The Komatsu Wombat and the Fantastical Anticlimax
When Arunta got out of prison for glassing Jaysee in the face, he told me prison reminded him of being in the hole.
'This city's a hole,' I said. It was what he used to say.
Arunta disagreed. He said he'd been in enough holes now to tell the difference.
I reckon that was when he stopped being afraid.
Were we in prison?
It was a cave-in. It wasn't our fault, which made it the worst, the bloody worst. What had we ever done to deserve this?
Arunta didn't like it, but this time there was nothing to do. He told me he wanted to kill himself, except he was already dead. The cave-in was the only dreaming left in him.
Which was strange, because he did well in the dark. Better than most of us. He was our navigator.
He hated getting lost, so in those first days he'd use our 1 hour of low light to jog around slow and memorise the twists and turns. He was the first of us to wear out his boots completely, til we worked out how to patch them with cardboard and thread. He was the one who chiseled the symbols you'll find at every door, at every turn, not one of them more than arm's reach from the other. He tattooed our entire grave with chisel and hammer. We found our individual houses by the stars, the moons, the birds and the letters he'd put there. He grooved every wall with lines parallel to the floor, more lines for the further away from the centre we were, so even if we did get lost, we worked our way back just by counting the grooves at every corner.
It took Arunta 2 years, 1 hour a day, 730 hours in total.
Despite his work, we lost 15 people to something in the dark. To being lost, I think. We lost another 3 to broken limbs turned septic. We lost another 7 to the big fever coming through the rain tower. They were superbugs, surprising we only lost 7. The toxins up above, plus the radiation, plus the rotting world of plants and animals lying around for years, freezing and unfreezing through the impact winter, no surprise diseases became something else entirely.
The 15 lost people were the mystery.
Arunta found out maybe they hadn't got lost. He led me there when the lights were on, and I wish to hell he hadn't. The cave-in had opened up to a vertical shaft, too deep for low light to reach the bottom or even the sides. It looked like a bottomless pool of black.
1 horror story Arunta told was about swimming in a billabong so deep, a great primordial monster lived at the bottom in water never seeing the light of day. It was so cold, that water. Every time the monster rolled over in its sleep, the cold water would stir, sending licks of itself up through the sunloving water, to wrap around the kicking legs of the swimming kids like tentacles, wanting to draw them down into dark of drowning. Some of the braver kids, or the crazier ones, would grab a hold of those tentacles of cold, which were truly so cold they were like ropes through the warmer water, and the kids would kick, kick, kick, trying to reach the bottom of that black pond, even though they knew it would kill them.
It was the fear, Arunta called those tentacles. Crazy kids or brave kids, they just couldn't let go of the fear.
For weeks, Arunta would seem fine. Then he'd take my hand, which was always strange. He'd lead me away from the story rooms and back to where we slept, or even further, to where the cave-in was.
After he'd dug Kyr out of the fall's edge, Runt climbed out of his Wombat to carry her somewhere safe. I remember Runt walking into the communal hub where we were still squawking headless, blood and dust and sweat on him, and Kyr the size of a kid in his arms. When he put her down, she said, 'Thank you,' nice as anything, and went bloody and dazed straight to find a console.
Thing is, carrying our future hero in to us like some kind of epic story, Runt left his Komatsu Wombat on the edge of the fall.
I hated seeing it. He refused to touch it. I thought about walking his Wombat away from the fall, but you just didn't touch another digger's interface. I hated seeing it because it was a nasty kind of reminder. 4 days of Komatsu Wombat digging, and we could've been out there, at the expense of everyone else who lived in the Pit.
To make it worse, 'Get me out of this hole,' Runt'd say, and he wouldn't be looking at me, he'd be looking at his Komatsu Wombat, rusting there, slow as sin.
I would have to hold him down, make him bite my wrist, and let him scream.
There were a lot of people chasing Arunta's tentacles of fear. We had Wombats. Dig. Dig. Dig. 4 days. 4 days! 12 years was bullshit! CoP abandoned us, CoP was dead, CoP expected us to die, we should do the unexpected and save ourselves.
And damn everyone else? we asked.
The architect and the doctor were old high school friends, coming up with this game called 'Ethical Conundrums.' 300 of us, minus the lost, would sit in a large space together and listen to a story which was an ethical conundrum. We were supposed to argue our point and convince everyone else what the right thing to do would be. It caused a lot of fights to begin with, because no matter how loud a person could shout, there was always someone louder.
Kyr worked out a system that we could have our arguments heard.
Just like in those first weeks, we formed groups of 3. 3 people came to a consensus on what they wanted to be said, and how they wanted it to be said. 3 was small enough that even the quiet could be heard, and large enough that even the loudest could be argued against. Working out what to say took at least 4 days. 1 out of those 3 would become Temporary Voice and go and meet up with another 2 Temporary Voices. They would talk, 4 days, 5 days, and come to a consensus about what they wanted to be said. Repeat, until out of 300 of us, 3 people stood out in front of us all and told us their thoughts on the ethical conundrum.
It wasn't about right or wrong answers, Kyr made a point of explaining. They were just voices, and their jobs were to tell us everything we thought.
It took at least a month of talking to get to those final 3, but what else did we have to do, in the dark?
The first real thing Kyr tested us out on wasn't even an ethical conundrum. A woman and a man wanted to have sex. They didn't want to have consequences.
This wasn't a problem for most of us. Everyone had compulsory contraceptive implants before we'd made the move to the Pit, men and women. Not, mind, that we weren't allowed to have babies. Anyone could have a baby. All we had to do was go to a doctor and ask for the implant to be removed for a specified period of time. We didn't have to be married, or rich. We didn't have to do anything except be bothered enough to ask.
The contraceptive had been the centre of 1 of the civil rights outcries before the big move, but we couldn't risk the overpopulation. The argument went: it'd only eliminate the accidental babies, those born because their parents had been too lazy to think about preventing it. Every kid born into the Pit was born out of choice.
Like I found out later, after Arunta and I signed up as foster parents, sometimes that still didn't mean anything.
The cave-in held only 1 woman who had asked for her implant to be removed, ready for the baby she had wanted to conceive before the cave-in. The cave-in also held only 1 man who had asked for his implant to be removed for similar reasons. Now, years later, those were the 2 who wanted to have sex. They didn't want to have a baby in the dark.
300 of us, and what were the odds?
Arunta stood up before the laughs had even stopped.
'Here,' he said, 'I got 6 condoms left. I've been fucking Katashi for years, don't think I need them any more. Not cos we're not going to be fucking. Just because we don't need them.'
'Is that Arunta?'
'Yeah, Kyr, and who else is Katashi fucking in the dark, you let me know when you see him.'
I said, 'Some day you're going to tell me why you keep carrying condoms to a day at work. You ain't getting lucky on lunchbreaks in my shift, that's for sure.'
Kyr said, over the giggles, 'Right, so we've got 6.'
Seems like other people had Runt's habit, because after everyone had spoken, we totalled 64 condoms into the communal pile. Kyr gave them to the doctor.
'Anyone who wants one,' she said, 'for whatever reason at all, come get one.'
'Does that include for waterbombs?'
'Use a latex glove,' the doctor said, without missing a beat. 'We got plenty of those.'
'Fantastic,' Runt said, probably a bit too loud.
We survived 7 years in the dark by eating and drinking and shitting and screwing and sleeping. We stayed sane because we talked.
In our 1 hour of low light, we did the food preparation, the laundry, the self-washing and grooming, hair trimming, shaving, the house cleaning. In our 2 hours of sun, we did nothing but lie there between rows of unhappy veg.
We were angry and threw powdered protein everywhere and argued.
We ran out of coffee and beer and soap. Never water, thanks to those fantastic rain towers, and never air. It wasn't our electricity that ran out, it was the globes, the only thing we'd forgotten to add to Kyr's lists.
Towards the end, the sunlamps were gone except for 2 brave globes. SuperGlobes, even.
The vegetables couldn't hack it. By year 6, the only fresh thing we consistently had was mushrooms and talk of mutiny.
The mutiny talk was the weird thing. We really didn't have a leader. Who were we going to mutiny against? If we wanted to walk out that deadly front door, if we agreed to walk out that deathtrap front door, Kyr would have agreed to it too.
Around year 4 in the dark, Arunta told me he could feel the colour and pattern of my tatts with his fingertips. I would've thought he was going insane, except he was doing it when he told me, leg and hip against me, holding my arm, rubbing his thumb along my skin, and I couldn't think of much else but him when he was touching me.
'That's the wave,' he said, drawing a curve. 'That's the sunrise, that historical fucker. This one's the spiral between them.'
'You bloody well drew them, of course you're going to guess them.'
'I can see them,' he said. 'With my fingertips. I'm kind of itching to give you more. It's been years since the last.'
'No ink in the dark. But I'm bored enough I'd probably let you, even without the light. I'd trust your freehand.'
Arunta laughed, unshaved cheek against my shoulder. 'I have a needle. I found it in the laundromat's base kit. No ink, though. Want me to finish that sleeve in red?'
He did have a needle, a thick one, like we used to repair our boots. He didn't have ink, but it was the action he wanted.
He did it like this: 1 hand against my arm, little finger and thumb pulling my skin tight. He made a pinch - a vice - with his forefinger against his thumb and held the needle loosely there. With his other hand, and a flick like you'd give to the back of your kid sister's ear, he sent the needle into my arm.
In the dark, no other feeling for distraction, it was like white hot metal being dripped onto my skin, 1 painstaking dot at a time. I let myself breathe heavy with it, so Arunta could hear me. I half-hypnotised myself trying to predict the next prick. There was never any warning.
I got hard before Arunta did, him rocking against my leg even as he finished off my arm. He put his mouth on that sore flesh and licked at me. When he kissed me, I could taste the blood.
It was alright. The tightness left him for as long as it took the red to fade, flaking off in little dots of scab. A few more weeks of sanity won.
'Better?' I asked him when the lights came on, and he could see the red-rawness of what he'd left on my arm.
'Yeah,' he said. 'Dreamings don't bleed.'
The other thing you couldn't to do a dream was stop its hair growing.
Arunta always dyed his hair. By year 3 of the cave-in, it got to the point of being halfway down his shoulders, exactly halfway black and halfway dirty blonde.
He steeled himself for days to cut it off. He argued with himself in the mirror, through that shiny, lonely hour of light per day. He was going to shave it, he told me and anyone who'd listen, 1 extreme to the next. He'd have to. He couldn't knife through it and leave it looking like a shagpile, he reckoned. He'd have to shave it. We were all going to have to shave or risk looking like ferals, then what would we be but a mixed up kind of prison crew!
Arunta worked himself up because it was fun, and everyone got on board with the game. Bets were laid with buttons as to whether he'd do it or not. There was Runt, knife in hand because we couldn't find scissors anywhere, mirror propped on the tables we only used in the commercial street, wide-eyed, ready to scalp himself for public entertainment.
At that point, 1 of the civil engineers stepped forward and said, 'I used to be a hairdresser, you know. Want me to razor it properly?'
Nothing would do for it but that we'd get our crop at the hands of an expert, after that. Right up to the point when the diggers dug us out again. Most well groomed bunch of unearthed zombies you've ever seen.
'Bet you're glad you didn't leave behind the hairdressers,' said the civil engineer.
I don't like mentioning the people I knew while I was under, not by name.
I think their names. 300 of them, including the lost, like the beads on my mother's necklaces. Arunta never talks about his family, never really talks about what his years of correctional were like, so I guess it's kind of like that. I remember them, that's all.
I talk about Kyr, though. It's hard not to mention Kyr, on account of the election.
Continue to Chapter 9 →
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