They were lost. Yancy could see that even in the dank twilight of these sewers. They were lost and they’d been lost for quite some time. Neena kept tramping along, not caring where she went as long as she kept going forward, leaving Yancy to trail in her wake through the pestilent stinking tunnels.
“Neena, come on, we’ve been walking through these tunnels for hours. Face it.”
“We are not lost, Yancy. I know where I am.” She paused under a narrow tube and looked up. A tiny, pale pinprick of light managed to shine out of it, though it looked like it was probably a very long pipe. “I know where I am,” she insisted, walking forward.
“Neena...” Yancy jogged a few stops to catch up and grabbed her hand. She rounded on him with an almost inhuman snarl, her fist held at the side of her head so that it seemed she was about to hit him with her elbow. Then she froze, for just a moment, just long enough for Yancy to speak. “Why won’t you let us go back and try Phil’s directions?”
“They’re wrong,” she insisted. “They’re wrong, they would have taken us away. He didn’t want me to find them, he wanted me to... to walk into a trap. He wanted to trick me.”
“What? Neena, you’re not making sense. Why would Phil want to trap you?”
“I don’t know! Maybe he’s insane. Yeah that could be it, he’s insane, they’re both insane. It’d explain a lot.”
She stopped again, uncertainty clouding her face, hands clenching and unclenching, making fists that she pressed against her thighs in frustration. She rounded on Yancy as he approached her and grabbed his shirt.
“What are you doing here?”
“Neena, you asked me to come.” Yancy put a hand over hers. “You wanted me here. When you met your parents, remember?”
“I...” she let go very slowly and backed away a step. “Yeah. Yeah, when I meet them. Yeah...”
She turned to walk away again, down the slope of the tunnel to an intersection, where she hesitated for a moment before plunging into the dark of a side-tunnel. Yancy hurried to catch up to the cyclops before she disappeared completely. He had no idea of the way out of the sewers now and didn’t fancy his chances of lasting long without Neena around. Even if she was going crazy.
The tunnel was dark, but it seemed drier and less used than most. Yancy slopped up from the slimy floor onto a short set of stairs and a platform that wound past a half-open door, stuck in place. He could see Neena at the far end of the tunnel, stood rock-still, her head turning left and right.
Yancy made sure his approach was loud, just so Neena wouldn’t be shocked when he arrived at her side again. She didn’t seem to acknowledge him though, barely turning to look at Yancy before she shot off down another tunnel. They stopped again in the middle of another intersection and this time Neena turned to watch Yancy approaching.
“I hate to sound petulant but are we done yet?”
“No,” Neena said. She wrapped her arms around her front as if she was cold, though in that coat it didn’t seem likely. “I need a cigarette.”
There was a moment, a pause as the atmosphere of the tunnel seemed to change around them. Yancy felt rather than heard the motion behind him. He turned.
“It would not be wise,” a voice said from the shadows. The shape was... odd, and odder still as the man stepped into the light. Yancy managed the stifle the scream in his throat but he couldn’t hide his gut-wrenching horror as the figure became clear. Despite the pallid skin and obvious bad hygiene it was roughly a man, as long as you saw him from the one side. Except he had turned as he moved, revealing an arm protruding from the side of his head.
“What do you mean, wise?” Neena stepped past Yancy and stood in front of the... person. “Are you one of the mutants?”
“Just that with all the methane in these older tunnels, smoking is not a good idea. We tend to discourage it,” the man said, frowning as he examined Neena’s face. He tilted his head to one side and scratched it with that hideously placed arm, his other two clasped before his front. “And yes, I am what you would call a mutant. We all are.”
Neena backed away a little, confusion and doubt mixing with just a hint of disgust on her face as other mutants emerged from the shadows of the tunnel, a mumming, near-silent crowd of hideous shapes, limbs and eyes and mouths, their few recognisable faces carrying expressions of fear and mistrust that matched Neena’s own.
They gathered in a tight circle around the pair, with the three-armed one standing free of the wall of bizarre bodies. He looked around.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Yancy muttered. Neena didn’t respond. She was staring around the crowd, her eye bouncing from face to face with increasing desperation.
“Whom do you seek,” the three-armed man asked gently, directing his attention to Neena. She focused on his face without really looking at him. “We are many, but we know one another well.”
“I’m looking for... they’d be maybe about my height, older...” Neena’s shoulders dropped a little. “They’ll have one eye. I don’t know their names.”
“Oh, those two.” Another mutant, apparently female though it was hard to tell. She had an unlit cigarette in her mouth which she kept rolling from side to side, pausing occasionally to suck at it.
“You know them,” Neena asked, watching the cigarette move back and forth. The mutant nodded.
“Yeah. They’re the loons.”
“The sky watchers, some call them,” a third mutant chimed up. He had a guitar slung over his back and a forehead that, to Yancy’s eye, looked like it could crush a small mammal. And two noses, which probably explained the permanently disgusted look on his face.
Neena’s hands twitched. She tore her gaze from the female and her cigarette and focused on the guitar player. “Sky watchers?”
“They spend their lives creeping around the grates and gutters taking pictures of things on the surface,” the woman said. Her pig-like nose wrinkled as she laughed, snorting, and pulled the cigarette from her mouth. It was odd, but Yancy actually found her face somewhat endearing, as long as he ignored the gills and randomly scaled skin. Perhaps it was her superficial resemblance to the Planet Express secretary. The familiarity seemed comforting. “Kept talking about wanting a better life for someone.”
“But we are the sons of the nightsoil! What better life could they have than ours,” the guitarist asked, holding his arms out. The mutant woman turned a disdainful eye toward him.
“Please, Dwayne, have you seen your life lately?” She snorted, her laughter cynical now as Dwayne’s face fell. Behind them the other mutants began to disperse and wander back into the darkness. “And you can cram that sexist ‘sons of the shit’ talk as well. Just ignore him,” she said, moving in front of the mutant Dwayne. “I’m Vyolet.”
“Ne... Leela,” Neena said, almost holding out her hand. Vyolet gave the half-raised arm a puzzled look and then seemed to dismiss it. She looked over at Yancy and gave what was probably a mutant’s idea of a seductive smile.
“And what’s your name, handsome?”
“Um... Yancy.” He held out his hand but received the same puzzled look. The mutant examined his hand curiously until he put down again. “I never met a mutant before.”
“You can imagine we don’t get out much,” the three-armed mutant said. He held out his hand for Yancy to take. “Raoul. Most of us don’t like to touch strangers.”
“Why, are you worried you’ll get some sort of disease?”
“Oh no,” the mutant said, his face solemn. “Quite the other way around.”
Yancy waited until Raoul had turned away before frantically wiping his hand on his pants. He watched Neena until she seemed to come to life again, her face set hard as she turned to pursue the mutants. He followed Raoul and Neena down the tunnel until they reached another junction to a broader, brighter passage.
Behind him Vyolet pulled out yet another cigarette and a lighter. “You’d think they would have offered me a light,” she muttered. “First packet of cigarettes I’ve found in nearly a month.”
“You’re the only one that insists on using those things.”
“Oh please, Dwayne, it’s just a harmless habit. It’s not like you have to worry about the smell down here,” the female said as she held up a lighter. There was a quit whump as the air seemed to explode around their heads. Vyolet blinked in surprise, her face blackened by the soot left from the ignited methane pocket. She turned to glare at Dwayne. “Not a word.”
The other mutant just shrugged. They both started after the retreating trio, lost in their thoughts.
“I saw her before,” Vyolet said after a moment. “Down here.”
“Yeah, she’s the one that dropped my cigarettes.” She lit a fresh cigarette, holding safely away from her face to prevent a repeat of the previous butt’s fate, and took a deep drag.
“Why would she pretend she’s never been down here? Surface dwellers are weird.” He scratched his side, eyes idling over the floor of the tunnel in case anything interesting floated by. “They all look alike to me.”
“She’s the first one you’ve met, Dwayne.”
The mutant town nestled along one edge of a large effluent lake. At first Yancy had mistaken it for the piled up detritus it seemed to resemble, though after realising it was Raoul’s apparent destination he’d paid a little closer attention and noticed the first window. As they came closer the shapes of buildings became clear, though it was equally clear that their primary building material was-
“Crap, I dropped my lighter in the lake!”
“I’ll get it,” Yancy said, his mind not really on the world around him any more. He backtracked to Vyolet’s side and leaned down to reach into the murky water. A hand grabbed his shoulder and roughly dragged him away from the lake side. Yancy looked up to find Raoul and Vyolet glaring down at him.
“Don’t touch the water,” Raoul said with an angry shake of his head. “It’s mutagenic.”
“That means it’ll make you like us,” Vyolet added as if explanation were needed.
“Oh. Right.” Yancy dusted himself down as he stood up. “I guess I appreciate the warning.”
Vyolet shrugged and pulled another lighter from her pocket. “Most of our visitors tend to have arrived by falling into it from the surface, so we don’t normally need to mention it.”
“You two are the first surface dwellers we’ve had down here in living memory,” Raoul said once they were on their way again. “At least, the first that haven’t had to become part of our society, such as it is,” he added, watching Neena’s back with a curious tilt of his head. Yancy shuddered at the way his arm flopped about when he wasn’t using it, like some enormous, pendulous... arm.
The town was much larger than Yancy anticipated, large enough to have its own economy of sorts. There were shops and restaurants, at least one school, and in the distance a building shaped a lot like an old church. He didn’t want to think about what the brickwork was made from.
“How long have you been down here for,” he asked after they wandered the streets for a few minutes. Raoul shrugged, looking around and frowning at some private thought.
“Some say nearly twelve hundred years. Most of us are descended from the inhabitants of the old city who survived the first Great Burial in the early twenty-second century. Our historical records were mostly lost in the great flush twenty-eight twenty-six but I understand some of our archaeologists have found the remains of the earliest mutant settlements in the ruins of the old city.”
“But... but I was alive a thousand years ago, there was no way mutants could have existed back then. Even the alligators were a myth.”
“The tunnels conceal many things,” Raoul said, turning his gaze toward Neena again. He stopped. “You know, I haven’t told your friend which roads to take for the last ten minutes yet we’re almost at the home of the ones she claims are her parents. Are you sure she’s never been here before?”
“Positive,” Yancy replied. He looked around. Some of the local mutants were giving him and Leela odd, curious glances as they went about their business. “She wouldn’t lie to me.”
“Yet here we are.”
Raoul pointed down the short street to a small house, one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in downstate New Jersey if it hadn’t been so clean, with a neat little square of odd growths that he assumed was a garden. Neena was stood in front of the door, one hand on her hip, the other teasing at her tailed hair with a regular twisting motion.
“Neena?” He paused next to her and examined a crudely scrawled sign attached to the door. “Baltimore, huh, does that mean they’re not here?”
“I don’t know,” Neena muttered. She picked up the sign and tossed it to one side before pressing her hand against the door. There she stood, just long enough for Yancy to get a little uncomfortable. He touched Neena’s arm.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, seeming to resolve whatever inner conflict she’d faced. She pushed the door open and then paused again on the darkened threshold. Raoul cleared his throat.
“We do generally guard our privacy...”
“I’m their daughter,” Neena said. Raoul shrugged again at the explanation. “They wouldn’t mind me going in there, they’re my parents!”
“Yancy, stay here until I call you, okay?”
Yancy nodded and tried to smile. He backed away a little with his hands in his pockets and slouched against the wall where, to his vague surprise, eh found Vyolet and Dwayne watching him.
“Hi handsome... want a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Oh. How about a date?”
Yancy found himself chuckling at the incongruity of the whole situation, until he saw Vyolet’s hurt expression. She looked away.
“Oh come on, you can’t think...”
“We all have our dreams,” Vyolet sniffed.
“Yeah, well my dreams-”
Neena screamed. Yancy was at the door of the building without a thought but, when he was there, he stopped, suddenly terrified of his own reaction. The interior was dark and unknown. Anything that could make Neena scream had to be more than a match for him. But then he felt someone poking his ribs.
“Get in there or get out of the way,” Vyolet urged, Raoul right behind her, his expression grim.
Yancy nodded and stepped through the door into a dimly lit hallway. Several of the rooms were open and lit by naked light-bulbs, a trail of slimy dirt tracked through them and up, then down the stairs. A strange, sickly-familiar stink pervaded everything, alien even to the all-too-human stench of the sewers. Yancy’s eye’s twitched.
He moved left, drawn by the sound of Neena’s quiet sobbing. The room was fastidiously clean in general but here the smell grew stronger. It wasn’t even masked by the mutants as they crowded around the door to look in.
“Oh, Blast,” Raoul muttered.