Alkali Lake Industrial Complex, 1985
A frenzied animal is making its way down the hall. Pressing my ear to the seam of the door, I follow the sound of its claws raking the concrete walls as it comes for me. It’s thrilling. For days I’ve only heard the sound of trickling and my own breathing- except when the air tastes so bad. Scrambling into the corner, water splashing as I cross the center of the cell, I flatten my hands against the grimy walls and face the door. If I’m quick maybe I will squeeze between its legs and run.
The door shudders, the claws rake, the animal hates me. I gulp the dark, tight air and get ready to dash. Groaning open the wrong way, the door smashes against the wall with a shudder, bolts scattering over the hallway floor. Light and smell billow into the room, and my lungs and eyes hurt from all of it at once. A man staggers in, hits his foot on the door, and begins striking it again and again, the light in the hallway shining off the training helmet and his metal claws. Steam rises from him; blood, sweat, and chemicals prickle in my nose. There’s an animal smell too. He looks like a man, smells like an animal, and so they put tags on him. Tags and claws.
He’s noticed me. With the helmet in the way, he cannot sniff me out, but he’s trying to. There’s blood on his legs where he keeps nicking himself, and he cannot hear or see. Whatever’s chasing him will catch him and take him away because of those claws.
Standing up, I move carefully toward him. I shouldn’t, I should dodge around him and run. Instead, I nudge his knees gently. He growls and backs up, raising one hand, but doesn’t hit me. I wait before touching his knees again, pressing harder this time. He stands still then kneels. My heart shakes my ribs with its beating.
His helmet is heavier and it is hot with the wires all snapped. When I lift it off it slips, smashes, and rolls into the puddle in the center of the room. The man animal takes a deep breath through his nose and stares at me like he’s not sure I’m a thing he can eat, but he might still try. His arm muscles are tight because of the claws. Maybe they go back in like cats’ do. I look at his eyes to hold him still while I feel his arm. He twitches and glares at me, but doesn’t move.
One muscle further up his arm makes the claws retract when you press on it. Except the claws go back in between his fingers, a place claws don’t come from, so then he bleeds. I check, but there are no cuts on his hands and no places for claws. I press on his other arm to make the claws go back in, but this time I feel for the cuts in case I missed them in the small light. The man stands up and backs away from me.
I remember I might need to run.
He puts his hand in the light and winces as the claws come back out, trembling like they scare him too, and I can see how they come through his skin in such a wrong way. I press on his arm, they retract, and the ripped skin folds back into place. Where the blood is on his legs there are no cuts either.
I look at the scabs and purple-green spots on my legs and touch his hands again. All hand, all human. My legs are hurt, but his aren’t and that’s better, better than anything. I concentrate hard, stare at my knees, and clench my toes. And my body obeys, giving me fresh skin without funny colors that look like mold. I’m so excited I smile at him. He looks afraid.
Now they’re coming. He tilts his head to hear and I do the same, hearing footsteps and pumping lungs. He points to the crumpled door. “Get behind it.” Then he leaves.
I step out after him, the light still hurting my eyes. A dozen heartbeats wait around each corner at the ends of the hall. He snaps at me to go back in the room, but I’m already walking and am never going back in that room. Standing close to the wall, I turn my head around the corner and watch all the guns click as all the eyes go wide.
My friend pushes me behind him fast, but the guards are running away, radio static chasing them, ruining the fun. I run over to the other corner of the hall, but those guards got scared too and are gone. Someone grabs me by the arm, and I hiss and bury my claws in their hand. My friend lets go fast and I jump away, scared now.
“What was that?” he asks angrily. I hide my hands behind my back. He’s not a real animal. He has their claws, so he’ll hate me too.
“Show me,” he orders. I show him my normal hands. “Don’t screw around, you know what I mean.”
Ready to run again, I show him my claws. He doesn’t look afraid, just looks closer. “Did you have those before you got here?”
I nod and he nods, and my hands form back into their human look.
“Why don’t you talk?” he asks. “Don’t you know how?”
“I can talk,” I argue.
“Alright then.” He puts out his hand. “Let’s go.”
I squeeze his hand and aim him the right way, and he follows me. They won’t leave the vault door open for us. They’ll be waiting until everyone’s out, and then close it before we get there. He’ll be locked down here with me until he’s quiet and obedient too. Except Wolverine is stuck with those claws and those tags, and they’ll kill us both now.
The vault slams shut far away and all the lights go out. No, no I’m not staying in the dark. I tug on his hand and keep walking. I know this place best in the dark. I’ll find the door, and I will get out. We are two animals in a trap, but we aren’t scared anymore. We’re angry.
A scrawny grade-schooler is leading him through black hallways that taste of the tomb. Her long hair unkempt, shoulders narrow, and in the bleak light her eyes seemed huge in her slim face. As the helmet was lifted and his senses rushed him, his first sight in two days was the smallest flicker of a smile pressed onto her thin lips.
They retrace the trail of destruction he’s caused- the long, three-furrowed gashes in the walls, the other cell doors hanging off their hinges. Oddly, none of these appear to have been occupied. He tries to sniff out the direction the soldiers went in, but the halls are dank and they’ve already been down every one searching for him. The only sounds of life are their own.
They weave in and out of corridors and backrooms like she has a map of the place committed to memory. Finally, she comes to a vault door set awkwardly in the wall, an emergency light gleaming above it. She stops and looks up at him. He raises an eyebrow in question, and she arches her own at the door in answer. He takes a deep breath. Snikt.
The girl's slender limbs climb precariously over the now slivered metal door. “There’s a back exit here that no one watches.”
The wall next to them is being scratched at from the other side, and a low moan emulates from somewhere. He finds he preferred the silence. “You know about this door how?”
There’s no reply, just the sound of her bare feet padding over the cold concrete. Moans and snarls come from nearly every cell they pass, but she ignores them. It’s the silent ones that unnerve her. In these he can smell death behind the door, and it seems she can too. When she stops abruptly, he nearly trips over her, cursing under his breath. The girl inclines her head, and he hears it too. A very, very subtle click.
Instantly she’s off, tearing down the hall faster than those spindly legs should be able to carry her. He stays close on her heels, even as cell doors slam open and the gunfire begins. The hallway she’s running down grows darker, narrower, steeper. He can’t make her out anymore, but can only hear her feet slapping over the damp floor as she runs up into the darkness. The tunnel echoes with the sounds of soldiers. They’re gaining on him and he can no longer hear her running, but if she’s still up ahead she’s going to need time. He stops and turns to face the oncoming fray.
White light fills the tunnel. He runs toward it, sees her slight figure outlined in the doorway, sees the guards in the snow outside.
Someone fires and she drops to the ground with a tight yelp, hitting her head against the concrete threshold.
Bullets spray in from both sides now as rage swells in his chest, blood boiling hot in his head. They’ll all die.
He has one soldier down, one who’d come too close. Blinded by blood and rage, he kicks the body out of his way, the gun clattering behind him. The soldiers at his fore begin to retreat and he lurches after them, but in the chaos notices a sound out of place. Turning he sees her lying in the doorway, a handgun in her shaking hand, the bright snow outside decorated with lifeless guards. The two stare at each other breathlessly until her gaze falters. The little companion becomes just as still as the bodies in the snow, her harsh breathing abated, and even with his enhanced hearing he can no longer detect her heart beat.
Dazed, he staggers out into the unfamiliar sunlight, squinting. His rage has left him drained and mindless. But he knows freedom. He’s escaped once and they brought him back, but this will be the last time. Every memory of the facility is quickly replaced with one thought. Run.
As he crashes into the forest, treading sunken branches, and putting as much distance as he can between him and hell, the door closes quietly behind him.
The man who heals is gone. He believed my dead trick, and left me one just as useful. My shirt and hands are sticky with blood, but the wound is all healed up. The bullet pushing its way out was worse than a nightmare, but it pinged off the ground and my breath came back in a painful rush. But, I’m fine, and my heart is beating fast and heavy like I’ve been running a long race. Now I can do it.
No one is paying any attention as I open more outward doors to let the fresh snow air in. More alarms go off, but I just laugh in a scared way. I let out everyone who I know won’t try to kill me, and point to the exits telling them to run. They don’t listen. The soldiers all come out at once, and the monsters that I left locked up hear the commotion and start banging on their doors. Freed people start opening these doors even though I yell at them to stop. No one hears me.
I’ve got myself in a bad hallway away from any exits, and with a pack of desperate subjects behind me and scared soldiers in front of me I realize I’ve made my own trap. Turning invisible, I run between the oncoming soldiers before the shooting starts, jumping fast to avoid their heavy boots. They feel me push past them and try to grab, but the monsters scream and they have to forget me.
Then I find all the hallways are like that, and the stairs and lifts are like that, and people are running out the doors and into the vents, and over top of each other just to get out and some are going back into cells to hide. I can’t do that, so I keep running like I always do. The soldiers in this hallway start screaming and swearing, so I run into a closed room to hide before covering my ears. That’s when I find the explosives.
I wait until it’s quiet again, but as soon as I look out I have to throw up, and since there’s nothing in me all it does is burn my throat and wrench my stomach. Eyes half closed, I go back out and tiptoe over to a dead soldier with a clean, not-ripped-up coat, and try to take it off. He’s heavy, so I try harder, rolling him over and pretending I can’t hear the sounds his body makes. When the coat finally comes off, matchbooks fall out of the pockets. Stuffing them back in, I hurry into the room to fill the pockets with everything I can. Every bit of wire and plastic, and every grenade I hide in my coat will not be enough. Not anything compared to the crates of smooth cylinders nestled in straw like good eggs.
When I turn invisible, some of the things I touch can turn invisible too if I concentrate hard enough. I start dragging crates down the halls, past crazy people and quiet bodies, completely ignored unless somebody notices lovely wooden crates popping up in every hall this side of the testing wings. I find long wires and timers, and start to connect things up the way the instructions say. If I wanted to go back down there, I’d put all the crates in my cell. The whole building will have to do.
I’m almost to the surface when the first one goes off. Falling on my hands and knees, I bruise my chin on the linoleum and feel my bones shake. I get up and move faster, but only fall harder when the second one goes off. When the third goes off, doors in the first floor hallway swing open and crack their windows as they slam against the wall. Something big falls in one of the rooms, and a folder slides out scattering its papers across the floor.
By the fifth, closest explosion the alarms have stopped altogether, and I don’t hear anymore screaming or shooting. The only thing that’s different now is the smoke stretching lazily along the ceiling. The floor is carpeted with folders and papers. I dig through all of them until I find mine and Wolverine’s. Leaving the room with them tucked into the lining of my coat, I bite the clip of a grenade and throw it in. A pipe in the hall has burst leaving droplets of slippery stink on every surface. Every sheet of paper in my path slips under me as I run, and I just barely cover my ears in time for the boom of the grenade.
I look up and see the doctor at the end of the hall. Him. I’m too tired to run or to fight, and my stomach hurts from being empty and throwing up. He storms toward me, his hands in heavy fists, his eyes harder and hotter behind his crooked glasses than they’ve ever been, but he isn’t yelling. His fists are hitting hands, they are killing hands, and he’s never tried that on me before, but I bet he would be good at it. I hate this man, I hate him, he makes me bite my tongue so hard it bleeds, it bleeds because I can’t cry, because if I cry- I hide my fingers in my pockets. The smooth paper of the matchbooks rubs against my skin.
The exit is behind me, but he’s coming closer and the matches are taking too long to light. His foot steps in front of me and his hands are coming at my head when there’s a snap that scares me and I drop the match. Everything turns into fire.
For a minute the snow feels good on my skin, but then I wish I’d stolen the soldier’s boots as well. His coat is heavy and longer than my knees. There’s room in one sleeve for both legs, and that would be nice to do right now, but instead I have to run. I pressed snow to my eye as soon as I left, and the snow came back with a dark spot from where the doctor hit me. I check again now, but it doesn’t hurt and I can’t feel a cut anywhere. I eat the snow instead and it feels good.
The explosions keep happening behind me as I scrape and slide up the sharp, white hill. The moon is half full and high up there, trying her best to light my way to the trees, and saying how much she missed me. I know by the sound of each explosion how close they are getting to the munitions room.
I make it to the first tree and lean behind her to catch my breath. I climb through the snow from tree to tree, bruising my feet on hidden rocks, until I make it to the top. Finally, I can lie down on my belly in the frozen needles without worrying I’ll slide all the way back down. The needles are warm once my breath melts them, and the coat is cozy. I close my eyes.
The fire has found the room. I scream and cover my head with the coat as everything flashes orange. There’s a ringing sound in my ears as I stumble back to my feet and try to run in the black forest. I bounce off trees and trip over branches in the snow, but keep going, deaf, blind, with numbed feet, keep going. I run across footprints going every way, and then I start seeing the lumps in the darkness, smell the dank hallways on them, all the people who decided just to go to sleep in the pine needles and wait until morning. Death nearly tricked me again so I run harder, letting my long legs carry me far away from this place. There’s a breeze and I rush into it even though my face stings and my lungs are ice. The breeze stops but I can hear again, and see a small light up ahead.
Everything is silent. The trees clear and I nearly run right into it. I rub my eyes and shake my head because I’ve seen too much tonight for this to be real, and what if I’m actually still asleep in those pine needles? How do I wake up?
It’s a shed or something, pained blue, but when I sniff it I jump back. I circle it completely, all four sides and it’s all the same. Someone must be inside because the windows are warm like the lights are all on. There’s a white sign on the front and I lean forward to read it when the door cracks open.
I look around me. There’s no one watching besides the billow of black smoke in the sky that’s choking my moon. Down the hill I can hear the hunt beginning, voices and vehicles revving. Reading the words Police Box lit up over the door of the shed, I feel ready to go somewhere far away from this place.
Stepping inside, I lock the door behind me.