In a few hours the retrovirus was in production. Tanker trucks from all corners of the city migrated to the airfields. What a sight to behold; people coming from all over with a single purpose. Their collective world turned upside down when nature turned. They would do anything to put things back to normal.
I fought to still myself. The important work was in the hands of scientists and engineers while I stood guard. Meanwhile there was a city under siege. People and their children weren’t hiding from dogs and cats alone, but racoons, birds, rodents, and more. The animal kingdom was gifted power it couldn’t understand.
The convoy barreled down the winding dirt trail toward the grass strip. To one side was the gritty aluminium hanger, home to a range of museum pieces that passed for aircraft. Humble as they were, they were the key to salvation.
Dr. Storm explained, “the national guard are moving helicopters as we speak. In the meantime we use crop dusters and skywriting planes to deliver an initial payload. The sooner we start, the more effect it will have long term.”
My job, she said, was to keep them in the air. Sparrows had the potential of missiles, or worse. And who could say what other nasties moved between the clouds?
The sun sat far in the west by the time the array formed. Single engine planes, most older than I was, taxied one after the other toward the runway. They buzzed like flies as they lifted from the ground, and circled the sky waiting for the next.
I drew a solid breath. The eagerness in my veins ran cold, though it didn’t blunt my nerve. When the last took to the air I followed, pressing against the wind and gravity.
Rarely did I soar as high; arm to wing with aeroplanes at ten thousand feet. I never thought I’d be faster than a plane, even an old one. In loose formation they meandered through the air. They peered over a scale sized Milestone City. The people were smaller than ants – at least what few remained in the open.
We moved above the outer edges of the city when the clouds split apart. Shrieks like knives pierced the sky, cutting a path for birds of prey. They moved in opposing formation and with greater agility. With new power they claimed the sky. They corkscrewed toward the invaders of their territory.
I swept the perimeter with a wide blast. Birds fell by the dozens, stunned, but there were too many. Another swarm tore through metal like hailstones, pulling planes from the sky.
Stronger, larger creatures with feathers of steel tore chunks with their beaks. I rounded through the air and landed on the wings and shot them off one by one. They flapped, irritated, and fell back with distance enough for me to jump to another plane. Then soon returned, swarming at full force, dominating with their numbers. It was an Alfred Hitchcock nightmare taken to the next level.
My power waned. I was using too much too fast, and losing my concentration. What was I going to do?
I perched on the wing of an old plane, fighting for balance as wind whipped my face. Only a few feet away sat a pilot in an open cockpit, gritting his teeth trying to keep straight. We shared a moment of grim realization before he opened his palm and flashed his hand. There was no way to hear him, but the words on his lips were clear as day.
“Turn up the juice!”
It was a plan, though a desperate one. Launching from the wing I burst into light and followed the formation of the planes. My body glowed as bright as it could, glinting with the force of will that brought it to life.
The birds turned, spying something more interesting to swoop. I turned toward the ground and drew them away. Better they swarm me than the rest of the squad, even if it meant getting pecked to bits.
It was only once she’d lost sight of the daytime that Tanya realized she’d made a fatal mistake. Her hands wept with blood, stung by loose dust she clung to. The air was thick in her lungs, adding to the weight of her journey, ever tempting her to close her eyes and let go. She wouldn’t, but how much longer could she go on?
She was a hero, once, in the confines of the school hall. She wasn’t like what Kaira had become, with adept powers she would have killed for. At least in school the only threat was a man with a pen threatening a mark on her permanent record. Defending a shy kid had been easy for her, but a shifting landscape was a whole other beast.
She froze on the rock wall. Her foot searched for the next step, but found nothing. All she could see were the same blotted shapes she always saw when she closed her eyes. From behind whistled a breeze through a wide space. There was nothing else to cling to.
Tanya cursed. She could still turn back. She’d done all she could for Trix, as much as she would do for anyone, or had she?
Fate made the decision in the form of an aftershock. No amount of determination could hold her to that perch. Pebbles crumbled, giving way to stones and small boulders. Next Tanya knew was the cold race of panic down her limbs. She tumbled into the abyss, but it was not the end.
Her body struck a smooth slant and fell into a roll. Small rocks jabbed her sides, too fast and too many to count. The long arc of the tunnel pulled her toward the flat ground. She tumbled to a stop.
A blanket of pain wracked every muscle, every limb. Somehow Tanya pushed through the throbbing in her skull and crawled to her feet. Her wincing gasps echoed in the void for who knew how deep.
She called into the darkness. “Hello?” Her only response came from the echo. She waited, and listened. No sign of Trix.
Tanya bent into a squat and fumbled through stones. She found a handful, solid enough to stay in one shape. She couldn’t see the path, but maybe she could hear it. One by one she pelted rocks into the dark. They clicked as they landed, close enough to reveal flat ground in front of her.
She guided her feet over the terrain, one tentative step after the next. Once on a family holiday a tour guide warned her about pratfalls and crevasses. With a steel grate guiding them the lesson hadn’t seemed important.
“Like our first date wasn’t bad enough,” she mused. “The second might get us killed.”
It took some time for Tanya to make sense of the faint lights above her. Were they illusion, or something else? Unlike the other shapes floating across her senses they remained still and constant. A shimmering rainbow clung to the walls to give the cavern definition.
Whether it was a path to salvation or her destruction didn’t matter. It was something she could trust with her eyes. Pushing through exhaustion and a foul compost smell Tanya broke into a lazy jog. Had Trix gone down the same path? There was only one way to know for sure.
Under the earth and far from the sun time lost all meaning. Had it been minutes, hours? Tanya discovered tunnels and detours all around. Making sense of them was next to impossible. Not even the agony in her feet could measure how far she’d come.
She stopped and called again. “Trix!”
A tiny voice returned from the labyrinth. “Tanya!”
Life! Hope! Tanya broke into a sprint down any tunnel her legs could throw her. She laughed with delirium, and stopped again when she ran out of breath.
“Where are you?” she cried. “I’ll come find you!”
Trix’s voice reverberated in the near distance. “Stop! It’s attracted to sound!”
By then it was too late. The cavern yawned and a great body shook the earth. It was the same beast that turned the landscape above into a mountainous nightmare. A long plummet was threat enough to most travelers. The thousands of pounds of earth that encased them lifted the danger to new heights.
If Glimmer Girl were there she’d light up the place and face the monster head on, but Tanya was not that kind of hero. She had her arms, legs, and whatever strength not yet worn down by the journey.
She ran, and ran, and ran; to or from the monster was impossible to say. The tunnels shimmering with technicolor fluid appeared the same from one to the next. Backward, forward, left or right lost all bearing. The path hunched and dived with no discernible pattern. Still Tanya pressed, and didn’t stop until a shape obscured part of the neon cave ahead. A shadow, with limbs and a messed faux hawk threw their arms wide. Finally the pair embraced each.
The great yawn blew foul, rotten breath down their backs.
Trix practically yanked Tanya’s arm from its socket. “We’ve got to move!” Time was growing short.
I sometimes wondered how I’d describe life to my grandkids. First, their grandmother was an adept. Second, she had the power of flight. Third, she deflected birds from the wings of crop dusters. All this while spreading an RNA retrovirus over the city. Sometimes I didn’t know how to explain it to myself.
I ducked and weaved and spiraled between the clouds. The swarm couldn’t resist a moving target, and boy was I moving. Too fast and I would lose them, too slow and they would peck me to pieces. Gods only knew how I was talked into it.
Oh, right. Saving the world.
A part deep down said this wasn’t my fight. It was never going to be easy living the life of a hero, but nothing could prepare for the weight of expectation. The moment people saw a girl flying through the air they screamed for salvation. And so I threw myself, life and limb, into the fire. How could I say no?
Scores of birds followed my path into the thick white mist pouring into the sky. They fell from the sky by the dozen, breaking from a swarm into a flock and then into nothing. I swooped to catch them in freefall. Everything from crows to swallows fluttered their wings, back to their classic shape. I bet they wondered how they got so high.
The weight lifted from my chest. The retrovirus worked! The end was in sight. Plans of a quiet Saturday were a wash. I hoped Sunday would be better.
Faint wisps descended on the Earth, and then they stopped. The planes cut shot their vapor trail tens of miles before making full coverage. Something was wrong.
I shot into the sky, flying in tandem with the nearest pilot. Balancing on the wing of a red duster with faded paint I leaned to the open cockpit. The man at the stick bellowed over the engine three or four times before I could make his words.
“Word from the ground! The solution’s too thick!”
The weight of dread returned to my chest. So much for saving the day, and after all that coordinated effort. What then?
“Release the payload,” I cried. “My blasts can turn it to steam!”
The pilot listened to his headset and nodded. Ground control approved.
I threw myself back from the wing and dived into freefall. My body exploded with holographic light and again I soared. Weird to think how comfortable I was at ten thousand feet with nothing but my powers for support.
It should have been straight forward. On command each craft spilled its guts into the sky. My body charged, ready to burn. Then came a furious shriek. From out of left field a wall of feathers slammed into my face. A vice grip snatched my body like a rodent.
When I turned it was faced with the endless wingspan of a mighty predator, like something out of the stone age. My arms were no match for its grip. I peered back to the pilots, almost pleading, but what could they do?
It wouldn’t end that way. Not if I could help it. I redoubled my strength. Though I burned with searing heat the great eagle continued to hold. I pushed with all my might and into the path of the mist, dragging the eagle behind. It held when I bust with laser heat from every pore of my body.
The air boiled around us, prompting a shriek from the raptor. Its hold loosened as it decreased in mass, and tore a shred through my holographic flesh while falling away.
Still I pressed through the sky, fighting through the pain and following the trail from above. Fine droplets floated down to the city below.
Would it work this time? Gods, I hoped so.
Tanya Truman was built like an ox, and tired as easily. The last time she had cause to sprint was in junior high. Even then the coach had sympathy enough not to force her faster than a jog. She lived to regret that. Now her life, and that of Trix, depended on speed.
One fluorescent tunnel appeared the same as the next. Their footprints became lost in the uneven terrain. Though it hardly seemed to matter in the shadow of that ominous growl. It pushed the pair ever forward. Being lost was better than being lunch, depending on how long they could last.
Trix sputtered between breaths, and suggested splitting up.
Tanya spat and swore. “I didn’t come this far for you to run off and die anyway.”
“Who said anything about dying?” Trix pressed.
The two stared for longer than they could afford. Finally Trix snagged the girl’s wrist and pulled her in the first direction to take their fancy.
“Fine,” they said. “Whatever happens, we do it together.”
Pain wrenched Tanya’s side. She met her limit somewhere on the wall, and pushed on in spite of it. It was agony she’d feel for weeks if she made it out, but that was farthest from her thoughts. She had Trix in tow, or was it the other way around? Next they would find the daylight… if they found the daylight.
No. No thoughts of doom. Not even in her final seconds. They would find a way out!
They raced through the labyrinth for what seemed an eternity. Panic simmered under Trix’s usually stoic expression.
Finally Tanya’s legs gave and she crashed into the dirt.
Trix dropped to her side. “Come on! We can do this!”
It would have been simpler if they left her behind. Tanya was dead weight, and remembered the fact most days since grade school. The easiest thing in the world would have been to allow death to roll over her. Then she remembered Kaira wanting the same thing, and how she was never allowed. Tanya could never be that kind of hypocrite and live with herself.
The monster inhaled, drawing warm, sour wind from directions unseen. Trix lifted their head in the direction of the air, and hoisted Tanya back to her feet.
“It has to be this way,” they said. The alternative was an open maw.
Only a short way down a side tunnel the cavern appeared brighter. Though the rainbow sheen had faded, earthy tones gave shape to what was ahead. The further they ran the more definite the landscape. Finally the pair stood at the base of a hole as large as a family vehicle. Through it they could make out the clouds against the sky.
Tanya laughed an infectious laugh born out of exhaustion and delirium. The wall before them was too far to scale in any short amount of time. The hot breath of the creature trembled at their backs as it grew closer.
Trix nudged Tanya into the rock. “We have to try!”
They were right. The fight wasn’t over, yet.
Bleeding fingers clung to the surface and fought to lift an entire body behind them. Trix grabbed the wall to one side. The pair had yet to take a step when a mighty bellow shook their perches to dust. They turned, and there in the light was the tensing ring of flesh. It rippled along its length to crawl and consume the hard earth.
Tanya’s hand fell into Trix’s hold. Their fingers intertwined and squeezed. Better they were together than they faced their fates alone.
So rapt were the pair that the faint salt odor in the air fell below their notice. The creature drew a gust of wind into its fleshy opening, and paused before its final advance. With a great flail it turned inside the tunnel, bashing the wall with its ever diminishing mass. Before their very eyes Tanya and Trix beheld the monster that had so terrified them. It shrunk in size until it was invisible against the dirt.
Neither dared to move at first, lest they tempt fate.
“W-what was that?” Trix asked.
Finally, while clasping her chest, Tanya stepped forward. Inch by careful inch she pressed toward the mouth of the cave. She bent beside a small dirt mound, behind which a lowly creature spasmed.
“It’s… it’s a worm!”
Trix furrowed their brow in incredulity, and stepped over to see for themselves. Sure enough, what was once a mighty, burrowing predator had reverted to something else. It was as unassuming as any living thing could be.
Cheers erupted as I set upon the landing strip. Men and women cried in relief and threw their arms around me. They said reports were coming in from all over the city; the retrovirus worked! Dogs and cats, birds and fish reverted to their native forms with the majority no worse for wear. The people were shaken. Though injuries were many they endured with no loss of life.
My smile stretched until it ached. It was the best news I’d heard all day.
The glow faded from my form, and I leaned on the hood of a nearby car. I filled my lungs and trembled, at last letting myself decompress. Each breath tasted sweeter than the last, rich with the knowledge that the world didn’t end on my watch.
Victory buzzed all around. Every scientist, engineer and driver made sure to show their appreciation. Like I could have done it without them. Whatever. Who was I to kill the mood? I grinned and shook their hands, and shared their hugs. I made my sure to give my thanks to the pilots when they set down again.
Dr. Storm lingered, and once I caught her gaze she turtled into her shoulders. She blushed. Her inner fangirl was back with a vengeance.
She’d asked a lot of me, but that was my job, and I came through. I pulled her into an embrace.
“Never ask me to do that again,” I laughed.
The doctor winced. “You know I’ll have to at some point,” she said.
I shrugged it off. “Yeah,” I said, “I know.”
That wasn’t so bad, I thought. I could stand the disasters more than Carbon Men and Punching Judys of the world. Better to avert disaster than step into a blood feud with an unhinged adept. Unlike the saying, it was better to work with animals.
Silence cut through the celebration when one of the crew offered his phone to Dr. Storm. The dread look weighing on her brow told me all I needed to know. Our work was not yet done.
“Simon,” he said, and then said it again. The word took new meaning each time it passed his lips. Once he thought it was a term for ‘food’, but soon it was so much more. It was not a title for his kind, but one for him alone – it was a name! Such distinctions were once beyond him, but in the present were clear as day. “Simon,” he repeated with growing confidence.
Alas, there was no time for idle thought. Great danger lurked beneath this place. A greater threat than the humans? Simon weighed the screaming mass that filled the streets against the lurking beast. One predator, he decided, was better for his survival than hundreds.
Rational though it was, the knowledge brought him little comfort. His shoulders tightened as he padded along the tracks in search of a corner to rest.
He traveled for how long he did not know, for he could not see the sky to tell. It must have been far, for the air was stale and the human din muted under layers of artificial rock. Simon marveled at the smooth stones and geometric shapes that were not natural to his home. Were these the makings of human people? For a moment he imagined how he might craft the same.
Once more his wondering was cut short when an acrid smell pierced his nostrils. It was a vulgar stink that prompted his swatting at the air. It wasn’t only the taste that burned, but the touch as well. The atmosphere warmed to sweltering, and only grew as time marched forward.
Simon planted his feet, and lifted himself on his haunches. He stood defiant against the unseen force that breathed hot death through the tunnels. Like the more noble leaders of his tribe before him Simon beat his chest and hooted at his imagined enemy. Reason dictated that he should flee. Primal instinct demanded of a show of strength.
“I am Simon,” he roared. “I am Simon! Face me!”
Such a display was trivial in the face of such an enemy even it was even recognized him at all. Licks of flame seared in the distance and rolled through the tunnels. The elemental force tore through every corner, every nook. It dried the air until it cracked, reducing every fragile thing to cinder. Like the human system its origin did not appear within nature. It ran in defiance against everything Simon knew to be good and right.
It was only in the face of impossible odds that reason won out, and Simon knew to turn and flee. But it was not the end. New knowledge came to him with every waking moment, and so would the opportunity to put an end to his foe. All he needed was time.
To be continued…