The initial panic hung in the air, frozen in time. The people surrounding the strange beings did not realise nothing was wrong, until a poor Terran’s neck exploded, coating nearby others in a fine pink mist. It wasn’t until moments later, time diluated and contracted. Chaos rippled through the massive gathering, bodies pressing and stretching, trying to escape; all the while the strange chirping persisted and grew louder.
“Artemus!” Madrugada called again, hanging on tightly to his shirt. She was nearly torn away from him until he bent down to pick her up with one arm, leveling her to a safe height.
“We gotta get back to HQ,” he said. “Have you sent out queries yet?”
“No use,” she said, after a moment. “Services are unavailable at this time.”
“Aw, krit!” The stout android barreled through the encompassing crowd, and cursed more as he realised all of the enforcers were granted a weeks’ leave – mandatory, and were probably already far from Quet. It would take a precious hour on foot since vehicles were prohibited during the first few days of Lowlight. Whoever planned this know what they were doing.
“There!” cried Madrugada, pointing to the blocked off underground transit system, and held on tightly as the enforcer made his path. Some of the festival attendees beat against the sturdy terminal entries to no avail. Artemus produced his override key – a simple plastic card – and managed to swipe it into the reader, not realising that he’d garnered pleading attention. Madrugada apologised profusely as she opened her parasol to ward them off and dropped it as Artemus lurched in and sealed the terminal.
“Are you alright?” he asked, putting her down and looking her over. His voice was loud in the station, but not louder than the desperate screams and cries from outside and above.
“No,” Echo replied. “I... this was supposed to be a joyous time! Who would do such a thing?”
“It’s not who, I don’t think; it’s what.” He produced a small holo-viewer, going through the images he caught before the frenzy begain. “That’s not in any data I have that I know of. And I know a thing or two about hostiles.”
Madrugada looked at it, mulling it over. “You think it’s a… what do the Terrans call it? Zee…”
“No; I’ve heard tales of ‘em. That is not the creature at all.”
The junior secretary turned to the terminals. “How long will that hold?”
“Thirty minutes, at best. We’d best get going.” Artemus helped the small secretary down into the tunnel, warning her not to touch the electrified rails. Madrudaga wondered about her parents and those she knew on Ixion; she began to contact them with her phone, a small white rectangle, and cycled through the numbers, sending out short messages and queries.
None answered. Worst, she lost complete signal, denoted by the small two-tone chime that echoed through the tunnel. Artemus looked back at her, noting she wore the look of a disappointed child. “They’re alright,” he said. “Do your parents have a shelter or something?”
“I don’t think so, or at least we’d never had to use one before.”
“They’re alright,” he said again. “Don’t worry about them.” The duo happened upon a service door and with the enforcer’s strength, entered. Artemus and Madrugada stared down the narrow passage, noting the darkness and the strange noises – chittering, scratching, and faint moans.
Neither one carried a viable light source. “Alright, just don’t let go,” Artemus said, grabbing the woman’s hand, “and stay quiet.”
Despite the unfamiliar feeling welling up inside her –what was it called? – she complied as they moved through the space, taking care that they didn’t as well. Occasional liquid dripped on Madrugada’s blouse and she resisted protesting, and wished that she had kept her parasol. A foul stench – a cross between rotten flesh and strong mints – entered Madrugada’s nose, sending her into a coughing fit. Something stirred behind her and groaned as if awakening. In the pale light, a creature, legless and amorphous, emerged.
By the time she shrieked, the creature lunged. Artemus quickly shielded her and took the brunt of the attack. Madrugada heard metal crunching and whining.
“Get out of here!” Artemus shouted. “GO!” Another creature spawned from the darkness and latched onto the enforcer, knocking him over from the sheer weight alone. Large black eyes stared at Madrugada and it opened its maw, showing three rows of jagged, triangular teeth. The sight of it rendered her catatonic, tears rolling down her cheeks. Artemus emitted a howl of frustration as he knocked off one of them and threw the other away, stumbling as he ran toward her and scooped her up.
She held on tightly, burying herself into his chest, trying to drown out the hooting growls of the creatures. The passageway brightened significantly, as did the strange cacophony of primal noises and the incessant low chirping. Artemus’ balance gave way, sending the two sprawling.
“Artemus!” she screamed, scrambling over him to pick him up. A large part of his left arm was all but gone, save for a few synthetic sinews that kept it together at his shoulder. A black pool was quickly spreading beneath him. He laid there, shaking violently every few seconds. “Just go,” he gasped, pawing at her skirt. “There’s a shelter, not, gnnn, far from here. Go!”
“Dammit, Echo,” he groaned. “I’ll hold these, gnn, things off. Stay there until I come get you. Get out of here, now!”
Madrugada wanted to protest again, but saw the pack closing in. With a frustrated cry, she turned and ran for the exit, leaving Artemus. She stopped though, as the door closed behind her. The crowds were gone, and the skyline was red with embers, parted by the occasional long blue streaks of a ship taking off. She turned to look at Ixion, and covered her mouth.
It was burning. Her world was burning. Her life was burning.
She turned at the sound of a long guttral roar. The source came from a hunched Terran-sized figure, mutated beyond recognition. Strips of flesh hung from its newly grown teeth, the same as the creatures in the tunnel. The eyes were wide and obsidian against the fire’s light, looking straight at her. It roared, ending with a low chirp. Similar figures emerged all around, growling and snarling.
Madrugada inched her way from the door, scanning each angle she could manage. They didn’t move, but stood there like gargoyles, sniffing the air and chirruped. As long as I don’t make sudden –
She squeaked when she backed into a mutant, and fell. The group sprang to life; and she scrambled, going through the legs, avoiding the claws and ran. The street became a frenzy again. Madrugada didn’t bother look back, but felt the pack was not far behind her, trampling each other to reach her. She cut into the alley suddenly, and bounded over the small barrier, losing them. The group that was pursuing her on foot, anyway.
Two others were on the walls like lizards avoided the obstacle completely, and leaped. Madrugada barely escaped their grasp as she burst through the first door she saw, ignoring the triggered alarm. In the emergency lighting, she spotted another door – a hatch, she hazarded – beneath a piece of furniture. She had enough time to put distance between herself and the mutants, taking shelter behind a broad chair. For once, she was thankful for her small size.
Again, they chirrupped, in inquisitive tones. Madrugada hoped that they couldn’t see that well in the dark like those blobs, but she highly doubted. She fought the trembling her body took on and the rapid drumming of her heart as she heard one approach the chair. The smell of strong mint – peppermints – and burnt skin nearly overpowered her alone. Slowly, she crawled towards the hatch; she slipped off her sandals to make sure they did not slap against the hard floor. One of the mutants grunted a question as her fingers slipped against the handle, and looked in her general direction. For the longest, she stared back; they eventually lost interest and investing elsewhere. In one fluid movement, she lifted up the handle and climbed down.
It wasn’t long before Madrugada found the floor again, and searched for a switch to brighten the area. She eventually gave up that idea, and just used the walls as a guide, careful of the winding path, sharp turns, and even a drop in elevation before it brightened again. Madrugada felt strange as she entered this new area far beneath the earth, and paranoid something else would show up. Again, she went through her contacts but no queries or messages she sent earlier were answered.
Artemus! Surely, he would answer; surely he survived that attack? He is an enforcer, she reminded herself.
He was designed to withstand that much damage and still be okay.
Madrugada sighed and pressed on, noting the strange containers that lined the floor. All of them bore locks and seals she never seen before or even decipher the codes for release, and wondered that they stored.
To be in such a place…
There was one in particular that she was drawn to, a black marble coffin bounded in chains that no ordinary
person could move without assistance, and the padlocks the sides of a medium-sized canine’s head in the loops themseleves. It was also marked in a language that she had little knowledge of. Before she knew it, Madrugada’s hands were already probing, as if she knew what she was doing. The padlocks disintergrated without much effort, and the chains were much lighter than she estimated, pushing them aside.
The last obstacle was getting the lid off. She glanced up at the calls of the mutants, and struggled to get it off. As soon as they entered, she took cover behind it and peeked around the corner. Madrugada managed to squeeze herself into the small opening, ignoring the chorus of grunts as the top closed.
She found herself crying again. In the span of an hour, life around her crumbled – seeing Artemus in that state, and to leave him behind; no one else to call upon to help. Madrugada heard metal crunching and heavy objects being thrown about, and fought the urge to escape again. No, stay put! She looked through the tiny slit of light, and saw that they were only two rows away.
The thunderous impact of a container made the lid shift, closing on her fingers; her hand went through soft, porous material, and pulled her in. Madrugada’s head smacked against something, and she silently cursed. With her free hand, she felt around, noticing the discrepancy. Her curiousity flaredup and she forgot the destruction outside. Another impact rattled her again; her head smacked against the lid and this time, her lips met with something, delivering a small shock. The feeling traveled to her spine and spread through her body in the span of a second.
“What?” she exclaimed.
Madrugada heard the mutants grunt, and scrambled to get the lid open. Just as she did, one of them were staring down at her, mouth opening. She avoided the outstretched hand and fell as she rolled out of the container. Other mutants were feasting on the contents of the spilled containers – coffins she realised – pulling apart limbs and tissue.
She backed herself into a corner, and slid on the floor, bawling. The mutant closed in on her quickly, and she buried her head into her hands, and screamed as loud as she could.
Time stretched out again. Madrugada’s scream took on an edge no human voice could produce; the air became energized and light shone from the coffin she exited, getting immediate attention from the mutants. All of them dashed towards it, only to be flung violently away from it. Most burst into flames before leaving behind ashes, and the sturdier mutants crashed into the walls, in pieces, splattering ichor on them like an artist with no regards to the canvas.
Someone groaned with a twinge of pain and with the edge of an artificial voice. She also heard the query she sent out at random returned, but she didn’t bother to look up. “Don’t hurt me!” she blurted as she felt another presence looking down on her.
A hand grabbed hers and hauled her up. “…alive… I’m alive… am I?” The voice was distinctively male, but with the odd tone of grogginess. Madrugada stared back into the man’s cerulean eyes, noticing the faint, black rings around his pupils, and the slight glow they gave off, and simply nodded her answer. A feeling of familiarity was building the more time passed between them. Suddenly, the man blinked hard and shook his head.
“Wh-where am I? What is this place?” Vincent Nightsong asked. “How did I get here?”