Authors: Jamie Quaid
My biggest threat would be falling on my face and not being able to get up.
Or Andre, if he caught me.
He’d said this suit was only good for chemicals, not
gas. I could ditch it, but I figured the breathing apparatus was better than breathing gas.
My Saturnian need for justice was welling, undeterred by practicality. I had to see for myself that my pal Bill was safe before I blamed the world and wiped it out.
With my temper, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of Armageddon.
outh Baltimore is industrial. On any given day we can expect to smell garlic from the spice-packing plant, dead fish from boats in the harbor, or a rotten-cabbage stench from one of the chemical plants. Today, the air reeked of ozone, that fried electrical smell you get when a wire is going bad.
Being able to smell the air probably meant I’d better figure out how to work the suit, but it didn’t come with instructions. I’m good at reading rule-books and manuals, not so hot at intuiting technology on my own.
Staggering around in a hazmat suit—even one of the lighter ones—isn’t as easy as it looks. But I couldn’t tolerate watching injustice without taking
someone down. My first goal was to find Paddy and see if he could be directed into Acme to find Sarah and Bill. I’d drag the eccentric scientist by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin if I had to.
Milo trotted after me. I sighed, glanced back to verify I’d firmly closed the warehouse door, then picked him up and put him in a pocket of the suit. He’d saved my life more than once. Who was I to argue?
Shuffling downhill, I gathered momentum and a little stability. Deciding I’d rather not meet Andre coming up, I took the alleyways and practiced judicious concealment, sort of like in the good old days when I used to keep my head down and my mouth shut.
That’s how I’d learned our Dumpsters traveled. I’d thought they were spying on me until one night I caught them dancing.
A big rusted green bin rumbled into my path now. In a hurry, I tried to squeeze past it. When the stinky Dumpster tried to crush me against a brick wall, I kicked it in a rusted patch, tearing a hole in it. Then I clambered up the side and over. I spit into the garbage as I crossed, to show it who was boss.
The erratic videos I’d been receiving hadn’t adequately depicted the fantastical image of the main business strip. The gas covering the Zone and harbor was more like drifting smoke than a heavy wet cloud. Sunlight filtered through, highlighting the sparkly pink particles. It made a great Disney effect. All we needed was a pink castle.
Instead of frivolity, though, we had eerily empty
streets in the shadow of the looming remains of burned-out storage tanks and incinerator chimneys.
Since Chesty’s was the largest business in the Zone and had both liquor and food to attract crowds, I’d figured it was a good starting place for my hunt. Paddy sometimes hung out there. But I wasn’t ready to go in without scouting the territory. After the videos I’d received, I’d expected brawls on every corner. Where was everyone? Nervously, I peered from the alley beside Chesty’s to the main drag of Edgewater. Two people in the fancy style of hazmat suit were loading Officer Leibowitz into an unmarked van. Not an ambulance, a van. Now, I had no love for Leibowitz, our street cop. He was a rolling ton of lard who’d terrorized me, blackmailed a gay teenager, and used the law badly—but he was
crooked cop, and no human deserves to be treated like a guinea pig.
I was wondering if I could visualize blowing up the van’s tires, and engaging in my usual internal debate on morality, when Ernesto came rampaging out of the shadows with his wheelbarrow. Ernesto is pretty much a Danny DeVito doppelganger with a bad attitude. The hazmats he was attacking were twice his height and muscle. And there were two of them. Had he lost what passed for his mind?
Ernesto rammed the heavy wheelbarrow into the back of the first hazmat’s knees. With a cry, his victim lost his grip on the stretcher and crumpled backward into the barrow. His abrupt release caused the end of the stretcher to fall to the road, and in a very smooth
chain reaction, Leibowitz flipped—unconscious, face-forward—into the barrow on top of the hazmat.
No way was Ernesto holding up that mass of flesh. The overloaded wheelbarrow tilted forward. Ernesto struggled to keep it upright, but he couldn’t balance the weight of two men. With a clunk as the metal hit blacktop, Leibowitz was unceremoniously dumped back to the street. Without the cop’s deadweight on top of him, Ernesto’s hazmat victim scrambled out of his ignominious position.
Both body snatchers started swinging fists.
I didn’t like Chesty’s sleazeball manager any more than I liked Leibowitz, but the unfairness of two young, strong men beating up on one little old guy hit me squarely in the justice button.
It would be wiser for all if I could learn to think these things through in quiet contemplation, but that’s not really possible when fists are involved.
Without much practice at my new talent, I was flying without radar. The image of body snatchers cracking knuckles against solid ice appeared in my head, and, hidden in the alley, I went with it. No idea where that visual came from. I just got mad, visualized, and
! It happened.
Unfortunately, the enactment of a visualization was not always literal, but this time I came close. The whack of knuckles hitting a hard surface and the howls of shock that followed said I’d done
With my back to a brick wall, I peered around the corner again. The body snatchers nursed cracked bones—or smashed hazmat gloves—cursed, and glared
in disbelief at the iceberg between them and Ernesto. The pink ice was already melting into Edgewater’s chemically enhanced blacktop. So maybe I’d frozen gas.
Ernesto tugged at Leibowitz’s nearly three hundred pounds, attempting to load him into his rusted wheelbarrow. Disguised in my suit, I considered it safe enough to saunter out to help him.
The diminutive manager sent me a suspicious glare but refrained from questioning pink rock candy mountains as long as I was helping him load the cop. Weirdnesses happened in the Zone. We left the attendants bandaging busted knuckles and shoved our unorthodox gurney toward Chesty’s.
Before I entered the bar, I stared down the oddly empty street. It felt like a science-fiction film: earth after a nuclear war had wiped out all life forms. Or maybe that was just the effect of the moonwalking suit I was wearing.
Beneath the wispy weird cloud, I could see that the police had barricaded off the end of Edgewater that led up to Acme Chemical. Were they keeping Acme in or us out?
Since there were a dozen official vehicles at the plant and zero on our side, my bet was that they had sealed off Acme in the foolish belief that the cloud wasn’t hurting anyone down here. If a tank had blown, they probably had multiple injuries inside the facility. Out here, we were invisible. Or unimportant guinea pigs.
I followed Ernesto into Chesty’s . . . and walked in on an impromptu town hall meeting.
Or maybe it was a triage camp. Ernesto trundled his burden to a pallet on the floor and unceremoniously dumped him out. Comatose old people sprawled on blankets littered the floor between tables. And men in hazmat congregated around the bar, arguing, giving the place the appearance of a tavern on the moon.
Oddly, there were several people in hospital scrubs circulating from pallet to pallet, testing pulses and bandaging injuries. They didn’t seem any older than me. Medical students? The cheap housing in the industrial district attracted penniless students from the various universities and even Johns Hopkins, but the Zone seemed an unlikely hangout. Why weren’t they wearing hazmat suits?
I saw no sign of Paddy, but Ernesto had returned to the bar, where he was passing out drinks. Hazmat helmets were off or open. My stomach rumbled, reminding me that none of us had eaten this morning. Alcohol on donuts and empty stomachs was unappealing and not a particularly smart idea.
Accepting that Ernesto had been helping and not harming for a change, I tramped through the kitchen as if I owned it. I’d worked at Chesty’s as both flunky and waitress, had friends back here who fed me for free, so I knew my way around.
Pulling off my gloves, I set the coffee machines running, gathered every edible in sight, and, wondering if gas had contaminated the food, carried it to the bar.
“If you’re not worried about the air in here, then I’m assuming the food is safe,” I announced mechanically, still stupidly wearing my hood in hopes
of reducing the gas effect. “Coffee will be ready in a minute.”
“Thanks, Tina.” The tallest suit pulled off a glove and swiped a whole mini-loaf of bread from the tray. Polite, with big hands—that would be Schwartz.
Andre was leaning with his back against the bar, watching the students and their patients, only half-listening to the hubbub around him. He’d removed his hood and gloves, so he could only narrow his eyes at my arrival and not complain too loudly about lawyers being a waste of suit.
“Are they dead?” I asked as Andre swiped a handful of brownies.
“Comatose.” Frank pulled off his hood gear and took one of the mini-loaves and a bucket of butter.
“Why aren’t you taking them up to the house then? Isn’t it dangerous down here?”
“Hard to say,” Andre growled. “Paddy was out there earlier. He says the gas is only affecting those who are already sick. But it knocked out Sarah, so keep your suit on.”
Andre didn’t fully grasp what Sarah and I were. Neither did we, actually. But he’d seen the identical tattoos of justice scales on our backs, and he wasn’t stupid. In fact, sometimes, he was freakily prescient.
“Unless you have him, I think Acme got Bill, too,” I warned.
There was true remorse under Andre’s curses this time. If Paddy was right, did that mean Bill had been sick already? He’d seemed plenty healthy, although he’d once been a heavy smoker. Like most men, Bill
probably thought himself invincible and had never bothered with doctors.
So I kept my suit on, even though I was starving. But I snatched the last brownie and crammed it under the hood to munch, and fed a sardine to Milo in my pocket.
“Where’s Paddy now?” I asked, intent on my goal of rescuing Sarah.
Ernesto produced a tray of coffee. The aroma was heavenly, but I couldn’t figure out how to drink coffee and keep my hood on. Frustrated, I took it off despite the warning. I could die of starvation or get some caffeine and go berserk with gas. I chose the latter as more interesting.
At my defiant action, Andre asked, “If I was mayor and passed a law forbidding you to go outside without a suit, would you obey it?”
“What do you think?” I greedily sucked down coffee.
“I think lawyers ought to obey the law,” Andre replied grumpily.
“And mayors only make laws the voters want, so you don’t get to be dictator. This voter wants coffee. Now, again, where’s Paddy?” Andre’s charm didn’t work so well on me, and he knew it. Neither did his attempts to distract, although the kiss still burning my cheek had potential.
“Paddy’s probably locked up with Sarah and Bill in the decontamination chamber,” Schwartz answered, averting further squabbling. Leo didn’t talk much, but when he did, it was effective.
“Decontamination chamber?” I’m quick. I got it. I just wanted it spelled out clearly before I flew into a vengeful fury. I was starting to recognize the signs of mindless red rage that meant I was headed for full-out ballistic. Now I had to figure out how to control it.
Hearing the anger in my voice, Andre broke a bread loaf and stuffed a piece in my mouth. “Don’t go berserk on an empty stomach.”
Even a day old, the bread was good. Rosemary with a hint of garlic. I couldn’t yell with my mouth full, but I could glare daggers at the back of Andre’s thick head.
Schwartz added cream and sugar to his coffee. “Acme,” he said.
I rolled my eyes at his terse explanation. “They’re decontaminating the plant but not us?” I asked, chewing as fast as I could but still talking through a mouthful.
“Yup. They’ve got the EPA and all the pros running all over the building, vacuuming up blue goo or whatever. The official reports say the air quality is good, that once the gas hits open air the harmful particles are disbanded, and so the danger is only inside the plant.” Andre sipped his coffee black.
I followed his gaze to our elderly patients. “Right. The best kind of air quality, one that kills the old and homeless and cops. They’re just an albatross around society’s neck anyway.” My opinion of cops wasn’t high, Schwartz notwithstanding, but in this case, I was being sarcastic.
“Ouch,” Frank said. Frank had once been a bum
who lived under bridges, according to Andre. The Zone had been good to him, sort of cleaned him up. Short, dark, and wiry, he tended to lurk in shadows, kind of like me. So I didn’t know him well.
“Tina’s a cynic,” Andre said, but he didn’t argue with my assessment.
That’s the thing about me and Andre. We might verbally gouge each other’s eyes out, but underneath, we were often on the same page. Our methods of solving problems widely differed, however. He was sneaky. I was rash, although I prefer to think of it as being blunt and straightforward.