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       Underland, p.2

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “It’s insane!” Alpo cried.

  “No, she’s drunk. It’s a possible side effect from the chocolate and the high. It only happens to humans—if the person hasn’t eaten in a while.” Kira felt the man look her over again as if judging her. “By the way, Vic. You owe me thirty freedom tokens for that chocolate.”

  “What! That’s absurd. It’s sewer-way robbery!”

  “Thirty. Because I saved her life, and you wouldn’t have made one freedom token if she was crazy. The zekes don’t like to eat crazies, tends to make them unpredictable.” He was the only one who referred to her as a person.

  Vic looked at something metal on his wrist and grimaced. “Uh, I’ll have to pay you back as soon as we sell it.”

  Kira bit her lip to keep anymore stupid giggles from escaping her lips. She would not make a fool of herself. When she felt she had finally regained command and her composure, she turned toward where the boat was taking them—and almost lost it again.

  An underground city. Alit with various Christmas lights, neon, and what looked to be some old restaurant signs. It must stretch for miles. Kira saw skyscrapers, oddly-shaped buildings, stores all made from rusted, recycled metals and stone.

  It was hideously beautiful.

  The boat slowed as Alpo maneuvered it towards the dock. The man with the cape jumped out first and secured the tether. When Vic got out, he hauled Kira up after him, but her legs were weak and still bound, and she crashed to the wooden dock. Vic leaned down, unstrapped the belt from her ankles, and demanded she walk.

  She got her bearings and watched as the man that had no name gave her one last long look before turning his back and disappearing among the throng of people.

  She turned to take in the mass of passersby. No one even considered lending a hand. A large man, probably the harbormaster, came over to speak with Vic. His leathery skin stretched tightly over his odd and otherworldly face. He stopped, staring at her with jaundiced yellow eyes, and then opened his mouth and hissed at her.

  She jumped back in surprise, but managed to shoot him an irritated look.

  But then it hit her. She studied the harbormaster, looked at the nearest passerby, and realized just what the oddity was. She swallowed and tried to take a step back toward the boat, back to a semblance of safety.

  The few sparse feet of dock was the only thing that separated her from a city full of monsters.

  Chapter 3

  Kira wasn’t sure which oddity truly awakened her to her non-human counterparts first. It could have been the ten-foot troll selling hotdogs, or what she hoped were hotdogs—the toppings looked questionable and nothing like relish. Or maybe it was the manticore pushing a baby carriage full of kittens.

  Kira stood frozen. Alpo had to physically lift her and drag her into the city. Maybe she had hit her head harder than she thought. Maybe she was just delusional.

  But the farther they walked, the more complex her dream became. There was a small dragon wearing a cap and selling newspapers. A half-man, half-bear was leaning against a dented taxi, waiting for a patron. Did his fares ever ask to go to the surface? There were werewolves, trolls, ogres, and even a few that looked human, like Vic and Alpo. But Kira had to wonder if that was just a ruse. This city didn’t cater to the human kind. The multifaceted monster city thriving under Portland filled her with so many unanswered questions that Kira completely forgot about escape.

  She lost her chance when Vic and Alpo took her to Grater, a five-foot rat with long yellowed teeth that jutted over his bottom lip, who immediately started pawing her body in examination.

  Her first response was to freeze at the hand reaching for her, but then she shook off her creepy memories and fought. Kira threw her head back and head butted Alpo, who held her from behind.

  “Oi, that ’urt,” he grunted and his fingers dug into her arms.

  Kira twisted her body and used Alpo to kick the giant rat. He backed off, but not before she spat at him. She had to assume he was the one who was going to buy her, and she wanted to deter him by being as disgusting as she could.

  She examined him at the same time. One large round ear was torn, and his tail had seen better days—no tip. The rat wore clothes that looked to have come out of a garbage bin. Kira could respect that because she shopped dumpsters herself.

  Grater walked around Kira, his long nose brushing against her shoulder and sniffing her hair. “This one smells of the surface. What slave farm did you say you got it from?”

  Vic rolled his shoulders and smiled. “My Uncle’s in San Fran. I had to travel a ways to bring it, and our home tunnel was blocked so we had to take a detour through the surface. But you can tell by looking at it, it’s from down here.” He sounded like a used car salesman.

  “He’s lying.” Kira glared at Vic and Alpo.

  Vic’s eyes went wide in pretend shock. “How can you say such a thing? We’ve taken such good care of you.” He turned his back and addressed Grater. “That’s what we get for getting too attached to them. You start giving them privileges, feed them, and sooner or later, they turn on you.” He paused and looked at Kira sadly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what she presumed was forged paperwork, with her fake identity on it.

  “I’ve never seen you before in my life. You kidnapped me from outside the Pearl District. I don’t know you.” Kira wasn’t sure what good trying to prove her humanity would do, but she obviously didn’t belong down here.

  Alpo came up behind her and smacked her on the head. “Quiet, slave, or we’ll take you back to the farm.”

  Grater watched the exchange through narrowed eyes. He scanned the paperwork and asked to see her brand. She grinned; she knew she didn’t have any kind of mark on her body that would give truth to their lie.

  Vic smiled. “Gladly! Alpo, hold it down.”

  Hands gripped Kira’s hair and pulled her head down across the vendor table. They smashed her face against rotted fruit and what she assumed was some kind of dead squirrel. The stench filled her nostrils and she had to close her eyes, breathe through her mouth to keep from vomiting. Clawed fingers moved against her neck, and she tried to buck backwards in defense. The rat traced a mark behind her ear, and she winced in pain. Something was wrong.

  “Well, everything does seem to be in order, even if its slave mark looks a little newer than the others.” Grater squinted and looked between Alpo and Vic thoughtfully. “Where’s its bracer?” He pointed a gnarled finger at her wrist.

  “Malfunctioned. We’re waiting to register it to get a new one.”

  As soon as they let her, Kira straightened up and tried to look for a reflective surface. She found one in a polished broken mirror a few feet away and had to crane her neck to see the almost indistinguishable hash mark tattooed below her right ear. Her skin was slightly pink where the ink had been applied, but it looked days old. If they’d tattooed her when she was knocked out, she could have been unconscious for days, not hours.

  How far had they traveled since then? She’d never find her way home now.

  “I’ll give you three hundred,” Grater intoned nonchalantly.

  “I won’t accept anything less than five,” Vic argued.

  “It looks a little wild in the eyes. I can’t feed it to the zekes like that.” Grater turned as if to leave.

  “Nonsense, it’s stubborn, not crazy. Four fifty.” Vic looked furious, veins bulging on his forehead. Alpo stood quietly behind Vic and held onto Kira, but he kept shifting on the balls of his feet.

  “It is too thin, not enough meat on the bones. I would have to fatten it up to use it as feed, and that costs me more money. I’ll give you two fifty.”

  “Wait, you’re supposed to go up, not down!” Vic screeched and grabbed at his hair. “Fine. Three hundred, and use it however you want.” Negotiations were obviously not his strong suit.

  “Deal. Three hundred freedom tokens.” Grater smiled evilly at getting his first price. Or it could have been happily. It was hard to tell with his snout a
nd whiskers. He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a metal arm band with a black digital screen and keypad. He tapped it, then held out his arm. The screen flashed with a lots of slashes and circles—like something you might see on an ancient artifact.

  Vic revealed his own bracer and touched it to Grater’s. A low chime sounded and green digital marks on Vic’s changed to include Grater’s money.

  Grater disappeared into a stall and reappeared moments later with a larger metal band attached to a chain. Kira struggled against Alpo’s strength. The death-grip he had on her head said he was definitely not human. Grater lifted the collar up to her neck, and when the metal lock clicked, Kira fought the urge to scream and claw at the band around her neck.

  She was proud that she didn’t break down and cry. Grater tugged on her new leash, and Kira yanked back angrily. In a wink, Grater flipped the chain around Kira’s legs and pulled, knocking her onto her back hard. Blinding pain shot through her vision. Man was the rat fast.

  Grater put one foot on her chest and leaned his foul smelling snout towards her face. “Don’t give me trouble.” He stepped back and allowed her room to get up. He picked up a walking stick and beckoned her to follow him. Another rat came out from the back and took over the vendor stall. Grater cut through an alley and headed towards what looked to be the downtown area.

  “They were lying to you,” Kira spoke heatedly. “You were dumb enough to believe them.”

  Grater picked up his stick and whacked Kira on the back of the head. “Slaves don’t talk!” He walked in silence for a few beats. “I wasn’t dumb enough to believe them. Vic’s Uncle’s farm hasn’t had any slaves in years. The slave farms are dying, especially with the ban against going to the surface. But we’re the ones going extinct. While your kind multiply like cockroaches on the surface, we are left here to rot in the underbelly of society. Forgotten, the biggest crime of all.” Grater spit into the street. “But you’re in our world now.”

  “If you knew they were lying and I was from the surface, why did you buy me?” This time she was prepared. When the stick came her way, she ducked, and she would have cheered except that she missed the return swing aimed at her shins. She buckled to the ground in pain.

  “You might as well get adjusted to our way of doing things down here. Doesn’t matter where you’re from, whether the borderlands or the surface. You’ll still be fodder, and even fodder has a price. But I’m warning you, any funny business and I’ll kill you right here.”

  Kira pitched forward, pressed her head to the littered sidewalk, and tried to flex her purple fingers. She had lost all feeling in her hands; the zip tie had cut off most circulation. “Give me a second.”

  Grater didn’t swing at her for talking.

  But he did pull out a knife.

  The blade arced towards her back, and Kira sucked in her breath.

  A quick snap, and her hands were freed. They flopped uselessly to her side, and she took a moment to stare at the purple and gray lumps that were her hands.

  Fear for her life out of the way momentarily, Kira panicked over her useless hands. Pain like a searing flame licked her skin. Kira tried to move her fingers, but she still couldn’t.

  Grater grabbed her hands and brought them up to his nose and inhaled the scent of her palms.

  “Not dead yet. Dying, but it can be reversed. It doesn’t change your value any if you don’t have hands. Some might prefer it.” He yanked on her chain, and Kira lurched forward, trying to get to her feet. Not easy without the support of her hands.

  Kira followed Grater, rubbing her hands along her thighs, forcing blood back into them. They still looked grayish, but the purple was fading.

  Grater ducked into an alley and stopped before a large metal door. After a series of quick raps, the door opened. A giant with a missing eye escorted them into a large courtyard filled with cages. He opened an empty cage and waited for Grater to take Kira’s lead chain off. But first, Grater attached a band to her wrist, similar to the ones she’d seen almost everyone wearing. Then, with a quick kick, Grater sent Kira flailing to the dirt floor.

  Her arms too weak to catch her body weight, she struggled to get up. Before she could get to the door, the giant slammed it in her face and turned the key. He gave her a grin when she flung herself against the bars in anger.

  “You no good, flea-bitten, dirty son of a…” She didn’t finish because he opened his mouth and let out a deafening roar. The stench from his toxic breath made Kira gag. She turned to search for fresher air and sat down against the side of her cage. She glared at the giant.

  Grater ignored her, speaking to his partner, a human-sized Doberman in brown breeches and a red leather vest. They both gave her speculative looks before walking towards the far side of the courtyard.

  She spent twenty minutes prying at the metal band, banging it, trying to remove the thing from her wrist. All she did was give herself painful red scratches up and down. She couldn’t handle looking at the digital green lights. But she soon noticed that if she didn’t touch it, they would fade to black.

  Kira lifted her head to watch Grater leaning against a wall lined with metal slats—a whole series of cages.

  “You’re a human aren’t you?” a hushed voice whispered.

  Kira’s neck snapped in the direction of the speaker, a tall girl with brown skin and dark green hair. She wore the tattered remains of what looked like a dress made from leaves and moss. Was there someone in every one of the cages? How many prisoners did they keep here?

  “Yeah, you smell human. Which means you’ll be dead soon,” the girl continued.

  “I’m alive now, and that’s what matters.” Kira’s voice lacked the haughtiness she’d had earlier. Here was a young girl in her own situation who knew more than she did. She needed whatever information the girl could give her if she was going to survive.

  “They are going to sell you,” she gestured to the other cages around the courtyard, “to the highest bidder. And with you being human, that means only one thing. Death.”

  “That’s what everyone keeps telling me. But I’m still alive.”

  “For now.”

  “What’s your name?” Kira asked.

  “Sable.”

  “I’m Kira.” She waited a second and then asked. “So what is this, and how do I get it off?”

  Sable sunk back into her cage, and it took a moment before she answered.

  “You’re not from a farm.” She looked scared. “Otherwise you’d know that already. Who are you?”

  “I’m from above,” Kira pointed up with one finger. “Portland.”

  She shook her head and started to rock back and forth in her cage. “Oh no no no, then you’ll definitely never be allowed to go home…alive.”

  Kira waited patiently for the girl to come to her senses. She held up her wrist and waited for Sable to reply.

  She spoke softly. Sadly. “It’s your bracer. You’ve been registered as an Underlander. Your tracker, your identity—it’s all tied into that little machine, and it won’t come off, unless you…” She made sawing motion across her wrist.

  Kira paled at the thought.

  “But even if you do, they’ll find you and attach a bigger one to your neck.” Sable pointed to another cage where the inhabitant was missing a hand. A much more permanent metal collar surrounded his neck.

  “That’s horrible.” Kira shivered and eyed the band. Maybe she could leave it for the time being. “What is this place?” Kira let the questions spill. “And how do I get out of here?”

  Sable paused and looked around. “This is the Gamblers’ Market. Plutus calls in gambling debts, and debtors are forced to come here and try and sell their services. If a family member can, they’ll come and pay off the debt. But if no one buys a debtor, then they may be bought by a sponsor and forced to compete in the games anyway.”

  “Games?”

  Her green cheeks turned brown when she blushed. “Games, gauntlets, challenges. They’re all the same. Our whole
economy—our whole society—revolves around the games. Working for the games, training fighters for the games, competing for the games, betting and losing on the games.”

  “That sounds kind of absurd.”

  “Does it?” Sable flipped her green tresses over her shoulder and sighed. “I hear your world spends billions, and cities revolve around basketball, baseball, and feetball.”

  “Football.”

  “Football, yes. We don’t have that, but why is it so hard to imagine we’re any different? We have the ever-changing games. By decree of the Underlords of Olympus Tower. If you compete and win, both you and your sponsor—or owner—make tons of freedom tokens. But you’re a human,” she emphasized the word dramatically. “So Raz will end up selling you to feed a sponsor’s vamp or zeke or anything else with a taste for your kind.”

  “Zeke?”

  Kira’s blank stare made Sable sigh like a petulant child. “A zeke is a zombie. They feed on humans, you know. Well actually they feed on anyone, but they prefer humans.

  Kira’s smile fell. There really wasn’t an easy way out of here. She’d spotted a few huge looking beasts, dragon, a Cyclops, and what looked to be about five other humans, but Kira knew better than to assume they were like her. She was most surprised at the quiet nature of the young teen in the cage to Kira’s right. He sat on the floor, head bowed, with his elbows resting on his knees. He didn’t look scared or frightened about his predicament. He seemed casually resigned, and he ignored Kira completely.

  Raz and Grater finished their conversation and then walked around to each of the cages and spoke quietly. When they paused in front of Sable’s cage, Kira strained to overhear what they said.

  “What about this one? What should I put on the bill about this one?” Raz, the intimidating Doberman asked, his voice a deep growl.

  Grater crooked one long finger at Sable. “Swamp Nymph: strengths include cunning, speed, resourcefulness, and ability to maneuver through water and woods with ease. Weaknesses: physical strength and fear of fire.” Sable looked terrified.

 
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