When I was small enough to not have to work, I used to go exploring the tunnels below the old station. There were all sorts of things to find down there. Rats bigger than my hand, fungus that slipped underfoot and glowed on the walls, stone bricks with chiseled words and symbols that only stood out because of the shadows they created under the light of the fungus. Once I found an old skeleton. I mean, really old. So old that I think even my gran'ma wasn't been born yet. The ribs were broken up like someone had gotten mad at it. And then there were all the really sparky things from way-back-when. Did you know they used to make tools as long as a femur? It was a real waste, using so much metal on just one wrench, but it's real sparky to think of how strong they had to have been to work all day with those things.
These old tunnels are a lot smaller than I remember. As I walk, I have to take extra care not to slip on the fungi, which has been joined in recent years by greenery I don't recognize. I probably shouldn't be down here. There are a lot of ground shakings this generation, not to mention the storms that power our locos. The cause is up for debate. The greens all say the world's been driven mad by us. The astros all say the stars are coming too close and the sun's getting tired. The boogies all say it's some old guy bigger than the universe gettin' angry. I dunno, when the viewer showed us those pictures of the Ring of Fire gettin' all huffy, I kinda thought maybe it's some old woman on her chumming week.
Any case, the world's not exactly a sparky place to be these days, and it is kind of a bad idea to be down here. Some of the tunnels collapsed in the last shaking and brought East District down with it. The old tunnels are the reason Papa and everyone else was taken to the outer station for jettison. I'm not really ready to think about that, though, and that was those tunnels. These ones are mine.
A dull crash above shakes the walls. Must have been lightning to reach this far down. I guess the storm isn't ready to let me escape sadder thoughts. Either that, or it's enjoying tormenting the rats and bugs. Squeaks and buzzes and scritches swell and draw near. I zip the collar of my vest up so that my neck is safe from unwanted feasting, but when the insects and critters−oh, was that a bat?−reach me they keep moving. I don't want to hurt the little guys, so I stand still and let them continue their rushed parade in the direction that I've just come from. It takes nearly two minutes before the tunnel is silent again, and when it is I wish it wasn't. Don't really like listening to the storm, especially this far down. I mean, the point was to get away, right?
The tunnel stinks now thanks to the quano and droppings among other things, but it's better than topside, where sewage, smoke and debris are a constant reminder of the East District's destruction. So, I move on.
Actually, it's kind of warm down here. I don't get far before I have to unzip my vest all the way, and even then it's still kind of warm and sticky. The plants have weaved themselves into a carpet over the fungi, so I no longer slip with each step. My feet sink as though I'm on a cloud, and I want to take my boots off to feel that cloud between my toes, but-
You know what? I'm gonna do it. I kick them off, and then hop around on one foot and then the other to take off my socks. The stems of the plants don't jab, they tickle, and the leaves embrace my soles the way Papa used to hold me when he told stories. It's soft and squishy and just so sparky! I peer down the tunnel, which only grows brighter the deeper it goes. It's smaller than I remember, but it's a brighter, happier place. I think I'll go see what's down there.
I start running. It's a lot different from the training rooms topside, though. The ground isn't quite level or smooth, and the air gets warmer and thicker the further I go. It smells a bit sweet, and when I stop to catch my breath, it tastes sweet too. I look around and the cyan glow of the walls' fungi ripples against the walls. The fungi isn't moving, though, so how is the light able to?
I stand up and look around. There's a patch of knotted plants laying not far away. I move toward it, and when I get closer I see the source of movement. The plants have climbed out of crevice that must have been left by one of the shakes, and the crevice is full of swirling grey water that throws the fungi's light back into the tunnel. Maybe I sound like an old gasser, but the patterns the water make are totally sparky. Some of the greys I've never even seen before.
I look up and there's a lady standing across the crevice. She's got a real nice, round face, like the mamas in those old paper books. She's not much older than me, though, and she's got wide eyes like she just saw a friendly spook.
"Uh, hullo." I stand and give her a funny look. What's she doing in my tunnel? Not that I mind sharing, but far's I know nobody but me ever came down here. And how's she know my birth name?
She's wearing funny clothes. It looks like those really old gowns people used to wear in the viewer stories, all white and flowy. Wish I could keep that clean whenever I came down here. "You've grown so much." She says it with a smile that's kind of sad, but still makes me feel warm inside.
I shift from one leg to the next, tryin to figure out who she is. She doesn't look like my blood, or anyone I've met for that matter. Brown-crowns were bred out of us generations ago. Don't know why, cause it actually looks kind of pretty, specially the way it twists down her back and shoulders, all the way to-
Her ribs don't look right. I tilt my head to see if the light's just funny, but no, they're all twisting and poking like someone took an airtank to her. It looks awful painful and reminds me of everyone in the East District who were buried for weeks. Didn't I come here to not think about it?
"I missed you," she says, and then she steps on the water. How the heck's she doing that? "But why did you come back? It's not very nice here."
I open my mouth, but I forget my words. I think a moment, and then shrug. It feels like Papa caught me getting into trouble. "Nicer down here, I guess."
She comes across the water, her arms staying wrapped around those ribs. "Not nearly as nice as outside, I would imagine."
I work my toes in the plants. It feels safe when I do. "Not really. Never stops storming, and when it does the sun burns things up. Least down here's dry and green."
The lady tilted her head with that hum sound Papa used to make when he thought. "Is it really so bad?"
"Yeah." I think I shouldn't have said that. I mean, we have it pretty good, all things considering. Disease is mostly gone, and generations ago we didn't live to be even half as old as we can now, but it'd be nice to not see storms all day every day.
The lady's face changes like she can hear what I'm thinking. Not sure if that's a good thing or not, but I don't have time to think about it because she comes over and forgets her ribs so she can hold me instead. It's kind of funny, cause she feels air and mist and reminds me a lot of I'd come down and find the tunnels foggy. "Where's your family?"
Don't want to think about it, but I guess she'll just ask again. "Mama's still wherever. Papa got swallowed up by the tunnels."
She steps back and looks sad. "Your siblings?"
She looks back to the crevice and hums again. "Anybody?"
She takes her time saying anything after that. As she does, the water in the crevice starts to glow its own light, yellow-white and calm green. "I was able to unseal the passage, but I wanted to say goodbye before I left." Her brow's pinched in a funny way, like maybe she isn't sure about whatever she's going to say. "Would you like to come with me?"
I giver her a funny look of my own. "I don't even know where you're going." I guess I ought to know who she is, as well, but she seems nice and apparently knows me.
She gestures to the crevice. "That's my home."
I give her a quick glance, and then move closer. The grey's gone now. Safe green and living blue are all highlighted by soft yellow sun that doesn't torch what it touches. There's hoppy long-ears and insects with bright bow-wings and fliers that sing pretty songs instead of the scratchy croaks that the scavengers make. I dreamt of a place like that once. I felt real sparky and safe there, but I don't think I've ever seen anything like it, not even on the viewers. I want to go there.
I look at the lady. "How do we go there?"
Her lips twitch like she's more hope than happy. "We just have to slip in."
Not sure I like the sound of that. Yeah, the water looks good now, but it had been grey and weird, and she walked on it. What if it's some metal like mercury? Papa always said I should use my head. Said I'd get buried alive down here one day, but it's not like it's any worse than the storms above. I stare at that place and wonder if it will turn to greys again when I touch it. What'll it do to me if I do? Still, it looks awful nice in that world.
I'm gonna do it. "Alright." Can't make things better if I don't try. I stand and look at the lady, and she reaches out to hold my hand. "Um, how'd you know my name?"
She gives me a real smile this time. One that makes me feel like I'm already in that nice place. "My name is Casey too."
Huh. That's pretty sparky. I smile and look at the crevice, and then hand-in-hand we leap.