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Sit back, relax, and allow your mind to see more than ever before.
- Ayami Tyndall
The ladder rungs are cold, difficult to follow in the dark, but she climbs, hoping it won’t dead-end in some ruined pipe. It doesn’t and soon she sees light ahead and begins climbing more quickly. The light is broken, angular, shining through slits in a grate. When she reaches it she pushes; the grate flips away and she rushes out, gulping air as soon as her head is clear. She pulls the rest of herself after, crawling up onto cold flooring, eyes watering with joy at the fresh air, the space around her.
Finally remembering herself, Virginia reaches into her pocket and withdraws a dripping but still functional pad. “Simon,” she says into the messaging program, “I’m at…” She pauses, looks around herself. She is in a large room with a tiled floor. Grooves in the walls show where shelves once hung. There is only one door, and on the opposite wall high windows. She stands clumsily and moves to them, looking out into the Bin. “I’m in a building on old ter…” she squints at the sign, trying to remember what the letters mean. “Ther…thord street, across from the gallery. Come quick.” She sends the message, then slumps against the wall. Her arms are numb and her legs are weak, but she can’t rest. That woman needs her help.
Virginia looks over the room again. It probably used to be for storage, maybe for food. She glances down at herself; murky water drips onto the floor and lines of blood ooze along her shirt. She can only imagine what her hair and face look like. Forcing her feet into motion, she starts walking. On her way to the door, Virginia stops. Voices? She can hear voices coming from past the door. She moves closer more slowly, listening.
“…ready. We’ve got two dozen vetted.”
“And waste disposal?”
“I’m getting it ready now. We’ll be good to go by evening.”
Virginia pushes open the swinging door and strides through. It opens into a space many times bigger than the room before. Long light strips line the ceiling, more grooves on the walls from lost shelves collecting dust. The floor is an empty expanse of tile, but standing at its center are two people.
“Batshit?” says Virginia. “Griffin?” They turn to see her walking toward them, surprise quickly giving way to shock. Griffin’s eyes dance over her, searching for something that makes sense, but Batshit just looks at her, wondering why she’s here all of a sudden. Virginia has to wonder the same thing.
“What are you two doing here?” she says. Then the door on the far wall slides open and light is rushing in. Virginia squints, then smiles.
“Virginia?” calls Simon, peering into the large space. “Virginia, are you…” He stops when his eyes find the three. “Virginia!” he calls, galloping toward her. He rushes past Griffin and Batshit, reaching out to her. “Are you alright?” he asks. “I was nearby, got your message. What happened?”
“I’m fine,” she says, patting away his hands and trying to calm his worry. “I’m not hurt,” she insists. Across the room, Amelia appears at the door, searching for Simon but then gasping at seeing the rest of them.
“Simon,” says Virginia, eyes snapping back to him. He stares at the blood on her shirt. “Simon, come with me.” She grabs his arm and begins back toward the first room.
“Virginia, wha –”
“Just come,” she says, not looking back, “someone needs our help.”
* * *
“I don’t understand,” says Virginia. Amelia holds her hand high, the light from her wristband flowing out. Virginia spins in place, looking around the sewer chamber. The light casts strange shadows on the curved surfaces and down the connecting pipes. “She was here!” They all stand at the center of the chamber, Amelia with Simon and Batshit with Griffin, but the woman is gone. “She was here,” she says again, turning back to the others. They look at her with a spectrum of emotions from concern to annoyance.
“Who?” asks Simon, holding his son as if trying to shield him from the scum of the pipes.
“A woman,” says Virginia, her hands fidgeting uncontrollably. “She was hurt, bad. There were these lines, and her eye.”
“Stop,” says Batshit, shaking her head and scowling at Virginia. “What is this about?”
“It’s about a human being,” says Virginia, quickly moving closer to Batshit, staring her down. God, she is sick of this Ghost. “There was a woman down here. She was hurt. Someone did that to her, and I want to know who.”
“Then we have to find her,” says Griffin, moving away from the group to peer down the pipes. “Where could they have taken her?”
“Good question,” says Virginia, stepping back. She looks between the irate Batshit and confounded Griffin. Something doesn’t smell right, but it’s not the sewer. “What were you two doing up there?” she says.
Batshit’s whole head recoils from Virginia, her scowl deepening. Griffin turns back around. Amelia, looking between the adults surrounding her, shifts uncomfortably and lowers her hand. Sharp shadows creep onto everyone’s face.
“What do you mean?” says Simon.
“I’m not sure,” says Virginia, still watching the Ghost and the doctor. “I fell down here, while trying to catch up with Batshit, I might add. Then I found that woman, maimed by someone. And then I crawled out to find Griffin and her,” she says, pointing to Batshit, “talking right above this…this torture chamber.”
Scowl twisting into a sneer, Batshit turns without speaking and begins climbing the ladder back to the surface. “Wait,” calls Griffin, reaching out to the Ghost and then back toward Virginia. “Virginia, it wasn’t anything like that. We had no idea anyone was…”
“What? Dying beneath your feet?”
“Please,” says Griffin, sounding genuinely hurt. “What has gotten into you?”
“I’ll get back to you on that,” says Virginia, walking past the others to follow Batshit up the shaft. On the street, Virginia watches with narrowed eyes as Batshit leaves. She doesn’t look back, unlike Griffin. He walks past Virginia reluctantly, wishing to speak, but he doesn’t. Finally he simply walks away down the crumbling old street. Simon and Amelia are the last ones out, coming up to stand behind Virginia. They remain silent, but Virginia can feel their concerned, doubtful gazes on her back.
“There’s something weird going on,” she says confidently, “and those two are part of it.”
Still gasping, she begins swimming awkwardly, blinded by scum and darkness. She fell a fair distance, probably down an old feed or maintenance shaft. The water reeks, likely waste from the old city mixed with decades of seeping rainwater. She only hopes it’s not infested.
She swims until her hands bump into something hard. Treading water, she reaches out, groping until she finds a hold. It’s a curved lip, a pipe perhaps. She pulls herself up, dragging her wet, filthy body up and in. She flops into the…yes, it’s a pipe. There is dim light here, filtering down through some decayed gasket somewhere, and she can make out the curve of the walls, can see her own heaving breast. Her clothing hangs heavy with water, tendrils of slime sliding toward the floor. She gulps air, still trying to catch her breath. Talk about a nasty spill; she’s so disoriented she’s not even sure what part of the Bin she’s under.
Finally she pulls herself up, shakes herself off, and begins down the pipe. The light is minimal, so she moves with outstretched hands, feeling her way. The pipe stretches on some considerable distance, unbending, with no apparent exits larger than her thumb. These old pipes have been out of commission for decades; how long will it take Virgina to find a way out?
Then her hand slides against air. She thinks the pipe has bent, but her other hand finds the same. It is an opening into some kind of chamber. She squats on the edge of the pipe, peering through. There is more light here, seeping down from the street above, and her eyes slowly adjust. It is wide and low, floor and ceiling bulging away from each other. Three other pipes converge here, sockets in the walls showing where pumps and filters once lived. And across the way, between two pipe connections, a ladder!
Virginia jumps down and her footsteps ring as she runs across the space. “Ahh!” Virginia shouts as she tumbles, falling forward and crashing to the floor. She flips and skids, coming to rest in a heap. “What the?” She pushes herself up, looks back. There is a dark lump there on the floor. She hadn’t noticed and tripped over it. It’s strangely shaped and seems glossy, but its surface pattern is fractured.
Then it moves.
“Uhh,” groans the thing, and Virginia finally realizes it is a person. She rushes over, dropping to her knees by it, by her. It is a woman, curled naked on the floor. Virginia reaches out, then snatches her hand back. There is something wrong about the woman’s skin. Virginia squints and peers more closely. There are metallic lines printed on her flesh. No, carved into it. The skin is puckered around the silver etchings, the grotesque scrawl covering her whole body. Virginia reaches down and lifts the woman’s head. It is bald and also covered with the lines. They are punctuated by innumerable cuts and bruises, replicated all over her body. She shudders in Virginia’s hands, breath shallow. One eye is swollen shut, crusted, and the other flutters helplessly.
“What happened to you?” asks Virginia.
The woman’s good eye crawls open, falls shut, then opens again. She gasps, seems suddenly aware, then slips back into a daze. “Sto,” mumbles the woman, “stop her.” Her lips are cracked, bleeding. Virginia straightens her, spreading her more evenly on the curved floor. Virginia cringes at the sight. The woman’s body is all but in tatters. One leg is swollen, likely broken, and she is missing a finger. Virginia runs a hand gently over the woman’s face, spreads her lips to see several missing teeth, then her eyes. The one is bloodshot, darting frantically, and the other…
She gasps, recoiling after carefully peeling back the lid. Her other eye isn’t swollen shut, it’s gone completely.
“Can you hear me?” says Virginia. The woman wheezes, tosses on the cold floor. “How did this happen?” Her lips hesitate on the next question, but she knows she has to ask; this was no accident. “Who did this to you?”
The woman’s head lolls back and her eye comes into focus, seeming to notice Virginia for the first time. “Stop her,” she manages to say. “She’s doing it…it all for him.”
“Who?” asks Virginia, her own breath rushing. She ignores the sting in her eyes, watching the woman’s shattered face.
“No names,” says the woman, almost whimsically. “Never any names. I gave it up.” She focuses on Virginia again and says, “Save them.” Then her eye slips shut.
“Hey!” shouts Virginia. “Hey, stay with me!” She holds the woman up; she’s still breathing, but Virginia would be a fool to think she isn’t dying. She needs to do something. She pulls out her pad. “Dammit!” she whispers. No bars. She looks to the ladder, then back to her charge. She lays the woman down gently. “I’ll be right back,” she says, climbing to her feet. Even in the darkness, she can see the smears of blood on her clothing.