Masks VIII: Part Five
"Careful," said Simon, as Tulio and John resumed digging. "That roof doesn't look very stable. Just... move small stuff."
Tucked into the boot was the leg of a costume, again in Sonic Jett's colors.
"Should we really be disturbing this?" said Tulio, pausing in his efforts.
"I want to know if that's my Grandfather," said Greg, firmly.
"That's permission from next of kin," said John, with a shrug.
"How about we just dig far enough to get a tissue sample?" I said, pulling the portable DNA sampler out of my pack.
I turned it on. Nothing happened. I fiddled with it for a bit, but still couldn't get a response.
"What's wrong with this thing?" I muttered, opening the battery compartment. "Great. These are some weird size I bet we don't have any of."
"Did you leave it on?" said John.
"No, I didn't leave it on. The switch was off when I pulled it out, and it's not easy to move."
"Damn," said John, obviously irritated. "Well, we can take a sample and have it tested later."
"If you don't mind, can we leave that for last?" said Greg.
That suited all of us. Taking a sample was going to be a grizzly task and not one we were eager to perform. Besides, we were all but certain this was, indeed, Sonic Jett.
"Greg, if we can do it safely, do you want us to recover your Grandfather's body?" said Tulio, gently.
"No. I talked it over with the family. We may hire a forensic team to come in later. There was even talk about having someone make a documentary, and pick up most of the tab."
That settled, we decided back off from the exhumation and examine what we could see of the tunnel more thoroughly. We'd really jumped into the digging when we should have looked the situation over more carefully, first. Soon, Simon noticed something.
"There's a draft, up here," he said, holding his hand up near the right side of the collapse, just below the roof. "I think I see a small opening."
We brought more lights to bear on the spot, and could indeed see a hole which appeared to go all the way through.
"Larry?" said John, looking at me.
"Yeah. A groundhog could get through, I think. No, a gopher."
The others immediately realized what I was talking about, but Greg just looked puzzled. He looked totally astonished when I shifted form.
I shook myself a bit to get used to the new shape, then carefully began climbing. I knew from previous experimentation that my clothes were now a fur-colored collar, the ring shrunk down around a foretoe. I was light enough to scamper up the debris with little trouble, and indeed small enough to walk through the opening.
The way through was very irregular, but never too small for easy passage. I soon came out into a large chamber on the other side. The debris was looser here, but with little trouble I half-scampered, half-slid down to solid footing, and shifted back. I could see light shining through the opening behind me, but it revealed little. I pulled out the flashlight I had tucked into my jacket pocket and turned it on. Looking around, I saw something on this side of the collapse.
"Someone did some digging in here," I shouted. "They uncovered enough of the body to show Sonic Jett's helmet and mask."
"I bet that was Mack and Nimrod," Simon shouted through the hole.
"The tunnel continues into the mountain," I called back.
"Can you see how far?" said Simon.
"No. But the air is fresh. There's probably at least one other opening."
"If you can find it go out and around and back in the first entrance so you can guide us there," said John.
"Just be careful!" Tulio called out.
I started slowly down the tunnel, shining my light all around - floor, walls and ceiling - well ahead of me as I went. Except for that one roof fall - might have been caused by Sonic Jett's own powers - the tunnel seemed sound.
While I now had less worry about the structural integrity of the tunnel, another concern was nagging at me. Something wasn't right, here. At first I'd just attributed the malfunctioning DNA tester to dead batteries. However, while the others discussed what to do about Jett I had looked around inside the machine. I found a cut wire. That was deliberate sabotage. Any of us could have done it during the past couple of days. With no way to screen for opportunity, I considered motive. That also led to a dead end. While any of us might have a reason, I couldn't think of anything solid which made sense. So, what about behavior? There something stood out. Ever since we'd found that boot, John had been acting more restrained than usual. That could simply be the emotional reaction to finding the body of Sonic Jett, but was that enough to explain the change in manner? Or was it him realizing that he now had to betray us?
Everything kept coming back to John. All the way to when he recruited me for this mission. Had he been put up to this for some reason?
Could it be him? I doubted it - while he was far from a saint and often acted in his own best interests and without concern for others, he had never deliberately betrayed a trust for as long as I'd known him. Especially with someone he considered a comrade in arms. Could a man grown into himself for centuries change enough in fifty years to betray the rest of us? I didn't think so. However, I could easily believe that there were people he would feel a higher obligation to than he did to any - or all - of us. If his family were involved, all bets were off.
I came to a branching: sharp right, shallow left and sharp left. It was if I were in the slanted leg of a backwards K. I gave myself a bloodhound's nose, stepped a short way down each leg and sniffed. From the sharp left came moving, fresh air. From the shallow left, still and stale. From the right there was a distinct scent of water. I realized the right tunnel led under the lake, and was probably flooded. Left it was, then. I took a moment to sniff the DNA tester, nodded, and put it away. We'd all handled it, of course, but except for the saboteur I was the only one whose scent should be on the inside. It wasn't proof - not nearly strong enough for me to make accusations - but it was good, solid evidence.
Nose back to normal, I turned down that tunnel. Soon it started to rise. After a few minutes I came to a chamber - empty except for some dust and debris which must have blown in from outside. I knew I was close, but not there yet.
This chamber looked like a natural cave of some sort, perhaps entered by accident during the mining. Or maybe the miners had started here; I knew very little about mining in general or the history of this place. An opening in the far wall was the only exit.
Something caught my eye, lying in the dust. I moved closer, and the odd shape came suddenly into focus, giving me a start of recognition.
It was one of Mack Risk's trademark pistols. A Colt Match .38 Super automatic, which he usually carried in pairs. How this one came to be here - and all by itself - I could only guess. The dry, cold air of this dead cave had preserved it so well I had no doubt it would still fire. A quick check showed a round in the chamber and four in the magazine. I dusted the gun off and concealed it, using John's gift to make a holster inside my clothing.
A little further on and I began to see light. I also saw another chamber ahead. This one wasn't empty.
I stopped to take the scene in. There were several bodies here, and only two were human. One of those was clearly Nimrod; there was his characteristic deerstalker cap and high boots. The other I didn't recognize - even though the cold, dry air meant the bodies were well preserved. For the moment I assumed he was the Master Assassin, who usually wore normal clothes like these. I didn't really care. Because I recognized the aliens.
They were mostly Korbal mercenaries, plus a couple of Ferg.
Back in the Fifties the latter had caused a great deal of trouble for humans. Because Earth was not part of any recognized interstellar empire the Ferg considered everything here to be up for grabs. They weren't stupid about it, usually working covertly. One of their typical schemes was to mine a resource well away from civilization. Almost always, they were after something which the geological processes of a planet would create or concentrate. Diamonds were especially popular.
"It all fits," I said, nodding slowly as I thought it through.
There had been some sort of intense fight, here. Besides obvious damage to most of the bodies, there were bullet and blaster marks on the walls. I began to put together what must have happened.
"So that's it," I said, nodding, as the twin scenarios fell into place. "No secret plan to retire, no collusion with the Master Assassin. He was on the job to the end. Only it proved too much for him. The Ferg just kept on mining after dealing with him, using other entrances - they must have equipment, maybe a spaceship, under the lake, if the survivors didn't escape in it - until Mack and Nimrod stopped them."
I realized I was speaking aloud - I'd gotten used to talking to myself during my retreat - and blushed.
The tunnel collapse had killed Sonic Jet. Knowing the Ferg, that was most likely a deliberate trap. They had cleaned up the signs of the battle - well, most of them - and gone on with their work. Strictly business. The chameleon beast had likely been supplied by the Master Assassin.
I finished my ruminations and finished looking around. The opening to the outside was to my left. As I exited I carefully noted the location; this entrance was about halfway up a gully and screened by boulders and bushes. We likely wouldn't even have seen it on an initial survey. I walked down the gully to the lake, got my bearings, and headed for where the others were waiting.
They were all outside, and we soon saw each other. I couldn't blame them for not wanting to spend the time inside that tunnel.
They welcomed me and congratulated me and I told them what I had found in the tunnels. I also told them some - but not all - of my conclusions.
"What was the Master Assassin doing here?" said John, baffled.
"He often took jobs for unscrupulous businesses," said Simon, nodding. "I bet the Ferg hired him to help with their security."
"So, what do we have, then?" I said, thinking about what we'd learned. "A massive cache of alien hardware under a mountain lake? Which is besides two superhero and one supervillain bodies. Plus a bunch of dead aliens."
"We definitely need to alert the authorities," said Simon. "This is a pretty serious business."
"Do you think there'll be a reward?" said John, eagerly.
"Probably," said Tulio, laughing.
I watched them, carefully, playing along. Only one reaction wasn't open, wasn't appropriate to the situation. He wasn't happy to have the mystery solved. He wasn't sad over the deaths which had occurred. He was irritated, and worried.
"I do have some bad news, though," I said, after a few moments. "The DNA tester was deliberately damaged, and Greg did it."
"Gregory?!" said John.
We all turned to look at him. He stared back, speechless. He'd obviously thought he'd been completely covert.
"Think about it. He insisted on coming along. He was in no hurry to have the remains tested. He's not responding to solving the mystery in an expected fashion."
His expression, his posture, the fact that he had put himself a bit away from the rest of us, all spoke volumes. My empathy gave the final confirmation to what I had already deduced.
"Gregory," said Simon, sourly. "Why?"
Sonic Jett's grandson shifted uncomfortably.
"You planned to come back later and claim you'd solved the mystery all on your own, right?" said Simon. "You had some vague plan to keep us from getting the sample, maybe claim you'd changed your mind about desecrating the body."
"Prove it," he snapped.
"I'm not a judge. I don't have to. Are you in financial trouble?"
"Prove it," he repeated, though his defiant attitude was slipping.
"I don't care," I told him. "The others may, but what you did was only an inconvenience. We figured out the mystery anyway, and it's something anyone who cared about those involved can be proud of. All three of those we came seeking were heroes, two of them giving their lives to stop the Ferg. You have to live with the fact that you tried to cheat us and failed."
He was still defiant, but fading quickly. In another moment he might have given in and confessed. I doubt any of us would have given him too hard a time. His only real action against us was the cutting of a single wire in a non-essential piece of equipment. Damage which Simon could have repaired almost casually. However, we didn't get that moment.
We were so focused on Greg that the newcomers were able to approach to within easy gun range without us seeing them. It wasn't entirely our fault; they were good, taking advantage of terrain features for cover. On some signal, they stood. Twelve figures in battle gear, light powered armor of unfamiliar make. They had us encircled, two of them actually standing in the frigid water of the lake.
"Do not move!" an amplified voice shouted.
We froze, mainly out of uncertainty. They wore no insignia. Were they agents of the Ferg? The US? Canada? The UN? Or yet another party? I was starting to realize just how complicated this case actually was.
Moments later an odd, little egg-shaped vehicle came skimming silently along the beach. From the behavior of the ground under it I realized it had some sort of repulsor field holding it up and propelling it. It stopped just outside the ring of armored people, spun side-on towards us, and settled to the ground. One of those armored figures quickly opened a door on the far side.
Out stepped a dignified-looking man of perhaps fifty years of age, wearing a white three-piece suit. He seemed familiar, and that familiarity was giving me twinges of unpleasant association, but I just couldn't place him. Then a head appeared further forward above the roof, on the far side of the car, as the driver exited. A familiar head, followed by familiar shoulders.
That meant the boss was... I jerked my gaze back to the man, who was giving us a nasty smile.
"Dr. Gaunt," I said, with a rising sense of panic.
"At your service," he said, smiling and mock-bowing.
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