I don't know when we first went underground. I don't even know if it was one mass exodus, a swarm of mankind trickling through the earth's crust so vehement we carved our own caverns by the force of trampling feet, or whether it was a gradual process, perhaps even a repetitive one, a family here, a neighborhood there. For all I know, the echo of the damp subterranean machine has always reverberated off the cave walls, created long past by the Angels, who think of our well-being even while they shake their heads helplessly at our flaws.
They say that those who remained on the surface were raptured away in a great flash of light, like a million suns converted into raw energy all at once. While it was rumored once that the flash was our doing, our own horrid creation, we all know better now. It was the Maker who brought it forth from the void and cast it onto the earth's crust, as though shot from an immense sling, taking only those who were brave enough to trust in Him. We, who live in the ground, regret our decision. We have become dust once more, as though we had never been anything different. We did not trust in what we could have been.
I say "we," though certainly it was all so long ago I could not possibly have made the choice myself. We must bear the guilt, though. It is the only hope the Underworld has: that perhaps someday our penitence will merit a place Above.
Couldn't we go to the surface of our own volition, though?
(I asked this of my mother when she shared the story for the first time, the full story of our people.)
We tried, she told me finally. We tried back when the Underworld was new and we had not yet grown accustomed to its sulfurous belch, its alternate lands of hot and cold, jagged and soapstone smooth. And we were punished severely for our premature attempts to storm Above; explorers came back with seared skin, or, if they were fortunate, bald and pale, their blood depleted, their stomachs writhing with nausea. All of them died.
My mother also told me that there were other people in this world before the flash came. People who were darker than us, some with straight black hair and different eyelids, others of a tawny hue. Some, with skin the color of ours, even had red hair (red, can you imagine? like the color of a rusty faucet!), or eyes the green of aging copper.
We have none of that, only white. White skin, like the white of the eyeless fish, and luminous eyes, and white, white hair that yellows with age. We have purified ourselves, Mother says, through our darkness, and become more like the Angels. Surely we have, though she cannot be certain, for she has never seen one. Not yet, anyway.
Mother is Her Majesty the Queen, though I can call her whenever I like, since there's really no one to hear. No one but Father, and technically he's the one who's supposed to be in charge, but he caught an illness of some kind a few years back, and his skin's begun to grow excessively like the gnarled roots of a fairy-book tree. The sort of tree you might see a donkey-headed man leaning against, being courted by Titania. I asked Mother if there were donkey-headed men once, and she said, "Sure, probably. Lord knows we have enough strange things down here."
There is so much that I simply do not know. The mutables, the broken-down borgs of the outskirts, why our family became The Family and took the Cataracted Chair for ourselves (not uncontested, but the family against us has been erased from the annals, as has much of our old history) all these things remain a mystery. Mother suggests that it's more interesting that way. We can make up stories about the beginning of the end, and they can all be true.
The mutables, really, are almost all that's left of our people. They're pale too, but their eyes bulge more and they don't always have the right number of bits. Their appearance can be disconcerting, frightening even, but they're really quite harmless for the most part - without them, who would perform the menial labors of the Underworld, the waste collection, tending the ultraviolet greenhouses, cleaning and repairs?
I suppose that's what the borgs were for originally. Mother said they were once humans who suffered grave injuries and were resurrected through mechanical means, but they became too fond of their contrivances (and others grew jealous) until even the rural crust lands where The Family once lived became rife with them. And as they spread, becoming less and less human, they also lost their status as citizens and were denigrated and cast to the lowest rungs of society. But their makers died long ago, and the signals that once controlled them have stopped, so all the borgs of the Underworld have either fallen into disrepair naturally or been beaten there by our fear. For we musn't let them take us.
Now and then I pass a lone borg head dribbling out its condensation by the lakes, living still with the ferocity of an ungodly thing that cannot properly die. A borg soul, I know, can never go Above, no matter the penitence undertaken in the lands beneath. Limbo is for the borgs. Even the mutables fare better.
A borg head spoke to me once, on the subterranean plains. It inhaled a fistful of post-rapture water (unclean, unsafe) through the slit holes of its severed neck and used the burbling sound of liquid through its throat to tell me of how mankind has fallen, how it remembered a time when we were not nearly so afraid. And then it asked me to set fire to its manufactured brain so that the consciousness might melt away, for it had lived too long and wanted to die.
I ran away and never told Mother of it, nor did I return to that particular plain.
I venture elsewhere, however. There is no end to the darkness, always another crevice to descend, another spire to climb. I have wandered the expanse of nothing for years and found only the mutables and borgs, the blind fish and the luminescent star-nosed moles. They are the only stars I have ever seen.
* * *
I have noticed, upon my past several excursions out, an unfamiliar patch of darkness in the dark. It is hued like the shadows, and yet it moves, which is most perplexing, for the creatures of this Underworld are almost iridescent in their pallid flesh. I thought perhaps it was a whole-formed borg, one that had escaped the great tearing down, but it did not move with the proper speed or spider-jerks that I had seen from the individual parts in operation. A mutable, then? But no, they move like crippled beasts and never even bother to look furtive these days. What good would it do? There’s scarce anyone to see them but me and Mother.
This shadow, though, might very well be a person I have missed, a living being with a soul just like us that can go Above when he or she dreams. The darkness could simply be a coat, a full-body suit of some kind – a tarp? Has it lived here alone for too long, and sunk to insanity, dressed only in discarded scraps? I want it to be so. The lunatics in my books are always the most interesting.
I want it to be Miss Havisham in widow’s weeds right now.
But perhaps I don’t.
Not because I am frightened of it being Miss Havisham – what could she do to me anyway? – but because it could be someone more like me, with a sane mind and a youthful body. I have never met someone quite like me before, and the prospect of it is immensely exciting.
Also, maybe it is an Angel.
* * *
When the lights go out, I dream of something I don't even know, with someone I don't know either, and we are not Above, but still Below.
* * *
I see the thing and the thing sees me, and it is a young man.
I fell into the waters of the oily lake when I was surprised, and I was surprised because I had drawn close to the shadow in the darkness and seen it look at me with eyes not luminous but more akin in shade to the cave's walls, the cogs of the subterranean machine. Only the borgs have eyes that color, and yet they were not borg eyes. The motion was human. The blink . . .
Then falling. I do not know how to swim, no one does anymore; those who swam in the early days emerged from the waters marred, alive but ruined. Their children became mutables, while they themselves merely fell ill, went blind, grew bald. We do not swim.
The eyes, though, came for me and were suddenly next to me in the midst of my death. I had resigned myself to stillness, for that is all I could do. There was no point in struggling with the inevitable. I might finally have gone Above, which is the desire of all here, so why worry?
But the shadow saved me, and stands now, dripping and panting and unearthly.
As an Angel, he is not what I expected. My mother told me the Angels come in the refined form of man, bleached of all color and giving off a light of their own, for they were those who braved Hell for us and what is darker than that? If we, though our vigil in the non-light, had gone so pale, surely the Angels would be a thousand times paler.
But this man is dark slate eyes, bronze skin. He is also exceptionally tall, in the manner of the old humans, whose heights I have seen extolled in books as being six feet or sometimes even taller. It is like looking at a giant or up a hill; I must cast my neck fully back just to see his face, and I am a girl all-grown.
I am not sure if his face is beautiful or not. It is so different from ours the chin more prominent, the nose straight and downturned, the cheekbones severe. But it seems likely that he is an Angel. My mother might have been wrong about the purification; perhaps those who suffered rapture burned darker in the flames, rather than being bleached by the depths. They may never even have died at all and are simply flesh and blood rendered immortal, not the vitrified souls left from the rendering of their skin to ash.
Perhaps the body is still good and worthy of preservation.
The dark man looks at me and smiles, his teeth quite white against the plum of his lips, and when I smile back at him he looks even more delighted. He pulls a small blue pad out of his coat and scratches something onto it with what looks to be a grease pencil, but probably isn't.
"Bonlachiwa," he says.
I frown involuntarily. The man laughs.
"Nín hǎo?" he half-asks.
I shake my head at him and wonder what he's trying to convey.
"Oh!" I blush and almost forget the very language I do know. "Hello!"
"Twenty-first century English!" the man exclaims, commencing a small dance of some kind. "Brilliant! I hardly ever get to practicate this one."
"Yes! Peachy!" He bites his plum lip and bends nearer. "That's not an offensive one, is it?"
"No, not at all, but . . ." My heart rate reaches a level at which I fear he can see the heart screaming red through my nearly translucent chest, my pale grey clothing. I am dust, and he is flesh. He was what the Maker made, and I am only the original compound, nothing in and of itself.
"Who are you?" I ask, as he pauses to jot more notes down on his pad.
"Me? I are, am, a scienceperson." He licks his teeth nervously. "And a historical linguist. I know dialects from the last four thousand years." He raises his hands in a peaceable gesture. "I would like it if I could see your systems. Er, city. Governance?"
I stare, speechless.
"Have you got one, then?"
"We have the old kingship, of course."
The man's eyes widen with a certain strange delight, even as his lip curls into something I suppose might be called distaste. "A monanarchy? That's . . . holla."
He's a confusing sort of Angel.
* * *
I take him to Mother, who looks disgruntled at having been interrupted from her perpetual nap. In the absence of anything to do, she's taken to pricking her finger with a batch of drowsing serum and dozing through the day like a lean Sleeping Beauty.
(I wonder if the Angel thinks she's beautiful. She looks so unlike him that perhaps she and the rest of us me are all disgusting to him. I can't say why, but the possibility of that causes my nerves to vibrate and numb slightly all up and down my arms.)
Mother sends me out of the chamber, so I cannot hear what they are talking about. I amuse myself playing tiddlywinks with a cache of borgian knucklebones.
* * *
It takes a dozen candles-lives, or so it feels, before the Angel leaves Mother. He looks at me slyly, adjusting his trousers a bit in the middle. There's a wet patch darkening through the fabric, and for some reason it makes me thoroughly uncomfortable.
"I did not believe that anypersons called it the Ozarks these days," he says speculatively.
"But isn't that what it is?" I ask him. Perhaps coyly, but I've never had cause before to experiment with what that means, so I can't be certain.
"They were. But now they're . . . I suppose you could interpret it as 'Cavernous Freelands' up-top, yes."
We walk the perimeter of the palace complex together, my hand brushing against carbonate walls hewn from the belly of the earth and machines I've never found, even though I've looked. I think the mutables may have torn them apart in ages past to construct shelters from the cave-cold, or perhaps the borgs dismantled them in better times for replacement portions. A gasket heart. A cog-spoke elbow. A carburetor lung.
These are the frailties of my people.
The Angel, however, seems almost convulsively displeased with them. He twitches his foot away when a stray mutable youngling crosses his path. While it is true that I would never associate directly with the dregs, they are the only citizens I have ever known. I may run from their death cries, but I will not explicitly kick their scrabbling claws aside.
"So you really don't know the people up-top?" says the man after a pause, hands in his pockets, casual.
"There are people up-top?" I inquire, and I must sound like a veritable idiot because the Angels laughs like he's shaking the water off a pair of invisible wings.
"Yes, you! Up-top they've been forever! There was that time, with the bomb, but we emerged. Spent the prescribed span beneath, then safe again. And, you know, the medicine was just at the beginning of better then, too."
I stop a moment and sit among the stones, watching the drip of a stalactite as it carves a calm, calcified crater in the foyer. "And so," I finally say, "they weren't gone after all?"
"Gone?" the man puzzles out. "The people? No." He shakes his head and sits down with me.
"You're not an Angel, are you?" I ask.
His hands surrounding my tiny fingers, he says, "No."
He puts his face too close to mine. "Angels are not real."
I can smell foreign edibles on his damp breath, condensing on my cold, transparent cheeks. (Can he see my cheekbones through the flesh? Can he tell how close my heart is to rupturing with love or terror, I do not know which?)
His lips are so close to mine that my tongue can feel the heat of his throat. And how should I respond? Do I dare to eat a peach? Should I clack his teeth against my own?
But the tightness of his palms around mine makes me writhe with horror to be free, and I burst from his grasp like a berserking borg unchained. "What did Mother say?" I cry. "What passed in that room? What did you do?"
I flee behind a column in a rush of white and gray, a little subterranean moth. If only my eyes did not reflect the light so well, but I must stay within sight of the man to learn anything. Something is not right, I fear.
"Did they let you know nothing here?" he gasps at me. "That you could go up again whenever? Have you never been touched?"
He paces in circles and kicks at a cybernetic hand crawling the floor alone. "What a strange world, this," he muses.
I only crouch behind my stone in answer.
"Up-top, no tyranny. Equal all, without a king or queen. How can you live with this?"
My eyes are so wide I'm sure he can see my foveas pulse.
"You beautiful creatures," he snorts disdainfully. "We are free up-top. We do what we like. No disease, no restraint. All science."
"I am not 'us,' am I?"
He stills himself a bit at that, rubbing a long-fingered hand across his lightly stubbled chin.
"No," he says.
I run. Through the pillars of dead earth and gates, quickly into the outgrounds of the palace complex. At first I don't know where I'm going, but then I have it, and my feet scarcely disturb a pebble as I flutter to the crevasse.
You might not see such a crevasse in the dark, even with eyes as luminous and large as mine. Sometimes you have to sense it, as though you had feelers on the sides of your head, caressing the air. You could slip through such a thing as easily as a pinhead Angel could slip through the eye of a needle and into the Above.
He has followed. I assumed he would, for his legs are a good third longer than mine at least, his muscles more robust. We reach the crevasse at nearly the same time, and he reaches out a lanky arm, catching hold of my sleeve and wrapping it around his fingers in a death-grasp.
A proper death-grasp.
I spin as he comes at me, unbalancing him so that his shoes skid on the water-smoothed surface. His mouth upends into a last look of startled ferocity before he flies off the edge entirely, my wispy little sleeve ripping at his wrist. He hangs suspended a moment, frozen with cave-cold and shock.
Then down he goes.
I do not wait, but turn instead upon my heel and go back home.
* * *
I am not sure that Mother will ever wake up. I do not think she wants to. She drools upon her pillow with a constant expression of hate and responds to nothing. I feed her with a cloth dipped in nutritional fluid.
Father is little more than a tree among the stalagmites. No Titania comes to rest at his hideous side.
Which means, I suppose, that I am queen now. Queen of these realms beneath, these frigid places where no one feels and everyone dies.
But I have my books, my mutables, myself.
I walk upon the subterranean plains, barren woman on a barren plot, until I come upon that head that spoke to me so long ago. There is unfinished business I must attend to.
I set the borg head aflame and finally let it die.
Its parting words are, "Thank you."