Human/Super #17: Pipe Dreams

 

HUMAN/SUPER #17

PIPE DREAMS

 

 

 

 

 

“Sidewalk closed,” the sign said. “Use other side.”

Not that anyone was out walking in this weather, other than Gabriel Marte and his coworkers from Victory City Public Works. There were three of them, called here in the middle of the night to deal with an overflowing storm drain.

Gabriel did his best to keep the rain off their backs as they lifted the manhole cover. The shaft was completely flooded, spilling up onto the sidewalk.

He reached down toward the hole and drew out a sphere of water. The shaft filled back up in seconds. Gabriel waved his hand and the water splashed back down the drain.

“I’m going in,” he said. “Give me some light.”

He stepped onto the ladder and the water parted around him, forming a bubble about an inch from his body. His coworkers shone their flashlights down after him. The beams barely pierced the murky rainwater.

Gabriel moved in the direction the water flowed, shining his own flashlight into the darkness, for what little good it did. The water pressed against his bubble, threatening to overtake him at any moment.

The pipe narrowed and he lowered himself onto all fours. Soon he could go no farther, his path blocked by a tangled accumulation of debris ranging from plastic bags to glass bottles to driftwood.

This must be the place, he thought.

He clenched his fists and thrust them forward. The water slammed against the blockage, but nothing moved. He tried again, and a few pieces of wood loosened. The third time, he broke through.

The water rushed past him, down the westward pipe that would eventually spill out into the Pacific. Gabriel swung his flashlight around to check for any further obstructions.

As he did, the light reflected off something in the knee-high water. He crept forward and found it, at the bottom of the pipe, half-buried by rubble. He reached down and picked it up.

A pearl.

The size of his fist, perfectly round, and pure white, he’d never seen anything like it. It was heavy, cool to the touch, and quite beautiful. Valuable, too, by the looks of it.

He glanced around, shoved the pearl in his pocket, and backed out of the tunnel. As he climbed the ladder back to the surface, he felt something brush past his foot, but when he looked down, there was a nothing.

///

Gabriel kicked off his boots, hung up his coat, and pulled the pearl from his pocket. Tiptoeing across the living room floor, he slipped into the bathroom and shut the door behind him.

The light caught him off guard, amplified by the pearl’s reflective surface. He could see his face in it, all stretched and distorted. For a while, all he did was stare.

He ran the pearl under the tap to rinse off a few lingering bits of grime. With a wave of his hand, the water leaped from the surface of the pearl and spiraled down the drain.

“Gabriel?” his wife’s voice called from the other side of the door. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ll be out in a second, Dora.”

He shoved the pearl into the linen cabinet, splashed a bit of water on his face, and opened the door.

“Did I wake you?” he asked.

She shook her head, a few strands of grey hair falling loose from her dark curls.

“I couldn’t sleep with all that wind,” she said.

“Sorry,” he said, listening to the howling of the storm. “I’ll fix the windows tomorrow.”

“Thanks, honey,” she said. “Did you have any trouble out there tonight?”

“No more than usual,” he said, shrugging. “I ended up going for a little swim.”

She put a hand on her hip and said, “You really ought to be more careful.”

“I will,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. “I promise.”

She smiled and headed back to the bedroom. He followed, stripping down to his boxers and climbing under the covers beside her. She squeezed his hand and fell asleep soon after.

Gabriel wasn’t so lucky. He stared at the ceiling, still thinking about the pearl. He wanted to tell Dora about it, but until he knew for sure what he was dealing with, he didn’t want to get her hopes up.

///

Gabriel’s friend Peter Kamen owned a jewelry shop downtown. Gabriel stopped by early the next morning with the pearl tucked away in his lunchbox.

“Hey, man,” Peter said. “What brings you to my neck of the woods at this ungodly hour?”

The shop was dimly lit and cluttered with display cases and racks, giving the place a bit of a “seedy pawn shop” vibe. Peter preferred to call it “unpretentious.”

“I found something in a storm drain last night,” Gabriel said, “and I was hoping you could take a look at it for me.”

“It’s not a dead rat, is it?” Peter asked. “Because the taxidermist is two doors down.”

“Very funny,” Gabriel said, approaching the counter. “No, I’m definitely in the right place for this.”

He set the lunchbox on the counter and opened it. The pearl glistened even in the dimness of the shop. Peter lifted it gently in his hand, and the pupils of his eyes expanded until the whites disappeared.

“Shit,” Peter muttered.

“What?” Gabriel asked.

Holy shit,” Peter said.

What?” Gabriel repeated.

“You say you found this in the sewer?” Peter asked.

“Buried under some driftwood,” Gabriel replied. “I figured it might be worth something.”

Peter chuckled.

“It’s worth more than something,” he said.

Gabriel hesitated a moment, and said, “How much?”

Peter’s eyes returned to normal. He looked up at Gabriel.

“Six figures, at least,” he said. “Maybe more.”

Gabriel grabbed the counter for support. His mind flashed on all the things he’d ever wanted to buy but could never afford.

He took a deep breath and said, “What’s our next move?”

“I’ll start by making some calls,” Peter said. “I know a few collectors both locally and abroad who’d be very interested in a piece like this. It’s just a matter of figuring out who’s willing to pay the most.”

“This is really great of you, Pete,” Gabriel said. “How much will I owe you when it’s all settled?”

“Well, normally I charge a thirty percent commission on this kind of sale,” Peter said, “but for you I’ll drop it to twenty.”

Gabriel tried to do the math in his head, but all he saw was dollar signs.

“Sounds fair,” he said finally.

“In the meantime,” he said, “I’ll keep it here and—”

“Actually,” Gabriel said, plucking the pearl from his friend’s fingers, “I think I should hold onto it. It’s not that I don’t trust you; I’d just feel better this way.”

“Suit yourself,” Peter said with a shrug. “But I strongly recommend at least sticking it in a safe deposit box. You don’t want to leave something like this just lying around the house.”

Gabriel nodded and said, “Okay, I’ll do that.”

///

And he did, stopping by the bank and stashing the pearl with his and Dora’s wills and the deed to their house. He returned the box to the attendant hesitantly, worried he’d never see it again.

The unease followed him all the way to work, and even as he descended into the storm sewer again to continue cleaning up last night’s mess, he couldn’t stop glancing back over his shoulder. His coworkers started making jokes about alligators, which was funny until he actually heard growling.

It was sort of a deep rumble, echoing up and down the tunnel. He glanced around, panning his flashlight this way and that. Nothing.

You’re imagining things, old man, he thought.

He continued alone along the pipe, washing away any obstructions he found. The growl repeated, coming from a different direction. His heart pounded in his chest, and he broke into a run.

He summoned a swell of water under his feet and it carried him all the way to the nearest manhole. He landed on the sidewalk and the water splashed to the pavement.

When he looked down the shaft, he saw exactly what he saw before: nothing.

///

Every day, Gabriel stopped by the bank on his way to work, just to make sure the pearl was still there. And every day, he heard the growls, always distant but never in the same spot.

He also spent a lot of time staring at his phone, waiting for Peter to call with news that would put Gabriel’s mind at ease. He was starting to wonder if he should call the whole thing off when, after about a week, the phone finally rang.

“Are you sitting down?” Peter asked.

Gabriel was straddling the roof of his house, fixing a leak.

“Sort of,” he replied.

“I may have underestimated the value of this thing,” Peter said. “I started getting offers as soon as I put the word out. Big offers. I figured they’d start off low and play hard to get, but right off the bat they were throwing out one million, two million, three.”

Gabriel almost toppled over. He grabbed the chimney to steady himself.

“Three… million… dollars,” Gabriel muttered.

“Yeah,” Peter said. “And then things got really crazy.”

“How crazy?” Gabriel asked, still holding the chimney.

“Well, I get a call from this guy,” Peter said. “I’ve never dealt with him personally, but he checks out. It seems he’s super interested in the pearl. Before I can even tell him how much money’s already on the table, he makes his offer: fifty million.”

“F-f-f…” Gabriel muttered, stuck on the syllable.

“Fifty, yes,” Peter said. “But he wants to see the pearl before we negotiate any further. He’s stopping by tomorrow afternoon, so I need you to bring it in ASAP.”

“I’ll go to the bank first thing in the morning,” Gabriel said.

“Great,” Peter said. “See you tomorrow.”

There was a pause, then Gabriel said, “Hey, Pete?”

“Yeah?” Peter said.

“Is this really happening?” Gabriel asked.

Peter chuckled.

“Yes, my friend,” he said. “It really is.”

Gabriel put the phone away and finished his work hastily. He climbed down off the roof and headed inside. Dora was in the living room, reading a book on the couch. She glanced up.

“All good?” she asked.

“Good enough,” he replied. “All else fails, we can just buy a new house.”

She laughed and tossed her book aside.

“I’ll start supper,” she said, heading for the kitchen.

He followed after her and took her hand.

“Actually, I was thinking we could go out,” he said.

She looked at him curiously and said, “What’s the occasion?”

“No occasion,” he said. “It’s just been ages since I’ve seen you all dolled up. I miss it.”

Dora glanced away.

“I’ll… go get changed,” she said.

///

Gabriel smiled across the table at Dora. She was wearing a green dress with a plunging neckline that still fit her like a glove. He pointed at her glass and a little sphere of champagne floated up in front of her face. She leaned forward and drank it from mid-air.

“You did that on our first date,” she said. “Except I recall it was some awful American beer that time.”

He laughed and said, “It was all I could afford back then.”

“It’s all we can afford now,” she said as a waiter placed a pair of steaks on the table. “How exactly are we paying for this?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What’s the point in working your ass off for thirty years if you can’t treat yourself once in a while?”

She gave him another “You’re up to something, aren’t you?” look, but didn’t press the issue. He still wasn’t ready to tell her about the pearl; not until he had the money in hand.

His phone rang, work calling. He stared down at it, listening to the drone of a digitized classical tune.

“You going to answer that?” Dora asked.

He stroked his beard for a moment, glanced at his wife, and rejected the call.

“They can get by without me for a couple hours,” he said, putting the phone away.

He grabbed a knife and fork and dug into his steak.

///

Gabriel returned the call later in the evening, after Dora had gone to sleep. He was tempted to tender his resignation right then and there, but he didn’t want to be a dick about it.

So that’s how he ended up climbing down into another flooded storm sewer on the eve of the biggest payday in his life. It was just like before, but this time it wasn’t rain; the water was pouring into the tunnel from a ruptured water main nearby.

Gabriel followed the water and came to a partially collapsed section of the tunnel, filled with bricks and mud. He lashed out with the water around him, but it was slow going.

After about half an hour, he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder, like it was being squeezed in a vice. He gave the rubble one last heave, and it finally yielded.

Something heavy crashed into him from behind as the water drained from the tunnel, knocking him from his feet. He swung his flashlight up and spotted a large figure disappearing down the pipe, carried by the current.

He stood up and leaned against the side of the tunnel. His clothes were soaked, his socks squishing in his boots. He breathed in and exhaled sharply; the water leapt from his body and splattered against the walls.

His shoulder was still sore, and he felt a warm sensation running down his arm. He brought the light up and saw that his jacket had been torn open. Blood was seeping from four long gashes that ran along his collarbone.

Growling echoed up the pipe. He decided to call it a night.

///

Gabriel rubbed his shoulder. His wounds were all stitched and he’d downed a bunch of aspirin on his way out the house, but the dull ache persisted.

He reached into his pocket and touched the pearl. It was still there. The closer he got, the more convinced he was that something was gong to go wrong.

He opened the door to the jewelry shop and stepped inside. An elderly white woman eyed him nervously from the front counter. He pretended to browse gold necklaces while Peter finished serving her.

“Have a nice day,” Peter said as she hurried out the door.

Gabriel strolled over, took a deep breath, and set the pearl down on the counter.

“So,” Peter said, “thought about what you’re going to do with your money yet?”

“It’s been hard thinking about anything else,” Gabriel said.

“Yeah, I hear that,” Peter said. “You spend your whole life hoping for this day to come and when it finally does, you don’t know where to start.”

“Oh, I know where to start,” Gabriel said. “I’m buying a new house. And taking Dora on a tropical vacation. Then I’m going to buy me that boat I’ve wanted all my life. After that, though… no idea.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out,” Peter said. “So, you can either leave the pearl here with me, or camp out until the buyer shows up. He should be here in about—”

Gabriel’s phone rang.

“Better not be work,” he muttered, fishing his cell out of his pocket. “Already called in sick and I’m not….”

The call display said “HOME”. He answered.

“We’ve had a break-in,” Dora said.

“What?” he said. “When?”

“Sometime this morning,” she said. “I went for groceries a couple hours ago and everything was fine. But when I got home, the door was open and the house was trashed.”

“Shit,” he said. “Have you called the police?”

“Not yet,” she said. “I think you should see it first.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Just come home,” she replied curtly, and hung up.

He stared at the phone for a long moment, confused.

“Something wrong?” Peter asked.

“I’m not sure,” Gabriel replied. “I’ll… be back soon.”

He stepped outside and climbed into his truck.

///

When he got to the house, he found the front door ajar, the frame splintered. Inside, the furniture was overturned and slashed in the same pattern as his shoulder. The television lay facedown on the floor. Dora stood by the bedroom door with her arms crossed.

“Follow me,” she said.

She led him into the bedroom and pointed to the wall above the head of their bed. A series of deep scratches, gouged through the wallpaper and into the wood beneath, spelled out a single word.

“THIEF.”

Dora turned to face Gabriel, placing herself between him and the wall.

“Okay,” she said, “start talking.”

“About what?” he asked.

“Please don’t play dumb with me, Gabriel,” she said. “You’ve been acting strange all week, and now this happens. I love you, but there’s only so much I can take on faith. I’m giving you a chance to come clean. I suggest you take it.”

He took a deep breath and told her everything. When he finished, she stared at the wall for a long moment, tapping her foot on the floor.

“You need to return it,” she said.

“Um, you heard the part about the fifty million dollars, right?” he asked.

“Yes, I did,” she replied, turning to face him, “but I also heard the part about the bloodthirsty sewer monster that wants its property back.”

“We don’t even know if the pearl is its property,” he said. “Far as we know, this thing’s just attracted to shiny things. Besides, the kind of money we’re looking at, we could move someplace it’ll never find us. We’ll get some dogs, and a fence. A moat, even.”

“Gabriel, stop,” she said. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it’s not worth it. We can’t uproot our lives for a little cash. You need to go back and make this right.”

He sighed.

“Fine,” he said, heading for the door. “But what if I’m too late to stop the sale?”

“Don’t be,” she said, and turned back to the wall.

///

Gabriel pulled up in front of Peter’s shop and hurried inside. A tall white man with short blond hair stood at the counter. He was wearing a dark blue suit with a green scarf wrapped around his neck, and was holding the pearl up to the light.

“Gabe,” Peter said, “this is the guy I was telling you about. Mr. Singer.”

“Please, call me Everett,” the man said, extending his free hand to Gabriel.

Gabriel shook it reluctantly, eyeing the pearl.

“This is really a splendid specimen you’ve found,” Everett said. “I’d be surprised if there weren’t some magic involved in its making.”

“None that I could see,” Peter said.

“Ah, but the best magic is often the most subtle,” Everett said. “Still, that doesn’t make it any less valuable. I believe we were up to seventy-five a moment ago?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, “but I still think we could go a little higher. What do you say to a nice, even hundred?”

Everett stared down at the pearl and rubbed his chin.

“Oh, what the hell,” he said. “A hundred million it is.”

“Excellent!” Peter said, and turned to Gabriel. “How does that sound, Gabe?”

The numbers danced in Gabriel’s head. Did he really want to give up all that money because of one little threat? This was an opportunity of a lifetime. Surely Dora would forgive him eventually.

No, he thought. She wouldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but the deal’s off.”

He took the pearl from Everett’s hand and headed for the door.

“Wait, what?” Peter said. “Gabriel, you can’t do that!”

“I have to,” Gabriel said. “I’ll explain later.”

He opened the door and stepped outside. Everett was right on his tail.

“I’ll double my offer,” he said. “Two hundred million if you give me the pearl right now.”

Gabriel shook his head.

“It’s not mine to give,” he said.

He climbed into his truck and drove away.

///

Gabriel stood over the manhole where all this started. He extended his mind to the water below and it rose up to meet him, flipping the manhole cover up onto the sidewalk.

He climbed down the shaft and the waist-deep water parted around him. He turned on his flashlight and headed west until the pipe narrowed.

Close enough, he thought.

“Okay, I got your message!” he yelled, his voice ricocheting off the walls.

He waited for several minutes, and eventually the growl drifted out of the darkness. He shone his light down the pipe and spotted a vaguely human figure crouching low in the water. Black eyes peered out from a pale, betentacled face.

“So you’re the one who’s been giving me so much grief, eh?” Gabriel asked, rubbing his shoulder.

The creature rose from the water. It was wearing a suit of silvery material, formfitting with openings for various fins. It advanced toward Gabriel, flexing long, spindly claws. He held his hands out in front of him.

“I don’t want any trouble,” he said. “I’m just here to set things right.”

He slowly reached into his pocket and took out the pearl. The creature’s eyes widened, darting between his face and the pearl. He extended his hand.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice said behind him.

He spun around, shining his flashlight up the tunnel. Everett Singer stood a few meters away, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.

“The hell are you doing here?” Gabriel asked.

“Trying to prevent you from making a terrible mistake,” Everett replied, stepping forward. “If you hand that thing over, millions of my people will die.”

Your people?” Gabriel said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Everett reached up and unfurled his scarf, revealing a series of gills on either side of his neck. A trident tattoo poked out from the collar of his suit.

“Atlantis Special Forces,” Everett said. “A couple weeks ago, I caught a rumor that a Lemurian terrorist was plotting to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction through the Northwest Passage into Atlantean waters. I cut her off at the Bering Strait but she turned tail and ran. I thought I’d lost her until the weapon turned up on the jewelry market.”

Gabriel glanced down at the pearl and suddenly wanted to be as far away from it as possible. The creature growled.

“Liar,” she said, her voice low and guttural. “The Stone of Tiamat is our greatest treasure, passed down from generation to generation since the very beginning of our civilization. It is not a weapon.”

“Then why were you bringing it into Atlantis?” Everett asked.

“It was a peace offering,” she replied. “Our most beloved possession, given freely to our most hated enemy. This was my task, which I attempted to explain before you attacked me without question. Had I not been swept up in a storm, I would have turned back and surrendered.”

“Oh, you’ll say anything at this point,” Everett said, and turned to Gabriel. “Please, don’t listen to her. The Lemurians have been trying to destroy us for thousands of years, and they’re not about to stop now. I’m telling you, that pearl is a weapon.”

“I don’t know,” Gabriel said, weighing it in his hand. “If it was dangerous, I’m pretty sure Peter would’ve noticed.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not willing to risk the lives of my entire race on the ‘pretty sure’ of one human,” Everett said. “Look, the offer I made back at the shop wasn’t just for show. We can still make a deal here.”

The Lemurian growled.

“No,” she said. “Enough blood has been shed. The war must end.”

“It will, eventually,” Everett said coldly. “Human, you need to make up your mind before one of us makes it for you.”

The two enemies drew closer, poised for battle. Gabriel sighed.

“You know, the only reason I came down here is because my wife insisted I give this thing back,” he said. “I wanted to take the money and run, but she would have no part of it. Say, are either of you married?”

Neither replied.

“Dora and I have been together for thirty years,” he continued. “If you knew us from the beginning, you’d be surprised we lasted that long. We used to fight all the time. No matter how stupid or pointless, every little argument would turn into World War Three. But eventually I realized something that put an end to the fighting: I realized that Dora… is always right.”

He turned and tossed the pearl to the Lemurian. Everett lunged toward him and Gabriel raised a wall of water that knocked the Atlantean backward. Everett reached into his jacket and a shimmering blue sword materialized from thin air.

“It doesn’t have to go down like this,” he said. “Please, just get out of my way and you won’t get hurt.”

“Sorry, can’t do that,” Gabriel said, and glanced back over his shoulder. “You better get out of here. I can’t hold this forever.”

The Lemurian was still just standing there, clutching the pearl to her chest. She stepped forward and touched Gabriel lightly on the shoulder. He tried not to wince.

“I… apologize for attacking you,” she said. “I did not expect you to listen to reason.”

She turned to Everett and approached the wall of water. He backed away, sword at the ready.

“We must learn to trust each other,” she said, “so I am choosing to trust you.”

She reached forward and the water splashed back to the bottom of the tunnel. She opened her hand and offered the pearl to the Atlantean.

“Destroy it if you wish,” she said, “but if you care at all about peace, take this to your king. Tell him… it is time for change.”

She turned away from him, nodded at Gabriel, and dove into the water, disappearing down the pipe. Everett stood silently for a long moment, staring at the pearl.

“Any chance that two hundred million is still on the table?” Gabriel said finally.

“No,” Everett replied.

“Didn’t think so,” Gabriel said.

He turned and headed for the ladder.

“Did you really do all that because your wife told you to?” Everett asked.

“Yeah,” Gabriel replied.

“You’re crazy,” Everett said.

Gabriel smiled and said, “Yeah.”

He climbed out of the hole and took a deep breath. The air was warm and humid; another storm was coming, which meant more flooding, and more trudging around in the sewer for Gabriel. He sighed. For a few days there, he’d almost convinced himself that his days of toil were over, and he could finally retire.

No such luck, he thought.

He glanced around the neighborhood as he walked back to his truck. In an auto shop across the street, a heavyset white woman fired lasers from her eyes into the engine of a sports car. Next door, a hundred-foot-tall construction worker repaired wind damage on the face of an old apartment building. And overhead, a courier flew by carrying an armful of boxes.

Gabriel shrugged and climbed into the truck.

Ah well, he thought, it’s a living.

 

 

 

END