Johnny and the Queen of the Underworld

Enter at Your Own Peril

The gates to the underground city were well guarded by its inhabitants. Everyone who wanted to get in had to know one of the guards, be infamous enough or show a token of his worthiness. Johnny didn't know any guard and even if he might have some credit to his name, it wasn't the kind of credit that would get him into the city, not alive anyway. That left the token as the only option if he wanted to pursue his plan. Those were not easily obtained, on the contrary, the denizens of the underground only granted them to outsiders who they deemed trustworthy and important enough.

But Johnny had obtained such a token at great cost. Hunting it down was an adventure in itself and the former owner only reluctantly parted with it. It was a triangular, black stone that was interwoven with fine layers of red pigments. Both sides were engraved with a series of symbols and clusters of tiny dots. The computer had told Johnny that the red layers were organic matter that had been pressed into the stone through a natural process. The engravings didn't match with anything in the database though and Johnny was left wondering what they meant. He had been told that the token would grant him unfettered access to the city and, even more important, would also allow him to leave freely.

Now he was standing before one of the subterranean gates in the eastern tunnels and hoped that it was worth its price. He flipped it in his left pocket and let his fingers glide over the surface while he pressed his right arm against the zap gun that was hidden under the coat. If the token failed to deliver on its promises, he would have to use the other key, the one that opened all doors, but at a high cost.

The gate didn't look like a gate at all, any chance visitor would have thought this was just one more stretch of the underground tunnel system that was spread over wide parts of the moon. It connected here and there to the surface structures, but it was easy to get lost in the seemingly never ending jumble of tunnels, corners and half-crumbled cisterns. Johnny had gotten the directions to the gate together with the token and he would soon find out what he had payed for.

He had replaced his usual attire with a collection of half-torn rags and had left all his gadgets in the ship, the zap gun and the token were his only tools now and he wondered which of them would prove to be more useful. Still toying with the stone in his pocket he turned around another bend in the tunnel and found himself before a large hatch. It had no markings and looked just as dreary and lost as any other thing down there. There were no handles on the outside and no visible way to open it. Johnny looked around and saw nothing indicating that he was in fact at an entrance to anything.

He took the token out of his pocket and held it over his head. Going slowly in a circle he shouted: “Open the gate!”

For a long moment nothing happened, until he heard a rush of noises from the other side of the hatch. It opened with the scream of rotted hinges and dirty metal. A peculiar stench escaped into the tunnel and before Johnny could make any assumptions about its origins, three men stepped out of the hatch. They were draped in dirty clothes and their faces were hidden behind breathing mask that were antique. Two of them held laser rifles that looked like military equipment with makeshift modifications. The man in the middle, the one without a visible weapon, stepped forward to Johnny, took off his mask and looked at him intently.

“We have heard you,” he said. “I do not know you, stranger, what is your claim?”

Johnny kept silent just like he had been told and held the token up. The man took it with his smudged fingers and flipped it on his palm a couple of times, as if he was reading the symbols on both sides at once. Then he slid his thumb over the edges and looked at Johnny again.

“Your name?”

Johnny hesitated for a moment. He had made up a false background story before he came down here. He had anticipated to need it of course, if not at the entrance, then later on.

“I am Urus Adit.”

He did not want to volunteer more information than what was asked. Eagerness to comply could be seen as suspicious in these parts. The man was still looking at him and Johnny was trying to figure out what if his story was working or if he was talking himself right into the deep end of trouble. The man let his fingers run over the token's surface again, without taking his eyes off of Johnny.

“And what do you want in the city, Mr. Adit?”

Johnny considered his answer carefully. “That's none of your business.” He stared back at the man without flinching, prepared to draw his gun, should his reply be deemed wrong.

The man handed the token back to Johnny and turned around to the other men, who still had their breathing masks on and the rifles ready at their sides. He gave them a sign with his hand and one of them moved to open the hatch wider.

“You may enter,” the man said to Johnny. “But be careful where you go.”

Johnny put the token back into his pocket and nodded silently. One of the masked man produced another breathing mask and threw it to Johnny. He caught it adeptly and pulled it over his face. The mask's visor was narrow and dirty, the world outside became a dreary blur and after a couple of breaths Johnny noticed the shallow taste the filter added to the air. He stepped forward through the hatch and into a dimly lit hallway that bend around a corner after a short distance.

Behind him the three man shut the hatch, the man who had spoken had put on his mask again and was almost indistinguishable from the other two now. One of them gestured him to move forward and Johnny walked ahead. He was in the underground city of Arcos, one of the two moons orbiting Cerulean IV. Now he could start looking what he came for.

A vicious pain shot through his neck. His vision faded to black while the tunnel tumbled to the side. Johnny vaguely realized that the floor was coming closer.

A Cell Without a View

Johnny's neck hurt viciously and his nose was pressed to a hard, cold stone floor when he woke up. At first everything was a blur, before his eyes and in his memory. Then it came back to him: the tunnels, the hatch, the three men. He tried to sit up and realized that his hands were tied behind his back and his feet were tied together too. After closing his eyes for another moment to focus his thoughts, he looked around from his laying position.

He was in a small room that had no furniture, at least none that he could see from his limited perspective. The walls were rough, dark gray stone and there was a wooden door without handle. For all intents and purposes, Johnny guessed, this was a cell and he was a prisoner. The token got him in, but not quite the way he had hoped. When he had been approached with this plan he knew it would be risky, only few who did not belong here ever got into the underground city and back out alive.

The self-styled queen of the underworld city, had obtained a data rod with information that would allow her to wreak havoc in the information network of this system. The data was protected, but it was assumed that she would be able to work around the barriers given enough time. Two covert operations had been started to get the rod back or destroy it, before she could access it. Both were unsuccessful land the second had been a pretty gruesome affair. Apparently Johnny's name had come up in the search for alternative solutions and here he was. Not quite the success either.

Hours later, Johnny wasn't sure how many, the door flung open and the man who had allowed him into the city came in. Johnny got a good look on his dirty boots before another man came and lifted him into a sitting position. He stayed behind Johnny while the man who talked looked down on him. He fingered the token that had brought Johnny down here from a pocket an flipped it in his fingers.

“These,” he said and held the token before Johnny's face, “don't work quite like you think they do. They are coded to one particular person and only that person can use it to come here.” The man smiled ambiguously. “And there is another thing.” He made a pause here, but his smile faded away just as easily as it had come. “We know who you are, Johnny Oberon.”

Johnny's heart sank, this didn't look good. Being known by the right people certainly had its perks, but being known by the wrong people was a different matter altogether. There was obviously no point in trying to keep his disguise up any longer. Still, he had to be careful with every word he said, there was no telling yet how much exactly these folks knew already and what they were going to to with it and with him. Johnny knew he had to play hist cards close to the chest, hoping for any kind of voluntary mercy was a fool's game.

“Yes and I need to speak to your queen.”

“You will, oh you will, soon enough.”

Johnny felt another piercing pain shooting through his neck and everything went dark.

The Queen

“So, you are our esteemed guest.”

He was on his knees and his hands were still tied behind his back. The world was still a dark blur and it was dominated by the pain that was still lingering in his neck and the back of his head. He raised his head, it was painful and felt like he had to stem the weight of a marble globe.

Johnny looked around and saw that he was in a dimly lit chamber together with about a dozen people. Some worn out light sources cast their weak, green-tinted version of light over the scenery and from somewhere behind the walls a constant, slow beat drummed subversively through the thick air. And in the middle of it all she, the queen, sat on a makeshift throne made from scraps and pieces of machinery.

She was a tall woman with long, raven hair and clad in black, flowing gown that clung to her and the trash throne only to spill lazily onto the floor at her bare feet. She was resting her arms on the throne and looked at Johnny while she leaned back into the crushed metal pieces of her grand seat. To both sides of the throne stood men in dark black uniforms, both were elder than the rest of the people in the room and both had a red circle sewn onto the right shoulder of their outfits.

She made a gesture and suddenly Johnny felt hands under his arms and he was lifted and dragged closer to the throne and to her. When he was right at her feet they dropped him again and he was left with little choice, but to look up at her as she leaned forward to examine her catch.

“Johnny, Johnny.” She laughed a little with her sweet voice and smiled wryly. She grabbed his chin and pulled his head up to look upon his face. “Quite handsome you are, Johnny, and what a bold move to visit me here. With a stolen token no less.” She put her left foot on his right shoulder let her toe slowly slide along Johnny's neck. Then she kicked him back and laughed again. Johnny heard a trace of madness in that laugh, it was sweet and eerily uncanny at the same time.

“Tell me, Johnny,” she said, “why are you here? What brings Johnny Oberon to the throne of the underworld?”

Johnny realized that his false background story was utterly useless at this point. How do you deal with a mad queen, even if she rules only over a city of outlaws from a throne made of garbage? If she caught him in a lie this wouldn't go over very well for him and what could he say that she would possibly believe? After a moment of consideration he saw his only choice: the truth. At least a version of it anyway.

He tried to be as upright as possible on his knees and looked her straight into the eyes. “You have something that doesn't belong to you and I am here to get it back.”

She considered him with a faint smile. “The network access codes? Is that it?”

The old man to her right side took a step forward and spoke to Johnny. “There have been others before you who tried to get them back. They failed and now you have failed too, outsider.”

“Don't think they will just let you keep them,” he addressed them both. “That's not how the Alliance works. They would break apart half the moon to prevent you from whatever you think you can do with that data.”

“The words of someone who thinks he knows the whole story, but is just another pawn in a game of shadows,” the old man said. “Maybe we should send them back their pawn, in little pieces.”

“He's too handsome,” the queen interjected, “and he could still be useful for us, Marius. Even entertaining.” She grinned at Johnny with an expression that made him uncomfortably aware of his precarious situation.

The old man turned to her and bowed lightly. “He must not leave the city.”

“Of course not. Marius, you worry too much. He will be our guest for the time being.” She beckoned his guards. “Take him back to his cell and be careful with his head, we need it intact for now.”

Before he could say another word Johnny world went dark yet again, but this time it was a blindfold instead of the pain in his neck. This was an improvement, he thought while they dragged him away.

The Slave Saviour

Days passed in his cell and Johnny wasn't sure if he had played it right anymore. They fed him, but no one talked to him. He tried to focus on the reason he had come here in the first place. Getting that data rod was still as important as it had been when he had first set foot in the underground, but his survival and escape took precedence nonetheless.

To pass the time Johnny started to tell himself stories and made plans for the time after his escape. He wanted to see the famous spring rises on Ishara once in his lifetime. The scents from the atmospheric reactions were said to be exquisite and the women beautiful.

Johnny had lost any sense of time, because the light in the cell was always radiating its dull, white brightness, without fail. He was still dwelling in his daydreams when the door to the cell opened like it had many times before. This time though, it was none of the nameless guards that fed him and watched him when he was allowed outside for short periods. It was a young woman, the first he had seen here besides the queen.

She had short blonde hair and was dressed in a dark gray tunic that revealed her slender figure. A collar made of a bluish metal embraced her neck and similar bracelets were at her wrists. Johnny looked at her curiously as she closed the door behind her.

“If I help you escape, will you take me with you? To the surface? Away from this moon? You have a ship, right?”

Her voice was calm, but Johnny could hear the restrained fear under the surface. “Who are you, girl?”

“My name is Anna, I'm a prisoner, just like you.” She fumbled with her fingers nervously. “Please, will you take me with you?” This time she sounded clearly desperate.

Johnny nodded. “Get me out of this cell and I will take you wherever you want to go.”

“I will be back soon, be ready.” With that she turned back to the door and was gone before Johnny could ask how soon “soon” was.

Two days later she came back. “We have to hurry,” she said and produced a bundle of black clothing from a bag at her side. It turned out be a uniform, similar to those the two elder men besides the queen had worn, but this one had a white circle where the other had red.

When he had put on the uniform, Anna pulled Johnny's zap gun from her bag. “Here, I thought this might be useful.”

Johnny checked the gun and saw that it was still fully loaded and functional. He put it in a pocket of his new attire and nodded. “I'm sure it will be.”

“We have to take a route through the sewers,” Anna informed him, “there is a gate to the upper tunnels that is rarely used, because it leads to a part of the caverns that have caved in a long time ago, but there is still a way to the surface.”

“There is one more thing we need to do.” Johnny wasn't sure if it was a good idea to take her with him for this part of his plan, but he needed her to guide him around the underground city's mazes. “Take me to the queen's quarters.”

Royal Detour

Johnny followed her and wondered if he was about to walk even deeper into a labyrinthine mess. She had agreed, if only reluctantly, to take him where he wanted to go. Not that she had much of a choice if she wanted his help in turn, but it was clear enough that she wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of walking into the queen's private chambers. Fair enough, Johnny thought, she was doing it anyway and he acknowledged her courage.

They got out of the cell tract unnoticed and when they occasionally crossed path with a underwordly citizen, they didn't draw any attention. Anna paced him through a maddening array of structures, corridors and pathways. The ceiling of every tunnel and hall seemed to be crumbling down slowly. Johnny noticed that the whole subterranean city was in a state of decay that he hadn't anticipated, he wondered how much longer this place could even exist before the moon's surface crushed it all beneath its unforgiving mass.

Through a servant entrance and creative use of the zap gun they came into the small complex that was her refuge within the city. Her guards were so surprised by the gun in their faces, they had apparently never before dealt with an uninvited intruder. Unconsciously and very silently they now witnessed Johnny and Anna entering the core rooms of the chambers.

Johnny walked silently over colorful carpets with intricate patterns, the gun drawn and ready to fire. Anna was behind him and Johnny saw that she held a weapon of her own: a micro light gun with a silvery finish. It was the kind of weapon that was often used by women in the core systems. It lacked the punch that Johnny liked in his weapon of choice, but they could still take out a man quickly and even be lethal with some simple modifications.

Getting Out for Good

He had what he had come for, now it was about time to get out of this place as fast as possible. They rushed through the decayed parts of the city, Anna led the way and while Johnny recognized one or the other place from their previous journey in the other direction, he was glad that he had a guide who knew the way. He would have gotten himself lost rather quickly, he surmised.

On the way they ran into two men that recognized Johnny, but Anna proved to be a good and quick fighter. She had one of them down when Johnny was still wrestling with the other. They hid the unconscious guards and moved on. When they finally arrived at a huge hatch similar to the one where Johnny had come through shortly before he had been knocked out for the first time, he knew they had at least made it to the city limits.

“This is an old gate that is not used very often,” Anna said when they were approaching the huge, rusty steel hatch. She walked up to a panel at the side and swept a layer of dust off the surface. After entering a series of commands the hatch unlocked with a deep, creaking sound and opened just a notch.

Together they pulled it open and slipped out into the maze that lead back to the surface. Now Johnny took the lead and soon enough they arrived at his Ship, the Isys. She sat on the landing pad just as he had left her and when she recognized him, she opened the entry port to let them in.

They had already left the planet's gravity field when Johnny turned to Anna again. “So, where do you want to go?”

Fiction | Short Stories

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