Lord of Thundertown
O.F. Cieri © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Sam was tired. All day long, she moved furniture in a small, dirty room in a warehouse in Brooklyn. She got on the train to go home. The conductor announced service delays, and Sam got as comfortable as she could in the glossy plastic seat.
There was no flash of lightning to signal a change. The insidious thing about the Aether was that humans were ill-equipped at handling it. Children had a better chance of being aware of it during a power surge, although they usually experienced it in migraines and blurred visions. The Folk handled the Aether best, and usually very judiciously, because the Aether was a force of nature that couldn’t be reasoned with to respect private property or the sanctity of life. It activated when called and filled the parameters set out for it, and any gap in logic released a flood of unintended consequences. The only sign of something going wrong came from the lights in the subway shutting off abruptly.
Even then, Sam didn’t panic. There were electrical surges all the time, and the lights usually came on in seconds. Instead, she remembered taking the subway with her elementary school class and shrieking with the other girls whenever the lights flickered, thrilled by the shock.
The train hit a hard bump, but rather than rocking back onto the track, the train lurched and tipped erratically. She couldn’t see the other passengers, but she could hear the impact as they thudded against the far wall. Sam managed to hold her grip as a long-empty soda can flew past her head and empty sunflower seed shells rained past. Her heart gripped in her chest as she came face to face with the fact that she’d cast her shot and landed the one-in-a-billion chance to climb aboard a train as it tipped into the river. She was only surprised by how dark the sky was.
The Aether, according to scientific inquiry, does not exist. It can not be touched, seen, smelled, tasted or heard, nor can it be weighed or measured in any other way with tools. The Aether is completely undetectable by any means except the brain; and not clearly.
The train twisted, and so did Sam’s grip. Her wrist popped as gravity wrenched it in an unnatural direction, and she fell, landing feet first on the seat she’d flown out of. Pain shot up her ankles, but the sharp jolt barely distracted her from the rattling of the carriage shaking across a hard surface. The high-pitched scream of sharp edges scraping across metal echoed throughout the train, and then suddenly ceased.
Humans have always shared the earth with Folk. There are records as early as the Kingdom of Ur, which mentions Other Lands that exist parallel to the common one. There are records as early as the written word of Great Beasts and supernaturally gifted nobility.
Sam turned on the flashlight of her phone. The windows were broken, and the foot of the train punctured through the floor near the door to the back. Someone was on the floor, trying to pull themselves up by climbing the train seat but not finding the friction, somehow. Another body sat upright, one shoe off. Slowly it raised its head and looked down at a hand that dangled lifelessly off their wrist. There was a guttural sob of pain.
When ancient kingdoms annexed new territory, they would often discover hostile members of the Folk. The ruler of the invading army would have to choose whether to destroy them, or bribe them. Soldiers throughout history have been immortalized for slaying Great Beasts in the service of their King, and similarly, simple farmers and fishermen were elevated to nobility by accepting the ruler’s authority, and recognized as the Lord of the Forest, or Lady of the Lake.
“Are you ok?” Sam asked. The words slurred in her mouth. She couldn’t be sure she was understood. She tried to stand, but her weight pitched in a direction she didn’t expect and she stumbled. She pocketed her phone and dug out a small keychain light instead. More durable, she thought. Better use of battery power. “Are you ok?”
The Lords were meant to be the arm of the state regarding the Folk, any Aetheric or ‘magical’ phenomenon. However, reports of erratic or unpredictable behavior lead Government officials to tap more amiable outsiders for traditional Lordship roles.
It still sounded like she was drunk. There was a click behind her, and the rattle of the door between the train cars sliding open. The carriage was bathed in a dim orange glow. When Sam looked behind her, she saw the train conductor holding a construction lantern. She was an older black woman, gold braids disheveled.
“Is anybody hurt?”
None of this affects the quality of life for everyday Folk. Many preferred to live in the country where private property and building laws allowed them to maintain their own standards. While cities serve as hubs of commerce, the practical effect leaves many at the mercy of a standard of living, including enforced daytime activity, above-ground dwellings, little access to fresh or saltwater, and little tolerance for symbiotic parasite bonding. As a result, many of the Folk engage in creative means to maintain their health and well-being.
“Yeah–” Sam began.
A voice cut her off, shrill and panicked. “What’s going on? What’s happening? Why aren’t we moving?”
The conductor raised her hand and tried to quiet the shouting passenger. “Calm down, please. I don’t know, but before we find out, I want to get everybody off the train. Is anybody hurt too bad to walk?”
“No,” said the person with the broken wrist. They sounded like they were in tears, muttering through chattering teeth; “No, no, no, no, no–”
“Good,” the conductor spoke slowly and calmly. “Everyone, please follow behind me in an orderly line.”
Thundertown is a well-known example, arising from an illegal settlement dug into an outcropping of Manhattan Gneiss in New York City. According to records, the Thundertown population was predominantly immigrant, with few English speakers in its first few decades.
The conductor walked down the aisle of the train, balancing against the wall for support. She led a trail of dirty and terrified people behind her, inching along as if huddling for warmth from the glow of the lantern. As she passed, Sam saw her holding a twelve-year-old girl to her waist, clutching her hand tightly. The small girl looked calm and supported the older woman’s elbow as if carrying her gently above the crowd.
The City of New York has repeatedly dissolved the Thundertown settlement.
A pair of doors hung open a few carriages in. The conductor dipped her light outside and pressed her toe down, testing to see if it was safe to leave. She clutched the side of the train door as she lowered down, her foot swinging out blindly for something to anchor itself to. Slowly, she touched down on something, and slowly she shifted her weight off the train and onto the ground beneath. The ground was flat, uniform, and unremarkable.
Unfortunately, the area is too well-known to remain closed for long.
There were no train tracks.
Alex Delatorre lived in a loft with an ecosystem. Ants and roaches marched around the building, eating leftovers from the human tenants, while spider beetles and silverfish ate their refuse. Mice ate the roaches, and the goblins ate the mice, leaving behind a single pink foot, or a small coil of dark-blue intestine.
There was a factory below the loft. They didn’t care about the roaches or the mice, but the goblins could destroy their equipment if left uncontrolled. The goblins were attracted by the warmth, the electric static in the air that gathered soot in clumps, and the ozone smell of hot machinery. They liked how many intricate little parts came off the equipment and the exotic texture of plastic, wire, and rust on their teeth. To keep them at bay, the manufacturing company paid a local Lord from the Night Court to come by once a month to destroy their nests and refit the protective Aetheric design around the work floor. The design was a complicated piece of architecture that required a lot of math to accurately map as many environmental details as possible, for the Aether was a blind, senseless force of energy that would fill any overlooked gap at random. All members of the Folk could see the Aether, which could protect them from backlash; if not, they could heal deeper wounds. The Lords were, theoretically, better educated in Aetheric design, and authorized to handle Aetheric issues.
Alex knew for a fact that the neighborhood was officially protected by a different Lord than the one the factory paid. He’d heard the Lord of the area was like a skeleton covered in thick, wiry gray hair and deeply wrinkled pink skin. According to legend, he never blinked or smiled. Regardless, the loft above the factory couldn’t afford to pay fealty to a Lord, and since the loft wasn’t built for housing, it didn’t come with a standard repulsion ward. Instead, tenants stuck paper wards around the apartment, which were supposed to alchemize trace mineral components in the air to mimic silver, which didn’t hurt the goblins but kept them at bay. At night Alex heard the sound of drywall crunching as the goblins tested the boundaries of the wards, chewing on the wires and tearing up insulation.
Alex sat at the kitchen table with three job applications open in one browser window, and the Paraterrestrial Bureau of Collaborations homepage and the Night Courts and Day Courts in another. He ground a curly strand of stripped-white hair between his teeth to the rhythm of the machines downstairs.
The kitchen was a small, windowless room. Once, the loft was another factory floor full of machines; then it was converted into storage. The management company in charge of the building found it more profitable to rent out the loft for parties in the nineties’ than leave it vacant. Eventually, the event planners rented out rooms to pay for the space, and the room partitions became smaller until all that was left was a claustrophobic hallway and the dark kitchen around the table.
Alex’s roommate, Nails, was making coffee in the sink. The kitchen was in perpetual midnight under the unnatural glow of the fluorescent light, an outdated fixture left over from when the floor was a factory.
Alex stopped at an email with the subject “I’m not dead.”
im not dead
send me ur number new phone
He held his breath. Samantha went missing in August, and now, they were running out of days in September. Big, strong Sam, twice Alex’s size in both directions, who didn’t say much and was struggling to get a tattoo career off the ground. All her things were still in her apartment when her roommate let Alex in to check. Her posters, her shoes, her album collection, and one long row of dark-colored fitted caps were all lined up the way she left them. Her clothes were in plastic boxes, her favorite chains piled on top so she could sift through them in the morning. Nothing seemed to be missing: no last trace of conflict alerted him to danger.
When he went to NYPD, they refused to help him, and when a month passed, they told him his only choices were to go to the courts or seek counseling.
Alex snatched up his phone and dialed the number at the bottom of the message. The phone rang four long times and then sent him to the voicemail box. He hung up and called again. This time, Sam picked up on the first ring.
It was her. All business, voice pitched low. “Sam? What the fuck— Where did you—”
Nails looked up sharply from the sink.
“Sam?” he repeated.
“Is this Chelsea?” Sam asked.
“It’s Alex,” he said. “Where are you?”
“What’s up with Sam?” Nails asked, pulling out a chair at the table.
Alex covered his free ear and turned away from Nails’ prying stare. “You’re where?”
“Where’ve you been?” he cried, slapping Nails’ hand away when he reached out to take the phone.
“I got snatched up,” Sam said. “Been stuck in Thundertown.”
“What Thundertown?” he demanded. In the movies, Thundertown was depicted as a real town, with boundaries, Folk-run businesses, and a government. In real life, Thundertown was a block here or there, three businesses on the same side of the street, an unconnected sewer main, or a single abandoned building.
“A big one.”
“What the fuck does that mean!?” Once upon a time, recently enough for Alex to remember, there was a Thundertown uptown in an abandoned limestone quarry as big as anything Hollywood could imagine. It had been shut down by the City years earlier.
“I wanna talk to her,” Nails demanded, reaching for the phone. The harsh white light above them cast sharp shadows over his face, like a character in a noir film.
Alex dodged him. He was tired of fishing for answers out of her over the phone. “Stay there. I’m coming over.”
He hung up and turned to Nails. “Sam’s back.”
Nails had large eyes, which gave his face a permanently startled appearance. Actually startled, he looked confused. “Sam? Holy shit. Where’s she been?”
“Thundertown,” he said, getting up from his chair.
“Uh,” Nails said, as Alex entered their shared room. “That’s gone.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m going over,” Alex said as he closed the door to change. When he came out, Nails was chewing very slowly on a dry bagel. He was tall and skinny, with heavy bags under his eyes, stubble over his scalp and down his chin. Sam was the first person to tattoo him on his eighteenth birthday. Alex watched him sob the entire time, swearing he was never getting another one. For two weeks, he picked at it, flaking off skin, watching it heal. When there was nothing else to peel off, he went to Sam for a halo of nails across his back, from penny nail to railroad spike.
“Hold on,” he said, his mouth full of bagel. “Before we go anywhere and do anything, I wanted to bring up some of the concerns I have. So like the cops said there was, like, no chance she was still alive, right?”
Even after hearing her voice, his words made Alex’s chest tighten. “The senator thought there was.”
Nails raised his hands. “I hear that, and I want that to be true, but on the other hand, that might not be her.”
“Who else would it be?”
He wagged his head and spoke carefully. “I’m thinking you heard so much about Thundertown that you went out to get the Lords involved, and maybe instead of Sam, we got back—maybe—something else?”
“Like what?” Alex demanded.
He grimaced. “Maybe that’s a mimic.”
That was one option too many. He shrugged on his coat. “I can’t think about that right now. I’m going to go find out.”
Nails only stared at him, unblinking, before rushing to grab his jacket and follow Alex out the door.
Nails had a Metrocard but had to open the gate for Alex. Fortunately, there weren’t any transit police to ticket them. As they sat on the train, Alex found himself distracted from the conversation by his own reaction to Sam’s reappearance. His stomach hurt, his teeth were grinding, but he wasn’t sure what to name the negative feeling rolling in his gut. It was something between frustration and disappointment, as if he was angry that Sam’s return was so simple and quiet. She re-appeared the way she disappeared: without ceremony.
He’d gone to the police, but they turned him away with nothing but a suggestion to go to the courts. The website for the United Court Assembly of the Tristate Area was an ancient, flat website with only enough bandwidth for a long list of names and phone numbers, half of which seemed to be disconnected. There was some sort of Non-Government Organization designed to assist communication between human and Folk governments, and they had a modern website, complete with working links, called the Bureau of Paraterrestrial Collaborations. On their website, they helpfully explained that people could live in the jurisdiction of certain Lords, but not pay for their protection. Most Lords expected something for their services and saved their time for people who could provide something in return. When Alex went by, Sam’s roommate couldn’t tell him if she paid fealty.
Nails brought him to the Lord of the block he grew up on, the King of Battle Row. The City allowed developers to turn his neighborhood into the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and he accepted the project in exchange for a decimal fraction of the annual toll. Now he held court in an old bar near the highway, lit by mounted TVs and passing car headlights. The furniture was faded and scratched, seats filled with old men watching a game on TV.
The King of Battle Row was barely four feet tall, with long limbs, a red face, and hair so thin and colorless it seemed to pick up a tint from his skin. He spotted Alex and Nails around the bottle’s neck and wrinkled his face into ugly fury. “What do you want?”
Nails gave him a broad smile, the one he used when he was deeply uncomfortable and desperate to hide it. “Hi, Battle Row. My name is David Kaczorowski. Do you remember me? My mom and I used to pay you fealty—”
Nails halted and stammered. “Uh, about four months ago? We were on—”
“Why’d you stop?”
“We lost our house.”
Battle Row took a thoughtful sip of his drink. “Want me to fuck up the building management?”
Nails hesitated for only a beat. “I mean, yeah, but that’s not what I wanted to ask you about. I wanted to ask you about a friend of mine who’s missing. The cops told us—”
Battle Row wrinkled his pale eyebrows. “What does that have to do with me? Did the friend ever pay me?”
“No?” Nails guessed.
“Then what should I care?”
“But, I mean, I pay fealty—”
“You did. I’d do you a favor, but that doesn’t make your friends my business,” Battle Row grunted. He turned away from them and went back to his cards.
Nails gave Alex a helpless smile.
Alex took that as his cue to step forward. “Could we pay you?”
Battle Row took a drink and played another card without looking up. “It’s not my business.”
“But paying you is business,” Nails wheedled.
Battle Row put down the bottle and turned his stool to face them with a loud, rusty squeak.
The bar was instantly silent. Everyone in their private conversations at their isolated tables froze, and next to Alex, Nails took a half step back. Battle Row’s face was twisted, cartoonish, and red as a stoplight. He was so ugly and so visibly furious, it struck Alex as funny.
Battle Row held the silence for one long breath. “My business is my business, not yours. I never want to hear suggestions. I’m not helping any of your friends, or relatives, nor anyone who used to pay me however many months or years ago.”
“But it was only—”
“Did I ask you a question?” Battle Row barked. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you better learn your manners.”
Nails’ mouth clapped shut.
“God damn kids,” he muttered, bending back over his cards.
Next, Alex tried to ask the Courts directly for help. By then, Sam had been missing for two weeks. The court building was deep in the Wall Street area, in a nest of streets tied like string around property lines that no longer existed, but he found it eventually. Both the Day and Night Courts shared the same ancient, crumbling brick building, wedged between glass-fronted offices. Behind the wooden door was a narrow front room, decorated with a thin red rug, a brass umbrella stand, and a dry plant. There was a plastic window on the other end of the wood-paneled room, where a small, wrinkled woman with tall, furred ears, directed Alex through a door.
He expected to find himself in a lobby, but the door opened instead on a dark-green hall with a skylight that didn’t fit in with the colonial stone structure. He followed the hallway around the corner to a long line of teller booths with copper grates. Aside from the one teller in the far corner, the room was empty. The lone employee gave him paperwork to sign and directions to a third stop.
He followed a tight flight of winding stairs around the corner to a locked office door with a wooden bench outside. He took a seat and finished the paperwork while he waited.
As time passed, he wondered if they knew he was there. He knocked until the curly white head of a small man appeared at the door.
“Sorry, we’re closed.”
His stomach dropped. “What?”
The small man shrugged. “Ask the front desk for a timestamp and we’ll see you first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t come back tomorrow!”
The small man sighed. “If you don’t want to wait, go to the Night Court.”
He walked back through the dizzying maze of doors and hallways as the lights in empty rooms clicked off behind him.
By then, the sun was gone, and the wind was sharp enough to cut through his Carhartt jacket. There was already a small line of people on the steps, all dressed in a mix of found objects and elaborate tailored clothing. The man in front of him had a cloak of black feathers, the woman before him a knitted shawl over a puffy longcoat. He put up his hood, put his hands in his pockets, and settled down to wait.
The Day Court staff trickled out in groups, talking, listening to music, pointedly ignoring the line growing on the steps. Other Folk walked in behind them, juggling their breakfast. The Night Court opened a few minutes later with no announcement or ceremony, and the line inched forward even as Day Court employees continued to hurry out.
The space where the Day Court window used to be was replaced with smooth wood paneling, and the Night Court window sat on the opposite side. Alex lingered as long as he could by the radiator vent until it was his turn to approach the receptionist’s window. She directed him through a new door, which led to a wide set of tiled stairs. At the top was another line of tellers behind dark oak booths with copper piping, but this time, the room was packed.
The line was full of people with hooves, horns, fur, scales, feathers, and a broad shape covered in long, dry branches. Alex’s eye kept lingering on an enormous troll carrying her head in an embroidered straw basket. When it was his turn, he got new paperwork and directions through yet another doorway.
He found himself on a huge work floor with wide windows that showed a view of parking lots, single-story warehouses, and, most unnervingly, the very Manhattan skyline he should have been part of. Office workers swarmed in and out of the rows of desks without looking at him. He tried to stop one, but they twisted away, muttering something like, “Be right with you.”
When his turn came, a small, green person with a back like a softshell turtle shuffled his papers to the sound of his complaint, signed a sheet of paper, stamped a second, and then handed him the pink copies. He stared at the pink sheets for a long time without understanding the gesture, until it dawned on him that he was finished.
“What happens now?”
“We’ll call you,” the softshell turtle said.
A few days later, the Night Court wanted Alex to clarify some details by providing paperwork he didn’t have—or at least didn’t recognize by name—so he returned empty-handed. They explained the paperwork they’d asked for would prove if he or Sam had a Clan’s sponsorship, or paid fealty to a Lord within the Night Court. Because neither of them did, their case would be left up to anyone who would be willing to take it. Alex got a call within the hour and eagerly gave them his name and information. Common sense sobered his enthusiasm when they asked for his credit card information.
He had been tempted to give up when a friend recommended Senator Loisaida. Alex never heard of a Lord using the title of Senator before, but after speaking to her, he learned she was the first Lord in America to be elected. Her title was symbolic, a gesture meant to invite political rivals to political debate rather than territorial battles. She was known in Alex’s circle as the Lord who helped the squatters prove the property holders of their buildings were negligent back in the nineties. She took his paperwork, copied it, and gave it back; that was all.
Now, without ceremony, explanation, or announcement, Sam was back—a phone call and a train ride away—as if nothing went wrong.
They arrived at her building, an old tenement designed to hold people like produce, stacked on top of each other. Nails leaned on the doorbell until the intercom snapped to life, buzzing like a swarm of flies.
“Let us up,” he shouted.
There was another burst of static, with a high lilt at the end like a question.
“It’s Dave and Alex. Let us in!” Nails said. The door unlocked with a different quality of buzz, and after four flights of stairs, they reached Sam’s apartment. She answered the door in frayed pajama pants and an ancient Madball hoodie, holding a pint of ice cream.
“What’s good?” Her hair was the longest Alex had ever seen, laying in ringlets on her forehead and peeking around her ears.
“What’s good? What happened?” Alex cried.
“I got snatched up,” she said.
“You said that already. It doesn’t mean shit. What happened, Sam?”
She sucked on her spoon. “I was going home. Then the train stopped. We were sitting in the dark for about a half hour. No emergency lights, no flashlights, no cellphones. Then Cassandra—she was the conductor—went through the train with one of those big-ass flashlights you see them carrying around, unlocked all the doors, and got everybody out. We only figured out we weren’t in the City anymore when we realized there were no tracks. Cass was the only one with a real light. Me and a few other people had those little LED flashlights you keep on your keys. Some people used their cell phones, but those burn up power real fast. The first night was bad. Quiet. Dark. Empty. We slept on the train and waited to hear something, or see something.
“The second night was worse. Big fight broke out. Some people wanted to stay, some people wanted to turn other ways. Cass said she thought maybe that was a subway tunnel a long time ago, or some other kind of construction site, but it didn’t look like anybody had been down there in years—which meant nobody was probably going to come. So, I went with the group that was leaving. Cassandra went with her radio, looking for a signal, Rich came ’cause he couldn’t sit still, Eric and his wife didn’t want to stay, and Leticia came because— I dunno. Maybe she was scared.
“We found this bum camp, and some of us thought the people in it were human. I didn’t. We passed it and kept walking until we found a settlement and figured out how to buy stuff. Bought some lights, food, a map, and made it to the second settlement. That’s where I got this.”
She reached into the neck of her sweatshirt, pulled a chain over her head, and gave it to Alex. The chain was cheap, like something out of a vending machine, with a thin disk of hammered silver hanging from it, etched with an incomprehensible Aether matrix in cuts thinner and more fluid than ink.
“What is it?” he asked and then stopped his hand as the light caught on a cloudy shape under the figures. On one side of the rim was a little line of indents from the original printing that still said 1927. Now he recognized George Washington under the Aether matrix, stretched from ponytail to chin into a flat, formless cloud. The coin was a quarter, hammered smooth and fitted to wear on a chain.
“I gave them one of my tattoos for it,” Sam said, pulling up a pant leg to show a pink patch of skin.
“Sam!” Alex cried, aghast.
“At least they healed you up,” Nails muttered.
“We got attacked on our way over, and I figured protection was a good idea. Couple of people got weapons. I thought that was kind of stupid. Those Folks are weapons, and any kind of knife or sword they carry around is a threat or an ornament. There were little towns, like a block or two long. There was a lake. Rivers. No trees. No sky.”
She fell silent. Her gaze dropped to the ice cream carton in her hand, which she scraped with her spoon half-heartedly.
“But where were you?” Alex asked again.
She shrugged. “Thundertown.”
Alex scoffed, furious with her for not answering his questions.
“How’d you get back?” Nails asked.
“Some big dude grabbed me,” she said, spreading her arms wide to show the scale. “Huge. He lay down and stuck his arm through the cave to grab me. I thought the design on my necklace was busted, then I’m on my roof, and the sun’s coming up.”
“What the fuck,” Nails muttered.
Sam clenched the spoon between her teeth and dug a long plastic container out from under her bag. When she opened it, the salty smell of swamp water filled the room. Alex and Nails both pulled their collars over their nose.
“What the fuck is that?” Alex cried.
“My gear,” she explained, pulling out a dirty backpack. “Didn’t have time to clean it.”
One by one, she emptied each pocket. Her gear was full of unremarkable things: napkins, coins, matchbooks, promotional keychains shaped like bottle openers, books, leftover food packages, and dirty laundry. Most of it was tied up into plastic bags to keep it dry and clean, but as she dug, she found water stains and set them in their own pile.
She shook her head as she worked. “It’s a fucking shitshow. My roommates rented out the room. Place was full of cans before you showed up. I paid up until the end of the month; then I’m out.”
“Wait, what? Are you moving? Are they throwing you out?” Alex asked.
“No. They’ve been chill. I’m going back.”
Alex blinked blankly. From the minute he woke up, his day had been a roller coaster ride while he ran behind it, trying to climb on. “Why?”
She looked at him like he was an idiot. “I can’t leave them.”
“Who?” he asked.
She gestured vaguely, looking as confused as he felt. “My friends. The others. The ones still there.”
He pinched his eyebrows. “Sam, calm down. OK? Stop for a second.”
She paused, waiting.
“I want to talk to Loisaida before we do anything—the Lady we went to when you went missing.”
“But I gotta get started.”
“How were you going to get down there?” Alex asked.
“Take the subway,” she said slowly, as if she wasn’t sure how to recreate the trip.
He took a deep breath, satisfied. “We’ll start with taking it to the Lady.”