Down, down through metal and dirt. Back to our tunnel-homes, the veritable labyrinth that twisted and dropped for miles beneath Lisburl, the city that stood still. Back to the stench, the darkness, the thin air.
Home, but not for much longer.
We ran like rats. We had to. Poppers were closing in, a dozen at least, all on foot, their binary-guns loud but thankfully on the fritz. Some screamed as they slipped in the black, the loose dirt wild, and other poppers impaled themselves on the glass-encrusted stakes we hid prior to going above. Only the rough-footed, us, knew where to step, and we moved in hurried grace.
I kept Alina directly in front of me, and Coldpig and his two cousins took the lead. We each clutched a plastic jug of gasoline, and the gas swished back and forth with the violence of a sea-storm. Too much noise to hear the music we were making, but it was there, like big band swing, thumping in my chest. Some of it spilled out on my hands and shirt.
Curiosity got me. I looked back up the tunnel. Poppers ruined the honey-glow of true twilight, the stretch of sky, and continued shouting and switching guns and lobbing things at us. Low ceilings and dim lighting kept us safe.
“Keep going,” I urged Alina.
“Sometimes,” I said, and that got me a glance, a finger-thin smile. She needed to eat more. We all did, but not even the tunnel’s dimness could hide Alina’s raddled, hollow-cheeked face. It was hard not to fall into the deep holes of her eyes, let along the one leading home. The flying machine was almost ready, almost fueled and tightened and Coldpig-approved to make sure it could actually fly. Gasoline was the last ingredient. Then we’d make for elsewhere, and spend the days in the sun eating grapes, the nights in a bedroom with bowls of mint ice cream and the radio set to jazz, windows with window-light, never having to guess the time ever again.
Ahead, the tunnel narrowed tremendously. A hatch was close. Didn’t matter which one; they all led underground. I shifted my position and felt a rush of air zip by my ear. One of Coldpig’s cousins — the cynical one — roared in pain as his shoulder exploded in a wet mess. Popper got him. Blood and flesh-bits in my eyes, mouth. The boy dropped, groaning. Had to keep moving, though. The poppers were desperate now, using unguided bullets, firing wild.
There was no time to grab his jug. Coldpig rushed to the hatch and punched in its entry code. The door slid open as slow as possible. We plunged through, Alina, Coldpig, his other cousin, and then me, bullets pinging all around, the dirt overhead coming loose and slumping, and then we locked the poppers out. Reinforced steel, heaven-sent. On the other side, poppers called us every name they knew: dinkheads, idiots, traitors, and worse.
Coldpig looked at me, his face wet, his lips trembling. Alina didn’t look any better, covered in filth.
“Want me to set off the quake?” I asked. The words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about them. It really should have been Coldpig; his cousin was forfeit. But no one responded, just sat hunched up, holding their jug of gasoline to their chests like pillows. Stretching, I pressed my thumbprint against the sensor over Alina’s head and, with a broken hiss and shake-shake, made the poppers in the tunnel eat dirt.
The city was no longer a city, no longer affluent. It stood surrounded by mountains, short and ruined, with holes in its fattest buildings and a second skin of rubble on the streets. Some of that was our fault, some of it the Split’s. Overhead, monsoon clouds lingered like starving birds, and the smell of people was gone, of cars, of the day-to-day: only slaughterhouse reek, smoke.
This is what we told people when we returned, every time.
I gave up trying to talk to Coldpig. He didn’t want to hear about gasoline and distance ratios and probabilities. He just sat in his bedroom, concentrating grimly on his feet. The loss of his cousin left him bitter and spacey. His other cousin swore us off for good. Fine, so long as he handed over his gasoline. Four jugs would be enough.
Inevitably, everyone underground would feel the earthquake from earlier. Our halls and tunnel-homes were built to handle them, systemically built below shake range, but we were only supposed to set the ground rolling under extreme conditions; I assumed being shot at counted. No one knew which shake would cave us in.
We had no choice. Three months, a little more. Nicking this and that from above and scampering away like rodents. No one outside our little hud could know.
At best, the flying machine could carry two, maybe three people.
If you ate, you ate at Emma’s Canteen. It was full of noise, as usual, and the line for food snaked between plastic tables and chairs and was filled with sour-faced men and women. The operation was kind of like a soup kitchen, but with stolen food. Some dinkheads argued in the corner about bad cigarette deals while dishes clattered and pre-recorded radios fought for attention.
I spotted Alina, grabbed a tin tray, and got in line behind her, touching her neck slightly. No reaction.
“We’re almost out,” I said. “Four out of five jugs should be enough to clear the mountains. Maybe even hit water. Well, hopefully not.”
Ignoring me, Alina took a slice of old bread and a spoonful of cold rice gruel and made for one of the corner tables. I grabbed my fill and followed.
“Coldpig’s a bit out of it at the moment, and his other cousin flaked,” I said, sitting down across from her, “but you and me can still do this. I direct, you steer. Just like the old days. Like when you flew jet fighters in the seventies for GHP, right?”
Alina hunched lower in her seat and hesitated to look at me.
“Just joking, darling,” I said. More unease. “I’ll snap Coldpig back into place. We’ll make plans for later in the week.”
She smiled deprecatingly and picked at her bread. A dying rat ate with more passion.
“Are you mad at me?” I asked Alina.
“No. Don’t be stupid.”
I hesitated. “Then what? I thought you’d be excited. It’s happening, Al. We’re gonna get out of here, for real this time. Not like before. No…backing out. I promise.”
Eyebrows drawn together, Alina frowned and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Excited? We almost died today, Ollie. Someone did. Just had to floss bits of flesh out of my teeth. Thought you’d know to leave me alone right now.”
At that, we both went silent. It’s not that I’d forgotten her brother stayed aboveground when the Split came or that he most likely became a popper…it’s just that in my mind he was now the Enemy. Another bullet-backer to avoid. But to Alina, he was still her brother, the brother that had taken her downtown every Friday of every summer week for pizza, the same brother that gave her nightmares now. I might’ve buried him today; he might’ve died a long time ago.
“Sorry,” I said after too much silence. “If you don’t want to — ”
“Please go.” The bitterness in Alina’s voice hurt. “I’m not mad at you…just please. Go.”
I leaned over to kiss her goodbye, but she blocked me with a cup of black coffee. I struggled not to say anything. Every cycle down here just made her more withdrawn, inverted. But she’d be fine. Once over the mountains, I told myself as I left her with the food she wouldn’t finish, she’d be fine. We both would be.
When I first met Coldpig a couple years ago, he was in line for food, three spots ahead of me, arguing with some dinkhead. Someone had cut into a city farm above and chased out two pigs, right down into our dirty hole. Now we had bacon and ham and bacon on ham and ham wrapped in bacon; just not enough for everybody. Fights broke out, plates were snatched.
Coldpig got involved, tried to keep the Canteen from rioting. It didn’t work. I blame the intoxicating smell of cooked animal, a rarity underground. The line broke, and hands grabbed ham and ran, devouring on the way out. Coldpig moved in front of the table of chafing dishes, hunching his shoulders. Two desperate, wild-eyed men charged, but Coldpig refused to move, grabbing both by the necks and slamming them into each other. They dropped, broken. He grinned hard.
I did what I could, which was some shouting, impassive pushing, and not much else. “Lover, not a light heavyweight,” I always told Al. Besides, after Coldpig’s two-man-takedown, no one else tried rushing the buffet table. By the time Emma’s Canteen had cleared out and the injured were taken away for healing and reprimanding, there were only scraps left of the two pigs, stone-cold and all on the floor; Coldpig went around with his plate, scooped every scrap up, and ate them quietly in the corner, silhouetted, but smiling.
“You deserve more,” I told him from a safe distance.
I never learned his real name.
Three days crawled by, then five. A week finally passed, and best we could tell everything above had quieted down. Hole-and-corner reports said that our last hit-and-run had gone relatively unnoticed. Mostly because every popper chasing us that day died with a mouthful of dirt, but also because looting was just a way of life nowadays. Things got stolen, people died, and the Split stayed.
Above and below both had protection, though: poppers had their guns, and we had earthquakes. The technologic specifics were lost on me, but everyone that came below got fingerprinted and keyed into the system. At first, many wanted to shake all of Lisburl into rubble, but they’d forgotten that it wasn’t just poppers aboveground. Family and lost friends, strangers, kids and dogs. Eventually we seemed to collectively forget we had this power, making every subsequent thaumaturgic shake-shake all the more curious.
I hoped to never make one again.
Unfortunately, our flying machine was in pieces. Always had been. There was barely room down here to breathe. In order to get it aboveground, we’d each have to carry a chunk of it in our backpacks, along with the gas jugs, and then assemble out in the open. We’d have to be fast though, quiet; some poppers never slept.
Die trying or die hiding. No one found this funny the first time I said it so I stopped saying it out loud. There was a certain honesty in it, though, and I couldn’t help thinking about my father as we climbed upwards, back to the sky. Died during the Split, a book on his belly, a drive in his preternaturally till eyes. He would’ve appreciated the saying. Maybe even chuckled.
Up, up through metal and dirt. Coldpig carried his turn-tail cousin’s pack, as well as his own, and no one talked to each other.
We used a tunnel unchanged by last week’s earthquake, a mile or more west. It inclined slowly and opened to a small, desolate field on the edge of the city’s borders, a cluster of rocks keeping it hidden. Emerged to morning darkness, nothing we weren’t used to by now. All around us, scrub and hardpan, and clots of skeleton trees watched as we unloaded our gear.
I scouted the area while Alina and Coldpig did their thing. Heading towards the city, I hoped to get a better lay of the land. All I saw was windblown debris and broken buildings silhouetted against the mountains. They looked amazing, like teeth. Eerie silence fought excitement.
Moving on, I saw that there’d been a railway here once. Bits of track showed through, rusty, hubristic, as if they could still bring people in, take souls away. If the Split hadn’t split and broken every bridge and rail for miles, we could’ve left a long time ago. Like normal people, with luggage and a destination. Departing time.
I stood and stared at the straw-colored land around me, the pollution in the sky. Nothing to miss.
And then movement caught my attention. Just small things, dabbles of black and shadows, all of them creeping along low in the field, coming closer and closer. Rats or maybe something larger; some troop of dogs. But they were too organized to be Split animals, and before I could tilt my head and squint they opened fire.
“Poppers!” I shouted, dropping down behind a boulder. Binary-bullets flew overhead or snaked around the boulder, desperately trying to find me. Alina and Coldpig had to hear the gunfire.
Shuffling back in a half-crawl, half-run, I found the flying machine…mostly put together. It looked like an homage to the helicopters of old, but with tweaks. A skeleton frame, rotor blades, a turboshaft engine, and seats, most of which were not in place yet. I didn’t understand what did what, didn’t need to. My role was to direct; Al to fly; Coldpig to build, protect.
“What are you doing? Hurry!”
“Shh,” Alina hissed back.
“If we hurry,” Coldpig said through his teeth, “it won’t fly much. Or far.”
“Poppers, four or five of them. Probably more.” I glanced over my shoulder. Couldn’t locate them, listened for pops. Nothing was moving. “We really gotta go.”
“Yeah, heard you. Four, five. Doesn’t matter.” As he stood up, Coldpig took out a binary-pistol tucked into his boot. It looked clean. Up-all-night clean. “Let them come. So I can lead them away — for Ben. Al, you finish up.” He fixed his eyes on me. “You help her get this birdcage airborne or I’ll come back, do it myself, get us in the air, and then kick you out. Don’t fail now.”
“Wait, no — ”
Coldpig ran off, maybe directly towards the poppers, shouting the names of his dead friends and cousin and something else I couldn’t make out. I hunkered down next to Alina, handing her tubing and something metal with screws sticking out of it. “Um, what can I do?”
She was crying. Tousled and shaking. I’d never wanted to hold her more. “Um, I don’t know…don’t know. Just tighten everything already in place. And hand me that. Don’t let me get shot either.”
“Right.” I worked with her to get the flying machine air-ready. It was a game of mirroring what she did and monkeying my way through the rest. I prayed several times, not that prayers worked post-Split. Then we filled the tank to the brim, using three of the four gas jugs and tossing the other under the back bench with our packs. No big ceremony or speech, no bottle-breaking, just a look to the left, a look to the right, and a look skyward.
Alina got in first, pilot-side, and I hopped in next to her.
Overhead, the flying machine’s blades spun faster and faster until it finally happened: we lifted, up and above the dead trees. The framework ached from vibrations, and at one point we dipped so suddenly I had to grab the back of Alina’s seat to not fall out. Unable to see where exactly the poppers were, we flew away from the city. There’d been little gunfire while we worked, just a short spat and then stillness. But Coldpig was dead, we knew this, and I felt a twist of pain in my chest for him. He’d have called me a dinkhead for that, but the man had done more for our escape than any of us.
Dawn erased darkness, and the sky blossomed with a wash of pinks and purples as the sun crept into view. Despite the warm colors, we sat still, shivering. The cold cut through skin to bone. I hooked around Alina’s waist, for warmth and love, and for once, she didn’t fight it. The towering mountains were riveted in one spot where rock ran down to the loess of the slopes, and I pointed Alina towards it.
“It’s beautiful,” she shouted. The wind and blades made a lot of noise. “So beautiful.”
“It is.” I smiled. “So are you.”
“What?” She couldn’t hear me. Sunrise colors enveloped her, and I couldn’t stop myself from staring, her face aglow, her eyes ahead. Already she looked healthier. She steered fiercely, the wind building. I doubted we had enough gas to get over all the mountains, and I worried we’d find anything better than what we were leaving, that our jazz- and grape-infested elsewhere was literally far from home, but here, up here in the open sky with her — I was fine. For each other, we both tried to hide our clattering teeth, the shakes, to keep strong.
“Die trying or die hiding!” I shouted into Alina’s ear, grabbing a sweater from my pack for her and glancing once more at the destroyed ground below. This time, she laughed.
|Paul Abbamondi is a quiet, beardy man not afraid to use puns. Currently, he edits market research reports during the day and draws comics and writes speculative fiction into the night. He lives in New Jersey, where he likes to drink flavored coffee, play board games, and take way too many pictures of his cats. His fiction has appeared in previous issues of Kaleidotrope, as well as Shimmer, Apex Magazine, and Farrago’s Wainscot, among other publications.|