Newton Zyme awoke to find that he was positively sore all over. He was in his “room,” which was little more than a narrow enclave just off the main chamber of the tree, lying on a bed which consisted of a mattress held up a couple of feet off the ground by thick roots growing out of the floor. It was tilted at an odd angle, and not very comfortable. As he had his first night here, Zyme had tossed and turned before finally managing to fall asleep, but he slept fitfully and, upon awaking, would need some time before his out of shape, middle-aged body could recuperate from such a restless night’s sleep.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He half-hoped, as he had before, that the past three days had been merely a dream and that he’d awaken to discover himself back in his own apartment, but as he eyes opened and he beheld the dark bedroom, he realized it was all real. He sighed deeply. He was wearing just his boxer shorts, as he found it impossible to sleep fully-clothed; his lab coat and pants were hanging on the back of a chair a couple of feet away, the only other real piece of furniture to speak off in the dingy little room. Slowly swinging his legs out of bed, his feet touched the soft earthen floor, cool despite the warmth of the swamp, and winced as his toes squished in the moistness. He’d gotten rid of his socks his second day here, figuring he had no further use for them what with both of his shoes lost somewhere out in the swamp.
He stood, stretched, feeling his aching joints pop, feeling a little better. Retrieving his clothes, Zyme dressed. Like his socks, his undershirt had been gotten rid of as well, because two layers of clothing, on his upper body at least, was unbearable to the scientist in the heat of the swamp. Now, at least, he understood why Viper insisted on running around half-naked! He pulled his pants on, then slipped his lab coat on and buttoned it up, but left the top few buttons undone, including the one that held his collar together; the coat’s collar-ends stuck out humorously from either side of Zyme’s neck.
Leaving his room, Zyme found the main chamber deserted and silent apart from the usual sounds of bubbling chemicals coming from the multiple chemical concoctions on Viper’s worktable. He walked across the room and ventured down a darker, narrow tunnel opposite the entrance to his “bedroom.”
Yesterday and the day before he’d done some exploring of his new home; not much, but enough to know that this tunnel at least led to the outside of the tree trunk, to one of the tree’s huge leafless branches. Out onto this Zyme walked and stopped after going out far enough. He stood there for a few moments, looking out over the vastness of the gloomy, mist-shrouded swamp. He wondered if he’d ever see Megakat City again. With a sigh, he he went back inside. Almost immediately, he ran into the six foot tall, green mushroom-cat monster that was once the security guard, Deemer.
He startled Zyme, who jumped back, yelping, holding up his hands in a reflexive warding-off gesture, even though, following the guard’s transformation, the enormous, slobbering tentacled monstrosity had been given explicit instructions by Viper to not harm Zyme.
Remembering this finally, Zyme sighed and lowered his arms, then said to it, “What do you want, ‘Fungusface?’” Fungusface was a nickname he’d taken to calling the thing. It seemed as good a name as any for the creature, and he wasn’t worried about insulting the former kat. Deemer was long gone. It just snarled loudly in response, though. Trying a different approach, he asked, “Where is Dr. Viper?”
That seemed to work. Sort of. At least it elicited a response that Zyme could understand. Fungusface batted him gently in the shoulder with one of its tentacles, making him stumble a bit, and kept doing this, herding him across the main chamber towards a wide tunnel that Zyme had not explored down yet.
Clearly, though, the monster wanted him to go there, and, not wishing to keep getting smacked with that tentacle the whole way, Zyme sped up his walking, muttering, “All right, I understand, stop pushing!”
Fungusface stopped but pointed with a tentacle at the tunnel, and Zyme walked into it, the big mushroom-cat wriggling after him. This tunnel was lined with enormous, bloodshot eyeballs, definitely one of the more disturbing decorative touches to Viper’s abode. Each eye turned and watched Zyme and his “escort” as they walked past. Zyme could not quite discern their purpose and had figured he was better off not asking.
The eyeball-lined tunnel winded considerably and seemed to lead all the way down to the base of the tree, or perhaps even deeper. Zyme had no way of telling. It was dark, and he stumbled several times. The deeper they went, Zyme started to hear bubbling. Did Viper have another lab down here? He didn’t doubt it.
Finally reaching the bottom, Zyme discovered the tunnel opened into a large chamber, smaller than the main one above but still considerably large. It was lit by several candles as well as a couple of propane lanterns and alcohol lamps, and in the center was a large pit, about eight feet long and six feet wide, filled almost to the brim with what appeared to be mud. It was bubbling, the source of the sounds he’d heard coming down. There were eyes in this room, too. They were closed as Zyme entered and opened to glance over at him. He shivered.
Dr. Viper was in it, sans his lab coat, which hung on a branch nearby that served as a hanger of sorts. He was reclining languidly against the far end of the pool, his arms folded back behind his head, eyes closed. He appeared to be sleeping. However, as Zyme walked over and stood at the edge of the pit, his glowing yellow eyes opened and fixated on him, and his previously relaxed, ambiguous expression turned into a wide smirk.
“Ah,” he said, “good morning, Dr. Zyme. Did you sleep well?”
“Hardly,” Zyme said, frowning, looking down at the mud pool. He dipped a toe into it experimentally. Fungusface entered behind him but didn’t come into the room any further. He just stood-well, sat, really, blocking the exit. Zyme eyed him warily, then turned and faced Viper again, crossing his arms.
“My bed isn’t exactly very comfortable,” he said angrily, unsure why he was confronting Viper like this instead of kowtowing to him like he had the past couple of days. “In fact, my living conditions are downright unbearable.”
Viper took his arms out from behind his head, his smirk vanishing. “In casssse you hadn’t noticed, Zyme, we’re in a ssswamp,” he said matter-of-factly.
“I don’t mean that,” Zyme said. “I just want a regular room and a comfortable bed. You want my cooperation, don’t you? Well, you aren’t going to get my full cooperation, my full…erm, submission to you by bullying me and treating me like a slave.” He half-hoped for Viper to snap his fingers and have Fungusface eat him for his insolence. After only three days here, he was already filled with a complete sickness of life, at least with the way things were going now.
Viper shifted a bit in the pool, stroking his large, pointed chin in thought. Perhaps Zyme was right. He remembered the thinking he’d done, back when they’d first returned here, about how he would have to work to make Zyme like him, if only a little bit, in order to gain the older scientist’s compliance.
That was before he’d mutated the captured Megakat Biochemical guard into the monster now hovering behind Zyme, however. The monster, which had more intelligence than any of his other creations, was turning out to be a worthwhile helper, but Viper wondered whether this benefit was at the expense of any functioning working relationship he might have with Zyme in the near future, given Zyme’s horrified, angry reaction to the guard’s fate. It was time, Viper decided, to start building up a trust with his prisoner, Viper realized.
“All right,” he said finally.
Zyme sighed, relieved. “Thank you,” he said, genuinely grateful.
“But, that’sss it for now. If you want anything elssse, then you, Zyme, not me, are going to have to bend a little bit. You’ll get a bigger room and a larger bed. We even have running water in this place. I insssstalled the plumbing system myssself. Will that do?”
Zyme nodded. “Yes, it’ll do. Speaking of which,” he said, uncrossing his arms and suddenly looking a bit uncomfortable, rubbing the back of his head, “uh, I’ve been meaning to ask you, where is the bathroom? I’ve been wandering all over this place for the past couple of days, and I can’t seem to find it.”
Viper laughed, throwing back his head. Unlike his previous laughs, this wasn’t a cruel or insane cackle, just a regular old laugh, but one at Zyme’s expense nonetheless. “Ah,” he said, “so that’sss why you’ve been poking around.”
“Among other reasons,” Zyme said. He wondered briefly how Viper could’ve known he’d gong exploring, but then he glanced at the eyes on the walls, staring at him.
“Well, you should be careful. A lot of these tunnelssss go on forever. It’sss very easy to get lost, or worssse.” Before Zyme could inquire about what could be worse than getting lost in dark tunnels, Viper added, “There’ssse some big drops in this place. Quite a real danger of falling a long way from a great height if you happen to ssstumble. Ssso, I would advise you to refrain from any further exploring until I can properly give you the full tour. Now, as for the bathroom, it’sss upstairsss.” He pointed up at the ceiling as he spoke. “In the crown, up above the main room, where my own living quartersss are. Sssatisfied?”
“Yes,” Zyme replied, now grateful he’d have somewhere to pee besides off the branch outside the tree. Idly, he ran his fingers through his hair, noticing how matted and grimy it had become. The heat and humidity had caused the hair, which normally curled upwards at sharp angles in the back of his head, to begin to wilt, so that it sort of hung down over his shoulders.
“Good,” Viper said. Zyme noticed there was a wine bottle and a couple of martini glasses on the floor beside the rim of the pool to Viper’s right. One glass was empty, the other was filled with the bottle’s contents, a dark red liquid. Zyme couldn’t tell from here, but, judging by the label’s design, it looked like a very expensive brand. Viper sifted a bit in the mud again, and, suddenly, his thick, reptilian tail surfaced and began to slowly lash about, lazily flinging rivulets of muddy water. Viper cocked his head at an odd angle, his smirk returning. “Won’t you join me?” he asked.
It wasn’t really a question. More like a demand with a question mark at the end. Zyme sighed. Without waiting for Fungusface to push him, he came around to Viper’s end of the pool. The eyes followed him with their all-seeing gaze. He thought Viper meant to join him for a drink and prayed he didn’t mean he wanted Zyme to get into the mud bath with him.
“That’sss it,” Viper urged, beckoning with a finger, “I won’t bite.” His tail began lashing a little more excitedly, and he drew up his legs so that Zyme could see the tops of his knees poking up from the surface. As Zyme approached, Viper casually reached over and picking up the martini glass. He idly fiddled with the drink stir, which had a live, squirming earthworm stuck on it.
Zyme swallowed, licking his lips, looking up at Viper. The snake-cat merely tilted his head forwards and pulled out the drink stir and eyed the worm squirming on the end. Out slithered his tongue which wrapped around the worm, pulling it off the drink stir, which Viper cast aside. The tongue, worm and all, retreated back into Viper’s mouth, and the snake-cat washed his wriggling snack down with the wine, his lips pursing around the rim of the glass. Watching this display made Zyme shudder with revulsion, but at a gesture from his captor he knelt down beside the pool.
When he did, Viper filled the second martini glass with wine from the bottle and handed it to Zyme, who accepted it with a shaking hand, slopping some of the wine out of the glass. Viper then refilled his own glass and held it up, clinking it against Zyme’s.
“Here’sss to what will not doubt be an… interesssting partnership, Dr. Zyme.”
Zyme nodded, uncertain but not desiring to anger the mutant. “Uh, indeed, Dr. Viper,” he said, then slowly drank his wine.
Viper drank his in one huge gulp, tossing his head back. Sighing, he threw the glass aside, shattering it against the far wall, and got up, stepping out of the pool, trailing mud off his serpentine body as he went. Fungusface was ready with a pink towel, which he handed Viper. Viper towelled himself off, then turned, facing Zyme, and held his arms out so that the mushroom-cat could slip his lab coat on for him. Adjusting the lapels, he nodded a silent thank-you to the monster, then turned and watched Zyme finish drinking his wine and set the glass aside. Zyme then got up, wobbly, and almost fell in. However, he regained his balance, and his composure, coughing and thumping his chest with a fist.
“Now then,” said Viper. “It’sss time that we got to work. You and I have much to do.”
Viper turned and walked out of the room, followed by Fungusface. He now felt a little better about living with Viper. He still had serious reservations about actually assisting him in turning Megakat City into one huge swamp, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. In the meantime, he realized that he was awfully curious about just what Viper had wanted Katalyst 99 for. Despite its explosive properties, it was also a growth formula. Zyme trotted from the room and hurried to catch up to Viper. The eyes on the walls watched him go, but then slowly slid closed once more.
As they went upstairs, Zyme trying very hard to ignore the eyes lining the tunnel walls, Viper began explaining his plans for Katalyst 99, which had something to do with what he called a “spore pod” and that new three-hundred-story skyscraper they were building downtown.
At three-hundred stories, Megakat Tower was the tallest and most modern office building in the entire city. At least, this was the spin Mayor Manx was putting on it. The gigantic skyscraper had been several years in the making, and begun, actually, back when Manx first took office. It was his personal pet project. Although not hurting economically in the least, Megakat City’s had always been a relatively self-sustained economy, and many citizens, including the Mayor, had long desired to attract foreign business.
The promise of completing the mammoth skyscraper, the tallest in the world, and using it to attract corporations from other countries, had long been the linchpin of Manx’s re-election campaigns. And, although as Elrod Purvis, he had considered the idea to be silly and a waste of money, Dr. Viper now made the Megakat Tower the linchpin of his own scheme to bring change to Megakat City. Although, he intended to change more than simply the economy.
In the months following his death, mutation and subsequent resurrection, Dr. Viper had been routinely checking up on the Tower’s progress. Although by the time he ceased to be Purvis and became Viper it had already been mostly completed, the mutant biochemist had wanted to wait until the building was completed entirely. He needed it to be structurally sound if it was to be ground zero for his grandest scheme to conquer the city yet! Every few weeks or so, he would venture out of his beloved swamp and go down to the Tower. It was now mostly finished, and would be opening in just a few short weeks. Perfect, he thought as he peered through the partially opened manhole cover out front.
The construction crews had gone home, and there wasn’t anyone around except for Viper. Well, Viper and the half cat, half mushroom creature. He remembered Zyme had once referred to it insultingly as “Fungusface.” It suited the thing. The large creature was waiting patiently down in the sewer below him. This was the monster’s first time out, and he hoped it wasn’t going to give him any trouble. After taking a quick look around the courtyard to ensure that there was no one else in sight, Viper motioned for the monster to follow and then climbed out of the manhole and slithered in through the front entrance. Fungusface followed him silently, the large mutant having proven to be surprisingly stealthy, much to Viper’s delight.
The lobby was appropriately grand. Viper could care less about the architecture and artwork. He was interested only in the plants. Yes, it seemed luck was more than with him on this venture, for Callie Briggs had decided lots of potted plants on every floor of the Tower would give it a nice, natural decorative look. Viper approached one of the plants, a fern, and stroked its fronds lovingly. For some reason, likely due to the Viper Mutagen’s origins as a plant growth formula, Viper felt a strange attraction to plants and fungus, more-so than other organisms, even other snakes. It was why his newest creation had been a mushroom. His desire to see all of the plants in the Tower animated as mutants was more than merely a desire of opportunity. If Briggs had, for whatever reason, filled the building with elephants, Viper would’ve used those. As it stood, though, the fact it would be plants only made it that much more special to him.
“Ssssoon, my lovely,” he crooned to the fern. “Ssssoon, you will leave the confines of your wretched pot and join the resssst of my creationsss in my new Megasssswamp City.”
He turned and began walking across the lobby, towards the hallway he knew led to the building’s basement. There, Viper had been setting up a makeshift chemistry lab with all the chemicals he would need to animate the plants in the building when the time came. However, he barely made it three feet when the door of a utility room opened, and an elderly cat walked out. He was quite old, hunched over, wearing a baseball cap and a long coat, humming some random tune to himself. Viper had seen him before. He was a gardener hired by the Mayor to take care of the plants in the Tower, although Viper didn’t know his name.
“Oh, there you go, Sally,” he said as he watered a begonia. “Oh, you like that, don’t ya? Oh, you’re so thirsty. Don’t worry, girls, I’ll get to the rest of you, too!”
At the moment, he didn’t seem to notice either him or the enormous mushroom monster, and simply went about watering the potted plants with a small watering can. Viper decided that the old man had poor eyesight and likely mistook the two green blurs for just two more plants. Deciding to use this opportunity, Viper silently trotted over and ducked out of sight into the hallway leading to the basement. Ordinarily, Viper would’ve simply crushed the old man in his coils or allowed his monster to eat him, but if he did that, the Mayor and his associates might wonder where the old gardener had disappeared to and would surely discover his secret lab in the basement while searching for him. Needless to say, Viper didn’t want that. He was too close to success for anything to go wrong now!
But, as he reached the basement door, he suddenly realized Fungusface wasn’t behind him anymore. Turning, he looked back out into the lobby and noticed the creature approaching the gardener from behind. The old fool continued watering the plants and talking to them like they were his children, oblivious to the mutant moving up behind him. Viper sighed, shaking his head as Fungusface lunged forwards, engulfing the unfortunate cat in one huge bite. Well, almost. As Viper walked over, Fungusface turned to him, smiling stupidly, the gardener’s weakly kicking legs sticking out from his misshapen mouth. In a couple of quick swallows, however, the legs were sucked in entirely, and the monster gave a loud belch and patted his tummy happily with his tentacles.
“You jussst couldn’t help yourssself, could you?” Viper lightly scolded him, bending down and picking up the dropped watering can. “Come on, we’ve got work to do, and I have to figure out what I’m going to do to keep them from trying to search for the cat you jussst ate!”
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