You probably saw the news.
“-With reports coming in that the immediate danger has passed. Officials and the CDC urge citizens to stay indoors until a thorough sweep is conducted. Milestone Metro has decommissioned the subway network until further notice. Non-essential emergency staff are to steer clear of sewers and water systems.”
It turns out that aerosol dispersal only covered the surface of the problem. To be effective we’d have to force our way down, probe the dark corners of the city, and tackle what’s left head on.
I couldn’t leave. What if there were more monsters down there, bigger than the experts could handle? The emergency crews were more qualified, but didn’t have my firepower, or my speed. So, like a sucker I raised my hand to go another round. What could it hurt except my everything?
It started on the southside with water boiling inside the mains. Families burst out of their homes to escape the steam, only to run into melting asphalt. The fires came soon after. There were a lot of burns, but thank the gods nobody died.
Captain Ortega set to work gathering teams under direct order from Mayor Bainbridge. He did not hesitate to offer me an assignment, figuring they he persuade me otherwise; not that I would blame him if he tried.
“The CDC are already at work dispersing the retrovirus into every tunnel they can find,” he said. “Our job is to go down and give an extra dose to anything that might still be hiding.” He went on to describe a beast whose shape was unclear on camera, but lit up the thermal sensors like the fourth of July.
I fiddled with my gloves. This was worse than the razor birds.
* * * *
We stood at the mouth of a graffiti strewn storm tunnel large enough for a convoy to pass through. Opaque sheets reflected an ugly, clinical green. It fixed around a series of pipes leading from the tanker trucks above. Wisps of cloud escaped the covering. It was the RNA retrovirus pouring into the veins of Milestone.
A comms technician brushed my hair back to fix a device to my ear. Another officer approached with a small plastic drum and fed the straps over my shoulders. Attached to the base was a hose and nozzle with a pressure gauge and trigger. “Pump, aim, pull,” he said, “and go for the face. Make sure it gets a good whiff of the stuff. It only takes a little, but we’re not taking any chances.”
Big brains hypothesised about the thing under the streets. They knew it was gargantuan, and burned so hot that no ordinary person could get close. I guess that’s where I came in.
Figures in masks lifted the vinyl curtain. I steeled my nerve. The darkness beckoned me enter.
Chalk colored walls soon gave way to green and mildew. The graffiti tags grew more sparse, then disappeared. I could imagine angst-ridden teens bragging how far they’d dared to travel down the tunnel. In the end they all turned tail. I didn’t have that luxury.
Around a half-mile in, further, the radio crackled. I spoke into the receiver and got nothing back; not even white noise. The device popped in my ear, prompting me to throw it down. Faint smoke drifted from the unit.
I turned to go back, but the tunnels divided so many ways that it was impossible to tell the way I came. Even so there had to be a service tunnel somewhere; a ladder leading back to the surface.
Any thought of abandoning the mission evaporated with a trail bubbling to steam. I peered into the infrared sheen that blanketed my holographic senses. The trail slivered into the crevices under the city. Only an idiot would go forward, but I couldn’t pass up the chance.
The tunnel descended into a wider chasm and a less refined path. Dry gravel ran the length of the expanse. I ducked down to examine it, still floating in the air. The pebbles had become charred and brittle; not at all what you’d expect from a place designed to drain storm water.
I peered all around, lost in the scale of it. I let it distract me, long enough for something big, black and heavy to collide with my body and drag me from the air. No sooner had I struck the ground than a jet of flame seared overhead.
There was little time to gather myself, let alone make sense of the gorilla lying opposite in the dirt. Another fiery burst divided us and I was back on my feet, face to face with the monster I was searching for.
“No. Freaking. Way.”
Everything about it screamed that it was a dragon, and yet it didn’t seem real, like some CG effect or an old painting. The heat cooking the air and the ear splitting roar removed any doubt. It shifted on all fours with gleaming black spines cascading from to its long, swishing tail. There was no mistaking the insult on its jowls that a pair of smaller creatures had dared upon its space.
The monster spit fire into the air as fast as it could breathe. I ducked and weaved, never getting too close, but searching for the chance. I fumbled for the hose on my back, but found nothing.
With only a split second to make sense of my surroundings I found it laying across the ground. The straps had broken, but it otherwise together. I moved toward it, though pulled away from a sudden wall of fire.
One minute it was there, the next it was gone. The flames dropped and there was the gorilla, charging for one of the side tunnels. In his arms he clutched the tank and hose, holding them for dear life.
I charged after the animal, avoiding the licks roasting my tail by a narrow margin. I needed that tank!
* * * *
Tanya stared at the countless marks across her sneakers. They’d reached their end in her place, and she dreaded to see the state of what was underneath.
At least things were back to normal, she thought, geography notwithstanding.
Somewhere in the upturned landscape was her car. Tanya pined for the little green beetle she’d bought with a loan from her bio-dad. She hoped it was in one piece and still connected to the road. Her insurance wouldn’t cover a replacement, but that was the least of her thoughts.
It was a miracle that the helicopter arrived when it did. A two person medical team were as a pair of angels setting their mercy upon them. Tanya sat, wrapped in a blanket and inhaling the contents of a water bottle. A haggard looking woman in blue coveralls walked her through an examination. She soon concluded exhaustion was the worst of it.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” she said.
Tears of relief streamed down the young woman’s face. Nothing seemed real. How do you explain running for your life from a giant, carnivorous worm? Though it was no more fantastic than the stories told to her by the medic. There were blobs sleeping across streets, and a cat with a torso stretching for three blocks!
“I’m glad we caught this before kids started catching them,” Tanya said.
The woman smirked. “Before training them to duel.”
“Like in the cartoon!”
At least her humor was intact. That had to be a good sign.
Through it all Trix remained absent from her side. The moment their rescuers set down they shifted to the opposite side of the clearing. Trix made a point of facing away.
Trix looked up and forced a toothless smile, but otherwise allowed her to come close.
“You okay?” Stupid question, considering.
The lime-haired androgyne stifled a scoff and shook their head. “I’ll live.”
Tanya shifted closer. “Something’s wrong. I can tell.”
“I’m thinking,” they said.
“Not sure I can talk about it,” they said.
Trix stared into the trees below, the very vision of despondency. Their lithe fingers offered pre-clipped nails for them to chew on. There they sat an empty shell while their soul wandered a thousand miles away.
“You know I’m here for you,” Tanya said. “You were there for me when Kaira disappeared, and now we survived this… this… whatever it is.”
Trix shrugged. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
Tanya balked. “You’d rather it’d eaten you?”
“No,” they said. “I mean being there for each other. You’re a good friend, T, and I like you a lot. But we’ve been through a lot of messed up things in such a short amount of time. I don’t think that’s a good foundation for a relationship.”
Tanya froze in place. “I don’t understand…”
“It’s called ‘trauma bonding’,” they explained.
“I know what trauma bonding is,” Tanya said. “When two people form an emotional connection based in shared hurt. Is that what you think we have?”
“A little,” they said, “but I don’t want it to be. Which is why we should back off and try again later.”
The young woman pulled away, and pulled her knees to her chest. “But it’s only our first real date…”
“It was a good date,” Trix said, “right up to the part with the worm.”
Tanya didn’t laugh. It wasn’t as funny anymore.
Trix slid closer and nudged their shoulder to hers. “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but I still want to be friends. You are a freaking rad lady, and being your friend would be the best thing.” Small comfort that was. “And who knows? We can be romantic again in the future if that’s what we want. Only this time we take it at a glacial pace like proper lesbians.”
A sudden smile pricked her lips. “You’re not a lesbian.”
“I’m genderfluid,” Trix said, “so I’m a bit of everything.”
Tanya hummed. She ached in body and soul. All she wanted was to rest.
“Thank you for saving me,” Trix said.
Of course she would have done the same for anyone, like Kaira.
* * * *
“It’s kind of a funny story,” I thought aloud. “First I went down the tunnel, and then my earpiece shorted out. Then I ran into a fire-breathing dragon, only to be saved by a gorilla, who then stole my tank. Doesn’t that beat all?” Ortega’s reaction was as vivid in my imagination as it often was in real life.
I flitted between the tunnels in search of a clue. The beast was gone, leaving me alone and unarmed against an apex predator. I could have doubled back, cut my losses and regrouped with the strike team. Were only I smart enough to listen to the thought.
The search ended with the echo of hoots. Standing at the base of a drain the gorilla held the retrovirus package in his hairy black arms. He bounced on his haunches. Poor guy must have escaped during the skirmish at the zoo and crawled into the sewers for safety.
I lowered to the ground and inched closer, my hands raised. “Easy, fella. I’m not here to hurt you.”
He stood tall and threw up his head in an aggressive display. Was he trying to scare me? The gorilla bore his teeth and placed a hand on my chest. He pushed, careful not to throw my balance, and grunted louder. To warn me? He did pull me from the dragon’s reach.
“Okay, I’ll go. But first you need to give me the tank,” I said, like he understood. After grabbing for the strap on the tank he pulled away and hissed. “Hey! I need that!”
And then something strange happened; the gorilla spoke.
“No,” he said. “Danger! Run!”
Should I have been surprised? Lions and tigers and bears were one thing, same with lasers and flying and telekinesis. But speech was something else. In place of a helpless animal was one with the power to give meaning to complex sound. He could be reasoned with.
I raised my hands and told him, “I’m here to help.”
The gorilla shook his head. “Run! Run now!”
“No,” I said. “No running. I’m here to stop the danger.”
His brow contorted. The meaning of words were only out of reach.
I held out my hand and smiled. “Me? No run. Me help. Stop danger.” The Tarzan syntax helped, condescending as it was.
My new gorilla friend lowered into a squat and sniffed my hand. His alarm simmered to a low boil.
“Help,” I said. “Yes.”
Finally, an understanding!
The animal pawed my arms and grunted. He pulled me close and searched the length of my costume for cuts, scrapes, burns and gods knew what else. The poor guy fussed and furrowed, unlike his friends who were happy to knock me out of their enclosure.
I hushed him. “Do you have a name?”
“Name,” he said, and sat in thought. “Name… Simon.”
“Simon,” I said. He beamed with pride. “My name… Glimmer Girl.”
“That’s right. Hello, Simon.”
Fascinating as he was there was work ahead; a dragon to be ‘slain’ and a city to save. Simon didn’t resist when I tugged the tank from out of his hold and slipped the one good strap over my shoulder. He watched in bewilderment as I stood.
I gripped the hose and considered my aim. Simon shifted where he sat. His transformation was the result of a cosmic mutation, but who was I to call it a mistake? The RNA retrovirus promised a return to his old life and so much more. It held a return to simplicity and limited thought. I stood before a gorilla with the capacity for words and held his fate in my hand.
The hose pointed away. “Thank you, Simon.”
Bursting into light I took to the air, flying back to the tunnels. Simon was alone, confused, but still whole. Was it destined to last? The tunnels were being pumped with retrovirus, but still I hoped him a safe getaway. The alternative seemed tragic at best.
Simon hooted after me as I made my descent, whether in support or fear for my safety I couldn’t tell. Tracking the dragon wasn’t hard once I knew what to look for; the charred rock lead me right to it. The creature stalked closer. It galloped into a charge the second I came into view.
Like some valiant jouster I flew toward him. The slits of its eyes narrowed as it closed. A wall of flame erupted from its jaws. This time I was ready, and spiraled around the walls of the tunnel. Fire licked my tail, but I was never in any danger. The tank on the other hand…
I gripped the nozzle which then came loose. The hose that connected it to the tank had to a crisp. Damn it!
The monster turned in a snap to send another flaming wall in my direction. I hugged the tank in my arms, hoping to protect the last morsels of the package; but how was I going to administer it?
My costume peeled from my back, but the flames left no damage on my holographic flesh. It took all my focus to maintain that form. Powering down at wrong moment spelled instant death; an epic death, but still…
The dragon was relentless. The air cooked around us and split the concrete tunnel.
When the flame wall dropped I was overcome with a primal scream. There on the dragon’s back with hands smoking to the touch was Simon. He pulled the creature back by the neck at great cost to himself. The agony was nothing to the dangers of letting a dragon roam free.
He wailed at the top of his great lungs. “Help! Help Glimmer Girl!”
Rocketing forward I threw the tank down the throat of the great lizard. It choked with flames held at bay by Simon’s grip. Those few vital seconds were time enough to unleash a blast. The tank exploded and sent a white cloud billowing from its jaws. The force of it blew me to the ground.
When I opened my eyes both Simon and the dragon were gone. I collected myself with a grunt and trudged through the fog. At the heart of the scorched ground was a lonely salamander, and no sign of a gorilla.
I flew a short length of the tunnel and peered down the turns. Still nothing. Simon had vanished without a trace.
* * * *
When I set down into my other life the dorms were near empty. The streets were re-opened, and all anybody wanted was to be with their families. That or the college crowd were sick of staring at the same walls. I sat on the rooftop balcony, usually a party spot, but on that night was a quiet place I could call my Mom.
She came with the usual line of questions, like why didn’t I answer her texts, or how could I make her worry. My excuse du jour was that I’d left my cell in Tanya’s car. It wasn’t a very good excuse, but she bought it without much follow up. Either way it was good to hear her voice and to know she wasn’t bitten by a radioactive squirrel or something.
When the call ended I opened a message from Tanya. ‘Where r u?’ No sooner than I told her than she was on the roof wearing sweatpants and a dour expression. Not that I looked any better, mind. She pulled up an outdoor chair, folded her arms on the ledge and crashed into them.
“Are you okay?”
She didn’t have to answer. It was all over her puffy face.
I pulled close and rested my head on her shoulder. One more to save, and it wasn’t a job for Glimmer Girl.
Tanya croaked, “no worse than you.”
“It wasn’t all bad,” I said. “Met a monkey. Well, an ape. His name was Simon. Nice guy.”
“Was he hot?” She laughed, kinda.
There wasn’t much to stare at; only buildings, trees, and a row of houses on the other side of a parking lot. Tanya’s weight slumped further down as she started choking out sobs. It had been years since I’d seen her cry, when her bio-dad ditched her over Christmas. I threw my arms around her and brushed the hair from her face.
Tanya propped herself up. “So, Trix and me, not a thing anymore,” she said.
I held tighter. “What happened?”
“They said they didn’t want to become trauma bonded,” Tanya continued.
I took her arm and stroked it. What could I say? Maybe it was better to say nothing at all.
* * * *
Trix stepped into the old apartment and triple bolted the door behind them. The keypad beside the lock appeared out of place in a room with flaking paint. They input a code made up of strange sigils; the kind yet unseen by anyone in the modern world.
They fell over the arm of the sofa and onto the compacted cushions. Trix stared at the stains on the ceiling where mold once lived. It was a far cry from their old home, but their journey was never meant to be comfortable. Their one respite came in the form of books and the musty smell unique to them. Through them they gathered knowledge lost to the ages.
On top of an upturned trash basket cum makeshift side table sat a small egg-shaped device. It balanced on its base. It flickered with an invasive glow as though to remind Trix it was ready to serve its purpose.
Drawing themselves upright Trix nudged the egg, and a figure projected from it. A stern young woman in a crisp white suit with folded arms floated above the floor. Trix inhaled and steadied themselves.
“I did as you asked and distanced myself from Tanya Truman,” they said.
The projected woman huffed. “You never should have been so close. It was a daring move that could have altered the sequence of events.”
“Events have already been altered,” Trix said. “‘The Reign of Cats and Dogs’ began a week before indicated in our records.”
“The outcomes remain the same,” they continued, “but we need to be wary of other anomalies.”
Silence lingered. The projected woman hummed as she processed this new information. “We’re skirting a fine line,” she said. “Continue as normal. Keep me abreast of new developments.”
The lime-haired androgyne smirked. “Aye aye.”
“I don’t appreciate sarcasm,” the projection said, and blinked out of the room.
Trix fell back onto the springs and threw a pillow over their face. No matter how much they screamed into it the pain ceased to dull. The things they had to do for the mission, right up to breaking a girl’s heart.
* * * *
There seemed little kindness in the human world, least of all for those who were strangers to it. Simon learned to cover his shape with rags and stolen bits, for people looked past the ones who had to scrape by. At the very least it afforded him invisibility, though left him to forage for food from containers in back alleys.
Some humans had taken to placing locks on their refuse; a means of punishment for those who starved. Though such a thing was not an obstacle for Simon. Even with burned and bandaged hands he shattered the locks with ease. From there he indulged on a discarded feast of meat and vegetables and marrow – they threw away the best bits!
It was during those forays to the surface that he found her face again. Printed on flat sheets covered with symbols was the incandescent figure who had been so kind. He hadn’t known it at the time, but compared to the others who fled at the sight of him she was the most majestic of beasts. Oh, to have that gentleness again.
Flashes of red and blue signaled the need to escape. Simon took the cue and fled once more to the underground, back to the small hutch he’d crafted in a cool, dry corner. It was not as comfortable as his former habitat. Food was more scarce, but there he was free with his thoughts. They grew more vivid by the day.
He pressed the stolen sheet against old brick and straightened out the wrinkles with his paw. The girl in the picture smiled at him, and him alone. Someday he would find her again.
“Glimmer Girl,” Simon said, and hooted at the thought of her.