The War Going On Beneath Us

Ice was a train runner, the first I’d ever known. She’d picked her own name. We dated for a while, and that was when she showed me the wars.

It was because I asked her about the train disruptions.  Because- it’s not like they’re overseeing the bloody London Underground, so how hard can it be? Okay, maybe one major disruption is okay, but three in a month? Seriously? What were you guys doing, I asked.

And her response was, “Do you want to see?”

Like the fool I was, I said yes. Hindsight, 20/20, all that jazz.

There was a hazmat suit involved, markings from the SCDF still on it. “Borrowed,” she said, and insisted I put it on before we reached the tunnels.

Marching. I remember the sound of marching. She held my hand in the darkness of the empty-station-at-3AM as we stepped over the yellow line and she touched the glass of the barrier doors. The entire row vanished, all down the length of the station, hundreds of metres of it. I looked into the cavern that opened in front of me, over the lip of the chasm, and held back a breath.

Faces hidden, clad in battle-scarred armour and purple livery, they trooped past in columns. Measured, almost mechanical movements, like CGI from one of the Star Wars movies–almost convincing enough to be real, but not quite, hovering at the edge of uncanny valley, about to tip over. I looked down the platform, and saw nothing but endless lines of soldiers coming towards us, marching down the tunnel and out of the station. “Who are they?” I asked.

“Soldiers of the purple line,” she said.

“Soldiers of the purple line,” I repeated, as if that would magically give it meaning.  Continue reading

#fridayflash: The Siege Of Katong

The buses are running ragged. She feels it in the heat that rises from the floor of her aging Scania and smothers her legs, in the stuttering whine of its engine as it struggles over the pitted surface of the Causeway. The refugees are grimly quiet, white-knuckled on the handgrips and railings. The crying has petered out to the occasional sniffle of a child’s still-running nose.

The first thing she does once they hit the disembarkation terminal is to run for a washroom break, threading between the murmuring, empty-eyed refugees weighed down by possessions and grime and shell-shock. Then a cup of kopi, tasteless and scalding hot, while the Scania’s engine cooled in a series of pinging noises. A twenty minute break, and then they’d be back, across the closed border and into the beseiged East. Her shift doesn’t end until eight hours later.

In the crush of bodies filling the terminal she nearly knocked over one of the new drivers-John? Jacob? She can’t remember all their names. In the past weeks there had been a boom of drivers turning up with buses in tow. Many were kids, not even old enough to make the legal driving age, back when those things still mattered. Some of them showed up just days after their ride had came to them, before they had even properly bonded with the passenger vehicles.

Funny. Back in the day riders had mostly had fast flashy rides, million-dollar cars they otherwise would never have dreamt of owning. These days, it was all about the buses, the heavy vehicles, the big movers. And armoured vehicles. There were rumours, she heard, of a girl who had bonded with a Soviet-era T-34. A Russian tank? Why not, she had thought, when she heard. Why not? Yesterday she had seen the remains of a HDB block of flats in southern Mountbatten, a charred gutted wreck with a few fragments of glass clinging to twisted windowframes. An old schoolfriend had lived there once, she thought, or maybe she was remembering wrongly. She wondered if the interim Town Council had managed to evacuate the block before it was shelled.

Why not?

The worst part, she thinks, is having to close the doors, having to drive away with the lucky last few on the steps plastered against the doors, while those left behind run after her, slapping on the sides of the bus, screaming. Her Scania knows not to run over the ones who jump in front, trying to stop it from leaving, but she still sees their desperate, pleading faces when she closes her eyes at night. Once a mother pushed her young son into the last gap just as the doors were closing, and the boy screamed for her all the way back to the terminal until he had no tears left, just empty, hoarse sobbing. One of the terminal staff took him to the shelter; she didn’t know what happened to him after that.

Her Scania has a war-wound down its side, a big grey gouge left by the angry paw of a roadside mine. It worries her deeply because spirit-rides are supposed to be immune to that. It’s the only way they can get in and out of the blockade, and across the closed border to Malaysia, through metres’ worth of solid concrete walls. But having to fend off the constant attacks have been wearing them thin. She knows the qi holding these things together is not inexhaustible, and she doesn’t know what will happen when that runs out. Her baby is becoming mortal, just like the rest of them.

She drains the last of the flat, torrid coffee and swallows away the bitter aftertaste. Time’s up. She gets in, turns the ignition key, and prepares to head back into the hell she once called home.

All Of The Lights

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.

Continue reading

#fridayflash: Groundskeepers

Finally, finally I get around to finishing a story in time  for #fridayflash! This one is specially dedicated to @jolantru, fellow urban fantasy geek– this was the story I was telling you about.

Comments, critiques and RTs very welcome. I love you too.

Groundskeepers

“Are you in charge of this building?” my boss asks.

The woman we’re interviewing responds with a roll of the shoulders, mouth busily working on gum, heavily-mascaraed eyelids opening, shutting, opening, shutting. She suits the building she guards perfectly, a stolid thing laid down in the seventies and slowly taken over by cheap hole-in-the-wall boutiques and tattoo parlors that draw chainsmoking teenagers in droves. Tobacco-stained and grime-encrusted, her clothes are a bewildering mishmash of torn lycra, faded tie-dyes and cheap faux leather.

My boss holds up her documentation. “I’m Inspector Lee. I come from the Locations department of the police force. You know what that is?”

She nods.

“I have a few questions I’d like to ask you.”

I hold my pen at the ready, waiting to take her statement.

“Did anything unusual happen in the building the night of the twenty-seventh July?”

“Twenty-seventh July.” I start scribbling as she recounts. “Let’s see… first floor. Kids fighting like dogs. Third floor ladies’. Girl and another girl. Her first time. Girl, not other girl.”

“Any disturbances?”

“They’re all disturbances.”

My boss shows her a photo of the victim. “Do you recognize this woman?”

She shakes her head. “Never seen her. Never been inside.”

“I see.”

The set line of my boss’ mouth means that she believes we’ve hit a dead end here. Another half hour wasted.

The girl spits out the gum she’s been chewing and I suddenly realize that it hasn’t been gum all along, but bones. Tiny little rat bones. She, catching my reaction, smirks. “New one?” she asks my boss.

My boss waves me towards her. “Come on, Hot Soup, we’re done here.”

__

It’s like this, every day, spending the days trawling through casefiles hoping a clue will come in, and spending the nights trawling the streets with our summonses, praying for a lead. I’m not sure if my boss even sleeps. She’s always in the office when I arrive and still in the office when I leave.

Right now she’s chewing pensively on a mouthful of bubble tea pearls. We’d covered all the buildings in the area with no luck. “They must be hiding something,” she says. “It’s not possible that no-one knows anything.”

“I thought you said they couldn’t lie.”

“They can’t.”

The standing-space tables around the bubble tea stall are crammed with loud pushy teens enjoying the Friday night. My boss puts the last vacuum-sealed summons packet on the table. “We haven’t spoken to the Parklane building yet.”

“Wasn’t there was a raid on the night of the murder? Wouldn’t Enforcement have seen something?”

“Enforcement? They wouldn’t notice an elephant’s ghost if it was shitting in front of them.” She puts down her drink resolutely. “No. We must talk to the Parklane building.”

“He knows nothing,” a whispery voice interjects, and when we turn there is a thin girl with round eyes, who doesn’t introduce herself even as our mouths start to gape.

“What are you doing here?” my boss demands to know. “You’re not supposed to leave your domicile.”

“I was summoned,” she says quietly. “By a dead spirit.”  I recognize her, I think: she’s from at least six blocks away. A brief memory of a diminutive building barely four storeys high, with one small convenience store on the ground floor.  What was her name? Stamford Court–?

“It’s the murder victim,” she says. “There’s something you need to know.”

Holy shit, I think. This has never happened to me before.

My boss glances quickly around as if we were about to do something illegal, and leans forward. “What is it?”

“She was killed someplace else and brought to where your people found her,” Stamford Court says. “Her killer was one of the shophouses in Chinatown.”

“A building guardian?” my boss asks at the same moment I blurt out “You’re joking!”

“We don’t joke,” she says.

“And you don’t kill people either,” I rebut. “Boss, this girl’s just taking us for a ride.”

My boss is silent for a long moment. “Guardians can go rogue,” she says, finally. “And they’ve killed before. Do you remember the Hotel New World collapse? No, you’re probably too young for that. It’s a bit extreme, for sure. But that is the extent of what a guardian can do.”

“But that was due to shoddy construction…”

“It was ruled as due to shoddy construction. Back then there was no Metaphysics Dept, no Locations, and even if there was the verdict would have been the same anyway. Nobody likes to think of the supernatural world as having that much power.” She shrugs. “Even if it’s true.”

Stamford Court unfolds her tightly-laced fingers. “That’s all she knows. She apologizes.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” my boss says, speaking to the air on the left side of the building guardian. “This is very helpful.” I realize she’s talking to the spirit of the dead woman, and the idea of there being a dead person standing there gives me the chills. Yes, I am new to this job.

My boss picks up the last summons package and holds it out to Stamford Court. “For your trouble,” she says.

The guardian shakes her head. “I don’t need your offerings. I was summoned by someone else, and I am also doing this for my own purposes. And I don’t really like the taste of mice.”

“Then I’ll just offer you my thanks.” She turns back to the space where the spirit should be. “I’m sorry, Alicia. I hope you find peace.”

Then they are both gone.

“A shophouse in Chinatown, that would be an Elder,” my boss muses, her forehead working as she speaks. How she can handle these things so fast, I have no idea– but then she’s been doing it for a lot longer than I have. “This goes much deeper than we thought.”

I don’t even know what to say.

“I think, Hot Stuff, that we are seeing the beginning of a war between the guardians.”