Steven Singer glanced in panic over his back shoulder. He was running so hard he couldn't feel his feet anymore. The tremendous, mouthless, crimson figure was still closing in on him, chanting, "I want your brain! I want your brain!"
The red giant extended a huge, bony, crimson finger topped with a pointed fingernail. The ebon-clawed finger was trying to touch him. Steve tried to dodge out of the way, but he couldn't move. Finally, the black claw tapped the back of his head, pierced his skull, and touched his brain.
The world congealed into a multitude of luminous colors, much like the effect a person sees when he presses on his eyes too hard. What had the world looked like before that, anyway? He had been to scared to notice. Or was it that he just couldn't — or wouldn't — remember? The colors looked so pretty here, so serene, why should he worry about some dumb giant chasing after him with a red finger? He could still hear the giant's voice echoing in his mind like some unforgettable guilt: "I want your brain! Pay attention! You aren't looking at me, Ste —"
The voice broke off as soon as it hit the name. Ste___ . . . Ste what? What was his name? Not that it mattered, but some part of him still thought it was important to remember for some reason. Awh, that part could go to the Ice Circle for all he cared; he just wanted to watch the pretty lights.
And just as he began to thoroughly enjoy his new environment, he woke up.
"Aw shucks," he swore lightly, and opened his eyes.
The room looked totally unfamiliar to him. The ceiling was of lumpy styrofoam interspersed with cheap gold glitter. He didn't remember that; then again, he didn't remember what his normal ceiling looked like either. He looked further down: one window, with blue curtains drawn. He looked down at the bed he lay in. There was a huge block on top of him under the covers.
Scared, he pulled the quilt and sheets off his body. Yes, there was a two-foot-high block of concrete sitting on top of him. Funny, he couldn't even feel it was there. He reached up to push the block off, then noticed that his arms were concrete too.
In fact, he gasped, his arms were sticking out of the concrete block. The block wasn't sitting on top of him, it was him! He tried to sit up, but found that impossible with a solid concrete waist. Straining, he looked over the brick that was his torso at his legs; they were concrete just like his arms were.
"What is going on?!" he muttered aloud. He scanned the room, but there was no mirror. There was, however, a door that probably led either to a closet or an adjoining bathroom. He rolled — or rather, clunked — to the side of his bed and tried to work legs obscured by concrete onto the floor. Somehow this worked, and he stood up and walked to the door.
Balance wasn't too much of a problem, although his stride appeared rather short. He grabbed the doorknob and turned it quickly; it came off in his hand.
"Well, this is just great!" he cursed, and rapped once on the door with the back of his hand. There was a crash, and the door crumbled to flinders. He looked down at his concrete backhand impressedly, and walked through the empty doorframe into the bathroom.
The only mirror was on the back of the medicine cabinet, half a meter high at best. He cursed whoever furnished this place for not installing a full-length mirror, and examined himself. His arms were indeed part of the concrete block below his neck. They were of smooth concrete, but surprisingly mobile and quite muscular in appearence. His head rested on top of the giant brick; however, it wasn't concrete at all but normal flesh and bone. He guessed that the face belonged to a man in his thirties.
Doing a double take at this, he ran one hand along his cheek to make sure it was for real. His cheek felt like there was a rock hand rubbing against it, and his rock hand felt like there was a cheek rubbing against it. Whom did that face belong to? Maybe that dream . . . what was that dream about anyway? Something about wanting his brain, something about a salt shaker, maybe; those were the only details he recalled other than blissful oblivion.
Perhaps he had an I.D. in one of his pairs of pants. He exited the bathroom and looked for a wardrobe closet. There wasn't any other adjoining room save the bathroom, there were no closed cabinets, and there wasn't so much as a pair of shoes lying about on the floor. Oh well, he really didn't need to cover anything up, nor did he need shoes if he had concrete feet; and on that thought, he decided to go outside and get some answers. He found a loaded key-ring hanging on the left foot bedpost, snatched it up, opened the front door veeeery gently, and locked it behind him.
He was on the first floor of a two-level apartment complex, the number on his door being 7. Instinctively, he reached for a pocket to put his keys in, then recalled that he had none and figured he'd have to carry the stupid key ring around with him. He walked toward the front gate, every step setting off a minor tremor under his crushing weight.
No sooner was he outside than a woman in her thirties cought sight of him and ran to him. "Steve!" she called on the way there. He froze and rolled his eyes up into his head. "Steve Singer," she said when she reached him, "What are you doing in that get-up?"
He put a rocky hand to his chin. "So my name's Steven Singer, huh?"
"What?!" the woman blurted.
"Am I supposed to know you?"
"Oh, stop kidding around — I know it's you, Steve. What are you doing dressed up like a giant brick? Halloween isn't for —"
"Look, I hate to tell you this, but I've apparently got amnesia. I didn't even know my name until about thirty seconds ago."
"You mean you don't even know the woman you're going to get married to in two weeks?" She held up a small diamond ring.
"Married? Uh, sorry —"
"Nice try, but you're not getting out of it that easily."
"Well, hey, you are an awfully attractive woman, and I wouldn't be surprised if I had proposed to you, but I just don't remember anything."
She exhaled. "Well, this is just great, and on top of that, you're running around with a box over your body and white paint on your arms and legs."
"Uh, that's not quite true," he said, and brought his right arm out in front of her. "Feel that."
It looked too stubby and muscular to be his, but she felt it anyway. "Good lord," she noted, "It feels like marble."
"Concrete is my guess," he replied.
She blinked a few times, utterly confused. "Your arms are made out of concrete."
"And so's my brick-shaped torso and, apparently, my legs. Uh, could you tell me how long my legs are?"
She was more nervous now. "About a foot and a half."
"That's all? Well, so much for my career as an Olympic track star."
"You . . . were never going to be an Olympic track star."
"Whew! I'm glad for that. Did I have a car? I mean, there's two keys on this ring and . . . uh, never mind, I wouldn't be able to fit in anything short of a Mack truck cab anyway."
"Look, why don't I drive you down to your office in the Exxmen building? Maybe being around where you work will refresh your memory."
"Great, I hope you have a large back seat."
She did. If he drew in his legs, tucked his head, and lay diagonally he could just fit. She started the engine. "By the way," he asked, "What do I do for a living?"
"Steve!" cried dozens of turning heads it the Exxmen Corp. office. "What are you all dressed up for?"
"It's not a costume," his newly-met fiancée explained, "Something has happened to him. He's become solid concrete except for his head, and he's lost his memory on top of that."
"A new super hero?!" Skippy the Desk Jockey blurted out, unable to contain his excitement. "Oh, wow, this is too good keep!" He was on the phone with the Daily Planetary Bugle instantly.
Steven slapped his palm into his face, which was actually quite painful. "A SUPER hero?! For crying out loud, I don't even know who I am! I mean, just because I'm made of concrete and have tremendous strength is no reason to . . ." His voice trailed off. Just how strong was he anyhow?
"Singer!" a voice boomed out. The man whom the voice belonged to had just stepped out of a private office labelled "The Boss." "What's the meaning of this?! Are you trying to wreck our image or something?"
"Honestly, whoever you are, this is no joke. Whatever I was before, I'm now just a brick with arms and legs."
The Boss was a little more skeptical than this. He stormed up to Steve and rapped on his body. There wasn't so much as a hollow echo. "You just did this to get out of having to go up in front of the board of directors, didn't you?"
"Even if I didn't, I've got amnesia and I wouldn't have the foggiest idea of what to say to Mr. Harding or Mr. Fisk."
His incipient wife gasped.
"H — how did I know their names?" He searched his mind. "Company profits for last year exceeded one point five million dollars in our new line of square food cans — well, I remember some things."
At that instant, the door burst open and a crowd of reporters and photographers all gabbered their way inside. He recognized one of the reporters as Cal Heat; he looked wimpy, but was always somehow able to push his way to the front of the mob.
"Tell us, Mr. Brick, just how do you intend to handle criminals in this city?"
"MAN BECOMES BRICK," the headlines read. "Heroic Brick with Arms and Legs Recalls Nothing About His Past."
Steve put down the paper. "So who's a hero?" he asked.
Susan (that was her name) put down the percolator and carried two cups of coffee into the living room. Her place was much larger than his. "Why don't you go out and battle a few criminals? It'd take your mind off things."
"Sue, I don't think I'm responding to treatment. The docs can't get me to remember anything. I went to a full-length mirror, and looked between my ridiculously short legs, and I didn't have any plumbing there. X-rays can't find anything but concrete under my silicon epidermis, and when they tried chiseling — or rather jack-hammering — away at it, it hurt. There's no reason for you to be taking care of me."
"Sure there is, hon." She sipped from her cup and he took his. "As soon as we get your memory back, we can reschedule our wedding."
"Hmph. There isn't much point in marrying someone who doesn't have genitals, is there?" He drank. The coffee was scalding hot, but he didn't feel it go down past his throat.
"I know this is only temporary. It has to be. You had some terrible accident that changed you into this . . . this thing, and you chose to forget it because it was so horrible."
"No, I don't quite think so."
"The night before I woke to this body, I had a rather unsettling nightmare. I could hardly remember it until recently. There was this red giant running after me —"
"You were being chased by a star?"
"No, no, not a Red Giant, a giant that was red. He was chasing me and yelling, 'I want your brain! I want your brain!' Then he pointed a bony red finger at me and touched my brain with his claw, and then the whole world turned into random colors."
"Mmmm. What was the world like before it turned into colors?"
"I don't really remember, I was too scared of — wait, that's right! I was underground, in some tunnel lined with parallel pipes! I was trying to run, but my legs wouldn't move fast enough."
He looked down at his legs over his protruding torso. "Or they were too short!"
She was now thoroughly caught up in his mood. "Uh . . . what was he chasing you for?"
"He wanted my brain, obviously."
"No, I mean did you do anything before that to make him want to chase you?"
"Um. . . . I was running, and before that . . . No, I can't think of anything. There was some reference to a salt shaker, but that's it."
"Salt shaker. Do you think you took his salt shaker?"
"No, I didn't steal anything. More likely I used his salt shaker without his permission or something."
"Salt shaker . . . salt shaker . . . what could it mean?"
The Brick was just as confused as Susan. He opened the newspaper to the second page. A little article almost made him drop his coffee cup. "Government O.K.'s Operation of Salt Shaker Nuclear Accelerator: Most controversial synchrotron since the Transmuter to power up Monday."
"I really don't know about this, Steve," Susan worried.
"Please," he said, securing his crash helmet in place, "The name's Brick for this scenario. My call name's Brick One. Got that?"
"Yes sir, your majesty."
"Look, it's the only way. Those guards aren't about to let me in there, and I have to know."
"But you'll be a fugitive!"
"Maybe. Or maybe I'll expose what's really going on."
"The stakes are awfully high to play a hunch based on what you thought you dreamed."
He closed his eyes. "Yeah, I know. G'bye, Susy," he said, and kissed her goodbye.
"Good luck, love," she replied.
'At least that part still works,' he thought as he lowered his faceplate and stepped out onto the battlezone.
"Halt!" yelled the two guards as soon as he was in view. They levelled their rifles.
Brick One put his hands up sardonically. "Aren't you guys overreacting just a little bit?"
Frightened, the two guards glanced at each other, then looked back at Brick one and opened fire.
Brick one gasped, then dove for the ground. Not only were they shooting at him, they were shooting at him with automatic weapons. At least three pounds of lead had entered the scene in the first few seconds. He glanced down at his concrete body, hoped for the best, then stood up and charged.
One bullet hit him instantly, and that was enough to stun him. He dropped to the ground, unable to do anything but look at the wound. The bullet hadn't bounced off, it had penetrated his concrete hide and was lodged at least a centimeter deep. 'So they're using armor-piercing ammunition,' he figured. 'That means they must have been expecting m —'
A second bullet hit him in his rather large, rectangular shoulders. The impact was too much for him; he lost consciousness.
He awoke to find both bullets removed from their bullet holes, his "wounds" cleaned, and his stubbly little arms and legs fastened to the wall with metal shackles.
"So glad you could join us, Steven Singer," a fat bald man in front of him sneered. He was accompanied by two armed guards just in case.
"That's Brick One to you. Wait a minute . . . you're the vice president of the Exxmen Corporation."
The man chuckled. "That's right. 'We put a mutant in your tank' was our slogan, but I'm afraid in your case that went too far — at least for the moment. We needed a tax shelter, and this was it." He produced an 8" x 10" black-and-white glossy of a machine with holes in the side. "Do you recognize this, Mr. One?"
Brick One puzzled for a moment. It did look vaguely familiar.
"This is the Salt Shaker, the latest in mass elemental conversion technology. It called this because all the accelerated particles are forced through these holes much like salt comes out of a salt shaker. This was more than a place to donate our tax deductions, it was the chance to build a mutant army, a platoon of rock men not possible to create since the shutdown of the Transmuter five years ago."
"You . . . power-hungry maniac!"
"You flatter me. Anyway, you had to go accidentally step in front of it and ruin the whole thing! If anyone had ever analyzed the result of your accident, they would have seen what the Salt Shaker could do and order it shut down. And since this room hadn't been built yet, the only thing we could do was wash your memory temporarily until we built this cell, gathered you up, and took you here. Your untimely appearance at the Salt Shaker saved us the trip."
"Mmm hmm. And what do you plan to do with me now that you've dragged me here?"
"Why, leave you here, of course! Until next week when our army is in full operation and you won't be able to do anything. Bwa ha ha ha ha!!!" And with that, he turned and left, leaving not so much as a seam where the door slammed shut.
The walls, ceiling, and floor were of polished metal, with no windows or furniture save for the shackles Brick One was bound up in. "All right," he figured, "Let's see just how strong I really am." He pulled with his right arm; the shackle snapped off with hardly any trouble.
"Well, whadaya know," he observed, "Concrete muscles are hundreds of times more powerful than ordinary organic ones."
He was quick to free his other three limbs and step out into the center of the room. "All right, now I get out of here." He stepped up to the facing wall and poked it with all his peeved might. It clanged but didn't budge.
"Oh great. Questonite." He drew back his fist again and swung it wide in a right-hook. The wall vibrated a bit, but still showed no sign of giving in. "Hardened, reinforced Questonite."
Well, he certainly wasn't going to get out of his cell that way. He searched the edges, the corners, and the place were the door had been for seams or weak points, but there were none. Finally, he slumped down in the center of the room and tried to cross his stumpy legs.
"Yeah, I remember now," he told himself. "I proposed to Suzy last month when I heard about my promotion. 'You'll get to work on the site of a state-of-the-art multi-million-dollar subatomic accelerator,' he'd said. 'See the technology of the future close- up!' Well, I got a very good look at it, all right. The thing didn't even have any safety catches to keep people away from the Business End. That particle shower was enough of a nightmare: everything turning bright orange, my whole body feeling like a million bugs were crawling all over it, the growth, the ridiculous change of proportions; I thought I was gonna die. And then the red-suited guards chased after me, trying to hit me over the head with their black billy clubs and knock me out."
He stood up. "Well, long as I'm here, I might as well learn to fight. Heaven knows with this body I'd better get used to it."
He drew an imaginary plus sign on one point of the wall, took aim, and punched it. His aim was slightly off. He tried again, with his left hand, and hit it dead center. Once more with his right hit the mark as well. He continued to alternate hands, making each punch faster and more precise than the last.
Then, he went back to the shackles, crumbled them up, and used their dust to draw several targets at various points on the wall. He punched each one in turn, once, with his right hand, then went southpaw and hit them all again, then tried to speed it up. This was more difficult; rapid punching unually ended up in him missing half the time or hitting each target more than once. Once, in fact, he came in too close and hit his head against the wall. It was a good thing they hadn't taken his crash helmet away from him.
Three hours later, he hearh the door begin to creek open. Instinctively, he pinned himself up against the side wall and waited for whoever it was to enter.
"Dinner time," a voice said, and a tray scooted in along the floor.
'I don't believe this,' Brick One thought, 'This is too easy.' Before the man got to slam the door shut again, he grabbed it and swung it fully open. The guard on the other side of it panicked, and reached for his gun. Brick One had no time to think; he raised his left fist and punched the guard's face just as he had done with his wall targets. The guard flew back three meters into a wall and slumped to the ground with a broken nose.
Brick One, slightly alarmed at this, looked at his left fist. He'd have to be a bit more careful; he din't want to kill these poor people, they were just following orders from that nasty Mister Big. Still, his recent training had paid off. "I'm pretty good at that," he said to his left fist, then took off down the hall.
He didn't know where to begin looking for Mister Vice President. The only lead he had was the Salt Shaker, so he started for there. He wouldn't be able to hail a taxi looking like he did, but the only route out of where he was being held was a one-lane dirt road anyway.
Surprisingly, half an hour of running, even on his stumpy legs, didn't tire him in the slightest. He could have gone on for hours if he'd had to. Perhaps being an Olympic track star wasn't suck a bad idea after all. This didn't concern him much, though, as he recognized the territory he was in right now. The Salt Shaker was right around the next bend.
He pinned himself up against the hillside, sticking out only a few feet now, and surveyed his objective. The guard had been doubled. A frontal assault was doubtlessly the wrong approach. He needed some way to sneak by them.
Or something to use for a shield. A laundry truck was moving up to the front gate; that would do just fine. Mustering all his energy, he dashed for the rear of the truck. Fortunately, he was too far away for the guards to see him, and made it. He was too heavy to jump onto the back of the truck, but it was slow enough for him to run along with it.
The truck passed into the complex. Only a few more feet and he would be level with the guards and could use his new and improved punching technique to take them out. It fact, he was only two feet away: the two feet on the bottom of his legs. One of the guards saw them below the van, and without hesitation opened fire.
The truck driver got out and dove for cover instantly. Those armor-piercing bullets would go through the truck like butter; he had to take those guards out, and fast. He glanced down at his hands, hoping there was something in them he could use. They were empty, but his arms were full of concrete muscles.
Smiling, he picked up the unmanned truck and hurled it in the direction of the gunfire. The four guards scattered just before it crashed through the front door of the complex. "Aha!" Brick One cheered, and headed for the opening. That's when an armor-piercing bullet from a pistol zinged by centimeters away from him.
"Not so fast, hero," the Vice President's voice called out. Brick One looked to its source; he was standing on top of the building, Uzi in one hand and a squirming Susan in the other. "We found this lovely thing parked out by the Salt Shaker earlier today. I'm sure you wouldn't want to see her meet an untimely end."
"You letch. You snake. You poisonous pig. You . . . you . . ."
"Run out of nouns, have you?"
"You can't get away with this! I can go and tell the newspapers what you've done!"
The Vice President sighed. "I figured you might not see it my way. That's why I hired some outside help."
And right on cue, the overturned laundry truck sprang open and two extremely alert individuals leapt out. One was a teen-age female holding a glowing energy sword; the other was a man holding a longbow and dressed exectly like a blue version of Green Arrow save for his foxlike mask.
"Kitty Saber, Foxbow: get him!"
"Right boss," Foxbow said, and loaded up and fired in the blink of an eye. Brick One hardly even saw it coming. The arrow smashed into his chest and shattered.
"You fool!" cried the Vice President as he retreated. "Use the sonic arrows!"
But Bricky wasn't just going to take this standing still. He picked up a nearby boulder and heaved it at the blue archer. The Robin Hood clone leapt up in the air and flipped over the rock without any trouble at all.
Kitty Saber, meanwhile, was coming around the other side. At least she couldn't strike him down at range, Brick One figured. Foxbow evidently hadn't switched to the sonic arrows yet, as his next shaft landed two meters away and went off in a fireball that would have hospitalized a normal person yet left Brick One relatively unscathed. "Well," he called out to Foxbow, "Your arrows don't seem to be doing much, do they?"
Foxbow fired another exploding arrow. It didn't do much either.
"You know I'm no ordinary man you're fighting."
Foxbow fired a third explosive arrow.
"Why, I'm solid concrete! The only thing that could hurt me is —"
Foxbow fired a fourth exploding arrow.
"All right, that's it!" Brick One called out. He raised his right foot and stamped down on the hard-packed earth. A crack opened up, raced all the way to Foxbow (who could barely keep his balance), swallowed him up, and closed back up again.
"Well, that takes care of him," Brick One wiped the non-existent dirt from his hands just as Kitty Saber's lightsword hacked into his left shoulder.
"YEEEEEARGH!" he cried, clutching the wound. The gash would be bleeding if stones could bleed. Enraged, he turned to Kitty (who was just readying another swing) and punched her full force. She flew back ten meters, completely unconscious.
"Now for that subatomic cretin." He sped off to the back of the building.
As he half expected, there was a helicopter waiting to pick him up. The Vice President turned and gaped. "How could you possibly have defeated them so quickly?"
"Easy, jerk; I'm a super-hero!"
Susan took this opportunity to bite the hand that held her and run off. The Vice President started to swing his gun around to shoot her. Brick One had no time to lose. He got a running start toward him and then leapt fifteen meters though the air at the Vice President.
But his aim was slightly off; he wouldn't land on him, he would pass over his head. In the time it would take for him to double back, the Vice President would have already fired. He had only one chance. He drew back his right fist and, with the precision of all his training, punched the gun from the Vice President's hand. The gun lay in ruin on the ground.
And so did the Vice President four seconds later.
Brick One blew the non-existant smoke from his fist. He'd done it.
Susan rushed to his side and hugged his bricklike form as best she could. "But what about this helicopter," she indicated the spinning blades above them.
"No problem," Brick One said. He raised one hand and caught the blades in mid-spin. "I always thought these things were kind of noisy."
"Oh, Steven, I love you!"
He sighed acquiescently. "And I love you, too. But until I can get changed back — if ever — I think you ought to look for another guy. I'm nothing but stone from the neck down."
She nodded. "Yeah, I suppose. . . . But a hero like you'll sure be a tough act to follow."
Brick One walked merilly along the streets of the city. The Salt Shaker had long ago been shut down and the Vice President of the Exxmen Corporation convicted. Now, he patrolled the same city that was the home of Magnetic Bottle, The Scientist, Inframan, and a newcomer named Blue Shooter. Magnetic Bottle was a welcome sight to someone who's life had also been irrevocably altered by a subatomic accident.
So what if the people left him an outcast because of how he looked? He was ranked among the best.
Or most of the best, anyway. It was at that point that a man he had never seen before, dressed in white with a black arrow on his chest, flew down to him and said in a voice that mocked all things super-human, "Hi, my name is Mauler, and I am here to join your ranks!"
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