I dream again that I am lost in the tunnels of our cities. The fires extinguished, but still a cool blue glow lights my way. The faster I run, the higher I ascend in the city toward the surface, and the light becomes brighter and burns my skin. I fill with knowing, knowing the place where I am going. More and more light fills each room. My skin burns and then becomes darker somehow. And then I am there at the door in the surface, and if I climb through, death and freedom await me. I stand there looking up. Up.
I stand there looking up. And then I wake.
Early. It is the morning of my surfacing. The fires are not yet lit, and the only light is the phosphorescent lichen growing down the walls of the tunnel just outside my cell. In the faint glow, I can make out the simple contours of this room, featureless except for the low bench on which I lie shivering as my body struggles to maintain core temperature. Everything has become a struggle. But this cell, this prison, feels so familiar that for the first time I sense in myself a buried attachment to the place. This may be the last place in which I ever feel any sensation of comfort.
There is no barrier between my cell and the tunnel beyond, but none is needed. The listening guards, chosen and trained from childhood for their advanced aural sensitivity, are undoubtedly already aware that I am awake because of the change in my breathing. Soon they will position themselves near the entrance and await orders from the elder midwives to retrieve me.
I will myself to move. I feel a gnawing hunger, and even as I wonder if I will receive a last meal before being surfaced, not knowing the protocol for exiles, I try to adjust my expectations, convincing myself that I may not eat a full meal again for many days, if ever, and that I am mentally and physically prepared for the task. I gently touch my belly. The lichen growing outward from my cord cut, usually groomed to fine detail, is now wild, wet, and fecund, reaching up to my ribs and down to my vulval hair. For the first time in my adult life I can truly value the belly lichen for its original purpose: a survival strategy in the early days of our community, when there were so many tunnel collapses and a person might have had to endure for many days on what leaked between boulders and what grew or lived on the body. Now we cultivate fungi and algae on the body from birth, but it is more for beauty than for use. Throughout the trial, I have let mine grow free. I hope this uncultivated wild space on my body will provide some sustenance on the other side.
If not, I hope death comes quickly.
I sit up and pull a loose shirt over my head. It falls easily around my swollen, sore breasts and my midsection, fleshy and alive. Over my legs I draw long pants. There is no way to tell what is appropriate dress for the surface, but I hope that one of my parents will provide alternatives. Things are such now that I must rely entirely on the ability and willingness of my family to advocate for me within the tight confines of the law.
Surfacing happens so rarely in our community that there is comparatively little ritual associated with it. This morning I am to spend in prayer with my vaginal parent, Geminii, until the guards come for me. I hear light, quick footsteps, and she enters my cell.
“You are the cavernous womb.” I bow my head in formal greeting.
“And you are the diamond cut from within,” she responds, touching my forehead with her thumb and forefinger. She offers me mushrooms and plump seeds, which I eat quickly. We sit in taut silence for some time, pretending to pray. Finally I ask her the only question I can.
“Where is Vega?”
“He is with Cassiopeia, in the sands.”
The sands, the place in our community where we bring inconsolable, sleepless babes. Nothing more than a small cave, really, only it is very deep in the earth, closer to the molten core, and it houses the softest sands in all the underground. For years our people have brought their babies there to lay their bodies in the sands. We hold their little legs and drag them slowly in circles through the sand until they fall asleep. If he is there, it can only mean that the reality of his parentlessness is setting in.
I think of Vega, the immediacy of his world. He has no way to understand the complexity of my absence. He has only my absence. Another woman feeds him from her breast now, and surely she tastes and smells and feels different to him. I touch my own breasts gingerly, engorged as they are with useless milk. I try to stifle my fear, my regret, my unspeakable sadness. Even as I jealously hate her, I thank the unseen stars for Cass, my greatest ally and friend. Both of us warriors and also child-bearers, we trained together, we carried our children at the same time, and we birthed only days apart. During the gestations of our children, we made a pact that should one of us die in combat, the other would mother both children as her own.
“He will forget me.” I feel the rage building in my throat, threatening to suffocate me. What kind of people would separate vaginal parent and child?
“We will keep your naming song alive,” says Geminii. I pull up a wall around myself as my despair bears down on me. All of the things I will lose today sharpen into focus: sound, touch, language, song, my parents, my son. I cannot take comfort in my naming song. I will never hear it. I want my vaginal parent to keep speaking, to never stop. But I cannot ask her this senseless thing.
I shake my thoughts away. “I have no hope, Geminii.”
“There is hope, Orion.” She hesitates, glancing behind her. “Orion, I must speak with you openly.” Her tone has changed, and there is a strange look in her eyes. Shifting. Nervous. Geminii is typically guarded and observant, but I have never seen her afraid. Until now.
“There are those who wish to help you.” Her eyes slide towards the doorway, and I understand that she means to tell me something dangerous, and that she has reason to believe the listening guards can be trusted with the information.
“This surfacing has bitterly divided our community, Orion. And it is not just the fact that surfacing as an ultimate punishment is controversial. There are many who believe what you did was right, who would help you if they could. There are even those who refuse to call you an abomination.”
I hang my head. “It does not matter now. They cannot save me with their beliefs.”
“Listen to me, Orion!” Geminii commands me with such urgency that I force myself to meet her intense gaze.
“There is not much time. Listen. In the early days of the community, when we were still becoming the people who are buried, there were—expeditions to the surface. Not one returned, of the three groups. Not one. And never any word of what happened to them. And so the last stores of surface survival supplies were never used. They were hidden. There was a feeling then, because we were so few, on the brink of extinction ourselves, that we could not risk any more loss of life.”
She waits a moment for what she is saying to sink in. Lost in this new information, it does not hit me immediately. “There is one more set of survival packs. I have taken one of them for your use. It might keep you alive. I have hidden it on the platform where you will be surfaced. You will have only seconds, when the surfacing begins, to get a hold of it. You should make your move just as the light begins to flood the antechamber, when the witnesses shield their eyes. You will be disoriented, but you must fight through it and take possession of the pack before the platform rises so high that you cannot reach it.”
I am floored. I begin to panic. “You should not tell me this here.”
“It does not matter if they hear me, Orion. Everyone will know soon enough. It is a risk I take willingly and for a purpose, the defense of which and punishment for which I will bear in your absence. Listen to me. You must locate the pack as soon as you step onto the platform. There are maps and warm clothing and many other things I do not know the use of. I hope that you can figure it out.”
“But—why are you doing this?” I cannot help but ask, although the answer may seem obvious to her, who could never wish my death no matter what my crime.
“You are my child, Orion, that would be reason enough. But . . . it is something else too. There is a belief among some of us that there are other survivors, possibly other communities that grew up after the Felaket. You may know them as the people of color. Believers call them the people of the plastic. Rumors, rumors. We do not know for sure if they exist, but what we do know is that when our community went underground, there were other communities forming, trying to survive.”
“What?” I demand. I have heard nothing like this before. Questions form messily in my mind. “There are no surface survivors and so there are no people of color left! We lost our color within five generations of becoming the people who are buried. Geminii, that is what you have always told me. What does this mean, the people of the plastic? What is plastic?”
“I cannot say for certain,” Geminii shakes her head. “There are some who believe the word refers to a feature of the physical body. But more recent interpretations hold that the phrase refers to a place on the surface where some may have survived. On the surface there are great bodies of water, and in them, surfaces, maybe even cities, made of a substance called plastic. It may be in one of these cities that the people of the plastic exist. You must try to find them, Orion. I believe the maps may help you.”
“How can I use a map? I have never seen the surface. I will be completely disoriented!”
“Orion, finding your way aboveground must be the same as finding your way below. Only there is more space, more to see. You must have faith in your abilities. You must have faith in the prophecy.”
The prophecy. Many hundred years ago, there was a child in our community who had terrible visions about the end of time. Some of these were dreams that clearly recalled events from the Felaket, which took place before the founding of our community. Some visions were not familiar at all. The child said that she believed that one of our people, the people who are buried, will join with her brothers, the people of color. There are many reasons to distrust this prophecy, not the least of which is that there are no more people of color. Not here, not anywhere among the people who are buried. Also suspicious is that the community we are to join with is comprised only of men: brothers. In any case, I had thought there were no more believers. But I am learning today that there is much I do not know.
“Our community is dying. Children are born, yes, but not enough. We have become too isolated. We must find our brothers. Orion, you must do this for all of us.” Geminii raises her head, hearing the faint sound of footsteps in the corridor moments before I notice it. “They are coming.”
I shake my head helplessly, frustrated by all of the questions I will not have the chance to ask. “How will I survive? I cannot even hear as you can.”
She grasps my shoulders firmly. “You will learn to quiet your inner thoughts. You are strong. You will survive. Perhaps you will even find that what is a deficit to you here is an advantage on the surface. And who knows, Orion? Maybe I will follow you shortly.” She turns to leave.
“Mother!” the word slips through my lips before I can stop it. She stops at hearing the intimate name spoken aloud. Such a name passes between vaginal parent and child only a few times in their shared life. “Thank you, Mother.” She looks at me long and hard, and she then leaves as silently as she arrived.
• • • •
The caverns of our community closest to the surface are also the oldest. Built more than two millennia ago by people seeking refuge from persecution and death, they are simple rooms with domed ceilings and cracking walls. It is a punishment to have to go up to these rooms to repair the cracks and buttress the ceilings. Stories of accidental exposure are used to instill fear and discipline in our children. But as with everything in our community, there is a contradiction, for it is also a test of bravery to go so close to the surface, so close to the light. Before now, I’ve only been to the upper rooms twice, once as a punishment and once on a dare. That all feels very far away from me as the guards escort me to the antechamber.
My people have never seen the sky and the stars. But we sing of them as though they are the last thing we see before sleeping and the first upon waking, like the cave dwellers of old. There is a deeply held belief among us that we will surface one day, not as a punishment but as a choice, and live again in the sun. The surfacing platform and the antechamber seem to have been built with this auspicious occasion in mind, for together they make up the only place in our community outside of the warrior’s training caverns that is expansive and ornate. The ceiling of the antechamber is crisscrossed with designs, and upon a close inspection you can see that each is a unique picture of a living thing that crawled or crept or ran or flew on the surface of our dead world. All of them rising upward in the vaulted gloom, frozen in a moment of rebirth, bursting from nothing, from the place they were buried.
The surfacing platform has been used only once in my lifetime, and I was not yet old enough to attend. Surfacing is extremely rare in our community, primarily because the willing destruction of life, especially of those capable of bearing children, poses an extreme risk to sustaining the population level. It is also considered a hallmark of the Felaket and the time that came before it.
I have seen the antechamber, though. At the far end of the domed room is a gate and beyond that a tunnel that leads to the surfacing platform. Next to the gate is an ancient, heavy glass window covering almost the entire wall. The glass, warped with age, distorts whatever stands on the other side. In the antechamber is the single lever that opens the doors to the surface and, at the same time, raises the platform through the doors. My phallic parent, one of the city’s season keepers, often said that when the surface was in its winter, you could hear the singing of the wind from there.
As we near the surface, I can hear it. The sound of the wind. I can see that the walls are cracked with cold. I feel dread pooling at the base of my stomach. It is winter, I think. I will freeze to death before I take three steps.
I try to imagine what the survival kit Geminii has hidden contains, and that is when the absurdity of it hits me. That she should try to save my life with a thousand-year-old survival pack. That I might be able to make sense of anything stored inside it. That there is any chance at all that I will survive more than an hour on the surface. Tears start streaming from my eyes before I even realize I am on the verge of crying. Something inside of me begins to collapse, and I claw for the edge of my sanity.
And then I am in the antechamber, and surrounding me are a hundred solemn faces, many distraught. I feel panic overtaking me, a scream forming in my throat. I search the crowd for Geminii’s face. I find her standing beside the elder midwives. Her eyes bore into me, and I try to remember what she has told me. I know that if I lose my will to live, I will lose the hope she holds for me.
The elder midwives are withered and silent women, all of them warriors. From childhood, like me, they were trained as fighters, seasoned by combat with giant and vicious vermin that stalk our underground world. From middle age, they apprentice in the birthing of children and in the esoteric art of reading our star maps. I may have become one myself, but it seems the people who are buried had other plans for me. The elder midwives stare at me without remorse for what they are about to do, but also, curiously, without judgment. It is not vacancy but something else. Anticipation?
The antechamber is wide, high-ceilinged, and, with only a few fires lit, oppressively dark. The witnesses in attendance seem to glow in their ceremonial white robes. The color of death. Like a warrior. Heavy with skulls. Fragments of my naming song find their way into my thoughts. I struggle to remain grounded, to master my trembling. I breathe deeply and direct my attention to the elder midwives.
“Death begets death.” The words of the surfacing. “In return for the life you stole and the vow you have broken, one life you must give.” First one, and then each in turn, raise their right arms and point to the gate. Beyond it are the tunnel, the platform, and the doors to the surface. Breath leaves my body.
Violence begets violence, and the violence I have known in my life derived from something ugly, vile, and jealous: a man filled with hatred, supported by a community so intent on reproduction and survival that it is blind to other ways of loving. He hated me because of who I loved. He hated me because I did not love him. I killed the man who nearly killed me. But now I will die anyway.
I move forward through the gate. I have no choice. It happens so quickly, acted out in silence. In moments, I am through the tunnel, looking at the distorted figures of my community through the glass. It is so surprisingly cold here I almost forget to identify the location of the survival pack. My eyes cast about for a moment, and there it is, directly to the right of the window, tucked in a nook between the edge of the glass and the ornate frame surrounding the tunnel entrance. The pack seems to glow with its own light because the fabric covering the bag is dyed with colors I have never seen before. It is the color I have always imagined the sunset to be. I suppose now I will have a chance to confirm this—if I can survive that long.
I am just beginning to calculate how much time it will take me to reach the pack when the ground heaves beneath me and the platform begins to tremble. The ceiling above me splits in two, and I am blinded, trying to breathe, trying to sense where the window is. I rush forward and slam against the glass, sending shooting pains through my chest. The wind howls through me as I use the window to guide my body along the edge of the platform until I trip over the pack. I pull at it and it jams as the platform begins to rise. I jimmy the pack and yank hard, pulling it free and throwing myself back onto the platform. I struggle to open my eyes and can manage only a flickering of sight. Through the glass, I register movement that I can only interpret as commotion. I try to stand and manage to gain my knees, grasping the heavy survival pack, whipped by wind and light and small rocks that dance in the air around me. The platform is groaning, rising. I open my eyes again, for moments this time, and through the window I glimpse a figure I believe to be Geminii, her hands splayed, mouthing something. I cannot make out what she is saying. She disappears beneath the platform’s edge, and I am alone. A single guttural cry, and I force my body onto my feet, positioning the pack between my legs, assume a warrior stance. In moments, my head will clear the surface doors and I will know what awaits me.
I open my eyes. I stand there looking up.
Technician’s Log A.C. 1019. jun. 35. 20:19
There is a life form moving south through the upper Mideast quadrant. Something different, something with intellect and purpose. It moves with determination more reminiscent of nomadic and migratory patterns of pre–A.C. 650, the point being arrival at any cost, not the aberrant, reactionary motion of the newer life forms. I have tracked its course and used the infraction positioning program to predict its path. Whatever it is, it is coming for me.
Spread the word!