Shock delayed my struggle, and in seconds the new assailant had dragged me away from the rope ladder and down a narrow tunnel. I made to bite the fingers in front of my mouth, when the hand vanished. As I spun to face the assailant, they strode away, back to the opening around the rope tunnel. ‘What’s going on?’ they asked, as a suited figure stuck their head down the hole.
‘Thief at the Spear,’ a man’s voice replied, muffled by a full mask. ‘They came down here. Seen anything?’
‘Nope. Oh, but, we found new tunnels. If your thief went in, there’s no telling if they’ll make it out.’
‘Hah, good riddance.’ The suited figure pushed away from the rope ladder and went to find his companions.
My assailant—Well, my saviour, crept back to where I hid. It was a boy around my age, but he was taller, with high cheekbones and messy, muddy brown hair. ‘It’s you,’ he smiled.
‘You’re the guy we found. Sorry, I’m Kanda Shinjiro.’ He extended a hand.
At least basic etiquette survived, I thought, and accepted the hand. ‘Yagi Akinori. Well, Aki for short.’
‘Which should I use?’
‘Yagi Akinori or Aki Forshort?’
‘…Just call me Aki.’
‘Aki…Aki…’ He stroked his chin. ‘You can call me…Shin,’ he said, as if coming up with a nickname on the spot. He smiled to himself, and then at me. ‘I knew there was something special about you. I told Amborella, I did, I said, “This guy ain’t like us,” but she wanted to show the captains first. I would’ve made a fuss, but you don’t argue with Amborella, Venator or not. Just between you and me, I’m betting she wanted you to gain favour with a certain Venator captain, being a Blank and all, if you hear what I’m sizzling.’
I don’t, I thought, but carry on.
Carry on he did, a one-man conversationalist. ‘I hope you don’t repeat what I’m saying, seeing as Amborella can be a bit—well, she’s more flint than coal, understand? I’ve known her for a while, though, so my tongue tends to waggle.’ He stroked his chin. ‘Aki. Shin. Amborella…Amborella…Ella, yeah, that’s good.’
The footfalls and voices of other miners approached. I cleared my throat until Shin paid attention. ‘What’re you doing down here?’
‘Digging,’ he replied.
Shin fidgeted. ‘It’s…a nice distraction.’ Visible hurt flashed behind his eyes, deeply ingrained, like a splinter hidden deep. I’d seen that look before, at the old base. He masked it a second later. ‘Back to what I was saying: I’d hoped to talk to you.’
‘You’re not bothered they called me a thief?’
He snorted. ‘The Solar-Guard thinks sneezing near the plants is treason.’ He hoisted a pickaxe over his shoulder, ducked under the tunnel’s entrance, and placed a hand and foot onto the rope ladder. ‘Technically I’m not supposed to be working today, so let’s talk.’
I hurried after him, up the ladder and back up the spiral staircase. As we went, Shin greeted various miners by name. I kept my head down, cautious of my recent escape and pseudo-theft being discovered.
Aside from slang, Shin spoke full, standard Japanese. By “standard” I mean the fact that, by the time I was born, most dialects had faded away. Was it a conscious choice, or did the City have level-based dialects, like different percentages of languages mashed together? His clothing interested me, too. Compared to my sparse attire, he wore a dented helmet, shirt, vest, overcoat, trousers, kneepads, and steel-toed boots. A dark green canteen hung from his hip. I shivered, suddenly aware of the chilled air; the feeling reminded me of escaping to a hearth from a snowstorm. My sweat from running intensified the effect.
‘I’m not sure I can tell you much,’ I said, as we left the mines. ‘My memory is…’ I crafted a lie about not knowing my past, home, family, or much else besides my name.
Shin wasn’t perturbed. I suspected he just wanted company. He led me with ease down a series of passages, each more narrow than the last, until we reached rows of identical doorways. He opened the one marked “44” and gestured at the interior. ‘Home is home.’ Shin’s “home” was a single room, roughly the size of five tatami mats. ‘They’re not all this spacious,’ he added. A beaded string turned on a bluish-white light like those outside, though paper wrapping lessened the glare. In the corner a stout bench held a second set of equipment, along with bags and charcoal drawings on cardboard squares. In another corner a basin had a block of grey soap on the rim and a circular mirror above. A hatch in the floor contained two sets of bedding. A glass jar held flattened, coloured beetles. A couple pillows and slippers surrounded an upturned bucket, on which sat a board with a checker pattern and odd-shaped tiles.
‘You can stay here,’ Shin said. ‘We’ll be friends.’ He struck me as lacking inhibitions or embarrassment, like words and their feelings flowed freely. I wasn’t sure whether to feel envy or condescension. In my time, such behaviour could be construed as someone being dim. To be honest, I did assume him to lack intelligence; amiable, yes, but I didn’t want to rely too heavily on him.
‘You don’t mind sharing?’ I asked.
‘I’m used to it.’ The splinter resurfaced. ‘The last person who stayed…left a while ago.’ I sensed the lie but didn’t press for answers.
Shin shrugged off his overcoat and placed it among the other equipment. Then he offered me the spare set, which I promptly changed into. The boots were a little tight, but I felt far more comfortable than before. This done, Shin offered to give me a tour of the area.
As we left Shin’s room, sounds echoed from above. ‘City’s waking up,’ he said. A cacophony of ringing came next, and Shin jogged away. I matched his pace. A ladder with rubber-wrapped rungs brought us to another spiral staircase. A sign at the top indicated that we’d reached the fifth-level. ‘Just made it,’ Shin panted, as the cacophony grew louder.
From around the corner, a gangly boy trotted down the passage. His clothes were plain black, and sewn onto the fabric were tiny bells of mixed shape and material. His shoes curled upward at the toe, from which another pair of bells tinkled. From a belt and bandolier hung medium-sized bells, adding a different pitch to the mess of noise. Last, both hands held large, upturned brass bells that he rattled over each shoulder. Aside from the bells and black attire, he wore a vacuous expression and cotton balls in his ears.
‘That’s Chimeboy; he wakes the lower-levels,’ Shin said, as the noise faded with distance. ‘His siblings, Chimelad and Chimegirl, handle the mid- and upper-levels.’ He spoke like they were desirable roles. ‘Well, on with the tour.’
Shin ambled down the passages, hands behind his back, talking to me over his shoulder with the occasional gesture of his chin. The wider passages served like main thoroughfares for crowds to traverse, while narrower ones went to specific locations. The arrangement mimicked arteries and veins thinning into capillaries. In addition, the fifth-level and upward had a series of coloured cords tracing the ceiling. Shin explained that each colour led to a specific place, making for easier navigation. ‘Seriously,’ he said, ‘rely on the cords. Nobody but the couriers can memorise all the routes.’
Using this method, we neared a taller chamber that occupied the fifth- and sixth-levels. It served as a market, with stalls filling the area. Given the early hour, merchants still prepared their wares for the day. Stairs built into the walls led to a mezzanine, where stalls sold more expensive and delicate products. Shin bought us each a pryaniki, dome-shaped biscuits with a sweet and spiced ginger flavour. Though the presence of sweets surprised me, the real shock came from what he used to pay: beetles.
‘Beel,’ he explained. ‘They flatten beetles from outside and coat them with something from the upper-levels. The blue beetles are worth less than the orange ones.’ As for the sweet biscuits, Venators had discovered a bizarre plant and brought it back to the City. It grew in the Solar Spear and another facility manufactured basic sweeteners. The “Sugar Era” some called the recent years. It helped that King Itagara adored sweets. Rumours suggested the King rewarded the Venator responsible with a ruby amulet.
‘You keep mentioning lower-levels and upper-levels—’
‘—but are there specific areas?’
Shin nodded. ‘We’re in Thao’s Hold, a region in the south-west part of the City. It’s pretty close to the gate, so if we’re lucky we’ll see Venators coming back from a scavenging run.’
Thao’s…Hold? It had to be a coincidence, I decided. Well, hoped.
From the market, we descended to visit:
The mess hall, where people from the first few levels had meals together.
The recreation house, where people from the first few levels relaxed together.
The church, where people from the first few levels prayed together.
And the rain tanks, where people from the first few levels showered together under great metal drums.
It was all very…communal.
Though, the place that interested me most came as an off-handed comment from Shin. ‘We’re standing roughly under the library up on the eighth-level. Anyway, next is—’
‘A library?’ I asked, disbelieving. ‘You have a library?’
‘The one and only. Well, except whatever the Venators have.’
‘Can I see it?’
Aside from a dubious level of literacy among the lower-levels, the biggest obstacle came in the form of a long, sloped corridor with a ceiling that continually dripped hot, prickling liquid. The liquid caused rashes that itched for weeks, and ingesting any led to indigestion for months. There were various theories about what caused the drip, but the scarce few who tried to fix it couldn’t find a solution, let alone the cause. Scarce few tried because the corridor led to the library and nothing else, and the liquid ran into a drain that opened up to the City’s exterior. A new passage could be built, but the hassle was deemed too great. Thus, the library remained isolated, empty, and neglected.
I resolved to reach it. A library contained information. It contained answers. But, the issue needed to be handled later.
Despite a vague, morbid interest in the City, I couldn’t suppress a fear at what the world had become, nor could I ignore a burning desire to find a means of restoring my old life. But, if generations had passed and nobody had done what I desired, how was I—a random, confused boy—supposed to accomplish it?
The world was a big place. Perhaps the City didn’t know about other settlements. I tried to believe this because I wanted the City to act as temporary accommodation, but when I asked Shin about the outside, he spoke only of burning lakes, barren wastelands, and ashen forests. He listed these environmental features in a matter-of-fact voice, like it weren’t more unusual than beaches, valleys, or cliffs.
Surely that’s a lie, I thought. The ruined world must have been a story authorities told to keep everyone in the City. When I voiced this possibility, Shin laughed:
‘That’s a funny idea! But, I’ve seen it. Everyone has.’
‘Are there really no trees? Ones with leaves, I mean.’
‘I’ve seen pictures, but that was before my lifetime.’
‘Please tell me the sky is still blue.’
‘Of course. Oh, wait, all of it?’
Shin continued his tour.
In a few hours I had a comprehensive and disturbing understanding of the lower-levels. Resource production and basic manufacturing happened in the lower-levels, while the mid-levels handled logistics, administration, and specialty tasks. The upper-levels housed and trained Venators, established rules, treated Beel, and directed operations for the whole City. The system wasn’t new to me; it wasn’t new to history. But, it worked well enough. Better than I expected, actually. I assumed the upper-levels had a tyrannical grip on the whole City, but Venators maintained loyalties to individual levels. Plus, the City’s government was divided between three groups: the Grey Assembly (lower), the Council of Hope (mid), and the Royals (upper).
Given all I’d learned from Shin, I sensed his role as a miner belied a deeper history. When I asked, he gave two upfront but curt answers:
‘My dad’s a councilman.’ And, ‘I was in-training to be a courier.’
He did not speak again until we reached his room, whereupon he sighed and tapped his forehead against the door. ‘I lied, earlier,’ Shin said. ‘The person living with me didn’t leave. My sister…passed away, when Arachnites attacked the new tunnels.’
Arachnites? My eyes widened and heart thumped. ‘The Arachnites are still alive?’
Shin shot me a perplexed look. ‘Now that’s a weird thing to forget.’
‘I-I mean, they’re still a threat? I thought…?’ Thankfully, my bumbled attempt to mask what I’d said was successful. Shin acknowledged that, yes, while Arachnites weren’t a major threat, they still attacked on occasion.
‘Figured I’d mention it,’ Shin said, ‘since we’ll be working in the mines.’
We will? Well, there wasn’t anything else to do, while I prepared strategies to reach the library.
‘I’ll fetch our tools and introduce you to the foreman,’ Shin said, but as he reached for the door, my stomach growled. The noise filled the passage with an awkward echo. ‘Or…maybe we’ll visit the mess hall first.’
Shin and I went to the hall I’d so recently sprinted through, but with my new attire and bearing, nobody paid me any mind. We got plastic trays and metal bowls, and then shuffled down a line to be served at a wall alcove. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, I thought, of the typical cafeteria-style system. A woman served us, but she wore lengths of white fabric around her forehead and heavy chest (and little else). Sweat dotted the rest of her body. Perhaps…fix it a little, I considered, of the atypical hygiene requirements. Past her, the alcove opened into a compact kitchen with blazing fires, multiple exhaust pipes, and pots of boiling soup. It was this same soup the woman served us, though she paused to appraise me before ladling a portion into my bowl with a slight smile.
Shin and I sat in the corner and began to eat. Well, Shin did. I inspected the soup. It looked more appealing than what I had at the infirmary, but still I had trouble reconciling hunger with the “meal”. Nonetheless, I squeezed my eyes shut and forced a spoonful into my mouth. The flavour didn’t aggrieve, but odd textures assaulted my tongue and cheeks, almost making me gag. The texture belonged to fried witchetty grubs. Can’t believe I miss MREs, I lamented.
‘Don’t like it?’ Shin asked.
He chuckled. ‘Bet you’re from the upper-levels, with an appetite like that. Your tongue’ll get used to it.’
At the mention of tongues, memories of Wursha returned. Had she gotten in trouble for my escape? Did Amborella know, and did she search for me? These questions were secondary to the main mystery: Why didn’t Wursha have a tongue? During the tour, I’d noticed others who lacked tongues. Instead they gestured or used a blackboard hung around their neck. Once more I questioned Shin, though he hesitated for the first time. He simply stated:
‘It could be worse.’
I continued to eat, plagued by the “wrongness” of everything around. The worst came when I nearly finished. A pinkish, rubbery “thing” with a crispy exterior waited at the bottom of the bowl, like a sock forgotten under the bed. I used my spoon to lift it out. It was…a rat’s tail?
Shin clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Congratulations! Damn good omen.’
A boy across the bench suddenly paid attention to me. ‘Whoa-whoa, Rattail!’ he shouted.
‘Rattail?’ someone further down chimed.
Multiple sets of eyes turned to me. No, to my spoon. ‘W-What’s happening?’ I hissed at Shin.
‘Hurry, eat it,’ he replied.
Seemingly from nowhere, multiple bodies encircled me. Shouts sprung forth in a chorus. Arms flung out and jostled. They gripped my wrist and reached for the spoon. I felt suffocated among the bodies, and I bit my tongue when a stray elbow caught my head. In a few seconds, the chaos passed and everyone went about their business as if nothing transpired. Smoothing my hair, eyes wide, I gaped at Shin. He shrugged. ‘Should’ve eaten it,’ he clucked.
Before I became irate, Shin said the game was called Rattail. Sometimes when the kitchen served soup, someone got a fried rat’s tail. They were expected to stand on the table, yell, ‘Rattail!’ and eat it while everyone around chanted:
‘Whoa-whoa, Rattail! Whoa-whoa, Rattail!’
Whoever ate the tail (supposedly) had good fortune for the next day. If they took too long, others fought to take it.
The explanation dulled my frustration to a non-violent degree, but the lump forming on my tongue became a source of irritation. What is this world? Was there a way to restore it? Who were the Venators? Why do people lack tongues? Why do Arachnites still pose a threat? And, the most pressing questions:
Why am I alive?
What happened after the operation?
How…can I be expected to live in this world?
A singular thought filled my head:
I need to reach the library.
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