Alkali Lake Industrial Complex, 1985
A frenzied animal rages down the hall, heavy claws raking the concrete as it comes for me. This might be another test that they want me to lose because my head spins when I stand up. Water splashes over my bare feet as I cross the cell, and the walls are slimy as I flatten my hands against them and face the door.
The door shudders. Groaning open the wrong way, it 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- not an animal- hits his foot on the door, and begins striking it again and again. Steam rises from him, and the red light in the hallway shines off the training helmet, his metal claws, and the tags around his neck. With the helmet on he cannot see or hear, but he can still smell. There’s blood on his legs and the helmet wires are ripped. This is not a test, yet we have both lost.
Standing up, I tiptoe toward him and nudge his knees gently. He growls, raising his clawed hand as he backs up. I wait before touching his knees again, pressing harder this time. He stands still then kneels. My heart shakes my ribs with its beating.
The helmet is heavier than I remember, and when I lift it off I lose my grip. It smashes onto the floor and rolls into the puddle in the center of the room. The man 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 I press hard on it. Except the claws go back in a place claws don’t come from. I check, but there are no cuts on his hands and no places for claws. I press on his other arm too, but this time I feel for the cuts in case I missed them before. The man shivers 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. I can see how they come through his skin in such a wrong way, and press on his arm fast. They retract, and the ripped skin folds back into place. Where the blood is on his legs there are no cuts either.
I look down at my legs where the cuts have scabbed over and the bruises have moved into my feet, and touch his hands again. My legs are hurt, but his aren’t and that’s better than anything I can do. I concentrate hard, stare at my knees, and clench my toes. My body obeys. The scabs and the bruises disappear so fast I smile at him. He looks afraid.
Now they’re coming. I tilt my head at the sound of footsteps and rattling gear. He hears them too, and we look at each other, surprised that the other can hear what is still so far away. He points to the crumpled door.
“Get under it.” Then he leaves.
I step right out after him, eyes half-closed to the light, and walk to the other end of the hall. He whispers hard at me to go back in the room, but I’m already walking and am never going back in that room. Besides, they do not know yet that I am out of it.
When I know the guards are about to come around the corner and see me, I stand in the middle of the hallway and disappear. The red lights are not strong enough to see me good, so I wait until they are close to reappear.
They stop so fast it’s funny, but I do not smile.
There is shouting and shooting back where my room is, and one of the guards looking at me says a swear. All the guns aim at me, and I wonder if my body can save me from guns. Then there is screaming, and they start yelling into their radios and running backwards. I am a little afraid of the screaming too, so I follow them. Even when the screaming stops and they are gone, I keep following.
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 demands.
I hide my hands behind my back.
“Show me now.”
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 inspects them closely. “Did you have those before you got here?”
I nod and make my hands look human again.
“Why don’t you talk?” he asks. “Don’t you know how?”
“I can talk.”
“Alright then.” He puts out his hand. “Let’s go.”
I squeeze his hand and aim him the right way. He didn’t expect me to lead, so I have to pull a little until he follows. They won’t leave the vault door open for us; they’ll wait 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.
The vault slams shut far away and all the lights go out. No, no I’m not staying in the dark. I pull his hand and keep walking. I know this place, I’ll find the door, and I will get out. I am not going to stay here for them. I am not going to stay for anybody.
A scrawny kid is leading him through black hallways that taste of the tomb. He can’t see his hand in front of his face, but she hasn’t run them into a wall or a dead end yet. In the red lights he got a look at her; damp, scraggly hair falling past her waist; narrow shoulders with bones like birds’ wings; 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 ghost of a smile on her thin lips.
He runs his hand along the wall, retracing the trail of destruction he’s caused- long, three-furrowed gashes in the walls, cell doors hanging off their hinges. None of these appear to have been occupied. He tries to sniff out the direction the soldiers went in, but they’ve already been down every one searching for him. The only sounds of life are their own.
Finally, she stops at a vault door with an emergency light gleaming above it. She looks up at him. He raises an eyebrow, and she raises his hand and shakes it. Afraid his claws will release, he drops her hand quickly. Right, his claws.
Once he’s exposed the mechanism the kid unlocks the door easily, and he helps her push it open. Her skinny body squeezes through the lit gap without him. “There’s another door leading outside.”
A low moan emulates from somewhere. He finds he preferred the silence. “You know about this door how?”
No reply, just the sound of her bare feet padding over the cold concrete. More moans and snarls come from the cells they pass, but she ignores them. He curses and nearly trips over her when she stops abruptly. The girl inclines her head at the sound of 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 narrower, steeper. He can’t make her out anymore, can’t even hear her footsteps over the echoing of the guards’. They’re gaining on them and 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. Turning again, he sees her figure outlined in the doorway, sees the guards in the snow outside and the flash as someone fires. She yelps and drops to the ground, hitting her head against the concrete threshold.
Bullets spray in from both sides now. Blinded by blood and rage, he takes one guard down, one who’d come too close, and kicks his weapon behind him. The guards at his fore begin to retreat and he lurches after them, but in the chaos notices a sound out of place. Turning again towards the light, he sees her lying in the doorway, a handgun in her shaking hands, the bright snow outside decorated with lifeless guards. The two stare at each other, panting. Then her gaze falters, and she becomes as still as the bodies in the snow.
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. As he crashes into the forest, putting distance between himself and hell, the door closes quietly behind him.
The man who heals is gone. He believed my dead trick. My shirt and hands are sticky with blood, but the hole is all healed up. The bullet pushing its way out was worse than a nightmare, 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.
I get up and start opening other outward doors. More alarms go off, but no one comes to stop me. I start opening the cell doors too, of the people who I know won’t try to kill me, leaving only the monsters in their cells. Then the guards come, and the monsters start banging on their doors, and freed people start opening these doors. I yell at them to stop, I yell at them to run instead. No one hears me.
Now I have a pack of panicked subjects behind me, and scared guards in front of me. Turning invisible, I run between the oncoming guards 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 with people are running back and forth, and into the vents, and over top of each other, and some are going back into cells to hide. I can’t do that, so I keep running like I always do. The guards in this hallway start screaming, 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 hurt my stomach. Eyes half closed, I go back out and tiptoe over to a dead guard with a coat that’s not too torn up, 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. I stuff them back in and hurry into the munitions room. Every bit of wire and plastic, every grenade I hide in my coat will not be enough for what I have to do. Not anything compared to the crates of smooth cylinders nestled in straw like good eggs.
I’m almost to the surface when the first one goes off. Falling, I bruise my chin on the floor and my bones shake. I move faster, but only fall harder when the second one goes off and tiny rocks roll to one side of the hallway. When the third goes off, doors in the first floor hallway swing open and crack their windows against the wall. Something big falls in a room and a folder slides out scattering papers across the floor.
By the fifth, closest explosion the alarms have stopped altogether, and I don’t hear anything below me. The only thing that’s different now is the smoke stretching lazily along the ceiling. The floor is covered with folders and papers that have lots of names and pictures on them. I dig until I find mine and Wolverine’s, and tuck them into the lining of my coat. A pipe in the hall burst, spraying smelly gasoline over the papered floor. I try to tug the clip out of the grenade, but it hurts my finger so I just throw it into the paper room and yell at it.
I look up and see the doctor at the end of the hall. I’m too tired to run or to fight, and my stomach hurts. He rushes at me his eyes harder and hotter behind his crooked glasses than they’ve ever been. His hands are only for hurting, and I bet they are good at killing too. 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 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.
The explosions continue 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. There I 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 cover my head with the coat as everything flashes orange. My ears ring as I trip over my feet and try to run in the black forest. I bounce off trees and trip over branches in the snow, but keep going. I run across footprints going every way, and then I start seeing the lumps in the darkness, smell the dirty 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. There’s a breeze and I rush into it even though my face stings and my lungs are filled with ice. The breeze stops, but I can hear again, and see a small light up ahead.
Everything is quiet. 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, painted 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 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 shouting and vehicles revving. The lit up words over the door say Police Box, and I feel ready to go somewhere far away from this place.
Stepping inside, I lock the door behind me.