He slithered down a greasy pipe, smelling of iron, bricks and old leather. His nails left scratches on the metal and the brick wall. He let go and dropped the last 20 feet to the sidewalk, landing on all fours, then froze in place, listening to the night and sniffing the air.
So far, so good. No one had seen him as he loped across the rooftops and above the freeway, where the iron beasts roamed. Even here, deep within the old city, he could hear vehicles on their concrete streets, smell their exhaust, but more than that, he could scent the strange creatures driving them.
He stayed low to the ground and padded deeper into a night-dark alleyway, away from the iron beasts and their controllers. He looked for a metal ring, the manhole cover in the alley. Watching over his shoulders, he shifted it out of his way, clambered down the ladder it exposed, and slid the cover shut above him. He waited for his big green eyes to adjust to the near total darkness.
Pale lights glowed far down in the tunnel. He moved silently toward them and the aroma of food, the stink of sweat and dirty hair, the sounds of creatures in conversation.
Outside the old man-built chamber that Max the Gorilla had refashioned as an inn, a heap of cloth shifted and stretched. Sharp claws scratched on the walkway and red eyes blinked at him.
"Joe," the watcher rat hissed. "Back again?"
"It's Monday," Joe growled.
Drinks on the house, as they both knew. Ever since a Monday night four years ago when Joe had cleared a nest of vipers for Max, the innkeeper had promised him a free drink on Mondays. With food in short supply, Joe tried not to miss this free weekly repast.
Joe ordered his regular drink and a can of whatever meat product Max had tonight. Max put the dishes on the bar and stepped back while Joe ate. One of the inn cats sidled up to him and purred. He let her stroke herself against his leg, but when she reached for a scrap from his dish, he warned her away with a low growl and a flash of teeth.
Max shewed her aside and asked Joe what it was like upstairs these days.
"Wind blows on your cheek," he said. "Makes you forget. You get clumsy. The day laughs in your face. The steel catches you hobbling over the freeway, nails you to their car. Reminds you who we are."
Max sighed. You live longer down in the dark, where the iron and steel preferred not to venture, but he could still remember wind on his cheek. He could recall who he was in the world above, in the time before so many began to walk upright and developed opposable thumbs, before the steel took over the freeways and world of human beings ended.
"Find anything this time?" Max asked.
Joe fumbled in the pocket of his jacket. He looked around the room, but few of the creatures even cared that he was here. None were paying attention. He took the artifact out of his pocket and placed it on the bar. Max whistled and scratched his whiskers.
"Does it work?" Max asked.
Joe fit his clumsy fingers around the handle, one finger inside the trigger guard. With the pads of his other front paw, he spun the chamber. He pointed the gun at the watcher by the door and pulled the trigger.
The hammer rose and fell with a click. The chamber advanced.
"It works," Joe said. "It just needs the right seeds."
"Seeds?" Max said.
Joe thumbed the chamber release, showed Max the empty seed pods. "Seeds go here. When the hammer strikes them, they blossom in fire and fly to wound or kill."
"Will they kill the iron and steel?"
Joe put the gun back in his pocket and shook his head.
"Not this little one. But there are big ones out there, with great big seeds ripe for blossom, and I will find them one day."
Max smiled and poured Joe another can of milk. He watched the big cat lap it up from the dish, and he wondered at Joe's imagination. He was a dreamer. A fortune teller. A brave beast, to be sure, having walked the world above and returned to tell of it. But still just a beast hiding in the dark.
Joe knew what Max thought of him. Didn't matter. Joe had seen too many creatures nailed to cars in the old city. He knew who he was. And though the jungle was little more than a legend among his kind, he recalled who was its king and dreamed of a day when wind and sun would play freely on his face.
(c) 2009 by Tony Simmons
Today's Pick: Joe the Lion. Inspiration for the imagery in the story. Also inspired by one of my all-time favorite comic heroes during the 1970s, Kamandi, who guest starred on Friday's Brave and Bold