Issue 1, chapter 5: Dark Science
Cass arrives at the South entrance of the park, having patiently walked the distance from Breaker's Bar. As he had walked, he had been thinking of the things he had seen, first, in the mind of the comatose mob-boss Joe, and then in this 'Rusty' character. Humans tinkering with the fabric of humanity itself. The idea was repulsive to him.
He had also contemplated this new team of his. Hot-headed and quick to judge, they had nevertheless re-awoken a long dormant sense of… something he couldn't put his finger on. After a few minutes, he had realised what he had meant. He had been referring to a sense of fellowship, of helping one another out. Cass promptly dismisses the idea as nonsense.
After travelling down the final tunnel for a minute or two, the others had come across the body of one of the Prodesapia scientists, slumped, unconscious upon the floor. Lying next to him was a metal crate containing phials of the strange fungal matter from the walls of the cave. So this was the tunnel that Fade had been in initially. They had been everywhere this underground excavation allowed.
Looking closely at one of the phials containing the fungal samples, holding it to the light to get a better view. It's pulsating gently, brown and green and apparently spongy in texture.
"Perhaps it reacts in water.." suggests Fade. "I'll try it out." He grabs one of the phials and de-materialises before anyone can say otherwise. He reforms in the small cavern from earlier and gently tips the phial, the fungus rolling sloppily out of the glass end of its container. Fade holds his breath as the fungus tumbles through the air and splashes with a "plip" into the water. Nothing happens. The fungus slowly sinks to the bottom of the pool. "Well it was worth a try", he says, materialising next to the others again.
"Fade, take these samples back to Tracer's Tower, see if he can run some tests, find out what this stuff is, and why it's so important to this science guys." Says Rough Justice to his team-mate. Fade grabs hold of the box and curls out of existence. "The question is… where was he taking that crate?" Says Rough Justice to Sledgehammer, who smiles blankly in response, and Max Tuesday, whose facial display remains impassive. "We've been everywhere there is to go down here."
A sudden realisation dawns on Sledgehammer's face, morphing his mouth into a small 'o' shape, and he says excitedly:
"THE MAN SAID THE DOOR HAD TECHNICALS!" Now it's Rough Justice's turn to look blank. "THE MAN. THE DISAPPEAR-Y MAN! HE SAID IN MY HEAD ABOUT TECHNICALS ON THE DOOR". Sledgehammer's face was screwed up in concentration as he tried to recall information from more than half an hour ago, whilst simultaneously constructing polysyllabic sentences.
"He's right", says Fade, who has appeared back in the tunnel alongside them. "The stone door at the waterfall. The back of it's covered in some sort of technological lock or something. It's not really my area of expertise!" The three human men look at the metallic man, expectantly.
"I will address the technology" buzzes the grating voice of Max Tuesday, and all four set off in the direction of the waterfall.
"I have arrived" Creeps Cass's voice into each man's head. Then, Fade alone feels a different sort of psychic message. This one is less like a voice in his head and more like an internal reverberation, rolling around his brain like an internal rumble of thunder. "I will allow you to assist me in joining you." Fade shudders, and disappears from the tunnel, re-emerging seconds later with Cass. Both men looked as though they would rather have not needed to go through that experience.
Momentarily the technological works of the door jumped into life, and a series of bolts and mechanical workings slid from their present location, altering the shape of the door so that the waterfall is now split, half diverted sideways, allowing the whole mechanism to roll forward without water gushing into the tunnel, and half still cascading down in front of the door, maintaining the illusion from the outside that the waterfall remains intact. The tunnel is now open ahead revealing stone steps, heading downwards into another lit tunnel. The group steps down into the new walkway, and see this one is much straighter than the cave they had come from. The lights in this tunnel disappear not around a corner, but due to distance. It's clear to everyone that the tunnel must go on for at least a mile.
"Guys, this fungus stuff, we really ought to know what we're getting ourselves into." Says fade, producing one of the phials. "I kept one from earlier." He tips a little of it out onto the palm of his hand, and licks the sample, to the sudden protestation of the others, who now look at him expectantly for a response. Fade shrugs. "I feel… maybe less tired?"
"I've analysed one of these samples." Comes Tracer's voice via Switchboard. "The stuff appears to have regenerative properties, especially under bright lights "
"I was just going to say that," says Fade, "my body regenerates itself anyway, but something new is happening to me. Is it me or did those tunnel lights get brighter?"
"I can assist with further analysis" buzzes Max before turning to Fade. "If you will transport me." Fade dutifully teleports the metal man to Tracer, and leaves them to their investigation, returning to the site of the tunnel.
"Shall we?" Asks Rough Justice, gesturing out into the darkness. The four remaining men set off in the only direction the tunnel allows, noticing the amount of fungus around each tunnel light diminishing until there is none. "That scientist wasn't lying about the stuff only coming from that cave" RJ observes to the others as they walk. There is only room for two men side-by-side in the tunnel, or one, if you happen to be Sledgehammer. Fade takes up the front, Cass and Rough Justice in the middle, and Sledgehammer at the rear, humming gently to himself.
Fade abruptly stops and holds up a hand, turning his head back toward the others, mouthing "Voices, up ahead". Fade moves to the side of the tunnel, away from any light and is no longer visible. Two men, one with a red bionic eye, are talking conversationally as the walk past Fade, oblivious to his presence.
They stop in surprise when they come across the other three men in the corridor. As one of the men raises his hand to his ear,
"We've got…" He is silenced by Sledgehammer who has pushed past the others and pushed the man's head against the wall. Sledgehammer looks over to the other unknown man, who is laying unconscious on the floor with Rough Justice's palm pressed against his chest. Both men grin at each other.
"That could have been… worse." states Cass. It's the closest thing to a compliment any of the group have heard him say since they met the unusual quiet man. The tunnel now stretches out in both directions, the entrance they had used now hidden by distance.
"How much longer do you think this goes on?" Says Fade. "I can check out the end, but long distance to somewhere I don't know… it works a little different. I'm not gonna end up half way through a wall or anything, but I don't get to find out the route, just the destination." Rough Justice nods.
"Do it." Fade once again folds out of existence a black and purple after-image remaining briefly where he had stood. As he travels between planes of reality he concentrates on his destination. End of the tunnel. Hidden. Dark. End of the tunnel. Hidden. Dark. He re-materialises, taking stock of his surroundings.
"Switchboard, are you there?"
The pretty white-haired girl with the ponytail and the punky clothes sits up from her reclined position in one of the chairs in the briefing room of the unremarkable flat where the team had all first met. It seems as though the team had already done so much together, it was incredible to think that meeting had been less than a day ago. She throws down the hand-held games console she had been playing and focuses on Fade.
"Hey buddy, I'm here. Everything going ok out there? Who do you need?" She replies, brightly.
"Connect me to Cass, Rough Justice and Sledgehammer, would you?"
"You got it." Switchboard mentally links them up, feeling out for their mental signature established when they'd first shaken hands.
"Guys, I'm in some kind of warehouse. There's definitely some Prodesapia activity." Fade tells the others mentally. He's emerged from his teleportation in a dark corner of an old storage facility. Discarded boxes and miscellaneous items lay scattered and stacked on multiple shelves in the area, after a quick look through the items in the immediate area, it appears to be mostly old toys and games. Junk, mostly broken. Across the large warehouse floor, on the other side of the large open room, is a queue of shabby looking men, being addressed by a man in a lab coat. Straining to hear what they are saying, Fade notices the sound of the sea, gently rolling against breakwaters and walkways. "I'm by the docks, must be right at the South of the city."
The others had come to a junction in the tunnel, one route continuing on in the direction they had taken, the other turning left perpendicular to this tunnel. Cass had made the decision to investigate the branch, letting the other two continue straight. As he had walked this new branch, the tunnel began to incline, until Cass could hear the sound of traffic above him. Shortly, he came to a small ladder leading up to a manhole cover. Waiting until the sound of traffic died down, Cass had emerged onto a familiar road in the southern part of the city.
The sky is dark, with clouds blanketing the city; the near-full moon occasionally emerging from behind the vaporous veil. Getting his bearings, Cass realises he is in the southern part of the city, just west of Chinatown and not far from the docks, Cass relays this to the group mentally, adding that he will come swiftly to the docks. As he makes his way at street level across town, Rough Justice and Sledgehammer do so in the underground tunnel, and before long they hear the metallic pounding of bionic footsteps as one of the larger, more modified scientists comes thundering down the tunnel.
"Phillips, Stevenson, I repeat, can you hear me?" He yells, one hand pressed against his ear. Rough Justice and Sledgehammer each take a defensive stance, but the large scientist's impossible speed takes them by surprise. With both red eyes locked onto Sledgehammer, the man launches a punch before the other can react. Sledgehammer coughs and then gasps, winded by the blow. Surprise registers on his face. It's been a very long time since anyone had that much of an impact on him. A red rage descends on Sledgehammer, who kicks out at the man with the force of a car crash, sending him hurtling into the wall. A sickening crack tells the men that the bionic man is out for the count, and neither checks for signs that he'll get up again, setting off down the tunnel at a jog. Spurred on by Sledgehammer's encounter. Rough Justice admits to himself as they run, he didn't expect anyone to be able to knock the wind out of Sledge.
Cass reaches the docks and casts a furtive glance around. As Fade had described, a queue of shabby down-and-outs winds its way into one of the warehouses. Cass cautiously joins the back of the queue, his own suit appropriately shabby enough to blend in. "When are we getting this food?" comes the gravelly voice of one of the queue, calling to the scientist leading them into the warehouse. "All in good time sir," replies the man in the lab coat. "As I explained earlier, after this small test, you will all be fed excellently." The tunnel finally comes to an end, ascending gently before widening out naturally into the open air. Grass and rocks surround them, before giving way to the tarmac road leading to the docks, and then the gravelly shore under the wooden decking leading that leads out onto the various cargo ships moored here. The two see the warehouses, and the queue made of tobacco, torn clothes, and desperation. And Cass.
"We're here. Me and Sledge are going to check around the back" Rough Justice informs the others.
"I would advise caution. There's a patrol of those larger gentlemen making their way around towards you", comes Cass's reply. The two men duck behind a large rock in the vicinity as four of the bionic men, red eyes scanning their surroundings, emerge from around the far corner of the warehouse. Barely daring to breathe, the two men wait silently until the patrol passes, and then they take of at a sprint around to corner of the warehouse.
As they turn their gaze to the warehouse itself, they notice several long windows running the length of the building. The windows themselves appear to span two storeys each. Those at the front are illuminated with the yellow artificial lights of the warehouse from within, but toward the back, it's a very different matter; blue pulsating light, brightest in the first floor windows, emanates from the windows, punctuated by an occasional bright moment accompanied by the crackling buzz of electricity.
"Looks like the party's at the back", whispers Rough Justice to Sledgehammer, and the two men approach a fire escape at the back of the building.
Meanwhile, Fade has been observing the activities of the men inside the warehouse. First, one of the scientists asks a few questions, what the persons name is, how old they are, and then his colleague ushers the lost, desperate soul into one of five rooms along the opposite side of the warehouse to where Fade is hidden. So far, none of the men shown to their room has left it, but every now and then, one of the scientists would emerges from the side room, approach the man welcoming the queue to the building and whisper something into the other's ear. Thereupon, after a couple of minutes, a new person would be sent to the room that the scientist had emerged from.
Cass is now at the front of the queue, and the friendly scientist ushering them in asks politely for Cass's name and age, both of which he gives falsely. Cass is chaperoned onto a threadbare sofa in room 3 by a different man, who tells him in a kindly voice that he is just going to administer a shot, and how thankful they are to Cass for him agreeing to help out like this, promising a wealth of food and comfort in return. He brings out an injection gun, the capsule of which is filled with a liquid which appears to be a very familiar greenish-brown shade. Cass sits impassively, awaiting the injection. He knows that his immune system is significantly more immune than most, so a small injection does not have him worried. The scientist injects the liquid into Cass's right arm, and Cass feels a slight coldness, followed by… nothing out of the ordinary. He sits, staring at the man, as the man peers back over a pair of wire framed spectacles from behind a desk in the room, making notes.
From room 4, a scientist steps out, walking towards the greeter, and Fade seizes the opportunity and teleports into the room. Lying on the sofa is the corpse of one of the homeless men, his veins bloated and his body tinged green. Summoning his powers, Fade concentrates on the man's body, calling his life force back to him. The corpse's eyelids burst open wide, revealing green corneas surrounding dilated pupils. The man screams a howl of agony so loud, it sounds as though the noise itself is tearing at his vocal chords. Panicking, Fade dematerialises and reappears in the rafters of the building, looking down on the queue of startled, shabby men.
"Please, remain calm. This is simply a drill." The greeter tries to calm the queue. The scientists from the other rooms have emerged, and room 4 scientist leads others in the run back to his room. Cass, now faced with an empty room, wanders over to the notes the scientist had been making, and at the bottom of a page which details Cass's appearance and non-reaction to the injection, the words 'suitable candidate' are sprawled.
The man's screaming is suddenly silenced.
Sledgehammer had impressed Rough Justice as the two of them had climbed the fire escape at the back of the building. The latter hadn't expected the level of stealth nor agility from the big man, and now the two of them peer through one of the windows into the warehouse. A dozen or so huge cylindrical tanks hang, suspended from the ceiling by industrial chains, in the centre of the giant room. Each tank has metal caps attached at both ends. The cap on top holds the mechanism for affixing the tanks to the large chains, and there are other, insulated cables running from panels in the ceiling into the tanks too. Glass or an otherwise clear material forms the bulk of the case. Inside each, a semi-opaque bright blue liquid surrounds the hard to make out silhouettes of figures; hanging, suspended in the thick liquid. Periodically, electricity sparks and fizzes into the liquid, visibly brightening the viscous solution. It seems to be coming from the thick cables penetrating the tanks. The figures themselves are human. No, nearly human. Rough Justice notices that many of the silhouettes are misshapen in different ways. One seems to have a large abscess connecting its head to its right shoulder. Another has far too much mass on its legs to be human, giving it an almost comical bottom-heavy look. Every time a pulse of electrical energy reaches one of the tanks, the creature within spasms.
The room has a metal platform that winds its way around two of the walls, and a spiral staircase leading down to the ground floor. Some sort of 'observation' platform. The very existence of this set-up disgusts Rough Justice down to his bones. Sick experiments that defile these poor, deluded men and women, whose only reason for being here is hunger and desperation.
There doesn't appear to be anyone in the room other than the victims in the tanks, so Sledgehammer, with a nod of approval from Rough Justice, carefully lifts the window and the Sledgehammer climbs onto the observation platform. He turns to face his team-mate. Rough Justice is shaking, his fists clenched. Through gritted teeth, he says
"You go on ahead. I'll stay out here and keep watch." Every impulse inside Rough Justice's head is screaming for him to smash these tanks, end the injustice of the situation, but somehow he manages to keep level-headed and controlled enough that he can restrain himself. It takes all of his effort to walk away from the warehouse, furious and trying to clear his head.
Now that he's inside, Sledgehammer notices the bank of computer terminals and electronic equipment lining the walls of the ground floor. More than that he notices the furtive movement of someone keeping to the shadows, inspecting the equipment and the tanks.
Jumping from the platform to the ground floor with an agility that belies his size, Sledgehammer says to the man suspiciously,
"Who am I? Who the hell are you, big guy? What are you doing in a place like this?" The man is wearing a dark red body armour, covering every inch of his body. Only the man's nose, mouth and chin are visible underneath a round mask that seems to double as a crash helmet.
"Science men bad. Hurting these people." Sledgehammer gestures at the tank. "Why you here?"
"It seems like we're here with similar goals then. Finding out what's going on here!" The masked stranger eyes Sledgehammer up carefully, sensing the danger he would be in, were the child-like mind to decide that he, Acrobat, was the enemy.
"Someone's coming", Acrobat says, suddenly alert, his body tense, readying for fight or flight. He backflips to the shadows and Sledgehammer is left alone, save for Fade's voice in his head.
"You've got a couple of guys, incoming!"
Suddenly aware of his limited options as the scientists open the door to the room, Sledgehammer dives into a shadowy corner of the room. Fade teleports in and runs to Sledgehammer, touching his shoulder and the two of them disappear, but it's too late. They've been seen, and one of the scientists runs to a nearby terminal, hitting a button and suddenly an alarm is blaring.
"Commence operation bolt-hole", a computerised voice issues from the speakers around the compound. The chains holding the tanks aloft begin to extend, lowering each tank to the floor. The patrol of large, amplified men has entered the chaos.
"What happened?" One of them shouts to the scientist who had raised the alarm.
"Intruders in the complex, 'Specials'. They can't have got far." By now the tanks have reached the floor, chains going slack. One of the scientists operating another terminal quickly punches in a control sequence command and the thick liquid begins to drain from the machines. Following preset grooves in the floor and draining into a grate at the back of the room. The contents of the tanks is now clear. Men and women, all of whom have some form of the regenerative fungus growing on them. Being cultivated on these human petri dishes. Each subject falls to to the front of the tanks, where most of the scientists are collecting them up, hauling them over bionic shoulders and dashing for the underground pathway through which the team had arrived.
Following some automated process, the panels in the ceiling holding the cables had slid open and the cables had started to retract. One of the panels fails to fully open and the cable starts to coil up on itself as there is no room for it to fully pass through the opening. Nevertheless, whatever hidden mechanism that was retracting the cable made no signs of stopping, and the cable bunches more and more tightly until it finally gives and the cable snaps, sending a shower of electrical sparks cascading down onto the scientists, still trying to escape with their 'subjects'.
Some of the sparks land squarely on the fungal growth of what used to be a man's shoulder. The specimen howls, suddenly conscious, suddenly sentient. More patches of the fungal material start sprouting up at the points where his body has been hit with the sparks. The creature struggles out of the grip of the unexpecting scientist who was carrying it out of the compound. He moves rapidly over to one of the scientists carrying the large-legged specimen and lays a scaled fungal hand over the thigh of the other creature. Howling in guttural rage, both hand and thigh pulsate sickeningly and then the other creature is awake. The last seconds of both scientists life are spent terrified by the creatures that they have created as they turn and face the men, before forcing their fungal hands down into the throats of the men, choking and ripping the life from them.
"Retreat, get the hell out of here!" Commands one of the larger bionic men, and panic and survival are the only things that matter to the scientists now. They run, as more and more of the creatures are awakened by their mutated brethren.