Chapter 23

 Scott Westerfeld

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Chapter 23
"Stay here," I said.
"What's up?"
"I smell something."
Lace frowned. "Dude. It's not me, is it?"
"No! Hush." I squatted, pressing my palms flat against the trembling platform. The shudder in the graffitied concrete built, then gradually faded again, tacking toward us, back and forth through the warrens of the Underworld. The hairs on the back of my neck pricked up, sensing a low and shuddering note hanging in the air, the same vast moan I'd heard below the exhaust towers.
"Cal? What the hell?"
"I think something's coming."
"Something? Not a train?"
"I don't know what it is, except that it's part of all this craziness. And it's old and big, and ... getting closer."
A crumbling exit sign pointed up a set of stairs, but I knew from Hunting 101 that it had been long since paved over. We would have to run back to Union Square along the tracks.
But first I needed a weapon.
I brushed past Lace and through the bathroom stall, kicking away the last pieces of wood clinging to one corner of its metal frame. I wrenched the seven feet of rust-caked iron from the crumbling cement and weighed it in my hands. Brutal and straightforward.
"What about me?" Lace said from the doorway.
"What about you?"
"Don't I get a club-thingy?"
"Lace, you couldn't even pick this up. You don't have superpowers yet."
She scowled at me and lifted a fragment of rusty iron from the floor. "Well, whatever's coming, it's not catching me empty-handed. It smells like death."
"You can smell it? Already?"
"Duh." She sniffed and made a face. "Dead rat on steroids."
I blinked. Lace was changing faster than any peep I'd ever seen, as if the new strain was mutating at some hyped-up pace, changing as it moved from host to host. Or maybe the beastie simply smelled bad. The stench was overpowering now, sending signals of alarm and fury coursing through my body. Though my mind screamed run, my muscles were itching for a fight.
And somehow, I was certain they were going to get one. My instincts sang to me that the creature knew we were here; it was hunting us.
"Let's go," I said.
We jumped from the platform, landing with a crunch on the gravel bed. As we dashed headlong up the tracks, the lights of the next station glimmered along the curved rails, seeming to pull away from us as we ran. It was only four blocks; and I told myself we were going to make it.
Then I saw - through one of the bolt holes that workers jump into if they get caught by an approaching train - a blackness deeper than the subway tunnel's gloom. A hole in the earth. A few yards closer, a cold draft hit us, goose-pimpling my flesh and carrying another wave of the beast's smell.
"It's coming," Lace said, nose in the air. She had come to a halt, holding her foot-long piece of iron high, as if she were going to stake a vampire. But this was bigger than any peep, and I was fairly sure that it didn't have a heart.
"Stay behind me," I said. I pointed toward the opening. "It'll come out of there."
Her eyes peered into the blacker-than-black space for a moment. "So what is this thing again?"
"Like I said, I don't..." My voice trailed off, an answer dawning on me. Not so much words or images, but a feeling - a generations-forgotten dread, an enemy long buried, a warning never to lose the old knowledge, because the sun can't always protect us from what lives in the lower depths. I felt again the shuddering revelation from my first biology courses, that the natural world is less concerned with our survival than we ever admit. As individuals, even as a species - we are here on borrowed time, and death is as cold and dark and permanent as the deepest fissures in the stones we walk on.
"What is it, Cal?" Lace asked again.
"It's the reason we're here." I swallowed. The words came from my mouth unbidden. "Why peeps are here."
She nodded gravely. "Is that why I want to kill it so much?"
I might have answered her, but I didn't get a chance, because the thing finally showed its face - if you could call it that. The white-pale, squirming shape emerged into the tunnel without eyes or nose, or discernable top or bottom, just a mouth - a ring of spikes set in a glistening hole, like the maw of some mutant and predatory earthworm, adapted to chew through rock as easily as flesh.
Segments ran down its length, like a rat's tail, and I wondered for a moment if this was just a part of a much greater monster. This white, gelatinous mass emerging from the tunnel might have been its head, or a clawed tentacle, or a bulbous and spiny tongue; I couldn't tell. All I knew was what the parasite inside me wanted: My constant hunger had turned suddenly to boundless energy - attack, the parasite demanded.
In a blind fury, I ran toward the beast, the rusty iron in my hands hissing through the air like ancient hatred.
The eyeless beast sensed me coming, its body flinching away, and the tip of my swinging iron barely scraped its flesh, tearing a stringy tendril from its side, which unraveled like a thread pulled from a garment. The tendril flailed angrily, but no blood gushed - all that flowed from the wound was another wave of the beast's smell.
While I teetered off balance, it struck back, the mouth shooting toward me on a column of pale flesh. I stumbled backward, and the teeth reached their limit a few short inches from my leg, gnashing wetly at the air before snapping back into the beast.
I swung again, striking home in the monster's flank and squishing to a halt as if I'd hit a wall of jelly, the impact ringing dully in my hands. The huge pale body wrapped itself around the staff, like a human doubling over from a blow to the stomach.
I tried to pull away, but the iron was firmly stuck, and the toothed maw shot out toward me again. The extended mouth slashed past my legs, one stray tooth catching and ripping my jeans. I jumped straight into the air, stomping down on the appendage with one cowboy boot. My weight forced it to the ground, but its slick hide slipped out from under my foot, toppling me backward onto the tracks. The whole beast uncurled over me, rolling more of itself out from the tunnel to crush me.
Then Lace flashed into view, her iron stake slashing through the air and straight into the ring of teeth. At this contact the creature let out an earsplitting screech. The noise was metallic and grinding, like a sack of nails dumped into a wood-chipper. The beast twisted back, crashing against the subway wall, its bulk dislodging a shower of grit.
Lace pulled me to my feet as I yanked the iron staff free, both of us stumbling backward, certain we'd hurt the thing. But the grinding turned to a violent hissing, and a spray of metal shards shot out from its maw, battering us. The creature's ring of teeth had rendered the iron into shrapnel, which it spat out like a rain of rusty coins. We fell to our knees, and I saw it rearing up again, a new set of teeth jumping out from its hide.
I raised up the iron staff and felt Lace's hands join mine on the weapon.
"The rail!" she shouted in my ear, tugging at the iron. I didn't have breath to answer, but I understood, and let her slide the butt of the weapon toward the edge of the track as the monstrous mass descended, impaling itself. Lace jumped away from the pole; I knew I should let go, but the murderous imperative that had filled me from the moment I'd smelled the creature kept my hands on the weapon, guiding it backward until it lodged firmly against the third rail.
A shower of sparks cascaded from the point of contact, the mad buzz of electrocution sweeping across my body, every muscle locked fast by the wild energies moving through me - enough juice to power a subway train. And yet, despite the pain, all I felt was the satisfaction that the worm, my age-old enemy, was feeling it too, glowing from inside, spiderwebs of red veins pulsing inside its glistening skin.
That pleasure lasted half a second; then Lace was pulling me away by my jacket, breaking my mortal grip on the iron staff. More sparks flew, but the beast didn't make a sound; it just flailed randomly, like some giant, exposed muscle struck with a doctor's hammer again and again. Finally, it pulled itself free, retreating back into its tunnel, leaving behind a burned scent of injury and defeat.
But it wasn't fatally wounded, I somehow knew; it was tougher than that. I swore and fell back on the tracks, shivering.
Lace wrapped her arms around me. "Are you okay? You smell ... totally toasted." She opened my palms, which were black with charred flesh. "Jesus, Cal. You were supposed to let go."
"Had to kill it!" I managed through electrocution-lockjaw.
"Chill, dude. It's gone." She peered up the tunnel. "And there's a local coming."
That focused my mind, and we scrambled into the mouth of the thing's tunnel, pulling out of sight just as the headlights flared around the corner. The train roared past as we cowered together.
"So this is what you feel?" she yelled over the noise. "When you fight those things?"
"Never saw one before," I said.
"Really? But it felt..." She was breathing deep, her brown eyes wide and gleaming. "It felt like something we were supposed to do. Like that strength you were talking about, when mothers save their kids."
I nodded. It seemed too soon for Lace, but I couldn't deny how well she'd fought. The worm and the parasite were connected; maybe seeing the beast had accelerated her change.
Since my first sight of the creature, the puzzles of the last few days had begun to solve themselves in the back of my brain. This invasion, these ancient creatures rising up through the century-old cracks in the city's sinews - halting it was what the old, cat-vector strain was for. This was why peeps had been created.
There were more of those things down here, I could tell - a plague of worms that humanity had faced before. Lace and Sarah and Morgan and I were only the vanguard; we needed lots of help.
Now I understood what Morgan was doing, spreading the old strain of the parasite, massing a new army to face the coming days. And suddenly I could feel a similar imperative surging through my own body - every bit as strong as the six hundred and twenty-five volts from the third rail - something I had suppressed for six long months.
I took Lace's hand. "Are you feeling what I'm feeling? A sort of post-battle..."
"Horniness?" she finished. "Yeah. Weird, isn't it?"
"Maybe not." Our lips met again, a kiss as intense as the passing train's thunder in our ears.