Cassandra’s gun swept wide arcs through the dark corridors. “An entire research complex. Scary to think this was covered by just one bomb.”
“It probably ate all the oxygen out of the air,” I said, following after her. “Or turned the air hot enough to burn everything else. I remember reading about a weapon that did that, thermobarics, I think.”
“Grim. I’d’ve just shot everyone. More personal that way.”
“Asphyxiation is more likely to kill the things they had down here.”
“More likely, but I’ll trust a shotgun over that,” Cassandra’s eyes flicked back the way we had gone. “Green Towassa?”
“What about it?”
We entered another room. Charred flesh. Ash. Destroyed banks of monitors. The flash drive in my pocket hung heavily. Answers, perhaps, but I had no way of getting into them. Not yet.
“Nothing, nothing. We were just taught to never go into anywhere that had a zone that active,” Cassandra said. “The world behaves differently around there. Have you noticed anything strange in Mobile?”
I laughed. “I saw an ocean of skin to the north; miles of twisted human flesh eating everything in the bayou.”
She paused, giving me a look. “Handled, of course?”
“Fire is a very easy weapon to understand, just a deviation or two easier than a bullet. Would our enemies only be smarter so they would understand to what forces they should be slain from,” Cassandra sniffed.
“Our enemies?” I asked. “Also, where are we going?”
“There’s an emergency escape elevator hidden behind one of the test courses, I assume they used them to see what the beasts were capable of. We just need to get over there, the fire’s probably disabled most of them, and them climb up the ladders in the shaft.”
I paused. “How’d you even get down here?”
“I used a rope,” Cassandra said simply.
“And why can’t we-”
I looked down at my left hand and clenched it into a painful fist.
“Ah. So they told you that would be trouble?” My face flushed underneath of the gas mask.
“It was implied that a ladder might be fine, but ropes would be difficult.”
Maybe in peak fitness, where I wasn’t dripping blood, and I wasn’t carrying forty pounds of armor on my body that I couldn’t take off, I could make the rope climb one handed.
But calling me the peak of fitness would be a mistake, and I had all of those things weighing me down.
“There we are,” Cassandra said, gesturing at the door in front of us.
They were still sealed, miraculously, and leaning forward I used my gloved left hand to wipe dust off of the sign.
“Innoculation testing site D,” I read.
“Ah!” Cassandra said, pressing her gun against the door. “That makes sense. You have a class of people stuck down here, so you expose them to whatever to make sure that when you do the same to your heroes without undue harm. That makes more sense.”
“You make it sound positively villainous when you describe it like that,” I said, eyeing her.
“No, I was actually admiring your dedication to keeping your heroes safe. I mean, it’s hardly moral to experiment on prisoners, but honestly rumor has it your Association just straight up kidnaps people for this, so it’s a lot better.”
“Kidnaps people? Come on, we’re not cultists, the Association is a science based organization. We have people like Osteor and the other scientists.”
Cassandra twitched at the name Osteor. “I should’ve known she’d make it out alive, that brilliant monstrous woman.”
It was only then that it occured to me, that with all of the people that had been killed down here, Patrickson had left Osteor alive. His gauntlet would’ve shut down her ability to heal… why was she…
I threw it into the back of my mind, but it grew thorns and clung there. Paranoia.
“I…” I took a deep breath and tapped at the door to see if it was locked. It was. “Look, if we’re going to work together, you’re going to have to deal with her. What’d she even do to the Cuban Patrol?”
“Theorized…” Cassandra’s eyes flicked over to my own. “What’s your effective rank?”
“Have you gone through the B leader classes?”
“I haven’t, no,” I said.
“I don’t even know exactly what she did, I’m just a hunter. I just know that she was important in studying the natural genetic instabilities of anomalies, and then she refused to give up that information to us. For fear we’d use it to be better hunters. The specifies… well, you don’t know enough for that to matter.”
“We’re not even in the same organization,” I said, crossly, turning to look at her.
“And there are some truths that don’t ever need to be said,” Cass replied. “Do you shatter the child by telling them that fairies don’t exist? How about the fool who believes politics comes down to moral integrity instead of a complex system of favors and money?”
“You tell the child when they’re old enough, or if they figure it out, and you tell the fool if you want them to be a part of the system,” I replied.
“Hold that thought,” Cassandra said.
The shotgun was pressed firmly against the lock, and the blast obliterated the metal chewing through the reinforced doors in a mangle of precision. Then the gun went off a few more times to make sure that the lock was completely cleared.
Then Cassandra struck the door with the heel of her foot, shattering what little kept it in tact, metal bits rolling on the ground. The daemonette flashed her light across the depths of the darkness, rolling it across while my wind sense swept through, disturbing dust and pulverised stone from the shells that had struck the building far overhead.
“Clear,” I reported, stepping in beside her.
“Better be, I didn’t exactly expect to go hunting today.”
“How many things have you killed lately?” cutting tone, I didn’t know why I said it like that.
“For an organization that jealously guards information and utilizes operational security in a way that makes even the crypto-anomalists blush, you’re awfully naive, Gale.”
“I’m not naive,” I hissed. “I’m a damn hero. I understand we live in a world where death walks, where it’s preferable to firebomb entire cities to stop infections. I understand we live in a world where evil whispers through cracks in places we’re not aware exists. I understand that evil exists, and I have fought it.”
Cassandra looked over at me, and not the beam of light from her gun. “You’d’ve made a good patrol member. We always need earnestness. It’s odd…”
“You struck me as being more of a thinker, you had a thinker’s reaction to that creature. Why are you projecting so hard?”
“Because I am damned tired of having people ask why I’m trying to keep things the way they are,” I spat. “We should live in a world where the common person has as much freedom as possible, and the people that are powerful have a need, a demand, a certainty to enforce the rules against those who seek to ruin that freedom.”
Cassandra chuckled and swept ahead. “Alright Captain stars-n-stripes. Never thought I’d see a high ranker buying into propaganda.”
“Morals aren’t propaganda, you know,” I said, stepping closer to her.
“Your association is an organization just like all the others. They don’t have morals.” Cassandra sighed. “I know for a fact you fought against a lost boy the other day. Do you still think that freedom is important when you could instead be prioritizing protection, to tackle your Association’s ideas?”
“This isn’t a zero sum game,” I said. “Painting it as one is just going to lead to more pain in the system.”
“Isn’t it?” Cassandra’s words came soft and unbridled through the open air. “Every step we move towards weaponization is another layer we need to keep them insulated from. Every failure destabilizes nations, shatters families. Leaves bombed out craters, more dead bodies, more heads full of dreams that’ll never do anything.”
“When we fail,” I said.
“When we fail,” Cassandra agreed, stepping into one last hallway.
“That the elevator?” I stepped into the darkness and the light followed to an entrenched hole in the wall. Heavily armored, keycard locked. A single flickering light sat burning overhead.
A death box.
“Looks like it,” Cassandra said. “You’re lucky.”
“I don’t normally get to debate morals with a fascist savage like yourself. It’s nice.”
“We all genuinely want to protect people.”
“That we can agree on. I just disagree that your organization is one that is fighting for it.”
“Now you just sounds like Osteor,” I retorted.
Cassandra scowled. “Heaven forbid I have to exist in the same spaces as her.”
“You’re the one that thinks the powered have no right to unpowered spaces,” I reminded. “Which has been the justification for quite a number of heinous crimes in history.”
“History never had to deal with death on the scale that the modern world faces,” Cassandra returned, kneeling down. She inspected the door. “Hard locked.”
I flicked the keycard I pocketed earlier out of the dead bodies and waved it through the dimly lit scanner. It let out a hissing crackle of static, and then a distorted, but affirmative, beeping.
The doors slowly drug themselves open, scraping against the frame. On the other side sat an elevator compartment, humming softly.
“Hm,” Cassandra said, tossing a bit of rubble into it. The pod held, humming softly, lit through a cracked set of inset lightings.
“Cheery thing,” I agreed.
We both stared at it for a long heavy moment, where I could hear my own heart beating in my chest.
“Compartmentalization.” She finally broke the silence.
“The association uses a cell structure in order to impede information flow. To prevent infectious bits like Green Towassa from flourishing through free information vectors.” Cassanda poked the compartment with her gun. “That’s why your country is shut down. With those cells compromised, those channels are probably full of awful things that’ll twist you up inside.”
“Cognitive traps?” I asked, slowly. There’d be a bit of theory on that in one of the deeper classes that I’d qualified for; when I’d still been on track to slip into code breaking.
“Among other things,” Cassandra laughed. “The world is full of things that exist only because people believe in them. Road Rage…”
She slid into the elevator grimly, and gestured at me to join her.
“Road rage?” I asked, stepping over to follow her.
Something shifted abruptly in my air sense, and in a motion too quick for my brain to process, too quick to hit rational thought, I grabbed Cassandra by the shoulder and threw the both of us back.
The elevator slammed shut with an ominous growl, catching the tip of her gun. Momentum rolled us back, the shotgun and sole source of light spiralling crazily, then it slammed into the far wall.
Then the elevator growled, and lost connection, plummeting hellishly below into the darkness of the shaft.
Cassandra landed on top of me and I gasped for air, feeling the brittle press of my ribs, familiar. Tasted, vaguely, the ash on her breath, and the asbestos winding through the air from her bare skin, and then she rolled off of me, lumbering into the darkness to chase after the light.
She grabbed it, hefted it, then knelt down to check over the piece for any damages. “Thought you said it was clear?”
“I’m sorry I can’t detect electronic protocols,” I snipped back at her.
I growled back.
“Fine. Thanks for saving my life,” Cassandra said, pointing the gun towards the shaft. I fumbled through the dark until I was closer to the cone of light, then stared at the elevator shaft. “I guess I’ll work doubly hard on getting you out of this tomb.”
“Fuck,” I swore. “This can’t ever be easy, can it?”
“Probably locked for Association personnel,” she muttered. “Connected to some grand database far underneath. If only I knew how much the underground was compromised…”
“What, you want to go digging deeper?” I hissed. “Leave their bodies be in their tomb!”
Her eyes softened, and she drug the beam of light towards the back of the shaft, then flicked it about. “Maybe…” She laughed. “It’s certainly be overdoing my mission to go exploring.”
There, at the back. I felt it in my airsense at the same moment that I saw it flash in the beam.
Smooth, unclimbable concrete. This place was retrofitted to be a prison, after all.
Brilliant. I was outmatched by architects.
“Annoying,” Cassandra commented.
It was around that time I heard my com going off.