Leave a Rose
Fresh air teased her nose. It was a subtle change in the mustiness, one she would not have noticed had she not expected it. Further down the rope, outside the reach of her lamp, the tepid darkness became drier.
Rose Wilson grinned, and repelled deeper into the vertical shaft. The old mine had been tapped out a generation ago. Its rotted boards had kept Rose out as effectively as had the warnings of the local clerks who had sold her the spelunking gear strapped to her back. Their stories of strange goings-on up in the foothills had only spurred her up the mountainside.
Her canteens thumped against her leg as she pushed off the rough wall, sliding another four meters down the rope. The incandescent lamp painted her ponytail gold, and dug mottled shadows out of the rock face. Rose watched the rock flicker past her, scarcely aware of anything except the pounding excitement in her chest.
"Grant can say whatever he wants," she murmured to herself. The echo of her voice danced around her between the periodic thump of her feet. "Those do-gooders can say whatever they want. Mom can say whatever she wants. But I know."
Sweat beaded on her face. It might have been the exertion, or her excitement, but Rose thought she felt the chill of the mineshaft lessen the deeper she went. The warming of the dry air made her smile grow.
"Dead men don't arrange for bulk shipments of sensitive equipment, Slade," she said. "Dead men don't pay for those shipments through a series of ridiculous shell corporations. And dead men definitely don't have their shipments routed in circles until they're practically lost, and then delivered to the same sleepy little town."
Her feet struck bottom. Carefully, Rose disengaged herself from her line, and then unclasped the lamp from her shoulder. She held the light up to take in her surroundings. Her smile faded.
The floor of the shaft had been tamped smooth, and was littered with loose rock and the rusted bolts from a pulley elevator long since removed. Above her, a circle of daylight now no larger than a dime marked where she had begun her descent. And before her lay the entrance to the main gallery, which was supposed to lead straight into the mountain.
But where the open gallery should have been, there was instead a mound of rock. The gallery's mouth was packed with rough-hewn boulders. Smaller stones and compacted dust filled the gaps between boulders to form a perfect seal. The collapse appeared to be decades old at least, and was completely impassable.
"No," Rose gasped, and ran her gloves across the gritty face of the collapse. Her fingertips dug between the boulders, foolishly looking for give in the interlocking rocks, and finding none. She pounded against the rock, howling with every blow. "No! Damn it! Damn it! God! Damn! It!"
She felt her eyes sting with wet heat, and pulled back from the wall. Her hand masked her tears from the empty mineshaft. A single, choked sob burst from her lips, and echoed in the warm, dry air.
She had been so certain. The technology that she had tracked would have been sensitive to moisture, requiring dehumidifiers. Unnaturally dry, warm air this far below the surface was a dead giveaway for one of Slade's lairs. Or so she had thought.
This had been her last lead. She had been certain she would find at least a glimpse of concrete proof in this last-ditch effort. Now she wondered if her mind had simply fabricated a trail of leads from nothing at all out of her sheer desperation. Now it seemed as though Grant had been right all along.
"You were supposed to be here," she whispered, and sucked a breath through her teeth. Her cheeks grew slick under her hand. "I was supposed to have a dad. It's not fair. You were supposed to be…"
A soft buzzing noise cut her whimper short. She uncovered her eyes, and held her breath at the sight of the gallery collapse. The rocks blocking her from the tunnel wavered, as though a rolling sheet of water washed between her and the boulders. As she held her hand out toward the wavering rocks, she felt temperature spike through her glove.
A smile pushed her tears aside. She wiped her face on her dusty sleeve, and said, "A hard-light wall. You clever son of a bitch. I knew it. I knew it!" Slipping free from her pack's shoulder straps, she let her equipment fall behind her as she raced headlong into the sputtering wall.
The photonic-electromagnetic matrix pushed against her skin like a still, thick wind. Closing her eyes, Rose swam through the false boulders until she staggered out their opposite side. A long, wide, dark corridor loomed around her, lit only by periodic beacons along the length of the walls.
It was the mine's main gallery, the tunnel she had expected to find. Its walls had been polished into perfectly smooth stone. Rose felt a clean, level floor beneath her tentative steps as she groped through the dimness. The holographic collapse behind her stopped flickering, and solidified.
"You wanted me to find you! You wanted to see if I could!" Rose listened to her exclamations resonate through the gallery. The more excited she grew, the faster her hesitant gait became. "This whole chase was a big test, wasn't it? This is all one—"
As she drew to the end of the gallery, a bank of lights high overhead clapped, overwhelming her open pupils with illumination. She swept her arm over her eyes, wincing as more and more light flooded the mine. Where her feet skidded to rest, she felt open air beneath her toes.
She backpedaled, and squinted. Then she gasped.
The gallery had ended several meters behind her. Rose stood on a rock outcropping, which overlooked a tremendous chamber that loomed below her and above her. The sense of vertigo Rose felt as she peered up to the distant ceiling and its clusters of industrial lights made her wonder if the entire mountain had somehow been hollowed to make the chamber.
The outcropping upon which she stood was one of a dozen concentric rings that lined the sides of the chamber from bottom to top. Large machines dotted the outcroppings. Smaller shapes milled around the large machines. They were humanoid, but not human, which was as much as Rose could discern through the blur of her watering eyes.
Only one feature of the cavern was large and distinct enough for Rose's eyes to decipher was a flat video screen built into the wall across from where she stood. The building-sized monitor glowed with a still image of a triangular black skull bracketed in black stripes on a red field.
"…one hell of a secret base," Rose finished in a murmur. "Holy shit."
The video screen blinked, making Rose jump. By the time her feet touched ground again, the image had resolved itself into an even stranger sight. Two figures were framed on either side of the enormous screen. Standing between them was a metal pedestal, which wore that same black skull pattern from the screen's previous image across its front. A pink, pulsing brain sat beneath glass atop the pedestal.
"Well, well," purred the figure on the left side of the screen. She was an elegant woman with alabaster skin and a full figure pressed tightly into red vinyl. Her raven hair swung over one eye as she smirked down at Rose. "So this is the 'son' you've been waiting for?"
The figure on the opposite side of the screen grunted. It—He?—was a silverback gorilla, who had to crouch to remain in frame. He wore a red beret, which bore the triangular skull emblem, and a bandoleer that wove into his grayish fur. When the gorilla spoke, Rose stumbled backward in surprise. "Hardly a son at all, I think," he said, his voice thick with European stilting.
A third voice, synthesized and monotone, joined the conversation. It took Rose an extra second to realize that it was the disembodied brain speaking. "Mallah raises a valid concern. This deviation from plan must be addressed, Wilson."
As Rose backpedaled to the mouth of the gallery, she felt her back strike something hard. A black-clad arm encircled her waist, pinning her arms to her sides as it lifted her off the ground. Rose yelped and kicked, and felt her heels bounce off of armored shins.
A second arm snaked from behind her. This one carried a large hypodermic needle. The green liquid inside the needle's chamber glowed in the bright light. Rose struggled harder, and screamed.
But she quelled as a smooth, deep voice spoke through her to the distant screen. "Patience," the voice admonished the menagerie of the bizarre watching Rose. "Where you see deviation, I see new opportunity."
Rose felt her body slacken as she listened to the voice's echo. "D-Daddy?" she whispered.
"The plan simply requires some revision."
The hypodermic needle plunged through Rose's left eye. She screamed as the searing liquid spilled through her brain.
A black bird flew over the city. It passed without sound over rooftops and darted between skyscrapers. A sharp updraft lifted it high, spreading the world out beneath its wings. It looked down, and it saw.
Buildings in ruin were being excavated by lumbering machines. Orange vests hived throughout the damage. The wounds left by Trigon's invasion closed slowly, but the streets were slow to fill so soon after. The people were still afraid.
An ambulance wailed and flashed through empty roads. The bird sensed the woman lying in the back. Her pain radiated into the sky. She would not survive the ride.
A man with a bulb on his chest blasted his way out of a bank. His laughter pealed. His powers flared. He scattered the people around him, absconding with jewels and money.
A grizzled cop tugged a fedora over his white hair as his patrol car raced after the bulb-man. More cars followed his, filled with more men too tired to be scared, like the old man. Determination trailed from their cars like a fine mist left in their wake.
Deeper in the city, an overgrown, abandoned churchyard soaked in the late sun. Seven teenagers lazed among the broken statuary, watching a bevy of grubby, gleeful children dart around in an incomprehensible game that had started as hide-and-seek. A quiet, prideful kinship connected the mismatched teens.
Downtown, a young man walked alone. His white suit morphed into street clothes. His laced his hands behind his bald head, and talked to a woman who wasn't there. Uncertainty welled in his chest alongside a heavy sorrow and a sense of excitement for a future he had yet to write.
All across the city, the bird saw moments of hope and of loss. It saw fear, joy, hate, love, all teeming together in a patterned chaos. The feelings clung to its wings until they grew too heavy to flap. Slowly, the bird drifted down between the buildings. An empty alley waited below.
The bird folded its wings, and dove. It rippled through the pavement without a sound and vanished into the ground below, where the emotions of the city would be but a distant noise.