“I’m sorry, why me?” Talmadge asked. “For someone who didn’t want me to come along on this adventure, you sure seem to need me.”
“It’s simple, my boy. Now that I know your powers mimic your father’s, I know a lot more about what you can do.”
“The point, Oscar?” Buddy asked, tapping his foot. “We do have an army of super-powered soldiers who could come back at any moment.”
“What?” Alexa asked.
“The Mole People,” Oscar repeated, looking around at the group for some sort of recognition of what he was talking about. Everyone stared at him blankly. “Are you all seriously telling me you have no idea what I’m talking about? I mean, sure, they aren’t quite Sasquatch-popular or anything, but really?” Oscar glanced around the group again. “H.G. Wells even wrote about them–No?”
“Oscar,” Buddy said impatiently.
“Okay, fine. You all could use a little more culturing, is all I’m saying. Anyways, the Mole People are a race of people who live underground. There’s a whole ton of theories as to why they live underground, how they started living underground, whether they initially lived in the sewers or if they were in fact–”
“Oscar,” Zero cut in, “just tell us what we need to do.”
“Sheesh, alright. Talmadge, you need to call upon the Mole People to come collect us. Petru used to use them all the time. They were the only ones who ever made it into The Bunker uninvited. Well, I say uninvited, but I suppose that Petru actually had–”
“Talmadge,” Buddy spoke sharply, cutting Oscar off, “do you think you can call them?”
“I don’t know,” Talmadge answered. “I can try.” He closed his eyes.
“How long is this going to take?” Zero asked impatiently.
“No clue,” Oscar answered. “I know in the past it could be as fast as a matter of seconds or as long as a half an hour. These folks are burrowing up from deep within the earth, not to mention they could be in the midst of doing all sorts of things. They aren’t our slaves or anything.”
“Is there any way we could make it happen faster?” Zero asked.
“Just chill out already, pal,” Buddy said, slapping his friend on the back. “You were basically comatose a few minutes ago. Allow yourself a moment to relax when it’s given to you. I mean, look at you, standing on your own two feet and everything.”
“Fine,” Zero grumbled.
“So,” Oscar began, “pretty crazy day, huh?”
The ground rumbled beneath them. The group separated into a semi-circle around the source of the disruption and a hill appeared in front of them, followed shortly thereafter by a series of metallic spoons, fitted together into some sort of digging apparatus, throwing dirt into the air as it spun. A vehicle burst out of the ground, attached to the spoon-covered digger, and landed at Talmadge’s feet.
A hiss of steam escaped something which looked like a shoddy log covered in portholes and gas lanterns. The opposite end of the vehicle had the same spoon-covered digging tool as the front.
A small, stout man jumped out the door on its side. He wore a pair of thick glasses on his long nose and had a respectable white beard growing from his chin. His face was pale and his clothes were covered in dirt. A great big smile sat upon his face, pushing his cheeks up into his glasses.
“Petru,” the little man spoke, “is that you?” He adjusted his glasses as he looked in Talmadge’s direction.
Talmadge stood slowly, taking in the sight of the little man. “No, sir,” he said firmly. “I’m Petru’s son, Talmadge.”
“Well then,” the little man said, “it’s lovely to meetya. The name’s Salachar. Me and your father go way back. How is old Petru nowadays anyways?”
“No clue,” Talmadge responded flatly.
“Hey there Char,” Oscar joined in. “Long time no see.”
“Oscar,” Salachar said cheerfully, “oh boy are ye a sight for sore eyes. I’d a been wondering how long it would be until I’d get to see the likes of you all once again. And is that me old friends Buddy and Zero over there?”
“Hi,” Zero said as he walked forward, “I suppose it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“It’s been ages, me boy. Have I got some stories to tell you, I have. Do you remember my cousin Ur?”
“Salachar,” Buddy said as he cautiously approached the small man before him, “I hate to cut the reunion short, but we need your help.”
“Of course, Buddy,” Salachar said with a smile, a twinge of concern in his eyes, “anything for me old friends.”
“We need to get down to The Bunker,” Oscar joined in.
“Ah, yes, Tha Bunker,” Salachar grinned. “Been a while since I’ve a bin down there. I tried visiting all of you down there a while back. The whole darn thing was empty. Went back not too long ago and I see someone else has gone and moved in. New tenants?”
“We’ll explain it all in due time,” Oscar answered. “Right now we’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Certainly,” Salachar said jovially. “Jump on in The Earthworm. We’ll be down there in a jiff.”
Salachar reentered the funny looking vehicle and sat in the front seat, which was placed behind an odd series of levers and dials. He left the door open for the rest of the group to join him. They each had to crouch in order to enter the small confines of the vehicle. Once they entered, they found rows of seats leading back to the rear of the wooden contraption. There was just enough room for all six of them to sit, albeit uncomfortably.
“Everyone seated?” Salachar asked. “Good,” he said without waiting for an answer, “then we’re off.” He pulled back hard on a lever which was as tall as the little man himself and the vehicle lurched forward, tilting onto its front end as it dug a new hole through the earth.
Looking out the small portholes on the side of The Earthworm, Buddy watched anxiously as they entered the ground.
“So, while we make our way down,” Salachar began, “care to tell me what’s been going on these last few years?”
“You know what, Char,” Oscar answered, “there’s not much to tell about on our side. All the supers were forced into hiding, so things have been pretty darn quiet. What about down here?”
“Oh, you know, things don’t change much in the caves,” Salachar laughed. “My son just had his ninetieth birthday last week. He’s growing up so fast.”
“Ninetieth?” Talmadge asked. “How old are you? You don’t look much over forty.”
Salachar laughed, “Thank you, me boy. I’d love to think it were true. However, I’m a mite older than that now.”
“Like, how old?” Alexa asked.
“Hold on,” Oscar cut in, “if I remember correctly, you should be just about coming up on your four hundred third birthday.”
“Good job, me boy,” Salachar clapped his hands as he shifted several knobs in front of him. “I would have never thought you to remember.”
“Four hundred and three?” Talmadge asked. “That’s impressive.”
“That’s nothin’,” Salachar responded. “My uncle is just about to clear his thousandth birthday here soon enough. Now he’s old!”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan cut in, “but do you mind if I ask about this vehicle?”
“Ask away, young one. The Earthworm here is me pride and joy.”
“Is this really steam powered?”
“Ah, yes it tis. Made her myself, I did.”
“But how does it work? I mean, I don’t see any coal or anything. In fact, it’s not even that hot in here.”
“Ah, you noticed that did ya. It’s a Mole Man marvel, it is. Runs off the steam of the earth, pulling in the heat from the ground as it goes. It tends to get a wee bit harder to keep tha energy the closer to ground level we get, but we should be getting down deep enough before I run out of reserves. The Earthworm is the fastest vehicle under the grass, she is.”
“But that doesn’t even make any sense,” Ryan responded. “I mean, how is it steam-powered then, and how does it keep–”
“Ah, don’t break your brain over it there, laddie. Tis a simple case of delayed geo-technics. I have all tha blueprints down in me lab if ye wish to see them.”
“I would,” Ryan said eagerly. “I really would.”
“That will have to wait for another time, son,” Oscar joined in. “We have much more important matters to attend to at the moment.”
“Ah, is this your boy then, Oscar. Ye should be mighty proud of a kin as quick as he.”
“Oh, believe me, Char, I am. And Alexa back there’s my daughter. They’ve both given me more than enough reasons to be a proud father.”
“Ah, yes, there’s not much better than fatherhood, is there? Why, I remember back when little Maclan began showing his brighter points. Why, I would sit and watch him for hours, just–”
“I’m sorry, Salachar,” Buddy cut in, “I’d love to hear about your family and everything, but I have to admit, I’m a little concerned about what’s going on up above. How long until we get to The Bunker?”
“Ah, Buddy, me old friend. I don’t remember ye being quite so uptight.”
“Yeah, well, a few things have changed since the last time we met.”
“So I be seein’,” Salachar agreed, shooting an awkward glance back in Buddy’s direction. “But don’t be aworryin’ yourself too much there Buddy. Your old underground home front is just ahead. We should be breaking ground in just a moment.”
“Great,” Buddy sighed. “Now the next question is, what the hell are we going to do once we get in there?”
“I think there’s only one real option available to us,” Oscar answered. “We have to find Arthur and make sure he stops whatever he has going on, no matter what means we have to use to do that.”
“I’m prepared to bring the pain,” Zero stated eagerly.
“If it comes down to it, Zero,” Oscar answered. “I’ll make sure you get to throw the first punch.”
“You all may want to brace ye-selves. We’re aboot to break ground.”
The Earthworm shuddered violently before the vehicle filled with a loud keerack and it landed roughly on the paved roadways of the Bunker’s garage. Salachar jumped out of his seat quickly and opened the door. He exited before anyone could even react to the situation.
“Ah,” Salachar said from outside the vehicle. “Tis a sight for sore eyes, it tis.”
The heroes slowly extracted themselves from the tight confines of The Earthworm and joined Salachar in the parking structure of The Bunker. Salachar’s vehicle had destroyed most of the northern wall system.
“I remember when this was all Mole Men territory out here,” Salachar reminisced.
“You mean The Old Defenders stole this land from your people?” Alexa asked.
“Ah, no lassie, nothing of the sort. You see, once your people moved in, your father decided it only made sense to create a place just outside of your structure for the Mole Men to live as well, since we had a rather symbiotic relationship with your team. All of this out here used to be Mole Man land. That is, until…” Salachar stared off in the distance as he remembered something from his past.
“Toward the final days before The Great Redaction,” Oscar explained, “there were some rather horrible things that occurred. One such thing was that Arthur actually managed to bring Dominion down into The Bunker. Our old friend Memphis saw The Mole Men as an affront to God, or something like that, and immediately went on a genocidal rampage.”
“Twas a sad day for all Mole Man-kind,” Salachar said, wiping a tear from his eye.
“Not just for Mole Men,” Oscar said as he walked to Salachar’s side. “The loss of so many of your people, well, it was terrible. I wish there was something we could do–”
“Never ye mind that,” Salachar cut him off. “We’ve come to terms with that day in our minds. Yet, if that there Dominion fella were ever to show his face around us again, you can be sure we are prepared to pay him back for all he’s done ta us.”
“I hate to change the subject,” Alexa spoke, “but if this used to be Mole Man territory, why did you end up building a parking garage in its place?”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Oscar answered. “We had no use for vehicles down here. I’d guess Arthur installed it after he moved in.”
“It would be just like Artie to build a parking lot on top of a mass grave,” Alexa scowled. “Let’s go find that bastard and make him pay for being such a raging jerk.”
Alexa stormed off from the group toward the door to the interior of The Bunker. The rest of them followed quickly on her heels. As they neared the door, it opened, and Arthur Flores stepped out.
“Hello there, Defenders of America,” he smiled.
“Artie!” Alexa yelled as she continued her march in his direction. She slapped him across the face.
“My my,” he said as he rubbed his cheek. “You’re mighty feisty today, Miss Rose.”
“Oh, don’t even get me started, Artie,” Alexa snorted. “I’ve had a–Wait, why are you alone? Where are your bodyguards?”
The rest of the group arrived at Arthur’s location and surrounded the man as they attempted to determine why he was looking so content.
Arthur raised his hands in the air as he responded. “Look,” he said, “I’m unarmed. I simply came out to welcome all of you in. Would you care for some tea?”
“I don’t think so,” Zero spoke, his body shimmering.
“What the–” Buddy began, noticing his old sidekick going out of focus.
“Shut up, Buddy,” Zero yelled. “I’m sick of listening to your stupid prattle.” Zero melted into a vague shape of himself before reforming and solidifying into the shape of Jeffrey Flores.
“Jeffrey!” Arthur exclaimed as he turned back toward the door and reached for the handle.
Jeff jumped forward and landed on top of Arthur, pinning him to the ground and flashing a toothy grin. “Surprised to see me, Dad?”
Go to Chapter Twenty-Five