My father had taught me many, many things (most of them things no father should ever teach to his child), but one thing he never, ever helped me with was figuring out my own power.
Now, that doesn’t mean he didn’t train me in how to use it. But he only helped me train those abilities I already knew about. He never lifted a finger to help me figure it out, claiming that some things, one had to do on their own.
Which was why it had taken me until my late teens to figure out that I had a pretty useful tracking ability. I’d thought it was just an enhanced sense of smell, until a comment by a friend had caused me to sit down and really analyse it.
That had led to realising that there was no way to track someone by smell the way I did it. It was… more than just smell, but it was styled after scent tracking – or at least a child’s idea of how it’d work. I did have an exceptionally good nose, even without the monkey pulled up, but I didn’t track people by it. I simply had to smell them first, in order to prime my power. Then, I could track them. Not indefinitely, nor over any distance. And there were quite a few powers that screwed with it (teleportation being the most straightforward case – it broke up the trail), but outside of powers like that being involved, there were only two things that could really hide someone from me – the passing of time, or me forgetting the smell.
Neither Brimstone nor Smelly seemed to have a power that would screw up my tracking, or if they did, they didn’t use it.
They never stood a chance.
I tracked them halfway across the city to an abandoned subway entrance near Morgan Park and down into the undercity.
Ah, been a while. I’d always loved the undercity. As usual, it had changed, but it was also the same as ever.
The subway station was a newer one – I was pretty sure it had still been in use the last time I’d been in Chicago – but it must’ve been abandoned at least a few years ago. It had been designed to fit a very modern (at the time), chic style, all straight lines and smooth metal- and stonework. I’d only gone through it once or twice, but I remembered thinking that it was too sterile.
It certainly wasn’t sterile any more. The formerly clean white stone and tiling had been stained by age, dirt and lots of other fluids whose origins I’d rather not think about any more than necessary. Most of the metal had been removed, leaving the structure gutted to the bone. The electric lighting was entirely gone at this point – even if there still was any electricity to be had here, no lamp was left that I could see. The only light in the place came from numerous bonfires that burned in barrels.
Barrels which were spread out across the station, both on the platforms and the tracks, with people gathering around them for warmth. All sorts of people, not the worst kind of homeless (those generally lived deeper into the undercity), but still. People who’d dropped out of society, for some reason or the other. I tried not to pay too much attention to them, beyond making sure not to look like an easy mark.
Which wasn’t hard to do, really. I was alone, in a three-piece suit, almost seven feet tall and walking very, very confidently. I pretty much had ‘supervillain’ written all over myself. Or at least ‘confident enough to probably be a metahuman’. And people who lived here knew how to spot the people they ought to stay away from.
No one tried to talk to me. No one tried to bar my way, or mug me, or pick my pockets (not that they’d find anything in them) and I got through the station. The usual telltale signs marked the way into the actual Undercity, subtle and not-so subtle carvings and tags on the walls, the floor and even the ceiling, guiding those in the know into the underbelly of the city. I used to wonder who’d originally come up with the system, and how it’d happened to spread across most of the world, but I’d never been able to find out. Maybe my father knew. Or maybe not. Maybe it had just developed on its own, with lots of people adding to it, spreading it. A meme without a source, an idea without a brain to think it up first.
I reached an old maintenance hatch that might have originally allowed technicians to work beneath the rails and the station proper. I couldn’t be sure, but now it was definitely something else. Someone had turned it into an elevator and, luckily, it was up on my level. Stepping inside, I could make out Brimstone’s smell very strongly in here – like the air around a heavy smoker, only worse. Rotten eggs and smoke. If it wasn’t for my power tracking them, I would never have been able to tell that Smelly had been with her, even with my nose.
The elevator was basically just a rusty old metal cage with a simple up/down switch to control it. Since it very obviously couldn’t go up any higher, I flicked it to ‘down’. The mechanism wheezed, then made a disconcerting grinding sound, then it started to slowly move down.
The first exit I passed opened into the maintenance tunnels. They were apparently used as sleeping quarters – I saw a great many sleeping bags, ragged blankets and worn down people before the view vanished. My marks hadn’t disembarked on this level.
The next one was thirty feet or so below the previous one. It appeared to be… some kind of bordello. The bad kind, with girls that were too old, or too young, and all too worn out. I barely spared them a second glance, as much as I felt pity for them. The air was choking with the noxious perfume of cheap drugs, and the noise produced made me wish I’d remembered to bring ear plugs with me.
I went further down, until I reached the third exit – where the two had disembarked. A bare tunnel, not quite straight but well-reinforced, with cheap electric lighting in the form of bare lightbulbs that should have gone out of service decades ago. Typical for the undercity. As I stepped into it, the noise from above vanished almost entirely – and after a few feet into the rough passage, it cut off almost entirely, leaving just the echoes of my steps.
Been a while, I thought, feeling like I was about to see an old friend. At least this place is probably not going to be half as dangerous as the European undercities I got to know.
I made my way into the true undercity of Chicago.
It didn’t take long to track down Brimstone and Smelly. The undercity had, impossibly enough, become even more convoluted and nonsensical than before. The entrance I took had let me to what must’ve once been a sewage plant which had then sunk deep into the earth – perhaps a meta-fight had pulled it down – which had obviously been ‘modified’ by way of some superpower twisting and reshaping all the machines, rails and other metal parts of the structure, creating… creating…
Honestly, the closest I had to a proper description would be something like ‘post-modern expressionist tenement’ (I was probably butchering artistic terminology with that phrase). There was not a single straight line to be seen. Pipes, rails and metal walkways had been twisted into a completely asymmetrical structure of copper and steel, tha reached from the floor all the way to the ceiling, with irregularly spaced ‘apartments’ spread out. All of them opened towards the empty space into which I had entered, which was slightly elevated in relation to the ground floor of the structure. Blankets, towels and shapeless lengths of cloth brought colour into the setting, as well as serving to provide some amount of privacy to the inhabitants.
And there was light. Lightbulbs, LEDs and even old-fashioned torches were spread throughout the entire place. The irregular lighting and the even more irregular reflective surfaces broke and enhanced the illumination, the masses of cloth dimmed and coloured it, setting the whole thing ablaze in a riot of colours.
It was… honestly quite beautiful. Beautiful enough that I took a little time to just look at it, take it all in, despite my reasons for being here.
There were times… always had been, ever since I’d cut myself off from my father… times when I’d just wanted to stop. Not die, mind you, but stop. Stop worrying. Stop fighting. Stop bothering. Just leave and start walking. Getting a look at all the wonders of the world, moving from place to place, relaxed and free.
In fact, that had been my great plan, when I finally came home. I’d look up Tamara and my other friends from before, apologise for being gone so long, say my proper goodbyes and… leave. Go somewhere far away from all the madness. Canada, perhaps. It was pretty peaceful there, out in the country. Or Australia – I’d heard good things about its mysterious new ruler. Though I couldn’t be sure how much of that was true or just propaganda.
Not that it mattered. My plans were beyond being merely in shambles – they’d been vaporised the moment I found out I had a daughter. What little might have been left had promptly been blown out of reality when my other daughter showed up.
I’d never wanted children. I’d been too afraid that I’d screw up, the way my Dad had with me. I didn’t want to saddle a child with growing up with my issues.
Now that I had not just one, but two children, though, I had to face facts – I’d screwed up. Left one child to be raised in poverty, then abused by a supervillain to the point of snapping and manifesting into a cripple of questionable stability, if not even sanity. The other to be raised by a supervillain every bit as insane and entrenched in her life as my father had been (if not more so) – from what little Elouise had told me, her childhood had only been marginally better than Hen-
Voices, curses. Mother tight, the falling boot-
The monkey reared up in rage, shoving itself to my attention once more. I almost – almost – screamed at the memories it brought up, and I did fall to my knees, unable to fully deflect the sudden, furious onslaught.
Fuck! I thought emphatically. I’d been too careless. The Monkey and I had been so in tune – I’d been angry, I’d been hunting, seeking vengeance, being active – that I’d stopped noticing it. It had happened before, a creepy kind of synchronisation where I couldn’t tell our thoughts and desires apart any more.
The moment I’d started getting contemplative and inactive, it had upset that balance, and now it was back in full force. Urging me to act. Hunt. Confront. Eliminate.
I sighed, putting my left hand over my eyes. You sure suck, old boy. Now buckle up and focus on the job at hand, I told myself. It wasn’t like I disagreed with it, in this instance.
Straightening up again, I sniffed the air. The smell of my two marks led into the tenements, and I followed it.
It led me towards what was probably the main entrance to the tenements – it was just one of the many openings on the first floor, but unlike the others, nothing covered it, and it was narrower than the units around it.
And then there was the Gatekeeper. I assumed he functioned as such, because he was sitting behind a desk made of smooth stone that had been fused with the floor – which apparently was a thin coat of stone upon the metal floor. Novels and comic books lay on the desk in neat, orderly stacks, along with a closed laptop. Behind the desk stood a big, very comfortable-looking chair made of the same material. Despite it being made of stone, it moved easily as the man sitting atop it shifted his weight, sitting up to look at me, the comic he’d been reading now lying closed on the desk. A small, rectangular nameplate was fused with the desk, the word ‘Malphas’ written on it.
He was quite a sight to behold, and I immediately pegged him as the one responsible for creating this structure. He was covered, head to toe, in a metal suit made of what I assumed to be steel and covered in a thin layer of copper, the two metals arranged in complex patterns that shifted and flowed over its surface. The armor itself was slender, almost skin-tight without really betraying anything about his precise build, as well as small wings attached to his ankles, elbows and temples. The upper half of his mask formed the head and half a beak of a crow, with two rows of small horns on its head. The lower half, shadowed by the beak, was smooth and mostly featureless save for three vertical slits. Two round eye holes revealed a pair of bright green-blue eyes. The costume was a work of art, truly, but it was much, much too busy. Too many clashing concepts thrown together. An inexperienced artist, I’d say.
His posture – elbows on the desk, hands folded beneath his beak, shoulders squared – seemed self-confident at first, but my gut told me he was nervous. My nose supported that assessment… and it also told me that he was quite young. I’d first assumed him to be in his late teens, based on his size, but now I had to adjust my estimation down. If he was a day over fourteen, I’d be very, very surprised.
“Hello, stranger,” he spoke, and I found my suspicions confirmed – his voice might have been warped by the mask, deepened, but I could still tell that he wasn’t entirely through his voice change just yet. “Who are you, and what brings you here?” he asked in a formal tone of voice (clearly not his usual one), now putting his arms down on the desk. I noticed that the armor lacked joints, or any kind of mobility, really, yet its material flowed and bent so as to allow movement. His power at work, I assumed.
“My name is Aap Oordra, and I am looking for two persons,” I replied, deciding to go with honesty for now. I had a feeling that this wasn’t a supervillain, or at least not a classic one.
“Aap Oordra? Weren’t you a supervillain in the nineties?” he asked, surprise making his voice sound less adult than it had just moments before.
I smiled, not having expected someone this young to know about me. “Retired, honestly,” I said.
He made a choking sound, his shoulders shaking – probably trying not to laugh out loud. “So that’s why you show up down here, at this time, wearing a three-piece suit?” he asked, his voice merry.
“Touché,” I said. Something told me I could get to like this boy. The monkey disagreed – it’d rather rip his head off and go on to deal with Smelly and Brimstone in its usual way – but I just ignored it for now. “To be perfectly honest, I’m trying to retire, but people keep interfering.”
He laughed quietly, the sound carrying a sardonic note. “Yeah, it usually goes like that. I gave up on trying to retire a while ago.”
“Aren’t you a bit young to already talk like that?” I asked casually, putting my hands into my pockets.
His shoulders moved in a surprisingly expressive shrug, thanks to the many moving parts of his armor. “It’s not the age, it’s the mileage,” he said casually. “I’ve seen and done a lot in a short time,” he explained. “Who are you looking for? And why?” he continued in a clearer, more neutral voice.
Definitely too young to be so old, I thought. He reminded me of… The monkey reared up, forcing me to focus on the situation at hand again. I made sure that my face and voice were calm and non-threatening, and replied, “I don’t know their actual names, so I named them Brimstone and Smelly,” I explained, and gave him a short description of both. “I suspect that they are connected to someone who ordered an attempt on my life, earlier this night,” I continued.
“An attempt on your life? Seriously? And they’re connected?!” he asked, aghast. “How do you know that!?” His earlier calm attitude evaporated, he leaned forward, as if to hear better.
Let’s play it honest… to a point, I thought. “I took down the hitmen, and they told me the location of their agent. I tracked said agent down to question them and found Brimstone and Smelly – I assume they are tenants here? – entering the home of said agent, sneaking into her bedroom. I attacked them and drove them off, then tracked them later on – which led me here.”
He was obviously upset, and quite a bit, too. “I was wondering how they’d gotten hurt, but…” he mumbled, though the echo his own helmet produced amplified his voice enough for me to hear it. Shaking his head, he focused his eyes on me. “They are tenants here – which means they are under my protection. If you plan to assault them, then I’ll-“
I waved a hand in a gesture of negation. “No no, I’d much rather this didn’t devolve into a fight. I simply want to know who hired them, as said person may well be the same one as the one who ordered the hit on me.” Also, I object to them trying to murder a defenseless woman in front of her son, I added in my head, but didn’t voice out loud. “I would like to talk to them. If you do not trust me to stay civil, I wouldn’t object to your supervision.”
He subsided again, leaning back on his chair. I assumed he was both thinking my proposal over, as well as buying himself some time to regain his composure.
Normally, I wouldn’t have minded giving him the time to do so – he was young, clearly upset and he seemed to be a good guy – but the monkey was making me edgy, impatient and, honestly, I wanted to get this over with and get back to bed. I hadn’t had a chance to sleep peacefully in my own bed in nearly two decades, and I really, really didn’t appreciate these interruptions.
“Look, Malphas,” I said, leaning a bit forward to convey some urgency. “I understand that you’d like to think this over, but I am in a hurry. My family’s life may be on the line here, and I will not let them be endangered simply because you are indecisive.”
I wasn’t even lying, there. I figured that it would be a huge coincidence that I happened to have assassins sent after me just when the guy who’d tortured my daughter into becoming a metahuman returned to town and made a deranged claim on her. Not that I knew why he’d target me, unless he had someone within the United Heroes’ to pass along our relation… Actually, I should keep that thought in mind…
Malphas – the name seemed familiar, somehow, but I couldn’t pin it down – flinched at the mention of family, then nodded. “I… understand. I’ll escort you to their apartment,” he said, rising up. “But just to be clear – they are still under my protection. Lay a hand on them, and I’ll…”
There was something like a ripple that spread from him, and the ground beneath me bucked up like a living thing.
I yelped and fell back – exaggerating it a little bit, perhaps – and deliberately did not roll, but fell hard on my back (oh, how the monkey hated that). Again, the ground bucked and rods made of solid steel shot up around me, wrapping around my arms and legs to pin me to the ground.
“I’ll beat ya black and blue and send you home crying, got that?” he asked. He hadn’t even moved, beyond standing up. Not a somatic trigger, then. A purely thought-controlled power, most likely.
That was impressive. Few powers could be controlled by one’s thoughts alone. Especially physical powers.
I looked up at him, not hiding how impressed I was (and perhaps exaggerating it a bit more) and just nodded.
He sighed – a pretty big tell in this situation – and released me, the rods melting back into the ground without a mark. Then he offered me his hand and helped me up when I took it.
“Let’s go,” he said.