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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chapter 8 - Siti Underground

Honor glanced back down the length of the hall.  No windows.  Graffiti on the walls.  The stink of urine overlaid by the stink of old.  Only one of the wall sconces worked, and even that light flickered like Morse code.
“Only one person lives on this floor,” said Alia as she ran her hands along the crumbling crevices of the brick wall.  “His name is Raga.  He’s kind of like a gatekeeper.”
“Where is he?  How come he isn’t…keeping the gate?”
“He’s here.  He has eyes all over this building.  It’s pretty amazing, really.  He’s probably watching us this moment.”  Alia’s fingers stopped on a single brick.  She tapped it with the nail of her middle finger and listened.  Then she tapped the brick next to it.  Hollow.  She pushed and the brick slid back with an electronic click and a narrow portal opened.  “He can probably tell you how many breaths you’ve taken.”  Alia waved Honor through.

Once the portal sealed behind them, they waited on the landing until their eyes adjusted to the darkness.  A stairwell spiraled down in front of them.  “This’ll take us to the underground.”  Alia placed a hand on the railing and stepped down into darkness.  Honor followed.  “Sinistral is a city on top of a city.  The Scientists don’t seem to believe in recycling.  Sure, they refurbished many of the old buildings, the ones they thought were worthy.  They re-laid almost all of the roads, at least the ones in their areas.”  She looked back up at Honor who could see only her green eyes glint in the pitch.  “They left us to rot.  We live in the same city and have to follow the same laws, even though they enforce the laws much more stringently with us, the Believers.  But we get none of the revitalization funding, no education funding, no police protection.  What we get is ignored, unless we have something that they want, or we’ve done something they don’t approve of, which is just about everything.”
“What do we have that they want?”  Honor asked this knowing the answers already.
“Really?”  Alia’s voice echoed.  They were getting deep.  “Well, they wanted us dead, yeah?  They gave us Segher, under the pretense of friendship and peace.  They gave us a paradise, right?”
“A poisoned paradise.”
“You got that right.”
The air grew humid and sour.
“Well, you asked what they want.  Right now, they want to claim procession of their mistakes.  People like you.”
“Me.”
“Yeah.  You were never meant to be.”
“I am here, therefore I was meant to be.”
“What I mean is that the Scientists meant for all of us to die a cruel death.  Instead we became something the Scientists never imagined.”
“What did we become?”  Honor wanted to hear someone else name it.
Alia’s laugh parted the darkness like a blade.  “Monsters.  Mutants.  Freaks.  What would you call it?”
Honor was silent.  Who could argue with those characterizations?  She’d thought the same thing.
“They built over an around the old sewer,” said Alia as she stepped down onto the bottom landing.  The air was much warmer here, the stink thicker.  In the darkness, Honor was able to make out a door about three yards in front of them, dim yellow light seeping in through the joints.
Alia pushed the door outward.  The door was constructed of heavy metal and it scraped against the concrete loudly.  A woman dressed in a gray jumpsuit stood by the door.  Alia raised her sleeve exposing the pale flesh of her forearm.  The woman waved a wand over Alia’s arm and a faint purple symbol lit up.  The woman nodded then looked at Honor.  “She’s alright,” said Alia, “she’s with me.”  Then they passed.
Honor looked around at the people they passed and the tents that stretched into the dank gloom of the old sewer seemingly without end.  Dim lights had been placed above, every few yards.  Some people stood outside of their tents to advertise food or services or second-hand clothing for sale.  Children played in front of some of the tents, their faces pale, their eyes vacant and oblivious.  There were men and women, like the woman they met at the entry point, dressed in stiff gray nylon, at the junctions between criss-crossing tunnels.  They carried electro-compliance weapons on one hip and portable vid-phones on the other.  “They are the underground guards, they make sure that no one breaks the rules, that no one fights or steals.”  When Honor did not respond to this, Alia added, “Believe it or not we have less crime down here than the Scientists have above ground.” 
“How many people live down here?”  Honor wondered if Soroton had an underground city too.
Alia shrugged her shoulders.  “Hard to say.  Most of the people come down here because life above ground is too hard.  Work is impossible to get.  Food is too expensive.  And belief, well there is no official law, but…”
“Yeah, I know,” said Honor.
They passed an old women dressed in rags.  “Food please.  Can you spare a bite,” she said.  Alia paused long enough to dig a coconut flavored protein morsel from her pocket and passed it to the old woman.
“But what could be harder than living in this stinking place, no sunlight on your face, like a cock roach?” asked Honor.
“At least here, you don’t have to live a double life, right?  Pretending to favor the Scientist way of life just to be able to afford to live in one of their slums.  I mean unless you’re part of the Order, you have no chance of living a decent life here in Sinistral.”
They walked for several minutes without turning at any of the junctions.  The farther they walked the fewer the tents, the fewer people they saw.
“So where are we going?  Malak said something about the Gardens.”  Honor glanced at their surroundings, stained gray concrete with rusting metal jags sticking out where the concrete had worn away.  Sparse depressing lighting that to Honor, did more to complete the gloom than dissipate it.  “I mean, this doesn’t exactly look like a garden, and the way we are going, it won’t soon be one either.”
Alia smiled.  “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a safe place above ground, in the heart of Quick Quarters.  That’s one of the richest Scientist inhabited districts in this city.”  She turned to face Honor.  “Only Believers live in the Garden.  It’s an exciting place.”
Honor shrugged.  “I’ll take your word for it.  How long before we get there?”
“We have a stop to make first.  I’m taking you to see Siti.  She’s the wisdom of the Believers here in Sinistral, above or below ground.”  Alia glanced over at Honor.  “You must still be hungry, huh?”
With the excitement of running from the authorities, Honor had forgotten her hunger, had forgotten her anger.  “Thanks to you,” she said with little malice. 
“Sorry.  I think I can fix that.”
They reached the end of the tent city at a junction in the sewage pipes.  The tunnel to the left ended within five yards.  It was blocked to the ceiling with debris and garbage.  They had no choice but to go right.  A tent larger than any of the others that Honor had seen sat in the center of this junction.  Alia called out.  “You there, Siti?” 
A sonorous voice answered from within, “What do you want?”  A flap in the tent parted and a tall woman thin as the wind came into view.
“Something to eat.  My friend here,” Alia looked back at Honor, “is pretty hungry.”
Siti’s gaze lingered on Honor.  “I’ve got some dried meat, some bread maybe a couple of days old.  Dried apple and pear.”  Siti shrugged her shoulders.  “I’ve even got some herbs.  I can make a nice hot tea.  I can put a little sugar in it too.”  Gazing even more intently at Honor, she asked, “Can you offer a little something for my hospitality?”
“What kind of meat?” asked Honor.  Her hunger was coming back to life.
“Forest pigeon.”
“Then I have money.”  These days anyone could get protein rations.  Real meat was hard to come by.  Fresh meat was even more difficult.  The Scientists didn’t eat pigeon or any of other forest fowl, thinking it poor fare and beneath them.  The Believers did, when they could.  Midlings were strict about who they let into their wooded territory.
Siti smiled, her mouth full of bright straight teeth.  She stepped aside and held back the flap of her tent.
“Come in.  Take off your shoes.”  As Honor passed she noticed that Siti’s eyes were mismatched; one the color of honey, the other like sun-streaked amber.  The effect was such that Siti seemed to exist in two separate moments at the same time, as if she could see and understand even that which was beyond their vision.
The tent was even larger than it seemed from the outside.  The floor was covered with a threadbare oriental rug and there were cushions piled at the perimeter against the walls of the tent.  A small low table sat in the center of the room.  To the left, a low gas stove burned creating a wall of heat that demarcated this room from the rest of the stinking sewer.  The fragrant lavender smoke of musk incense swirled around the room creating a forced calm. 
“Sit.”  Siti waved them further inward. 
They removed their shoes and sat against the right wall of cushions.
Siti squatted in from of them, her knees prominent beneath the brown linen of her loose shift.  “I got the message from Malak that you two were coming hours ago.  I was about to contact one of my boys, to send him looking for the two of you.”
Alia leaned back on her cushion and pulled her knees up under her chin.  “The Authority.”
“I see.”
“We had to hide in a gutter drain and wait for them to give up the search.”
“I’m glad that you made it.”  She looked at Honor.  “Malak told me that you are important to us.”
“Who is us?”
“The Believers.”  Siti said this as if it should have been obvious.
“I can’t see why.  I’m not here in Sinistral to work for the Believers or anyone else.  I’ve only come to find some answers to---“
“---your past?  You want to find out who you are.  Why you are.”  Siti extended her hand and placed it on Honor’s shoulder.  “Am I right?”
Honor nodded.
“I know.  Soon enough, everything will become clear.”
Honor leaned forward.  Questions rose faster than she was able to order them in her mind.  She didn’t know which question to ask first.  How did this woman know what she was after?  What did she know about her?
Siti shook her head, smiling at Honor’s obvious confusion.  “First we will eat and rest.  Then we will talk.”  Siti retrieved two copper plates from a wood trunk at the very back of the tent and placed them on the small table.  She poured each of them a cup of rose tea and urged them to drink. 
Honor watched as Siti removed a small ragged stone from her pocket.  She dropped it into an oblong clay pot that sat smoking on the stove.  This immediately began to emit a blue smoke and a sweet and spicy scent much like ginger.  Siti turned to them and said, “The food will be ready shortly.”  Siti busied herself with the preparations.  Honor sipped her tea and leaned back against the pillows, crossed her legs at the ankles.  She inhaled the sweet smoke and soon she felt a calm wash over her.  Through heavy lids and fluttering lashes Honor saw that Alia was leaning back against the pillows too, eyes closed and limbs slack.
Siti’s voice reached Honor as if from a distance.  “Submit to the smoke.  Come with me.”

2 comments:

  1. I read this when you first posted it, but wanted to make more time to read it again before commenting. I'm fascinated by the underground city concept. You can do a lot with it, both literal and metaphorical. Alia seems to be turning out okay, too. I hope it's for real. My first impression was that she was like an alley cat, out for herself first and foremost.

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  2. glad you left the note on the 3ww prompt... otherwise i might have not read this... ok i'm hooked... love the story...

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