Okay, it says I need 500 more words, so here it is:
As the sun rises over a busy thoroughfare in The Village, animals all around shuffle about, opening their shops and stalls and setting about preparing for their morning work. A mob of hamsters argue and bicker with a pair of husky geese, who block most of the sidewalk as they unload sacks of spice from the back of a toy red wagon. A weasel vendor loudly praises his wares from behind a cardboard fruits and vegetables stand, as toad street performers impress the tourists with an athletic dance routine. And oblivious to it all is a young flying squirrel named Tomi, gaping in awe at the height of the city as he walks hand in hand with a beautiful white mouse, Rana.
"Everything's so high here! I get dizzy just looking up!" He gasps. Rana smiles and kisses his cheek. "I can't help it! I'm a country squirrel, Rana. My parent's tree was the tallest thing around forever!"
"It's okay," She says. "Our new apartment's on the first floor."
Tomi grunts as he adjusts the giant bundles of belongings strapped to his back with blue string.
"Good thing, I'd hate to - Um, lug all this stuff up a flight of stairs."
Suddenly, Rana squeezes Tomi's hand, catching him before he walks off. Her tail springs up as she scurries up the front steps of a nearby brick apartment.
"OOH! Tomi, this is it!" She coos, "Oh, isn't it perfect?"
Tomi looks up at her, caught in the lattice of sunbeams poking through the fire escape above. He smiles, less impressed by the Big City.
"Just like you," he sighs. Rana giggles and pokes him in the nose.
"Come on, silly. You're making me blush!" She reaches down for him with two hands and helps him scramble up the steps. At the top, Tomi knocks at the corner of the big wooden door. A moment later, it swings open and the pursed face of a dark gray opossum sticks out.
"Um, Hi there," Tomi says. "We're-"
"You are Romi and Tana, yes yes, I am landlord. You are late." The landlord speaks gruffly with a thick Russian accent.
"Well, no, I'm TOMI, and this is RANA, and we're an hour earl-"
"That is not correct. Is not good to confuse landlord."
Ruffling through one of Tomi's bundles, Rana pulls out a small stack of bay leaves. She smiles warmly at the landlord and hands it to him. He instantly brightens.
"Ah, yes yes, TOMI and RANA! Apartment is ready, follow me."
The landlord leads them down a short hall, around a corner and to the end of a longer hallway where he shows them to a warm oak door with chipped red molding. A brass plate with a keyhole looms above them, the missing doorknob replaced with a loop of yarn tied to a tiny silver bell.
"This is yours," the landlord says. "Many animals live in building, some nocturnal, so keep noise down during day. And night. All the time, keep noise down."
"Oh, we're very quiet," Rana replies
Tomi grins and points to Rana. "Quiet as a mouse!"
She pushes him playfully but with the weight of his bundles, Tomi nearly topples over. The landlord watches all this with his arms folded, clearly not amused. Humorlessly, he glances at Tomi, then Rana, and says: "Rent is due every month. Never late," before he turns and ambles away.
Tomi shrugs off his packs and turns towards their new front door. Rana, excited, hugs him and squeaks,
"Oh Tomi, I'm so excited! It's all our own! Our first apartment, together! Let's go in...oh." She looks up, then back to Tomi. "There's no door. For us, I mean."
From the end of the hall the landlord calls over his shoulder. "Handyman will come to chew new door. Friendly beaver."
Tomi struts over and pushes on it from the left side.
"I think I can open it," He grunts and pushes a little harder. He presses his back against it and shoves with his legs, but gets nowhere. The little squirrel takes a big breath and shoulders it, forcing his full weight forward. His legs start to spin and he scrambles to keep his footing, which only serves to send him sprawling.
Rana stifles a giggle as a friendly faced beaver pokes his head out of the doorway across the hall. He smiles and waves before stepping out. He's broad and potbellied, with mottled brown fur and wearing a green denim doll's vest, and a Velcro toy tool belt around his paunchy waist.
"Hiya neighbors! Need help with that?"
"Oh, would you?" Rana pleads. The beaver grins and strolls over, to the right side of their front door, and gives it a quick, effortless nudge. It swings open. Tomi blushes and gives them and embarrassed shrug.
"Name's Knob, I'm the handyman."
"I'm Rana," she helps Tomi to his feet. "and this is my Tomi."
Knob gives the little squirrel a firm handshake and gestures towards the door.
"No worries about it, I'll have something more your size in a jiff." He sizes the two if them up, testing Rana's height against his outspread arms, then Tomi's, and shutting one eye he uses both paws to frame the door. Taking a strip of sandpaper from his tool belt he buffs his teeth with a big grin. Then, bracing both feet he opens wide and takes a bite out of the door. A cloud of sawdust swirls up as he gnaws away and in moments, there is a small rectangular hole in the left corner; a squirrel-sized doorway.
Knob smiles, self-satisfied, and uses a wood splinter as a toothpick, prying more splinters from his teeth.
"There you go, then! I'll have a new door put in just a minute." He turns and waddles away.
"Mice first," Tomi giggles and bows, ushering her towards their new apartment. Rana takes his hand.
"Together." She says.
They laugh, together, and take their first step into their new home, together.
Deep beneath the East River, inside a massive glass tunnel, the deep thrum of machinery echoes the swift movement of an elevator car along a magnetic track. Inside the car, a young human girl presses up against the glass, watching the sunlight pierce the surface of the water above. Two men stand on either side of her, in long white coats, holding thin silver briefcases. The car is filled with boxes, luggage, and cases of equipment, in piles so large they've spilled over into most of the seating. The three occupants are left to stand, staring ahead. Only the little girl looks out, and back.
"Navia," The taller of the scientists speaks softly, in a comforting rhythm. "It'll be fine, you'll like it on the surface."
Navia breaks her gaze from a school of blue-white fish circling the Tunnel Cab. She looks up at her father. "I don't want to like it on the surface, I already like it back home."
"I know, honey, but Daddy's work is important. Very important, and it can only be done Topside. There's a lot up there for you, too, you know. There will be new foods and new friends and-" She looks away, unimpressed. "-you'll be the first of your friends," he smiles, "to see the Sun."
Navia spins around, brightened by this. "I get to go outside!"
Her father pauses, glancing at the other scientist, who carefully hesitates. They both struggle for the impossible right words. No human being had been outside for half a century.
Navia's father takes a short, cautious breath. "Hopefully, yes. Hopefully soon."
Content, Navia returns to her window gazing and is caught by a curious sight: a dolphin, darting through the water in the distance, leading a school of long, silvery fish. It spins and dives, it's fins flapping and waving in mock command gestures. Atop its head at a deliberate angle, is what Navia would swear is a deep blue military helmet, a shining silver Navy insignia glistening in the flickering blades of sunlight. She turns to her father and snatches his hand, pointing out the window, but when he looks, it's too late; the dolphin is gone.
"I know, honey, it's beautiful," He says. "You know a long time ago, we used to travel on the water? My father even had a boat of his own."
Navia half listens, scanning the water for any sign of her dolphin.
"Yeah, daddy, I learned all about it in school. Boats and stuff."
For a while, she watches, but neither the dolphin nor his fish are anywhere to be seen. She finally gives up, and less than an hour later, the Tunnel Cab reaches it's destination. The glass pipe ends at a climbing rock face where a massive, round metal portal slides open, admitting it's riders into the last of the human's Topside facilities.
With a sigh, Tomi dusts off his hands, the last of the unpacking finally finished. Rana steps back from a patch of molding decorated like a mantel with several finished paintings, admiring.
"Do they look okay here?" She asks.
Tomi smiles. "They look awesome! You know I love all of your paintings. You're the best! We'll see them in a gallery in no time, Rana."
"Tomi," Rana blushes, "You're too sweet to me."
Tomi puts his arms around her, his squirrel wings wrapping her up. She nuzzles him, smiling, burying her nose in the little tuft of reddish hair at his chest.
"I love you, Tomi."
"I love you wayyyyy more, Rana. Like, the size of a Llama more. No way, more like the size of an elephant more. Whoa. No. The size of two elephants and a FAT llama more!"
Rana breaks into a fit of laughter.
"Tomi you silly! The landlord said to keep quiet! Stop making me laugh!"
Tomi puts a finger to his mouth, in a mock hush.
"Rana, sshhh! You're going to wake up the nocturnal neighbors!" He starts to tickle her. Rana playfully slaps his hands away and takes a few big steps away.
"Hey, I'm serious," she giggles. "Cut it out!"
"Alright, alright, you get away this time." Suddenly Rana sighs and looks up.
"Oh, Tomi. Wow." Tomi follows her gaze all around the apartment. "This place is so big!"
Just a small corner of the apartment is barely filled by their belongings at all. There's the short strip of molding displaying Rana's paintings, an empty box of playing cards covered in felt pushed into the corner where a bed might be, and a set of tiny dollhouse chairs, pushed up against an overturned shot glass with a cardboard tabletop. A stack of old matchboxes make a fine set of shelves, where Rana keeps her Q-tip paintbrushes and pistachio shell paint cups. A fringed, tan paper doily serves as a rug.
"How are we ever going to make this home?"
Tomi smiles and wipes at her cheek, where a speck of paint stains her fur.
"Wherever we are," Tomi says, "is home. As long as we're together."
"Oh Tomi, where would I be without you?"
"Without me? Rana I promise, I'd go to the ends of the world to be with you. Hey, you know what would help?"
"Yeah," Tomi grins, "with making this place home?"
"I don't know, a room mate? Like, an elephant sized room mate?"
Tomi's smile widens. "Yeah, but you know what else?"
Rana giggles, "I give up, what?"
"If you married me."
Rana gasps, "OH! Tomi! Are you really asking me-"
"Oh, of course silly! Of course I'll marry you!"
Rana throws her arms around him, looking up at her squirrel. She shuts her eyes, leaning in, and Tomi is about to kiss her when a loud cough interrupts them.
"Um, okay guys, really," Knob says from their new doorway, where he is clearly stuck. "I've been stuck in here for ten minutes now, can you two maybe, you know - a little help here?"
Neither of them can help it, they roar with laughter. After a moment, Knob joins in. They rush over and pull him out and thank him, admiring the excellent job he did of installing their new door. Knob beams with pride, and offers to show Tomi other ways he can improve their new apartment. Rana happily invites him to stay for dinner, which he accepts with a rumbling stomach.
"You know Rana," Tomi says, "I think we'll be very happy here."
Rana beams at him. "Of course, my favorite fiance, as long as we're together."
For as long as he could remember, Tomi had been afraid of heights. Growing up in his parents' tree in upstate New York, he would gaze out over the fields and think daring thoughts of gliding from tree to tree, like his father, held aloft by the warm, open wind. Day after day, though, poor Tomi would linger in the corner of the second squirrel hole from the top, on the third branch up, of the fourth oak tree from the right in the big field in the woods. He'd curl himself up in a bundle of his parents' nest and wish and wish, that one day he could fly too, or at least for a cozy ground floor apartment, nice and safe. When little Tomi grew up, and waved goodbye to dad, and kissed mom goodbye, he set off on foot, safely along the good and solid ground, for the City. Trees, he thought, were just too high.
So it was that many years later Tomi was quite surprised, and especially pleased, when he found himself volunteering to scurry up a second floor fire escape, nearly a nightmare and a half straight up.
Knob, Tomi's new neighbor, and Rana, his fiance, were sharing dinner in their new apartment when a loud crash interrupted them. Rana gasped.
"Oh, what was that?"
"I don't know, it sounds like something hit the window upstairs!" Tomi scurried up the sill and peeked through a crack in the glass. "I can't tell, I think-"
Knob shimmied his way up the radiator to stand on the sill beside Tomi. With a huff, he used his tail to pry open the window. The portly beaver poked his head outside.
"-it looks like someone's up there!" Tomi finished. Rana's hands went to her mouth.
"OH! Oh, Tomi, that noise was a someone? They could be hurt!"
Tomi's eyes found Rana's, full of concern. She thought so much of him, standing there, his kind little mouse, so full of worry over a stranger, and so certain her brave squirrel could handle it. Handle anything, of course. How could he let her down?
"I've got to-" Tomi started, "I'll go up and see if he's ok." With one foot half outside, Knob shook his head.
"N-now hold on buddy," Knob stammered. "That's Him up there - you can't just TALK-"
But Rana interrupted him. "Please be careful Tomi, remember your-"
"I'll be right back," Tomi cut her off, and: Please don't remind me, He thought.
He took a breath and shut his eyes, wished himself luck and crawled outside to the edge of the window shelf where the lowered fire escape ladder waited. The climb went quickly enough, with his eyes squeezed shut and his breath held tight. At the top, though, Tomi froze. For just a moment, his eyes opened and he looked down. That glimpse hit him like a wave, and the fear took him. He was so high!
He struggled to breathe. Mucking around in darkness with his arms outstretched, his fingertips found the metal railing. He wrapped his arms around it and held onto the cold rusty metal for dear life. How did he get himself into this one? Tomi's shaking was so violent he almost slipped and fell more than once. He couldn't move. For the life of him, he couldn't imagine moving. He'd have to spend the rest of his life clinging to that fire escape, as much as he hated every second of being out there, that high up; there was just no way he could ever get down. For that he's have to open his eyes.
It was as he was planning out the rest of his days atop the second floor fire escape, that a shadow, tall and wide, rose behind him. Tomi, forcing himself to open his eyes, turned, slowly. What he saw might have been much worse than the terrible height, had Tomi not been Tomi. As it was, the little squirrel found himself facing an oddly welcome sight.
A golden eagle. Massive, broad shouldered, and gleaming, the looming bird of prey was an awkward dichotomy of images. His feathers, brightly gilded, were also ruffled and unkempt, and his piercing, razor eyes were muddled and warm. Wildly disheveled, the huge bird was somehow undeniably regal as he stood, surrounded by rays of sunlight that seemed to wrap and weave around and through his mis-angled feathers. His beak, though dagger-sharp, was slightly twisted, marred with a spot of dirt and a ragged nick. Around his neck was a pair of tiny, makeshift spectacles, tied by a frayed leather cord and half-buried in the downy feathers at his chest. The eagle shook loose a patch of dust from his wings, and leaned in to Tomi.
The little squirrel was still shaking, and a bit glad to have something to look up at, when the eagle spoke. His voice was as much a surprise as any.
"Why so frightened there, little one?" It was warm and cloudy, like Tomi had imagined a grandfather might speak, with frayed, throaty depth and shaky, cracking pitch. "It looks like you've seen a ghost, or two. Or five."
Tomi shyly grinned, half embarrassed, and wholly glad the giant bird didn't mean to gobble him up.
"Yes, sir, well, I - can you keep a secret?"
"Why not," the eagle chuckled. "I'm keeping a few dozen already."
"I'm, well, I'm afraid of heights."
A fit of uproarious laughter nearly shook Tomi from his rather solid perch as the eagle fluttered his massive wings in amusement.
"A bird! Afraid of heights! I never! And I've seen quite a lot in my day!" He paused for a moment, a quirk of thought finding him suddenly pensive. Tomi was by no means a bird himself, and started to correct his new acquaintance, but the old bird was talking again before Tomi could interrupt. "I have seen a lot of things in my day, I'm quite sure I have. Let's see now, what have I seen...I've seen a blue flamingo, that was fun. And an elephant forget, I remember that rather well. And a dizzy trout, a flatulent squid - what a mess that was - and a dizzy llama, a bald bald eagle, an overdressed mole rat, a pair of lonely crickets, a tiger with one too many toes. Once I caught glimpse of a flock of flying fish, though several of them were really only swimming, and one I'm sure was using a boat, leaky though it was. Yes yes, and what now was the name of that nasty old octopus I once knew, the three-armed fellow? He was a riot and a half, and I'm quite sure I've seen an invisible hippopotamus, don't you doubt it either, I'd bet a wing and a tail-feather I was spot on with that one. Hiding in the weeds he was, big thing, friendly one, at that"
"But sir -" Tomi tried again to interject.
"And there was a lame mountain goat (lived in a hill), and a short giraffe, a tidy monkey, a jolly old shrew, and on several occasions, in fact, I was extremely pleased to take sight of a magnificently large, over worked hamster. Bodybuilder, that one was. Muscles on top of muscles and muscles on top of those. Saw him lift a tree to fetch a carrot that rolled underneath. Made a mess of those roots, though. What is that now? Let's see..." The old eagle parted a few feathers on his right wing, counting. "...that's 6, 13, 94, 27. At least 32 things! But I've NEVER seen a bird afraid of heights!"
Tomi, stifling a giggle, finally interrupted. "But sir, I'm not even a bird!"
Flustered, the old bird flapped his wings and doubled back, blinking. "Whawhat? What's this now? Not a bird you say?" Leaning in, he poked at Tomi, and prodded, squinting at the little flying squirrel's wings. "Well, I'll be. Not a bird, but wings and everything. Not a bird at all, you say?"
"No sir," Tomi grinned, thumbing his chest. "I'm a flying squirrel!"
A big grin and a pat on the head, the old bird softened his tone and smiled, "That you are, M'boy." as he lead Tomi carefully away from the edge, toward the relative safety of the wall. He sized Tomi up for a moment, looking down once, then back at Tomi, and down again. "And you came all the way up here, on account of old me?"
Tomi reddened. "Yes sir. You, well, it sounded like you had been hurt."
"Indeed. Well, it's been happening a bit." The old bird paused, glancing at the window he had flown into. "Say, how would you like to keep a secret of your own?"
"I'm losing my vision." He leaned in close. "Going blind, you see. And me without my glasses! I've been up, down all over the City-"
"Glasses?" Tomi perked up. "You mean these?" Standing tip-toe, he reached up and pointed out the pair of battered spectacles around the eagles neck.
"Well I'll be the great aunt of a West Indian spider monkey! The whole time..." With a rolling laugh he snatched up his spectacles and with both wings carefully fit them to the bridge of his beak. "Well, there you are now, clear as day, flying squirrel indeed!"
"You are a brave one, Little Tomi. And a good one." He shuffled Tomi toward the window and with his beak, pried it open. "Head back down now, the safe way." Then, with a flutter, he hopped up onto the railing and spread his wings, a golden wash bathing Tomi as the sunlight glinted off the eagle's golden wings.
He looked back at Tomi, who had already climbed to the sill of the open window, and stood waving.
"The name is Norton. I owe you one. Or two. Or three. Or, well now. I owe you." With that and a wink, Norton the newly bespectacled Golden Eagle took to flight, his impressive wingspan blocking the sun for just a moment. In seconds, he was out of sight.
Tomi smiled, proud of himself, and went inside. Rana was waiting.
Somewhere in the East River, between the island of Manhattan and the shining Gold Coast, at the center of tiny Mill Rock, loomed the last of Mankind’s Topside labs. Not much more than four walls and a roof, built of foot-thick steel wrapped in several layers of reinforced concrete, The H.A.R.T. facility’s design was Spartan, cold, and flawlessly airtight.
There were two ways into or out of the Heart. One was beneath the surface: a massive, hydraulic glass tunnel of magnetic rails that led into a wide, circular portal which opened and closed underwater, allowing entry to the few Tunnel Cabs that came up from the Vaults. The other, a small, high-tech airlock at the west wall, with triple-thick titanium alloy plating, clean room antechamber, and bulletproof plastic emergency door, opened for only two reasons. One was to allow the resident scientists access to the Outside without compromising the Heart, in the rare case that their research brought them there. The other was for the Hunters.
It was not unusual for the Hunters to come and go. For their purpose, they required free reign of both the facility and the Outside. The airlock was designed to respond to their sensor tags and open for them, without manual command. In fact, an entire bridge system was built to run the length of the river, connecting Mill Rock Island to Manhattan that would raise and lower only in response to those tags, simply to facilitate the Hunters’ travel. The scientists, after all, had no need of such a thing. Unless garbed in full Hazmat gear, and riding in armored helicopters, humans simply did not go outside.
As usual as a sight it was for the Hunters to stroll through the airlock, it was equally unusual to receive visitors from the tunnel. The last time anyone had come up to the Heart from the Vaults was when it was first built, long ago, and those men were still there; all of them scientists, and residents for too long to remember
So it was just such an unusual day when both of the Heart’s doors were opened, and the Hunters came home to find that their domain had been invaded by three new humans: two more of the white-clad scientists, and an eight-year old girl.
If the Hunters seemed upset to be sharing what they had come to recognize as theirs, little Navia was simply distraught to have any of it at all.
“Daddy, it’s too cold in here.” She grumbled as they stepped out of the elevator tunnel that led into the Heart’s anteroom. Cold mist from the Tunnel Cab entry pool washed at their feet, and icy blasts of coolant sizzled off the humming Mag-Rail. Damp layers of exposed piping ran the lengths of the walls and ceiling, and chilled metal grating clacked and clanged under Navia’s footsteps.
“It’s warmer inside, sweetheart.” He spoke with monotone, preoccupied with unloading his equipment. The other researcher tugged at and dragged along nearly half a dozen silver cases full of what Navia’s father kept insisting was ‘very delicate’ equipment. Navia wasn’t interested with the cases or her father’s bland reassurances. She was quite disappointed with Topside so far, full of all the same mechanical hissing and buzzing, and boring blinking red lights she’d seen a thousand times in the Vaults.
When, she wanted to know, did she get to see the sun already, like daddy said?
A few moments later, a sharp ‘ting’ echoed in the chamber and several men in hazmat emerged from the opened doors of a thin, chemical-clean elevator shaft. Sickly fluorescent lighting from inside illuminated the mist at their feet. They took the three of them, and their baggage, up a small flight of stairs and down the hall, through a chemical shower (the results of which were a ruined hairdo and a grumpy little girl) and finally, into the elevator that would take them to the surface, into the Heart.
After a long, windowless ride past waves of fluorescent beams and the deep, whooshing thrum of machinery, the doors opened at the top. The men in Hazmat stripped their gear in another of the small clean-room antechambers before leading them out of the elevator room and into the facility, towing the metal cases that had brought up from the Vault.
Inside the Heart, everything was different.
Though lit by the same sickly fluorescence, the long, straight halls of the facility were all stark white, reflecting a chemical clean polish. Save for the exposed ladder-work of silvered sprinkler-system pipes along the ceiling, the halls of the Heart were a solid blank. Every so often a door to a lab room would open and hurried researchers would scurry down the hall with clipboards and data-pads, mumbling in excited voices about things Navia barely understood, pausing for just a moment to stare at the new residents in awe.
It was as Navia’s father led them down one especially long hallway, past a large, ominous room labeled “Viral Pheromone Testing” toward the dormitories, when she came upon a bit of a commotion. A crowd of lab-coats had assembled there a rather large welcome for her Father; the first bit of ceremony she had seen so far. Their guides carried off the baggage, and her father and his friend, Dr. Hollis, joined the throng in a rush of shaking hands and excited smiles.
Navia, of course, was bored out of her mind. There had been no toys, no new friends, no windows, and certainly, no sun at all. The buzzing nonsense of droning scientists held little to interest her, save for a few key words, like ‘animals’, ‘outside’, and ‘City’. She’d never seen a City before, either.
It was then, as she stared at her toes in glum doldrums, that the sound of an opening airlock and a hissing chemical wash caught her attention and she looked up to the end of the hall, and saw the Hunters.
Three of them, they strolled around the corner in a bath of shadow. The biggest, blackest dogs Navia could imagine. Hulking shoulders and broad, terrible snouts rimmed with gleaming fangs led them in slow, swaggering gait toward the gathered lab-coats. A silence carried them, dark silence that claimed the arena and echoed command. Navia watched.
The largest of them, a full head above the rest and two above little Navia, followed behind, as the thinnest, with sharp eyes, surveyed everything from the right flank of the last dog, which lead them. It was this dog, the blackest of them, which looked back at her.
Not the kind of look a dog is supposed to give eight-year-girls. Navia froze. A strange chill ran up her spine; it was suddenly much colder in here than it was at the entry pool. It didn’t look at, but rather into her, and even beneath the bleached fluorescent haze, Navia could swear that behind those cold black orbs, burned a bright red glow. She could not look away. Some part of her, deep down, hidden below the child and the daughter thoughts, where the animal thoughts still worked, she knew that to look away meant something very, very bad.
Turning and running, however seemed a rather good idea.
It was just before she took up that idea on its generous offer that one of the scientists noticed the dogs as well, and turned to attend to them, breaking the gaze. It was away from that swallowing glare that some of the childish innocence returned.
“Daddy,” She asked as she tugged at her father’s coat. “Who are the doggies?”
Navia’s father finished up with a handshake and muttered something before starting another.
“Not now, dear,” and then, to a lab-coat: “Yes! Yes, I’m eager too, very. Did you know that in the first stages we’ve found the scent to be predominant in-“
Her father lost her at the word ‘predominant’. Boring science stuff.
The dogs looked far less threatening now, surrounded and attended to by several of the researchers, and looking away from her (although the thinnest one kept glancing her way). Navia screwed up her courage and started toward them, intent on a good petting. After all, it was just her imagination, the way that last dog looked at her. Puppy dogs didn’t do that. Not even really big ones.
Several of the men in white coats were handling the dogs, business-like, scanning them with tiny data-pads and one of them, holding a curious green vial beneath the nose of the lead dog, noticed Navia approach. He shot a glance at Dr. Hollis, then Navia’s father. His eyes were wider than they should have been.
Just a couple of steps past the milling crowd and nowhere near the big dogs, Navia’s father was suddenly there, a firm hold on her elbow holding her in place
“No, honey.” He said. He wasn’t using his ‘Father’ voice. Navia rarely heard him use this voice. This was the ‘Big Person’ voice, the ‘Adult’ voice. This was the ‘Danger’ voice. “Those animals – are not pets.”
Navia was a little bit fascinated by the Hunters. A whole team of scientists had assembled around them now, checking their teeth and fastening little blinking collars around their necks. Some scanned and others took notes, but not one pet or scruffed or cooed at them. The things you were supposed to do with doggies. Not even a pat, not even one little pat or ‘good doggie’ from any of them.
She looked back up at her father, as he scooped her up and hastily moved away.
“What are they then?” She asked.
Navia’s father sighed. “They’re hunters, honey. All three of them. Bred and trained to search, not to play.”
“Search for.” He fixed a cowlick as he spoke. “Navia, before you were born, we lived outside-“
“Yes, a lot of us lived in Cities. But then Megido came. Most of us…” He waited for the right words. “…A lot of us died. The rest went underground, into the Vaults, away from the air. It’s not easy to explain. Like you catch a cold? Megido is like that. Not quite the same thing, we call it a virus but-” Navia’s father cut himself off. He was losing her. “People can’t go outside anymore…”
Navia knew all this. Every child in her class knew this, it was taught like the alphabet. She was losing interest. What about the doggies?
“…But animals can.”
Navia’s ears would have perked, if they could.
Her father went on. “Yes, for real. Megido treats the animals differently. They don’t get sick, or die like we do. They just…change.”
“So if you want something outside, you send the dogs to do it!” Navia was a little proud of herself.
Her father grinned. “Something like that, yes.”
The scientists were finishing up. The one with the vial stoppered it and placed it gently into a felt lined metal case, about the size of a small book. It passed hands a few times until one of them disappeared into another room, the automated doors closing behind him
The dogs’ handlers backed away, giving the Hunters a wide berth, before going back to their business. The revelry had died, and now The Heart required its residents to go on with their routine; research did not do itself. Navia’s father was being beckoned to work by a group of eager peers when she thought of a pretty good question.
“But daddy. What do you want outside?”
He stopped. A short pause helped him gather his thoughts.
“Well, when you catch a cold, eventually it goes away. That’s because your body makes things to fight it, and get rid of it. Then, that cold can’t bother you anymore. Maybe a different cold will, but not that one. You’re immune. For some reason, we don’t get better from Megido. Our bodies don’t make the things to fight it. Do you understand so far?”
“Animals, they don’t get sick. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, it doesn’t mean that the animals don’t have it, it just doesn’t make them sick. The things your body makes? They’re called antibodies,” Navia’s father said the word very carefully. “And some animals, for some reason, have lots of them. So we want to borrow what these animals have, so we can start making them on our own. Then we can all be like the animals, and go outside again.”
Navia didn’t entirely understand, but she knew what her father did when he understood things (which was quite often). So Navia nodded slowly and stroked her chin, and pretended rather well that she was a scientist too, and understood.
Her father laughed, but tried to play along.
He set her down again and told her to behave while he and his new friends went to work. He pointed to her room and was ushering her off, when Navia realized she had been cheated.
“Yeah, but what do you want from outside?”
He turned back to his daughter.
“We need to study the animals to find out how they stay healthy. We can’t study them from outside, only specially trained people go out, in big suits, and even they only go out in very special cases. So,” His voice dropped a peg. “The dogs bring those animals to us, honey.”
Navia quickly turned back to the three dogs, strutting toward the airlock. It was much harder to imagine petting them, on their way to another job that Navia now knew was rather grisly.
The Hunters paused for just a moment, as their collars beeped and the little red light on the access panel turned blue, then green, and the airlock door wound open for them. As Navia was used to doors opening when she put her thumb against the panel, or punching in a code, this took her aback.
“The dogs can open the airlock?”
Her father nodded.
She looked back at her dorm, where the very same access panel locked her own bedroom door.
She took a deep swallow.
“Their tags,” he said, “respond to any lock in the facility. Now go see your room, while daddy goes to work. And you behave!”
He blew her a kiss and turned and walked off, leaving her alone in the big white empty hallway. Any door, he had said, would open for the dogs. That meant there was nowhere they couldn’t go, no time they couldn’t be there.
It meant nowhere in the Heart for an eight year old girl to hide.
Navia looked back to the airlock once more, as the Hunters were entering the chemical shower room beyond. Just before the door shut, as they were bathed in the deep red glow of the airlock lights, before the dogs were gone behind a sheet of airtight metal, the lead dog glanced back as well.
They locked eyes: the little girl, and the big, black dog. And in that moment, for just that moment, Navia remembered why she was afraid of the dark.
In the years since the humans vanished, Greenwich Village, New York, had become a bustling hub of animal life. Peaceful, cosmopolitan, it was the one place where everyone got along, (or at least lived side by side), and it didn’t matter what kind of animal you were, (or at least not too much) furry or feathered, mammal, reptile, or marsupial; four-legged or two. The animals that lived there had coined it, somewhat affectionately, simply ‘The Village’, and it was here that anyone was welcome.
It was not the same in the rest of the City.
Long ago, Central Park had become Skyhangar, Haven of the Birds; wing territory, around which some rumors were whispered of a mighty King, an Emperor of the Birds.
Wall Street had gone to the bears, where they strolled the length in motley parades; Kodiak, Grizzly, Polar and Brown, exchanging control with the seasons’ change.
The rats ran Hell’s Kitchen, (not all things in the City had changed) where swarms of rodents warred over turf and grew as hardened as the streets they fought for.
All around the City territory had been divided, conquered, or taken. With the humans gone, the animals were free to choose a place and make it home. All but the Village, which ended up as everyone’s.
Tomi, being a country squirrel, knew little of such things, (nothing in fact) and was none the lesser for it. After all, he alone had knowledge of the single greatest secret the Big City had to keep. The prettiest white mouse in the whole wide world: his fiancé, Rana.
It was Rana who knew these things. A city mouse, a painter, she was as metropolitan as they came, and save for the deepest of New York’s secrets, she knew the City as well as her own tail. It was Rana who suggested the Village when they decided to move away, and it was she who was most surprised to find that danger lurked even there, in a cozy apartment on the first floor.
“And you talked to him??” Knob was in the middle of impressing upon Tomi the importance of what he’d done, over a hastily prepared dinner. Tomi himself was utterly unimpressed by what he considered to be just a very nice conversation with a kindly old man. Rana knew nothing would have left him more impressed than the fact that he had just been on the second floor. “You don’t get it buddy, nobody, I mean NOBODY talks to the eagle. He’s crazy, that old bird, and pretty creepy too, if you ask me. Talks in riddles and all that. Has the whole top floor spooked!”
“Really?” Tomi said through a mouthful of acorn. “You mean Norton?”
Knob did a double take.
“He told you his name? Wow, buddy. Some of us have lived here for almost 30 years and not a one has ever talked to that crazy old nut, and you get his name on the first day. You sure he didn’t just try to eat you or toss you off the side or something?”
Tomi shook his head.
Knob thought it over. “Some of the top floor animals," He said in a low voice, "They say that at night they hear him slamming at the walls, trying to get in.”
“Oh, that? No, he’s just-“ But Tomi cut himself off. Norton had asked him to keep a secret, and he knew he sure wouldn’t like it very much if a golden eagle was going around telling all kinds of strangers about the flying squirrel that couldn’t fly. “I’m sure it’s just a rumor.”
“Well, either way, you did pretty good. And this is delicious!” Knob said this last to Rana, over a helping of peppery, spiced maple wood.
Outside, a small commotion had started.
Rana looked up at Knob.
“Oh, won’t the landlord be upset?” She said.
“Aw, that old possum’s all bark and no bite. Probably just a little party, I’ll go-“
But Knob was cut off by a blood-curdling scream.
Rana’s face paled. Tomi stopped chewing. The noises from outside were getting louder now, and obviously not the sounds of a party. Animals were running.
“Wait here,” Knob said coldly. “Don’t panic.”
He shoved off from the table and hurried to the door, cracked open the little panel, and peeked out. Tomi could make out the frantic shapes of scurrying animals from behind Knob’s head. The crowd was getting bigger, too, as more and more animals rushed out of their apartments.
Knob was turning back to them to say something when the landlord rushed past, a look of fear distorting his face.
“Is Hunters!” He cried at Knob, waving them all into the hall. “They here now, is time to run!”
Knob nodded quickly and called out to Tomi and Rana, who were sharing frantic glances. Tomi didn’t understand.
“Wait, what’s going on?”
Knob shook his head and took them both by the hands, ushering them out.
“No time, just run.”
Out in the hallway, the landlord was trying and failing to manage the rushing crowd. With wide, angry waves of his arms he desperately tried to push the mob toward the stairwell.
Knob, pulling Tomi and Rana behind, scampered over to him.
“Why don’t we take them to the basement?” He yelled over the din of fleeing animals.
“Not this time,” the landlord said. “They block the exits! The humans will come this time. We go In-Wall, upstairs, by the big pipes.”
Tomi recognized the fear now. Humans were on their way. Here, to his home. Tomi’s heart skipped a beat.
“How do you know?” Tomi begged, “How do you know the humans are coming?”
Knob’s voice was stern, something he was unused to, as he scanned the crowds and moved. “It’s always like that; if the Hunters take one of us, they leave. If they block the exits, the humans follow. Now come on!”
And then they were running, shoving their way through, darting over smaller animals and under larger ones. Knob was a competent leader, avoiding the thick pockets that formed in mobs when someone fell or slowed down, directing the three of them through the quickest paths in the maze of bodies.
“Have you done this before?” Tomi asked Knob.
“A few times before, as a firefighter in Mid-Town. But never here. The Hunters have never come this far south. “
Tomi was scared, but worried more for Rana, whose face had paled and little feet could not keep up. Knob was still holding onto both of them, but as he sped up, he was practically dragging poor Rana.
He was about to ask Knob to slow down for her sake, when he heard it.
Something had slammed into the door at the other end of the hall.
For just a second, Knob turned back to look. It was as Tomi followed Knob’s gaze behind him that a solid pall of muscle and fangs shattered the door and leaped into the hall, into the crush of escaping animals. The sounds of cries for help, pattering feet, and slamming doors were all drowned as the beast unleashed a string of ferocious barks and growls, sending a pack of nearby muskrats diving for cover.
Tomi had never seen anything like it. The single biggest dog he could imagine, all muscle, and sleek black, it glowered and snapped at everything that moved. From the doorway, another one emerged, thinner and faster but just as terrifying. It came in and took up position on the left side of the hall, clapping its jaws at a few strays that had wandered too far from the crowd.
“Oh no.” Knob muttered, seeing this. “They’re not chasing us. They’re herding-”
And then Tomi’s neighbor pushed him and Rana forward and told them to go, to run upstairs, before swallowing a deep breath of air and screaming: “SCATTER!”
Tomi watched him scamper back into the crowd waving his arms and spreading the word, and in seconds he was gone, lost in the un-listening mob. Tomi forced a smile at his fiancé before he snatched up her hand and ran.
Without Knob, little Tomi was battered and spun by the crowd. Animals tugged and pushed at him from every angle, unaware of anything but their own fear. Tomi’s own heart was pounding, his ears ringing, and looking back constantly to check on Rana, she did not look any better. Her eyes were wide and her normally rosy cheeks were flushed and pale. For a second, her fingers slipped from his, and before he could lose her in the crowd, he swung around and snatched her up again.
“Tomi, I can’t breathe!” She panted.
“We’re close now, almost to the stairwell!” He was about to sling his arm under hers and continue, when the third dog came in.
It was not like the other two. This one, the way it walked without swagger, the way it did not bark or growl, the way it simply stood and sniffed the air, once, then twice, Tomi knew it was this one he should be afraid of.
Little Tomi was not a worldly squirrel; he knew little of how things worked and why they worked the way that they did. He didn’t know people, and too often, was too trusting. But having been afraid of heights his whole life, and having grown up in a very tall tree, Tomi knew more than a little something about fear.
The first dog, the big one, wanted you to fear it. It used its size to get that. The second, the sharp one, would watch, learn, and use your fear to get what it wanted. But the last dog, the blackest of them, it was the most frightening because it did not care if you were scared or not.
It was just going to take what it wanted.
And it was looking right at them.
Tomi let go of Rana’s hands and scooped her up, slinging her up and over his back, spun on his heels, and ran. This time it was Tomi who pushed and shoved, forcing his way through. Nothing was going to happen to his Rana.
At the other end of the hall, the Hunters Paused, surveying.
“Overkill as usual, Goliath,” said the thinnest. Her smooth voice was heavy with scorn. “You had to break the door down, I presume? Couldn’t have just opened it?”
The big one smirked. “Got the job done, huh, Hera?” Goliath’s voice was a rumbling baritone. “They’re running upstairs, right?”
Hera rolled her eyes and started forward, as a cluster of voles veered off from the crowd. A quick snap and they were back in line.
“Guess it made a point.” She conceded, losing interest. “No one has bothered barring their doors.”
The lead dog sniffed the air one last time. He rolled his tongue, just to be sure. Lowering his muzzle, he nudged forward, directing Goliath one way and Hera the other, with merely a tilt of his head.
“That one.” The voice of Bane the Hunter was the thickest of honeys, the cruelest of stings. Most who heard his voice froze in place. The other hunters, however, sprang into action. “Hurry, the humans have already caught up.”
The sound of rotor blades had reached them.
In an instant, Goliath was off, barreling through the crowd, tossing animals every which way. Hera weaved through Goliath’s wake, muzzle drawn.
Tomi was at the stairwell when Goliath bound over him. In two swift strides he was through the mob and over the stairs, turned a corner and disappeared. Tomi stumbled and gasped; he hadn’t thought it could have moved so fast! Before he could consider why the big dog didn’t stop to gobble him up, Hera was upon him.
She leaped over him and spun, planting her feet to each side of him, snapping jaws reaching for them. Rana screeched.
“Tomi! Look out!”
But Tomi was quicker. Slipping beneath her muzzle, he sprinted between her forelegs, and spun right, using Rana’s weight to balance him. Getting his feet back took only a second, and by the time Hera had turned to snap again, he was bounding from the stairwell and down the hall, Rana clinging tightly around his neck the whole time.
“Tomi, the stairs!” She cried.
But Tomi had no intention of heading upstairs. Knob had been right. Seeing how quickly the Hunters had overtaken them, it was clear. They were not being chased.
Tomi was headed for the window; the half open window at the end of the hall, atop an old rusty radiator.
Already Hera was after them again, and he had to make the lead count. Summoning a reserve of energy he didn’t know he had, Tomi burst forward, gaining a little ground. Hera closed. Only three doors down.
She was on top of them again, this time batting at little Tomi with massive paws. He leaped over one, ducked another, and when she bit again, he dove nose first into a doorway and curled. Hera’s jaws clamped shut on the molding, and her momentum brought her tail-end up, slamming into the door hind legs over fore. Two doors down.
In only moments, Hera had regained her feet and shook off. Tomi dared not risk a glance, the window was so close. Just up the radiator, a small jump, and Rana was safe! The dogs wouldn’t fit through the window, and by the time they could break through…But Tomi never finished the thought. Hera was behind them again, and closing. One more door. A mighty leap and Hera was past them, crouched low, and paws spread. Tomi went to duck beneath again, but this time Hera stayed low, muzzle dipped. No way to avoid it. She snapped again.
Tomi shut his eyes and jumped, with all the might his little legs could muster. Hera’s jaws closed on air as brave little Tomi, Rana on board, landed squarely on mighty Hera’s head. Tomi scrambled down her back, but immediately Hera began to shake, throwing Tomi loose, just as Rana managed to snatch the end of her tail, righting them as they fell. When they landed, Tomi looked up at an old, rusty radiator below a half-open window.
“Almost there Rana, hold on!”
From the other end of the hallway, garbled radio static drowned his plea.Tomi looked back. Humans had just entered the fray; three of them, coming from upstairs.
Three of them: huge, lumbering beasts on two mighty legs and covered in thick, silvery suits, made faceless by darkened glass. Each carried a glass cage with them, each filled with the faces of helpless animals. To Tomi’s dismay, many of the faces were familiar, the landlord, and Knob, among them.
Tomi was tired. His legs were aflame. His back ached. Poor Rana’s heart was pounding so much Tomi felt it as much as his own. He forced himself up.
Hera was on him again. Backed up against the wall as she thought he was, she pounced quickly, leaving him no place to go. Tomi waited for only a split second before diving in between the radiator and the wall. Hera’s teeth slammed shut on the rusty metal with a jolting clang. Before she could stick a paw in after him, he had scurried up to the top.
The window sill was only a foot above him. He jumped, but with Rana’s weight, could barely reach.
“I’m alright, Tomi. I can make it!”
Tomi set her down, hastily, and tried again, and this time just managed to reach the lip of the sill. Extending one paw down toward Rana, hanging with the other, she jumped too, and her fingers just barely met his. He snatched her hand and held tight, but couldn’t lift her. They were dangling, helpless, from the edge of the window sill.
“Rana, climb up! Hurry, the dog!” He pleaded. Hera was on her feet again.
With all his might, Tomi pulled. He could feel his fingers slipping off the sill. He looked down at her, into her eyes. He tried to calm his voice.
“Rana, come on now! You can do it, don’t give up on me, I won’t let go”
Tomi’s little white mouse looked back up at him, smiling.
“I know you won’t.”
Then Rana was lifted, not by Tomi, but a single human hand. Carefully, the silvery glove reached in and wrapped its fingers around her waist, pulling her up, and away from Tomi. An open glass cage waited.
Tomi held on. His arms ached.
“Tomi,” Rana pleaded. “I love you!”
“I love you too, Rana, don’t let go! I won’t let them take you!”
Little Tomi would have wrestled a lion for Rana, or dove into a shark’s mouth, or even climbed a second story fire escape, but no amount of willingness could have made him strong enough. Not at least, as strong as a human.
Rana’s fingers slipped from his, and Tomi could only watch, dangling from the window, as she was taken from him.
In only a second that seemed like a lifetime, he watched as Rana was placed into a glass case and locked in. The human showed his prize to the others as they walked off, while Rana pressed her face up to the glass, sadly watching Tomi.
Tomi’s heart sank. The sounds of the crowd faded, the barking dogs, and the white noise steaming from the humans’ machines, all drifted away. He had let her down, let himself down, and now she was gone.
His ears were humming. He pulled himself over the edge of the sill. He couldn’t think straight, his chest pounded, and he could barely breathe. His muscles were so sore, and it was all for nothing.
No. He had to help her.
He couldn’t give up, not yet. She was right there! So close, if only he could get to her, slip past the dogs and find a way into that case…
But suddenly Bane was there. Behind him, to each side, Hera and Goliath held, watching. There was nowhere left to run, no place to duck for cover or hide. Nowhere except out the window, without Rana.
He turned to make the jump and reeled back, head spinning. Below the first floor window, at the bottom of a five foot drop (which alone was horrifying enough for Tomi) was a deep basement stairwell, running the length of the wall. Dizzy, he stumbled back. The vertigo struck him. His eyes blurred, and Tomi lost his balance just as Bane struck. His knees buckled and he slipped backwards; Bane’s gnashing maw shut around nothing. Tomi’s fingers snatched at the edge of the sill, catching him. Despite the glass cages and the humans’ delicate handling, Tomi was quite sure that these dogs did not mean to see him alive.
Bane reared up. The Hunter glared down at the little squirrel, dangling helplessly.
Tomi’s eyes were pressed shut. He knew Bane was about to strike, to finish the job. He couldn’t look. He couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes.
He knew was going to die; alone, having failed Rana. His heart was pounding, so hard in fact, that it seemed to echo around him, like the beating of wings. His ears were ringing so loudly that he could have sworn they were screeching, like the pitched cry of a bird of prey.
Tomi grit his teeth but try as he might, he could not let go. Not even Bane could conquer his fear of falling.
It was just as the reaping jaws of the Hunter were so close that Poor Tomi could smell the breath in Bane’s throat, that his vision, too, did the strangest thing. In those last moments of consciousness, Tomi could have sworn that the world around him was bathed in a warm, golden light.
Bane’s jaws would have closed around Tomi had he not fainted, and fallen from the ledge. Had Tomi not been so afraid of heights, he would have never fainted. Looking at it that way, it might be said by some that it was Tomi’s fear that saved his life that day.
But those some could not have known that it was Tomi’s bravery that sent him up the fire escape that day, where he met Norton. Had Tomi not been so brave, he would never had the chance to reunite Norton and his spectacles, and old Norton would never have seen that the tiny gray speck hanging from the window ledge far below was, in fact, little Tomi. He would never have been able to swoop in at the last second to snatch up his new friend, up and away from danger, battering Bane’s muzzle with his mighty wings as he rose. Very few in fact would know it, just how brave little Tomi truly was, or how fortunate was the series of events, because some flying squirrels are very good at keeping secrets.
Tomi awoke in the grasp of a pair of powerful talons, fierce wind buffeting his face. A voice, somewhere, was humming an old-fashioned lullaby. It was dreadfully off-key.
“N-Norton?” He tried to shake some sense into his head.
“Yes yes, my boy.” The old bird glanced down at him, with a quick wink. “At least I think so. And serendipity, too, it is. Whatever were you doing having a hang off a ledge like that? Nasty fall that would have been. You know, m’boy, you’ll have to use those wings of yours one of these days. It isn’t that bad, all this flying around. All the flapping can be a nuisance I suppose, and plenty of times I can remember I’d have loved a good swim, but can’t really complain much.”
“Flying?” Tomi came around. Realizing where he was, and as high up, he quickly wished he hadn’t. With a gasp, he shuttered his eyes and clung to Norton’s legs.
“Oh my. I had hoped you wouldn’t have noticed. Honestly, we’re not that high up, taking it all into consideration. I’ve been much higher. Would you like to see? NO, no, I suppose not, calm down there, say, I have quite an itch at the left ankle, if you would be a – Oh dear.”
Fatigue or the height, Tomi couldn’t tell, but in only moments, he was blacking out again, a single thought on his mind.
Okay, that might have overdone it at 10,251 words. But whatever, you're not reading this anyway.
I am goofy, smart, and skeptical