I felt a chill. A part of me really wished that I had thought to get my hands on a disposable cell phone. I didn’t have a utility belt, but the spade shaped section of armor that hung over my spine hid a set of EpiPens, a pen and notepad, a tube of pepper spray meant to hang off a key chain and a zippered pouch of chalk dust. I could have fit a cell phone back there. With a cell phone, I could have alerted the real heroes about the fact that Lung was planning to take a score of his flunkies to go and shoot kids.
At least, that’s what I had heard. I was in a state of disbelief, turning the words around in my head to think of a different context that would make sense of it. It wasn’t so much the fact that he would do something like that. I just had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that anyone would.
Lung answered a question for one of his gang members, lapsing briefly into another language. He grabbed one of his minion’s arms and twisted it to an angle where he could get a look at the guy’s watch, so I guessed it had something to do with their timing or when they were leaving. The gang member who’d had his arm twisted winced as Lung let it go, but didn’t complain.
What was I supposed to do? I doubted I could find any place in the Docks that would be willing to let me inside to use their phone. If I headed to the Boardwalk, I wasn’t sure I would find any places that were still open, and I didn’t have change for a payphone. That was another oversight I would have to correct for the next time I went out. Cell phone, spare change.
A car pulled up, and another three guys dressed in gang colors got out and and joined the crowd. Shortly after, the group – twenty or twenty five in total – started walking north, passing below me as they walked down the street.
I was out of time to consider my options. As much as I didn’t want to face it, there was really only one option that I could have no regrets about. I shut my eyes and focused on every bug on the neighborhood, including the sizable swarm I had gathered on the way into the Docks. I took control of each of them.
It was dark enough that I could only tell where the swarm was with my power. That meant I couldn’t even tune out the swarm if I wanted to have any idea about what was going on. My brain was filled with horrendous amounts of information, as I sensed each bite, each sting. As the thousands of insects and arachnids swarmed over and around the group, I could almost see the outlines of each person, just by sensing the shapes of the surfaces the bugs were crawling on, or the areas the vermin wasn’t occupying. I focused on keeping the more venomous types at bay for the time being – I didn’t need any allergic thugs going into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting or getting serious complications from the bite of a brown recluse spider.
I sensed the fire through the swarm before I realized what I was looking at with my eyes. My power told me of the bugs’ recognition of the heat, but I didn’t even have time to devote conscious thought to block out the instincts the fire set in motion before the damage was done. The primitive thought processes of my bugs were reduced to confused impulses to alternately flee and to pursue the heat and the light they so often used for navigation. Many bugs died or were crippled by the heat. From my vantage point, I could see Lung lashing out with streams of fire from his hands, directing them at the sky.
I suppressed a laugh, feeling heady with adrenaline. Was that all he could do? I directed the swarm to gather, so those who weren’t already biting and stinging were in the midst of the gang. If he wanted to turn his flames on the swarm, he would have to set his own people on fire.
The heated air and the smells gave me enough information, by way of my insects, to tell where Lung was in the crowd. I took a deep breath, and then sent in the reserves. I took a share of the venomous types I’d held at bay and directed them to Lung. A handful of bees, wasps, a number of the more poisonous spiders, like black widows and brown recluses, and dozens of fire ants.
He healed fast when his power was working. Everything I’d read online said that people with healing abilities would shrug off the effects of poisons or drugs, so I knew I’d have to pump him full of enough venom to overwhelm that aspect of his power. Besides, he was a big guy. I judged he could take it.
From the information that I could glean from my bugs, Lung already had maybe a quarter of his body covered in armor. Triangular sections of metallic plating were piercing through his skin, where they would continue to grow and overlap until he was nigh impenetrable. If they weren’t already, his fingertips and toes would become like blades or metal claws.
I felt a sadistic glee as I organized the attack on Lung. I directed the flying insects to attack his face. With distaste, I focused the crawling ants and spiders on… other vulnerable areas. I did my best to ignore the feedback that I got from that particular attack, as I most definitely did not want the same kind of topographical map that the swarm had provided just a minute ago. Lung was bad news, and I needed him out of action as soon as possible. That meant delivering the hurt.
Rationale aside, I did feel a stab of guilt about taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. I quieted that moment’s remorse by reminding myself that Lung had spread tragedy, addiction and death to innumerable families. He had been planning to kill kids.
Lung exploded. No metaphor there. He detonated in a blast of rolling fire that set his clothes, several pieces of litter and one of his gang members alight. Almost every bug in his immediate vicinity died or was crippled by the wave of extreme heat. From my vantage point on the roof, I watched as he turned himself into a human bomb a second time. The second explosion turned his clothes to rags and sent his people fleeing for cover. He stepped out of the smoke with his hands burning like torches, the silvery scales that covered nearly a third of his body reflecting the flame.
Damn, damn, damn. He was fireproof? Or skilled enough at using fire to superheat the air around him without burning himself? The meager scraps of clothing that covered him were burning away, and fire licked and danced around his hands without him seeming to care.
He roared. It wasn’t the monstrous roar one might expect, but a very human sound of rage and frustration. As human as it sounded, though, it was loud. All the way down the street neighborhood, lights and flashlights flickered on in response to the explosions and the roar. I even saw a few faces peering through windows to see the action. Idiots. If Lung’s next attack shattered any glass, they could get hurt.
From where I was crouched on the side of the roof, I directed some of the more harmless insects to attack Lung. He lashed out with fire the moment they started crawling on him, which I had more or less expected. He was managing to kill the majority of the bugs with each burst of flame, and knowing what I did about his powers, I knew his flames would only get bigger, hotter and more dangerous.
In a typical fight, you figure someone would get weaker as the fight dragged on. They would take their lumps, get tired, exhaust their bag of tricks. With Lung, it was the opposite. I found myself regretting that I had used only a relatively small number of the more venomous bugs, because it was becoming clear that what I’d used wasn’t having much effect. He had no idea where I was, so I figured I still had the upper hand, but my options and the number of bugs in my swarm were running out. Despite my earlier glee, I wasn’t sure I could win this anymore.
I hissed through my teeth, all too aware that time was running out. Before long, Lung would set fire to the city block, become immune to bites and stings in general, or destroy my entire swarm. I had to get creative. I had to get meaner.
I focused my attention on a lone wasp, and piloted it around Lung’s back, up behind his head and then had it circle around to his face and straight at his eyeball. The wasp touched his eyelash, and he blinked before it could hit the target. As a consequence, the stinger only sank into his eyelid, prompting yet another explosion of fire and a scream of rage.
Again. I thought. A honeybee this time. I wasn’t sure if he eventually got armor plated eyelids, but maybe I could use the stings to make his eyes swell shut? He wouldn’t be able to fight if he couldn’t see.
The bee struck home this time, sinking his stinger into the ball of Lung’s eye. It surprised me in that it didn’t stick or kill the bee, so I had the bee sting again, and this time the barbs let it stick in the skin at the corner of his eye, at the side of his nose. The bee died that time, leaving some tiny organs and a venom sac hanging from the stinger.
I expected him to explode again. He didn’t. Instead, he set himself on fire, head to toe. I waited a moment, poised to attack with the next wasp to attack the moment he dropped his guard, but as the seconds passed, I realized he wasn’t planning on extinguishing himself. My heart sank.
Surely he was burning up all of the oxygen in his vicinity. Didn’t he need to breathe? What the hell was the fuel source for his fire?
Standing in the street, he turned around, searching for me, with the flames that licked and rolled over his body casting light where there had been only gloom. Abruptly, he hunched over. I wondered if – I hoped – the various toxins and venoms in his system had done the trick. Then his back separated into two. A meaty looking gap appeared along his spine, followed by an eruption of long metallic scales all down the gap. After bristling for a few moments, the scales lay flat like dominoes falling. He stood and stretched, and I could swear he was a foot taller, now with an armor plated spine.
Still on fire, head to toe.
If the ‘constantly on fire’ thing had tipped the balance of the fight to futile, watching Lung grow and look stronger than ever had pushed me to the point of being spooked. I started thinking about an exit strategy. Rationally, I figured, Lung’s men were scattered to the four winds and they were probably in pretty rough shape. Whatever Lung had been planning for tonight, chances were he wasn’t going to be able to carry out whatever plans he’d had after this debacle. I had more or less accomplished what I needed to, and I figured I could run and find a way to contact the PHQ just in case.
That was the rational perspective. Justifications aside, I just wanted to leave, right then. If things dragged on and I stayed put, there was a very real chance that Lung would give evidence to the rumor that he could grow wings, at which point I would be spotted for sure. I wouldn’t be able to beat Lung at this point, anyway, which left only a graceless retreat as the remaining option.
Lung had his back turned to me, so I lifted myself up, slowly. Crouching, I backed up to retreat to the fire escape, watching Lung carefully as I set foot on the gravel of the roof.
As if a gunshot had gone off, Lung whirled around to stare at me. One of his eyes was just a glowing line behind his mask, but the other was like an orb of molten metal.
A victorious roar filled the air, less human than the outcry he had made earlier, and I felt a kind of resignation. Enhanced hearing. The package of powers the bastard got from his transformation included superhuman hearing.