Troy leans against a makeshift shelter, cobbled together from pieces of damp plywood and sheets of corrugated metal. He wraps a thin jacket around his thin shoulders, shivering at the inadequate heat it provides. The shelter faces one side, against the stronger winds, and the slanted roof is supported by twin beams of wood. Another flash of lightning illuminates the face of his partner, Aubrey. She is curled up on the ground, her dark hair twisted in an untidy bun at the nape of her neck, her grimy cheek pillowed on her equally grimy hands. She is also bundled up in a flak jacket and a bulletproof vest, hanging over her thin frame like a turtle shell, and wrapped altogether in a silver blanket that makes her resemble a giant burrito. They’ve both been awake for sixteen hours, and this is the first time they’re getting a reprieve. He’s volunteered to take first watch.
He is almost tempted to call HQ, to abort the mission. He thinks about other rainy nights, about other places where he thinks could double for this godforsaken hole. He flexes his fingers, curses the ache in his wrists. Carpal tunnel. He attempts to catalogue his emotions in an effort to stave off sleep. He’s tired, that’s for sure — he’d barely recovered from the last mission before he was asked to take this one as well. An easy one, said Agent Jimenez. Just a routine pick-up.
He’s also hungry. Their last meal before heading out was lukewarm lugaw and something that resembled fried tokwa but he was quite sure was just another science experiment from R&D. That was yesterday. Sure, they were able to get a plastic cup of taho sometime in the morning, but that was it. His stomach rumbled desperately. What he wouldn’t give for a styrofoam cup of instant noodles and the strongest black coffee on the planet.
He’s also cold. Water is trickling down the back of his neck, soaking his shirt and dripping down his shoulders and back. The jacket isn’t helping, and their umbrella has been discarded long ago, a victim of a particularly strong gust of wind. It wasn’t raining when they left yesterday, and he thought the wind-resistant outfit that Support had provided them was just an affectation, and decided to head out in his usual jeans-shirt-jacket outfit. Now he wished he listened to them. (He keeps on forgetting that there are weather-watchers in Support, and that they were probably sniggering at him now for being too stubborn.)
He feels his phone vibrate against his leg, and fishes it out. The plastic casing is slick with water, but thanks to certain enhancements, the machine is pretty much indestructible. He punches in the code and slides the screen lock. He grimaces as he looks at the message. It’s his girlfriend, Elsa.
He scrolls back to the previous messages: 34 in total, not to mention 17 phone calls, none of which he ever answered. The boss was pretty clear about separating work and personal life, and Elsa was most definitely part of his personal life.
Me bnababae k noh?
He sighs. Her jealous streak was showing up again. He didn’t mind it so much; sometimes, he enjoyed being the object of her undivided attention. But he’d told her once (twice, too many times) that sometimes he had to work late hours, and perhaps she’d be better off knowing that he was safe (not likely) and sound (again, chances were slim) and that he’d call her when he got home. Unfortunately, Elsa was not the type to listen.
He stares at the glowing screen of his phone and instead pulls up the alternative account with a few flicks of his thumb across the glass. He types out a short stat report and sent it off to his boss, hoping that they’d get the implied message that he and his partner were stranded somewhere in the city, cold and tired and hungry, and could they please abort the mission now? It’s not like they could find the damn weapon in the dark anyway.
His phone chirps. He opens the new message. It’s terse and to the point: Situation crit at base. Deploying a team to Banahaw immediately. Isolated cause of rain. Continue w/ mission.
“Troy?” Aubrey’s voice is soft in the almost-darkness, swallowed up by the dull roar of the rain.
He turns to stare at his partner. She is struggling out of the silver-foil blanket, the crackle and crunch of the material almost inaudible. He’s tired of listening to the rain. Whoever said that it was relaxing should be made to stand in the middle of a typhoon in Manila. See if that was relaxing. “I’m okay,” he says.
He folds his lanky frame inwards and sits down on the ground, feeling the uneven soil and pebbles dig into the already damp and uncomfortable seat of his jeans. Still, this is better than standing up. He sits with his knees tucked against his chest and his forearms balanced on top, wrists dangling loosely. The shelter leans back and forth, threatening to fall against the onslaught of the rain. Aubrey sighs, and sits beside him. She is drier, thanks to her gear and the blanket. There are streaks of dirt against the moon-pale curve of her cheek. Her eyes are dark and luminous as she stares fiercely ahead.
In her hands is a small black device, like a supermarket price scanner, save that it glowed green instead of red, and instead of reading price tags and bar codes, it scanned for signs of otherwordly energy signatures. Troy is hesitant to call it magic, the word itself conjuring up images of wizards and wand-waving and bubbling cauldrons. But he knows that there are things that do not belong to this world — that there are beings out there who could manipulate the world to their own image and liking — and creatures that should be hidden or given sanctuary at all costs. He breathes out, his heartbeat still steady. The rain pounds relentlessly against their tissue-thin shelter. His phone pulses in his pocket, a phone call that he refuses to answer.
Aubrey sweeps the area in front of them: an open sewage tunnel somewhere in one of the myriad construction areas that sprouted up around the edges of Balintawak, more wilderness than city. The hole gapes like the maw of some ancient bayawak, the giant crocodile that swallowed the moon and attempted to eat the sun. Abandoned by the construction workers when the rain started, the area in front of the sewage tunnel is littered with shovels and yellow construction hats, bright plastic beacons in the shadows. Shallow pools of brackish water surrounded them. Littered remains of shattered concrete bricks were piled in front of the tunnel. Rising around them were hastily-dug slopes of rust-red soil, ringed with shoddy wood-and-steel structures meant for raising and lowering workers into the pit. Troy silently identifies each possible cause of trouble: that upended trowel in the corner; that pile of glass swept aside, the shards pointing upwards; the bag of debris stacked carelessly just beside the tunnel entrance, the slippery ground. He is not looking forward to entering the tunnel. (He hopes they do not have to enter the damn tunnel.)
Lightning tears across the sky, and Aubrey’s eyes glitter in surprise. Troy feels the earth rumble beneath them, can feel the old things stirring in their sleep. He knows this is no ordinary storm.
Aubrey’s sweep turns up nothing, the light at the end of the machine glowing a steady green. She leans against him, shoulder to shoulder. She’s his fifth partner in seven years. They’ve only been in the field for three days, but he’s got a good feeling about her. She’s certainly better than his previous partner-in-training, Colby. One glance at their manananggal surveillance team had him racing towards the toilet with his hands over his mouth; the thirteenth floor had to do a complete mind-wipe on the boy.
“So why did you sign up for the agency?” he asks her. There’s only so much the agent profile can tell you; he prefers knowing his partner in their own words. The way they tell their story tells so much about them, anyway. Reticent and shy or talkative and overbearing? He listens to the little nuances and picks them apart in his mind, attempts to piece together an idea on whether or not he’d want to have these people watching his back. He’s had a good read on Aubrey, so far. He hopes that he’s not wrong. This is the first mission they’ve gone on without a supervising agent or available backup. Not totally off the radar, no, but the agency will definitely have a difficult time providing help if they ever find themselves in a sticky situation.
“Pyrokinetics,” she says quietly. She raises a black-gloved hand, the kind with the fingers cut off. He notices dirt beneath her cuticles. There is a small whoomp! as fire emerges from a hole in her gauntlets. She takes it in her palm, scoops it up the way that one would scoop up water from a pool, and curls her fingers protectively around it, as though it was a newborn chick. “Apparently, I’m a danger to the community. My parents tried to commit me to the mental hospital. I escaped. The agency found me, took me in, and enrolled me into the open university.”
He nods, only half-listening. He tries to remember his own parents, and fails. There are only echoes in his memory. He remembers the boom of his father’s voice, the smoke that curled around his beard and the smell of tobacco clinging to his clothes and to the walls of the house. He remembers his mother and the way she sings him to sleep, her voice weaving words and melody together to form something magical. He remembers the way sunlight slanted across his narrow bed, spilling from the windowsill and drenching his blankets with light. But he doesn’t tell Aubrey any of this. All he says is: “That’s pretty rare.”
“So they said.” Aubrey shrugs. “Can’t do the big stuff though. Can’t summon the santelmo, for one. Can’t call on any kind of fire creatures. As far as the agency’s concerned, I’m literally just for firepower.”
“Better than nothing.” He flips open his soaked jacket to reveal his holster. “All I’ve got is a gun and some silver bullets.”
She laughs. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered, partner.” He raises any eyebrow, and she backpedals quickly. “Not that way!”
“What about you?” she asks, her voice taking on an excited tone. “I’ve heard about you, back in training. They said that you fought with a higante bare-handed. That you managed to outwit the Talakong Twins. They said that you’re the best field agent in A.G.I.M.A.T.”
He gives her a wan smile. Huh. So that’s what they say nowadays. Better than when he first started, at any rate: the whispers behind his back, the shaky smiles, the rumor mill grinding out story after story about him — that he was descended from Bathala’s line, that he could manipulate minds, that he was a spy from Sitan’s camp. None of them were able to figure out the truth. It was too common, anyway: the last survivor of a village-wide massacre. The nightmares filter through sometimes, the smell of blood magic and smoke and burning flesh. He watched his father fall; his mother dismembered and her pieces scattered around the village as a warning. No witches allowed.
He pulls himself back from the memories and turns to Aubrey. “No powers, for one,” he says, staring straight ahead. The continuing storm and absence of electric lights made everything around them stand out starkly. He tried to focus his eyes on the gloom in front of them, waiting for a sign — any sign — that they should start moving forward. Aubrey’s scanner was held loosely in her other hand.
“I saw a manannaggal once. It was on an aerial recon mission in our village — you remember Cathy, right? She retired from active service already. Anyway, I was young and I didn’t know what was happening, but I wasn’t scared. I followed her, found some members of the agency, and the rest is history.” He gives her a wan smile, wipes the rainwater off his forehead and eyes. It’s a good story, and most of it is true, anyway. “Poe saw my potential, I guess, and trained me from a very young age. The agency funded almost everything in my life — found me a place in Manila, sent me to school, taught me everything I know. And I’m grateful for that.”
Aubrey nods at all the appropriate points to show that she was listening. “Wow. I’m amazed you’ve lasted this long.”
“Lucky, I guess.”
“And your girlfriend? Does she know?”
Troy laughs at that. “I love Elsa, but sometimes she’s… not the most observant person in the world. She can be quite a handful.”
Aubrey gives him a mischeivous grin. “That’s why we call her ‘Above All Elsa’,” she says. “You know, ‘cause you put her above everything else.”
“That she is,” he says fondly. He feels his phone vibrate again. “Wait, I need to get that.”
As predicted, it’s Elsa. He slides the phone shut without bothering to look at the message. Aubrey looks at him with a quirked eyebrow. He shrugs, not saying anything. Why bother? It’s just the same thing all over again.
The rain crashes around them, lightning arcing across the sky in crooked calligraphy. The wind picks up and Aubrey curls up further into herself, trying to avoid the sharp, stinging droplets. Troy now understands what it means when people say they are soaked to the bone — he can feel the rain being absorbed through his skin, through the already-drenched cotton of his clothes, clinging to his body as though they refused to relinquish his warmth. Beside him, his partner shivers, a black ball of damp girl. He reaches over and draws her towards his side, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. Their shared warmth helps dispel the cold. Aubrey sniffles.
“Here,” he says, plucking the scanner from her damp fingers. “I’ll do this for awhile.”
“Too bad we can’t light a fire.”
“Not a good idea.”
“Admittedly, not one of my best.”
He sweeps the scanner across the entrance of the cave, the steady hum of the machine soothing his nerves. The small black instrument warms his fingers, makes the pain in his wrist dissipate momentarily. He moves it up and down the opening of the cave, the green glow pulsing steadily at the mouth of the machine.
Then, the light turns red.
Gabriela Lee is an experienced writer, editor, and content creator of both print and web publications. She has been published for both poetry and fiction in the Philippines and abroad. She holds a Master’s degree in literary studies.
The above image is from here.