Uploaded: October 12, 2008
Genre: Science Fiction
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He picks his way from the warrens and into chilled, perpetual daytime mists. The remainder of night's dank cloy beads on the tempered concrete and metal of Entrance Portal 248. Clouds boil overhead: all of the sky that anyone ever sees. To think of the sky is to imagine only clouds—the eternal, churning blanket that splatters rain (or mist or sleeting snow) across the face of the world. The Factories and the Elders keep it that way.
It is the way of the world. . . .
...for your protection...
...for your own good...
—and for more complex reasons, all unknown, except to the Elders in their citadel, the Elders with their Books of Reason and their fat, dry lives in the Upper Warren Reach, where daylight filters down through fiber-optic lines, and where the wealth of City's workers keep Elder bellies full and content.
There is only one world.
There is only one City.
Pavlyk lives in Sub-3 Cluster. Down where the smelting plants and mine shafts hunker into wells of endless darkness. Those yawning, Stygian reaches will become dwellings once City's population grows beyond the tolerance of today's cramped warrens. The air is clogged with the stink of industry of mining, and of too many humans in too enclosed a space. Now, in the pall of chilly fogs and sneeze-splatters of rain, Pavlyk drives his hands into the depths of his pockets, thankful for surface-scent. He is thankful—as well—for the chill.
He feels a tickle in his nose.
He sneezes. Once. Twice. The third sneeze is forestalled by an inhaled breath through his mouth.
There are molds in the entrance portal: whole black colonies of the stuff have spread across the light globes, strung the length of the down-sloping corridor. The light is bad for them, but the warmth and the perpetual damp are what fuel their growth; these molds—at least a half-dozen breeds—are a comfort to Pavlyk. They are proof that the world is more than City, that the Elders and their dogmas are far behind (and below) him now. The molds are a mutation: an anthrophilic species brought with the first colonists to touch the face of this world. In the four hundred years of human habitation, the molds have migrated from the niches in shoes and between toes, to the broad, damp surfaces of concrete and plasti-steel.
Pavlyk takes careful steps forward, skirting puddles alive with opalescent smears like oil-scum: another breed of mold as tenacious as the black, fuzzy stuff, as invasive.
As is common on days like this, Pavlyk feels as if a yawning gulf has opened somewhere beneath him: a stinking, wet mouth devoid of teeth. He feels it behind his dreams and is (more often than not) driven awake with shakes and sweat that dries to rime on his face, his neck, his chest and his arms. Today's sweat has long dried, has long been washed into the reclamation cisterns down on Sub-4. But something of the dream remains: a whispered half-presence that slithers behind his conscious thoughts, sometimes throwing disturbing images in reverse-strobe focus through each blink of the eye.
Now, as his breath puffs into flimsy clouds of vapor, he ambles from the entrance portal and takes the rain-slick stairs to surface proper. It is a long walk, but he doesn't care. He can lose himself in counting steps, in letting his thoughts anchor on the plasti-steel rails and supports that mark the sloping maw of the entrance portal. The more contemplative of City's citizens call this walking meditation.
Pavlyk doesn't know whether to think of it as custom or necessity.
Graffiti marks the walls in a riotous, youthful scrawl, and as Pavlyk makes his ascent, he reads slogans and declarations of angst/love/rebellion in various qualities of common script. He reads names, tagged in apparent rush, and tries to associate them with faces seen once (or twice) in passing down below.
Someone has woven the words: ŇĔT ĐŪŚA into a meandering braid between rants and rambles of pure existential obscurity.
Ňĕt đūśa, Pavlyk thinks. No soul.
As the phrase echoes through the muddled, switch-back convolution of his conscious thoughts, he walks onward. He climbs.
The river Gambriën winds just a kilometer to the west.
It is Pavlyk's intention to spend the day there, to banish the dream he's endured from his head.
If luck smiles today, he may catch a bolotnii for delivery to the Elders and the hollow rewards that they commonly bestow for such creatures and their oh-so-valued ink. The rewards mean nothing, but there are times when an Elder's smile and gestures of benediction make an illusory difference. There are times when differences—no matter how flimsy and prosaic—are necessary.
* * *
Éáś and Merēs are on factory shift today, and so it is Iako (alone) who finds Pavlyk on the riverbank, peeling a bladder fruit with his teeth and spitting the lumpy, orange-mottled rind into the turgid and cold water. Brambles clot the bank in irregular knots of black, light-hungry growth and the healthiest of them trail vines into the water. At the head end of each vine, clusters of orange fruit, bob in the cold/swirling water.
As is common, Iako wears baggy, black trousers and a black jacket, closed over a turtle-neck shirt as dark as charcoal. He wears militia-cut boots with Medusa-head buckles at each ankle. He doesn't run in the social crowd—as commonly as he might—with Éáś and Merēs, and that (among other reasons) makes it easy for Pavlyk to accept his presence.
Pavlyk notices his approach and nods indifferent greeting in his direction before falling back to the task of peeling tough fruit with his teeth.
Iako takes one step...two...and then three steps closer, then perches on the boulder beside Pavlyk. His boots keep perfect traction, even on the moist/slippery stone, and he stoops, gargoyle-like, with elbows on his knees and hands clasped before him.
He smells of cinnamon moss and distilled spirits...raw spirits, not consumed and bleeding, half-metabolized through his pores. Pavlyk doesn't want to think of what petit betrayals the distilled stink announces to anyone who may read contraband with their nostrils.
“Something's wrong,” Iako says, quietly, and after a long pause.
“Mēdē saw you leaving Sub-3. She says you looked like a ghost.”
“Mēdē sees the wrong thing at least twice a day, and on top of that, she talks too much.” And dangerously so, Pavlyk reasons.
“She worries about you.”
She doesn't like it when I hang around you. He doesn't say as much, but the words are there, hanging in unspoken, crystalline suspension, and even as the thought of them flares in Pavlyk's mind, he blushes with embarrassment at the impassive calm embedded in Iako's knowing expression.
“She's your warden, Pavlyk...it's her job to worry.”
Iako is always so gentle, so understanding. And there are times—now being one of them—when Pavlyk wants to drive him to some rebellious violence: against the wardens, against the Elders, against guys like Éáś and Merēs, and anyone else who fits so easily and unthinkingly within City.
He wants to spit fire and curses.
He spits fruit-rind instead. Juice dribbles down his wrist.
“The bolotnii are upriver today,” Iako says, his dark gaze settled on a clotted, swirl of river-mist.
“I don't care.”
“You're not here to collect merits from the Elders...?”
“I'm here because I like the river.” The words taste like a lie, but Pavlyk can think of no amendment to shift their timbre.
“I'm here”—Iako says— “because I like the sky, and I hope, every day, to see some part of it not hidden by clouds.”
But the sky was visible once—on the day you came screaming from your mother's belly. Isn't it enough to be marked by that?
Again, Pavlyk holds his silence, but the words—like living things less shy than the one-eyed bolotnii—hang like mist between Pavlyk and the solid, warm presence of Iako at his side.
Pavlyk peels the last of the rind from the bladder-fruit and spits the skin into the river. A dribble of nectar streaks his chin and he wipes it away with his sleeve. With no bolotnii to coax forth, he keeps the fruit for himself, nipping at the succulent interior pulp.
“Have you been dreaming much?” Iako asks.
“No more than normal,” Pavlyk answers.
“I dream as well; and each time, I come to the same conclusion when my eyes pop open and I see the dull-drab interior of my room.”
Pavlyk knows where this is heading, knows what Iako is poised to say. He cocks his head to one side, throwing a sidelong glance in Iako's direction. “And,” he begins. “What conclusion is that?”
Iako smiles and an impish gleam lights in the near-obsidian depths of his gaze. His nut-dark features light with a wry half-smirk as he reaches for the nectar-dripping fruit in Pavlyk's clasp. He takes it, nips a bite from the sticky pulp, then leans forward to kiss the succulent, sweet glob into Pavlyk's mouth.
For a moment, there is only fruit, and the warm, welcome presence of Iako's tongue at play with Pavlyk's own, and—all too quickly—Iako withdraws.
“Thirty lashes if we're ever caught at this,” Pavlyk says, the taste of Iako's amatory contraband like electricity leeching into the blood of his tongue.
“Thirty lashes I'd gladly take.”
Silence from Pavlyk.
Iako draws a prolonged breath, his gaze fixed on some point mid-river. After a moment, he glances upward, as if scrying some obscure sign in the featureless smear of cloud-blanket above.
Pavlyk follows his gaze, and slips into a wordless recall of last night's dream of the gray room and the stone walls, dripping with mold and condensation. He can hear Elders and wardens in other rooms. Their words are indistinct, but they draw a chill down the bone-knotted length of his spine. He shivers and distracts himself with another bite of fruit.
“The sky was ours, once,” Iako says quietly. “We deserve to have it back.”
Silence from Pavlyk.
“I know how, but it'll be far more than thirty lashes if we're caught at it.”
“The sky?” Pavlyk asks. “Above the clouds?”
Iako nods. “Yes...I know how to see it. I'm going to see it soon, and I'd like to show you too.”
“How?” And unasked: Why?
Iako draws a shallow breath and touches the side of Pavlyk's face. “Meet me at midnight. Sub-5, Factory 19. It's abandoned and blocked off, but you can get there from behind the bio-reactors in Work-Sector 7. I'll have the answer to your question there.”
--And yes, it's another piece of science fiction, crafted in the wee hours of the night. As always, thank you for reading and commenting, and hopefully you enjoy this foray into yet another universe that won't leave me alone until it's finished. Oh, and just so you'll know...there are a couple of names in this that might seem vaguely familiar, if you stretch it a bit, and as a fiction writer, I have to stress that any similarities between actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise is strictly coincidental...