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“Can’t believe they’re letting one of you freaks out,” the young warden said, his tone going past deriding and straight into hateful. “Can’t believe you actually managed to get out on good behaviour, either.”
Philip just smiled, his metallic face betraying only a kind of calm serenity, as he nodded to the younger man in the uniform, holding the release papers he’d just been given. “All thanks to your exceptional guidance, Sir,” he replied, his voice sounding serene, but strange – even at the best of times, he was a ponderous talker, the transformation imposed upon his body making fast talking all but impossible. “I wish you well.”
The man snorted, throwing one last look at the figure in front of him, looking like someone had put a steel statue into a cheap suit and tie, then he turned away and walked back into the prison.
Philip put the documents into the cheap suitcase he’d bought just for this occasion, which also contained what few other possessions he had accumulated throughout his stay in prison. Though even after a few months past twenty years, it wasn’t that much. A few books. A hand-carved chess set from that nice banker fellow, who’d ended up breaking out. A few other odds and ends.
Turning around, he walked across the prison’s front yard, as he heard a few cheers from the prisoners in their cells, those who could look out onto the yard. He waved at a few, approaching the gate, and smiled at the guards there. They smiled back, congratulating him on his early release and his good conduct, and he thanked them quietly, though he was elsewhere with his thoughts.
Outside, a heavy van was waiting for him, to drive him back to civilisation. Feeling the gravel crunch underneath his heavy steps – even in a suit, he wore heavily reinforced boots, as normal shoes could not possibly have survived his prodigious weight – he approached the van whose door was already open, and got into the back.
The driver – an employee of the Corrections Office – nodded to him, and the door slid shut on its own, while Philip leaned back. The electric engine started up, so quietly he barely noticed it before they started moving.
When he’d gone into the slammer, electric cars had just started replacing the old gas engines. He could still remember the sound of them, the smell. He wondered how the big city smelled now, after almost twenty years of having no car exhausts to dirty the air.
Probably not all that much better, all things considered.
The ride was quiet, neither he nor the driver trying to have a conversation. The destination was set, and he’d honestly felt like he’d talked enough already, for one day. Nevermind that he still had to talk to his parole officer, before he got set up in whatever housing the government had arranged for him.
Not that he intended to stay there for long. No, he was going to find himself a job, and get himself a nice, quiet place of his own. He may have lacked much in the way of desirable job skills, but he had power and there were always job opportunities for people with powers.
Outside the car’s window, the landscape flew by, even though he couldn’t hear the rush of the wind or much of anything else, on the inside. It was all so quiet.
“May I open the window a bit?” he asked his driver. “I haven’t felt the air rush by in years.”
“Sure thing,” the younger man replied. “Just, do it on the right side of the car, please. I get a stiff neck if the air blows against it all the time.”
“Of course, of course,” Philip said, and carefully slid over to the right side of the car – one always had to be careful, when they were made of over a ton of metal – to press one of the buttons on the door, lowering the window.
The wind blew against his face – they were going really fast – and brought with it the early November cold.
He could’ve tried to describe the feeling, to describe what it meant to him to feel this again, after two decades of being stuck inside a prison, but he’d never been any good with words. It was nice. Proof that he was free again, or as free as a former supervillain with a dozen murders – even if all but one of them had been accidental – on his rap sheet could be.
Letting his arm hang out of the window, stretching, feeling the wind rush through his fingers, as the van took him towards New Lennston, the city built upon the grave of his childhood home.
“Building’s got wi-fi like every other place,” the tired-looking woman told him as she unlocked the door to his erstwhile home. “Free access, of course. Phone’s functional and so is the electric heater. You can come and go as you please, but no bringing trouble home. No parties, no drugs… well, no violating your parole in general. Don’t disturb the other tenants and you’ll have a nice, quiet time here, until you’re back on your feet.”
She stopped, looking him up and down. “Though I doubt there’s much that could knock you off your feet in the first place,” she observed with a surprisingly friendly smile.
Philip took the time to take a closer look at her, as well, having paid her little attention beyond basic politeness yet – his mind was still with his parole officer and the talk they’d had – and found himself surprised to realise that she was actually younger than him. A thin, short woman wearing a cheap brown-and-gold dress, shoes with heels trying to make up for her lack of height, with frizzy brown hair, she couldn’t be older than forty, at most.
“You’d be surprised, ma’am,” he replied, speaking as slowly as he ever did, taking extra care to clearly enunciate every word. It made him seem stupid and slow, he knew, but it was better than garbling everything he said and being completely incomprehensible. “I’m C-list at best, as they say. Lots of guys and gals out there who could make mincemeat outta me. Not that I intend to get into any brawls or anything.”
She put her fists onto her hips, glaring up at him – she was five foot nothing in heels and he stood at six-five, so she had to crane her neck to actually look him in the face. “I sure hope not, good man! You’re here to better your life, not get thrown back into prison!”
He nodded with a smile. “Of course, ma’am. I’ve learned my lesson, even if took way too long for it to happen. And don’t worry about no drugs, they don’t work on me anyways.”
“Oh, that’s good, then,” she said, calming down. “Alright. Well, go in. Get yourself comfortable. If you want anything new for the place, you’ll have to pay for it yourself, but I figure you ought to save that up for when you get a place of your own.”
He nodded his head. “Will do, ma’am. Thanks. I’ll say goodbye for now, then.” Then he remembered an earlier thought of his. “Ah, and if there’s any heavy liftin’ or stuff that needs lots of muscle to do ’round here, don’t hesitate to ask. Child’s play for me.”
“Hm, that’s actually quite useful. I’ll keep it in mind, Mister Dudkins,” she said with a smile. “Have a nice evening.”
After a moment of watching her go, he entered the tiny basement apartment. There’d been no way he could have gotten one above the ground. Modern buildings were pretty heavily reinforced these days and New Lennston was nothing but modern buildings, but even so this apartment building was rather cheap and even if there was no threat of him breaking through the floor, he’d still cause a ruckus by walking around, tormenting anyone who lived below him. A ground floor apartment would have solved that, but the ground floor had only the housekeeper’s apartment and a communal area, so that was out, too.
Still, this was clearly not just something thrown together for him at the last minute. The apartment he found himself in was clearly meant to be here, and nicely (luxuriously, by prison standards) furnished. It had a tiny kitchenette in a corner, a door leading, presumably, to the bathroom and a heavily reinforced bed in the corner opposite of the kitchen, on the side of the room opposite of the door leading in. A counter split the room in two, with a gap in the middle to step through. There was a tiny table in the front area with several seats around it, including one that was clearly added for him – a heavily reinforced monstrosity of a chair, made of steel pipes and the kind of heavy, thick cloth-like stuff they used for military equipment.
Philip couldn’t help but smile, letting the door fall closed, taking his boots off and walking around barefoot (socks were just useless to him, nevermind that his nails always tore them up anyway). His own room. Sure, it was temporary, a place provided by the correctional office, but still.
After twenty years in prison, he finally had some privacy again.
He stopped briefly at the chair, and at the bed. Seeing them was both amusing and touching to him.
Amusing, because he didn’t really need either – a side effect of his transformation made it so he couldn’t really feel uncomfortable easily. He could sit anywhere, or stand still for hours, like a statue. He could sleep anywhere, in pretty much any position, with no real discomfort and he only had to sleep a little, anyway. And he knew that those facts were in his file.
Touching, because it meant his parole officer – who’d been responsible for arranging this – or someone else involved, had gone out of their way to get him some creature comforts, for no other reason than to make him feel more comfortable. They didn’t have to, there was no need to supply him with anything but the standard stuff. No law that said he had a right to appropriate furniture.
He remembered something, something his dear mum had said, long ago. Scratch off the glitter of them people, my boy. Don’t let it blind you. Scratch off the glitter and the grime, and you’ll see that most people are pretty decent underneath.
His jacket came off, hung up on the coat stand next to the door. Meanwhile, his mind was occupied reminiscing about his mother, as he sometimes did – though not nearly as much as he had over the first few years in prison.
She’d been wrong, of course, but not in the way he’d thought. After everything had fallen apart, he’d thought that she’d been completely wrong, that there was nothing but more grime underneath, and grime underneath the glitter, too. He’d thought, if most people were decent, why had his life become such a nightmare?
It had taken him many, many years of therapy and introspection to realise that it wasn’t people as a whole who sucked. That just misery sought its like, and so he’d grown up amongst mostly just miserable people, because they’d gathered together to wallow in their misery rather than try to improve their lives.
His mother, too, had been like that. Admitting so had taken him years to do, and it had hurt worse than almost anything else he’d ever experienced. He’d only made peace with it a few years ago, really.
She’d talked about such a nice, good world, about how people were decent, but she hadn’t really believed it herself. Or if she had, she’d let it blind her to all the grime around her.
Glitter and grime, they both blinded in their own way.
Looking past the door to the bathroom, he found a small shower cabin with enough buttons to fly a jetplane, it felt like, a sink and a toilet. Hot water came quickly, upon testing. Another luxury which meant little to him, yet was still much appreciated.
The kitchen was also functional. He had everything, a microwave, an oven, a stove, a sink, a fridge and even a freezer on top of it. Small, but good enough to put some beers in.
Drugs – alcohol included – couldn’t affect him at all, but that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the taste, now and then. Good food was also appreciated, especially after two decades of prison goop.
Behind the counter, facing his bed, was a small desk without a chair – he was likely meant to move the reinforced one there, to use the computer atop it.
Said computer was one of the new ones, as different from the ones he remembered (but hadn’t really bothered with) back in his youth as a space ship was from a row boat. There was no… what was the term… tower. No tower. The whole thing was just the screen, and it was as thin as his middle finger. A keyboard that looked thin enough to roll up lay in front of it, with no visible connection to it, as well as a mouse, also cordless.
Fortunately, he’d taken a computer course a few months back, so he knew that the screen was also touch-enabled, and he knew his way around all this modern tech these days, though he had to take great care with the delicate keyboard, mouse and touchscreen.
He tapped the screen, and it booted up, taking barely a second to show the desktop. The indicator showed that it was already connected to the internet. That was going to be useful.
Internet everywhere. Not something he’d ever have imagined, back in the day. And free, at that. They’d declared it to be a necessity, like access to water and such, about ten years ago.
He still remembered the ruckus it’d caused in the prison, because it’d meant that everyone would get more Internet privileges. Or so they’d thought.
In the end, it’d just provided some distraction, for him, before things had settled down once more. He hadn’t really cared, having never really found much use for the web himself, while in prison.
Now though, he figured he could take some time to get to know it. The Internet had just started getting wide-spread, in the early eighties he’d (mostly) grown up in. It wasn’t until after he’d gone to prison that it’d really picked up.
Having completed the exploration of his apartment, he unpacked his suitcase – he’d have to go buy some clothes, soon, though at least he had less problems with that, too, as he didn’t sweat or have any real body odor – which contained just his chess set, his books (they were put into a small shelf next to the bed) and a few figurines he’d carved throughout his time at the prison. None of them was even remotely good-looking (he’d never developed any real skill at it) but they were dear to him, anyway, so arrayed them on a higher shelf, basically just a wooden board lying on two large nails driven into the wall.
He’d spend years working on these, though they’d ended up barely resembling their inspirations. Probably no one but him would recognise any of them except for the last one.
The first, his mother, who’d brought him into this world.
The second, his brother, who’d raised him.
The third, his father, who’d broken him.
The fifth, his friend, who’d guided him.
The sixth, Lady Light, who’d changed him. She was the only truly recognisable figurine, but only because he’d carved her crest onto it. The circle and moon, radiating light.
“You’ll see. I’m not going to screw it up this time,” he spoke to the figurines. “This time, I’ll do it right.”
Part of his parole was that he needed to have a job. For paroled metahumans, that often meant joining the army or a government-sponsored super-team.
However, he’d decided against that, and gotten support on it from his therapist. The whole point of his rehabilitation was to get away from fighting and violence. To find a more constructive application of his power.
In his case, that turned out to be construction work, for now. It wasn’t what he intended to stick to, for the long term – he wanted to do something else, something more exciting. He may have been in his late forties, but he wasn’t willing to settle down with a boring, if stable job just yet.
Still, it was kind of nice, having a light workout and making money the honest way. Right now, he was only getting very basic pay, but his parole officer had said that, with his powers, he’d likely earn a ridiculous amount of money once he was fully employed. He could even freelance, let construction companies lease him for his power.
Wearing a pair of heavy jeans pants and his custom boots, his steel-grey hair slicked back, he looked like a statue of the quintessential worker, the kind they tended to put up everywhere in the Sovjet Union, wiry muscle under metallic, unyielding skin. He’d never been too hard on the eyes, though he wasn’t exactly an adonis. Still, his transformation had made his body at least flawless, and cleared up all the marks and scars on his face.
Some people might have resented turning into a being of living steel, permanently, but Philip had never found issue with it. So he didn’t quite fit in anymore. He’d never fit in as a normal human, either, so no loss there.
Besides, it made construction work really easy when you could just pick up a nail and push it into whatever material it was supposed to go into.
So there he was, sitting on his heels as he pushed nails into the junction of steel beams, fifty feet above the ground. He was secured by a safety line that wrapped around his waist, though it wasn’t for his own safety. A fall from this height wouldn’t even inconvenience him, but it would be lethal for anyone he fall onto. And then there was the property damage that a solid ton of metal could cause, falling from such a height.
And so he worked there, doing in minutes the work it took a whole team to do over an hour.
“Hey, Dudkins!” the foreman shouted from below, making him stop and lean over the edge to look down.
“Yes Sir?” he shouted down, looking at the short, stocky man with the moustache (he’d tried growing one himself, once, but having to use a steel grinder to shave and trimm had been a chore, so he just stuck to a smooth finish).
“Just how much can ya lift? One of our machines got stuck in the mud!”
“Shouldn’t be a problem, Sir! I’ll be right down!” he replied, and took the safety line off, before he aimed carefully and jumped.
For the briefest moment, he felt weightless again, but it was over all too soon and he slammed into the ground, throwing up dust as he absorbed the impact with his knees. “Where’s it at, boss?” he asked the foreman.
Said man was staring at him, startled. Maybe he shouldn’t have jumped, but taken the slow way down.
“Um, yes, right. Fucking rain’s made the ground too soft – wish we didn’t have to continue work at this time of the year – and our excavator’s gotten stuck after some earth slide out from under its tracks. We could probably get it out with some effort, but I figured, maybe you can fix this faster for us.”
”Gladly, Sir. Lead the way.”
They walked across the construction site – some kinda new mall at the outskirts of New Lennston. The city was growing fast, even after what he’d been told were some pretty horrific S-Class events that’d come one after the other, but they had delayed construction, which was why they were still working at it rather than take a winter break.
Of course, construction work could get quite tricky when you had to deal with the kind of heavy rainfall – soon to turn into snow, certainly – that New Lennston had to deal with every year.
They walked across the muddy site, which was actually harder for him to do than driving nails into steel beams, because his feet kept sinking into the mud. Weight-to-surface-area-ratio and all that.
The excavator stood in the mud, tilted to the side. It’d been driving by a square hole dug to be filled in with concrete later, when the weather got more dry, but part of the side had collapsed, sliding in and almost causing the excavator to get stuck.
Several of the guys were standing around it, looking quite curious as they saw him approach. Even the driver of the excavator, sitting in the driver’s cabin, was looking at him with more curiosity than annoyance.
Of course. A prime opportunity to see what the new metahuman on site could do.
Philip couldn’t help but smile. It’d been a long time since he’d been able to put on a bit of a show. It didn’t exactly excite him as much as it had used to, but still.
No reason not to give them something to talk about later.
”I’ll get that out of there in no time, Sir,” he assured the foreman, walking forward, ignoring the light rain that fell on his bare torso. With his power, it was just smarter to be topless when he thought it likely he was going to use it.
That, or have something which could stretch, which he did not, currently.
He reached the excavator and stopped. He didn’t need to prepare to use his power, didn’t need to focus on it or reach for some kind of inner reservoir. He’d heard of such things, from others with powers, but it had never been an issue for him.
No, for him, his power was a part of him. It was him. To use it, he had to think no more than to breathe. The only reason he was stopping to do this was to put on a show.
Lifting his arms, he flexed them, casually – and each time he did, his muscles grew a bit, all over.
Metal groaned as it expanded, but it wasn’t true growth, like some he’d seen who actually grew bigger – his skeleton, his organs, none of it grew. Just his muscles.
Another flex, another increase. He’d gone from tightly muscled to the kind of build which other men used steroids to reach, his muscles bulging, almost overflowing.
Some of the men laughed, some rolled their eyes, others looked impressed or envious as he flexed a bit more, without growing his muscles any more, posing a little for effect with a broad grin.
Then he reached down and grabbed the track that’d been submerged in mud and, using his knees more than his arms, lifted it up.
Really, he could’ve done it one-handed, but he did want to put on a show.
Taking a few careful steps, making sure he didn’t sink into the mud himself, he moved the machine back onto safe ground, and carefully put it down before he stepped back.
The man gaped, then started to applaud, some of them laughing as he flexed again, shrinking his muscles back to their normal size, and bowed theatrically.
”Alright, alright!” the foreman shouted. “Put a sock in it, people! I know he’s all shiny – literally – and new, but we are already way behind schedule, so get back to work!”
And that put an end to it, the group breaking up so everyone could get back to their tasks, a few taking a detour to thank him and invite him to drinks later.
Philip accepted, gladly, setting a date for tonight, and got back to work.
It was only many hours later – two hours past the usual closing time – that they were let off work. The others were all quite thoroughly worn out, and even Philip had started to feel a little strained towards the end.
Superhuman stamina was not the same as endless stamina, and construction work was exhausting at the best of times.
Still, he couldn’t complain too much. He’d put in a honest day’s work and he’d won, if not the affection, then at least their curiosity and some camaraderie.
And so it came that they left the construction site in a group of twelve men – the others had begged off to get back to families or prior commitments – walking towards a nearby bar which the guys swore was the best around.
Philip stayed quiet, mostly, watching and listening to the others, occasionally answering a question or laughing at a joke – most of them dirty – but mostly just observing as the younger men around him – there was only one other guy his age with them – joked and walked to their goal, sweaty and worn out after a long day’s work.
He was neither sweaty (he couldn’t sweat anymore) nor worn out and this was one of those rare times where he wished he could at least be the former, to relate better to these yougn men.
Still, he wouldn’t trade his powers for nothin’, except perhaps a chance to redo his life from the beginning.
Probably not even for that.
Finally, they approached the bar, and he froze, his jaw dropping as he saw the name spelled in dimly glowing letters above the wooden entrance.
Drunk Donkeys Don’t Die.
”Holy… the Deedeedeedee is still there?” he exclaimed, staring at it as countless memories came up.
He actually felt some tears in his eyes.
“Huh? Yeah. It got rebuild barely a year after Old Lennston croaked it,” one of the younger guys, Daniel-something, explained. “Why, you know it, Oldtimer?”
“Know it? Son, I basically lived in there, back in the day,” he croaked, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands, creating a piercing noise of metal grinding on metal, making everyone flinch. “Or at least, I left a liver or two behind.”
The men laughed, some reaching out to pat him on the back. Punch him, really, so it’d get through.
”C’mon, let’s go in. Maybe you’ll even recognise some people!” another one said, and they all but dragged him into a memory.
Drunk Donkeys Don’t Die looked exactly like how he remembered it, except for the pictures on the walls that’d changed, photographs of famous customers – both good and bad – often with rap sheets or wanted posters added, and new screens to show sports games on, or shows from the arena fights.
He was looking around, drawing no small amount of stares as he did, until a cry split the silence inside the smoke-filled pub.
”Ferrolit!” a man in his thirties, standing behind the counter, shouted, leaning forward onto it. “God fucking damn it, is that really you!?”
Philip gave a start, surprised to hear his old cowl, and looked back at him.
Young – in his thirties, really, but young-looking – thin as a stick with messy, curly brown hair…
”I’ll be darned,” he breathed, his voice carrying through the room even though he was whispering. “Jonas? Jonas Winfield?”
The boy – now a man – grinned from ear to ear and leapt over the counter, running over to him.
”Fucking Ferrolit! I never thought I’d see you again, you crazy badass!” he shouted, grabbing his extended arm and slapping the other on his shoulder.
”Likewise,” Philip replied, still stunned to be seeing him again.
”Who’s that, Winfield!?” some of the patrons shouted, watching the scene with bemusement on their faces. The guys he’d come in with were staring as well, quite obviously surprised by the reception he was getting.
”Seriously?” Jonas asked them, turning around as he leaned against Philip’s side. “You’re seriously asking that? Does none of you look at the Wall of Fame?” He gestured at a part of the wall that was separated from the rest, showing several wanted posters and photographs. The men looked, quickly finding his image – a shot of him sitting in a booth of the old bar, leaning back, arms spread like the world belonged to him and grinning, a scantily clad girl on each arm.
”This is the Ferrolit! The Man who knocked out Lady Light herself, with one punch, and got away with it!”
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