Backing away from the bags, she sought out a hiding place. The old station was devoid of any decoration and all the benches and vending machines were long gone. There was no place to conceal herself. She considered calling out, but decided against it. If there was a breach, the last thing she wanted to do was draw attention.
An alarm sounded, announcing the arrival of the train within a minute’s time. She shot a quick look over her shoulder toward the locked doors. Should she flee up into the market and risk the Scourge breaching the door, or hope the train arrived in time?
“Oh, shit,” she muttered.
It couldn’t be the Scourge. They couldn’t be in the system.
Backing toward the doors, she drew a deep breath.
“Out of the hole, soldiers!”
It was a woman’s voice.
A search and destroy squad, dressed all in black, bounded out of the tunnel. Their heavy masks made them look like insects as they moved in perfectly synchronized motions. With striking ease, they leaped onto the platform and fell into formation. Two members of the squad dragged what looked like a body bag up off the tracks and dropped it at their feet. The leader was the last up onto the platform. She acknowledged Maria’s existence with the curt nod of her helmeted head.
Maria stared at the group uneasily. They were heavily armed and carried extra clips of precious ammunition on their belts.
The sound of the train roaring toward the station lured Maria back to her bags. She yanked the straps over her shoulders as the leader of the squad scrutinized her. They were of equal rank, but the other woman was from the SWD, not the Constabulary. There was little love lost between the two divisions.
Hot air blasted out of the tunnel as the sleek train skimmed to a stop. The train consisted of only two cars plus the electric locomotive. The doors of the second car slid open and a short male with dark curly hair stepped out.
“Vanguard Martinez,” he called out.
Still under the watchful eye of the squad leader, Maria stepped forward. Lifting her wrist, she swept it over the pad the conductor extended. Reading the results displayed on its surface, the man gave her a short nod of his head.
Once onboard, Maria took a seat, still watching the squad as it stood silently waiting for the train to depart.
The conductor glanced at the search and destroy squad, but said nothing as he took his seat. He was from the SWD, but his black uniform didn’t have any signifiers of rank or even a name tag. The train sounded an alarm then pitched forward, the station platform swiftly disappearing from Maria’s view.
The dim lights of the car did nothing to enhance the dull gunmetal color of the floor and walls. The seats were thinly padded and had long ago stopped being comfortable. The monitors that had probably been used at one time to entertain the passengers were silent and dark on the wall. Maria adjusted her bags, straightened her uniform and peered out the window. It was completely black outside the glass. Not even emergency lights illuminated the tunnel. Only the bright blue lights on the train’s exterior glowed weakly into the darkness.
“How often does the train run?” Maria asked.
“When it’s needed, which isn’t often,” the nameless man with the curly hair and ambiguous uniform answered in an equally featureless voice.
“Who are you?” she asked impulsively, swiveling in her seat toward him.
“Your escort,” he answered.
She became aware of the pistol strapped to his thigh and arched her brow. He ignored her. She fought the feeling of discomfort slithering into her soul. Folding her arms over her breasts, she glowered at her shiny boots. She had nothing to fear. All would be well once she was outside the wall, immune to the Inferi Scourge, and slaughtering them.
Ten minutes later the train’s alarm sounded. Glancing out into the darkness, Maria started when the glow of the train lights flowed over the form of a person standing next to the tracks. The impression of a tattered uniform and ragged face made her jerk away from the window.
“What is it?” the blank man asked.
“I saw someone standing near the tracks.”
“Maintenance,” the man answered dismissively.
She replayed the image in her mind’s eye and suspected that her mind had filled in the other details. She was still tightly wound from her earlier scare. He was probably right. She had seen a maintenance worker and her mind had altered him into an Scourge.
Maria grasped her bags while the train slid past heavy blast doors that clanged shut the instant the last car was clear. The SWD station was filled with light as the train slid to a stop. Another heavily-armed search and destroy squad stood on the platform.
Suddenly, Maria wasn’t too sure she was imagining things. She gave the man beside her an accusatory glare. “They’re in the subway system, aren’t they?”
The doors opened and her escort gestured for her to depart without responding to her allegation.
“What did I see in the tunnel?” she persisted.
“Someone in maintenance,” he answered imperturbably.
“Then why all of this?” She indicated the waiting squad.
“Routine patrols.” Again, he motioned for her to disembark.
Unnerved, Maria exited the train. A quick examination of her surroundings revealed two machine gun nests positioned on a second level facing the heavily fortified blast doors that sealed off the tunnel.
The search and destroy squad brushed past her as they filed into the train.
“Routine, my ass,” she muttered.
Her wristlet beeped and she tapped it.
“Welcome to the Science Warfare Division Facility. Please proceed to the terminal.” A simple and to-the-point message.
Following the directions, Maria departed the station and bounded up a narrow stairway that led to another set of heavy doors. A guard scanned her wristlet, keyed open the door, and waved her through.
Stepping into the main terminal, Maria swallowed hard. It was filled with seek and destroy patrols.
Mr. Petersen emerged from the gathering of SWD patrols, his starched white suit a vivid contrast to the all-black armor of the soldiers. He slightly inclined his head as he approached Maria.
“Seems you have a lot going on around here,” Maria said, her voice sounding a bit clipped even to her own ears.
“There is some excitement,” Mr. Petersen admitted, slightly shrugging. He was as unperturbed and collected as he had been during their previous interview.
“I saw something in the subway tunnel,” Maria said boldly.
“Did you?” Mr. Petersen started to walk.
Maria fell into step beside him, shifting her bags to her other shoulder. They thumped against her back as she wove her way through the squads waiting to be dispatched. “They’re in the tunnels, aren’t they?”
“We can never be too vigilant when fighting against the Inferi Scourge,” Mr. Petersen answered vaguely.
“How did they get in?”
Guiding her out of the main terminal, Mr. Petersen tucked his hands behind his back and studied her expression. “Whatever makes you believe they’re in the tunnels?”
“I saw something.”
“What did you see?”
Maria started to answer, but faltered. The truth was, she wasn’t really sure if she had seen one of the Scourge, or if it had just been a maintenance worker. “I saw a search and destroy squad at the station where I was picked up. They had what looked like a body bag, and something was in it.”
“There are regular patrols in the tunnels. The teams take equipment to run a variety of tests. I am certain that is what you saw them carrying.”
“And all of the squads back there? Where are they going?”
“Routine patrols for all the tunnel systems under the city. Sewer, maintenance, subway...” Mr. Petersen shrugged. “You just happened to arrive on a very busy day.” Stopping before a lift, he swiped his wristlet over the console and the doors slid open. “After you.”
The cold sterility of the SWD headquarters and all she had seen had her on edge. Staring into the lift, she felt her gut twist. Maria’s instincts were fine-tuned, and she believed in them implicitly. The action of boarding the elevator unexpectedly had a finality that unnerved her to the core of her being. She inhaled through her lips and steeled her resolve.
Maria entered the elevator after Mr. Petersen. Turning on her heel, she faced the closing doors.
“The mission you volunteered for is going to go down in history,” Mr. Petersen said in a warmer tone. It was as if he sensed her discomfort. “It’s a brave and wondrous task, and will have far-reaching ramifications for all of humanity.”
Unable to find the right words to speak, Maria opted to nod her head instead. There was no indicator as to whether the elevator was rising or descending. Only the steady hum of the elevator motor and slight vibration gave any hint of its movement through the shaft.
When at last the elevator doors opened, Maria was struck by the glaring whiteness of the walls. She was so used to the dingy grayness of the city, the bright lights reflecting off the sterile white walls was almost blinding. Her boot heels echoed as Mr. Petersen led her down a corridor devoid of any activity, which was disconcerting after the constant crush of bodies and cramped living space in the rest of the city.