Here are the first few chapters of “The Tube”, and a quick synopsis in case you’d like to know what you’re about to get yourself into:
Sidney lives in a network of underground railways, a world, where the ground above has been sealed off and the knowledge of what happened to the old society has been lost. Sidney is just as curious about what happened to the “old world” as anyone else, but there is only speculation, no real information as to why the residents of the Tube are forbidden to seek the ground above, so she hasn’t really put much thought into it.
She has lived her whole life on one station she calls home, and hasn’t seen much else, but one day she gets a chance to train to be the second operator in a freight train. Under the wing of Billy, first operator in charge, she travels between stations delivering various goods and sees for the first time many places she’s only heard of.
On a routine run they find one of the biggest freight trains in the Tube abandoned by its two operators, who seem to have disappeared in a sealed tunnel, and that is when the mystery of how the Tube came to be and what exactly happened above the ground starts to unravel, sending Sidney into a quest to seek answers she never thought possible to find.
Approaching the light at the end
“Cham… You still there…?” A restrained voice echoed in a pitch black tunnel, where it insisted on bouncing off the walls saturated with moisture. It spread across the funnel-like space like small droplets of water do, when they hit a mirror perfect surface of a lake, disturbing the calm of it. Nuria could hardly hear her own voice, let alone the noises her companion would be making, if she had still been following her.
All she had been detecting for the past minute was the hissing sounds of oxygen leaking into the tunnel at random intervals and drops of water hitting puddles on the ground. It seemed to be further and further down under the two figures in an attempt to reach the top landing platform of an escalator, which they had been ascending slowly.
“Yeah…I’m almost right… behind you… Just keep… climbing and shut up… We have to… stay silent…I think…You’re almost there.” The echoes of Chamuelle’s response grew thinner and thinner as Nuria kept crawling up the steps of an escalator cradled in exhausting darkness. Chamuelle’s blind faith in finding the source of light, which resided near the entrance to the old world, at least according to rumors and too many tales for anyone’s taste, had become Nuria’s main nutrition for her lessening strength.
If only they reached it, it would be the end of their taunting climb and the never-ending debate over what was left above the crust. But little would people residing in the Tube learn of it, they would have to make the same climb for themselves to satisfy the unease of not knowing. Nuria doubted she and Cham would be descending down the same steps anytime soon after reaching the end. They had both known it would be a no going back – mission and they had decided together that there would be no more hiding under, it would be over tonight.
The escalator, which Nuria was leaning on, felt corroded under her shaky fingers leaving rusty residue on them. It had probably been left untouched by any lifeform besides hungry microbes eating on its exterior layers, being encouraged by oxygen and water that had been leaking into the tunnel over decades. From where, they did not know, they were well out of the region, where any air or water purified by the machines in the Tube would be led into… But Chamuelle and Nuria had been hopeful with their speculations while they had stood in front of the silent and ascending steps ahead of them over an hour ago.
And now the same steps were letting out painfully loud shrieks under the weight of the two of them the closer they were having their question answered. “Nuria…Keep…” was all she could make out from under the noises that proceeded from Chamuelle collapsing onto the jagged aluminum ridges of the steps. Nuria felt an overwhelming pressure growing under her chest from a sudden rush of emotions and blood racing through her body as she tried to feel her way back down to the spot, where Chamuelle would be.
She hurried downwards using her hands and feet as her eyes, tearing the cloth around her knees, and finally feeling her skin being ripped open beside her left thigh, where she kept her three small blades tied close to her body. Her bloody knees and thigh were shooting signals back to her brain pleading Nuria to stop and wipe the rust and blood off from the second layer of her skin, but she only came to a stop, when her foot kicked something that felt soft and limp.
“Cham…” She let out, turning around and slamming herself down only to hit her tailbone painfully to the sharp metal edge. Nuria crawled closer to Chamuelle while trying to trace her arms in search of her head and trying to push aside a growing panic that was carving a hole inside her heart with a fast pace. “Nu…Go… something…here….” she wheezed out and everything fell silent.
Something here? Nuria pressed her ear against Chamuelle’s thin and cracked lips that stayed open now, she didn’t feel a warm breath coming out from her lungs that she had got used to over the years they had spent together. She slid her two fingers from her chin onto her neck that was still warm and prayed for a pulse, which had already disappeared well ahead of Nuria’s intentions of bringing it back. She prepared herself to pound the life back into her lifelong companion, when she discovered a warm thick substance oozing out of her chest. Nuria’s fingertips were trembling uncontrollably as she brought them back to her own lips in disbelief. Blood.
The gaps between the drops of water reaching the ground had grown from seconds to what seemed like minutes, even the air around her that had been becoming increasingly warm and humid closer to the surface, was too cold to breathe in anymore. She couldn’t hear or sense anything out of the extraordinary near her and yet there Cham was on the metal, inanimate.
Nuria forced herself to stay still, she crouched close to the step she was on and kept in the pathetic cries and excruciatingly painful screams she wanted to let loose for everyone to know that She was dead. Fear was keeping her put and Chamuelle’s voice was telling her to get up and start running unafraid towards the hint of what looked like a beam of light high above her.
Just like Chamuelle had asked Nuria to come along with her more than two days ago, when she had stopped the train they were travelling in, and had stepped onto the train tracks with a fierce look in her eyes stating something Nuria had always known, but been too cowardly to admit to: “We’re already dead, waiting for our bodies to die too.”
That was when she had found out about Chamuelle getting a hold of a piece of paper that looked like it had been a part of the old blueprints of the Tube. All of its tracks and stations that had been abandoned after the new ones had been mined and constructed under the old ones further underground to keep everyone safe from whatever was above the crust. Somehow she had found that one page that mattered in finding a way out. It had fired up her already existing thirst for getting out of the Tube and now she knew exactly, where the few entrances were to the old subway system closer to the Entrance.
Chamuelle had become obsessed with the enigma of what was above and what had been above with having the print, but even more so, why the Tube had come to be. What made it even more curious was the fact that the information on the paper had been printed on it with machines instead of being written there by hand. Everything in the Tube was handwritten, they didn’t have printing machines.
Chamuelle had not been alone in her need for having her unease relieved from the burden of living under the shadow of ignorance. Nuria had learned there standing on the tracks staring at Cham’s sad face that she had even been a part of a group racing to solve the puzzle, which ate away the residents of the Tube with its mere existence.
Her compulsion had grown to the extent that when they had been journeying through the tunnels on their train, one of the biggest ones in the Tube, delivering items from station to station, she had started making stops in the middle of the tracks between stations. Chamuelle would step outside with a little light, stare at the tunnel’s walls and go back and forth along the tracks trying to find anything that looked like a sealed opening or a door that might lead to the older tunnels.
When she had done it the last time Nuria had braced herself to face yet another mad search for freedom that made Cham suffer for not being able to find any traces of it. But this time she had walked with determination in her steps as if she had known exactly where to go. And Nuria had followed with no further questions after having heard Chamuelle’s final plead for Nuria to join her, abandoning the train that had been a home for them for more than twelve years, being the junior operator of it after her loved one.
Nuria stared at the light beam with her head tilted slightly upwards, it was static, consistent. It didn’t flicker like all the other lights did in the Tube. She let her fingers slide through Chamuelle’s hair one more time and painted a word on her forehead with the blood that had now stopped coming out from her chest. “Don’t worry. Now we both will be free.” She whispered to her lips closing Chamuelle’s eyes and opening her own.
Nuria squeezed her lips tightly together and fixed her eyes to her final destination. She took one last notice of the silence and stillness of the air around her, and then she felt her heart pump out blood filled with adrenaline to her extremities. Grabbing firmly one of the blades tied to her left thigh and closing her fist tightly around it, she got up as if fire had been burning her to blisters. She sprinted towards the source of light taking two steps at a time now without worrying about the corrosion or the unsecured footholds she had to rely on. All she cared about was reaching the top before whatever took Cham would take her too.
The escalator did not let out small shrieks anymore; it was screaming out as if it had been a living being in a pain that was intolerable. Nuria ran in leaps and jumps towards the last steps holding on to the railings on each side of the escalator. She was almost there.
An ear-splitting squeal. She felt another rush of adrenaline circling in the veins inside her brain telling her to turn her head and re-direct her attention to a figure behind her, which was approaching at a blistering speed and making sharp sounds with its throat. Nuria pulled herself up onto the platform with both of her hands on the railings, dropping the blade she had held onto. She ran faster than she had ever run before to a bright hallway paved with smutty tile flooring.
The thumping behind her was getting louder and more pronounced. Despite the lack of air in her lungs and muscles she only saw the door ahead of her a few feet away, which had an enormous wheel to it. Nuria had less than a short moment to make a choice between turning around and facing what was after her to fight it, and possibly dying without ever stepping outside the Tube. She had no hardship anymore deciding against her first option, which would have seemed more than logical a few short days ago to anyone living in the tunnels.
Her hands hastily felt their way onto firm holds and violently forced the wheel to a spin, which seemed to be out of control until it stopped suddenly and became as if frozen in time again. The metal door of the Tube was open, now all she had to do was pull it apart from its cement frame. What was outside might be even worse from what was inside ran through her head alongside with images of her home for 34 years. And then there was the sensation of Cham lying dead and a memory of her vibrant smile. Now we both will be free.
Nuria reached out for the wheel with her both hands. She was using her legs against the cement frame as an extra source of strength, crying and screaming out for an invisible god to help her. But there was no one able to reach her anymore within this world now that Chamuelle had already passed on to another place. Better or not, she would see for herself very soon, she thought.
Everything seemed to be happening at the same instant. A bright light as if being filtered through a perfectly cut crystal producing every color of the spectrum was emanating from the gap that was forming between the door and the frame. It had merely begun emerging with the artificial yellow light coming from the lamps attached to the ceiling of the hallway, when Nuria suddenly felt a thin blade penetrate her upper spine from behind. The blade twisted, slashing her spinal cords vertically, and then it was pulled out from inside her neck as she stepped out from the Tube to a world above the crust as the first person in a very long time.
Nuria had prayed she would have seen visions of God or of heavens described by so many writers from the old world, when she took her first and last breath of the air that had not been processed and recycled by machines. But instead the image of what had been waiting for her was burnt to the retina of her eyes now dead and disconnected, unable to convert light into anything visual. The last thing she knew was that she had left the Tube, lifting the black veil of an enigma, something Chamuelle had longed for, before her body was dragged back inside and the door to the Tube was closed once again.
“…My little baby… my little baby… Don’t you cry…Your mama’s gone…”
“My little baby…Don’t you cry…She’d come back… she swore…”
Click-clack… Click-clack… “Sidney!”
“My little baby…my little…”
”Sidney!!” Click- clack… “…Baby…Don’t you…”
“SIDNEY, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!! WAKE UP ALREADY!”
“Billy… Damn it! Almost had it! Almost fell asleep this time!” Sidney cried out with a tint of desperation and frustration in her voice as she slowly got up with a grimace on her face, half of it covered by white hair barely reaching her shoulders. She was crouching over her thighs with her sharp elbows digging into them, right above her knees. They were protected by pads made out of material hard enough to prevent most things from breaking the bone inside. She reluctantly started her waking up routine by rubbing her eyelids with her grungy fingers, which had all kinds of dirt under the fingernails. All cracked and grey as usual.
Sidney stared at the floor trying to make out the outlines of the tiny square tiles on the orange floor mat, forcing her eyes to focus whenever her fingertips reached her temples and swept her hair out of the way. This time the tiles were melting into each other and overlapping as if they had been doubling right under her eyes. She couldn’t find the will to make the blurriness of her vision to go away. “Billy, you little fucker.” Sidney gasped out lazily and closed her eyes again.
It had been almost 20 hours since the last time she had gotten a decent nap; continuous sleep was a commodity she had been granted a few times over the four months, hazards of the trade. It was a fulltime job trying to find a comfortable spot on the benches that went around the walls of the passenger car of the train she was in. In some spots there were seats missing leaving room only for one person to sleep at a time.
That was the practical reason why Sidney took turns with Billy staying awake. The logical reason was that someone had to make sure the train’s speed wouldn’t accelerate to anything faster than 60 miles an hour or they would surely find themselves in a steaming pile of metal. The load they were pulling was heavy enough for the train to derail at the slightest curves of the underground tunnel they were steering their cargo through.
There were seven cars linked to each other. The first one being the driver’s car and the second one being the passenger car, where Sidney and Billy spent most of their time arguing over semantics; there wasn’t a lot of entertainment to be found once you boarded the compact 10 feet by 67 feet steel beast. The five remaining cars had been converted into heavy duty freights holding goods inside them, which made sure that life would continue to be sustained in the Tube, the underground railway system that was sealed off from whatever was left above and what thousands of people now called home.
“Hey! Little one!” A six foot three tall mountain of a man grabbed onto a leather handlebar tangling from a steel pipe going across the car they were in. “We’re almost there… Don’t make me kick you in the baby maker and you know I will, if you don’t get your ass up. Preferably NOW.” Sidney tilted her head up just enough to stare at Billy, he was now leaping forward towards her trying to balance his movements with the train’s at the same time.
She gave him half a grin smothered by her hands leaning on her cheeks, which were reserving a substantial amount of heat. Their generator was running out of battery and they had decided to cut the ac instead of the lights. They were close enough to reach the next station anyway before the temperature would climb up to over 100 degrees and turn their train into an oversized steamer.
Being buried underground had its advantages over living above the crust, when it came to pure energy policies. The Tube had an up and running facility Conti drilling boreholes further into the lithosphere to where water would be pumped down with high pressure. The water would go to areas with high temperature heat reserved in rocks and travel between the fractures inside them, gathering all of the heat until it would go back up as extremely hot water. Conti converted this water into electricity in its steam turbines and then injected it back into the boreholes to heat up again; it was a never ending loop.
Facility workers had been overloaded with work in search of more heat zones as the current one they were utilizing had been cooling down over time because of the water being pumped up continuously. It had dropped steadily over years and had less and less capacity to be utilized. Conti could have used the old wells, but the estimates of their recovery had been overly positive. Instead of 45 years it would take another 10 years on top of it for the heat zone to recover to its natural temperature.
Much of the energy generated was directed towards in vitro – growing facilities and greenhouses that had sprung to the close approximates of the biggest drilling facility built within the Tube. And Conti in return was built near the fifth station after the population and its electricity needs had surpassed the station’s energy generating abilities, and that’s where Sidney and Billy were heading to now. Seeing other faces besides each other’s was what kept Sidney and Billy from killing one another while the other was asleep, when the steel walls around them seemed to be all they had in common.
The last four months had been Sidney’s most eventful ones, she had never left her home station Levi before she stumbled upon this job that provided a connection between the countless stations chained together on a railway system that no one really knew a whole lot about. It gave her some kind of freedom, which was a luxury the rest of the residents in the Tube didn’t have everyday, so sometimes she felt grateful for it out of guilt.
“Fine.” Sidney said as she got up hastily from her substitute of a real bed. But she hadn’t taken into account one of the infamous curves, which the railway tunnel made, and before she could jump for the nearest leather handle she was already an inch short of making the jump. She didn’t care much for the first layer of her skin on her palms being peeled off, when she touched down on the once bright orange, now fading, plastic tile floor, but the stabbing pain penetrating her stomach under her naval made her let out a cry.
The bullet belt she had been wearing had shifted while she had been lying down; it was around her waist instead of her hips. It didn’t only sometimes keep her gray pants in place, but it also provided ammo, whenever she needed to shoot at someone or something. Sometimes to kill and sometimes to warn, before she would have to kill.
“Kid, what did I tell you, when you first got here?” Billy asked exhausted. Sidney was trying not to look at his typical how many times do I have to tell you – expression while she rolled on her back to see, if the skin had broken on her stomach too.
She found his eyes, this time her head tilted back: “…Always make sure your balance is secured before moving.” She said slowly, gaining her breath again.
“I guess I got away with a scratch this time.” She pointed out in a jolly no worries in the world tone as she pulled her shirt back down, grinning at her victory over the curve’s attempt to take her down. At least inside her head filled with upgraded stories on what had really happened to keep herself entertained. “How many times now?” He wasn’t asking anymore. He was attempting to make a statement.
“I’m not sure, let me see.” Sidney turned around to get up, and Billy held out his hand hidden by a glove with the tips chopped off to pull her up. She took the offer despite knowing there would be a stinging sensation once the leather touched her second layer of skin, where the nerve-ends would be screaming in shock. “Hurts?” Billy raised an eyebrow at the sight of seeing her frown. “What do you think moron, wasn’t exactly the fusion of rain and light in the sky making a pretty rainbow, when I landed.” His employee replied with the sarcasm he had grown so accustomed to by now.
‘Well, wouldn’t think I would’ve seen the day, when you’re showing emotion at pain.” He said with a smirk, and felt like he had no option but to mention out loud another footnote right out of his mental scribblings: “And what do you know about rainbows, you’ve never seen natural light, let alone the sky.”
Sidney wobbled closer to a wall, which was next to a doorway that led into the driver’s cabin, pulling the handle along with her, which she was hanging onto. She lowered her upper body to level her eyes with small white scratches that interfered with the mustard colored paint on the doorway’s frame. “That would be seventeen.” She said, “Plus one” she mumbled again, scraping more paint off, and then looked back at her boss over her shoulder.
“… And counting.” There was an adequate amount of disbelief in Billy’s voice, and a tad of satisfaction to make Sidney think Billy would be reminding her of it regulargy. “Told you those pads would come in handy, didn’t I? Am I good or what?” Billy smiled, and let go of the soft leather strip that formed a loop the passengers could rely on, steadying their steps safely enough not to fall with their first step, if not with their second. He was holding on to the steel trail along the ceiling itself now instead, resting his jaw on his arm.
Sidney let herself glance at his jaw for a few seconds, imagining how easily it would break with a well aimed hit. “Yeah, so good you must have a lot of personal experience with that.” Nice Sid, she congratulated herself again for another bull’s eye seeing shatters of bone fly across the space. Billy had become too easy within the past few days. Maybe it was the hotness of the train slowing down his usually quick wits. The lights were starting to flicker more too with their generator giving in.
“Touché, she can aim, I knew I kept your ass on board for a reason. You’re not too shabby with entertainment.” He started walking towards her again and stopped right in front of her. Sidney pulled herself back up relying on a piece of weary leather to keep her standing that was too soft for her own good. She didn’t let herself blink, when Billy softly grabbed her chin between his thumb and index finger, whispering to her lips gently: “Now, get your butt back to the cabin, or I will get you by the back of your neck and throw you there myself.”
Sidney let out the air lingering in her lungs and sighed with relief, letting a crooked smile escape: “Billy, god damn. For a while there I thought you were gonna kiss me or something.” Her boss let out a roar of laughter, patted his personal stand-up comedienne on her cheek, and shot back the standard reply, which he had relied on for some years now for a lot of situations: “Ahh…kiddo, you’re too funny.”
“And when are you gonna let go of that kid act? You’re only four years older for crying out loud, Bil.” There was a loud screech and they both looked through the filthy window at the trails ahead of them. It made Billy regain his official seniority mannerism again: “We’ll be arriving soon, Sidney. This is the first time you’ll be seeing Helsin. That’s my home station, nothing like your little Levi, where I picked you up four months ago. Never go anywhere without your gun, and hold onto your navigator, we’ll be staying there a while. And if you’re planning on wandering outside District Two… or One for that matter, you need to let me know first cuz… I ain’t going after you, looking for your behind, when you don’t show up anymore. It’s wild out there.” He seemed serious, though she could never be too sure with him.
Sidney turned away from Billy, who was still looking through the window, talking to someone on the radio now and receiving information on their arrival procedures. It was always a big deal for the goody train to arrive, even if it wasn’t the heaviest loaded one like their short little metal monster.
There were always armed guards making sure that not too many vultures or parasites would be stealing from their anticipated load. Whether it was letters waiting to be read by relatives or friends, medicine to block the pain of the sick before they died. Or even more importantly, food items that would go bad if not distributed according to coupons that were handed out to each resident by District Supervisors.
“Hey… Billy… Can I go with you this time?” Sidney asked quietly, but he hadn’t heard her. He was receiving another incoming call from one of the stations at Helsin, this time giving out instructions on the lane they would be taking. After a very long minute he stood up to his full height, and looked at her with a wide content smile on his face. He seemed excited to be back there: “Alright Sid, here we go, I present you with… Helsin.”
At first Sidney couldn’t see anything from the flickering lights inside the cabin and she squinted her eyes; she thought she had spotted a straight line of platform lights in the distance near something that could be almost like a horizon. “Billy, for such a huge station you’ve described it to be, I can’t see shit.” She blurted out anticipating him to tell her, where to look for his precious birthplace. “Hold on, develop some patience, or at least pretend you have some.” Billy replied and reached out for a switch on a board, which looked like it had been the objective of a missile to destroy everything in sight.
The darkness inside the cabin overwhelmed her once he hit the switch that his fingers had been searching for in a rush. He didn’t want her to miss out on the view that was opening up before them, like those flowers did at dawn in a book full of pictures he had once seen. But that had been a long time ago and he doubted he would ever see pictures like that in his lifetime.
Billy looked at Sidney, she was leaning closer to the window, trying to recognize anything that looked like a familiar shape in the darkness, but there were neon-colored patterns floating in her eye sight everywhere in the tiny driver’s car after the lights going out. When they finally started slowly fading and unblocking her view, she began seeing.
There was an oval shaped form of dim yellow far in the northwest, which violently interfered the blackness of the otherwise cave-like space that Sidney had locked her eyes onto now. The clearer and crispier the sources of light became, the more convinced she was that Helsin was not only one big station, but it was a whole spider web of them that had been weaved together frantically over the years.
Their little train shot out of the claustrophobically dark tube the subway system was built into, it was rushing forward on train tracks that had been lifted onto bridges above and around Helsin, circling it in corkscrews. There were so many of them going around the humangous space that it looked like the whole structure would collapse with one good push from a devious on-looker, witnessing the heavy-looking trains find their assigned districts and lanes. They were all descending on the train tracks far too fast for it to be a safe speed and for Sidney to be able to count them all; she reached fourteen trains before giving up.
“Which zone were we going to again?” She could barely extrovert herself while recovering from the lightshow she was taking in from a panoramic bird view while the train moved closer to its destination, District Two’s platforms. She had never seen so many sources of light at the same time giving out so many shades and hues that were intertwining with each other, forming lines and different patterns only to be discovered from above.
“They assigned platform eleven to us at District Two, but don’t bother memorizing that. We will be leaving from platform three in two days at District One’s station, ok?” Billy didn’t seem to be bothered with explaining the directions any further… He was probably already concentrating all his thoughts on the sleepless 48 hours ahead of him, and the boisterous entertainment they accommodated at Helsin.
She had heard all the rumors so many times back at home from old Milli, who had supposedly provided her comfort to people like Sidney and Billy at this rugged capital of the Tube. But this time she would be seeing it all for herself. And she was planning on acquiring all the experiences she needed to, to make one ordinary night extraordinary back at her little Levi two months from now, the first stop of their delivery route. Sidney would be telling her tales with enthusiasm to old Milli.
Milli had told her that back in the day almost 45 years ago, when she had only been nineteen, one year younger than Sidney, Helsin had already become the bustling and annoyingly noisy meeting place of everyone, who had the misfortune of being alive in a place like the Tube. It was the bigger center of two distribution stations, where a couple of dozen assigned distribution officers carefully calculated the daily needs of each resident depending on their sex, weight and height, from their daily calorie needs to their clothing.
Sometimes deviations from these calculations happened while supplies were given out to the residents by a hand of an officer, who felt sorry for the poor bastards fighting over scraps. Those officers rarely had a second chance of repeating what they had done, disappearing in the system shortly after getting caught.
Every six months there would be a battalion of trains arriving to these two centers handing in the materials they had collected from communities, which produced the goods the residents were in need of. During this one week Helsin was filled with people operating these trains, and within that one week they would all be gone on their way to smaller stations, where people were already most likely starving in wait of a train to relieve their hunger pains.
Of course, under the nosey eyes of the District Supervisors, who had the exhausting task of making sure no one exceeded their assigned quota, there was a healthy black market. Fifty years ago it had been a few people with extra items to share, and now it was a network of a growing clan of dealers with whom anything could be traded if the price was right, and which changed with every buyer. There was only one rule among them: The more innocent eyes the person had, the higher the price tag.
It was a given that the Supervisors would be locating the times and places, when deals took place and they would barge in, confiscating the goods and freezing the validity of the coupons the parties of the deal had received, and that had not been redeemed yet. The Supervisors usually would forget to hand out two months’ worth of coupons to the violators. It was highly advised that the encounter between the buyer and the dealer would take no longer than a few minutes for this particular reason.
The consequences of being caught possessing items exceeding one’s quota were quite grave enough to have no need for further rules or laws in the Tube concerning a whole lot of anything else; having one’s coupons invalidated equaled having been put to a death row, except that you were free to go anywhere you wished. Mostly to find a spot to starve and die at.
The black market had become the norm for maintaining a healthy BMI and a level of sanity. A lot of information flowed free to be exchanged as well. Most of the time the immaterial goods were rumors tailored to suit the desperate buyer’s needs, making it a gamble trying to differentiate the rumors from facts, when wanting to know what was really going on in their underground society. Books and any papers with printed writing on them were the highest ticket items due to their rarity and the inability of having the capacity to properly reproduce them.
As a direct result, residents born in the Tube were not learning how to read or write anymore, but how to hide guns and knives and how to handle them. Having the skills of building weapons had become the exclusive job one could strive for, and street wisdom and surviving the Tube had become the highest form of education one could receive. Living to the ripe old age of 50 was like graduating college and Milli was considered to have acquired a PhD in that garden of knowledge.
“So… What’s beyond District One and Two?” Sidney asked with a slight smirk, suggesting complete disregard towards Billy’s announcement of having no intentions of bailing her out in case she decided to wander out there. She was occupying her mind with Milli and her version of Helsin, which was tickling her curiosity more and more the closer they were to the snake’s nest. “You do realize I meant what I said earlier?” Billy replied with more force in his voice the second time around. He was hoping, if not the sincerity, then maybe the tone would prevent certain situations from happening in near future.
“Yeah well I’ve lived here ever since I was born too… So fess up.” She only reaffirmed Billy’s suspicions with the flick of her hair and a playful shrug of her right shoulder. “…Things you need to know nothing about.” He was starting to have regrets of saying anything at all about going over to places he had never been too fond of. He now knew he had only flared up her unnatural curiosity for things that were not considered to be high up on anyone’s list, who wished to continue their crusade on the healthier side of general existence.
Sidney decided to ignore another cynical remark of Billy’s and remain silent for the rest of the thinning amount of minutes, which they would be sharing together in this steel cage of a home that they were trying to kid themselves into thinking it was. Instead, there was a bright memory rising up to the surface above her racing thoughts; Milli’s paper-thin pale skin and hair. Sidney had always thought her hair must have been the closest thing to seeing a star emanate light. It was the brightest white she knew and she wished her own would have the same chance to grow as long as Milli’s… But you never knew what would be waiting around the next corner in the Tube.
Milli was the dearest person to her, like a parent one would say, but Sidney didn’t know a lot about mothers or fathers so she never phrased it like that. All she knew was that she gave her the best do’s and don’ts and had given her from whatever little she had had, when Sidney had been growing up. A good person gives even if they have nothing at all. A bad person nothing out of everything they have. Without Milli living up to her guideline, Sidney would have died in the early stages of her life too, like most gutter children, who had not shared her luck of meeting a person like Milli.
That’s what they had started calling them a long time ago, young homeless kids and teens with no faces or names of relevance, when the lifeless and withered bodies of those children, bloated stomachs and visible ribcages, had become a common sight in the gutters all around the Tube. Gutters had been one of the few places, where they were left alone by onlookers passing by. Telling them to get out of anywhere they went and where they would fade away out of existence with an approving nod from their fellow society.
Sidney, I have told you of everything I’ve learnt along the way. I’m sure you forgot most of it, but something tells me you will remember later on with your own experiences. There had been a tint of sentiment quivering in Milli’s words that early morning four months ago, when they had been waiting for Billy’s train to arrive at Levi’s single lane together.
Both of them had been nervous. Milli was sending Sidney to be chased by lions and wolves knowing she would try to make friends with them, before realizing they had claws with sharp nails. Sidney because Levi was all she had known, and now she would learn to know of everything else. Even finding out about the task ahead of her weeks in advance left her feeling unprepared for the job.
“You must listen to Billy carefully. I wouldn’t let go of you, if I didn’t know that he was a good person. I used to help him too from time to time just like you, but I didn’t shelter him as much as I did with you. I didn’t do you a good service like that, and that is why you now have to watch and learn from what he does, and how he interacts with people. He has a certain way.” Her advice only made her more anxious of seeing this Billy she seemed to hold in high regards. Sidney didn’t want to be kicked out of the train and end her adventure prematurely, not only disappointing herself, but Milli as well.
She had been the one, who had talked to Billy about a girl wanting to work hard in exchange of seeing more of the community they were living in, when she had heard he had lost an operator on his train at Uru, the second biggest station in the Tube. The guy had made a bad deal at the black market, and he had ended up exchanging his life to an impatient dealer, who had been too apt to pull out a knife, when the deal had gone cold.
Milli had convinced Billy of Sidney’s good nature and learning abilities, but warned him of her good will and hunger for adventure. She had also made sure he wouldn’t be taking any chances with her knowing Billy’s weakness for the finer looking corals in the ocean in his otherwise mature nature.
“There’s one more thing my dear. There will be times, when you will be hoping for the time to slow down during late hours of night, and for it to never reach the moment, when you have to board the train again…” Milli had taken a brief pause, before continuing. “On this journey that you’re embarking on, you will leave behind a lot of things and people you’ve met. But my girl, remember this, time can never be bribed and sometimes you will not know, when the day of reunion will come again, so be grateful for what you had and never forget.” She had turned her head away from Sidney to take a moment to herself, still holding Sidney’s hand in hers reassuring that she would still be there, when she would come back months from now.
Sidney didn’t know, if it had been her own sadness she had detected reflecting from what Milli had said firmly, or if it had been Milli’s natural melancholy filtering her words. To her it hadn’t really mattered. Sidney had memorized everything she had said as if her fate had been tied to it.
Soon enough the screeching brakes of the train Billy was operating had directed her attention to a crooked hole in the wall, the entrance of the railway tunnel, anxiously waiting to see what she would be calling her home from now on. “Milli…Is he…” But she didn’t have the chance of finishing the sentence, when Milli already completed it with her answer: “Don’t worry; you will soon see for yourself that everything I told you about him is very close to the truth.”
Sidney felt like there was something stuck in her throat and airways that was not letting any air out, when she saw him through the windshield of the cabin he was in, giving a smile to Milli that people give to an old friend. Every now and then he curiously glanced at Sidney, who must have looked like a scared bird in the headlights. He seemed like a person, who took keeping his nutrition and physique in check seriously enough.
That was what she wanted to assume from seeing his arms partly hidden by his tainted white t-shirt and the outlines of the rest of his body. He was wearing a pair of light-brown pants with side pockets just like Sidney. Except that hers weren’t bursting with screws, nails and wires or other tools that might come in handy, when they were kept close to the owner’s hands.
The second thing they had in common was the most popular accessory in the Tube: A bullet belt. And in Billy’s case three seemed to be the magic number, two around his waist and one on his chest. Sidney had never felt the need to carry more than one with her. But then again, she thought, Levi was the furthest station from the bigger centers and it took a lot for someone with mischief and trouble in their mind to drift all the way here. She hadn’t fired her shotgun at a living thing more than four times during her upbringing at Levi.
In addition to her gun she carried two sleek daggers, which were similar to a fencing sword with the exception that they were only two-third of a foot long. They had discrete handles with her initials on them, carved into a vine circling the dagger’s blade all the way down to its glass thin and sharp tip. Majority of the residents preferred carrying one short and wider knife instead, which had become very fashionable besides belts too, for it was easier to handle than her daggers. But her daggers had been her mother’s before her, and so sentimentality didn’t let her let go of them.
The train had come to a complete stop by the time Sidney was done with observing her new boss for the first time. She had imagined him to have the light golden brown hair he had growing out and sweeping the loafs of his ears, not many operators had the opportunity of having it shaved off or cut short while they were on service. Sidney might have found herself slightly attracted, if she had not been paralyzed by the assessment ahead of her. Milli had taken care of the job interview in her own way, but she was sure he wouldn’t let her on board without taking a good look at her first.
Billy slammed the door to the driver’s cabin’s open and leaped the stairs down onto the platform, where he proceeded to walk over to Milli’s open arms with a smile going from cheek to cheek. “Good to see you’ve been well, Milli.” He said with acceptance and radiance in his voice. Billy took a step back after receiving one of her hugs, and held her fragile elbows with care in the palm of his hands. Sidney was smiling to herself. She knew what it felt like to be held by her. It was a place of comfort. Like a new day dawning, when the world seemed to be only one match away from being set on fire.
“Alright my boy, I’m too old to be standing for too long. I need to head home before my heart fails or my legs give in.” She had always had a way of making things happen with only a few simple words. “Ahh…Milli, what am I supposed to do with you and your morbidness?” He was laughing, but Sidney could not help but wonder what would happen after her departure from Levi. “So… This is Sidney? I suppose I have no choice but to assign your first task then… It’s an easy one though.” Billy had turned to face Sidney and he was now inspecting her from head to toe with both of his hands in his back pockets.
“Nice meeting you too and what do you need me to do first?” She held out her hand to point out they had not yet been introduced formally enough for her. “This one is sharp, Mil.” He seemed quite amused, but grabbed Sidney’s held out hand and turned it around to see her palm, leaning over to her other side to do the same thing with the hand that was resting against her thigh. Milli looked at him with a whole lot of understanding in her expression. “Yes, but better get used to it, you know very well she grew up with me by her side.”
Billy was tracing the lines on Sidney’s palms with his thumbs and swept them across her fingers too. “They’re very soft, but don’t worry… They’ll get used to hard work.” Sidney pulled her hands back to see for herself what he was accusing her of. “That’s ok kid. Everyone starts out at some point. See the first freight there?” He pointed at the train with his right hand. “There are eleven bags there, why don’t you unload them onto the platform and I’ll help you out with the last four. And wear these, don’t burn the skin off of your hands.” He gave her a pair of similar fingerless gloves that he was wearing. To Sidney he looked a little bit concerned.
She glanced at him as she pulled out her gloves tucked inside her pants against the small of her back: “Mine are already broken in, but thanks for the spare.” She took the pair and placed the gloves, where hers had been. Sidney gave a hesitant smile to Billy before going over to the first freight, and opened the hatches with a firm grip that kept the bags from falling onto the tracks.
It was not the first time she had been loading or unloading freights that arrived at her little home station. She had been doing it for the past year every now and then, when the position was reopened due to an unfortunate accident. The platform worker had slipped and fallen into the pit, where the train tracks were hiding. Or that’s what they said. Sometimes the slipping and falling happened by free will. That was how most jobs became available again, through people passing away, which happened frequently. The remains were burnt at Torio, a crematory, from where they were taken to different locations to be recycled in different growing facilities.
Billy was watching Sidney disappear inside the freight and appear again after a minute or two. She was going back and forth the train and Levi’s storage rooms, a bag tucked under her arm or balancing one on her shoulder. “She looks a little scrawny, Milli.” He had hues of curiosity and concern intertwined in his question. She sighed at the question, which had aroused her eyes to glisten. “I raised her too well Billy, always gets full very fast with very little food, but only when I’m around to share the meal, it’s not her fault…”
“I see… Sidney! Just leave the rest to me, I told you I’d help you out with the last ones. Why don’t you say your goodbyes to Milli here. You’re hired kid.” He stood up from the bench he and the tiny old woman had sat on, bending over to take Sidney’s light bag, half empty and collapsed on the ground. “Keep up the work though, there are more kids out there, who need you.” He flung the bag over his shoulder swiftly and gave Milli one more kiss on the cheek. “I wish there was no need for it.” Milli whispered as she stared into the distance. “Don’t we all…” Billy gave a glance at her keeping his voice out of Sidney’s reach.
The image of Billy carrying her bag, and talking to Milli quickly faded away as her boss’ voice broke the long silence in the cabin that had shielded Sidney from her escapade down the memory lane: “What’s going on Sid? You’re awfully quiet.”
“Not much. Just… thinking.” She distanced herself from having any warm feelings at all towards what had been before, and she tried to see more of what was ahead of her, but her vision had become clouded with trains on lanes beside them. Sidney stared at the dirt hills with small shacks surrounding the tracks that were formed like small groups of bags on a platform after an arrival of a train. They had descended all the way down to the bottom of the most spacious cave in the Tube.
She could tell by the rust and dust, and sometimes dried mud on the metal walls of the tiny houses everywhere, that they were occupied by regular people instead of facility workers or officers, who usually resided in bigger buildings made out of finer materials like stone. She was also expecting to see a whole lot more of big stone houses here in Helsin than any other station she had been to so far. She was not expecting to be let into one yet though. Only the senior operators of trains in use had the permission to mingle with people within the circle of more privileges that had once been everybody’s right in the old world. Or at least that’s how she imagined it.
Soft thumps of their train traveling closer to the main platform had become scarcer as it was slowing down in speed. “What is it?” Billy reacted to Sidney’s apparent question on her confused face. Her eyebrows absent of color were drawn together and rolls of skin had formed on her pale forehead: “Why did they give us the main platform at District Two? We’re not the biggest train here… Why would they do that?” When Billy remained silent, Sidney asked something she had been wondering ever since the last station, where they had stopped to pick up more cargo: “What are we carrying on our train Billy?” Sidney’s voice was reminiscent of his mother’s, who had interrogated him with a vast sea of questions, when he had been younger and late for the handout of coupons once at District One’s market avenue. That day they had gone home without knowledge of how to find supplies for the next week.
“Sid… you know well I don’t have the answers to that. We’re not allowed to know what we’re carrying. That’s the one they gave us and that’s the one we’re going to take.” He cut Sidney’s attempt to voice yet another piece of her mind with more intensity replacing the frustration of his tone: “But remember, there’s no playing around. When they say you need to do something, you do it, ok? They don’t believe in discussing your options here.” She swallowed her last words, it felt that instead of a breath of fresh oxygen, a breath of fear had attached itself to the hemoglobin of her red blood cells, and it was now circling ferociously inside her body to infiltrate her heart with its troops.
The gentle rocking movement under Sidney’s feet had come to a stop without her even noticing it. There was only one sensation occupying her awareness. The loud rhythmic marching sounds of running guards approaching their little train with arms that gave out the atmosphere of having been designed to wipe out any form of resistance. She had got used to seeing a few armed guards taking care of the unloading of freights before, but not a whole squad of them. “Billy… What the hell is on this train?” She asked one more time with a demand of knowing.
He spared a moment before saying anything, briefly descending his eyes on to the orange floor with his eyelashes sweeping hesitation off of them with a few blinks, when he looked ahead again. “I’m not sure, but if I’m right…” He quieted out his own voice, when he saw one of the squad members stop in front of the door leading to their cabin. “Just relax and it will be fine.” He said quickly with a voice barely audible. The squad leader was signaling the rest of them to move forward alongside the cars with his arm raised. And then he turned to look at Billy and Sidney, pointing his gun at them.
“As long as you keep your hands, where I can see ‘em, you’ll be on my good side of people.” A voice came from outside, filtered by the window separating the weapon of his choice from two people racing their thoughts to a finish line, where the outcome would be colored most likely the hues of red. The man armed from head to toes swiftly opened the door with brisk moves, and then looked quickly around the cabin that now felt as if it had shrunk within seconds to a small closet.
“You were given a small box to deliver to the chief Supervisor of District Two, where is it?” The leader of the squad did not bother hiding the urgency of his demand, signaling the importance of this box that had been laying around casually in the cabin as if it were nothing else but a rusty little safe with nothing in it. “It’s right by your feet…” Billy considered not continuing his answer as he watched the man pick it up, open and close it just as hastily, but decided to do so anyway in despite of angering the loaded meatloaf in front of him: ”I were given instructions to deliver it to him personally.” He was hoping for him to get his drift.
“You will. My instructions were to deliver you to him personally.” Billy couldn’t help but note down the mocking tone of the meatloaf’s voice. Sidney gasped at the thought. She didn’t want to be left alone amongst the death squad that was unloading big black bags out of the freights. If she had known what body bags looked like, she would have thought she was looking right at them.
“The girl will take the train to District One, platform eleven. She will leave once we are done here. You are to embark exactly in 48 hours to station Holm.” Billy stared at the talking piece of meat, unsure of how to react to someone else but his dispatcher dictating the next hours of his life to him.
“Sidney… You know how to do this. After everything’s unloaded and the train is where it’s supposed to be, you’re free to go wherever you like… Just keep in mind what I told you… If you need me, you know, where I always stay at.” He gave her a stern look of authority that was telling her not to do anything that a resident of the Tube wishing to live on for another day wouldn’t do, and then he disappeared with the squad leader to the busy platform, leaving Sidney feeling like a stranded baby bird that had fallen out of her nest, yet again.
Navigator… Her thoughts were racing as frantically as she was around the cars she had access to. She was collecting her few items together in her bag that was filling slowly. She felt the worn out fabric in her hands and decided she would have to replace it now that she finally had a chance to do that.
Sidney heard soft footsteps across the little car and stopped in her tracks to see, if Billy had forgotten something, but the slight uplift in her spirits vanished as fast as it had appeared, when she saw a stranger peering through the doorframe. “We’re done now. You may leave as soon as you’re ready.” She had expected to hear another unfriendly voice, but this one was pleasant enough to take as almost friendly. “Thanks…” She replied slowly, anticipating the thug to leave. Surveying her defensive body language, he broke into a smile and continued: “You know… We’re not all crooks.” And the thug left her with a wave and disappeared out of sight.
Sidney felt a rush of blood roseying up her cheeks with shame for having such prejudice against him, she hadn’t even noticed her right hand slipping onto her blade tangling from her hip, and she grabbed her bag in frustration with the same hand and walked over to the control board in the cabin. She flipped a switch and ripped the microphone off its holder to her lips. The cracking sounds were soon interrupted by her own voice: “This is 496 requesting permission to leave for District One.”
There were more cracking and popping in the airwaves, Billy should really have the transmitter looked at, before they would leave for Holm. She had heard nothing but complaints from people trying to have anything fixed by Holm’s mechanics. She was convinced they had been able to keep in touch with live beings between stations by sheer mercy of good luck so far. A faint answer put a stop to Sidney’s hammering of Billy’s inactivity of fixing the radio: “District Two’s dispatch copies, you are free to take off. Enjoy your stay.”
The scrawny girl placed the microphone dangling in her hands to its proper place, and went over the order of different switches and buttons that needed to be touched by the grace of her fingers. After a minute or two the train started to move hesitantly backwards. She had only done this once before and she hoped for a smooth outcome, backing up a train to another location was not a routine trick she was used to, but how hard could it be, pressing a few buttons here and there in correct order?
Sidney ran back to the passenger car and leaned in towards the last window that wasn’t blocked by big stains, she wanted to see more of Billy’s famous home station, and if it really seemed as infamous as Milli had made it out to be. She spat on her sleeve and rubbed forcefully the glass right before her. The train was picking up in speed slowly and the little houses alongside the tracks were going by faster. There weren’t as many people on the outskirts of Helsin as she had hoped to see, but it made sense, Billy had told her that most people here worked for growing facilities and Conti, which meant they would be gone for a good part of the day.
Anxiety was creeping in her heart, where would she go for two days? How would she find Billy again? What was she supposed to do alone? Billy had always shown her, where she could stay, mostly she bunked at Billy’s acquaintances or little houses meant for operators and their staff. This was really the first time she was supposed to make it on her own, why did it have to be Helsin of all places?
Sidney looked at the small aluminum shacks and gasped out a sigh. The shanty towns had been for repressed people above the crust, now they had become the living condition for everyone and an element that dominated every station. Two months ago she had witnessed a big heated outburst between Billy and the operator of the second biggest train in the Tube. They had argued over the same old question everyone pondered over, what was above the crust.
Billy had always been skeptical of any hopes for establishing a life outside the Tube. It seemed ridiculous and foolish to even think of it, there was a reason for the Tube to exist and he was sure of the reason being something menacing that was lurking outside. The opponent for him in this argument had planted an idea in Sidney’s head though, something that had haunted her ever since. We’re already dead, waiting for our bodies to die too. Her melancholic voice echoed in her head. The words kept playing over and over, and she had been right. What kind of life was this? Cooped up underground, how long could it go on, before something would go wrong and threaten the very basis of their existence? Then again, no one even knew, how long it had gone on so far.
Sidney was hunched over the window, she was approaching an area that didn’t seem familiar. The buildings seemed bigger and they were not made of aluminum. They seemed stern, solid. It looked like stone and clay had been used to build these houses. District One, she thought while rising and running back to the cabin at the thought of that. Pulling on a little stick on the board slowed down the train significantly and she started to expect a call from Dispatch. Soon she was engaged in a conversation receiving bits and pieces of information on what was going to go down in 48 hours, she was to pass all of it on to Billy… if she could only locate him, though he had given her a hint, but that couldn’t be trusted in Helsin. There were much more alluring places to spend a few hours than a mere operator’s lodging house.
After a small thump the train fully stopped. There was a pressing silence urging Sidney to get on with the show and step out to get her second impressions of Helsin, but the steps to the platform seemed far too steep now to take. Going over the contents of her bag she was certain now for the third time she had everything with her. Hiding her weapons from obvious view she opened the door at the bustling sight that waited for her.
There were guards stomping around several trains and yelling at each other. It was that time of the day, when the air conditioners were cut off for a couple of hours to save energy, and the rising temperature was seemingly effecting everyone’s nerves. Next to them, she assumed, were the staff of the train, apparently feverishly looking for missing goods judging by the stressed looks on their faces. Passengers were descending onto the platform as well, looking for the exits of the station ahead of them, some were greeted by people thrilled to see them again. Happy reunions. Sidney half-expected to see Billy somewhere in the crowd, but the absence of his presence seemed more and more plausible with each passing second.
She flung her bag over her shoulder and disappeared amongst the people after making sure the cockpit of their train was locked securely. Sidney let the crowd dictate the direction she walked in, hoping for the flow to land her to the close approximates of the station’s exits. A bunch of announcements burst out from inside one of the doors she was approaching and she decided it had to be the hall, where passengers waited for trains. The small girl elbowed her way to the door and popped into a hall that was considerably tiny for its purpose for being the representative for the whole of Helsin’s stations.
Stacks of bags and people resting on them filled the floors. Sidney moved around and scouted for anything that would give away the sign of being the main entrance to the main street in Helsin, or a market or anything of that sort. Having her logic being slurred by the heat she decided to let chance choose and went for the closest exit. A few steps closer to it and there were shouts and yells coming from a man looking for someone. Good luck buddy. There was a better chance for a blind person solving the rubik’s cube than for him finding anyone in this chaos. Blocking the sound far behind her she strutted away until she was finally out. And she had hit the jackpot.
It was a market of some sort, if not the main attraction then at least a pretty good sidekick to it. Little huts and tables were in rows filled with various items in the street making it crowded and tight. The ground was turning into a mud slide with the air conditioners being turned off and the water from them running into the streets, making it a fair struggle to stay balanced. There was a good chance she would be walking out with a brand new bag and maybe something little to take home to Milli.
Shuffling between many buyers with their coupons in hand and now fondling a nice big sturdy bag, Sidney prepared to dig out her own from one of her sidepockets, when she felt someone grab her shoulder. “Hey!” She yelped out offended and turned around to confirm her suspects of someone trying to grope her. There was a man standing in front of her, very much like Billy.
“Before you throw your best punch, hear me out, ok? You’re Sidney, right?” The words that slurred out of the intruder’s mouth turned incomprehensible at the instant she heard her own name mentioned. “How do you know my name?” She asked cautiously, turning her left side slightly towards him, ready to defend herself if needed. “Does the name Billy ring any bells?” He was inspecting her from head to toe like Billy that one morning in Levi. “Yes, what about him?” Sidney didn’t feel like giving out more details of her life, before she knew who the person before her was.
“Well, he asked me to look for Sidney, I think his precise words were to look for a skinny girl, who looks lost and scared, and I think I found her.” He was testing the grounds he was walking on and Sidney reckoned it was something Billy would say. “I am Sidney, alright… you know Billy?” She was astounded at what he had said and the boldness of it, but then again… any friend of Billy’s would probably have the same cheekiness as he did, it was almost like a prerequisite for being in his circles.
The guy took his time to answer: ”Yeah… We used to serve on the same train, and then he went onto getting his own, but… that’s one of the reasons why I know him.” Sidney was starting to get impatient with this so far nameless person holding off on telling her, why she was talking to him in the first place. “Does he have a message for me?” She finally cut to the chase on getting to the bottom of this. “Kind of.” He seemed to have become a man of few words.
A sigh escaped her lungs. “Ok… can you please tell me what it is then?” He was starting to become as reputable to her as a cockroach. “I can’t tell you here. You need to follow me.” He kept his voice quiet, which put up her defenses one notch higher. Something seemed off about this situation. “You know what… I think I’m good, I’ll just find him on my own, thanks for… letting me know he was looking for me, or… whatever it is.” She turned back to her bag, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Staring at the clay wall in front of her behind the table, she seized her hand in her pocket feeling for a coupon. “What…is it… now?” She turned around slowly this time.
“You’re being the good girl he told me you’d be, and I’m happy you didn’t just take off with me.” He was smiling from ear to ear, when Sidney finally turned to face him properly. “What is this…I told you, I’m done with this… I’d like to purchase my bag now, thank you. See you.” Hopefully not for a very long time. She added to herself.
Sidney pulled out the coupon out of her pocket and was handing it to the lady holding her bag, when someone snatched it out of her hand. “You don’t wanna claim it here, I know somewhere better with better quality, much durable.” The nameless person proceeded to claim. “I wish my patience was as durable.” She voiced her conclusion sternly and gave him a stare of doom.
“Alright alright… enough with the games and mystery, I get it, listen, Billy might be in a bit of a pickle, so I need you to follow me to a more discreet place so I can tell you what’s up with all the fancy secrecy.” His statement seemed legitimate with the grave face he had on, which made her heart sink a notch. “He’s in trouble? What’s wrong? Did something happen with the Chief District Supervisor?” She managed to squeak out with her heart bouncing off the walls in her chest uncontrollably now.
“Yeah… something happened alright, that’s why he needs you to do something.” He was maneuvering Sidney through the street towards an opening of a little stranded-looking alley way, and pulled her to it. “What does he need me to do?” Her head was swirling with different scenarios of Billy getting himself into a lot of trouble with the authority, from him being suspended to having his coupons taken away. The CDS was not someone to be messing around with.
“You need to find his mother.” He was cradling her arms in his hands and crouching over closer to her, to make the point of its urgency. Her eyes were wide open with surprise: “But… I don’t even know what her name is… or where she lives… don’t you know her?” She was pleading to him, but it had very little effect. “Sidney… His mother… is fonder of the female kind than mine… And I will take you to her, I wouldn’t let you wander off on your own beyond District Two, but we need to leave right away, before things get out of control at Billy’s end.”
Out of control?Sidney couldn’t wrap her mind around Billy’s situation, what could have been so serious that he had got himself into? “And if you’re wondering… I’m Zed.” He said quietly, introducing himself for the first time. Sidney was about to do the same, when she realized he was well aware of who she was. Zed was pushing her through the crowd hastily, she was half-running, when they suddenly came to an abrupt halt in front of one of District One’s local stations to other districts. “We’re taking the train?” She had never been on another train except Billy’s and wondered if it was anything like his.
“Yes, how else are we supposed to get anywhere? And we need to stay right here and not budge one inch, there are only so many spots available there.” Zed was still holding onto her right elbow, and it was starting to feel comforting to have someone to rely on in this bustling station, even if their acquaintance had started off on shaky grounds. She looked around the platform, there were only a few people waiting for the train, most likely the same one as they were. There was a woman with large scars on her arms, she had probably had them done somewhere in Helsin or Uru, where the most accomplished scar-artists resided. Having scars done in various patterns had become quite popular over the last few years, but the process was very painful.
The artist would cut the skin with a blade, and let it heal to a certain point. Then the wound would be opened again, and that would be repeated as many times as needed for the scar to start taking visible shape on the skin in a pattern that was desirable by the customer. Only the hardiest and toughest had them done on their faces.
A few feet away from her strolling up and down the platform was an elderly man. He was wearing finer-looking linen clothing that didn’t have any visible stains, apart from a food stain that appeared there under his bellybutton. He also had blazing white hair reaching onto his shoulders. Just like Milli’s. Right behind him walked a huge man, head turning left and right, dressed like the squad leader that had been earlier grilling Billy about a box, all in black, obviously looking out for unwanted company and keeping them away from the older man. Zed had seen him too and he was mumbling how odd it was for that particular person to be traveling to the zone they were headed to.
Tracks clicking attracted Sidney’s attention to her left, their transportation was approaching, and when she saw the cars in line that looked like little ducks following their mother, she understood, why Zed wanted to stay closer to the pit, there were only three cars. Everybody on the platform closed in on them, eying on the train shrieking like a barn in a hurricane. Sidney frowned at the idea of traveling in something that was practically a rusty bucket.
Zed motioned towards the last car and Sidney opened the door to it. Stale hot air brushed against her face, when she finally gave the door a good push. The metal under her fingers was scorching hot. She didn’t think it would have been possible for a train to be in any worse condition than theirs, but this one won the race clearly. There were two seats available, covered in unidentified pus, screws hanging loose here and there. And the stink made Sidney gag, as if someone had puked on a dead animal and let it rot there for weeks. “Welcome to Helsin’s pleasure ride.” Zed had been looking at Sidney’s shocked expression at the sight of all this, and he still heard her gag every now and then. “Just try to breathe through your mouth and you’ll make through it.”
Sidney closed her eyes after sitting down, trying to get her nerves under control that were racing like a pair of scared horses. Billy’s mother. He rarely talked about her. A mention here and there made her think they never had had a close relationship. And knowing that Milli had been helping him out along his upbringing only confirmed her suspicion of a connection that was not all that closely knit.
“So… How did you end up on Billy’s train?” Zed sounded oblivious to Billy’s trouble and the task of getting him out of it, whatever “it” was. His ginger voice rather belonged to a little boy on his birthday. “I… I just replaced someone, if you know Milli… She asked him, if he were up to taking me on board.”
“Ahh… Milli, how is that little old lady? Still trying to save the gutter kids?” Maybe he was just one of those people whose survival methods depended on complete denial, or maybe he just was that jolly person he was representing himself as to Sidney. “Yeah… I was one of them… She saved my life, and my fufure.” A mention of Milli made her eyelids burn, she did her best not to show the emotion dwelling within by keeping a straight face of metal. Her lip was starting to quiver alarmingly.
A roar of laughter burst out in the air: “You’re funny Sidney, a future? That’s really the best one I’ve heard all month. Billy was dead on, you’re a trip!” Zed’s black hair flung up and down his chin, when he threw his head from side to side while laughing. He buried his cheeks under his hands and let out a big sigh after a good old laughter. He was staring at Sidney for the lack of a better view, not that he found a lot to complain about the one in front of him, it was a beautiful one.
“This your first time in Helsin?” His eyes had a bright flame of curiosity in them. Sidney gave a small nod at his direction, hoping for his enthusiasm to die at her scarce answers. “Well… I need to show you some spots then, I know the best ones too, grew up with Billy boy, the other reason I know him, and I owe you the bag too… since I kinda spoiled it for you back there.”
“You don’t owe me anything… that’s ok, I’ll get it another time.” She didn’t feel like spending any more time with this fast talking machine. She just wanted to get to the end of the day and make sure she still had a boss to work for. “How did you run into Billy… Were you seeing the CDS too?” Sidney inquired. Zed gave her an amused look: “You need like… an audience for that shit… No, I was going about my business, when I hear a familiar voice, it’s coming from above, and I swore to myself, if it’s not God himself announcing he made a mistake with the first guy and I’m his long lost son after all… Well… Turns out it wasn’t. It was Billy calling out to me from the second floor window of a very fancy looking dwelling. Needed a favor and the rest is history, so to speak.”
“So you don’t really know what’s going on then, do you?” She asked him with bewildered eyes. “Nope… Know as much as you do.” Zed crossed his arms behind his head to support it, resting on the seat’s filthy back, and yawned loudly. “This heat really gets to you, I feel like I could take one of the best naps I’ve ever had. All courtesy of the pathetic ac in the Tube, isn’t this lovely.”
She was now wishing for Zed to have a heat stroke and pass out to have some quiet and peace, but the man slouching on his seat right across from her kept going on about the Tube’s ac being cut off every now and then. Her back was being glued to the sleazy fabric that it was pressed against, the grooves in it were imprinting their image on her shirt and the skin under it, soaked with sweat by now. She was visualizing the red scratch marks on her hips too, from the bullet belt being pushed into her thinning flesh. She kind of understood, why Zed would be so upset having to deal with this on daily basis.
What she craved for was a clean bed with soft sheets and maybe even a full night’s sleep. Instead she was being grilled inside a train, waiting to see a person she had never met and not knowing how she would be welcomed. That was exactly how she wanted to spend the extra hours granted to her like a gift. “Hey… Sidney… Are you still with me?” Zed was talking to her in a softer voice, slapping her knee, convinced she had fallen asleep on him.
“A-ha… I’m here.” She mumbled as a half-reply. “Ok…good, cuz we’re arriving, time to save Billy’s butt.” Zed retreated to his seat, to a textbook posture. If that announcement did not take the part of a very effective internal alarm clock, then nothing would have. Sidney stared out the window, there were less shacks here, people seemed to have been able to have little yards around their homes, it almost looked cozy, like they were able to build real homes for themselves here. Sidney didn’t understand why Billy had been so concerned about her traveling to the outskirts of Helsin’s center.
“Ok, let’s go.” Zed slapped Sidney on her knee and got up to move closer to the weary door shivering in the air current created by the moving car. “You’re armed, right?” Sidney stared at Zed in shock at the sudden question and saw discreet bulges underneath his clothing now for the first time. She had expected him to be armed, but it had not appeared so obvious with his bubbly conversation taking most of her energy and focus. “Uh… Yes, but… from the looks of it… This neighborhood doesn’t seem that bad.” Sidney turned her statement into a hidden question, if she should be worried or not. “Zed readjusted the small goggles resting on top of his head, which were keeping parts of his black hair out of his eyes. “Just making sure… Unexpected things tend to happen around here.” He was as jolly as ever and pushed the door open waiting for Sidney to go first, being the gentleman he was, or an excellent strategist in letting someone else take the first of the fire.
A few pairs of unfriendly eyes turned to look at the people arriving to this small station, local mechanics breaking the sweat because of a broken engine of a generator. They looked like they were weighing the intentions and motives of random passengers coming all the way down there, to their territory. A loud pop from the engine sent the men to a frustrated cry and they lost interest in everything else at that instant. That one pop would mean a few extra hours of underpaid labor. Relief entered every cell in Sidney’s body, she did not appreciate the notion of being judged on vague impressions, she preferred traveling under the radar altogether.
Zed pointed to a direction: “That way, we’re just going right up the street, and then it’s all you.” Sour saliva traveled to her throat, this could be nothing but a far shot. “Listen now… We need to have Billy’s mom go over to the Chief District Supervisor’s house, don’t ask me why… I don’t know.” His voice sounded just as astonished at the proposal as Sidney was at the fact that she had been assigned to deliver the wanted results.
“In you go.” Zed said lightly, as if they had been going over to a friend’s house. Sidney was standing in front of a small clay house, it looked nice, almost pretty. She pondered over trying to knock on the wall, there was no door, just a round hole in the wall, or should she just go in? She went with the knock. No answer, she didn’t even hear any movement inside, so she stepped in. It was dim and that was very common in every building in the Tube having to rely on scarce lighting.
She looked around and saw a stove next to a wall, close to it was a stool and a kitchen table that looked like it was crumbling to pieces. There also seemed to be another room lurking behind a cotton curtain with colorful patterns, maybe she was sleeping. “Hello?” The sound that came out of Sidney could have been the one of a rodent sized being. It was only a fraction in time, when she felt something solid on her neck, and a click. She did not mistake the click for anything else but the security system of a gun being unlocked.
“And who the hell are you to invade my privacy?” A voice just as menacing as a gun on her neck followed. “I’m very sorry… I tried knocking, but there was no answer.” Sidney was trying her hardest to make her case, before dropping dead on the dirt ground. That only seemed to fuel her fire and she pressed the mouth of the shotgun to her neck harder: “Oh yeah? So that how it works nowadays with you kids, huh? Just invite yourselves in? Is that right?” Sidney swallowed the sourness in her throat down to her stomach, this was not going well, just as she had predicted. “Billy…The operator of train 496, he is your son, correct?”
There was a pause and the pressure on her neck seemed like it eased, and then she poked her neck again with more force. “So what if he is?” Sidney’s feet were going numb and weak at the same time, her head was starting to feel woozy too, she had no idea where the blood was escaping from her body. “He needs your help ma’am… He would greatly appreciate it, if you went over to District Two’s Chief Supervisor’s house…” She was hoping this request would not send her over the edge. “I have been no ma’am for a decade now… Haven’t seen my husband … that dog… ever since he never came back from work.”
“I did not mean to insult you… I am just delivering a message… please… he needs your help.” Sidney was hoping for the woman’s mother’s instincts to kick in. She heard mumbling behind her back and Billy’s mother spat on the floor: “Fine, but this the last thing I will do for that boy. What did he ever do for me? What did he ever do! Left me here alone, that’s what he did! And to think he sent his whore for his business!” Sidney had no doubt as to why Billy had left the day he had been given the chance.
Sidney’s hands were starting to tremble visibly, there was more charged energy in this room than there was in all of the Tube’s generators she was sure. Before she knew, she was being whisked out to the street, where Zed was waiting, leaning casually on a street lamp with his arms crossed. “Out! Out of my sight with your filth!” Billy’s mother screamed and a curious couple showed up to the street from the house next door to see the source for this ruckus. Sidney tripped and fell to the ground on her knees, and then on her stomach, exhausted out of all the thrill and excitement this morning. Maybe now she would get her rest.
“So… That went well, huh?” Zed was leering down on her, she just wanted to stay on the ground, what the hell, as long as she got to sleep, she wouldn’t care where it would be. “Yeah… Just wonderfully…” She mumbled out sleepily. “You’re not just gonna stay there, are you?” He raised his eyebrow, and when nothing happened he grabbed Sidney by her armpits and scooped her up on her feet. He got a grumpy look from the girl standing in front of him. “I was quite happy there, thank you very much.” She came to a conclusion, knowing she was acting ridiculously.
“Oh, I’m sure… Who wouldn’t like a mud bath every now and then?” He clearly had a knack for ignoring gloomy atmospheres. Zed’s expression turned to that of determination having watched Sidney’s less than enthusiastic energy manifest itself in her droopy eyes. “Listen, I can see you need a good rest, and I know exactly the place for it, and you’re in luck! It’s not even that far away. We’ll continue our little adventure a little later. So what say you?”
She couldn’t have cared less, where this promised bed was, as long as there was one, she even managed to let Zed’s invitation to longer their acquaintance slip by. “Ok. I’ll be right behind you.” A smile broke on Zed’s face and he turned on his heels to walk up the slight hill they had been standing by.
Wet mud spread itself across Sidney’s feet, which she was dragging with her shoulders slanted, when she pushed tiny stones and patches of dirt out of the way. Life on the train weighed heavy not only on her shoulders, but her mind too. Levi was charming, but its charm only lingered in the air for so long for her to smell. She had thought there would have been freedom and good exciting times, when she had got the gig. Not endless hours of staying awake, having nothing else to do besides monitoring the speed of a train. The control board in the driver’s cabin had become the pinnacle of her life and everything seemed to revolve around goods being delivered from one place to another, intact enough not to get the supervisors breathing down their necks.
“Welcome to casa Zed!” He had run the last steps over to a tile building, and he was standing with his arms spread in front of a big opening in the wall. It was the biggest house in sight and Sidney had assumed it to be some kind of an administrative place, or something official, when she had seen it from the window of the train they arrived in.
It had two stories and it formed a square around a small yard that it sheltered within. “…You live here?” Sidney couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Yes.” Zed replied sharply with a hint of something that sounded like his feelings had been hurt by Sidney’s disbelief. “And not only do I live here, I own the place.” He was now less excited of showing his house to the suspicious girl, who was huffing and puffing in front of him. “How? Did you kill the previous owner?” Sidney was slowly starting to come out of her funk with the prospect of sleeping over at a really nice place. Maybe they even had a working ac.
There was a long silence in the air between the two. “No… it was my parents’, they died at the train accident last year in U-ru. My dad was the Chief Supervisor here… at this district. He had a meeting at another station and took my mum with him… The train they took… well, I’m sure you heard of it so… it’s mine now.” His voice was quiet, saddened by memories bursting out.
Sidney regretted the moment she had decided to come out of her funk. And she had heard of the accident. It had been the talk of the Tube for the longest time, igniting a series of conversations between the people, who held administrative positions. Construction projects had been at a halt for half a year, but they had been forced to keep them going, the population of the Tube was exploding.
They had always been aware of the safety issues that came along with mining new tunnels and building new tracks for trains, when they had no real knowledge of how to do it. All they had been doing was imitating the models from the old world that they had found underground. The first time around it had taken six years to complete one train, they had to build every single part for it from scratch, and figure out, how to get the materials, and at last the task had been assigned to the workers in growing facilities and people with talent in mechanics and engineering. If in the end things seemed to work, they would call it a day.
“Zed…I’m sorry, I had no idea.” He lifted his eyes to hers and cleared his throat. “It’s fine, how could you have known. Don’t worry about it. Now come on, let me show you, where you can bunk.” Sidney was now grateful for the man disappearing into the yard for his ability to push things aside if not completely push them in the past. She followed Zed to the yard, which was a standard dirt yard, but there was a patch of mosaique tile laid under a table and chairs there, undoubtedly a place, where her host entertained his friends, or people, who were looking for temporary lodging like Sidney.
Zed fiddled with the door that Sidney was standing next to, and finally it screeched and cracked under his hands, when he pushed it open slowly. He flipped a discreet switch and with that his face lit up too, it was very obvious he was proud of his parents’ doings and the house he had inherited. It was very spacious, with a few chairs, and even a sofa. They were very expensive and only people with higher end jobs could afford them. He explained about the abandoned looking bookshelf resting against the otherwise empty wall. It had been full of different books, real ones from the old world, not the hand painted manuscripts one could find here in the Tube at times, as rare as they were, they were nothing like the ones from above the crust.
He now kept the books in a better place, where the humid air would not speed up the rotting process. They were his most priced possession. Sidney felt it was as if he tried to convince Sidney of his riches, when this was the biggest private house she had ever stayed at in the first place, Zed was not exactly about to house royalty.
Zed’s bright blue eyes were observing her intensely: “Sidney… do you know how to read?” Sidney became startled at the question, she took her literacy for granted, which made her forget that it was a vanishing skill. If Milli had wanted to make sure Sidney learned one thing while staying under her roof, then it was that. She had never told her, where she had learned the skill herself. “Yes… Why?” She mumbled out her answer, to which Zed reacted with excitement: “In that case, I have a surprise for you!” Sidney was about to inquire more about her surprise, when Zed hurried onto explain she was too tired to appreciate it now, he would show it to her after she had her sleep.
Following his footsteps she walked up a short and narrow stairway to the second floor. At the end of it there were two doors, Zed opened the one to the right: “You can sleep here, it used to be my parents’, but it’s more suited to housing guests now. If I’m not here, when you wake up, feel free to wander downstairs and have a bite.” His words could have been another language. She nodded as a sign of understanding what Zed was telling her, but she had no idea, another wave of tiredness was hitting her, aiding the last steps to the double bed she crashed onto. She was far off to the wonderful world of dreams and couldn’t feel Zed placing a thin blanket on her thin body, or hear him leave the house Sidney was resting in.