It’s been a couple of weeks — sorry about that. This time last week I was knee-deep in convention fun with other geeks! I had meant to write ahead so that the second part of Veniamin’s story was up and done, but time, as usual, caught up with me.
Today, Veniamin is exploring the part of the BART system that lies underground — this mostly happens right around the “Transbay Tube”, a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay connecting Oakland and the peninsula, but there are significant portions of BART that go underground within the cities themselves. I find these little bits fascinating; unlike a lot of other subway stations, BART underground feels fairly empty and there are all kinds of fun surprises that could be lurking in the shadows there.
The Lake Merritt station sits in easy walking distance of downtown Oakland, and it’s right where the trains go from street-level to underground. It’s as busy as you might imagine most of the time, one of those hub stations that commuters need to get to before they can catch other trains to Fremont, Dublin, or Daly City. This late at night, though, there weren’t too many people lingering around; maybe word had gotten out that strange and dangerous things happen around the neighborhood when no one is looking.
Which is precisely why Nunes and I were here with nothing but flashlights and cell-phone cameras. This wasn’t his usual beat — he patrolled closer to Hayward — but he noticed something slipping out of the shadows and, in his own words, wrapping a tentacle around a homeless gentleman who then dissolved like he was being dipped in acid or something. The suckers on the tentacle slurped up the stinking, steaming mess before it retreated. This happened three nights ago while he was covering a shift for a friend, and he swore on his badge that he wasn’t intoxicated at the time because he never drunk at work. I don’t understand how he could stand to do the job if he weren’t, but some people are just weird that way.
“Are you sure you should be doing that?” He swung his flashlight in my direction as I took a swig from my flask, wrinkling his nose at the sharp bite of vodka that filled the air between us. “I really think we need to keep our wits about us.”
“What do you think I’m doing?” I snapped at him before tucking the half-empty canister back into my trenchcoat. “You have your way of keeping your wits, and I’ve got mine.” He might not like the smell of alcohol, but I don’t like the smell of human piss that clung to the concrete all around us, so we both have to deal with things we’d rather not.
I was uncomfortable enough already with this whole deal. Nunes insisted on joining me on this little expedition despite me warning him off. The way he saw it, he still had a job to do even if he was calling me in as a ‘consultant’. There was no way he was going to let me wander off into those tunnels by myself; he had to know what was there, and he had to know how it would be stopped before he could rest easy. With just about anyone else, I could understand that motivation, even respect it. But there was something about him that rubbed me the wrong way. He was scratching an itch that was better left alone, and I got the feeling his reasons for doing it weren’t entirely on the table.
“If that’s your way of keeping your wits, then we’re both in trouble.” He trained the flashlight on the tunnel, the meager beam of light diffusing into the darkness ahead of us. The sound of his footsteps were crisp and neat, just like his polished shoes and his pressed uniform. They echoed around us with a rhythm that made me anxious. My fingers itched for the flask again.
“You want someone else here to find some shadow tentacle monster, that’s fine by me. I can go home and catch up on my Netflix queue.” I walked right next to him as we passed through the door that would lead us into the maintenance tunnels running along the side of the subway track. I admit, I was in a rotten mood. It wasn’t just the smell, as bad as that was. It wasn’t the fact that I was wearing clothes, either, though the detective get-up I stuffed myself into was as uncomfortable as hell. I liked the way I looked in my cheap off-the-rack suit and trenchcoat, but I hated the feeling of that tie around my neck and the belt around my waist. They were reminders of what I was supposed to be, a civilized Joe protecting other working stiffs from the worst of the worst out there, but more and more the costume felt…restrictive.
I snorted to myself and resisted the call of the flask one more time. Maybe it was time to get out of the city for a while. My parents would be glad to see me for a spell, and it had been ages since I caught fresh fish right out of the ocean.
“No…no, you’re the guy I want. It’s just…don’t you care about the quality of your work? I can’t stand it myself when things are sloppy.” Nunes was working to keep his voice light, conversational. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to cover up his nerves or his disdain for me.
“Things are already sloppy by the time I get called in,” I said. I took a deep breath to try and dispel the tension building up my spine. “It doesn’t much matter if I tie things up in a neat little bow at that point. I fix the things that you and your people can’t.”
“I guess so.” Nunes had a question on his lips, but he didn’t ask it. That’s just as well. He wasn’t going to get an answer he liked.
The darkness closed in around us as we walked deeper into the tunnel, and the scent shifted from an overwhelming crush of people to stale air, rats, damp metal and concrete and…something else. I couldn’t quite place it, and that rankled me too. If I could shift here, I’d be able to isolate it, maybe pick up a trail, but…there’s no way I would take my clothes off in front of a civilian.
The strange scent grew stronger by degrees, and it seemed like our flashlights were dimming as we went along. It’s possible we were under the Bay at this point, but I couldn’t be sure. After ten minutes or so, I noticed a change in Nunes’ scent. He was getting more nervous, agitated. Around a bend in the track, I discovered why.
Standing in the middle of the tunnel was a girl who couldn’t be older than 18. Even from a hundred yards away I could smell her fear, and the wind carried quiet sobs towards us. As soon as Nunes saw her, he rushed forward. I should have stopped him, but I didn’t. I knew it was a trap, but there was some part of me that just went for it anyway.
“Maria!” He stopped short fifty feet away from her, even though there was nothing stopping him from going right there. “Are you OK?”
Maria nodded. When I got to him, I could smell that alien scent much more strongly. The air felt charged with something, a tension, a feeling that it was fighting against something that shouldn’t be displacing it. I felt the hackles on the back of my neck stand up; something was wrong here. All around, something was fundamentally wrong.
That’s when a pale man stepped out of a shadow clinging to the rounded wall of the tunnel. Nunes turned to him, his eyes wide. “I brought him to you. Now give me my daughter.”
“Fine.” The man was short and sallow, his face familiar and disturbing in a way I didn’t remember. He raised a hand, brought two fingers forward, and Maria flew with a shriek towards Nunes, collapsing at his feet. The officer helped her up, looked at me, and whispered “I’m sorry” before he turned and ran.
I should have been angry at him, but I wasn’t. If someone had kidnapped a member of my family, I would be willing to do some pretty intense shit to rescue them. Still, bad form, Nunes. If I ever got out of this tunnel, you owe me one.
“Hello, Veniamin.” The pale man turned towards me, pitch-black eyes narrowing in recognition. His accent, his manner, the way he said my name — it all came back to me at once, and I realized too late that I was alone in a pretty bad place with the last person I wanted to be stuck with.
I sighed, pulled out my flask, and drained it. If I was going to be torn apart by an outsider from some other dimension, I might as well be drunk when it happened.
“Hello, Ed,” I breathed. “You look different. Did you get a new haircut?”