The group entered the main corridor just as Talmadge placed the orange crystal within its proper resting spot. Buddy pushed the floating bubble containing Zero into the room.
“Congratulations,” D.A.W.N. cheered. “Would any of you care for some water?”
“Yes!” Talmadge answered quickly, followed by several other agreeing voices in the room.
“I could go for a cup of coffee, if you have it,” Buddy offered.
“Coffee?” Alexa asked. “After a room like that?”
“Anything to wake me up,” Buddy replied. “I’m exhausted. If you and Zero here would have let me sleep just a–”
“Oh no,” D.A.W.N. said sadly. “It would appear that I’ve lost access to the drinking fountain program. I was certain I had the–Please hold onto the handrails as the train enters the station,” D.A.W.N. said as room began falling fast. The handrails appeared from within the walls while the room continued to plummet before the sound of grinding filled the room as it shuddered roughly to a stop.
“Um, Doctor Reed?” Talmadge asked.
“D.A.W.N.?” Oscar asked. “Is there some trouble with the braking mechanisms?”
“Hold please, running diagnostics,” D.A.W.N. returned. The lights flickered several times before turning off. Finally, the room filled with a bright red light and a siren blasted into the ears of the heroes.
Covering his ears tightly, Talmadge yelled, “What’s going on? Is this one of the trials?”
“No,” Oscar responded. “I have no clue what this is.”
“Incoming message from The Bunker,” D.A.W.N. spoke flatly. “Please hold for transmission.”
The siren stopped and the room was silent, red lights flashing sporadically.
“Oscar?” Buddy asked.
“It’s as much a surprise to me, Buddy.”
“Hello, intruders,” a voice echoed through the room. “You can consider me quite impressed at your tenacity.”
“Artie!” Alexa yelled.
“Ms. Rose, my sweet,” his voice said slyly. “I should have known you would have been involved in this intrusion. May I ask who else is trespassing on my property?”
“Your property?” Oscar asked wildly. “I built this damned place. You’re the one who is trespassing.”
“Oscar, is that really you?” Arthur asked surprised. “What brings you out of hiding?”
“What’s going on?” Talmadge asked in a shrill voice.
“What do you want, Flores?” Buddy asked.
“What do I want, Mr. Jackson? You happen to be the ones attempting to break down my back door. I believe the better question is, ‘What do you want?’”
“We just needed to talk to Carl, Artie,” Alexa answered. “That’s all.”
“Oh, but I wish I could believe you, my old friend. You see, I have someone down here who makes things appear to be quite different.”
“Kent,” Murphy whispered.
“Ah, yes, you are correct. That voice seems quite familiar as well. I don’t suppose you all have teamed up with the bad guys here now have you? Just to bring down little old me?”
“Flores,” Buddy commanded. “I don’t know what crazy paranoid delusions you’re having, but we’re just down here to try and find Carl. Once we have the chance to talk with him, I promise we will be out of your hair.”
“Oh, you’ll be out of my hair, alright. You see, I’ve managed to gain control of the back door systems. I have complete power over your fate. So, let’s see here, how would you all like to die? Freefall down the rest of the way to the bottom? No, too messy. Ah, what about this room compression option? I’m not entirely certain what that means, but it could be a lot of fun to find out.”
“How did he get control of the back door systems, Dad?” Ryan asked. “Not even D.A.W.N. has control over those.”
“No one should have access to those systems, unless–”
“Unless, perhaps, they managed to log into your personal system, Oscar?” Arthur sounded deranged.
“You bastard, you didn’t.” Oscar screamed.
“You don’t think I would have gained access to the infamous Defenders Bunker and not have immediately set to work into decrypting the data on the computer which undoubtedly contains some of the most valuable information known to mankind, do you?”
“Oh, it’s not my place to understand the how. I have people for that. All you need to know is that I have complete control over your precious little Bunker, as well as complete control over the folks you have hiding in that confining little corridor you are currently situated within.”
“What’s he talking about?” Buddy asked.
“Hmm. Let’s see what this button does,” Arthur laughed. Shink, snikt. Spikes appeared on all of the walls. “Interesting. I wish I could see what you’re seeing. But since I don’t hear any screams of torment, I’ll assume you’re still alive.”
“Dammit Arthur,” Oscar yelled. “You’re better than this. You used to fight for good. You used to care.”
“Oh, I care alright,” Arthur chuckled. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many years on this world, it’s that the only thing one must care about is oneself. No one else will.” Snikt, shink. The spikes disappeared. “On second thought, the idea of causing you all to impale yourselves sounds terribly messy as well. Perhaps I have a better way.”
The door to the left of the group swung open as the room began to tilt toward it. Within the door a shine of metal could be seen as a whirring noise squealed to life. Multiple blades spun at high speed, pressing in and out of each other.
“What the hell, Artie?” Alexa yelled. “I thought we were friends.”
“I had assumed that as well, my dear Alexa. However, it would appear things have changed, wouldn’t it? Why else would you be joining these people in ransacking my home?”
“You’re psychotic!” Buddy yelled.
“Arthur,” Oscar said in a calm voice, “please. Remember who you once were, remember what we once were, together.”
“Can it, Reed. The only thing I want to hear from you is your bones crunching as you’re torn to bits. You all didn’t seem to remember me when I most needed you. None of you cared as I began to wither and die. You all left me alone to face off against death itself, as if I were just another one of your worthless peons. Well, now it’s your turn to feel alone. Now it’s my turn to merely sit and watch as you die!”
The air rushed out of the room, pulling the heroes toward the open door. The suction from within was terribly strong, causing the group to lose their footing. Buddy fell first, sliding quickly to the open door. He caught himself on the frame as the rest of the group landed against him.
“Everyone, hold on!” Ryan yelled as he grabbed his sister’s hand. Each person grabbed on to whomever they could as Ryan’s rocket burst to life and he lifted the group toward the door to the left of them. In a human chain, they neared the alternative exit, straining against the decompressing room as they did. Finally, Ryan reached his goal and, ripping the door off its hinges, pulled them all inside.
The darkened room faded away as a new door slid into place behind them. Slowly, small specks of light appeared in the distance. More and more dots of white continued appearing as the ground seemed to melt away.
Floating, they suddenly found it difficult to breath. Each attempt to bring more air into their lungs was in vain as they hung in the midst of the nothingness. Each member of the group clutched at their necks in intense pain. Ryan gestured to Zero, making a circle around his body with his hands.
Buddy shook his old sidekick violently until the seriously injured hero opened his eyes. Zero nodded, closed his eyes, and a sphere of purple appeared around them. Ryan pressed several buttons on his wrist and a hissing noise sounded as the bubble filled with air.
“Holy crap,” Buddy exclaimed, gasping for breath. “Where the hell are we?”
“It would appear,” Oscar answered, “that although we may have been saved from one danger, we are not anywhere outside of the frying pan yet.”
“Is this supposed to be space?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah,” Oscar said, struggling to right himself within the zero-gravity environment. “This is the Kid Zero room. Well, actually, it’s the beta version of the nightmare level of the Kid Zero room. I, umm…I never actually completed this one. I had thought it had been locked out of the program, but it looks like Arthur found a way to bring it back in.”
“Are you saying you made a trial room without an exit?” Murphy asked. “In space?”
“Well, it’s not actually one of the trial rooms. By that, I mean it wasn’t supposed to be.” Oscar frowned. The group scowled at him in unison.
“What the hell, Dad?” Alexa screamed. “What the hell did you build down here? I thought superheroes didn’t kill!”
“Oscar,” Buddy said softly, “we are supposed to be the good guys. What you’ve made down here, it’s downright terrible. This isn’t a case of simple security measures; this is a damned torture chamber.”
“I know,” Oscar said, looking down at his feet. “I was—I was just too damned afraid.”
“Sorry folks,” Ryan interjected. “but I feel I should notify you that we don’t have a ton of time for mushy reflective moments. The oxygen tank I have on my suit is only enough for a half hour’s worth for one person. I’d guess we have a matter of minutes with all of us using it. Also, Zero’s starting to look like he’s going to pass out again and I’d really hate to see if that means this bubble would disappear.”
“Perfect,” Alexa grimaced as Buddy gave Zero another shake. “At least we don’t have to wait long for death.”
“There has to be some way out of this,” Ryan said.
“Three minutes until oxygen depletion,” came a voice from Ryan’s suit.
“Well, the way I see it, we’ve only got a couple ways to get out of this alive,” Oscar responded. “One would be to somehow get the power cut to the back door system. But, seeing as we don’t even have a way to contact D.A.W.N. from within this bubble, not to mention that she doesn’t have access to those controls, I don’t see how that’s really an option.”
“And the other option?” Buddy asked.
“I’m not really sure we want to even discuss it.”
“We are currently on the verge of impending death,” Murphy screamed in terror, “if there are any other possible options left to us, you had better be damned well ready to discuss it.”
“It’s just that, well, the repercussions of our doing so could be worse than the ending of our lives.”
“Two point five minutes until oxygen depletion.”
“Dammit, Oscar,” Buddy yelled. “We can decide for ourselves if it’s something not worth considering.”
“Well,” Oscar said slowly. “It’s just that, if we had a way to travel inter-dimensionally, we may actually have the ability to get ourselves out of here.”
“Okay,” Buddy said, regaining his composure. “So, you’ve got something on your suit that would help us travel like that? I can’t imagine any of Talmadge’s gadgets can. Or are you just bringing up crazy ideas that aren’t really possible.”
“I don’t have the ability of inter-dimensional travel,” Oscar responded. “But he does,” he continued, pointing at Murphy. The group, minus Murphy and Talmadge, gasped in realization of what Oscar was getting at.
“I apologize, Mr. Reed,” Murphy argued, “but I believe you are mistaken. Out of all of the people currently held within this bubble, I am the one least likely to offer any form of assistance, especially if you’re talking about some sort of meta-human ability.”
“No,” Buddy stated simply. “No, we can’t do that. There’s no telling what could happen if we were to unleash, um, well, you know, upon the world once again.”
“Two minutes until oxygen depletion.”
“If you all are trying to keep something from me, I believe I have the right to know,” Murphy growled.
“We both do!” Talmadge agreed.
“Would it be so bad?” Ryan offered. “I mean, if we could, you know, make that happen, couldn’t we do whatever it was again to make it go away again?”
“That would all depend on how confident Buddy is in his ability to, you know, do it,” Oscar answered.
“I barely know how I did it the first time. I couldn’t even promise I could bring, it, back, much less get rid of, it, if I did somehow manage to make it happen.”
“So, it’s settled then,” Oscar replied. “We just allow ourselves to die, for the betterment of all mankind, right?”
“Right,” Alexa said slowly.
“I guess,” Ryan agreed.
“Most definitely,” Buddy answered.
“One point five minutes until oxygen depletion.”
“Are you telling me I don’t even get a choice in the matter?” Talmadge yelled. “I just found out I’ve got amazing abilities like the rest of you, and you’re going to let me die in the middle of some pretend version of outer space without even getting to know why? I mean, I never–”
“There is one more thing to take into consideration,” Buddy said, eyes wide with fear.
“What’s that?” Oscar asked.
“Maybe I don’t have to bring all of it back. Maybe I could just bring back the stuff we need, you know? Maybe I can keep some of it from getting loose. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”
“And we can’t forget how Artie has his growing meta-human army,” Alexa added. “Don’t you think that the world could use a little help from us with all of that? What would happen if the world was completely defenseless against whatever Artie’s got planned?”
“Do you think you can do it?” Oscar asked. “Do you think you can control what comes back?”
“I won’t know unless I try,” Buddy answered.
“One minute until oxygen depletion.”
“So?” Buddy asked, looking around the group.
“Whatever the hell it is, just do it,” Murphy yelled.
“I’m with Murphy,” Talmadge agreed. “Do it.”
“Well, I guess the question is, what’s worse? That, or whatever Arthur’s got up his sleeve?” Oscar simplified.
“Knowing Artie, it’s possible he’s already got that as a possibility.”
“Which means that by killing us off, that wouldn’t be a problem, would it?” Ryan asked.
“Depends on if that can be killed,” Oscar added.
“Are we seriously considering the idea of bringing Dominion back?” Zero asked, suddenly appearing alert. “Our most dangerous rival, the destroyer of worlds, the one who called himself the Angel of Death?”
“I haven’t heard anyone mention Dominion, Mr. Hamilton,” Murphy responded.
“Thirty seconds until oxygen depletion.”
“I can’t do it,” Buddy decided. “No matter what it might mean to me, to us, I can’t be responsible for bringing that back into this world.”
“I agree,” Oscar replied.
“Me too,” Alexa joined in.
“You know I don’t want that sucker back around,” Ryan said.
“So, it’s decided then,” Buddy concluded. “We just sit here and wait for death.”
“Wait for death?!” Murphy screamed. He contorted his body to be alongside Buddy and reached for his arm. “If there’s anything you can do to get us out of this situation, you had bloody well go ahead and do it or–” As Murphy made contact with Buddy, his eyes rolled back into his head, as did Buddy’s. The bubble became silent.
“It’s happening, isn’t it?” Zero asked.
“I’m afraid so, chum,” Oscar answered.
Buddy stood in the middle of the very familiar dark room, spotlight shining on him. Just at his feet he saw the figure of Murphy, curled up on the floor. Or was it Memphis now? Buddy looked down silently, trying to decide what would be the best next course of action.
“Wh…Where am I?” Murphy asked as he slowly lifted himself off the ground, looking around at the empty surroundings. His eyes fell upon Buddy. “Did you do it? Did you save us? Where are the others?”
“It’s just you and me in here.”
“And where is here?”
“Hard to explain.”
“So, are we safe now?”
“I’m not sure if anything I do now could be considered safe.”
“But…but, I have a wife and kids. I have a family. Will you be able to get me back to them?”
“You have a family?”
“Is it so hard to believe that a man like me could have a family?”
“Well, no, but, well, it’s just that–how do I put this?”
“Bluntly would be preferential.”
“If only we had more time,” Buddy growled. “If only I knew what would happen. If only-”
“Life is filled with what if’s Mr. Jackson. I find it best to stick with the facts.”
“That’s exactly the problem, Murphy. You don’t know the facts. You don’t know anything. Everything about you is a lie. Your name, your job, your family. It’s all part of some weird government strategy. But for what? I don’t get it. Why would they have brought you back at all? Why couldn’t they just leave you in that purple zone to live out the rest of your life oblivious to, well, everything. And even more important, why do I have to be here with you right now being put in the situation of returning you to the state I had to fight so hard to get you out of? Why me, dammit!”
“Why you indeed,” an all-too-familiar voice came from behind Buddy. He turned and saw the evil face of Damon Memphis grinning wildly at him. “Are you really surprised to see me in here?” he laughed.
“Damon!” Buddy yelped.
“Damon?” Murphy questioned. “But—“
“Not now, Murphy,” Buddy scolded. “What are you doing here, Damon?”
“Don’t you know?” Damon cackled. “You’re the one who put me here, left me inside your insipid mind to while away the hours looking for my release. And to think, you brought it right to me.”
“But,” Buddy stammered. “But, you’re not real, are you? I mean, I erased you.”
“Real is relative, don’t you think? What is a man but a collection of his memories?”
“What is going on here?” Murphy asked in confusion.
“Shut up, you idiotic imbecile,” Damon screamed.
“You set this up, didn’t you?” Buddy cried out. “You’re the one who made this all happen!”
“I’m nothing but a collection of memories stuck inside your head. How do you think I can be blamed for anything? If anyone were to blame, I believe it would have to be you.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have come here,” Buddy shook his head in regret. “I can’t believe I even thought for a second about releasing you to the world again.”
“Ah, but you really had no choice in the matter, did you? Perhaps this is truly all part of His plan, all part of His will. Perhaps, as always, you are nothing more than a pawn to this game of judgment.”
“I’m sorry, fellas,” Murphy joined in, “but I’m really feeling at a loss here. Where are we?”
“And you,” Damon said as he neared his doppelganger, “you sniveling fool. Where did you come from? Are you some hidden part of my psyche made live or perhaps something created by those fools to fill my empty frame?”
“I…uh,” Murphy cowered under the man who scowled at him.
“No matter,” Damon growled. “You won’t be around to worry about any longer!” He leapt at the old man and in a flash of light they were both gone.
Go to Chapter Twenty-Two