After the rather spectacular devastation at the shelter, we decided to stick together. It was unclear what exactly happened, but it was likely that the vampires had infiltrated the shelter somehow, and inadvertently caused a trigger event or some other such accident. Pebbles assured me that this kind of overt action during the daytime was completely outside of their normal behavior, and as such, splitting up was no longer a safe option. Not if the vampires were acting en masse and erratically.
Since then, we had been following Pebbles' original plan of driving around and hoping to hear Buzzer over the radio. I was helping by listening for the 'distinctive whine' that vampires made. I hadn't encountered vampires before, but Mikey helpfully pulled up a sound file from the internet for me to memorize. It didn't sound like anything from the horror movies Mikey sometimes made me watch, and when I pointed out that incongruence, I was quickly informed by everyone in the van that vampires were, in fact, not related to the vampires in movies. They were only named after them due to similarities in diet and behavior.
"So why are they swarming during the daytime?" I asked the group.
"Why else? Odd Summer. Some jagoff probably triggered a control power or something," replied Pebbles from the driver's seat.
"Hey, if they have a master power, that makes them the master vampire!" said Zaps.
"Hilarious," replied Pebbles, grumpily. We hadn't had much success in finding Buzzer so far, and Pebbles didn't seem to be taking it well. He had taken to grumbling under his breath at any driver who slowed him down even a little, and his "hectic yet effective" driving style was now just hectic. Obviously his emotional distress was affecting his performance. But, now that I had gone through sensitivity training, I knew what to do.
I patted Pebble's shoulder twice, gently. This gesture was similar to the workplace allowable gesture of tapping someone's shoulder twice to get their attention, but used the whole hand. Supposedly this would convey that I was emotionally invested in Pebble's wellbeing.
"There there, Pebbles. We'll find him."
A possible lie of course; I didn't know Buzzer's current status. He was most likely dead, but lying about it would hopefully help improve Pebbles' performance until the lockdown was over. As long as Pebbles lived now, he could recover emotionally eventually.
"Oh get off! Of course we are!" said Pebbles, slapping my hand away exasperatedly. I was worried for a second that I had chosen the wrong action, but Zaps was snickering, so I likely hadn't overstepped social bounds too badly, and Pebbles' driving performance improved by about eleven percent. Not back up to his best, but better. Objective achieved.
"That said, this isn't working," continued Pebbles, after he finished grumbling, "We need a new plan."
"Oh, dude!" said Zaps, "I could zap the van and super charge us! We could just zoom around the sector real quick!"
"...That's not how that works."
"Considering you blew up the engine the last time you tried it; pretty sure."
"Ohhhhh, right. I forgot about that."
Pebbles sighed, "Any sane ideas?"
I considered possible options. My normal method of tracking was via scent, but that required me to know where Buzzer was last seen, and could be unreliable even if I knew where that was. My previously successful hunt of Sanguine was admittedly more due to luck than skill (I eventually came across one of his minions reeking of blood and just followed them). Attempting to listen for vampires was a better option, but also came with its own difficulties. What little practice I'd done with acoustics was limited to dampening them (due to the Banshee encounter) and sounds within the range of human speech. Plus, it relied on the vampires actually making noise in the first place. Frankly, among our little group in the van, we didn't have the power set necessary to narrow down the search range.
"Pebbles, are there any cowls who might be willing to assist us? Someone with a tracking powerset?"
He considered it for a moment, "Eh, I know of a couple, but not really anyone who would help us. Not many cowls willing to step into a lockdown. If there are, I'm sure Rattleback is probably asking them already."
The van fell into silence for a bit.
"What about heroes?" asked Mikey, hesitantly.
Pebbles shrugged. "If they come across him before we do they'll save him. I wouldn't rely on it though. They've got a whole sector to worry about, they won't go out of their way for a minion."
"Right, but they know where the vampires are. Maybe we could follow them?"
Pebbles paused, then turned slowly towards Mikey, who slowly withered under Pebbles silent stare. Then Pebbles punched him in the shoulder.
"HA! That's what I'm talking about rookie! Minions chasing after heroes, it's just crazy enough to work."
Pebbles hit the gas and swerved around the car in front of us, pressing Mikey into his seat, and sending Zaps bouncing around the floor. Several drivers honked their car horns in anger at the maneuver.
I was pleased to see that Pebbles' driving was back to normal.
Traffic lessened as time went by, likely due to people filtering towards shelter once the lockdown was announced. It made finding a police car easy, and we followed it until we encountered a hero on a reinforced motorcycle. It was Ferrosa, her metallic skin and clothing making her look like a part of the bike.
Pebbles followed her to a police cordon outside an apartment building, being sure to drive well back. Now I could definitely hear vampires, and Pebbles set to circling the area. All four of us tried to listen for Buzzer, switching channels on our helmets just in case Buzzer hadn't set his to openly broadcast. Unfortunately, we heard nothing. I offered to sneak into the building and look, but Pebbles said it wasn't worth the risk if we didn't know for sure. Instead, we decided to follow a police car that drove away from the scene with its siren wailing.
We didn't find Buzzer at the next site.
Or the next.
But to my surprise, at the fourth site outside another apartment building, our helmet radios crackled to life.
"God I need coffee..."
"BUZZER! I fucking knew it!" yelled Pebbles, causing Mikey to jump in his seat, "Where the hell are you?!"
"...and a donut... kingdom for a donut..."
"...dark in here...someone turn the lights on... no wait... don't..."
"Buzzer? Buzzer?! Can you hear me? Can he not hear me? Try talking to him guys."
We all tried to get Buzzer's attention, but it seemed he really couldn't hear any of us.
"Can we send him a text instruction?" I asked, "Imp sent me one when I was lost."
"Right, someone call Rattleback and tell him to send Buzzer a ping. Heck, tell him to ping us all. Make sure this is working."
Mikey did so, and soon we all received texts from our masks, but Buzzer didn't react to it from what we could hear. Rattleback confirmed that Buzzer's mask didn't send back a confirmation ping.
"Bah," said Pebbles, "We'll do this the old-fashioned way."
The 'old-fashioned way' consisted of driving around the area and trying to approximate Buzzer's location from how much static was on our radios. It worked surprisingly well; however, it also placed Buzzer's location in a rather difficult to reach spot.
"So he's inside the building surrounded by police. That's... not the worst thing ever," said Pebbles. "Yeah, you know what? This is good. We can just let the heroes handle it. They'll rescue Buzzer, and then we can just pick him up afterwards," he nodded to himself.
I agreed. It was somewhat disappointing that I wouldn't get vampire samples, but if the heroes would take on the task (and the risk) then all the better. Perhaps they would have some samples at the nearest morgue I could appropriate later.
Pebbles parked the van a half block away from the cordon, in a spot where we had a good view of the building. It was another of the boring apartment buildings that littered E12 just past the hotels that surrounded Ashwood St's terminus. Personally, I found the lack of tiered architecture and its labyrinthine qualities made me feel somewhat exposed, but admittedly it made hunting vampires easier from the look of things. They wouldn't be able to escape to other buildings without descending to street level, and the cops had taken advantage of this by placing police cruisers at equal distances around the building and settling in to wait for the heroes.
Eventually, three heroes showed up. Ferrosa, Hydrox, and the flying super from earlier who I now knew was called Avos. They spoke briefly with some of the police, then Ferrosa and Hydrox entered the building while Avos flew along the outside, seemingly tracking their progress. Their strategy soon became apparent, as a vampire burst through one of the windows and tried to escape to the street, using its wings to break its fall. Avos quickly caught that one with telekinesis, before sending it hurtling to the ground, it's fragile wings bent out of shape. It smashed into the pavement, then shuddered slightly as it died. This sequence of events repeated itself three more times over the course of the next ten minutes.
And then the heroes exited the building, talked to the police briefly, and left.
"Where's Buzzer?" asked Zaps.
"He's... probably holed up in some hidey-hole somewhere," said Pebbles, "They probably missed him. He'll be out soon. Look, cops are going in."
Several officers entered, looking somewhat tense, but more confident now that the heroes had cleared out the building. Shortly, an ambulance arrived, and two paramedics followed the police into the building, only to exit quickly with a man in a wheelchair.
It wasn't Buzzer.
We waited longer, but it soon became apparent that Buzzer wasn't coming out. Some people in a black van a bit like ours showed up to deal with all the bodies, and the police started packing up and leaving in their patrol cars, until it was just one unit left. They were taking statements from a few civilians that had been brave enough to leave their homes. It was all rather casual, and somewhat frustrating for us, considering we could still hear Buzzer over the radio.
"...If I get out... gonna buy a whole evening with Amber, she's nice..."
"God fucking damn it!" said Pebbles, roughly. He started to get out of the van, "Useless fucking C's. One damn job..."
"I'm going to go get him. Zaps, you're with me. Tofu, Mikey, stay with the van. If you think you see trouble, circle around the block away from it."
"Pebbles, I can find Buzzer," I offered.
"I need you to stick with Mikey. One power per group."
"Yes, but I can track Buzzer, so it would be better for Zaps to stay."
"I'd rather have you rookies out here where it's safer."
"The major threats have already been cleared from the building, and I have the ability to find Buzzer quickly. We go in, get Buzzer, and get out," and maybe grab a sample or two.
Pebbles sighed, and looked over at the building. The cops had finished with the civilians and were driving away, leaving the street to empty as people fled back into their homes or left to get to an emergency shelter. He rapped his knuckles on his helmet a few times before coming to a decision.
"Fine, fine. But if anyone asks, you waited in the van."
"Pebbles, Sandra will know if I-"
"Yeah yeah, shut it before I change my mind. Zaps, you're with Mikey then. Mikey, whatever you do, don't let Zaps drive."
"Aw, come on Pebbles. I promise I won't shock the van."
"I mean it. Tofu, let's get this show on the road."
I exited the van, leaving a disappointed Zaps and nervous Mikey behind, and walked with Pebbles to the building. The apartment we approached looked nearly identical to the one where the Espada had kept Jasper, down to the beige paint. I expected navigation to be easy.
We reached the entrance and found it locked, so Pebbles stood aside and gestured for me to open it. At first, I tried to imitate Jasper's method of opening locked doors by slipping tendrils into the keyhole and trying to move the 'tumblers', but Pebbles' frustrated foot tapping convinced me to just brute force it (there was some kind of device blocking the tumblers anyways).
"So how are we doing this?" he asked as we entered.
"I'll track him by smell."
"Like one of those dogs in the movies?"
"Maybe? Hopefully not." The only dogs I'd seen in movies were the ones in 'The Thing', and those had gotten eaten, not tracked anything.
We scoured the first floor of the building, making sure to go by each entrance, and almost surprisingly, I picked up Buzzer's scent quickly.
"He came through here."
"Shoot, you can really smell him? You sure it's him?"
"Yes, I think he threw up. It's distinctive."
And it was, but I also smelled blood.
I tracked Buzzer from the entrance he used to a stairwell, and then up to the third floor. There were obvious signs of a fight here, and several doors had been pulled off their hinges. Looking past the caution tape put up by the police, we could see the inside apartments were a mess. One civilian poked their head out, but slammed their door closed again when they saw us. Our attempts to knock and question them about what happened were met with only silence. I had to convince Pebbles to stop pounding on his door before the police were called again.
We searched through the rooms. From the sight and smell of it several civilians had made a stand here along with Buzzer. From the amount of blood I wouldn't be surprised if someone died, but we could still hear Buzzer on the radio, so we knew he had survived this encounter. We just couldn't find him.
I began slowly backtracking, searching for a trail that led away from the blob of scents that surrounded the destroyed apartments. Finally, I found an offshoot back on the first floor. It was lucky that Buzzer threw up, because I might not have found the trail he left over the nearly overpowering smells of blood, urine, and another oily substance that smelled strangely sweet. The odd thing was that this new trail didn't smell of Buzzer's blood, and it soon became apparent why when we reached the second entrance the trail led to. This entrance was destroyed, simply battered inwards, and outside was a scene of destruction. There was an overturned van in the street, and the building across the road had nearly all of its windows broken. We quickly retreated back into the building before one of the multiple cops still in the area could see us.
"We've been going backwards."
"Buzzer's scent is weaker here than where we found the trail," and it lacked the smell of his blood. Buzzer must have gotten injured in the fight, although I didn't want to tell Pebbles that considering his mood. "He must have entered here, tried to barricade himself, then fled out the other entrance when the barricade failed.
"Makes sense I guess. If he came out here he'd be with the C's. Come on, let's go back."
We backtracked through the building to where I originally found the scent. It led outside the building, and I found that all of the scents I picked up in the apartments were detectable out on the street. The trail went along distinctly until it abruptly stopped along an empty section of sidewalk.
"It stops here."
"What? But there's nothing... ah shit."
The trail led to a manhole cover.
"We better move quickly. Smells disappear fast down there." I moved to pick up the cover.
"Whoa, hold up Tofu. You aren't going down there."
"Like I said earlier, senior members only. Sandra will rip my head off if I bring a rookie sewer diving."
"But how will you track Buzzer without me?"
"...Ah. Right. Ha... let me think a bit."
"Pebbles, are you alright? You are hesitating more than usual. Can I help in some way?"
"Jeez, the kid is worrying about me," he sighed to himself, "I'm fine Tofu, I'm just a bit on edge. Usually Buzzer is the one to handle the details."
"Ah. Then should I present my analysis of the situation?"
"...Pft, sure. Hit me with it."
"Buzzer is likely in the sewer. It's possible that he hid there of his own volition, but it is more likely that he and other civilians were kidnapped by the vampires to be used as rations. Thus, his rescue is time sensitive. I've been on multiple hunting trips into the sewers and am confident in my ability to navigate them unharmed, as well as deal with any organic life I come across. Furthermore, I-
"Alright alright, jeez. I get it nerd. You're channeling your inner Trebla."
"Pebbles, using 'nerd' and similar words in a derogatory fashion is to be avoided according to company policy."
"Good lord, they did a number on you. After we get Buzzer, remind me to sit you down and tell you about the things they don't teach you in that fufu class. But for now we got a bonehead to save."
Mikey drove the van over once Pebbles called the others on the radio. Pebbles needed to retrieve a few odds and ends from the van, including a metal 'baseball bat' and a small med kit. Zaps wanted to go with me instead, since he could 'zap those bugs into oblivion', but Pebbles denied him.
"One bonehead has to stick with the domino."
"So why don't you stay, and I'll go with Tofu?"
"You and Tofu... in the sewer together... unsupervised..."
Pebbles looked back and forth between Zaps and I. Several times.
"Ughhh, come onnnn, I want a turn," Zaps complained.
"Careful what you wish for Zaps," Pebbles responded.
I reconfigured my body into my preferred combat form while Pebbles prepared. So much easier and smoother with flexible chitin as my skeleton, and foldable muscle that stretched effortlessly. I just flexed a few muscles and my pieces reconfigured, almost no micro unit shifting required, which meant no wasted calories (wonderfully efficient). I was eager to give my new upgrades a trial run after the time spent training with them.
Pebbles confirmed he was ready, so I lifted the manhole cover, and climbed face first into the tunnel.
"Ah, over here. I picked up the trail."
The tunnels under E12 were about what I expected. We weren't far enough away from E13 for the local ecology to differ greatly, and the architecture was more or less the same unlike the surface, but what did make a difference was the smell. The scent of human waste was nearly overpowering, and made tracking difficult. I was forced to use alternate means, such as marks in the scum, or finding splatters of recently spilled blood.
I found it interesting that the overall smell of the sewer triggered a slight feeling of 'disgust' in me. Apparently this was another of Human.exe's pre-packaged 'instincts', because the feeling vanished as soon as I turned it off. It was no wonder Nicole was so desperate to ensure the nessies' survival; food wouldn't be nearly as tasty without them keeping the air fresh.
"Damn, how deep do you think they went?" asked Pebbles, looking down the vertical tunnel I'd found. This one had a spiraling, rusted metal staircase which descended into darkness. Likely a leftover from a cowl hideout judging by the strange iconography imprinted into the metal. I doubted public services would have bothered with artwork in a sewer.
"It's hard to say, but I doubt they went much deeper. My friend Nicole said she only ran into vampires in the upper levels, since the lower ones are too dangerous for them."
I went down first, using the concrete walls to support my weight more than the rusty staircase. Pebbles was likely threatening its weight capacity as it was, and the water dripping down the tunnel made footing precarious. Hopefully there wouldn't be too many other humans with Buzzer. They would likely insist on bringing them along when we left, which would be complicated if we were running.
We reached the bottom, and I continued leading the way. This tunnel was rough-hewn (more evidence of being a former lair), and intersected with several side corridors, most of which looked to be in decent repair. Some of the lights were even on, which meant I could easily see the blood smears that led down the hallway.
"Place gives me the creeps," said Pebbles.
"Yes, the lights bother me."
"It means this lair still has power, which could mean traps, or malfunctioning gizmos."
"...Shit. You sure Buzzer's in there?"
"Yes. His scent is fresher here."
"Well, if there are traps or whatever, the vamps probably triggered them. Just, be careful alright?"
We advanced one room or hallway at a time, giving me time to check for tripwires, pressure plates, laser sensors, and a variety of other possible trap triggers I knew of from my time in the New Dawn Inc. laboratories. It was rather nerve-wracking, as I wasn't finding anything, which could mean there was nothing to find (likely), or there was and I simply wasn't skilled enough to see it (possible). After all, the scientists' goal technically hadn't been to kill me, only to train me, whereas a solitary villain would likely have little compunction about obliterating any intruder who wandered in. I couldn't rely on any traps having tells.
We made slow yet steady progress, and despite Pebbles' frustration with the pace, my paranoia eventually paid off. Following the trail through the facility led us to a large crack in the wall of a hallway. Through this crack was the beginnings of a subterranean cavern, the entrance of which held a large, ankle-high pool of water fed by multiple trickling cracks in the ceiling.
Strung just inside the entrance, low to the ground, was a tripwire.
"There's a trap here. Give me a moment."
Pebbles stepped back, and I started to analyze the trap. The wire itself was simply anchored to both sides of the crevice with innocuous screws, placed deep enough that they would hold when someone tripped on the wire. The intended victim would then fall forward into the pool of water, which was electrified by an exposed cable under the water. There were no sparks or sounds to indicate the trap, so it was easy to picture someone stumbling over the wire in the low lighting, and falling into the electrified pool. Thankfully the eye modification I received from Nicole identified the danger easily.
It was odd.
"Pebbles, are vampires smart enough to make mechanical traps?"
"Pfft, they can barely figure out door knobs. They're more likely to knock a door down than turn the handle."
"Then there may be a master who triggered, like you suggested. This trap isn't part of the lair, it was made recently, and the trail leads right to it."
"Can you disarm it?"
"No, the pool of water is electrified by that cable. We'll need to find another way through."
"Think you could carry us over it?"
"I won't attempt it Pebbles. The ceiling is cracked and crumbling, and there's no guarantee we won't be attacked partway. It would be better to bypass the trap."
"Well, hold up. Maybe we can turn it off. If this place has power, whoever built it needed to steal from the grid. Let's try to find a circuit breaker or something."
We back-tracked through the lair, looking for anything that looked like a 'fuse box'. I simply scanned for anything highlighted in a purple chroma. We found a likely gizmo, and its maker, in what looked like a workshop.
"Oof, looks like we found the owner. Guess the vamps found him first," said Pebbles. Behind the main workbench was a 'mummified' corpse, crumbling apart from age. I was more concerned with the buzzing box attached to the wall. It had lights and switches, and what looked like a glass bulb filled with electrical discharges. It glowed purple even without my eye modifications. The gizmo was obviously what we were looking for, but it didn't look safe to touch. I was starting to regret not bringing Zaps.
"Would this be the fuse box we're looking for Pebbles?"
"Looks about right. This place has all the hallmarks of 'lonely tinker dude'. Thing about working with machines is you need power, so you steal it or find a work around. Nine times out of ten, you'll find a gizmo like this sucking power off the grid and boosting it or storing it or whatever. I'm kinda impressed it's still working to be honest. Normally these things fizzle out when their maker dies. Might need to come collect it later on."
"... So how do we turn it off?"
"Oh you just... um... hmm..."
We went over the buttons and switches together, trying to combine Pebbles' experience with cowls and my lessons with Nicole to come to an answer. It was difficult, as there were a multitude of switches, buttons, and levers, but no labels. Eventually though, we settled on two likely options.
"It's either the big red button, or the giant circuit switch wrapped in hazard colors."
"Or one of the many other options."
"Nah, this... one of these has gotta be it. And the big red button is probably a self-destruct so, you know, it's probably the big ass switch."
I edged away from the device.
"I'm kidding Tofu."
"Oh... So you're going to try the switch?"
"Seems like the best option... hey, you regenerate right?"
"I'm not touching it."
"Kidding! I'm kidding... mostly... Right, no time like the present."
"Maybe we should get Zaps."
"No time for that. Here goes nothing!"
He grabbed the handle of the switch (practically a lever), and slammed it down. Personally, I would have just lowered it gently. Either way, it seemed the switch wasn't the correct option, as the gizmo didn't turn off. Instead, it started to hum louder.
"Ha. Well I guess it was the button then." He pressed the button.
Nothing happened, except for the electrical buzzing continuing to get louder.
"Well, heh, I mean why would you make the power switch some big clunky thing right? Gotta be one of these smaller ones. Maybe this one?... Nope. How about... huh."
"Pebbles, this doesn't seem safe."
"I know, I know. It's gotta be one of these though," he said, as he began flipping all of the smaller switches. None of them seemed to be the off switch, or in fact, do anything at all. The gizmo just kept making noise that sounded suspiciously like power building up. I recognized the sound from some of the devices in the garage back at the HH base (and a few action movies). Pebbles kept flipping as many switches and pressing as many buttons as he could, but nothing stopped what sounded like a soon-to-be 'meltdown'. I'd witnessed one in person once, while passing through Socket's garage. A small gizmotec battery had melted through an engine block before exploding like a small grenade.
A small battery.
"Yeah, I know, I know. Time for plan B."
He started running out of the room. I beat him out the door.
We ran down the hallway, the menacing hum of the gizmo following behind us. What lights were working were flickering on and off, and I could hear the tinkling of glass cases coming from one of the side rooms, the vibrations coming through the walls from the workroom rattling the brittle glass until it cracked. The worst part was the staircase we used to enter the lair; it was being vibrated along with the walls, and the entire metal structure had broken loose from its moorings and was banging against the sides of the tunnel. It created a terrible racket, and I doubted it would be usable even if it didn't shake itself to pieces.
"THROUGH HERE!" yelled Pebbles. He dashed into a side room where the walls looked thickest. It was empty except for a couch and broken television, and I took Pebbles' cue to huddle with him in an empty corner not facing the entrance. It seemed he expected the likely explosion and fireball from the gizmo to perhaps follow us down the hallways. An unsettling prospect, as an explosion capable of going all the way through the facility would likely be strong enough to just collapse it. Considering how badly the walls were vibrating, that might still be a risk, even if nothing exploded.
Pebbles assumed a fetal position while protecting his head, and cursing. I started making a few internal modifications (mainly padding and reinforcing the area around my core) in case I needed to burrow my way free afterwards. Briefly, I considered trying to shield Pebbles from falling debris, but decided against it. He was tough enough to survive some falling rocks, and if he wasn't, I could use his corpse as a fuel source to help dig my way free.
"Just make the damn device! No bells and whistles! But noooo-" griped Pebbles.
The rumbling continued. Glass started to pop all over the facility from the vibrations.
"Damn circuit-crossed egg-head tinkers can't make a damn doorbell without adding in a damned launch code!"
The metal staircase was screeching as it rattled itself apart like a malfunctioning blender.
"Goddamn summer trash tinkers and their goddamn-"
The electrical buzzing whine rose to a fever pitch throughout the lair.
And then all the lights went out at once.
Soon followed by the lessening of the vibrations, which faded to nothing after several seconds.
And then silence... mostly.
"Buzzer damn well better be alive. Stupid vamps. Stupid C's. Stupid Trebla..." Pebbles was muttering to himself, still in the fetal position.
"Pebbles? Are you alright?"
"Mhm? Oh, yeah. I'm totally fine. In one piece and everything. Not psychologically scarred at all. Told you the switch turned the power off."
"I don't think-"
"Anyways, better get moving. Hopefully that cut the power to the trap."
Pebbles nonchalantly grabbed his baseball bat and medical bag from where he dropped them, took a moment to adjust the settings on his helmet (likely since it was pitch-black now), and headed out the door. I followed, stopping only long enough to assess the damage to our only exit. The stairs were trashed, and would in no way help our egress when we were done. I made a note that I would likely have to carry both Pebbles and Buzzer later. We returned back to the trapped pool, which I instantly noted was no longer electrified. Turning off the gizmo had worked.
"Crap, is it still electrified?" asked Pebbles. "I hear buzzing."
"That's not the pool."
Vampires. I could hear their buzzing whine coming from past the pool of water. It sounded like a lot of them.
Pebbles let out a slow breath, "That... sounds like a lot of 'em. You sure you're up for this? Probably our last chance to turn around."
"Yes. This scenario is what I expected."
"Ugh, do me a favor and don't mention scenarios. If I never see another of Trebla's pamphlets it'll be too soon."
That was a shame. I thought Trebla's bank heist was masterful in how it accounted for all known factors and many unknown ones. I still kept a copy of it in memory.
Continuing forward, the crevice opened into a proper tunnel, the walls jagged and rough except where the dripping water had worn them smooth. Partway through there was even a stalactite, just like the caves in video games, and I stopped to take a picture with my cell phone so I could show it to my friends later.
The pool of water ended halfway through the tunnel. A lip of stone rose from the floor just enough to keep it contained, and the runoff traveled down a groove along the floor of the tunnel, which sloped gently downwards. Pebbles and I followed the water down, until the tunnel opened into a much wider chamber with a low ceiling. This area showed signs of being carved; claw marks covered many of the surfaces, but mostly the floor. Artificial grooves guided the trickle of water along the sides of the chamber, funneling into several shallow troughs dug along the edges.
Inside the water were eggs.
"Can you see them?" asked Pebbles, "It sounds like there's hundreds."
"It's the acoustics. The room is modified to amplify them."
"Then where is it coming from?"
"It looks like there are other tunnels intersecting here. I count three more, but the walls are irregular, there might be more."
We nearly made it to the center of the room (the perfect spot for an ambush) before I detected the first vampire. I whipped my right hand up to the low ceiling where it was hiding, and sank traction claws into its carapace.
Immediately it went into a frenzy, attempting to lash out at me, but being attached to the ceiling it didn't have the angle it needed. It let go of the rock in an attempt to fall on me, but I just used its momentum and my handhold to smash it into the stone floor head first, killing it instantly.
"Jesus!" cried Pebbles, not expecting the sudden movement. Three more shapes dropped from the ceiling ahead of us and charged.
The first one just ran at me with its arms wide, attempting to grapple me and let its allies flank, but I kicked out with my leg and swept its feet. Surprised by my extendable reach, the vampire wasn't prepared for the kick and fell sideways when my foot shattered its knee. I stomped to break its neck, then kicked the corpse at the second vampire approaching on my right, knocking it to the ground.
The third vampire was intercepted by Pebbles, who swung his bat at it before it could reach me. It reacted quickly, stopping and jumping away from the swing unharmed, having correctly estimated the range of Pebbles' weapon. They started circling, and looked fairly even as they traded feints, so I spat one of my metal slugs at the vampire. It hit the side of its hip and unexpectedly cracked through the chitin, destroying the vampire's mobility. Pebbles took advantage and got a good hit that knocked it over, before beginning a one-sided beatdown, so I turned my attention back to the vampire I knocked over.
This last one didn't approach, more cautious now that it no longer had the advantage of numbers. Instead of attacking, it fanned its gossamer wings and flaped them quickly, producing the thin whine that I presumed was a form of communication (it certainly couldn't talk, not with that proboscis in place of a mouth). Once again I spat a slug, which hit it in one of its large, compound eyes. It punctured straight through, and likely bounced around the inside of its skull considering how fast it dropped. Since Pebbles was successfully finishing up with his vampire, I took a moment to examine the corpse. This was my first time seeing them up close, and I found them fascinating.
It was humanoid, but the features of its insect heritage were obvious. Head, thorax, and abdomen for a body. Antennae, compound eyes, and proboscis for a face. Six limbs, two legs and four arms, two wings, and of course the exoskeleton that enclosed the entire body. Taxonomically it fit the description of an insect, but aesthetically is where things got interesting.
The antennae draped down over the front of its face together, creating what looked like the bridge of a nose. Its compound eyes were ovals on the sides of its face, but curved around to the front to create a semblance of human binocular vision. Where a mouth should be was a proboscis with a sharp syringe shape at its tip, but it looked like it could withdraw into the head, and the chitin around the opening was shaped to give the impression of lips.
The head and thorax were shaped somewhat like a human's head and torso and placed correctly, but the abdomen was odd. It hung off the back of its thorax, around where a human's butt would be, but appeared to be almost squashed flat, and wrapped partly around the waist.
As for its limbs, they imitated a human's almost perfectly. The main arms were attached at the shoulders, the legs attached at the bottom of the torso, and both bent in the correct directions to mimic a human's. Its hands even had four fingers and a thumb (although it only had two toes). The two extra arms seemed almost vestigial (perhaps used only for fine manipulation?), and were held close to its chest, the hands curved to give the vague impression of female mammary glands. Finally, its wings were too small to sustain flight, but I assumed vampires had at some point traded the ability to fly for stronger bodies and the ability to communicate with sound.
I was intrigued. There was so much depth to this design. Combat capable, but every piece designed to give the impression of a human female. I could easily picture humans being tricked into thinking it was a woman in the dim lighting of E13's alleys and sidestreets, which was in line with what I knew of its hunting patterns. Heck, when I picked up the corpse and held it in a standing position, the wings and abdomen draped around it in a way that looked a little like a dress. A small, underdressed, mutant woman out alone would be an irresistible target for many of Fortress City's criminal elements, for a variety of reasons. A perfect lure for an ambush predator.
This was an organism whose sole purpose was to hunt humans. Most organisms I'd come across weren't adverse to eating human, but this one was designed to do nothing but. The species had elevated itself from the tiny parasitic 'mosquito' it once was, and now was a full on predator of the human species, using mimicry and deceit to prey upon them.
I had to admire it.
I stabbed a tendril into its side to begin harvesting biological samples. Interestingly, the inside was all organs and liquid. I was expecting at least a muscular structure like with Nicole, but it was completely exoskeletal. Impressive that it could move the human-like hands and limbs with fluid pressure alone. I estimated its overall strength at perhaps one-point-five, maybe twice the strength of an average human of the same size. The fluid itself was... hmm, it tasted like-
"Tofu, please don't eat that."
"W-what?! I wasn't!" I quickly dropped the corpse.
"Cause that'd be super creepy. Its a far cry from an octopus."
"I was just examining it! For weaknesses!"
"Although I guess it would kinda be poetic justice if you did... eh, just stop eating food off the floor rookie. I don't know what they taught you in that lab of yours, but this is a sewer, you don't know where that's been."
Pebbles just shook his head, then pointed to the tunnels ahead with his bat. "Let's get a move on before more of those things show up. You still got that trail?"
"Lead the way then."
I followed Buzzer's trail down one of the new tunnels. The scent was thin, but there had been other victims with Buzzer, and the scent of their blood was growing stronger over the smell of oily sweetness (which turned out to be the smell of vampire blood). The tunnel we were in widened a bit, and had multiple stalactites hanging from the ceiling, but I also heard a steady vampire whine somewhere further down, so I didn't risk stopping for a picture. The sound the vampire was giving off was odd, as it didn't vary in tone, instead just continuing on and on without stopping.
"There is a vampire somewhere ahead. Its doing something strange."
"Well let's kill it and hurry. Buzzer's coming in loud and clear on the radio, so he has to be close."
I moved a bit ahead of Pebbles, stalking the noise from the vampire. The consistent sound allowed me to track it despite the cacophonous echoes, and I quickly zeroed in on a rock outcropping that hid the source of the noise. Then I heard Buzzer.
"Feels like they're closing in on me... can't really tell."
My radio wasn't on. The sound of his voice was coming from where the vampire was, which immediately put me on alert. Another trap? Buzzer had been mumbling into his radio the entire time we'd been tracking him, and Pebbles had been monitoring it. Could the vampires be using him as bait? Or the 'master' controlling them? But how would they have known we'd come for Buzzer? Maybe they expected to catch a hero with this trick? That would be in-line with a villian expecting heroes to pursue.
"Buzzer!" exclaimed Pebbles, having heard his friend's voice. He moved to walk past me, but I put out my arm to stop him.
"It might be a trap, I hear a vampire with him."
Apparently I picked the wrong thing to say, because Pebbles shoved past me and ran for the rocks that obscured Buzzer. Exasperating, but I suppose if he was going to spring the trap for me, it simplified my plan of action.
I followed quickly, but kept a decent distance, rapidly scanning every crevice and hole that might conceal ambushers or booby traps. Despite my caution I detected nothing, right up until Pebbles rounded the rocks with his bat held high, ready to swing at the vampire that held Buzzer. The moment he did, a sonic screech blasted out, the discordant frequencies designed to harmfully vibrate vulnerable tissue. Without our helmets it would likely have shattered our eardrums and ruptured capillaries. All-in-all it wasn't as bad as a banshee screech, but in normal humans would have still destroyed their sense of balance.
"Ah fucking christ!" yelled Pebbles, dropping his bat and grabbing the sides of his helmet as if he could cover his ears. Immediately the sound cut out.
"Satan's frosted ass, is that really you Pebbles?"
"Fucking right it is! Goddamn that smarts. Where's the damn vampire?"
"By God, winter musta come early. I thought I bit the big one for sure. I've been trying to reach someone on the radio forever."
"Aw jeez man, you're a mess," said Pebbles, noticing the state Buzzer was in and swinging his pack around to get the medkit. There was dried blood running down Buzzer's shoulder from a wound near his collar bone. He wasn't wearing his suit, and had bunched up the neckline of his glaringly orange prison jumpsuit to staunch the flow of blood best he could. I found it interesting the C's took the suit, but not his mask. Some illogical law most likely.
"Damn things busted my helmet with all their screeching. I didn't know... didn't know if I was getting through or not," huffed Buzzer.
"Hey man keep it steady, we're here now. Tofu keep a lookout, I need to patch him up before we move him."
"Been making vampire noises to keep them off me. Seems to confuse the dumb bugs somewhat. At least they didn't finish eating me like the other poor sobs... Honestly thought I might not make it this time."
"Hey, hey screw that talk. I wasn't gonna give up on you. You know that. You're... you're my best friend man. This job wouldn't be the same if I didn't have you around to watch my ass."
"... Hey Pebbles, just so you know, I blew out my eardrums a while back, so if you're saying something I ain't heard shit- ow! Watch that stapler you cock-mongler!"
Pebbles continued treating Buzzer's wound, using antibacterial gel and a small handheld device to suture the wound. I explored the immediate area, making sure there weren't any surprises. Fortunately, it seemed that there wasn't any dangerous trap set for us by the vampires, the noise had just been Buzzer. Unfortunately, Buzzer's surprised use of his power upon seeing Pebbles seemed to have alerted the nest.
Six vampires came streaming into the tunnel from the egg chamber, immediately charging me. The first attempted the ill-fated grappling maneuver its fellow vampire tried earlier, but instead of repeating my defense I decided to try something new (I needed to do some testing).
As it closed in I threw a straight punch. It underestimated my reach and took my punch right in the chest. Weak chitin gave way, and my fist sank into its torso and nearly came out its back. Its charge was immediately halted as it died.
The next two vampires tried to flank me using their dead comrade as a distraction. I just shoved the dead body at one of them like a shield, and lashed out at the other one's head with my free hand. It tried to dodge, but I just flexed a muscle and my arm curved like a tendril to smack my palm into its face. Then I crushed, destroying its face, and most of its head.
The vampire I was blocking with the corpse grew irritated and made the highly irrational choice of trying to climb onto and over the corpse I was holding. The muscles up and down my arm rippled, and suddenly my arm extended, completing the journey through the corpse and catching the vampire around the neck. Then my muscles rippled again and contracted, pulling both the corpse and vampire towards me. I lifted both bodies up over my head, then brought the entire ensemble down on top of the next charging vampire, crushing it. It didn't kill it, but the head of the vampire I was holding by the neck popped off, unable to take the strain.
The final two vampires halted and backed away, justifiably cautious as four of their number were suddenly dead or dying. Both began making the whine with their wings, likely calling more vampires, but I ignored them. If I thought they could swarm me to death I would never have come down here. Rats, Espada minions, stitched monsters; I'd been dealing with swarms near constantly since my escape, and it was time to put my countermeasures to the test.
I turned my attention to the crumpled vampire in front of me. A quick stab through its eye with a knife destroyed its brain, killing it, and then I tore a few holes in its carapace to get at the insides. After a quick check to make sure Pebbles and Buzzer were still behind the rocks, I opened the jaw plate of my mask, and began to eat. Technically it wasn't necessary to eat like this (I could just absorb what I needed with micro-units), but the vampires were smarter than Pebbles gave them credit for, and I wanted them to understand exactly where I stood in relation to them.
Initial analysis of vampire combat abilities complete.
All risk factors within acceptable parameters.
Assigning vampires new designation: prey.