There was a smile waiting at the end of the rainbow; or rather the end of red beam. It belonged to a short, stocky woman with wild, purple hair. ‘Bisexual pride’ badges littered her lab coat. She appeared younger than her cohorts, and beamed with every tooth in her mouth.
“Glimmer Girl! Holy wow, it’s really you!”
Together with a skeleton crew of engineers she backed away, giving me room to land. They surrounded a wide steel cylinder that stood at the height of a person. To one side sat fastened an engine. Snakes of power cables lead into the unassuming office building where they’d set up. On the other was the stenciled logo to which they belonged – InfiniTech Labs.
“Dr. Stefanie Storm,” she said, offering her hand. “I’m a huge fan. You’re on my underwear!” She retreated between her shoulders and winced. “That… sounded different in my head.”
I blinked. “There’s Glimmer Girl merch?”
Her enthusiasm returned in full force. “Oh yeah! There’s a ton of indie stores online that do hero prints. You’re only the latest! In fact I know one guy, he used to work with us, who’s putting a lot of money into custom action figures that-”
“Flattering as that is, I’m not here to talk about toys,” I said.
Dr. Storm flushed and collected herself. Putting her back on track was like kicking a puppy. “You’re right,” she said. “We weren’t sure the unidirectional infrared emitter would grab your attention, but we’re glad it did! We have some theories to why everything’s gone all hinky with the animals.”
‘Hinky’ was an understatement. “What have you got?”
She gestured toward the rooftop stairs and talked as she walked. “After initial testing we’ve determined both the human and animal population of Milestone City have come into contact with remnants a non-terrestrial energy source. It may be similar in nature to what gave you adept abilities.”
“Human and animal?” I pressed. “Then why are only cats and dogs and rodents affected?”
“We don’t know,” she said, “but you and me and everyone inside of fifty miles is rotten with it. Once we found a way to detect it the readings went off the charts!”
Of all the words to come out of her mouth one phrase stuck. “You said it was ‘non-terrestrial’, like from outer space?”
Dr. Storm nodded. “It probably came down with a recent meteor shower. Solid particles carrying unknown radiation through the atmosphere. spread wide while burning up in entry. Scary, huh?”
Really scary, especially for those outside the city, like Tanya and Trix. I tensed. It was like they were cursed, and I had no way of finding them!
“Do we have some way of reversing it?”
“After we figure out why humans are immune,” she said. “But ever since the board shut down the campus building we need a way to move data and materials from a half dozen labs across town.”
“And that’s where I come in.”
The doctor fixed her eyes shut and winced. “I know it’s a big ask, but the police are swamped, and even then they’re slower and more vulnerable than someone like you. Finding a fix is more practical than putting out small fires and-”
“I’ll do it.”
Stefanie Storm stood as tall as her toes could lift. “Really?”
“Sure,” I said. “Anything for a fan!”
The urge to hug trembled in her arms like a spring waiting to snap. Instead she thanked me over and over. I hadn’t even done anything.
Halfway down the stairwell one of the assistants came charging the other direction. He stopped, doubled over to catch his breath, and signaled for us to wait. Urgency dripped from his pores.
“Got word over the wire,” he wheezed. “Someone’s attacking animal shelters across the city… some adept called The Red Wraith!”
My fists crunched my gloves. It was a name I didn’t plan on hearing again so soon.
* * * *
The day drew further along with the perilous negotiation of the terrain. The three travelers resisted. What was once a series of hills shifted into something more. An unseen force swallowed the ground from below. Fragmented plates of stone sat atop one another. They became a series of plateaus for them to climb.
Tanya brushed her short, sweat soaked fringe from her eyes. She stopped to wipe the condensation from her glasses on the hem of her t-shirt. Those few seconds were all the rest she could afford, precious as they were. In her own words Tanya was built for comfort, not for speed; for strength, not endurance. She winced and attempted to ignore her blisters.
A hollow yawn resonated between their toes. Who or what it belonged to would stay in their nightmares for months to come.
Brandon buried his hands deeper into his pockets. “Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?” he asked.
Tanya’s jaw tightened. “I don’t think it’s an elephant,” she said.
She looked to Trix, who of the group was the only one to hold their resolve. There were no qualms, no complaints. Even when they sighed it was with heavy with determination. They fixed their eyes to the top of the hill, and there they hoped refuge.
“Could be a bear,” Tanya said, like it was nothing.
“A bear that splits bedrock like plaster?” Brandon said.
Trix didn’t look back. “We don’t know that there’s a connection between the earthquakes and what we’re hearing,” they said. “For all we know, yes, it could be a very loud bear.”
Drastic thoughts flew across Tanya’s mind. She could turn back and take her chances with the terrain, find the beetle and with any luck a road. It was the sort of thinking that threw her into the path of thugs in high school, and even into the den of an adept criminal. Sometimes her arm still ached from the burns.
Instead of feeding her impulses Tanya’s better sense fell in line with Trix’s example. They seemed to have a clear vision of what to do next. To be with someone so sure left Tanya in awe, and thankful she had someone there strong enough to draw from.
The sound came from nowhere and everywhere. It rattled through their bones like the horns of revelation. It was louder – closer? – than it had been before. The inevitable force shifted up the hillside, trailing the steps of the lost campers.
Brandon pressed in front of the others. “A bear. Sure. Right.”
* * * *
The Red Wraith wandered the corridor and remarked how very much like a prison it was. It had concrete walls, locks and chain link, with only a blankets piled in the corners for comfort. Even if they were ‘only dogs’ the only crime they were guilty of was being born. That alone was inconvenient enough for the animal called human.
Of course nobody could hear him over the barking. He was talking to himself, anyway – it made for better conversation. The villain wandered from one cage to the next, only stopping to bend down and engage the occupants.
The first cell held a tan colored mutt with mismatched eyes and short, floppy ears. From the moment the Red Wraith appeared she pressed against the mesh. Her tail wagged and overdeveloped wings scraped against the brick. The laminated information sheet read as something for children.
“Hi, I’m Angel,” he read aloud. “I’m 10 months old and very social, blah blah. Perfect for families with kids…” The Red Wraith dropped the card and rolled his eyes at the dog. “It’s okay, girl. It’s not your fault that you’re useless.”
Meandering through the corridor presented a foray of life at its strangest. The Red Wraith stood fascinated. There he found a terrier who could transform into a puddle, then back again, and not much else. Also a German Shepherd cross whose hair turned straight and rigid as the needles of a porcupine. Most catching was the pit bull with pustules of lava bursting from his coat.
The villain stopped to consider his options. “Fascinating subjects, all,” he mused. Though while they begged for scientific experimentation none possessed the temperament he desired.
Burying his hands in his trouser pockets the Red Wraith shrugged. “Some might have potential,” he sighed. “With some time and training they could do… something… but I don’t see it.”
Mute frowned in the corner by the exit, their employer’s eternal shadow. They might have shared his feelings if he bothered to face them when he talked.
It was as he turned to leave that his attention snapped in response to a deep, guttural snarl. His grin beamed into the darkened corner and the smoke colored licks reaching from it.
“Well hello, beautiful!”
Their journey, it seemed, was not for nought.
* * * *
Scouring the streets was child’s play in an empty city, and even easier when the Red Wraith didn’t care enough to hide. His truck and entourage sat parked on the street! He was brazen, even for a criminal adept.
I landed on the sidewalk and scoured the area. There were no guards; only an automatic door shattered from the outside. A chorus of confused canine voices called for comfort from inside.
The blanket of glass crunched beneath my boots. Each step neared the next turn with care. Who knew when the first thug would come charging out with guns blazing. I had to be ready, the first one to fire.
Twenty feet from the entrance I pushed past the swinging gate at reception. There was nobody in sight, not even in infrared. Where on earth were the bad guys? Beyond that were a set of offices, and then the kennels.
Dozens of animals barked at their confines. Some were protecting their territory, while others pleaded for attention. Some mutations were more extreme than others. It was hard to imagine that under steel and stone were innocent creatures waiting for food.
I bent down to one of the doors where a shy, floppy eared boy had grown four extra legs. ‘Buster,’ said the name on the side. He looked up with the kind of sad, teary eyed expression sad dogs are famous for. It was then I knew more than ever that I wasn’t only saving people from the animals, but the animals from themselves.
Something warm burst through my chest. A hole exploded through my costume in a rain of sparks and planted itself in the wall. A second and third tore through my body and knocked me from my feet. None made a sound.
When I struck the floor I saw them. Through the daze stood the same black haired teen from the Society of Sin. They stood with feet planted and a pair of glocks trained on me. They didn’t hesitate to squeeze silent, furious bullets in my direction.
Soaring around a corner bought me some time, but the kennel was a confined space. I needed to get out in the open, and in doing so not blow a hole in the wall. Ortega would never forgive me for letting more animals into the city.
The sparks circled and rejoined my body. The haze lifted, but only a touch. The bullet wounds were gone. Regenerative powers? I was still off balance.
I moved for the rear exit, but before making the door three hot bodies appeared in a plume of smoke. The thugs took aim and let loose a hail of gunfire. I blasted back, but couldn’t aim as I weaved. Their shots landed; too many for me to stay in the air. My holographic body collapsed to the concrete. I struck with a wide blast. The thugs retreated around the corner.
“Where the hell did you guys come from?”
The Red Wraith’s voice undulated on the air. “They’ve been here all along. Haven’t you noticed? Or can’t you detect a body concealed behind cold.”
Damn it, he’d done his homework. The Red Wraith knew the limits of my powers, and I didn’t have a clue when it came to his. He even accounted for my infrared vision!
A hail of automatic gunfire soared through the corridor. On other side were cages filled with alarmed barking. Left or right, there was no place to dodge without placing animal life in danger. Bullets pierced my holographic body with a chain of wet thuds. There was nowhere to go except back the way I came.
No, there was another option. I blasted the ceiling and through the hollow panels. Aluminium beams fell through the wires above and pulled them tight. It was the only opening I had. All that stood in the way of freedom was a layer of shingles.
Something snagged my ankle. It wasn’t until they yanked me back to the floor that I found Mute on the other end. They drew a pistol and exacted their aim.
I had to move, but was too exhausted. All my energy went into pulling my holographic form back into one piece. The incandescent holes running through my torso were too many to count. Would I survive a headshot after all that?
My eyes fixed shut. I wouldn’t scream; they wouldn’t have the satisfaction.
The Red Wraith’s voice hung in the ether. It resonated through the air, deep into our collective chests, and inspired a new round of barking. “Now that I have you where I want you, why don’t we have a little fun?”
Mute dropped the slack and stepped to one side. Before I knew what was happening the kennel door at the far end swung open. An ominous creature padded toward me. Shadow radiated from its silhouette in savage licks that swallowed all light in the room. The only thing to betray its true nature were glistening teeth and searing black eyes.
The Red Wraith purred. “Sick ‘em!”
Energy burst from my feet and sent me rocketing across the floor, but the beast was too fast. In a single pounce it pinned me down, it’s dark shape enveloping me where I lay. It grew ever larger while cold wisps tickled my abdomen. I could smell its breath; cold and rank, like old meat in a freezer. There was no escaping its cavernous maw, or the playful licks that left frost on my cheeks.
The Red Wraith growned. “How disappointing,” he sighed. “You know, I was always more of a cat person anyway.”
Under the blanket of shadow I heard footsteps toward the exit. They were leaving, with me still laid out on the ground. Didn’t they want to finish me off? I called after the Red Wraith, only to be drowned out by a mouthful of ice covered hair.
“There’ll be a next time, I’m sure,” the villain said. His voice was an echo from the waiting room.
I struggled, but the all-too-loving hellhound didn’t want to move. Sometimes you can be too friendly.
* * * *
The sun loomed in the clearing between clouds. Tanya’s arms had turned lobster red. Sweat sizzled off her skin. What protection the trees offered was far behind them. On the upside it meant losing the predators that used them for refuge.
A flat stone bed lay at the end of the trail and plateaued back into the other side of the wood. The trees below stretched for miles, broken only by power lines and a solitary phone tower. All three travelers lifted their devices, but still there was no signal.
Brandon lost the hoodie and tied the arms around his waist. He stared at the screen in his hands. “Twelve percent battery,” he said. “That’ll be gone in an hour. Even then, not enough juice to call someone.”
Trix set down their bag and sat. They lifted their legs to keep from a scolding by the sunburned rock. The reached inside for a tube of cream and passed it toward Tanya. Their date took it with a bashful smile and slopped it along the length of her arms and shoulders.
“Do you think the bears likes their meat baked or fried,” Tanya said.
“Someone will find us before then,” Trix said.
Brandon frowned. “How can you be so sure?”
“That amount of seismic activity doesn’t go unnoticed,” they said. “Plus we’re not the only ones lost out here. Someone, somewhere, knows that something is wrong. They’ll have set out emergency teams.”
“We can’t count on that,” Brandon said.
Trix smacked their lips. They were dry and chapped. “No, but I’m an optimist. We three do what we can – assume that we’re on our own – but in the end help will find us.”
Despite the burns down her limbs and the pain in her thighs Tanya smiled. To think, someone so cool as Trix was with her. They were a leader, resolute without being overbearing. They made quick decisions and owned their mistakes. In short they were the sort of non-binary deity that Tanya wanted to throw herself at. But first they’d have to make it out of the current situation.
Soon the tremors returned. Their feet shifted as though standing on jelly. Trix snagged Tanya’s arm, and Tanya onto Brandon. In the space between breaths they made the collective promise; one for all, all for one. They would survive together, or not at all.
Plates below crashed, one crashing over the other and splitting the earth. Gravity shifted, throwing the travelers into a spin. They clasped tight as their footing grated against the slope. None dared to scream as they fell back to the trees.
Tanya caught a ledge. Her legs screamed in pain holding the weight of her companions at either side. Their fall wrenched at her arms. One had only just healed after her last brush with death. Between the current situation and Dr. Vortex she decided this was worse.
Brandon pulled himself up and leaned against the rock face. Before he could turn to snag his companion Tanya’s arm buckled.
They clawed at the growing incline, wide eyed and desperate. A jagged maw opened as they fell and let loose an ear-splitting roar. They reached for all their might to a hand that grew ever further. Soon they disappeared into the earth.
Tanya hunched and wailed. She swatted at the air as though she could still grab them. It wasn’t fair. They were on a date! They had a plan to survive! And in a snap they were gone.
Brandon pressed a hand to her chest and slammed her against the rock face. “Stop it, or you’re going to get us killed.”
It was only on impact that Tanya realized what she was doing. In her panic she was willing to throw herself after Trix. She didn’t register her other companion fighting to hold her back. Brandon slapped her back into reason.
They stopped for breath. “Sorry,” Brandon said.
Tanya nodded blankly. “Never manhandle me again,” she said.
“I said sorry! I was trying to save your life!”
A deep, hollow numbness resonated in Tanya’s chest. The world had changed in more ways than one. At one moment she lived in a world with someone like Trix. The next they were gone, lost in the gaping chasm that stared up from darkness. She peeked over the ledge and considered the abyss. How far did it go? How far would Trix go if they were the one facing down?
Brandon pressed a foot to the edge. Rocks broke and tumbled into the void. Their quiet echo reached for miles.
“We’re going down, aren’t we.”
Tanya nodded. There was nowhere else to go.
* * * *
The animal padded on his knuckles into the tunnel. It would be safe there, he thought; dark, cool, far from human screams and their loud, clacking tools. The sound still grated on his nerves like two stones striking together.
Once the humans had been his friends. They had a unique word for him whenever they had food; ‘Simon’. It was a good word. Thinking about it caused his belly to turn, but it would have to wait. Other, less friendly humans filled the world, stirred as he was by the change in the environment.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. The humans were afraid of him and what his friends could do. Why they had these new abilities was a mystery, and one that wouldn’t have concerned him before that day. Now it was all he could think about.
Following a long steel snake he ventured into the caves. The entrance was smoother than any he’d seen before; for the first time he realized that humans gave it shape. He moved over the bridge of planks that ran over a bed of stones. Curiosity drove him deeper. For what was this place built?
At the end of one snake was another, and then another, for longer than he could fathom. All the while its purpose evaded him. These caverns were not for shelter, or a place to store food. For all he could determine it served no function whatsoever.
Further he pressed until he found an unusual something. It was a structure, metal, propped upon a series of discs. The windows were like those that surrounded his home. A dim light shone from inside, and with it came the chattering of strangers.
“-National guard should have been here by now.”
“This is some kind of bull! Someone open the damn door or I’ll-”
“Calm down, buddy…”
“I only want to get home to my kids.”
Their chatter made some sense, more than it did before, but it was the tone that he knew more than anything. Scared. Angry. Trapped. It was enough to drive anyone to the brink, especially animals so fragile as humans.
He loomed by the underside of the shell and followed it to the other side. All the while he kept his head low and out of view. Were they like his friends, or they were like the loud ones? It wasn’t a chance he was about to take.
On the other side he stopped and sniffed the air. Something acrid and sour tore through his nostrils. He recoiled, but not before tasting another familiar odor; smoke, burning. More he became aware of his surroundings. The cool of the cave still lingered between the fur on his back in contrast to the gentle wind ahead.
His eyes narrowed to the passage and to the twinkle of orange that highlighted the bricks. He froze. Every nerve screamed danger; every nerve screamed to run.
Hooting and shouting he ran along the side of the shelter, slamming his palms on the side. He beat and he chattered, prompting squeals from the humans as well. Their home began to rock back and forth. Now they too knew there was danger, and they too would run!
He didn’t look back as he fled to another tunnel. The humans would have to find their way on their own. Why they were foolish enough to give a cave to so dangerous a creature was beyond his understanding.
To be continued…