MattDarrow@hotmail.com 4000 words
The survivors of the nuclear war of 2085 sought refuge from the lingering radiation that permeated the soil and sky. They dug into the ground beneath the remnants of the borough of Manhattan. Generations passed and the underground dwellers found sanctuary in the abandoned subway tunnels of what had been New York City.
At first, many braved the lingering radioactivity of the surface to fish in the rivers nearby. Increasingly, however, the Scions relied on livestock and vegetables planted in well-lit, subterranean farms. Electricity was not a problem because the old, nuclear reactors used before the apocalypse still ran with minimal observation. The population grew and reached over five hundred by 2552.
Cyclone was the leader of a group of foragers called the Searchers, a faction within the population of the Scions. The Searchers numbered around fifty as did the other nine groups of Scions. Cyclone was a tall, red-haired man who favored leather clothing. His flight-jacket-wearing band patrolled many of the interconnected paths with skateboards and bicycles.
They sought iron, aluminum and copper useful for forging and assembling go-carts, circuit boards and recycling into ingots. When the riders had enough oil rendered from their underground crops they produced refined gasoline and drove their go-carts. These vehicles were modified to hydroplane through deposits of rainwater that formed murky pools in many of the tunnels.
Over the last six months rumors of strange creatures dispersed through the network of underground dwellers. Word spread of animals referred to as dragons. Some of the people had returned to the remnants of Grand Central Station with burn marks and scorched clothing.
“Do you believe in dragons, Cyclone?” asked his friend, Ex, who wore gloves and goggles.
“I’m not sure, Ex. Someone or something is responsible for the attacks on the explorers near Grand Central. We should exercise a new level of caution when we move through the passages. Let’s keep our eyes peeled in case we run into what’s out there.”
Cyclone and his fellow skateboarders and bikers carried torches and used adapted wheels to ride on the abandoned railroad tracks through the tunnels. The flames of the firebrands cast eerie shadows on the walls of the concrete and brick passageways.
Ex noted that some of the tunnels had completion dates from the 2000’s imbedded in their cornerstones. None of the Scions knew the fullest extent of the labyrinthine corridors.
Cyclone’s band carried cellular radios that were modified to broadcast low frequency signals in the subway. These devices allowed the Searchers to keep in touch with the Minister.
The Minister was the oldest living person in the city. He was fifty-one years old. Based on the tradition of the community of subterranean dwellers this made the Minister the leader of the population. He had held his office for the last eight years. Rather than journey through the network of tunnels the Minister stayed at Grand Central and monitored the activities of the various teams. The Minister had programmed his computer to track the locations of the cellular radios of the Scions and record their movements in a tentative, digital map. This allowed him to mark cave-ins and floods encountered by the Searchers and the other factions of the underground residents.
Cyclone’s group traveled through the cylindrical tunnels for an hour when they reached an unfamiliar bend in the road. Mysterious lights flashed from a source beyond the turn. The band of travelers stopped in their tracks.
Ex spoke in hushed tones to Cyclone. “Cyclone, could that light be coming from the dragons?”
“I don’t know, Ex. I’ll call the Minister.”
The leader of the Searchers activated his cellular radio.
“Minister, do you read me? This is Cyclone.”
“Yes, Cyclone, you’re coming through loud and clear. How can I help you?”
“We’ve come across some strange lights emanating from the Delta Zone. Ex thinks they could be the so-called dragons that we’ve heard reports of. I thought we might take a look and see if we can get a video of who or what is out there.”
“Be careful, Cyclone. We’ve had a few explorers report back with injuries from whatever lurks beyond. Try to take a recording of the light source but don’t get too close. If need be I can have other Scions ride to your location. Don’t forget the first-aid kits I gave you last week.”
“Okay, Minister. We’ll be careful and report back to Grand Central as soon as we can.”
Cyclone addressed his companions in the serpentine corridor. “Let us move through this route with caution, Searchers. It will do all of us good to identify these so-called dragons before anyone else is hurt. The safety of the Scions depends on our reconnaissance.”
The group rode slowly to the curve in the rusted tracks. Cyclone activated his radio, which had a video recording feature. He pressed the record button and reached around the turn in the path. He waited a few seconds as the strange lights passed over his hand then withdrew it.
The Searchers crowded around Cyclone as he activated the playback feature on his radio. The images were shaky but the group of friends saw flashes of light and flame emerging from a twisting conglomeration of glossy, reptile flesh.
“Who goes there?” hissed a sinister voice.
Jets of flame spewed toward Cyclone’s video lens. The recording ended and the leader of the group looked at the rapt faces of his companions.
Ex said, “I don’t think we should go in there. If those are the dragons we’ve heard of they look dangerous and unfriendly. There must be a dozen of them grouped together. We should head for Grand Central and check in with the Minister and the other underground dwellers. What do you think, Cyclone?”
“I agree, Ex. Whatever those things are, they’re more than the likes of us can handle. Let us go home, Searchers.”
The faction of explorers turned their bicycles and skateboards around and began the lengthy journey to Grand Central.
The old surface exits had been closed by falling wreckage from the collapsing buildings. They had constituted the ancient boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens. Only the gateway at Grand Central Station still saw the light of day.
In a little more than an hour’s time the Searchers reached the headquarters at Grand Central. The vaulted ceiling reflected the light of day from the surface. This caused many of the Scions to don sunglasses and goggles with tinted lenses.
The Minister sat behind a large table, stacked with electronic monitoring equipment and a computer with a large screen. Other groups of foragers had arrived ahead of Cyclone’s group and were anxious to see what they had found.
“Greetings, Minister,” said Cyclone. “I have a video clip for the main database.”
“By all means, download it, Cyclone,” urged the Minister.
The gray-whiskered man handed an uplink cable to the leader of the Searchers. Cyclone attached it to his cellular radio, and the footage was transferred in a matter of seconds. The Minister enlarged the video to fill the entire screen of his computer and turned it so the people in the spacious chamber could see it.
“Are those the dragons?” asked an explorer.
“I don’t know,” answered the Minister. “Whatever they are they don’t look friendly. It will be bad if these fiery beings move any closer to our tunnels. I suggest we prepare to defend ourselves. These beings appear to express flame on a regular basis. Perhaps water or ice propelled from tanks and hoses will deter them from invading our roads.”
“I agree, Minister,” said Cyclone. “I know there are hoses and portable tanks in the storage rooms. We’ve accumulated quite a few useful items over the years. Let us inspect the stockpiles and determine what can help us protect ourselves.”
“Very well, Cyclone,” replied the middle-aged man. “We’ll ride there and see what we can find.”
The Minister, Cyclone and the Searchers headed to the storage rooms in the lowest basement of the obsolete train station. Ex heard the sound of dripping water falling from the ceiling as they passed through a descending series of pillared tunnels. He also heard the footfalls of the Searchers echo through the aged passages.
The Searchers reached the bottom of the chambers under Grand Central Station. The light of the explorers’ torches shone on a row of storage compartments. The Minister drew a ring of keys from his travel pack and opened the waterproof lock on the rolling, steel door of a compartment. The door slid upward and Cyclone looked inside. There were portable, aluminum tanks small enough for a person to carry and rubber hoses thick enough to deliver pressurized water.
The Minister and the explorers were able craftsmen and they set to work immediately on their fire extinguishing equipment. The Searchers made openings in the tanks with drills and attached the hoses and valves with waterproof seals. They completed their project by the end of the day.
“The reports of these so-called dragons have come to me from different zones within the known network of tunnels,” said the Minister. “I suspect that the hostile creatures are a result of the rampant radiation that remains from the nuclear apocalypse. We have strength in numbers and should make a stand against the fire breathers while we are at our fullest resources.”
“I agree, Minister,” said Cyclone. “Let us return to the location in the Delta Zone where I made the video recording. We should determine what the demands of the dragons are, if any.”
The Searchers made their way to the place where Cyclone’s group encountered the cluster of twelve dragons. The Minister accompanied the group by riding a gasoline-burning go-cart. Once they reached the place where Cyclone made his recording the Minister pressed the kill switch on his vehicle and walked to the turn in the passage. The strange lights remained around the bend, and they created spiraling patterns on the walls nearby.
“Who goes there?” a deep voice said.
The Minister replied, “I am called the Minister. I am the director of this group of underground dwellers. We depend on these tunnels. You have injured some of my friends. We ask that you cease scorching them when they pass nearby.”
“Come closer, Minister,” answered the voice.
The middle-aged man took a quick glimpse around the corner of the tunnel when the dragons unleashed a jet of fire down the passage. All the Searchers dove to the damp floor as the fire blasted overhead.
When the attack finished, the Searchers in the passageway rose to their feet. The Minister gestured for the group, equipped with water hoses, to douse the dragons. The Searchers did as their leader signaled and ran around the bend with hoses in hand. They opened the valves of their makeshift extinguishers and directed the emerging streams at the twisting mass of reptile flesh.
The dragons bellowed in misery as the cold liquid covered their exposed skin. The creatures attempted to release another blast of fire but the force of the spray from the hoses was too great. The flames emitted by a handful of dragon heads were quickly doused by the group of explorers.
“Ah, the cold is intolerable,” said the center dragon head. “Please, discontinue your counterattack, humans. Make your demands.”
“Leave us in peace,” cried Cyclone. “You have already scorched some of us and we don’t want to be burned in the future.”
“We hunger. Do you have fresh cattle? One or two will do nicely.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t have enough cattle to spare,” replied the Minister. “If that is what you require then we cannot accommodate your needs.”
“So be it, Minister. We remain at odds.
“Call us Dracos. We will await your offering. Until then we will refrain from keeping these passages safe from the dangerous creatures that prowl the toxic lands above. If you are unable to meet our request then you humans will be on your own. Times have changed. The ruins of the city above teem with life changed by the ancient war. That is why we settled here. There are greater predators above that even dragons fear.
“The nuclear war was a foolish, internecine conflict,” the dragon head declared. “Many people, animals and plants perished. Those that were left mutated at an accelerated rate. What was once a bustling metropolis is now a barren wilderness where only the strong survive.”
“I agree with your analysis, Dracos,” replied the Minister. “My ancestors were some of the few survivors of the war. They sacrificed access to the sun and moon for the dark safety of these tunnels. Other people soon arrived here. Their posterity is represented by the Searchers you see before you today.”
“We are glad that your explorers have found a secure way of life,” said the Dracos. “Regretfully, we must claim sections of these tunnels for ourselves. We will take our leave of this place for now. Be on your guard for we may clash with you again.”
The creatures twisted and rotated their reptilian cluster. The conglomeration of fire breathers slid back into the darkness of the subterranean tunnel.
The Minister turned and addressed his friends.
“That could have gone better. Let us return to Grand Central Station, my companions. It seems that it will be but a matter of time before other denizens of the toxic surface appear in our sanctuary. It will be wise to continue the quest for defensive materials. I doubt that we will again be challenged by fire alone.”
The Minister started the engine on his go-cart and sped to the headquarters and Grand Central.
The explorers followed the advice of the Minister and began their journey to their headquarters. They had not gone far when Cyclone heard rustling sounds emanating from peripheral passageways. The noises were mixed with animal-like growls and the scratching of claws on the concrete and brick surfaces.
“What remains of the old city of New York is producing bizarre invaders to our domain,” said Ex. “I think we should maintain our course and report these sounds to the others.”
“I agree, Ex,” answered Cyclone. “We are living in changing times, as did our ancestors to a degree.”
The group continued on their journey and soon reached the large chamber of the central station. They were fatigued from the arduous task and they rested on blankets at the side of the headquarters. Other explorers arrived after Cyclone’s group and also reclined on the sofas and mattresses of the nucleus of their settlement.
The large group of people gathered before the Minister’s data station. Cyclone spoke quietly with the middle-aged leader and informed him of the unusual sounds they heard on their return journey.
“All of you have performed well today. I congratulate you. Our friend Cyclone told me that his band heard suspicious noises coming from some auxiliary routes. We must make note of the unexplored areas. That way my map of the subway system will be as up-to-date as possible.
“If any of you encounter unusual phenomena please notify me at once so that the information can be brought to everyone’s attention.”
“We have also heard unfamiliar sounds from auxiliary tunnels,” said one of the Scions. “I suggest we mark our encounters with newfound species on the computerized map, Minister. That way you will know our precise location if any of us run into trouble.”
“That is a good idea, Raquelle. I will start on engineering an automated monitoring program at once.”
Many of the Scions donned water tanks in preparation for running into the Dracos. The travelers went their separate ways through the network of tunnels.
Cyclone’s group returned to the location in the Delta Zone where the Dracos had been. An hour later they passed beyond the turn in the passage where the Minister had parlayed with the reptilian creatures. The subway tunnel yawned before the group without end in sight. The tracks in the floor had rusted but still supported the Searcher’s adapted bicycles and skateboards. Cyclone saw water dripping from exposed pipes in the ceiling.
“This is farther than we’ve ever gone, Cyclone,” said Ex. “We should be careful lest we run into some of the newly-evolved creatures the Dracos spoke of.”
“That is prudent, Ex. All of us will exercise heightened caution from here on.”
The Searchers rode their bikes and skateboards slowly down the dark tunnel. At times Cyclone, Ex and their companions paused to wipe cobwebs from their faces and clothes. After traveling for an hour the Searchers heard the scratching sounds of an unfamiliar origin.
“Toss some torches forward,” said Cyclone. “Let’s get a look at who or what stands before us.”
Three of the foragers in the group threw their torches into the dark void of the passageway. The tunnel was filled with giant beetles. They scurried on their clicking legs around the entire surface of the cylindrical passage.
“Move back, my friends,” cried Cyclone. “These creatures look dangerous.”
The group did as their leader suggested but two of their number weren’t fast enough. They were consumed by the scrambling mass of the chitinous swarm. The beetles inserted their probosci into the people and drained them of their bodily fluids. The shriveled husks fell to the floor.
Sections of the insects split their shells and extended reflective wings. They flew past the explorers and continued down the hall.
“Run, Searchers!” cried Cyclone.
The explorers turned around and sprinted in the direction from whence they came. A roaring sound penetrated the air. Ex looked over his shoulder and saw the Dracos appear at the opposite end of the passage. The glistening cluster of dragons spat flame through the passage. The majority of the swarm of beetles was cooked to a crisp in a matter of seconds. Ex smelled the odor of burning insects.
Once beyond the range of their attackers Cyclone activated his cellular radio and addressed the Minister.
“Grand Central, do you read us? This is Cyclone.”
“Yes, I read you, Cyclone. How are things going over there?”
“Not very well, Minister. There is a mass of giant beetles in a place beyond the turn where we confronted the Dracos. Two of my group fell to the beetles and more would have been overcome if not for the attack of the dragons. They appeared in the nick of time.”
“Strange,” replied the Minister. “I didn’t expect the reptilian creatures would be willing to come to the assistance of us humans. Perhaps they act on their own interests. Hurry to the headquarters, Cyclone. We must hold a meeting to determine the next course of action for the underground dwellers. I don’t want to lose any more of you out there.”
The group of foragers sped back along the way they came and reached Grand Central Station in an hour’s time. They were surprised to see a large portion of their companions resting in the vaulted chamber.
“Cyclone and the rest of you, come here, please,” offered the Minister.
The younger adults grouped around the data station of their leader. The Minister again turned his screen so the others could see it.
“I have fine-tuned the cellular mapping program. Now I can monitor your movements throughout the abandoned system of tunnels with heightened accuracy. As the digital map indicates the most recent exploration of our groups has created a semicircle of known passages. I suspect that these routes converge somewhere deeper into the earth, completing the circle at a single location.
“Cyclone, your beetles emerged from the closest known extension to where the center of the ring should be,” continued the gray leader. “You said the Dracos attacked the beetles. They too must have come from this as far unobserved region.”
“The beetles were destroyed by the fire of the Dracos,” Ex declared. “If we devise some flame throwers, it will repel them. The strange creatures we’ve encountered these last few days must have mutated as a result of the nuclear apocalypse that occurred centuries ago. Perhaps one of the old, toxic warheads landed at that dark location and is leaking radioactive waste into the soil.”
“That is a wise assessment, Ex,” the Minister replied. “I have Geiger counters and flame throwers for you explorers to carry. They are compact and shouldn’t hamper your movement. If the alarms tick at a fast rate, return to a safe area.”
“Thank you, Minister,” said Cyclone. “We will investigate the unexplored routes and see if we can determine the source of this burgeoning activity.”
The foragers sped off toward the designated sections of track on the Minister’s computer. They rode for an hour when they came upon the scorched remains of the giant beetles. The travelers passed them by and continued on. The alarms of the Geiger counters ticked at a fast staccato. Cyclone checked the gauge of his counter. The needle was close to the toxic level but did not pass into the red area.
Ex observed that much of the path was marked with freshly fallen bricks and concrete. The subway route twisted and turned at several points along their journey.
Cyclone’s group reached an opening in the tunnel. They beheld a cavern that couldn’t have been hewn by the architects of the subway. Stalagmites and stalactites extended from the rocky floor and ceiling of the large chamber. Rivulets of lava oozed from the walls of the circular chasm to form a glowing pool thirty yards below.
An army of beetles skittered in a vortex around the glowing lava. The foragers ignited their flamethrowers, toasting the beetles that came within range. Despite the efforts of the humans, massive numbers of insects spiraled on the walls and ceiling.
At the center of the chamber floated a massive creature, resembling a jellyfish. The entity was translucent, with internal organs that glowed with fluorescent green, radioactive light.
The gelatinous being extended a set of tendrils to the outer wall and scooped a cluster of unsuspecting beetles. The cord-like extensions retracted and brought the exoskeleton-bearing creatures to its beak-like mouth. The quivering entity communicated with the Cyclone and the Searchers by using a telepathic mind-voice.
Flee from this place, vertebrates. These tunnels belong to the amoebids.
The tendrils of the massive, gelatinous life form moved towards Cyclone and his companions. The red-haired man signaled his friends to activate their flame-spewing weapons.
The tendrils drew away from the blast of heat but lingered just out of range.
“Prepare to retreat, Searchers,” declared Cyclone. “Our weapons aren’t forceful enough to eliminate this creature.”
As the humans were about to exit from the strange creature and the giant beetles the Dracos appeared from an opening at the opposite side of the chasm. The cluster of reptilian creatures separated and flew at the amoebid. They came within the range of the gelatinous being and unleashed a fiery attack. The carnivorous amoebid was scorched severely and shied away from the dragons.
Do not pursue us, dragons, hummed the being in mind-voice. I am one of many and shall return to this place with a great number of my kin.
Cyclone and his friends marveled as the translucent creature rose to the ceiling and broke through to the toxic surface.
“Wow!” yelled Ex. “That is a powerful creature.”
The Dracos turned toward the explorers and spoke to them.
“Be careful in this area, humans. There are many of such predators that are looking for a meal. You should return to your home. We claim this area on our behalf.”
“We understand, Dracos,” said Cyclone. “We will go home and inform the other Scions of the events that took place here.”
The Searchers withdrew from the volcanic chasm and informed the Minister of the conflict they saw. The humans mounted their bikes and skateboards and began the lengthy journey to Grand Central Station.
(END OF LINE)