Spider-man crouched on the roof of the Kelter Avenue station and watched Ben Urich and Trent Archer enter the building. The security system at the station seemed state of the art, and, while he hadn’t seen anyone around, he wasn’t about to chance being discovered as he tried to break in. So, on to Plan B.
He swung away across the rooftops, coming to rest on a fire escape overlooking an out of the way manhole cover. He’d chosen the location earlier because it had been the closest to the pump station on a street that seemed pretty much deserted. Last thing I need for my image is to have someone see me entering the sewer. And it was a cinch that Archer wasn’t gonna let me in through the front door.
He slid his fingers into the indentations in the sides of the manhole cover and lifted — or rather, tried to lift. The cover didn’t budge. What the—
He pulled again, harder this time. The cover wouldn’t move. He stared at it. C’mon, it can’t be that heavy!
Glancing around the street, he clamped his fingers in place, braced his feet, and began pulling back on the cover, gradually increasing the upward pressure. The metal disk shuddered and finally jerked upward, showing a tiny crack between it and the rim of the manhole. After several seconds of pulling and straining, Peter pried the cover open, but it was like pulling a piece of metal away from a strong magnet. It took several minutes to figure out how to brace himself against the manhole rim so he could hold the cover open with just his arms and swing his legs down into the hole. Once he was inside, the cover nearly broke a couple of his fingers as it slammed shut again. Geez, how the heck do normal people get that thing open?
Peter grumbled mentally as he climbed down the ladder. Midway down, he struck out across the tunnel wall in the direction of the pump station. I hope those schematics I found have been updated recently.
At least this beat wading through whatever was down at the bottom. Funny, I thought the smell would be a lot worse.
Five minutes later he scrambled up to the ceiling of the tunnel. Voices echoed off the walls. “— broke the seal on number 12,” a man was saying. Lights appeared in the distance.
“Somebody must be trying to put in some overtime,” a woman answered.
“Our personnel are all out of here,” the man said. He was wearing a long dark coat and speaking to the woman, who was walking a few steps behind him. “These tunnels should be deserted. Besides, it would take superhuman strength to get that cover off — we’ve activated the magnetic shielding.
“As far as we know, our resident superhuman is busy elsewhere,” the woman said. Peter peered into the darkness. That voice sounds familiar—
Someone screamed in the distance. The man and woman and their two companions were close enough for Peter to see the guns in the hand of the men at the front and rear of the party. At the sound of the scream, all four turned abruptly. Peter could see the three men’s faces, but the woman was hidden from sight behind the man in the middle.
“Is that...?” the man asked.
“It’s human,” the woman answered. All four of them took off at a run; the lights disappeared around a corner further down the tunnel. Spider-man gathered himself and leaped down the tunnel after them, bounding from wall to wall until he reached the corner. The lights were receding in the distance; dim lights along the sides of the walkways were starting to glow. Continuing his wall-to-wall jumps, Spider-man turned the corner and bounded after the retreating forms.
Several yards behind him, a reptilian head broke the surface of the water and watched him go.
Spider-man crouched midway down the tunnel wall, just outside the halo of the party’s flashlights. The four had found a body — or rather, what was left of a body. Please tell me that’s not Ben Urich
, Peter thought, peering at the knot of people further up the walkway. One of the security guards and the man in the long coat were bending over the corpse; the woman was looking up the tunnel the other way, and the other security guard was visually scanning the area. Can’t get too close yet.
Peter tilted his head to pick up the conversation.
“ID is for Lawrence Steadman,” the man in the coat was saying. “Water and Sewer employee.”
“Okay,” said the woman, and pulled a personal hand computer out of a pocket. She began keying in the information. “Here we go. Lawrence Steadman, age 34, Water and Sewer Department employee for five and a half years. General maintenance and repair. Unmarried, no dependents listed.”
“See if you can pull up his duty schedule.”
The woman tapped the stylus against the keys. After a minute, she answered, “Assigned to third shift, Tunnels B-21 to B-30.”
“Which means he shouldn’t have been down here at this point. Or anywhere near this area,” the man added.
“Is he one of ours?”
“I don’t recognize him. And that makes this even more puzzling.”
“Well, let’s see if Farswimmer can tell us anything,” the woman suggested. She bent over the water and gestured, as if asking something beneath the surface to come up.
A moment later not one, but three objects broke the surface; two remained bobbing in the water, but the third sprang from the water onto the walkway, landing between the man in the coat and the woman. The four flashlight beams suddenly swung away from the creature as all four of the humans jumped back, but Peter caught a glimpse of smooth black skin, too many extremely pointed teeth, and the glint of something metal in the creature’s hand. If that’s a scuba diver, he’s gotta have the worst dental problem on the planet.
The creature suddenly shoved the woman behind it and turned, snarling, to point directly to Spider-man’s location on the wall.
Three of the flashlight beams stabbed the darkness around Spider-man, who was already leaping forward to the opposite wall.
“What the—” a male voice shouted, and Spider-man could hear guns being cocked. There was also a slithering hissing sound, not only from the creature on the walkway, but also from the two in the water, and from the tunnel behind where Spider-man had been crouching.
“Identify yourself!” the man in the coat barked. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the tunnel ceiling. “This is government property, and you are trespassing!”
“Don’t point those things at me,” Spider-man called, scuttling across the ceiling to avoid the flashlight beams and to present a moving target. “I’m not the one who’s stealing your computer expert!”
The lights on the walkway were slowly brightening; Spider-man could see the monster that had leaped onto the concrete had grabbed the woman by the shoulders and pushed her against the wall, crouching in front of her. The two creatures still in the water were closing in. And beyond them, something very large and long broke the surface of the water, churning up waves of water as it sped toward them.
“What the—” Spider-man began.
“Go!” shouted the man in the coat. “Everyone go! This way!”
The dark-skinned creature grabbed the woman by the arm and forced her down the corridor. Both security guards swung in behind the man and began backing rapidly up the tunnel, guns ready. The two creatures in the water ducked back under the surface; Spider-man lost track of them.
The thing that charged up onto the walkway was a snake-like creature with jaws that gaped open as it snarled. Its clawed feet resembled an alligator’s, as did the knobby hide along its back. Unlike an alligator, however, its legs connected to the underside of its body, instead of to its flank, giving it more speed as it bore down on its victims.
The man was cursing; he had drawn a gun out of a pocket. Both security guards took aim, still moving backwards.
“Cover your eyes!” the woman called out.
“We can’t—” the man began.
Spider-man thought as he took aim with both webshooters at the alligator-beast.
A brilliant flash of light filled the tunnel. Spider-man gasped and shut his eyes reflexively, arms coming up to protect his face. The large monster shrieked. Momentarily blinded, Spider-man couldn’t tell which of the people below him was shouting, but he had suddenly recognized the woman’s voice. No way! It can’t be!
Blinking in the semi-darkness that followed the flash, Spider-man focused, not on the people below him, but on the largest of the monsters. The jaws abruptly snapped shut and the beast half turned, clawed feet scrabbling on the concrete as it fought to flee the man who had its tail clamped firmly in two powerful hands. The man leaned back and began reeling the monster’s tail in as though it were a rope. The creature’s claws scraped along the concrete as it fought to move forward.
Wait. I think I know that guy,
Peter thought suddenly. Where have I seen him...?
The snake-like thing suddenly all but bent double and snapped at the man behind it. Planting its forepaws on the walkway next to its hind feet, it flowed in a complete circle and sprang at its tormenter, jaws gaping. The man let go and leaped back; the monster rushed him. He grabbed a jaw in each hand and bent his knees to absorb the blow. The monster’s charge shoved him back down the walkway and almost to the edge of the concrete. The thing shook its head violently, trying to dislodge him. The man twisted the animal’s head sideways, and both plunged into the water.
Spider-man scrambled across the ceiling to the spot where they had vanished. A moment later they both resurfaced in a thrashing tangle, the man’s arms locked around the animal’s jaws, holding them shut. He threw one leg over the creature’s shoulders. The monster dove, carrying him under.
“Some light would really, really help here!” Spider-man called. Two flashlight beams converged on him, and he flinched in the sudden brightness. “Not on me! Down there!” He pointed to the water below.
The man and the monster broke the surface again; by now the man had slid completely over the creature’s body and managed to put his feet down, dragging the animal’s head down against its chest. One arm held its head and jaws immobile, the other circled its ribs, holding it back against him and partially pinning its forelegs.
The monster thrashed, throwing itself from side to side. Both the motion and the slippery wet hide forced the man to continuously fight for a handhold. Spider-man “stood” on the ceiling and took aim at the monster’s head. “Let go of the jaws!”
The man below him tightened his grip, glancing up to find the voice from the ceiling. “What?”
“Let go of the jaws! I’ll get them!”
The woman suddenly crouched at the edge of the walkway, the black creature just behind her. “Thor! He’s Spider-man! He’ll bind the jaws, but you need to let go!”
The man threw her a look, then bunched his shoulders and released the jaws, his freed arm hugging the monster’s neck. Spider-man fired both webshooters and two strands of webbing engulfed the monster’s jaws. The timbre of its roaring suddenly changed as its head jerked back and forth in confusion.
By now nearly half a dozen dark shapes were bobbing the water around the combatants. The creature on the walkway plunged into the middle of the battle, and the rest of its folk converged on the snake-like thing held fast in Thor’s arms. All of the black creatures placed their hands on the monster. It suddenly convulsed once, then went limp, head flopping backwards over its captor’s shoulder. There was a collective gasp from the humans on the walkway, and the creatures in the water trilled softly.
Thor lowered the monster carefully into the water, and three of the black creatures towed it to the walkway, where they all floated beside it. The security guards turned their weapons away from the water battle and pointed them at the figure on the ceiling. Spider-man tensed.
“Don’t shoot him,” said Miranda Evans from her position at the edge of the walkway. She adjusted what looked like a large pair of yellow safety glasses on her face. “The entire point of this mission is to avoid killing anyone.”
“Hold your fire,” the man in the coat told them. The guards slowly lowered their weapons. The man stood gazing up at the ceiling. “Spider-man, is it? Perhaps we’d all be more comfortable if we were standing on the same level?”
Spider-man cautiously picked his way down the wall. In the meantime, Thor had come to the edge of the walkway and pulled himself out of the water to sit on the concrete. Evans knelt an arm’s length away. “Are you all right?”
“Sore, but that will pass. That one was the largest so far.”
“I know. I’d hate to meet that thing’s big brother.”
The man in the coat was bending over the dark forms bobbing beside the monster’s body, as did Evans. One of the forms raised its hands above the surface of the water and made a series of gestures. Peter’s eyes widened behind his mask. He didn’t know many of the hand signs of the language for the deaf, but he did recognize what the creature was doing. That thing knows Sign Language? What are these guys?
“Yes, thank you,” the man in the coat was saying to them. He turned to Evans. “How many are left?”
Evans indicated the creatures in the water with a dip of her head. “They
The man raised his eyebrows and nodded. “All right. They seem to be calling the shots on this venture,” he remarked sourly. He turned back to the creature in the water. “We’ll wait for you here.” The creatures took hold of the monster’s limp form and began guiding it down the tunnel. One creature remained behind, clambering up onto the walkway to crouch beside Evans, who rose. The creature straightened as well.
“Well, some introductions are in order while we wait,” she said. “Spider-man, this,” she indicated the man in the coat, “is Gerald Dixon, who is an assistant manager with the Water and Sewer Department.” Dixon hesitated a moment, then held out a hand for Peter to shake. By now he was close enough to see the goggles that Dixon and the two security guards were wearing. Like the oversized glasses Evans wore, the goggles’ lenses were yellow.
“Thor,” continued Evans, indicating the man who now sat cross-legged on the walkway, hands resting on his knees. “Spider-man is one of our local, ah, independent crime fighters.”
“Uh, hi,” Peter said. Thor leaned toward him and offered him a hand that swallowed Peter’s completely.
“Spider-man. Thank you for your assistance just now.”
“Oh, ah, you’re welcome. Any time.” Great. I meet a real celebrity, and I’m stuttering. Yeah, terrific first impression there, Peter.
“This is Mr. Dunston,” Evans said, indicating the male security guard, “and Ms. Jennings,” the female security guard. Finally Evans gestured toward the creature that stood at her shoulder. “And this imposing individual is Farswimmer.”
Peter stared at the protruding teeth and unblinking black eyes. Jeez, this guy looks like Wes Craven meets Neil Gaiman....
“Uh, hello,” he managed, not certain whether to offer his hand or not. Evans turned to Farswimmer.
“This is Spider-man,” she told it, making a sign for a letter and tapping it against her temple twice. The creature glanced from her to Peter and back. She repeated the gesture. Farswimmer’s gaze came back to Peter and it stepped forward, lowering its head to Peter’s eye level.
“Just stand still,” Evans told him. “He wants to memorize your scent.”
“Oh. Uh, right.” It was all Peter could do not to back away. The creature had a rather unpleasant scent. Yeah, well, I guess if I lived down here all the time, I’d probably smell kinda funny too.
Farswimmer inhaled several times, then nodded. His clawed fingers made the same sign Evans’ had and he tapped his hand against his temple as well.
“Well,” said Dixon. “Now that the pleasantries have been exchanged, perhaps Spider-man could tell us why he’s down here.”
“I’m looking for someone.”
Dixon gave him a look. “This is a pretty strange place to find a date, Spider-man.”
The male security guard chuckled. Farswimmer cocked his head.
“It’s no joke,” Peter broke in. “I’m looking for Ben Urich. He’s a reporter from the Daily Bugle—
“I know who Ben Urich is,” Dixon said. “But he won’t be down here for at least another week.”
“Wrong. He’s here now. I thought that poor guy might have been him,” Peter pointed down the tunnel to where the corpse lay, “but you said that was somebody named Steadman, so Ben Urich and his guide are still missing.”
“No one from my department should be down here today. They certainly shouldn’t be escorting a member of the press.”
“Yeah? Well, tell it to that guy!” Peter snapped, gesturing down the tunnel. “I saw Ben Urich and your man Trent Archer come in through the Kelter Avenue pump station. According to your schematics, that’s just a few blocks away from here. So they’ve got to be in these tunnels someplace. On top of that you’ve got that, that thing Thor was wrestling—”
“Dragon,” Thor corrected him.
Peter paused. “What?”
“It is a dragon.”
Peter looked from Dixon to Thor, and then to Evans, who smiled and tilted her head in a “just-go-with-it” gesture. “Yeah, okay, dragon. And you said there were more of them?”
“Two,” Evans told him.
“Right. So, if no one minds, I’m gonna move along and see if I can find Ben Urich before the dragons do. ‘Bye.”
Farswimmer hissed softly and touched Evans on the shoulder. The woman turned her head to watch his hands. “He says Ben Urich is indeed down here. His people have found him further down this tunnel, not far outside their designated territory.”
“What?” said Peter.
“Terrific,” Dixon muttered, rolling his eyes. “Could this be any more of a fiasco?”
“I don’t know,” Peter replied. He asked Farswimmer, “Is Mr. Urich all right?” Farswimmer nodded.
“Have your people found any other humans down here?” Dixon asked. Farswimmer shook his head.
“So we still have a missing man,” Evans remarked. “Do you know anyone named Trent Archer?”
“No, but that doesn’t prove anything. There are several hundred employees in the Water and Sewer Department,” Dixon replied. “Okay. Call up the Kelter Station video cams.” Evans began tapping keys on her handheld computer. Peter eyed it in admiration.
“Can you get cable on that thing?”
“Almost,” Evans replied, smiling, “except that the monthly rates are deadly. I can, however, access the ‘Net, satellite feeds, cell phones, police frequencies, various audio frequencies, and a number of other resources, all while playing Vivaldi in the background.”
“You didn’t get that at Circuit City, by any chance?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Water and Sewer must have a seriously huge budget.”
“We wish,” Dixon muttered.
Evans merely smiled. “All right, here we are.” She turned so that Dixon and Spider-man could both watch over her shoulder. “This is thirty-eight minutes ago.” The screen showed a room that reminded Peter of the shop and technology room at school. A variety of tools and equipment were stored in bins and on tables. Two men entered through a door at the far end of the room and walked toward the camera, disappearing beneath it. One man was Ben Urich. “Trent Archer should be the guy with Ben Urich,” Peter supplied.
“Well, that man’s not named Archer,” Dixon said, indicating the screen. He held up a plastic badge with a picture on it. “That’s Lawrence Steadman.” The same face gazed back at them from the badge.
“The same guy back there?”
“I don’t get it,” Peter said. “Why would he lie about his name?”
“Why indeed?” Dixon muttered. He and Evans exchanged glances. “All right, let’s regroup. Farswimmer, ask your people to bring Ben Urich and meet us at our base of operations.” The creature nodded and tilted its head to one side, apparently studying the far wall.
, Peter thought suddenly. He’s telepathic! Is he a mutant?
He peered down the tunnel thoughtfully. The close physical similarities among this many individuals make them more like a race, though — most of the mutants I see on the news look different from each other.
He broke off abruptly. Dixon was staring at him thoughtfully.
“Spider-man, perhaps you’d better come with us. Now that we’ve found your friend, you’ll probably want to make certain he’s all right.” Past Dixon, Peter caught a glimpse of Thor watching Dixon with narrowed eyes. Something’s up. No spider-sense, so I’m not in any physical danger, but....
Farswimmer turned away from his contemplation of the wall and reached out to tap Peter on the shoulder. Peter managed not to jump at the contact. The creature made a “come with me” gesture.
“Come along, Spider-man,” said Evans cheerfully. “We’ll introduce you to the rest of the family. I guarantee you’ll find them fascinating.” She stopped in front of Thor. “Would you care to join us, or would you rather sit pool-side for a while?”
“I wouldn’t miss the rest of this for anything,” he replied dryly. “It would be faster if we teleported.”
Evans hesitated. “Yes, but I didn’t want to ask.”
“It’s no trouble.” Thor came smoothly to his feet. “We’re all close enough…. Cover your eyes, Farswimmer. Everyone ready?”
“Uh—” Peter began, and the tunnel vanished in a blinding explosion of white light.