It feels like a building has been dropped on my skull. I can feel three separate beings sending the entire weight of their minds against me. No angst or murderous intent just the crushing force of keeping me down. I tried to fight back but it was pointless. I was not nearly strong enough.
So I changed tactics. I sent back a feeler of apology for invading their space. Tried to send my intention back to them. I sent images of Rae Delamar to them. The feelings I had felt from the three who were also in the mall. For a moment the constant onslaught let up and a feeling of confusion came across. Then a sudden increase came back and like my legs had fallen from under me, consciousness left as well.
— — —
Josef had a series of pneumatic tubes installed in his underground Manor. This was how he moved from room to room without a body. I found it to be amazing. Apparently this was how banks moved currency before the Crash. He modified the tech behind them and repurposed it to convey his container. He was proud of it. Modesty is not his strong suit and he bragged about how he had it all constructed fifty years ago.
“I wiped the minds of all involved. It was a simple thing, one I expect you to be able to do as well. Given time and training of course.”
“Sounds villianish. Not really sure that is my thing.”
“Gear, things are not so black and white. Good and evil are the same thing depending on point of view.”
“Says the Nazi war criminal.”
“And to the people of Germany I was doing God’s work. It wasn’t until I spent months soaking in the thoughts of others that I realized how closed my ideals had been. A tool is only as deadly as the intent of the wielder. Had I been experimenting in Nazis for America I would have been a hero. Take Oppenheimer, father of the nuclear bomb. He killed how many? Yet he was never considered a war criminal. I told you of my past in an effort to be transparent not to have it flung in my face at every turn!”
He was right. He could have told me any story but he chose the truth.
“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
Without a face it was impossible to read how he took my apology. I tried to read his thoughts but he might as well have not been there.
“It is fine. Not a day goes by that I don’t not regret the role I played in the past. Having it carelessly thrown about after so long disturbs feelings long buried. You didn’t know. But casual ignorance is ignorance nonetheless. Now shield your mind from me.”
I did as he instructed, built a wall in my mind. And he punched right through it.
I recreated it, putting as much into it as I could. This time it cracked but held. Again and again he hit it until finally after the fifth attack it crumbled.
“Very nice. Again.”
I was pissed he made it through. I thought I had him. I poured my anger into it this time and the wall was plastisteel with armaments. He crashed into it over and over again. It broke eventually but I could feel his frustration as he did. I made him sweat this time. I didn’t even feel myself fall to a knee as I fought him off. I felt like I had gone through a tornado of fists.
“Very good Mr Dreary. Very good indeed.”
“Thanks. Still failed though.”
“Small incremental improvements. Important growth. Do not be so hard on yourself, your growth exceeds others at the same point.”
“You said I was the third success. You had no training partner and Phlegm was your second. Not really a broad database to go off of.”
“Yes. In a sense. There were other, failed attempts in the past. Different experimental formulas.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Science is an ever changing thing Gear. There were other failed experiments. You were designated experiment 1126. 729 of this particular mental and physical trial. So many attempts and so few successes. You were number three in your particular test group.”
“And in the other test groups?”
“Differing levels of success. Unfortunately lost to the ages. The Crash rendered many petrabytes of data lost.”
With that I heard the familiar whoosh and I was alone with the knowledge he had played mad scientist with over a thousand others. And he kept his secrets close to the best, or tank in this case.
— — —
I was bound, hands and feet tied tightly with rope and sitting in the corner of the store. My head pounding from the abuse I had taken. I had no idea how long I was out.
“One hour,” a rattling voice answered my unspoken question. “Fifty eight minutes and forty three seconds to be exact. What brings you to our home Mr Gear Dreary? Was it the Doctor? We’re you sent to wipe us out finally?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I am here lookng for the girl, Rae Delamar.”
“Yes, I see that. And this mysterious text message that not only sent you here but gave you the full schematics of the mall? You know nothing. Interesting. There was never a girl here. Yes I can see everything in your mind. Yes we were also experiments.”
“Look, can you stop answering the questions I haven’t even thought yet? I have a serious fucking headache.”
“Here,” a hand stretched out of the shadows and touched my forehead. Instantly the pain subsided. “You are welcome.”
Now that the pain was gone I put up the shields Josef had taught me.
“Unnecessary Mr Gear Dreary, I can break through your paltry defenses in seconds. But you have talent. I would expect no less from 1126. He has waited for you for a very long time.”
“Who are you?”
“We are the descendants of his final batch of successes. Our mother was 1101, the last of her group. We are all that remains of our tribe. My brothers and I have hidden ourselves away here for years. Who are the Hellion Four? You called out to them as you lost consciousness. Is this your tribe?”
“Yes. My brothers.”
“Then you understand. We must protect ourselves. We are the last of our tribe, all others were slaughtered by the creatures you call the Tribe, punk ass bitches. They were sent by the Doctor. And we are thinking you were as well. With that you gotta be killed before you can kill us.”
I dropped my mental shields. It may be suicidal of me but they had to see I had no intentions of killing them. They felt the obstruction leave my mind and they dove into my thoughts and memories.
— — —
“What happened to the others?” I asked Josef as he floated next to me, explaining his theories on genetics and trying to broaden my understanding of his goals.
“The other experiments. Before me?”
“Most died from the pills themselves. Their sickness made them too frail or a miscalculation by my own hand, as it is.”
“But some of them survived.”
“Yes indeed. But they did not last long. Of the 1126, only seventeen survived the intial treatment. The three I have made mention were the only viable subjects. And only you and Mr Hardly survived intact.
My failed integration into a clone body in time left me as you see now. So even I was a failure in the strictest sense.”
“And the other fourteen?”
“Most died within weeks, too much power for frail vessels I am afraid. The rest became monsters, perversions of my initial research and were, ahem, dealt with.”
“What do you mean perversions?”
“I had tried to to create ubermensch, both mental and physical superiors. The failed versions were strengthened only mentally. I sought to unlock the potential of the mind hidden away. Unfortunately it succeeded in ways I didn’t imagine. Frightful creatures of great power but little substance, mental vampyr that satiated themselves on the minds of others. They ate without knowing how to stop and left my assistants husks. Brain dead, drained of the ability to think. They had to be destroyed, I couldn’t allow them to run free.”
“Did you ever try and just increase physical attributes? The opposite end I guess?”
“Yes of course. All failures though. Why the sudden interest?”
“Trying to understand why I succeeded when so many others failed.”
“I have a theory it has to do with your bloodline. Some certain genetic predisposition to the drug introduced to your system.”
— — —
“He believes us to be dead? Then why are you here? Who sent you?” aggravation filled the tone of the rattling whisper. They must speak so rarely it is more of a hiss from atrophy.
“You read my mind, you know I have no idea. Look you also know I intend you no harm. I am looking for the girl. This was my first lead.”
“There was no one else here. We lured you into the trap by projecting the idea of others. We are alone here. What do you plan now?”
“Hopefully not to die. Other than that I don’t know. I had planned on interviewing the girl’s father before the text led me here.”
The presence in my mind faded and I could sense the three of them were communicating, probably deciding if I was going to be lunch. I slid my shield up again and tested the ropes in case I needed to make a hasty retreat. I had nothing against these guys but if it came to violence I would protect myself.
“My brothers believe you will tell the Doctor about us. They think we should drain you and let the rats feast on your carcass.”
“And you? Do you think I will tell him?”
“That is the question. One I have no answer to. On one hand you would be a great feast. On the other it is nice to meet another experiment. To not be so alone in this strange world. What would you do in our place Mr Dreary?”
That was a good question. And one I didn’t want to think too hard on.
“Honestly I would be torn as well. But maybe we could be friends. I would love to learn from you, your power is tremendous and could help me learn more about mine. I don’t know. You have read my mind, you know the type of person I am better than I do. I would prefer to live.”
“As would we. As would we.”
I could feel the hostility radiating from the other two. It didn’t feel like it was going my way. And then one of them, I guessed the one I had been speaking to stepped forward out of the shadows. He was not some hideously deformed creature like I had expected. Pale with deep dark shadows under his brown eyes like bruises and a gaunt frame that showed a lack of physical activity. His long wispy beard hung down over the old heavy metal band t-shirt he wore. At least I guessed heavy metal with the skull and demon in flames on it. His brothers stepped forward as well and it was clear they were related, practically triplets from appearance to the way they dressed.
“I am John, these are my brothers Matt and Clayton. We would like to be friends I think. Come, let us show you our home.”
I flexed my arms and the rope snapped, I had realized the rope was brittle but didn’t want to risk seeming aggressive and starting a fight. After removing the rope from my legs I stood up and extended my hand to them. They made the devil horns symbol back at me.
“Do you happen to like Pantera Mr Dreary?” Clayton asked.
“Never heard of them. Sorry.”
They howled at this, anger or laughter I couldn’t tell the difference. I had a feeling I was about to learn. They led me through the lower floor of the mall to their ‘home’ which was some store called Hot Topic. The rest of the mall was trashed but this store seemed to have been left alone. Shelf after shelf of band shirts and little vinyl toys filled the place. It was the grand sum of why capitalism failed from what I could tell.
“This place is rad!” John exclaimed as we walked to the back.
I carefully kept my mental cover up. This was not what I expected mental vampires to be like. I guess I didn’t really have expectations really but I would never have guessed in a million years this is what I would have found on the off chance I found them.
I definitely didn’t expect the back room of the store to be an armory. There were guns everywhere. I mean everywhere. The former storage room was littered with every make and model of gun I could imagine. Jeff would have been in heaven back here.
The look on my face must have been everything they had hoped for because they began howling the second my eyes widened.
Matt just watched me, glee written on his face. “When we first showed up here there were gangs all over. As we took over we began to gather the weapons for safe keeping. And to shoot shit,” John translated for me. Apparently he was the chosen speaker of the group. “Matt and Clayton don’t talk much, least not out loud. Don’t worry man, I’ll stay out of your head. We’re friends now. So. Wanna shoot some shit?”
I just looked at their eager faces and nodded yes. They were the definition of redneck. Redneck mental vampires that lived in an abandoned mall in a store dedicated to rock and roll shirts. Fuck me.
“So I guess this means we are cool now?” I asked. Honestly confused at this shift in attitude. They wanted to kill me about fifteen minutes ago. The way my life has been going it would make sense this was an elaborate ruse to just shoot me in the back of the head.
“Dude, we read your mind. We know you better than you know yourself. Fucked up what the squirrels did to you by the way. Matt thought it was kind of funny but he has issues. You have no secrets from us and we decided to not have any from you. Besides, you suck at the mental power thing. You kind of need us to find that girl.”
“Just like that?”
“We kind of need friends. We don’t go out much on account of the world be noisy as fuck. You know Enough to shield your thoughts so they don’t punch us in the face constantly. Do you know any girls?”
All three of them lit up as John asked that last question. It might have been creepy if it wasn’t so innocent. These poor bastards were lonely and bored. And needed to get laid.
“Not really. Between running for my life, work and these new powers I have not had a lot of time to date.”
“How about them sex dolls?” Clayton actually asked. His voice was raw like the first layer of plastisteel on a construction site. I could see it literally pained him to ask. But I guess a boy has needs.
“I don’t have any experience with them but I know a guy who can probably tell you more.”
“The AI? Brad? We want to meet him for sure. Let’s shoot some guns and we can take you back to the bar through the underground. Hell, we can just shoot as we walk!” They all cheered at this plan.
Guess I made some new best friends.
We loaded up on guns and they showed me into the underground. I hadn’t spent much time down here but they seemed like it was home away from home. The first thing you notice is the smell. The sewers are immediately chemically treated and sterilized in the many treatment centers throughout the vast network of tunnels and pipes down here. So instead if smelling like sewage only it had a strong smell of the bionutrients and chems that were added along the way. It was dizzying at first. Like breathing through a mask that was soaked in bleach and feces. I had to do a study on the conversion of sewage into the power plants throughout the city for school and had a basic understanding. They used chems to begin the breakdown of solids and then flushed it with bionutrients that broke it all down into basic carbon which was used in brick form as a fuel in the many power centers that kept the city going. The solids stayed on one level and the liquid was run through a series of filtration units for miles until the end product was clean drinking water. At the end it was beautiful lack of waste. This beginning section was not for the faint of spirit.
Needless to say, these three loved it.
“One time we pushed Matt in and followed for a couple miles as he took the Brown line downtown! He was pissed! Hahahaha. Literally!” John exclaimed as we walked.
Matt did not enjoy the retelling of this story and shot the ground by John who retalitated by firing back. I ducked for cover as the shot at each other’s feet, carelessly avoiding the ricochets as if by magic.
“How in the hell are you always staying one step out of the way of errant shots?”
“You just have to put your mind out there and then watch the odds. Like how bats see but with your brain.”
“Can you teach me?”
“Maybe. I dunno. Probably.”
“Then can you not shoot the floor by me?”
“Sure. Pussy.” And all three of them laughed at me. I thought asshole as hard as I could which just doubled the laughter. I found myself liking these guys despite the whole mental vampire thing.
“So what does it mean to be a mental vamp?”
“We feed on the mental energies of living things. Thoughts and shit. We usually make do on rats and shit. Sometimes bigger things if we figure it is a kill or be killed type of thing. Been a few of those werewolf and squirrel fuckers lately. Bunch of assholes there for sure. Then squirrels is fucked up. I guess you know that already. Never seen a lion though, except on the web when Momma taught us.”
“What happened to her?”
“She died. The doctor almost did her and the rest in but she was able to make him think they died and were sent to the incinerator. She and five others made it out. That was like, I don’t know twenty eight years ago or something close. The originals were pretty weak. Sick from the treatments and then living in the sewer. Mom took one of the assistants with when they made their escape. They was in love. Whatever the fuck that means. He was our daddy. He took off right after Matt was born. None of us remember him really.
We had a little corner of the underground we called home. Then one day the Tribe sent some wolves and squirrels down to clean up an infestation of something called a dragon clan. They found us instead. We stood our ground well as we could. They had guns and shit though. In the end it was just us three. Momma used her remaining strength to go off like a psychic bomb. Fucking awesome too. Left them all brain dead as fuck. We ran and ran until we found the mall.
We were starving by the time we made it into that place. Took our time slowly feeding on the gang bangers that were holed up. Set up shop in the Hot Topic and cleared the place out. It was badass. Until there was no one left. I guess this was like ten years ago? Something. At first we was just feeding and trashing shit, you know? Like a big old party. Wasn’t until it was too late we realized we should kept some of the tech and shit. All we collected was guns and a couple compact disc players, you got one of those?”
“Afraid not. Saw a couple at a swap meet but no one has the discs anymore but museums and those have started to degrade.”
“Fuck. Is Pantera still playing shows?”
“I don’t think so.” This was met by severe disappointment.
“We will set up a new version then. The world needs Cowboys From Hell. So we gonna kill the Pride? Seems you got some shit to settle with them too.”
“That I do but not right away. We need to get you guys somewhere safe first. If I found you from a text, who knows who else knows you are out here?”
“You ain’t so bad Gear. Need to learn about good music, maybe beef up your powers. Definitely be less of a little bitch. Hahahaha.”
I decided then and there, these three crazy bastards were born to be Hellions. If we survived this ever increasing shit storm and I made it home again these boys were gonna get inked.
The underground was getting, louder? There was definitely something going on as we got farther from the mall.
“Ignore it Gear. There is a lot down here you don’t want to rile up. Monsters. Clayton says he seen a lizard man once. Show him,” a flash of a nearly seven foot tall man in the shadows appeared. Tattered clothes obscured his body but a flicker, almost tail like flickered behind him. Face in shadows but distinctly not human with a long tongue tasting the air. An inhalation and a sudden spray of possibly vomit and the flash stopped. “He swears up and down it was a Dragon. I think he fed on some synth meth tweeker and had some kind of residual. Dumb ass.”
Matt slapped Clayton in the back of the head and he in turn tackled him. John started laughing and I could feel him egging it on with a surge. Suddenly we all froze as a wave of malevolence washed over us.
“Don’t move. Put your shield up full force and stay still,” John’s voice came into my mind. Their shields made them completely invisible. I could not sense, nor see them. “Shield, now Gear.”
“I am. I don’t know how to turn invisible.” And then he showed me, like he downloaded it into my head. I did what he showed me. The problem is I could see myself still. “Did I do it?”
“Good enough. Now hush.”
I stood perfectly still. I felt the malevolence grow closer. A pack of wolves rounded the corner directly ahead of us. They sniffed the air, I could feel their frustration, their hunger. The lead wolf began to shake and I heard his limbs breaking, watched them pop out of socket. A shimmer in the air around it and howls of pain filled echoed of the walls.
Twice in one lifetime is probably too many to witness that. Also the well endowed black man standing where the wolf, naked and menacing was not on my list if must see before I die things. He was just as menacing in human form with three wolves pacing around him. “Find them damn it!” He snarled and the wolves took off past us. When the sounds of their movement faded he walked over to where I was standing. Right in front of me. I knew I was invisible and felt the shield firmly locked in place.
“John and the boys know to add ambient noise to their shields Mr Dreary. A complete absence of anything is just as sure a sign as standing their naked. Now drop it, we only have a few minutes before they come back. And hey you dumb hillbillies. I know you’re there if he is.”
John dropped his shield and casually walked over to the naked man and gave him a hug. “Gear, this is Cortney. Pack leader and nicest naked man you will meet all day. You cold Cortney?” he said as he laughed. “Shrinkage is a bitch.”
They stared at each other for a minute, big goofy grin on John’s face and a scowl on Courtney’s before they both busted out laughing. Clayton and Matt popped into view as well and went over and shook his hand. I hesitantly let my cover drop as well. Cortney eyed me up and down and took a big sniff at me. It is disconcerting having a someone sniff you, kind of a vulnerable and awkward thing. I extended my hand and he took it in a crushing grip. Not a male ego thing but just a natural raw strength grip.
“We only have a few minutes so listen up. I sent you to these dickheads. The Boss caught wind of something weird in the mall and wanted us to clear it out. They can help you find the girl and whoever is behind this. There is more at stake than just her. Get them somewhere safe.”
“Umm, who are you? Sorry but I don’t take orders from the Pride or strangers very well. Had a bad experience with your type and trust issues and all that.”
He stared me down for a minute and I felt his anger pulsate. I didn’t back down. Wanted to but stood tall and stared right back.
“I heard. First watch that your type shit. Second I am in your side. Some shady shit has been going down and I don’t like it. Third” he pointed at his ears where three platinum hoops hung, “I am the pack leader of the wolves. And I am trying to help you out.”
“Figured he would have been a panther, right?” John asked with a huge grin.
“You keep that shit up and I will sick the boys on your redneck ass,” he responded with a smile. “Get them somewhere safe. Please Mr Dreary. Fast. I will contact you again as soon as I can. Now move!”
I felt some hesitance but he seemed genuine. The four of us took off down the tunnel. And not a moment too soon as the howls of wolves echoed back at us.
“Let me handle the shield for a while. He was right, you left it empty. A sure tell,” John projected and I felt his will encompass me as we ran. It was odd, like a blanket draped over the both of us but at least I could see him. Clayton and Matt were invisible but I knew they were still with us.
“Gear, I gotta know something,” John whispered in my head.
“Did you not notice his earrings because you were too busy staring at his dick?”
“Like his tail didn’t change when he became human, right?”
“Gotta be hard running with that thing banging his knees.”
We shared a mental laugh as the baying of wolves faded into the distance. One thing stood out to me though, the rumors the Pride Boss had mentioned must have been that holo footage Cortney had sent. It explained the not so subtle offer of joining.
We slowed to catch our breath when the echoes of the pack faded to nearly nothing. I was so lost I couldn’t have gotten us back to the mall much less figured out the route to the bar. I pulled out my phone and saw it was evening. No signal made it through the maze of pipes and concrete and whatever else was between us and the surface. I had never felt claustrophobic but the sense of the city weighing down on me was beginning to make the back of my neck itch. I didn’t like it much.
“Where are we?” I asked the guys and then noticed they seemed to be sagging a bit. There already pale faces and sunken eyes seemed to have gotten worse. Probably not used to this kind of exertion. “You guys okay?”
“Over halfway there. Maybe ten miles, fifteen down here with all the twists and turns we gotta take. And hungry. Rats ain’t enough for this kind of running and shielding. We’ll be fine. Probably.”
“You know where the bar is?”
“Deep Ellum. Just south of downtown from what your memory said.”
Alright. They knew where we were at least. We must have taken a pretty good detour in our run. The mall was fifteen miles out of Deep Ellum, give or take. That means the underground is way bigger than I could have guessed.
“We need to be careful. There is a dwelling ahead filled with some of the crazies.”
“Sewer rats. Born down here.”
“Not what you mean, but some are. Sure. These are the type that wouldn’t make it topside. Inbred. Some went nuts from bad nano.”
Clayton and Matt looked at John exectantly. He nodded and looked at me, “We need to siphon some of the crazy. If we don’t get food soon we aren’t gonna be worth a shit. Full on my invisible takes it out of us and we got a ways to go.”
“No killing, right?”
“Siphon man, just give them all a moment of clarity. Headache at worst. C’mon, you’ll see. Just stay quiet.”
They walked to a section of wall that was exactly love it every other section, patchwork brick and plastisteel with patches of concrete. And walked right through it. I followed them and tentatively put my hand into the section they traveled through. It was a holo. I stepped through and searched for the projector. This was pretty nice tech for such a shitty place. It was a one way holo, something I had only heard of. And the projector was so we’ll hidden I couldn’t even guess at where at was. This was seriously expensive shit to cover an entrance to a dwelling of inbred sewer rats. We were on silence as they stalked closer but this raised my hackles. How many holes had we passed so far. And why?
This city has secrets on top of secrets and I worried I was starting to witness my way into places I shouldn’t see. How many of the rumors were true about the underground? Who has their claws in all of this. And what does one girl have to do with any of it? What the fuck am I involved in? Enhanced strength and mental powers at the cost of my soul I think. I was only doing this half assed before but if I want to survive I need to figure out the game I am a pawn in. And use the pieces around me.
The new area we were in was older than the underground paths we had been following. It was almost all brick here, not the cheaper and better made materials of the modern age. The smell was different as well. The air was purified, clean. Hell it was better than up top for sure, corporate level clean. I was getting a bad feeling.
John and his brothers looked at me put a finger to their lips and crouched down. The tunnel we we’re in opened up and we came into an entire submerged city block, fuck, blocks. Full buildings, apartments, businesses and streets all in front of us. The tunnel we were in looked like an alley and we stood in the shadows watching. There were a couple dozen people walking down the street. I extended my mind and caught glimpses of normal life. They seemed unaware that they were in a bubble here. Like living in a construction, but a couple billion cred real one.
And the crazy part of it? Some of them looked familiar. Not just the people but the buildings. I felt let me I had been here before. And that made no sense at all. I snuck out of the alley and tried to figure out where I had seen this before. The guys were sending out this strange siphoning flow, somehow pulling errant thoughts from the people without a touch. Making them somehow give up a little of themselves as food. I felt it, felt the shifts in mood, feelings of forgetfulness and curiousity. One man opened the door to what I guessed was his apartment and just stood there trying to remember why he was there. Flashes of deja vu as people were drained a little at a time and felt they had just done what they were doing because the thought of doing it was locked from their mind. It made it impossible to glimpse anything as everyone seemed stuck in a loop. It was frustrating, feeling so close to something but not being able to make sense of it.
Then I felt hands on me as John pulled me back into the alley. He pointed up and I saw a shimmer against the sodium lit ceiling. The shimmer, like a glitch in the system took form and I saw something from out of a conspiracy theorist wet dream. It was a spy drone, the kind the government used when it was a thing. Supposedly all were banned in the city when it became incorporated. It was old school tech with sophisticated stealth. Useless outside no matter how well hidden due to constant scans. But in this make believe underworld it was the perfect tool. But whose tool?
I want less questions not more. And they aren’t coming anytime soon. The guys looked better from their meal and we ducked back into the tunnel and through the holo wall. I had so much on my mind I just walked silently behind the guys as we made our way back home. Why the expensive tech to hide an entire dwelling guarded by old school tech? And why did it feel like I am being led by the nose to find it?
But more importantly, is that the sound of panthers roaming the tunnels ahead of us?