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.