Chapter 119

                As it turned out, they didn’t need Aether to search the walls for an entrance. The traps and devices Titan was charging through, while no doubt designed to keep unwanted guests from ever getting near the hidden base, in this case served as a trail of breadcrumbs leading the team of Heroes right to the door. True, it looked like nothing more than a ravine wall marking a natural end to their journey, but with one punch from Titan, before any of the others could arrive to suggest a more nuanced entrance, the reinforced door blew backward in shards, revealing a smooth metal hallway lit by soft bulbs leading deeper underground.

                “Well, there goes any element of surprise we might have had,” Jeremiah noted as he, Gale, Aether, and Deadlift caught up to Titan after following the wake of his destruction.

                “Between the cannons, mines, and laser grids, I have a feeling anyone in here already knew we were coming,” Titan replied, words purposely absent anything resembling an apology. “If I can’t surprise an enemy, I prefer to let them know I mean business, and nothing says I wipe my ass with your security quite like punching a door off its hinges.”

                “Actually, it looks like this didn’t have hinges. It rose up to let people in, making it all the harder to knock down.” Deadlift had walked to the doorway and was staring into the ruined mechanism of the entrance. “Quite a functional design. I mean, under different circumstances.”

                “Since time is now officially not on our side, how about we get going with this,” Gale suggested. “Jeremiah, do those voices in your head happen to have any insight on where the signal is coming from? Or are we flying blind from this point on?”

                “Hey, they got us here, didn’t they?” Jeremiah bristled a touch, more bothered by the barb than by his death only a few moments prior. “And no, I don’t have direct lock on where we need to go. They can play hot and cold using my location and the signal strength, but the inside of this place is too deep and well-shielded to get exact coordinates of where the signal is originating from. Besides, the machine sending the orders and the Super who built it aren’t guaranteed to be in the same position, and we need to stop the latter more than the former.”

                “Then it looks like we’re splitting up.” Aether had, unbeknownst to the rest of them until she came sauntering back up, gone intangible and walked down the hallway, doing a bit of recon while they bickered about plans. “The hallway splits off in three directions from here, if we’re hunting two separate targets then it seems like we’ve got to cover all the branches to be safe.”

                “Safe would be moving as a team down each one until we’d searched them all,” Titan pointed out.

                “But that gives our Super better odds of escaping,” Gale countered. “Aether is right, we need to scour the base as quickly as possible. Five of us doesn’t split up evenly, so we’ll pair off as needed. Deadlift, you’re a rookie, no offense, which means I’ll feel better seeing you with someone who knows what they’re doing. Go with Titan. Since Jeremiah is apparently unkillable, but lacks much in terms of offense, he and Aether should be able to skirt past any obstacles they encounter. I’ll take on my path solo.”

                “Shouldn’t Titan go solo?” Deadlift suggested. “He’s the one who would be in the least danger of getting hurt or captured.”

                “Gale can take care of herself just as well as I can,” Titan said quickly, hoping to cut Gale off before she tore into the relatively new Hero. “She leads a team into dangerous situations all the time, and her power is suited to offense and defense. What she can’t do is shield someone else as easily as I can. You’re with me because if things go bad, I’ll hopefully be able to take the brunt of whatever gets thrown at us.”

                “Make sure to stay behind him.” Jeremiah patted Deadlift softly on the back. “Unlike me, your insides probably don’t put themselves back together once they see daylight.”

                Titan didn’t bother adding any agreement to Jeremiah’s words, the image of his corpse splayed out on the ground was still fresh in all their minds: a perfect reminder of where one misstep in situations like these could lead. Instead, he began walking down the hallway, once again taking his position ahead of the others. Unlike getting through the ravine, Titan’s heavy footsteps didn’t trigger any cannons or traps; only echoes met him as he plunged deeper into the hidden base. Soon he arrived at the split Aether had described, three hallways branching off from the one that led outside. Rather than waste more time debating, Titan merely looked back to make sure Deadlift was following, and walked right up the one in the middle.

                From behind, Titan heard Deadlift’s hurried steps as he ran to catch up, while Gale, Jeremiah, and Aether all went to either side of them. Without knowing where any of this led, it was impossible to say who was on the fastest path, or the most dangerous. Though, Titan did have a hunch or two.

                “Is there a reason you picked the middle hall?” Deadlift asked, speaking up to be heard from the several feet behind Titan where he was trailing. “It’s fine if it’s random, but since I’ve been so strongly reminded of my rookie status, I thought I might as well ask so I could learn something.”

                A few more heavy steps, and Titan caught sight of a bend in the hall. It might have been his imagination, but it seemed like a different source of light, other than the gently glowing bulbs along the wall, was shining from around the corner.

                “It wasn’t random,” Titan told Deadlift, even as he held up his hand for the other Hero to stop advancing. “You need to hang back here. There might be something ready to fire as soon as I turn the corner, and I’d rather not have you caught up in the blast if it’s explosive.”

                “If we hadn’t just walked through a valley of mechanical death, I might call you paranoid.” Despite the sass, Deadlift came to an immediate stop, even going so far as to take a few steps backward. “What’s my cue that it’s safe to follow?”

                 “Depends. I might just yell for you, though there’s always the chance that the room will be soundproofed, so I may come back this way or pass a message through Dispatch. Just be ready to move if I give an order. Especially if that order is to run.”

                “Consider me raring to go,” Deadlift replied.

                Titan started forward again, but Deadlift’s voice caused him to stop as it yelled one last question from behind.

                “If it’s not random, then why did you pick the middle hall?”

                “Just a hunch, built on experience.” Titan’s mind swam back through the years of busting into bases, lairs, and dens of criminal activity. They didn’t always have time to prepare defenses, but when they did, most followed a similar pattern.

                “Everyone almost always puts the bulk of their defenses up the middle. And there was no way I was going to let someone else have all our fun.”