Out of the Depths, by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Vic Vincent stood in line waiting for his morning dole. Half a loaf of bread, a thin gruel that in some alternate reality might pass for soup. He was one of the lucky ones. Part of one of the work details, the Argellians made sure the people in his housing compound had some basic sustenance. Housing compound. A fancy word for a concentration camp. But it was better than the vast hordes of the “unfit” left to fend for themselves.
One of the Argellians pulled a woman out of line. With a shower and a meal or three, the woman would have been quite attractive. It made Vic’s skin crawl to see the way the creature’s tentacles stroked the woman’s shoulder. He forced himself to look away. He was just one man. What could he do?
He used to think differently. There was a time when he patrolled the streets of New Chicago proudly with the other heroes. Captain Valor never backed down from a fight. He had fought alongside SoLar and the Amazon. He strove to ensure justice with his artificially enhanced muscles and his invincible armor.
And then the Argellians had come. Captain Valor had been delivering a pair of bank robbers to jail when the first of the alien ships flew over. Large enough to block out the sun. He had hurried to the front lines where the first heroes assembled. And he had seen the first heroes fall. Daystar, split open from throat to navel. Techboy, his arms ripped off and the stumps sparking.
The worst was Lady Fate. With her powers to alter reality, she was able to keep the mother ship from setting down for over an hour. Sweat beading on her forehead, her black cape billowing behind her. She was glorious. And then the Argellians hit her from the sides. Vic could still hear her screams in his nightmares. Could still smell her charred flesh. Could still see her running toward the river, covered in liquid flames.
He ran toward her. If he could not save her, maybe he could at least put her out of her misery. Sonic blasts hit Captain Valor right in the chest. His whole body vibrated right down to his molars, and then he blacked out. When he woke, it was night and the Argellians were in charge of the planet. His invincible armor was charred and flaking off. He ached all over. His ears rang and a stream of blood had dried under his nose. But he was alive.
Vic thought of the old phrase. Discretion is the better part of valor. He began to laugh. He could not help himself. It was a bitter, hollow sound. Like a fit of coughing or sobs. Vic laughed until he vomited. Then he crawled off into the shadows.
He hid in plain sight as his alter ego. Vic Vincent was just another human in occupied New Chicago. It took him a week to get out of bed. By then the first…relocations had begun. The Argellians rounded him up with his neighbors. They classed him with others in similar age and physical condition and led him away to housing compound Three-Theta-Seven. Where he was currently enjoying his marvelous breakfast.
“Did you see that freak with his slimy…whatever all over that girl?” A gruff voice, not directed at him. Vic concentrated on tearing his bread into small bites, trying to make his meager meal last.
“I hear they have this secret breeding program, housed in New Chicago Memorial. Trying to make more…things like them.”
“But what can we do to stop them? They cut through the heroes like they were butter. And for every human that manages to break out of the camps, they kill ten of the rest of us.”
An elbow hit Vic in the ribs. “I say we need to strike. Just refuse to work. They can’t kill all of us, right? They need us for this project of theirs.”
Vic slurped down the last of his soup. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked the man who had spoken to him in the eyes. A young African-American. In a different world, he would be in college right now, wondering whether he should study engineering or English. “I think they can do whatever the hell they want. They’re only using us because humans are cheaper than robotic digging equipment. We’re expendable.”
The young man jabbed Vic in the sternum. “What are you, some kind of collaborator?”
Vic froze. There were spies among the workers. People willing to betray their species for an extra piece of bread or a real bed. When the other workers found them out, the collaborators simply…disappeared. Vic looked down at his empty plate.
“I’m no collaborator. I’m just a realist.”
The young man eyed Vic up and down. A whistle blew. Saved by the Argellians and their damned punctuality. Their Gehennan overseer called up their shift. The young man mouthed the words, “We’re watching you,” and got into line. Vic prayed that he would be assigned a different part of the mine than those men. Another week of the new normal, and they would have forgotten all about today. He just had to float under the radar. He just had to survive.
For the first time in he didn’t know how long, God answered one of Vic’s prayers. The Argellian led the young man and his companions down one path, pointing for Vic and those behind him in line to go down another. A female Argellian met them at the entrance of the mine. She had three breasts and hair that writhed about her head like Medusa’s snakes. Her scent made Vic want to vomit.
“We are opening a new tunnel in the mine today. You lot are on cleanup detail. Follow me.”
The group of about two dozen headed out. The mine entrance always looked to Vic like a giant mouth. About to swallow the survivors of New Chicago alive. Inside was worse. Blue globes cast flickering light over rough-hewn paths reinforced with concrete. The deeper they walked, the warmer Vic got. He did not know if it had to do with the actual depth they were at, or if it was all psychological. The Argellian led them down, down, down, until it felt like the entire weight of ruined humanity was pressing down on their heads.
“Here we are. This tunnel will be cleared out by the end of your shift. Success will be rewarded, failure will be punished.”
Vic and a few others got behind a sledge the size of a car, with just enough antigrav field under it to make it possible for the five men to push it across the floor. The Argellian sneered at their labor, cracking an electric whip over their heads. It set Vic’s hair on end.
He grunted with the strain of containing his super strength. As Captain Valor, he could have easily moved the sledge by himself. But the goal was not to stand out. Concentration caused sweat to bead on Vic’s brow, but it was not long before the others were sweating too.
A grey haze hung in the air when they reached the designated tunnel. Further down the earth trembled as another explosion pushed the mine deeper under the city. Just another day of the Argellian rape of the planet. Vic tried not to think about the woman pulled out of line but he failed.
One task at a time, one day at a time. New Chicago no longer had a future. It was challenging enough to survive the present. Vic joined the others loading the sledge with rocks, some bigger than his head. The Argellian did not give out tools. Human hands were cheap.
Time faded away until there was only the job in front of him. Vic focused on moving rocks, making sure he never worked harder than his companions. Nothing to set him apart from the others. The grunts and heavy breathing served as the only music for his labor, punctuated by the crack of the Argellian’s whip.
The overseer was one of the better ones. She was only a sadist. Her victim today was one of the women. The woman ignored the whip for the most part, not even crying out when it connected with her back. Vic admired her for that, but it only enraged the Argellian. Vic could understand the calculating look in the woman’s eyes. Every stroke of the whip she endured was one less suffered by her companions.
If only he were so brave.
Lunch was a fifteen minute break for water and a thin biscuit that the Argellians insisted contained enough nutrients for a day’s labor. To Vic, it was like eating plastic. But it quieted the pains in his stomach, even if it did not take them away.
After lunch, Vic and eight other men pushed the loaded sledge out of the mine and dumped it into the slag pit. They returned to the middle of an argument.
“When I say jump, human,” the Argellian spat the word as if it were a curse, “you jump. When I say clear the rubble, you clear the brekking rubble.”
The woman the Argellian had needled all day stood with her fists on her hips. Dust stained her face, with rivulets of sweat giving her a bizarre appearance. A savage marked with war paint, perhaps. She was right in the Argellian’s face.
“That’s an unexploded detonation cap. If you want it moved, lose your own damn hand. I’m waiting for a demolition crew.”
Vic looked beyond the pair to the floor. It was a small thing, a cylinder the width of his thumb. The woman was right. A detonation cap. It could have been a dud, but it was smarter to take no chances.
“You lazy, worthless–” The men around Vic stepped forward as the Argellian swung her whip again. Her aim was off. Vic saw what was about to happen, but was unable to do anything but crouch beside the sledge. Instead of striking the woman, the lash hit the detonation cap. There was a loud boom that Vic felt as much as heard. The tunnel shook, shifting the already loose rocks. Then Vic’s head hit the floor, and everything went black.
He awoke to a darkness marginally brighter than his closed eyelids. All but one of the light globes were out. He rolled onto his side and moaned in pain. His ribs were bruised, maybe even a couple broken. For someone with his physique, that was saying something.
He rose, gripping the sides of the sledge for support. His legs trembled under him. He willed them to stop as he surveyed the damage.
Rocks lay everywhere, various body parts sticking out from the piles. A foot, an arm, a knee. Nothing moved.
A hand clasped the handle of an electric whip. The hand was black with electrical burns, and the handle reeked of ozone. Green ichor pooled under the forearm. All that was left of the Argellian. Vic stepped on the fingers. No sound. He kicked the whip handle away.
A low laugh, breaking down into a fit of coughing. Somehow the woman had survived the cave-in. If it could be called surviving. Blood wept from a gash on he forehead. She was no doubt lacerated in a dozen more places. But Vic could not keep from staring at her waist. What had been the roof of the tunnel covered everything below the woman’s waist.
Vic was on his knees before he knew what he was doing. Throwing rocks off her with all of his enhanced strength. It almost… It almost made him feel like a hero again. He was so lost in his task that the woman had to say his name three times before he stopped.
Vic froze. He stared at the woman. She laughed again.
“You supers think us norms are so stupid sometimes. Do you really think a pair of glasses or a wig fool any of us? You were more than celebrities to us. You were our heroes. Some of us spent our entire lives watching you. If we couldn’t be like you, we wanted to know everything about you. We memorized your looks. We know. We all know.”
“But…” Vic felt like the mine had caved in on him again. “There’s a bounty out on heroes.”
“There’s been enough death. The only way I see out of this is for heroes and norms to work together. Besides, you know these creeps. Anyone who turns a hero in is as likely to get a laser bolt to the head as he is a reward.”
Vic started moving rocks again while he processed that. His fellow inhabitants of the housing compound knew that he was Captain Valor? It didn’t make any sense. “Stay still. I’ll get you out.”
The woman rested a hand on his wrist. “Captain, stop. I appreciate it, I really do, but we don’t have time.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a goner already. I can’t feel my legs. I know I’m bleeding out. And the queen bitch is dead. You know what that means.”
Vic nodded. Any injury to an Argellian overseer meant the death of the entire work detail. “I won’t leave you to them.”
Smack. Vic pulled back from the slap across his face. It didn’t hurt, but the surprise shook him to his core.
“You selfish bastard. Get over yourself. We understood the need to lay low. We understood you needed time to mourn. But I’m not going to let you throw your life away just to satisfy your ego.”
“What should I do?”
The woman nodded at the sledge. “Hide under the rocks. When they dig out this tunnel, the should just dump you out with the rest of the bodies. Wait until night, and then this is where you go.”
She gave Vic an address. Vic repeated it back to her. She nodded. “It’s time to stop feeling sorry for what we’ve lost. It’s time to start being a hero again.”
Vic offered the woman a smile. “Past time.”
The woman reached up and pulled Vic to her. She gave him a passionate kiss and then pushed him away. “God, you don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do that. Now go, hide. Live to fight another day.”
His head still spinning, Vic got into the sledge and piled rocks over his body. Not the most comfortable position, but he would survive. He had gotten used to surviving.
The stamp of boots. The falling of more rocks. An angry shout, followed by a laser blast. Silence. Vic realized he hadn’t even asked the woman her name.
He would do more than survive. He would live again. If not for his own sake, then for hers. The Argellians would not know what hit them.
A mild-mannered retail clerk by day, by night Donald Jacob Uitvlugt wrestles with black pages and leaps split infinitives in a single bound. A bite from a radioactive mosquito in the back woods of Michigan gave him the ability to write small stories with big impact. Find out more at his blog, HaikuFiction.blogspot.com.
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Tags: action, aliens, death, Donald Jacob Uitvlugt, invasion, superheroes