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It was time. Space bent around Dan, reality shattered like glass, and a formless wind howled past his ears as he tore through the Gap. He reappeared on a steel floor, shrouded in darkness. The room smelled like dust and disrepair. The cloying stink of stale oil hovered in the background, ever-present and lingering. He couldn't help it: Dan sneezed. Within seconds of the noise, gears grinded and stirred, metal shifted, something sparked in the distance.

Nothing appeared to happen. Not that Dan could see much past his nose. Fortunately, he had come prepared. With a click, his trusty torch spat light into the room. It was one of those shifting flashlights, Transformer-esque, that doubled as a lamp. He awkwardly pulled on it, and illumination spilled forth. The beams cascaded off particulates in the air, shining like a thousand tiny fireflies. The room was revealed in their soft glow.

The floor was a series of steel panels, no longer the seamless concrete that filled the last section. Each three foot square was separated by grid-like rivers of dust, caked in deep from years of neglect. Several panels had been removed and then sloppily replaced, leaving them dangling over hollow pits. Whatever gadgetry had filled the spaces beneath each sectioned panel were currently drifting through the formless void of t-space.

Dan had left little to chance on this venture. Every single hidden cubby hole had been scoured of its contents. His veil had gone to work, slowly, gradually, shaving away at reality an inch at a time. It was almost painful for Dan to give up that sweet sweet technology, right up until he realized that he couldn't have used it even if he'd saved it. It wasn't any sort of practical utility that drove him, so much as sheer curiosity. A terrible reason, to be sure, but not an uncommon one. He wanted, needed to know what was down here. What was the old man hiding?

Whatever it was, it hadn't been seen in years. The room was vast— moreso even than he had expected. His veil wasn't a ruler; it didn't spit out its distance in meters or feet, so much as feelings. Still, at a rough eyeball, the room easily measured half a football field. It was an airplane hangar with a low ceiling and no runway. It was an industrial warehouse without the crates and the carts and the subtle stench of bureaucracy. The damned thing must stick out well past his front lawn and into the street. How the hell had Captain Quantum managed that?

Dan couldn't decide what was more awe-inspiring, the fact that the old man was capable of building (and hiding) such a massive lair, or that the size had been deemed necessary in the first place. Fortuitously, this thought brought him to the next order of business. He held his little lamp light up, painting the room in light and shadow. A wide table was nestled against the closest wall. It was a hardwood antique, ancient and sturdy. Something gleamed atop it, catching the light despite its heavy coating of dust.

It was a helmet. No, a mask. The kind of headgear meant for obfuscation every bit as much as protection. It seemed a mix of a centurion's helmet and a domino mask, plated gold onto forged steel and patterned with red stripes. A nose guard ran down from the brow, painted black. The helmet just... lingered there, a relic of a bygone age.

Dan didn't recognize it. It wasn't Captain Quantum's, despite the similarities to his armor. There were not nearly enough electronics packed into it, for starters. Quantum had always favored versatility. The few fights he'd participated in that were a matter of public record portrayed the vigilante as an engineering savant, a man whose costume concealed about as many gadgets as Batman's. Vigilante history was a muddy, poorly documented thing, but Dan felt that the characterization was accurate. The number of traps that had once littered his current location certainly felt like compelling evidence in favor.

Dan lifted his flash-lamp a little higher, and sent his veil skittering across the floor. It crept up the wooden table, grasping tendrils of sapphire blue, and sunk into the helmet. Immediately, almost a fifth of his veil drained away. The helmet weighed nearly three stone. The inside was padded with the same soft leather that covered Captain Quantum's breastplate, but it lacked the sophisticated circuits that the former bore. There were no tricks hiding in this object. It was exactly what it appeared to be. A heavy lump of metal.

Dan racked his mind for details on old Texas vigilantes with super-strength. He couldn't imagine a normal human wearing this sort of helm for hours on end. The neck pain alone— oof. No individual immediately came to mind, but the helmet's existence itself was still a clue.

A commission, perhaps? From one vigilante to another? Maybe a personal project, a curiosity? The man was an engineer after all; it was possible that this was just a fun hobby. Or perhaps...

Dan moved forward, deeper into the lair. There were vents down here, spaced every twenty or so feet, spread out on each wall. They were thin and slitted, kept almost closed, but Dan could hear the soft hiss of flowing air. It was cold, too. Colder even than the house above. He was so used to it that he barely noticed, but he could see his breath fogging in the lamp light. Then, past the vents and the traps, more tables. Elaborate. Stylized. Personalized.

The first was glossy cherry wood, a deep burgundy, with spiraling patterns carved along the legs. Equipment lay scattered atop it: a gauntlet, a cape, dark blue boots with some sort of thruster attached to the heel. A rolling chair accompanied this one, fine leather but worn from use. An emblem, a badge of some kind, lay discarded on the seat.

The next table practically sparkled in the lantern light. It was a deep emerald green, carved seemingly out of a single gemstone, sanded until it was smooth. Dan had never seen such a sight. A translucent visage that scattered the lantern's beams into a thousand crystalline fractals. It glowed under the dim conditions, an ethereal work of art. Dark strips of spandex sat in a neat pile above it, folded elegantly. Thin green lines ran along the length of the outfit, some sort of elaborate pattern that Dan couldn't make out. Heeled boots were tucked beneath the glowing green table, their color obscured by the eye-catching emerald. There was a bar stool resting beside it, a deep onyx.

Another table was stainless steel, simple, functional, unadorned. The only nod to style was its solidity; it was as if someone had taken a mold of an entire table and gone from there. There were no signs of welding, nor any screws to be seen. It was just one smooth piece. No outfits lay here, no tools, no signs of anything. Just bare steel.

Dan could see where the walls had once supported cabinets. Tools, perhaps. Wardrobes. Various items for the inhabitants. The structures had been removed, but the holes remained. Each table had its partner, long lost to time. There were more tables beyond these, further into the distance. He walked deeper.

The lair was clearly abandoned, but there was something deeper than that. Something solemn and silent and dead. Some feeling lingering just out of reach. Dan couldn't describe what he was feeling, gazing upon this empty place.

He found a television, near the back. Eight tables he'd passed on his way there, each as unique as the other. Each in its own state of disrepair, of disregard. The television itself was old, nothing like the fancy crystals projector that sat in Dan's living room. Something out of the seventies, big and boxy. A VCR lay on top of it, a tape halfway ejected and covered in dust.

Dan touched it, the briefest brush of his fingers against cheap plastic, and it clicked into place. The television groaned, a white flicker blooming into static, into snow, into a blurry picture. A stoic voice spilled forth, even as the image flickered.

"—has become evident that our presence is no longer welcome in the community. It has become evident that the contributions we have made towards maintaining a peaceful society will be continuously overshadowed by fear of what we can do. It has become evident that our leaders, which we have fought for and beside for years, have never intended to keep to their words. My friends, we are on our own."

The television sputtered, and a face came into view. He was handsome, young, strongly built. He had a strong brow and an aquiline nose, with tanned skin and the jawline of a comic superhero. His face was serious, brow furrowed, eyes gazing deeply into the camera. His voice was deep and authoritative, defying his youthful appearance.

"I urge you all to take refuge with your fellows, to retreat and regroup. I know these are difficult words to hear; I know that each of you is driven to follow our sacred calling. Even so, I say this to you: bide your time. The People will be heard once again, in time. Our cause will not be forgotten. Justice will be served."

The image flickered once more, then died. The cassette ejected with a puff of dust, magnetic tape spilling out in rolls. Dan caught it automatically, before it could tumble to the floor. He stared at the— the propaganda piece in his hand, with far more questions than answers. He gazed around the dark lair, that a team of vigilantes had probably once called home. He glared at the small symbol, stickered on the corner of the cassette. It was a small thing, the size of a thumbnail. A circle, with six lines projecting inward at equal intervals, each pointing to the center. A circle within a circle. It looked a bit like the face of a clock.

Or a spiked collar.

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A note from mcswazey

A huge shoutout to my newest patrons: Mads Simoni and Benjamen Roffey! Ya'll're good people.

If you would like to support the story, you can find me on Patreon. Patrons get advance chapters and other neat stuff.

Author's notes:

Oh look, a plot. This is the last of the chapters I was struggling with. Back to normal quality next week.

As always, comments and criticisms are welcome.

Hope you enjoyed the chapter.


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mcswazey

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