“The first thing I remember is a hard hand hitting me, and a voice telling me I was a mutant. I didn’t know what a mutant was, but the hand and the voice left no doubt as to how terrible a thing it was for me to be.
I only have a hazy memory of the surroundings, the day, the weather – I think there were a lot of similar moments in those days, but they’ve all blurred into one, and so have a lot of the owners of those voices and hands.
“I do know that I was living in an orphanage at the time, though I didn’t really know it then. I didn’t have any concept of a home, or family. Other kids talked about it like some sort of magical El Dorado of a place – Family and Home – but it never resounded with me like it did with them. Life was just what it was: hard and cold and painful. Never safe. Never secure. Always the mutant, the freak with wings. Everything else I could hide, but not the wings – never them.”
Colutis wrapped his hands around each other, his gaze far away.
“No…actually the first thing I remember isn’t being hit and called a mutant, it’s the panic and the terror and the grinding pain I got when my wings started to grow. No wonder I tried to forget. It was nothing at first, just pain between the shoulders, dismissed by the Adults as psychosomatic I guess – anyway I never saw a doctor. Not even when the pain turned to lumps beneath my flesh. Not even when they began to grow. The day they broke the skin, though – then I saw a doctor. I saw lots of doctors, all of whom wanted to cut out whatever this thing was that was trying to grow out of me.
“I didn’t remember that, until just now. I refused to let them do it. I didn’t care how painful, how scary – didn’t care about the doom-laden prophecies that whatever it was would kill me. It was mine, and mine alone, and whatever it was that was happening, it was mine to keep. The only thing I had that I could claim as my own.
“So they left me to it. Put me into my room, left a bucket in one corner, locked the door, and told me not to wake the others.
“It took a few more days for the stubs to push completely out of me. I have no more words to describe the pain now than I did then. First I was sure I was dying, then I was begging to die, I think after that I was mostly blacked out, but one morning I realised it hurt less. When I reached back I could feel my fingers touch the raw, bare stubs that I’d grown.
“They let me out when I asked and I raced, bare-chested, to the bathroom where I saw them for the first time. Nothing like they are now. No feathers. No muscle. Just shiny pink gristle on bone.
“The other kids were completely disgusted. I think later there was jealousy, when they realised these things were becoming wings. I was The Mutant, winged freak, but mostly they gave up and ignored me.
“Then came the day I first flew. I’d woken up from a dream where I could fly – nothing new there. But this was somehow different. Realer. More immediate. It felt like I could do it this time.
“Before I could even think about it, I was clambering through the window, doing my best not to look at the ground two stories below. It might not kill me if I fell, but it was far enough to know if I was wrong it would hurt a lot. So I refused to look at the ground – I looked at the sky instead. It was cloudy, and cold, and about to rain, but it looked like the closest thing to freedom I’d ever seen.
“I spread my wings fully, for the first time ever, and jumped. I was so scared, and so surprised I’d actually done it, I forgot to even try to fly. I hit the ground, flat out, face first, and stood right back up again without a scratch. It didn’t look like anyone had seen me, so I trudged back inside to try again.
“The second time, I closed my eyes, jumped, and screamed at myself to make my wings move. This time they did, and instead of hitting the ground I shot into the sky. It was cold and wet, but I was free. I never went back to that place.
“But there’s not much available to a 12 year old mutant. I lived outside of cities when I could, but when I needed food I’d bind my wings as tight as I could to beg or steal whatever I needed. Mostly I lived in wooded areas, where I could hide easily if anyone came by. I slept in trees, wrapping my wings around a branch to hold me on, and every few days I flew onwards.
“I was a kid. I figured as long as I stayed discreet, I’d be fine. But someone saw me, and one day I woke up to people crashing through the woods I was in. When I tried to escape the tree and fly away, I sprung a trap, found myself in a net. It took some doing to knock me out, their tranq guns chipped away at my conscious bit by bit, but eventually it worked, and I was out.
“I woke up in a cage, in a circus, the newest addition to the Freak Show. They beat me till they realised they couldn’t hurt me, then starved me till I was rake thin and willing to do anything for a glass of dirty water and a moldy piece of bread. Then they gave me my own tent, chained me to a post, and told me to perform.
“I don’t know how long I was there. They kept me cowed enough that I never realised I was growing stronger. The people that came to see me were…every type. They came to be wowed or disgusted. They came to prove me fake, or prove me real. They came to pity me or taunt me. Some nights were worse than others. The night I got free was a bad one. Seemed every group that came in was there to hurt me, insult me, throw things at me. Noting I hadn’t had before, and no worse than I was used to really, but I guess you can only take so much before you either collapse under it, or break free. I got angry – and that was new. I’d never gotten angry. Not at the home where they beat me and locked me up, not at the carnival folk who trained me and kept me in a cage, not even really at the people who came to stare at the Freak. Suddenly I was just…angry. And I’d gotten strong. I tore the chain and shot through the roof of the tent. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted out, so I got out.”
Colutis shook his head and accepted a drink from Millie.
“I went back to living in woods again, but after everything, I kept that anger. I kept binding my wings to go into cities, but instead of begging I was mugging, or breaking into places to take what I wanted. I was strong, and nothing could hurt me.
“Most of that time is blank. I fought, I stole, I ran. Eventually I ran into somebody else who’d had their eye on me. Instead of letting me rob him, he handed over his wallet with a smile. When I got away and looked inside, there was no money but there was an invitation to visit him. I went, I don’t really remember why. Maybe I was hoping for something worth taking. Maybe I just wanted to see why someone would actually choose to invite a freak like me to visit. I don’t remember, but once I got inside the building I saw it was just a single room, nothing but walls, and it locked down around me. I was still only growing. Now I could have smashed through and gotten out, but then, I couldn’t. They did the same thing the carnival had – kept me locked in there until I was starving. I was half feral by that point anyway, so after a few days alone in that empty room, when some meat dropped from the ceiling, I ate it.
“I woke up in the room you found me in. Bit by bit they starved me, coaxed me, broke me, until I promised to let them do their tests on me. Turned out the tests were designed to see how much I could take. They made me run and fly until I was exhausted. They bolted me down and came up with ways to try and break my skin and hurt me. They gave me drugs to slow me down, drugs to speed me up. They locked me alone in that room and left me there for weeks, to see how the isolation would affect me. They taught me to see what I could learn, how much I could remember. They starved me to see what would happen, and overfed me to see if it made a difference. They noted that every time they hurt me, I grew stronger, but needed more fuel. They saw that only a day without foods weakened me, and if they made me exert myself without replenishing my strength, I quickly lost my abilities. They tortured me, but compared to the carnival this was practically fun.
“Then one day the isolation just kept going. I couldn’t hear anything in there, I didn’t know what happened. I figured they’d just got bored with me. After a while, without food or water or anything, I gave up and just lay down, willing myself to turn to stone and forget. I don’t remember anything else then, till you came.”
Throughout his story, Colutis’ voice had changed. No longer sounding like gravel being dragged over stone, now it was smooth and mellow. With food and water, the rest of him had also improved. The greyish complexion was now a healthy brown. The wings, less bedraggled, now looked alive and strong. Colutis looked vital, instead of frail.
His story done, Colutis settled back into silence as Bonitas followed the directions from her comms device.
Even Millie, usually inclined towards questions, having cut her sleep short to listen, simply watched quietly as Colutis seemed to rest.
Viscura may or may not have heard the tale; once done cleaning zirself, ze sat unmoving, facing away from the others.
Eventually they drew close to their target, and Bonitas stopped the vehicle, “Seems to be stopped here,” she brought up the map and indicated.
Millie, Colutis and Viscura gathered around.
The van had stopped on the edge of a dilapidated area of low-rent, ramshackle housing, long abandoned to the rats and the homeless – the only place they were allowed to exist without constant police hassle.
“If I were Evil Guy With Private Army,” Millie mused, “I’d stash them here.”
Bonitas nodded, “Alright, but where?”
Millie shrugged, “Find where the facade is false.”
“We can’t run around the neighbourhood looking behind every wall to see if it’s real or fake,” Viscura pointed out. “We don’t exactly blend.”
“But neither do they,” Colutis added. “Check underground.”
“Uh…” Bonitas looked at the comms device, then at Millie, who rolled her eyes and grabbed Bonitas’ wrist, tapping a few times. In moments the street map was replaced by an underground view of sewers and tunnels. Running right below one section of housing was an enclosed tunnel, not connected to anything else, and too straight to be natural.
“There,” Millie indicated. “Your guy. And his army.”
“Any useful gadgets on you?”
Millie shook her head, “Sorry. But you can track people, look,” Millie grabbed Bonitas’ wrist again and tapped a few more times. Four dots began to glow blue on the display, “You’re blue, they’re red. Might help.”
“We won’t get taken by surprise, anyway,” Bonitas nodded, turning back to the wheel, “Let’s get as close as we can without being spotted.”
Soon the vehicle was parked in an alley near the tunnel. Millie remained hidden inside while Bonitas watched Viscura and Colutis climb swiftly on top of the buildings, each aiming for one of the two men on guard.
As they reached their posts, Bonitas focussed on the guards, hijacking their emotions and stopping them briefly in their tracks. Swiftly, Colutis and Viscura dropped down, knocking the guards unconscious without a sound and moving them out of sight.
The three heroes entered the first building to see that the entire row had been turned into one long corridor, each wall neatly removed. Red dots on Bonitas’ device moved around below as they hunted quietly for the entrance, which turned out to be a sturdy ladder inside a hallway cupboard.
At the bottom, they exchanged silent glances, each asking what next. The red dots were less numerous than they had feared but there were still enough to cause problems, and they had no way of knowing which of them was the man they needed to find – the man who might have some answers for Colutis.
All they could do was work their way forwards and try to avoid drawing attention for as long as possible. Fortunately the tunnel, though narrow, was split off into separate workstations, allowing them some cover as they started to move.
Most of the people down in the tunnel were not in uniform, they were at their stations working, or chatting with a colleague. Reluctantly, Bonitas, Colutis and Viscura took them, one and two at a time, knocking them out and arranging them as comfortably as possible for when they woke.
“This feels like shit,” Viscura hissed eventually.
Bonitas and Colutis nodded their agreement and kept going.
After a while, they reached what seemed to be the hub. Instead of leading into another workstation, the partition opened out into a longer area, where employees milled about chatting, eating, drinking coffee. On the far side they could see an office, the only door they had seen in the whole place. Inside must be the man they were looking for.
“Dammit,” Viscura hissed as they slid out of sight. “Bonitas, how many can you take down in one go?”
Bonitas considered, “I’ve never tried to control a whole crowd before. Maybe half a dozen, I wouldn’t bet on more.”
Viscura shook zir head, “There’s gotta be twenty people in there. No way we’re getting through without raising an alarm.”
“Then we raise an alarm,” Colutis’ jaw was clenched tightly around his words. “Bonitas, take down as many as you can, as quietly as you can. Viscura, cover me, I need to get across and into that room faster than he can leave.”
“Sounds like the best plan we’ve got,” Viscura nodded.
Bonitas peered around the partition, then stepped quickly to the other half, improving her eyeline and giving the others an easy path. Carefully she focused on as many of the individuals as she could, and gathered her mental strength. With a grunt, her power shot out but not like the arrow she intended, like a net, which settled over the entire room, bringing people to their knees as their minds flooded with the worst things contained within.
As Bonitas stared in shock, Colutis strode out through the kneeling people and kicked the door off its hinges.
“Stay!” Viscura hissed softly, “Keep them down.”
Bonitas nodded vaguely and concentrated on shutting out her thoughts in order to keep the net in place.
Inside the room on the far side, Colutis had already disarmed the three guards and was making short work of four men in suits, knocking three unconscious and holding the fourth up against a bank of monitors showing different scenes from the world above.
Viscura checked the pulses of the unconscious men and shoved them to one side of the room, standing watch and waiting for Colutis to speak.
“I don’t think we ever met,” Colutis said finally, “But I’m sure you know who I am.”
The man tried to swallow, but the hand around his throat was too tight. Instead he simply nodded.
“Then you know I have every right to tear your head off.”
The man nodded again, tears rolling down his face.
“I’ll leave you in one piece on one condition: I want to be free. No more cameras, no more tests, no more testing – not me, not anyone else with powers. This ends now and if you’re not the guy who can make that happen, you’ll tell me who is.”
The man in the suit nodded again and Colutis eased up slightly on his neck to let him speak.
“Okay,” the man croaked.
“Okay you can make it end?”
The man nodded.
“And your friends?”
Colutis nodded and let the man’s feet touch the ground again, “Good,” he said, straightening the man’s suit, then leaning into his face. “I’m sure there are many more important and helpful things you could be doing with all this money and all these people. But know that I, and others, will be back if you don’t keep your word. And we won’t be so nice next time.”
The man nodded again, pale and trembling.
“Good man,” Colutis grabbed the man’s head and smacked it once against the bank of monitors, knocking him out and letting him fall to the floor. With a few more hits, the bank of monitors was a smoking, fizzling pile of scrap.
“Alright,” Colutis nodded to Viscura, who followed him back to meet with Bonitas.
Answering her look, Viscura shrugged, “The guy says they’ll quit. They’re alive, this time, maybe they’ll listen.”
Colutis shook his head, “You know as well as I do they won’t stop. But maybe they’ll hold off for a while.”
Bonitas nodded, “Sure. Ready to run?”
The three sprinted for the exit as Bonitas released the net, not stopping to watch the employees find their feet, stumble into each other in confusion, eventually find the unconscious bodies in the office and further down.
And later, when the four men in suits, two older, two younger, sat in that same room with the dead bank of monitors, nobody heard them swear to rebuild, and to get their revenge on the mutant that had humiliated them.
“It’s not over,” croaked the man Colutis had spoken to. “Not. Fucking, Over.