Part of the Angel Cycle | Next-->

"Are you sure they're down here?"

"Of course I'm sure. Shut up, will you? If we get caught..." Lain let the thought trail off ominously. I swallowed, once, then scrambled forward on hands and knees to keep the circle of her jeans-clad butt in sight. The tunnel was completely grimy, in a nasty nasty way, with the oil-based soot of ages of neglect caked up on the tunnel floor. We were both wearing knee pads and work gloves to protect against whatever sharp edges lurked under the muck, but deep down I had little confidence in the canvas and plastic to turn a glass shard or nail. Forcing down the misgivings that bubbled up again, I hastened forward. Lain was moving at a good clip, the light from her headlamp flickering around her silhouette as she shuffled.

"Lain, slow down."

"Sorry." She slowed minutely, looking back once, blinding me with light from her headlamp. "Oh. Sorry." This second apology carried a note of real contrition, so rare from her. "Carrie, are you okay back there?" I grinned to show absence of malice and waved her forward.

"Yeah, Lain, I'm fine. How much further, you think?"

There was a slight rustle of paper, old and folded. Lain was consulting the magazine page that we'd ripped from the dusty library stacks. "This tunnel is supposed to come out at the top of the subway tunnel in about twenty meters."

"You mean Transit."

She tossed her head. "Whatever. The tunnel."

"Okay. Let's keep going then."

We continued on, hands slipping occasionally in muck and grime, and I wondered in abstract amazement at my failure to simply break down into tears of frustration and anger. Lain could always convince me to do things I knew, knew were going to be a bad idea. Even after it had been proven so (I looked at my filthy self and sighed) I would perversely refuse to complain, probably in an attempt to force her into admitting (first) that it had been a bad idea.

She never did, naturally.

Unfortunately, she was usually right. That didn't make the interim between idea and adventure's end any easier, though. I could be texting Samantha about the new crop of guys in Form 5, or surfing for the new top my parents had given me the green light (and a budget) to buy before school started in a week. No; rather, I had been considering starting the search when Lain had shown up with a folder of papers, an excited look, and a mysterious mien.

"They're down there, Carrie." Her voice carried the timbre of barely repressed delight. "I know it. I know where."

"Who are down where, L?"

"The sidhe, Carrie. The Sidhe. They're down there underneath us. They live in the tunnels. Look!" She threw herself down onto my bed and spread the contents of the folder out across my coverlet. I managed not to sigh as the dusty, mildewed pages fluttered crazily across my bed. Lain hadn't noticed; she'd dropped onto her stomach and was sorting through the papers swiftly, looking for something. "Ah!" She'd found it. "Look at this."

I looked. It was a crumpled piece of slightly glossy paper. "Looks like a magazine page."

"Yeah!" She beamed. I shook my head.

"So?"

"Well, what's on it?"

I peered at it again. "Um. Some lines. A picture?" It was pretty faded; there was water damage across the page, in medium-sized circles of erasure.

"No. Well, close! It's a map." The last came in a secretive whisper shivering with excitement. I looked again. Sure enough, a small compass rose peeked up from the corner, and the lines seemed to travel in pairs, mostly...

"What's it a map of?"

"The subway tunnels, dope!" She spun it so it was right-side-up to her. "Look, here's school stop, and here's our stop just down from it. Here's Commercial, and Residential, Orange through Green."

"Those don't look like the Transit lines, though. They don't even follow them. What are they?" I was trying to read the map upside down now, but it wasn't making any more sense.

"Tunnels! Maintenance tunnels, I guess. Look, the lines are on here, but they're really faint, like background. They're not the main purpose of the map. These are -" pointing to the sharper, smaller lines - "and look, here, look at this one!"

I looked. The line meandered off from the Green line, and looped in and out of some water-blanked spots before stopping in a small circle that apparently meant an entrance. "So?"

"Dummy, look where it stops!"

"Oh, no, Lain..." It dead-ended almost directly under our building. The other end, at the green line tunnel, joined it and stopped in another circle. I looked at her hoping she wasn't suggesting...but too late. Her eyes had The Look, and the weekend really wasn't going to turn out the way I'd hoped.

* * *

So here we were. I heard Lain bite off what must have been a fairly nasty word, for her to stop herself, and saw her shift her weight to wiggle her wrist. "Are you OK, Lain?"

"Fine. I just turned my wrist a little, is all. Hey, I think I see light up there." Her voice sped up, tones rising from annoyed to excited as she looked ahead. "Yeah! Come on, Carrie, let's go!" And with that, she moved off again, even faster. I scrambled to catch up.

A few minutes later, she stopped. Light making its way around her form indicated that we'd reached our destination. Since she'd stopped, I tapped her on the leg and she moved aside. I moved up to scrunch beside her.

There was a metal grate across the tunnel, there in front of us. Lain was in the process of giving it a good shake; I waited until she let go and blew her hair out of her eyes in frustration. I giggled, because the glare she was favoring the poor piece of metal with was enough to be used on one's worst enemy. When she turned to scowl at me, I tried to stifle it, but couldn't, and she finally relented and laughed.

"So now what?" I asked when we'd wound down. The tunnel dead-ended at the grate, and we'd seen no other way or passage since entering the equally blank beginning under the laundry room of our Block.

Lain looked about, considering. She was about to speak when a slight noise arose. We both looked around us for a moment before realizing that the noise was that of air rushing across the metal strips of the grating; a breeze was blowing past us. I squashed my face to the grate and looked both ways.

I couldn't see much. The grate was apparently in the tunnel wall, a couple of meters up from the floor, at least. The amount of gunk that we'd crawled over and that had collected up against the inside of the grate near the floor indicated that this was likely a drainage way of some sort. There might have been a flicker of brighter light, off to the left? I couldn't be sure; the tunnels were lit with flickery old incandescents.

"What is it?" asked Lain. I turned to answer her as the noise suddenly multiplied, and found myself yelling in her ear as the thunder rose.

"CAPSULE!" I shouted, and with that, as if I'd conjured it, a storm of strobing light and noise blasted past the end of the passage. The wind nearly knocked us both backwards, even through the grate and even though we were on our knees. Lain nodded furiously to show she'd heard, so I turned back to the grate.

It was nearly dark in there now, at least comparatively; the sussuration of airflow had remained, but now air was flowing past us into the tunnel. It brought with it a rich miasma of decay, which we'd been enduring since the start; the brief wash of relatively cleaner air from the tunnel had pushed it from our nostrils just long enough to lose acclimatization, and the stench was awful.

Lain was grinning madly.

I shook my head at her and turned to examine the grate. There didn't seem to be any good way to open it. Lain watched me study it for a few moments before commenting, "You weren't this eager at the start."

"Maybe not, but I am not climbing all the way back up that tunnel now that I've smelled it, at least, not without trying."

Lain moved to help me examine the grate, but a few seconds of study told us that there were no latches or obvious tiedowns; there were what might have been screws underneath a layer of crud. We looked at each other. She shrugged, once, before stating solemnly "Well, that isn't going to unlock for us." I waited, knowing there would be more. Before I could react, she had twisted to lie on her back, head away from the grate - and kicked, hard, with both feet. There was a reverberating bang as the metal shook but didn't give. A set expression on her face, Lain kicked again. This time, mixed among the echoes of the impact, there was a slight screeching noise. She drew back her feet, then looked at me with raised eyebrows. I blushed, and scrabbled to lie next to her. The tunnel floor here at least wasn't wet at the moment, probably due to the frequent blasts of wind. Lain waited until I was set, then, "Ready? On three. One...Two...three!"

We both kicked out, her feet striking a bare fraction of a second before mine. This time, the screech was louder, and the top corner of the grate on her side moved a centi or so out towards the tunnel. We grinned at each other, howled "Three!" without counting and kicked again. This time Lain's corner jolted outward further to leave a significant gap where it had been. Without rhyme, we pounded at it until finally it gave a reproachful cry of stressed metal and fell into the tunnel with a clatter.

Lain was first to drop through the hole, landing on her feet in a crouch. She looked both ways before shouting at me to come ahead; I hung at the edge of the tunnel for a moment as good-little-girl reflexes screamed in protest. Grinning, I let go and dropped to land on a smooth but dusty concrete surface. Lain was already a few meters away examining a weathered-looking structure of metal and concrete; an induction Ring. At the moment it was silent, the concrete sheath unremarkable and just the faintest gleam of the smooth metal on its inner surface. As I approached tentatively, I could see a glimmer of light in the dust near the bottom; from the green cast, I assumed they were status lights.

"Hey, look, there's handholds!" Lain was reaching excitedly for the side, moving to - oh, no, Lain - pull herself up onto the structure. I screamed as I grabbed her around the middle to pull her off it. We both rolled back into the dust.

"Hey, Carrie, what's wrong?"

I rolled over, spitting dust. "L, you can't climb that thing! It's a Capsule Ring, for God's sake! It's like a train track!"

She giggled. "It's not electric or anything. Besides, there's no Capsule coming; we'd hear it. Don't worry, they're for maintenance workers; you're supposed to be able to climb it."

"Not while it's live!"

"Sure, why not?"

I just looked at her, unable to come up with any rebuttal to this plainly stated inanity. "Lain..."

"Oh, stop worrying, mom. I'll be okay." With that, she swung herself up and began to scale the side of the Ring. It was easily eight or ten meters high; I tried very very hard not to tremble and look like a nervous little twerp while...well, while trembling and forcing myself not to bite my nails. Not wanting to look at her, I decided I could be more useful listening for Capsules, The tunnels weren't quite silent; I could hear a creaking bo-o-o-o-m as another Capsule's shockwave stressed the earth around us, but there was no sound from our tunnel.

Lain had reached the halfway point, and hadn't slowed. She was hand-over-handing towards the ceiling. I bit down another urge to say something futile, forcing myself to look away instead. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to see, really; the tunnel was fairly clean as tunnels went. No doubt due to the blasting passage of the Capsules and the ventilators, there wasn't too much detritus. Moving to the base of the Ring Lain was climbing, I examined the small glow near the base. There was an entire status panel down there, in fact; although encrusted with hardened dust, lights still shone. I rubbed at the grime, moving up to a sharp blow when rubbing proved ineffectual. The dirt cracked and fell away, allowing me to rub clean the small screen.

"Hey, Lain, look..." I trailed away, realizing that she couldn't.

"What?" Her voice came distantly, slightly muffled by the mass of the Ring and echoing from the tunnel walls.

"I think it's controls, or something."

"Hey, don't turn it on!" The laughter was clearly audible. I grinned in response.

"It is on! I can't turn it off!"

"I know, I know, just kidding..." the voice trailed away into silence. I looked up, away from the simplified diagram of the Ring and the glowing green status indicators. I couldn't see her while standing this close, so I moved away from the Ring and looked up. I still couldn't see her.

"Lain?"

Her head poked over the top, and I shivered with relief. "Don't do that."

"Carrie, I think I hear something."

Fear returned in a quick pulse rush. "Oh, no." I tried to still my body enough to listen, but suddenly my heart and muscles couldn't hold still. I tried putting my ear to the Ring, but there was nothing but a background hum which I suspected had always been there. It was unchanging. I looked back up. "Lain, are you sure?"

She was looking around, I could see, far above. She nodded. "Yeah. It's coming." We both looked at the ladder, trying to gauge how much time it had taken her to climb up. She reached the answer first as the sound she heard finally grew into audibility in my ears; a thrumming bass. It took a moment for me to realize that the rhythmic beats were the shockwave of a Capsule passing Rings in its passage. There was a bleep and a blue light winked on on the Ring status panel. I didn't stoop to read it.

"Lain, get off of there! Come on..."

She cut me off. "No time. Look, Carrie, get back, get against the wall, near the floor."

"Are you crazy? GET DOWN!" I ignored the burning in my sinuses that implied tears and tried to glare up at her. She shook her head.

"I told you, there's no time. I'll be okay. Really. You have to get near the wall, Carrie."

I had no idea how she was staying so calm. Desperation washed over me. "Oh God...look, I'll run and wave them down..." I was already panting off down the tunnel towards the slight glimmer that had appeared down there. I could hear Lain shouting at me.

"Carrie! Carrie, you can't, please, get near the wall, they can't stop!"

"Stop! Please, oh please stop, please, please..." I was repeating this antikinetic prayer as I ran down the tunnel, waving frantically. I have no idea why I thought this would help, although I'm fairly sure (in retrospect) that I wasn't thinking at all.

The light was becoming brighter ahead. I could hear a faint rumble. In a moment of misplaced clarity I realized that I didn't even know if there was a person controlling the oncoming capsule; they had finally been approved for automatic operation some months before. It was too late to go back now, however, and I stumbled against the wall to let the tears of fear and frustration that had been building up run freely down my face, single drops breaking into flight to thunder against the dusty floor below while the crowns of displaced dust danced around my ankles-

-turning to look at the oncoming light, cold and blue of noble gas excitation, watching as the light filled my entire field of view before-

-before-

the world chimed, no other word for it, annunciator tone writ globally large, as the light froze around me in an actinic cage of energy. I stopped, waited for the impact, but none came, so I turned, and there facing me was the nose of the Capsule, but different; it was smaller, somehow, and protruded through the glowing wall that surrounded me but wasn't moving, it was regarding me, somehow, and then a voice issued from the floor through my soles which asked me asked asked me-

who are you

I'm...I'm Carrie...

why are you

(It stopped)

Why am I...Why am I here? Why am I here, is that it?

affirm

Affirm? Affirm..affirmative...? Yes?

affirm

I'm here...because of Lain...she brought me.

query identity Lain

She's my friend. A sense of urgency broke through my confusion. She's in danger! Please, you must stop, you must stop!

negative velocity exceeds braking capacity

query confirmation Lain atop Web ring 656523-J7

Yes! Yes, she'll be killed if you don't stop, she'll fall when-

negative assist assist Guardian assist

I could feel the attention of the other in the bright room shift, addressing someone away from me. Someone I couldn't see, nor hear, but abruptly the still bright room shattered around me into a hailstorm of sound and light as the capsule approached me. It could not have been more than fifteen meters from where I stood leaning against the wall in confusion and fear. I watched it come in resignation and unreasoning anger at Lain for dying like this, when there was a flash of silver - not light, precisely, just a presence of silver, and I caught a quick phosphenic glimpse of a man, a big man, in a tattered overcoat, in midair above the tunnel floor and between me and the Capsule's nose. Then there was a confused tearing rush in which I was completely unable to determine where I was or what was happening, and then a relative silence in which I recognized a swiftly receding blur of light as the capsule rushed away down the tunnel, Rings flaring white as it passed.

There were two people next to me, which caused me to start and jump slightly. One of them was the man I had seen briefly; he was now just standing there next to-

"LAIN!" I grabbed her to me, afraid she wasn't real, but she was, just standing there. I held her back to arm's length, and she had an incredibly funny expression on her face which I realized was the sort of confusion I had felt, untrammeled by relief at seeing me alive because she had expected me (not herself) to survive.

"Carrie?" Her voice was a hoarse whisper. "What happened?"

I laughed. "I don't know. I don't know."

"Who's...who's that?"

I turned to the man, who was smiling slightly. He was around two meters tall, perhaps a hair over. I noticed that his skin was ebon black, and his overcoat was, in fact, quite the worse for wear. He himself looked quite together, though. "I don't know." I addressed this to him as much as to Lain.

"Hi." The word was so completely incongruous, especially in the deep bass voice, that I giggled. I hate it when I do that. "Er, hello."

Lain answered for us. "Who are you?"

"I'm Guardian. er, sorry. My name is Mtubi, really." He tried vainly to straighten his terminally thrashed coat, and stopped with a rueful expression which had more than a bit of resignation in it. He settled for putting his hands in his pockets and smiling cheerfully at us.

"So your name is Mtubi. Wonderful," said Lain, sarcasm reasserting itself , "but who are you?"

He appeared to be embarrassed, but said in an offhand manner, "I'm the Guardian. Guardian of the Angel."

"The Angel?"

He suddenly looked concerned. "Yes, the Angel...look, are you usually down here?"

"No!" I burst out, shocked. "Usually? Do you spend much time down here?" I realized, as I said it, that he must. Lain just looked, waiting with me for his answer. I did see, in a sidelong glance, that there was a sudden gleam in her eyes which usually portended a particularly insane plan.

"Of course, I am, I'm...I mean, oh. Oh." He looked concerned, and moved over to half-lean against the angled base of the nearest Ring. "You're not from down here."

"From? No, why would we be..." Lain kicked me, hard, and I shut up out of surprise.

"We're exploring," explained Lain. He gave her a slightly steely look.

"I'm aware, and you should know..." He dug in a pocket and pulled out a small leather case, which he opened. The badge inside had his name on it, right after the words 'Det. Sgt.' and right before the words 'Metro Police.' I swallowed, but Lain merely looked at it incuriously.

"And you're going to arrest us?" she responded in an inquiring tone.

He snorted. "Hardly."

"Then who cares?"

His gaze was, I hoped, amused. "I suppose no one."

I felt I had to participate in the discussion. "Who was that who spoke to you earlier?"

His eyes swung to me in sudden interest. "What do you mean?"

"I...I was speaking with someone, before the capsule passed us, right before I saw you, and then they spoke to someone else, I could tell, I thought it might be you."

His face blazed with an intense attention. "You were speaking with...someone?"

"Yes."

He moved closer, and looked down into my eyes. "Did they...did they have a voice? Were there words?"

Confused, I answered, "Um, yeah."

Lain interrupted. "Who was that?"

He turned away, running his hand over his close-cropped hair, excitement plainly visible. "That's hard to explain, but you spoke to it..." he looked about the tunnel, thinking intently from the look on his face.

"It? Not who?" Lain had caught the interesting part of the comment as usual.

"Yes..." he turned back. "I think you girls need to get home."

That sounded fine to me, in fact, but Lain wasn't as easily put off. "I'm not going anywhere, yet. What do you mean, it?" She set her feet into a position I recognized.

Mtubi, however, realized the stance of intransigence when he saw it, as well. "Don't worry," he said. "Not for good. I'm going to want to speak with you, and want you to speak with some...some people. But I have to find them, and I can't have you two wandering around down here alone, apparently." He looked sharply at Lain, who had the grace to look embarrassed. "Where do you live?"

Before Lain could object again, I blurted out the address of our Block. Mtubi nodded, and raised a hand before stopping and looking at us. "Er. Girls, you probably shouldn't look at this."

Small chance of that. Both of us just stared at him, and he finally laughed and shrugged. "Okay, okay...but you'll have to wait for an explanation until I see you next." With that, he swung his hand in a complex pattern, and Lain sucked in her breath as a tracery of silver presence formed in the air behind it, almost like a wake. I had recognized the not-quite-color, and didn't say a word. In a moment, there was a silver flash of not-light, and a large circle of rippling reflection solidified in the air. "Okay, girls, through here."

I looked at Lain, and we looked at the circle. I looked back at him. "Aren't you going to tell us not to tell anyone, or something?"

He laughed again. "Nope. I don't think you will, and even if you did, I don't think anyone would believe you, correct? Besides, I think you'll hold your peace at least until we speak again."

I wasn't sure how to take that, but suddenly really, really wanted to be through what I knew to be a doorway. Before Lain could respond, I said "Thanks!" in a bright voice that sounded silly even to me, grabbed her arm, and dashed into the silver.

Lain had enough time to squeak "Hey!" and then we were-

flash of whorled bright colors and of time in taffystring curls and rainbow moments

-home. I tripped and fell onto my bed, which was in front of us; twisting, I saw Lain falling onto the bed. There was nothing unusual behind her, which was more than unusual; when she'd recovered her balance (from being flat on the bed), she looked at me and grinned. "Wow!"

I sighed in exasperation, but couldn't help nodding.

"I told you! I told you they were down there!" Lain danced around my bed in her glee.

"You told me," I said with exaggerated patience, "that the Sidhe were down there. That man - Mtubi? - didn't look like any Sidhe I've heard of."

"Carrie! He sent us here with...with..."

"Magic." I finished for her, and she jumped onto me and the bed simultaneously.

"YES!"

"But L..." It was too late, she was tickling, and I had to thwop her with a pillow, which led to a fairly severe pillow duel. When it ended, we were both winded and sitting on the floor, looking at the light spray of goose down which had been freed to float through the room.

"Carrie," Lain said quietly, "He said we'd see him again, didn't he?"

"Yeah, L, he did."

"Oh, good." She sighed. "I thought I was remembering wrong. I wonder when he'll come for us?"

I shivered. "Lain, I kind of hope he doesn't."

She looked quite taken aback. "What? Why?"

"Well, look, last time, you almost got yourself killed, and I..."

"But I didn't!" protested Lain. "And you...wait a minute, what did you tell him? You spoke with someone?" She scrunched closer and laid a hand on my arm. "Did you really? You weren't just saying that?"

I didn't know what to tell her. "Yeah, I did, I think. I can't remember." I didn't want to talk about it, being unsure what in fact had happened. I was suddenly taken by a memory of the front of the Capsule, hovering in a bright white storm of light, unmoving. "I don't know what happened."

It took me an hour to convince her, not that I hadn't heard anything, but that even if I had I wasn't going to talk about it. Finally, she shook her head and rose to go home (I realized it was, in fact, quite late). "Look, I'll see you in school tomorrow, all right?" It was Sunday.

"Sure, L."

"And if he turns up..."

"I'll call you, don't worry." I pointed to her pocket where she kept her phone. "Leave it on."

"I'm going to put it under my pillow." She grinned, and spun out of the room. I heard her bidding my parents farewell in the living room, and then heading out into the hall. My thoughts went back to that blur of white light, and it continued to surround me that evening through dinner, a bath, and bed. Falling asleep was tricky; I couldn't be sure if I was asleep and dreaming.

Part of the Angel Cycle | Next-->

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