They pushed Hum-Hum down to the rails and held him while they chained his ankles. Hum-Hum didn’t stop fighting the whole time, and -- as he flailed -- he even knocked over the skinny middle-aged man that was in charge; the man with long white wrists and a ratty grey ponytail that only grew out of the back of his head. He was shiny-bald on top, the kind of bald that looked like a buttered egg and made it appear as if the brains inside were worth more than ordinary brains, since they were encased in such a delicate shell.
“You can’t do this to me!” Hum-Hum shouted. “I’ve got treasure hid! You won’t get no treasure if you feed me to the goddamned Popsnake! You won’t get nothing: no treasure, no jewels, no girl books!”
Hum-Hum had been shouting about his treasure all morning to anyone who would listen. A few members of the Station had tried to convince him to tell more about it, and one woman had even gone after him with a knitting needle. She did some damage before the others made her quit on account of the noise. There was a vein of dried blood that led from Hum-Hum’s ear down his neck that testified either to his mental toughness, or to the fact that he’d finally lost his mind altogether.
He didn’t admit he was lying when she was poking him in the ear with a needle, but neither did he say where his treasure was. The treasure was probably just Hum-Hum’s last elaborate lie, but he was holding to it like a man clings to the ears of a dog that is trying to bite him.
The old ones of the Station had taken away Hum-Hum’s only prize possession as far as anyone knew: his leather jacket. It was sitting in a pile with the rest of his meager things on the lip of the platform. There was a shot-glass full of dice, a few other scraps of clothing, and a mechanical match-box that played
Without his leather jacket, Hum-Hum was bare-chested – a frosty-blonde young man with wide white teeth, and tough tan skin that was smeared with pink and black acne all across his shoulders and in a V between the blades. Since Hum-Hum had been chained up, he hadn’t a chance to shave his greasy beard, and now it grew in a patchy, lank trellis on his neck and under his nose.
“You calm down, Hum-Hum,” said the skinny man with the grey ponytail, whose name was Anson. “You know what you did, and now you gotta go. You’re bad, bad, bad. You stole, and you stole big. Even if you have treasure, you probably stold it from somebody else anyway.”
The crowd murmured agreement. Hum-Hum’s didn’t have any kin but Chris and Witcher, his two adopted brothers. Hum-Hum’s parents had tried to go out on their own several years ago, and it hadn’t worked out. They had left him behind in the middle of the night, and escaped to the top level – where the tunnels were still lit by lights that glowed without fire. After only being gone for a month, Hum-Hum’s parents had been dumped through the entrance to the Station with their throats slit and strange signs burned into their forehead. They had deserved it, the old ones in the Station said. You didn’t leave the Station, if you had sense. The Up Gangs in their helmets and hazard suits didn’t need want any newcomers. You stayed low, or you got yourself spilt, kilt, and skinned.
Hum-Hum had become weird and careless about things since his parents had left him. And now, after the incident with the drugs, people were glad to see him go. He made them nervous, the way he stood and muttered for hours, or told lies about the tunnels and claimed to be able to do miraculous things, like breathe underwater or stand in the sunlight.
Chris and Witcher had been tossed down into the Station when they were babies. Hum-Hum’s parents had outbid the rest of the clan for them, but then they had decided they were more trouble than they were worth, and had stopped feeding them. Hum-Hum had kept them alive with scraps until his mom and dad left, and then he had turned them into his employees, sending them out into the tunnels to scavenge, and in turn protecting them from other people in the Station who believed that charity was a pretty name for a little girl you were raising to be your sweetheart, and not good for much else. There were much better uses to put orphans than scavenging, some people said.
“I once puncht a rat,” said Witcher to Chris as they watched Hum-Hum take a blow to the back of his head, which dropped him, calming him down enough so that the people who were tasked with chaining him up could get the cuffs onto his ankles.
“You did now, did you?” said Chris, the older of the two boys. Witcher’s hair was yellow, and Chris’s was brown, but they both had pale blue eyes ringed with thin blonde lashes that were red around the rims. Their eyelashes were so blonde they were transparent, and they were so long that they caught and held gnats and mosquitoes when the bugs swarmed in the tunnel depths. Clever Witcher had taken to wearing a cracked pair of spectacles to keep the vermin out of the snare of his whisper-thin fronds, and the glasses magnified his eyes and made them look dead like the eyes of a fish or a squid.
“I did indeed puncht a rat,” said Witcher. “I was down in the Q tunnels all by myself, and I was tryin’ to get loose a piece a’ copper from where it was stuck unner the fire rail. I had me a rubber pole and I was whacking at it. La! The sparks!”
Chris spat into the grime of the platform and rubbed it around with his big toe, making a clean spot the size of a fist.
“I thought I heard a rat so I looked up, and then I looked back, but I didn’t see no rat,” said Witcher. “So I was all treed up: where’s this rat? I hear him. I hear him right in my face. And then I looked beside me, and there he was on the platfo! Sniffing at me, right as close as I am next to you. Up to my neck, like no rat ever should be. He was just a’ sniffing and carrying on, and I knew he wanted to bite me.”
“And then you puncht him,” said Chris, encouragingly. “Fore he could get you.”
“That’s right,” said Witcher. “You’re not supposed to touch rats with your hands, and you’re only supposed to kick at ‘em or throw something. But I KNOWED he wanted to bite me, so I reared back and knocked him clean acrost the platfo to the tunnel on the other side.”
With each ankle fastened over and under so that he couldn’t turn or run away, Hum-Hum could only lurch forward along the rails at a back-and-forth snail’s shuffle. The members of the Station who had chained him up climbed up out of the tunnel and onto the platform, stoically joining the rest of the crowd.
Hum-Hum howled and gnashed his teeth, and tore scratches into his chest with his gnarled fingernails. Even as excited as they were, no one responded to his calls or baiting. The Popsnake only came to feed at the Station once a day, but everyone knew it wouldn’t be long now. The Popsnake always came sooner or later.
“I once puncht a fish, too,” said Witcher quietly. “But that was just spite. That fish didn’t mean no harm.”
“It’s true,” said Chris. “You shouldn’t puncht no fish.”
Side by side, they sullenly watched their ersatz older brother rage and curse while the old ones had him trussed. Anson pointed his finger at Hum-Hum and smiled wanly.
“You gonna get ate,” said Anson. “Stealing. Carrying on. Not respecting no boundaries. You gonna get ate for what you done. You done bad, sick things.”
The crowd cheered. It seemed like the whole Station was here to watch, and everybody was excited about it -- eyes-popping, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, stuffing their faces with canned chard and baloney slices. A holiday! The only people who were calm were Chris and Witcher, who were trying to avoid being noticed, and who weren’t sure what was going to happen to them without Hum-Hum around.
“I knowd I done bad, sick things,” said Hum-Hum. “That’s why I had to take all those drugs. I got bad sickness in me, and I had to have ‘em.”
“You got to face the Popsnake,” said Anson, resigned.
Anson’s wife Fee was in charge of taking care of sick people in the Station whenever somebody was injured or pukey. She kept her stores of white tablets and pink chalk in a briefcase with a cross slashed down the front. The Station traded dearly for more pills, and any person who found them on a scavenging mission was rewarded with a huge feast in their honor: butterfly-spitted tunnel shrimp, the MOST delicately seasoned roaches, a huge plate of red Jell-o with marshmallows frozen inside.
They found Hum-Hum under Fee’s table, covered in his own vomit and writhing on his back with his boots flat on the ground and his groin bouncing at the sky. Packets of the most sacred pills – the ones that made the pink death go away and destroyed hidden pains – were scattered all around him, their foil ripped apart and scattered around him like cut whiskers, foil with names like Primaxin, Ceclor, and Zyglvox. He had eaten the whole supply, making himself sick with seizures and boils.
He did not die.
“I got bad in me!” he had shouted, laughing, his mouth crusted over with dark green foam. “I got to cure the bad!”
Anson and the rest of the Station’s old ones didn’t take long before they found him guilty and sentenced him. And now here he was, chained up, stripped of his possessions, hate burning in his eyes.
The old ones who were watching were afraid to get too close to the edge since they knew the Popsnake was coming soon. They would creep forward to the yellow paint and stick their necks out, bending at the middle, to look deep into the tunnels. Then they would quickly dart back to where it was safe when they saw that nothing was coming.
“I’m gonna kill that Popsnake,” said Hum-Hum. “Maybe I’ll kill it. You watch. Maybe I will. And then I’ll have my treasure all to my own self.”
He held his fists out as if ready to fight, and then slowly lowered them and looked at the people who had gathered to see him take his punishment.
“Chris? Witcher? Are you boys up there?”
Chris and Witcher didn’t say anything, and didn’t move from where they stood in the very back of the crowd. The crowd, however, parted and pushed them, inhaling them forward, until they were standing on the very edge of the platform, facing down on Hum-Hum, sheepish, without a comfortable place to look in the world.
Hum-Hum twisted and put his hands out.
“If I don’t kill that Popsnake, you got to promise me. You got to promise you’ll get your revenge on my death,” he whispered urgently. “You find that Popsnake, and you kill it for me, okay? I had bad in me, but then I got it all out. You got bad in you, too, but there ain’t no more pills left to clean it out. If you kill that Popsnake, you’ll be clean as me. You hear? But that’s IF I don’t get it first. I think maybe I’m gonna get it myself.”
There was a rumble along the rails, and the crowd gasped and pushed forward again, sending Chris and Witcher sprawling, nearly falling down in the tunnel next to Hum-Hum. They crawled away between the legs of the Station’s old ones and hid, shivering on the steps that led to the upper lands.
“Here it comes!” shouted Anson. The ground shook and roared under their feet. Deep in the tunnel, light flashed and held.
“My treasure’s hid where the sun boils the water,” shouted Hum-Hum. “You boys got to get it. You hear me?”
“Its eyes are open,” said Anson. “You’re in for it now!”
The Popsnake roared and came, the noise catching every person in the Station by the gut and jerking them around like cats with their tails tied to whip antennae.
Hum-Hum tried to lurch backward, but he tripped and fell on his knees, popping one the wrong way. He stood up and threw his head back, howling. He leaned forward and stamped the foot that still worked.
“Goddamn you, fast, fast Popsnake!” he shouted. Witcher, unable to look away even though he didn’t want to watch, wriggled his hand into Chris’s hand and squeezed it tight. His other hand found his mouth and crawled inside.
There was a rush, and an explosion, and the Popsnake roared through the Station. On it came, glowing silver and tan, red streaks across its belly, howling from the dark like a bellows pumping fire.
There stood Hum-Hum, bracing himself, leaning forward slightly, his legs bowed out, his ankle turned, a manic leer on his face, his shoulders dancing back and forth as he raised his hands in front of him and balled his hands into fists. The whole Station breathed forward, rapt, as the thunder of the demon filled hearts, heads, and bowels – sending men and women to their knees to glossolate in garbled prayer and rock back and forth -- insensate, overcome, lunatic.
The Popsnake hit Hum-Hum full in the chest and he dissolved in a spray of blood and bone that arched up -- and forward -- like a torrent from a sheared fire hydrant. His head was removed from his body and spun out of control, imbalanced by a dangling spinal column that clatched to a seam in the Popsnake’s armor, and carried it away, still grinning, still shrieking. The rest of him cracked like a wishbone and flew to one side, drenching several of the gathered old ones in blood, which made them howl and writhe on the floor, rubbing their faces and squeezing their cheeks with the flat of their palms.
One of Hum-Hum’s arms had wedged into the fire rail and there it burned, jerking, sending up a plume of blueish smoke as muscle and bone softened, softened, softened and became as gooey as fresh tunnel mud.
The Popsnake roared through the Station for what seemed like an eternity, but finally it disappeared into the tunnel on the other side, leaving the Station stunned and sick. This wasn’t the first time they had fed one of their own to the Popsnake, but it had been so long that many of them had forgotten the smell. The smell of it. The tang of blood, the sweet, delicious crackle of melting flesh.
Anson stood up from where he had huddled on his knees and looked over the crowd. A stitch in his voice made him begin four or five times before he could make himself heard.
“Now you all seen what happens when you go against the Station,” said Anson. “That boy Hum-Hum was trouble, and now he ain’t trouble no more. I think we can all feel peaceful about that. I know that boy had some friends who might also think they can be trouble and get away with it.”
Anson raised his shaking hand and pointed it at Chris and Witcher, who clung to one another trembling. Despite how crowded the platform was, there was a wide berth around them where no one stood, and now people moved even further away from the brothers, crowding away from the aura of their taint.
“Those of you that was Hum-Hum’s friends can’t be welcome no more,” continued Anson. “You ought to know that. I’m not gonna say no names, so people can have the chance to clear out. This here Station is clean, and we’re FAMILY ONLY now. If you aren’t family, then you just go along and get the hell out, or you’ll find yourself facing the Popsnake yourself, you hear? We’ll feed that Popsnake two at a time if we have to.”
Chris and Witcher searched the crowd for a friendly face; an understanding eye. While some of the young women seemed more sad than angry, they didn’t raise their eyes, and shook their heads slightly at the brother’s unspoken appeal for quarter.
Witcher began to cry, and so Chris picked him up and slung him over his shoulder. He paused to grab Hum-Hum’s leather jacket from the edge of the platform, and then lowered himself into the carnage-strewn tunnel. He looked up the tunnel where the Popsnake came from, and then he looked down the tunnel where the Popsnake had gone.
“Do we follow it, or do we try to find its lair?” he whispered to Witcher with steel in his voice. Somebody had to be brave.
Witcher stopped crying and squirmed out of Chris’s arms. He looked at the silent mob that was watching them, and then turned away and leaned heavily on his brother’s shoulder. Chris put the leather jacket on Witcher, and laid the collar down flat. Witcher fondled the shoulder of his new jacket with awe.
“That treasure is in the place where the water boils,” said Witcher firmly. “That’s what Hum-Hum said. I know all about that. It’s back where the Popsnake come from, so we go that way.”
“We got to smash that Popsnake for Hum-Hum,” said Chris. “Don’t forget.”
“Hum-Hum was bad to us and bad to everybody,” said Witcher.
“You know we got to do it,” said Chris. “We was part of his gang.”
“We’ll do it so we can come back,” said Witcher, pushing his spectacles up his nose. His tears had fogged them. “We’ll do it so we can come back, and they won’t be able to feed us to nothing.”
“You go ahead and take me to where the water boils then.”
Witcher, resolute now, picked his way up the rails, avoiding lumps of smoking flesh and the grisly remains. They made their way silently down the track, until they were out of sight of the Station and its inhabitants, and they were deep in the silent tunnels, absorbed by the shadows, cocooned by the abandoned void.
They walked for a mile in the dark before Chris decided it was safe to light a candle. Soon they would need to eat, but for now he wanted to keep his brother focused on the task at hand to keep him from reflecting too much, or getting angry at things they couldn’t change. Witcher had a sensitive bone.
“So where’s this place where the water boils? Some kind of campground?” asked Chris. “That’s where you boil water.”
“I’ll show you,” said Witcher. “It’s not far. We just got to jog up the line a little bit.”
Witcher took the lead and ducked in and out of the tunnels, lithely skipping over the rails and flitting his footsteps between piles of sharp, tangled machinery and toxic trash. Chris came along heavier behind, knocking piles out of the way with the back of his hand and grunting as he heaved over barriers and humped over obstructions. They both gave a wide walk to the occasional pile of stripped, leathery corpses.
“He put that treasure in a place where people don’t go, on account of the sun,” said Witcher. “I guess people can sometimes be both smart and crazy. Hum-Hum showed me this place during one of his crazy moods, but I guess it was smart of him to find it in the first place.”
“I reckon so,” said Chris.
They turned another corner past a set of sawhorses that had been painted bright orange and striped with yellow reflective tape. Witcher went under, and Chris knocked them aside.
Suddenly, Witcher stopped, turned, and grabbed Chris by the arm. He held him and looked into his eyes.
“You got to be careful,” said Witcher. “You got to stay out of the light, cause it’ll burn you up, even if it’s pretty.”
Chris nodded, and Witcher let him go. Witcher doubled back through a grate that had been melted in half, with the sinews of its crossbars pinched and twisted like old tinsel that had been squeezed hard and dropped.
They found themselves in a tunnel that Chris had never seen before.
“Are we underwater?” asked Chris, smelling the air and placing his hand flat against the wall where it came away clammy and grey. “You know we got to stay out from under the water, in case one of these tunnels falls in. I seen it happen.”
“You ain’t SEEN it happen,” said Witcher.
“Well, I heard it,” said Chris. “In any case, this place ain’t safe.”
“That’s what I said,” said Witcher. “You got to be careful. But we ain’t underwater. We’re just BESIDE it. Look! You got to look over here for the treasure.”
Witcher took off running, and Chris followed behind, warily.
Chris caught up to Witcher beyond the next bend and found him stopped, pointing. But he didn’t need to point. Brackish silver water flowed between their legs in a thin trickle, where it pooled in a deep concavity further down the tunnel that made it impossible to travel any further. The hole cut the tunnel in half. Directly above the pool, was something you never saw. There was a crack in the roof that let the sunlight in.
The sun blazed through the tiny hole in a brutal slash that ignited the motes in atomic puffs the moment they drifted into the shaft’s penumbra, bystanders caught between the heavens and the pit. The light drilled down into the silent water and made it boil with orange fever, huge pops of steam and bubble coursing across the water’s greasy top. The fissure in the tunnel’s ceiling glowed with a greenish-intensity that made Chris’s eyes burn and blear. He covered his eyes.
“It’s got to be around here somewhere,” said Witcher. “Look for dirt that’s been mussed up.”
The boys crawled around on the ground in front of the boiling pit, scrabbling and poking. After fifteen minutes, they found what they were looking for. Under some powder-soft dirt, they pulled up a leather case filled with crumbling pornography and maps. It had Hum-Hum all over it.
Nothing you could trade. Nothing worth even a hamburger. Certainly no jewels.
“Well, we found it at least,” said Chris as Witcher’s breath hiccupped, signaling that he was close to tears.
Witcher thumbed through the faded magazines and then tossed the whole collection on the ground in a frustrated huff.
“Crazy, not smart,” said Witcher.
“Maybe some of these maps are useful,” said Chris, picking the stack of paper back up and resting them on the leather case, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “You know how he was about maps.”
“Yeah,” said Witcher. “He was crazy.”
“What do you reckon this is a map of?” said Chris, holding up a piece of black construction paper with a spaghetti-tangle of lines and colors etched into it. One bright red line was bolder then the rest. It ran in a smoldering circle across the sheet of paper – an ugly, fiercely burning thing that reminded Chris of the red stripe that bit into your waist if you wore your pants too tight.
“It’s just a map of places you already know,” said Witcher. “You can see all them tunnels, yourself. See, look here, that’s where the Station is.”
Witcher put his finger on a forking nexus where three colored tunnels met.
“What about that bright red line?” asked Chris, pointing. “How come that bright red line goes through the Station? I’ve never seen a bright red tunnel.”
Witcher crossed his arms and frowned. He put his hands on top of his head and pushed, as if trying to drive himself into the ground.
“I bet that red line shows where the Popsnake goes,” said Witcher finally, taking the map from Chris and smiling. “I bet it sure does. Look: here’s where we are, and here’s the line again. And look again: there’s a NEST! See, there’s a red dot! Got to be a nest.”
“How come he never said anything about no nest? You mean we could get it while it sleeps?”
“I don’t know. And see -- look -- that Popsnake comes right through here. Right over the boiling water. It must move too fast for the sunlight to kill it.”
“It’s only a tiny sunbeam,” said Chris, looking around, thinking. “And those rails go right over the water, don’t they?”
“Let’s go see that nest,” said Witcher. “It ain’t far. It’s just around the bend. We can be there by morning.”
“But we come back here to kill it, to this boiling-water place,” said Chris. “I’ve got an idea. Keep your eyes out for rope while we walk. We need some rope. Rope and some steel hooks, maybe.”
The boys set out the way they came. They marched hard through the fetid intestines of the hollow blight without speaking or stopping, and by dawn, they found themselves in a new place. It was a cleaner tunnel than they’d ever seen before, and that made it dangerous. No vegetation meant that there were fewer rats, nothing to eat. After searching for an hour, they found a clutch of spiders that would serve as breakfast. Chris snatched them up, split their bellies with an old sharp key he kept in his pocket, and sucked out their meat before handing them to Witcher one by one, who liked to crunch on the legs, something that Chris found disgusting but tolerated.
“You got to eat spiders,” said Chris. “But you don’t got to ENJOY it.”
After they had fought off the hunger pangs, they made the last leg of the trip and found themselves in a gleaming, brightly lit platform space that was empty and pristine. Silent and cold. There was a breeze blowing in from somewhere above, and there was the unmistakable whir of a turbine turning in the walls. Turbines were great for harvesting metal, but both Chris and Witcher had never heard of one actually working before.
The rails on either side of the platform were empty.
“What do we do?” asked Witcher. He had to shout over the buzz of the turbine. “This don’t look like no burrow. I don’t see any bones, or skulls or nothing.”
“We oughta wait,” said Chris. “That Popsnake is probably out hunting, and then he’s gonna come back all tired and full and want to take a nap. And then we can scope him out.”
“You reckon we oughta hide?” asked Witcher.
“Hell yeah,” said Chris. “That’s not even a question.”
Chris looked around the platform. It had actually been swept clean by somebody, and the only free-standing object was a barrel in which bottles and boxes and had been tossed. He picked the barrel up and carried it over to the stairwell, making a tight cubby. He crouched down behind it, and Witcher joined him.
There was a shuffling on the stairs above them. A cough. Chris pushed back further against the wall, and Witcher mimicked him. They hadn’t counted on being spotted from above, but there were definitely people moving up there and coming down fast.
Steps clacked out and were joined by others -- sharp shoes all tapping at the same speed on the stairs. Down they came, people dressed like Chris and Witcher had never seen before – wearing tight scarves around their necks, bowler hats perched high on their heads like pastry icing, thick mustaches curling below their noses like wet strips of paper, heavy makeup adding color in smeared blooms to their sunken, pale cheeks. Their eyes were blank and motionless. Tongues lolled -- slobbering -- against powdered chins. Lipstick ran in sticky rivulets between wrinkle clefts. High pants were tucked into socks and buckled with gleaming braces that glinted back cold against the platform’s lighted sconces.
There were at least twenty silent strangers, maybe more. Their hair was cut without rhyme or reason, and some of it was dyed colors that weren’t natural – pink, blue, and green. Dangling chains featured prominently in the composition of many of the stranger’s clothes, hooked between layers of fabric, attached to rings and necklaces and brightly colored gems – orange, lime, crimson, and cobalt.
To a foot, every one of them wore black marching boots.
They lined up in three rows on the platform, staring straight ahead, their powdered hands at their sides with the fingers splayed. They were breathing ragged, each person making an awful lot of noise with the bleat of his air. Each person carried one note, and they meshed together in a tuneless caterwaul that made Witcher cover his ears where he sat.
It wasn’t long before the whine was drowned by the rumbling of the walls and rails. The Popsnake was coming.
As the rumbling mounted, and the bones of the brothers began to vibrate against one another like teeth rattling at the bottom of a washing machine full of skulls, the platform gatherers pushed closer together, until finally they were one united block, limbs and torsos mangled together in inseparable, insuperable puree.
The Popsnake that slithered onto these rails was a different snake altogether from the one that roared through the Station. This Popsnake limped down the track as if bleeding to death, slowly grinding down the rails before coming to a dead stop, its full length splayed across the brightly-lit tunnel as if hung, hot steam escaping from underneath its tan scales.
Sixteen different jaws opened along the Popsnake’s side, and Witcher gasped.
“It’s got more mouths than a pack of cats!” he whispered to Chris.
Chris shushed his brother, but no one on the platform had noticed Witcher’s outburst and the Popsnake continued to sigh and moan, in no shape to do anything, even if it could roll its massive bulk over the lip of the tunnel and snap at them where they lay hidden.
There was a bellyache fartgag from the platform gatherers, and then – as one – they moved forward and stepped into the Popsnake’s open mouths. Teeth closed behind them, and the Popsnake started to move again. Behind the portals, the people could still be seen – standing and staring out of sick, green-tinted portals like reflections.
“No!” said Witcher, standing and screaming. “You can’t!”
Chris grabbed his brother and tried to hold him, but he was too insistent – too excited. Witcher leapt down into the tunnel and took off running, and he had nearly made it to the darkness of the tunnel’s other side before Chris was able to tackle him and pin him down.
“It’s too late,” said Chris. “It’s too late for them.”
“They got hypnotized, and then they just walked into death,” said Witcher. “That Popsnake was on its last, and then they fed it and gave it power again.”
“That’s why we got to smash it,” said Chris.
Witcher hung his head.
“Come on, let’s get some rope, and then I’ve got an idea how.”
“That Popsnake was on its last,” said Witcher.
“Come on,” said Chris. “I know exactly what to do.”
Hours later found the brothers back in the cavern of boiling water. Witcher stood on Chris’s shoulders, oustretched over the pit, carefully feeling the crevice with his thin fingers to find purchase, avoiding the deadly light of the sun with surgical precision.
“I got it,” said Witcher. “Hand me another hook.”
Chris slowly reached into his pocket, balancing on his brother, and drew forth a wicked-looking hook that had once been part of an elevator winch. They found both the cables and the hook underneath the tangled wreckage of a yellow wagon that had overturned and taken its rider with it. Both corpses were bent and crushed, the hand of the driver still holding a book whose pages had copper edges and were so thin that they turned to powder when Witcher tried to see what the book was.
Witcher threaded the hook into the fissure and tested it. It didn’t move, and the cable held taut when Chris tugged.
“That’s the last,” said Chris.
“I’m coming down,” said Witcher.
The two brothers admired their handiwork. They had managed to get four hooks into the crumbling rock without being burned, and the corresponding cables hung down over the water in four impotent streaks. Chris took the ends of the cables and tied them together to create something like a two-tiered harness.
“We’re certain that Popsnake comes through here?” asked Chris. “Otherwise we are just wasting our time.”
“We can’t be certain,” said Witcher. “But --faith, Chris-- that’s what the map says.”
“How long do you think it’s gonna take?” asked Chris.
“Should already be here,” said Witcher. “What o’ time is it?”
“Day’s almost over,” said Chris. They looked at each other.
“I guess that means we’d better get down the line somewhere safe,” said Witcher. “Hole up in one of them cubbies alongside, just in case it don’t work.”
“It’s gonna work, if you’re sure that Popsnake comes through here.”
“Just in case,” said Witcher.
Turning down the line, they pressed their backs against the wall in an indented part of the tunnel and waited for the Popsnake for the third time in two days.
“We’re gonna get it,” said Chris, licking his lips. “Can you believe that? We’re gonna smash it up good, and then we can go back home like real dandies.”
“We’ll be heroes!” shouted Witcher.
“We gonna get revenge for all them souls in its belly, too,” continued Chris. “All them souls, free to go back home to their mammas and sisters.”
“I think I hear it,” said Witcher. “It’s coming!”
The ground started to shake. The dirt began to dance in the concrete seams.
On came the Popsnake to the place where the water boiled, and on it came, fast, fast, completely oblivious to the beam of paltry sunlight, howling, rumbling, belching smoke from its sixteen jaws, with its fire rail shooting sparks up its side like a matchstick run on a zipper. On it came, rounding the bend, and now the boys could see it where they crouched. They could see its light and they could see the fuzzy heat from where the fire rail warped the air around the Popsnake’s hem and made it crackle.
“It’s not gonna work!” shouted Witcher, looking at Chris horrified. Chris didn’t say anything. On came the Popsnake. The temperature dropped as wind was sucked out of the tunnel, making hackles rise on Chris’s neck.
The front fender of the Popsnake snagged the cords exactly like Chris had imagined. The Popsnake shuddered as it snarled into the cables and slowed down by slack degrees, gears grinding, metallic-blue smoke burning from the squealing edges along the track.
There was a moment of tension, and then the cables snapped. They tore chunks of masonry out of the ceiling, crushing the second segment of the Popsnake’s thorax with a tremendous slab of tempered, reinforced concrete – notch-cut iron poles smashing through five-foot Popsnake eyes and buckling the creature’s jaws.
The explosion skittered the Popsnake from the rails in back, and made his front half twist around and come unmoored moments later. The walls of the tunnel buckled and cornered, spewing basketball-sized chunks of rock from the eaves. But the walls of the tunnel held and did not collapse, even as waves of vicious sunlight crashed down through the ceiling.
“Is it dead?” asked Witcher.
Chris walked forward out of the niche and peered into the Popsnake’s reticulated portals, which were now ringed with savage triangular shards that had gone dim inside, even as the sun burned down mercilessly into the holes. There was blood everywhere, and steaming hunks of gore were plastered like hot mortar over sheets of panel in vibrant layers, lit up by the rays of the atomic star that held the world hostage. Arms and heads rolled and dangled between jagged edges of broken carapace.
A man wearing a top hat that had a giant, plastic dandelion sewed alongside turned over a huge skein of tan metal and reached out with a bloody hand to touch Chris on the toe. His legs were gone, and a gash in his side had exposed his organs, which had melted to the ground and kept him from chasing when Chris backed away. The man tugged and pulled at his smashed intestine to free himself, but, finally, he passed out with a wilting shiver, and Chris wished him well.
“Is it dead, do you think?” asked Witcher again.
Suddenly, the Popsnake ignited from where it now lay belly-up in the sun. The creature began to spit and writhe, and flame leapt along the tunnel toward Chris and Witcher as the creature’s combustible elements began to flare in a twisting, bucking arc.
“Get out of here,” said Chris, pushing his brother further along the tunnel. “We’re gonna get burned up!”
The brothers ran back to the clean, well-lit platform where they had watched the men and women in fancy clothes feed themselves to the Popsnake. They hunkered down and massaged the stitches in their side, looking at each other meaningfully, attempting to catch their breath.
“We kilt it,” said Witcher.
“All the way,” said Chris, peering into the black of the tunnel they had left behind.
There was a flicker and shuffle in the gloom. The clack of a boot on concrete.
“A vision,” said Witcher. “We’re gonna get a vision. From our heads.”
Chris frowned, but didn’t say anything.
It was too late to run. As they stood there with their hands on their knees, shimmering blue ghosts began to fill the tunnel. They were the ghosts of the men and women who had been inside the Popsnake when it smashed. You could see right through them, and their clothes were brand new – their mustaches waxed, the lattice-work of their nylons sharp and intact. The spots of color on their cheeks glowed electric blue where they had once been diseased-looking red smears.
At first, the ghosts crowded around the two brothers in a mob, gawking, and silently moving in and out of one another like stacking cups. Finally, the ghosts organized themselves into a line, and began to approach each of them in turn, passing their cold, vaporous hands through each of the brother’s delicate hairless ones, and vigorously shaking.
“Happy day,” one ghost muttered before drifting away down the tunnel, out of sight, out of time.
“Good game,” said another.
When all of the ghosts were gone, Chris picked Witcher up and put him on his shoulders.
“We’d better go,” said Chris. “Find some place to sleep. I guess we must be dog tired.”
But before they could leave the platform, there was a burst of flame down the line, and the rumble of tracks coming up fast.
“It’s not dead!” shouted Witcher. “Lord almighty, it’s sprung back to life. Run, Chris, run!”
But Chris just stood there paralyzed as the walls shook and the rails knocked against his feet below.
From out of the tunnel, there was a mighty roar, and the beast sprung out whole – ten feet in the air, glowing with spectral blue flame and gnashing its teeth, grinning from ear to ear. The Popsnake’s ghost! And riding him was Hum-Hum, his head lazily floating in mid-air, still attached to the train’s fender by a thin whip of vertebrae.
“Goddamn, boys, goddamn!” said Hum-Hum.
Witcher stripped off the leather jacket he was wearing and held it out tenderly. As the Popsnake passed above them, it sucked the leather jacket into its wake, and both jacket and Popsnake disappeared, roaring away down the tunnel, shrieking and setting trash on fire, moving faster and faster until invisible, until nothing but a sound, a feeling, a memory, a conclusion.