New Rourke Unmasked
Rites of Passage
Epic Feats of Muddling Through | Freak Ecology | Memories of the Undermind
Springer didn’t have much of a problem with rats. It’s rather difficult to live in a big city and have a problem with rats once you had recognized that since there are no fields of forests for them to go to the rats live in the walls and floors and ceilings, living off the things you throw away, attracted by the same heat you use to stay warm, breeding constantly in uncounted masses. You had to come to terms with the notion that at any given moment there was probably a rat not more than a few dozen feet away, or you never stopped screaming. However, these rats were not like the type you’d usually find crawling out of your shower drain one horrifying morning; they were muscular, lean, their coats were an array of earth tones, and had a third eye growing out of the back of their heads…then there were the ones carrying around clumps of some sort of bioluminescent moss.
Trix grawled again like it had done before attacking the crabs. Springer lowered a hand to the rust dog’s neck.
"Calm down, Trix." she said. "Let’s try to avoid another fight."
"Boof." Trix said indignantly, then sidled closer to Springer taking up a protective stance.
Springer raised her hands slowly. Since she was technically the alien in this underground world, she could think of nothing better to say than, "We come in peace."
"What is?" the voices repeated in her head.
"You speak English?"
Springer slowly realize that what she thought were words were really thousands of tiny emotions and memory fragment all swirled together into concepts she could understand, like a projected language casserole. Likewise the rats must have picked up on some meaning to the words that formed in her own head. She couldn’t understand the little squeaks or motions the rats made, like they couldn’t understand her vocalizations, but somewhere in cross-species thought transmission communication happened. She was quite proud of herself for coming up with that.
"I should have been an etymologist."
Some of the rats tilted their heads to the side, while others looked around the tunnel. "Want cut idea?"
"Nevermind that." she said shaking her head. "I’m Springer."
"Not!" the rats shouted.
Springer was taken aback by the rats’ sudden insolence. "…Am so." Springer said insolently.
"Not!" the rats shouted again.
"Um…" Springer pointed at Trix. "This is Trix."
"Trix is not dog." the rats accused to Springer.
"…machine…dog?" Springer offered.
The rats looked at Trix for a moment before saying. "Trix is machine dog."
"Okay." Springer said thinking things were finally getting somewhere. "I’m Springer. I’m a superhero."
"Not! What is?"
"I’m human." Springer said, jabbing a frustrated finger at her chest.
"Not!" the rats demanded angrily. "Say is. Is not! Not human. Say like dead one. Say not is, is not! Look human, not!"
"You rats are crazy!"
"Rats not We! Human not! Springer not! Think words is! Say words not! We one, not rats! Rat not!"
"Okay! SHUT UP!" Springer shouted as the rats’ mindspeak smashed into her making it almost impossible to hear her own thoughts above the din. "We—Trix and" she pointed at herself "are looking for a boy, small human, and two other machine dogs. Have you seen them?"
"Are they okay?"
"Move. We find. Them run."
"All three? The boy is moving?"
A wave of relief washed over Springer. She hated the thought of having to carry out a body. "Where are they?"
"Yes, I get that they are moving. Where?"
"Move near bad."
Springer frowned beneath her helmet. "What’s bad?"
Springer’s mind was flooded with a torrent of images and sensations; tiny bodies flung at walls, smashed, rent apart, consumed in poison and acidic mucus. She experienced from overwhelming perspectives being devoured in agonizing darkness while simultaneously tearing at a churning mass of tentacles with her hundreds of sets of teeth and claws. She was not a thousand rats thinking together, but one mind with a million bodies. Some of the thoughts were hazy and distorted, others were sharp, but each time her memories were clearer; the monster was bigger and more devastating. It roamed, looking for something, someone…
The colony had once tried to help the monster. When the colony had been one mind, one body, alone with the terrible weight of thought, the colony saw the monster as kindred in its strangeness. Rats were afraid of the colony, the monster also small and alone. The colony reached out in thought, but the monster didn’t understand. It could only fight and eat. The colony grew, more bodies, bigger mind. The monster grew also but still didn’t understand. More arms every time, a mad creature barely able to form the merest thought of it’s own, driven by instinctive impulses, growing, healing, reshaping, consuming, too big to hold back any longer.
Then her emotions changed from quivering fear to outrage as she was no longer fighting the stinking writhing flesh but being snapped at by huge teeth and paws half as big as each of her bodies. This new enemy’s skin was hard as the strongest rock. Each time it sounded its unnatural call, the blue glow from within streamed out.
Springer’s head jerked up from where she had been convulsing on the ground, sharing memories of The Tangler, to see the rats fighting Trix. "Stop!" she shouted to no avail. So many rats piled on to Trix that the rust dog was only noticeable by the violent thrashing of the swarm of bodies. Springer jumper into the pool of boiling vermin, but was soon overwhelmed herself. They crawled everywhere. The tunnel, even the floor, effectively vanished, replaced by the fur, and teeth, and squeals of anger. She could feel them on every inch of her body clawing and biting at her suit and helmet, even with the Kevlar panels in her suit holding off the bites, it would only be a matter of time before they’d manage to pop a stitch and get in. For the second time in an hour, Springer was faced with the prospect of being eaten alive.
"No!" she shouted, blasting all the rats away in one big push. Rats slammed into walls and each other, not all of them in one piece. In her panic she’d lost some control; several of the seams on her bodysuit had blown open, and there was a noticeable fracture in her helmet as it hung looser than it should, one of her headlights no longer worked.
"Human not!" the rats cursed, as Trix, itself having been blown back, scampered over to Springer’s side.
"No. I’m not exactly human." Springer said through gritted teeth, finally with a clear view of what she was facing. "And I’m not going on your dinner plate!"
"All meat is meat."
"Is that why you followed the boy?"
"All meat is meat."
"Not him, and not me!"
"Is." A few of the rats inched closer. "Words not make not is."
"You try that again, and I will make you regret it! I don’t care if I have to kill every last bit of you."
"Fear not words We. Many We. Colony old. All We strong. Eat We want. Colony more. Always."
"You can’t eat Trix."
"Bzark!" Trix said driving home the point.
"And there are more machine dogs. More machines, and poison, more humans than you think, and more not humans like me. You start a fight, we will end it."
"We old! Many!"
"Only because we didn’t know you were here. And we don’t like things that try to hurt us. I can think of a lot of ways that we could kill you without you being able to fight back. You think The Tangler’s bad? Tell me I’m bluffing."
"Yes." Springer glared. "Words is. Now tell me how to find the boy and get out of here."
The rats stared at Springer and Trix for a long moment until four rats broke off from the mass and crawled forward, the rear one holding one of those clumps of bioluminescent moss in its teeth. "We pain not. You pain not."
Most of the rats cleared a path allowing the four to run down the tunnel. "Move near. Find boy."
* * *
Unknown depths beneath the ground in a labyrinthine copper mine that hadn’t seen the presence of mankind in who knew how long, her only companions being an artificial dog and four telepathic rats, Elizabeth Raleigh couldn’t help but fall victim to introspection. Had this all been worth it? Yes, she had a superpower, arguably a very useful one in certain situations, but had that been enough of a reason to make a costume and call herself a hero? A boy, half her age, was in trouble. Everything down here fed on everything else with no thought to mercy. If she didn’t help Jaime, who would? Then again if it hadn’t been for her, neither of them would have ended up down here in the first place. Not to mention three members of a species that, for all she knew, could be the last. No one had trained her for this. She had just gone off half-cocked jumping into situations because…it made her special.
She wanted so much to be special. The world was so big, and there were so many people in it standing out was like shouting into a crowd where everyone else was trying to be heard.
Her family, her teachers had always told her that she was special. Everyone was special they said. Everyone was unique. But after growing up, that all became just words. It was a sentiment that did not make sense, just something nice to say. And the world didn’t want special, it wanted interchangeable parts, redundancy. There were whole groups of people trying to stake a claim to a single identity so that they wouldn’t be seen as useless. While the people who were truly special, who stood out amongst the crowd, were often treated with jealousy or resentment. So Elizabeth had decided to be two people; the one who filled the little space the world had made for her, and the one who said the rules didn’t apply. But Elizabeth, and Springer, knew that all she had really been doing was silently screaming "Look at me! Validate me!" as long as no one saw her flaws.
She’d made a mistake. She’d made many mistakes today, and now the burden of consequence had to fall on someone’s shoulders. She just hoped she could bare the weight.
* * *
The four rats ran on at an easy gate in a star formation, with Springer just behind, and Trix trailing. They had started out faster, but Trix’s weight meant that the rust dog couldn’t keep up, and Springer had insisted to the rats that they all stayed together. It hadn’t helped that from time to time, Springer had to smack her helmet to get her failing headlight to work. The helmet was practically ruined with its cracked shell and the wiring inside coming loose; she’d need to pull some favors to get a new own or just have to settle for buying a cheap replacement off the shelf. Fortunately patches of that bioluminescent moss the rats had grew in increasing frequency in this part of the mine giving off a pale greenish glow that was enough to prevent tripping. Springer wondered about its toxicity but she wasn’t a botanist and the rats seemed fine with it. Then again there were all kinds of weird mutant things down here, rats included, so maybe it was the moss that caused that.
The rats came to a halt suddenly and stood up on their hind legs.
"What’s wrong?" Springer started to say but stopped when she felt the ground shudder. It was very soft at first but grew to a noticeable vibration that lasted for a couple seconds before dying down. "What was that?"
"Scream snake?" Springer said to Trix.
"Boof?" Trix replied with a doggy shrug.
"It doesn’t matter. We have to find Jaime."
"Move close not."
"We had a deal." Springer insisted.
"Words is. We pain not. You move close. We move close not."
"Fine. Whatever. How do we get there?"
Snaps of memory shot into Springer’s brain again which gave her a general idea of which way to go as well as a momentary, creepy, disassociative feeling.
"Let’s go Trix."
Springer and Trix passed several more junctions, some of them leading off into what looked like natural cave formations, some of them with actual brick and mortar construction. Then Trix let out an excited bzark and a few yards later Springer could make out other bzarks in response.
They rounded a corner into a large room that looked like it had originally been a cave but had been expanded and turned into a storage area or workroom for the mines. There were a few mine carts laying discarded on the ground or on rails that led off into side spurs, collapsed piles that must have been crates or lumber at some point, and a big water filled sinkhole at one end of the room. But there was also The Tangler. It was pressed up against a big tool cage making murmuring, slurping, sounds as its tentacles searched for a hole in the metal lattice big enough to squeeze through and get to Jaime and the one rust dog who had barricaded themselves inside. The other rust dog was already scattered in pieces around the room.
Springer froze. She’d seen pictures and video of The Tangler before, but that was before she’d had the memories of dying a thousand times over shoved into her head. Her heart pounded, her eyes teared up, and all other sensory information bled out of the world apart from The Tangler’s presence. Trix also was dismayed; it saw what The Tangler had done to the other rust dog and cowered next to Springer. Trix’s whining could barely be heard over the trapped rust dog’s frantic bzarking.
Springer’s headlight flickered sporadically.
The Tangler had nothing that could be described as a front or back, and its top or bottom was usually just determined by which tentacles in the mass were pointed downward. No one knew how exactly The Tangler perceived the world; no organs other than tentacles had ever been witnessed. For all anyone knew, The Tangler could have been just a giant mass of sapient arms holding onto each other. However speculations of The Tangler’s anatomy were distant thoughts to Springer as the twenty foot monster slowly crossed the room on columns of tentacles, attracted by the flicking light. While some tentacles lazily stretched back towards the tool cage, many more reached toward Springer, searching for the source of the light.
Trix whined louder as The Tangler came nearer and nearer, but Springer stood completely still. Trix nudged Springer to no effect as the first of the tentacles wrapped around her helmet and shoulders. Then tentacles slithered around her chest and arms, gently pulling her towards the mass.
Trix snapped out a bzark and bit into Springer’s calf. The shock caused Springer to jerk out of her trance. The tentacles around Springer’s head shredded in a cloud of muck and plastic as her helmet exploded outward.
The Tangler roared with the primal rage of eons. It was so loud, Springer’s ears were ringing.
"Trix! Help Jaime!" Springer shouted as she fought back against the tentacles. One of them, looking like a piece of cooked spaghetti, slapped her across the face and her cheek went numb, but Springer fought on with her repulsion blasts.
When she finally managed to get the last of the tentacles off her, she jumped away to a small crevice, high on the wall, and pressed herself into it. All she wanted was to find someplace small and dark to hide. Parts of her suit looked like they had been scoured with a belt sander, others had been just melted by the acid. She knew that if The Tangler got hold of her again the loose stitching and Kevlar of her suit would only supply temporary protection. She was pretty sure a tentacle had taken a clump of her hair too. There was blood in seeping into her eye. Her only option was to stay out of grasping range of the monster. In college she and her roommate had occasionally watched tentacle hentai and laughed out how ridiculous they were. It didn't seem funny now.
On the far side of the room, Trix and the other rust dog tore at the metal lattice of the tool cage. The sounds of metal rending drew The Tangler’s attention and it started back that way.
I’ve got to do something, Springer thought. Shit! How do you fight something like that? It smashes everything it sees!
Springer's eyes went wide and she excitedly shouted, "The rats!"
She jumped down behind The Tangler, picked up a rock, and blasted it into the mass. Immediately the Tangler roared and lashed out in her direction, but she’d already jumped to another spot and blasted another rock. The Tangler turned and attacked again.
"Many We!" Springer shouted. "All We strong!"
From one spot to the next, Springer bounced around the room engaging The Tangler from multiple directions. It reached out to grab her time and again, but always to just missed her.
Then the vibration came again. It was stronger this time and accompanied by a distant scream just above a very fast but rhythmic thumping.
"Geez, that’s the subway." Springer looked to Trix and the others who had finally made a hole big enough for Jaime and the rust dog to climb out of the tool cage. "Trix! Find the subway! Get them out of here!"
A tentacle sliced through the air knocking Springer on her back, but she rolled with the fall, and launched herself backwards to avoid another meaty arm slamming down where she had been a second ago.
Springer found her rhythm. She finally felt in the zone as she dodged and jumped randomly while The Tangler roared in frustrated rage. Its arms flailed wildly, some of them picking up debris and throwing them in random directions. She even started flinging out quotes from TV shows and movies along with her impromptu missiles.
"Keep firing, running backwards and forwards and pretend you’re an army."
"I’m a leaf on the wind! Watch how I soar!"
This went on for several minutes. It made for an excellent work out despite the continual threat of a gruesome death. Eventually she heard a bzark and saw Trix running along one of the spurs. She immediately jumped to the far side of room next to the water filled tunnel.
"You! Shall not! Pass!"
She blasted a big rock into the water, creating a huge splash along with the regular racquetball sound of her blasts, and flung herself behind an overturned mine cart. The Tangler followed after the rock and disappeared.
As Springer ran to Trix she said in a high panicked voice, "Let’s get the hell out of here!"
* * *
It was near eleven at night when they got to the Lent house in MayBurg. Jaime's parents had been worried sick, but the relief on their faces was matched by their surprise at seeing their son at the door with two robot dogs and a dirty looking twenty-something in a pink bodysuit which had clearly seen better days. After some explanations, and a call to the police to sort everything out, they invited her in for dinner, gave her some clean clothes, and the use of their shower. They asked her name, and she replied, "You can just call me Elizabeth."
Trix tried to leave with her, but she shook her head. "No. You protected me more than I did you. Stay with Jaime. I'll be back to visit. Anyway, my landlord would freak."
After stopping at home to change and drop off the bag that held the remains of her suit, Elizabeth went down to Candlebrook Tavern for a much needed nightcap. The bar had several supers in. Many of whom were annoyed after the search for The Tangler had been called off without a single sighting beyond what Springer had told the cops. She wore a blue jacket against the cold, a light brown poor-boy hat, and a swathe of bright pink fabric as a bandana around her face.
"The usual Rick."
"Heard you had a night."
"Ugh! You don't know the half of it." Elizabeth said, slipping the straw Rick had thoughtfully supplied behind her bandana. "I'm going to have nightmares for a week."
"Saved a kid. Found some rust dogs. Learned some stuff. Came away from The Tangler with your head still attached. I think you'll be alright."
"You're sweet, Rick." she said, then shifted her eyes slyly. "But you're too old for me."
Rick smiled kindly then saw to the other patrons.
"A word, Springer."
Elizabeth turned and saw Axiom standing next to her, still in full mecha armor.
"Look, Axiom if you want to get on my case, just save it. I've had a rough day."
"I just wanted to say you did good today."
Beneath her bandana, a smile formed on Elizabeth's face.
"We'll make something of you yet, rookie."
And there went the smile.