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The Keratin and the Chitinous


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Saturday, February 27, 2021

10:21 AM


"Well, the schedule says it was supposed to be here at quarter after," Ryder confirmed, scrolling down the page on his phone and confirming he was looking at the right day. He and Danica had left the Claremont Academy dorms with plenty of extra time to get to efficiently titled Lab for their 10:30 rendezvous with Eira and whomever was working that morning but after disembarking to switch crosstown buses they'd been waiting a good ten minutes. "Maybe it was a little early and we missed that one?"


It seemed unlikely since the other commuters standing at the bus stop had already been there when they had arrived. A stout man with a bald head turning pinkish in the cold winter air was tapping his foot impatiently while a young mother with a stroller covered by a weather shield did her best not to make eye contact with the leather jacket and studded choker-wearing teenager sitting beside her on the only bench, idly tuning a black cherry electric guitar.


Even with his bright red scarf sticking out of layers of canary yellow hoodie and jewel tone windbreaker Ryder could feel the cold seeping in and he got the impression Danica was feeling it more acutely. He tossed his phone back into his satchel, catching muted annoyed clicking from within. Craning his neck to look for signs of the bus coming down the street he did some quick math in his head. They weren't far from the Lab now but even hurrying he wouldn't make it there on foot for 10:30 and it would be a pretty miserable walk for his classmate. "Well, guess we get there when we get there, huh?"

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"There's always a bus coming along in Freedom City!" Danica agreed, doing her best to maintain her optimism despite the miserable cold. The Segway she'd been borrowing had finally given up the ghost completely, and since the company wasn't even selling them anymore, she was kind of out of options. She'd tried one of the scooters the company made now, but they were too wobbly to actually stand on, and trying to put her foot down all the time for balance sort of defeated the purpose. So this morning she was on foot and unshelled, dressed in as many layers of warm things as she could get away with, and waiting for a bus that hadn't come yet. She was super glad Ryder had come with her, or she might have given in to the temptation to be kind of miserable.


The clicking from Ryder's backpack caught her attention. "Oh," she asked, immediately perking up, "did you bring Magenta with?"

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"Haha, she kinda insisted," Ryder laughed. He adjusted his scarf to sit a little higher up around his face then shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. "Uh, are you doing okay in this weather? 'Cause of... stuff?" He didn't have a good idea of the ins and outs of Danica's abilities but he wouldn't have wanted to be any amount part reptile in cold wind and piled up slush.


The bald man standing a few feet away from them didn't seem to need any additional reasons to be frustrated with the wait. The baby in the covered stroller decided to give him one anyway, choosing that time to begin wailing at an impressive volume, ignoring their mother's weary attempts to lull it back to sleep by rolling it back and forth. The irritated man glanced in their direction and muttered under his breath, looking straight up in the air with a scowl. The guitarist began picking out a few discordant notes, sharp and tinny without an amp attached, which only prompted further screams from the displeased infant.

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"Freedom City weather in February is awful," Danica confided. "Back where I used to live, by February it was already in the seventies every day, and the most beautiful time of the whole year! I miss how it used to get so hot in the summer that you could see heat lines rising up off the streets and making everything wavy..." She sighed wistfully, hugging her arms a little closer to her chest. 


The fretful baby caught her attention, drawing a sympathetic "aww" from the disguised tortoise girl. "Poor baby," she crooned, nudging a little bit of big, calm, slowsleepy feelings towards the stroller. Babies loved that sort of thing, and it was usually pretty good for calming down fussy parents, too. To her surprise, it seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the child's angry cries. "Huh," she murmured to Ryder. "That usually works. I wonder if he's, like, a psychic baby." 

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"The who's a what?" Ryder asked in a similarly hushed tone, furrowing his brow.


"Can't you shut that thing up?!" the bald man snapped, stopping his work boots in the slush hard enough to spray slush in a small radius around him. The mother, bundled up in a long black coat and bright red mittens did her best to ignore him, pulling her shoulders together as though trying to make herself smaller as she continues to rock the stroller back and forth, making soft shushing noises. The stocky contractor made a face when she didn't respond and took a step closer.


Ryder closed the distance faster, sliding across the wet sidewalk to come up next to the larger man, his hands raised placatingly in front of him. "Hey, c'mon," he interrupted in his best 'dealing with difficult customers' voice, "wasting your time yelling at a baby, amirite?"


"Yeah, #$%&," the guitarist chimed in, tossing her head so that the purple streak in her otherwise black hair fell back from her face, still playing. Her tone was sharp and mocking. "Why don't you just calm down?"


Predictably that had the exact opposite effect as the entirety of his exposed head grew redder and his hands balled up into fists. Ryder opened his mouth to quickly try again but was distracted as he realized that the tinny, unplugged sound from the guitar had subtly changed, sounding fuller and louder by the moment. The aggressive power chords building momentum were familiar somehow and he looked back over his shoulder, confused. The angry man shoved him out of the way as he took another step forward.

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Danica didn't move fast, especially on cold days like this, but she could analyze a situation fast enough. While Ryder tried to deal with the angry guy, Danica made her way behind him, putting herself between the angry man and his targets. "Everybody is cold and frustrated," she began, "but we can all-" When the guy shoved Ryder, Danica barely even thought before her shell was forming up around her, much bigger than usual, big enough that it also enveloped mother and baby in a shell-structure the size of a family tent. 

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The advancing commuter stumbled back in surprise at the appearance of the enlarged shell, slipping and falling heavily onto the concrete. The music increased in volume until Ryder had to throw his hands over his ears. The leather jacket wearing teenager got gracefully to her feet without missing a note, chunky combat boots leaving deep imprints in the piled snow. She noticed the young inventor watching her and gave him a wicked, toothy grin while picking up the pace.


Although unnoticed in the growing chaos a Freedom City bus drove right past them all without stopping, flashing a NOT IN SERVICE message across its digital display.


Sitting on the ground with his hand in a frigid puddle the bald man screamed in fury, the sound of it lost in the shredding guitar solo. He tried to stand but doubled over in pain as icy blue energy began to radiate from him like steam rising from boiling water. One wall of the bus stop shelter shattered from the force of the music, bits of plexiglass bouncing off of Danica's shell. Ryder turned back around just in time to see the blue light take shape and the man collapse as the with a final wailing note the music stopped.


The weirdly translucent monster looming over them was built like an elephant but it's limbs ended in massive canine claws. The front shoulders continued into a unnaturally broad humanoid torso with oversized simian arms with knuckles that dragged along the ground. Its head looked like skin stretched too tightly across a lupine skull with machete sized teeth curving outward from its mouth and a pair of mammoth tusks protruding from either side of its lower jaw. It's low, angry grow was a crunchy bass progression and its wild mane vibrated in time like a sound wave projection, powerful enough that everyone present could feel it rattling their bones.

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"Aw man, another one of these guy!" Ryder yelped as he reflexively ducked his head down against the volume of its growl. He spared a look around them; the guitarist had vanished in the brief moment he'd taken his eyes off of her. Traffic was screeching to a halt in either direction and pedestrians across the street were stopping to point or running for cover. "Don't mind me, nothing to see..." He muttered to himself as he unzipped his windbreaker and brought a hand down to his chunky, printer ink cartridge-shaped belt buckle. Scrambling in a half crouch he dropped his bag onto the bench and tried to put Danica's enlarged shell between him and as many onlookers as possible.


Once he'd managed the textbook definition of good-enough cover he pressed the chambers of the cartridge in sequence, prompting a cheerful computerized voice to announce, "CYMK! Dream in colour!" Throwing his arms out to either side Ryder commanded, "Chitin! Online!" A burst of displaced air sent broken plexiglass on the ground scattering away and light could be seen flaring up from over the top of the shell. With the sound of ratcheting machinery and electronics powering up the base suit and armour emerged from its dimensional pocket and formed around him.


As he stepped out around the other side of Danica he stood tall, the multifaceted eye pieces of his helmet lighting up with a soft white glow as he pointed to the translucent blue monster. "I call these things Ragin 'cause they're like big electric rage demons! Last time we had to take it down before the guy woke up!"

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The shaggy elephant wolf beast turned its toothy head from the huge tortoise shell in its way to the newly appeared armoured figure, tusks swinging back and forth. One of them caught the top of the bus stop sign and bent it over as though it were thin cardboard. Its bulk coiled, a low rumble like a distortion pedal being used of an electric bass coming from its throat. In a flash it massive arms swung forward, gorilla-like muscles ending in impossible jagged claws. It's two front paws, just as sharp and deadly, added to the barrage that scraped against Chelone's shell with battering force and knocked Chitin back. The insectile inventor impacted with what was left of the bus stop shelter with a crack and a yelp before quickly regaining his balance and readying himself.

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"Okay, good to know!" Danica called back, her voice echoing a bit as it came out the top of the shell. Reaching out, she put her hand on the brass doorknob set in the side of the shell and opened it, revealing the nice little bedroom beyond. "Quick," she encouraged the terrified mother in the shell with her, "get in here, I promise you'll be safe."


As soon as mother and baby were safe in her dimensional room, Danica let the big shell poof back down into its normal version. "I'm very sorry that we have to hurt you!" she called to the Ragin, "we just want to keep you from doing a whole rampaging thing!" Cupping her hands, she produced her tiny blue spectral tortoise and then launched it towards the monster. It flew through the air, opening its pointy little mouth as it went, and landed bite-first on the creature's misshapen shoulder! 

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For a moment the Ragin and Chelone's little tortoise might have almost been cut from the same spectral cloth in their respective glowing blues but as the latter bit down with unexpected force on the former's shoulder it roared a staccato series of snare drum hits and reared back in pained surprise.


Chitin took the moment to recover from its attack and called out, "Mag! Time to show off!" The Robug mantis burst free of the bag he'd set down and scurried up the side of the bus stop shelter before launching herself toward him. The armoured hero quickly toggled the chambers of his belt as Magenta reconfigured midair and landed onto his helmet, incorporating into the faceplate where her curved forelimbs became windswept fins over the forehead. "Orchid Mantis Instar! Say your prayers!" the belt chimed in again as hot pink and white armoured panels appeared and attached themselves across the chest and arms. Long extensions flipped out from his forearms and locked into place in his hands, thrumming with energy.


"Here we go!" Chitin rushed forward and took a series of swipes at the beast's elephant-like flanks, bobbing and weaving as he went. The Ragin proved more agile than its bulk suggested, batting at him with massive paws and keeping him on the move. Finally one attack landed, slicing though its weirdly semi-material form and sending disruptive shudders throughout its outline!

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Harried by Chitin on one side, the misshapen lupine creature snarled a minor chord progression and focused its attention on what looked like a much easier target. Stopping a step closer to Chelone it reared back on its rear legs so that its front paws, hulking upper arms and tusked head were all bared in her directions, then roared with the boneshaking fury of a wall of speakers feeding back upon themselves.


When the tortoise heroine stood resolute against its bellows it thrashed its head about in rage, outline vibrating into serrated peaks before it crashed down upon her with its full weight and savagery, leaving Chitin to cry out in dismay!

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"Oh, that's so cool!" Chelone enthused as the Robug showed off its other talent besides being an adorable sidekick. The delight lasted as long as it took for the monster to turn its attention on her, its roars and bellows enough to blow her hair backwards and set her ears ringing. She put her hands on her hips and glared up at it. "I'm not scared of you!" she shouted. "You're a jerk and a bully! Don't you know it's not rad to- eep!" She squeaked in alarm and pulled back into her shell as the thing abruptly went from posturing to actually attacking. 


It seemed inevitable that the massive size and power of the creature would crush the pretty black and gold shell like an egg, but that didn't happen. Instead, an instant before the raijin's tusks made contact, the gold patterning of the shell began to glow as though lit from within. The tusks, then the entire raijin, were repelled as though it had run face-first into an impervium wall. As soon as it pulled back, Danica emerged from the shell again. Her eyes were pure black from edge to edge now, and her voice was slow and resonant. "You are a fool to attack that which you cannot harm."  One slow sweep of her hand and another ghostly blue tortoise appeared in the air, this one substantially larger than the usual little guy. It sailed leisurely through the air and clamped strong spectral jaws right onto the creature's furry throat.  

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The beast rebounded off of Chelone's shell and toppled over to one side, flattening a newspaper box with a screech of protesting metal. The big gorilla arms flailed about looking for something to grab onto to push its pachyderm bulk back up, forcing Chitin to duck under a wild swing and juke back over to where his classmate was standing. "Haha, wow! Tortoise denied!" While the Ragin tried unsuccessfully to fend off the enlarged ghostly tortoise he reached down to press the chambers on his belt in sequence again and a faint hum of building power began rising from his armour. "Let's hit it with everything we've got before it smashes anything else! Ready?" Brilliant pink light grew in intensity from behind the armour panels along his shoulders and arms, collecting in the energy blades and pulsing faster and faster.

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Chelone nodded, those big black eyes regarding Ryder with fierce intensity. "We shall not fail to destroy the aggressor," she assured him, then raised her hand again. It seemed to take forever, long moments of no hurry at all as blue light collected in the palm of her hand, but finally one more dog-sized tortoise took shape. She released it with a flick of her fingers and it flew, seeming to follow Ryder's blades of energy straight towards the heart of the beast! 

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As the glowing reptile took flight Chitin coiled his legs beneath him and launch forward into a leap propelled by his armour's servos. His foot touched down on the tortoise's shell just long enough to use it as a stepping stone to soar yet higher, both energy blades held above his head as though he were preparing to dunk a basketball. "CYMKutters!" his belt called out cheerfully while he brought the blades down in a cross, just as Chelone's unusual missile clamped its jaws closed with supernatural force!


Chitin landed on the other side of the Ragin in a three point crouch, leaving behind the afterimage of a pink X hanging in the air. For a moment the creature's lupine head looked merely surprised. The each of its massive tusks slid free, cleanly sliced in half. Before they could reach the ground the bite shaped hole in its lower chest vibrated with a sounds like a hundred snare drums falling down a flight of stairs and the entire Ragin exploded in a burst of icy blue energy!

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Chelone remained still where she was, watching the action and merely closing her eyes as the massive rush of blue energy washed over her. By the time it passed by and she opened her eyes again, her shell was no longer glowing and her eyes had returned to their normal color. "Wow!" she cheered enthusiastically. "That was wicked! You were just, like, slice-slice, and bam! Pwned!"


She waited for a moment or two to make sure that the monster was really-truly not coming back, then embiggened her shell once more to let the poor bystanders out of her pocket dimension. "It's okay," she encouraged the frightened young mother, "the monster's gone now, and I'm sure the bus is going to come soon!" She held the door open so mom and stroller could get out, then poofed away the shell, leaving herself looking like a normal teenager once more. 

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"And your ghost tortoise guy was like vwom-vwom-vwom-CHOMP!" Chitin responded after racing back over the Chelone, pumping his arms in enthusiasm. The extended blade portions of the armour snapped back into place along his forearms, giving him a less immediately threatening silhouette by the time mother and her baby had reappeared amidst the slush and scattered newspapers. "Hi there! The, uh, other people who were waiting for the bus all got to safety too so don't worry about that!" He gave her a big thumbs up!


A low groan came from the cement as the bald man groggily came-to. He didn't make any attempt to stand up, instead covering his eyes with his hand to block out the late morning sunlight overhead. "Nnuugh. Had a dream I was yelling at a baby. What that hell."

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"Ooooh," Danica said sympathetically, slowly approaching the bald guy. He looked much less scary now, and more like just a guy laying in some slush. "Yeah, that was really weird. You had a whole big monster come right out of you and fight some superheroes, but I think you're better now." She crouched down and looked him over. "Did you get hurt anywhere? Do you have a headache? I think I have an icepack and some aspirin in here someplace." She scooched her backpack down off her shoulders so she could dig around inside. "Man, Freedom City, right?"

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The prone man groaned more loudly before hauling himself into a seated position, hand still over his eyes. "You friggin' said it, kid. At least the food's good." Finally dropping his hand he looked about the scene with a morose expression. "Maaaaan, I've been making some real progress at therapy, too."


"If it helps, I'm pretty sure the giant monster part wasn't directly your fault," Chitin chimed in, body language casual but very pointedly standing between the bald man and the still nervous young mother. "Happened to another guy who lost his cool the other day, too."


He looked up blearily and caught sight of the woman behind the armoured teenager. "Aw jeez. Lady, I'm real sorry about yelling and scaring you. I've been trying to be better than that but it ain't fair you had to deal with it."


Chitin caught Danica's eye and gave a small shrug, trying to figure out if they needed to stick around or make a graceful exit.

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Catching Ryder's look, Danica gave him a half-shrug and a rueful grin. They didn't have a lot of departure options at this point, and none of them were graceful. She brushed a hand over her front to suggest that he might want to lose the armor at some point.


Returning her attention to the dazed civilian, she dug a water bottle out of her backpack and gave it to him. "Here, drink this, it should help some. Anybody can get upset, and it's great that you're working to manage your emotions so nobody gets hurt by them! That's really going to make your life better and help the people around you, too!" She pushed herself slowly to her feet and offered the man a hand up. "The bus is gonna be here soon, but you might want to get a cab or something so you can go home and rest and maybe change your clothes."

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With Danica skillfully calming down the bystanders, Chitin took a few awkward steps back away from the group. "Okay, well, no more monsters to fight. Stay safe... citizens?" He raised an armoured hand to wave. "Okay, bye!" The surfaces of his suit seemed to ripple briefly before his entire figure disappeared from view. A faint blur in the air and some soft squelching noises in the slush followed by the grunt preceding a leap gave a pretty good idea that he'd left the immediate area.


Still rattled by the entire experience the young mother had made her polite excuses after thanking Danica and hurried away in what may well have been a random direction. The other man took the teen's advice and used a ride share app to call for a ride. In the meantime Ryder reappeared from around the corner of a nearby building, jogging back over to the bus stop. He reached the side of the road just as the requested car arrived... just ahead of a salt stained bus.

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"Ryder!" Danica called out cheerfully. "You're just in time! The bus is here!" After everything that had happened, it was kind of funny that it was just the two of them boarding the bus. Danica wasn't sure where the terrible guitar player had gotten off to, but she'd probably had the good sense to take off when a monster had appeared! The bus driver of course made no apology or even comment about being so late, but Danica just smiled at her and scanned her reduced-fare pass, then slowly made her way to on of the front seats. Once they were safely seated, Danica stashed her backpack under her legs and looked at her friend. "So what do you think Ragin are? Some kind of monster made up of, like, angry feelings?" 

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"Aah, I don't know?" Ryder answered quietly next to Danica, opening the flap of his bag just enough to make sure Magenta was situated comfortably. "I think maybe the anger part is just the juice? Like, the power source. Both this guy and the one Utsuwa and I met woke up and were conspicuously chill afterward." He looked around the interior of the bus uncomfortably, trying to shake the feeling that they were being watched. "You heard the music right before it manifested or whatever though, right? That girl at the bus stop was playing and it seemed like she was trying to egg the guy on and it was super loud but there was no sound system. The way they sound like instruments and sort of look like a sound wave on the outside it's just..." The younger student made rapid, aimless movements with his hands in a frenetic expression as he tried to find the words. "It's an aesthetic. Like my armour doesn't need to look the way it does but I like it. The Ragin's whole thing feels intentional like that."

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Danica considered that. "Yeah, I guess I wasn't thinking about it very much, but that girl with the guitar was acting pretty sus. Who starts taunting a big guy who's already melting down unless they want to cause trouble?" She closed her eyes and tipped her head back. "Hang on, I've got a really good memory if I have a second to think about stuff." Raising her hands, she began slowly moving them to sketch the imaginary scene. "She was like a teenager, kind of a punk look, leather jacket, chokers, purple stripe in her hair. She had an electric guitar that wasn't plugged in, so dark red it almost looked black. She was playing, but when things started going bad, she started playing bad." 


She opened her eyes and looked at Ryder. "Do you think maybe she used the guitar to do some kind of spell? That might explain why I couldn't make people calm down even though that almost always works! I don't think I saw her again after I made my shell big. She might have gotten scared away by heroes being around." 

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