We’ve been walking for five minutes now, but there’s still no sign of the next station.
Please, it can’t be that much farther. I just wanna get somewhere I can sit down. Even a couple minutes would be a relief. Being up on the walkway had been bad, but, despite being roomier, the trackbed is even worse. There are bits of gravel and other debris that have built up on ground, and every time I step on some, I feel it through my shoes.
“So what were you doing in the city?” Kenzie says. “Protesting?”
“Hadda work,” I say.
“On a Sunday? That sucks.”
“Where ya work?” Dallas says.
“You must be really smart.” Kenzie sounds super impressed, like I told her I’m a doctor or an architect.
I open my mouth to say, no, I work in the gift shop, but before I can get a word out, Dallas asks, “Whatcha major in?”
“History.” The response is automatic on my part, and it takes me a moment to realize it sounds like I’m saying I’m an historian at the Smithsonian.
No. No, no, no. I hadda drop out before even completing my bachelor’s degree. I’m just a minimum wage monkey working a register.
But it’s too late. They already have the misconception in their heads, and I can’t bring myself to disabuse them.
Well, it’s not like they’re going to know me long enough to discover the lie. Once we get up to the surface, it’ll be, “Nice meeting you, maybe see you around sometime,” and then we’ll go our separate ways, never to see each other again. If they leave thinking I’m some exhibit curator… I’m not going to worry myself.
“You get to handle the Constitution and stuff?” Kenzie says.
“Nah, nothing like that. I just catalogue artifacts—it’s very junior stuff.” I mean, I put geodes on the shelves, so it’s sorta true.
Dallas does a fake cough. “Humblebrag.”
“Be nice.” Kenzie gives her a playful shove, but Dallas’s still wobbly and stumbles over a rail, barely catches herself.
“That musta been some party you guys were at.”
“Enh. I thought it was a fizzle,” Dallas says.
“You certainly seem to be experiencing the aftereffects of a good time.”
“Ooo, listen to the professor. You ever been out partying, or you only study them in books?” Dallas says.
“Okay, maybe not in a while, but I’ve been out drinking before.” One time, really—I’d gotten dragged to a party by my roommate in my first semester at college. Spent the whole night in a corner nursing a beer. It tasted like piss and I’ve never had any desire to try another one.
“Twenty bucks says he’s a virgin.”
“Leave him alone,” Kenzie says.
“You are, aren’t you?”
“Well, I mean …” What am I supposed to say to that? If I deny it, Dallas will keep badgering me for details about my experience—I’ve known girls like her before, and if they once they sense something embarrassing, they never let up.
“Uh-huh. Toldja,” she says.
“What?” Kenzie’s shocked. I guess I should be happy she has a higher opinion of me?
But maybe it’s better to let Dallas think she’s right, that way she’ll back off. I shrug. “I just never… you know.”
“Never had a girlfriend?” Kenzie says.
“Yeah. I did. One.”
But that sets Dallas off again. “How long were you together?”
“About three years, a little less.”
“And she never put out?” Kenzie says.
“Said she wasn’t ready.”
“What was this, high school?” Dallas says.
“You shoulda dumped her,” Dallas says. “I’m sure you coulda found something.”
“Okay, so when you say you’re a virgin … like, how far did you get with her?” Kenzie says.
Shit. I guess the conversation is going down this path whether I want it to or not. “Sometimes … if we were hanging out in her dorm at night, she’d change into her pajamas in front of me. I mean, she wouldn’t get naked, but she’d take her shirt off and then put a nightgown on overneath before taking the rest off.”
“That’s it?” Kenzie says.
“She never let you touch her or anything?” Dallas says.
I shake my head, then realize they can’t see it in the dim light. “No.”
“Why would you put up with that?” Kenzie says.
Shrug. “I was in love.”
“Man,” Dallas says. “You shoulda pushed harder.”
“She said she didn’t want to go further.”
“She was begging you. You didn’t pay attention.”
“I dunno,” Kenzie says. “Some girls can be—” She stops walking. “I think I see something.” She points up ahead.
“The end of the tunnel?” I squint but don’t see any light ahead.
“No, something in the tunnel.”
“Yeah… I think I see it too… maybe,” Dallas says.
“It’s not moving, is it?” A train would have its lights on if it were moving, wouldn’t it?
“No, doesn’t look like.”
We hurry on. After a few more paces, I start to make out an outline. It is a train, but it’s stopped dead. Without power, the electronic sign on the front isn’t working, but I’m guessing this is a Blue or Silver Line train—all three of them use this tunnel.
As we draw closer, though, there’s something not right. The train’s not sitting level on the tracks, and part of the roof is dented.
“Maybe something fell on it, a chunk of ceiling,” Kenzie says.
“Yeah, could be.” If that’s so, we better be careful. Even if we’re not under the river now, there’s still a million tons of dirt over our heads.
“What happened to the window?” Dallas says.
The glass in front of the driver’s compartment is opaque with a spiderweb of fractures, like the train hit something, though I don’t see anything in the tunnel that could cause that.
“Maybe we should wait for the others,” Dallas says.
Wait for them? Hell, I’m about ready to turn around and head the other way. If we hurry, we can be in Rosslyn by 6:30, I’m sure.
But Kenzie doesn’t listen. “C’mon, we can get around the side.” She pulls herself up onto the walkway. “Doors are closed. People must still be on board.” She knocks.
There’s no response.
“Hello.” She tries again, harder this time. When there’s still no answer, she presses her face to the glass, cupping her hands around the side of her eyes to protect from the reflection of the emergency lights.
“See anything?” Dallas asks.
“Nothing. It’s too dark.”
You’d think people inside would have their cell phones out for light.
“Maybe they got off,” Dallas says. “They’re a lot closer to a station than we were. They could’ve left through the back.”
Why would everyone leave through the rear of the train, though? Going through one or two doors would slow things down even worse than it had been on our train.
“The only thing to do is keep going,” Kenzie says. “C’mon.” She waves for us to come up.
Dallas looks at me like, I don’t wanna do this, do you?
Yeah, tell me about it. There’s something hinky about all this. If this were a movie, the audience would be screaming at us to turn around and run the other way.
“What’re you waiting for?” Kenzie says. “The next station can’t be that far. We get around this, we can be outta here in ten, maybe fifteen minutes max.”
She does have a point. Why spend another hour trudging to Rosslyn in this sweltering darkness when we’ve come so far already. It’s not like this is really a movie. There’s no monster gonna jump out at us. Backtracking through the leaky section of tunnel would be more dangerous than going forward.
Besides, I don’t want her thinking I’m chickenshit.
“We should probably keep going,” I say.
Dallas scowls, then shrugs. “Sure whatever.”
The walkway comes a little higher than my waist, so getting up is a bit of a challenge. I have to jump and get my chest onto the platform, then pull the rest of myself up. Then I turn around and give Dallas an assist.
“Thanks.” she brushes herself off, though by this point she’s so filthy it makes no difference. Not that me and Kenzie are in much better shape. Everything down here is covered in grime—if you even brush against the wall, you’re going to come away covered in dirt.
Kenzie’s wandered further down and is knocking on the windows of the second car. “Train’s deserted. C’mon, let’s get to Foggy Bottom, get outta here.”
We start towards her, but just then something skitters on the roof of the train. I can’t see it, but whatever it is, it’s heavy enough that the roof creaks under its weight.
After a moment, it stops moving.
“Somebody up there?” Kenzie calls.
Why would somebody be on the roof? There can’t be more than a couple feet of clearance up there. You’d have to crawl on your belly to get around. Maybe rats or something?
Whatever’s moving is heavy.
“Hey, gimme a boost,” Kenzie says.
“Cradle your hands like this.” She shows me.
“I dunno that’s a good idea.”
“C’mon, it’s not like the Babadook’s up there or anything.”
The what? Nevermind. Probably some movie I never saw—there’re like a million of them.
I lace my fingers together and hold them out for her. She steps onto my hand with one foot and hops up with the other. She grabs the edge of the roof.
“See anything?” Dallas says.
“No, nothi—whoa shit!” Kenzie lets go the roof and the full weight of her body goes right into my hands. I lose my balance and stumble back into the wall. Kenzie falls against me. She’s not that big, but she’s still got enough weight to knock the breath outta me.
“What happ—” Dallas starts.
“Run!” Kenzie pushes herself up.
“What?” Dallas says.
Kenzie grabs my shoulder so hard I feel her nails through the shirtsleeve. I push myself off the wall but nearly fall over from the force of her tugging me.
She lets go of me to give Dallas a shove. “Move! Run!”
We pelt down the walkway.
“Hey!” A door at the end of the train slides open and a man with a shaggy beard and black-rimmed glasses sticks his head out. “In’ere, in’ere!” He waves us on.
Kenzie sprints ahead.
I’m about to follow suit, but the strap on Dallas’s shoe chooses that moment to snap. She stumbles, but I grab her to keep her upright.
Behind me, there’s a noise like a thousand tiny feet on metal. Something hisses.
“We needa shut it,” somebody in the train says.
“Give ‘em a minute,” a woman says.
“C’mon,” I tell Dallas.
She takes a step, but her shoe is sliding off her foot. It’s a cloppy, high heeled sandal, so ditching it while keeping the other one on would only make things worse.
I wrap an arm around her waist and lift her up. Ooof. I didn’t think she’d be that heavy. Even when she hooks an arm around my neck, I can barely stay upright.
“You gotta run,” the hipster-looking dude calls out.
Yeah, easier said than done. I’m moving as fast as I can, but when you’ve got a hundred and some pounds of girl in your arms, it kinda slows you down.
We’re almost to the door, though. Kenzie’s already through. Just a couple more steps. Couple more, c’mon. We can do it.
But as I get closer, I see they only have one of the door panels open. There’s no way I can get through with Dallas in my arms. I drop her to the ground and swing her around, sending her flying through the door. Kenzie and the Hipster grab her.
I’m about to follow, but my curiosity gets the better of me. I look behind me.
That’s a mistake.
Clinging to the side of the train is giant, segmented bug. I can’t see its whole body because it snakes onto the roof, but what I do see is more than twelve feet long and at least three across. Each link in its body is flanged on the sides, bulging in the center, with a pair of triple-jointed legs growing from each join. Its eyes glitter like a geode, and a pair of pincers the size of my arms project in front of its maw.
Jesus fucking Christ!
The thing rushes towards me, its legs moving in smooth waves.
I jump into the car.
A man and woman crouched next to the door slide it shut, and then a third pulls up the emergency lever, securing it in place.
The train lurches. The ambient light dims as the creature passes across the windows.
“Holy hell,” somebody says.
“Shhh,” the woman at the door says.
The thing slows. Its head twists back and forth, looking for where we disappeared to. The man and woman plaster themselves against the wall and the rest of us go stock still as the thing peers inside with shining, violet eyes.
How well can it see? Does it have night vision? Can it see detail, or just spot movement?
It taps the glass with its pincers. They have three finger-like extensions on the ends. It uses them to feel for the seam between door halves. How much dexterity does it have? Are those fingers just for pulling food into its maw, or can they pry as well?
The creature stays at the door for what seems like forever. If it has that much curiosity, is it intelligent in some way? Even if it’s only as smart as a cat, that would be serious trouble.
But after several long minutes, it finally gives up, scurries away.
We wait to be sure it’s gone, and then everyone starts breathing again.
“What was that?” Dallas says.
“Millipede, looked like,” the hipster guy says.
“Nah, millipedes are nice guys. That was a centipede,” someone down the car says. “They’re nasty bastards.”
“Can’t be,” a woman replies. “Arthropods don’t get that big. Square-cube law.”
“Whatever it is,” the Hipster says, “we don’t wanna tangle with it.” He looks from me to Dallas to Kenzie. “You’re not from this train?”
“No, we were on the Orange Line,” Kenzie says.
“That explains it,” the Hipster says.
“Explains what?” Dallas says. She sits down on a bench and takes her shoe off, examines the broken thong.
The woman by the door is peering outside. “If you were on this train, you’d know that thing by now.” She’s an older woman, mid-forties at least, with weathered brown skin under a tank-top. Her hair’s pulled back under a bandanna.
“I thought you might’ve been hiding in one of the other cars, but guess not,” the Hipster says.
“We didn’t see anyone in the rest of the train,” Kenzie says. “We figured everyone had split.”
“We tried to.” This from the guy who’s standing by the door. He’s about my age, with his hair done up in cornrows, and dressed in a blue button-down shirt with a yellow tie. “We was about half unloaded when that bastard appeared.”
“Do we want to know what happened?” Dallas says. She’s pulled a barrette from her hair and uses that to repair her shoe.
“Take a look out the back door,” the woman in the bandanna says.
I don’t think I wanna, but I step towards the rear of the train. Kenzie moves to follow, but Dallas stays seated.
Outside on the tracks, there are bodies everywhere. They look like toys that were thrown in their air and left where they fell. Some of them are intact, but others are in pieces. The tunnel walls are spattered with blood, drips and drabs in places, a thick, solid coat in others.
And in the center of it all, there’s the creature. It’s curled around itself, like a cat napping in a pile of blankets, but it’s not asleep. It’s mouth-end is gnawing on… on… oh, I think I’m gonna be sick. The beast has a human leg sticking from its maw, its mandibles holding it in place and slowly easing it down its throat.
“What the hell is that?” Kenzie says. “Where did it come from? Jesus fuck.”
Those are very good questions, and I haven’t clue one for an answer. The thing sure looks like a centipede, but there’s never been a centipede that big on Earth.
“Keep your voice down,” the woman in the bandanna says. “The thing can hear.”
We back away from the window.
“We’ve gotta tell the others,” Kenzie says.
“What others?” Hipster says.
“The other people on our train,” Kenzie says.
“You aren’t alone?” Bandanna says.
“We got ahead of our group. They stopped to examine this kinda hole in the…” I trail off.
“What is it?” the Hipster says.
“About maybe halfway between our train and here, we found a hole in the wall, like something had burst into the tunnel from outside.”
Hipster blinks several times fast. “Like Shai-Hulud or something?”
I don’t know what that is, but I nod anyways. “Yeah, something like that.”
The Hipster turns his head towards the back of the train. “You don’t think it was that thing, do you?”
Shrug. “Well, it came from somewhere, right?”
“Sure as hell not from around here,” Bandanna says.
“Anyway, we’ve gotta tell the others,” Kenzie say. “If they get caught out there….”
Yeah, but shit, I don’t wanna go out there. Not with that thing outside. I mean, I don’t want anyone to get eaten, no way, but that especially goes for myself. As long as we’re on the train, we should be safe—we’re high enough that the river’s not gonna drown us if the tunnel busts, so all we gotta do is wait for rescue to arrive. It has to get here sometime. They can bring in police, or, okay, maybe National Guard would be more appropriate, but let professionals with guns deal with it. We can sit here for a few hours until everything’s safe.
“I think we should stay here,” Dallas says.
She’s voicing the sentiment of the entire car. Nobody wants to go outside. They all stare at their feet rather than meet Kenzie’s eyes as she looks around the train.
Her eyes lock on Dallas. “What about the people who helped carry you?”
“Yeah, that was great of them. But that was when we thought the tunnel was empty. If they knew there was a freakin’ monster out there, you think they’d’ve volunteered? Hell no. They’d’ve hightailed it straight outta here.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a nice sentiment,” the Hipster says, “but, uh, you go outside and you’re gonna get eaten.”
“And what about the others?” Kenzie says. “They can get eaten, no problem?”
The Hipster thrusts his hands in his pockets and shuffles his feet. “Yeah. I mean, we can’t make the whole world our problem. We gotta worry about us.”
Kenzie shakes her head. “Fine then, we can do it without your help.”
Wait, we? What’s this we stuff? Who’s we?
She looks at me. Her eyes have this look in them like she knows I’m on her side, of course I’m gonna come. Where did she get that idea? I think she’s crazy if she wants to go outside. There’s no way I’m going.
“C’mon.” She flips a finger for me to come with her.
If I tell her no, she’s gonna nail me with that same disdainful look she gave Dallas and the Hipster. She’s gonna decide I’m another one of these loser cowards, completely not worth her time to talk to. Which, to be fair, I totally am.
But when I imagine the look she’s gonna give me, I’m too much of a coward to face that, either.
“Sure,” I say, and I step towards the front of the car.
Oh my God, what am I doing? Am I crazy? Yeah, definitely crazy. Completely. Fucking. Nuts.
But now that I’m moving, I can’t back out. That’d be even worse than telling her no from the beginning. So I keep moving, one foot in front of the other, towards the door at the front of the car.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m gonna get killed, and for what? Because I don’t wanna embarrass myself in front of a cute girl? How can I be that much of a moron?
“Hey, I’ll come too.” It’s the woman in the bandanna.
The guy with cornrows is at her shoulder. “Yeah, me too.”
In a movie, this would be the moment the damn bursts. The Hipster would be next up. He’d probably say something about how completely fucking ridiculous this plan is, and then agree to come anyway, because, hey, why not, and then everyone in the train would join in.
But this isn’t a movie. Nobody agrees to come with us but those two.
Well, it’s better than nothing. And the more of us there are, the better our chances of someone getting away if the beast comes after us.
It doesn’t seem to’ve made a difference to the bodies outside. Only a small fraction of them had made it back onto the train. But then, they’d had no idea the monster was coming. We know it’s out there, we can be on our guard.
Yeah, if I keep thinking that, I might start to believe it.
We’re almost to the front of the car when I catch a familiar face from the corner of my eye. Not somebody I know, but somebody I see all the time in the cafeteria at work. She’s from the Natural History Museum—the actual museum, not the gift shop.
Our eyes connect for a second, but I don’t think she recognizes me. But hey, I’m not that memorable. I’m just some flunky from the gift shop, not worth paying attention to, especially if she’s an actual scientist. I recognize her because she’s cute and near my age, but there’s no reason for her to return the favor.
Kenzie grabs the handle on the inter-train door and tries to open it, but after a couple yanks, the latch doesn’t budge. I step up and give her a hand. Between the two of us, we get the latch open.
Thankfully the door on the other side is easier to deal with, and we’re able to file through quickly, closing the doors behind us, just in case that beast can squeeze between cars.
This car is deserted completely. A copy of the City Paper on an empty seat is the only sign of human occupation.
“I’m pretty sure everyone still alive,” Bandanna says, “is in the last car.”
There’d only been a few dozen people back there. Assuming this train had been as crowded as ours… that’s a lot of dead people.
“Do you think anyone escaped down the tunnel?” Kenzie asks.
The woman shakes her head. “Maybe somebody managed, but when that monster first appeared, it charged right past us before turning around and trapping us.”
“It’s not just its mouth,” Cornrow says, “the thing’s got barbs on its legs, I think they must be poison. It was knockin’ people over, and I didn’t see any of ‘em get up again.”
We reach the end of the car and I pull open the door latches. We pour into the next car and Cornrow seals the doors behind us.
“What I wanna know,” he says once the car’s closed, “is where something like that comes from?”
“It’s an alien,” Bandanna says.
“Yeah, a twenty foot long centipede crawling around in train tunnels is ridiculous. But here we are.”
“Alien sounds right,” Kenzie says.
“Yeah. I mean, who’s ever heard of anything like that on Earth?” I say.
Cornrow shakes his head. “Could be a government experiment. They do that stuff at the National Zoo, you know. Genetic engineering for the military.”
I don’t think that’s true, but I’m not going to argue it. I start down the car.
“If it is an alien, you think it has anything to do with the earthquake?” Kenzie says.
“Be a weird coincidence if it didn’t,” Bandanna says.
“Could’ve escaped from the zoo during the quake.”
“Zoo’s on the Red Line, and besides, the thing came from the other direction,” Bandanna says.
“Okay, but if it is aliens,” Kenzie says, “what does that mean? What’s going on up above?”
We all stop.
This whole time, I’ve been assuming our problem is local—something wrong with this particular line, or maybe—maybe—the whole Metro system. But if there are aliens, and they’re dropping giant centipedes on us, what’s going on topside? I’d figured we’d get up there, there might be a little structural damage, but nothing major. What if it’s Independence Day, though?
That also means there might not be anyone available for rescue attempts. We could be stuck down here a while.
“I’m tellin’ you, that’s nonsense,” Cornrow insists. “There ain’t no Darth Vader or Mr. Spock, none of that shit.”
“How can you be so sure?” Kenzie says.
“The Bible. God didn’t create no other worlds. We’re the center of creation.”
“Well, believe what you wanna believe,” Bandanna says, “I say it’s aliens.”
We move through the next couple cars in silence. We’ve got the process of opening and closing the doors down to a science, and it looks like we’re gonna make it all the way to the end with no trouble, when--
“Errrnk.” I tug the latch to the last car, but it won’t budge. The metal on the underside of the handle is biting into my fingers to the point that I have to stop and massage them. There’s no blood, but the skin is red and raw.
“Lemme have a try,” Cornrow says. He squats down and grabs the handle, pulls it with all his weight.
The latch moves halfway to open, but when it does, the handle screams.
“Oh shit,” Bandanna says.
We hold quiet for a moment. Did the beast hear?
Seconds tick by. Five. Ten. Twenty.
Cornrow gives the latch another tug, manages to move it another half inch.
“Did you feel that?” Kenzie says.
“Feel what?” Bandanna says.
I shake my head.
But then I do. The train’s vibrating.
Tudh-tudh-tudh-tudh. Something’s beating a steady rhythm on the roof. It sounds a couple cars back, but it’s drawing closer.
“Got it!” Cornrow says as the latch gives way. The door to the last car swings inward. “C’mon!” He jumps up and starts through, but Bandanna catches him.
“No, stay back.” She grabs the door to our car and slams it shut.
“What’re you doing? We could get across,” Cornrow says. He’s right. The beast is coming on fast, but even so, we have plenty of time to get into the next car and seal the door.
“And then what? We’re stuck inside with that thing crawling around.” Bandanna says.
“So? Now we’re stuck in this one.” Cornrow says. “Same diff, but we’re further from where we wanna be.”
“Uh-uh,” Bandanna says. “I’ve got an idea.”
Our car shakes. The beast is on top of us, its hundreds of legs beating on the roof. We can follow its movements even without seeing it.
This is what I was afraid of. We’re gonna die in here. Why the hell did I agree to come along? Did I think I was going to impress Kenzie with a show of bravery? Ha-ha-ha, yeah, that’s a good one.
The beast’s head slides into the gap between cars. It’s eyes are facing away from us, but it’s mandibles grope around. They home in on the window in the door and start pounding. There’s not enough room for the mandibles to make a big swing, but they still have enough power behind them that a crack appears in the glass. A second swing, the crack expands. New fractures appear.
It raises the mandible one more time.
I grab Kenzie and pull her behind a seat. I crouch over her.
The window shatters. The seat back shields us from most of the shrapnel, but some of it bounces onto my back.
The beast screams.
What do I do? Do I keep cowering back here and hope the thing can’t get in through the tiny window, or should I move, try to get away?
“It’s okay,” Bandanna says.
I look up. The creature has the tip of its head inside, but the window isn’t big enough to let any more of it through. As long as we stay out of reach of the mandibles, we’re safe.
For the moment.
There are two other windows at the end of the car, both of them much larger. Big enough for the thing to crawl through. Not to mention the ones on the side of the train. In the long run, we’re screwed.
Bandanna has a gash across her cheek. She wipes away the blood, but only manages to smear it.
“Jamal,” she says to Cornrow, “I want you to go to the other end of the car. Make some noise.”
He considers for a second and does as he’s told.
“Don’t open the door,” Bandanna calls after him. “Just pound on it or something.”
The beast can’t see us through the window—its eyes are blocked by the door—but it can hear, and it gets more frantic at the sound of voices. One mandible latches onto a pole, tugs it hard enough to bend it, but it must realize it’s not something edible and lets go.
Jamal kicks the far door. He bangs on the glass.
The beast withdraws its head. It holds for a second, listening, then scampers across the roof.
“Okay, go,” Bandanna says. She dashes forward and grabs the door. “Jamal, keep it busy.”
I jump to my feet and follow Bandanna. Bits of glass crunch under my feet. I look behind and make sure Kenzie’s with me.
Jamal hadn’t had time to re-latch the door to the next car, so once Bandanna has our side open, we get across no problem. I close the door behind us, being careful not to slam it.
“Oh my God,” Kenzie breathes. “That was intense.”
Bandanna grabs the hem of her shirt and wipes the blood off her face. More’s trickling out, but at least she doesn’t look like she stepped out of The Walking Dead now. “Hopefully that’s all the intensity we’re due today.”
Her lips to God’s ear.
“Let’s roll,” she says. “No telling how long Jamal can keep that thing interested.”
We head up to the front of the train. The driver’s box is open. I duck inside and peer through the front window, the part of it that isn’t shattered. The emergency lights barely give off enough glow to make out the tracks. The tunnel looks deserted. Are the others still back gawking at the hole?
In the distance, where perspective makes the lights run together, there’s movement. I can’t make out details, but I don’t think it’s another one of those monsters.
I step back to the passenger compartment. Bandanna has the cover off the emergency door release.
“I’ll pull it on three,” she says, “then you two pull the door open.”
“Sure,” Kenzie says.
“One… two… three.”
Bandanna pulls the handle. Something in the wall thunks and the rubber seals between the doors relax. I grab one side and pull. The door moves stiffly, stops halfway open. I dig my fingers into the seal and I’m about to yank it when Bandanna puts a hand on my forearm. She shakes her head and touches her lip with her index finger. She points to Kenzie, who has her side about three-quarters open. There’s enough of a gap for us to get out.
We step through to the emergency walkway, Bandanna in the lead, myself in the rear. I cast a glance behind me to make sure the beast isn’t gonna appear. Looks like we’re safe for the moment.
Bandanna sets a fast pace—not quite jogging, but a brisk, brisk walk. We need to intercept the others as far out as possible, that way any conversation we have will be unlikely to attract the beast. Who knows how good the thing’s hearing is.
Bandanna and Kenzie pull ahead of me and I struggle to keep pace. I’m not out of shape by any stretch—when I go to work, I have to walk a mile to catch the bus to Vienna and back again. But unless I’m running late, that’s a leisurely stroll. Hurrying is another matter. I’m not used to it.
Bandanna isn’t paying any attention. Why should she? It’s like that old story about the guys on safari, they’re camping out one night when they’re woken by the roar of a lion near camp. One of them immediately gets up and starts putting on his shoes.
“What’re you doing?” the other guy says, “You can’t outrun a lion.”
The first guy smiles and goes, “I don’t have to outrun the lion.”
Predators aren’t killing machines. They’re eating machines. They catch lunch, they’re satisfied. There’s no need to kill every zebra in a herd; the slowest will do. If Bandanna leaves me in the dust, her chances of survival go up.
But this thing isn’t behaving like a predator, not really. Look at how many people it had killed back at the train. Sure, it was munching on some of them, but unless it has an appetite big enough for King Kong, it’s not going to get through all of them before they start rotting.
Though I suppose it might not mind rotting flesh.
Still, its behavior doesn’t strike me as that of a predator. Only in sci-fi movies are predators ever that kill-happy.
But the fact remains, it did kill a train load of people. Why? That sort of viciousness could be a sign of malevolent intelligence. Its mandibles look like they could use tools. If it is an alien…
But if it were an alien intelligence, wouldn’t it have brought tools with it. Why smash through a window if it has ray-guns?
And besides, other parts of it behavior seem more instinctual. It chased after sounds the way my cat does, when an intelligent being would’ve kept focus in one place.
I can’t help but think we’re missing something here.
“Hey!” Mr. Take Charge calls out.
We’re close enough to his group to make out the shadowy line of people behind him, though not close enough to see faces yet.
He lifts his hands over his head and waves them back and forth. “Up here.”
They’re still walking on the tracks. Probably figured that climbing back onto the walkway was too much trouble, third rail be damned.
Bandanna jumps off the walkway without slowing and lands in a crouch. She jumps up and waves her own hands in front of her in a shushing gesture.
“Shh! Quiet,” she hisses.
Mr. Take Charge halts about twenty feet ahead of her, which in this darkness is the furthest we can see clearly. The rest of his column takes their time in stopping, and they end up bunching up around him.
Kenzie and I lower ourselves onto the track.
When Mr. Take Charge catches sight of us, he grimaces. “Where’ve you two been? What happened to the other girl?” He’s speaking in his normal tone of voice, which is loud and booming.
“I said quiet,” Bandanna tells him.
Mr. Take Charge glances at her for half a second, then back to us. “We were worried, thought something happened to you.” He’s a little softer now, but still too loud for comfort.
“We went on ahead,” Kenzie says, keeping her voice low.
“You should’ve said something.”
“We didn’t think it was a big deal. There’s only one way we could go. And it’s not like you’re in charge or anything official like that.”
That’s not the thing to tell Mr. Take Charge. “Somebody has to keep things together.”
“What part of quiet do you not understand?” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge focuses on her. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes, there’s a huge problem, and if you keep talking like that, the problem is going to notice us and come over here.”
That gives him pause—only maybe half a second’s worth, but it’s noticeable. “What’re you talking about?”
“There’s a—” Kenzie starts, then hesitates before finishing, “—a monster up ahead.”
The reaction from the crowd is more confused than concerned.
“Excuse me, a what?” the annoying old guy says.
“We don’t know what it is,” Bandanna says. “But it’s big, and it killed half the people on my train.”
“Killed” is the magic word.
“Oh my God.”
“Who’s been killed?”
“Who’re these guys?”
“What did she say?”
“There’s another train?”
“Somebody got killed?”
“Christ, do you people not know what ‘quiet’ means?” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge turns back to the group. “Hold it down. Hold it down, please.”
The chatter subsides.
“Now, what, exactly, do you mean by ‘monster’?”
“Twenty feet long, about a hundred legs, it eats people,” Bandanna says. “Monster.”
“It eats people?” Mr. Take Charge says. He looks over to me. “What’s she talking about?”
“What she said is exactly it. Like a giant centipede, and it eats people.”
“Okay.” He doesn’t believe us, but, “Let’s go take a look.”
“We need to get up on the walkway,” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge looks to me again.
“Yeah, we need to be up there to get on the train, and better to do it here than down there with the monster around.”
He keeps staring at me for another moment, like he expects me to crack a smile and tell him, “Nah, we’re fucking with you man. Course there’s no monster.” When I don’t, he tells the group, “Okay everyone, back up on the walkway.
A groan goes through the group. Bandanna checks behind us again, makes sure the monster hasn’t heard.
Everyone starts climbing onto the walkway. Some manage it on their own, but most need help getting up. I assist a middle aged woman, crouching down and letting her use my back as a stool. While I’m doing that, Kenzie goes to the woman with the baby and helps her while Sarah holds the kid. Mrs. Schorr helps the woman’s two daughters up.
“Can you give me a hand with this?” Mr. Schorr asks. He sets his backpack on the tracks. “Didn’t have any trouble lugging this around DC, but I tell you, carrying it up that slope took the wind right out of me.”
“You need to be careful, Dan,” his wife says.
“I’ll be fine. Not a problem.”
I help his eldest son—Sam I think his name was—get Mr. Schorr onto the walkway, then we lift the backpack up to him.
“You really should let someone else carry it,” Mrs. Schorr says as he pulls the straps over his shoulder.
“I’ve got it, don’t worry about it.” He waves her off.
Me and Sam help her onto the walkway, then Sam scrambles up after them.
Me and Kenzie are all that’s left on the track. Bandanna’s all the way down at the front of the line, taking a spot in front of even Mr. Take Charge. He doesn’t look pleased.
There aren’t any gaps in the line, so me and Kenzie end up taking spots at the rear, behind the homeless guy. He walks with a stumbling stoop, and I half expect him to take a tumble after a couple steps, but he manages to remain upright.
“… the beast coming out of the sea… the beast coming out of the sea…” he mutters incessantly. “The beast, the beast, the seven crowned beast… and his number is six hundred three score and six.” He stops abruptly and turns. “What is the beast you saw? How many heads had it?” He’s clutching a wooden crucifix in his fist.
Kenzie takes a step back, either in surprise or from the rotten stench of his breath, and bumps into me. I put an hand on her shoulder to keep my balance. “Just the one,” she says.
“Mmm. Just one. Then he’s not the beast of Revelation. That’s good. That’s good.”
“Okay dude, yeah.” Kenzie says. “We should keep going. And be quiet.” She puts a finger to her lips. “Don’t want the demons to hear.”
The man smiles, revealing a mouth full of brown and yellow teeth. “Heh-heh-heh. Even though you dress like that, you understand.” He digs in his pocket and pulls something. “Take this. It is a holy book. It can protect you.” He grabs Kenzie by the wrist and pushes a small pamphlet into her hands. It’s called “The Last Generation” and has a drawing of a guy looks like a super villain on the cover.
She pulls her arm back, gently but forcibly so as not to provoke the guy further. “Yeah. Thank you.”
“Heh-heh-heh. The end times are upon us. Soon we will know the power and the glory.” His eyes beam.
He turns and resumes walking.
We wait a moment, let him get a ways ahead before following.
“You meet all kinds,” Kenzie whispers.
The walk back to the train takes far longer than the journey out, and as we draw nearer, I brace myself. Bandanna had said when the monster first appeared, it had raced past everyone and blocked the tunnel. If it pops up now, we’ll have to turn and run right away if we’re to have any chance of getting away. I’m half tempted to go now. But if there’s one beast loose down here, why not two or three? Though if that’s the case, we’re probably dead no matter what we do.
Pray it’s a lone monster. We might have a chance.
The train’s in sight ahead. Last time we’d approached without even glancing at the roof, but this time that’s all my eyes focus on. There’s not much to see, just a shadowy crevice. It looks empty, but…
My palms are sweating. My heart’s banging out a wild beat. If the beast is lying in wait, this is when it’ll jump out.
The seconds slip by, tick-tock, tick-tock.
We get closer and closer.
The front of the line reaches the train and we slow to a halt. Up ahead, Bandanna steps inside, then Mr. Take Charge. The rest file after them.
Maybe we can relax. We’re almost to safety and the beast hasn’t put in an appearance.
But then, what’s going to happen next? Once we get on board, we’ve got nowhere to go, not with the beast still out here. The train only represents relative safety. We still need a way out of the tunnel, and how’re we gonna manage that? We’ve been down here long enough that if rescue hasn’t shown up by now, it’s not going to.
Maybe we should’ve kept walking towards Rosslyn after all.
Ah, who knows? I’m tired. I don’t wanna think right now.
Most of the crowd is on the train by now. There are only a few people between us and the door. If the beast hasn’t attacked yet, it’s probably not gonna.
Provided we don’t do anything to attract its attention.
The last couple people step through the door. The homeless guy hesitates on the threshold, like he actually prefers the tunnel, but he finally steps inside. Kenzie and I follow.
“That everyone?” Bandanna says.
“Yeah.” Thumbs up.
She pushes one door shut, and Mr. Schorr’s eldest son gets the other one. She pulls the emergency handle to lock the doors in place.
Some people have decided to take a break and grab seats, but Bandanna claps her hands—not loudly, but enough to get attention. “Hey, hey! No time for rest.”
Mr. Take Charge glowers at her. “I thought you said we hadda get on the train.”
“Yeah, and my peeps are at the other end. Don’t worry, it’s not much farther.”
People struggle back to their feet. The journey may not’ve been that far, but most of the people here are tourists or protesters, they’ve spent the day schlepping around DC in the August heat. They’re exhausted.
“Hey, you.” Bandanna snaps her fingers at me.
Her eyebrows quirk.
“My name. River.”
“Yeah, River. Could you handle the doors again? Get them open, make sure they close and latch behind us.”
Do I have to? I remember what happened on our way out. Last thing I want is to get caught between cars struggling with recalcitrant latches. Good way to get killed. “Sure,” I say. I don’t know why.
I follow her to the end of the car. We wait for everyone to gather round and I pull the latch. This is the one that gave us trouble last time, but from the inside it opens, no problem.
I sigh with relief and step into the gap between cars, open the next door, the one with the shattered window.
When I get inside the second car, there’s Jamal waiting for us. He’s sprawled out on a side-facing bench. “Thank God you guys are back.”
“Where’s the beast?” Bandanna says as she comes inside.
“I dunno. It lost interest after a few minutes, scampered off somewhere. That way I think.” He waves towards the back of the train.
Hopefully it’s chowing down on leftovers—it’s a horrible thought, I know, but as long as it’s stuffing its maw, it’s not here.
More people pour into the car—Mr. Take Charge, the Schorrs, the woman with all the kids, I count them off. We’re twenty-seven strong including Jamal and Bandanna. Twenty-eight if I count myself.
Once I’m sure everyone’s out of the previous car, I pull the door shut. It creaks and won’t fit into the frame. Shit.
“Leave it,” Bandanna tells me.
Not gonna argue. I shut the door to this car—it closes and latches like it’s oiled with butter.
“What happened to the window?” somebody asks. “Why’s there glass everywhere.”
“Toldja. Monster,” Bandanna says. “C’mon.”
We get through the next two cars without incident. Only one more to go before we’re back to Dallas and Hipster and the others.
So of course, that’s when everything goes to shit.
To Be Continued...
-by Sean O'Hara