Life on the underground needn’t be a struggle, or so said The Red Wraith. Sleeping in a warehouse is not ideal for many, but they hadn’t found the warehouse with luxury beds. The crew unfolded sheets of Egyptian cotton. Life on the street had the potential for luxury if only one knew where to look and daring enough to scoff at the law.
The Red Wraith kicked his feet onto an ottoman. Once it was the property of a Texas billionaire, now ‘lost’ in transit. He cut into his hundred dollar Kobe beef steak, served well done with a side of ketchup. All he had was in defiance of the so-called elite, set between the crates of a forgotten storage shed.
“It’s better like this,” he said. “You and I appreciate it far more than those fat, comfortable pigs.”
Mute sat on a canvas sheet. That was all the comfort they needed. His words rolled over deaf ears, though they were less for her than the sake of his own musing. Their pairing served as convenience more than anything else. For the promised reward there was little they would not endure.
Dipping the last of the charred meat The Red Wraith attempted a smile. Alas, not even the wasting of opulence could turn his mood. He clicked his fingers to summon one of the many hooded grunts.
“Are there any televisions?”
The lackey grinned. “Like, so many! At least a hundred belong to some Saudi prince!”
“Bring me the biggest,” The Red Wraith said. “Set it up on the floor. You and the others can use it for target practice later, hmm?”
More than money he had power; the kind unhindered by material wealth. Wherever he went men, women and undeclared others bowed. Only for want of exploiting his former brother’s empire that he stopped to consider a ‘base’ of operations.
Three figures returned to position a plasma screen television. It stretched above their heads, and was twice that in width. Another unseen lackey ran a cable to a nearby conduit and brought the machine to life. The wall of darkness blinked to reveal empty streets as seen from above.
The Red Wraith dropped to his knees. He reached to the screen, as though hoping to fall into it. Hints of a smile danced along the corners of his mouth.
“Give me volume.”
A sliding bar grew taller with the sound of a man’s voice. “-are advising Milestone City residents to stay in their homes during this epidemic. Waves of pets and wildlife are developing adept abilities. If you have a pet it is strongly advised that you separate them from your family-”
Murmurs rolled through the gathering.
“Does that mean we have to worry about mutant rats?”
“I’m more worried about all those goldfish un-flushing themselves,” another said. “Or like… tortoises that know kung fu!”
The Red Wraith snapped to his feet. Their mouths snapped shut. Even Mute who by habit remained distant rattled with the sudden movement. They knew the sight of inspiration when it struck.
* * * *
The air tickled with something unseen. As close as Tanya and Trix had become another force pushed them closer together. Their interwoven fingers squeezed tighter than they would have before. Primordial senses pricked the hairs on the backs of their necks.
It was a beautiful day. The sun shone without a hint of clouds. Birds twittered among the branches, though their pitch something wavered in their pitch. The young woman and her non-binary partner grew aware of something amiss.
Whatever. After reaching the Beetle they wouldn’t have to think about it. By days end they would be back in city limits, safe and sound. Tanya offered a squeeze and smiled. The hike wasn’t a long one, and the drive was all downhill. She looked back to scan the ground and treetops. Rays of light broke between the pines, but did not reveal what hid between them.
Trix frowned. “Stop.”
“What if it’s following us?”
“It’s not,” they said.
“What if there are more of them?”
“Then we leave it alone, and it leaves us alone,” they said. “Freaking out is not going to help.”
“I’m not freaking out. I’m being cautious.”
Nothing could have prepared them for the shifting of bedrock beneath their feet. Violent tremors shook the trees and knocked the pair off balance. They crashed into a rough bed of foliage and held to each other. The trees bristled against one other and hissed. Somewhere nearby stones crashed into the earth while a car alarm screamed.
It was over in seconds, but the shaking lingered in Tanya’s chest. Any thoughts she had about spiders shooting lightning were a thing of the past. She clutched onto Trix’s arm.
“Are you okay?”
They inhaled as though only remembering how. “Y-yeah. Fine.” They sat wide eyed in shock. Usually they were unflappable, but that was when they could count on solid ground.
Tanya pulled Trix to their feet. “Come on. Let’s get to the Beetle.”
An alarm blared from down the beaten track. The road they’d walked the night before came to a sudden end. What was once a smooth passage lead to trees without foundation. They lay half rooted over a freshly formed crevasse. On the other side were cars shifted on a slant and the Beetle positioned on the higher end.
“Oh my god.”
Trix pulled their phone from their pocket. “Still no bars,” they said.
Tanya balled her fists. Panic would have been easy, but as Trix said it wouldn’t help anyone. Yet she remained frozen. The car alarm screeched across the divide as though taunting her. What could she do except stand there?
“There might be aftershocks,” Trix said. “We need to avoid the trees and get to a clearing.”
Tanya snapped back to reality. She grasped Trix’s hand. Any plan was better than none.
* * * *
Once upon a time the zoo was a magical place, like a distant land come to the city. I used to watch the chimpanzees tease each other while climbing over everything. They seemed happy, even in an enclosure. The keepers claimed to have rescued from poachers, and that was good enough.
Now they were surrounded by police units with military ordinance. No more fun and games. Milestone was under a spell. Every sentient non-human tore through the status quo with supernatural power.
Did it start with a virus, or magic? There were no bad guys; only fear and instinct. The real struggle lay in protecting people from the animals and the animals from each other. Nobody was to blame.
Captain Ortega removed his helmet to wave me down. It seemed the more I saw of him the more I saw of his tactical vest and armaments. Thick pads wrapped his already immense frame. He was a man dressed for disaster; he was a man dressed for war.
I landed by his side. Shrieks and wails carried over the wall. Some of them were human.
“About time you showed up,” he said.
“You don’t pay me to be on time,” I said.
Ortega frowned. He didn’t pay me at all, and neither did the city. They classed me as ‘deputy’; assistant to the law with limited authority.
“What’s the situation?”
“Fifteen unaccounted for,” he said. “Including a young mothers group. They thought it’d be a great day for an excursion.”
I balked. “There are kids in there?”
“We’ve got no aerial, and our teams are stuck at the gates,” he said. “Maybe you’ll have better luck.” Ortega landed a meaty paw on my shoulder. “This is what you signed up for, kid. I hope it was worth it.”
Fingers crunched inside my gloves. Fifteen lives, parents and kids. Who knew what horror waited behind that wall?
* * * *
The entrance had settled by the time I passed through. Each step was careful and deliberate. One false move could set off a chain reaction. The Society of Sin were tough in their own right, but wild animals? Any number could pounce and shred me to ribbons.
Past the ticket office was the pavilion. In the heart of it was a statue of the zoo’s founder. Beyond that a forked road lead to different areas; the aviary, the river, and the jungle. All housed danger, none were attractive. If there was a reason I chose the river it was because it ran down the middle and connected a lot of ground.
Claw marks stretched from the path and through a former chain link fence. Shattered glass created a trail back to a body of impacted soil, and from there a smear of mud leading to the water’s edge. It didn’t take a genius to know what I was out of my depth.
A wet, rubbery cord snatched my wrist. My strength paled to the force of its pull. I planted my feet and dragged along the concrete, but it was no use; the predator had a hold. It emerged from the muck with its jaws open. The alligator with newfound reach clawed along the bank.
I fought to unfurl the tongue, but it held tighter. A flash erupted from my palm and gator flesh sizzled like barbecue meat. It winced and let go, then crawled back into the water to tend to its wound.
My heart beat out of control. Regular gators were scary enough. Or was it an ugly mutant frog? Whatever. I was closer to death than comfortable, but still pressed on.
After returning to the pavilion I set down the jungle path. “Let’s try door number one.”
Shiftless vines snaked their way along the ground. They wrapped around anything they could find; posts, trash-cans, benches, and more. On finding the walls of another enclosure they applied slow, constant pressure. They bore through them. Were the plants affected as well?
I fried the path with a beam and sent the vines shriveling back to where they came from. How was I supposed to know they’d come pouring from the mane of an augmented lion? The large cat charged, throwing his full weight into a pounce.
No sooner had I launched into the air that flames billowed from an artificial island. It came from the elephant habitat. I bolted for the ground and away from the fire. Once I had my distance both creatures were content to move on.
From behind the double doors of a theater hall bellowed the laughter of chimps. Mingled among them were human voices.
“Please, no! That’s my baby!”
There was no time for a plan. I burst inside to what had become a primate arena with a group of scared parents huddled in the spotlight. Suspended by mysterious forces were children floating through the air. They ranged from infants to toddlers and passed each other along a wide orbit. Most were calm, at least more than their moms.
I vaulted into the air and pulled two into my arms. As soon as I grabbed hold an invisible hand swatted me from behind. The force was enough to send me flying into the nosebleed section. I held the kids tight and rolled to absorb the impact. Even in hologram mode I felt that landing.
Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and more gathered in a circle around us. Their hooting split my ears to say nothing of how it scared the children. I stared them down and followed their collective gaze. With every passing second they drew closer.
In desperation I drew on another new power; one that I couldn’t have imagined being useful. Cool hues washed over my holographic body and saturated it with every color of the spectrum. Gold shifted to amber, then to vermillion, lilac, and sky.
Placing the two children down I inched toward the aisle. Colors danced in the eyes of the primates. Light proved more fascinating to them than some random kids. They made no move except to follow my steps.
I addressed the parents without looking. My voice was low and commanding. “Stay in here. I’ll lead them out and get help.”
“You’re going to trap us in here?”
Monkeys and apes bounced in frustration. They wanted to grab, to hold, to play. Even without powers their games could be deadly to humans. How was I supposed to tell this lady she was better trapped alone than trapped with these guys?
One of the monkeys lost interest and veered toward a toddler. A laser swat convinced him otherwise. Their fascination turned to fury.
An invisible hand slapped my arm, then my legs. A flurry of wide stings landed across my body, even with the primates out of reach. Soda cans and other trash flew at my head, propelled with telekinesis. Their howling reached fever pitch, and as a collective they stalked. At least I had their attention.
I flew through the double doors, this time with a primate stampede hot on my heels. The further I lead them from the families the better. They were single minded in their hatred of the flying glow girl, even after we were clear. Then what?
Fire tore through the sky from elephant island. Psychic hands pulled me to the ground. There was nowhere left to run.
A scream tore through the air. It was human. Beyond the primate rabble, back at the arena gates, a group of mothers were face to face with the lion. They scooped the little ones into their arms and clung tight. The vines danced in his mane and stood poised in the direction of fresh meat.
“I thought I told you to stay inside!” They didn’t hear me.
The apes dominated the ground, the elephants guarded the sky, and an enhanced jungle cat watched the exit. The only other way was through the concrete wall sealing the chaos inside.
Being a hero meant making tough decisions, and even bad ones were sometimes necessary. I lashed out with full force and in an explosion of light and dust opened the way to Milestone City. By instinct the animals charged toward freedom. Whatever destruction they caused on the outside wouldn’t come at the cost of those I’d saved.
Silence settled on the scene. A group of thankful parents tip toed their way through a changed world. The officers in black vests weren’t so impressed. Regardless they offered the liberated woman the kindness they deserved. That was all that mattered.
Captain Ortega’s voice pulled at the hairs on my neck. “What have you done?”
I said nothing. It was only the beginning.
* * * *
Once the tremors started they didn’t stop, and the minutes between them grew shorter. What was once peaceful terrain threatened to pull the world from their feet. With a great drop promising Tanya and Trix a gloomy end the pair had only one other path to follow.
For the second time in as many months the two bonded through dire circumstance. Perhaps, Tanya thought, that was a good thing. After all, it worked for herself and Kaira. She turned to absorb the resolute expression on her partner’s face.
Rumblings from the underground shook their balance. They widened their stance and huddled together. Pebbles and roughage jumped over their sneakers until the ground soothed.
“Is it me, or is it getting worse?”
“This is no ordinary earthquake,” Trix said.
Tanya huffed. “In this part of the country? Earthquakes aren’t normal, period.”
Caution slowed their steps along with the ever increasing slope. Dozens of trees, some centuries old, had their grip wrested from the earth. Many sat poised for a fall. Gravity called from the crevasse at the cost of all else.
The higher they climbed the tighter the turning in Tanya’s gut. It should have been a relief to move from the path of a potential landslide. Instead she recognized the awesome power of nature and how powerless she was to affect it.
Trix peered back through the pines. There she spied a thin man sputtering for breath. He ran while throwing his limbs in front of him like a man sprinting for the first time.
“Who is that?”
“He looks familiar,” Tanya said. “One of the campers?”
They waited for the stranger. His orange hoodie, jeans and sneakers told the story of a refugee from the suburbs. Nature was as much his home as it was for his new companions. When he arrived he hunched over, wheezing, wide eyed with panic.
Trix leaned down. “Are you okay?” But they already knew the answer.
“You gotta help me,” he said. “I came out here with some friends… then… I don’t know! A raccoon from hell… chased us all over! I lost my friends and then… then… the ground started shaking and-”
Tanya clasped his shoulders. She fortified her smile and beamed through her glasses. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, enough that even she believed. There were worse things in the world than mutant spiders and raccoons.
The stranger nodded. His trembling eased some.
“What’s your name?”
“Brandon,” he said. “You?”
Tanya and Trix introduced themselves.
“I’ve been… trying to find a signal,” Brandon said. “If I can contact my friends in the police they can send a rescue party.”
“Then we need to get to higher ground,” Trix said.
It seemed like the smart move, but how much did a group of city kids know about survival? If Tanya had doubts they didn’t show. She with the others trekked across the clearing up the torn slope.
When the tremors returned they were without mercy. Seismic forces shattered bedrock and shifted their foundation. Brandon almost lost his footing before Tanya grabbed his hood. Trix’s gaze turned wild when they looked the way they came.
Stone cracked at ear splitting volume and opened the mouth of doom. The corners widened in the direction of the travelers faster than their feet could carry. It closed the gap and shifted on an underground pivot. The ground snapped and teetered beside a sudden wall of rock.
Tanya squealed when she dropped into free fall. Somewhere in the flash of panic she came her salvation. Brandon gripped her arm like their lives depended on it, which it did. Shaking herself back to reason Tanya pulled herself up. Trix reached down to grab her other hand.
The three sat on the precipice of a brand new cliff face. Their hearts beat out of control. Spread out flat they struggled to collect themselves. Who knew how long the current ground would last?
“We should keep moving,” Trix said.
Brandon laughed, but not because it was funny.
A deep echo rumbled from the chasm. It was unlike the rumble of the earth, and bellowed with a hot wind.
Despite the pain and shock Tanya found her feet. She considered the abyss and backed away. “We should definitely keep moving.”
Neither Brandon or Trix dared to complain.
* * * *
Imagine the situation. You wake up one morning and the animals around you have adept powers. Everything from anteaters to zebras jumped up the evolutionary ladder. Worse yet, they outnumber you a thousand to one.
Now imagine it’s your job to protect people, especially kids. To do that you have to break down the walls of the city zoo. You set ferocious mutant beasts onto the world for a good cause. Despite that you’re not going to be the most popular kid in school.
Captain Salvador Ortega was head of the Milestone City Adept Crimes Division. Also my assigned handler. He watched the stampede dissipate across the outside lawn. The safest thing he and his people could do was stand back. They faced no immediate threat on the abandoned road.
“Rounding them up is going to be a pain in my ass,” he said. ‘Animal control’ wasn’t in his job description.
I nursed the bruises on my arm. Primates played hard, and I’d be feeling it for weeks. At the rate things were going I’d never wear short sleeves again.
“Still no idea what started this?”
Ortega shook his head. “The sooner we have a theory the sooner we can get it under control.”
In the near distance a cluster of apes played with stones by the side of the road. What they couldn’t lift with their hands or their minds they climbed over. Scaling objects to their peak was a kind of dominance. Once making it to the top they grunted for everyone to hear.
Their former hostages faced the other way, even if their kids remained fascinated. Small faces peered over and ducked under the barricades to get a better look. Their moms dragged them back and wrapped them in police issued blankets.
I frowned. “What if it’s magic?”
“Magic can go suck my-”
From the north side of the city a piercing red beam shot into the sky. It stood at a perfect ninety degree angle and radiated with an even hue. For something generated by a wild animal it was still and calm.
“I’d better check that out.”
Ortega furrowed his thick brows. “Check what out?”
Ortega saw nothing, meaning the light was outside the visible spectrum. The beam seemed to hum and contained no obvious threat. What if it wasn’t an animal? What if it was man made?
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll explain later.”
“There might not be a later, kid. You better explain it to me n-”
By the time he finished I was gone, high in the air. I charged between the buildings toward the red pillar. It grew wider on approach and greater in intensity. I followed it to the ground and found its origin outside a small complex. Someone was waiting for me.
* * * *
It was the perfect day for a drive. The streets were utterly barren. The Red Wraith folded his legs and smiled a crimson smile. With a wild roar of the engine the driver shattered every speed limit, shot past every red light. ‘The rules of the road’ were mere suggestion, though suggestion regarded with care.
‘Chaos is not an excuse for stupidity,’ he’d once told his driver. ‘Crash this car and I promise you won’t walk away, particularly if I’m in it.’ It was an idle threat. Road accidents held no real danger to his person. Regardless, the sensation was not a pleasant one.
Sat across from him, unfazed by the sharp turns was the short haired androgyne, Mute. Meanwhile, their interpreter clutched the seat for dear life. He struggled to follow the signs given them.
“They want to know… the mission specs,” he said. The hummer struck a pothole and jumped, almost throwing him to the roof.
The Red Wraith rolled his eyes. “It’s a simple tag and bag. Anything you can do to collar a big, dumb animal, do it.”
Mute continued to sign. The interpreter struggled to follow.
“We’re entering a… kennel filled with… adepts… of… unknown ability,” he said. “A plan of attack would be…” He doubled over and curled between his knees.
“Lose your breakfast anywhere near my loafers and I will have you peeled like a banana,” said the Red Wraith. The drone of his voice suggested a more serious threat than others.
The interpreter swallowed and composed himself.
Turning his attention to his cohort the Red Wraith beamed. “Assess the situation when you’re on the ground. I know that you’re a stickler for details, but wrangling beasts is hardly your greatest challenge. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Mute said nothing, neither with speech or with sign.
The vehicle jerked to a halt. The Red Wraith pressed himself to the window with the glee of a child. He threw aside his seatbelt, pressed open the door and leapt into the open.
Outside an unremarkable stone grey building rested a sign; MILESTONE CITY ANIMAL SHELTER. Though mews and barking echoed from the inside the area appeared devoid of human life.
The Red Wraith strolled to the entrance, dragging Mute by the arm. And he sang, “how much is that dog-gy in the win-dow? The one with the wag-gly tail?”
To be continued…