The Sickness Within: Part One

Submitted by C B Wright on
Curveball, by Christopher B. Wright
Farraday City Sewer

They run across the street, catty-corner, to the cafe where they started the night. They duck around the building, into a side alley.

Jenny doesn’t say anything. CB is worried about that.

The sirens are very loud now. CB hears a squad car stop in front of the cafe. He runs to the end of the alley and stops, scraping about in the dirt and debris until finally, with a grunt, he pulls a manhole cover out of the ground.

“Come on.” CB’s voice is low. “It’s dark, but only for a bit.”

“We’re going into the sewers?” Jenny keeps her voice low as well, but he can hear her distaste. It doesn’t keep her from climbing down, however.

CB hears voices. The police and the guards are coordinating; he expects there will be even more on the scene soon. He sees a brief flash of light at the far end of the alley. He slips into the manhole, and when he’s mostly in he wraps his leg around a ladder rung so he can drag the manhole cover back in place with both hands. Just in time: he can hear muffled voices arguing with each other about half-way down the alley.

He climbs down the ladder, fishes out his Mag-Lite, and turns it on.

Jenny is standing to one side, bent over, hands on her knees. She’s winded from the running, and probably sore from the improvised rappelling they did to escape the seventh floor. Her eyes are unfocused and remote: that’s from something else entirely. CB recognizes it, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

Tonight is the first time she ever killed someone. That’s a hell of a first.

He shines the Mag-Lite directly into Jenny’s eyes. Her head jerks back and she throws one hand up over her face.

“Damn it, CB! What the hell?”

Crisis postponed.

“Come on,” CB says. “Put your hand on my shoulder.”

“I wouldn’t need to if you hadn’t just blinded me,” Jenny grumbles.

“Yes you would. Two people traveling with a single flashlight in total darkness? Not as easy as it sounds.” CB keeps his voice cheerful. He knows that irritates her, and that’s the only therapy he can think of at the moment.

They travel in silence, kicking up dust as they scuff along the tunnel. Jenny sneezes.

“It’s awfully dry for a sewer,” she says. “I wouldn’t think there’d be so much dust.”

“It’s not a sewer,” CB says. “It’s a maintenance tunnel. It connects to the sewers, though, and that’s where we’re going.”

“Will they follow us?”

“Yeah, eventually. It’ll be too late when they do—I know the sewers a lot better than they do.” CB forces himself to sound cheerful. He’s pretty sure Jenny doesn’t want him to sound cheerful, and he needs her to focus on something external right now.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself.” Her voice is thick with annoyance; CB starts to relax a little. “Have you considered the possibility that you’re wrong?”

“Yep,” CB says.

Jenny mutters to herself.

“Here we are,” CB says. He slows down, and plays his Mag-Lite over the wall in front of them. Set into the wall is a large door. “The sewer awaits. Uh… this is going to smell a bit.”

Jenny mutters some more.

The door is heavy, metal, and coated in rust. There’s no lock, but it sticks—CB has to tug hard to get it open. When he does, it groans as the hinges protest being called into service. As the door opens, they catch a faint whiff of the sewage on the other side, and it makes Jenny gag. A second later, as the door is thrown wide, the smell overwhelms them, and they both need a moment to recover.

“This is not fun,” Jenny says, choking back a wave of nausea.

“Oh, it could be worse,” CB says, trying to sound cheerful. “It could be much, much worse. Come on, let’s go.”

The roof of the sewage tunnel is arched. On the right and left sides are small walkways just wide enough for a full-sized adult. The sides of the sewer are covered in faded, barely legible graffiti. Cigarette butts and discarded bottles litter the narrow walkway and occasionally spill into the sewage that flows languidly on.

They travel for a while, continuing down the narrow walkway in silence, listening to their footsteps echoing off the ceiling—and listening for other footsteps as well.

“I don’t think they’re following us,” CB says. “That’s good.”

“Where are we going?” Jenny’s voice is tight again.

“There’s a place down here where we can hole up for a bit. It’s out of the way, I’m pretty sure the people looking for us don’t know about it. We can use it to—”

“I’m fine,” Jenny says.

“Well I’m not,” CB snaps. “I got kicked in the face.”

Jenny falls silent.

CB leads them deeper in to the underground. The deeper they go, the higher the ceilings get, the wider the passages become, until finally she can’t really think of them as sewers any more.

“Why is this here?” Jenny asks finally.

“Why is what here?” CB turns down a connecting tunnel, hand trailing along the side of the stone wall. His pace slows as his hand moves up and down over the surface of the wall, probing for something.

“All these tunnels. I don’t get it. Farraday City isn’t old, but this doesn’t seem very modern to me. Shouldn’t the sewer be a bunch of underground pipes?”

“Don’t know,” CB says. “That sounds reasonable, I guess. Except… well, these are the sewers.” He stops, puts the end of his Mag Lite in his mouth, and starts feeling around the wall with both hands.

“It’s just weird,” Jenny says. “I mean, Farraday City might be corrupt, but it’s supposed to be modern corrupt, right? Rebuilt from the ground up? It wasn’t much of anything before the mob moved in.”

“Beach resort.” The words are muffled with the flashlight in his mouth. His left hand stops moving as his fingers close around something in the wall, he nods once, and his fingers sink into the rock. The wall grinds unpleasantly, then a veneer of rock slides away, revealing a heavy metal door.

CB removes the flashlight from his mouth. “It’s also a little strange to find secret rooms in the municipal sewer system. I haven’t figured that out either, but right now it’s convenient. Come on.”

He pushes the door open. Jenny hears a hiss, as if the door is breaking a seal. CB stands to one side and motions for her to step through. She does, shuddering as she steps into the dark room. CB’s Mag-Lite flashes across the room briefly, just enough to reveal a cot and a few mats sitting on a stone tile floor.

CB steps into the room after her and pulls the door shut behind them—as it closes, they’re engulfed in darkness, and for a moment Jenny feels herself start to panic. Then a dim light fills the room—CB is pumping a hand-crank electric lantern, and when the light finally steadies he puts his Mag-Lite back in his trench coat.

The room is about the size of a small living room in a cheap New York City apartment. The walls are concrete, but not like the sewer walls outside. They’re smoother, and cleaner. Definitely cleaner. The floor is a series of colorless stone tiles, so smooth they almost gleam in the lamplight. The air is cooler in here, and it doesn’t stink.

The cot is a knock-off of the kind she used to see in old war movies. She knows it’s a knock-off because MADE IN CHINA is stenciled on the canvas. It looks relatively clean, and it has a pillow and a blanket. Two thick mats, sort of a cross between rugs and pillows, are spread out on the concrete floor.

The sound of grinding stone comes through the door—the stone facade sliding back into place, Jenny guesses—and when it stops, CB slides a bolt at the top and bottom of the door into place, locking it securely. He shrugs off his trench coat and collapses into one of the floor rug-pillows, exhaling slowly as he hits the ground.

“You can take the cot, Jenny. Lie down a bit. Get a little sleep. We earned it.”

Jenny goes over to the cot and sits on the edge of it. She watches CB as he lies on the floor, notices the caked blood and purplish bruising spread over most of his face. One eye is swollen half-shut.

“CB, maybe you should take the cot.”

CB shakes his head. “Too late. I’m not moving for at least an hour. Two, if I can manage it.”

“For a hero you get your ass kicked a lot.” Jenny smiles slightly.

CB laughs. “Yeah, well. Happened a lot when I was a bad guy, too.”

Jenny falls back on the cot and stares up at the ceiling. It’s a single, solid slab of concrete. “What is this place?”

“Secret room,” CB says.

“Yeah, thanks. Why?”

“Already told you I don’t know.” CB sounds half asleep at this point. “Found it by accident. Then I found two more. Doesn’t really look like anyone uses them for anything. I brought the gear—thought it would be useful. Funny thing to put in a sewer, but it’s a funny kind of sewer too.”

“Do a lot of people use the sewers to get around?”

“Eh…” Jenny can almost hear CB shrug. “Some homeless. Some crazies. Not nearly as many people as you’d think, though. Sewers have a bad reputation—never figured out why…”

They lapse into silence again. Jenny closes her eyes and tries to sleep, but every time she does she sees the man she shot. So she opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling, trying with all her might to force that image from her mind.

“How are you doing, Jenny?”

She opens her eyes. CB is sitting up, staring at her thoughtfully, looking troubled.

“What do you mean, ‘how am I doing?’” She can’t quite manage to keep the catch out of her voice.

“You shot a guy in the face,” CB says. “Twice. It’s traumatic, even when you don’t really have much choice.”

Jenny sits up in the cot and looks away. Her hair falls over her face, obscuring it from CB’s view. When she looks up, her expression is remote and vacant.

“I’m not thinking about it right now,” Jenny says.

“You’re not?”

Jenny frowns slightly. “I’m trying not to think about it right now. I’m compartmentalizing it and repressing it in what is probably a very unhealthy manner, and I will continue to do so until I feel safe. When I feel safe I will revisit the matter.”

“Right…” CB keeps his expression neutral. “OK.”

“Damn it, CB, I can’t afford to crack up right now.” She stares back fiercely, voice trembling.

CB sighs. “Yeah. I get it. Sometimes you have to push all that stuff into the back of your head and not deal with it for a while. But don’t do that for too long, OK? It’s not good for you. I know guys who did that for too long. They’re not well. If you want to talk, I’ll listen.”

“Thanks,” Jenny says. “Maybe later.”

“OK.” CB settles back on the pillow and closes his eyes. Jenny lies back down on the cot and tries to do the same.

“We actually practiced that move.” Jenny’s voice is soft, and a little sad. “The one I used in the office. We practiced it all the time. He played the bad guy. He had a German Luger—souvenir from the war, I guess—it wasn’t loaded or anything, but he said being familiar with the weight of the gun was important. I thought it was funny, mostly, and we always stopped right before I pulled the trigger. I mean, I thought that was where I was supposed to stop. I thought the whole point was to disarm your attacker and hold him at bay, force him to back down.”

CB doesn’t answer.

“He taught me to kill,” she says finally. “All this time I thought he was just teaching me to take care of myself. But he was actually teaching me to kill.”

She hears CB sigh again. “That’s not exactly true.”

“It isn’t?” Her voice is bitter and angry. “Pulling the trigger was just… it was so easy. I almost wasn’t thinking about it.”

“Yeah,” CB says. “You’re not supposed to.”

“Yes you are!” Jenny sits up in the cot, eyes flashing. “If you’re going to kill someone you damn well better have the decency to think about it first.”

“What’s so decent about that?” CB asks. He sits up and stares at her, head cocked to one side, sizing her up. “Lots of people think about killing other people, and believe me, Jenny, it’s usually not because it’s the decent thing to do. Serial killers. Assassins. Tyrants. Whoever is killing all these TriHealth patients, there’s been an awful lot of thinking involved in that. And all it means is that a lot of people are dead who, as far as we can tell, didn’t really do anything to deserve it.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Jenny says.

“The guy who had the gun pointed at your head, now, he definitely thought about it beforehand,” CB continues. “And he would have pulled that trigger if he thought I was going to do anything other than surrender on the spot. I could see it in his eyes—if I didn’t surrender it meant he was going down, and he’d decided if he was going down he was going to take the girl with him.”

Jenny doesn’t say anything.

“Look, Jenny, there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to dealing with a hostage-taker. Either you get the guy to surrender and release the hostage or you take him out before he can hurt the hostage. Taking out the hostage taker is always a risky play, but if that’s your option you have to commit. If you hold back it increases the chance he doesn’t go down; if he doesn’t go down it drastically increases the chance the hostage will.”

“Great-grandfather could have taken him down alive,” Jenny says. “He did it all the time!”

“He was a fucking super hero!” CB shouts, exasperated. “Are you?”

Jenny looks away from CB, focuses on the corner of the cot.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we tend to do a lot of crazy shit. Hell, Roger can actually move faster than bullets. We have the luxury of trying for the best possible outcome. But unless you’ve gone through the Paragon Program and didn’t bother telling anyone, I don’t think you can…”

CB trails off, frowning.

“That’s not fair,” Jenny says. “I know I’m not like him. That doesn’t make this any easier.”

Jenny sees a blur of metal streak toward her out of the corner of her eye. She jerks back, left hand reaching out to pluck CB’s Zippo from the air, only inches from her temple. “Jesus, CB!”

CB stares at her, an unreadable expression on his face. “Good catch.”

“What are you trying to do, kill me?”

CB doesn’t answer. He’s lost in thought, staring at Jenny as if he was seeing her for the first time. The intensity of his gaze makes her shiver involuntarily.

Finally he shrugs. “Sorry. Thought maybe you’d want a smoke. Some people find it helps.” He holds up a mostly empty pack of cigarettes.

“I don’t smoke,” she says, voice thick with distaste.

“First time for everything.”

“No. First of all, it’s disgusting. Second, we’re in a sealed room. Last thing I want is to be trapped in a room full of second hand smoke.”

“Just thought I’d offer,” CB says. “Can I have it back, then?”

Jenny turns the lighter over once in her hand, then tosses it back to CB. He catches it easily; both lighter and cigarettes go back into one of his trench coat pockets.

“Sorry,” Jenny says. “I didn’t want to do this here.”

“It’s OK,” CB says. “You’re going to be OK.”

“I don’t feel OK,” Jenny says.

“Congratulations. You’re not a sociopath.”

Jenny laughs in spite of herself. “I guess a sociopath wouldn’t be having this problem.”

“No,” CB agrees. “Lucky bastards.”

Jenny laughs again.

Comments

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I'm not sure if her plucking

I'm not sure if her plucking the lighter out of the air was meant to imply she actually did have powers. I mean, catching something thrown at your head is certainly something someone normal can do, but then what was the point of throwing it at her?

I suppose it depends on who's

I suppose it depends on who's throwing it.

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Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.