Jon pulled the rental car (which he had to rent with his own money, since the rates if you were representing a superhero outfit were outrageous if understandable) into a barren parking lot somewhere near Old Bridge, New Jersey. The lot was as pocketed with potholes as the moon is with craters. Within view was a decrepit, old-fashioned amusement park, sealed behind a fence crowned with barbed wire.
“You sure about this?” Jon asked as he put the car into park. Hood nodded. “My FBI contact was, anyway.”
As they got out of the car, Jon glimpsed Hood’s face. Instead of the usual poker face he wore on the field or the look of arrogant indignation he countered with many times when the topic of Amar came up, he looked penitent.
Hercules already made a beeline to the fence and tore it down. He glared back to Hood. “Network of underground tunnels, right?”
Instead of finishing his thought, Hood looked on helplessly as Hercules kicked down an already partially decayed ticket booth. Then, with the sound of an earthquake, he punched and dug down past the cement. As he vanished into the ground, he roared, “I’m coming, my prince!”
“My prince?” Hood looked at Jon, who frowned in a way worthy of someone three times his age.
It was not long before Hercules climbed out of the now vast pit he had dug out with his bare hands and waved at them while grinning.
There was still a part of Jon’s brain that got a thrill and a high whenever he activated his gem.
Even though his senses were just heightened, it felt like he was a speedster, his every movement happening at 100 miles-per-hour. He moved with an unnatural grace while everything else in the universe was trapped in an invisible molasses. There was also in the back of his mind a feeling of connectiveness, as if he was part of something greater than himself.
As a plastic hand reached for him with a small needle protruding out of a tiny hatch on the palm, he dodged it easily and shouted back, “Watch out! They got tranqs on their hands!”
“That’s cheating,” Hood said, as he fired an arrow at the computer monitor that just seconds ago had a middle-aged man’s face on it.
Around Hercules, shattered electronics and ripped pieces of plastic flew everywhere. “I’m impervious…I think. I hope so, anyway. At least three of the fiends got me.”
Once Hood had disabled the last of the robots, they took the opportunity to size up their surroundings. Large brick tunnels stretched to the east and the northwest and the south, with no markers whatsoever except built-in florescent lights.
Jon looked at Hercules with concern. “Uh, hey, Herc, are you feeling okay?”
Hercules shrugged. “Just a little woozy.”
“Do gods get woozy?” Hood asked, as he instinctively went over how many arrows he had left.
“I’m half-human and half-god, actually,” Hercules answered.
Jon started trying to steer the conversation to where they should go next, but his comments were interrupted by the appearance of the first actual human they had seen since they infiltrated the place. He was an older man, dressed meticulously in a white polo shirt and white pants with dirty blonde hair that looked a little too neatly trimmed. Hood instinctively targeted the man with his bow, but with a gesture Jon told him to stand down.
The man didn’t look alarmed. At most, he looked a tad puzzled. “Would you mind keeping it down? It’s time for my siesta.”
“Uh, sorry,” Jon asked. “We were just…”
“Cleaning up,” Hercules added uncertainly.
“Yeah. Uh, I’m Jon, this is Hercules, and he goes by the name ‘Hood.’”
“I…used to be called Death Mask myself. But the doctors and the other patients call m Arthur.”
Hercules, Hood, and Jon briefly shared puzzled looks. Hood politely asked, “We were looking for the people who manage this…place?”
There was a flicker across the man’s eyes that was impossible to interpret. “Uh, I guess you mean the warden.” He turned and walked down one of the corridors. “Follow me,” he called back without really lifting his voice.
Through an open portal the shape of a bank vault was a vast white room. Art decorated the room, but it was the most banal art imaginable, pseudo-impressionist portrayals of dogs in the countryside and girls at outdoor cafes. In fact, the whole place gave an impression somewhere between a doctor’s waiting room and the games room of a nursing home. People, all dressed in similar white, sat listlessly at tables, playing cards and board games and portable video games or reading. Two were having a listless conversation, but everyone else was silent.
“I’m not around normal people a lot so maybe I’ve just forgotten how they act, but…is there something off here?” Hood asked Jon, whispering.
Jon gave Hood a knowing look. He felt the vibe, too. He looked closely at the people, at least as closely as he could without arousing more suspicion. A mythological figure, a guy in a spandex costume with a gem sewn into it, and another guy in a cloak with a bow and a quiver of arrows should have aroused at least some curiosity. But aside from a few casual glances, they might as well have been invisible. Then Jon noticed that several of the people had bruises around one eye. An idea clicked in his head, and he gasped a little when it did.
“I think they’ve been lobotomized,” Jon whispered just to Hood, not trusting Hercules’ reaction.
“How do you know?”
“I just…read a book once, but notice the bruises? And the way they’re acting? Or not acting?”
Hood was quiet for a few heavy seconds. Then he said quietly, “And I almost worked with those people.”
Jon was still furious at Hood, but he was about to give in to his desire to put a comforting hand on his shoulder when Arthur, né Death Mask, suddenly stopped and turned around. “We’re here.” He pointed toward an otherwise nondescript door.
“Thanks, Arthur,” Jon said.
Arthur walked away, without a trace of lingering curiosity or concern.
Hood glanced around. “Alright, now we…” Hercules already had ripped the door off its hinges and tossed it aside. “Or that. That works,” Hood mumbled.
Beyond the door was a vast, sterile laboratory. Thin, silver robots turned, dressed in surgical gowns, masks, and caps with glistening claw-like hands, turned in their direction. One of the robots was holding an unconscious man in an old-fashioned suit. There, in the middle of the lab, was a tall woman strapped to a chair. Above her, strapped to an upright bed and with various wires connected to his shaved head, was Amar.