Another hour of rutted, decaying roads and Donnie thought his head might actually explode. He'd spent the last part of the trip slumped in a corner of the van, eyes closed, listening to his breath echo in the mask, trying not to think about where he was, and what that meant.
But of course, he couldn't not think. His mind worried at the problem of the Kraang victorious, the Kraang in control of Earth. But lacking information, his thoughts went around in fruitless circles. He would have to wait for answers, but he wanted them now.
And below that need for understanding, panic swam in the murky darkness. He pushed it back down. It's only temporary. If they can get me here, then they can send me back. This isn't forever. It can't be.
The van slowed. The sound of the engine changed, became louder. He opened his eyes and sat up, noticed the darkness through the back windows. They must be going underground. Minutes passed and then the van drew to a stop.
For a moment he thought he'd gone deaf, the silence was so absolute. Then sounds intruded from outside, the hum of a motor, a metallic clang, a grinding thump that reverberated through the van.
April came over and held out her hand. Donnie let himself be helped to his feet. He no longer felt the desperate need to cough, but his throat burned and the inside of his nose felt raw and tender. At least he could stand now. Distantly he wondered about the long-term effects of Kraang air on his system. He filed the thought away for later.
Outside the van April pulled off her mask and shook out her hair, damp with sweat. He found himself staring at her. Time hadn't been kind to her. There were lines around her eyes and across her forehead. Her freckles had faded. Not surprising if they live underground. The bottom edge of her red hair was roughly cut and she was thin, too thin, with hollow cheeks and prominent collarbones.
She caught his gaze and he flushed and looked away, pulling off his own mask. He took a cautious breath. The air was heavy and stale, but at least it wasn't trying to kill him.
The driver of the van came around the corner, pulling off his mask. "Easy as," said a familiar voice. Donnie looked up into Casey's grin, still with the missing teeth. "How you doing, Don?"
"Fine," he managed. It was a sad indication of his state of mind that he was glad to see Casey Jones, but another familiar presence was comforting. This older Casey was also whip thin, though the shoulders were broader, the arms ropy with muscle. The distinctive pockmarked skin of a healed burn covered one side of his face, trailing down from one eye, across the cheek and neck, disappearing into the collar of his shirt. It looked like an old injury, and there were other, smaller scars visible. But the Casey of his time still shone through.
That's when Donnie realised it was real. With sudden shock he wondered what his brothers looked like now. He found himself scanning the area for them, felt a desperate need to have them close. It will be all right once we're together. I can get some answers. We'll work something out. Curiosity rose and drowned panic. He tried to imagine them older. Imagine himself older, because surely he would be here, too. I bet Leo is still a bossy pain in the shell. And Raphael a cranky meathead. And Mikey- He struggled to picture Mikey grown up most of all. He wanted to hear their stories, hear what the future held. For the first time he felt like things might be okay.
"Come on," said April, leading the way past a number of parked vans to a metal door. She swung it open to reveal a short corridor. The sound of conversation came down the corridor to them.
He followed Casey through the door. "Where are my brothers?" he said.
Casey's eyes went wide, then his expression softened. "Oh. Dude, your brothers are-"
April turned and slapped him. "They're not here right now." Her voice sounded high, strained. She glared at Casey, who gave her a puzzled look, then shrugged.
What was that all about?
He didn't have time to ponder it though. They came out into an open area. Someone shouted April's name and then there were people running towards them from all directions. Too many people. The instinctive need to hide rose in him. Can't be seen! He panicked and backed away, but ran into Casey's chest. Strong hands came down on his shoulders, holding him in place. And then they were surrounded, curious eyes on him. Too many eyes. He wanted to shrink into the floor.
An older man with a rough beard pushed to the front of the crowd. He looked Donnie over. "Don's gone? It worked?" he said to April.
"Looks like it," she replied.
There were ragged cheers from the crowd. They pressed in closer. Donnie found himself pushing back against Casey. The smell of unwashed bodies was overwhelming. He forced himself to look around, not just stare at the back of April's head. Rough, stained clothes. Dirty skin. Thin, pinched faces. I don't think the rebellion is doing well.
The man folded his arms across his chest. "So when will things change? How long?"
April shrugged. "I don't know."
"You must have some idea."
"I don't. It depends what happens when Don gets there. It depends how much he has to change."
Voices rose in frustration, calling for answers. April raised her hands. "I don't know, okay? We just have to wait."
"We can't wait much longer," said a woman's voice from the crowd. "You promised he could fix this!"
"He will! Just-" Donnie could see the frayed edges of April's patience. "Just wait, okay?"
The bearded man shook his head. "All right. Back up people. Leader meeting, right now."
"We'll be there in a minute," said April.
"Don took a lungful of poison. We need to sort that out, then we'll be down."
Once again Donnie found himself the target of too many curious eyes. Casey steered him away from the crowd and Donnie let himself be guided. His impression of the base was rock and dust and piles of junk, everywhere it seemed. Nothing was in a straight line. Finally April opened a door and he found himself in a small bedroom. There were no sheets on the bed, just a stained mattress. A table took up one corner, and in the other was a cupboard with only one door. Another door gave him a view into a cluttered room.
Casey leaned on the doorframe. April turned around with a cup in her hand. "Sit down," she said. The only place to sit was the mattress, so he perched on the edge. "Here," she said, holding out two pills. "Anti-inflammatories and analgesics," she said at his querying look. They were huge and uneven, as if they had been made by hand. She shoved the cup towards him. It was filled with a cloudy liquid.
"Water," she said.
Donnie gave the liquid a horrified glance. "Uhm-"
"Just drink it, Don. It's not pretty but it won't kill you."
He popped the pills in his mouth. They started dissolving on his tongue and he hastily took a gulp of water. It tasted soapy and strange.
"All right. We have a meeting to go to. Try to rest, okay?"
He nodded and they left. Donnie looked at the stained and sagging mattress, but couldn't bring himself to lie on it. He was too worked up, anyway. He went through the door into the other room.
It felt so familiar that he paused for a moment in the doorway. This was his lab, he knew it. The shape of it fit. It was tiny though, just enough room for some shelves and a long bench. He peered into a box perched on the end of the bench. It was filled with notebooks.
Wires, components and tools lay strewn across the benchtop, except for one clear area, where a notebook lay open on top of a blueprint. He pushed the notebook aside and stared at the complex diagrams, tried to work his mind around the calculations. Wow. This is...what is this? He pulled the notebook toward him and scanned the page. The handwriting was eerily familiar. It's like deja-vu. I didn't write this, but I feel that I have.
His eye was drawn to some words at the bottom which had been circled in thick black pen. His breath caught as he read.
You have three days to get home. Start with the red journal, date May 2022. Don't worry about the design. The portal is all set. April knows where it is. Just figure out the calculations for time displacement. If you get them wrong, it won't work, and we're both stuck. Forever. So don't mess up.
Relief washed over him. He knew it. He knew he wouldn't leave himself stranded. That would be completely illogical. Donnie scuffled through the box until he found the red journal, flicked through to May.
The lab, April, Casey, his brothers, all faded away as he lost himself in his notes.