The crowd at the end of the street was growing, slowly but surely, as whispers about the outsider spread around the mutant city. They were murmuring and milling about, curious, terrified, intrigued by the stranger in their midst but strangely un-angered by any rumour of what had happened.
Yancy spat the last of the vomit from his mouth into the runnel in front of the house and stood up, light-headed and hollow. He leaned a hand against the wall, oblivious to the faint patina of corruption across its surface that was the heritage of everything built in the sewers. He was beyond caring now. Across the street, as he turned, he saw Neena crouched in the shadows of a narrow passage between two other buildings, her unseeing eye locked on the wall in front of her, both arms wrapped around her knees for support.
Her first reaction had been... not violent, but certainly ferocious. It had seemed as if all her fears and anger had sloshed out in one giant, overwhelming wave. She’d attacked them without any warning and without seeming to realise who they were until Yancy had managed to talk some sense into her. Poor Raoul was nursing a rather nasty black eye.
He crossed the street, ignoring the mummer of the mutant crowd at the sight of his brazen invasion of their secret world. Their sanctified privacy. The pictures on the walls of the room where Neena’s parents had died seemed to contradict the sentiment.
Neena didn’t acknowledge Yancy’s approach, nor did she seem to even notice when he crouched down next to her. For a moment Yancy was unsure of how to react. She seemed to have returned to the near-catatonic state she’d been in the first time he’d told her.
“This was my fault.”
Only after she reacted did he realise he’d said it out loud. Stubborn refusal to back down forced him to return her glare with a defiance he didn’t feel. She looked away again, wordless. Emotionless.
“Neena...” what could he say, in the face of something like that? “I’m sorry.”
Nothing, again. She didn’t even change her rate of breathing. The only sign she was even listening was the slight narrowing of her pupil, a stress reaction rendered blatantly obvious on her distorted face. But beautiful, some part of his mind said. Why had it said that?
“There wasn’t anything you could do...”
Footsteps. Yancy glanced up at the approaching mutant, the one called Vyolet. She was holding her hands out at an awkward angle, uncertainty clouding her face as she approached, as if she was worried Neena might lash out again. Vyolet halted a few strides short of them and cleared her throat.
“We’re about the move the bodies,” she said quietly. Yancy and Neena both looked at her, uncomprehending, leading Vyolet to scowl with more than a little frustration. “We need you to decide.”
“How they’re disposed.” she moved a little closer and knelt down, touching Neena’s bare arm with one hand. They both shivered at the touch, Neena from the touch of such mutated flesh and Vyolet, apparently, from the general taboo on close contact in the sewers.
Yancy stared across the street and then down at the distant lake, a disturbing conclusion forming in his mind. “What do you mean, disposed?”
“Oh. You don’t do this on the surface?” She took out her cigarettes and poked one into her mouth. “They can be recycled in a lot of different ways.”
“In the recycling pits on the other side of the lake. It’s where we grow a lot of our food, amongst other things.”
She lit the cigarette and took a long drag on it, brightening Neena’s face with an orange flare that appeared to linger in her eye just a little longer than it should have. Suddenly Neena seemed to snap out of her senescence. She turned to look at Vyolet. Her eye narrowed slightly.
“Cigarette,” she muttered, plucking the half-empty packet from Vyolet’s unresisting hand. She tucked one into her mouth before tossing the packet back and retrieving a steel-cased live-flame lighter that Yancy hadn’t even known she was carrying. The flare of its flame reflected in her eye seemed to enhance the sudden darkness Yancy thought he could see in there.
“Neena, you don’t smoke.”
“I do whatever I want,” she muttered, drawing hard on the cigarette. The smoke curling from her mouth and nose as she breathed out lent her an almost demonic seductiveness. “Recycling...”
“We value our bodies too much to waste them.”
She fixed another glare on Vyolet. “My parents will be buried in a proper grave.”
“But... but that isn’t the way-”
“You’ll do what I tell you to do, you god-damned freak!”
The gun seemed to appear out of nowhere, its crude metal barrel making an audible ‘thump’ as Neena jammed it against Vyolet’s head, followed by a dangerously quiet click as she thumbed back the pistol’s hammer. The mutant blinked in surprise at the sudden escalation of the situation. She held up her hands and slowly backed away.
“Sure. Sure... whatever you want,” she said, trying to sound as conciliatory as possible as she backed out into the street, before turning to run back to the mutant crowd. Neena, breathing deeply, lowered the gun a fraction, her eye narrowing and widening as if she was having trouble seeing and her lips moving slightly.
“Um...” Yancy said, only to find the gun pointing at his face. He screwed his eyes shut. There was a ringing thud, metal against soil, and then Neena started sobbing out loud again, her arms reaching out to grab his.
“I lost them, Yancy. I lost them! I was so close!” She fell against him with a loud sob, knocking Yancy back onto his haunches so that he ended up leaning against the wall, his legs sprawled out on either side of Neena’s. She pawed at his coat, keening and sniffling without ever managing to cry. The cigarette was long gone.
“I...” he patted her back, feeling pathetically unable to deal with the situation. Neena seemed to take a little comfort from it though, snuggling up against his chest, her self-pity reduced to a barely audible moaning.
“How... how can they be so callous?” She stared across at the silent house, one hand rubbing the worst of the tears from her face. They were bringing the shrouded bodies out into the open now, preparing them to be taken to whatever passed as a morgue in the mutant city. “They recycle their own dead. How can they do that?”
“It’s probably just a reaction to the environment they live in,” Yancy said, not really thinking. Why was he defending them?
“It’s disgusting. Pitiful...” she lurched away from Yancy, grabbing the gun as she heaved herself upright, before stuffing the pistol into her belt. Yancy scrambled after Neena as she stalked across the road to the small knot of mutants gathered around the bodies of her parents. The nearest pair saw her coming, noticed the menace in her eye and quickly stepped out of the way, giving Neena a free path to her father’s side.
She stopped by his body, looking down at the shroud that covered his face. For a moment she hovered her hand over it, seemingly undecided whether she should draw it back or leave it be. Then she let it drop down to his chest, before brushing past his arm.
The movement dislodged something from his hand. Neena and Yancy saw the little plastic card drop to the floor at the same time and both knelt to look at it. It was Neena that picked it up, turning it over in one hand. When she looked at the functional side her face seemed to freeze, hardening into a pale, stony neutrality.
Neena stood and waved off the mutants bearing her family before pushing past them to re-enter the house. She stopped in the room, which still stank of their unique decay, and looked around the floor until her eye settled on one of the packs of shells. Neena quickly scooped the little boxes into her pocket.
“Neena? What’s going on?” Yancy touched Neena’s arm. She shrugged off his hand, intent on the gun in her grip. She seemed to be focussing all of her rage on it, as if she could imbue the mechanism itself with her anger. “Neena?”
“You said your brother probably just didn’t know his way around our sewers, right?”
“Well... well, yeah, his universe has to be different to ours, they don’t have that big underground lab for one. That’s how these things work, I think.”
“So he’d have no reason to try and stop me getting here?”
Yancy frowned. He didn’t like where this was going. “No. Why would he?”
“You tell me.” Neena held up the card, face down, and passed it to Yancy. He backed away from Neena as he turned it over, and didn’t notice her silent retreat from the room. There was a face staring out of the card, bright red hair brushed back into a spike and a friendly, slightly gormless smile underneath it.
“Why would Phil’s I.D be...”
He looked up. She was gone. Yancy stared about himself as he gathered his wits, trying to work out when she’d left. He charged out onto the street to try and spot her but she was already out of site. None of the mutants knew where she’d gone or, if they did, they weren’t telling.
“Nee... Leela! Come back!” He looked up and down the short street in the vain hope that she’d come back again or appear out of some side-street. “Dammit.”
He returned to the house, the ID card clutched in his hand, grinning morbidly at him. For a few moments he just stared at it, until curiosity set in and the memory of Raoul’s earlier remarks came back to him. Had she been here? She kept acting like she had, but that didn’t make any more sense than the idea Phil had been.
Yancy’s eyes roved over the photographs and mementos plastered across the wall, framed in cabinets and on table tops. All of Leela’s life was here laid out in stark monochrome. He wandered over the snatched fragments of her existence, looking for any hint of why she might have suddenly snapped, but there was nothing. Not a damn thing.
Yancy gave up and stared at his feet. Then he frowned, spying a cigarette butt on the floor by the wall, discarded there for some time if he was any judge. He picked it up between finger and thumb and held it up to the dank light of the window. The pattern of the slender gold trim around the filter looked familiar.
Outside again, and Vyolet was nowhere to be seen. Yancy strolled along the street to the cowering crowd of mutants at the far end, hold his hands out in case they thought he was going to shoot them or something. He had no idea if it helped them, but it made him feel better if nothing else.
The mutants formed a solid, if somewhat sloppy wall across the street. They stared at him, the outsider, with mingling fear and curiosity. Yancy stopped a few strides short of them and looked amongst the crowd for any sign of Neena or Vyolet. He saw one very fast in the form of a nervous cloud of smoke rising two or three rows back.
“Vyolet? I know you’re there, I need to ask you something.”
The crowd murmured its surprise that any surface dweller would talk to them, let alone know the name of one of their number. It parted, like an undermined bank of mud falling apart, laving a free path for Yancy to walk toward Vyolet. She sucked on her cigarette, blowing smoke out of her gills as fast as it went into her mouth, until the little white stick was reduced to a short tuft of ash.
“What do you want,” she said, tossing the butt away and retrieving another in a single practised motion. Yancy held out the cigarette butt and the ID card.
“How did these get here?”
Vyolet took the card and frowned at it. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind stumbling across him in a dark tunnel. Meow.”
“You haven’t see him down here?”
Vyolet shook her head and handed the card back. She smiled a little sadly. “I haven’t. I’d know if I had. Oh, but your friend Leela, she was down here a few nights ago. Hung around the tunnels all day and...” she paused, eyes fixed on the cigarette butt. “Where did you find that?”
“In the house, where the bodies were.”
“It’s the same as mine.” She took the butt and held it up next to her own still-lit cigarette. “I guess these belonged to your friend.”
“She can’t have been down here all day though. She was with me the last few days.”
“Yeah, well, you surface dwellers all look the same to me, what do I know between two virtually identical one-eyed alien mutant wannabes?”
It doesn’t make any sense, Yancy mused as the mutants began to disperse. He held up the cigarette. It was definitely old. Some mysterious liquid had soaked into it and dried out again which meant at least a day or two lying on the floor. He glanced around the subdued crowd and then back at the building where Leela’s parents had lived. There wasn’t much else he could do here. Pocketing the detritus, he set off back along the tunnels, hoping his memory would get him back to the surface.
Tunnels, it was always the tunnels and the creatures chasing after her, the monsters of her past, pursuing and taunting her and drawing her onward and pushing her forward until legs ached and heart pounded and the anger, the bitter anger, the murderers and the keepers of secrets...
Leela stalked through the darkness, one hand stretched out ahead to ward off the shadows, the other, gripping the gun tight and firm, dangling by her side, almost unused. Water and shit splashed under her feet the cloying stink burned at the back of her nose, reminding her of the pathetic wastrel scum who’d stolen her parents from her. Oh they’d pay, they’d all pay, just as soon as she’d dealt with the one they’d brought in to do it.
How could she have trusted him? The... the liar, the one who’d set it all in motion, cajoling and taunting her with the secrets that should never have been known before taking it all away again. Her life was over, that was certain. She knew what she was, what would happen to her now and that hell was almost too much to bear. To never see the sun again... but before she went she’d make sure he never saw it again either.
A junction up ahead was a convenient spot to rest her tired legs for a second. Just for a second. She leaned against the slime-covered wall and sighed. For a moment the heat of her anger subsided, letting her mind wander to questioning why this would have happened, but then she lifted up the pistol and any rational thought was banished as another bout of anger welled up inside her, fuelled by the sight of the weapon that had destroyed her life; the tool of vengeance.
Leela turned the gun from side to side. It was crude, ancient, but in perfect condition even so. Compared to the precise, clinical weaponry of her age it was brutal and inefficient but, strangely elegant in its simplicity. Point and click. The ultimate in user friendly interfaces.
Footsteps echoed briefly in the tunnels behind her, carried from god knew where but sounding close. Leela spun, heart pounding and stared back along her path. “Who’s there?”
The footsteps, if that’s what they were, stopped. Leela had the impression of a, a something standing at the far end of the tunnel though she couldn’t see anything, or hear. She stepped out into the centre of the tunnel and aimed along it, staring down the sights at the blackness that seemed to be just a shade darker than the rest. They lined up perfectly under her vision, almost as if it were designed for someone with just one eye.
“I have a gun!”
Silence. Leela’s finger tightened around the trigger, squeezing it a fraction until the hammer began to lift and the ratchets underneath began to rotate the cylinder. She stopped, staring at the mechanism, fascinated by its oily, sinuous shape and movement, and then increased the pressure, tightening her grip.
The sound the gun made in the enclosed tunnels was deafening. A thunderous roar and a bright flash of cerise light accompanied by a cloud of acrid, bitter smoke that seemed to crawl into her eyes and throat and lungs, maddening and energising all at once. Leela gasped, choked and gasped again in a bizarre parody of laughter that almost mirrored how she felt. Her whole arm tingled from the recoil of the gun. Her hand was almost completely numb. She giggled, widening her eye as she squeezed the trigger again and sent another shot cascading down the tunnel.
Leela released her finger from the trigger and held the gun up to her face. She could feel a hint of warmth from the barrel radiating against her skin. She inhaled the smoke still trailing from the gun and smiled, a lazy, sensuous sort of smile.
Licking it would have been weird. She’d been tempted for a moment, though. Giggling again, Leela let forth a few more shots until the hammer clicked against an empty chamber. She frowned and flipped out the cylinder, which automatically ejected the six spent cartridges to ring against the floor like tiny brass bells.
“Easy,” she muttered, fishing spare charges from her pocket. “Like a battery, only more fun...”
Leela cast one final glance at the tunnel. If anything had been following her it was gone for sure, now. Gun loaded, she resumed her hike down the tunnels, whistling a happy song to herself. She wasn’t sure where it came from or what it was about, just that it felt so right.
Yancy cowered behind an outlet pipe from Neena’s gunfire as it zipped down the tunnel, the bullets tearing past his hiding spot and thumping into the ancient brickwork of the far end junction wall. He heard her laughter as the report of the last shot echoed away in the maze of the sewers and wished, prayed he never had to hear it again. The madness behind it was terrifying. Yancy risked peering out once he heard the oily snick of the weapon being reloaded and saw Neena examining the gun with the sort of loving gaze normally reserved for a child.
She’s snapped, he thought sadly. And it’s all my fault...
He cowered back again, trying to work up the courage to confront her before she did something stupid, but then she was away again. She set off up the tunnel, whistling a song he’d never heard before, splashing her way through the muck of the sewers in a way that seemed inappropriately happy.
Yancy leaned forward to pull himself upright. A movement caught his eye then, a little closer to his pipes, but on the far side of the tunnel. A shadow detached from an alcove in the far wall and stepped out into the dim light emanating from the downflow pipes and grates. There was no mistaking the shape of her ponytail, even in the eternal twilight of the tunnels. It was Leela.
A matched flared to life, illuminating her face for just a brief moment as she lit a cigarette. She looked around, examining the tunnel in the flickering wan light of the flame before tossing it into the muck, where it hissed into darkness again. For a moment her eye rested directly on Yancy’s hiding spot and paused. He froze, unsure of whether he’d been spotted until the lazy gaze continued back, along the path they’d taken, and then around to follow the distant Neena as she disappeared into the deeper darkness of another junction.
Leela took a final drag from her cigarette and tossed it aside. She turned to follow Neena up the tunnel. Yancy counted to ten in his head and stepped out. He scampered across to the discarded cigarette and pulled it from the muck. It was identical to the one in his pocket; the same little golden band around the filter with its familiar, rope-curled pattern.
Yancy stared up at the tunnel roof, as if he could suddenly get a view of the stars. The last time he’d seen Leela she was heading off into space. How had she got here?
He had no idea what was going on.