Consciousness slowly prodded at Cactusman's mind. A deluge of voices engulfed him in noise, and the unnatural grogginess he was bogged down by made it impossible to differentiate between them. He knuckled his eyes and groaned loudly in an effort to drown out all the noise. The cacophony didn't stop, and most of the voices only grew louder. With his palms pressed into his eyes he tried listening, and after several seconds he realized several were familiar. They were the pair of cacti the doctors had given him, going on about being cacti. Two, however, were quieter than the others. And unfamiliar to him.
"You think the doctors gave him too much?" A female voice. Energetic, yet somehow brusque.
"Don't know. Maybe he's just not used to it." Male. Calm and deep.
Cactusman took several slow, deep breaths to collect himself. He should have been fully awake by now, especially with the adrenaline. But he couldn't shake this murky feeling sloshing around just behind his forehead. He brought the heel of his right hand to his forehead as if to jostle the gunk loose, but it did nothing for him.
After one last breath he steeled himself. His first instinct was to extend as many spines as possible and attack, but he realized that probably wasn't the best idea. Maybe it was just new medicine had some side effects, and these were Foundation guards or something. Nothing to freak out about. He relaxed as this realization came to him, and almost instantly tensed back up. His bed was too comfortable. Maybe he was- no, maybe he was just moved to a new cell. Perhaps that was why he was drugged. Cactusman took one last deep breath, held it, and cracked an eye open to look at the source of the voices.
Definitely not guards. Or doctors. Both of them were sitting in collapsible chairs, facing Cactusman, and were dressed casually. Both were staring directly at him, but neither reacted to him opening his eye. Cactusman realized they were in a medical ward, and he on the hospital bed. He tried thinking back to what might have brought him here but nothing came to mind. He didn't feel hurt. Looking through the glass door leading into the hallway didn't reveal much other than the fact it looked like a normal civilian hospital.
The woman was perched up on her chair, sitting on her heels. Her skin was the sort of brown that made it difficult to distinguish whether it was a tan or not. Her hair was brown for the most part, with the exception of some green coloring along the sides. Her plain clothes hung loosely from her muscled frame. She had what seemed to Cactusman like an exaggerated look of curiosity, her eyebrows high and her mouth moving from side to side.
The man was slouched in his chair so much he looked like he was about to fall off it. His skin was much darker, and his head was shaved. His clothes looked somewhat disheveled and wrinkly despite being clean. His left arm was completely wrapped in bandages and hung loosely at his side while his right hand rested on his knee. A small piece of metal was jutting from under his right eye, where the cheekbone was. It almost looked natural. His expression was one of utter boredom.
"Who are you?" Cactusman asked in what he hoped was an even voice.
"Hey," the woman said, drawing out the word for as long as her lungs would allow. "Yer awake, boy-o! Top o' the mornin' to ya!"
Cactusman stared at her in disbelief.
The woman giggled. Then she said, "Dude, I worked on that shit for hours. Okay, minutes."
The man lightly hit her in the back of the head. He didn't say anything, and his expression didn't change.
The woman grinned. "Okay, it was spur of the moment. Anyway, hi. Good to see you're not brain damaged. Well, more than we already knew you were."
The man slapped his companion again. "Apologies, Mister MacIntyre, she's a bit manic without her medicine."
Cactusman pushed himself into a sitting position. "You didn't answer my question."
"So serious, Daniel MacIntyre! Down to business, then." She sprang up in one quick motion, standing on the chair that was now leaning precariously far back. Cactusman had to at least give her credit, she definitely had a certain theatrical flair.
"I'm Alexandra Radcliffe! And Mister Slappy here is Zacharie Langley. We're from the Chaos Insurgency. We rescued you!"
"Rescued me? What? I know it wasn't the best situation, but I was helping-"
"You weren't helping anyone," Langley said. He didn't say it with any sort of venom or bluntness, he just droned on in a tired way. "I read your file. They were staged incidents to improve your morale. Minor tasks to keep you from hurting yourself. Little more than something to minimize the risk of losing one of their contained objects."
"I'm not an object!"
"I am aware. They, however, are not."
Cactusman swung his legs over the edge of the bed and glared accusingly. "And how would you know?"
Langley didn't bat an eye. "Because I used to work for them."
That caught Cactusman off guard, but it didn't stop him from extending spines all along his right arm. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. He took the time to note that he didn't have any bandages or stitches anywhere.
"Doctor Louef isn't like that. I don't know about the Foundation in general, but he-"
"Louef's a pretty chill dude, from what I've read-slash-heard," Radcliffe said. "But that didn't stop him from locking you and other superhumans up. Because the Foundation is not all that nice to superhumans. And I know that because-"
A ball of fire erupted from Radcliffe's right hand. It was nothing but a small belch of flame, but it was enough to put Cactusman a little on edge. She grinned and continued surfing on the wobbling chair.
"C'mon, man, you're from Arizona. You should be used to the heat," Radcliffe said as the flame went out. "So, in case that egghead of yours is as addled as I think, being with us already has a leg up on your old situation. You get to be a person. And we'll even try to fix that fucked up think pan you got."
"I'm not crazy," Danny said adamantly.
Radcliffe started to laugh, teetering back and forth on the chair, when Langley grabbed her by the wrist and pulled back down into her seat. His expression had yet to change, but it looked like she was trying to eat her lips.
"You are not in a position to mock someone for their mental instabilities, Alex. Mister MacIntyre, my apologies. I thought it would be prudent for you to meet both of us, as we represent Foundation interaction with transhumans — both from within the Foundation, and from the outside. Unfortunately I cannot imagine her actions have been particularly encouraging."
"So why me? It seems like a lot of effort to just… 'save' someone."
Langley nodded. "You have been acquired by the Insurgency for a very specific task only you can accomplish. You-"
"We need you to talk to a giant cactus monster!" Radcliffe interjected. She appeared to be vibrating with excitement. Cactusman could feel the corner of his mouth tugging upward.
Langley slowly turned his head to look at her and she flinched. He blinked and looked back to Cactusman. "…Yes. We-"
Radcliffe clasped her hands together and Cactusman could feel his heart rise into his throat when she cried, "We need your help, Cactusman! Save us, oh-"
"What? I'm just having some fun."
"Please don't interrupt. It's rude."
"Wait a minute, you just interrupted me to-"
"As I was saying," Langley said calmly.
Cactusman couldn't help but chuckle, even if he wasn't sure the man was being intentionally comedic. While being probably drugged and being more kidnapped than rescued was not exactly the best way to be introduced to this organization, he felt these two were nice enough people. And being out of his cell was certainly a plus.
"We need you to speak with a… giant cactus monster. There is no way to subdue it physically without permanently damaging it, so we need a lighter touch. Only you can help us, Mister MacIntyre. We need help. We need… the Spiked Menace."
"Ffffffuck yeah!" Radcliffe sprang all the way out of her chair this time. "That was cool! Well delivered, Zach."
Langley didn't so much smile as he did show her his teeth. It seemed to actively hurt him to do so, and he dropped the expression almost as suddenly as he made it.
Radcliffe didn't seem to notice, or perhaps just didn't care. "So, Danny-boy, watcha say, you in?"
Cactusman smiled. "I'm in."
Langley's expression remained stony as ever, and he gave nothing more than a short nod. Cactusman tried not to let the man's indifference - melancholy? Cactusman wasn't sure - get to him. At least Radcliffe seemed happy, she was doing a little jig beside her overturned chair.
"So, what now?" Cactusman asked as he slowly rose from the bed. He made several little hops to get the blood flowing to his legs.
Langley opened his mouth to reply but Radcliffe bounded forward to field the question. Langley shrugged, grabbed the two cacti, and headed for the door while Radcliffe prattled on. "Well, we've already given you a medical evaluation and stuff, so I guess we should just take you to our quarters- you're staying with us, I dunno if I mentioned that yet. But you can't wander around unless you have one of us with you, since you're new and special and stuff."
"So what do you actually do?" Cactusman asked slid past the glass door. Glancing inside the other rooms, Cactusman hurried after Radcliffe. The ward was surprisingly empty, save for a nurse or two here and there.
"Oh, we get to do tons of fun stuff! I mean, it also depends on your cell. For example, I'm tasked with resource acquisition- like you- in various ways. Langley is either with me or off doing… something. I dunno, he talks about it and I get bored and zone out. You, however, will be stuck on base cuz you're 'vital Beta Class personnel.' But it's gotta be better than jail, yeah?"
She skipped ahead and shut the door before Cactusman could get a look outside. A wicked grin had decided to take host on her face. She took a deep breath, threw open the door and dashed out. Cactusman poked his head out to see she had jumped up on a railing, her entire body arching as she spread her arms out.
"Welcome!" she yelled, and her voice echoed several times. "To the Chaos Insurgency!"
The catwalk outside his room was several stories up, overlooking a sizable room congested with traffic. People in casual wear, lab coats, hazmat suits, and military gear mingled together in a sea of activity. Drifting amongst them were dollies and carts of various materials, captained by impatient personnel. Cactusman spotted one cage rocking around as a team pulled it with short ropes, and a large creature of some sort pushing it from behind. The resulting noise from it all, even thirty feet up, was near deafening.
They were not as pristine as the Foundation, nor nearly as orderly. Which lent credence to their name, Cactusman figured. The building and the various objects and tools he could spot had a similar aesthetic- not defunct, but clearly well-worn. When he squinted he could see the entirety of the floor was scratched and scuffed, the entire thing a beaten path.
Looking left and right, Cactusman spotted more room along the catwalk he was on. The catwalk looped around the entire room, and had several like it above and below. It all reminded him of a prison, the way all sides of the room were covered in ladders, stairs, and catwalks leading to the various rooms embedded in the concrete.
"Cool, eh?" Radcliffe was hanging upside down, her knees locked around the railing. Cactusman almost got vertigo just looking at her. It didn't help she was idly kicking her feet.
Cactusman swallowed nervously. "Yeah. It's a bit more… uh. Not dirty, but… I mean, no offense, I just-"
"Ah, don't worry." Radcliffe grasped the railing and pulled herself up. "I mean, yeah, it's not super immaculate- that site you were in was like spotless, holy shit- but it's got… y'know, character. Flavor. All the Foundation facilities I've ever been in are just so… lifeless. Bluh."
"Speaking of which," Cactusman said as they headed for the stairs, where Langley was waiting. He bit the inside of his cheek. "Did anybody get hurt when you guys… uh, 'rescued' me?"
"Well." There was a brief pause as she began to descend. "I'm not gonna bullshit you, Danny. Yes, people got hurt. People died. I dunno how many. I will, however, assure you I ain't got an ounce of blood on my hands."
He had anticipated it, but it still felt like a punch to the gut. He squeezed the railing for support and asked with as much force as he could, "Why?"
Radcliffe squirmed, and it actually made Cactusman feel better. "That's a difficult question. Like, you have to understand that the Insurgency and the Foundation have fundamentally different goals. The Foundation squirrels anomalies away, and the Insurgency… the Insurgency wants to bring it to the light of day. To make them normal. To make us normal, Danny."
Spines erupted from nearly every inch of skin on Cactusman's body. "And that's worth killing people over? That the Foundation should just die and let you do what you want?"
When Radcliffe looked away from him without responding, Cactusman reached out to grasp her shoulder without realizing he was still covered in spines. Before he could reach, Langley grabbed him by the wrist. Blood seeped onto the bandages in two places, but still Langley didn't show any reaction.
"Mister MacIntyre, please don't act as if we find this easy. We don't." He released Cactusman and removed the spines stuck in his hand, then picked up the two cacti he had set down. "I know better than most that not everyone in the Foundation is coldhearted. I had good friends when I worked there. I do this job not only because I believe in the Insurgency's cause, but because I know if I didn't, another Insurgent would take my place. And they may not show the same mercy as I."
Cactusman took to chewing on his tongue rather than his cheek. Mulling over what he said, it made sense. But it didn't make Cactusman any happier. Instead of dwelling on it, Cactusman took to removing the spines from himself as they walked.
He overheard Radcliffe comment on Langley's bleeding, who dismissed it with, "Won't have this arm much longer, anyway."
Yet as odd a comment as that was, Cactusman couldn't ignore the thoughts of the Foundation that continued to surface. They made him realize he didn't know that much about the Foundation. Who was he to cast judgement on those that opposed them? Yet still the idea of the Insurgency killing Foundation personnel left him uneasy, and unsure of whether he should assist them.
But, as if on cue from a higher power, some of the payload of a nearby rolling pallet trolley dislodged itself and crashed down to the ground. Before Langley or Radcliffe could say anything on the matter, Cactusman rushed forward to aid his new comrades. He hefted up one of the barrels, which had a strip of transparent material on it to reveal the red liquid within it. The men with the trolley thanked him and together they loaded the three fallen barrels back onto the roller.
"Happy to help," Cactusman assured, short of breath. Having to yell over the din certainly didn't make being heard any easier. He wiggled his aching fingers before waving the men off. When he turned back to Langley and Radcliffe, the former was watching the barrels with a thoughtful look on his face- the first real expression Cactusman had seen on him.
"You alright?” Cactusman asked. A cocktail of curiosity and satisfaction in his recent minor heroics almost washed his previous thoughts from his mind with an efficiency near comparable to the amnestic lingering in his system.
"Fine," Langley said. His gaze remained on the trolley for a moment longer before looking down to Cactusman. "Come on. Let's go."
The trio exited the massive room and entered one of the various tunnels leading out of it. Traffic had diminished to a point where Cactusman was no longer shoulder-to-shoulder with people, but it was still packed. He glanced around, acutely more aware of how close Langley and Radcliffe were sticking to him. Did they think he was going to make a break for it or something? Couldn't be too careful, he supposed.
"So what is it they want this cactus thing for?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Hell if I know." Radcliffe threw her palms up in an exaggerated shrug. "I was just told to have you calm it down, and that you were super important and not to let anything bad happen to you."
"Uh… Mr. Langley?"
"I don't know, either. The Insurgency works on a very strict need-to-know basis. Given your general disposition I doubt it is anything particularly violent."
Cactusman planned on giving a response but his brain was sideswiped when he saw a very tall… thing approach from down the hall. It must have been fifteen feet tall, and was composed of little more than a round head and lots of limbs. Jutting from the side of its bulb were several pieces of electronic equipment, including what looked like a headset. It bobbed at Langley, who tilted his head in response. Cactusman spun and walked backwards to continue watching it, and it only gave him an odd look with one of its six eyes. Radcliffe bounced around and then extended a hand, which the creature slapped with one of its own.
"That's Johnson," Radcliffe explained when she noticed Cactusman staring. "I love that guy."
"Oh, like nobody can pronounce his real name. It's long, has weird inflections. Plus it makes your ears bleed." She smiled. "Transreality beings, am I right?"
Cactusman had to put some effort into not tripping as she explained it. He gave a rigid nod and then spun about face, remembering that talking to Radcliffe made things worse somehow.
After several twists and turns through the tunnels of the complex, the herd thinned out until it was just Cactusman and his escorts. Every twenty feet down the hallway was a door with a number emblazoned on it. Radcliffe marched to Number 836 and produced a key from her hand, which jammed into the doorknob. When the lock clicked open she pressed the key into her left palm, which sank into the skin without any resistance until it was gone.
"Hello, Mister MacIntyre, welcome home." With a half-bow and a grand sweep of an arm Radcliffe ushered Cactusman inside.
The apartment was small and congested thanks to all the boxes and various knickknacks cluttering the ground and shelves. Empty boxes of food, dirty dishes, and discarded bottles covered the tables and counters. Trash Mountain, situated within and on top of the only visible garbage can, looked ready to suffer an avalanche. There was, however, a series of very clear cut paths throughout the room. Cactusman's gaze alternated between the absurdly large flat screen television and the old furniture before shrugging.
"I'm a bit of a collector," Radcliffe explained. She vaulted the leather couch and stretched. "Make yourself at home!"
"Sorry for the mess," Langley said with a quarter-hearted shrug. He stepped out of his shoes and kicked them next to the door. Cactilad and Spikigirl were placed on one of the tables, a large lamp pointed directly at the open space they were situated in. "Try not to hurt yourself."
"God, how much would that suck?" Radcliffe said as she switched on the TV. "We break him out and take him in and then he kills himself tripping on my Wondertainment merch."
Shuffling his way through the path was easy enough, and when he arrived at the couch Radcliffe stared at him for a moment before realizing she should move to make room. Meanwhile, Langley was rustling through the kitchen drawers.
"You hungry, MacIntyre?" he asked. He stood and displayed several bags of ramen noodles. Cactusman just nodded. "Alex?"
"Hook me up, I'll grab the movie." Radcliffe bounced back off the couch and scampered into one of the other rooms, quickly returning with a DVD box.
"So… this it?" Cactusman asked. "We watch a movie and eat some noodles?"
Radcliffe pulled away from the DVD player. "Do you not like ramen? We have some other stuff, you could just say so."
"No, I mean, this is it? I thought you guys were supposed to be making a difference or something. But you're just… watching movies."
"Gotta have an off switch, Danny-boy. I mean, it's not like you're Cactusman all the time, right? You gotta be Daniel MacIntyre for a while."
Radcliffe gave him an odd look, her head tilting almost ninety degrees. A sudden hitch in her throat let out a strangled sound before she started laughing. Her own hand slapped over her mouth and she fidgeted for a few seconds, as if the laugh was trying to find some other exit. Eventually she managed to gulp it down and smiled awkwardly at Cactusman. She stepped over the messy table and sat uncomfortably close to him, wrapping an arm around him.
"You poor, poor bastard. Well, don't worry!" A very fake looking flower ejected itself from her right palm and tickled Cactusman under his nose. "We'll fix you right up. I mean, probably. Eventually. Until then the three of us can be bestest buddies!"
"That does wonders for my morale."
"I know, right? Like, look at me! I'm probably annoying as fuck, and I'm Beta Class! That's pretty good. And now I have two super-depressed buddies that I can just pour joy and enthusiasm into despite the fact that doing so is likely actively damaging you mentally, but I can't stop myself because either I genuinely can't filter my thoughts or being a loudmouth jackass is just a defense mechanism for my utterly fucked up situation of working for an organization whose methods I don't fully support. Yet it's somehow better than the alternatives because some old motherfuckers behind their desks decided I wasn't normal and had to be locked up like some kinda side show attraction instead of the main stage magician I wanted to be! But hey! At least I might not have to suffer it long due to the physical dangers of my missions."
Flabbergasted, Cactusman just stared at her grin. His mind had finally started working at full capacity, and now it felt bogged down in gunk again. For whatever reason it decided to notice her left large incisor had a small chip on the side. After what felt like a week her mouth moved to ask, "So, wanna watch a movie, Cactusman?"
Daniel MacIntyre blinked. "Yeah. Uh. Movie sounds good, actually. And just call me Daniel."