The Hands of Time
The difference between day and night in the underground was none at all. It was recommended that inhabitants of the small village dim the lights as the sun set, but that was difficult to keep track of when you so rarely saw the sun. The small village was only ever referred to as ‘the village’, or ‘home’ if the speaker was feeling content, but it had never known a proper name. A side effect of its inhabitants having never left, nor spoken to an outsider.
The villagers, of which there were about a hundred, rarely more due to the calamitous consequences of such a robust population, spent their days trying to figure out how exactly to gather and grow food without ever having to raise their heads out of the dirt.
There was plenty of food in the underground if you were of a mind to eat insects, but they were considered an emergency source of nutrition. These were people whose ancestors had lived on the surface, so they often considering themselves above eating anything that scuttled. No, they were going to grow fruits and vegetables, and catch animals in traps. That was considerably more difficult than snagging a cockroach, but it was undeniably more dignified.
The residents of the village whose time was not devoted to staving off an all-insect diet were instead dedicated to preserving the village’s crucial infrastructure. That meant repairing and maintaining the framework that kept the elaborate tunnel system from caving in on itself. It was a challenge due to the scarcity of wood; there was enough stone to work with, but they were infinitely harder to work with, thanks to limited tools and space. Occasionally the tunnelers hit a stroke of luck and found the roots of a tree, but those had become fewer with each passing year.
Kurt was one of those tunnelers. He and the three other people in the excavation team would spend most of the day digging and clawing through the dirt. They would extract what useful materials they could, expand the tunnels if they needed the space, and kept to themselves, mostly.
“Any chance we could wrap up early today, Spit?” Kurt wiped his brow with a rag. “We have enough stone to patch up the doctor’s office, so if you want I could drop them off.”
“Don’t think I don’t see through you, boy.” Spit scowled, combing gray tendrils of greasy hair back from his eyes. “You’re of a mind to see your girl.”
“I-” Kurt began.
“Spare me! Take the rocks and go.” Spit smiled toothily. He had earned his name through setting a record, spitting in a tin cup from ten yards away. Kurt wasn’t even sure what his birth name was, or maybe his parents had predicted his uncanny talent. “I was young once too, yesterday maybe, or the day before.”
“Thanks, Spit.” Kurt smiled ruefully, still playing as though he had been caught in a lie. Spit liked to think that he knew everything, and Kurt liked to keep him that way. It meant that the old man didn’t ask questions, as long as he believed he knew the answers.
Kurt hurriedly assembled today’s harvested stones onto the cart, a precious treasure of the community thanks to being made of sturdy wood, and headed to the doctor’s office. Patching it up would take no more than a few minutes, and leave Kurt with plenty of time to escape to his project. Spit didn’t need to know about that, after all.
Navigating the underground with a cart was a challenge, thanks to the tricky nature of elevation. The tunnelers had long since learned to avoid digging deeper, as the cave-in that killed Kurt’s father had taught them. Instead, they branched out further, but that didn’t change that the village was still nearly several hundred feet below ground at its lowest point. There were sloped passages, and that took time, more time than Kurt cared to waste. By the time he arrived at the doctor’s office, he was out of breath and increasingly impatient.
Lugging the sack of rocks off the cart, he quickly inserted a few oblong rocks into the joints of the doctor’s hut. The goal was to minimize sand and silt penetrating the structure, as that would cause shifts and lead to collapses. Kurt had been told stories of the earthquake that had occurred more than a decade before he was born, and how half the village had perished. There may be nothing they could do to prevent another tragedy, but he could try.
Once he was finished outside, he headed inside the door, also wooden. Just a sign of the level of prestige the doctor possessed. He was one of the few who occupied roles outside of the food and maintenance teams, and everyone in the village relied upon him. Naturally, that came with its own perks, like the first choice when it came time for choosing an apprentice.
That would be Ari, or Kurt’s “girl”, as Spit had so affectionately referred to her. It couldn’t be further from the truth; they were friends, collaborators, coconspirators. Kurt often wondered if Ari had ever thought about romance, but she probably would dismiss the idea once she realized she couldn’t marry a tourniquet. As such, Kurt left the idea alone.
Right now, Ari was draped across what settled for a counter in the underground. The idea that someone at a doctor’s office would sit behind a counter and wait for people to come in was an idea from the surface days, but Ari was obsessed with the era. Even now, she was flipping through a book, an unparalleled status symbol. It was just a medical manual, which would be of no use to anyone but the doctor and Ari, but still.
A dark tangle of hair obscured her face from view, but Kurt still was fairly confident he could see her face as clearly as if she looked at him. Gray eyes scanning pages she had read a dozen times before, extracting and distilling new information from the same paragraphs. Her bottom lip would be swollen, perhaps bleeding, as she had a terrible habit of chewing it when she was thinking. Kurt cleared his throat; she ignored him.
“I brought your stones.” He said, loudly, enough to force her to raise her head and acknowledge him. She looked like she had seen a ghost, but Kurt wasn’t quite so close to the grave. Besides, everyone in the underground was pale, so the difference between a boy and a ghost wasn’t exactly pronounced.
“Did you get off early?” She asked, her tone not belying the code she spoke in. Kurt only finished work early for one reason, and it wasn’t exactly to plug the gaps in the doctor’s walls.
“Yep.” He said innocently, pulling out a few small but wide rocks and a shimming tool. Iron was easy to come by in the underground, even if working with it was next to impossible. The first time they had tried to create enough fire to manipulate iron had created enough smoke in an enclosed space to ensure it was also the last time.
As he worked, separating rocks with gaps between them and sliding new additions in, Ari turned back to her book with a noted decrease in interest. She still processed the information at her typical speed, but it was clear she was waiting for him to get done. They briefly made eye contact, but Kurt broke the connection and looked away. He’d always felt a pang of jealousy that Ari could read, but he knew the practicality of a tunneler knowing his letters was nonexistent.
“What are we doing today?” Ari drawled, scraping a finger along the margin of a page. Kurt thought about it for a moment.
“Wish that we were somewhere else.”
“Don’t get too adventurous on me.” She knew he couldn’t say the actual plans out loud, where someone might hear, but he would usually drop a hint in the second meaning of a word. His vocabulary wasn’t half bad, thanks to being so close with one of the only literate people in the village. Still, when he didn’t give a clue, he merely said, “wish that we were somewhere else.” It was half a joke and half a long-term goal.
He finished quickly, though he didn’t cut any corners. His side project would be in jeopardy if his shoddy work caused the doctor’s office to collapse, and he didn’t need any extra eyes on him. When he began packing his things up, Ari slapped the book shut and put it on the shelf that contained two other books, both of which had incomprehensible titles, at least to Kurt.
“Sig, I’m stepping out!” Ari called to one of the back rooms where the doctor was surely stooped over, either working or sleeping on the job. There was no reply, so she merely walked around the pile of rocks that substituted for a counter and left with Kurt.
Together, they made their way to the highest level of the village. It was so close to the surface the air was almost fresh. They did their best to look like guilty kids sneaking around, but that was just so the busybodies would have something to gossip about. Ari had let Kurt know at a young age that the only thing people liked more than guessing was being certain they knew what was going on.
Once they reached the furthest arm of the tunnels, they actually began sneaking, casting furtive glances and their voices dying down to a hush. Sound carried easily in the underground, and echoes were a sneak’s dire enemy. Once they reached the dead-end of that furthest arm, Kurt pulled away the large rock that served as a trapdoor and they slipped through.
The tunnel after that carried on for a few yards, but not for too long. Kurt had dug it by himself and was wary of making too much noise behind what was supposed to be a wall. Once he had heard Spit’s sister Kanj say she had heard a racket near their project. Luckily, she had only gone around and told the whole village that the Chronids were finally here and coming for them. It was in bad taste to make such comments lightly, but it also meant that few had believed her, especially once her predictions proved false.
If Chronids were as dangerous as everyone said, then Kanj should have known better than to scare people like that. They wouldn’t have even given us the time to figure out whether or not Kanj needed to stop eating whatever insects she found crawling around.
The end of the tunnel was marked by a makeshift ladder, which was really a handful of protruding rocks that Kurt had hammered into the dirt until he felt confident enough they could hold his weight. It had taken him weeks of sneaking stones from the tunnelers’ stash before he had enough, and he was almost certain Spit had seen him take one. Still, Spit was convinced that the rock was somehow a present for Ari, so the old romantic had agreed to keep his mouth shut.
As he climbed, Kurt noted a few gaps in the framework that supported this branch of the tunnel. They weren’t too severe now but would need to be addressed before he unveiled his project. He’d have to snag a couple of stones from work tomorrow and patch it up, otherwise, he’d be risking a cave-in. He certainly didn’t want to hear what Kanj would say about that.
Above the ladder was a tarp made of old plant fibers woven together, and Kurt’s head suddenly popped out on the surface. Well, not quite the surface, as it was a small rectangular indent he had carved out of the ground. Its perimeter was tall enough so that anyone crouched inside would not be visible, and wide enough that Ari could plant different herbs that the tunnelers found. It was the perfect system, and it was near completion.
For as long as he could remember, he had needed to get to the surface. His mother had been sickly for years, and her condition had only worsened as years of tunnel life took their toll. Polluted air and a lack of sunlight contributed, and with the medical manual Ari dedicated all her free time to, they were sure she would improve. Just give her an hour outside a day and she might recover, she might get her strength back.
And with a garden, Ari could test the medicinal qualities of different plants, they could expand the community’s options a hundredfold. They wouldn’t have to scrounge in the dirt anymore if they could just make use of the surface in small doses. Even thinking about it made Kurt made enough to burst.
Instead of worrying about their people who were sick and dying, the village elders only cared about maintaining their position of authority. If people were to go to the surface and realize it was harmless, then they wouldn’t need the people whose parents had fled underground in the first place. If they didn’t have boogeymen to hide behind how the surface was barren and desolate, then their petty power would be called into question.
Kurt was fuming as he thought about it. Clearly, the surface isn’t desolate! What’s the difference between the soil out here and the soil a few feet below? They were old and clung to their ways, but they wouldn’t be in power forever. Once Kurt showed them the improvement to their quality of life with his project, they would understand.
He was putting the finishing touches on the small, comfortable strip of bedding he had made outside. It wasn’t easy to figure out how to keep the rain out, especially as Kurt often forgot about rain, having never lived in the upper village, but he managed. Once the interior was waterproofed, he had set about making a gutter system. Combine that with the canopy structure of the sickbed he had made for his mother, the entire garden would be well-nourished while she was able to rest and stay dry.
And it was nearly done. He just had to put the finishing touches on, wait for Ari’s first crop to bloom, and it would be done. Ari was vital to this process; she had the doctor’s authority behind her, the only one in the village comparable to the elders. Kurt knew that if she proved the viability of his garden with medicinal herbs, his mother could get the treatment she needed.
Kurt was finally satisfied with the bed and the gutters around it, feeling quite pleased with himself. He stood, cautiously at first, but eventually, he could see over the perimeter of the garden. As far as he could see was black dirt and patches of grass, signs that the world around them had begun to heal from the infestation that had driven them underground in the first place.
“The plants are nearly grown,” Ari said, quietly. They weren’t as superstitious as the elders, but it was hard to buck that sense of apprehension one felt at the surface. Kurt opened his mouth to speak.
Something shifted underneath his foot.
Faster than either of them could react, faster than they could process the events unfolding before their eyes. The ground beneath them began to sag and slide and come apart at the seams. The careful irrigation system Kurt had laid out, the sickbed, the garden Ari had worked at tirelessly at, was collapsing. The fruits of their labor, months of their planning and work, was disintegrating all around them.
As the floor beneath them became the tunnel below, Kurt must have hit his head off something. His sight went blurry, all he could hear was a tinny ring. When he finally came to his senses, he was lying half-buried in dirt and debris, feeling as though he had been on the receiving end of a rock slide. In a way, he was.
“Ari…” he groaned, quietly, dazed. “Ari, are you okay?” Louder.
“Fine, I think.” A trembling voice called back, only a few feet away. “Nothing hurts too bad, but we’re in serious trouble.” Kurt knew that well enough, he knew it so well he wanted to cry. Now, not only had their project evaporated thanks to a few lazy moments on his part, it had been so loud that everyone in the village had already heard it. They’d be rushing over to what should be a dead-end tunnel in a minute or two.
“Dammit!” He cried, slamming his fist into soft dirt. He blinked back the tears, too angry to let himself cry. He whispered, “damn it all.”
“Kurt.” He let the voice wash over him, he didn’t even really process it.
“Kurt, we need to go.”
“Do you hear that?” He tilted his head, trying to focus in on the sound now that the ringing had faded. High-pitched, it was wailing, almost. Not quite human, not an animal, either, not that he had seen many of those alive. What could make that sound?
He remembered sitting around with a couple of other children, he didn’t recall how many years ago. A bedtime story, he thought, but the other details had lost themselves in the past. What was that line?
When they first appeared, they called out. A screech, a siren’s call. The death of anyone who heard it.