Universe W-2020: Apex MERCs 2
August 14th, 2018
The Brick City Aquarium
“I’ve always loved the stingrays…”
He pats the kid on the back. “Me too. Happy birthday, kid.”
The stingrays watch the airbreathers converse from below the surface. Their tank isn’t deep, it’s meant to mimic shallow water conditions and it does so with virile; the airbreathers did good by the stingrays. The other swimmers though – the sharks, the jellyfish, the giant Specific octopus – their tanks more closely resemble holding cells; totally enclosed, only small windows to peer out of, and in the case of the sharks, forced to swim around a gigantic tunnel that runs right through their tank, as if the airbreathers had already civilized the bottom of the ocean. The smaller swimmers don’t even get their own tanks; the airbreathers went ahead and built entire coral reefs, living coral reefs, to make the smorgasbord tanks more lifelike and natural for their inhabitants. It’s a nice touch and all, but it would be more realistic if all the corals were dead. As for the airbreathing half of the tenants in this rehab facility – the penguins, the hippos, the seals and sea lions – their tanks, too, leave much to be desired. When the stingrays were being moved from one of the coral tanks to their current locale, they got a peek at the hippo tank – the water’s deep, sure, but the land is just concrete. And the water is clear and blue, nothing like the rich, soily murk of the Nile where they were born. Where they were abducted before being sold.
The airbreathers did right by the stingrays, but there are a lot more animals locked in this prison than just the stingrays. That’s why they plan to break everyone out, overthrow the security guards, and flood the entire facility. On this day, the lunatics will run the asylum.
The thing about the shallow water tank is, it has no ceiling. The guests of the rehab – not the tenants, but the airbreathers who come to stare and gawk at the mariners until the ceiling lights darken – are encouraged to plunge their hands into the water and try to place a touch on the backs of the shallow swimmers. The horseshoe crabs and the stingrays are magnets for the touch, the various starfish taking a close second. Nobody can raise a coup besides the stingrays though, nobody else is equipped with the necessary toxins, let alone weaponry. All the tenants need to be free, and they all crave it more with every flap of their gills, but they can do nothing about it. Only the stingrays can, and so they must.
And when the smaller of the two airbreathers reaches his hand in, like he inevitably will, the hand will be stung. The venom will flow through his veins. The stingray will gain control of the beast’s mind. The coup will begin.
“So are you gonna pet ‘em or what??” he says excitedly, nudging the kid closer to the tank. Well, he’s not really a kid anymore, turned eighteen today, but he’s always been the kid. No sunrise is going to change that.
The kid looks around to make sure nobody is watching. They’re not, because there’s nobody to be watching; though the Brick City Aquarium is a wildly popular tourist attraction, at this stage of the game the majority of Brick City residents have already toured it four times if they’ve toured it once. They’re just kind of over it. It’s like a video game, a really splendid video game that you greatly enjoyed playing when you first got it, so much so that you beat everything there was to beat and collected everything collectible within a week of the release; these days, you only go back to it when a new DLC drops. When the hippos were added last year, the crowd came in. Within a month of their arrival, the crowd was back out. This year’s addition of the touchyfeely tank brought in tsunamis of patrons, but again, the tide’s gone back out. Next year, when the alligators come up to be rehabilitated from swamping it out in Florida all their lives, the cityfolk will swarm. Then they’ll dip out again, like they always do.
“I don’t know dude, I feel like I’m gonna get in trouble.”
He pushes the kid towards the tank, gently, as to not disturb the waters in case dude trips. “Pet the stingrays, little man. Pet those sons’a’bitches like they’ve never been petted!”
The kid puts his hand in the water then draws it right back out when he feels how warm it is. “This feels like a bath a toddler pissed in,” he says, drying his hand on his shirt. “Shouldn’t the water be cold?”
The stingrays watch the airbreathers enact a back and forth, then the hand slowly breaks the surface again. Here it comes, the moment of truth, the liberation of the prisoners tricked by the muddy pig boy and trapped inside the Brick City Aquarium.
The smaller of the two stingrays quickly skits away, just in case this airbreather is a jabber, but the larger sits in wait. Closer, closer, closer… now!
The stingray whips its tail and strikes the hand of the airbreather.
The kid rips his hand out of the water, and the taller guy starts laughing.
“He stung me!”
“Nah son,” he manages between bursts of mighty guffaw, “if he stung you, you’d be cryin’. They clip the wings here, you’re fine. Go again.”
The kid dips his hand into the water and the stingray whips his tail again, and again, and again, all to no effect. The tip lightly pokes the plushy flesh of the airbreather’s hand and bounces right off every time, doesn’t even break the skin. Doesn’t even dent it. Oh well, so much for the revolution… at least this one isn’t a jabber. Being petted isn’t the worst thing in the world. Being jabbed at is.
“There, I pet the stingray. Happy?”
He smiles. “Exuberant. Let’s hit the sharks next.”
They hit the sharks, skipping the tunnel and heading straight for the bridge.
The shark tank, contrary to the limited belief of the stingrays, is a magnificently wide-open pool that’s closer to a hidden realm than it is your average aquarium exhibit. With more than twenty different sharks and fifty other species that somehow go day after day without falling victim to a feeding frenzy, the 550,000 gallons of water supports an entire private ecosystem. Some of the smaller fish even started mingling all interspecies-like and a few exotic crossbreeds were invented, to zero knowledge of the patrons nor the marine biologists who work here. It’s like the Galapagos Islands, but the exact reciprocal; the fish a’swim in these tanks exist nowhere else in the world. They know none of life outside the glass, and perhaps that’s for the best. Sharks in the wild are bona fide killing machines, significantly less civilized than these domesticated eating machines.
At the bottom of the tank runs a glass tunnel that allows patrons to get an up-close look at creatures they may never see otherwise, at least until global warming floods the land and the humans are forced to adapt or die. Over top the tank, though, there runs a bridge as wide as a gymnist’s balance beam with thick, fibrous netting securing it to the ceiling. The holes in the netting are big enough to stick your head through without getting it caught and having to call the fire department to save your silly ass, and the ropes would be strong enough to catch Barry Borger if he didn’t succumb to an obesity-related stroke after graduating high school. The tunnel is okay, but lots of aquariums have a similar arrangement; the rope bridge? Get the fuck out of Brick, nobody’s pulling that off.
The air above the tank smells salty and slightly fishy; the fishy aroma was stronger a moment ago, but the kid kicked the bucket of chum into the tank and the water ran red until a pair of blue sharks bumrushed the cloud and soaked it all up. As the humans trek across the bridge, the pair of blue sharks take for deeper water and a lone gray fin pierces the pool’s surface. It follows the pair of airbreathers closely, tracking their movements via dorsal, and only after the pair climbs off the other side does it fall back below the wake.
“So what’d ya think, man?”
“Meh,” the kid says, hands in his pockets.
They lock eyes for a moment. The salty air erodes the silence.
“Whaddya mean meh, that was so fucking cool. Did you see that bigass shark following us?? He was probably hoping we’d fall in so he could frenzy us up, the maniac.”
No real response. A fictional one, but not a real one, not even close. He drags the kid down the flight of stairs with a cartoon shark superimposed over an arrow on the wall and lets him stand on his own at the mouth of the tunnel. A cold gust of air blows through and raises gooseflesh on the back of two necks, though only one pulls a shudder to commemorate the occasion. The other keeps his hands in his pockets and walks into the tunnel.
After catching up, “Okay dude, spill it. What’s the problem?”
“What do you mean?”
The pair of blue sharks swims overhead. A third one, smaller, lags behind them. It stops overtop the airbreathers and peers at them through the glass, its nose an anchor and its tail the boat seduced by a wily current. The kid looks up and locks eyes with the lil’ blue. It swims away with bubbles in its wake. ‘Hungry buggers.’
“I mean you’re acting like a zombie rose from the dead, got blasted, and then rose from the undead. It’s your eighteenth birthday dude, you’re a man now! You’re officially still a kid to everyone older than the age of thirty!” He chuckles, but it’s not contagious. Through a smile that’s forced, “Your life starts today and you seem like you’re knockin’ on death’s door. What fuckin’ gives?”
A large shape casts a menacing shadow overtop the airbreathers. It turns around at the end of its tank and retraces its strokes, draping its shadow again.
The kid tries to walk away but he’s grabbed by the shoulders and spun in circles. When the dizziness fades, he hears, “Speak your truth or be spun ‘til you puke, I’m not sayin’ it again.”
“Jesus Christ, fine.” He looks around, takes a few deep breaths, stalls in a few other manners. “I’ll just be straight-up with you man, why do you give a shit about me?”
The large shadow crosses the width of the tank again. Neither take notice.
“Why do I give a shit about you? Really?” asked in the voice of the human incarnation of the word exacerbation.
“Yeah. You’re just some random dude, I’m just some random kid. I mean, not even my parents wanted me, man, what the fuck are we even doing here?” He laughs as he’s speaking to commemorate the drought in his tear ducts.
The taller one blinks thrice in rapid succession. Then, facially deadpanned, “A’ight, cut the orphan shit. That was a long time ago, and you’re not a kid anymore, kid. If I didn’t want to be here with ya right now, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be. You know I detest humanity.”
The caster of the dark shadow levels with the humans – the great white hammerhead shark, in all its dubious glory, joined by a single remora fish. It watches the airbreathers bicker for a moment, and when the smaller one takes his leave, the shark moves on; if they’re not tryna dump more chum, why are they even here?
“I look after you kid, is that so fucking bad?!” he shouts down the tunnel.
The kid keeps walking.
Steps of haste reverberate between the glass walls.
The pursuit is cut short by a ponytailed man in a gray business suit with fumes coming out of his ears.
“What the fuck are you kids doing in my aquarium?!?” bringing the intruders to a skrrting halt.
“Uh… looking at the fish?” says the older of the two, annoyance coloring his irises.
The gray man squints. “The facilities are closed for maintenance today, how did you get in?”
“Doors were open, big man,” as he crosses his arms, flexing.
The gray man takes half a step back. The blue sharks swim to the end of the tunnel, excited to witness a brawl.
“Look, we can just leave,” says the shorter of the boys, his eyes watching the floor to make sure it doesn’t disappear on him. “I’ve been wondering all day why nobody else’s been in here, it’s eerie. I don’t even want to be here, seriously. We’ll just go.”
The older, under his breath whilst he looks off to the side, “Yeah, like we have a place to go…”
The gray man’s eyes widen at that remark. “You two haven’t a place to go after I kick you out of here?”
“Well… would you like one?”
A lapse of answer, but no eye sees the floor.
“Please, allow me to introduce myself,” as he places a hand on his chest. “My name is Sean Hymarc, I’m the Cee-eEe-Oh of the Apex Corporation, based out of New Manhattan; I’m the proprietor of this fine fishery as well.”
“Yeah, no shit,” the taller one says, holding eye contact. “What, did you think we believed the head of security would be a scrawny geriatric fag all gutsied up in a monkey suit? Let’s bounce, kid, this guy gives me the fucking creeps.”
He begins to bounce, but the kid stays. When he’s questioned by a light backhand to the arm, “He owns the aquarium and he offered us a place to stay. I want to hear the dude out.”
The gray man smirks crooked. “And I would like to fully extend my offer. But first, I’d like to ask your names.”
The kid opens his mouth, but the other kid cuts in with, “Wolf, you can call me Wolf. That’s uh… Ray.”
Ray looks at Wolf with puzzlement in his pupils.
“Wolf and Ray?” He grasps his chin, strokes the fine hairs of his chinstrap, hardly visible in the low light of the shark tunnel. Then, “Well enough, the recruits all receive codenames upon signing the paperwork. Those’ll do just as fine as any.”
“Paperwork?” they both ask in unison. Then, from Wolf, “You said you had a place for us, who said anything about paperwork?!”
Ray looks to Wolf with bulbous eyes. He calms down a bit.
“Yes, paperwork,” as Hymarc slaps his blazer where the pockets would be. A pack of cigarettes is removed, ‘Murican Soul, turquoise package. “Please, follow me outside, I’m dying for a smoke and I’d like to discuss an opportunity with you fine young men.”
He turns to go, and not five steps later he hears the annoying rasp of the one who calls himself Wolf.
“What if we’re not interested in what you’re selling?”
Then, the one called Ray speaks. “What if I’m interested?”
“Regardless, you’ll both do very well to follow me. The head of security of this place has a habit of stuffing intruders into buckets and feeding them to the sharks.”
The aquarium is swiftly vacated. When the ceiling lights go out, the stingrays convene with the horseshoe crabs and begin to plot a new escape. At dawn of the next day, they ride.
The three lean against the brick exterior of the aquarium, facing the street, arranged like a cell phone’s signal bars.
“So what’s this opportunity my little brother here seems to be so interested in?” says Wolf.
Ray looks up to Wolf with a mouth wider than his eyes. Wolf pretends not to notice like Ray pretends not to feel warm and fuzzy inside for some inexplicable reason that obviously has absolutely nothing to do with what Wolf just said, in fact it’s weird that h–’
A cloud of thin smoke wafts into the air and dissipates neatly. Hymarc opens his mouth and words begin to form on the tip of his tongue, but then he takes another drag. Erupting in a cough, the gray man assumes a face like he just remembered something, then laughs. Things really do come full circle.
Ray and Wolf look to each other slowly with furrowed brows.
Then, as his lips spew cancerous smog, “How’d you boys like to become mercenaries?”
The Wally D. Josh Corporation
The Wally D. Josh Corporation, Incorporated is founded in 1879 by Waldo Duvli Joshua, the man with the world’s most sensitive nose.
In 1950, a group of scientists that immigrated from the western hemisphere purchase the company and use the profits to fund the continuation of their own private research.
In 2001, The WDJ Corporation, Inc goes underground.
By April of ‘10 the facility is complete, but the bank accounts are empty.