feet above Metropolis itself.
Many dozens of floating causeways connected the buildings, some for pedestrians, some for trams and fast-moving shuttles, and others connecting to the circular park hovering in the center, covering several acres, and surrounding a pond, on which bemused ducks could be seen skating across the top of the water, apparently unconcerned that the pond itself was floating a half mile over the bustling city below.
‘People are crazy,’ Brin thought, wondering how tens of thousands of people could go about their lives in this place, their every heartbeat subject to the whims of antigravity generators, machines which the vast majority of them would struggle to identify if it was right in front of them, let alone be able to describe how one worked (or how to fix one, if there was a problem with their home in the clouds).
Still, crazy was why he was here, watching the sun sink in the west, waiting for the particular 'crazy' they called the Tower City Slasher to make his appearance. Seven nights in a row, people outside of the buildings, walking the pedways or visiting the park or partying in the rooftop penthouses, had been attacked by something that slashed their necks and apparently drank their blood. Nobody remembered anything about the attacks, and electronic security devices had failed to capture a clear image of any of the assaults, providing only blurry and useless images. There had been no deaths, yet, but it seemed only a matter of time…
He took a deep breath, but he was so far above the park that he couldn’t even detect a trace of natural smells from the flowering plants in the precisely manicured gardens. He picked up the rangeviewers he’d been using earlier to spy on the ducks, and spied on the other five penthouse conclaves, each consisting of forty-five individual suites, surrounding a central pool and spa. No matter that a blood-sucking camera-shy psychopath was stalking the night, he could see signs of outdoor parties on every rooftop, including the one he was using as a base.
Down on the walkways, and in the park, people bustled around, some travelling from whatever building they worked in to whatever building they lived in, or otherwise milling about, apparently similarly unconcerned. ‘I guess it makes sense that people who live one step away from a half-mile plunge would be stupidly fearless…’ he thought with a scowl.
Hours passed, with no sign of anything other than the usual fights and scuffles and overly loud ‘conversations’ turning ugly, which he left for the local authorities to deal with, not wanting to get distracted from his real mission here.
It was sheer chance he saw something like a shadow moving across the moonlight gardens. If the flowers hadn’t been white, reflecting the moonlight, if he hadn’t had the viewers pointed in that area, there’s no way he would have seen the shadow moving low and fast over the park at this distance. He took to the air, his Flight Ring accelerating him silently towards the park, and he angled his approach to ensure that his own shadow remained behind him, keeping the moon in front of him.
He’d lost sight of the shadow immediately, but he knew that *something* was going on down here, and he landed quickly and quietly behind a climbing wall, using it as cover from the direction he’d seen the shadow headed. The park was much less populated now. Anyone who had been crossing it from work to home, or vice-versa, had finished their ‘nature walk’ and reached their destination, leaving only a few dozen people, from the sounds he could hear. Those he saw were primarily park workers, one fixing a fountain pump near the pond, another picking up garbage, a third…
Something was wrong. A moment had passed. He’d smelled something honey-sweet, and naggingly familiar, and then the world seemed to have moved around him, as if he’d fallen asleep and woken up, still standing, minutes later. And now the honey-sweet smell was gone, and all he could smell was blood…
The Flight Ring cushioned his descent as he leapt for the scent, crossing the distance in less than a second, and landing right next to a park worker who was futilely attempting to stem the flow of blood from his neck. He pressed down hard over the man’s hand, and activated the comm on his Flight Ring. “Emergency medical and SPs needed at this location.” The ring broadcast would include his coordinates, but he knew that medical would need to know the situation, “Slasher victim, humanoid male, bleeding from a throat wound. Left carotid is cut. Applying pressure, but his pulse is weak.”
The man struggled, eyes wide with fear as Brin held his hand over his throat, and he used his other hand to restrain the man’s panicked flailing. “Calm down, buddy. Help is on the way. Did you see your attacker?”
The SPs were on the ball tonight, or, more likely, they’d beefed up presence around the park, pedways and penthouses, as he could hear a pair of hover-bikes landing behind him.
“Help, help!” the park worker gurgled out to the approaching SPs, “It’s the Slasher, he’s trying to kill me!”
“Hands up! Back away from him, slowly!” a woman’s voice shouted, and a male SP added, “Keep your hands where we can see them!”
Raising his voice to carry over the park worker, who was still thrashing and crying out, “I’m a Legionnaire, morons, I called this in! Check the log!”
“I said hands up!” repeated the male SP, crossing close enough to see Timber Wolf clearly, and his finger twitched on his sidearm as Brin growled up at him, aware from the reaction that his eyes had gone red and his fangs were showing.
Just before he might have fired, or Brin might have smashed the gun out of his hand, the other SP said, “Don’t shoot! He’s the one who called it in, alright!”
The man looked back at her uncertainly, “But he’s got fangs, like the Slasher…”
‘Really? That part hadn’t been in the reports…’ Brin thought, wondering what else hadn’t made it into the official reports he’d seen back at Legion HQ.
“And there’s no blood on them, dork, just on his hand,” the woman said matter-of-factly, as she pointed at Brin’s clean face.
“Now that this is settled, we need to get this guy ready for transport,” Brin said, as his ears caught the sound of the medical transport coming down from the hospital in building four. “Here they are now,” he said, taking some small satisfaction in the look of surprise as the SP officers belatedly became aware of the medical shuttle descending to hover directly above them.
An EMT descended on a grav-harness with a six foot plasteel rod that split apart into two, connected by carbonweave fabric, converting into an instant gurney. To Timber Wolf, he said matter of factly, “Move your hand fast when the drone probes the wound, or you’ll end up bonded to his neck and have to come with us.” As he spoke, a medical drone bleeped and chirped as it descended from the transport to hover next to the patient’s neck. The torso-sized robot extended several arms, one of which poked at Timber Wolf’s hand, and a second after he jerked his hand away, sprayed the entire wound with a sealant to prevent further blood loss (and securely fastening the park-workers own hand over his wound). At the same time, another mechanical limb injected the now unconscious man with a tube that began injecting synth-plasma, and the machine said, <Clear for transport.>
Brin helped lift his body slightly as the medical worker slid the gurney under him, and the robot gripped onto the pole on his side and sent an anti-gravity charge through the gurney, allowing the medic to lift him effortlessly into the open bay doors of the transport hovering above them.
“Thanks” the medic said absently, hauling himself up into his vehicle, and before he was even fully in the side-door, it was moving of its own volition back to the hospital in the southernmost tower, his voice fading as he receded into the distance, “Patient stable on plasma substitute C-713, baseline human…”
As the ambulance receded into the distance, Brin regarded his bloody hand briefly and snapped out of it to turn and see a gun still pointing at him. At a word from his partner, the male SP officer hurriedly holstered his sidearm. “Uh, sorry about that…” he said, not sounding particularly like he meant it.
Brin ignored the man’s tone and turned to the more professional of the two, “Do you have an analysis kit? I need a sample of the air right here, before it changes any more than it already has, and of my own blood, before whatever I’ve been dosed with breaks down any further.”
“What do you mean, ‘dosed with,’” the man whose shirt reads, ‘Officer Burton,’ demands, but the other officer, whose nametag says, ‘Officer Cartoumi,’ already has unstrapped a portable analysis kit from her bike, and takes a chemsniffer out and hands it to the other officer, saying, “Shut up and take air samples.” As she prepares a bio-sampler and quickly takes first Brins unbloodied hand, and extracts a sample of his blood from his thumb, and then takes a second sample from his blooded hand, of the park worker’s blood. The small sampler slurps as it vacuums enough blood from his hand to fill a tiny vial, and Brin’s senses involuntarily flare as he regards the blood, causing him to become uncomfortably aware of the nova-like blossom of warmth from her hand on his, and the myriad complex scents of her body, so close to his own.
Some sign betrays his sudden awareness, and her eyes widen and she pulls her hand back a bit too abruptly and steps back a pace as she nervously says, “Alright, what are we looking for, Legionnaire?”
Brin can hear the other officer grumbling as he takes air samples, and from what he hears, is amused to note that he outranks the female officer, but isn’t willing to argue with her about this ‘thinks she’s the boss’ attitude of hers. ‘Probably because he’s wrong, and she’s right, and he knows it,’ Brin thinks before replying to Officer Cartoumi, “I smelled something sweet, like honey, and then I lost time, like I had some sort of blackout. When I came out of it, all I smelled was blood.” He remembered the reports from earlier, “Whatever the Slasher does to make people unable to remember his attacks, it’s got to be a chemical, but if it hasn’t been detected yet, it must be something that breaks down really fast, so that by the time you guys have been doing bloodwork, it was gone from the body, or the scene of the attack…”
“That sounds like a theory.” Officer Cartoumi agreed, “We were going with something telepathic, or perhaps even neuro-electric, but with these fresher samples, we should be able to nail down if it’s chemical or not. Either way, we’ll know more than we did.” She pauses before asking, “Did you see anything? If you were close enough to be affected by whatever the Slasher is using to mind-job people, you may have been closer than any of us have been as of yet.”
“Just a shadowy figure moving fast over the park area, and it was a fluke that I saw it at all. The Slasher must have some sort of grav-pack, because it was silent and fast, with no flare or exhaust trail from a chemical thruster pack.”
“Maybe we should check for…” she began before her partner interrupted, “Already checked for gravitational anomalies in the area, in case the Slasher is still around, playing looky-loo. Between the flight ring, our bikes and the ambulance, I don’t think we’re gonna find any grav-trace, anyway, but there is a tiny spike in EM…”
“That might be whatever the Slasher uses to blur up surveillance video,” she says thoughtfully, and turns again to Brin. “The Slasher only attacks once a night, so far, so I think we’re done here, if you want to return to your HQ and file a report with your Liaison Officer…”
Brin looked down at his bloodied hand, and briefly remembered the wilderness of Zuun, overrun with predators meaner and larger than anything Earth had seen since the Cretaceous era. There was always blood, back on Zuun. “Yeah, I’m out of here. If you find anything in the chemical labs, make sure we get the report,” he adds gruffly, before taking to the air.
As his ring takes him out of what would be normal human hearing range, but still within his own enhanced range, he hears the Officer Burton mutter, “He’s a real charmer…”
Floating towards the edge of the park, Brin allowed himself to drop, free-falling, at first, calmly counting to three as his velocity built up, before triggering his ring and slowing his fall. Peering up at Tower City, now floating 150 feet above him, he saw the underside of the park, a convex slab of ferrocrete, interspersed by the pale blue glow of the anti-grav units humming away beneath it, holding countless tons aloft. And then he saw it again, the flitting shadow, crossing against the pale blue radiance of the anti-grav thrusters, and disappearing amidst the machinery that kept them operating.
‘This can’t be just another lucky fluke,’ he thought, as he mentally directed his Flight Ring to lift him quietly and surely towards the underside of the park, searching the area where the shadow had disappeared with his keen night vision, but seeing no signs of movement now. The Slasher had gone to ground, and was lying in wait, having only shown himself long enough to draw his pursuer closer. Brin’s pulse quickened as he recognized the ancient game, of hunter becoming hunted, as his quarry attempted to reverse their roles, and he smiled a feral grin.
He played back what he’d seen in his mind, as he floated in place, allowing his senses to grow accustomed to the pale blue light all around him, and the soft hum and gentle sense of pressure weighing down on him from the gravity-nullifying machines above him. The figure didn’t move in the jerky rhythms of someone wearing a grav-pack, which had to be manually adjusted. It moved gracefully, like a natural flier, or someone wearing a flight ring, but also with a sinuous quality, like that of certain mammals or reptiles that would glide from point to point, but didn’t truly fly.
He knew that he should call for backup, that a half-dozen Legionnaires were on-planet, but something primal within him had taken the challenge the Slasher had offered by allowing himself to be seen, and luring him to this place. The others wouldn’t understand, but this predator was speaking a language that he recognized in his blood, and he no longer thought that it was a simple human assailant, but something as wild and predatory as he once had been.
The faintest whiff of honeysuckle drifted on the breeze, and he activated his transsuit, hoping to blunt whatever chemical attack had dulled his wits before, as he blurred into motion towards the source of the scent, grabbing a bracing and pivoting around into a space between a pair of anti-grav generators, where a shadowy figure crouched, the golden mist rising from her pale body spattering uselessly against his transsuit.
And yet the cloyingly sweet scent filled his nostrils, and he wavered as he realized that the respirators had somehow failed to recognize this compound as dangerous, and allowed it into his nostrils. His headlong rush ended abruptly as he slammed into the wall next to where his target had knelt, as she leapt away with inhuman grace, so like his own. He staggered to regain his footing, but a sharp crack accompanied the lash of a whip, and he felt something pull his leg out from under him with shocking strength, dropping him heavily to the floor. As the golden fog seeped into his mind, the white-skinned woman clad in black dropped down over him, her face pressed close to his own and her heavily tattooed red-hued eyes looking into his own as he saw a gentle mist of amber-colored droplets waft down towards him. A woman’s voice saying, “There you are, boy,” in an oddly familiar tone was the last thing he heard…
He awoke aware of a sharp pain in his throat, and his hand came away sticky, reeking of his own blood. Pushing himself to a seated position took more out of him than he thought, and his head spun as he got his bearings. He remained in the maintenance chamber, on the underside of the park, dimly lit a pale blue by the nearby anti-grav units, and his attacker crouched across the small room, regarding him curiously as he in turn studied her.
Her pale white skin had no trace of color, as smooth and unblemished as bleached bone, although it was currently a sickly blue-grey, in this light, and her clothing consisted of a dancer’s outfit in black cling-fabric, probably held on electrostatically, since it didn’t appear to have enough connective fabric to hold it in place, otherwise. Her waist-length black hair was snarled into locks, and her skin pulled taught against the bones of her face. Combined with the slenderness of her arms, and the visible ribs, she appeared to be half-starved, and yet Brin was all-too-aware that she was feeding. If blood was what her species required, she surely had to be getting enough to meet her needs…
He remembered her eyes being red, at the last, but they now were dark brown, almost black, in coloration, and those eyes regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and wariness, as she coiled and uncoiled the barb-tipped whip she had used earlier to pull him off-balance.
He reached for his Flight Ring, only to find it missing, and as he did, she held it up, as if to answer his unspoken question. Finally she spoke, her voice rough at first, as if unaccustomed to use, “You don’t remember me, do you boy?”
Something about her tone, the way she said ‘boy’ was familiar to him, but Brin couldn’t remember where he’d heard this voice. The more he tried to remember, the more the memory seemed to fly away from him, and he growled in frustration.
“Of course you don’t. It’s all the brainwashing.” she said finally. “It’s me, Mala. Mala Arik. I was your father’s lab assistant, and, before things got crazy, the one who kept an eye on you.”
“You said ‘there you are, boy,’” he said, shaking his head, “I remember that…”
“You used to hide from me all the time, especially later, when your father ran out of volunteers, and his official line of research was shut down.”
“I remember you now, a little bit,” he said, memories surfacing of a coldly practical young woman with tinted spectacles and severe coiff, who followed his father around. He remembered not liking her, and that she would always bring him to his father, and that the treatments would burn like fire… “And the experiments,” he said, growing angry at the memories surfacing.
She nodded, unflinching in the face of his anger, “After your father finished using the zuunium to build animal traits into your genome, he realized that he couldn’t control you anymore. He had all these effective brainwashing techniques, but after the DNA splice, your animalistic impulses were just too strong, too atavistic, and you completely broke your conditioning. Your strength, your speed, your heightened senses, all of it made you wild and confident, stronger-willed than ever before, like the predator the splices had come from. He had to take another tactic, and he came around to the idea of implanting a chip in your head to flatten your brainwaves and make you more docile, and to tweak the brainwashing to convince you that you were an android, that your superhuman agility and strength and senses were all part of your mechanical nature, and not something exciting and primal that you could exult in and utilize to break free of his control.”
He looked again at the pale emaciated creature in front of him, remembering the wreck that his father had made of him, with his experiments, with his brainwashing. “Was it a surprise?” he asked bluntly.
“Was what a surprise?” she asked, snapped out of her own recollections by his question.
“When he turned on you, and strapped you down and performed his experiments on you, too.” he replied angrily.
She wrapped her arms around herself, and nodded, refusing to meet his gaze, “I thought Marr Londo loved me, that it was just going to be me and him against the stodgy old establishment and their old-fashioned rules and ethical mandates, the radical rebel scientist and his brilliant young protoge, out in the fringes of UP space, out on the fringes of medical research, blazing new trails and ready to shake the universe with our discoveries."
"I was such a fool. I helped him experiment on you, and when he was done with that, what he called ‘phase one,’ he ordered you to restrain me, and repeated the experiments on me. For you, it was the DNA of a zuunian land-predator, larger than an Earth rhinocerous, but travelling in vicious packs, like wolves. Strong, fast, ruthless. That’s what he wanted for his super-soldiers. He spliced me with the DNA of a creature the locals call a ‘vampire bat,’ although it’s twice the size of a man and paralyzes its prey with pheromones before dropping down to feed.” she finally looks up, her eyes once again red, as the memories awaken her anger, “I spent the next six weeks in agony, wondering how he could possibly have betrayed me like that, as my body rebuilt itself into this hybrid form, to be his perfect assassin. He would have brainwashed me as well, if you hadn’t broken free, and I hadn’t escaped when the lab defenses were offline…”
“I spent the next year and a half living like an animal, hunting smaller Zuunian animals to survive, until I reached the cities on the southern continent, and discovered that you had not only survived, but were a superhero, part of the Legion of Super-Heroes!”
“At first I thought it was a trick, that you were still deep-programmed with an assassin persona, infiltrating the Legion as part of one of his long-term schemes, but hanging around with the most powerful telepath in the UP, I realized that couldn’t be true. You had to have been freed, not just of his controls and programming, but of the animalistic bloodlust that comes with the DNA splice, and I thought, if I could just make it to Earth, to Metropolis, that I could be cured, too.”
“It took months to get here. I had to do... things. There were people, unscrupulous people, who found my abilities to be useful for mercenary work. They called me Belladonna, and I almost gave in to that life, where hurting people wasn’t just something I had to do, but something I was paid to do, something I would eventually look forward to...”
“I knew that I couldn’t control the hunger, and I hurt so many people getting here. I left that life behind and came here. I thought, if you couldn’t cure me, at least you could stop me…”
Brin let’s go of the anger he’s feeling, and moves to her side. Her dark-runed eyes flicker from red to a warm brown, and she looks less like a wanted criminal, or hardened mercenary, or blood-sucking monster, than a tired person, aged beyond her years by circumstance, looking for a way out.
“Let’s see about that cure, before making any hasty decisions.” he says, taking the Flight Ring from her hand, and signaling for backup.
“So hungry…,” Belladonna moans, doubling over as her insides cramp up. Mon-El leans close to offer her a hand back to the medical bed, but as her face looks up to his, her eyes are blood red and her fangs fully extended. A fine golden mist puffs up gently from her skin, landing on his face and he has time to put his hand up and mutter, “Oh…” before they reduce him to a stupor, staring bemusedly at the tiny droplets of amber liquid seeping effortlessly into the supposedly invulnerable skin of his fingers.
Imra has time to look up and reach for the ampoule of antidote they had prepared before the wave of pheromones reaches her, and she is left standing there, the cure to her condition dangling forgotten in her hand, watching with a vacant expression as Belladonna turns Mon-El’s unresisting face to the side and plunges her fangs into his neck.
Or, attempts to, anyway. As one of Belladonna’s fangs snaps against the Daxamites impenetrable hide, her growl of pain and frustration snaps Imra out of her trance momentarily, and she plunges the antidote into her arm in the second of clarity. Her eyes clear, and as Belladonna looks up towards her, seeing prey that is not invulnerable to her attack, Imra says, “Sleep!” in a voice that’s a little less controlled than she prefers.
Succumbing to the telepathic assault, Belladonna slumps to the ground, falling away from Mon-El bonelessly. For his part, the Daxamite continues to stare at his hand, moving it slowly, as if the sight fascinates him. Imra smiles a bit at the sight, and quickly spritzes some of the antidote they had concocted onto her finger, and smears it on his upper lip, so that he will inhale the compound directly (since she’s aware that an attempt to inject it into his body will only ruin a perfectly good injector).
He starts, as the sharp-smelling antidote works its way into his system, and looks down to see Belladonna in a heap at his feet. “Looks like I slept through some excitement,” he mutters dryly, before picking the woman up with exagerrated care, unwilling to risk harming her with his prodigious strength, and depositing her on the medical bed.
“And restraints would now be in order,” Imra adds in a no-nonsense tone, “That was closer than I like.” She taps her Flight Ring abruptly, “Cham, please tell me you’ve got the transsuits coded to recognize and block our guest's pheromones.”
The Durlan’s reply is immediate, “I’ve just sent the auto-adjust broadcast. Everyone’s suits should now be updated to block her chemical attack.”
“Thanks, Cham,” Mon-El says, not bothering to activate his own Flight Ring, but speaking loud enough that Imra’s ring transfers his words. “Although two minutes ago would have been better…”
“Is she okay?” Brin asks, clearly surprised to see Belladonna out of her restraints, and looking less haggard and animalistic than before.
“We isolated the cause of her hunger frenzies, and have synthesized a suitable substitute.” Mon-El replies, turning a pad full of incomprehensible protein arrangements towards Brin, as if it would explain everything. Brin shakes his head slightly, and Mon-El gets the hint and shuts off the pad. “Her physiology has been adapted to share traits of the so-called Zuunian Vampire Bat, including a dependency on blood, but the blood of the humans and aliens that she has been subsisting on lacks the same proteins and elements of the wildlife on Zuun, so she’s been effectively starving, from lack of proper vitamins. We’ve isolated the missing nutrients, and synthesized them with Jan's help. This protein drink we’ve got her on has everything she needs.”
Imra adds, “And it even has the scent, flavor and texture that her instincts are telling her it should, satisfying the somatic component as well.” The telepath pauses for a moment and checks with Belladonna, who nods assent to some unspoken question. “The predatory instincts remain to be dealt with. It’s not as easy as choosing not to be a predator, with the changes to her neural structure and psychology. We can either directly satisfy this need by allowing her to hunt wildlife on game preserves, of which there are currently none on Earth that allow hunting by non-natives, or by sublimating her need to stalk, pursue and subdue others by introducing her to the life of crime-fighting.”
Belladonna raises her glass of synthetic Zuun-blood and smiles at the look of shock on Brin’s face, clearly having already discussed this with Imra.
“You mean, the solution for her… ‘predator problem,’ is to make her a Legionnaire?” he says, trying to avoid sounding too incredulous at the proposal.
“Well, not immediately,” Imra says with a smile. “She’ll have to spend some time at the Academy first, while we work things out with the Science Police.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Brin says, nodding. “Gigi’s gonna freak when she finds out that our newest recruit is the Tower City Slasher…”
Dave Cockrum invented the character of Belladonna, and suggested that she would have vampire like traits, and be the sister of Timber Wolf. I chose to keep Brin a 'lone wolf,' and recast Belladonna as the lab assistant / lover of Dr. Londo, similarly modified with animalistic traits by his experiments with Zuunian wildlife and Zuunium.
The backstory borrows more from the cartoon version of Dr. Londo, than the classic continuity, obviously.
Belladonna's body has been modified to share many traits of a man-sized Zuunian predator that vaguely resembles a vampire bat in habits and structure, although it paralyzes prey with a gentle mist of pheremones, and then descends to drain blood from unresisting prey, which comes to minutes later with no recollection of the attack. The Zuunian 'vampire bat' has wings, but flies primarily through electromagnetic organs within it's torso (that have replaced Belladonna's normal digestive system, and leave her unable to metabolize anything other than blood), and a side-effect of her electromagnetically-enhanced means of propulsion is that she tends to 'blur' attempts to track or record her activities electronically. Like Brin, she is stronger and faster than a human, but, in her case, she is only a fraction as strong as he is. Because so many of her internal organs have been replaced and reinforced with electromagnetic tissues, and her nervous system is much more resistant to pain and shock, she is a lot tougher than one would expect, if not by any means invulnerable...
Time spent gathering dangerous specimens for Dr. Londo's research has led her to develop some skill with a whip, and she carries one that can inject a powerful sedative, or a stunning jolt of electricity, if she hits the appropriate button on the handle. It can also inject a target struck with nanites, that she can use to track them later, or even remotely activate to deliver an electrical charge to them (which tends to burn them out, in the process)...