Cort opened his eyes again, and found he was looking at the ceiling. He tried to stretch, but something was holding his wrists and ankles in place. When he tried to turn his head, he found there was a fixed, heavy collar around his neck.
“Kitty?” he whispered, remembering the four times that he’d been captured by Bad Kitty. He’d won all of their encounters, but knowing that she was in the same retirement home as him gave him occasional nightmares, and now it seemed as though she might have taken advantage of his failing health. There was no response from anyone, so he whispered her name again. This time there was the rustle of paper, and then the clicking of heels on tile. Approaching heels on tile.
“Mr. Stretch?” It was his nurse’s voice, calm and motherly. “Mr. Stretch, try not to move too much. We’ve strapped you down for your own safety. Your mucus… well, it seems your mucus has taken on a mind of its own.”
He blinked, and suddenly memories returned.
He collapsed in Dr. Hernandez’s office, everything going black, and he heard the alarm start sounding. Dr. Hernandez must have pressed it, but why? Then there was a shifting sensation in his chest, almost as though someone had been standing on him and decided to step off at last. He curled up a little more, and then tiny pinpricks of light appeared in the darkness. They grew larger and his vision untunnelled. In front of him he saw Dr. Hernandez looking worried, and backing away. Something lurched in from the left, something green and jelly-like. It was shaped like an iceberg and about the size of a medium-sized dog, and clearly shouldn’t be moving around by itself. Dr Hernandez backed away again, and Cort realised that the green blobby thing was chasing him.
A door banged back, though Cort couldn’t see it, and there was a sharp intake of breath. Then someone barked orders, short, harsh instructions, and there was the sound of running feet. Dr. Hernandez hauled himself up onto his desk, crouching there, one hand holding the edge of it for balance. The green mini-iceberg paused at the desk, and then it started bubbling, translucent green spheres growing out of it like someone blowing into soapy water with a straw. Dr. Hernandez looked deeply concerned, and was looking around too, hunting for a way to escape.
“Stand back!” shouted someone, and Dr. Hernandez, looking desperate, let go of the edge of the desk and allowed himself to fall backwards. As soon as he was crashing off the back of the desk there was a crackling sound like the rapid discharge of static and a smell like old ice. The air hazed, and the green bubbling blobby thing suddenly frosted over and stopped moving. The last thing Cort saw before his vision faded again was snow falling all around him.
“It’s alive?” asked Cort. His voice was coming back to normal.
“Possibly,” said the nurse. “Possibly. It’s been taken away for study now, so you don’t have to worry about it. You just need to rest and recover.”
“Why am I strapped down?”
The nurse didn’t answer, but walked off instead. Cort waited for her to come back, unwilling to believe that the nurse who’d been looking after him for the last eighteen months would just abandon him now. Sure enough, a few minutes (that felt like an hour) later, she returned, with Dr. Hernandez. He loomed into view, standing deliberately over Cort so that he could see him.
“The problem, Mr. Stretch,” said Dr. Hernandez, his voice sounding restrained and reluctant, “is that we don’t know if you’re going to produce more of this mucus. That is, was this just a side effect of your illness, or is it a new thing that you’re going to be doing from now on?”
Cort shuddered. “Are you saying I might be an incubator for that thing?” he asked.
“You saw it?”
“Yes. A little.”
“We don’t know.” Dr. Hernandez sighed. He sounded genuinely upset. “I really hope not, but… well, you superheroes are an odd bunch. We’re always learning things about you that just don’t apply to normal people.”
“I’m sorry,” said Cort, meaning it. The use of the words “normal people” still rankled, but not as much. The green mucus blob had shaken him, and the idea that he might be producing more of it made him want to curl up in a ball and cry.
“Don’t be,” said Dr. Hernandez. “You’re all fascinating. So few of you seem to have expected to get old, or to have any problems when you did. It’s like you all thought you’d be young forever, fighting amongst each other and having fun without thinking about the rest of us. And then it all changed and there are no superhero doctors, so you needed us normal people after all. In a way it’s flattering, and what I’m learning from you all is making me almost as famous.”
“Fighting amongst ourselves? I always fought the villains.”
“Well, when you all get old there’s not much difference, is there?” Dr. Hernandez waggled his eyebrows. “I know all about how you and Bad Kitty used to fight, and now you’re three rooms apart and you both play backgammon on Thursday evenings.”
Cort was silent, thinking that he and Bad Kitty were pretty much level pegging on won backgammon games, but that was exactly where their rivalry, their enmity, had ended up. Was that sad, somehow?
“How long before you know about the mucus?” he asked at last.
“A couple of days, maybe?” said Dr. Hernandez. “I’d have you X-rayed, but it wouldn’t help. You’re so stretchy, so extensible, that I can’t tell when a shadow is cancer, or mucus, or scar tissue from one of your many battles, or even just you being a bit stretched in that place when the X-ray was taken.”
“Do I have to be like this the whole time?
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Stretch,” said Dr. Hernandez.