Chase had to stop for breath at the mouth of the subway exit, sucking in air as though he had forgotten how to do it automatically. Breathe in. Breathe out. His heart felt like some untameable thing in his chest, struggling for its own freedom, but he knew it wasn’t because he had very nearly run all the way here.
He had come by train, underground, and it had emptied into a station liberally and shockingly coated with advertising over every available surface, bodies darting between walls, pillars, seats and floors plastered with printed vinyl, screaming pictures of fast cars and superstars and all of the lights. A thousand insects singing in his ears. Skin itching, he had hurried upwards, towards station control, opting to leap the stairs three at a time to get away from the melee. He would not have felt more soiled if they had spread out pictures of naked women instead.
Then, at the moment he’d crossed the ticket gantries, he’d been hit in the shoulder by an irate guardian spirit.
The City Hall Interchange was always sharply dressed, pressed shirt and pressed pants and shiny shoes, yet for all the decorum there always seemed to be something off-kilter with him: The pants not fitted right, the shirt too loose and dots of perspiration beginning to betray themselves through the back. He kept his hair trendy, always in the latest style, and if you passed him by while commuting—if you could actually see him—you might have bought into his lie and thought he was a fresh graduate. But in actual association he looked like those men who would dress young and act hip but ended up looking exactly what they were: forty year olds who had smoked one cigarette too many.
Chase could not have avoided him. It would have been absolutely impossible to avoid him. So he had let himself be stopped.
“Well? What are you guys going to do about it?” A question, without pre-empt. But Chase knew exactly what he was talking about. Even someone like him—who had spent a great deal of effort to keep out of the loop without actually resorting to blocking calls and unsubscribing from feeds—knew about it, fragmentarily: in pieces of alerts and newsflashes that somehow stuck in his head. Guardian missing, unexplained, geomancic pancaking, unprecedented, possible peril, unknown. He should have paid more attention, but he didn’t.
He had shrugged in response. “Don’t know. That’s beyond my pay grade.”
“Don’t lie. You all are such a small group. You must have heard something.”
“Not me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t hang around the others much.” A girl had passed him by, then, and they had made a brief, fleeting moment of eye contact.
The City Hall Interchange made a sound that could have been mistaken for a laugh. “Yeah, we all noticed. Still cannot get over the break-up, huh?”
He had wondered, then, what the passing girl had seen, a crazy guy talking to himself and shuffling his feet in the middle of the MRT station, and he had felt a sudden stab of anger. “Shut up,” he had said, and stepped around the City Hall Interchange. “Don’t you have a job to do?”
He had hurried off into the depths of the mall, and behind him the City Hall Interchange had laughed and called out, “So you try avoid everybody, but the moment your boss calls you come running back, huh? Like a little bitch.”
“Shut up,” he had mumbled and threaded his way through the Friday lunch crowds, down subterranean mall corridors that twisted like coils of intestines, infested with storefronts like insect hives, everything blending into one anonymous eye-burning smear of places that he no longer recognised. Fast cars, superstars. All of the lights.
He had followed the signs pointing towards the Esplanade, gone up the jagged little escalator under unwashed green skylights, and that was how he found himself here, gasping for purchase at the estuarine boundary between prickly cold air-conditioning and oppressive midday heat.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Something was off, he realised. It wasn’t just stress or physical exertion or annoyance that was causing the nausea, the racing heartbeat. There was something in the air, something he couldn’t put his finger on, something that was turning him into an exhausted, jelly-like mess. Like altitude sickness of the worst kind (and he had been altitude sick once, on a trek during his college days, and it was something he never wanted to go through again).
The cavernous train station and its many appendixes had protected him from the worst of it. Out here, the roiling in his stomach became so bad that he wanted to double over and puke. The school-aged girl who had come up behind him on the escalator clicked her tongue and manoeuvred around him on striped-stocking-clad legs.
Chase looked at the sky: it was dull and leaden but nothing looked out of place. He was afraid to walk out of the protective hood of the station’s exit, afraid of what he might see. But he was already late, and his boss-who wasn’t really his boss- was waiting.
As he walked towards the Esplanade bridge the signs of wrongness grew stronger. Streaks of unnaturally dark clouds clawed their way toward the horizon, giving the sky appearance of a bad infection whose origin was somewhere behind the prickly twin domes of the Esplanade. Something in his back or neck clenched, involuntarily.
He didn’t quite break into a run, although he wanted to, opting instead for a half-jog half-powerwalk around the girth of the Esplanade, towards the bridge. It was still hot, and the sun still burned, despite the overcast outlook. Breathe in. Breathe out.
There it was, the militantly-efficient bridge over the bay. And there—emerging behind the glass and metal shards that formed the facade of the Esplanade—was what he had been dreading to see.
It was nothing like he had expected. He wasn’t even sure what he had been expecting, but it was nothing like this.
Across the water, across the bay, the sky folded into itself like an inverted whirlpool, as if someone had taken the surface of a tropical depression and flipped it upside-down. Pulled the plug from the surface of the sky. Underneath the gaping maw sat the trophy-boat of the Marina Bay Sands, the iconic hotel building’s appearance of being a ship on stilts made more disconcerting by the roaring tempest overhead.
Sylvia was already there at the halfway point across the bridge, looking exactly as he’d expected her to be: ramrod straight, hands on hips, staring dead across the bay like she was facing off the elements. He shuffled up to her. “Sorry I’m—”
“Late.” Eyes never wavering from the vertex.
He took a deep breath, hands naturally finding a space in his pockets. The vertex, ignoring their presence, continued to rage without a sound. It would have been less unnerving, he thought, if it had been roaring like the wrath of a thunder god; seeing all that fury proceed in total soundlessness was like watching a war movie with the sound turned off. He shivered.
Silence stretched between them, long and sinewy and palpable. A major bollocking was in the works, he knew. He’d seen Sylvia ream into others for far less than dropping off the radar for two entire months. He was going to get it. He was going to get it so bad.
She said nothing. Still looking straight ahead as if he wasn’t even there.
“What is that?” he finally asked, unable to delay the inevitable any further.
Sylvia just shoved something in his direction, focus dead-set on the monstrosity across the bay. He looked. Cheap plastic folding binoculars, the kind you could buy from sporting events.
Peering through the dull scratched lenses, his world tunnelled down to a distorted telephoto circle, Chase swung the viewfinder back and forth what he assumed was the horizon until he located the anomaly. Up close, it didn’t look like anything much at all. He had expected to see that the surface was crackling with hellfire or made of teeming roaches or something like that. But nothing. It just looked like clouds – typhoon-scale, building-destroying clouds, but clouds nonetheless.
“Down,” came Sylvia’s voice, intruding into the narrow claustrophobic world. “Look at the building.”
He swung the viewfinder downwards, through frighteningly huge swathes of grey, feeling like he was drowning in sky, unanchored in a world with no top and bottom, no up and down. Just as he thought he’d managed to lose the entire building, as if he were somehow looking into a world where it didn’t exist, the slash of a dark grey blade flashed across his vision. He swung back, bringing the top of the building into sight. Bushels of ferns, carefully cultivated, clustered together against the roiling sky, and he couldn’t see what Sylvia really wanted him to look at, until—
He nearly dropped the binocs in shock. “What the—”
Sylvia didn’t reply. He took a moment – one breath, two breaths – to compose himself, before raising the binocs to his eyes again.
Perched on the roof of the fancy glass-walled restaurant or whatever it was they had up there was a monstrously huge gargoyle of some sort, or at least it looked like a gargoyle of some sort, with a batlike complexion and a pair of leathery wings sprouting from its back, which was all he could see. The creature— thing— he didn’t know what to call it—towered over everything in his tiny circle of view; it had to be at least four or five meters in height, taller than two elephants standing on top of each other.
It turned around. It had a face like an Indonesian dancer’s mask, bulging angry eyes and tusk-like fangs. Chase put the binocs down and swore, very quietly. As Sylvia retrieved them from him, he asked, “Is that the Marina Bay Sands—?”
“No. She’s gone. Completely gone.”
“Then what—?” Words failed. A parasite, an opportunistic predator come in to feed on the chaos, the universe inventing something to counter the imbalance— what?
“It shouldn’t have been built in the first place,” Sylvia suddenly said. “Look at what they’ve done.”
Chase knew that his boss was a traditionalist, the type of conservationist that he’d once heard Joe deride as “shophouse-huggers” when Sylvia was out of earshot, but the anger coming from her was unexpected. Her nostrils flared and her fists tightened, and Chase found himself feeling suddenly afraid. “What were they thinking? Creating a nexus for this kind of greed and hope and despair right in the middle of everything? Look at what it’s done.”
“Macau and other places have casinos,” he pointed out. “Las Vegas.”
She turned on him, and he physically took a step backwards. “Have you ever been to any of these places? Do you know what the groundskeepers have to get up to, just to keep things in check?”
No, he had not. He had studiously managed to avoid being in another big city aside from the one he’d been born in, in fact. He’d never seen the point.
Sylvia’s attention returned to the building across the bay, and he let a breath out, slowly, feeling incredibly small. “So that thing,” he finally ventured, “killed the Marina Bay Sands?” Stupid question, but he had to ask it.
“No. It was there before. A place like that attracts feeders. No idea what it is, we can’t classify them all. But there have been deaths in the building, some of them have made the news. That chef, if you remember. Small numbers, but the Marina Bay Sands would have balanced them to keep it in check. Now that it’s gone, that thing is out of control.”
He realised he’d never met the Marina Bay Sands before, but from what he had heard, it took the form of a small child, a girl. Sylvia had apparently been quite fond of it, despite decrying the entire development from day one. Funny how that worked.
“So it’s going to kill more people? That thing?” he asked. Helplessness: an unpleasantly familiar feeling. Of being hugely, horribly outclassed, and not even having the words to describe that lack of ability.
“No-one’s died yet,” she said.
“Meaning this is more complicated than it looks.”
“So…” He tried to talk himself through it. “This wasn’t an accident. Somebody deliberately destroyed the Marina Bay Sands, to let that thing grow unchecked. But it’s definitely under someone’s control, because it hasn’t gone on a feeding spree yet…” He stopped there, right at the point where logic dropped off a cliff-edge and vanished into an abyss of ‘why’. Why? Why would anyone do that?
He turned around. Behind them, the Esplanade Bridge had been armoured, along its vertebral column, with a row of concrete blocks anchoring plates of two-metre-tall metal fencing. Across the city steel girder exoskeletons had grown over along selected roads, crusted at intervals with thousand-watt lights. In two days’ time the entire ossified route and the capillaries surrounding it would be closed to traffic, the cartilage hardening and bones fusing, conjoining roads that previously laid criss-cross across the city center into one single-flow, unbroken system. A neonatal presence, unfolding into existence: the ephemeral Marina Bay Street Circuit would be amongst them.
Fast cars. Superstars. All of the lights.
“You don’t think—” He gestured at the cladding behind them. Of course she did. The timing, the location, would have been far too coincidental otherwise. But – “Who would do that? Who would be crazy enough?”
Sylvia hesitated a moment before answering, not long enough to be deliberate, not short enough to avoid awkwardness. “We don’t know yet.”
“But you have an idea?”
Another one-beat, two-beat. Then: “This is where you come in.”
“Me? What am I supposed to do?”
“You know car people,” Sylvia said.
A statement, not a question. The sinking sensation in his stomach became a full-on freefall that dragged the rest of his innards along with it. “But, uh— I’ve not contacted any of them since—since a couple of months ago. Look, I don’t really know any of them. They were her friends, I just came along.”
“Doesn’t matter, we have a contact. You may not know them, but they’ll know of you.” She held out a small square of paper, barely larger than a taxi receipt. He had not seen where it had come from, and he hesitated to take it. “Call this number. Get in contact and tell them you need services for the race days. A tracker. Monitoring.”
“This is our backup plan. If we can’t fix whatever’s going on by the weekend, we need firefighters.”
He shook his head in an imitation of a small child that hadn’t learned how to talk. “I’m not the right person to do this. I never get involved with the Formula One races. I leave the country. I hate all this spectacle. I literally cannot be exposed to too much commercialization. I’m allergic.” And it was true. He had two plane tickets and a booking to a quiet village resort in the South Philippines for the weekend, which he still couldn’t bring himself to decide if he should cancel or not.
“Allergic, yet you’re still here. You can’t be that sensitive to it.”
“You really should be asking somebody el—”
“Let me get this clear,” Sylvia said. “I’m not asking you to do this. I’m telling.”
What choice did he have? She was a force unto herself. He took the piece of paper and looked at it. Handwritten on its creased surface was a mobile phone number, and underneath it just one sloppily-written word, in all-caps: BUTTON.
Chase turned the paper over. The other side was blank. “It’s not the F1 driver,” Sylvia said. “We asked someone who knew car people for a reference and this is what he gave.”
“I didn’t know there was an F1 driver called Button.” Was it meant to be common knowledge? He kept turning the paper over and over, as if some meaning would magically spring forth from its banal surfaces. “I don’t understand this at all. You want to get a ride that can monitor the entire racetrack and intervene if something goes wrong, right? I’m not sure they have anything like that.”
“Then call them and find out.” She had already turned away from him, conversation clearly over on her part.
He looked at her. Frowned. “You don’t like car people.” Also a statement, not a question.
“Whether I like them or not is irrelevant.”
“But you think this is a bad idea.”
Sylvia turned and hit him with a foundation-destroying look, and whatever he might have said next shrivelled up and fled him entirely.
“Hui Ling,” she said, without warning, and the name triggered some sort of avalanche in the pit of his stomach. “What kind of ride did she have?”
The question threw him. He had not seen it coming, trampling gleefully into territory he had managed to finally avoid getting mired in. “Um. It was a… It was an Audi.” He had a clear memory of the four locking rings, rendered in ink, marking the small of her back. He could barely remember the familiar itself. He’d never particularly asked to see it. “It was white. And it had two doors… I think.”
“Could it do this job?”
“I don’t know.” Why was she talking about this? He didn’t want to get Hui Ling involved, at all. He flapped the square of paper, lamely. “I’ll call them, and see what they can do.”
“Good.” Sylvia reached into the messenger bag she had slung over one shoulder. A few crumpling noises later she was holding out a small paper bag.
Inside: an indeterminate quantity of used spark plugs, smelling of hydrocarbon and rusted metal. “It’s for the consultation fee,” she explained.
“I know that,” he said. And internally: I’m not an idiot. Good thing mind-reading wasn’t one of Sylvia’s sensitivities.
“Can I get an update on this by tomorrow? Find out their capabilities and what they’re asking for it.” She looked at him, eyebrow raised, and he knew she expected an affirmative answer out of him.
Here’s what he could have done: he could have said no. He could have said, fuck you, you’re not my boss, you’re not paying me, this isn’t my job, we don’t even have club memberships. He could have thrust the paper bag and its dirty old spark plugs back at her and said I don’t want to have anything to do with another rider or groundskeeper or any other sort of sensitive anymore, so stop calling me because I won’t answer. He could have walked away.
Instead, what he did was nod. And say, “I’ll try my best.”
He left Sylvia, standing on the bridge like a sentinel, while he returned back into a ground heavily infected with parasitic shops and into the arms of a city he was sure was laughing at him.
An expansion of this universe, a vast extension of this piece of microfiction I found from early 2011. Written as an assignment for my creative writing class with Writing The City. Title of the piece inspired by this wonderful BBC introduction to the 2011 Singapore GP qualifying rounds broadcast.