I don’t remember walking back to the station, but I must have since the next thing I know I’m standing at the bottom of the escalator. I’m coated in dust, and the inside of my mouth feels like a vacuum cleaner bag.
“You all right?” It’s the barista, come to check on me.
“No, I don’t suppose I am.”
“Hmm, yeah. Don’t suppose any of us are. Come on, the Metro guys went into the break room and broke open their vending machines. We don’t got much, but there’s soda and chips, some candy and other stuff. Bottles of water, too, you can rinse off.”
Wait, what? “Why with bottles?” Don’t the Metro workers have a bathroom down here? “Is the water out?”
“Well, it’ll run, but it’s coming out funny. I mean, no problem if you’re going to the toilet, but the stuff coming out of the taps, I wouldn’t drink it.”
“Yeah. Good times ahead.”
I follow the barista across the mezzanine to where everyone’s set up camp. She takes me through a door and into a tiny room with a folding table in the center and a couple blue plastic chairs on the side. Junk food and bottles are piled in the middle of the table.
“Bathroom’s through there.” The barista points to a door in the side of the room. “No light, though.”
“S’okay.” I pull out my flashlight and grab a couple water bottles—they’re tiny ones, only sixteen ounces. That’s plenty enough if you’re drinking, but it’s not much if you’re washing up. I’ll have to stretch it, and even then I should consign myself to not getting totally clean.
The bathroom is on the grungy side, with chipped tiles and rust stains around the faucet. The toilet is at least usably clean, though who knows how long that’ll last.
I set my flashlight on end and check myself in the mirror. The light coming at me from below gives a horror movie effect, making it hard to judge how bad I look, but it’s not good, that’s for sure.
“I’m Wendy, by the way,” the barista says.
“Heather.” I squirt a bit of soap onto my hand and pour some water on it, lather up.
“You work around here, right? One of those think tanks, foreign policy and stuff?”
“Yeah, how d’you know?” I pull up my sleeves and scrub my lower arms where they’ve gotten dusty.
“I’m not deaf. People come into Starbucks with coworkers talking about work, you learn what everyone does.”
“Is it interesting?”
“Sometimes.” I smear the soap across my forehead and cheeks, up under my chin and around the back of my neck. “But it’s not a job where you want excitement.” I unbutton my blouse so I can get at the dust on my upper chest. God, it’s gotten way down in there. My shirt doesn’t expose the least bit of cleavage, but I’ve got dirt halfway down my breasts. I really need a shower.
“I suppose not,” Wendy says.
“What about you? You work full time, or?”
“Nah, I’m in college. Doing grad work at GW. Computer science.”
“What’s your favorite type of statistical regression?”
“You have one, don’t you?”
“I’m more into graphics, really. I mean I guess, uh, Bayesian?”
“Everyone says Bayesian. I prefer multinomial probit myself.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re weird?”
I’ve gotten soap on everything that looks dirty, but now the problem is getting it off. I don’t have enough water to rinse everything clean, and besides it’d get my clothes wet, so I settle for wetting down some paper towels and wiping myself off.
“So what were you doing?” Wendy asks.
“Going home for the day, or coming out for something?”
“My parents are down in Richmond. Hopefully far enough away that…”
“Yeah.” I’ve got my face more or less clean, and my neck. I toss the paper towel into the trashcan and get a new bunch. I wet it down and wring it out, but when I start wiping my chest, I still get bits of water leaking out and dribbling onto my clothes. Annoying. “So no one around here?”
“Fiancé, yeah. He’s a lawyer.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says.”
“There’s a reason for that, you realize.” I’ve got my chest done and start wiping off my hands.
“He has a soul, you know.”
“Until the devil comes along to collect.”
“He works for the ACLU, actually.”
“That’s even worse. The point of dating a lawyer is they have money.”
“Do you have any friends?”
“Yes.” There. Done. I drop the empty water bottles into the trashcan and rebutton my blouse. “Do I look better?”
She reaches out and fixes my hair. “Much.”
We go back to the mezzanine where the others are. They have candy bars and a half dozen bags of chips spread between them and are chowing down. The guy with the blisters is still on the other side of the fare gates, looks to be asleep or otherwise comatose. Nobody’s watching him, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to snuff it any time soon.
“I’m telling you, that idiot went and started World War III,” the guy with a beard’s saying as we approach.
Everyone agrees, except the guy in a MAGA hat. “You’ve all been brainwashed by the fake news media. If it’s World War III, the Chinese started it. They musta realized America finally has a President isn’t gonna take their shit anymore, decided to strike first and hope to kill us all before we can nuke ‘em back.”
“Oh come on,” the station master says. “You believe that shit?”
“You can’t trust the Chinese. Look at Pearl Harbor. Sneak attack. It’s what they do, ‘cause they know they can’t win a stand-up fight.”
“That was the Japanese,” the older of the Metro employees says.
“Ain’t no same difference,” the younger employee says.
“Yes it is!”
“The Chinese are Communists. Japanese got anime.”
“I’m not stupid. Yeah, they’re different countries, but it’s the same culture. China, Korea, Vietnam. They all worship Gandhi.”
“That’s Buddha, and they don’t,” the stationmaster says.
The conversation doesn’t sound acrimonious right yet, but I don’t see it staying that way for long. Best to derail it now. Get them talking about something more productive.
“Are you sure you guys should be pigging down the food like that?”
They look up at me.
“What’s the problem?” the stationmaster says. “I mean it’s not healthy, but there’s enough to keep us all fed for a couple day until…” He shrugs. He has no idea what’s going to happen in a couple days; he’s just assuming that help’s coming at some point.
“What about for everyone else?” I say.
“Everyone who?” the stationmaster says.
“I’m not the only person who was on my train. I’m just the first to get tired of waiting. The others are going to be coming at some point. And in fact, there was another train that left right before mine. We could have two entire trainloads showing up here.”
The stationmaster’s face goes dark. He hasn’t been thinking. Everyone’s been deferring to him because he’s the guy in charge, but he hasn’t considered anything outside of his immediate domain. Everything in the station is okayish, so the stationmaster’s been thinking he has the situation in hand. That’s as far as he can see.
He recovers after a moment. “Well if need be, there’s a Starbucks up above. A couple other restaurants in the vicinity.” Yeah, assuming none of them are under a collapsed building. “We’ll have enough to get through until help arrives.”
I don’t buy it, but I’m not going to argue the point. “What about the people on the trains? Are we going to let them sit in the tunnels all night, or do you think we should let them know the situation?”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.” The stationmaster looks to the younger of his men. “Jorge, we should have high powered flashlights in the equipment room. Run and get them.”
“Sure,” the guy says with absolutely no enthusiasm. He grabs a Kit-Kat bar and stands up.
“I’ll go with him.” I can’t sit around waiting for help to drop in. I need to be up doing something.
“Passengers shouldn’t—” the stationmaster starts.
“Have you looked upstairs? The city is wrecked. We’re on our own. Maybe FEMA’s gonna come in here searching, but if they do, it could be days before they get to us. And if they don’t…” I hold my hands up in a whatcha-gonna-do gesture.
“I guess you have a point.”
“Thank you. Now there are trains down both tunnels, that means we should have two parties go out, it’ll be faster.”
The stationmaster hesitates. He doesn’t want to get off his ass and do anything. He’s comfortable sitting here, nice and cozy.
“I’ll do it.” The older of the Metro employees stands up.
The two youngish guys get up as well.
“Beats sitting around,” Wendy says.
“You two,” I tell the stationmaster and MAGA Cap, “can keep an eye on the injured guy, ‘kay?”
“Yeah,” the stationmaster says.
MAGA Cap scowls but doesn’t speak.
We follow Jorge across the walkway to the other side of the mezzanine. He leads us to a heavy metal door and unlocks it. Inside is a room full of equipment—the batteries powering the emergency lights, the transformers, the servers that run the ticket machines and arrival boards. Most of it’s inert now, except for the batteries, which have LEDs signaling they’re on. They’re all shining green, but they have yellow and red lights as well.
“How long are these things rated for?” I ask.
“Eight hours,” Jorge says. “Dunno if there’s a plus-or-minus on that, though.”
“It’s emergency equipment,” the older employee says, “the rating should be on the conservative side.”
“Still, that won’t last much past midnight, one o’clock at the latest,” I say. “We’ll want lights in the morning so we can get outta here safely.”
“We can cut them off when we settle in for the night,” the older guy says, “then turn them back on in the morning.”
Jorge retrieves three flashlights—big, heavy duty ones that are nearly as powerful as a headlight. He distributes them to me, Wendy, and the bearded guy, then picks up a pair of headlamps, puts one on himself and hands the other to his coworker.
There’s a stack of helmets on a shelf, but only four of them.
“Don’t suppose OSHA’s gonna ding us,” the older guy says. “Here.” He hands the helmets out to us civvies, leaving himself and Jorge uncovered.
Once we’ve got them on, we head down to the platform.
“My train was down this way.” I point. “Jorge, Wendy, why don’t you come with me; the rest of you check the other tunnel.”
“Sure.” The older Metro employee has no problem with this, but the two young guys look disappointed they aren’t going to have any ladies in their party. Well too bad, so sad.
Jorge takes the lead again, and when we get near the end of the platform, he sits down on the ledge and slips onto the tracks.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Wendy says.
“Power’s off, there’s nothing to worry about. And it’s easier to walk on the track than the emergency walkway. Just watch your steps so you don’t trip on the ties,” he says.
“What if the power comes back on?”
“I don’t think that’s worry right now,” I say.
“Maybe.” Wendy lowers herself over the edge, and Jorge helps her down.
Once we enter the tunnel, we flip our lights on. They’re a lot better than my little flashlight, but they still leave a lot of darkness around us. Though that’d be true even if the tunnel lights were all functioning. I doubt this place has ever been fully illuminated, not even when it was being dug out.
I feel like one of the Ghostbusters. There’s a scene in the second movie where they’re in an abandoned subway tunnel, exactly like this. Ray and Egon start having fun with the echo of their voices, but when Winston tries, this creepy, groaning voice calls his name instead. That scared the hell out of me when I was ten. I’d had to leave the theater—I told my dad I was going to the bathroom, but really I stood out in the lobby for five minutes until my heart calmed down. It wasn’t until I saw the movie on DVD years later that I discovered the full scene is even scarier—when the guys turn around to leave the tunnel, they’re surrounded by severed heads on pikes, and then a ghost trains blows through the tunnel and runs through Winston.
I hadn’t thought about the scene on my way out, but now that I’ve seen what’s happened on the surface, it’s set my imagination adrift. Now with every step we take, I imagine we’re going to see something on the tracks ahead—who knows what.
I shouldn’t be thinking about this. I’m going to freak myself out.
Focus on our goals.
Gotta get to the train and tell everyone to come back to the station. Should only take us ten minutes to get there, maybe as long again to get everyone off. The walk back will be slower—groups always move slow, especially if we’re watching out for stragglers. But once we have everyone with us, the tunnel will be a lot less scary.
I gotta keep telling myself that.
We continue down the tracks. The air in here is stiff, not even a trace of breeze. And the smell… what is that? I sniff.
“You smell it too?” Wendy says.
“Yeah, that’s …”
“Smells like raw meat,” Jorge says.
That’s exactly it. Where’s it coming from?”
“Up ahead,” Wendy says. She holds her flashlight with both hands so the beam’s steady. There is something on the track up ahead, but at this distance I can’t judge its size.
“A backpack?” Jorge says.
“Maybe,” Wendy says. “But if somebody left it there, where’d they go? If they came this way, wouldn’t we have seen them by now?”
“Let’s keep on,” I say, though I really don’t want to. A sick feeling’s entering my stomach.
I shift my weight forward to take a step, but my heel’s barely off the ground when Jorge shouts, “Holy mother!”
I snap around.
For a second I think there’s somebody lying on the emergency walkway, their face spotlighted by Jorge’s headlamp, but then I get my own light around and I see the head has no body attached. Almost as bad, its eyes have been torn out, and the mouth is caked with blood. It looks like a someone who’s been too enthusiastic at chowing down on barbecue, got sauce smeared across his chin and cheeks.
“Oh my God,” Wendy says. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Accident with the train?” Jorge says. “Got run over, and…”
“How?” I say.
He shakes his head.
We’ve made a mistake. We’ve seen what it’s like topside—clearly something beyond human experience happened up there. But we’ve been assuming we’re safe down here. We didn’t die during the quake, so nothing can get us now.
How stupid can we be?
I set my flashlight on the walkway and pick up the head.
“Don’t touch it!” Wendy says.
“Jorge, get your light on this.”
“You crazy, lady!”
“Just do it.”
He bends his neck so his headlamp is shining on my hand, but he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to look.
The neck wasn’t cut through in a single motion. It’s jagged, as though the blade had stopped and restarted multiple times. There’s also a slight but noticeable curve to the scission—either the killer had changed the angle of the cut, or the neck had shifted in the process. Was it possible the guy had been alive during this, struggling to get free?
There’s something else, it takes me a moment to notice. The neck’s been cut in two directions at once. I can tell because there are little strips of skin where the blade had cut and pulled back and cut again at a slightly different point, like a child who still hasn’t mastered scissors. And these flaps of skin are pointing in different directions on each side of the neck. It’s like he’d been beheaded by giant shears. But how would that ever happen?
“I vote we go back,” Wendy says.
“What about the people on the train?” I say.
“This guy was on the train, right? I mean, where else did he come from?
“You’re probably right, yes.”
“Then probably everyone on that train is dead. I mean, this is not natural. Something fucked up happened down here.”
“We can’t know that until we see for ourselves.”
“I’d rather not see.”
“I’m kinda with her,” Jorge says.
“No,” I say. “We need to find out. If there is a danger down here, we’ll be better off knowing what it is, that way we can make an informed decision about what to do next.”
“My informed decision is, let’s get the fuck outta the dark tunnels,” Wendy says.
“What makes you think the surface is any safer?”
“The lady’s right,” Jorge says. “We’re screwed no matter what.”
“Shit. Okay, whatever. Have it your way. We’ll go down, take a look at the train. But we see anything move that don’t look right, we turn around and run.”
“Agreed,” I say.
We head down the tunnel again. We get to the backpack we’d seen earlier, turns out to be the body that goes along with the head. Whatever had gotten the guy hadn’t been satisfied with decapitation. His belly is torn out, his guts strewn across the tracks. He must’ve eaten lunch right before getting on the train, because there are bits of hamburger bun and half chewed pickles mixed in with the porridge of his stomach. If you’ve ever smelled somebody’s breath after they’ve vomited, that’s the stench here.
We walk by as quickly as we can, no one daring to open their mouth to speak lest they add their own vomit to the mess.
Not long after we’re past, the train comes into view ahead.
We approach cautiously. When we get up to it, I climb onto the rear hitch and peer inside. I have to angle my flashlight so I can shed some light on the interior without creating too much glare.
It’s an abattoir. There’s blood everywhere. The floor’s coated with it. So are the walls and windows—there’s a smear across the one I’m looking through, as though somebody had put a bloody hand against the glass and wiped it.
There aren’t any bodies that I can see. The car’s deserted.
Given the amount of blood inside, I don’t see how anyone could’ve walked away from this, which means that whatever did this—and there must’ve been multiple whatevers—took the bodies after they finished.
I dismount the hitch.
“Dead?” Wendy says.
I tell them what I saw.
“Well, where does this get us?” she says.
“Let’s go in. See if there are any clues.”
“Let’s not and say we did.”
I sigh. This is getting tiresome. “You can go back if you want.”
“I want, yes,” she says. Then to Jorge, “You with me?”
“There could be survivors,” he points out.
“Yeah, and whatever did this could be lurking around.”
“We should check and be sure.”
Wendy looks back down the tunnel. The long, long dark tunnel. She holds her flashlight over her head, but after about ten yards the beam’s too diffuse to be effective. “Dammit, don’t make me go down there alone.”
I hoist myself onto the walkway and offer a hand to Jorge. He grabs my wrist and pulls himself up.
“Okay guys, I’m coming,” Wendy says.
We help her up.
“Should we split up? We each take one car?” Jorge suggests.
“Hell no,” Wendy says.
“Let’s stick together,” I say. “And one of us should stay outside as a lookout.”
“Me,” Wendy says.
“You’re not gonna run off and leave us to die, are you?” I say.
The last door of the train is still standing wide open from when I’d left. Jorge and I go in. Blood squelches under our feet, and I have to hang onto the stanchions to keep my balance. It’s a damn good thing I’d worn sneakers today instead of dress shoes, otherwise I’d have zero traction. Jorge in his work boots is better off, but even he’s grabbing the backs of seats as he moves.
“Look up there,” he says.
The door between train cars is open—except “open” implies it was done in the manner intended by the designers. This is more like something had burst through the bulkhead, and the door’s opening was incidental to that. We can see clear through to the next car, and it looks like the far end is exactly the same. Our lights can’t penetrate the full length of the train, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been turned into one continuous interior.
“What the hell could do that?” Jorge says.
“Terminators. Xenomorphs. Velociraptors.”
“This shit’s not funny, lady.”
“I’m not trying to be.” Clearly something had happened here that is several sigma beyond the ordinary. We truly are in the realm of science fiction.
We move into the next car. This one is wrecked up more than the last. Several stanchions have been pulled loose from the floor and ceiling, along with bits of the horizontal rails at the top. They’re bent and twisted as easily as if they were paperclips.
Jorge kicks something by accident, and when we shine our lights on it, we see it’s a severed hand—male judging by the coarse hair on the back, and married going by the wedding ring.
“Not totally thorough,” I say.
“Nothing. Let’s keep going.”
But we’ve only managed another couple steps when Jorge stops me. “Something up ahead.”
I don’t see it at first, but then the beam of his headlamp reveals a thin, iridescent strand across the next doorway. I play my light across the entire doorway and pick out a polygonal web stretched across the opening. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a long deserted building, not a Metro car that was filled with people just an hour ago.
“I’m getting creeped,” Jorge says.
I fish in my purse for my Swiss Army knife. I pull open the longest blade it has.
“You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I just got a feeling.”
“So do I. So would anyone right now.” I slash my knife through the web in an inverted L. The strands cut as easily as the air, and the whole tangle flutters to the ground. I wipe the sticky residue on a seatback. “It’s natural cuz we should be scared and running the hell away. But there’s nobody in here.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Jorge says.
I step into the next car—this is the last one on the train, or rather the first one since we’re moving towards the driver’s compartment. There’s a sweet aroma to the air, though with a burnt tinge to it.
And on the floor there are lumps, about a dozen of them, all wrapped in—at first I think they’re bandages, like the dressing on a mummy, but once I get my light focused on one, I see it’s spider silk, just like what I just cut through.
“Or maybe not,” I say.
I drop to my knees next to the nearest lump. It’s the size of a person, and judging by the shape, a woman.
I slip my knife into the cocoon, but these threads don’t give way as easily. I manage a five inch incision before Jorge calls out, “Hey lady.”
I look up.
There are spiders crawling towards me, about a dozen of them, some on the floor, some on the windows, and even a few on the ceiling. They’re big suckers, too—their bodies are the size of Jack Russell terriers, with legs like giant lobsters.
I’m so startled, I lose my balance and fall on my bum. I get my hands behind me and crab-walk backwards as fast as I can, which isn’t nearly fast enough. The damned things are closing on me.
Except—when I fell down, I dropped my flashlight and kicked it over. When I did, the beam played across a couple of the spiders and they hesitated for a second. When they started forward again, they scurried around the beam.
I spin myself around and lunge for the flashlight. I grab it as the spiders are almost upon me, but the moment I blare the light at them, they stop and retreat. The only problem is, I only have the one light—if I aim at one, the others will surge forward.
But Jorge picks up on what’s going on and he takes his headlamp off and starts pointing it at them. That’s still not enough, though.
“Wendy! We need you!” I shout.
While we’re waiting for her to come—assuming she comes—I pull my purse around to the front of me with my elbow and dig inside with my free hand. My other flashlight is right at the top. I put it in my mouth and twist the front around until it comes on. It’s only a fraction as powerful as my other flashlight, but it proves powerful enough to ward the spiders off.
“What’s going on—holy shit!”
I don’t dare turn back to see Wendy. I just shout, “Shine your flashlight at them.”
She takes a couple seconds to respond, and I’m afraid she’s made good on her threat to leave us, but then a fourth beam joins mine and Jorge’s.
With four lights, we’re pretty well able to hold the spiders at bay, but that’s all we can do. The batteries won’t last forever, and it’s not like we have the wherewithal to keep this up. We need an exit plan. Will the spiders let us go if we retreat? And can we be sure this is all there is? As scary as these bastards are, there aren’t enough of ‘em to’ve overwhelmed all the passengers. There have to be more somewhere. What if they’re outside right now, trying to outflank us?
Dammit. We didn’t think to bring any weapons with us. All we’ve got is my Swiss Army knife, and despite the name, it’s not meant for combat.
Though now that I think about it, I do have something else in my bag. Who knows if it’ll do any good, but it’s better than nothing.
“Wendy. Dig in my bag. You should find a cannister in there.”
“You think that’s gonna work?”
“Honestly, I have no clue. But I don’t have any other ideas, do you?”
“No.” She reaches into my bag. The strap pulls against my neck. Our lights waver and the spiders advance towards us.
She takes her light off the spiders for a moment so she can make sure she has the nozzle pointed the right way, then she takes aim and fires. I don’t think it worked at first, but then the spider that took the brunt of her attack screams—a low, rattling scream, like a seagull with something caught in its gullet—and scrambles backwards.
Wendy sweeps the spray across the spiders. By the time she gets to the last one, it’s retreating without being asked.
“Let’s get outta here,” she says.
“No,” I say.
“You nuts?” Jorge says.
“We get them while they’re hurt.” I step towards one of the spiders, which is quivering on the ground in pain. I put my foot on top of it and press down. It’s surprisingly resilient. I have to put my full weight onto it before I hear its carapace crack. For a second that’s all that happens, but then my foot sinks to the floor with a sickening squuch. Yellow spider guts shoot out from all sides.
Jorge’s following my lead. With his extra bulk and heavy boots, he’s able to crush them with little effort.
Wendy’s more squeamish about it. Instead of stomping the bodies, she steps on their legs, cracking them into little pieces. The spiders go wild when she does that, snapping their mandibles vainly at the air.
A couple of the spiders are on the walls or ceiling, but one more blast of pepper spray and a burst of the flashlight is enough to dislodge them. One scurries under a seat, and we have to drive it out before we can kill it, but at last they’re all dead.
“Next time I say we get out of here, we get the hell out of here,” Wendy says.
“What she said. That was crazy.”
“It was indeed.” I kneel next to one of the cocooned forms on the floor and pick up my Swiss Army knife. I don’t see the opening I’d made earlier, so I start again fresh. I have to saw the knife to cut through the silk, but after a minute’s work, I’ve got the cocoon open.
There’s a middle aged woman in there, her face deathly white except for smudges of rouge on her cheeks. Even her lips barely have any color to them.
“She’s dead,” Wendy says.
I touch the woman’s throat. The flesh pulses faintly against my fingertips. “No.” I slap her cheeks gently. A natural flush appears, but she doesn’t wake up. “Here.” I offer my knife to Jorge. “You get the others out.”
“Yeah sure.” He takes the knife and kneels next to me, starts cutting open the next cocoon.
“Look, I don’t wanna sound cold,” Wendy says, “but we should be scramming.”
“Why would we do that?” Jorge says. “We killed the spideys, right? What we gotta worry about?”
“Yeah, but this here, this is not everyone who was on the train. Am I right?”
“You’re right.” My car alone had had twice as many people as I see cocoons. The whole train must’ve held a hundred plus people when the power went out.
“So something dragged the others off,” Wendy says. “And the things we killed—I mean, scary big for spiders, sure, but not nearly big enough to drag human bodies around, not unless there were a helluva lot more of them.”
“So what’re you saying?” Jorge says. He’s stopped cutting for a moment, and I nudge him to continue.
“I think these were kiddies. I think their parents left them here to stand watch while the adults dragged the bodies back to… wherever.”
“Spiders don’t act that way,” Jorge says. “They’re loners. And they aren’t smart enough.”
“Spiders aren’t the size of a cat, either,” Wendy says. “This is not normal. What happened up above is not normal. None of this is normal. We can’t say, ‘Spiders don’t act that way,’ because maybe they do. Now.”
“You’re probably right,” I say. I’m holding the woman’s hand, giving it squeezes to see if she’ll squeeze back. Nothing so far. “I have no idea what happened, but I think it’s clear we’re through the looking-glass right now. And yes, there probably are bigger spiders out there.”
“And if they show up and they’re the size of a border collie, or a donkey, or—God forbid—a hippo, we’re dead. Half a can of pepper spray won’t do shit.”
“A hippopotamus would never fit in here,” I point out.
“You are missing the point. Let’s vamoose while the vamoosing’s good.”
“Ehhr. Ehhhr. Yerrrt.” The woman in the cocoon is rasping for breath. Her eyes are open, but one of them is twitching.
I slip a hand under her back and get her to sit upright. “You’re okay.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
She shakes her head. Her whole body is trembling.
“Get the others loose,” I tell Jorge.
He nods and goes back to cutting the cocoons.
Then to Wendy I say, “And if you’re worried about more spiders coming, go outside and stand watch. If you see anything, you can take off running. Just pound the windows as you leave, so we’ll know.”
“Yeah. Sure.” She shakes her head and heads to the front of the train. The driver’s compartment has been torn out, and she can slip outside that way.
“Whaz goey ah?” the woman from the cocoon says.
“What’s the last thing you can remember?”
“Morney. Goey to rally.” She flexes her lips, puzzled at why they aren’t forming the sounds she wants.
“Touch your nose with your finger,” I suggest.
She tries, but ends up tapping her upper lip instead. The spiders must’ve poisoned her—not something lethal, at least not to humans, but enough to paralyze her. The effects are just wearing off.
“Well it’s afternoon now. Maybe even evening,” I say. I explain to her the basics of what’s happened, not skimping on the bad news, though not dwelling on it either.
“Yeh kiddey,” she says.
“I’m not, unfortunately.”
“My huzbee, he aza wiz me.”
I look around. Jorge’s got most of the people loose now. There are plenty of men, but only one or two are close to the woman’s age. “Do you see him here?”
She examines the faces. She shakes her head.
“The spiders must’ve got him.”
“Yeh stih sezeyat?”
She speaks again, slower, “Yeh stih sezey zat.”
Am I still saying that?
“Look over there.” I point to one of the crushed carcasses. She flinches when she sees it.
“No, lady, it ain’t,” Jorge says. “Not a crab, not a lobster, not Sponge Bob Squarepants.”
Some of the other passengers are showing signs of wakefulness, but before we can get them up and moving, Wendy comes running.
To Be Continued...
“Got time for a drink?” Rekha asks as she takes her headphones off.
I check my watch. A quarter past four. “Sorry, I promised Kathy I’d cook her dinner tonight.”
“Oh. Raincheck, then?”
“Raincheck, sure.” I close my laptop and unplug it.
Rekha tries Kirsten. “How about you?”
“I dunno. I try not to drink on Sundays.”
“You two are turning into old maids, I swear.”
I hold up my hand and make a yapping motion. “Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.”
“And we can’t be old maids—we’re married.” Kirsten flashes her wedding ring.
“Unlike a certain someone,” I say.
“Don’t you turn into my mother,” Rekha says. “I’ll get married when I’m good and ready, and not a minute sooner. I can’t help it if the men in this city are severely deficient.”
“In what?” Jason asks. He’s still at his computer, starting the post-pro on the podcast. He’s going to be stuck here for at least an hour working on that. Oh well. Better him than me.
“Everything,” Rekha says.
“Ouch. You know that’s sexual harassment?” he says.
“Only because the law does not recognize the factual superiority of women in most every sphere of existence.”
“Keep talking. This is gonna make my lawsuit so much more lucrative,” Jason says. Then he turns to me. “So what’re you cooking?”
“I was going to do shrimp and pasta.” I slide my laptop into my satchel and then stuff the power cord into a side pouch. Zip, zip, snap, ready to go.
“Mmm, shrimp.” He does a Homer Simpson voice.
“Shrimp tastes good,” Rekha says. “You can boil it, broil it, sauté it.”
“Shrimp gumbo, shrimp creole, shrimp kabob,” Kirsten says.
“Deep fried shrimp, pan fried shrimp,” Jason says.
“Okay guys, I’m leaving.” I stand up, grab my bottle of water and check that I have everything. Yup. I shoulder my laptop bag and grab my purse. “See you guys tomorrow.”
“God willing and the creek don’t rise,” Jason says.
“And men with tiny hands don’t nuke us all to hell,” Rekha says.
“If we wake up in hell, I’ll meet you guys at the bar.”
“It’s a date,” Rekha says.
I step out of the studio. The door swings halfway closed, then stops and opens again.
Kirsten comes out. She stifles a yawn and stretches. “I tell you, working on weekends is a pain in the ass.”
“I know. A nuclear war would almost be a relief at this point.”
“Are you actually looking forward to atomic armageddon as a way to get out of work?”
“Always look on the bright side of life, that’s what I say.” I whistle a jaunty tune.
We stop at the elevator and I hit the call button.
We’ve been doing a podcast as part of our work at the McKinley Institute for going on four years now. For the first two and change, it had been a regular weekly session, every Friday afternoon with a trip to the Blackfinn for drinks afterwards. In that time, we’d done exactly one emergency podcast—when Russia invaded the Crimea. In the last two years, we’ve been doing at least one a week, and sometimes as many as three. And half of those have been on weekends because a certain orange shit-gibbon refuses to respect bankers’ hours when stirring up global crises.
I’m seriously annoyed with the guy. His policies are bad enough, but can’t he leave my weekends alone? Ugh.
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. We get on board.
“You drive in today?” Kirsten hits the button for the first floor.
“Nah, I decided to risk the Metro.” Normally a Sunday would be the one day when driving in DC isn’t an act of insanity, but normal Sundays don’t feature city-choking protests. I decided the risks of Metro outweighed sitting in traffic for an hour. Plus it gave me a chance to start the new Brad Thor novel.
“Yeah, same,” Kirsten says. She takes her phone out, switches the ringer back on. “Dare I check?”
“What’s the worst that could happen? He tweeted something that will completely invalidate our entire podcast?”
“I am not going back up there. I don’t care if he tweeted ‘The missiles are flying. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ I am done for the day.” Kirsten slips the phone back into her purse.
My self-restraint, on the other hand, has always been lacking. I take out my phone and open Twitter. “Drezner’s tweeting about baseball. Nothing too bad could’ve happened.”
“That’s a relief.”
My mentions are going crazy. That’s what I get for going on a Sunday morning talk show. Do I really want to look at them? Probably not, but the notification isn’t going to go away until I do. I flip over.
This Is My Pistol, This Is My Gun @jeromeburke
True American @GunToter
Lovely. Such … charming people.
“That bad?” Kirsten says.
“About the usual.”
I close out Twitter and hit my inbox. Nothing but a reminder from Kathy that we need toilet paper. Guess I’m stopping by Shoppers on my way home. Well, I needed to get pasta noodles anyway.
The elevator slows to a halt and the doors open. We walk through the lobby.
“Are you ready for this?” Kirsten asks as we near the entrance.
“Gotta be done.”
We take deep breaths and push through the doors. The moment we’re across the threshold, we’re hit by a solid wall of scorching air.
Forecasting the weather for DC in August is the easiest thing in the world. Every day is exactly the same—high in the mid-90s, 100% humidity, and an 80% chance of afternoon thundershowers. Judging by the sky, though, this is going to be one of those 20% days when the sun shines and shines and shines and never lets up.
“Oh God, it’s a barbecue out here,” Kirsten says. “Wanna split an Uber?”
The idea is more than tempting, but we’d be waiting longer than it takes to walk to the Metro. “Let’s just get it over with.”
“How do you know? Did Kathy snitch?”
“Ve have sources.”
We stop at the street corner, but traffic is nonexistent so we cross against the light.
“How’s the home front treating you?” I ask.
“September cannot get here fast enough.”
“You’re at work all day. What does it matter whether Ryan’s in school or daycare?”
“Matters to the bank account. We could’ve taken a two week Caribbean cruise for what we’re paying this summer.”
We hit the opposite side of the street. Kirsten needs to take the Blue Line, so it’d be fastest for her to peel off here and cut across Farragut Square, but she keeps with me down K Street instead.
“See, that’s why I will never have kids,” I say. “They’re nothing but a money suck.”
“They’re not all bad.”
“Please. I couldn’t stand kids even when I was one. They are nothing but vicious beasts that need to be tamed. I don’t have the patience for that. If I had a baby, I’d give up after three months and flush it down the toilet.”
Kirsten laughs like I’m joking. People are always doing that.
“Sometimes I wonder, were you born this cynical, or did it develop naturally?”
“Let’s put it this way, when I saw Star Wars for the first time, I wondered which had more people, the Death Star or Alderaan. I made my father do a population density analysis.”
“What was the result?”
“Luke Skywalker is a bigger mass murderer than Tarkin.” Even if the Death Star were smaller than Alderaan and 90% of the interior were given over to the main reactor, with the crew confined to the outermost crust, the habitable volume would easily dwarf an Earth-like planet.
“Nothing.” Kirsten shakes her head. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Oh. Yeah. See you then.”
I wave after Kirsten, then head to the next crosswalk. I catch the light green and go straight across.
The station entrance is recessed under the side of a building, and I pause in the shade to check my phone one last time—Metro still hasn’t rolled out cell service despite years of promises. I need something to listen to on my way home, so I open my podcatcher app and look for anything new. Filmsack is the only thing I listen to that normally releases on Sundays, but they’re on Mountain Time, so their episodes go up late by East Coast standards. Too bad. That would’ve been a nice way to take my mind off work. No, the newest podcast in my feed is Lawfare—looks like they’d come in on Sunday for an emergency recording, too. Lawyers. Yay.
I hit the download button and wait.
“…so you could trot me out and show me off to the people you hated in high school.” A family walks by, a man, a woman and a boy. The woman—she’s in that age range where she’s too old to be the guy’s daughter, but young enough that she shouldn’t be dating the guy—looks seriously pissed. “No sightseeing, no, none. I gotta see the Washington Monument through the window of our hotel room, that’s it.”
They stop at the corner.
“What di’ y’ espet? Huh?” The guy sounds stone drunk. He clenches his fist tight, but there are enough people around that he holds himself back. For now, anyways. Who knows what’ll happen when they’re alone.
The crossing light changes and they step into the street, still arguing.
I check my phone. The podcast is finished downloading. I step around to the escalator and dig my earbuds out of my laptop bag. I plug them in and start playing as I descend to the station. By the time the host finishes preambling, I’m through the fare gate and almost to the second set of escalators.
A burst of people coming up tells me a train has just arrived. I quicken my pace. As I near the edge of the mezzanine, I see there are trains on both tracks. I need to hurry or I’ll be waiting ten, fifteen minutes for the next one—and that’s assuming everything’s functioning properly, which is becoming an iffier proposition every day. Last time I rode Metro, I’d had to take a transfer bus because three stations had shut down for electrical issues.
The doors close on one of the trains and it pulls out of the station. I need a moment to orient myself and identify it as the one bound for Shady Grove. Good, not the one I need.
The other train has finished disgorging passengers, and now new riders are crowding to get on board. I double-time it down the escalator. People are still queuing at the doors when I get to the bottom. I jump in the nearest line.
Yes! The big Four-Oh might be looming at the end of the year, but I still have it!
Most of the people on board are protesters. In years past, they would’ve been college kids mostly, and any older faces you saw would’ve been with organized groups—most of them self-proclaimed anarchists, as though organized anarchy makes any damn sense—but this being 20**, today’s protesters are middle class suburbanites.
When I get on board, things aren’t too crowded—the train’s just entering the protest area, so it’s going to fill up with the next few stops, but for now I’m able to grab a seat, no problem.
A man sits down across from me with a hand-drawn sign that says, “Regime Change at Home First.” A woman standing at the door has one that says,
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
OUR PRESIDENT & KIM JONG UN?
NO, SERIOUSLY, I CAN’T TELL
She’s illustrated it by hand, clearly copying the drawing from the end of Animal Farm where the animals can no longer tell the difference between Napoleon and the humans, though modifying it ever-so slightly so Napoleon appears to be the Cheez Puff Menace. Cute. I approve.
Other people have signs that have been professionally printed from downloadable templates—lots of Star Wars themed ones featuring Leia, Jyn and Rey (though not Padme, which I suppose is understandable given her role in Palpatine’s rise—she is the Jill Stein of the Star Wars universe).
The doors close and the train lurches into motion. The acceleration pulls me to the left, and I have to grab the side of my seat so I don’t lean into the man next to me. The train reaches cruising speed and inertia releases my body.
The moment it does, the lights flicker.
And something else—the train’s shaking. It hadn’t been noticeable during the acceleration, but now--
The lights go out completely, and at the same moment I’m thrown to the right. The guy in the next seat crushes against me.
“Sorry,” he grunts.
The trains slows and stops.
“Oh, come on!” somebody groans.
People are peering out the windows, not that they can see much. There are a few lights still operating on emergency power, but all they’re illuminating is the tunnel wall and some conduits.
“Hello? Hello?” Somebody’s opened the emergency call box, but that’s not working either.
I lean back until my head butts against the window behind me. The cool glass presses against my skin where my hair parts.
Well, so much for getting home at a decent hour. But there’s no point in panicking. We’ll get out of here when the Metro gets us out of here and not a minute sooner. Trust in the Force, young Padawan, and let it guide your destiny.
Good thing I downloaded a podcast before getting on.
The Lawfare crew are discussing the White House’s contention that they don’t need Congressional authorization for action against North Korea. Their argument rests upon the fact that the Korean War never officially ended—we’re currently in a state of cease fire—which means the original 1950 UN authorization is still in effect, and the President doesn’t need Congressional approval to recommence hostilities. The consensus seems to be that there’s no legal precedent for such a claim, but with the Senate in its current spineless state, the point is moot as far as domestic politics go. The question is whether the argument will carry water on the international stage, particularly with our allies who aren’t overly eager to get involved in a land war in Asia. Which leads to the question—what can other countries do if the President decides to launch a unilateral attack?
The answer is, after all the caveats are stripped away, pretty much nothing.
Being a legal podcast, the hosts don’t talk much about the practical ramifications of the crisis, but those are my biggest worries. Given the dog’s breakfast the President has turned the State Department into, there’s no spokesperson who can make a plausible—to say nothing of persuasive—case for whatever action our Maximus Leader settles on (which will, in all probability, be the most extreme choice the Pentagon presents him with). If the US doesn’t at least make a pretense of caring about international law, other countries will do likewise, especially those who might be next on our shit-list.
Sad to say, but the best possible outcome right now is for the North to do something preemptive that would justify an American response. At least then we could pretend the International Order is intact.
In other words, the world is screwed.
I’d tried not to sound too gloomy on the podcast, or earlier when I’d done the rounds of the Sunday shows, but my assessment is bleak. If we make it to next Friday with less than a hundred thousand deaths on the Peninsula, I’ll count the world lucky. A few million deaths around the Pacific Rim is my moderate-case scenario. If I had to quote odds, I’d put the risk of global thermonuclear war around one chance in five.
Christ, what am I doing on this train? Who knows how much time we have. I can’t be wasting it here. I have to get home. I have to fix Kathy a nice dinner that we can eat while knocking out a few more episodes in our Babylon 5 rewatch, then retire to bed for a nice snuggly evening. After all, it could very well be our last.
I stand up and go to the nearest door. Where’s the emergency exit control? Ah, here. I open the cover and pull the lever underneath.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” some guy asks.
“Self-evacuating. I can call a Lyft and be home before Metro gets us fixed and moving.”
“We aren’t allowed to do that, are we?”
“No.” I shrug. “But that’s what I’m doing.”
The lever doesn’t actually open the doors, but it releases the locking mechanism so I can pull them apart.
The people around me buzz, clearly wondering whether they should follow my lead, but in the end nobody does. I’m left alone in the tunnel.
I dig into my purse for the flashlight I keep in there. Let’s see, keys … gum … pocket book … is that—no, that’s my pepper spray. Where is it …? Ooh, flask! That’s handy. I uncap it and take a swig. Mmm, Cointreau. Okay, where was I … ah, there we go.
I take out the flashlight and flip it on. Its overall effect upon the tunnel is minimal—there’s too much dark in here, and it can only illuminate a tiny sliver—but at least I can see the walkway in the long gaps between the lights.
I still have to take each step carefully. The walls are less than smooth, with conduits and outcrops of equipment that force me to lean into the tunnel, sometimes precariously. I keep one hand on the wall in front of me, like a blind person feeling their way through an unknown house. Whatever maintenance Metro does down here, it doesn’t include power-washing the walls, and my hands quickly turn gritty with dirt. I’m sure the side of my suit must look horrible where it’s brushing against the wall—and this is my best one, too.
I didn’t think the train had gone too far from the station, but it takes me five minutes before I can see the mouth of the tunnel ahead. Of course part of that’s because the station’s on emergency power, too, which renders it a dark cathedral, with only dim, grey light reflecting off the waffled roof.
The platform’s deserted when I get there, but I don’t think much of it—after all, both trains had come through right before the quake, so there wouldn’t’ve been many people here to begin with, and most of those had probably cleared out rather than wait around for the power to come back.
The station has multiple exits, with escalators on either end of the platform leading up to two different mezzanines. I head towards the one I’d come through earlier. I don’t know why, force of habit. But at least there’s a Starbucks this way. Even if they don’t have power, at least it’s out of the sun. And I’m a regular customer, so they should let me use the bathroom to clean off.
As I climb the escalator, I hear voices up above, distant at first but becoming more distinct as I get nearer.
“…hell happened to him?”
“Looks burned up.”
“I’ve never seen burns like that. That’s ... I don’t know what that is.”
I’m about two-thirds of the way up when people come into view. They’re huddled together beyond the ticket gates. The gates block most of my view, but there’s someone lying on the floor, not moving.
As I get closer, I can see something’s wrong with his face. It’s … burned … or … no, more like melted. His whole body is puffed up like a blister. Blood and pus glisten in the low light. He’s breathing heavy and ragged, so loud I can hear him from several feet away.
“What’s going on?” I say.
They jump. None of them had noticed my approach.
“Jesus,” a woman says. I recognize her from Starbucks, one of the baristas. Don’t know her name though.
“Where’d you come from? I thought everyone was up here,” a guy in a Metro uniform says.
Besides him and the barista, there are three other people up here—well, four, the guy on the floor. One’s a guy in a camo MAGA hat, so that’s nice, and the other two are youngish men, one clean shaven and the other with a stylish short beard.
“I was on a train,” I explain. “Got tired of waiting, walked here. What’s going on?”
“There is something majorly wrong up there.” The barista waves towards the station entrance.
“Can you be more specific?”
“I dunno,” the Metro guy says. He looks like he’s in charge, the stationmaster I guess. “This guy, he was on the way down when the quake happened, and he started screaming and came tumbling down the escalator. I ran over to check him and he was like this.”
“Why haven’t you called an ambulance?” I’d sat on the train for about five minutes, and the walk here had taken another ten. Surely paramedics would be here by now if they’d called.
“Phones are out,” the stationmaster says.
“I tried calling on my cell,” the bearded guy says, “but I couldn’t even get one bar.”
“How about flagging down a car?” Even if we have to stuff this guy in the backseat, it’s better than nothing.
Everyone gets this look on their face, like a doctor about to tell you you have inoperable cancer.
“There aren’t any motorists around,” the bearded guy says.
“What do you mean, ‘there aren’t any’?”
“I mean … there aren’t any. None.”
“That’s crazy.” Even on a Sunday, there should be a couple cars moving around up there.
“He’s telling the truth,” the barista says. “I went up there, too. The city’s … dead.”
I want to ask more, but two more Metro employees appear, coming from a walkway that goes across to the other mezzanine. They both look spooked.
“Things are bad on the north side,” one of them says, an older African-American man with a goatee.
The second employee, a Hispanic man in his early twenties, says, “The building over the northeast entrance is collapsed.”
“The one over the northwest entrance is still standing, but it doesn’t look good,” the older guy says. “Could come tumbling down if somebody breathes on it hard.”
Had the earthquake been that bad. True, the city isn’t built to withstand quakes—the Eastern Seaboard is one of the most geologically inert places on Earth, after all—but we’ve had them before. There’d been a trembler just a few years ago, and it hadn’t knocked anything over. This would have to be much bigger than anything ever recorded in the area.
I suppose this could be some once-in-a-millennium quake, but …
I don’t want to consider the other possibility.
That this wasn’t a quake.
That something man-made had struck the city.
But given current events …
“I’m going to go take a look,” I say.
“I wouldn’t do that, lady,” the younger of the station employees says.
I head for the nearest escalator to the surface. At least Farragut North’s a shallow station, so the walk up is short. I’d hate to be someone stuck in Rosslyn or one of the other stations that’re a couple hundred feet down.
Near the top, the treads and handrails are coated with a fine plaster dust, and a few large bits of concrete have fallen off the ceiling. And there’s something else. There’s a patch of purplish … goo a couple steps from the top, with a pile of clothes on top of it. What the hell had happened here?
I step off the escalator and into the recess. There are more puddles of goo and clothing up here. Are these …? No. No way. That’d be crazy. Besides, if a nuke had gone off in the city, people would’ve turned to ash, not goo.
I step outside. The sun blasts my eyes and I have to hold a hand up so it doesn’t blot out my sight.
Farragut Square looks like a fire’s raged across it. The trees are burnt-out skeletons, and the grass is blackened. Only the statue of Admiral Farragut at the center is untouched. Odd. If there had been a fire, the stone plinth should be blackened, but it’s the same light grey color as always.
The buildings around the square are in a sorry state. One on the far side has gone over completely, spilling rubble across the street and into the square, but all of them have cracks in their facades, and their windows are blown out, the glass lying in a sparkling carpet on the sidewalks. God knows what sort of structural damage they’ve suffered.
I’m so taken by the sight of destruction that it takes me a moment to realize nobody’s moving on the street. It’s not just a lack of vehicles, though that’s striking in itself, but I can’t see a single pedestrian in any direction.
I pull out my phone. No signal. Dammit. I have to call Kathy, find out if she’s all right, let her know that I am. Does any place around here have a pay phone? Nothing comes to mind. Maybe a store would let me use theirs. Or I can go back to the office—it’s hard to tell from here, but it looks like the building’s still standing. I should check on Jason anyhow, and Rekha if she’s still around. Yeah, best I head that way.
I start off walking, but after a couple steps I break into a run. When I get to the intersection, I sprint straight across without checking for traffic—let somebody else take up the burdens of civilization.
When I get to the other side, though, I falter. I can hear something, a mechanical thrum. There—to the right of me, there’s a van. It’s rammed straight into a bike-share, it’s rear end jutting into the street.
I head over and look inside. It’s empty, but the front seat’s stained with the same purple sludge I’d seen on the escalator. I try the door, but it doesn’t open—it’s locked from the inside.
I suppose the driver may’ve been dazed and gotten out without shutting the engine off, then locked the keys inside. It’s an entirely reasonable assumption.
But that’s not what happened.
That puddle inside—that used to be the driver.
I have no evidence, but I’m sure of it.
I cup my hands around my eyes and peer inside. Yes. There are clothes on the floor. They’ve slid off the seat.
But what could’ve caused this?
It wasn’t a nuke, I’m sure of that. We’re close enough to the White House that even a “little” tactical nuke would’ve leveled everything in sight. A missile would’ve had to go seriously off course if there are still buildings standing here. I suppose the Norks might’ve fired something in the experimental stages, didn’t have the kinks worked out, but even then I should be able to see a mushroom cloud.
But what else could’ve happened?
Biological warfare? Doesn’t explain the damage to the buildings, or how I haven’t been affected. If this were a biological agent, it’s fast acting. I should be goopifying already.
I check the sky.
Well, I suppose the whys and wherefores are somebody else’s problem. My concerns are closer at hand.
I head back to the corner and then towards the office.
The front door’s been shattered, but there are enough jagged glass teeth left in the frame that I don’t want to step through. I have the damnedest time getting the door open, what with all the broken shards grinding underneath, but after a few tugs I finally manage it.
The lobby is in ruins. The outer facade may be intact, but the interior has suffered serious structural damage. One of the fancy marble pillars has a crack clear through it, and the upper half has slid nearly an inch from true.
I hesitate. The building’s like a giant Jenga tower after a dozen turns. It could all come tumbling down with the slightest provocation—or none at all.
But I need to see.
The elevator is out of the question, so I find a stairwell. There are windows on the landings, but they face into an alley, so I have to use my flashlight again.
I make it up three flights before I come across a giant chunk of staircase that’s fallen loose. There’s something sticky and red oozing from the rubble, but I don’t see any sign of a body.
I point my flashlight up and find there’s a five foot gap in the flight above me. Even if I get across this rubble, I’ll never make that jump. Shit.
I backtrack to the previous floor and cut across to a different stairwell. This one is intact, but there are enough cracks running through it that I’m afraid it’s going to collapse like a temple out of Indiana Jones if I try to walk across it. But I don’t suppose any of the other stairwells will be in much better shape, so I take the chance.
I make it to the fifth floor with no further problems.
The place is empty. “Hello?” I call. “Rekha? Jason?” No answer.
I go into my office and pick up my phone. I’m not expecting to hear anything, and I’m right.
I hate being right. One of the joys of being a cynic is being proven wrong. I really wanted to be wrong.
If the phones are dead, the only way I can get back to Kathy is by hiking across the city and through the suburbs. Christ, but that’s a long way to walk, especially in August. Be better if I could wait until night when it cools down, but without power the city is going to be darker than black. My flashlight’s not gonna cut it.
Maybe … maybe I can find some car keys. Who knows what the roads are like, but even if I have to creep along at ten miles an hour and backtrack around obstacles, it’s better than walking.
I head to the studio. It has a window in it—cracked but otherwise intact—so I can see inside without opening the door. Jason and Rekha aren’t here, though Rekha’s laptop is still open on the table—the battery isn’t even dead yet, and the power-light is blinking in standby mode.
I open the door and step in. There’s purple goo on the floor. Their clothes are in the seats.
I’m not surprised at this point, but my heart pounds hard for a second. I close my eyes and tell myself not to cry. I don’t have time for tears.
I step back into the hall and head for the big boss’s office. I know where he keeps his liquor—he breaks it out whenever we complete a big project—and I need it right now. I open his desk and search through his bottles until I find his Cointreau. It’s only a quarter full, but it’ll do. I take out my flask and top her up, then polish off what’s left in the bottle.
Mmm. I feel like I’m on fire now.
That’s what I needed.
I check the time on my phone. It’s past five now. I have about three hours of good light left. If I walk, I might get as far as Rock Creek tonight, but then I’d have to find some place to stay. If I grab a car, I could get further, but I don’t know how long that would take.
Perhaps its best if I head back to the station. I can bed down there tonight, and who knows, maybe rescue will show up at some point. I doubt it. But if I set off at first light tomorrow, I should have fourteen hours of daylight. Even with detours and pit stops, I should be able to make it home by early evening.
Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.
I make it downstairs and out of the building without any trouble, but I’ve gone all of three yards down the street when I hear a crash behind me. I spin around in time to see a building on the next block fall into the road. It breaks apart as it topples, the upper half snapping off and trying to fall straight down even as the lower part continues forward. The two halves pulverize each other in midair, and a cloud of dust billows out of the collision.
“Ho-lee fuck.” I flash back to 9/11, to sitting in the Student Union as the first street-level videos came in of the Towers collapsing—the dust rolling across the city as people scrambled to get indoors. Back then, we all felt like we were watching the end of the world. We were wrong, though. The world will never end. It’ll only change.
As the dust cloud envelops me, I wonder what it’s changing into this time.
To Be Continued ...