New Rourke Unmasked
The Rise and Fall of Conduit
In-duction | Pro-duction | Con-duction
No one else died.
Standing around in a graveyard, watching my best friend get lowered into the ground, that thought was small comfort.
I’d skipped out that night. I’d run several blocks then gave my jacket and that band shirt I’d taken from the merch table to a homeless lady in an alley before slowly walking back. By the time I’d got back to the club, cops and an ambulance where there. The Barbers were dazed and handcuffed, while Vitae was strapped to a gurney and carted away by NRPD’s Special Crimes Unit. The worst injuries anyone suffered were lacerations; Janice needed seven stitches on her neck, Lana needed four stitches on her cheek. Lana was the only one who seemed to know I had been the one who put a stop to things.
At the wake, I didn’t really talk to anyone beyond sharing mumbled platitudes. I didn’t say a word to Janice. I didn’t really know her beyond the fact that she was seeing Rico. They had only been together for about a week and a half, but she’d shown up as well, looking as regretful and lost as I probably did. The only difference was that I still had Lana.
Walking back to the car, my concentration must have slipped, because Lana got a little jolt when she went to hold my hand.
”Ouch!” she yelped.
”Damn it, I’m sorry.”
”Brad, are you one right now‽”
I shrugged a reply. “Yeah.”
”What the hell‽ We’re at a funeral.”
”So what, Lana! What’s the fucking problem‽” I sneered.
Lana looked at me sternly. “Honey, I know you’re hurting, but do not take that tone with me.”
I growled slightly. “I just--” The hum in my head increased. I lifted my hands to put them on my face but stopped and stared at them. Little sparks jumped between my fingers.
Lana grabbed my wrists, pulled them down, and stepped closer to me to hide my hands. She whispered loudly, but her eyes were full of concern. “Get a grip, Brad! What is going on with you?”
”It’s my fault.”
”It’s my fault; Rico is dead. If I had acted sooner--”
Lana shushed me, placing her hands lightly on the back of my neck. “It wasn’t your fault.”
”I could have done something.”
”No one was expecting you to do anything.”
I could feel tears welling up. “I should have--”
“My brave boy.” Lana shushed me again and held me close. “You don’t have to be a hero.”
”I can do this thing. I should do something with it.”
“There will always be monsters in the world. Do not blame yourself.”
Lana gripped on to me hard. I wrapped my arms around her. We embraced each other for several minutes; Lana’s face pressed into the nape of my neck, me looking out over a field of graves. I was confused and frustrated, and above all angry, but a singular clear thought floated to the forefront of my mind.
”This won’t happen again. I’m not gonna lose anyone else I care about.”
Lana looked into my eyes. She bit down on her lower lip as her eyebrows furrowed. “Take me home.” she said. “I’m tired.”
* * *
Lana must have been really tired, because, when we got home, she just went to bed and passed out even though it was early afternoon. I paced for a while. My thoughts were all jumbled. I knew in my gut that there were things I should do, but I couldn’t figure out what they were. Eventually, I did the only thing that seemed natural. I made a costume.
I’d never been into comic books, even as a kid, but I’d seen enough Batman movies to know the basics; conceal identity, punch out douche bags, get the girl. After tossing through the closet and boxes around the house, I pulled out my old motocross jacket and facemask. They were holdovers from my late teens and early twenties. I still had the old dirt bike in the garage but there hadn’t been much opportunity to take it out for several years. The jacket was first thing Lana had ever bought me; dark blue leather, with black piping, and yellow-orange swathes running from the shoulders down the arms. It was a little worn and musty, but it thankfully still fit well, with padding in all the right places. The facemask was custom, black, molded plastic which ran from ear to ear, covering my nose and mouth. In the garage, I dug up some thin, black, cloth gloves from an undelivered Goodwill box. I also found some aviator goggles with circular, tinted, lenses. I couldn’t remember where they’d come from.
I was admiring the look in the bathroom mirror, trying to figure out what I could use instead of my jeans and skate shoes, when the doorbell rang.
I dumped the getup to answer the door and was greeted by a Latino guy with a bicycle and a short cut Mohawk.
”Sup, holmes.” he said.
”Package, ese.” He pulled out a small box wrapped in brown paper and a clipboard.
”Thanks.” I said, signing the form.
He took back the clipboard, nodded, and left.
I opened the box on the kitchen table. Inside was a cell phone. It looked outdated; sort of chunky with a full number pad, a two inch screen, and felt heavier than it looked. There was nothing else in the box except packing paper, and the box itself didn’t have sort of shipping label. So, what had I just signed?
The phone rang. I dropped it on the table and backed away. It rang three more times before I picked it up.
”Hello?” I said.
The voice on the line was deep and masculine with a hint of accent I couldn’t identify. “Good afternoon, Mr. Norton.”
”Who is this?”
”I am a concerned citizen who has taken an interest in your activities. Your debut the other night was most impressive.”
”Facing Vitae is not the method many would choose to cut their teeth, so to speak.”
A literal chill ran up my spine. "...How did you find out that was me?"
"Mr. Norton, I make it my business to know these things." he said plainly without a hint of smug. "Suffice to say, I understand you made quick work of it."
I grimaced. “That thing killed my friend, and almost killed my girlfriend.”
”In that context, I agree punishment was duly justified.”
”Who are you?”
”You may call me Professor, or simply ‘P’ if you so choose. But please, spare me the infantile jokes.”
”Okay, P, what do you want?”
”I want to help you get to where you need to be. I have experience guiding individuals such as yourself.”
”If you know who I am, why did you send me a phone and not just call mine? Why not meet me face to face?”
”The phone is on a private network I maintain. It can not be tapped. Additionally, due to the nature of your ability, I took the liberty of having it electromagnetically shielded so that it will only send and receive at a specific frequency range.”
”You wouldn’t want to accidentally damage the circuits while flinging around electricity, now would you?”
”Oh.” I said, remembering that my own phone had been getting oddly spotty service lately.
”As for why we aren’t meeting face to face, in my experience, the self-proclaimed superhero crowd tends to fight first and ask questions later. I prefer to start with a dialogue.”
”So you’re a superhero too?” I smiled at the thought of the mysterious stranger letting slip a clue about his identity. I was starting to get good at this whole thing.
”I do my best to avoid direct confrontation.” he answered dryly.
”Alright. You want to mentor me. What do I do first?”
”First. We see what you can do.”
* * *
After another hour of discussing what I knew about how my power worked, some ideas from P on what I possibly could do, another decision had to be made.
”Well, Mr. Norton?” P asked.
I’d thought about this several times since that night at the club. It had to be done right the first time, because there was no going back.
I cleared my throat. ”Call me Conduit.”
I spent the next few hours getting my bike out of mothballs and making sure it still worked while removing the decals and license plate. I checked on Lana, but she was still in bed.
”Hey.” I said.
”Mmm.” she answered.
”I’m gonna make some dinner. You want some?”
”Mmm? No. I’m not hungry.”
”Yeah.” she yawned, squeezing her pillow. “Just tired. Thanks.”
”I’m gonna eat, then go out for a bit.”
I kissed her on the cheek above her bandage. She pulled my pillow over and snuggled down on that one as well.
Before leaving the house, I put the license plate in a bag that strapped to the end of the bike, then I gathered up as much juice as I felt comfortable carrying. It was euphoric! My whole body tingled. All my stresses, all my worries seemed to wash away. The hum in my head was like an enveloping white noise. I stood there in the garage absorbing the sensation. After making sure I had a grip on the energy, that none was seeping out, I got on my bike and rode out into the city.
* * *
It’s hard to describe the feeling of going out on your first patrol. I guess I’d have to equate it to the build up to my first day on the job as a paramedical. Ever since I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life, so much work and preparation had gone towards that goal. I’d learned what I could, gone through countless training scenarios, but being sent out for the first time in a real ambulance on a real call was something totally new. There was so much potential. I could very well end up taking someone else’s life into my hands and my actions would determine whether they made it or not. Now, here I was going out to make a difference in a different way. I had no idea what I would come across, if anything, but the potential was there, and I felt unstoppable.
It was night, but I had enough juice coursing through me I could see clear as day. I hadn’t bothered to turn on the bike’s headlight. My eyes were glowing so brightly they made the aviators look like two small spotlights on my head.
At one point, I got buzzed by some cops who probably weren’t too happy seeing me driving around without lights or a license plate. I led them on a merry chase. Sure, their car had a lot more power than my bike, but I was more maneuverable; threading the needle through traffic and narrow alleys was simple. I wasn’t used to running from the cops, but I guess that just went with the job now.
Around eleven-thirty, I was beginning to lose my steam. I wasn’t tired, after hours of driving around in circles I was just bored. I hadn’t come across a single thing besides those cops and some graffiti kids. I’d thought about telling them to stop and giving them a stern lecture, but I couldn’t think of one and coming up with some half-hearted speech about keeping the city clean would have just been way too lame. I was all the way over in uptown when this guy in a grey tuxedo and hooded opera cape starting flying alongside me. He spooked me so bad I skidded into a newspaper dispenser, almost falling off my bike.
”So, what’s your story?”
”I’m Conduit. I’m new.” I said, and then wished I hadn’t.
He crossed his arms. “Do I have to beat you up?”
”No! Jesus! What did I do?”
”I don’t know.” he shrugged. “What have you done?”
”I, uh…I took down Vitae a couple weeks ago.”
”That was you?” He nodded. “Yeah, okay. I heard about that. Good job.”
”So, who are you?” I asked.
“Me?” he scoffed, then waved his hands over his costume, but I drew a blank “Man, I’m Grey Vigil!”
”Oh…Yeah. I’ve heard of you.” I lied.
He scoffed again. “Well, who the fuck has heard of Kinetic?”
I expected more conversation, but instead he looked around at nothing in particular, tapping a foot. I didn’t know what to say. This was my first time meeting a superhero, even one I’d never heard of before. I supposed independent movie actors got this a lot too.
”Any action tonight?” he asked.
”Not a thing.”
”There’s usually something going on in the warehouse district. You ready for your first team-up, newbie?”
As it turned out, team-ups were about listening to superheroes talk about how great they are and all the heroes and villains they’d banged. I was so happy when he finally shut up and starred at nothing.
”What’s up?” I asked.
”What? Oh. There’s a ghost here. It’s trying to tell me something.”
”You can talk to ghosts? That’s cool.”
”No, I can only see them waving their arms at me. I CAN’T FUCKING HEAR YOU, DUMBASS! POINT!...Thank you!” He turned to me and pointed at a warehouse that only had a few lights on. “Something in there. Let’s check it out."
The warehouse looked like it had been abandoned for a while. Rows of metal shelves full of boxes with faded writing, all covered in a thick layer of dust. We found a trail that looked like something damp had been dragged through the dust. It led us to a big, crudely made, hole in the floor leading to the sewers.
”Creepy. Check.” Grey Vigil said.
”We going down there?”
”Not unless you’ve got a light other than those peepers of yours.”
”Hold on, I’ve got an idea.”
I put my hands together and started arcing electricity between them. Then I pulled my hands about shoulder width apart. I now had thick lines of lightning bounding back and forth between creating a aura of blue tinted light.
Grey Vigil looked impressed. “Nice.” he said.
It stank in the hole. My shoes were getting all kinds of muck on them. Grey Vigil just floated above the goop without a care.
After maybe fifty yards, he held up a hand. “You hear that?”
The arcing electricity and sloshing water, along with the hum in my head made it hard to pick out any small noises in the sewer, so I told him no.
We were about to continue on, but from around an intersection came New Rouke’s most well known monster. So well known in fact, you could buy ironic t-shirts of it wearing ironic t-shirts at the airport. We’d come face to face with the terror that stalks beneath: The Tangler.
That amorphous mass of motley tentacles filled the entire sewer tunnel from floor to ceiling like an other-worldly drain clog made of squirming octopi and jelly fish. The tunnel stank a whole lot worse now.
”What do we do?” I asked.
”Don’t move.” Grey Vigil said. “Maybe it will move on.”
”Move on? We’re in it’s way!”
A weird chuffing sound came from The Tangler and a group of tentacles slowly snaked towards us like some sort of appendage.
”Uh…” I said.
”Don’t move.” Grey Vigil whispered.
A sickly yellow tentacle rose to head height.
”Is that one of the poison ones?” I asked.
”I have no idea.”
”What do we do‽”
Grey Vigil looked back the way we came. “Um. You got this right? Yeah? Okay. I’ll go get some help.”
”Where the fuck are you going‽” I whispered as he drifted away.
”I’m-gonna-go-get-help-bye!” Grey Vigil said, and flew away.
The yellow tentacle quivered. The chuffing sound became more pronounced.
”Oh, fuck this.” I said, unleashing a javelin of lightning on the creature.
Tentacles flailed in all directions, then The Tangler fell still and limp.
I had to admit I was pretty pleased with myself. I’d defeated both Vitae and The Tangler, two of the most notorious monsters in the city without breaking a sweat. I was going to be famous! Pretty soon kids would be taking Conduit lunch boxes to school.
But then the roar came. Living with a musician who dabbled with an avant garde phase, I’d heard all kinds of bizarre sounds. This one was completely new to me. It was a deafening primal scream at different pitches of the T-Rex roar from that Jurassic Park movie, a jet engine start up, an earthquake, and the lowest registers of drop d tuning all rolled into one. My ears hurt, my organs reverberated, and I ran.
I ran through the filth covered sewer as quickly as I could, chased by the sounds of cement and brink crunching as the thing poured itself through the tunnel. Occasionally, a tentacles would slap onto me, but I’d send a jolt into it which resulted in entirely new sounds from The Tangler.
When I finally scrambled out of the hole, The Tangler burst up through the floor behind me into its iconic form; a twenty-foot tall chthonian abomination standing on three columns of tentacles with arms coming off the central mass in all directions. It let out another convulsing roar, and I pumped every last bit of energy I had into the thing. I just narrowly avoided being crushed as it fell over.
It was down, but I knew it wasn’t out. Some of the tentacles were blackened and shriveled, others simply lay unmoving, but many more still wriggled on with others coming back to life every passing second.
I went to the nearest junction box to pull power from, but I must have blown a breaker, or a fuse, or something, because the remaining lights in the building went out as well. As a last resort I sprayed what electricity I had in the direction I’d last seen The Tangler, and high tailed it the hell out of there.
* * *
By the time I got back to my bike and had driven a couple blocks, my heart was still pounding, and the buzz in my head was killing me, but I had finally gotten my breathing under control. I pulled into an alleyway and sat on the ground. Greedily sucking electricity out of a wall-mounted emergency light calmed my nerves. For a little while I just floated on the soothing wave of current.
I about jumped out of my skin when my phone rang. It was the one P had given me.
”P, I think I bit off more than I can chew.”
My memory blanked. What had happened?
”Um…Oh.” I mumbled. Then the event came back, though the details were fuzzy. It was really weird. “I fought The Tangler.”
P sounded genuinely surprised. “Alone? And you’re still alive?”
”Yeah-No. Um…There was another guy there. Grey Vigil. He ran.”
”That sounds like him, but you don’t need to worry about that right now.”
”Why? What’s wrong?”
”I just received word, Conduit. Lana is in the hospital.”