Get Carter

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Lorraine Nelson


Tunnel Sillhouettes
Photo Credit: Jonathan Sanderson

Carter ran until he thought his lungs would burst. His footsteps thudded against the packed earth, sounding like a muffled heartbeat. His nightspecs lit up the dank, cavernous tunnel with an eerie green glow. Far behind him, he could hear a soft, steady hum.

The trailbots were after him.

Carter picked up his pace. No way they were going to catch him. No way they were going to take him back to GenMed. No way. He’d rather die than go back there. His legs churned, eating up the ground under him. Despite his exhaustion, Carter permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction.

He had done it.

After two years of planning, he had finally escaped the GenMed Facility, also known as the Body Shop. The government scientists not only cloned humans for sale to whoever needed unpaid labor, they also used some of their clones for experiments. Horrendous experiments, where clones had their arms and legs removed, to be replaced by animal parts; where brain matter was sliced and diced in order to manipulate personality changes; where animal–human hybrids were implanted in female uteri. Carter had heard stories where sometimes these fetuses would grow enough to tear or bite their way out of the womb. Despite the sweat pouring down his face, soaking his shirt, he shuddered.

No. He was not going back.

The tunnel banked right, and Carter skidded into the turn, his nightspecs picking up the strange, phosphorescent glow emanating from the hard, mud-packed walls. It was through Malachi, a fellow inmate of GenMed, that Carter had heard about the Underground Railroad. It seems that hundreds of years ago, white people in New Cambria, which was then called America, went over the seas to enslave a whole race of people. The black race. Malachi called them his African forebears. They didn’t succeed in enslaving everyone, but it turns out they enslaved thousands over a period of years. They didn’t treat them none too well either. Malachi said his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had told him stories that his great-grandfather had told him, about how these enslaved humans were treated like property, were beaten and starved, the women raped and their resulting offspring sold off, never to be seen again.

Carter shook his head. Amazing that hundreds of years later, mankind still hadn’t changed. People were still being enslaved. Still subjected to all kinds of atrocities. Only now, it was the Cyborgs, those infernal half-human, half-machine tyrants, who ran the show. Humans were just cattle to be rounded up and used for cheap, disposable labor.

And, of course, experimentation.

But not him. Not Carter. Not anymore. He flexed his right arm where, just the previous day, one of the scientists had lasered his arm off just below the elbow because someone had noticed Carter’s hand shaking when he performed some delicate repairs on a gene splicer. Carter’s mouth tightened as he recalled the agony of the hot beam slicing through flesh and bone. The Cyborg hadn’t bothered to use a pain diffuser. There was no point wasting it on a full-blooded human.

Whatever it was he did to Carter’s arm, when he fused it back again, the shaking was gone. Ironically, he’d made it that much easier for Carter to manipulate the last few alarms before making his escape. Carter’s fists clenched. It was supposed to be their escape. His and Malachi’s. But something went wrong when they were working on the last set of alarms. Somehow, Carter didn’t know how, the guards were alerted. The alarms he was working on all went off at once, and around the facility, titanium doors and windows started sealing off all the entrances, one by one.

There had been no time to waste. They’d made a run for it. Except Malachi couldn’t keep up. He was just too old. They could hear the metal footfalls of the guards clanging off the sleek metal floors, getting closer and closer with each breath. Carter had grabbed the old man, practically hauling him off the ground as he ran. Just a few more paces, and they’d make it. He’d delayed the shutdown in this corridor for a few precious minutes, but time was rapidly running down. Beside him, he could hear Malachi’s ragged breathing.

Almost there. But the guards were almost upon them. Once they turned the corner, all was lost. They’d turn their light-pistols on them, and both him and Malachi would vaporize into nothing more than a pile of ashes.

He’d turned to Malachi, a remorseful grin on his face. “Guess we’re not going to get the chance to use that famous Underground Railroad your ancestors used, buddy. Sorry about that.”

Malachi turned his dark, soulful eyes on the younger man. “I won’t, but you sure will. Goodbye my friend. And as my great-granddaddy used to say, “Godspeed.”

Before Carter could react, Malachi wrenched his arm away from him, and ran back down the corridor, screaming maniacally, “Come and get me, you tin-plated freaks of nature.” He threw an impatient look over his shoulder, his dreadlocks bouncing. “What are you waiting for, you idiot? A goodbye kiss? Go. Go.”

And Carter went. He ran as if there were no tomorrow. He ran until night became day, and the North Star disappeared. And when that happened, miraculously, there was someone there, in the ruins of the Old City, to feed him and give him a place to sleep, and to guide him to the next safe house. That first day of freedom, Carter shut his eyes, curled up in a ball in a corner of a dilapidated factory, and tried to erase the memory of leaving his old friend behind. It’s here, Malachi, he said silently. It does exist. The old route under the night sky. I followed the North Star just as you said. Met my first good Samaritan, who assures me there are others along the way who will help me, just as you said. The Underground Railroad still stands, silent and strong and ready to help anyone seeking asylum.

A sharp pain in his side brought Carter up short. He had been traveling for more than a week now, using the North Star as his guide. And always, along the way, there were people to help. He was underground now, in a series of tunnels that his last Samaritan had said were built as a physical extension to the Railroad, when the Cyborgs gained control. This portion of the route became too dangerous to follow above ground. People who served the Underground Railroad were being caught and killed, so these passages were built in secret. They still followed the North Star, he said, but below ground.

Carter leaned against the tunnel wall, welcoming the cool, damp feel against his over-heated skin. He listened for the sounds of the trailbots, but couldn’t hear anything. Either they had given up, which was highly unlikely, or they were recharging, which didn’t seem possible either. He couldn’t think of any other reason why they wouldn’t be following him. Well, he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to keep moving. He had no idea how far he’d run, only that he couldn’t go much farther. His entire body was screaming out for rest, for water, for food. Hell, he’d even take that synthesized crap the Cyborgs ate.

Carter pushed away from the wall, setting out at a steady jog this time, instead of a full-on run. His legs felt as if they were on fire. His feet felt slippery and hot inside of his work boots, each step a plunge into red-hot coals. He didn’t want to see what the soles of his feet looked like. He kept going until he keeled over, unable to move another step. He lay there on the cool, packed earth, relishing the feel of it beneath his cheek. This is fine, he thought. I’ll just stay here. All I need is to close my eyes for a few minutes. Five minutes. That’s all. Then I’ll be able to go again. Just five minutes. That’s all. Carter’s eyelids fluttered.

Then snapped open.

Someone was there. And whoever it was, was looking right at him.

Carter sprang to his feet, his heartbeat accelerating. What the hell—? He stared at the creature in front of him. It was a relgat. It had to be, with its ghostly-white skin, a smooth small head, huge bat-like ears standing straight up, and large yellow eyes that took up almost its whole pointed face. There was no room for a nose on that face, so it had three small pinpricks in the shape of a triangle, where its nose ought to be. Its mouth was the only thing that looked almost normal, by human standards. The whole creature, from the tips of its ears to its paddle-shaped feet, if you could call them that, stood maybe five feet high, tops. Carter felt like a giant next to it.

“Hel-lo,” it said, raising a right hand, all four long digits extended in greeting.

Carter stared at the pads of its fingers. They were disc-shaped and looked like suction pads.

“Can you speak?” the relgat asked. “Are you simple? Too much cutting in your brain by the Cyborgs?”

“What?” Carter blinked. The thing spoke perfect English. He shook his head. What was he expecting? Broken English in a foreign-sounding voice? Malachi would be disappointed in him. “I’m… I’m Carter,” he said. “Who—?”

“Ahhhh, Carter. Yes. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“We?” How many of these things were there, for shit’s sake?

In answer, a young man, a boy, black like Malachi, stepped out from the shadows. He touched a hand to his cap, and soft light flooded the area. Carter winced and removed his nightspecs, squinting at the light.

“Hey,” the boy said, by way of greeting. “We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Padraig. And this,” he gestured at the alien, “is Sycamore.”

“Hel-lo again.” Sycamore’s hand went up again, his face splitting in what Carter assumed was a grin. Inside his mouth, short, sharp teeth gleamed against his pearly-white skin. Carter suppressed a shudder. Whatever those teeth ate, it sure wasn’t fruit.

Padraig and Sycamore? Terrific. “How old are you?” he asked the boy. In his opinion, the kid was way too young to be involved in something this dangerous.

Padraig lifted his chin. “I’m twelve,” he said. “And if you want to get out of here without being caught or vaporized, you’ll follow me. I know these tunnels blindfolded.”

Carter held up his hands, stifling a grin. “Hey, no problem. I believe you.”

Padraig stared up at him for a second, then nodded. He and Sycamore exchanged a look, then turned back to Carter. They appeared to be waiting for something. A sign of some sort? A secret password? Carter rubbed the back of his neck and smiled at them, thinking that if this wasn’t a dream, it had to be one of the goofiest encounters he’d ever had.

“So? What now?” he finally said, acutely aware that at any minute he would hear the hum of the trailbots behind him.

“Where’s Malachi?” Padraig said.

Carter felt the blush to the roots of his hair. How could he have forgotten to tell them about Malachi? The old man was his only friend at GenMed for the past three years, and already he was getting used to being without him. What was wrong with him?

“He… he didn’t make it,” Carter said thickly. “He used himself as a diversion so I could get away.” His throat closed up, and he snapped his jaw shut, afraid he was going to start bawling like the incubated babies on the third floor at GenMed.

Padraig said nothing, just stared at him with those young-old eyes that looked as if they’d seen everything life had to offer. Finally he nodded, turned away. “We’d better get going. We still have a long way to go and it won’t be long before the trailbots are fixed.”

Sycamore turned, his long loose robe swishing behind him as he trotted after the boy.

Guess that explains why I haven’t heard them behind me for awhile, Carter thought, watching the twosome glide silently down the tunnel. Taking a deep breath, Carter started after them, thinking this must be the oddest trio that ever walked the earth.

For a long, long time, they walked in silence. Carter considered whistling, but dismissed the idea instantly. In these tunnels the sound would reverberate like a sonic drill. But, speaking of tunnels—

“So, can I ask you something?” Carter said, catching up to Padraig.

The boy nodded, casting him a sideways look.

“What do you know about these tunnels? I mean, the Underground Railroad was just a name for the people and safe houses along the route who helped the escaped slaves back in the old days, right?

“Right.” The boy looked straight ahead, his stride never faltering. Carter had to hand it to him. This was one tough little kid.

“So, whose idea was it to build these tunnels?”

“Padraig shrugged. “Who knows? They’re here and they’re handy, so why question it?” He glanced up at Carter, frowning. “Why do grownups have to question everything good?”

Carter laughed. “I suppose that is a fault in grownups, kid.”

“Don’t call me ‘kid.’ My name’s Padraig.”

“Right. Padraig. Sorry.” He heard a sound like water gurgling down a pipe and glanced back. The alien had his mouth open and the gurgling sound was coming from deep within him. “What’s with your friend?” he asked Padraig.

The boy shrugged, but a tiny smile flitted across his face. “He’s laughing at you.”

Carter raised a brow, but refrained from comment. It seemed both the boy and the alien had a sense of humor. Who knew? “One more question,” he said.

Padraig nodded, his dark, solemn eyes watching Carter carefully.

“How come the walls in this tunnel glow? It’s a little… unsettling.”

“My dad told me there are microscopic creatures that live in the walls. He says they emit their own light. They live and die in the darkness, so nature compensates by imbuing them with their own light source.” He smiled at the surprised expression on Carter’s face then, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “Those are my dad’s exact words,” he said. “He always used big words when he spoke. He… he was the smartest man in the world.”

“Sure sounds like it,” Carter said, then lapsed into silence.

A long while later, when Carter’s stomach started growling, Padraig called a halt. “We’ll stop here for a bit,” he said. “Have something to eat.”

At the mention of food, Carter’s interest piqued. He glanced at the small bag slung over the boy’s shoulder. Didn’t look like it held much. Well, whatever he was offered, he would take it and be grateful for it. He watched as Padraig took out three small bowls, a packet of some sharp-smelling pellets, and four long water tubes. He handed one to Carter and Sycamore, put one aside for himself, and emptied one into equal portions in the three bowls. Then he split open the bag, dropped a handful of the pellets into each of the bowls, and stirred them into the water. Right before his eyes, Carter watched as the mixture thickened and grew. A cold dread began in his stomach, and he raised his eyes to Padraig, willing the boy to tell him it wasn’t what he thought it was.

It was.

Padraig passed him a bowl, a wide grin splitting his face. “Symplon,” he said, his serious tone belying the delight on his face as he watched Carter grimace. “The food of the Cyborgs.”

Carter accepted the bowl with a muttered “thank you.” His eyes slid to Sycamore, who was already dipping his elongated fingers into the greenish-grey mush and shoveling it into his mouth with a resounding smacking sound. If Carter had had any food at all in his belly, he’d have hurled.

“Eat up,” Padraig said, sitting cross-legged, as he dipped his fingers into the swill. “It shouldn’t be too much longer before we’re back above ground. We can pick up the original Railroad trail again without any problem, once the stars come out.”

Carter grunted as he bent to his meal.

For a while, the only sounds were the soft slurping of fingers, interspersed with the smacking sounds coming from Sycamore.

“Gooood,” the alien said, setting his bowl down and beaming at the others, his enormous yellow orbs shining in the darkness.

Carter wanted to offer him his own food, but the thought of walking for hours on end without the possibility of more food kept him from doing that. As repulsive as it was, at least it was nourishment that kept him alive. And for that, he was immensely grateful.

“So,” he said, glancing up at Padraig and Sycamore. “How did you both come to this pretty important job? A boy and an alien? There’s got be a story there.”

Padraig’s chest swelled noticeably. “You’re right,” he said, licking his fingers. “It is an important job. My father was the contact, the Samaritan. I used to go out with him when it got dark, on nights we knew to expect someone. Sometimes we’d wait in the tunnels all night and no one would come, and we’d know they’d run into trouble, got captured or killed.” He sighed. “On those nights, my father was always so sad.”

He looked at Carter, his eyes shining. “I could actually feel him wearing it, you know? His sadness. He always felt so sorry for the ones who didn’t make it this far north.”

Padraig set his bowl down, licked his fingers one last time, and sat back against the tunnel wall. “Then he got sick. Remember when so many humans got sick and died? My dad said the Cyborgs had a cure, that they had a cure for just about everything, but they didn’t care about us. He said they thought we were inferior beings, because we weren’t as strong as them, or as smart as them, and that we had such short life spans anyway, so what difference did it make to them if we all died?” Padraig sniffed, dragging the back of his hand across his nose. “Then my dad got sick, too. He… he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and he’d send me out there when we knew we were getting runners. He told me it was dangerous work and he didn’t want me out there by myself with those trailbots around, but that people were counting on us, and we couldn’t let them down.” He sniffed again, and Carter held his arms rigid at his side to keep from giving the boy a hug.

“Then he died,” Padraig said softly, staring at a point over Sycamore’s shoulder. “My dad died and it was only me. I was the only one there to help those runners. So, whenever a message came through that someone was on the run, I went out by myself and met them.” His eyes met Carter’s, wet with tears. “And that’s how come I met you.”

Carter swallowed back the lump in his throat. He wanted to swoop the kid up in his arms, hold him tight and tell him he’d take care of him, that he’d be his surrogate father, but somehow he knew the kid wouldn’t agree to that. He glanced at Sycamore, who was watching Padraig with wide, mournful eyes. That’s his surrogate dad, Carter thought. The alien takes care of him. I’ll be damned.

“And you?” Carter asked, clearing his throat. “What’s your story?”

Sycamore turned those huge, unnerving eyes on him. He smiled. “When we arrived here all those years ago, humans were so suspicious of us. Even when we proved that all we wanted to do was trade, they still hated us. The Cyborgs were the ones treating the humans badly, but because they were still partly human, they were not as feared as we were.” He looked at Padraig. “I was working for a gen farm, splicing pig and cow DNA together to create a new breed of meat, when one day there was an accident. The genetic modifier I was working on was unstable, and it exploded. It destroyed half the building. Some humans died, and I barely made it out of there with my life. The only reason I survived was because my skin is so tough. If I were human, I would be dead.”

Carter watched as Padraig reached over and squeezed his hand. The gesture was so simple, yet so endearing, Carter’s heart twisted.

“The farmer went for his light-pistol,” Sycamore continued. “So I ran. I ran for days without stopping. Then I found these tunnels. Quite by accident, since they are so well hidden. I hid out in them for days, and when I finally wove my way around, there was Padraig, waiting.”

“Well, I certainly did not expect to see a young human pup in these tunnels—” Sycamore paused, and cocked his head at Padraig. “Come to think of it, I did not expect to see a human pup at all, so it was very much a surprise when I came upon him.” He smiled at the boy. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Waiting for you.’ Then he turned and led the way out of the tunnels to the home he shared with his father.”

He smiled at Carter. “And I have been there ever since.”

Carter stared back in wonder. “How long have you been with him?” he asked.

Sycamore cocked his head again as he contemplated Carter’s question. “Two years, he said. “I have watched him grow centimeter by centimeter.”

There was a short silence as Carter digested this information.

Then Padraig stirred, yawned and got to his feet. “Time to get you on your way, Mr. Carter.”

“Just Carter,” he said, rising and stretching.

They walked again, for so long that Carter wondered what year it was. He didn’t want to ask how much longer it was before they’d emerge into open air again, but he was starting to get seriously claustrophobic. He’d gotten used to following the North Star. There was something comforting in that. It was always there. Constant. Eternal. It would always be there to guide people to freedom and safety, and he wanted to see it again, to reassure himself it would be there to guide him the rest of the way, however long it took for him to reach safety.

These thoughts were chasing themselves around his overtaxed brain, when Padraig spoke.

“We’re here.”

And the next thing Carter knew, he was back outside again, back in the fresh air. Back to the sound of insects humming, to the cool night air kissing his damp skin, to the soft breeze ruffling his hair. He wanted to spread his arms wide and laugh out loud. But of course he didn’t, since both Padraig and Sycamore were looking at him curiously.

“We’ll accompany you for a few more miles,” Padraig said, “until we meet your next contact in the Railroad chain. Then we’ll say goodbye.”

Carter nodded, his eyes on the young boy who was older and wiser beyond his years. He would miss him. Both of them actually. Without a word, he turned and followed them through the woods, the North Star pointing the way in the clear night sky.

Carter could not believe the beauty of this vast wilderness. Where he came from, there was nothing but sterile white buildings, and once he ran for his life, nothing but cities in ruins. He had not known a place like this existed. He took a deep breath. Even the air smelled sweeter here.

When their contact stepped out from behind a tree, smiling at them, Carter sent a silent prayer of thanks to his old friend, Malachi.

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Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature; Master’s degree in Mass Communications. Grew up in many different countries. Publishing history: Public Relations newsletter editor. Articles for local newspapers. Newsletter editor for regional writing organization for three years. Wife. Mother of two. Volunteer. Reader. Sci-fi geek. Email: lloneriter[at]yahoo.com

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