New Rourke Unmasked
Rites of Passage
Epic Feats of Muddling Through | Freak Ecology | Memories of the Undermind
A sharp inhalation, consciousness flowing in like electric oil, and the parts of her body that Springer could feel were full of throbbing pain.
”Fuck me!” she wheezed.
The odd thing was that she seemed to be lying on a slanted wall with her arms reaching upwards. The ceiling was a mess of girders and dirt. There was dim light coming from beneath her. Her head felt strangely heavy, but as she turned it to the side, she was flooded with vertigo and her sense of direction realigned itself. At least she hadn’t thrown up inside her helmet. She was ten feet up, bent over a steel plate, with the edge across her belly. She became quite aware of how much her head hurt with so much blood hanging around in her brain. Different parts of her body lazily checked in, but several still had a general numbness to them.
”Oh god.” she said, through uneven, strained, breaths. “Please don’t be paralyzed.”
After what felt like a month, she remembered the impulses needed to move her legs. She instructed them to swing and then finally received the mixed blessing of pins and needles rushing from her toes up through her spine, which caused her to lose her breath again. A frustrating eternity of wiggling later, she had managed to slip over the edge of the steel plate and tumble to the ground where she laid in the dirt testing each joint one by one till all feeling had come back and her breathing was more under control.
“I have the worst hangover.”
Springer sat up to take stock of the situation. Above her the light of dusk snaked through a maze of bent steel and rotted wood. She figured this had probably been a utility shaft for one of the old copper mines; at least one-hundred-fifty-feet deep, she estimated. There were a lot of crane and elevator mechanisms still in place, but they’d been mangled when the roof came down along with two or three of the trolley cars. It all looked pretty precarious. Climbing up could cause another collapse, and there were no clear paths for her to jump out with her powers. Removing her helmet and unzipping her constraining body suit to get more air, she was treated to the stale, musty, aroma of abandoned civil infrastructure. She could only open her suit down to below her sternum where the zipper was mangled. There was a nasty bruise below her clavicle, a worse one on her stomach, and some dings on her arms and legs. All things considered, she was in decent shape; the Kevlar in her suit and her helmet had held out, the padding had helped a bit. A fall like that could have been much worse.
”Oh shit, Jaime!”
She got up shakily, put her suit back on and turned on the two LED headlights just above the sides of her visor.
”Jaime? Are you alright?”
She climbed around the debris looking up and down finding no sign of the boy or the rust dogs.
”Jaime! Can you hear me‽” she called out again, this time using her helmet’s built in PA system. “Dogs?”
Next to the roof of a trolley car, she heard what sounded like an electrical engine running in short spurts. She followed it to the other side where she found one of the rust dogs pinned underneath the trolley’s rear truck from the shoulders back.
”Bzark!” it shouted excitedly upon seeing her. Then it began whining again and clawed at the ground trying to drag itself out. The jerky movement caused the whole trolley to start shaking, and more debris fell down.
”Stop!” Springer said, falling on the dog and holding its legs still. “You’ll bring the whole thing down on our heads.”
The rust dog tilted its head and made a noise that sounded like “Beoowr.”, but otherwise it stayed still.
With some thoughtful application of repulsion blasts to rusted bolts and an ad hoc pry bar, Springer was able to pull one of the axel’s free, allowing the dog to slither out. She could tell from the untarnished parts that this was the dog that had been missing a leg. The limb had completely reformed with only some fresh scratches on its metalwork from the fall. It had lost several of the scales from its haunches, giving an obscured view of the incomprehensible mechanisms inside, illuminated in that neon blue glow. Springer tried looking inside, but after a few seconds she started to go cross-eyed. But apart from what appeared to be only superficial damage, and a bout of nervous unease, the dog was in good condition. It nuzzled her affectionately.
”Been through a lot today, huh? You feeling better…uh...” Springer did a quick check. “I can’t tell if you are a boy or a girl.”
”Boof.” the dog offered.
”Can you even understand what I’m saying?”
The dog sat down and stared Springer in the visor. ”Graunk.” it said.
”Yeah…Thanks. I’ll have to take that as a yes.”
”Graunk.” the dog repeated, wagging it’s tail.
”Cool. We need to find Jaime and the others. You go that way, I’ll go this way. Let me know if you find anything. Be careful.”
”Graunk.” the dog said a third time then trotted away.
Some minutes later, Springer was alerted by a loud Bzark! to a trail leading off into a tunnel. There were obvious dog tracks and a long, wide, mark like they had been dragging something.
”Good, doggie.” Springer said. “Looks like they took Jaime with them. I can’t see any blood, so I’m going to take that as a good sign. How are you with dark passages of the spooky unknown?”
The dog flattened its ears staring into the tunnel. “Grawl.”
”Yeah, me too.”
Springer looked doubtfully at the tunnel. She knew that the mines used to honeycomb the Keweenaw Peninsula under New Rourke and supposedly underneath parts of Lake Superior as well. She’d heard that much of them had been filled in, or turned into basement levels and utilities; some branches had just been walled off and forgotten about. Anything could be down there, and getting lost would be very easy. It was a common schoolyard boast to claim you had found a way down, returning with wild tales of finding precious minerals, hidden treasure, even fabled civilizations of Fraggles or Morlocks. Occasionally, some kid would stop coming to school never to be seen or heard from again. Rumors would spread that the kid had gone below and never made it back up. As she grew older such rumors were given little credence in place of the arguably more reasonable answer that the kid’s family had just moved away. But deep down, she always had the troubling thought that some of those stories had to be true.
Springer pulled out her phone to call for back up.
”No service. I really shouldn’t have expected anything else. It’d be really convenient if I knew someone with telepathy.”
Again she looked down the tunnel. Jaime was somewhere down there, as was the only hope of finding an exit with less potential for untimely death.
”Well, it looks like it’s time for another thrilling solo adventure. Hurray.”
”Oh course. My mistake. Every first meeting eventually ends in a team-up.”
* * *
More tunnels branched off the main mine shaft. Springer looked at these in passing, seeing the walls disappear around turns, some of them where the support beams had collapsed leaving only rubble. The trail they followed was clear enough to just make out though. The dirt floor was littered with debris of rocks, rotted wood, some metal, and contours clearly indicating water had flowed through before. She couldn’t be certain how high it had risen, but at least it wasn’t the rainy season yet. Either way she needed to get her mind off the thought of how she would survive if there was a flood…or whether Jaime was still alive.
”You rust dogs get around a lot, huh?” she said with forced cheer.
”Boof.” it said casually, walking beside her.
”Yep. That’s the life. Living free. No bills. Chewing on the odd Studebaker.”
The dog considered this then replied with a non-committal, “Boof.”
”My name's Springer by that way. I’d tell you my real name, but we only just met. You know, secret identity and whatnot.”
”Graunk.” the dog said sagely.
”I suppose I should call you something besides ‘dog’.”
”I’ll just call you…Tripod. How’s that? ‘Cus of the whole leg thing.”
It shook its head. “Grawl.”
”No, huh? You got a name then?”
”Graunk.” the dog said, then stopped and tilted its head towards Springer. Its ears slid further apart and the scales on top its head retracted revealing a small recesses; inside was a 36-pin parallel port and a one inch emblem.
”What do you expect me to do with that?”
Springer leaned down for a closer look. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a port that big except on some of the really old computers in her college’s library. As for the emblem it was a hexagon showing a white 8-bit skull on a black background; the same emblem that Cyber Sab0r had used to mark her gear. Springer peered at it and saw that the design was made up of a series of small forward and backward slashes like an etching.
”Wait a minute. Is that a DataGlyph?”
Springer pulled out her phone and took a picture of the emblem with the program she used to QR barcodes on shipping labels. Her phone’s screen filled with lines of text and blocks of numbers, most of which she didn’t understand, but at least the header made sense.
”Hello, my name is Trix.” Springer read aloud. “If found call (906) 831…”
Springer knelt down in front of Trix, stroking its head. The scales covered the recess back up, and Trix’s mechanical eyes looked forlornly at Springer.
”I’ll do what I can to find a home for you and the other rust dogs, Trix. But right now we’ve got a mission. People depend on us. You with me?”
”Bzark!” Trix shouted.
”That’s right!” Springer nodded. “Now let’s go and—giantmonstercrabs!”
Being shocked by the size of a crab is a fairly subjective experience. Someone living around the Pacific Ocean can commonly see ghost crabs which are only about three inches across. If that person went to Florida and came across a fiddler crab, which is twice that size, they would find themselves earnestly surprised. However, if they were confronted with the Tasmanian giant crab, whose shell can grow to about a foot and a half, an expression of dumbfounded awe would not be out of the question. On the other hand, someone coming face to face with the spiky, brown, crustaceans that stalked the depths beneath New Rourke, with their massive claws and bodies the size of oil drums, enters the realm of pants-shitting shock. The fact that there were three of them in the tunnel making strange hooting noises did not help matters.
”Nice crabs. Friendly crabs.” Springer said with a bit of nervous laughter.
The crabs sidled towards Springer and Trix. Springer’s lights reflected off the muck-covered carapace of the lead crab. Its claws clacked menacingly.
Trix hunched down and let out a low grawl.
”Whort!” went the crab.
”Grawl!” Trix said again emphatically.
”Whort!” went all the crabs in succession.
”Rawr!” said Springer. She felt a little let out of the conversation.
The crabs continued their march unabated and Springer took a tentative step backwards. Then Trix launched forward, charging at the lead crab, gnashing metal teeth and screaming robo-doggie obscenities.
”Way to make me look bad, Trix!” Springer shouted.
Springer launched herself up and forward then ricocheted off the ceiling at an angle that sent her sliding under the belly of the second crab. As she passed beneath, she threw he hands up, and blasted the crab into the ceiling. Its dorsal spikes dug into the dirt and stone of the tunnel’s roof, sticking there. The crab’s arms and legs wiggled uselessly. The rear crab snapped at her with its huge claws. She jumped to its back, landing between the spikes. It wobbled unsteadily due to her weight and continued to reach for her.
Meanwhile, Trix was busy dodging the first crab’s claws. The crab’s carapace was thick, but Trix’s metal teeth and great bite force managed to snap through several spikes and mangle a leg. The crab was still bigger though. Trix’s claws hadn’t been able to do more than scratch the shell. In a desperate gambit, Trix bit into the crab’s face. The crab’s claws hammered and snapped at Trix, but through the pummeling, Trix hung on for dear life.
Springer reached up, bracing her hands against the tunnel’s ceiling, and blasted the crab downward. There was a heavy thud when the Crab’s belly impacted but the shell remained intact. She jumped away as the crab regained its feet, snapping at her with vicious hooting. She avoided getting pinched by the big claws, but a backswing connected, knocking her to the ground. Immediately the crab was upon her, one claw down around her helmet. The other claw snapped at her stomach, but she still just managed to hold it at bay. It took both her arms to restrain the claw attempting to gut her, but the one around her head continued to squeeze and scrape at her helmet. She could hear the high-impact plastic begin to crack. She could have used her power to explode her helmet away, possibly destroying the claw, but that would only be a temporary and probably deadly solution. As the crab’s feeding appendages reached for her, she thought of how the story of her death would just turn into another cautionary tale of getting in over one’s head. That is if anyone ever found out what had happened.
”Aaargh!” Springer shouted. “Nuts to this!”
Springer punched her right fist into the crab’s mouth, and with the power of tactile telekinetic repulsion released a pressure wave that turned the crab’s innards to pudding. Seams and small fractures in the crab’s shell squirted out goop. The crab’s limbs twitched, then stopped, and the heavy body collapsed on top of her.
Springer rolled the body off herself, then went to help Trix, only to find the rust dog covered in crabs innards, having burrowed inside the one it was fighting.
”You’re disgusting, Trix.” Springer said, whipping gunk out of Trix’s eyes.
The crab in the ceiling let out another loud “Whort!” then finally shook loose, bringing down a sizable section of the tunnel’s ceiling with it.
”Oh, crap! Run!” Springer shouted.
The ceiling collapsed behind them as they sprinted down the tunnel. When it stopped, Springer looked back at the collapsed passageway.
”What the crap stick!”
”Grawl!” Trix said.
Springer threw her hands up in the air. “Yeah, dumb rookie just makes everything worse. Damn it!”
”Grawl!” Trix said again with feeling.
”Well, you don’t have to rub it in.”
”What is it now?” Springer said, turning around. “…Oh…rats.”
There were rats in the tunnel; a lot of rats, big ones. Not monstrously huge rats, but a there was a big lot of large rats, standing on their hind legs looking intently at Springer and Trix with more coming from an intersection farther along the tunnel.
The echoing sound of a thousand voices swarmed into Springer’s head. “What is?” they said.
”Smell crab. Look man. Look dog. Not. What is?”
”Ah.” Springer said. “Telepathy. Nice.”