A Buried Past, Part I


kara_icon.gif nicole3_icon.gif yi-min_icon.gif

Scene Title A Buried Past, Part I
Synopsis After receiving a tip from Noah Bennet, Nicole leads a small team into the Manhattan Exclusion Zone.
Date August 3, 2020

The Manhattan Exclusion Zone has been sealed for half a decade.

What lies across the East River from the Safe Zone is effectively a walled tomb, where millions of human remains have yet to be recovered since the war’s conclusion. The wall around the Exclusion Zone was originally intended to keep Expressives in, turning Manhattan into the largest relocation center in the world. It was the pinnacle of the Mitchell Administration’s desperation and drive to turn the world into a fascist hellscape.

Now the looming walls are a monument to human suffering. Rust streaks down the bare concrete, watchtowers once armed with turrets and searchlights lay abandoned. There are no lights within the Exclusion Zone, save for the occasional fires, but those are so small as to be invisible with the wall shadowing the horizon line. It is only the skeletal fingers of skyscrapers that poke up from within, and the occasional pop of distant gunfire or the horrific noise of collapsing buildings.

Tonight, the only noise is that of the river.

North Cove Yacht Harbor
Manhattan Exclusion Zone Exterior

August 3, 2020
8:57 pm

Smugglers have navigated the rivers of New York since before the invention of electricity. With the powerful flow of the Hudson and the East River, motorized boats are the most convenient, but the most likely to be spotted. The solution to that was determined long ago: let the river do the work for you.

The row boat that pulls into the derelict yacht harbor hanging off of Manhattan’s northwest end launched from the other side of the Hudson River close to an hour ago under the cover of dusk. It drifted down the east river at the speed of the current, navigated toward the coastline by the craft’s proprietor, a Staten Island-based thief who smuggles stolen gasoline down to Providence. He doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t charge much, and knows the waterways.

But this smuggler isn’t alone tonight as his boat pulls in to the harbor, where a half dozen yachts lay sunken into the shallows among the upturned remains of demolished piers. Between the Civil War and Hurricane Sandy, the coast of Manhattan looks like a shipwreck island in some places. Here is one.

The rowboat comes to stop up alongside a concrete ledge that leads up to the park and street level roughly five hundred feet from the looming Exclusion Zone wall. A round storm drain sticks out of the ledge, roughly seven feet tall, only trickling with a thin stream of water. Using his oar, he tugs the rowboat up against the corrugated metal mouth of the storm drain, and looks back toward the rear of the boat where three passengers are all but invisible under the cover of darkness.

Wrecked ships creak and groan against the lapping crash of the river water. This is as far as the boatman goes.

End of the line. Nicole Miller lifts up from her seat and tugs a backpack up onto her shoulders, adjusting the straps before she carries herself forward. She reaches into the pocket of her leather jacket and pulls out a strap of bills, passing them across to the boatman — a bonus. “Thanks,” she murmurs, grabbing a flashlight from off her belt and using it to light her way as she disembarks.

Once on more solid footing, Nicole offers a hand back out to the next passenger off, keeping her light on the gap between the boat and the drain to avoid any missteps. When they’re all safely aground, Nicole turns the light ahead again, to where they’re going and not where they’ve been.

Finally, she pulls up the respirator mask that was hanging around her neck — the sort used when clearing mold or asbestos — fitting it to her face. The grey and bright pink of it stand out starkly against the blacks, dark greys and wine of the rest of her attire. “Alright, ladies. Let’s go rob the Exclusion Zone.”

Kara twists her head from side to side after affixing her own respirator mask, making sure it stays sealed even with the movement. Once she's assured of that, she lets out a belated huff of laughter to Nicole's quip. Seated on top of her head are a pair of clear-lensed concealer goggles she leaves off for now.

She takes advantage of her sideways stance to glance once last time at the sunset remnants visible outside the tunnel, then she unhooks her flashlight with her offhand, snapping it on to light the path before her. Her other hand stays by her side, near to the holster she carries a borrowed handgun.

In the meantime, Yi-Min had already finished donning her respirator mask several dark, damp minutes ago and seems only to be waiting to move on, her short hair tied back in a stub-like ponytail behind her neck to accommodate the unaccustomed facial burden.

Compared to either of the two taller women, she seems to take up but a sliver of their space. The neck-to-foot blackness of her utilitarian garb combined with her lack of size in every aspect mean that her earlier, exploratory hop from boat to shore had been just a flutter of movement against the roiling scenery of the river, easily missable.

The sudden blaze of Kara's flashlight overlaps the narrower, golden beam of her headlamp that she turns on right then for one meaningful moment, at least until Yi-Min swivels it away into the face of the different blackness before them. "Lai le. Let us get this over with."

Yi-Min isn't a huge fan of the prospect of crawling around underground like rats, especially under their current depowered circumstances, but it is what it is.

The drainage tunnel itself isn’t anything particularly remarkable. The trio make quick work of the long tunnel and can move unburdened through the shallow trickle of water running through the bottom of the pipe. They can hear the slosh of oars as their ride departs, but the further down the tunnel they go the more the noise distorts until it is eventually gone.

Lance’s map proves reliable as the three reach a partially collapsed junction in the drainage pipe where the metal walls had corroded away allowing for access to a lower sewer tunnel below the pipe. It’s a short drop down into ankle deep, brackish water floating with old garbage debris. Orienting herself with a compass viewed under the glow of a flashlight, Nicole heads in the direction marked on Lance’s map and the tunnel comes directly under an old subway station after about a five minute walk.

The grating is loose, just like Lance said, and they’re able to pry it off and climb up into the derelict subway station. It’s here they see the collapsed concrete pylons and heaps of dirt visible in the flashlight from where the street nearly a hundred feet above collapsed down on the station. But this collapse isn’t from the Civil War. Nicole understands how old it is when her flashlight sweeps over the name of the rail station on one of the still-standing columns.


Checking Lance’s map, they need to turn around and follow the subway tunnel.

The rubber-soled watertight boots had been the right call for this particular excursion. She’s pretty sure she’ll have to throw them out after this is over, but Nicole has faith the sacrifice will have been worth it. She’s just grateful not to feel the water seeping into her socks or soaking into her jeans. Especially given how stagnant it is in places.

She’s quiet as they walk, for a desire to concentrate on keeping her bearings and for lack of anything worth saying for now. At least, until they reach the subway tunnel and she catches sight of the sign for the stop they’ve come to.

That’s sobering.

Even more so when she considers the fact she hasn’t hardly even thought of the collapse in the wake of two other catastrophic explosions and the entire war that followed. Nicole takes a moment to just stare and reflect. Finally, she takes a deep breath, audible through her respirator, and turns away from the collapsed portion of the tunnel. “This way,” she tells her companions, forging on ahead.

If there's one surreal piece of history Kara never expected to come face to face with, it was this one. The fall of the World Trade Center, in many ways, was the triggering event that led her down the path that brought her here in the first place. Had 9/11 never happened, she'd likely have never joined the Marines, never been to Afghanistan, never needed to come back, and then find herself unable to settle…

She shakes her head before she can get as far as actively thinking about what happened after, leaving Pinehearst and the rest for later. Her flashlight abruptly turns away from the sign and she follows after Nicole more determinedly than before, like she has half a mind to overtake her.

This is a sight that doesn't hold nearly as much emotional resonance for Yi-Min as it does for the others, something which stands to reason— she is not American. What serves to pull her in instead is witnessing Kara's reaction to it.

It's a little late for commiseration anyway, as Kara is already stalking down the tunnel again before Yi-Min can do much for her. Brow furrowing with invisible concern in the dark, she can only follow on gamely, feeling her wariness of the atmosphere around them steadily continuing to rise.

The tracks lead down several hundred feet in the pitch blackness. There are no people, no rats, nothing but the occasional sounds of cracking and settling concrete overhead. Water sometimes trickles through fissures in the old stone and even with rebreathers on, the air smells musty and damp.

Up ahead, flashlights reflect off of the back of a boxcar on the rails. It’s not a subway train, but a top-loading refuse car stalled on the tracks. The top of the car goes nearly to the ceiling and there is not enough space on either side to progress either. But below the train car there is enough space to crawl under it. That must be what Lance’s map means by “a short crawl” to the other side. He didn’t indicate a distance, only that there would be an opening in the wall past the “obstruction.”

While the notion of the crawl is enough to make Nicole slow to a stop and hesitate, it’s what’s written on the map. Still, her light sweeps up the boxcar, following the length of a ladder along the back. She stares for a long moment, expression difficult to read behind her mask.

“I can’t imagine the kids opted to go low if they could have gone high,” Nicole reasons. She’d rather avoid having to double back.

The flashlight is clipped to her belt again for a moment, long enough to zip up the front of her leather jacket and snap the lapels in place. No sense in inviting cuts and scrapes. She pulls on a pair of gloves next. “Short crawl,” she says out loud, reminding herself and informing the others. Nicole lowers herself to the tracks over the floor, switches her flashlight back on and shines it ahead. She leads the way.

The time Nicole spends buttoning up is time Kara spends longing flashing her light up the boxcar. She relents away from it on seeing the top was open. It felt like there was a better chance of falling in and not making it back out. So, crummy crawl it is.

Good thing she brought pads.

They're adjusted at her elbows before she replaces her flashlight, pulls down the goggles over her eyes, and grudgingly lowers herself down to the floor. She looks tepidly ahead of herself before beginning to crawl after Nicole, one arm shuffling after the other, kneepads scraping the ground with some noise every time she advances.

It's just a short crawl, she reminds herself repeatedly.

"The kids would also have had an easier time making it through here in the first place," Yi-Min feels compelled to point out rather mildly as they start, eying the tight dimensions of the crawlspace carefully before also getting to her hands and knees.

She can't disagree with the executive decision, though. Getting stuck seems like a slightly less irreversible outcome to have to deal with than falling injuries.

Being small in stature, it's easier for her as well. Once, when Kara shows some signs of slowing just ahead of her, she reaches out to play-slap her partner’s ankle with a bright "c'mon, a-mah1" of encouragement.

If that isn't quite enough, the steady luminosity from Yi-Min’s headlamp bathes the other two from behind, both supplementing their combined pool of light and serving as visual reinforcement that she is right behind them.

The crawl turns out to be a mostly tedious experience, if grimy. The ground is wet from runoff and smells faintly of something acrid and chemical, possibly something leaking from the car above. In the lead, Nicole soon discovers the crawl is longer than she anticipated, seeing two additional rail cars ahead of her before it opens up into darkness again.

There’s just enough space between the car to crawl and most of the group’s time is spent on their stomachs, shimmying forward at a snail’s pace. By the time they emerge on the other side of the cars, the ability to stand up straight feels like an immense relief. The rest of the tunnel past the cars is completely caved in; twisted steel beams, broken concrete, and loose earth flood the passage. But the structural damage that caused the collapse also caused a section of the tunnel wall to fall inward to an adjacent passage.

In the artificial light it’s clear to see the opening was caused by a steel beam impacting the wall, which looks to have only been a foot thick or so. The steel reinforced concrete crumbled inward, taking an older and thinner brick wall on the other side with it. Though the opening is narrow and there are twisted fingers of exposed steel rebar protruding from it, Nicole finds it relatively easy to slip through the gap.

By the time Kara and Yi-Min follow her in, Nicole’s had time to assess their situation. The tunnel they’ve squeezed into looks like it’s a part of the old New York sewer system. The walls are made of a grimy brick and the ceiling vaulted in a brick arch. The tunnel floor slopes down toward the middle where stagnant, ink-black water stands at about ankle depth.

According to Lance’s map, they’ll be in these sewer tunnels for the next two-thirds of the journey.

Nicole wipes her gloved hands on her jeans while she waits for her companions to catch up to her. “So, at least we don’t have to worry about the rats,” she offers as something of a silver lining. Although, if what she’s heard was true, even the rats avoided Manhattan. Which maybe provokes the question of why, but she refuses to dwell on it.

The intervening years of the borough’s being uninhabited should mean the sewers aren’t as disgusting as they might otherwise be, too. Not, however, that she’s going to hold out too much hope of that. It’s been too quiet thus far, and Nicole’s beginning to feel uneasy. Lance made it sound like this should have been more difficult.

“We doing okay?” Nicole asks, even as she starts forward, once again being the first in line. There’s a moment of hesitation before she steps into the water, but her boots hold watertight and that helps a great deal.


Kara can't say she enjoys this any, but it's what she signed up for. She doesn't bother trying to smear away whatever the hell it is caked on the front of her shirt now, not intent on getting it on any more of her gloves than it already is. To that effect, she grinds the side of her palm against an unstained part of her pant leg before unclipping her flashlight again.

That she can't really see the bottom of the dark water when she shines her light on it is a point she sticks on, then shakes her head. "If, somehow, there's anyone waiting for us on the other side of this— anyone expecting us to look remotely civil…"

She lets that one hang, and follows after. Considerable thought is given to walking the slope, but she'd rather walk in the sludge rather than slip on the grime and fall in it.

A sewer was a sewer was a sewer, no matter how old the shit inside was supposed to be.

To the sound of Nicole's question, Yi-Min only shrugs buoyantly, jerking one boot out of the black quagmire they're squelching through and then peering at it like she's somehow expecting to see anything different than unspeakable gunk all over it.

"Peachy," she concludes cheerfully as she slides her ankle back into the slime, forming her fist and thumb into an American-style thumbs up.

"Jia you. We have this."

Though at the moment the most they have is sludge.

The sewer tunnel isn’t structurally sound, judging from the first few minutes of their foray. The damage done at their point of entry is just the beginning. Fractures criss-cross the ceiling and centuries-old brick are split and sagging under the weight of thousands of pounds of stone and earth overhead. The bombing runs during the war only worsened the damage done by 9/11 that was never fully repaired.

Trickling rivulets of water flow through some of the larger cracks in the ceiling and where water can find a way there is never usually much time left. In a matter of years, if not months, this tunnel will be buried by the street above. For now, though, it remains a precarious but viable passage to their destination.

Along the way there’s signs of passage from long ago, partly obscured by the calcified detritus streaked down the walls. Spray-painted symbols, a circle inside of a square, a triangle and wavy lines. They hold no obvious symbolic meaning, and to both Kara and Yi-Min they look like nothing but graffiti of opaque meaning.

Nicole’s seen this before though, if only peripherally. These are Ferrymen sigils, used to map or mark routes the organization would regularly use. She was never enough a part of the organization to learn what the smuggler tunnel sigils meant, only that her sister would sometimes sketch them on napkins or the insides of beer bottle labels. They are nothing useful here, save for a history lesson.

Eight minutes into the sewer tunnels, however, and that history lesson becomes more contemporary.

The shape of something boxy catches in Nicole’s flashlight along with a pile of rubble. Twenty feet ahead a third of the sewer tunnel has collapsed in on itself, but the damage looks significantly old by how settled the dirt is. There are rough plastic boxes partially buried under the rubble, the kinds of durable cases that firearms would be carried in. The smuggler is also here.

What’s left of them, at any rate. Though it’s hard to tell in just what condition the partially-buried remains are in from far away.

Nicole tries not to dwell too much on the cracks in the walls and the ceiling overhead. She also tries not to make much in the way of noise, either, as though that might disrupt the careful balance that remains and bring the whole structure collapsing on top of them. Not even in her top five ways she’d like to go, thanks.

There’s a hesitation that shows in the faltering cadence of her steps when she recognizes the smugglers code on the walls. It means she’s prepared for it when she notes the shapes of boxes up ahead — a weapons cache? — but the corpse alongside that cache still catches her by surprise.

Holding up a hand to encourage the others to stop, Miller carries on ahead. Time and gravity will eventually swallow all of this up and make it highly unlikely that any of this will ever be found before very long. But there’s curiosity. What could she recover here? Nicole pointedly does not swing her lamp to the remains when she approaches. Not at first. Her priority is the stability of the ground she’s traversing. Can she get to those cases without causing a collapse?

Then, she puts on a grim face and turns the beam to the body — or what’s left of it at this point. Was this friend or foe? Or maybe just someone out to make a buck regardless of side? It ultimately doesn’t matter, but it remains a curiosity of Nicole’s.

They’ve been down here a long time. In the water, with all of the bacteria, the insects, the rodents. There’s not much left of the body in its current state, mostly brown-black bone, tangled bits of long hair, a gaping mouth missing several teeth from debris impacts. They’re buried from the waist down, pinned by the rubble. The collapse might not have killed them.

The whole tunnel looks scorched, though. The brick all around the collapse is blackened like the inside of a furnace and the exterior of the two plastic cases are blistered from heat. Whatever wasn’t made of polyester and nylon or something like metal has degraded on the corpse down to cobweb-like fibers. There’s just straps and bands, an underwire frame over bare ribs. The corpse is surrounded by a hardened slurry of what looks like wax.

Corpse wax, Yi-Min recognizes. A byproduct of the fat cells in a corpse decomposing.

The three visitors to this tomb notice something else, tucked beside the body in a way that it might have been inside an interior pocket. The remains of a wallet.

Kara slowly continues to wade forward, far enough back to let Nicole get first blush of the situation and presumably warn them of any danger, but she doesn't hold. They haven't come all this way to pause at the first sign of former life. Who knows what caused this— blasting from a bomb above; a blast down here— the end-result is the same either way. They're alive, this poor sod isn't, and the area around him is unstable.

The wallet, though— maybe this could be one less person whose missing status goes forever unresolved.

She reaches for that, her attention flitting to the cases after. If this were a typical scouting mission, Kara would make the time for them without question, even if only to rehome and rehide them somewhere less unstable to come back for another day to be properly scavenged. They're on a different mission today, though, leading her to ultimately move on back to the wallet to thumb it open. Quick peek only.

The old leather of the wallet crumbles apart when it’s touched. Old paper money inside has rotted away along with business cards and other biodegradable contents. The only thing to survive from the rotten and burned thing is a plastic card. A California driver’s license.


The name she can barely make out stands out just enough Kara brushes the thumb of her glove over the warped surface of the card to make sure she's not seeing this wrong. Suddenly this goes from an act that could be inconsequential to something, at least for her, monumental.

"Meredith?" she asks aloud to the card, shock evident in the quiet volume of the question. She poses it to the card. And then with a look, she poses it to the corpse. Her look grows solemn.

"Shit," she breathes out in a hiss, her tone adding to the weight of the swear. There's nothing left save for the bubbled, charred card to take back that she can see. It's the closest thing to a dog-tag she can present as evidence of what she found. "Meredith Gordon," Kara explains of both herself and the corpse as she pockets the ID. "I'll… take this to Lynette when we get back to town."

Not happily, but she would. If it came from Kara, anonymously, it would save Nicole from needing to figure out how to submit the information without having too many questions asked about how she came across it. At least, that's her reasoning.

Swish. Slosh.

That's the sound of Yi-Min not stopping or even slowing her already catlike-pace when Nicole holds up her hand. Instead, she plods on to the quiet, steady tune of dribbles of water oozing over her boots.

Sorry, Nicole.

For one thing, Yi-Min also isn't keen on lingering on in this lap of sped-up urban decay any longer than they have to. It's true that the architecture around them may not yet have reached the point in its fast-failing lifespan where they run the risk of burial with each step, but she sees no reason to stand around like a trio of gaping tourists to give it the invitation.

For another, the ramifications of what may have taken place in this chamber are too intriguing not to begin examining straight away. "Someone properly torched this whole place," she mutters dryly as she moves past Kara and bows a little closer to the corpse to scrutinize its appalling condition, remaining careful not to actually touch it with her gloved hands. She doesn't know who 'Meredith Gordon' is, or that would have answered more about that particular question.

"Probably her," Kara relates quietly, solemnly. "Gordon's thing was flames. Either she was fighting off attackers, or doing everything she could to unpin herself. Not sure which." With a brief flick of her flashlight over it all, she supposes, "So many years ago… it's hard to tell, and not like it matters much now. Either way…"

Either way, she was gone.

Nicole’s assessment of the situation is on-par with Kara’s. The pattern of the flames up the walls, along the surface of the stones that collapsed atop Meredith, on the exterior of the cases, this was the violent death throes of a woman pinned to death by collapsing rubble. Meredith Gordon did not go slowly, quietly, or painlessly. It’s a stomach-twisting moment of sobriety, because this could have been any former Ferrymen member she knows. It could have been her sister.

The plastic cases are a more tangible and less grim tableau to study. They’re easily removed from the rubble pile without disturbing them too much. If there were other cases, they’re wholly buried. But the two Nicole can secure are of subtly different makes and sizes, though roughly the same waterproof and impact-resistant materials.

Both cases have locks, but neither have the locks engaged. She is able to open the first one with a flip of her thumbs over the latches, revealing an interior foam case and a rather unusual looking white-cased firearm and three magazines of ammunition.

Kara recognizes the weapon immediately, a Belgian firearm not common in the US; the FN P90, a fully-automatic submachine gun. These fell into civilian circulation in the United States following the collapse of the Institute. The weapons were common among Institute arcology security and shipments of the weapons were intercepted during the Civil War.

Moving on to the second case, Nicole is able to unlock that one as well. But there isn’t a firearm inside when she opens it. Instead, there is… she’s not sure what she’s looking at. It’s technology, certainly, but the components look unfamiliar to her. There’s something about it that feels vaguely reminiscent of something that connects to a computer, but it certainly isn’t modern. In fact it looks like an antique.

The long, plastic card inside the case has copper connectors that would fit into a PC card slot on a home computer, but instead of being something like a graphics card or a modem, it has… a transparent plastic case attached to it, with a metal disc and arm like a record player? There is something printed along the bottom edge of the card that reads:


Nicole’s eyes linger on what remains of Meredith for a long moment. “The Ferry would want to know what happened to her,” she says solemnly, voice soft. Then she’s on to the cases. The gun is, well… It’s a gun. Maybe not the type she expected to see — and she does wonder how this particular make might have ended up in Ferry hands — but it’s nothing terribly remarkable to her, at least.

The piece of computer hardware, however… Nicole takes her time to study it, but doesn’t touch it. It seems delicate to her. Not just that, but important. She gives a glance to the others in turn asking, “You ever seen anything like it before?” She doesn’t give them much time to study before she’s shutting the case again and deciding that’s what she’ll be carrying out of here.

There are two types of people in this world. People to whom a gun is just a gun, and people to whom that is a hell of a weapon.

No guesses as to which Kara Prince finds herself.

She's pulling the abandoned crate to herself with a thoughtful frown, sees the wound strap that could allow the weapon to be carried along with them more easily. Her frown deepens, but on glancing to the mystery piece of tech that Nicole is bringing along, she feels slightly less guilty about increasing her own load. "Old, old computer parts." But that's obvious, possibly. Kara doesn't stop herself from wondering aloud, "What she was doing with it?"

The two items don't seem to correlate— at first. Then Kara's looking down to the gun she's strapping across her back, and once more back to the piece of mystery tech. "The Institute were fans of P90s before they had their teeth kicked in. Wonder if…?"

She narrows her eyes, shakes her head once. The munitions chaplain relents, "No sense in wondering about it here."

The imparting of the knowledge that Meredith achieved all of this has Yi-Min staring at the pitiful remainder of the corpse in a new light— so much so that she barely turns to register the identity of either of the objects Nicole is asking them about.

When she does veer around to face Nicole the whole way, slow and thoughtful, it's only to reach out and take the newly-shut case containing the mystery technology from the other woman. "Hello. Let me borrow this for a moment." That's not a request, placid as it is.

A few steps straight back towards Meredith again with the case in both her hands, and…


Despite the moisture infusing the environment, the twisted structure of the corpse is brittle enough from years of decay and burn damage that it takes but that one wallop from the case Yi-Min is wielding as half-mallet, half-battering ram straight into the skull to give her the effect she'd been desiring. Most of the face simply caves inwards like a splinter-filled pit, fissuring into a messy mazework of large clefts that collapses even further when she draws close. Bending to one knee, she uses her gloved hands to pry off the long, dense strip of bone now dangling uselessly from the pulverized void of the rest of the jawline.

It isn't every day that one stumbled across the corpse of an Expressive as powerful as this, ripe for the taking. More to the point: ripe for the testing, as experimenting on still-living subjects was usually frowned upon. Dr. Yeh might literally never get another opportunity such as this.

With a dislodged human mandible (or at least most of one) perched neatly on one palm, incidental flecks and fragments of other tiny bones all around her feet, Yi-Min straightens and offers the plastic case back to Nicole with her other hand.

Her expression is very polite.

"Thank you."

“Be careful with th—” Nicole’s eyes grow wide when she witnesses what Yi-Min does with the case she’s relinquished to her. She actually scrambles back several paces, eyes transfixed in horror at the way her friend pulverizes the remains of the fallen Ferryman. The desecration sees her heart dropping into her churning stomach. “Oh my god!

It’s with a slack jaw (that Nicole is suddenly very glad is still attached to the rest of her goddamned skull, Yi-Min) that she stares up at the other woman and reaches out to snatch the case back, examining the edges of it to make sure there isn’t anything disgusting clinging to it (oh dear god) before she draws it in toward herself.

Right. So the mild mannered Yi-Min Yeh that Nicole met in Providence is not necessarily the reality of the far more complex human being in front of her. That’s a lesson to file away for later.


It's a good thing Kara is wearing eye protection.

Of all the things she could think, this is it.

Yes, it's good— she's—

Her head slowly swivels back to Yi-Min in an attempt to make sense out of why this was done, and finds she comes up slightly short. Dental records? That would be a perfectly rational hope to cling to. Yes.

Kara blinks once slowly, eyes shifting from her partner to the wrenched mandible.

"Okay." That's the sum of her external reaction, followed by a brief squeeze to Yi-Min's shoulder; and then she looks on, reassures her grip around her flashlight, moves around the rubble pile, and simply keeps walking. The entire time, she wears an unchanging expression of neutrality.

Whatever moral compunctions Kara has about the defacing of the corpse— the skeleton— are buried efficiently, for later discussion, if at all. If ever. But it's done with a tight jaw.

Airily and blandly humming a song to herself beneath her breath, a sound mostly lost to the trickle of background water, Yi-Min is already tucking her prize safely away into a padded container from her bag — alongside a few other intact bones that had been conveniently close to hand, just for good measure. "Science," she offers serenely as her one word of explanation, pat-patting a cloud of bone dust out of her dark clothing. If Kara and Nicole got their own discoveries to play with, so she would have her own.

When this is all done, she goes traipsing down the tunnel in Kara's wake, re-slinging her bag over her back as though nothing at all odd had just happened.


When Nicole first set out to plan this expedition, the defiling of a corpse wasn’t on the bullet-point list of her goals. It’s hard to shake the sound of Meredith’s skull cracking under the pressure of the case from her mind, though the dread presence of narrowing brick tunnels helps hone her focus some.

What was once a passage wide enough for two has slimmed down to a brick corridor wide enough for a single person to move through comfortably. But soon it is the impending claustrophobia that is the least of concerns. Up ahead, the tunnel begins to take on a distinctly organic appearance. The walls and ceiling are woven with what at a distance looks like glistening veins.

It takes a moment for Nicole to parse what she’s seeing. It isn’t veins, it’s roots. Roots wind through the brick of the narrow passage, reaching down into the reflective surface of ever-deepening dark water that takes a sudden and unexpected dip to thigh-height with Nicole’s next alarming step.

Maybe it’s because she’s already unnerved by Yi-Min’s specimen gathering, but the roots along the walls of the passage just seem so much worse than they maybe are. The fact that they’re not actually a renegade circulatory system (not a human one, anyway) brings a heavy exhale when that realization settles in. “Christ,” Nicole mutters to herself as she makes her way forward.

Just as she’s started to relax into the reality of this new situation, the ground seems to give way under her. Or, rather, it’s just not at the level she expected it to be. Nicole lets out a panicked cry as she drops further into the water, stopping dead in her tracks. Once she’s decided that she isn’t about to be sucked under by something, she lets out the gasp she’d been holding back. “Fuck that’s cold!”

Maybe the three hour trek across the surface streets would have been better than this? But the possibility of having to dodge Hunters that may or may not think she and Yi-Min are still on the menu might actually be more harrowing than the murky water and the dank surroundings. Nicole lifts the case still clutched in one hand to hold it well above the level of the water.

Looking over her shoulder to the others, Nicole asks, “Should I scout ahead and make sure there aren’t any other fucking surprise changes of elevation here?”

Of all the gear they'd thought to bring with them, a particularly long stick had not made the list. Nor anything else to traverse this part without dipping to potentially waist-height in mystery water.

Kara frowns at Nicole's discovery, shining her light over her head and further down the slim hall they find themselves in. "Yeah," she replies reluctantly, and begins to unclip her holster from her side in grudging preparation. The only way out was either through or back…

"Ai-yooo, this is cold," Yi-Min frets with a light shake of her head as she kneels, having just dipped one hand into the ominous water to test exactly how cold. Even the vivid beam of her headlamp does not seem to pierce through the watery gloom enough to be of much help.

Seems like there's nothing else for it, though. Withdrawing her hand and drying it off on her pants, she starts hoisting her bag off her shoulders, her gaze resting up ahead on Nicole and the tangled channel of roots trailing even farther into the unknown. "Yes, let us know, but be careful."

Nicole passes the case in her hand back to Kara. She doesn’t want to take the risk of its contents getting damaged if she winds up fully submerged. “If I fucking drown in this shit, tell my sister I want to be buried in my good moto jacket. If they bury me in a business suit, I will come back to haunt you.”

With that threat delivered, she begins to wade her way through the tunnel.

The tunnel continues on a downward track until the water is about waist level on Nicole and Kara and a little bit higher on Yi-Min. It is, precisely as has been said, freezing cold. The ground underfoot is uneven, composed of toppled bricks and other loose debris that shifts with each step.

Eventually the roots stop being a major feature of the brick tunnels and the sound of rapidly rushing water grows increasingly louder. Sloshing through the waist-deep water, Nicole can feel the current coming against her, flowing back toward the tunnel she’s leaving, even as the ceiling opens up and the group she leads enters a much more spacious sewer tunnel.

The ceiling reaches up some twenty feet overhead, hanging with fetid stalactites of grime and calcified sewage. The walls, too, are streaked with the hardened remains of filth from generations past. To the left there is a slope flowing with water from a higher runoff passage and a much larger, curving tunnel to the right.

According to Nicole’s map this must be the Slip N’ Slide Lance wrote about. They have to scale it. The other tunnel just goes back out to the coast. Mercifully, they’re more than halfway now.

At one point in her trek, Nicole slips on a displaced brick and dunks up to her chest with a sharp gasp and a shrill expletive that might actually be three different cuss words combined into one unintelligible megaswear. (Followed by about sixteen perfectly enunciated fucks.) But, she makes it to the fork in the tunnel in one piece, and not entirely worse for wear except for the cold damp clinging to her skin and her clothes. They are not coming back this way.

The slope is taken in, blue eyes giving a slow blink that momentarily breaks the dead-eyed stare. “This is the last time I let Gerken give me a map with fun annotations.” Accuracy or bust, kiddo. Nicole sighs heavily. This whole outfit is going to be burned in a barrel out on her back patio slab.

Better yet, in an entirely different borough where she won’t even have to deal with the ashes of it. Thankfully, this is not the aforementioned good moto jacket. The filth-encrusted walls are disgusting, but making that climb means an end to this disgusting mess. Nicole sloshes her way up into that lane, grateful as the water recedes around her. Shaking her gloved hands out at her sides, she reaches up the slope and starts boosting herself with a grunt of effort.

Kara's arms are tired by the time they've slowly navigated as far as the slope. She took no chances with her pack, her holster, her newly-acquired rifle— it was used as a stray her pack was balanced on top of, briefly, after Nicole's trip. Grimly, she kept her silence through the series of swears, eyes up on the path ahead.

The slope up couldn't come any sooner, but she knows, too, it's a false flag of hope. Slip and slide likely wasn't written for the hell of it. After pulling her pack back into place at the bottom of the slope, Kara navigates up carefully, mindful of slime as much as the lack of footing her wet boots might create.

Though her own arms are aching from keeping her pack elevated well above her personal waterline, and though everything from her midsection down is completely numb from the submersion into the frigid water, Yi-Min too trundles on without complaint.

…Mostly. Only once does she let out a soft chain of bloodcurdling Taiwanese profanities that would probably have made Kara's ears bleed from the inside out, had she understood the translation.

With extreme caution, Yi-Min maneuvers up the slippery slope last, wary of not only self-made missteps but any that might come from the two women above — lest they all come crashing down together into a sorry pile of bedraggled pain back at the bottom. Once she heaves herself up safely to the top with the help of Kara’s hand, the others can see that her expression displays a faint hue of lighthearted amusement, despite her concentration and her cursing.

What an adventure this was turning out to be.

It’s all an absolutely disgusting mess. By the time they’ve reached the top of the slope, gloves, boots, and knees are completely slick with a black-green sludge. Even with the rebreather masks there is a hint of the musty, damp stink of this place that slips through gaps where the seal around mouth and nose isn’t perfect.

The upper tunnel they’ve found themselves in isn’t nearly as wide or tall as the previous ones. It continues on a relatively straight path before bending sharply to the north. There’s a down-slope that heads northeast, a split-flow runoff that they need to take that leads back down into another artery of the sewers. Going down a slope is just as difficult as going up given the slipperiness and a lack of desire to want to slide down.

It’s a slow-going process, but one that ends at a barred gate rather than a spacious opening like the other split-flow runoff did. The bars look to have been opened long ago by something as powerful as a cutting torch. A semicircular hole is cut out of the bars and a decade or more of sediment has crusted the iron ends, rendering them blunt and harmless.

That’s when everything becomes uncomfortable. The passage beyond the bars is cramped. It’s a significantly older section of sewer tunnel that is only maybe four and a half feet in height. The passage is wider than it is tall and filled with knee-deep runoff. According to Lance’s map they’re more than three-quarters of the way now, and this must be what is referred to as The Straw.

“I feel like I owe you both the biggest apology,” Nicole groans as she continues to lead the way forward. She keeps awkwardly hugging her arms around her body as though that might provide any kind of warmth against the chill that’s sunk to her bones. “I should have just done this by myself.”

They are the best friends in the world and she is clearly the worst.

“I hate this,” she pronounces as she stands at the severed gate. “I hate this so much.” Nicole closes her eyes, draws in an audible breath that she immediately regrets the depth of, then ducks her head to step through the opening and head into the narrow passage. One hand trains her flashlight ahead and the other is held out toward the wall, not quite touching, but ready to catch herself if she has to.

"Had you done this alone, you could have ended up like Meredith."

Doesn't mean Kara hates this any less herself. What she would not give for a clean surface to scrape herself against at this point. She tries to remind herself they're almost there. It makes wading back into the next batch of water easier, along with the fact it's not nearly as bad as the section they'd just emerged from.

"Complain about it when we're through," Kara gruffly advises through the mask. "Jia you."

Jia you, indeed. Though, preferably not literally. This place reeked badly enough.

"No need for an apology," Yi-Min just laughs, an odd noise through the inhalation she is trying to make as shallow as possible against the assault of stagnation. "Should you be sorry for leading us on a path safe from Hunters? No. Give me all the muck. Disgust alone will not kill us."

They would probably all be able to laugh about this later, over steins of beer. Naturally, the operative word there is ‘later’. She stoops adroitly when they reach that next bottleneck, dividing her attention between vigilantly using one wall as a continuous series of handholds and lightly evading any obstacles in the sludge-like runoff the two larger women are unconsciously divulging just by traveling ahead of her.

The Straw as the Lighthouse Kids identified it goes on for six hundred feet, during which the entire time the women traversing it must walk stooped and bent at the knee. It isn’t a long distance compared to how far they’ve already traveled, but even one hundred feet walking in a crouch is an exercise in both patience and discomfort.

The Straw is also on a subtle incline, going down at about a five degree angle. By the time the trio have made it to the three hundred foot mark, the water is up to their chests, stooped over as they are.

But what Nicole finds up ahead turns an already queasy stomach into knots.

At first it looks like foam on the surface of the water. Something pale, reflective and buoyant that wobbles when the water’s surface is disrupted. But as she draws closer the truth of the matter is revealed in disgusting fidelity. It is a blockage of garbage. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of plastic water bottles filling the tunnel, braided together in some sort of flotilla by undegraded wet naps, fabric, and other non-biodegradable materials like plastic beer can rings. It is every don’t litter PSA brought to life like some sort of flotsam golem.

There’s three hundred feet of it to the end of the tunnel.

Nicole is shivering by the time she spies what’s waiting ahead. The exhalation of utter defeat echoes off the damp walls. She would absolutely rather be fighting ‘bots right now. (Of course, if that’s what she were doing at the moment, she’d be thinking she’d rather have been wading through garbage, so.) “This is definitely my last fucking straw,” she mutters as she soldiers on.

Oh god it’s gross,” she immediately whines the first time a slimy piece of definitely not flushable napkin tries to cling to the front of her shirt. The back of the hand holding the flashlight comes up, clunking against the rebreather as she lurches forward a little.

“The good moto jacket,” Nicole reminds them.

It's like the tunnel heard they were already weary, forced them to hoist their bags again, and then decided to add the garbage to add insult to that injury. Like punishment for encouraging that they all just grin and bear it.

"Mind your step for more dips," Kara advises, voice strained. "It'll be even worse if you catch a mouthful of it."

Nicole immediately gags. “Oh god. Why would you even say that?”

Earlier, during the crouch, Kara’s height had been painful. Now, at least, it gave her less chance of running into the issue she was warning about. She glances back at the shorter form of Yi-Min in sympathy.

"On second thought," Yi-Min rescinds thickly, her eyes starting to glaze over above the material of her respirator, "I will be taking an apology from you. In the form of all the alcohol you shall be buying us when we get back."

Her stages of advance through what feels like a battlefield of waterlogged unmentionables stay as swift as she can manage, given the circumstances. With what is visible of her expression frozen into a kind of indescribable merger between lightness and deadness, she just wades on, indefatigable as ever.

It's the only thing to be done now.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Nicole assures, “I am definitely going to drink to forget this.”

It’s a horrible experience, the smell feels like it has a life of its own. A musty, filthy, sour stink that emanates from the garbage reef floating on the surface of the water. It feels like it’s trying to pry the masks off their faces, worm ephemeral fingers in whatever gaps it can find. It’s a gag-inducing smell that only becomes worse the deeper they go and the more mouldering garbage they disturb.

There are rats here, too. Just a pair, swimming along in the detritus, but far enough away as to not seek a warm body to ride on. The fact that they’re in the water at least gives Nicole reason to relax after her initial tension. Rats are bad enough, but the ones that plagued the Safe Zone not so long ago as to be forgotten… She wouldn’t want to run into them without her ability.

As Nicole leads the way she comes to another barred gate like the others, this one too cut with a torch like the one before. But the bottom teeth of the bars are tangled with garbage, allowing this clog to remain. It’s a simple enough task to slip over and between the cut bars, and once on the other side the garbage is nearly non-existent. The smell, though, feels inescapable, like being inside of a diseased mouth.

It’s a sharp left out of that tunnel, up another sloping incline that leads to swifter-flowing and extremely shallow runoff in a wider tunnel. Following Lance’s map under the glow of a flashlight, Nicole estimates they’re reaching the “cave”, which she hopes is far less literal than is written. It’s a five minute walk through a tunnel tall enough to finally stand in to reach that destination.

An actual doorway greets Nicole at the entrance to the site marked as the Cave. There’s old Ferrymen glyphs scrawled on the side of the doorway and four concrete steps that go up to where a door may have at one time been mounted. There’s signs saying TRANSIT MAINTENANCE NO TRESPASSING that are streaked with rust.

Through the doorway there’s a dry concrete hallway with power and water conduits riveted to the wall. Dead fluorescent lights are set in the ceiling, a junction box surrounded by scorch marks says the power isn’t running down here anymore, since Nicole can’t feel that by touch these days.

There’s a door at the end of the corridor, held open by a brick placed between door and frame. Nicole is able to push it open and she can feel a breeze blowing across her cold, wet clothes. “Ohhh, fuck. C’mon,” she gripes, shivering violently until she manages to grow accustomed to the shift in temperature. The light of her flashlight fails to reach the other side of the cavernous space on the other side of the door, but she swept it over yellow construction equipment, lengths of metal, drums of concrete mix, and temporary ventilation piping. There’s also gas generators down here, four large industrial ones.

It’s a construction site.

“What the hell were they building down here?” Nicole angles the light upward, brow furrowed as she continues to survey the expanse.

The ceiling overhead has to be at least a hundred feet high. It must have been part of a planned subway expansion before the war, or perhaps something pertaining to turning Manhattan into a concentration camp. It’s hard to tell.

After the fucking Arcology, Nicole is afraid to trust in the simplicity of civic infrastructure. “Well…” She heaves a great sigh and checks the spread of her map. “This is the homestretch,” she informs her companions. “We just need to find the stairs.” But since nothing’s jumped out at them so far, it seems as good a place as any to rest for a moment. The surface, while presumably drier, may not actually be more hospitable than what they’ve dealt with so far.

Nicole unshoulders her waterlogged pack and takes a knee. “We’re just gonna hike back up to Harlem when we’re done, right?”

Dry. Sweet Jesus, it's dry up here. Kara is taking advantage of that the moment she senses Nicole's intent to stop, letting her dry bag down to the ground with tired, aching arms. She spends a momenit grinding her boots against the edges of the nearest piece of equipment, smearing her hands clean. Her clothing is a lost cause, but she can at least endeavor not to overly soil everything she steps on, everything she touches.

A soft swear leaves her in Mandarin as she leans back against the side of the machine, her small self-contained complaint for every thing they've endured. Her eyes climb to find the distant ceiling, seen only with the help of her flashlight. What were they working on down here indeed.

The beam of light lowers to find the generators instead. She'd kill for an ability to get those back to Providence swiftly. They're likely gas-guzzlers, but they looked powerful. Kara sighs for their loss, and on the edges of it, lets out a quiet laugh. "No, I planned to jet-ski back."

The creature that emerges last into the colossal open space more closely resembles a drenched rat than a living woman, rather like the tinier versions they had seen gliding along through the lakelet of garbage. All of Yi-Min's black clothing clings to her skin like a soaked, shining sheet of filth, making her seem even smaller than usual.

Though the sound of Kara's attempted swear in Mandarin brings a revivifying shake of laughter to Yi-Min's sides all over again. "…I am not sure what you want to do to some poor horse? But: tā mā de," comes her prompt correction to Kara's butchery, stressing the identical flatness of the first two tones with extremely patient joviality even as her actual focus is wandering out towards their surroundings.

So it is that she is the first of the three to spot something even more unusual than the mystery of the standing construction equipment.

And potentially worrisome.

"Well, this is probably not the kind of thing you want to see," Yi-Min remarks very airily, the illumination of her headlamp piercing straight down into what appears to be a puddle of fresh blood right in front of her feet, where she'd stopped.

In Nicole’s flashlight, the blood trails in a few dribbles over to a derelict forklift where the light reveals a palm print in the dust that’s collected on the machinery’s surface over the years. The sight of blood, especially fresh blood, sends a wave of adrenaline through Nicole’s body. It only heightens when in the long shadows cast against the far wall by the forklift, she sees more blood.

The shaky beam of Nicole’s flashlight tracks over the forklift, to the bedrock walls of the tunnel where a door-sized hole is carved into the wall. Power cables spool out from the opening and the passage ventures well beyond the light into darkness. But there are hand prints along the wall by the cables, hand and foot prints going up the wall; smeared in blood. And drag marks going into the hole.

Suddenly every slosh of distant water and clatter of loose rock takes on harrowing new context.

Nicole doesn’t swear in any language other than English, for good for ill, but she has learned to do so over the years with a certain style and flair. “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” she murmurs under her breath. Her eyes track along with her flashlight as she begins to rise to her feet again.

Very slowly, the former electrokinetic leans down to grab the strap of her backpack and lift it as carefully and as soundlessly up off the floor as she can manage. Every whisper of bedraggled fabric on fabric sets her nerves on edge. This was clearly not the place to stop. It isn’t a sanctuary, it’s a den. Her eyes glued to the blood-marked doorway, she reaches out to take up the case of computer equipment.

With a juddering shake of her flashlight, she points the way opposite the passage. They should go that direction. Away from whatever or whoever’s using this place as its hunting ground.

Awesome. Kara breathes the word out rather than speaks it, clipping her flashlight to the strap of her pack in favor of bringing the newly acquired rifle to a brace against her shoulder. The safety on it is thumbed off.

There really were still people living out here, and the handprint and blood smears aren't doing wonders for the rumors about cannibals.

With a tight nod, Kara issues her agreement that they should go. She slings her bag back over her shoulder, swinging both arms into it before taking up a position at the rear. Looking to Yi-Min, she glances firmly for her to follow Nicole. She lifts the tip of her new gun just slightly to indicate she'll cover their rear while they navigate away.

Far be it from Yi-Min to get between Kara and her shiny new toy.

Reaching to collect her mildly-damp Colt Python from its thick pouch holster in her bag— as well as something more unidentifiably oddly-shaped— Yi-Min obeys the unspoken injunction to move into place behind Nicole. Disengaging the safety, she hefts the pistol ready and pointed straight upwards above her shoulder, all the while fondling her little mystery object inside her opposite palm as though just waiting for an excuse to use it.

A silent tip of her head towards Nicole signifies: ‘Lead on. We are both right behind you.'

With sensibility leading the way rather than scrutiny, Nicole and her team track through the cavernous space of what would have been a new subway line with haste. Every echoing scuff of boots on concrete, every clunk of something in the dark, every stirring of old water elicits a subconscious fear response. By the time they’ve trekked halfway through the passage it feels more claustrophobic than it is, but the cloying darkness is doing nothing for that.

Nicole’s flashlight reveals their true depth up ahead as she spots the circular opening of a proper subway tunnel about 15 feet in height. But as she keeps scanning with the light up, and up, she finds a second bore hole above it, evidence that they’re a whole level lower than they’d anticipated. Lance’s map mentioned stairs, but not how many to expect.

Of the two bore holes on the level with Nicole, she knows the right-most leads to their escape from this place. But as they close in on the destination her flashlight reveals that some of the dark stains on the concrete ahead are not standing puddles of water. It’s more blood. Significantly more blood in a wide pool between them and the bore hole. There are drag marks from the pool, spatter that indicates splashing. Suddenly Nicole regrets her study of crime scene blood spatter as it fills her thoughts with a number of gruesome ways that pattern could have been created.

The drag marks go off into the left tunnel, the one they don’t need to go down. It’s fortunate, as that tunnel is only halfway bored out and drops down to some six feet in height about ten feet in. It’s also flooded with water. There’s plastic buckets visible in the dark water, some floating packaging and garbage. Worse is the smell. Sticky sweet but also rancid, like rotting meat slathered in honey. Yi-Min also knows that smell. It is often associated with cancer.

As the light reflects off the water, Nicole, Yi-Min, and Kara hear something come from down that tunnel.


There are times in everybody’s lives where they believe — where they know — they have made a catastrophic mistake. This happens to be one of Nicole’s. By the time she nears their route of escape, she’s already horribly on edge. Her flashlight pans over the pooled blood, illuminates the spatter, and her imagination is off to the races. She can’t resist following the drag marks off to the left with her light.

Over the floor, then across the water where the light reflects off its murky surface. Nicole starts to lift the beam higher, trying to see further down the tunnel, even though her rational mind is screaming at her to stop.

Nicole's mind isn't the only thing trying to do so. Just behind her, Yi-Min's breath catches in her throat first and foremost from the sight of the SESA agent cantering towards whatever horror awaits them in the opposing tunnel like a blind fool.

It's enough so that she actually re-holsters her pistol, at least for a moment, just so she has a hand free to snake out and grab onto the collar of Nicole's shirt. "Are you crazy?" she mouths hard at the face of her companion, gaze sliding from there straight into the source of the putrid fetor.

And the breathing, and the


It’s all Nicole’s light catches. Eyes. Glowing eyes, like that of dogs. Looking at them. But as she’s pulled away, the light dips down, and she can’t see where they are anymore.

The sudden grasp of her collar, the drag backward, it’s too much.

Nicole screams.

The hand with the flashlight comes up, hitting against the rebreather with a dull thunk as she instinctively tries to cover her mouth to prevent further sound. A whimper escapes past her lips.

So much for silence. "Go." Kara barks at the two of them. "Now." The awkward grasp of her supporting hand on the rifle firms up to ensure she keeps the beam of light from the small flashlight firmly pointed in the direction of the weapon's muzzle.

The moment they lose sight of the eyes, Kara seeks to locate them again, even as she strafes away from it to follow Yi-Min and Nicole.

When she finds them, she wishes she hadn’t.

It isn’t animals.

It isn’t people.

Or— it isn’t anymore.

Kara’s mind grapples with what she’s seeing as it screams at her in a chorus of wet voices. It is a tumorous behemoth of glistening, reddish-pink flesh like a molten amalgamation of burn victims fused together like Grandma’s ribbon candy. The horrifying mass — some six feet tall at the shoulder — has several heads, mouths gaping and screaming as they track focus on Kara, Nicole, and Yi-Min.

The mass is ambulatory on multiple twisted arms and bent legs. It sloshes through the water, breathing with the lungs of several bodies melded together in a nightmarish gestalt that gallops as much as it runs with a horrifying gait of disjointed limbs like something out of a fucking nightmare.

Nicole lets out another terrified whimper before her brain finally kicks back into gear. Whatever that thing is, her pistol isn’t going to have enough ammunition to bring it down without needing to reload. Of this she is certain.

In the contest of Fight vs. Flight, Flight wins out.

She doesn’t remember turning or starting to run. Doesn’t remember barrelling into the tunnel on her right. Not until she registers the sounds of her boots slapping wetly on the concrete, leaving behind prints from the treads of her boots from the blood she tromped through to get this far, does she realize she’s even in motion. The clap of rubberized soles and the tacky squelch that comes from the lift of each foot echoes off the tunnel walls around her. Nicole doesn’t look back.

"I'm using it," is the warning that Yi-Min cries as she lifts her hand in preparation, which also finally reveals the entirety of the misshapen object held within. Both Kara and Nicole know the implication of those words well. The sight, too, not that this is much of a time to peer.

It's a pint-sized glass bottle filled with an oily violet-brown liquid, strapped to a pack of crazily-wrapped wiring, tubing, a crude blasting cap, and a stick of dynamite.

"Please don't tell Cooper about this," she has just enough time to quip as she flicks down hard on the detonating switch, then lobs her contraption at one of the creature's heads.

In an agony of the slowest motion, its arc takes it splashing down into the monstrosity's path, softly

where it blasts apart with a tooth-rattling BOOM.

The area around the nightmarish amalgamation whirls up into an eruption of roaring gray smoke, and the rotten miasma of gore and sickness is instantly overwhelmed by a potent new competitor: the flowery scent of geraniums. At the center of the concussive explosion, the glass which had been holding the brown compound captive disintegrates, freeing its prisoner to begin its transcendence into a colorless storm of poisonous, blistering vapors.

Not that Yi-Min is staying behind to observe any of this firsthand. She’d already turned on Nicole’s heels with the alacrity of a badly-panicked cat towards the hole which had better be leading to their escape, only throwing the most vital of glances behind her to ensure that Kara is following closely.

Kara Prince has seen a number of horrors down here. But this one— this one is finally something she can shoot at.

Even as Yi-Min lobs her homemade grenade, Kara is opening fire on the monstrosity that charges them. The P90 kicks hard back against her shoulder as a burst of fire flails in the conjoined catastrophe's direction, hopefully hitting at least one of its faces in the process. The moment she sees the smoke erupt, she knows even more intensely here is a place she no longer wants to be.

A second burst of fire comes from the rifle before Kara turns and sprints after Yi-Min. "Don't you stop! Keep moving!" The sound of her breath comes heavy through the rebreather while her soaked shoes pound the concrete. Fuck. Fuck.

She listens for the sound of it— its wails, its breathing, its mess of wet limbs. Does it follow?

The scream that emanates from the thick, gray cloud of smoke is horrifying. It is six or seven different voices all wailing in agony at once. Dulled as they are by the cry of the P90 in full-auto, these screams curl fingers into the psyche and dig deep furrows in confidence and rationality.

Nicole doesn’t see the worst of it, already into the right-most tunnel by the time the creature breaches its own warren. The thing’s flesh is bubbling and blistering from exposure to Yi-Min’s toxin, one of its heads is a crimson flower of broken bones and connective tissue. The automatic gunfire is hurting it, but its mass is so large and its organs seemingly so redundant that even with two of its heads destroyed the thing just keeps on moving forward.

It rounds the corner from the flooded bore hole into the dry tunnel, pursuing on limbs that crack and break under the stress of gunshot wounds and its own cancerous weight. It is a screaming presence in the dark, illuminated only by the occasional flick of Kara’s flashlight over her shoulder at the group’s rear to keep abreast of its position. But eventually the sheer degenerative effect of the chemical weapon causes it to succumb, collapsing onto bloody forelimbs with a shuddering whine.

Perhaps it is confidence or curiosity that steadies Kara’s flashlight in that moment as they flee. But what she sees is not a creature dying, but something altogether confusing and horrifying. The beast’s back splits open like a mucus filled sore, from which a new and smaller horror of spidery human limbs and gnashing mouths emerges, lets out the howl of a newborn child, and scrambles into the darkness, burning anew from the gas as it retreats back into the main tunnel and out of flashlight distance.

Nicole can barely hear the wailing over her own panicked breathing and the roar of blood in her ears as she just keeps running for all she’s worth. She does not stop until she’s brought low by Newton’s Laws of Motion in the form of her booted foot catching on an uneven, partially laid rail on the tunnel floor and she goes slamming to the ground, barely getting her hands up in time to break her fall.

Her flashlight goes flying from her hand and careening end over end further down the tunnel. The only thing that keeps it from bursting into shrapnel of plastic and glass is Nicole’s foresight to grab a tactical flashlight, intended to withstand just this sort of impact. It’s only by virtue of having had the breath knocked from her lungs that she isn’t screaming in terror while attempting to scrabble to her feet again.

Kara's steps slow to a plodding halt, eyes not leaving the nightmare-inducing creature until she's sure it's stopped moving, until she's sure the running hands are well and truly gone. She sits tensely for a long moment, the echoes of inhuman screams bouncing around the corridor.

Or maybe the echoes are just in her head at this point, rattling around, never to truly leave.

The urge to shoot it again to make sure it's dead is strong, but she knows bullets weren't what brought it low, or else it'd have stopped chasing almost immediately. Kara wonders briefly how in the hell something like this could exist so close to civilization, something so terrifying and deadly and wrong, but she remembers the invasion of the octobot into the center of the Staten Island Rookery.

Sometimes just outside the fence was close enough.

The sound of the flashlight going end over end snaps her out of it. "Yi-Min?" Kara asks as she turns back, seeking to verify her partner's safety, even though logically the sound couldn't have come from her. Her eyes are glazed with shock at what they've just walked away from. Then she turns to see where Nicole's tripped, sees her scrambling to get back to her feet again— and presumably keep running.

"Nicole! It's down." They may not be safe, but no longer actively being pursued might count for something. The munitions chaplain doesn't let go of the rifle she'd picked up, even as she comes shoulder to shoulder with Yi-Min. No, she'll hold onto that tightly for some time yet.

"It's gone, at least," Yi-Min immediately clarifies as her own footsteps trail to a stop, because they definitely had not actually seen it go down. This leads her to postulate the next priority, which is: "We are coming up on the only exit to the surface in this area, yes? Once we are out, we need to seal it up."

The lab-brewed chemical weapon she had unleashed would render this place uninhabitable for the creature and whatever horrific spawn it possessed; the zone would remain contaminated by noxious fumes until purposely de-contaminated. If it did not die as a result, it would be driven by sheer necessity to find a new place to roost.

"What was that thing?" is Yi-Min's next demand as she gets into place to offer out a hand to Nicole, her flash of alarm over the fall and her concern over what they had just seen compacted into a single, lingering point of sharpness in her eyes. As she brings her friend back to her feet, the blinding beam of her headlamp up so close renders it impossible to see more of her face than a dark outline.

"You are not going to tell me that there is some company like Praxis here, performing similar experiments?"

The long shadow cast by Yi-Min’s arm reaching to help her to her feet sets Nicole’s terror off again. Having only made it to a crouch, she shrinks in on herself, arms over her head as she screams, afraid she’s about to be set upon by whatever the fuck that thing was.

When it doesn’t happen, nothing paws, claws, or tears at her, she finally dares to lift her head. She’s crying, and loudly, shaking with fear, but she’s slowly gaining awareness again, turning to look over her shoulder to the hand still outstretched, if perhaps a bit more tentatively now. Nicole’s gasping breaths are even more pronounced through the filter of her rebreather. She turns, takes the offered hand, and drags herself to her feet with Yi-Min’s help.

Reaching up to wipe the tears from her own face is aborted when she remembers the state of her gloves. She starts to raise an arm so she can use her sleeve, but that isn’t any better. The tears can stay, then. “There were…” Belatedly, Nicole begins to answer Yi-Min’s question, turning away from the glare of the lamp so she can look for her flashlight. Trudging further down the tunnel, she stoops to pick it up, nodding once to herself in satisfaction that it remains in one piece. Worth the money she shelled out for it then.

“There were,” she begins again, “terrible experiments done on Staten Island. But that was years ago. Miles from here.” Which doesn’t mean there hadn’t been experiments performed in Manhattan before the bomb. But could an abomination like that have survived down here all those years? Nicole’s blood runs cold as she considers the possibilities, and recent events. She doesn’t like the conclusions she reaches.

Turning back to the others, she lifts the beam of her flashlight to illuminate the way they came, confirming with her own eyes that that thing isn’t just lingering at the mouth of the tunnel, waiting to pounce.

Oh God,” the SESA agent breathes out when she sees the carcass. This time when she gags, she goes staggering for the wall, tossing her artificial torch aside and pulling her mask off just before she hurls her guts up on the concrete. It was bound to happen sooner or later.

Kara can't look. The sound of someone else getting ill is what threatens to break her despite that, so she walks on past. She'll scout ahead by a few paces at least while that all is … dealt with. She sees a gap in the concrete on the side of the wall— a long-awaited exit from this level.

She doesn't have answers as to what they saw. She's not sure she does want them.

But this maintenance stairwell leads out— leads forward. And the more distance between themselves and this place, the better.

"As soon as we're ready down there," Kara says over her shoulder. "The door up is over here."

Past experiments done on Staten Island. Well, that was a dumpster-sized can of worms to be gouged apart by Yi-Min later.

For now, though, their path of travails wasn't over yet. It still wound onwards and upwards, out of this stinking pit in the ground and all of the horrors they now knew it entailed.

"Come on," Yi-Min tells Nicole sympathetically but firmly, giving the other woman a few brisk whacks on the back to get everything (else) out as quickly as possible while already looking ahead up at Kara. "The less of this air we spend time breathing, the better." Particularly in a few minutes’ time. Time to go.

Up ahead, a maintenance access door leads to a set of concrete stairs that traverses the level between the bore hole they’ve been walking through and the incomplete subway tunnel above. There the group is met by a more complete tunnel with deactivated power conduits bolted to the walls. Lance’s map continues to provide an accurate assessment of the journey ahead, with regards to geographic issues, at least.

The remaining trek is less than five hundred feet before the trio hits an actual subway station a decade abandoned. There are signs of squatters having lived here within the last couple of years; tattered tents, empty cans and bottles, dog shit. The rats hold court here now, but they provide no obstruction to the three women clamoring for the stairs up and out to street level.

By the time Nicole, Kara, and Yi-Min make it topside the relative fresh air of the Manhattan Exclusion Zone is a welcome reprieve from the tomb they had been traversing. But here on the streets of what was once the Financial District well past night is like being in a tomb of a wholly new design. Towering skyscrapers eviscerated by fire and bombs loom overhead. The streets are littered with debris and stands of scrub trees and brown grass. Cars melted by intense heat are slagged up and down both sides of the street they emerge out onto.

But at least they’re out. That’s more than could be said for some.

Now they just have to hope what they came all the way out here for was worth it.

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