Irongate – Chapter Eight

Jennifer’s face stretched like that of an angry dog, screaming as she channeled all of her righteous rage and fury into her palm, striking as if with the flat side of sword on Angela’s cheek. Other teenage girls and boys stood around in a circle chanting ‘fight, fight!’, as the taut lines on Jenn’s face vanished. Her jaw remained hanging open, but her eyes became round and wide in anguish on seeing that after hitting with all she could muster, her foe had barely been moved and just smiled. The rest of the fight had been very short, Jenn proving no match whatsoever for Angela’s cruelty. Even after Jenn was broken, in a ball, and sobbing, Angela demanded some other girls pick her up so that she could cup Jenn’s chin, squeezing her soaked cheeks between thumb and finger as she mockingly asked, “you want to be a hero?” Angela and almost everyone present laughed out loud at the notion. “You’re way too weak.”

Jennifer was in no position to argue, instead turning her tear filled gaze to one girl who hadn’t laughed at her. But if Kaya even saw her plea she showed no will to intervene. She shook her head, clenched her fist, but in the end she looked away and did nothing.

Hull boomed, “analysis complete.”

Jolting awake, Jennifer’s eyes scanned the room wondering why all the bullies had suddenly disappeared. But that had been several years ago. She was here, now, in the lighthouse, surrounded by bright screens and cameras and all manner of instruments. She was safe. She had asked Hull to analyze the blood on the blade Kaya had left. Peering at the time it seemed he’d finished faster than she’d expected. “Already?”

“Affirmative,” the data – a long sequence of DNA – began scrolling on a monitor in front of her. “Matches no known organism.”

In truth the stream of letters meant little to Jennifer. It would take a much longer time and some consulting others online to figure out what it all meant, but there were some things that jumped out immediately. “I don’t think it matches anything that could have evolved on this planet,” she said, suddenly very much awake.

“Affirmative. Sample contains six unnatural base pairs.”

“Fascinating,” Jenn scrolled, the monitor lighting up her eyes. All life on Earth was made up of four pairs, so she – or rather Kaya – could well have discovered something entirely Alien in origin. Yet something didn’t add up – despite the extra pairs, the overall sequence was surprisingly compact. “It’s almost too neat.”

“There is an additional anomaly,” Hull hovered down from the murky depths of the lighthouse, “a string of two repeating nucleotides that would appear to have no function.”

The anomalous sequence appeared on higher monitor, isolated from the rest. A row of two letters repeating seemingly at random one hundred and twenty eight times. “Maybe a signature?” Jennifer thought aloud. “Try turning it into binary.” Hull did so:

01001010 01101111 01101110 01100001 01110100 01101000 01100001 01101110 00100000 01000001 01101001 01110010 01101000 01100001 01110010 01110100

“Translate to text,” Jennifer suggested, and Hull did. Chair legs screeched as they slid backwards, Jennifer standing from her desk. Her legs became as if the bones were pulled out, bending like rubber before giving out and she collapsed, questions buzzing around her skull. She had waited so long, only just accepted they were gone, and now this? She drew herself into a ball, muttering miserably, “what did he do?”

Hull hovered lower, scanning the crumpled woman with his green eye. “Ma’am?”

“How did he do it? It’s just not possible. Not then. A bacterium would be one thing, but this – this is something else…”

Having no arm with which to lift her, Hull simply tilted one of his fins. “Ma’am?”

Jenn balled her fist, face taut as she slammed it into a drawer, “of all the reckless, irresponsible…!”

“Miss Jennifer?”

She looked into the green light, it seeming to soothe her somewhat. “I’m sorry,” she exhaled, her hand finding the top of the desk to pull herself up. “None of that matters now. We have to assume now that everything Kaya said was true,” Jenn winced, “and I turned her away. That’s not who I am.” But now they had the problem of having to find her. “When you scanned her, did you get the ID of her phone?”

“Affirmative.”

“So can you find it?”

“Accessing network. Please stand by,” as Hull did that, Jennifer began to pace, unanswered questions still swirling inside her, but now joined by doubts. What help could she possibly be anyway? She wasn’t strong. She couldn’t fight – she was a puny blonde girl with a computer. Perhaps she should go to the police? The army? But why should any of them listen to her? There were too many questions for which she had no answer. “I have a location,” Hull told her, meaning that time had about run out for her to make a decision.

“The van?” She asked.

“Upgrades are not yet complete.”

She could have stayed here at least a while longer, safe and secure in her fortress, letting the rest of the world take care of itself. It wasn’t like the world had ever done much to help her. And yet, there was one powerful urge that to deny would be to deny every atom of her being – questions that needed answers, and for every minute there were none more lives could be lost. And what had she told Hull life was? She had to make a change as well. “There’s no more time,” she said, “we’ll just have to work on them as we go.”

Jennifer donned a sky-blue jacket, a tool belt, her big boots that at least made her feel a tiny bit more powerful, and with them marched to the garage. As twilight set in the doors creaked open, motors whirred and purred as a silver van rolled out and a moment later was speeding away from the lighthouse toward Irongate.

*****

Lumina Capriaestige, despite living in a humble bungalow with converted attic on Irongate’s fringe, was somewhat infamous. Decades ago she had been a TV psychic, bringing people news from beyond the grave or helping with all manner of problem, confidence in her abilities substituting for qualifications. Curiously the show rarely followed up on those given a reading, astute observers noting that whether the news Lumina brought was good or bad largely depended on her mood. When Sayuri knocked on the door with Kaya in tow, Lumina’s mood could be best described as grumpy.

After some whispered negotiation Sayuri convinced her to let them in. Kaya hadn’t resisted being brought here, being not fully awake. Everything seemed fuzzy and unreal, until her phone vibrated in her pocket. It was charged. Weird – she had a memory of it being completely dead. But she wasn’t taking calls. Moments later she was smacked in the face by incense, bringing things into sharper focus. She was shepherded into a front room filled with dusty bookshelves, red and gold cushions and rugs, curtains, old furniture like a Victorian parlor. There were crystal balls, wicker pentagrams dangling here and there, as well as the incense and scented candles. The room was cozy. Warm. Nice. Like stepping into pagan Christmas.

The Madame herself needed to prepare, leaving them to soak up the ambiance. The sun had crept over the horizon when Lumina hobbled back in, back bowed over her walking cane. She wore a woolen knitted shawl like she’d walked through a giant spider web and had pink, fluffy hair like candy-floss. Her glittery make-up rather belied the obvious annoyance she felt being disturbed by the people she’d insisted sit cross-legged on the rug as she sat by a table wriggling her fingers about a crystal ball, eyes rolling back into her head as she began to chant in tongues.

By now Kaya was mostly lucid apart from a little buzzing. She heard someone next to her whisper, “how much did you pay for this again?”

Although the question hadn’t been directed at Kaya she answered, “you didn’t have to come, Neil.”

Kaya was sandwiched between Neil and Sayuri, the later of whom put a hand on Kaya’s shoulder to ask, “are you alright?”

“No,” Kaya sighed, blinking away the remaining cobwebs. “I think I’m half-left.”

“Wow – you take care of that joke. It’s an antique.”

Neil sighed, “she sounds back to normal to me. So why are we…?”

“TshtshtshtshtshTSH!” Lumina – eyes back round where they should be – frowned furiously at them. “No chit-chat!” She rasped, “I must tune my mind to a higher plane to see answers clearly. You will speak only to answer my questions, understood?”

Like a class of restless children the three on the rub muttered, “sorry.”

Swiping her stick, the old woman creaked to her feet and hobbled over to poke Kaya. “So, you believe you have seen a fae?”

Now that almost an entire day had passed, Kaya was far less certain. Maybe because of the dark, and the raining, her imagination had filled in a lot of details. But she certainly had been chased by a person or thing that had murderous intent. “I saw something,” she sighed, “I’m not sure what it was.”

“Yet you gave it a name, yes? After you saw it? Must have been a reason for that.”

“I don’t know,” Kaya shrugged, “guess I just play a lot of fantasy games.”

Lumina hmmmed and frowned, unclear whether she wasn’t happy with Kaya’s answers or just disapproved of gaming. “Fae can take many forms, from small as a mouse to big as a house! Describe it to me. First, where did you see it?”

“It was sitting in a tree.”

“Hmmmm. Yes,” Lumina sagely nodded, “they are known to conceal themselves in such places. What did it look like?”

“Human size, but covered in some rough looking armor, like bark.”

“Must have been a forest spirit. There is no doubt that you saw was a fae!” Madame Lumina raised her stick to poke Kaya several more times. “And you have offended it with your careless looking!”

“Ow!” Kaya rubbed her arm, “so, what? These things are like guys who hang around bars looking to fight anyone who glances at them?”

“They are fierce guardians of their privacy. You cast your gaze where it does not belong and now they will hunt you until they blind you! Or worse.”

The dead man had been missing his eyes, Kaya recalled, so maybe. But why would creatures who had hidden for thousands of years be revealed now? Why her? The missing kids – were they connected? But that had only started recently as well.

But while Kaya may have been having doubts, Lumina never did. “You must appease them,” she stated, “usually an offering – food or other valuables – left on your porch.”

“Yeah,” Kaya sighed, “I don’t have a porch.”

“Outside your door wherever you live.”

“Yeah, that’s – the thing kind of trashed my home.”

Lumina’s nostrils flared, it taking all her will to resist cracking Kaya across the skull. “Well,” she puffed, “since it appears you are completely useless and can’t do anything, I shall prepare a protection spell. Wait here!” She commanded, hobbling through a door to the kitchen.

Neil and Sayuri leaned back on their elbows, Neil whispering, “is that going to cost extra?”

“Why’s it bother you?” Sayuri retorted. “I’m the one paying, and it’s for her.”

Kaya pinched her nose and sighed, “he’s got a point – I feel like Tangina is more interested in convincing me of what I saw so she can sell some shit than she is in actually getting to the bottom of whatever the hell is going on.”

“Oh hey,” Sayuri again put a hand on to reassure, “just go with it, okay? Maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Sure,” Kaya knew Sayuri believed she was helping. Who knew – maybe even Lumina did as well. Besides, not like Kaya had any place else to be, and the parlor was so warm and nice. Her phone started vibrating again, not recognizing the caller. It could have been The Dibbles trying to find her. As cozy as it was she couldn’t stay here, so maybe she should answer. The decision however was knocked from her hands by Lumina’s cane.

“You think these devices can protect you?!” The Madame rasped, “you put them away!”

“Sorry…”

*****

Night had by now completely fallen, but one creature still stirred by the side of the road, whiskers twitching excitedly as it spied one last scrap it could take before retiring – a nut, just lying out in the middle of the road just begging to be snatched. And not one of those loud, metal monstrosities in sight.

The squirrel hopped out onto the asphalt then checked both ways. Nothing. It hopped and checked again. Still nothing. He was almost there – another hop and the prize would be his. The squirrel froze – this sound was less familiar. Not the roaring and rumbling it was used to, but more of whir. When he saw the lights the monster was almost upon him, the black roller of death heading straight at him. The squirrel could have ran but remained frozen, the fate of so many of his brethren flashing before his eyes. Such hubris he had to think it couldn’t happen to him. So now, this was it. The roller turned and the underside of the monster swooshed straight over the squirrel’s head. For whatever reason the monster had spared him, even leaving him with his nut.

Inside the van Jennifer felt only a slight judder as Hull changed then corrected their course. Dangling around her were various boards and wires, two of which the exposed copper ends of she was twisting together before removing a screwdriver from between her teeth and calling to the driver, “can you go faster?”

From the middle of the dashboard a green circle answered, “there is a speed limit in effect.”

Jennifer supposed she would feel a bit silly if her mad rush to the rescue was stopped by traffic police. Really not a good idea to let police see all the things she had in here at all. She resumed concentrating on modifications until Hull spoke again, “Miss Jennifer – I have lost the signal.”

A tablet lay on the seat next to Jennifer displaying a map of the town. Due to several unexplained outages the power company were carefully monitoring the grid, and now a black circle was growing around the neighborhood Kaya was last in. Just as she said – everything electrical was just stopping for seemingly no reason. “Forget the speed limit – go faster,” likewise Jennifer also began to hurry her work, “when we get there we’ll have to circle round. Try to triangulate the exact source of the interference.”

*****

Kaya was still sat cross-legged on the rug, but now she was surrounded by a circle of salt and oatmeal which Lumina assured her was a proven fae repellent. She asked, “how is it proven?”

Lumina squinted at her, then snorted, “well I’ve never seen one round here.”

“Hey,” Neil said, but the others were preoccupied.

“Okay,” Kaya nodded, not assured, “but you know I can’t stay in here indefinitely.”

“Nor would I wish you to,” Lumina snapped at her, “so just shut up and let me work my magic.” She proceeded to begin bobbing and chanting, but was soon interrupted again by Neil.

“Hey!” He raised his voice just enough to get everyone’s attention, then pointing the window he said, “the street lights have all gone out.”

The room they were in was still illuminated by Lumina’s candles and seemed unchanged, except there was a sound all of them had tuned out when they entered but Kaya noticed only now that it was silent – the clock had stopped. It must have ran on a battery. Then, confirming Kaya’s fears, Sayuri looked up confusedly from her own phone. “Weird,” she said, “could have sworn this was fully charged before I left.”

Kaya sprung to her feet, checking hers. Once again all she held in her hand was a dead, black mirror. “It’s what happened before…”

Furious, Lumina attempted to beat Kaya back down with her cane insisting, “just a brown-out! Happens all the time round here. Now sit back down!”

Kaya didn’t even react to the beating – she knew there was something far worse coming. Above them, something smashed in the attic. “I don’t think so,” Kaya said.

“Was that the window?” Sayuri asked. Now everyone was on their feet, staring in anticipation up at the ceiling. No other sounds came. No thumping or footsteps. After a moment, Neil picked up a poker from around the fireplace. The fireplace was fake and the stick likely not much of a weapon, but it gave him enough courage to venture into the hall, hand signaling for the rest of them to stay where they were. They did however follow him to the door. “You hear that?” Sayuri asked again. “Sounds like whispers.”

Sure enough the hall seemed to be filled with the sound of impossibly distant whispering or chattering, although they were all unable to make out any actual words. Her face visibly paling even beneath her make-up, Lumina rasped, “you must have really pissed them off.” Likely the truest thing she had ever said.

Neil crept down the hall, poker stick raised and ready but he found nothing to swing it at. He couldn’t find the source of the whispers. But it found him. His shirt ripped, blood seeping from a gash that just appeared. He swung, connecting only with air, then another slash and gash on his thigh. He turned, hurriedly limping back toward the parlor, Kaya and Sayuri reaching out urging him to grab them. But Lumina brought down her cane, batting their arms aside so she could slam and shut the door then with surprising strength shoved the two younger women back across the room toward the other door to the kitchen. It was perhaps just due to their panic and confusion that they didn’t really resist, and before they could could protest the hall door shattered, erupting in a shower of wood and splinters.

Neil might have been alive when he hit the floor, but then before them all his glasses cracked and his eyes burst. Kaya flashed through the memory of her previous, recalling that the creature only appeared because of the rain. There was no rain in here, but she did spy a very full ashtray so flung it above where Neil now lay. The ash cloud spread and descended, and then there it is – the same creature that had attacked Kay the night before, now crouched over Neil’s body. Perhaps realizing it had been unveiled, the creature dropped its cloak to reveal its chitinous armor. She had no way of knowing if it was the exact same one – this one had both its eyes, but for all she knew they could regrow them in no time. It must have been confident that the three women posed no threat to it, as it only slowly stood up.

All they could do was run, Kaya thought, backing herself and Sayuri into the kitchen. But Lumina screamed, flinging iron nails and a horseshoe at the thing. The old woman had snapped. All her life she had claimed to have knowledge and insight into a world hidden from others, of beings never seen by the eyes of the men. But now one was actually here all she could do was uselessly fling nails at it. The creature at least seemed bemused by it, Kaya using the distraction to push Sayuri through the kitchen and out the back door. There was nothing they could do for Lumina – doubtful it was possible for even the healthy young women to outrun these things, yet alone an elderly smoker.

As they left, Lumina flailed and hurled curses at the creature as it stepped across her salt and oatmeal circle. It clamped its hands on her skull, lifted her, then with a sickening squish the wailing and flailing ceased.

Kaya and Sayuri just ran, climbing and jumping over a fence through another garden. Kaya paused only to grab an aluminum baseball bat while Sayuri tapped on the window of another, but Kaya took her arm telling her to just keep running. They had to survive first before they could mourn anything, although Kaya had no idea how far they would have to run before they were safe or if there even was such a thing.

“Wait!” Sayuri cried as they ran out onto the road, “my car.”

“It won’t start!” Kaya told her. “Just keep running!” And so they did. They ran and they ran until their lungs and muscles ached and they could run more, running through a gate into what looked a school parking lot and collapsing behind a low brick wall.

For moment they sat there catching their breath, Sayuri saying, “I thought you were just scared.”

“I am,” Kaya panted back.

“I mean – I thought it was your imagination.”

“Yeah,” Kaya had hoped that too. She still did. If only she could wake up and find it was all dream. “You know Neil – he could be a little puffed up, but he wasn’t a bad guy. He gave me a chance, and I – I was a total ass.”

Sayuri had only the energy to faintly nod and smile sympathetically. “I paid Lumina to just make-up some mumbo jumbo. Thought it would make you feel safer.”

Kaya sagged, “I’m sorry. It’s my fault.”

“Don’t be dumb. How is it your fault.”

“I shouldn’t have come back to town. Should have just kept going past the lighthouse. They were only after me, but now,” Kaya looked remorsefully at her friend, “I’m sorry.”

“Those things, whatever they are, are out there. They might have come for all of us eventually anyway, so just – we’ll figure it out, okay? Do you think we’re safe?”

Kaya glanced about, then, inhaling and loosening her shoulders she said, “no. The powers still out.”

Across the parking lot a door opened and a man – presumably a janitor – stepped out, holding up some kind of gas lamp. “Hey you!” He sternly called out on spotting the two women.

“Get back inside!” Sayuri tried to shout. The man shuddered and froze for a moment, eyes wide. Then, breath slowly exiting his mouth, he slumped to his knees then his side. The creature – as seemed to be its custom – fell on him to pluck out his eyes before turning its gaze to them.

“All right!” Kaya thumped the end of her baseball bat on the ground, using it to raise herself to her feet. “Let’s do this, Treebeard. Come on!” She challenged with far more confidence than she felt, hitting the ground a few more times before battering up. As she did so the creature calmly raised an arm, a blade appearing to grow out of it. “Yeah – nice trick. Come on. Let’s go.” Then it did the same with the other arm. “Well now, that’s just cheating.”

The creature slowly advanced, apparently aware that it need not rush, indeed perhaps relishing the hopeless struggle of its victims. Kaya had no idea what it felt, but when it turned its head in response to the sound of an engine and headlights bearing down on it she was sure it was surprised, as was she.

A silver van screeched through the gates, braking as its front collided with the creature sending it flying back. It twisted through the air, landing on its feet as the van squealed and spun about with the side door sliding open, some black cylindrical device hanging out. The creature pounced at the machine, only for the air to distort as the cylinder blasted a wave again sending the creature flying, this time through the bricks of the nearby building burying it under rubble.

Kaya helped up Sayuri before inching round the van to see who their savior was. First she saw leather boots hop out, then as she rounded the vehicle she saw gray tights, light blue skirt, tool belt, light blue jacket, all worn by a pale young blonde women wearing goggles and holding what looked like a super-size taser. “Jennifer?” Kaya gasped.

But Jenn ignored her, instead raising her weapon to where the creature was buried. “What are you?” She asked, seeming both curious and angered by it. “Who made you?!” She demanded. Before she could get too close Kaya grabbed her arm, Jenn gasping sharply as she snapped back round.

“It could still be very dangerous,” Kaya explained then urged, “let’s just go. Before our friend wakes up.”

Although she obviously wanted answers, Jenn sighed and reluctantly nodded. “All right,” she said, then peered at Sayuri – a person she was unfamiliar with – before nervously continuing, “Um, the vortex canon takes about twenty minutes to recharge so let’s all get on board now, please. Thank you.”

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