Irongate – Chapter Two

The local news told nothing of those events taking place under the cloak of night, instead focusing on the studio’s new cat for a while then after that biting report going to a construction project that had been going on just outside town.

The towers will contain millions of tiny synthetic organisms designed by bio-engineers at Stag Corp,” the reporter said, “that will feed on greenhouse gases and other pollution, producing only harmless byproducts such as oxygen and water. Working with Space Agencies, this technology may one day allow human beings to explore and settle on far off worlds, but has practical applications here on Earth as well. It is not without some opposition, however, as protesters question what will happen should these ELF’s – or Engineered Life Forms – get free to interact with the natural eco-system…

Kaya flicked back one of her dyed red pony-tails, wrinkling her nose like a stranger had just shown themselves in to take a big dump on her floor. “So,” she snorted, “these numnuts screw us all over for decades, and now expect us all to applaud them for finally fixing the mess that they made? Their solution? More things they can patent!” Her head shook scornfully, then her hazel eyes fixed on a nearby spectator. “Tell ya it won’t be long before they’re charging a thousand dollars for bottle of clean air. One day,” she grimly nodded, “there’s going to be a revolution. There’ll be riots, blood, brains blown out and splattered over walls – we’ll see how the one per cent like its them in the red. Anyway,” she sighed and leaned next to the till, “what did you need?”

On the other side of the counter, a tiny girl in a yellow dress blinked up at her. “I-I,” she stammered nervously, little hands holding up a flute. “I’d like to buy this please.”

“Sure.”

As that sale went through Kaya couldn’t help but feel her supervisor, Neil, gawping at her. Neil took his job selling badly tuned rubbish to children very seriously which meant he and Kaya were destined never to get along. She shrugged, “what?”

“What is wrong with you?” Neil frowned from behind his little round sunglasses.
“I’m a product of a society governed by a distant and dispassionate ruling elite only concerned with profit.”

“Be that as it may,” Neil sighed, “you should maybe tailor your material to your audience.”
“You’re never too young to learn the harsh truths of this world.”

The little girl, taking her flute and change, nodded in avid agreement with Neil. “You got issues, lady.”

Kaya responded by leaning across the counter squinting, “when your dreams are crushed and you find yourself working here, maybe you’ll have issues too.” The girl, wisely, chose not to engage, taking her belongings and hastening to the exit. “Hey!” Kaya called after her, “you were supposed to get a voucher! Ten per cent off violin strings!”

“I don’t play violin!”

“Got any brothers or sisters? They’re a great murder weapon…” but the girl wasn’t interested, walking out the store and leaving Kaya holding a slip of paper. “Rude.”

Neil was of course unimpressed, but exhaled slowly demonstrating patience like that of a parent for a particularly boisterous child. “You’ve got to take this job seriously, or,” he tapped the chain on his hip, “you’re never going to be trusted with these.”

“Oh my,” Kaya gasped theatrically, “could it be – The Keys of Responsibility? Truly I am not worthy! Is it even okay for low-paid scum like me to look on them?”

“You knuckle down, put in the hours, and maybe, one day, you’ll get to lock up.”

“Great,” Kaya rolled her eyes. “Can I touch them?”

Neil batted her arm and wiggling fingers away. “Customers,” he nodded. Indeed a man and what was presumably his son had entered the store. “Why don’t you go and try being helpful for a change?” Kaya really didn’t feel like moving, but Neil urged her on, “snap to it, comrade, go!”

The truth was, Kaya knew she was kind of being a jerk. But it was this place – it was like it was designed to sap any joy or enthusiasm she once had for music out of her. Or maybe the problem was just in her. She didn’t know, and the not knowing was frustrating and aggravating and every hour she spent stocking shelves or answering stupid questions grew longer and longer. Still, she had to remind herself that her only other skills were the reason karma was tormenting her so. She had to bite her tongue, tuck her purple t-shirt into her jeans, put on her best smile, and get through it. “Can I help you, sir?”

The man, balding and sweating, returned a toothy grin. “Thirteenth birthday, see,” he said, “and boy says he wants to learn guitar.”

“Say no more,” Kaya said, not keen on hearing their biographies. Wasn’t like she hadn’t heard the same story before. “We have some excellent guitars for beginners over here.” She was soon performing a demonstration, it being the only part of this job she enjoyed, a wall of electric sound shielding her from the outside world, it’s waves cleansing her of stress if only for a moment.

The father at least seemed appreciative of her melody. Very appreciative. Kaya’s eyes widened upon feeling something touch her butt, turning to meet those of the slimy little man asking something about lessons. But before she got a chance to respond or question the boy started to moan.

“I don’t want a cheap guitar,” he pointed, “what about that one?”

‘That one’ was mahogany with maple neck running through and custom pickups. If they paid Kaya more she might have bought for herself, but, “that’s really for pros. If you’re just learning you want one of these…”

“I want that one!” The boy whined.

“Right,” Kaya nodded, her resolve to keep biting her tongue already forgotten. “I don’t want to sell you that one.”

“But that’s the one I want!”

Kaya turned on him like a lioness whose tail had been tugged, hissing, “you couldn’t take proper care of it!”

“How would you know!?”

“Why are you doing this? You think girls are going to like you? ‘Cause trust me – nothing you do is gonna make up for your disgusting personality.”

“Hey now,” the father stepped in with his hands raised, “you know, money really isn’t a problem…”

That only infuriated Kaya more – he was probably the type who thought he could just buy his way out of any sin. She took him by the arm and led him away to whisper, “listen, bud, I’m trying to do you a favor. You really want to spend that much on something he’s just gonna play with for three days then put away forever when he doesn’t already sound like Hendrix?”

The father started scratching his head, “well…”

The boy asked, “Who’s Hendrix?”

He did not get a guitar that day, as shortly after the store was closed by the police.

*****

Kaya Cade didn’t believe in fate. She didn’t believe in Tarot Cards, or Astrology, or in sweet messages printed on confectionery. Yet, some outcomes did just feel inevitable. Perhaps not written in the stars, but some combination of parents, genes, environment, and other influences, all conspiring to bring about one inexorable end. Perhaps an intellect far greater than hers could trace those myriad threads, see how they all intertwined and unravel where they led. Kaya was confident no such power existed now, leaving her just a hapless passenger being taken for the ride of her life. Or at least to the cop car.

“So you see, Officer Dibbles,” she tried to explain as they turned into the parking lot, “I’m really just a victim of causality. Slimy creep like that comes near me? Of course I’m going to punch him.”

Sergeant Chauncey Delainy, or Chance, halted with one fist clenched on his hip and the other soothing his weary brow. “And now you’re under arrest,” he said, “that’s also causality.”

“For a little thing like that? C’mon guys-”

“He says,” Sergeant Francis Daramy walked around with his little notebook. He was shorter and stockier and always maintained a far more cuddly appearance than his disheveled partner. “You tried to make him swallow an entire trumpet.”

“That is not true,” Kaya insisted, leaning back on the brick wall to the side of B-Naturals – her now former place of employment. “It was a trombone. And only up to the second slide – he’s blowing it all out of proportion.”

Exasperatedly, Chance asked, “did he do anything to provoke you?”

“He…” Kaya tapped her foot and scrunched her face, but now she tried to remember it wasn’t very clear – like it was all clouded by a red mist and she’d been a creature acting purely on instinct. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Know what I think?” Chance sighed, “I think you wanted to be fired and were just looking for an excuse to do something that would give them no choice.”

Ridiculous – was Kaya’s first thought. She could have just quit any time she wanted, couldn’t she? But she’d never quit at anything. She’d been fired, thrown out of places, chased by clowns with baseball bats, but she’d never been a quitter. Maybe that was her way of quitting? In any case, Chance took her uncharacteristic silence as proof he was onto something.

“Jesus, Cade,” he groaned, “what are you, twenty-one now? You can’t keep acting like a teenager.”

Kaya broke her silence, sulkily muttering, “says the thirty-something who collects toys-” He gave her look so she corrected, “sorry – ‘action figures’.”

“You know why I hate kids?”

“Er,” Kaya thought, “you think they’ve evolved and have mutant powers?”

“Besides the obvious. It’s that they don’t think ahead – always acting on how they feel in the moment. And that’s what I’m saying to you is just think ahead. About consequences and how your actions affect other people, and yourself.”

Daramy nodded. “You remind me of a cousin I had in Sierra Leone,” he said. “He was a rebel with no cause as well. Always fighting, but never knowing who or why he was fighting. His life lacked any direction.”

After a solemn pause, Kaya asked, “and so, did he find one? Did he figure it out?”

“No,” Daramy shook his head, “he got in a fight with a leopard one day and lost.”

“Okay, well, that was completely unhelpful. Thank you.” Kaya had noticed Chance bailing out on Francis’ story, chattering with someone through their car radio. Meanwhile, she had seen a notice pinned on the wall next to her head. “Speaking of kids – another one is missing?”

A pained expression sunk into Daramy’s usually jovial features. “Seems to be happening more frequently these last few months.”

“And you’ve no clues or anything?”

“We did find one girl, just wandering the woods by herself, but she has not been very communicative so far. Then there was a man who was convinced his wife and son had been replaced by Changelings – he thought killing them was the only way to get his real family back. I-” he paused, only now remembering he was talking to a civilian. “I should not be telling you these things. Just stay away from the woods.”

“And don’t post anything online,” Chance ordered, having apparently finished his radio chat and overheard the last bit of theirs. “Last thing these kids and their families need is a bunch of amateur investigators wasting time with false leads and promises. You understand me?”

Kaya hadn’t any intention of starting conspiracy theories right now, so she mock saluted, “sure thing, boss.”

“Now get of here, Cade,” Chance said, “you give me a headache.”

“So I’m not under arrest?”

“The guy’s not actually made any charges. So go.”

Kaya bounded from the wall, “did something come up?”

“It’s none of your business,” he kept shooing her, “go home.”

“Yeah, yeah. See you around dibs,” the only place Kaya had to go right now was to her little green hatchback that was also in the parking lot. She called him Greenback, and for the time being he was her home. While the dibbles drove away she started rifling through one of the many shoe-boxes piled on the seats around her that contained her whole life looking for a phone charger. A moments quiet was enough to allow her to think about why and when had she turned onto the path that inevitably led to being angry and miserable. As if the universe were answering her thoughts, she found a small, sharpened piece of stone. She didn’t know why she kept it – just a souvenir of an ‘adventure’ she’d had as a child. Her friend back then – Jennifer – had given it to her, saying it would keep her safe from evil magic and curses. Hadn’t exactly done a bang up job. But Jennifer had called it a ‘fairy arrow’, and there were other things about that night, fuzzy now in her memory, she now questioned if they could have been real.

With a turn of a key Greenback spluttered to life. It wasn’t much, but at least they had a destination.

*****

Summer had ended. Now the skies were gray, the leaves brown, and from here on the days would only grow shorter and darker still. Kaya had ignored Sergeant Daramy’s warning, taking Greenback out to a clearing in the woods. She wasn’t one hundred per cent sure what instinct had brought her back; maybe she just wanted to return to the last place she remembered being happy – the site of her last great adventure. The clearing looked a different now – smaller – and the last time she’d been here there had been stars above. All of her life was here in the car, so after some rummaging she had a screen on her lap with an old hard drive hanging from its side.

“You’re looking at the past,” a girl inside the computer said. Jennifer, her voice made a little tinny by the machine’s speaker, but Kaya could her as clear as if she were in the car next to her. This would have been over ten years ago, when twilight still lasted forever. They’d ridden out here on their bicycles to find a fairy circle, then clasped hands and swung each other around until falling from exhaustion to look up at the twinkles in the sky.

Kaya’s younger self also lay on her back, leg kicking to a beat only she ever heard, face scrunched as she responded, “huh?” Her hair had been brown back then.

“The stars,” pretty blonde Jennifer answered, one arm already reaching for them. “They’re so far away that the light from them takes years to reach us, so what we see now is really how they were a long time ago. We wouldn’t even know the Sun had exploded for eight minutes.”

Little Kaya bolted upright, gasping, “the Sun has exploded!?”

Jenn seemed to catch some of the panic, flustered and confused as she too gasped, “What? No! I don’t think so. At least not for a very long time, probably.”

“I don’t get it,” little Kaya relaxed again. “Why are you so weird?”

“It’s not weird,” huffed Jennifer, “it’s science.”

“It’s freaky. Remember you made Cass cry because you said her cat was a zombie?”

“I said there was a fifty-fifty chance it was alive or dead,” Jenn sighed, “I just wanted her to let the poor thing out of the box. It was just a thing I read.”

“Didn’t you also read we’d see fairies out here?”

As the twilight dream came to an end, both girls had been disappointed. Jennifer’s book, ‘The Hidden People’, had indeed promised that being in the circle at twilight would allow them to glimpse the fae realm. Alas, the only lights they saw were the stars above and traffic lights from Irongate in the valley below. “I guess not everything in books is true,” Jennifer conceded. “That’s why we have to test them. Maybe the camera saw something?”

Big red Kaya watching the scene on her laptop hadn’t yet seen anything unusual, cracking open a beer as the girls on screen lay in the circle a while longer. “We’re not little kids anymore,” her younger self said. “Maybe we should think about doing things a little more, you know, normal.”

Jennifer’s nose wrinkled, “that doesn’t sound like fun.”

“It could be; music, parties, games.”

“We do those things anyway.”

“But I mean with other people. It’s,” young Kaya chewed as she searched for the right word, “it’s networking.”

“Networking?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t get it.” Of course Jennifer would only understand that word in the context of machines and computers. Big Kaya chided her younger self for being a dumbass – she was never going to have it better than she had then – and waited for Jennifer to finally stand as the last of the Sun’s rays vanished. “We should get back,” she said, “dad’s probably looking for us.”

Little Kaya groaned having just gotten comfortable, “Do we have to?” She was never in a hurry to get home. Still wasn’t.

“We should have been back hours ago,” Jenn explained, holding out a hand to help Kaya up, “I’m probably going to be grounded again.” Unlike with other fathers, Jennifer never had cause to be fearful of her dad’s threats.

Young Kaya took the hand, but waited a moment to gaze up at Jenn with her fair skin and hair, almost silver-white now in the moonlight. “You look like a fairy,” she said. Jennifer obviously didn’t know how to respond to that, blushing nervously until Kaya was up and she went to pack away her book and other things.

This was the part big Kaya had been waiting for. As Jennifer picked up her backpack there was faint noise that reminded Kaya of hearing a tap left running in the bathroom at night. Then a gust of wind forced Jennifer’s dress to wrap tightly around her body pulling her backwards a few steps. Only there was no wind – Kaya rewound and played the video again to be sure, and indeed the trees and bushes behind Jennifer hadn’t moved. It was more like something had run past her very fast. Something that neither they or the camera could see.

Jennifer at the time knew something was off as well, her blue eyes fixing on the shrubs and undergrowth. In particular there was a gap where branches touched to create a door, a portal to an inky black realm beyond. Before young Kaya registered what was happening, Jenn had already gotten her flashlight and was sticking her head in.

“What are you doing?” Little Kaya ran to her friend and the thorny arch, but Jenn was through and searching the undergrowth.

“There’s something here,” she explained.

“What thing?”

“I don’t know, but it whispered to me. It said my name…”

“Okay, whatever it is it sounds creepy. Get back here!”

Unable to see anything, it seemed Jenn was going to comply. Then the ground beneath her shook. Jenn struggled to keep her footing, but then she was standing over nothing and being swallowed by the Earth, Kaya lunging to catch her but just too late. Young Kaya was then on her knees staring into a gaping hole, crying desperately, “Jenn! Jenn Air! Are you okay!?”

It was a minute before a faint plaintiff echo replied, “I’m okay! I think I’m in a cave.”
Irongate had started its life as a mining town, with shafts and tunnels as well as natural caves scattered all over the surrounding hills and valleys. Most were abandoned now as the town’s economy changed to technology and a university, leaving behind just a few remnants of its past, like the few elderly folks that still recalled the ‘good old days’ when most of their friends were crushed or choked by natural gas – while bemoaning the youth for not wanting to literally put their lives on the line everyday to help a billionaire fill his liqueur cabinet.

But big Kaya was digressing. Her younger self out of concern for her friend decided – without much thought – that she couldn’t leave Jenn alone and jumped into the hole after her. The camera however had been left in the clearing, so to confirm if what she’d seen down there was real she was going to have to leave the car and find another way into the cave – she was too big now to fit down the slide.

She remembered back then that, after bouncing down the tunnel with flecks of dirt tumbling all about her, Jennifer had jumped out the way just in time to avoid getting kicked in the face. Kaya had landed triumphantly on her feet, but Jenn seemed less than impressed.

“What are you doing?” She’d asked.

“What do you mean?” Little Kaya was genuinely surprised by her reaction. “I’m helping you get out of here.”

Luckily Jenn still had her flashlight or they wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. She illuminated the hole they’d fallen through, nearly a foot above their heads, asking, “suppose that’s the only way out?” Sure enough, even if they could have gotten up there the slide was too steep and the sides too loose to climb all the way back to the surface. It was a rare occasion when Jenn lost her temper but she did then, repeatedly slapping Kaya’s arm, hissing “idiot!”

But Kaya had always been the stronger of the two, easily shoving Jenn to the ground. “Relax,” she’d urged her friend, “there are loads of tunnels around here. Bound to be another way out.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. Gangs use them to hide all their stuff from police.”

Jennifer had eyed her a little suspiciously, “how do you know that?”

“Networking,” young Kaya exclaimed with her finger pointing up. “You can learn a lot from people you know. Not everything is in books.”

Although reluctant to put her trust in the sayings of ‘people’ Jennifer had seen they had no choice regardless, so that night they set about exploring the caves for an exit. What they found was another world. As they’d ventured forth, it soon became apparent that there was no need for Jenn’s flashlight as ahead of them the tunnel lit up. Thinking they’d found the way out they ran, and when they burst out the tunnel’s mouth they were in a forest. But not like the forest they’d started in – the source of light was a forest made of luminescent mushrooms of all sizes, all glowing in various hues of pink and blue, all nestled in a cavern the size of a village.

The girls joined hands, dumbstruck until Kaya exhaled, “was this in the book?”

Jenn shook her head. “I think we have to go through it,” she’d said.

There had been a steep slope between them and the strange effervescent forest floor which they tackled the same way they’d tackled stairs when they were even younger – bouncing down it on their butts. It was then that Kaya cut her hand on a sharp, triangular piece of stone, spitting and swearing as the burning sensation spread across her palm. Fortunately, Jennifer had been prepared, coming to her with plasters from her backpack.
“A fairy arrow,” Jenn had said upon inspecting the stone. “Good find. It’s supposed to protect the holder from evil magics – here,” she offered it to Kaya who, after all, had found it and was still trying to shake out the pain.

Little Kaya pocketed it in her jeans. “You really think there might be fairies here?”

“I don’t know,” Jennifer admitted, “but, we’ll find out together.”

Some of the smaller mushrooms formed a thick carpet across the cavern floor that squelched beneath their feet, while some others grew to the size of a tree. Some were thin and tall, others wide enough to lie on. Jennifer fished her book out of her backpack to compare, but none of the illustrations in there were as bright and vivid as this. Young Kaya began thinking of her stomach and eyeing the bio-luminescent fungi like candy. “Think we could eat these things?” She asked. “They could be, like, magic or something.”

“Best not,” Jennifer answered. The fungi covered the walls and ceiling too, creating the illusion of another starry canvas. Awed Jennifer was taking it all in, not seeing the thing creeping behind her. Kaya did, Jenn gasping as she was yanked by the arm away from a sofa sized mushroom, dropping her book. Over a fungal seat the thing came crawling – a translucent glass spider as big as their heads, light exploding into a dazzling rainbow as it passed through the creature’s crystalline form. It reared back, pedipalps reaching out as if sensing the girls as Jenn peered and squinted with Kaya making sure she kept a safe distance. Her friend would have wanted to take home and study the damn thing.

“It might have poison,” young Kaya whispered, “come on – let’s go.”

As Jenn was pulled away she remembered her book, breaking free to run back, only to find herself looking at an empty floor. “It’s gone,” she said, perplexed. A search was off the table however, as then the cavern filled with a puffing sound like that of a hot-air balloon. A jet of orange flame licked from the mouth of one of the tunnels, instantly melting all the mushrooms it touched. Running was now in order.

And so they did, sprinting from the gushing flames until they came to a wall which they followed hoping for an exit. They did find another tunnel, but upon rounding the corner the girls screamed and immediately fell back, holding onto each other. Before them was a human figure covered in a silver space suit, a small blue flame flickering by a metal cylinder he brandished. He looked down, the clutching girls reflected in his helmet, then raised a hand as a voice crackled from inside, “Hold! There are kids here!”

A decade later, big Kaya entered the cavern the same way the spaceman had, carrying only a beer can and a lamp. The mushrooms, forest, glass spiders – all gone. All that was here now were cold stone walls and darkness. Kaya had convinced herself that her imagination had exaggerated the things she saw, but there had obviously been a clean-up operation going on here that night. After the girls were found they’d been led outside where more people in space-suits and doctors bustled around vans that bore the logo of Stag Corp. Jennifer fell quiet in the face of so much activity and noise, holding onto Kaya’s arm more tightly – she should have chosen her confidante more wisely. She relaxed when they were taken into a tent with just one of the doctor’s examining them. They paid particular attention to Kaya’s cut, took a blood sample from each of them, then they were left alone until Jenn’s father came to collect them.

Jonathan Airhart had been what you’d expect a scientist to look like; glasses, tweed, minimal amount of hair maintenance. On that night he’d appeared sweaty and exhausted, Kaya assumed out of worry for his daughter. She recalled yet another awkward moment when Jenn ran to hug him while Kaya was left sitting on a fold out table alone, kicking her feet and just staring absently at the corners of the tent. Of course he started to tell her off for disobeying, Jennifer performing a little furtive dance as she apologized and his stern demeanor quickly subsided. The only strange thing about him that night, Kaya recalled, was that he’d swiped the blood samples from the little machine the doctor had placed them in.

“Neither of you has any infection,” he’d said, “we should all be grateful for that, I suppose.”

Then Jennifer asked, “what’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he assured her. Then he took something out of his pocket – a small wood carving of an owl. “I got you a present.” With that, Jennifer seemed to forget about all the strange things they’d seen as she was hypnotized by the image of the silent bird of prey in flight. “Long ago,” her father told, “humans could only dream of what it would be like to fly high above the Earth. They couldn’t just grow wings of their own, but in time would learn to make balloons and planes and rocket ships flying higher than a bird ever could. That’s the power of the human mind – we can turn dreams into reality. But, it doesn’t always turn out exactly how we imagined.”

Jennifer sagely noted, “some dreams are scary.”

“I know,” Jonathan patted her softly on the head, “but we’re all fine now. Let’s get home.”

In the empty cavern in the present, big Kaya watched all this play out through the projector of her mind, but it seemed there really was no other trace here of anything that had happened back then. She couldn’t even ask Jennifer about it – they hadn’t really spoken since shortly after this and Kaya had no idea where she was now. But Jenn was smart – Kaya had no doubt she would have done well, despite her. Or in spite of her. In any case, when the phone rang it was Kaya’s mom.

Kaya put down the lamp, taking a moment to be mildly impressed that she got a signal down here – but then it wasn’t really that deep and it seemed another hole had opened in the ceiling since she was here last. “Hi mom,” she answered, sipping from her can whenever she had to wait for a response. “No, I’m fine… really… uh-huh… yes I’m brushing my teeth. You know I’m twenty-one now, right?” It seemed all she wanted was to check-up on Kaya, then shame her by telling her what all her friends from church and their kids had accomplished. Kaya knew that if she asked, her mother would help her find a place to live, a job, getting all her life in order. Or would try to. Unfortunately, it would mean having to deal with that other asshole she used to live with. “Is that dad?” Her face soured the moment she heard his voice in the background and she began to twist and dig her toe into the ground. “Yeah? Well you tell that bloated, decrepit, piece of human garbage, that I’ll-” Kaya bit her lip, realizing she was only going to create problems for her mom. “Look, I’ll see you soon, okay? Goodbye… love you.”

Kaya placed the phone back in her denim jacket as she began to pace like she could just walk off all the venom she had built up for that man. She couldn’t, so she crushed her beer can and with a snarl threw it across the cavern, gasping in shock and horror as it flew through Jennifer. Of course, she wasn’t really there – it was just a memory.

Coming here had been dumb. There was nothing to see. No revelation, no reconciliation – nothing. She was stupid, and was just going to have to live with that.

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