Forty-six chromosomes. Twenty thousand genes. Over two meters of DNA per cell in the body. Six and a half trillion units of genetic information, of one form or another.
The numbers before his eyes (were they still eyes?) taunted him. Did these statistics define being human? If so, he wasn’t sure he still fit that definition. Months ago, lying in a prison cell, he’d taken for granted everything that made him a man. Now, he lowered his light-sensing spots from the computer screen to his hands—the hands he’d formed from the flowing flesh of his new body—and contemplated the nail-less, joint-less appendages. He didn’t know what had been done to him, doubted he’d ever grasp the amounts of money, time, and manpower invested in him. But one thing was certain: the promises of the man who’d secured his release couldn’t be further from his horrific reality.
Unlocking the full potential of the human genome… The lie echoed in his mind, in his entire body, and with it the memories of his first days upon waking. Terror permeated his being and fueled the rage that propelled him through the laboratory facility as he hunted for the madman who’d stripped him of his humanity. But blind fury couldn’t compensate for lack of control over his own muscles (never mind that he probably didn’t have muscles anymore). Vengeance devolved into survival. His altered body did things he had no power over as he fled. The armed guards seemed just as surprised as he was when their bullets passed through him without slowing his escape.
A touch at his arm snapped him back to the present. A small girl with a gap-toothed grin gazed up at him. “Mister, could I use the ‘puter now?”
The kid didn’t react to his appearance, which shocked him since whenever he caught his own reflection he wanted to destroy it. Right now, though, all the girl could see were the hat, sunglasses, and surgical mask obscuring his face. Without a word he snatched his gloves from the desktop and slid off his stool. Occasional stares from the library’s patrons prickled his skin, but he ignored them the best he could as he headed for the nearest exit.
Once outside, he made his way to a deserted alley and abandoned all his belongings in a trash can. He supposed he was naked now, but it mattered little, since he couldn’t yet mimic most nuances of the human body, taboo or not. Sticking a smooth, non-digitated foot into the grate, he… relaxed, melted, flowed down into the sewer. Whatever he was made of now, his substance ignored the waste water that should have sent him trickling along the bottom of the tunnel. With a thought he reformed his body and stood erect, then stomped off through the bilge.
To his old eyes, the sewers would have been too dark to navigate. His new eyespots, borderless splotches of pigmentation, had no trouble with the tunnels’ twists and turns. After all, the underground labyrinth was his home now. If that infernal laboratory was his place of “birth,” then these sewers had been his nursery and his crucible. Down here he’d fought through physical and mental agony to learn control over the spasming, pulsating mass of his body. Now he retraced his steps, returning to the sterile hell where a convict had died and something else had risen in his place. And he would bring a new kind of hell to the demons who toiled there.
What would this look like to an observer? Viscous goo bubbling up from a sink’s drain and spilling onto the floor, probably. He felt the cold metal of the drainpipe, the porcelain basin, and the slick ceramic floor tiles all at once as he forced himself through the plumbing and into some part of the “research” facility he’d escaped from. The cells of his eyespots, scattered as they were throughout his oozing flesh, detected light but made no sense of his surroundings. As he resculpted himself into his humanoid form, he pulled those photoreceptors back into his best approximation of eyes—
He wasn’t alone. A man, middle-aged and balding, stood before him, backed against a closed bathroom stall. Judging from the look on his face, he was horrified by what he saw. And beneath the horror flashed a glimmer of recognition.
“Somebody help me!” the man screamed. “He’s back! I need—”
Tendrils of skin streamed through the air and cinched around the man’s mouth, neck, and shoulders, then wrenched and bashed the staffer against the ceiling. The screaming died instantly. The coils retracted, letting the limp body crash back to the tiled floor as he reabsorbed the strands of liquid flesh. Surely someone had heard the staffer’s cry; more interlopers would arrive any moment. He turned toward the door but caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. Slick, featureless skin tinged green, unnerving black smudges where eyes should be, a ragged gash of a mouth. Abominable. The surface of his skin vibrated, fast enough to create sound in the form of an inhuman scream. He flung his arm at the reflection, sending shards of glass clattering to the floor.
The bathroom door swung open. Three more scientists stood in the hallway, gaping at the sight waiting for them inside. He screamed again, then launched himself through the doorway, an arc of liquid life that diverged in three directions upon crossing the threshold. Each stream slammed into a person’s head, knocking out the gawkers before he’d fully emerged from the bathroom. Reforming himself, he stormed on, leaving four victims in his wake.
He turned the next corner, expecting to find more impediments to his hunt. Instead he stood in an empty hall lined with steel doors. An eye-level window slit showed him a malnourished woman in a hospital gown, curled up on a thin mattress. He crossed the hall to peer into another room and found a thin man huddled against the far wall, eyes red from tears long dried out. Every room of this wing held a potential test subject. He wondered if another hall housed more like him, “successes” or those even less fortunate than he’d been. But he pushed that thought out of his mind as he grappled with a much more tangible dilemma. Seeing these people stirred something in him he hadn’t realized had survived his alteration. They didn’t deserve to share his fate. No one did. He needed to get them out of here.
But his revenge…
He made his choice. Forgoing tact or discretion, he poured half his mass into the spaces around the first cell’s door, enveloping the steel slab and contracting his entire body. The metal crumpled like aluminum foil. The woman inside cowered on her mattress, speechless from terror. “You’re safe now,” his skin sang in a melodic tone that surprised both of them. It was the first time he’d heard his new voice, apart from subterranean howls of anguish. “Wait here until I free the rest.”
He continued down the hall, ripping doors off cells, and when armed guards flooded the mouth of the hallway and shot at him, he flung the ruined slabs at them without a second thought. Once all the cells were opened, he gathered up the prisoners, herding them behind himself as another wave of guards blocked his exit. He couldn’t let the bullets pass through his skin now, or they would strike his defenseless charges. Instead, he expanded and tensed his entire body, forging plates of armor from his molten flesh. He stomped forward under a hail of gunfire, bullets ricocheting from his diamond-hard skin. As he neared the squad of guards, he swiped a massive arm and pinned them to one wall of the corridor while he shepherded the prisoners to safety.
No one else challenged him outside the cell block. Part of him knew he should take advantage of that luck, but with such easy success so far, he couldn’t resist the lure of vengeance. With his flock in tow, he headed away from the exit and toward the wing of offices to find one more person.
“Someone wanna tell me what the hell I’m lookin’ at?”
No one answered the chief of police as every available officer gathered on the steps of the precinct to watch the bizarre group of people approach. A dozen sickly adults clutched hospital gowns around themselves while they huddled behind a misshapen man wearing a greenish bodysuit and Halloween mask. Some of the officers behind the chief unholstered their firearms as the motley gang neared. The mouth slit in the green man’s mask opened but didn’t move as he spoke to the people behind him. “Go now. They’ll help you.”
The chief’s voice caught in his throat as he realized the green man wasn’t wearing a mask. His mouth ran dry but he had enough presence of mind to signal to his officers to hold their fire when the rest of the group hobbled forward. Several officers received them and took them inside the police station. The chief’s gaze never left the green man, who now stood alone on the sidewalk. “Where’d these people come from?” he called, his hand resting on the butt of his weapon.
In response, the green man turned sideways, revealing a large ballooning of the skin on his back—and another head poking out of it, visible from the nose up. The skin retracted, and the person inside tumbled to the pavement. “They came from his lab,” the green man said, “same as me. You’ll want to arrest him.”
One of the officers beside the chief gasped at the unconscious form on the sidewalk. “Is that the guy in charge of…”
“Who are you?” the chief called out. “What do you want?”
The extra skin of the green man’s back folded into itself as if of its own volition. “I’m here to help,” he replied, turning to face the chief again. “Call me Splice.”
This story was inspired by a flash fiction prompt at Chuck Wendig’s blog at TerribleMinds.com. This week’s prompt was a subgenre mashup; I chose Biopunk and Superhero.