Out of the Cave

Last Summer, I set myself up in the basement of a professor’s house in Montana with the intention to write. What, I wasn’t sure, but I was so set on it that spent much of the following days feverishly following threads of writing, many of which never panned out.

Then, I had this dream. It was dark, creepy, sci-fi– nothing like what I usually dream or write. I decided to try and get it down. After some very helpful feedback from lots of amazing folks (including Chris Kluwe who, after being tagged on Twitter, was kind enough to spend some real time giving me feedback), I called it a wrap and sent it to some magazines. It wasn’t published, which at the time I thought a failure, but I thought of it today and was proud that I’d pushed myself as a writer. So, here it is.


 

It’s the whoosh of the elevator that wakes her.

She hasn’t overslept like this in months, the sound of the elevator a rude awakening to an uneasy night of sleep. She blinks groggily, knowing that if they’ve already started the tours she’s likely missed her chance at breakfast. Normally, she’s up with the sun, and finds the government-issued tray filled with the same tasteless eggs, toast, apple, and cup of coffee (as if they looked up “human breakfast” when planning) outside the Cave. Most days she even manages a few push-ups and a lap around the room to stay limber. It leaves her with enough time to put the panel back in place just as they begin to walk the halls.

Not today, though.

She looks up at the faux-wood grain on the underside of a long table; the ceiling for the makeshift shelter she calls “the Cave” (to herself, of course) for two years now. She stares at it every morning, knows every swirl and crack in it, has lost herself in its lines as she tries to draft plans and figure out her next move. Now, she uses it as a compass to realign herself diagonally from point to point, the only way to stretch completely in the cramped space. She pulls herself long, her muscles thin and lean from shoddy food and a necessity to skulk. 

Suddenly, she freezes, thinking for a moment that she hears footsteps. What time is it? Footsteps will mean the tour has reached her on the 45th floor, and that will mean it’s already 10:45. Half her morning will be gone– unless she slept through the first round of gawking visitors.

She knows she must get her bearings and calculates the risk in her head. After a moment, she  thinks the footsteps are a trick of her imagination, a consequence of disrupting her routine, but there’s no real way to be sure. She quietly creeps over to a corner of the Cave, not wanting to make her presence obvious. She knows it puts her even more at risk.

In one corner, a small crack of light glistens between the panels. She puts her ear to the opening, seeing if she can catch a snippet of the tour, or the soft shuffle all Wreakers move with. She hears nothing. She pulls away from the corner and stares  at the slice of light. Her stomach knots, but her desire to know and the hopeful shining outside outweigh her sense of fear. 

She reaches over and, without looking, grabs the small steak knife she found in the first month after the Raids. One worker had kept it in his drawer, and she had pilfered it to use as… a weapon? Later, after another breathless dive back to the safety of the Cave (this was before they had a schedule), she’d laughed at how silly she was. She knew a knife couldn’t kill them.

Still, it had proven endlessly handy for building, dismantling, learning the quiet and miniscule reshuffling of objects without being noticed. The knife sits in her tiny tool section along with a flashlight, her only possessions outside of her old book bag, its contents now useless remnants of earlier times of a time before the Raids (something she rarely ever thought about).

She gently– quietly, slowly, as she has learned to be– pokes the knife into the gleaming crack between the panel and the table leg. She takes a breath. As she exhales, she gently nudges the panel a few millimeters. She freezes, has a flashback to the Raids, is half expecting to hear Wreaker-shrieking or the sound of their skin ripping back. She holds her breath.

Silence.

She takes a long, deep inhale, trying to slow down her heartbeat, as if they could hear it (maybe they can? She still has so little information of what Wreakers are truly capable of). On her exhale, she creeps towards the opening, a flower slowly stretching to meet the sun. 

She puts her eye to the crack, blinking as she adjusts to the light, and sees– nothing. Nothing new, anyway. She sees the desks, tables, and chairs in their familiar chaotic pattern, toppled over and strewn across the office. The blood and bile stains– long since dried black– are spattered across everything; the crude artwork is unaltered. The scene is still a frozen testament to everything that happened two years ago and, once the Wreakers settled in, they have kept it both as a memorial and a curiosity.

Well, the furniture is a memorial. She is the curiosity. 

She scans the room and instinctively looks towards “her” desk. It’s one of the few still upright, with minimal matter painted onto it. She sees the cord going into the drawer and breathes a small sigh of relief. The laptop is still there.

Finding the laptop was a lone shining light after the Raids. Once the first major waves died down, she began sneaking out at night to see what she could find. She picked her way around bones and bodies, scavenging anything useful– any edible food, her flashlight, the knife– before she stumbled on the jackpot: a still-functional personal computer. It only worked when plugged in, though, so her research was limited to nighttime, after the Wreakers left the building.

The first time she connected to the internet, she was delighted,  then crestfallen, her searches turning up nothing but cached page after page of old articles. The most recent ones, at that point, were those published directly before the Raids. She skimmed through, reading familiar the news reports of the strange “virus” (later discovered to be a parasite) hitting people first in London, then Norway, slowly spreading across country after country. Then, the science articles and think-pieces on the strange somatic effects– the stretching bones, hunched back, lengthened fingers– came, trying to find reason and logic where none existed. 

It wasn’t until the first attacks happened that the world began to actually fear what was coming. Then came the traditional fallout of disaster: politicians promising safety and restrictions, scientists calling for study, and the pious blaming it on sin. 

Soon the Wreakers (a name stolen from a sermon by the famed Rev. Rawlins, who claimed these “wreakers of havoc” were a warning that all must repent. His insides were strewn across his altar a month later.) were beginning to grow, spreading and attacking so fast that by the time the initial Raids swept the continents, there was no one left to write. There was no logic nor reason to be found. Everyone was running, then dead or infected.

After closing the browser window that first night, she had never felt so alone.

Years later, her brow furrows at the memory. She had been heartbroken and alone, but was she any better off now?

Her eyes dart away from the laptop and up to the large clock near the window. 10:32. She breathes a small sigh of relief. She has time. Gently, she nudges the panel just wide enough so she can creep out. As long as she stays away from the window and close to the Cave, she is safe enough. She slowly slips out and, on wobbling legs, stands.

It feels good to stand. She shakes her limbs out, as if shaking off last night’s dust, and thinks about grabbing her meal, though she doesn’t feel much like eating. She rubs her eyes and looks back at the clock. 10:35. She scans the room and sees the tray, at least twenty feet away, right next to the Wreaker entrance. 

They’re always afraid of getting too close, of somehow seeing a rogue glance of her face or a limb; afraid of setting off their predator senses and, unable to stop themselves, transforming into much, much different beings, intent on only one thing: destroying her, or turning her into another host. 

She closes her eyes, remembering the first time she saw the Wreakers in full effect– the skin ripping off their jaws to make room for the rows of teeth that sprang out, the black claws unsheathing from their fingers, the way the necks grew long and flayed, like the granddaddy of all cobras unearthing itself from some prehistoric museum display into real life.

She is glad they stay away.

At first, Wreakers seemed nothing more than ravaging animals, driven mad by… what? A mad bloodlust? Fear? The instinctive need for the virus to spread? Whatever it was, they seemed driven by nothing more than a savage desire to destroy. Nine months after the first waves, she realized they were something very different.

Late one afternoon in the Cave, she heard familiar shuffling gait and immediately curled into a defensive position to try and cover up the Wreaker-shrieks– knees up, chin to chest, arms covering her ears and head as if fending off physical blows. After a moment, none came. She tentatively put her arms down and heard… words. Halting words, dragged from throats rusty with disuse, but words nonetheless. Wreaker words that echoed in her ears long after their steps had vanished. 

She froze then, utterly still, her eyes wide and her body cold. Were the Wreakers, were they… human? What was happening? She was tempted to move, tempted to see, but stayed frozen in fear.

That night she had gone on her laptop, eschewing her normal visits to pre-Raid archives, her hiatus from the heartbreak of reality, and pulling up a new search. She saw that the Wreakers were… they were writing. They did not remember their pasts, but were beginning to regain the language and cognitive skills they had once had as humans. They were publishing articles– acknowledging the virus, creating a social structure, figuring out their new lives–

And identifying what was left of the old world.

They knew of a few humans (“pre-Wreakers, PWs”) left. A small colony in Iceland, hidden so deep in the forest they were ignored, for now. A few individuals in Kenya, Mexico, and someone in Montana. She had been made, the information posted just three hours earlier, identified as a “young female in an office building in downtown L.A.”

Weeks passed, then months, and every night she read, her stomach dropping, the intense debate about her right to exist at all. Some felt that, while Wreakers were now in the majority, those who had managed to stay human should be allowed to do so. They (almost nearly) posed no threat, and had a right to exist as much as any other “creature” (They actually wrote that! She thought). Plus, they could be “useful” later on. The current, blossoming Wreaker government currently mandated that all non-combative PWs be safely kept and cared for.

Some, though, argued that PWs had no right to exist, and certainly not on the government teat. Who did the PWs think they were? They were an inferior species, and the only way to keep the Wreaker majority was to destroy everything else.

This, in truth, was also what kept her up last night. This, too, was the reason she was not hungry this morning.

She looks over at the laptop, then at the clock. 10:37. Does she have time to read the message once more? Her heart quickens. No. She has to trust herself now. She knows the plan. She knows what she has to do. And she knows how to do it now.

Because now, she has Paco Salazar.

He’d been a high school teacher in the Central Valley, but when the attacks started, had immediately hightailed it to Yosemite, hiding amidst the pines and rocks, reasoning that if large groups of people were morphing into unknown monsters, then it was best to be away from large groups of people. 

He hadn’t been wrong. 

More importantly, Paco Salazar knew how to kill Wreakers. No one knew how. Once he had been designated a threat, teams were sent to eliminate him, but no one came back, and Salazar lived on. She read this in a Wreaker op-ed; the author wanted to kill all PWs left, saying Paco Salazar was proof that PWs needed to be exterminated. The rhetoric was shifting, becoming harsher. More violent. This op-ed was one of many she was beginning to see more frequently. 

After she finished reading, she knew where she needed to go. 

And now, after more than a year of searching, writing, dead ends, and long nights– she had finally gotten in touch with Paco Salazar. And he had helped her plan her escape. And that was the final reason she had not slept well– she would likely have to kill a Wreaker tonight.

She had certainly never killed anything before. The entirety of her life before the Raids had been school, her mother, their apartment, and the office her mother worked in. She had barely seen a dead animal, much less killed anything. 

She shudders at the thought. What will it be like? Will she be able to do it? 

She looks at the office– the one she had spent most afternoons in while her mother finished work and was now, in fact, her prison. She remembers the people her mother worked with, who spoiled her with treats most afternoons while she did her homework or read books. She closes her eyes for a moment– remembers the cool, lilac-powder smell of her mother, her straight black hair, the feeling of a gentle hand rubbing her back as she fell asleep. 

She also remembers the terror in her stomach as she ran through the office, running from Wreaker-shrieks, shrieking herself for her mother, who she was desperate to find. The desk chair and favorite sweater she had found ripped apart, that she buried her face in, sobbing, the first night she left the Cave.

This, she hopes, is what will help her do what needs to be done.

Suddenly, she hears the elevator whoosh– she is sure of it this time. She looks– 10:39? They’re early. Strange. Inconceivable. The Wreakers hold tightly to their schedule, and in the year since they began the tours, they have not deviated once. She dives back into the Cave, and closes the panel just in time to hear them shuffle into the office. She puts her ear to the crack in the corner.

“And this,” she hears, “is the 45th floor, which you’ve of course heard a million rumors about.”

The other says nothing, or is so quiet the response is inaudible. 

“Well, nothing to fear. This PW is harmless. We don’t know a lot– just that she hid from the initial Raids by staying in the air ducts–”

She closes her eyes, remembers the cold metal on her body, the feel of her fingers in her mouth to stay silent while she watched as those she knew below were torn to shreds. Remembers their screams, the vomit in her throat as she saw limbs leave bodies–

“But by the time we noticed her, she had already made her little… space over there. So we leave her alone. For now.”

“For now?” She hears the other reply. Something inside her pricks. A woman? She rarely hears female voices.

“For now. There’s much debate– we spend quite a bit of time feeding her, caring for her– why? What makes her special? Why is she not turned like the rest of us?”

There is an uncomfortable pause. The first continues. “Of course, it’s whatever the bosses decide. For now, we just leave her be. Hmm.” He takes a moment. “It seems like she didn’t eat today. Maybe we need to up the iron content– their physiology is quite strange–”

“Do I have to do anything about–”

“No,” the first laughs. “No, your only job is to walk the floors occasionally, ensure she hasn’t moved anything, make sure nothing has been touched, and don’t eat her. Our focus is on running the tours on time and keeping the memorials safe. The bosses think it’s important, remembering how we came to be.”

Ah, she thinks inside the Cave. This is a new security agent. Perfect. All the easier to confuse and kill. She looks over at her knife. As Paco told her, all she needs to do is catch them unaware, get the knife into the nape of its neck, where their primary nervous system lives, and–

“Does she…“ the new guard, the female, starts hesitantly. “Does she talk to us? Do we know her name?”

“No. No, we don’t think so. We thought it might be Maya–” inside the Cave, her stomach drops, her mouth goes dry, just at the sound of her name, “from some papers we found, but she never responded, so we don’t think so. We don’t even know if she understands us.”

There’s another uncomfortable pause. Inside the Cave, Maya shudders. Something is off– something… she cannot place her finger on it–

“I wonder if I’ll ever see her…” the new guard begins. And that’s when Maya’s eyes go wide. Her whole body goes cold. 

“I would hope not!” the first laughs. “Killing without orders is prohibited, sets off the bosses, leads to all sorts of paperwork. Don’t worry. Anyway, we have a few minutes before the first tour gets here. Take a look around, familiarize yourself. Meet me in the lobby when you’re ready.”

Maya hears the door open and the elevator whoosh away. She hears the new Wreaker shuffling about. Her mind races. She knows her best chance of escape is tonight. She knows this is her one chance to stay human, to get to someone who can protect her, who has promised to keep her safe from the Wreakers. She must kill the guard to escape. But how? How can she do it? How will she be able to–

“Maya?” She hears the new guard say tentatively, quietly, to the open air.

Tears spring to her eyes. She cannot help herself. Before she knows it, she is sobbing like she has not done since the Raids– fingers in her mouth to try and stay quiet. She cries as silently as she can, her gut wrenching as she remembers the sound of her own shrieking voice the night the Raids came to the city. 

“Maya?”

She cries harder, her whole body convulsing. She takes her hand out of her mouth; she cannot help herself. She sobs out the word as she looks at the crack of light in the Cave.

“Mama?”

She hears a sigh, deep and heavy, and the footsteps shuffle closer.

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We Are The Adventurers: Thoughts on May the 4th

We have always been a family of dreamers.

My brother and I like to joke that growing up in our house set us up to be nerds. From a  young age, images of space, aliens, and other worlds were as much a part of my life as the introduction music to Reading Rainbow (and when the show visited the set of Star Trek: TNG, I nearly wept with joy).

My father loved science fiction, and I would often walk downstairs to find him watching an episode of The X-Files or Star Trek (TNG, then Voyager later). Sometimes, he would even pop in 2001: A Space Odyssey just for fun.

So, it should come as no surprise that Star Wars was, like many, a seminal part of my childhood. Empire Strikes Back was actually my parents’ second date. I can’t even remember the first time  I watched it. We had (and still have) a VHS gold box edition of the original trilogy that my brother and I would put on anytime our parents worked late or we were just looking for something to do. Our first “pets,” two tadpoles fished out of a grimy stream, were named “Luke” and “Leia.”

When I think, now, of why science fiction was such an important part of my upbringing it was because there was consistently a sense that magic was possible in our household. Growing up one of the few Latino-Filipino families in our upper-middle-class suburb, it would have been easy for our parents to err on the side of pragmatism. They had worked hard to ensure that my brother and I didn’t want for anything, and I have no doubt they wanted us to be successful and be able to take care of ourselves financially as well.

What they also did, though, was ensure that a drive for success never outweighed our ability to dream. When I wrote Star Wars fan fiction (no, you can’t see it, because I burned it) or we spent hours playing and collecting Star Wars cards, my parents never scolded us for wasting our time. When we poured over books to learn the mechanical and tactical differences between an X-Wing and  TIE fighter, they didn’t tell us to do something “better.”  When we devoured Star Wars novels to continue the stories in our head, they didn’t grab the pulp novels out of our hands, shoving “real” literature into them. They asked what we liked about the books.

My parents encouraged our imaginations, enabled our passions, and gave us space to think about other galaxies and imagine what it would be like to pilot the Millenium Falcon. When we watched Return of the Jedi together, my mom said she could understand the Ewoks (and since Lucas borrowed heavily from Tagalog, she could), and my brother and I looked at her with wonder in our eyes.

We were allowed to be weird, mind-adventurers because we lived in a household that fully supported not just the existence of magic, but also the discussion of what could be out there that was much, much bigger than us. 

So, when I hear John Williams’s opening credits, I still feel that sense of childhood wonder. My heart squeezes a little, and I can’t help but feel a smile spread across my face. Sure, in some ways it’s because I’m excited to see the familiar faces of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie come on screen.

Even more affecting, though, is the memory of my magical family. When I hear the opening credits of Star Wars, I instantly remember the feeling of my family curled up in the living room watching with wonder, dreaming together, and imagining what it would be like to live in a galaxy far, far away.