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Gold Standard (The Thing in the Tunnels Wants Rather More)

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Winter in Chicago, Caro discovers, is a different beast altogether. Growing up in Pointe Coupee Parish, Caro could count on one hand how many times she’d seen snow in real life. At first it fills her with joy, as though she’s been transported to another world, a magical Winter Wonderland, where her own pleasure transmutes her colleagues’ cynicism about the weather into something warmer and fonder. Her luck holds through the early months of winter, just as it has through summer and autumn, and she finds both sturdy boots and a good warm coat that suits her, comfortably within her budget. At first she thinks that the snow will be her greatest challenge, the terrifying whiteouts, the grubby frozen mounds everywhere, the slush, the deadly falling icicles whenever it thaws, and the way she considers any day she doesn’t fall over either on the way to or from work a victory.

For all the snow that surrounds her, the cold is mostly a dry cold, that chaps her lips, stings her eyes to streaming and burns her skin, forcing her to hide her face behind a soft scarf that she spots in the window of a neighbourhood thrift store. It seeps into her bones though, as surely as damp she’s more accustomed to does, leaving her chilly, no matter how objectively warm the office thermostat assures her she must be. There are only two places in Chicago where she is ever truly cosy, in her own apartment – having a tiny dragon as a room-mate clearly trumps casement windows - and, well, wherever Aly happens to be and that’s less about the ambient temperature than the company. It’s like she just stops noticing the cold when Aly’s around, even if they’re standing in the snow. Caro thinks that’s probably something she ought to tell Aly, but other times she thinks it’s walking that line, between wanting and knowing, that keeps her warm around Aly. If (when) she says something, it’ll tip them over into something different, for better or worse. (Probably better. Caro is almost certain.) The way things are right now makes every interaction seem loaded with potential and its own kind of magic, something too new and precious for Caro to be ready to disturb quite yet.

But by the time February rolls around she is heartily sick of snow.

Oddly though, it’s the days when it doesn’t snow that are the hardest. The days when the skies above are grey and heavy with the weight of the snow they haven’t yet let fall. Those days feel like there’s a weight pressing down on her from above; as though she’s constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Caro knows, logically, that there is more light now. Somehow, though the endless dark of December had seemed less grim than this unrelenting grey. She remembers standing on the Magnificent Mile on the shortest day and thinking that there was no amount of darkness that those lights could not chase away. She’s not so sure now.

It’s on one of those grey days, seeking relief from the lowering sky, that she discovers the tunnels. At first it’s just the relief of stumbling across unexpected parts of the Pedway, but a casual conversation with a work colleague introduces her to the wider history of tunnelling under Chicago. She started exploring the tunnels that winter the way she’d explored her neighbourhood during the summer. First as an escape and then as a pleasure in its own right. Caro had never intended to become an urban explorer and yet standing in a mostly-abandoned service tunnel, wearing a head-torch and sturdy boots, she has undoubtedly become one.

(Occasionally, her wanderings turn up discoveries that end up being weirdly useful to her work in cyber security. Leading her to discover that one of her colleagues specialises in patching places in the tunnels were hackers have physically hacked their way into various companies’ telecommunications systems. Jamal takes her to visit his own favourite discovery down an unlit and seemingly abandoned service corridor. The vending machine glows both ethereally and strangely cheerfully in it’s alcove.

“Does it work?” She asks him.

“Oh yes, but that’s not the strangest thing.” He tells her.

She raises her eyebrow at him, only to realise he can’t see her expression in the dark forcing her to say, “Alright, I’ll bite, what’s the strangest thing about this vending machine Jamal?”

“I’m glad you asked that Caro,” Jamal replies with a grin and proceeds to feed the machine a shiny dollar coin he has clearly brought for precisely this purpose. The machine obligingly spits out a packet of chips, which he collects and presents to Caro with a flourish. In the light of their headlamps she can see that packet is un-faded and, with a sense of inevitability to she turns the packet over to reveal that its well within its expiration date. Questions build up behind her tongue until she has to give voice to them.

“Who’s re-stocking it? And who do they think is eating them?” She wonders aloud.

“So many questions,” Jamal agrees with her, as he leads her back down the tunnel, “no way to find out the answers.”)

Neither had Caro intended to get locked in Chase Tower. She’d just been doing some post-work Pedway wandering, while she waited for whatever the jam that was chewing up her subway line to clear. She’d heard that there was a tunnel over Madison Street that was no longer open to the public, but she’d learned over the last year that her interactions with Chicago’s particular brand of magic meant that when she got lost, she found things. So having been unsuccessful in gaining entrance to the bank’s not-so-secret tunnel, she promptly took the wrong turn down a corridor and found the bank’s actually-secret tunnel. And then stepped into an elevator that only went down no matter which button she pressed, and let her out into an even more secret tunnel, at the end of which there was a strangely familiar glow, and an even more familiar smell.

Caro wasn’t particularly surprised when the glow turned out to be a fairly sizeable pile of gold, along with an equally sizeable dragon. Somewhat nervous, certainly, but not that surprised. What was surprising was the way the dragon opened their eyes, smiled warmly and said, “Hello Caro.”