"Starts and Stops"
Written By Dale Glaser
(Note: this story takes place before FauxDC’s Catman #1 - DWG)
It was a dark and stormy night, which I should have seen coming. Not that I’ve ever had any special gift for predicting the weather, but the angry squall was the capper to what had been an unapologetically nasty day.
I had been up since before dawn, to pack a few things and get to the airport. The first of many airports, since I was planning not only on leaving the States but on making it as difficult as possible for anyone to follow my trail once I was gone. After my latest release from Belle Reve Penitentiary, I had drifted from Louisiana to Texas while formulating a plan to put significantly more distance between myself and my past. The majority of my costumed criminal exploits had been domestic outings, with a few jaunts to Europe for variety’s sake, but they all ended in similar ignominy, whereas Africa still possessed a certain appeal in happier memories of successful and profitable big game hunting. I convinced myself that I could disappear into the shadows of the Dark Continent, and so I had bought a daisy-chain of tickets, separate transactions handled by unconnected contacts of mine, which would get me from Dallas-Fort Worth to Metropolis to Amsterdam to Tunis to Kilimanjaro International. All I had to do was get to DFW by 5:30 a.m. and spend the next thirty-plus hours in progressively smaller and smaller planes and airports.
If only it had been so simple. I couldn’t quite decide if Western civilization were giving me a gloriously abusive send-off, or if some power of fate were trying to prove that I could run from my bad luck and personal failures, but never escape them. Whatever the underlying causes, the day was one for the record books. In the DFW parking lot, a minivan nearly clipped me doing at least 40 miles per hour, but I jumped backwards out of its path, barely, thanks to my rusty reflexes. While I waited to get off the plane in Metropolis, an elderly man yanked a heavy bag out of the overhead bin above my seat and dropped it directly on my head. As soon as my next flight was taking off from Metropolis, a stewardess spilled a bloody mary on my lap, soaking my crotch with vodka, tomato juice and ice. The smell had more or less dissipated by the time I boarded the flight leaving Amsterdam, though I wished for it back if only to mask the stench of body odor rolling off the overweight man seated next to me on the small jetliner.
And then the storm in Tunis, which had turned our landing approach into a white-knuckle death dive that felt like we were taking enemy anti-aircraft fire. The pilot somehow avoided a crash, but the passengers were immediately ordered off the plane, down a set of portable stairs to the tarmac a good five hundred yards from the airport itself, with no choice but to run through the wind and rain for shelter. The airport barely qualified as such, and had only one gate, so a few minutes later I was herded out the same door again, to run once more through the torrential downpour with my fellow travelers bound for Tanzania. We packed ourselves, soaking wet and shivering, into our cramped seats on Aghlabid Airlines Flight 131. And then the plane sat on the runway, unable to take off in the storm. We waited there for hours.
When you’ve done time in prison, you learn certain coping strategies for interminable stretches of confinement. But as I looked around the cabin of the plane, I could tell most of the other flyers were not bearing up terribly well under the mental strain of captivity. Mostly it was manifested in extremely restless behavior, lots of squirming and sighing. One young woman looked to be on the verge of tears. And one man was seething as his bilious eyes darted in constant, agitated motion. I took note of him and looked away, at first, not wanting to provoke him, but I quickly realized he had no interest in me and would not have noticed if I had been taking notes on him. The more I observed the wild desperation in his demeanor, the less I liked it.
When he stood up from his seat and started yelling at the crew, demanding that we get going already, I wasn’t surprised. Not even by the fact that he sounded like he believed he was in a position to make demands. He had unkempt hair and a stubble-beard, and wore an army surplus jacket over faded yet functional clothes. If he was planning on hijacking the plane, he had at least dressed the part.
“Sir,” the lone stewardess addressed him, “I assure you we will depart as soon as we have clearance from the tower. We are asking all passengers to remain in their seats until then …”
“We should be halfway across Africa by now!” the man roared back.
“... for their own safety,” the stewardess finished. I realized it was airline policy she knew by rote from countless repetitions, but I admired the way she saw it through to the end, even with an unruly passenger trying to shout her down.
But she hadn’t won any respect from the passenger in question. “Safety?!” he snapped back at her, stepping into the aisle. “For your safety, you get this plane in the air NOW!”
“Sir,” the stewardess tried to placate him, a little more nervously, “please sit down, or I will call airport security and our delay will be that much longer …” She started to reach for a phone attached to the cabin wall, but froze when the passenger pulled a gleaming black handgun out of his jacket pocket. The hassles of airport security procedures are very much a first-world problem.
“No security,” the man with the gun hissed. The other passengers on the plane, thankfully, were frozen in place, staring wide-eyed at the gunman. A few looked as if every muscle were tensed, in case a miraculous opportunity for escape should present itself; the rest were trying to shrink back into their seat cushions and blend invisibly into the polyester upholstery. “No security,” he repeated. “Just get us … in the air … NOW.” He cocked the hammer for emphasis.
“Please,” the stewardess begged, barely above a whisper. “Too … dangerous … we could all … be killed …”
“You’re gonna have to risk it,” the man insisted. Without taking his eyes off the stewardess or lowering the gun, he reached up with his free hand and opened one of the overhead compartments. He pulled out a soft silvery bag which had to be an insulated cooler, and held it up by its straps, brandishing it menacingly. “I need to get this to Ekwenia, or a man is going to die. And if he dies, I die. If you don’t get me on my way now,” he leaned forward, pushing the gun closer to the stewardess, “you die.”
The stewardess had no immediate answer for the gunman. Outside the plane, a gust of wind rose to a plaintive howl. I read on her face that she was thinking more or less what I was thinking: if the man was couriering something with a life dependent on it, something small enough to fit in a cooler, it must be an organ for transplant. But those were usually delivered by hospital helicopters, or in rare cases of long-distance delivery, by special dedicated airplanes, not by commercial flights with no notice given to the crew.
My mind raced, while the gunman stared down the stewardess, looking for all the world like he was seconds away from popping an artery. Ekwenia was a flyspeck territory between Kenya and Uganda, with delusions of being recognized as an independent country. That was unlikely as long as the territory was being run by Mbata Ikenga, a local warlord wanted for so many crimes against humanity he could keep the Hague busy for the better part of a decade. I had heard rumors that Ikenga would never stand trial as his health was failing, and the pieces started to fall into place. Ikenga might need an organ transplant, but he could only hope to obtain one on the black market. And his devoted followers surely would kill the courier who failed to get the precious goods to Ekwenia on time.
That is, if I didn’t kill him first.
When the altercation between the stewardess and the gunman had begun, I was seated between them, but as it had escalated the gunman had lurched forward to close the gap, walking right past me. Behind his back and still beneath his notice, I slowly reached down for my satchel, tucked under the seat in front of mine. I eased the zipper open just enough to pull out my unsheathed hunting knife. I tried to lock eyes with the stewardess, to convey to her that I could take the gunman by surprise if she didn’t give me away, but she was too rattled to appreciate the finer points of my strategy. As I silently got to my feet and tightened my grip on the knife handle, the stewardess’s eyes went wide. The gunman turned around to see what she was looking at as I made an overhand stab at him, and he instinctively tried to block the blade with the only shield at his disposal: the cooler.
My hunting knife tore through the lining of the cooler like the belly of a baby gazelle, although gazelles rarely contain dry ice. Smoking chunks of white pelted the aisle of the airplane, followed a moment later by a human heart. The gunman’s eyes, bulging in absolute horror, watched as the precious cargo was spilled, momentarily lowering his guard as his own personal nightmare unfolded. I balled my free hand into a fist and drove an uppercut into the gunman’s jaw hard enough to lift the soles of his shoes off the cabin floor. He was unconscious before he landed in an awkward heap at my feet.
I held on to the knife, but I raised my hands over my head, casually and non-threateningly. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve had enough delays and misfortunes for one day,” I said, mainly to the stewardess regarding me with unblinking shock. “Let’s not involve airport security in this, what do you say? Not here, anyways. I’ll roll this guy into his seat to sleep it off, we’ll wait for clearance from the tower, and once we land at Kilimanjaro and everyone else deplanes you can call the local constables to come pick up …”
The heart twitched.
While the dry ice had ricocheted under seats in every direction, the heart had more or less thudded to a stop when it hit the aisle with a meaty slap. Without the solid CO2 surrounding it, the organ was rapidly warming up, which might have explained a random quiver of the cardiac tissue. But as I stopped trying to persuade the stewardess to cover up the unfortunate courier incident, and turned my full attention to the heart, it twitched again. And again, and again, with an unnerving pumping rhythm that was struggling to assert itself. Without thinking, I flipped my hunting knife, letting go of the handle and catching the blade in my fingertips, then flung it at the heart. The blade impaled the asymmetrical, leathery sac of a ventricle.
The heart stilled. Outside, lightning tore through the clouds and struck somewhere nearby, unleashing a peal of thunder loud enough to vibrate the entire aircraft. As the sound and tremors subsided, the heart moved again, flexing its four chambers in an undulating wave. Sometimes the universe has a flair for the dramatic, or at least a sense of humor.
It stopped being funny as my hunting knife began to tremble and the blade slid out of the fibrous pericardium. The knife was dislodged by the wound closing itself, membrane knitting itself together as the heart resumed its pumping. When the tip of the blade was ejected and the knife fell to the side, the heart looked bigger than it had when I had skewered it. I backed up the aisle one step, then another, as the heart unmistakably continued to enlarge, and its severed aorta and vena cava stretched and probed the air like antennae.
“Everyone needs to get off the plane,” I said in a granite-hard growl.
The stewardess made no argument, yanking open the hatch as fast as she could. The portable stairs were long gone, but the stewardess gamely jumped the dozen or so feet to the ground, and the passengers followed her lead. I, on the other hand, stood my ground and retrieved my hunting knife.
The pulsating heart was now roughly the size of a Saint Bernard, and was covering most of the prone body of its erstwhile courier. It was also still growing. I estimated it would be smothering Ikenga’s hapless crony in another minute, not that I particularly cared about him reaping what he had sown. It was hard to care about much of anything, as I was torn between extreme poles of fight or flight. There was something fundamentally hideous about the oversized mass of exposed, glistening viscera, its relentless double contractions every second contrasting with the rapid flailing of the open-ended vessels writhing at its crown. The survivor in me wanted nothing so much as to follow the others out the door of the plane, but the hunter in me wanted to bring the thing down. As was so often the case, and so often to my chagrin, the hunter won out.
I charged the colossal heart and plunged my knife through its outer wall. I ripped a jagged zigzag back and forth through the muscle, but the first fissures the blade had gouged were already healing before I had finished the motion. I tried targeting the junction points of arteries that snaked beneath the gauzy membrane, looking for a critical weak point, but the heart continued to throb and increase in size as every knife wound disappeared before my eyes.
I jabbed the knife into the heart again and used the braced handle to vault myself over a row of seats, as the enlarged heart now blocked the aisle completely. I hear armrests snap as the organ surged and swelled. I landed near the courier’s handgun, picked it up, and emptied the clip into the monstrous heart at point blank range. It had about as much effect as the knife.
The sounds of shots being fired was at least enough to finally summon the pilot out of the cockpit. He entered the passenger cabin with his face set in a mask of annoyance, which quickly gave way to terror as his brain processed the sight of a gargantuan disembodied heart taking over the passenger cabin. The pilot screamed, a high-pitched nightmare shriek which somehow set the monstrous heart to beating faster, accelerating its growth as well.
The pilot tried to lunge for the cabin door, but the heart was expanding too rapidly. Seatbacks snapped under the weight of the pulsating tissue, and whole chairs were ripped from the bolts holding them to the floor. The broken seats piled up against the door and blocked the pilot from accessing it. The heart continued to swell, and pinned the pilot to the wall of the cabin with its bulk. Mercifully, he fell silent as the cardiac membrane insinuated itself against his mouth and nose.
I was going to be suffocated by the organ next, unless I could find my own way out of the plane, which seemed impossible. Then I realized I would only be crushed between the thundering heart and the cabin walls if I was actually between them. I grabbed my knife and used both hands to gash open the inexorably approaching atrial wall, then threw myself into a leaping somersault and passed through the veil of flesh and into the chamber itself, which was dark and unpleasantly warm, though thankfully dry, completely devoid of blood.
From inside the heart, the artificial smell of the thing was almost overpowering, and suddenly triggered another memory: one of the countless, ill-advised supervillain free-for-alls I had been party to over the years, when I had found myself side-by-side with the most infamous creation of Dr. Andrew Zagarian. An artificial lifeform called the Shaggy Man, a near-mindless creature with regenerative capabilities which rendered it essentially indestructible. The heart which had been bound for Ikenga must have been constructed from plastalloy, the quasi-organic substance which made the Shaggy Man unkillable. I could only speculate how much Ikenga would have to have paid for such a major upgrade organ replacement, or what kind of biochemical anti-rejection treatments were supposed to keep the heart from going Shaggy Man-sized inside Ikenga’s chest. The truth, in all likelihood, was that the plastalloy heart was based on limited second-hand understanding of Dr. Zagarian’s work, and had been doomed to fail and destined to kill Ikenga from the start. But I had little time to contemplate any of those imponderables before I heard the creaking of the airplane’s hull straining to contain the still-growing heart, followed by a series of loud cracks and the wail of rending metal. I felt the tug of gravity in my own guts and nearly lost my footing as the gigantic heart fell from where the cabin floor had been to the surface of the runway, bringing me with it.
I raised my hunting knife again and cut my way free of the ever-expanding organ, pushing out into the chill blackness of the stormy night. I ran twenty yards or so, then turned around to behold the abomination splayed voluminously amidst the wreckage of Aghlabid 131. The hollow, bloodless heart continued its mindless palpitations as the rain sluiced down its irregular yellowish-pink epicardial surface. In a spreading pool around the organ, jet fuel mingled with the pulped remains of the unfortunate pilot and the ill-fated courier. I realized that the most logical next step for me would be to turn around again and keep running. The enlarging heart had already killed people and destroyed an airplane. It could be struck by lightning and the fuel it rested in could be set on fire, and the heart would continue to beat undamaged. An airport firetruck could drive through it like circus clowns through a papier mache building, and the gaping holes would heal. Sooner or later, say when the heart had grown large enough to be seen from outer space, superheroes would show up to deal with the thing, possibly the entire Justice League. I needed to be long gone by then. Even now it was far too late to hope for a resumption of flights out of Tunis any time soon. I didn’t particularly look forward to crossing the Sahara on my own, on foot, but one way or another I’d find a way to Tanzania.
I should have gotten going immediately, was in fact long overdue for getting going. I should not have entertained a single thought of trying to fight some hulking Frankenstein heart on my own. But running away from a massive, malignant vital organ was a hell of a poor way to end what had already been a nadir of a day. I was running from my past, and I admitted it, but I’d be damned if I’d do it with my tail between my legs.
I stalked toward the heart, which continued to beat blindly. I knew I was outmatched. No superstrength or powered flight which would let me airlift the heart to a remote volcano, no energy-controlling abilities affording me the option of trying to lower the ambient temperature to refreeze the organ, no magic powers to blink the thing out of …
No magic powers of my own, but maybe something close enough. I broke into a run, no longer approaching the heart but headed for a nearby equipment hangar. I jumped into the seat of a cargo forklift and gunned it to life, bearing down on the heart at the terrifying speed of about ten miles per hour. The velocity wasn’t really the point, and the crawling approach gave me time to jury rig an accelerator lock. When the hydraulic forks dug into the lower mass of the heart, I stepped off.
The heartbeat increased strenuously, but the forklift inexorably rolled the heart backwards, away from the center of the airliner wreckage. In the shadow of the massive heart, I searched frantically through the ripped metal and other pulverized debris until I found my satchel. There wasn’t much inside: a change of civilian clothes, my Catman costume which for sentimental reasons I couldn’t leave behind, some precious stones that would ease transactions in almost any corner of the global marketplace, and a small hand-sewn leather pouch. I held on to the pouch, tossed my satchel well clear of the remains of the jet, and caught up with the forklift.
I leapt on top of the driver’s cage and from there up onto the quivering right atrium of the gargantuan heart. The fleshy surface was difficult to balance on, but I only needed a few seconds to open the pouch and spill its contents onto the fibrous membrane. As the black powder was struck by the falling rain, it smoked and bubbled, spreading across the surface of the heart. I dove off, rolling as I hit the tarmac.
My retreat to Africa had been an act of desperation, but I had also kept another even more desperate measure in reserve. Years ago I had obtained a quantity of poison which was reputed to possess mystical powers, an herbaceous bringer of death with no antidote and which no traditional medicine, not any other force, could forestall. That might seem overly dramatic for something as mundane as suicide, but I had spent years prowling rooftops wearing a cape made from a supernatural tribal relic that granted its wearer nine lives. If I truly wanted to get off the mortal merry-go-round, I wanted a method that could overcome whatever protections that relic might have left behind.
Now I had turned that poison on the nightmarish oversized entrails in front of me. I had no idea if magic would trump mad science, if the shamanistic belief system would even recognize the plastalloy heart as a living thing. But I had tried, literally the last and only trick in my bag, and there was nothing else I could do but wait and watch.
I almost went blind watching, as a searing bolt of lightning struck the crown of the heart and the entire world detonated in white. When my ears stopped ringing and my eyes blinked themselves clear, I peered again at the heart. No longer growing, no longer beating, utterly inert, its charred membrane smoked in the steady rain.
I retrieved my satchel and started to move away, dead reckoning for south under the shrouded night sky. I was a long, long way from Kilimanjaro, but I had just given away my personal emergency escape route. I had no choice now other than to find a way to survive, and to live with myself. I braced myself for the coming trek through the desert and walked on.