The bounty hunter was late for work.
She was half a block away from the subway entrance and she could already see a mass of humanity pouring out of it from some just-departed train. But she had to get down the stairs, and fast. So she dove in against the flow, holding her coffee at shoulder height and keeping to one side against the railing.
Once she got to the bottom of the stairs there were less people. She drank the remainder of her coffee and took off down a long walkway with walls covered in white tiles that had probably once presented the clean geometry of a bustling city but were now cracked and dusty and tired-looking.
By the time she reached the platform it had emptied, so the bounty hunter could see all the way from one end to the other. She squinted at the tunnels at either extremity of the station. She checked her watch. She tossed out her coffee cup and went to about the mid point. Her job was supposedly in the front half of the next train.
Minutes passed. A pair of headlight eyes appeared in the pitch black tunnel and a blast of smelly underground air whooshed into the station. The bounty hunter’s hair and long black coat blew all around. She checked her watch again. Hopefully this was the right train and she hadn’t missed her connection.
The station signs lit up and the train came screeching in. Like the rest of the station, the train looked like something that had once been shiny and modern-looking, state-of-the-art even, but now was banged up and dusty but serviceable. Its windows flipped past the bounty hunter’s field of vision like movie frames. Her eyes tracked back and forth as she took stock of the occupants of each car.
Nope, nope, nope, not that one, … maybe this one. The doors slid open and she was inside. She stayed by the door where she could see the whole car.
The train was full but not packed. Nobody was talking so there was just the noise of the tracks and the rattling of the doors. Whenever the train hit a bump the passengers’ heads bobbed up and down like eggs in a carton.
When the train rounded a curve the bounty hunter could see into the next car. And there he was, she was pretty sure. Her quarry. Sitting in a sideways-facing seat near the doors. She would have to move quickly in case he decided to exit at the next station.
The Tromindox looked up and then immediately looked back down into his lap. He froze. Crap, he thought. Did she see me? She looked straight at me. This was supposed to be a clean route. Maybe she didn’t see me. He tried to hunch over, hoping his hood and scraggly hair would obscure his face. But that didn’t help much.
Now she was closer, coming through the doors at the end of the car. Eyes fixed on him. No way she didn’t see him. His only choice now was to try and lose her. How could this happen? He shifted in his seat.
The train slowed down and people gathered their things. The Tromindox stood up, or rather unfurled, from his seat. Nearly seven feet tall, with grey skin and yellow eyes, he resembled an unhealthy giant, or maybe an oversized vampire, dressed in a size extra-extra-large greyish black hoodie and cargo pants. Passengers pressed toward the doors, ignoring him. Except for the bounty hunter, who now stood in the center aisle about three rows away.
The Tromindox put on a pair of huge sunglasses. His hands were grey and long like the rest of him. His narrow hips jutted forward and the legs that extended into his boots seemed almost too thin to hold him up. The lights of the station showed in his lenses. Along with the reflection of the bounty hunter.
The bounty hunter reached into her pocket and took hold of an object the size and shape of a large-ish coin. The object was warm, pulsing with genetic data gathered from the Tromindox’s latest victim. A victim who was still contained inside him, and still presumably mostly human. That’s what the bounty hunter hoped. She was about to attempt to reverse a process that could have been going on for hours, or days. In which there might be a whole person, or part of a person, or nothing, left. She would do her best to reconstitute the human at the expense of the Tromindox. This was the job. She’d get paid based on how well she did this.
The Tromindox went with the crowd out of the train and she followed. The creature, for all his bulk, navigated through the tangle of people on the platform startlingly fast. He seemed to flow between them like a breeze. The only reason the bounty hunter could keep an eye on him was because of his height. She struggled to maintain contact. She was so much more solid than he was. He was like vapor, she was a pinball.
The object in the bounty hunter’s pocket was even hotter now, must have been from being so close to the target. This was a good sign, it meant there was a fair chance she would be able to free a whole person. Or most of them. A person who looked right, but maybe had nightmares. Or a strange facial tic that wasn’t there before. But a person, nonetheless, with a chance to go on with their life in some form.
The Tromindox took an unexpected path down the platform, parallel to the train it had just come out of instead of heading up and out with everyone else. Why? The bounty hunter followed with her eyes glued on him. Was the creature confused about how to leave the station? The stairs were in the opposite direction. Trying to keep up she collided with a lady in a peacock-blue coat pushing a fluff ball dog in a stroller. The dog yapped at her and its human yapped some bad words.
The train doors shut and the brakes released with a thunk. It rolled forward and started gaining speed. The Tromindox was still walking along the platform, toward the back of the train. And then just as the train was about to pass him by, the creature shot out an arm and grabbed on. The force of the train’s momentum yanked the Tromindox right off the platform and into the air. His body lost its humanoid shape and became a billowing black sheet. It flapped violently and nearly hit the bounty hunter in the face as it rushed by.
The bounty hunter spun around and almost fell onto the tracks. But she was not about to let this job get away. Not with bills to pay and a paper-thin bank account. No, she needed this one. So she did what she had to. She started running.
There was a utility handle on the very back of the train at about shoulder height. The bounty hunter reached out for it like a child trying to get onto a spinning carousel ride on a playground. Her fingers were inches away, and in a few seconds the train would whoosh off into the tunnel carrying her paycheck.
So she leapt.
She leapt forward with everything she could muster and grabbed onto that handle like it was the only thing in the world. She wrapped her fingers around it tight. Now the train was going fast enough she couldn’t keep her feet on the platform at all, and so she didn’t. She swung onto the step at the train’s back door. There was nobody there, the operator would be at the other end. So she rode along like a stowaway on a caboose. Into the tunnel they went.
Now they were in the dark and she had to find this Tromindox before they got to the next station or he’d be gone for sure. She wedged her foot in the utility handle and hoisted herself up. That was enough to reach the roof. There wasn’t enough room up there to stand or even crawl so she stayed flat.
A spark from the tracks illuminated everything for a split second like a flash photo and there he was, a raggedy shape two cars ahead and flattened on the roof just like her. Another flash, another snapshot, and the Tromindox had moved farther away. She had some catching up to do.
The train burst into the bright lights of the next station. She could see her target now, right in front of her. He stayed where he was. Maybe he knew she would run him down if it became a footrace. The train stopped, the doors opened, the sound of vigorous ukulele music spilled out, people entered and exited, the doors closed.
Once she was sure no one on the platform was looking the bounty hunter got up into a crouch and ran forward. She gained two cars of distance before the train took off again and she had to lie flat. But this time the sparks in the pitch black tunnel revealed nothing. Where had he gone?
She elbow-crawled forward to the last place she had seen him. There was no sign of a Tromindox or anything else. She checked the coin in her pocket. It was still warm, still activated. Her quarry had to be nearby. But where? Had he popped back onto the train? Was he directly beneath her? She craned her neck as far as was practical up front and around back and then she looked down into the space between the cars.
The Tromindox exploded up from the gap and into the bounty hunter’s face throwing its limbs around like an attacking octopus. The bounty hunter was thrown backward. She kicked her legs to push the creature off and the two of them rolled apart and nearly flew off of either side of the roof. The bright upside-down U shape of the tunnel’s end at the next station was already coming into view.
The Tromindox dissolved into a thick black liquid and oozed back down between the cars. That attack was probably all it could muster, since it was so busy digesting a human. It was sluggish like a recently-fed boa constrictor. Hanging on to any particular shape was probably a lot of effort at this stage. The bounty hunter knew this. She just had to stay close enough and be patient.
The next station was bigger and shinier than the previous two. The walls and posts were lit up with images of happy faces and big letters that spelled out the words for selling products, and vacations, and financial services. The floor gleamed. This was downtown.
This station was built to bigger proportions and so less crowded. This would make it harder for the Tromindox to blend in and disappear. But against what would seem like better judgment the Tromindox leapt out from between the cars, once again shaped like a skeletal human form in a hoodie, and took off running across the platform. The bounty hunter rolled off the train’s roof and ran after him. She caught up with the creature at the deserted far end of the platform. He was surely exhausted at this point. The bounty hunter came up behind him and grabbed two fistfuls of the back of his shirt.
The Tromindox stumbled and grasped around over his shoulders trying to dislodge the bounty hunter. He hissed and pitched to one side. A tentacle shot out from somewhere and grabbed the bounty hunter by the throat and began tightening. This particular individual did have a surprising amount of strength remaining.
“Ughllghhhh,” gasped the bounty hunter. The Tromindox lifted her off the floor and she kicked her feet around in the air. She struggled like this for what seemed like a long time, but then the Tromindox suddenly dropped her and she doubled over and gulped air. Another train was arriving. He glared down at her through his yellow eye slits. He yanked his hood farther down over his face and headed off to board this new train. Maybe he thought being seen by other passengers would make the bounty hunter’s activities look like a random assault on an innocent seven-foot-tall man.
The train left.
The platform was once again deserted except for an old woman pulling a squeaky wire cart stuffed with plastic bags and the bounty hunter who sat on the ground in silence.
The bounty hunter could see the shape of the Tromindox through the train window as it left her behind. She pulled out a palm-sized square device fitted with a button and a screen and a sort of a digital syringe, built for use in the field and specially reinforced. The indicator on the screen was red for empty. She had dumped its contents into the Tromindox.
If the syringe did its job, in a few minutes the Tromindox would dissolve into a fine powder and left in its place would be a very confused and disoriented human being wearing an oversized grey hoodie and some ridiculous sunglasses. The powder would fall to the floor and get spread around on the bottoms of people’s shoes, but it was harmless. Just dusty. Like the rest of the city.
The human left behind by the dissolved Tromindox would be in need of help. They would require medical attention, examination, reuniting with their family or whoever they were connected to. That might take some time. Sometimes humans extracted from Tromindox would not be able to remember their names for a day or two. Usually after a little time it all came back, and while they might have some lasting effects, they had a hope of returning to their normal life. Perhaps a life as someone riding on the downtown train with all the other oblivious people going to some job or to meet friends. The bounty hunter did not know. She only freed the humans and did not get involved beyond that. All anyone on the train would know is that there was a person there who seemed out-of-it and who was very dusty for some reason.
It was mid-morning now. The bounty hunter caught a train back to where she started. She climbed the stairs out of the station. She pulled the now-cold token out of her pocket and inserted it into a slot in the side of a palm-sized square device that didn’t have a syringe on it, just a screen. The screen lit up with information in response. The Tromindox she had just encountered was three-hundred years old, traveled here a month ago, was responsible for the disappearance of ten people since then. The bounty hunter scrolled past all this to the part she was interested in: the payment. She poked a few buttons to confirm the job and entered her credentials and the job was done. Payment due. Money on the way. Hopefully soon.
She felt the side of her neck. The Tromindox might have broken the skin a little. She moved her jaw back and forth and stretched out her arms. She seemed mostly undamaged. Just stiff, and very very tired. So tired.
The rising sunlight reflected off the windows of the dull, grey apartment building where she would return to an apartment full of boxes and pull off her boots and haul herself to her bed and fall asleep, probably before her head even reached the pillow.
Silverwood: Chapter 2
The bounty hunter was late for work.