By Garon Whited
“He’s been here.”
“How can you tell?”
“I can feel it.”
“Feel it. Hmph. At least I smell things. You just feel them.”
A cold wind blew past the travelers, rippling their garments. Dust swirled around high, black boots—black under the dusty no-color of everything around them. One of the two lowered a cloth from half her face to better smell the breeze. Her breath steamed in the frigid air.
“I’m sorry that frustrates you,” she told him. “There’s something about this place, though. It’s hard to explain.”
Her companion wiped at his goggles with a rag. They were both covered in rags, fluttering in the wind, but glimpses beneath revealed flashes of real clothing, well-made and not yet well-used. Holsters, hilts, and grips were in evidence.
“I smell something,” he replied. “It’s not him, though.”
“How would you know?”
“It doesn’t smell like rotting meat or ashes.”
She shrugged but made no denial.
“It’s the remains of a city,” he offered. “Didn’t you say he once destroyed a city?”
“Several. He swore off after the first fifty or so, though. I don’t think this one is his doing. It’s a ruin, not a crater.”
“Maybe they didn’t piss him off all the way?”
She was silent for several heartbeats.
“Maybe,” she allowed, hesitantly. Clearly, she didn’t want to believe it. Equally clearly, she couldn’t deny it. “How’s the radiation count?” she asked, finally. He consulted something resembling a wristwatch.
“No alarms,” he began, wiping dust from the small screen. “Huh.”
“It’s low. I mean, really low. Like, survivable. Long-term survivable. I would have thought any place with a nuclear winter—even if we’re not near a crater—would have enough upper-atmosphere fallout…”
“Is there a natural explanation for it?”
He tapped the screen a few times, as though it would change the result. He muttered something under his breath.
“Sorry,” she said, sweetly. “I didn’t catch that.”
“I said it doesn’t mean it’s him.”
She didn’t disagree. She didn’t say anything at all. Instead, she wrapped the dust-cloth around her face again and nodded at the ruins.
“We won’t find out up here.”
Wordlessly, they began their descent of a dusty hillside. Scrubby, dead bushes and the remains of what was once grass were all that held it together. Every footfall gouged the dry, brittle covering, dislodged some of the roots. The hillside stayed where it was, but a jagged trench marked their descent from the crest.
Before they reached the city, a light burned at the top of a ruined skyscraper. It danced, it flickered, it flared and dimmed, then sprang up again, twice as bright. Another fire leaped up from another skyscraper, and another. Two more. Four. A dozen fires burned atop ancient steel and broken glass.
“Think they’ve seen us?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. The wind keeps the dust up. The sun is almost completely down and we’re hidden down here. If they—whoever they are—have the technology to see us, why announce it with watchfires?”
“Maybe they light signal fires every night?”
“Maybe. But why? To linger on a rooftop in this cold? To lead lost scouting parties home? Why announce their presence, whoever they are?”
The two continued across the shifting, sandy surface, trudging slowly through the day’s dying light amid the crowd of dust-ghosts flitting abroad in the icy wind. By the time they made the walk to the nearest of the buildings, the crimson sunset drowned in shadow and darkness. A crescent moon, dim and red, bled like a fresh-cut throat in the sky.
“Don’t like that,” he observed, looking at the moon. “The crescent doesn’t bother me, but the red does.”
“It’s the dust,” she decided. “The high-altitude stuff colors the sunlight and the moonlight. My bet is we won’t see the stars at all.” He grunted an acknowledgment, not reassured.
“Do we search all the buildings we pass? Or head for one with a light? I presume we’re going to talk to the locals.”
“If possible. For all we know, they’re cooking and eating prisoners of war on ceremonial fires.”
“My, what lovely thoughts you entertain,” he grumped.
“It’s how I was raised.”
“Can we please focus?”
“I’m the one who asked you a question.”
“We’ll try a building with a fire on top,” she decided. He grunted agreement and they made for the nearest one.
It was easy enough to enter. A slight climb up the bank of sandy soil to the missing windows let them in, although it was hard to say on which level. Inside, the floor was a shallow bed of the same dusty stuff and as dark as the inside of a cat. They both touched their goggles, almost at the same time, and suddenly they could see everything in shades of grey.
The search for stairs was longer than expected. The building had four stairwells, but only one was sealed against the elements—or against intrusion.
They forced the door and closed it behind them, pulling it tight to keep out the pervasive dust.
In the stairwell it was clean, or almost. The dust was there only because they brought it. The rest was steel and concrete, typical of a skyscraper. The electric lights were still intact, although unpowered, and the air was, for the first time since they arrived, both clean and clear. They spent a couple of minutes just sitting on the stairs and resting, enjoying the feel of being out of the wind, as well as breathing without a filtering cloth to block the dust.
“Up or down?” he asked, finally.
“Up. We’ll see if the locals are keeping the fires lit or if they just light them and leave. Besides, I doubt they all live in the penthouse. No elevators. I’d rather face a few, at first, and to have a choke point for any reinforcements.”
“Tired reinforcements,” he added, tilting his head back over the rail and looking up.
“Not great if we have to fight our way out.”
“I have a gas grenade.”
“Of course you do.”
They left their face-cloths hang while they trudged up the stairs, taking their time and pausing to rest every dozen floors or so. The man took note of the faded paint and the rising numbers on the walls, but confined himself to quiet sighs. The doors to every floor were closed and locked, sealed with something that had dried in the cracks.
At the top, the door to the roof was closed but not sealed. Standing to either side of it, they nodded to each other. She pushed the panic bar, unlatching the door, and, gripping the bar lest the door be caught by the wind, slowly edged it open a crack.
The top of the building was once a helipad. It was easy to see, since the wind at this level gave the dust no chance for a foothold. In the middle of this clear, windy space, a quartet of youths knelt around a tall, fiery tripod, hands clasped in an attitude of prayer. As the two explorers watched, one of them rose, drew wood from a satchel, and fed some into the fire. The fire dimmed for several moments, giving off thick, black smoke, then caught on the fresh fuel and blazed brightly again.
The youths could be no more than sixteen. They wore heavy wraps about their heads, with a face-scarf hanging free to flutter in the wind. Their bodies were covered in layers of thick, coarse cloth and what might be some leather, possibly even a bit of fur from small survivor too slow to avoid being useful.
“Fire worshippers?” she asked, needlessly quietly. The wind would carry away anything short of a scream.
“They’re not eating anyone.”
“The night is young,” he suggested.
“Maybe we shouldn’t interrupt them.”
“It would be rude,” he agreed.
She pulled the door closed and they sat down to wait.
According to their watches, the night was almost half over when the youngsters ran out of fuel. The fires burned down, burned out, and they gathered up their belongings to head down the stairs. One lit a torch from the last of the signal fire and sheltered it with his body to bring it through the wind.
They entered the small building on the roof that housed the top of the stairwell and paused. The last one in closed the door behind them and bumped into the next.
“Someone here,” hissed the first.
The female explorer smiled and waved in a friendly fashion.
“Uh… yah?” replied the leader.
“Sorry to trouble you, but we’re looking for someone.”
“Maybe you’ve seen him.”
“He a traveler?”
“Travelers pass by,” he said, his tone indicating they only passed by. One of the girls—old enough to be called a young lady—piped up.
“No more travelers. Eyes top say no traveler in long days.”
“Everyone topside gone,” stated the other girl, firmly.
“Moldbrain,” scoffed the other boy. “You knowin’ empty.”
“We’re here,” the man said, cutting off the start of an argument. “We’re travelers.”
“Want no traveler,” the tall boy—the young man, really—insisted. “We done signal and we gone. You move on.”
“I see,” the woman replied, although she didn’t. “Perhaps we’ve not started off on as friendly a footing as we might. My name is Phoebe. This is my friend, Wesley, but you can call him Rusty.”
“Hush,” she suggested. Then, to the young man, “Who are you?”
“Don’t matter. Travelers pass by. Move on.”
Phoebe’s jaw muscles jumped, but she held her tongue for a slow ten-count.
“Listen to me,” she said, striving for a reasonable tone. “I’ve come a long way and don’t doubt I have a long way to go. I’m not leaving until I’ve asked and been answered a few questions. We can do this politely, like civilized adults,” she suggested, giving them the benefit of the doubt, “or we can do this the hard way, which will be very hard on whoever I choose to ask. I prefer the easy way, because then I’ll travel some more—move on, as you say. Until I’m answered, there will be no moving on.”
The four went into a huddle, whispering, clearly unaware of the echoing acoustics of the concrete-and-steel stairwell.
“You want knowing,” the tallest, their leader, decided. “We’re new-come to grown, but long-come grown have the knowin’. We’ve sap to put on wind-door, then we go groundside. If you’d ask and be answered, you’d come groundside. You better to move on, though.”
“She won’t,” said Rusty. “She’s stubborn as temporary hair dye.”
“Don’t have knowin’ of your mind’s tongue.”
“We’ll go groundside,” Phoebe clarified.
The youths worked quickly on the door, smearing a brownish goo along the seam all around the door. The puffs of dust were stopped up in a matter of minutes. Their leader pushed forward, past the explorers, and his companions followed him down the stairs.
Around and around and down they trooped, making much better time, but the rudimentary torch still burned out well before they reached the bottom. The explorers, with their goggles, didn’t mind, but the youths slowed their pace. None of them stopped or complained, but continued to follow the stairs blindly, either unafraid or unwilling to admit to fear on the long, cold descent.
The stairs ended in a small, tile-floored chamber with a faded “G” next to the door. This one was not gasketed in glue. It opened easily at the push of the darkness-blind young man in the lead. Beyond, the explorers could make out a narrow tunnel. Someone constructed it from plastic bottles of all sorts, each filled with the sandy dust. These made up the bricks of the buried tunnel, mortared together with what looked to be another sort of salvaged plastic, melted slightly and set. The tunnel ran line-straight and the four youths followed it with the fingertips of one hand brushing a wall and the other hand touching the person ahead. Their cloth-wrapped feet were nearly silent on the dust-covered floor, but the boots of the explorers made gritty crunching sounds.
The tunnel ended in another door, also unlocked. This one bore a sign, once, but all that remained was a rectangular area of a different color. Once through the door, the youths, still navigating by touch, found and descended the stairs beyond.
The machine room of the building—the maintenance and environment areas—were well underground. The troop marched down into warmer air and into a silence unbroken by the eternal wind on the surface. The great steam pipes, the boilers, all of it, were cold and dry, yet the air held a hint of moisture, as though the underground spaces encouraged it to linger without a nightly freeze. The smell of something more than mere wetness started to grow.
The explorers passed a pair of double doors, these seeming out of place. They were clean and solid, clearly marked with a simplistic symbol of a train in a tunnel. Fresh sweep marks along the ground implied they were used recently.
A faint light shone farther down. They made for it, padding or clanking down the last of the metal-grating steps and onto steps formed from the bedrock.
“Oh, this looks familiar,” Phoebe said.
“Doesn’t prove anything,” Rusty replied.
“Do you see chisel marks?” she demanded. He didn’t reply.
The steps ended at a door and a light. The door was a typical metal door, found in any fire exit, but pure and pristine and looking as new as factory-fresh. The light was stranger, being a generalized glow permeating the area in front of the door. No bulb, no tube, not even a flame lit the last dozen feet of stairs before the door, yet they were lit, without shadow, without source, making the area seem brighter than it was.
Phoebe glanced meaningfully at Rusty. Rusty rolled his eyes.
Without hesitation, the leader of the youths banged on the door. A metallic clunking sounded from beyond and, faintly, someone grunted. There was a pause and another heavy, metallic sound before the door swung open.
“Well-come, new-come—” the older gentleman in the doorway broke off. “What is what?” Half a dozen grown men peered around him, curious.
“They waitin’ for us at wind-top,” said the leader of the youths, hurriedly. “They has questions we got no knowin’, and they say no movin’ on without more askin’. They had knowin’ we was there, and they would follow, so we say they take askin’ to long-come to grown.”
The older gentleman, perhaps fifty years old, regarded both the new adults and the two explorers. He frowned and clearly didn’t like the situation, but he nodded, curtly. He gestured the gawkers back and they moved away. He pointed at the youths.
“Come all. You four, get new holes and find sleep. You two… I be Esserach of the Steam.”
Phoebe and Rusty introduced themselves again.
“Is Esserach your name, or your title?” Rusty asked.
“I don’t hold knowing of your mind’s tongue.”
“What do I call you?”
“Come. You’ve been called to groundside by Tommas, so you’ll table and sleep as we.” He gestured them through the door with a grim expression, as one might expect from a man with unforeseen guests. On the far side, a steel girder lay on the floor, mounted there on a hinged frame. With some effort, the arrangement could be tilted upward to press a steel panel against the door, braced by the girder. With such a barrier in place, it would take explosives—and a lot of them—to breach the door.
“I take it back,” Rusty muttered. “He’s been here.”
They followed Esserach while the other men wrestled the overgrown doorstop back into position.
The corridors were wide and markedly warmer, relatively clean, and dimly illuminated by wide-set electric lights. It reminded both Phoebe and Rusty of subway tunnels. How many miles of tunnels were originally under the city? How many levels were there in what used to be the city’s underground guts? How many sewers, drains, walkways, pipe tunnels, wiring tunnels, and subways were still intact? What percentage of them were walled off, connected together, and turned into living space?
They walked for some time while Phoebe counted paces and branching corridors. She didn’t go so far as to chalk the walls as they went by, but the path to the door was, she hoped, sharp in her mind. The air of these deeper tunnels was warm. The people who crossed their path wore layers of light clothing and tended to stare. They moved aside to allow easy passage, either in deference to Esserach or to strangers.
Their destination was one of many identical branches. Everything to this point was stone and steel, but the architecture changed ahead, becoming a tunnel of brickwork. They did not reach it, but turned aside. The branching corridor was slightly narrower, slightly lower, but still dimly illuminated. Doors, mounted every two or three meters, lined both sides, offset so they did not face one another directly.
Esserach opened one of the doors, pushing it inward to reveal a spartan room. Half the floor was raised to the level of a hip, convenient for sitting or lying on. At the very back, a section of the opposite wall projected toward the raised half, forming a work surface like a desk. There was one light in the room, mounted over this desk-like protuberance. The light was electric, but the wire inside was thick and long, shedding a dim, yellow-orange radiance.
“There’s no better nor worse for two,” Esserach informed them.
“We’ll take it,” Rusty decided. Phoebe pressed her hand to his chest in signal to be quiet.
“We thank you for your hospitality and hope we may be as mannerly and generous guests as you are as our host.”
Esserach relaxed slightly at her words. He nodded.
“A boy not-grown will give you seeing to long-grown when they’ve readiness,” he told them.
“Quick question,” Rusty said. “Where do I, uh…”
“Follow the air,” Esserach said, agreeably. “We’ll welcome your gifts.”
He bowed and was gone.
“Gifts?” Rusty murmured. Phoebe pushed him into the room and shut the door. People in the corridor watched them with a peculiar curiosity. With the door shut, she pulled him close, her lips almost touching his ear.
“They live underground in what might be a dead world. I’m guessing they have limited resources. So every drop of water you think of as waste, every trace of biomatter for the compost heap, they think of as a contribution to their community.”
“How do they… what do they do with it?” he whispered back.
“It’s one of the many questions I have about this place.”
“What do you think he meant about ‘follow the air’?”
“They live underground,” Phoebe answered, patiently. “They’re probably better at noticing little things like air movement, since if the air doesn’t move, you use up all the air in the room and die.”
Rusty looked around the little room they were in. A metal grating in the ceiling above the desk, near the dim light, might have reassured him. It was small, barely the size of a fist, so perhaps not. He placed a hand over the grating and felt a breeze coming into the small room.
“You’re sure he was here?” Rusty insisted.
“I’m sure. These people are alive, aren’t they? The world above looks like something out of a cheap sci-fi movie, but they’re still here.”
“Why not relocate them?”
“I’m not sure how long it’s been. Maybe they wouldn’t go. Maybe there isn’t anywhere to go on this blasted planet.”
“There’s other places.”
“Yes, but that takes a lot more power, as well as a lot of vetting before he’d approve it. How many people did they start with? A hundred? A thousand? We don’t know how big this place is.”
“I guess we’ll ask that, too.”
The two travelers followed the air—a faint, barely perceptible flow leading farther down the corridor. Rusty shook his outer covering lightly, shedding a trace of fine dust, and watched it to detect the air current. It led them to a chamber full of tiny waterfalls and shallow pools, as well as a long row of seating with holes above the overflow channel.
Phoebe nodded in satisfaction. He might as well have carved his name a meter deep in the wall.
“Where do they get the water?” Rusty asked.
“There’s a lot, so I’m guessing there’s an underground source. Maybe there’s some sort of recycling going on, though. Condensation chambers? I don’t know.”
“So, do we just use the place like any other bathroom?”
“It’s a public bath, so yes. If a place like this exists—see the row of toilets? Kind of close together, don’t you think?—they have to have social mores to accommodate them.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I, but when in the… what did he call it? The groundside. When in the groundside, do as a groundsider.”
They washed and attended to necessities. Others came and went in the chamber, as well, but paid them almost no attention, so the two pretended to be equally oblivious.
The exception was a tall man, possibly in his thirties, as pale as any other dweller in the groundside. His jaw was strong, his brow wide, and his teeth perfect, aside from a missing canine. A narrow scar ran from beside his nose, down across his lips, and ended to one side of his chin. The missing tooth was in the line. He approached Phoebe as she washed the dust from the cloud of her short, black hair. She slicked it back with both hands and sat up in the pool as he came close.
“I am Relgar.”
“I would share myself with you.”
Relgar looked disappointed, but he nodded and moved on to one of the pools to bathe. Rusty drew his hand from his piled garments. Phoebe raised an eyebrow at him but he spoke before she did.
“Did you just get propositioned?” Rusty asked.
“Politely. Politely for where we are,” she amended. “Were you about to draw a gun on him?”
“If he didn’t take no for an answer, he was going to take a bullet.”
“You’re sweet, Rusty.”
“I take it back. You can be sweet—when you’re not being an ass.”
“More accurate,” Rusty agreed as she climbed out. Once she was dry and on guard, he dipped himself in the pool to remove his own dust.
Refreshed and at least rinsed, they returned to their room and waited, napping on and off for a couple of hours. Whatever schedule the underground dwellers kept, their arrival was not in sync with it.
Eventually, someone slapped the door with the palm of a hand. Rusty opened it and a boy, perhaps eight years old, gestured them to follow. They did so, but with goggles around their necks and their long head-scarves tied around their waists.
The boy, with no hesitation, led them through the corridors of concrete and brick, moving from newer to older almost as though moving through time. The lights never changed, only the material of the walls. Their destination was a large, round chamber where several tunnels met. It arched high and had a ring of those dim lights around the edge, one over each tunnel, as well a cluster of six near the top of the domed ceiling. Pieces of polished metal adorned the dome, fixed in place to reflect and multiply the feeble light.
The room was full of people. A hundred would have filled it comfortably, but there were many more, all, apparently, come to see strangers.
An aisle opened narrowly, permitting passage. Phoebe and Rusty went single-file out of necessity, Phoebe following the boy and Rusty following at her heel. He didn’t say anything about his misgivings should the crowd be hostile. Partly because he didn’t want to suggest anything to them, but mostly because Phoebe wouldn’t listen.
His hands remained out of sight under his ragged outer smock, however.
The clear area in the center of the room was partitioned from the rest. It was a raised a circle of concrete. Judging by the shallow trenches leading under it, Phoebe judged it to be a lid of some sort for what used to be a drain. Either the drain was massive, or the lid oversized. It was twelve feet across.
The boy led them to the clear place and stopped there. Phoebe and Rusty stepped up on the lid and moved to the center.
“Who comes?” asked a voice. It sounded old, raspy. It still held a trace of what must have been a deep and resonant bass. The two looked in all directions as the echoes confused the source. Rusty spotted it first: Another opening, well above ground level, and wide. A recessed balcony, unlit, with at least three people standing at the edge.
“I am Phoebe,” she answered. “This is my friend, Rusty.”
“I am looking for my father.”
“You come late. No fathering here of your oldness.”
“He was a… traveler,” Phoebe tried. “He may have come long ago.”
“No travelers groundside,” rasped the reply. “Not since iron door.”
“And how long ago was that?”
“My father’s oldness.”
Phoebe consulted with Rusty.
“With the time differential, it’s possible. There’s no telling what sort of skip we may be looking at.”
“Yeah, but how do we convince them you’re… what? A hundred? A hundred and fifty?”
“We don’t. I’m looking for my father. I don’t have to be old.”
Phoebe directed her attention to the shadowed figures on the balcony.
“My father,” she began, “came here long ago. He was a man of… of much knowing. He knew fire and electricity, water and air. Some say he works miracles. He may still. Was he here? Do you know… do you have any knowing of a man like I describe?”
The three shadows murmured to each other in the dimness. The crowd around the central circle muttered and shifted within itself.
“Speak of him more,” said the raspy voice.
“He stands about this tall,” Phoebe said, holding up her hand to about the six-foot mark. “His hair is darker than…” the night sky? They don’t see it much, if at all! “than a…” deep hole? “than a collapsed tunnel. His eyes are hard and just as dark. He wears black. He carries two swords like…” like the sun and moon? Their sun is a dim thing and the moon blood-red! “…like a bar of fire and a slash of silver.”
There was a silence in the room as profound as the absence of a heartbeat.
“What is first law?” intoned the raspy voice.
“The first law? Of robotics? Or thermodynamics?”
“Give your knowing of thermogoddamics, stranger!”
Oh, Pop! For the love of… You gave them a closed system for their environment!
Other voices took up the demand, shouting from all around. The figures on the balcony leaned dangerously far forward, intent, while the crowd chanted, “The laws! The laws! The laws!”
Phoebe held up her hands for quiet. Rusty put fingers in his mouth and whistled piercingly several times. Eventually, things quieted enough for her to speak.
“There are commonly held to be three laws, but there is a fourth, called the zeroth law,” she began, but paused to let the exclamations and murmuring die down. “Starting with the zero, they are, in simple form: Zero: There is a game. First: You can’t win. Second: You can’t break even. And Third: You can’t quit.”
The room erupted in pandemonium.
Restoring order was impossible, so several men cleared the room, forcing everyone out. Both Phoebe and Rusty followed their escorts to a much smaller room. The three old people met them, away from the excitement. Their leader was Ekose, the old man with the raspy voice. The other two were Alice and Portia, ladies perhaps as old as Ekose. None of them was less than eighty.
With introductions made and everyone seated almost Indian-fashion on low stone blocks, Ekose resumed his questioning.
“The Laws are your knowing,” he stated. “Travelers might have knowing, handed down.”
“So what?” Phoebe asked. “I only want to know if you’ve seen my father. Have you, or haven’t you?”
“Not I,” he admitted. “My father had knowing of him in long-gone. My knowing don’t hold you as his come-after. He come-again in next days, that’s my knowing.”
“You say he’s coming back?” Phoebe pounced.
“Said it, so ’membered it, passed knowing on. You don’t knowing where is?”
“Then the fire will show him home in coming.” Ekose rose from his seat and walked out without another word, the matter settled in his mind. The women watched him go, thoughtfully. Portia rose a moment later and followed, leaving silver-haired Alice to ponder.
“Jabber in tunnels,” Alice sighed. “Tongues tell of come-again.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to cause trouble.”
“No. Good on you, truth. Ants stir groundside and many want fire at wind-tops.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No… damn. Hang on a minute, please.”
Alice cocked her head, birdlike, blinking, while Phoebe pulled out a pocket notebook. She read aloud from it for a minute, nonsense words, strange words, words that went in the ear and out the head, never to be held for long. Phoebe put the notebook in her pocket and smiled at Alice again.
“I’m sorry. I was having trouble following your patois. I seem to think you expect my Pop to come back, and I’m not sure if you believe me about whether or not I’m his daughter. Assuming, that is, we’re talking about the same person.”
“Oh, we are,” Rusty assured her. Phoebe shot him a look and he raised his hands in mock surrender.
“I’m also curious about why you light fires on top of skyscrapers, and why people seem to suddenly want more. If I understood you correctly that is.”
“Your speech is much improved,” Alice observed. “You’ve finally got the hang of how we speak?”
“I think so,” Phoebe answered, not exactly lying. “You were saying?”
“The person we’re talking about came to us two generations back. We were a bunch of survivors of a terrible war, hiding out under the city, fighting each other for food stores, eating the rats and each other. This not-exactly a man came and killed the worst, whipped the rest into a community. He laid down laws, directed work, made the tunnels safer, warmer, drier. He found new caverns. He found clean water. He taught us to farm in the pipes and how to live like people instead of animals.”
Rusty looked at Phoebe, his eyebrows clearly saying, I told you so. Her answering glance was equally clear: Shut up.
“I’m not clear on what you mean by farming in the pipes. Do you mean in the tunnels?”
“No. Lengths of pipe are cut in half and filled with dirt. They are laid flat and stacked above each other. We plant things in this dirt, water them, grow them, harvest them. It can be complicated.”
“Ah. Urban farming. Got it. And you said he’s coming back?”
“He said he would.”
“Did he say when?”
“Not exactly,” Alice frowned. “He said there would be a day when the darkness lifted and the winds died down. When the night had… ‘stars.’ Little white flecks in the dark.” Alice’s face changed as she smiled. “I always wanted to see them, but I doubt I’ll live so long. We send the adolescents up to light the fires and see the surface, so we know the world is better than it was. The ice above thaws, sometimes for months. Even the winds have died down a little. Sometimes, I’m told water falls out of the sky! Real water, not just lumps of ice.”
“So, you send them up as a rite of passage? They go up children and come down adults?”
“Yes. And to light the fires.”
“What’s with the fires? Is it part of the rite?”
“Not really. Someone has to light the fires when the warm times come so he knows we’re still here. We don’t want him to miss us when he comes back this way again.”
“I’m sorry, but this is a culture problem, not a translation problem. What do you mean when you say you don’t want him to miss you?”
Alice sighed, brows drawn together as she thought.
“The stories I know about the man are… no, let me start over. There are many stories about the man. He’s more deadly than a tunnel fire. He’s like the darkness beyond the light. It can be your friend. It can hide you from your enemies. It can confound and confuse anyone who isn’t born to it, or trained for it. It’ll shield you from things you don’t want to see, if you let it. And, if you let it, it will train you to find even the faintest light. But if it doesn’t love you, you won’t find any help there. The dark will swallow you like an unmapped hole and the only thing anyone will ever find is an echo of your scream.”
“That’s him,” Rusty agreed. Phoebe didn’t object.
“All the stories agree on this,” Alice went on, “but that’s not the whole story. The dark is a terrible thing. You can learn to live with it, even to feel comfortable with it, but it remains the black place, deep and unknown. You never forget that death is in the darkness, somewhere. You can work with it, maybe even understand it a little, but no one loves the dark. And he knows that.
“My grandmother told me of his coming. She was a woman grown, though my mother was not yet born. Grandmother saw it, lived through it. She said he could have killed everyone. In one night, the tunnels were his and no one would deny it. Nothing could stand in his way—not steel nor stone nor flesh. He could have ended everything, ended everyone, but he chose not to. He took the worst of the worst and slew them, like he knew their hearts even before he pulled them out. He took them, and only them, and everyone else, he saved.
“He could have left us, left it at that, and maybe we would have scratched out a life. But he didn’t. Everyone feared him, but he didn’t abandon us. He took charge, gave orders.”
Phoebe tried not to roll her eyes. She could almost hear him in her mind. All right, you primitive screw-heads! Listen up! But that was only her first thought. She knew her experiences with him were mostly as a father and a daughter. There were times, however, when they traveled to other places, she had seen hints he might have the capacity for a much more “iron hand” approach—and to hell with the velvet glove.
It might not have been a pleasant time to live in the groundside.
“Everyone did as he said to do as though collared in black iron. Everyone was his slave, from the oldest to the babe on the teat. Ruled us with the rod, he did, but cared for us, too. He told us what to do. Anyone lazy or slacking, they learned better and right quick! If someone didn’t understand, he showed them with his own hands and set them on the proper path. He gave us space below to live, taught us how to claim more. He gave us light from the deep ground, where the water goes down and the steam rises. He gave us water and food and air. He lashed everyone with words, and his words humbled the proudest, moved even the laziest, and cowed even the bravest. He used everyone in whatever way they could be used until they made this a place to live instead of holes to die in.
“He could have killed us, but he saved us,” Alice continued, quietly. “He saved us, and then he left. He didn’t take anyone, not even the prettiest of us, when he could have had anyone. He could have stayed. He would have been king by his own hand and we would have bowed down and worshiped him. But he never wanted that. He never accepted that. It made him angry—so terribly angry!—when people tried!” Alice smiled a little. “He might still be angry. Some of us pray to him anyway, now he’s not here.” Alice shrugged. “I don’t, but I understand why some do. When he comes again, he won’t be happy about them. Assuming he does come back.”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Phoebe asked, thinking ahead.
“My grandmother said he was ruthless and fair, which no one ever wants. They want mercy. They want forgiveness. And, since he never gave those—maybe he couldn’t—I guess no one ever gave him love. Or, if they did love him, they were too afraid to say it or show it. My grandmother said she loved him, but she was too afraid to admit it even to herself until after. So, since we didn’t love him, he went away.”
Alice paused and dabbed at her eyes.
“We were wrong. We know that, now. We have each other, here in our caverns and tunnels, but he is out there, somewhere, with no one. All he has is the wind and the cold, and the blood moon looking down on him. Some say we don’t need him enough, so he hasn’t returned. I think we didn’t love him when we had him, so he had to go. Either way, we send the oldest of the children into the dark of the other tunnels to find the stairs to the rim of the sky. There’s their test, to see if they can come to terms with the dark. If they can, they climb and they light the fires for him. We do it so he’ll know we’re sorry. He’ll know we do love him. And maybe he’ll see them and come home.”
“You were right,” Rusty said, as they trudged along the dust-filled street. The blaze of the sun was muted and made somewhat orange by the permanent overcast, but the day was warming slowly.
“He was definitely here, and for a while.”
“You don’t sound too happy.”
Phoebe was quiet for several paces.
“No. I guess I’m not.”
“Disappointed we didn’t find him still building a self-sustaining bomb shelter?”
“A little, yes.”
“I can’t help but wonder…” Phoebe trailed off.
“Sometimes he does things just because he’s kind, Rusty. He’s not nice, as such, but he’s always generous and he’s kinder than he thinks. And maybe that’s what happened here.”
“Maybe he met too many kids and got sucked into helping? He does have a thing about children.”
“Possibly. It wouldn’t necessarily need children, though. Pop always preached how life wasn’t fair, but only because the fact of it pissed him off something fierce. He always wanted to help anything or anyone who couldn’t help themselves. He had no problem letting you drown if you were dumb enough to not let go of the rock, but he’d fish you out if a wave dragged you into the water. Children are just the most obvious examples of helplessness.”
“So he did it for the kids.”
“What else could it be?”
“I’m not sure. He spent a lot of time teaching me to be suspicious, and I am.”
“What is there to be suspicious about?”
“Hmm. I guess I don’t like the way they’re surviving. No library. No computer. Nothing to give them back the learning their civilization lost. That’s not like him, not at all. I really hope I’m missing something, but this seems wrong to me.”
“We haven’t explored the whole world,” Rusty pointed out. “For all we know, he’s got some Von Neumann machine de-irradiating the place, sucking down dust from the stratosphere, vacuuming up plastic from the oceans, and recycling all the aluminum cans.”
“And he might,” Phoebe allowed. “That’s very him. Still, seeing those illiterate troglodytes living in tunnels with no history aside from an oral tradition… it makes me wonder if that’s what he was doing.”
“Saving the world? Or humanity, after they screwed it up. What else could he have been doing?”
Rusty stopped, shocked, and had to run to catch up to her.
Behind them, summoning flames danced in the wind atop the ruins.