The small, chipper maintenance robot -Kevin- pushed open a door that came up to Guardian Angel’s shoulders.
“The inhabitants don’t come down here,” it explained as they ducked into the cramped corridor beyond. “These are maintenance hallways that we drones use to make sure the pressure systems and engines are working correctly. It’s all automated, so there’s no need for anyone to come down here.”
“I didn’t think anyone had made an AI this advanced yet,” Guardian Angel said.
“Habitat worked with Turing for a little while in the 90’s,” Paragon theorized. “It’s not impossible that he borrowed some tech.”
“Alan Turing, or Turing the tinker?” Tipping Point asked.
“Alan Turing died in the 50’s,” Pitfall pointed out. “So probably the tinker.”
“To be fair, Habitat was alive then too,” Tipping Point retorted.
“He was two!” Pitfall protested.
“See!” Tipping Point crowed.
“No, two as in the number,” clarified Pitfall.
“So you know Habitat’s exact age and the year Alan Turing died?” Tipping Point said, bemused.
“I paid attention in school.”
“We never learned that!”
“Maybe you didn’t.”
“How long have the Anchor Boys had a sub?” Guardian Angel asked Kevin over the bickering.
“I’m sorry, my speech recognition programming is rudimentary, because my wise and benevolent creator never bothered to research how to do it properly,” Kevin said. “Could you rephrase that?”
“How long have you been operational?” Paragon said, rephrasing Guardian Angel’s previous question.
“Unknown. I’m equipped to manage routine maintenance and other pre-programmed activities. I cannot operate beyond this scope.”
“So, not a complete AI,” Guardian Angel observed.
“I’m sorry, my speech recognition programming is rudimentary, because my wise and benevolent creator never bothered to research how to do it properly. Could you rephrase that?”
“Is that the default response?” Tipping Point asked, having been distracted from his other conversation.
“Yes. It is,” Kevin said with virtual sarcasm.
“You aren’t sentient?” Guardian Angel asked it.
“Error 404, no response found. Everything I say is canned dialog, prewritten for this very situation. I have over two thousand dialog responses! Half of which are useless! My creator needed to stall.”
“So this plan of yours, in which we are involved, was programmed perhaps years in advance?” Paragon said.
“Yes. My creator has excellent foresight, and way too much time on his hands.”
“That’s Habitat all right,” Paragon mused.
“You know him?” Guardian Angel asked his uncle. He’d known his uncle was well-connected in the Metahuman community, but perhaps he had underestimated just how connected he really was.
“Didn’t I mention?” Paragon said. “Dr. Mind was a fan of his for a while, so he met up with him at a tinker conference and introduced me.”
The robot led them through the dim, twisting hallway. A burst of pain lit up Guardian Angel’s head as he hit his head on the low ceiling. Guardian Angel had completely lost any sense of orientation by the time they turned a corner into a much more reasonably-sized room. The room was filled with large metal canisters which trailed pipes into the ceiling and racks of smaller spheres, similarly connected.
“This is the recirculation room,” said Kevin as he spun in a little circle with his arms extended. “In here are the systems that control air and water recirculation and under no circumstances should you use these valves to adjust the oxygen content of the air to asphyxiate the crew.” Kevin leapt over to one of the walls and dangled by one arm from one of the many valves affixed to the far wall.
“We should not do that?” Basilisk said.
“Is that no, we should or no we shouldn’t?” asked Tipping Point.
“I have to go. Bye!” With that the robot clambered away into a hatch in the ceiling.
“So this is Habitat’s plan? Get us to shut off the air supply?” Guardian Angel said as he walked towards the valves. “I don’t think we can do that.”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to,” Paragon said. “Most likely, Habitat programmed that bot to get us here and then leave us alone to sabotage the sub for him.”
“Looks like,” Tipping Point said.
Tipping Point, Basilisk, and Pitfall broke off and started exploring the room. Tipping Point inspected the valves.
He read off the labels on the valves- a gas and a ring of percentage markers. “Nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, helium… argon?” he paused. “CO2, methane, neon, CO… Why are these even here?”
“Trace gases, bro,” Pitfall said from where he was looking at the racks of baseball-sized metal spheres.
“Did he say this was water recirculation too?” Basilisk called across the room.
“Yeah,” Guardian Angel said. “Why?”
“Well, I found a tank labeled ‘septic,’ which gave me an idea.”
“Stench box?” Tipping Point said, looking over from the valves.
“Stench box?” Paragon repeated. “You want to fill the rest of us in?”
“Yeah, in mines when they need to evacuate, they can’t use sirens because the equipment is too loud and everyone has hearing protection on, and they can’t use flashing lights because it’s too dark- they would just blind people, and plus the equipment is covered with flashing lights already.”
“-So they use something called a ‘stench box,’” Basilisk took over, impatient with Tipping Point’s explanation. “Which they fill with the worst smelling shit you can imagine and when there’s an emergency, they just open the box and the stench drifts down into the mine. Stuff smells so awful it makes everyone evacuate.”
“Really?” Paragon said. “That seems impractical.”
“Yeah,” agreed Guardian Angel.
“No joke. Stench gas,” said Tipping Point. “Look it up.”
“And you know this why?” Guardian Angel asked.
“Stink bombs!” replied Basilisk.
“Stench bombs,” Tipping Point corrected, pinching his nose. He swayed a little, unsteady on his feet. “Waaay worse. Like, industrial strength.”
“More like riot control than a practical joke,” Pitfall added.
Seeing Guardian Angel and Paragon’s confusion, Tipping Point explained. “We wanted to make stink bombs, because… reasons…” he paused, sounding confused. “…We, uh, did have a reason. So we did some research on what smells the worst,” Tipping Point explained. “Turns out, it’s Eth- ethan…” He tried to remember the name for a moment, then gave up. “-Ethan something.”
“Ethanethiol,” supplied Pitfall.
Tipping Point snapped his fingers. “That, and ammonia.”
“Best part of ethanethiol, it’s used as a fuel additive to make it smell stronger so you can tell when you have a leak. An engineer smells ethanethiol?” Pitfall snapped his fingers. “Instant panic.”
“How do you know this stuff?” Guardian Angel asked Pitfall.
“I have a degree in chemical engineering,” he explained. “I wanted the option of an actual job if I ever decided to quit heroics.”
“Same here,” said Basilisk, though he didn’t elaborate.
“So we could smoke them out of the sub?” Paragon said. “That could work. I have the coast guard on alert to capture anyone who evacuates.”
“Let’s do this!” Tipping Point said, clapping his hands together and giggling. “Woah, I’m a little fuzzy.”
“Shit, you okay?” Basilisk rushed to help Tipping Point, who all but collapsed into him.
“My teeth… crawling out my ears,” Tipping Point muttered. “Too many teeth.”
“Is that normal?” Paragon asked.
“No!” responded Basilisk and Pitfall in stereo.
“Woah, I’m feelin’ it too bro,” Basilisk said. He reached out to steady himself against the wall and missed, falling over into Tipping Point.
“Shit, what?” Pitfall said as he appeared from behind one of the tanks. He ran over to his collapsed comrades.
“Don’t touch them!” Paragon shouted. Pitfall froze in place. “I think I recognize this, and if I’m right, we’re going to have company. Get ready.”
“Paragon,” came a voice as the door opened. “I thought I might expect you when I noticed the stealth went offline.”
“Conduit,” Paragon said. “I thought you were a member of Blackwell.”
Conduit stepped through the door, followed by four tough-looking thugs, all of whom had Anchor Boys gang tattoos.
“I was, but the benefits here are just too good,” he said. “That nutjob Jones found-”
“I thought as much. A power enhancer- that’s how you can spread your power to multiple people.”
“Mm-hm. And now I have my own squad, instead of being stuck working under Opiate.” Conduit whipped out a syringe full of an amber-colored liquid and jabbed himself in the arm with it, then threw it onto the floor, where it shattered. “Adrenile. Sharing is caring, boys,” he said. Reaching out, he gently slapped the man next to him, who grinned and did the same for the next. “Go crazy.”
The five boosters dashed in towards the heroes. The floor beneath two of them caved and they dropped, but they caught the lip of Pitfall’s portal and pulled themselves back through. Guardian Angel lashed out with his right wing at the man who was coming at him, but the man ducked and rolled, sliding under Guardian Angel’s guard. The hero jumped, pushing down with his wings to escape the grapple that would have destroyed his knees.
The thug rolled to a knee and fired off three shots with a pistol he’d produced while rolling. Guardian Angel tucked his wings in front of him and dropped back to the floor. One of the shots missed while another ricocheted off a wing, but one got through and put a dent in his breastplate. The force of it was enough to knock the breath out of him, but it didn’t get through the armor.
Glad I kept that around, Guardian Angel thought. Holy shit this guy is fast, though.
“Idiot! Do you want to suffocate?” shouted Conduit from where he was circling Paragon.
Abandoning the gun, the Anchor Boy whipped out a steel baton and dived towards Guardian Angel, lashing out with the baton even as it extended. It cracked against the hero’s wing with a shocking amount of force. He stumbled and reflexively spread his wings to regain balance.
Fuck, that actually hurt!
The thug took the opening and lunged in, whipping the steel-capped baton towards Guardian Angel’s head. He threw up an arm to block it, and his arm exploded with pain. He tried to push through the pain and aimed a punch at the thug with his other arm. The thug caught his fist and stepped forward with a knee to Guardian Angel’s stomach.
Fuck! Guardian Angel yelped, unable to curse out loud as the air was pushed from his lungs again. He’s too close.
Guardian Angel lashed out blind with his injured arm and pushed forward with his wings, throwing himself away from the thug. To his surprise, the thug didn’t follow. He clutched his chest, eyes wide, and then pulled his arm away. His shirt was shredded, blood dripping down from a series of long gashes across his chest.
Did I do that? Holy shit. What did I do?
A moment later, the thug dropped through the floor as Pitfall opened up a portal underneath him down into the room below. Guardian Angel jumped back, surprised.
“That’s all of ’em, I think,” said Pitfall. “Man, times like this really remind me how useful B-man is. Don’t tell him I said that, though.”
B-man? Right. Basilisk.
“Hm,” grunted Paragon as he lowered Conduit’s unconscious body to the ground, careful not to touch him with bare skin. “Let’s get this done and get out of here.”
With Conduit unconscious, Tipping Point opened his eyes and said, “Ugh, that was weird.” he worked his way out from under Basilisk and pushed himself to his feet. “Couldn’t agree more, Paragon.”
“What, no insulting nickname for me?” Paragon snarked.
“Well, I was going to call you ‘peabody, but somehow that didn’t convey the right amount of respect,” Tipping Point grumbled. He looked a little unsteady on his feet, but otherwise seemed to have recovered. Only a few moments later, Basilisk groaned and pushed himself to a sitting position.
Tipping Point helped Basilisk back to his feet and soon they had both recovered.
“Glad that wears off quick,” Basilisk said.
“Ditto,” agreed Tipping Point.
“So how can we do this?” Guardian Angel asked.
“We have all the stuff we need right here,” Pitfall said.
“There are some tanks of trace gasses here. If we vent one of them, fill it with ethanethiol, and put it back, there’d be no way to tell anything was wrong with it.” Pitfall said. “We can get hydrogen sulfide from the waste treatment system, and I’m pretty sure I saw a tank of ethanol as part of the system as well- probably a sterilizing agent. TP, any chance you could get me a catalyst of some kind? Like, a block of alumina?”
“I don’t think I can do that, but I can make something that contains alumina.” He concentrated for a moment, and a screwdriver appeared in his hand. “There. Aluminum screwdriver.”
Fifteen or so minutes later, the system Pitfall and Tipping Point had rigged up from the various equipment around the room let out its first bubble of ethanethiol. The stench was palpable as soon as the faint hiss of gas escaping the hose that was their outlet could be heard. Guardian Angel’s eyes watered as he was overwhelmed by what smelled to him like a mass of overcooked cabbage, rotting eggs, and gasoline shoved directly into his sinuses. He coughed, and made the mistake of sucking in more air.
Gods, I can taste that.
“That’ll work,” said Pitfall, voice muffled by the hand with which he pinched his nose. He screwed the hose into the trace gas input and turned the large red wheel that controlled the flow.
“Now let’s get the fuck out of here,” Tipping Point said.
The group retraced their steps back to the launch bay they’d entered from and Tipping Point re-summoned the minisub they’d used earlier. It was faster this time, or at least it seemed faster. As the sub broke the surface, they fell silent.
“Oh my god,” Paragon uttered.
The skyline was broken, remnants of fallen towers stabbing into the ash-filled sky. As they watched, another tower toppled, sliding into the buildings below, seeming to fall far slower than gravity would permit. The destruction started at the docks and spread as far as the Cobalt tower, which fractured and started to fall away from the docks, deeper into the city.
“What the fuck did we miss?” Pitfall cursed, breaking the silence.