Alkali Lake Industrial Complex, 1985
Lake water swills around my ankles as I back away from the cell door. Outside it, a wild animal rages down the hall, heavy claws raking every surface. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, I stand still against the far wall and hold my breath. The door shudders. Groaning open from its hinges, it swings into the wall, bolts scattering. Light and smell billow into the room, burning my eyes and nose.
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 and his metal claws. 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.
When he stops attacking the door and is only breathing hard, I step out of my corner and tiptoe toward him to gently nudge his knees. He growls, raising his clawed hand as he backs up. I wait before touching his knees again, pressing harder this time. He stands still. He 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 and it splashes into the water. 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 that grow between his fingers. Maybe they go back in like cats’ do. I look at his eyes to hold him still while I feel his arm.
I jump. Pressing on the inside of his arm made the claws retract. 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 holds his trembling hand in the light, and winces as the claws return. I can see how they come through his skin in such a wrong way, and press on his arm fast. They retract, and the torn 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. The scabs and bruises disappear.
I smile at him. He looks afraid.
Here comes the stamping of feet and rattling gear. 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 slitted 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 vanish. The red lights are not strong enough to see me good, so I wait till they are close to reappear.
They stop so fast it’s funny.
Gunfire ricochets back where my room is, and one of the guards looking at me says a swear. All the guns aim at me like dog noses through a fence. Then, from my room, there is screaming. Scared, I try to follow them as they retreat. 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.
“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? 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 till he follows.
The vault slams shut far away and all the lights go out. No, no I’m not staying in the dark. I pull him into walking faster. I know this place, I’ll find the door. I am not going to stay here for them. I am not going to stay for anybody.
A scrawny kid is leading him through catacombs 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 yet. In the red lights he got a look at her; damp hair falling past her waist, narrow shoulders, and her eyes two empty saucers in a hungry face.
He ghosts his hand along the wall, retracing the trail of destruction he’s caused; long, three-furrowed gashes in the walls, and cell doors hanging off hinges as he tried each for an escape route. None of these were occupied. He tries to sniff out the direction the soldiers went in, but the jackboots have been down every hall twice. The only sounds of life are their own.
Finally, she stops at a vault door with an emergency light gleaming above it. She looks at him pointedly. He raises an eyebrow, and she raises his hand and shakes it. Afraid his claws will release, he drops her hand quickly. Oh.
Once he’s exposed the mechanism the kid unlocks the door easily and helps him retract his claws again. Together, they push the vault open from the inside and her toothpick body squeezes through the lit gap without him. Not daylight. More concrete.
“There’s another door that leads outside,” she says knowingly.
A low moan emulates from somewhere. He finds he preferred silence. “You know about this door how?”
No reply, just 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 and inclines her head at a subtle click.
Instantly she’s off, tearing down the hall faster than those spindly legs should be able to carry her. He stays on her heels, even as cell doors slam open and the gunfire begins. The hallway shrinks around them, slides upward. He can’t make her out anymore, can’t even hear her footsteps over the echoing of the guards’. They’re gaining and if the exit is up ahead she’s going to need time. He stops and turns to face the oncoming fray.
White light exposes the tunnel, glances off the damp walls, and cleans the faces of the men crushing toward him. He turns, sees her outlined figure in the doorway, stark against a backdrop of snow.
She yelps and drops to the ground.
Blinded by blood and rage, he roars and turns into the metal downpour. The soldiers at his fore do not disassemble fast enough, and even the deserters he lurches after. When all he sees are backs, he takes his chance to run for the body in the doorway.
It’s her shoulder, in the bone, bleeding out whatever’s left of her. Daylight shows him a child dead before the bullet even hit her; emaciated, anemic. The two stare at each other, panting. Then her gaze falters, her breathing stalls, and her little mouth hangs open.
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 believed my dead trick. I am sticky with blood, my clothes red, my hair stiff; the bullet pushing its way out was worse than a nightmare, and I tried to cry when pieces of bone did not fit right; but, now I’m fine. My heart is beating fast and heavy.
I start unlocking the cells of people I know, people who’ve talked to me, shown me their tricks, and have pushed me at open doors before. I do not open strange cells. I do not let out monsters. But they hear our noise and start banging on their doors, and freed people start opening these doors. I yell at them to stop, I yell at them to run, run for the door I opened, run for all the doors. No one hears me.
The soldiers, who are never really gone just bad at everything but killing, block my path at one end of the wide hall. The fork at the other end where left leads to the exit, is owned by monsters and a clogging of panicked others. Choose.
Turning invisible, I run between the oncoming guards before the shooting starts, dancing to avoid their mean boots. They feel me push past them and try to grab, but the monsters shriek and they have to forget me.
Shooting does not end the problem, and the escaped ones bleed into the rest of the place; into the vents, up and down stairs, and some run back into cells to hide. I can’t do that, so I run up, avoiding lifts and sticking to stairs. The guards in one stairwell start screaming, so I run into a closed room to hide, 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 my throat and stomach only burn. Eyes half closed, nostrils pinched, I tiptoe out to a dead guard with a coat that’s not too torn and try to take it off. He’s heavy, so I try harder, rolling him down a step 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. Moving faster I only fall harder when the second one goes off and tiny rocks bounce 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. Smoke stretches 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 tuck it into the lining of my coat. A pipe in the hall bursts, spraying stinky 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, see the doctor at the end of the hall, and moan. I’m too tired to run or to fight, and my stomach hurts more than ever. He rushes at me, his eyes harder and hotter behind his crooked glasses than ever. 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 talons are reaching for my head when there’s a snap that scares me, and I drop the match. Everything turns to fire.
The snow feels good on my skin until 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 when I left, and it 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. I eat the snow instead.
The explosions continue as I scrape and slide up the sharp, icy 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, till I make it to the top. There I lie down on my belly in the frozen needles. The ground is warm once my breath melts it, the coat is cozy, and my skin feels hot. 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 start seeing lumps in the darkness, smell the dirty hallways on them, all the people who decided just 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 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 circle in the air, gold and sparking like a flat explosion. It gets smaller, then bigger, then small again. Afraid to go near it, but feeling warm from it, I look at the hollow center and see there is a place on the other side, a place not this place.
I look around me. There’s no one watching besides the billow of black smoke choking my moon. Down the hill the hunt is beginning; voices shouting and vehicles revving. The circle shrinks almost to disappearing and I jump forward with a noise. The circle grows outward again, the sparking edge touching the ground without melting the snow. I hop from foot to foot, breath into the cuffs of the sleeves, and jump through.