Each of us were soaked to the bone, but alive. We weren’t out of trouble yet.
Though the water level was still low on the surface, merely up to our ankles, but water was still pouring from the exposed valves running along the streets, even bubbling up from the storm grates that led back underground. Were the sky not completely still and clear under the cloudless cover of night, it might’ve looked like the aftermath of a hurricane.
Totally normal. Not at all surreal. No one had tried to murder us. And I definitely hadn’t just watched my friend turn into a magic tree monster.
“Is that everyone?” Cove asked, glancing around.
Quail nodded grimly. “Except…”
Mwenze fell back forward with a grunt, his knees giving out beneath him. Hart went to his side. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just water-logged… too old for this stuff.”
“We’ll have to get him to higher ground,” Quail said, as he brushed his hair with his fingers. “Think the ship can handle a water landing?”
Kipley shrugged. “Yeah, it’ll come down. I dunno if it’ll go back up again…”
While escaping was a worthy topic of conversation, I found myself perturbed with the relative normalcy with which the others prattled on.
“Uh, hey,” I said. “Quick question?”
They all stopped and turned to me.
“WHAT JUST HAPPENED?” I shouted, throwing my arms out beside me. “So Jane’s a… tree now? Underground? Under water? And is she gonna be… okay?”
For the first time, the others exchanged glances that suggested I wasn’t asking dumb questions for once, like my confusion was justified.
“Oh yeah,” Cove said, bent over pouring water out of his ear. “That’s… a thing that happens.”
“A thing?” I laughed, quietly at first, then loud–almost uncontrollably–I’d lost my shit and I wasn’t getting it back “A… a thing that happens?”
Quail and Kipley exchanged a glance. Being the second oldest and the de facto adults now with Mwenze down and out, even if they weren’t particularly adult-y adults, it seemed they understood I was due an explanation.
“Janey has…” Kipley bit her lip, quite obviously trying to come up with a lie. She locked eyes with Quail, like she was looking for help.
The two of them both spoke at the same time.
Quail cleared his throat, appearing to choose his words extra carefully. “That tree creature comes to her defense when she’s injured, but…”
“It’s not a particularly nice tree,” Kipley continued. “So don’t get any woo-hoo ‘magic whimsy-pimsy elves in mighty the forest’ ideas,” she said, holding her fingers out in front of her and running them through the air.
“Once it sprouts, any nick causes those roots to grow out of control, like so,” Quail said, pointing to the underground stairwell from whence we came. “Great defensive technique, really, but a bit intense.”
“Some tree–that’s amazing!” I scoffed. “Why didn’t she do that sooner?”
Hart waded over toward me, the hair on her body standing straight up from the water. If there were tears in her eyes, they were from anger. “You absolute moron,” she shouted, still coughing a bit. “She’ll die.”
“The parasite requires energy from its host to grow,” Quail explained. “And Jane, unfortunately, is that host.”
Mwenze’s expression was somber, grim.“I’ve never seen it grow that fast…”
“There, there,” Kipley said, consoling him. She wrapped one harm around him. “Janey’s a tough one. She’s come back before, every time so far.”
“We should be fine,” Quail muttered, a fist beneath his chin. “Even in the worst case scenario, this is a satellite, so…not sure about Jane, but yeah, we’ll be fine.”
“What do you mean ‘worst case scenario,’?” Cove asked. “You guys know more about it than you ever said, huh? How much trouble are we in?”
Tension filled the air. Both Quail and Kipley looked away, neither saying anything.
Before anyone could say anything, someone came running from the distance, waving a trident in the air. A familiar pair of perky fen ears bounced in the distance. “Hey! Guys! Guys!”
“Jack?!” Hart jumped up. “You’re okay?”
Behind Jack was a crowd of people — the locals, plowing gingerly through the water. Isi and her mother were among them. They wept as they walked, weary, though the water on the surface was only about ankle-deep. It gurgled from the hatch we’d emerged from, still filling, although not as quickly.
Jack ran straight into Hart with a hug. “Everyone is fine — I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
“What’ve you got that thing for?” Quail asked, motioning to the trident.
“Oh, yeah!” Jack said, so excited he could barely catch his breath. “We can close the water valves with these. The Corps left some of them when they called to evacuate. We’ve been shutting them — it just takes a little tap, but there’s so many.”
“Let us help,” Quail said, taking his trident.
“Cove and Kipley will have to,” Jack said. “Some of them are down real deep.”
“What about Jane?” I asked, looking back to the hatch. Trails of the roots were piercing the surface of the water from the hatch, gliding around the surface of the water.
Cove folded his arms over his chest. “Yeah, what about her?”
The others still avoided the question, awkwardly.
“Well we can’t just leave her!” I pleaded.
“Even if she’s a goner, it might be best to send someone down there,” Mwenze said. “There’s a helluva lot of valves down there. If that really was the control room, we might even be able to reverse the flow, back into the reservoirs.”
“Good thinking!” Kipley said, tossing Cove and I both tridents. “You two head back down there. The rest of us will take care of things on the surface.”
I caught mine in hand. Cove did too, and gave his a twirl.
“See what happens when you ask questions?” Cove said, to me. “They give you the suicide mission.”
Quail rolled his eyes and came on over. “Listen, you–we can talk later. You’re in no danger here, you hear me?” he said, turning between Cove and me. “None–very little, I mean.”
I didn’t really care either way. I just wanted to help her; it didn’t matter to me what the risk was, especially when everyone else was acting like Cove was just making a whole lot out of nothing.
Cove gave Quail a thumbs up before turning back to me. “Hope you’re a good swimmer, Pietro.”
Cove yanked his already wet shirt off over his head. He stripped down to his underwear and gloves right in front of me, exposing all his fins. I followed in kind, shedding the corpsman uniform behind me, trying to ignore the fact that I’d just stripped in front of a whole group of strangers and space pirates (though it did strike me that, compared with my gym locker room, a lot less people were whispering or laughing, which was a plus). With the water pressure as it was, and the roots, removing any extra obstacle to get tangled up in was key.
Raising her trident in hand, Kipley shouted: “Let’s go!” and led a group to close valves.
Cove smirked at me and gave me a salute before he dove in face first, trident elegantly dangling in his arm behind him. I was about to follow, but Hart stopped me.
She stared at me for a moment before speaking. “Even if it is too late, I appreciate you sticking up for her,” Hart said, solemnly. “Cove is just scared. Sometimes the others forget she’s more than a weapon…”
“A weapon?” I asked.
Hart nodded. “Every time it gets worse. And she gets sicker after…”
I glanced back at the water, not wanting to waste another second. Remembering what I needed to do first, however, I stopped. “Listen… I’m sorry about what I said before. I didn’t know. Actually, there’s a lot I don’t know. And I–”
“We’ll talk later,” Hart said, sending a hand into my back to push me forward. “Go.”
I splashed in after Cove. The pressure pushed back, but I forced through into the darkness. There was no light left, nothing to help see or navigate except for feel. Cove traced his trident along the wall as he swam down; I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it because with each valve he tapped, less pressure poured from the left side. Following suit, I continued on the right. The roots grew thicker the deeper I went, radiating off from long branches into spindles. One of them caught my right glove, yanking it off. I tried to get it back, but I couldn’t.
Batting the roots away, I pushed down deeper. The outline of the doorway was visible in the distance. Some of the lights must’ve still been on in the control room somehow, even underwater. The way was obscured by massive trunks. Cove had been ahead of me, but then I felt him glide beside me, back toward the surface. Jane wasn’t with him.
Trident in hand, I squeezed under the trunk and around it, having to fight my way closer. Even for me it was a tight squeeze–tight enough that I wondered if that was why Cove had turned back. The last few were so large I could barely budge past them, but I did it–I broke through, into the control room. The warm glow of light surrounded me–several of them–and willed myself to open my eyes. It wasn’t lights from the control room. It was Jane.
The roots had woven and twisted into the water in a double-helix shape, some with branches spurting out of them, green on their ends, and little pink flower buds, somehow indestructible even despite the water pressure around them. Tiny, lit orbs covered the branches, emitting light even beneath the water. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but horrifying, too. Somewhere in all of that was Jane, if she was even still alive…
I swam closer. Through the light of whatever was shining on the branches, I could see enough to trace the path of the roots. They were still growing around me, nipping at my fins as I swam to evade them.
Then my hand caught something soft–not roots–hair. Pink hair.
Swimming down a bit, there she was, still only half covered in roots, extending from the left side of her body–all from her left hand and face. She was still breathing.
“Jane!” I said, or tried to. Water filled my mouth, and no sound came out.
I swam closer, tapping the side of her face. She was cold to the touch and weak, her free arm swaying in the water. I could move her. Pulling her by her free hand, she was heavier than I expected, but I kept trying.
If Ian fucking Fisk could, at the ripe age of eight-years-old, pull me out of the depths, I could do the same for Jane. At least, my vanilla ass could die trying.
Wedging my feet against the trunk of the roots, I pulled her by her torso instead. Still no luck.
Finally, with one arm wrapped around her torso and the other on her arm, I seemed to be making some headway. Her eyes snapped open.
Jane began saying something, stopping when her mouth filled with water. She looked around her, eyes wide, and began to pull away from the roots. With a few tugs, she managed to free her arm. I tried to take it but she fought away from me, instead pointing–pointing further into the control room.
I got the message: stop the flood, first.
A series of small, red lights were visible in the distance, a control panel. Mwenze was right — there was a master valve system down there.
I swam over as fast as I could, trident in hand, but I couldn’t make out any of what I was seeing in the dark. There was no REVERSE button, but I did find several STOP ones. I jabbed each of them with the trident, the water growing ever more still with each hit. I couldn’t tell where they were closing, but the water felt like it was moving less. Once I hit the last one, then, I saw it — a switch that read REVERSE FLOW. Taking the trident in my mouth to hold it with my teeth, I used both hands to push it forward.
For a few seconds, nothing seemed to change, until the concrete basin pools lining the floor began to bubble, filtering some of the water back into them, and to their reservoirs beneath. The current around me shifted downward, though not enough to pull me with it. I swam back toward Jane, though I could feel my arms were growing weaker. I landed gently near her, using the trident to tether myself to a branch. Both of Jane’s arms were free now, as well as her face and torso, though her legs were tangled in the roots.
A large bubble escaped her face; she must have tried to speak, probably telling me to leave.
I shook my head, and swam around to try to determine a vantage point. She was wound tightly by the legs, but curiously, the roots that had been separated from her arms were lax, swaying in the water, and they didn’t try to poke at me like the others. They had no fight to them anymore, and even appeared to be shrinking and shriveling under the pressure of the water. Would the others do the same once she was free…?
I had to try it. Once weakened, I could swat the roots away more easily with the trident, even break a few pieces free. Careful not to stab her, I turned the trident toward Jane’s legs, and began to stab through the roots. Nothing happened — it bounced off of them, still nourished by its host.
Trying another tactic, I flipped the trident around and wedged it beneath. Jane shimmeyed, trying to get free. It worked.
I reached out and grabbed her with my free hand, seeing her begin to sink. The remaining roots, all the way up to the large trunk they stemmed from seized all at once, then stopped. All at once, the flowers were crushed under the water, and the thinnest branches began to break apart, now pulled gently toward the reservoir.
I dropped the trident. It pulled away with the current toward the now-filling reservoirs. The current toward felt stronger, though I didn’t know if it was, or if I was just getting weaker — and Jane was worse off than me. She was so exhausted she couldn’t swim, dragging behind me like dead weight.
I couldn’t manage to hold her in my arms, so I just grasped her hand in mine, swimming slowly towards the light of the surface. Certain things I didn’t understand flashed in my mind — images, feelings… but I couldn’t focus on them, or close my eyes. It would have been rude to anyways; it’s not like we intended to palm swap. The stairwell was draining, the surface now closer than it had been. And someone was there, reaching down, through to us.
Using what little strength I could muster, I pushed Jane up first. Whoever it was on the other side grabbed her, hoisting her free by her arms.
My body felt weak. Light. My arms wouldn’t move anymore, but I arched my back in a way that would better help me float. If I hadn’t, I might’ve sunk…
Someone grabbed my thigh first. I came up backwards, legs and feet first. Whoever it was carried me the rest of the way up the stairs. They dropped me with a thud on the ground above.
I was still perfectly conscious — conscious enough to hear that there were people around me saying all kinds of things, shadows moving, running around, and to feel the water draining around me — but the moment my body left the water, I went from gliding on air to feeling like a million tons of pressure were pushing down on every fiber of my being. I could barely breathe, pins and needles shooting through me, and pain. Every breath came shallow and never felt like enough.
A blob of pink rolled over, halfway on top of me, digging her nails into my shirtless chest. Training my eyes on it, it was Jane. She kept mouthing something, something I couldn’t make out even though she was right on top of me.
“You …” I heard. “You…”
I smiled, showing all my teeth–including the missing one. She looked awful, weak. Angry. Her hair was matted with sea gunk and twigs, and oodles of other filth. But she was alive. I could finally make out what she was saying.
“You fucking idiot,” she said, over and over. “You fucking idiot.”
I laughed, resting my head back down on the cement beneath me. “How’s that for Worldly?” I asked, just to see the look on her face—and it was so fucking worth it. Everything felt better, and I knew I’d be fine if I just slept a little…