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...
“Back up! Everyone, now!” the station manager shouts.
“What’s going on?”
“C’mon, let us out!”
“Listen to the man,” I say. “You can’t get out up there.”
The burning engine is roaring behind me, though the way the escalator shaft is shaped, you have to be standing right there to hear it. The flames are also sucking air upwards. It’s not a strong updraft, but I can feel the air flowing around me. Good thing this isn’t a closed space, or we’d be suffocating right quick.
“What’s wrong?” a woman asks. She’s about my age, in a business suit that’s coated with dust.
“Looks like a plane crashed right on top of us. The entrance is blocked,” I say.
“Oh, fun,” says a man in a polo shirt and khakis.
“Isn’t there an elevator around here?” another man says. This guy’s with his whole family, tourists probably.
“Power’s out,” the manager says.
“Whaddaya mean power’s out?” a young guy says. “Light’s are still on.”
“Backups,” the manager says. “We’ve got about eight hours of battery.”
“So what’re we gonna do?” the woman in the business suit says.
The station master looks up the shaft. He blows out through his mouth. “I think we needa evacuate.”
“How do we do that?” the young guy says. “Is there an emergency exit?”
“Tunnels,” the guy in the polo shirt says.
“Yeah,” the manager says. “There are emergency walkways. They’re meant for people on trains to get to the next station, but they work the other way, too.”
“We’re gonna miss our flight,” the tourist guy says.
“Don’t worry,” Polo Shirt says, “if there’s a plane crash, there are gonna be delays. C’mon.”
We turn as a group and head into the station. When we get through the fare gates, we see the woman who’d been beaned by the falling concrete earlier. She’s sprawled on the floor like she’s taking a nap, except the side of her face is painted with blood. The guy who’d stopped to help her is kneeling beside her, his head cupped in his hands. He hears us and looks up.
“What the fuck?” he says.
“What happened here?” the station manager says.
“Part of the ceiling fell in,” Polo Shirt explains. “She took it on the head.”
“And you guys, you just pushed past her, not even bothering to stop, see if she’s okay.”
“Hey man,” Micah says, “it was pandemonium. We were panicked. Situation like that, you do what you gotta do to survive.”
“Yeah?” the guy on the floor says.
Nobody says anything for a moment, then a teenage girl with a teddy bear backpack says, “Is she …?”
“She’s dead,” the guy says. “I’m pretty sure. We should get an ambulance just in case. You’ve called 911?”
“We can’t get out,” Polo Shirt says and explains the problem.
“Great.” The guys stands up, brushes himself off. “Well come on then, let’s get the hell outta here.”
As we move to the escalator, I put an arm around Ali. “You okay?”
“No. I’m terrified.” She looks it. It’s like when we’d tried pot, back when we were first going out. Weed’s supposed to make you mellow, and back then Ali really needed some mellow, so we decided to give it a shot. Didn’t work. It made her paranoid. We’d been in our apartment with a couple friends, and Ali had freaked the fuck out, convinced the cops were going to bust in and arrest us. We’d had to hold her down and stuff a washcloth in her mouth to keep her from shouting so loud that one of our neighbors would’ve called the police. That was before she started her medication.
“Nothing to worry about.” I give her a squeeze. I’m still pissed at her, don’t think I’m not, but a freak-out is the last thing I want right now.
We file down the escalators. There are few enough of us that we don’t end up crowded. Ali and I have one almost to ourselves, just the station manager a few steps ahead of us, and the woman in the business suit behind. Micah’s on the next one over. We look at each other, nod, but don’t say anything. Good. He’s gonna respect our space.
At the bottom, there’s a guy still on the platform. He’s sitting on a bench, reading a novel in the dim light. I’d thought everyone had gone upstairs after the explosion, but apparently not. He has a bicycle parked next to him.
“Uh, excuse me. Sir?” the manager says.
The guy looks up. He’s got a salt-and-pepper beard, short cropped. Just thick enough to give his cheeks texture. “When will the train get here?”
Nobody says anything.
“It was supposed to be here three minutes ago.”
“I don’t think it’s coming,” Polo Shirt says. “Didn’t you feel the earthquake?”
“A properly functioning subway system should be impervious natural phenomenon.” Is this guy for real? His expression doesn’t look like he’s trying to make a joke.
“Yeah, this is Metro,” Polo Shirt says.
“They charge enough. They shouldn’t have service interruptions.”
“Well. They do. They’re having one right now.”
“Mmm. So when will service be restored?”
“We’re not sure, but there are some problems above ground,” the manager says. “We’re going to evacuate through the tunnel.”
“We shouldn’t have to evacuate. The Metro should restore service, or provide us a bus for transport to a functional station.”
“Well, be that as it may,” the manager says, “that’s the situation we’re in.”
“Will I be charged for my ticket if I have to walk to another station?”
“No ... we’ll let you out for free.” The manager looks to the rest of us, like, This guy’s nuts, isn’t he? It’s not my imagination?
“But my ticket was already processed through the turnstile. Even if I leave through the same gate, I’ll be charged a minimum fee.”
“We’ll reimburse you.”
“I still don’t think this is fair. I will be writing to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to complain.”
“You do that, man,” Polo Shirt says.
“Okay. I will go.” The man stands up and grabs his bike. He raises the kickstand.
“You can’t take that,” the manager says.
“But it is my bike.”
“I understand that, but the emergency evacuation platform isn’t big enough.”
“But if I leave my bike here, how can I be sure it will be returned safely? I need this to get to work and to go grocery shopping.”
Jesus! What is this guy’s issue?
“Look,” I say, “if the power’s out, that means the third rail’s off, there aren’t any trains moving, right?”
“Yeah,” the manager says. “There might be a static charge, I dunno, but should be safe, I think.”
“So why don’t we let the guy take his bike on the tracks if that’s what he wants?”
There’s a murmur of agreement from the rest of our group. Nobody wants to be stuck here arguing with the guy.
“Okay, yeah,” the manager says. “Do you need help getting the bike down?”
“It is my bike. I will move it.”
“Okay, dude, you be you,” Polo Shirt says. “Now, which way do we go?”
“The next stations are about the same distance from here,” the manager says, “but Reagan National is above ground. We’re only a couple blocks from where the tunnel comes to the surface.”
“That’s my vote,” the woman in the business suit says.
“Good by me,” the young man says.
“That’s where we were headed anyway,” the tourist guy says. “Though I don’t suppose we’ll be taking our luggage.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Micah says.
“Yeah.” The sooner Ali gets some fresh air, the better.
“I need to go the other way,” the guy with the bike says. He’s managed to get onto the trackbed and is wrestling his bike down. “I live in that direction.”
“We’ll call you a cab,” Polo Shirt says.
“A cab might not have room for my bike.”
“Go whatever way you want, man,” Micah says. “Nobody gives a shit.”
Nobody had wanted to be the asshole to say that, but now that it’s said, everyone nods agreement. Even they guy who’d stopped to help the dead woman.
The bicyclist considers. “I will go with you. Never split the group is the number one rule in situations like this.”
“So we’re all agreed?” the manager says. “Let’s roll out, then.”
We head into the tunnel. At first, the bicyclist is the only one on the trackbed, but once we get a look at how narrow the walkway is, people start climbing down. The station manager tries to stop them at first, but he gives up once it’s clear nobody’s gonna listen. He gave one person permission, so nobody sees a reason not to.
But once the walkway clears, it isn’t so bad. So I figure, why get off? The woman in the suit is the same way, and the station manager doesn’t want to give into the demands of the crowd.
I put a hand on Ali’s shoulder. “You doing o—” I don’t get the sentence out. She jumps when I touch her, nearly falls off the walkway. I catch her by the waist.
“Jesus, don’t do that!” She says it loud enough that Polo Shirt looks up at us.
“Sorry. I just wanted to see if you’re doing okay.”
“I’m not a baby, you know.”
“As long as I can get out of here fast, I’ll be fine. Okay?”
We haven’t traveled far when the literal light at the end of the tunnel appears. The closer we get to it, the fresher the air tastes, though it’s also getting hotter as we go. More humid, too.
Micah’s the first one to reach the mouth, then the other young guy, but they only step out a few feet before turning around and coming back in. The light outside is too intense to see what’s wrong.
“The track’s blocked,” the young guy says.
“Is the tunnel collapsed?” the station manager says.
Oh please, no. I don’t wanna have to backtrack.
“No, not that,” Micah says. “There’s a car, an SUV in the way.”
“What?” Polo Shirt says.
“There’s an overpass,” the young guy says, “just outside the tunnel, looks like the car flew off it, straight through the guardrail.”
“What the hell?” the woman in the business suit says.
“What about a rescue crew?” Polo Shirt says. “Are they out there.”
Micah and the other guy trade looks.
“Didn’t look like it.”
“I’ll go check.” Micah turns back.
The rest of us hurry towards the entrance, and those of us on the walkway climb down to the trackbed.
“There’s nobody out here,” Micah says.
“What about people in the car?” Business Suit says.
“I can’t tell. The way it fell, it’s on its side, its wheels towards us.”
“I dunno,” the manager says, “maybe the rescue crew has already gotten people out and they’re waiting for heavy equipment to move the car?”
“Maybe,” Polo Shirt says. “Let’s check it out.” He looks around our group. “You two, you and you.” He points to Micah and the other young guy, me, and a teenager I think’s with the tourist family. I don’t know who put him in charge, but his choices make sense so there’s no reason not to go along with him.
“Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I kiss Ali on the cheek. She scowls but doesn’t say anything.
The tunnel comes out on the slope of a hill, and there’s a retaining wall on one side to keep soil from spilling onto the track. A crack bisects the wall, and given the way it bulges out, I dunno how much longer it’s gonna be retaining anything. To our other side is a freestanding concrete wall that separates the tunnel we’re in from the one going the other way. That one at least is still solid.
We can’t see down the tracks thanks to the SUV, but the overpass—looks like an on-ramp if you wanna get technical—is deserted. No firetrucks, no ambulances, not even regular cars and trucks moving up there.
The SUV landed smack in the middle of the track, with its front end pancaked against the retaining wall. I doubt anyone survived that, but Polo Shirt insists we should check inside first.
“Here, get on my shoulders.” He crouches down and gestures for me to step up.
I do, grabbing the side of the SUV for balance.
“Careful,” he says. “We don’t wanna tip it”
“Yeah.” Like it’d be that easy.
He stands up and my view elevates.
Something is seriously wrong. The hillside is black. All the grass on it is burnt to a crisp. There are trees a little ways beyond the SUV, and they’re likewise burnt—there’s still smoke curling from their branches. It’s like a wildfire swept the area. Except we’re in the middle of a spaghetti bowl of roads. There shouldn’t be enough open space to sustain a fire. What the hell happened?
“Can you see into the car?” Polo Shirt says.
Yeah. That’s what I’m up here for. I lean forward, one hand on the retaining wall, but my vision’s all messed up from the sudden change in light, and I can’t see into the dark interior.
“Hang on.” I step off his shoulder and onto the door.
Yeah, I heard you the first time.
I grab onto the retaining wall and scramble over to the hillside. My hands come away black with ash when I stand up. My pants are a mess too. No time to worry about that, though. I rush down the hill until I’m low enough to jump onto the track bed, and then double back towards the tunnel.
I approach the SUV from its top side. The windshield is smashed almost opaque, but there’s a clear patch in the upper—well, it would be the upper left corner if the SUV were on its wheels, but the way it’s lying, it’s actually the lower left. I crouch on the tracks and peer inside, but I still can’t see anything. I take out my phone and activate the light, shine it through.
“Empty,” I call out.
“Empty?” Polo Shirt shouts back.
“I don’t see anyhing, dead or alive.”
But that’s not exactly true. There’s a thick sludge on the ground, looks to be oozing from the SUV. It has a nasty smell, like meat that’s gone bad. The toe of my shoe’s in it, and it acts like glue when I lift my foot, nearly sucking my shoe off.
“Okay, get back over here and we’ll push it over,” Polo Shirt says.
I climb back up the hill, and then lower myself over the retaining wall. Micah and the other young guy help me down.
“What’s that black gunk all over you?” the young guy says.
“This ...” How do I explain what I saw? I don’t even understand it myself. Honest to God, it looked like the end of the world out there, but I don’t wanna say that out loud. They’ll think I’m crazy. “There’s something wrong out there.”
“Wrong how?” Polo Shirt asks.
“I think it’s best we push this over and you can see for yourselves.”
They all look at each other.
“Okay. Might as well,” Polo Shirt says.
We line up along the SUV.
“Let’s go on three, okay?” Polo Shirt says.
We lean against the chassis and dig our feet in. I’m on the tracks, so I lock my heels against the ties.
“One ... two ... and three.”
We push. The vehicle tips maybe two degrees.
I remember in college, my friend Brian’s car had broken down while we were on our way to Virginia Beach. We were actually at a gas station when it happened, just finished filling up, and the engine wouldn’t start when he cranked it. There’d only been three of us, but we’d had no problem pushing it away from the pumps.
Of course, that had been a Honda Civic. And on its wheels. This SUV probably weighs three times as much. But still.
“C’mon, dig those feet in,” Polo Shirt says.
They are dug in! I push with all the power in my knees. My calves feel like they’re gonna explode.
We’ve got the SUV about fifteen degrees from vertical. The tires are a good eight inches off the ground. A little bit more. A little ... bit ... more!
“We need more help,” the young guys says.
“Nah, we got this,” Micah says.
The vehicle’s standing on the edge of its roof. All we gotta do is move its center of gravity another foot or so, and it’ll go over.
I’m leaning way in now. I lift my rearmost foot and bring it forward. There, I can put the weight on my other leg now.
The vehicle’s moving on its own. Gravity’s doing the work now.
“It’s good! It’s good!” Polo shirt says.
The car crashes onto its roof. A cloud of dirt flies up. We cough and step back towards the tunnel.
“Can we get through?” the woman in the business suit asks.
“Dunno,” Polo Shirt says.
When the air clears, the SUV ... well, it’s not totally blocking our way now. There’s a space between the rear fender and the tunnel divider that’s wide enough for a person to squeeze through if they turn sideways.
“Probably the best we can do,” I say.
“Yeah,” Micah says. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
Getting everyone past the SUV takes a while. While everyone’s lining up for their turn, I go and find Ali. She’s still in the tunnel, sitting on the track with her back to the wall. She keeps squeezing her hands into fists and then opening them.
“How you doing?”
I wanna ask, “Are you sure?” but I don’t wanna risk a blow up, so I let it go. Instead, “We can get out.”
“I heard.” She gets to her feet. She’s wobbly, but when I offer her an arm, she slaps it away. “I don’t need your help.”
“Sorry, I just ... whatever.” I go outside. She’ll be out eventually.
“What the hell happened out here?” the woman in the business suit asks. She’s on the other side of the SUV now, along with Micah, Polo Shirt and the tourist family. They’re standing far enough out to see the state of vegetation on the hillside, though i doubt they can tell how far the devastation spreads.
“I dunno,” Micah says, “but this don’t look like no earthquake to me.”
“This is really strange,” Polo Shirt says.
They all have their cell phones out, but they’re holding them the way you do when you’re searching for a decent signal and can’t find it.
“Hey man, c’mon, leave the bike already,” the young guy says.
The bicyclist is trying to get his bike around the SUV. He’s not having any luck—the handlebars are snagging on the grille.
“I need this bike for commuting to work.”
“Here.” I pick the bike up and lift it over the chassis. “You can grab it from the other side and get it down. Jesus.”
“Thank you, I most appreciate that.”
“Yeah. Uh-huh.” Weirdo.
The young guy goes next, then the teenage girl with the teddy bear backpack. She’s got a bit of a limp I notice, and she has a friend who’s helping her.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I fell when we were running up the escalators, twisted my ankle. I’ll be fine once we can sit down.” She’s skinny enough that she can get through the gap without turning sideways, though her friend’s on the pudgy side, and even sideways with her gut sucked in, her belly scrapes against the bumper.
That leaves me and Ali as the last to go through. I gesture for her to go ahead of me.
“I just wanna look at your ass, that’s all.”
She flashes a weak smile. It’s something. Hopefully if I can keep her happy, she won’t have another panic attack.
Once we’re over to the group, Polo Shirt says, “Looks like there’s a fence on either side of the rails. We can either try knocking it over—God knows how long that’ll take—or we keep going to the next station.”
“The station’s not that far,” the manager says. “I don’t think it’ll take more than half an hour to get there.”
“I dunno, half an hour in this heat, I’m gonna be exhausted,” Micah says.
“I already am,” the young guy says. His T-shirt’s soaked through.
“Knocking over the fence isn’t going to be easy, either,” Polo Shirt says. “I vote for the next station.”
There’s a general consensus that we should go on.
“You know, it’s funny though,” the woman in the business suit says. “If we’re that close to the airport, where are the planes?”
She’s right. They should be coming in for landings almost on top of us, but the sky’s clear.
“Maybe they had to shut the airport down from the quake,” the tourist man says. “Or the crash.”
“Could be,” Business Suit says, “but that doesn’t explain the grass. Or the lack of emergency equipment. Or our cell phones not working.”
“You don’t suppose we got nuked?” the young guy says.
“The mushroom cloud would still be visible,” Polo Shirt says.
“It’s aliens,” Ali says. Everyone laughs except me. I know she’s not joking. And honestly, it’s as good an explanation as anything.
“Well, only way we’ll ever find out is if we get moving,” Polo Shirt Says.
“Yup,” Micah says.
And so we start trudging down the tracks.
After a few steps, the chubby girl starts singing, “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” That draws stares and head shakes.
Her friend with the limp hangs her head. “Shut up, Nicole,” she mutters.
But not only doesn’t Nicole shut up, Ali joins in. Now it’s my turn to be mortified. I don’t know this person, swear to God. Just met her.
Though I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Ali’s always liked singing, and her therapist says it’s a good outlet for stress if she’s ever without her medication.
We pass under the highway ramp, and when we come out the other side, the control tower for National is visible. It’s intact. We’re still a good ways away, but I don’t see any activity around the airport, either in the air or on the ground, though we don’t have a good view of the roads yet.
That changes as the ground continues to slope down towards the Potomac while the rails remain on the same level, running atop an embankment. As we rise—or rather, as the grounds sinks—we can see down onto the roadways. They’re far too empty, even for a Sunday. I don’t see any vehicles at all.
No wait, there’s one up ahead, a sedan of some sort, a newish model. It’s run into a Jersey barrier at an on-ramp. Must’ve hit it at full speed, too, because the barrier cuts halfway through the front end.
“I’m getting a bad feeling about this,” Business Suit says.
“I hear ya,” Micah says. “It’s like, Denzel’s gonna come walkin’ down the road at any moment.”
“I prefer the one with Aragorn and the kid,” Business Suit says.
“Book was good, movie was shit.”
Ali and Nicole have finished with their song and switch to Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Favorite Things.” The tune is utterly out of place given the environment, though the incongruity is itself comforting. Makes it feel like we’re on a nice little stroll in the country, not walking through a wasteland.
The track curves slightly, and when we turn onto the straightaway, we see the embankment ends ahead and turns into a pair of bridges that pass over the roadways below. One of those bridges is clear, but a train’s derailed on the other. The front-most car is lying on the ground, and two more are dangling like sausage links, with the rest still on the tracks.
“Ouch,” the young guy says. “What the hell happened?”
“Good question,” Polo Shirt says.
There aren’t any rescue vehicles around. With the SUV, you could suppose that emergency services were busy elsewhere, dealing with the plane crash and other earthquake damage. But a train derailment—that’s major. The place should be crawling with ambulances and firetrucks.
“Do we check it out,” I ask, “or go around?”
“I just wanna get to the station,” the girl with the limp says.
“Yeah,” the tourist man says. “I’m about ready to fall over. Get me some shade and a place to rest my legs.”
“We should at least look inside,” the young guy says. “There might be people hurt in there.”
“Yeah,” Polo Shirt says.
“Well, nothing says we all hafta go,” Micah says. “Why don’t everyone wants a rest go on to the station, we’ll catch ya up later.”
I remember what the bicyclist said earlier, about not splitting the party. It’s been a while since I played D&D, but that’s always sound advice. Though in a D&D game, you never have players saying, “Let’s go rest.” There’d be no question we should check out the train.
Of course life isn’t a D&D game. Who cares if we split the party? What’s going to happen? We get attacked by orcs?
“Yeah, that sounds like an idea to me,” I say.
We divide up. Most people opt to go on to the station, but me, Micah, Polo Shirt, Business Suit and Young Guy opt to check the train.
“If we’re gonna be more than half an hour, we’ll send somebody to let you know,” Polo Shirt tells the others.
Ali frowns at me. Looks like the therapeutic value of song is short lived. “Why are you going?” she asks me.
“Seems the thing to do.”
“Why aren’t you staying with me? I’m your wife.”
“What happened to you can get along without my help?”
“I can. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you there.”
“Look, you can see the station from here. We’ll be maybe a hundred yards apart.”
“The bridge could collapse.”
“So could the other one.”
“Yeah, but if we’re going to die, I want it to be together.”
“I don’t want either of us to die.”
“Don’t abandon me.”
“You are. You hate me now.”
“I don’t hate you. I’m kinda pissed, yes, and we have issues that need working out, but I don’t hate you.”
“I saw you talk to that girl earlier.”
“The one with the limp. You were hitting on her.”
“No. I wasn’t.” She’s like sixteen! “I asked her if she needed help.”
“Her friend was helping her. She didn’t need you. You wanted to play the White Knight, didn’t you?”
“She’s a bit young for me.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying. If I were lying, wouldn’t I be going with everyone else so I could be closer to the girl?”
“Maybe you want to try your luck with the other woman.”
“Jesus, what’s wrong with you?” Ali’s the one who fucked around without telling me, but I’m getting the four lights treatment? How does that work?
“I don’t want you to leave me,” she says.
“I’m not going to leave you. All I’m gonna do is pop my head into this train and see if there are any survivors. Nothing more.”
“Are you coming or not?” Polo Shirt calls to me.
“Yeah, be right there.” I kiss Ali on the cheek. “Half an hour, no more, ‘kay?”
“Everything all right?” Micah whispers to me when I join the group.
“Yeah. She’s freaked out, doesn’t like me leaving her alone.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. We got enough people, makes no difference whether you’re here or there.”
“She’ll get over it.”
The train derailment is about a third of the way down the left-hand bridge. For that first length, both groups keep pace with each other. I keep one eye on Ali, but she’s staring straight ahead, ignoring me. Ignoring everything. Nicole strikes up first verse of “Anything Goes,” but peters out when Ali doesn’t join in.
I’m tempted to double back and switch groups. If I don’t, I’m going to walk into a mess when we finally make it to the station. When Ali’s mad, she’s vindictive. She’ll find ways to make me pay.
But I’m not gonna give in. Not after what she pulled. I’m the one who has the right to be mad here, not her. She’s not gonna pull this bullshit where she changes the subject and makes me into the bad guy. No way.
We reach the train. There’s a car hanging half on/half off the track, though it’s not see-sawing like in a cartoon, so we might be able to get on board, as long as we stay to the one end.
Polo Shirt and Micah peer through the windows.
“I don’t see anyone,” Polo says.
“No, but the place is smeared with, I dunno, looks like jelly.”
“Can we get the doors open?” Business Suit says.
“I don’t see any controls,” the young guy says.
“There have to be some,” Polo Shirt says. “Emergency crews need some way to get inside.”
“What about the doors between cars?” Micah says. “They’d be useless if you can’t open them from outside, right?”
“Yeah,” Business Suit says. “Only problem is, how do we get to them?”
The way the train’s run off the tracks, the rear end of this car is tight against the safety fence.
The young guy kneels down and peers at the space between the carriage and tracks. “I think I can crawl under here.”
“Don’t do it if you aren’t sure,” Polo Shirt says. “If needs be, we can circle around to the other end.”
“I can do it.” The young guy gets on his belly and shimmies his way through the space. It’s a tight squeeze, and he nearly pulls his pants off doing it, but he comes out on the other side.
While the rest of us are watching him, Business Suit has her eyes directed towards the sky.
“See something?” I ask.
“I dunno. I thought it was a plane, but it’s wings are moving, so it must be a bird.” She points eastwards.
I squint, but don’t ... no, there is something. I can understand her confusion. It has the faded indistinctness of a distant object, but if that’s so, it must be the size of a Leerjet. No way that’s a bird. But as I watch, I catch the distinct motion of a wing flap.
Well, with everything being burned, there’s probably a ton of soot in the air. That’s making things look more distant than they are.
The young guy’s gotten into the train, and he releases the lock that keeps the doors closed. Without that, he’s able to slide the twin panels apart.
Polo Shirt moves to step inside, but the young guy elbows him aside and jumps out of the car.
“Ker-riest!” The young guy waves his hand in front of his nose. “Outta the—hurk!” He pukes all over the track.
“You all right?” Micah says.
“Jesus God, it stinks in there like you would not believe.”
He’s right. The stench is wafting out the doors, that same rotten meat smell I’d noticed earlier around the SUV.
“Did you see anyone in there?” Polo Shirt asks.
“I—maybe. Kinda. I think.”
“What’s that mean?” Business Suit says.
“You better look for yourselves. You’ll think I’m crazy otherwise.”
Polo Shirt takes a deep breath and climbs into the car. Business Suit follows, and then me, with Micah bringing up the rear.
The interior is covered in that thick jelly from the SUV. It’s dripping from the seats and running across the floor.
“What is this shit?” Polo Shirt says. He’s speaking funny, trying not to breathe as he does.
“The passengers,” I say. I understand what the young guy was talking about. In the seats with the biggest puddles, there are discarded clothes, wallets, glasses ... pretty much everything people would be carrying with them on the train. “They melted.” I have to draw a breath, but I do so through my mouth. A taste of rancid meat glides across my tongue, and I nearly gag.
“Don’t be stupid,” Polo Shirt says.
“I don’t think he is,” Business Suit says. “Something happened.”
“Something ... I mean, I don’t wanna go all sci-fi, but something not of this world.”
“What does that even mean?” Polo Shirt says.
“It means we’re in trouble, I’m pretty sure,” she says.
“I’m thinking she’s right,” Micah says. “I didn’t wanna say this before, I thought it was too crazy, but this is straight outta a sci-fi movie.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“You’re all nuts.” Polo Shirt sits down on the threshold and slides himself down to the ground. “There’s a ration—”
He never finishes the sentence.
I catch a flash of movement on the edge of my vision. It starts from the farthest window on the train, but in a second it traverses half the car. A second after that, it hits Polo Shirt. Whatever it is, it catches him by the head and whips him after it. His legs fly up off the ground, and his neck snaps.
“What the hell?” Micah says.
We rush to the windows.
There’s a ... well, I was going to say a bird, but that’s no bird. It has wings, yes, but no feathers. Its skin is a leathery amber, with a texture—it’s moving too fast to tell for sure, but it sure looks like scales. Its head is a bit like an iguana, with a snub nose and two horns over its eyes, though it also has spines protruding from its cheeks, with thin membranes stretched in between. If I were to call it the first word that pops to mind, it’d be a dragon, though it only has two legs—talons, really, thin but vicious. And those talons are holding Polo Shirt tight.
The dragon rises up until it’s a hundred feet above the roadway. Then it drops Polo Shirt. He plummets like a load of bricks, not flailing at all. I hope that means he’s dead already, or at least unconscious. But if he’s not, he is the moment he hits the concrete. His head shatters, and pulp shoots across the pavement. His body flops to the ground.
The dragon lands on top of him. Its head dips and tears off a hunk of his arm.
“Oh God, we’re in trouble.” Business Suit points to the sky. There are three more dragons circling.
To Be Continued...