The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in His room.
That’s what my epitaph will say; that’s what all our epitaphs will say. At least, on the little tin placard drilled into the concrete beside my catacomb niche – or whatever it’s called. Is it still a catacomb if it’s only for jars of ash? Either way, it’s embarrassing.
I checked the Big Book: Subterra Station Operations Manual. It was an addendum item, Appendix C. Apparently, it’s called a loculus. That’s what they call ‘em down here. Loculi. Of course they do. Everything emotional is cloaked in jargon and terminology. They barely share details with ‘children’ on the rare occasions when one of us dies. Like they think it’ll lighten the gravity – strip it of weight or substance, I guess. Same as usual. Statistical variabilities. Slots in a spreadsheet.
They’ll say, ‘One for the Shadow.’ Rather than, ‘One more who died hiding…’
Strange that whenever there’s a birth, we’ll make a big deal of bringing another ‘into Light.’ I’ve endured a couple dozen of those grueling ceremonies over the years. Can’t recall the last funeral I attended.
How did you ever stay out of all this, Uncle Jay? I’ve only ever heard one side, which was, “He lost conviction.” My thinking is that Mom wasn’t strong enough by then to see how far into the deep end Subterra was is. Even years after she’s passed, Brian still has no doubts, even though he’s so afraid of everything else.
Daddy, I guess. It feels weird to look at that word. I never call him that anymore. I doubt he minds. Think he feels it’s more respectful this way.
God! Or Goddess! Or Whoever!
The point is that I’ve signed up for Field crew, so that pushes the plan forward. Despite my reservations, it was easier than I thought it’d be, just like you said: make myself useful, valuable. They’re happy I’m getting more involved. Most are, anyway. Professor Henry even told me Himself! Unusual, but so was my paperwork – especially after the fallout from that essay I submitted last year. He said he had to see for Himself.
I was in the Hardwire pod on one of the terminals and I guess He saw me through the window. I was finishing a glitchy vid call with Marvin, so when He asked me to take a walk, I obliged. How could I say no?
He led us along the main corridor past all the branch modules – farms, fabrication, residential, medical, scientific, recreational, defense – really winding us around, talking about the value of ‘contributions’ and ‘individual actions’ as we reached the upper level.
Outside His room, He told me He wanted me to see something before my Field training started. It was strange; I panicked for a moment. I’ll admit though, ever since I was a little girl, I’d always wanted to go inside His room. Stupid, right?
For now, it’s also where Field Ops accesses the Upper Garage level and the Bunker House. So I embraced a spontaneous opportunity for some recon. I mean, I believe I’ve earned it, after fifteen years underground and all. A chance to see behind the curtain separating His shelter from ours. The threshold to the world.
There’s a full-on waterfall pouring through the skylight above the far corner of His room. Empties right into His swimming pool. Unreal. Around the cavelike opening, all you can see are the edges of a few tree canopies and a shifting grey sky. I think it’s open sky – but I guess there’s gotta be glass up there that I can’t see. I didn’t know what to say to him at first. I’d never heard anything like it! How could it really be an open window if He sleeps there?
I’m sure I sounded like a real idiot, so… at least I didn’t blow my cover! I asked something like, “Is it a real waterfall?”
He said, “Real enough” or something equally asinine.
I nodded and mentioned how beautiful the sound was.
“You’ll come across so much out there just like this, Ceci,” he said. “Arresting beauties. Sights that will take your breath away.”
Sights you’ve all kept from me, I wanted to tell him. I blinked instead.
He went on. “Of course, you won’t be able to hear as clearly with the helmet on – the oxygen system cycling. You’ll be in a full jumpsuit, unable to feel or fully experience the world. But your imagination will fill in the gaps.”
I mean, honestly – as if it hadn’t been doing that my entire life! You don’t need to tell me twice: I was raised in a concrete isolation suit barely big enough for 400 people since I was a baby. I grew up in a mesmerizing fishbowl buried deep underground, securely connected only to other little delicate fishbowls all over the planet. Thousands of little fish just like me, hidden for posterity – 'protected,' they all say. I’ve been through the info stacks and video files forward and backward. Twice. My imagination never had any problem probing and discerning what was out there. Constantly. Plugging doubts, intimating answers, filling in glaring blanks. Not a problem.
He goes, “You’ll be sky side flushing a generator, replacing a damaged solar panel, or overhauling the engine on the chopper when you might glance up to see a rainbow… a lone deer maybe wandering out of the woods… maybe even a car filled with strangers driving down the highway far beyond the security fence. Slow motion… like figures in a silent film,” He said. “Whatever it is: your heart will leap,” and He grabbed my shoulder at that point. “Just as it does to hear this falling water. Only, you mustn’t let it leap too high…”
I couldn’t believe it, but I kept my face soft anyway – even though I wanted to slap Him.
“You might wonder, ‘What has it all been for?’ You might ask, ‘What threat is there, really?’ Only, remain vigilant. ‘Only by sheltering through darkness can we know the Light of the Future. Even if calamity has not fully consumed our world, we alone are tasked to remain steadfast together, for humanity.’ Even though, perhaps, the walls of civilization are not entirely crumbled to ruin yet…”
I’d stopped listening. I was in something of a blind rage. I can’t wait to finally walk through that last door out of the Upper Garage.
I hear He’s got a little putting green up there. I’d bet He takes the emergency chopper for midnight runs to the nearest burger joint… And where would that be, anyway? Rapid City? Sturgis? Cheyenne? You’d know better than me these days. That kind of data is blocked or limited on our servers, even with my workarounds.
Anyhow, my point is that Marvin is going to get in touch with you. Assuming, of course, that Kessler Syndrome doesn’t finally trigger – along with floods and fires and all-around geological devastation. ‘Existential risk multipliers,’ as they say.
In a lot of ways, his being in the Shanghai Tunnels under a major city makes things easier for Marvin than for me. He’s got three checkpoints getting out of Portland, but then it’s only 100 miles or something to the coast. Even after I get out, I’ll have to run for the nearest train tracks – 5 miles away – and then just… pray, I guess, that my auto-freight rolls around the bend so I can cross half the country… And that’s just for starters!
I’m still having trouble sleeping; I’m vid calling other facilities around the world those nights. Dial-a-bunker. No one’s ever in the Hardwire that late anyway, so it’s relaxing. Machines humming. I talked with a kid in Montreal last night. And I finally reached someone in Derinkuyu, Turkey! It sounds amazing over there! Lots more room to move around, more people – more windows!
I swear I might feel different with more to keep me busy down here. Scary thought. Like, mushroom farming in Saumur, France. That doesn’t sound so bad! Riding miles of bike trails and kayaking subterranean rivers, like at the Mt Peca site in Slovenia. Zip lines and trampolines in Wales… Thermal grottos in Romania…
Goddess, what a catastrophe! How did I get stuck half a mile under the Dakotas with nothing and no one except my dud of an old man and his gang of zealots?
Marvin will tell you, but his parents are even worse than Brian. More committed, that is. That’s the hardest part for him. They’ve kind of got him on a leash. Plus, Portland doesn’t support a Field crew. All external upkeep is outsourced or drone shipped. Data’s his only opportunity anywhere near the exits.
Speaking of, I’m so glad this old Pop-Blox game still works. I can’t imagine how we’d get these notes and plans developed if not for this absurd digital igloo we’ve created here. Much preferred over the real Fort Igloo.
Oh! I checked with the farm lab – they’ve got chamomile and lemon balm, but no valerian root at the moment. No comfrey either. So, I’ll try a tea with what we’ve got. Maybe I’ll have better dreams. Thanks for the advice.
I love you, Uncle Jay. Hope everything works out and I get there in time to celebrate my 18th with you all! What a present that would be…
Please send my love to everyone –
*M45-P3 14:49 5.4.2045*
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It still doesn’t sit well with me, seeing those Him and He and His all capitalized like that. Makes me think about how Henry’s done a real number on all of you, making you think he’s some sort of primal god in Subterra’s pantheon, like they can’t be wrong. A brain trust gone haywire in the sticks. So, maybe cut out the capitals from now on, okay? It’ll make me feel a little less like I’m leading you astray instead of saving you from an apocalypse-obsessed nutjob.
If I’m being honest, your turn’s been pending so long, I thought you’d given it up or got cold feet (cliché, I know). I checked every day for weeks, but it looked like you were still contemplating your move here in Pop-Blox Land – and well, elsewhere too. But I guess you’ve been plotting and planning. I shoulda known.
And how’s that virus coming for the CPU in the heli?
Indulge me. Be careful on this Field assignment. Remember the plan. Do your job and do it well. Give them no reason to distrust you. No one codes like you do, so when the data net goes down, and you’re all in the dark – well, more than you were before – Henry will have no choice but to send you out. The rest is on you; you’ll be on your own, as long as you can ditch your escort. Get to the tracks, get to San Francisco. Simple… There’s some unpredictability here, but there’s a train that comes through every other day around 13:42. Worst case, you’ll be hoofing it for a few days.
You have Libby’s address; she’ll take care of you, put you up until the ship’s in port. I wish I could be there, that my health was better, but I trust Libby will get you there safely. She’s been paid well enough. Your ship is Archimedes. Captain Lane will ferry you from there, and, in two weeks, you’ll be here – Kapa’a, where you and me owe one another years of aloha.
Once you get out, make your way into town as soon as you can and pick up a re-breather. You’re going to need one before San Francisco – before Salt Lake and Reno even. Air’s no good, been burned clean off in spots. In that way, Henry’s lot wasn’t so wrong – end’s coming, at least for some.
As for my staying out of the hole, it was simple – no matter what story you might have been told. I’m claustrophobic. I’m also fearful of those men who strive for leadin’ others around – never sits well with me, makes me feel itchy like there’s something dirty in the air. Guess you all got used to that though too, breathing all that recycled breath.
Allow me a moment, as your uncle: Stay out of Henry’s room. I insist. I don’t want to think about what a man like that does behind doors because I know what he does in broad daylight – well, you know what I mean. Just be careful.
You sure about this Marvin kid? Seemed skittish to me; maybe I’m reading between the lines a bit or picking up on his being nervous because he knows I’d kill him if he wronged you. (I would.) You say you met him through some dial-a-bunker service. Is that even secure – with or without your personal edits? Just wondering. If you trust him, I do too. But dialing up a dark bunk half a continent away leaves a lot to the imagination. But I guess your imagination’s been tuned up a bit, so I’m sure you’ve been over it all a hundred times. He’s handsome, if nothing else – though, in my experience, that’s all the more reason to worry. Okay, sorry – it’s my duty as your uncle is all.
Marvin is a child, just like you. The difference is you’re my niece. Marvin has to earn my affections, while you’re only born with it.
When the rest of you went and got buried alive, I was angry. I’m still angry, but I am grateful that my bright anger, in some way, has led you out.
Your move. You’re getting good at this game.
All my love,
*L13-R4 1:13 5.5.2045*
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I meant to write sooner. T-minus 25 weeks until my birthday. And counting down… Not that it matters, but it’s the only signpost I’ve had lately.
My move, so… Here’s the thing:
I ‘went and got buried alive’ as a kid, right? As an itty bitty toddler, more like it! ‘Breathing all that recycled breath.’ I’ve never known the outside. Anything beyond a picture; little secondary fragments shared curtly by Subterran elders. When I was eight, for example, my teacher realized I couldn’t understand the word ‘wind’ in this poem we were reading. I couldn’t figure it out. Any of it. Smart as I may have been, I kept asking about exhaust ports and propellants. You know? Because of Brian… and Mom. The simplest thing didn’t make sense. I figured it had to have a switch.
In the end, I had to recheck that simple little ecosystem diagram from the textbook for hours to put all the pieces together.
And then, last week… after 17 years on/within this planet… There it was – just on the other side of my visor. Wind! I could feel it against my sleeves, tugging at my ribs. It was in the grass, the little flowers, and the trees. Ollie, my team leader, called them sycamores. One, he said, was a willow. A ‘prairie cascade weeping willow,’ he called it. It wriggled and danced. No one told me they did that!
I memorized those branches. Each of them living. Being breathed. In between fastening clamps and shuffling cargo – for all of five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes, tops – I followed orders, and I watched. Observing the silent patterns. The more I looked, the less I could tell the wind from the willow. I mean, it’s all connected, right? What if the flickering leaves make the wind and not the other way around? Maybe we just don’t see it all in the right order. Maybe it’s all of us, the plants and animals and the planet, being breathed together that makes the wind. Would the wind cease, let’s say, if those living underground are the only ones to survive the doom?
Anyway, I did good work out there! You would’ve been proud. I helped flush the sewer reserves into the municipal system, check gauges and meters, restock tanks for the labs and stores for the residences, replace the intake filters, and update the various spreadsheets. It wasn’t until the garage doors closed, at the end, I finally recognized the overriding emotional mood of all my teammates.
You already know that I’m the youngest on my team. Probably by half. Everyone else had lived some portion of their lives sky side. They were back again; leaving home all over. Deserting it anew. That thought made me grab the wall. I couldn’t walk for a minute and had to find my breath.
After showering, I was by my locker when the team security specialist, Shawna, starts packing up her bags next to me. So, I asked her about it.
I asked, “What was it like? What made it worth coming down? Leaving that?”
She sort of laughed. Shook her head. “You’re always browsing the stacks, aren’t you? You tell me, kid—” I’m expecting a polite chat, and then she practically slams her locker shut. Suddenly, she’s leaning over me, sneering, “I read your little essay. Now that you been out there once, you gonna preach to all of us about liberation?”
I thought I might scream. I wanted to shut myself in my own locker. Forever.
What the hell was she asking me for? What does she know? How vile is that?
On a related note, and by accident, I asked Brian about Libby. It was late one night, and I was in a weird mood. I’d been talking with Marvin for hours trying to calm him down after you wrote to him – he was not in a good mood, by the way. Said you were oversimplifying everything and being dismissive. I tried to tell him that’s just sort of your style, but he said you were insulting his family and mine. Insulting me. Threatening to scrap the whole plan over Marvin’s attitude or something. I won’t pretend to understand it all.
Anyway, I was preoccupied, exhausted, over everything, whatever – the point is, I ended up asking Brian about his activist days at university with Professor Henry, with Mom, and you. I mentioned Libby at one point, for some reason. Very stupid, I know. I’m aware –
Brian said you and Libby used to work for Professor Henry. Oh, do tell…
By the way: what the hell is wrong with me? Why is all of His his bullshit, the whole Subterran program, why is it suddenly making more sense now that I’m closer than ever to leaving it behind? To walking away, island-bound. To your paradise on the edge of this melting Earth.
Seriously, please tell me you have more intel for me besides, “Get to the tracks, get to San Francisco…” I get that you’re hamstrung – in some ways – helping Marvin with passage out of Portland, but Fort Igloo is much less secured. The whole Front Range is. There’s got to be more certainty to my traversing 1300 miles other than just ‘get there.’ I mean, hopefully. ‘Look for a blue flare sign…’ Give me some good news.
Also, the malware’s good to go. One to knock out Fort Igloo’s backup generators, and one for the chopper. Remote installed on a delay, so when they turn the chopper ignition key they’ll get to watch the motherboard fry itself.
I’m really trying to stick to the plan. Any plan. Our plan. As much as Brian or Shawna are looking at me sideways, I don’t think anything’s changed much. I’ll just keep on keepin’ on, as you say.
Talked with a kid the other night whose bunker is in the ancient subterranean aqueducts of Kish, Iran – an island off the Persian Gulf coast. Think I’d like to travel to these places. Is that a ridiculous idea? Just to an excuse to see the world, maybe…
Lastly, the tea works wonderfully.
Also, please play nice with Marvin.
Love you over the ocean, Uncle Jay. Your move,
*S4-T28 16:14 5.15.2045*
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Disregard the previous timetable. Moving things forward. No choice. OMO. My guess is Marvin won’t unhook the leash. Please advise asap.
*S1-S3 2:13 5.16.2045*
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Anything I had in motion doesn’t matter now. You want a plan – sure: get out and keep getting out. No one you meet on the outside is going to put you back in the box. There are bigger, better dangers out there. I need you to be safe, but I also need you free – as much, if not more, it sounds like, than you do. I can get you a blackout easy enough. It’ll happen soon; be ready. You’ll only notice when Fort Igloo’s backup generators kick on. You’ll get two brownouts two days before; that’s all the warning I can give you.
We’re going dark as soon as you walk out of that bunker. I’ll wait for word from you when you get to Libby’s. Don’t use any terminals before then. Libby’s will be secure; I’ve made sure of it.
Can we talk about your latest move? You’ve cornered yourself a little, and I can’t but feel that’s a reflection of where you are now, moving up your plans. Are you all right? Are you safe?
*A3-N4 3:15 5.16.2045*
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You probably won’t get this, if all’s gone to plan. By now, you’re out. Free – one of those words that shouldn’t need a comparative form. Free is free, right? But I guess at this point in human history, there’s always somewhere, sometime that’s more free. And right now, all I hope is you’re more free now than you’ve been all your life. For me, it was easy enough: a few clicks to enact a regional blackout; hackers have been doing it for decades. But that final tap, I knew, would kickstart a set of reactions that I couldn’t foresee.
And, every night since, I’ve imagined your moves like a marker on a Pop-Blox board really. Ceci ascends; Ceci neutralizes her escort quick and easy or Ceci slips away quietly. She moves quickly through the woods. She shelters. She moves. She finds the tracks, heads West – always heading West. Ceci eats, lifting her re-breather as the train barrels through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada. Reno is like a daydream – all neon sprawl, flesh and plastic. Ceci hides during an inspection, quiet – well-practiced. Libby is Libby: warm, welcoming. Motherly.
Or perhaps you’re still in Salt Lake, the train stalled or delayed. You hike along its stopped cars, peering in, finding others not so unlike you, all of them heading West, some looking for fame on the Reno streets, others just moving along, always moving along. Ceci douses a fire, packs up her kit, hikes into town – any town. Ceci dreams.
I think about Henry too – how furious he must be, how he must suspect it’s me somehow. He took it personally when I left. Rightfully so, I suppose. I’d been with him from the start, privy to his private doubts. He wasn’t so wrong, you know? The world was failing; people had long-ago failed the world. But his plan to bury us didn’t satisfy something for me. We were abandoning the thing, like crude gods, bored by the mess we’d made, when we ought to try to fix it. And we are – way out here – doing what we can. I can sleep at night, live with myself. I hope you will too – wherever you are.
*Q2-P5 16:09 6.13.2045*
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[new user 189340] has requested a new game. Y/N?