Ping-pong balls. Who’d have thought it? Of all the means of delivering death, ping-pong balls weren’t even on the list. Not until they started falling from small, unmanned aircraft and exploding in the streets. It only took about a hundred of them to decimate a neighborhood block, leaving nothing but smoking, flame-shot wrecks where once houses, cars and people had existed.
Beginning in the more rural communities outside city-centers, this deadly hail of detonating plastic spheres didn’t make the evening news until a shower of them vaporized a McDonald’s. Before that, the casualties had lacked the poignancy only a blasted Play-Place could offer.
Eventually, the horror of that Micky-D’s destruction began to give way to an overall sense of numbness as the bizarre attacks continued. They became more widespread, occurring in the hearts of major cities as well as their suburbs. The news outlets began to offer sketchy if more frequent coverage, but never anything with substance, making people think maybe the government was behind it all for some reason. After all, many reasoned, why hadn’t the military stopped it? Suspicion grew.
Until the spheres fell on Washington.
“Little, mindless terrorist,” murmured Carver, staring with loathing at one of the balls that had hit the ground without blowing up. A dud.
“Nothing.” Carver shook his head and backed away from the sewer’s eye-level opening, not trusting the small white object to remain inert. He could feel the openness of the tunnel behind him, deserted at the moment except for his partner. “Let’s go.”
They began slogging back through ankle-high sludge-water. From somewhere overhead and distant came the sounds of multiple explosions, muted by thick concrete but strong enough to cause occasional puffs of dislodged dirt to descend from the low ceiling.
“You sure that way out wasn’t safe?”
Carver sighed. “No, I’m not sure. I mean, it was obvious the area had already been targeted, but there was a damn dud not three feet from the opening, Vair. You want to risk it possibly having a delay mechanism?”
“I think you need a rest. Since when have those things been equipped with delay mechanisms? They’re too simple for something like that.”
“So far. But whoever made them had to have been pretty freakin’ smart.”
Vair didn’t answer, but Carver couldn’t tell why. He chose not to pursue it, concentrating instead on staring briefly into side tunnels with his flashlight as they passed them. Just because these openings had been unoccupied before didn’t mean no one –
“Aw, shit!” Vair stopped and lifted one foot out of the water.
“Step on something?”
“Something bit me.” He leaned sideways against the curved wall on his right and stood on his left leg as he untied the other boot. He pulled it off, resting the injured ankle on the other knee. “Shine that light here.”
Carver trained the flashlight on his partner’s extremity, his eyes widening in surprise. “What the hell is that?”
Vair’s sock was turning red as blood seeped into it from his flesh. “I don’t know.” He lowered the cuff of the sock to reveal two large punctures. “Snake bite?”
Quickly, Carver shined his light on the water, but other than the swirls left by his own movements, there was no indication of anything swimming around under it. “Can’t see a thing. Does it – Vair?”
The other man had suddenly gasped, falling all the way back against the wall. His eyes widened, his face darkening.
“Vair! Breathe, damn it!”
Vair shook his head, the fear in his eyes increasing. No sound was coming from his throat, and a second later, his eyes rolled back into his head and he slid down into the water.
“No!” Carver tried to grab his partner back out of the nasty liquid before it closed over his head. He had Vair’s right arm and began to tug on it, but the other man was dead weight. He’d have to drop the flashlight…
And then the decision was made. Something long and sinuous sped toward him just under the surface. He dropped Vair’s limp arm and backed away quickly. Then he watched as the serpent- like creature fastened its maw over Vair’s face, covering eyes that were already dead. The creature didn’t look like it had much substance, yet was able to swim off slowly and take Vair with it.
Carver stared in soundless horror until the thing was gone, then turned away and retched. His vomit added to the already disgusting consistency and stench of the water, making his stomach heave even harder.
My God! What the fuck was that? It killed Vair! Shit!
He forced himself to start walking once more, back toward the only part of the sewage tunnel that wasn’t under some amount of water. He and Vair were to rendezvous there with the others within the next fifteen minutes. They’d broken into pairs before heading out, hoping to find a safe exit from the sewer system. No one was supposed to get hurt, much less die.
He was crying by the time he got back, the tears having begun almost as soon as his insides had calmed. No one else was there yet, so he sat cross-legged on the cold cement, a sob escaping as he leaned back and closed his eyes.
Vair hadn’t been a long-time friend or anything. Simply another member of the group that had gathered in an attempt to save as many people as possible from the lethal hail of game pieces. Death by table tennis. In another context it would have been hilarious. Only there was no other context available any more. Life had pretty much shut down, and as far as Carver could tell, more people had died than had survived.
What was really tearing at Carver was that Vair had been one of those who managed to escape a violent, fiery death, only to be killed by a goddam snake while trying to help others find a way through this mess.
The sewers had offered the safest haven they could think of, and until now this choice had seemed a good one. The mini-bombs weren’t strong enough to breach the thickness of the streets, only they’d been wrong to imagine nothing else was living under them. Carver remembered hearing stories as a child about people flushing baby alligators down the toilet. The reptiles that survived, it was speculated, had fed on raw sewage and other garbage, and were now living underground permanently, having grown to such massive sizes that they couldn’t get out. Movies had been made about it, and sewer workers were known to tell tall tales about sighting these things from time to time.
No one had ever spoken of poisonous snakes. Snakes strong enough to carry off a grown man more than twice their bulk and length. Was it really a mere snake, then? Carver’s mind filled with the grotesque image of the creature clamping onto Vair’s face and head, and he opened his eyes, giving his own head a quick shake to dispel the memory.
Footsteps. Several pair, one much closer. Perhaps no one else had encountered the venomous things.
“Hey, where’s Vair?”
Carver looked up. “Dead.”
The slender teen’s head jerked back in surprised. “Dead? What do you mean? Did he go outside or something?”
“No, Brasson, he got bitten by a fucking poisonous snake and died almost instantly.”
The young man stared at Carver in silence, as though trying to determine whether or not those words were meant as a joke.
“Hey, Carver. What’s going on? Where’s Vair?” An attractive twenty-something blonde had addressed him, coming to stand beside Brasson. When they were side-by-side, it was obvious they were twins. When they were at a distance from each other, not so much.
Getting to his feet, Carver bit his lip, hesitant. He knew she’d liked Vair – not romantically or anything, but certainly as a friend.
“Carver says he’s dead.” Brasson’s tone was close to accusatory.
One hand flew to her throat. “Are you serious? How? What happened?”
“Yeah, I’m serious. Sorry. He was a good guy.”
“But how did it happen?” At least she wasn’t in denial, making it easier for Carver to explain.
“We were on our way back here, when he said something had bitten him. He took off one of his boots and we saw his ankle was bleeding. Two puncture wounds. Then he stopped breathing and died.” He didn’t want to tell her how Vair’s body had been carried off somewhere. “I’m so sorry.”
“You hardly knew him, Rayna. I mean - ”
“Shut up, Jerrod.” She glared at her brother for a second before addressing Carver again. “Where is he?”
“Um, yeah, about that. He’s…well, he’s gone.”
“Who is?” asked a new voice. While some of the people in the group knew this man personally, he’d introduced himself to the rest only as Fletcher. The silver-haired woman at his side was his wife, Gretchen.
Carver turned and nodded a greeting at the older man, getting to his feet. “Vair. He was bitten by a poisonous snake of some kind.”
“Did you try to save him?”
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Carver’s hands formed into fists at his sides. “Of course I did! But…aw, hell! He died almost immediately, and there was nothing I could do.” He looked down, blinking back new tears.
As a dock worker, Carver had seen plenty of injuries, but never death. Now twenty-six, he’d been on the docks about ten years, but hadn’t yet witnessed first-hand some of the fatal accidents that occasionally happened in that occupation. But since the new “hail” had begun to fall he, like so many others, had seen too much of it. This hadn’t prepared him for what happened to Vair, though. He was still too new to death’s reality to be adept at compartmentalizing its brutality.
Fletcher must have sensed this to some degree and offered a palliative. “Hey, I’m kinda shocked, is all. I didn’t mean to imply you did anything wrong, kid.”
Kid? Really, you old fart? “Sure. No problem.” He relaxed his hands. “Anyway, after he died, he slid into the water, and the thing that bit him, I don’t know. It didn’t look big enough, but it managed to drag Vair off with it.”
“How?” Gretchen had stepped closer appearing more fascinated than horrified.
After a quick glance at Rayna to be sure she didn’t seem to be on the verge of a melt-down, he said, “It, uh, well, clamped down on Vair’s head and swam off. Don’t know how else to describe it.” He swallowed, feeling his gorge rise again.
By this time, the rendezvous point was full, everyone except Vair present and accounted for. Having heard the last bit about their fallen companion, they started talking quietly to each other, speculating, expressing sorrow, disbelief, horror.
Fletcher raised both voice and hands for attention. “All right, everyone!” The place fell silent and he continued, “Look. We lost someone today. I wish I could say something like this won’t happen again, but we all know better. At least we’re now aware of a dangerous animal down here that we’re going to either have to avoid or kill. To be honest, I’m not sure how we can manage either one. Ideas?”
“Where did this happen?” The man who asked this had introduced himself Dr. Juan Rivera.
“In the southwest tunnel,” Carver told him. “Not far from one of the openings.”
“Was there water on the floor?”
“Yeah, about ankle-deep, a little deeper in some places.” He blinked away another memory, that of Vair’s face, eyes open and dead, covered by a thin film of filthy water.
More murmuring, very little discernible in the way of actual suggestions or proposals. Carver sat once more, his back against the wall, and waited. He didn’t close his eyes – too much ugliness was still etched on the back of his lids – but glanced around, trying to catch what was being said.
And then, when it seemed like hours had passed, Rayna shouted, “I’ve got it! Electricity!”
“Care to expound?” asked Fletcher.
When they’d first become organized enough to decide on the sewers as a safe place to hide, Fletcher had been more or less elected as their provisional leader. Since they were all from the same Baltimore community, many knew him as a smart businessman who’d been active in a lot of civic and charitable organizations. Over the next few weeks, he’d more than proven himself capable of keeping the group of thirty-seven individuals together.
They’d started out in another part of the city, having gone into the sewer system through one of the entrances that had been left open by a street crew. Whatever repairs they’d been doing had been abandoned when the deadly little missiles started raining into the business district.
While it had taken some doing, the survivors had finally gotten their bearings, and Fletcher had thus far led them successfully out of the urban areas and into the part of the system that ran under one of the larger suburbs. This was where they’d discovered most of the arteries to have various depths of water covering their floors. Until then, the journey had been relatively dry and safe.
Somehow, the lights strung along the ceilings had remained on despite the bombardment above. A man who said he was a civil engineer explained that the sewer system probably had its own generator. Without that, the tunnels would have been too dark to navigate at any time, even during the day.
Now, standing in one of the few areas that didn’t have water sloshing around their feet, the group looked expectantly at Rayna.
“Well, since there’s power down here, why not take some of the wiring and put it into the water? That snake will get electrocuted, along with any of its relatives that might be living in the sewer, too.” She put her head to one side, noting the lack of response, and added, “No?
“Do we have any electricians?” Fletcher raised his thick brows, his eyes zeroing in on two men standing near the back of the group.
“Yeah, you know that’s what we do,” one of them said, smiling. “She’s got the right idea, but we can’t do it with the way things are right now.”
“He’s right,” said the other electrician. “First, we can’t cut the power in order to remove the lines safely. Second, even if we could and got the wiring laid into the water, as soon as it got turned back on, we’d all be at risk of electrocution because we’re so close.”
“Couldn’t we go upside temporarily until the snakes were dead?” asked a woman standing near Jerrod.
“Sure,” answered the first electrician. “Trouble is, we’d be short-circuiting the wiring system and would have to walk around in the dark from now on. That’s the third thing.”
“We could use our flashlights,” another pointed out.
“Only until they ran out of charge, and believe me, you won’t find a battery anywhere now. The looters will have seen to that.” Fletcher chewed on the inside of his cheek and shook his head.
“Okay, never mind.” Sitting next to Carver, Rayna sighed. “It was a suggestion, that’s all.”
Dr. Rivera cleared his throat. “Speaking of the looters, how are we doing on food? I doubt there’s much of that left in the stores, either.”
“We’re good for at least another two months,” Gretchen reported. She’d been in charge of organizing and storing away the food supply in one of the side tunnels when they’d first come down there. “I did an inventory check a day or so ago, and everything is fine.”
At that moment, if everyone was having the same thought, none were heartless enough to verbalize it – with Vair gone, there was one less mouth to feed, which meant an extra day or so of food for the rest.
This line of thinking had certainly occurred to Carver, and was causing him a great deal of concern. All it would take was one idiot deciding that he or she didn’t care to share any of the food, and make a point of killing everyone else off somehow. Then there was the issue of getting the hell out of there safely. The suggestion to go upside was borderline stupid, he thought. So far, no viable exit had been found – too many of those damnable mini-bombs lying around out there, not to mention the ones still falling in unpredictable patterns and places.
Oh, and then there were the roving bands of looters who sometimes, he was sure, did more than rob people and break into homes and stores. If the world hadn’t been a very safe place before all this craziness began, it was beyond dangerous now. So they’d have to suck it up and stay down here while dealing with the snake problem.
He found himself wondering how the thing had gotten into Vair’s boot in the first place. They’d been laced up pretty tight…unless… “Aw, fuck!”
“Carver? You think of something?” Fletcher was smiling, but it wasn’t a happy smile.
“Sorry. No. I realized something, though. That snake, well, it…it bit Vair right through his boot. I mean, its head was too big to get inside, then get its mouth open enough to bite.”
“And your point?” Jerrod, looking uncomfortable, was also trying to sound scornful.
“My point, genius, is that those fuckers have one hell of a strong bite. Vair was wearing thick leather work boots.” He stood up again and addressed the entire group. “Whatever we decide to do about this, we’d better do it soon, and do it right. The snakes haven’t bothered us before, but this is also the first time we’ve come this far into the tunnels. And now they know we’re here.” He shoved his hands into his front pockets and stared hard at the floor, scowling.
Rayna gathered her hair into a pony tail with one hand. “I’d like to know who is doing this to us, and why,” she muttered, releasing it and crossing her arms over her raised knees.
“We’d all like the answer to that one.” Gretchen gave her a crooked smile.
That was the moment when Carver realized what he had to do. He didn’t feel like his presence was contributing a whole lot, but he did know Baltimore. Perhaps better than most. This knowledge could help him discover more about what was going on, something he felt would better serve the survivors than skulking about in the sewer. True, he’d concluded that going back up top was a stupid idea, but now he admitted that they’d never get any helpful information crawling around in underground pipes.
If he waited until the group was asleep and made his way back to the initial entry point, his unexplained absence would only freak them out, and they were already too much on edge. He decided to talk to Fletcher about it, let him know his idea, and leave it up to the man to fill everyone in.
Fletcher was speaking again, his words punctuated by muffled claps of distant explosions. “There are no guarantees that we’re safe here, folks. I suggest we fall back to the spot we slept in last night and stay there until we figure out how to handle this new situation. Agreed?”
No one objected, so they picked up their various belongings and started walking into the far tunnel. As soon as he could, Carver murmured to the older man that he needed to talk to him privately.
They dropped back a little way, and when he felt no one could hear, Carver said, “I’ve decided to go back into the city. I’ll leave the way we first came in.”
“May I ask why?”
“Well, of course. That’s why I’m telling you. I might be able to get some info on what, exactly, has been going on. By now, I’m sure somebody knows something. If I’m careful and ask the right questions, I should find a few answers. It may not feed us, or do a whole lot to make things easier, but at least we’ll know. I think that’s worth the risk.”
Fletcher nodded. “You do have a point. But what makes you think you can pull this off without getting injured or killed?”
“I grew up on the streets.”
“So you what – know your way around?”
“Exactly. I can also fight if I have to.”
Fletcher stopped walking and regarded the younger man in silence for a few moments. Finally he nodded. “I do believe you can. Not that you need any affirmations from me.” He chuckled. “What I mean is, you probably have a decent chance to succeed. I doubt I or any of the rest of us could survive up there right now.”
Carver wasn’t sure he could, either. But he knew secret ways to get around, and had the strength to use those unusual routes. After all, he’d spent a great deal of his youth jumping across the gaps between buildings, hauling himself up onto fire escapes, picking locks on basement doors and crawling through tight, dark spaces. He was neither acrophobic nor claustrophobic, and his fighting skills had all been learned on the streets. “Well, I’ll see what I can do, then get back and let you all know what I learn.”
“When will you go?”
“As soon as everyone is asleep.”
“All right. And I’ll tell them I sent you off to check out another area. They’ll assume I mean down here, and I won’t correct the misconception.”
Carver managed a smile. “Thanks.”
The older man patted his shoulder and moved ahead to catch up with the group. Behind him, Carver had already begun making his plans.
Usually it took quite a while for the group to settle down enough to start falling asleep, but after what happened to Vair and the new threat they were facing, Carver despaired of them getting to sleep at all. Casually, then, he made his way toward the part of the open area that was nearest the back tunnel. He lay on his side, trying to look like he was settling in for the night, but didn’t close his eyes.
About an hour later, the people close enough to notice his absence were no longer moving, their snores and deep breathing giving him the green light. Carefully, he rolled onto his back, then his other side, and finally face-down. He stopped and raised his head. Nope. No one was paying him any attention. Raising himself to hands and knees, he backed away into the tunnel.
This would be a great time for a blackout, he thought, never taking his eyes from the group. He knew there was a bend in the tunnel about fifty yards away that would take him completely out of view. He kept backing away, watching for any indication that his movements had been detected. And then his foot hit a corner and he knew he’d reached the bend. Moving a little more quickly, he crawled back until he was behind the bend and stood up. A quick peek around the wall showed him nothing had changed, and he released the air he’d been holding in his lungs without realizing it. He took a slow, deep breath, turned, and headed away toward the opening several miles back.
Stick to the main tunnel, he reminded himself. Getting lost down here wasn’t an option. There had been only one detour that he could recall that had taken them around a pile of debris. Apparently, another manhole had been left open, and parts of an exploded car had fallen into it. The side tunnel they’d traveled to get around this had eventually looped back to the main one and they’d stayed in this for the rest of the way. About ten minutes later, he found the detour.
By the time he reached the entry point, he was slowing down quite a bit. The day’s emotional trauma, weeks of unhealthy sleeping patterns, and breathing in foul-smelling air were definitely catching up with him. He was beginning to look forward to being back up top despite the possibility of sudden death. But was the air any better up there after all the bombardment? Surely the atmosphere was full of particulates from wrecked cars, building dust, and vaporized human bodies. Regardless, he had to go. He told himself to stop bothering with things that couldn’t be helped and concentrate on finding a safe place once he was out of the sewer.
From where he was standing at the bottom of the metal ladder bolted into the sides of the manhole, he could make out the night sky. It was partially overcast, a couple of stars visible around the edges of the cloud directly overhead. He had no idea if that was a good or bad sign. At least the air smelled right. He started climbing.
Explosions were still audible, but none of them were close. He peered over the edge of the hole with great caution, turning in all directions. The street was completely empty of life. Chunks of buildings, widespread shards of plate glass, twists of automobile body parts, fallen light poles…no sounds, though, other than the distant blasts.
He pulled himself up and out of the hole. His older brother had been in the Army. He’d sent home letters from his station in the Middle East describing war-blasted cities. Carver applied those descriptions to what was around him and felt that his brother wouldn’t have been able to see much difference between Baltimore and those far-away places.
Jackson. That was his brother’s name. Private Jackson Chapman at the time of his death. His parents had had some odd ideas about first names. Jackson had carried on the tradition by naming his own son, Carver’s nephew, Dallas. What the heck. But Jackson had been killed by a roadside bomb after having seen his baby boy only once while on leave the month before his death, and would never know if growing up with a name like that would be good or bad.
Not that any of it mattered now. Dallas and his mom were God-knew-where. He’d tried contacting them when the the bombs started falling, but her cell had been disconnected. His own parents had died years before, and he hadn’t wasted more than a minute or so mourning them. He would sure like to know if his nephew and sister-in-law were okay, though.
Something to his left crashed into the street and he spun around, his breath catching in fear, his heart starting to pound. Nothing – part of one of the office buildings hitting the asphalt, the dust from its impact still swirling in the dark air. He realized how exposed he was, standing in the middle of the road like that, but didn’t trust the stability of any of the structures around him. Still, he reasoned, it might not be a bad idea to head for the shadows.
Alleys were not a smart choice either, between falling debris and possible survivors lurking there, waiting for someone to rob – or eat. Common sense told him there hadn’t been readily-available food for almost as long as he’d been underground. Hunger could drive even the most decent, ethical person to do the unthinkable. History had recorded enough such instances, and he decided to walk on the side of caution.
Not every building in downtown had been hit, he could see that. He also figured those were already filled with refugees hostile to the idea of anyone else taking up space there. Some of the structures, though, while showing obvious signs of greater damage, had taken fewer hits, either direct or indirect. Would they be any safer?
One of these partially ravaged places was the middle section of a block of apartments. The section at the far end was pulverized, and the opposite end was missing its entire front, but the middle looked pretty much intact except for broken windows and a few sections of blasted façade.
Carver approached it with caution, searching its vacant windows for signs of life. A light, maybe, or movement…nothing. Then again, it was late, and whoever or whatever was in there was probably asleep. Too bad he hadn’t had time to go home and get his gun when all the craziness had started. He’d been at work, and the docks were a good three miles from his apartment. Navigating the streets had been a nightmare, what with people running, panicked, cars hitting each other and the occasional pedestrian, and worst of all, the deadly ping-pong balls dropping on them. They looked goofy until they hit something. The first man he’d seen die was a fellow worker. The balls had started to rain down on the docks, but before they hit, the guy had noticed them. He’d laughed and put out a hand to catch one.
Yeah. That hadn’t been such a great idea. Carver had been standing a good seven feet away, but the concussive force of the explosion had knocked him off his feet, leaving him stunned and blinded for several minutes. Once he regained the ability to think, move and see, the last thing on his mind was getting home to pick up his gun. Getting off that part of the dock before it crumbled into the water had been enough of a job. After that, he’d simply done a great deal of dodging people and things as he sought a safer place to stand and wait for the explosions to stop.
So now, here he was, weaponless, about to enter a potentially deadly situation with nothing but his wits and the ability to fight dirty. Would that be enough? Only one way to find out.
He went to the doors and ducked inside through metal door-frames that used to hold the glass crunching under his boots. Without streetlights, the interior had no illumination. He took the flashlight from his back pocket and switched it on.
The first exclamation came from the person who had been sitting, huddled in a large jacket, on the bottom step of the building’s main staircase. The second one had been Carver, who nearly dropped the flashlight.
“Do you mind?” The person on the stairs blocked the light with the palms of her hands – at least they looked like girl’s hands to Carver, and her voice had sounded feminine.
“Sorry.” He raised the light to shine on the ceiling, affording a soft radiance to brighten the hallway.
“Thanks. Are you going to hurt me?”
“No. I just want a place to sleep.”
“Fine. But not with me.”
“Why would I want to sleep with you? I don’t know you.”
“What? Are you stupid or something?” She’d lowered her hands as she was speaking and turned slightly to face him, confirming her gender. “I’m kinda telling you I don’t want to be raped.”
That, he felt, was a ridiculous statement. “If you did want it, it wouldn’t be rape.”
“Or maybe I’d agree so you wouldn’t also hurt or kill me afterwards.”
He thought about that for a moment – yeah, it made a weird kind of sense. Still… “You don’t have to worry about that. That’s not how I roll. Besides, I’m tired, I feel sick, and all I want right now is to sleep somewhere relatively safe.”
She didn’t seem to trust him yet. “I’ll go find another place – you can have the stairs.” She got up.
“What are you doing? Stay there. I’ll go upstairs and see what’s available, okay?”
She stared, shaking her head. “I don’t know. You’re awfully big, and I’m not.”
What the hell was she talking about now? “Big?”
“How tall are you?”
“Whoa. Okay, there you go. Big. You also look really strong – what do you do?”
“I’m a dock worker.” This chick was bugshit nuts.
“That explains it.”
“Look, all I wanted - ”
“Was a safe place to sleep,” she finished for him. “I got that. But…you know, if you’re really a good guy, maybe…maybe you could, I mean…I need someone to protect me.” She took off the oversized jacket, revealing a petite, well-proportioned body dressed in a pink, form-fitting, long-sleeved dress with a plunging neckline and a very, very short hem.
Shit. Carver blinked, part of his mind telling his body to shut the fuck down. This was not the time for… “I think I, er, see what you mean. Um, put the coat back on, please.” He couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like she was hiding a smile as she complied with his request.
He nodded. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“I was at an office party when the shit hit the fan, so to speak.”
“Oh.” What kind of office did she work in, for Pete’s sake? “Uh, here. Why don’t you go lie down up there.” He waved toward the small landing several steps up.