8/18/13

AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Four - "The Long Dark Road Inside"

The next chapter is here, ending the first act. Illustrator man is a little behind but I'll let you know when they're added.

I think this is where is starts to come together, where the world becomes clear and the threats take a clarifying shape.



Chapter Four – The Long Dark Road Inside

Tad dared a glance behind her as they ran, their backs low, the quiet of night settling over them. The masked man's house was dark in the back where the lamp lights failed. Sped along in fear through the yard, Tad cursed to herself.

I've gotta get to the fucking root. I can't get caught up in this nonsense . . . can't get caught up in him.

Tad watched him carefully, like she would an approaching storm cloud, certain that at any moment thunder would erupt, the air charged and weird and full of danger. Holm's shoulders were wide and straight as they bolted through manicured lawns, craning his head when an automower hissed by and churned up grass and weeds in a poof behind it. All the landscaping was automated here. The bank kept the ghostly homes prim for the benefit of those few souls who could still pay their mortgage. As they hoisted themselves over a picket fence, white paint glossy and smooth under their hands, he muttered to himself how familiar it all was. She imagined he must have lived in a place like this once.

Maybe that's how he knew about the man in the mask . . . Hundun Company, she thought. She still wasn't able to puzzle together what they were all about. Yet she slowly opened herself to the possibility that they could help her, even if she couldn't trust them. They had technology she hadn't seen before, that could barely be conceived of on the coast, technology her people had given up on long ago. The closer she got to the Accelerated Cities, the more she had to prepare herself for things like this. The last news out of had been eight months ago. Maybe this Hundun Co. was helping her people already, and she didn't know it.

They sure are some weird sons-a-bitches.

L- Darling was waiting for her, she was connected to Hundun, and Tad tried to imagine what she would be like. Her mind came up blank. Somehow Tad found Holm near death in an abandoned driveway. Or maybe he had found her? It had to mean something.

Can't be without purpose . . .

The root was her guiding light. Her last grasp at vague hope. She thought about her brother. Two images of him commingled in her mind; the sinister smear on his face from her dream, and a memory from their childhood. A long beach with black sand and blacker rocks. He surfed on a big wave, disappearing beneath it, and then reemerged near the shore. His black hair was wet over his ears and the pockets of his tropical swimsuit hung out like bird wings. She repelled the third image, the one that wants to rise up from the surf, the combination of the two: the nightmare that ended it all.

He'll understand when I tell him, she said to herself as her eyes followed Holm around a row of freshly planted pine trees, He'll help me because I helped him.
She watched him dip beneath a low, wily hedge. She stopped next to him and took a moment to catch her breath. She whispered, "I don't think they're coming. Maybe the mystic got rid of them?"

His look said he did not believe that for a second. "You know, I can feel them, like gnats buzzing around my head," he said. His pained expression lifted and he grabbed her wrist - his hand tight and cold, "What do you mean by mystic?"

"I- I don't know. Didn't he seem . . . powerful somehow?"

"Yeah," Holm said. His eyes flashed in fear.

"Yes," a voice said, from behind them.

Tad spun around and fell. At first she saw only beige boots covered in mud and dark pants. In an instant, Holm pulled her up and away from the other, running in a streak for the lit streets. She was barely able to keep her feet under her. They scrambled towards the gap between two houses. A single street lamp buzzed over the boulevard beyond.

A thin figure in an orange coat came into view around the corner of the house on the left. A hood was pulled up over his head. Tad felt Holm's grip loosen on her arm and he turned towards her, blocking the sight of the orange coated man.

"Gun. Your gun!" he said. His eyes seemed to seizure in his head as he rifled through her coat, practically crushing her breasts in the process. He smelled filthy and damp like bad wine as he put his hand on the hilt of the gun where it was tucked into her pants next to her abdomen. She put her hand on his, digging her fingernails into his flesh.

"Wait wait wait. I've got it," she said trying to catch sight of the man over his shoulder. She'd fired a gun before, when they came for her boyfriend, before she had volunteered to go east. She pushed Holm away and he withdrew his hand and shifted on his left foot as she raised the weapon. She saw the splash of light from the lamp, the reflection of the street in the siding, in the distance the peaks of three mountains.

The orange coated man was gone.

Then there was a chugging sound as the sprinklers activated. Everywhere was the dalliance of light through streams as water sprayed through the air. Holm turned in a frantic circle as if dizzied by the sudden ambush of cold water. Tad had barely dried out from the rainstorm. She was afraid that her weapon would jam if she kept it drawn, but she wasn't willing to put it away now that she held it - straight out in front of her at the end of her barred arm.

"Okay," she said, "I think we should hide . . . somewhere." She moved towards the house on the left, assaying whether it was occupied with a glance at its dark windows. "I can't tell if anyone lives here," she said.

Holm sensed her motive and scurried towards the door. He tried the handle and when it wouldn't give he put his shoulder into it. The flimsy jam splintered and he fell into the house.

The last spray of water thumped on her back as she followed him. It was dark. There was a framed picture on the hallway wall. Three people in nice clothes in front of a waterfall. Mother, father, child.

Maybe we picked the wrong house.

But no one emerged from the other rooms or the shut doors along the hall to investigate the break in.
"No one's home," Holm whispered. She only shrugged. The carpet quieted their footfalls as they carefully turned into the living room. A luminescent clock ticked on the brand box. It would be dawn soon. She hoped they could wait out the night inside. She looked out the windows, parting their heavy curtains. The streets were empty and serene.

"Should I check out the rooms?" Holm asked, pulling on the front of his beard and twisting it in his fingers. His other hand held his gut, kneading away a pain. Tad's own stomach curled with hunger.

"I'm going to see if there's any food here, you go on." She tiptoed away from him as he moved back to the hall and one of the closed doors.

The kitchen was bare: just table and chairs and the refrigerator. Her boots squeaked on the floor as she moved toward the fridge. The moment before she gripped the handle, she heard a step behind her.

"Look, look at this." It was Holm. He stood in the frame of the doorway cradling a squirming form in his arms. A large cat with orange stripes mewed and scratched at his chest.

"Oh!" she cooed, holding her hands out to the pet.

The sound of glass clanking on metal interrupted her - a flare of searing light – and a form strolled languidly from the hallway behind Holm. The hunter. The lantern was held high above his head as the orange-coated man put his hand on Holm's shoulder. Before Holm could face the hunter, his grip loosened on the cat, and it climbed his shoulder and attacked the hunter's wrist.

"Gen!" Holm shouted and pushed the man whose face remained flat and emotionless as he grabbed the cat. He flung it yowling across the kitchen. Holm knocked the lantern down smothering the flame. Darkness closed back around them. Tad was blinded by the afterimage of the light. The gun wavered in her hand. Holm gripped the orange coated man's head, tearing at his flesh like an animal, while the other tried to take him by the arms.

A shot rang out. The gun recoiled in her hands and her fingers burned with smoking powder. The world stopped, the picture of the family in the hall where the two struggled wobbled and fell to the ground in a shattered heap. Holm backed away from the hunter as a stream of blood poured from his cheek like thick syrup.

"Well," he said as the blood ran down the front of his jacket and pattered over his feet, "I hope your new friends are as cool and understanding as your old ones." He bent down causing the blood to pump faster out of the gory hole in his face. He retrieved the lantern from the floor and straightened. "Just so you know: we got the dog again. Would you be so kind as to consider the knife?" He nodded towards Holm who held a curved blade in his hand out of nowhere.

"What the-" Holm dropped the knife and as it fell it disintegrated into smoky particles before it could hit the ground. A pile of ash was all that remained of the spectral dagger.

"Hm! Be seeing you!" said Gen. He strolled down the hall, opened the door, and took a deep calming breath before disappearing into the night.

#

The cat was dead. Its bones had been broken on the wall of the kitchen; there was a tidy smear of blood where it made impact. Its body was sprawled out as if it lazed in the sun. 

When the morning came Holm and Tad warily poked their heads out of the house. Sunless gray skies greeted them. The day held a more profound stillness than the night in the enclosure since the place was equally as dead and the only movement was the bare breeze.

They followed the trail of Gen's blood to an open patch of earth in a garden, but there was no sign of a body. Tad couldn't shake her terror as she shivered and clutched herself. Holm was silent but unsurprised. She would ask him what this meant, she thought, but knew his answer would kill any resolve that remained in her. She knew he didn't know. He was as clueless and scrambling as a child in a storm. 

They walked the streets. Soon they drew away from the empty houses, towards abandoned warehouses, deserted storefronts, and long blocks of unused lots. The exterior wall of the enclosure was rising up before them. The Accelerated Cities were just beyond it on a gigantic ridge and the tops of the spires could be seen disappearing into the morning mist. 

"A school," Tad said gesturing to a complex of red bricked buildings at the end of the street, "They used to have shuttles for the Patern-accredited instructors to use between the enclosure and the Cities. We should be able to get out of here if they're still operative." Holm nodded almost imperceptibly. He clutched his waist. He looked sick. 

Barbed wire laced most of the rusted fence. But there was a gap where the fence fell away in a decrepit heap on the sidewalk. A crow's nest made of shredded paper and pink and blue string was layered over the wire, and Holm didn't want to disturb it. Further on the fence had been roughly cut and pulled away from a bent pole. They passed through this opening onto a wide concrete mall with basketball hoops and faded court lines. 

"This is a prison," said Holm. He looked at her to confirm her mistake.

"No, it's a school," Tad said. He knew nothing about the Patern's method of education.

"Okay."

Holm stepped up his pace when he saw the entrance to the building, underneath a large canopy with an aged bronze statue of a man in a suit in front. His legs gave out and she helped him to sit and rest at the foundation of the statue on a broken wooden bench underneath its outstretched hand. The shadow from the statue's arm crossed the center of the bench and Holm looked up at the man. Its face was worn away by the weather. Tad sat next to him. She put her hand on his arm still clenched around his belly. Surprised, he pulls away. 

"What's wrong? Are you hungry?" She moved closer to him. She was light headed from her own hunger and her lip hurt from her constant, unconscious chewing. The world spun as she took a breath. 

"I don't think I've eaten for a long time. But I'm not hungry, not anymore," he said.

"What is it then?" she asked.

He stared at his feet. Tad looked at them too; they were beaten and cut from the chase, and a large rust-colored blood stain ran down from under his tattered pant leg onto the top of his foot – rivers shaped like antlers.

"You're in pain," she said. She put both of her hands around his arm and pulled them away from his body. He resisted, and then quickly acquiesced, and a wretched sigh came up from his throat as she lifted his arms to her lap. They fell limp. 

"I suppose I couldn't keep it a secret forever," he said with shame. His sweater bulged at the waist with a lump offset to the left side of his body. As she looked, the lump squirmed like a sack of snakes. She turned away and put the back of her hand to her mouth. He lifted his sweater and Tad dared look again. Blood, partially sopped by the wool, coated the mound. "It's eating me, I think. I can feel it . . . grab me . . . my organs."

"Oh my God."

"I don't know what to do."

"We have to kill it," she said with a wild finality. She swallowed a lump of bile that burned her throat, "Right now."

"What about me? It's been in me since as long as I can remember. What will happen to me?" he said, a desperate grimace shaking his mouth. Tad looked at his face and tried to resist the pull of the writhing mass on her gaze. She relented and looked again. Two . . . expulsions - like thick black hair – wriggled out from pustules on his skin. Blood was encrusted purple and black around these spots. The white skin of Holm's belly squirmed and the hairs moved like feelers. 

"I suppose we can't pull it out," she said. The very thought brought her to a gag, "And I don't want to shoot you. You know what? It's fine."

"Fine? But how-"

"L- Darling. She's supposed to be some kind of healer. Or a doctor." That was what the council told her, anyway. 

"What will a doctor know what to do about this?" 

"I said a kind of doctor. It's difficult to explain. The mystic said she would know something about you. She's involved with Hundun Co. Whatever that is."

"Maybe it's full of monsters like me." The mound in his abdomen shuddered as he spoke. Tad sucked in air to stop the nausea.

"Could you?"

She did not need to say anymore. Holm quickly recovered the infestation with his sweater, face burning red with shame. He drew away from her and squeezed his arms around himself tightly as if attempting to suffocate the creature. He dropped his head down, chin and its beard buried against his chest, and Tad thought she saw his cheeks wet with tears. 

"Let's go." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. He spat on the ground expunging a wad of brown phlegm and wobbled slow under the great stone canopy of the school.

The entrance was like a cave. The doors had long since rusted off at their hinges and Holm stumbled over their aluminum husks as the pair delved inside. The walls alternated between red and cream color bricks and were covered in a hairy gray mold. The tiled floor was carpeted by a whitish moss that crunched as Tad's boots rolled on top of it. The smell hit them a moment later: at once acrid and chemical, starchy and thick. Then overtaking that was a deeper sting in the sinus, like the taste of sour fruit, making Tad's mouth water and she spit. It was an animal smell.

She knew that the school must have been abandoned a long time ago. Reports from sympathizers out the east relayed how all enclosure populations were reduced by quarantine sweeps and evictions. But Bank Two must have let the buildings go back to nature – or the Paternach was unconcerned with the management of their external properties – even for work camps. On the walls were a series of eagles with their wings spread, built out of the different bricks. Holm leaned on these walls to propel himself along. The halls were littered with yellowed paper and spent furniture. A bulletin board was torn apart into garbled chunks at the first right hand turn. Without fail, the windowed doors to the classrooms were busted and they did their best to sidestep the debris. Tad held Holm's hand to help lead him through. This was possible because on the outer rim of the school's halls a few thin windows were set into the exterior of the classrooms. Enough to light their way through the buzzing insects and stray particulates and whatever offal lay unidentifiable on the floor. These strands of light accentuated the mangled silhouettes of broken desks and askew chalkboards and cast a silvery sheen on the cobwebs they pushed through.

Gradually the light diminished. She led them toward the center of the complex. Just as darkness would have enveloped them, bleak red lights took over. Probably on the emergency power grid, she thought. They gave a grim outline to their path. Twice Tad managed to dodge clumps of animal manure. The occasional scuffle of tiny claws on tile echoed down the hallway. 

"Do you see?" Holm said. He stopped with his hand on the remnants of a broken door frame. Tad had difficulty adjusting to the dim light. She peered with effort into the gloom of the classroom he had gestured towards. It became clear slowly; shapes erupting from the pitch, a limb first, followed by the body.

A deer stared back at them shivering with fright. Tad's breath caught in a lump made of fear and wonderment. The doe's eyes reflected pink in the emergency light. Holm stepped closer crossing under the doorway. 

"These are its babies," he said. He gestured at the corpses of small, brittle skeletons, long dead and dried out. Even the flies had grown tired of their bones. He held out his hands towards the deer in a desperate maneuver to calm the animal. The doe scurried backwards towards the far corner of the room. Tad stepped away from the doorway to give the doe an escape route and without hesitation the deer bolted, waving her head back and forth with a primal madness, kicking over a short file cabinet as she fled back towards the building's entrance. Her body was emaciated and weak and Tad thought of her own hunger. 

"I guess there's nothing for it here," Holm said, his voice faltering. 

"Not anywhere, Holm," she said. 

They found the cafeteria and kitchen. She'd hoped that the refrigeration units were on the Paternach's emergency grid. The smell of rot and filth was overwhelming, though, and she feared that any remaining food was spoiled. She tested the ice boxes to no avail. A sweep of the cafeteria itself by Holm had him return empty handed. The cupboards in the kitchen had nothing but coffee beans, plastic utensils, and baking sheets. She thought her fears had been realized until, as they were leaving the kitchen by an opposite door, they discovered the walk-in freezer. The door was cold to the touch. 

"Here's some luck," she said as she yanked at the large magnetic handle. The thing opened with a sucking blast of dry air, numbingly cold. She wasn't prepared for the slap of chill and her first step was careful. Her second was a disappointed stomp. The whole of the place was over frozen. A glacial shield ran up the eight feet or so of the freezers height blocking any immediate access to the shelves.

"Fuck!" she said letting the word crumble off of her lips slowly, emphasizing the hard consonant sound like a chisel for the ice. Holm's teeth were chattering behind her. His breath was a streaming jet from his mouth. Her own hot breath stung her nose and then froze there forming a crystalline net in her nostrils. She rubbed at the ice and could see through to cans of something wrapped in a green label. A bag of grain, corn or rice, was buried in the corner. A chest was frozen shut. Nothing to eat.

"Well, at least my guest has settled down," Holm said actually moving deeper into the freezer. He did seem more at ease and he relaxed his grip on his torso. 

"I am so hungry," said Tad. She punched the wall with the back of her fist. She kicked and her foot slid against the slick surface. She tugged on her hair, pulling it back behind her head so she could feel the roots stress against her scalp. She would have paced if the unit was more than three steps across. 

"Tad, this part is melted!" Holm cried out from the back of the freezer.

Odd, Tad thought, that's where the cold air comes in.

But it was warmer. Much warmer. Holm himself appeared to be sweating steam. It clouded her eyes as she joined him at the back of the unit. The vapor was so thick she waved her hands in front of her face for relief. Suddenly her boot splashed down next to Holm in a puddle of water.

"I just touched it and it fell away," he said. His arm was still outstretched towards a shelf, now clear of ice, steam rising up and framing it. The steam avoided his hand. It glowed red like a firebrand as he pointed at the canned peaches. They were stacked in neat rows and their labels were singed black.

"Your hand," she said, taking a step back.

"Yes, I know."

"Can you make it stop?" 

"I think so." He waved it back and forth as if trying to extinguish a match. The color and heat seemed to diminish somewhat. 

"Maybe try sticking it in some more of this ice?"

"Good idea." 

And he did, the ice popping and hissing away, though the effect was more diffuse with each block of ice that he touched. Soon his hand returned to normal except for a black glove of ash. He wiped it against his jacket and soot came off like chalk from a chalkboard. When the steam cleared they found more food. And most of it was unspoiled due to its icy preservation. Tad scooped an armful of it into her duffel.

You never know where you'll find your next meal, she thought. Then she ripped into the foil around a candy bar. Holm just watched her with that dazed look he had. Wily eyes over his misshapen beard. He rubbed his hand on his jacket again with the palm flat, as if it itched. He seemed to do this automatically. She shook her head - the sweat at her hairline already freezing into the follicles as cold retook the chamber.

He is dangerous.

Chewing as she slung her duffel around her back again, she nodded at Holm that it was time to go. But not to me? No . . . Not me.


#


The terminal yawned open in front of them empty and infested with dust and disuse. The warped ceiling was held aloft by six pillars covered in white tile and each pillar carried an electric torch emitting a nebulous light. The tracks across the long platform were in shadow. Tad looked over her shoulder back at Holm. She had let him collapse at the bottom of the access stairs moaning. A fine powder displaced by his impact collected in his beard and on his jacket.

They had found the tunnels next to the gymnasium. The adjacent storage room was stocked with a pummel horse, stacks of plastic mats, and squirrels nesting around a hole in the roof. Behind the mats was a heavy door labeled "Shuttle Access". The tunnels themselves were lined with fluorescent lights, buzzing blue and creating deep shadows of the two on the floor, a welcome relief for Tad from the half-light of the school. But that had returned by the tracks: the same haunting vacuity that had dogged her since Porton. Even Holm, as much a burden as an asset, his own grotesque emptiness eliding his obvious power. Unknowable. Another obstacle to overcome. Another secret to expose. L- Darling would help her.

She has to. She would know what Holm's deal is, and more, she had access to the root. She wondered if it was wise to trust to one name, one distant dream, to the salvation of her people. But they had trusted me. Maybe I can give her, and him, that much. She walked back to the bottom of the stairs and brushed off his jacket. He opened his eyes. They were red with the sting of the terminal's dust. He coughed and sent a cloud in a storm across the floor. She helped him up. Things had changed. More things will happen. So she continues on. 

He worsened. He was unable to keep his feet under him, and he kept crashing to his knees. She understood that the thing inside was killing him. This did not calm her growing frustration. They crossed the terminal trailing black footprints as they made a slow shuffle towards the tracks. Holm was surprisingly light. She found herself tiring only under the awkwardness of his flailing body as she lifted him again and again from the soft film of dust.

With nothing other than her own imagination to keep her company, she began to think back on those old reports from the east. She had heard stories about certain people. Transformed by the constant flux of energy from the Paternach, that secret power they used to exercise complete control. People became deranged and deformed from the exposure. These were dismissed as rumor until the entire western seaboard got sick. The corrupted and decaying faces of the dead back home punctured into her brain. She tried not to think about it. She had kept the memories at bay with little success the last months . . . a hundred thousand Agrats, ashen black stains on their diseased flesh . . . destined to die. She held their faces in her mind now, superimposing them, a blurred androgynous face. A point of focus. This kept her motivated to go on. 

Leaping down to the abandoned shuttle track Holm lost his feet again and fell on his elbows. He retched and a string of mucus hung from his mouth. She forced him to his feet.

"Get up, stranger. No use dying here."

Eventually she hoisted him around the waist and carried him as best she could down the long dark track.

It can't be that far.

The terrible hunters crowded around her in the darkness of imagination. The totality of the tracks own infuscation let shapes coagulate in the shapelessness. She almost asked Holm to do something about it – use his power, light a match, something. Her thoughts drifted to his perilous abilities; and her recognition of their reality made her stomach sink. It twisted like she imagined the thing in him would twist. Panic stirred in her breast. Her body vibrated in concert with the black void of the tunnel. Her heart beat in shocks of white pain like the muscle was wrapped around a stone and was scarified by its undulations.

The scratch of Holm's jacket on her wrists, her heaving effort to keep them moving defeated her darker fantasies. He slipped from her grasp and tumbled to his knees, spilling himself out on the oily tracks like a doll. Maybe the phantoms of memory, of a hardship a thousand miles away, were guarding her against their grim circumstances. Her arms trembled when she tugged on Holm's shoulders and the fabric of his jacket. He burped and groaned.

"I feel it in my stomach. Crawling up!" he said with a croaking whine. She imagined it stealing his voice, changing him.

Tad's belly burned in sympathy; bile gurgled in a geyser out of her esophagus and a lump of vomit splattered on the tracks. She tasted the chocolate of the candy bar. Blood rushed to her head and her vision went white and then spun. She was about to tip over when Holm, who had reclaimed his feet, steadied her.

"It's coming out. It's coming out of me." He smiled sickly.

"We have to keep on," she said wiping her mouth.

They intertwined their arms around each other's shoulders. Tad was woozy and cold against Holm's burning body as they lurched forward. A wind-like animal breath swarmed around them.

It was not so far. At least she had no recollection of how far they had gone before she saw the pinprick of light. She confused it with her own hallucinations of light and death, for a moment, before it burst into clarity. The sound, too: the scrape of shoe leather on concrete, the murmurous tone of many voices echoing down the tracks, the screeching spark of electric trains grinding to a halt. An active terminal was just ahead - like the peak of a snow-capped mountain over its dark neck of rock.

The train was stopping a hundred yards away, its engine just passing a long curve in the tunnel a hundred feet away or so. A thin set of access stairs glimmered in the train's headlights.

"God, the light. The bird is back, that mother fucker," said Holm, delirious. His voice rang clear through the tunnel. His hands were on the globe of tissue pushing out from his body. His face was white and his eyes had gone blank.

"No Holm! It's alright!" Tad called after him but he had already begun to charge the train. Spit trailed in long tendrils behind him and caught in his hair. He raised his fists up and shook them. She chased him but slowed when she realized that in his crazed state he didn't see the train. In front of the train was a red emergency net hung floor to ceiling. It caught him and knocked him back on his ass. She heard people beyond the train, on the platform. They were beneath the Cities.

"Can't you stay on your fucking feet for two seconds?" said Tad. She didn't know if he could hear her, or if he would listen anyway.

"The bird. Chirping away. Cover the cage, Rachel," Holm said. Now his voice was gentle. He was far away.
"I'm not Rachel. It's Tad." Tad was sniffing back tears of panic. She bit on her tongue to orient herself by the pain.

Keep it together, Tadpole.

He finally succumbed to the monster as Tad was preparing to drag him up the access stairs. A squirt of blood preceded its birth. It sprayed salty across Tad's lips. The pop and slurp of slick skin-on-skin as her hands were coated with the warm fluid. A gaping hole - dominated by a sluicing torrent of ghastly limbs – opened where the bulge was.

The parasite pushed its sinewy flesh out of him like curdled milk oozing from a bottle; flaps of fibrous tentacles plopping onto his torso and the cold cement of the terminal. The tips of the tentacles were clacking crab-like pincers but black and hairy. They tumbled out of the great tunnel onto the platform and the people gathered there in long damp coats and plastic boots scurried away from them like scattered sand.

She couldn't feel him breathing. White faced people encircled them, staring and grimacing, as she beat on his chest. Tears came now; she didn't stop them, as she searched the expressions of indifferent strangers. They looked away as her gaze fell upon them, each in turn.

"Please, somebody. We need help. Can someone help us?" she said. She repeated her plea. She repeated again.

No answer. The tentacles writhed out from Holm's belly, scaly and grasping as they brushed against her wrist. She resisted the impulse to take her hand away from his heart. Some of the watchers vomited at the sight of the thing. Two of the undulating arms bound themselves around his torso, snuffing the life from him. His head, vibrating in a furious seizure, cracked against the cement. The last of the rain-coated people escaped into the train or up the stairs into the night. Tad heard someone say: "He's a dead man." Then, other than the rustle of the spine-tipped tentacles on the dust covered platform, silence surrounded them. She held Holm. Her chest shuddered with quaking breaths. His hand trembled in rigid little circles. Sweat dropped on the granulated surface of the floor, tiny islands of grease and salt in the seeping pool of dark blood, like oil in vinegar. The stuttered movement of his fingers was without form to her eyes. It became a blind scrawl that wrote alien letters or symbols in the blood rippling outward.

The phone. Out of the tunnel - away from the enclosure - she might have reception.

Tad heard the buzzing wail of Contractor sirens in the distance whooping above on the city surface. She slung her duffel off of her back and dumped its contents in a pile next to Holm; gloves, empty medicine bottles, a few stray white pills crumbled to near-dust, underwear rolled in a ball . . . and her phone. It spun on the ground next to a spine as it swung in the air. Her wet hands seized the pod and she wiped the smear of blood off of it on her coat. She scrolled through the memory card. A sustained uncontrollable spasm in her wrists harassed her efforts to select the last number dialed. The display blinked red. The battery was dying again.

"Okay - hold still," she said to Holm after he bumped her with his leg. She whispered, "Hold still," again to herself, to will strength into her limbs. The whoop of the sirens ascendant blare was deafening. That is until the phone finally began to ring. The sound filled her ear like a hymn, or a tolling bell.

#

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