At one point, there’d been a ladder bolted into the wall of the trapdoor. I caught a flash of broken holds, torn screws, and wrenched metal as I fell.
The explosion pushed the trapdoor firmly back into place, knocking it over with a resounding crash.
Colton gasped, but I didn’t hear any bones breaking, so I could only suppose something had caught him.
Luckily for me, it didn’t sound like it was a lethal something; seconds later the same massive invisible hand caught me, cradling me gently in Hands’s hand. She examined me, rotating me like a particularly impressive fish, then fixed her eyes onto the splotch of blood my ear had been reduced to, tsking under her breath.
“Glad you could make it,” Hands muttered, setting me down next to Colton.
I kept my balance, felt the sting of overworking my legs, and hugged Hands, squeezing her tight, tighter than I’d ever hugged her before.
Her face flushed in the dim dark of that room, and I broke the hug to look around.
Excelsior flicked his gaze up. Held up his hand to make us quiet.
The room we’d landed in had a ladder propped up against one side, torn out of the sockets from the wall, metal dented and twisted. Almost entirely useless. Thin glowing lines marked the wall, antiquated radium paints to keep it perpetually above a modicum of darkness. The geiger counter in my com crackled into my ear piece ominously.
But it was better than absolute darkness, so I was grateful.
A swirl of doors greeted me as I looked around. Half a dozen, spiralling off from the point we’d entered.
Above us, the Renegades shuffled around, slowly streaming in through the smoke rendered from the explosions. My grip on the cloud was distant, and even as I tried to keep the smoke swirling around, dissipation over distance.
Turned and looked at Colton for an explanation, only to see him clutching at his chest, a bit of red rolling down his fingers.
Excelsior flicked his eyes down to Colton, then gestured towards one of the doors.
No hesitation there, I hauled Colton up onto my shoulder, ignored his silent complaints as his muscles fought me, and shouldered him into the next room.
Hands joined us after a moment, looking at Colton’s chest, her teeth clenched. Colton’s face grew pale as he fought to make a noise, his breath in hot rasps.
Excelsior smoothly moved from door to door and locked them, one by one, then joined us in the hallway he’d gestured at.
Raised an eyebrow at me, pulled a key out of his supplies and locked it.
Which bought us time.
But it only bought us time, and now we were the ones that they’d get to approach at their leisure.
Excelsior gestured, sweeping past us, and I followed, helping Colton step one by one. The hallway was stark concrete and glowing strips of radium paint, doors intersecting into the mess of it every couple dozen feet.
This was supposed to be a number station? Who the hell was supposed to buy that? Why would a number station ever be this large?
Then a door at the end of the hallway. Unlocked. Locked.
“There,” the A-class breathed out, leaning back against the door. “Good job on getting to us,” He said, finally, tucking the key into his supplies.
“Gale did most of the work,” Colton said. “Did you know Leader over there figured out how to drag smoke clouds around?”
“Really I just prevented it from dispersing,” I said, humbly.
Colton laughed, and fell to the ground, deciding his legs wouldn’t work for a moment, and clutched his chest.
The laughs transfigured into rasping coughs. “Oooh, ooh, wow, that’s a bad one.”
“Ribs putting pressure on your lungs?” Excelsior asked.
“Must’ve jostled them loose when I fell,” Colton said, dragging the hand off of his chest.
“Can you still fight?”
The knife-master laughed. “Maybe if you put me in a damn wheel barrel, but I don’t think I’m going to be doing that much running after this.”
“Acknowledged,” Excelsior said, looking over at Hands. “Do you know first aid?”
“I don’t think I can do much to a broken rib,” Hands said. “But I know the basics for cuts.”
“It’s so easy to grow used to having Osteor around,” The swordsman muttered, pacing.
This dark room was filled with monitors, firmly set into aging cabinetry.
Punchcard slots littered the walls, bits of paper still sticking out of them, untouched by moths, or dust. Instead of the yellow acidic air reactions of plastic, everything was still stark white.
“She hates healing,” I said.
“She hates seeing people in pain,” Excelsior corrected. “Why do you think she buries herself inside of a lab? She wants to make pain part of an equation, rather than random happenstance.” He looked down at Colton. “You’re damn lucky that bullet didn’t hit you in the eye.”
“I think that was me,” I said, walking over to the monitor.
“And what do you mean?” Hands asked.
“The Cuban Patrol, while I was being briefed by them, mentioned I was a fairly potent… resistor,” I said. “I didn’t want to bring it up, but since we’re all trapped in a hole in the ground again, surrounded by darkness…”
I was only a few steps away from hallucinating about Green Towassa.
“What’s Resistance?” Colton asked, quietly.
“Quite simply, it’s the inverse of your power,” Excelsior said. “Resistance is how much you can resist being affected by the unnatural; Faraday projected a permanent barrier of resistance around him when he drained his suit’s batteries.”
“Oh, and then you could swoop in with your swords,” Colton snapped his fingers.
“Something like that,” Excelsior said, flicking his gaze back to the door we’d come through. “But resistance is what makes the Cuban Patrol so dangerous.”
“So… resistance doesn’t work on bullets,” I said.
“That’s not how Resistance works,” Excelsior said, stepping forward. His hands drifted across the arrays of buttons and monitors, dragging fingers across labels, counting them off one by one. “Resistance only protects against hero powers.”
I blinked. Considered that for a long moment. “So it helps protect from horrors and heroes?”
“Something like that,” Excelsior repeated. “The specifics aren’t that important., certainly not worth breaching Opsec over. Point is, no resistance will protect you from bullets,” he hesitated. “Well, no human scale of resistance will protect against that,”
It clicked together when I thought about the other horrors we’d met.
“Like how the lost boy got to ignore bullets?” I asked.
“But Colton doesn’t get that ability,” Excelsior paused at the monitor a third from the right. “Things like the Lost Boy are horrors because their resistance is so high. Man was not meant to identify reality around himself; his perception of reality is different from actual reality, and he’ll eat the brunt of the changes.” He stopped, probably realizing he was having a teaching moment, and pointed at the third monitor. “Here’s our stop.”
“Eh?” I asked, stepping over.
“Hands, if you could grab this column of monitors…?”
Hands walked over and grabbed it securely. “Just pull it back?”
Excelsior nodded, and the monitors were wrenched back. No cords were attached to those monitors, and it slid smoothly under Hands’s grip. She jumped to the side as it kept rolling.
A dark hole in the ground awaited behind even that.
The gleaming white bones tangled around the radium strips on the floor sent shivers down my spine.
Not a drip of mold around. Not a bit of fungus. Just cold human ivories. The swordsman swept past them, letting them clatter to the ground, then gestured at Hands to close it behind them. “The beacon was still experimental technology past in the 50s, you see. So they had to hide it.”
He knelt forward and crawled ahead, then paused, waiting for everyone to follow. “Colton, guard the door. Kill anyone who comes in after us.”
“This is just so I don’t have to crawl,” Colton noted.
“Got it in one. I figure you don’t want to stack claustrophobia on top of whatever we stir up in here.”
I met Colton’s eyes. There was pain there, burning beneath the lids, and a growing frustration.
“We’ll make it out,” I promised.
“I don’t doubt that,” Colton said. “That’s about the only thing I don’t doubt.”
The tunnel was cramped, and growing humid from our labored breaths, but it leveled out in the end, just as the top scraped against the mask I was wearing. Excelsior stood up and paused. Drew a flashlight from his clothes, as the light had vanished altogether, radium strips not smeared this far into the depths of the facility.
It wasn’t on any map.
“How did you know which monitor the beacon was behind?” I asked, curious. It distracted me from the ever present heavy pounding of my heart.
“Memorized a map a while ago,” Excelsior said.
“But this isn’t on any maps,” I insisted.
The swordsman was quiet. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, so drop it, Gale.”
“You know that’s not fair,” Hands said. “You promised you’d keep us in the loop.”
“I meant on anything that concerned you,” Excelsior said, his tone frustrated. “And this doesn’t concern you.”
He brought the flash light up, then paused, flicking it off.
I got a vague impression of thousands of words written on the walls.
“Do either of your have any real understanding of advanced mathematics?” He asked.
“What?” I said.
“Just answer the question.”
“Just the basic geometries and trajectories the Association covers in schools.”
“I’m still in highschool, I didn’t even get that much,” Hands said.
The swordsman breathed out a sigh of relief, and flicked the flashlight back on. “Try not to replicate anything you see here, bad things might happen.”
Thousands of equations were scrawled across the crude cave walls. They littered in scrawling white chalk, looping heavy silver paints, dark golds. Uranic green glazes, and the dark smear of human blood.
They didn’t make sense jumbled over on top of each other over and over again, but Excelsior’s eyes flicked over and read from them anyway, divining some deeper meaning from the scrawl.
“The Prophet Project reached into the depths of the human mind in order to solve issues that modern science could not, and still cannot.” Excelsior explained, stepping forward. At the center of the chamber, now only lit by his flashlight, sat a massive structure. Heavy, covered in bizarrely undecayed plastic, winding reels of punch cards and tape reels, and surrounded by chairs.
I thought I recognized something like this from the depths of Dauphin island, though my mind couldn’t put together the details without the thing in the darkness fluttering up.
Psychological damage from mental attacks, perhaps, or some small fragment of it lived on in my thoughts, unable to be purged.
Time might do the trick.
Excelsior slid down the steep walls until his feet caught the bare edge of stairs cut into the slope. “Come on,” He gestured after us.
Hands hesitated, looking down at the computer in the center of the room. “I don’t like this.”
As the swordsman’s light flickered across the hidden chamber, the gleam of more white bones greeted them, teetering out of the chairs. Mixed together, tattered military uniforms.
“They died here?” I asked.
“Not all of the projects were successful,” Excelsior said. “For every piece of technology the Association musters against the things in the dark that scuttle and pollute the world, there were countless sacrifices put into play,” He paused.
“But this wasn’t the Association,” I said, stepping forward. Wind fluttered around me to keep my balance. “This is before then, right? So what was this used for?”
“This,” Excelsior said, nudging the computer bank in the center. “Was one of the attack systems used to disable the Emperor of Japan.”
Hands hissed as the flashlight darted to the other wall.
The equations never stopped, but from our new angle, we could see they continued onto the ceiling, and then they also drooled across the floor, written in exotic ingredients.
But it didn’t make sense how equations could be drawn across hanging stalactites.
“How…” Hands started. “Does a computer bank in the middle of a cave affect someone in Japan?”
“Not just someone,” Excelsior said, admiring the machine. “The god of Japan. He who swatted aside nuclear armaments and required a full scale invasion. He caused the death of Japan, in that way. Drew the war out who knows how long,” The swordsman drawled, waiting on them.
I stepped forward, watching his expression. “Is it meant to be like this?”
“Is what meant to be like this?”
“Untouched? Forgotten?” I said.
“Prophet operators were a strange bunch to begin with. I won’t go into all of the details, most of them are classified to high hell and even I don’t know them. When a numbers station like this went dark…” The swordsman shoved a chair to the side (why were the skulls covered in metal pins, and what looked like rotting rubber? “It was protocol to leave them dead for a few decades. To deal with whatever took them out.”
“This technology is so old,” I said, admiring the reels of tape.
“And after the seventies and the rise of the Association,” Excelsior continued. “Well, it was deemed disrespectful, and potentially damaging if the heroes learned what they’d done to the weirds doing the last world war,” he laughed. “Ha. Listen to me. I sound like Rebecca.”
“Rebecca isn’t ever wrong, is she?” I asked.
“She’s bitter,” Hands said. “Rude. Unhelpful.”
“Sets bones back together,” I said. “That’s helpful.”
“She’s from another time,” Excelsior said. “She lived through the 60s, when Weirds vanished off off the streets, one by one, into government projects.”
“Well, they’re a bit more polite nowadays.”
Excelsior’s fist smashed through the screen in front of him. “Hold this,” He gestured with the flashlight, and Hands took over, keeping it lifted up and level. “Pay you lots of bonuses to take part in projects. You should ask Colton; Dauphin island offered a nice bonus to injured heroes if they went there instead of civilian structures.”
“So instead of force, they went with incentives?” I asked. “Not much of a difference there, is there?”
“Gale,” Hands warned. “I don’t think now’s the right time to think about this.”
“That’s how they get you,” I said, staring into the guts of the machine, and pretending that I couldn’t smell blood in the depths of it, that I wasn’t picturing crushed bone inside of the great mechanical apparatus. “It’s never the right time to think about this.”
That it was just an idea, a metaphor instead of something in between clouding my vision like thousands of equations, dappled with sunlight.
“You’d’ve liked Rebecca before the Association found her again,” Excelsior said. “She was too smart for her own good too. I’d suggest, when everything’s back together, that you keep absolutely quiet about anything untoward you saw regarding the Association.”
His shoulder was eaten by the machine as he reached inside, feeling around. Just like his other arm had been devoured, ripped clean off.
He kept searching for a moment, and then his eyes lit up and his muscles flexed. Tearing wires and distant mechanic noises, and he pulled out a piece of machinery that glowed with faint light.
“There we go. Hard forged steel from before 1928.” His grin split his face.
“What is it?” Hands asked.
“A prototype beacon.”
Behind him, the computer bank slowly lost its sheen, dust dappling darkened screens, and complex reactions with the air turning sheets of gleaming white plastic into a toxic tan. The cloth rotted further into nothing.
Equations disappeared from the walls in fat hot little drops, like water dripping down from far above.
Hands looked up as the last equation disappeared. “I don’t like this place.”
“How many people died here, fighting that war?”
“Dozens, I suspect,” Excelsior said. “They’ll all listed as MIA on the memorials.”
I breathed in. Then let it hiss out of my lips. “Let’s get out of here.” I couldn’t take it anymore.
Excelsior calmly tucked it back the beacon into his pack.
“Can you activate that at will?” Hands asked.
“Goodness no,” Excelsior said. “You have to run a current through it. Makes exotic and complex fields. Not that good for human life, mind you, but it’s like using radiation to fight cancer.”
I swallowed, and stepped ahead of him, climbing back up the slope. “Colton, is it safe?”
His eyes went wide and he startled, throwing a finger in front of his lips in a shushing gesture.
Colton shook his head, staring into the darkness. “No… I think they’re all dead, actually.”