Sunday, 4 November 2018

One: Yasi


They had been making eye contact for half the train ride. She was standing against a pole without holding it, and having no trouble keeping her balance as the subway train sped through New York. The carriage was mostly empty at that time of night, and Vincent was hanging onto his can of mace. This time of night was not kind to prey.
She was far too skinny, and wore a long black trenchcoat that went down to her ankles, but when she spoke, he fell in love with the sound of whiskey and promise in her voice. "What are you working on? Whatever it is, it must be far too interesting if you hadn't noticed me trying to make eye contact for the whole ride."
Vincent flushed. He wasn't exactly a model himself, and the notion of someone showing such an obvious interest in him on the subway just didn't happen. "It's... I'm a city planner." He stumbled over his words. "There's a telecommunications company that want to lay a Fiber-Optic network through some old steam pipes..."
She seemed far too interested in that. "Con Edison's subterranean steam system is the biggest steam district in the world. Some 30 billion pounds of steam every year flow beneath the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to 96th Street. There are five plants in Manhattan and one each in Queens and Brooklyn. But the system is over a century old in some places, so it breaks down constantly; a lot of the pipe sections are abandoned."
Vincent was stunned. "I do this for a living and I can't even remember all that." He quipped. "You in the business?"
"Nope. But I keep my eyes open."
"Really?"
The train was coming to a stop. "Really. You keep your eyes open, you find all sorts of interesting things around you." She drawled.
The doors opened, and she went to the door, pausing to look back at him. "So." She said simply. "You coming?"
The few passengers in the car were grinning at the blatant invitation, and Vincent swallowed. "This... I don't even know your name. Things like this don't happen in real life."
"Not where you come from." She agreed without smiling. "But where I come from is a far more interesting place."
She turned and stalked out of the train without a glance back at him, and he followed her without letting himself think about it.
But she didn't go anywhere. She went out onto the platform, and waited for him to catch up. He did so after a few seconds, and she stood without a sound, still as a statue. The trenchcoat billowed around her ankles for a moment as the train started moving again.
There was a sudden stillness, and Vincent realized that the subway station was empty. That was nearly unheard of in New York, but she didn't seem surprised. Once it was clear they were alone, she led him toward the edge of the station. It was the first time he was able to observe her movements at all, and she had the easy grace of a feline. Vincent felt his heart rate tick up as he saw the way she moved.
So much so that he didn't notice where she was leading him. It was a maintenance door, marked as restricted access, and she didn't even blink before she pushed it open. Vincent wondered idly if the door was meant to be locked. He hesitated, and she spun around, pulling him forward into the darkness sharply. The door closed instantly behind them.
"So." Vincent said, heart in his throat. "Here we are."
There was a clicking sound, like something unlocking…
And then his feet went out from under him, and he fell forward. He fell a long way. He landed next to her in what felt an awful lot like a trapeze net…
And suddenly he was in a whole other place.
~oo00oo~
She led him by the hand through darkness for a long time. She was walking normally, while he was shuffling, one hand reaching out blindly to try and make contact with anything. The floor beneath his feet was stone and tile, and it was the only thing he was aware of, but for the gentle touch of her fingertips. His guide led him by the hand, in a darkness so deep that he could not even make her out, and yet she knew her way so perfectly that he felt safe to follow her.
He knew he couldn't trust her. Technically, she had just kidnapped him, but if he lost her fingertips for even a second, he would never find his way out. He was completely at her mercy.
And then the ground went from under his feet again, this time only a foot or two. He caught his footing hard with a splash, and found himself ankle deep in water. There was light. Faint blue light coming from under the surface. Just enough to make out the entrance of the tunnel they had just left. He was surprised how close it was. He had been swinging out blindly with one hand the entire way to this little intersection, and had no idea how close he was to the wall.
The tunnel that they were in now was deep enough to easily stand upright, and was full to knee height with water. At the mouth of the tunnel leading to the subway was a set of stairs that extended up and down the artificial river for as far as Vincent could barely see them. On one of those stairs was a set of small boats, which would be at home in Venice, though clapped together from driftwood.
"Sit." She told him, and he did so as she pushed off with a barge pole, sending them drifting down the new pipe, rolling gently downstream until they emerged out into the Main Chamber.
Vincent let out a breath that he hadn't realized he was holding. It was such a relief to get out of the tunnel. He felt like the walls were closing in on them. It wasn't claustrophobia, for Vincent had never feared enclosed spaces. It was the dark. He couldn't see his own hand waving in front of his face, and it was paralyzing. Even low light was a gift.
There was a vaguely Victorian-era feel about the place, but not because it was primitive. It felt like somebody had moved in and tried to make it into a work of art. The ceilings were higher than he would have thought, given that they were so far underground, but the high arches would not have been out of place in a grand Parisian Opera House. The ceilings were covered in tiles that were either made from, or made to resemble marble. The grime of centuries had obscured its pattern, but not its awesome grandeur.
She watched him for a long time, letting him get used to what he was seeing. Finally, she spoke. "Do you like it?" It was practically the first words they had spoken since he'd fallen.
Impossible! Vincent thought to himself. This cannot be possible! It's not real!
"What do you see?" She pressed him gently.
Vincent shivered, wondering for a second if he had gone mad. "Don't you see it too?"
"I do, but I see it all the time. We don't bring your kind of people here. So I'm curious, what do you see when you look?"
"It's… beautiful." Vincent said finally. "Why did you bring me here?"
She brought the barge in to brush against the dry concrete, and stepped out. She held out a hand to him. "Let me show you more."
Vincent struggled to catch up. "I… I still don't know your name."
Her eyes glowed in the dark, her hand still hanging in mid-air. "Yasi."
Spellbound by the world he found himself in, he reached out and took her hand.
~oo00oo~
Vincent felt his jaw drop. "That can't be real. It just can't."
Yasi laughed at him. "Ahh, but it is."
The last century feel continued in the much larger chamber, and Vincent suddenly realized how alive it was. There were people on every level, every elevation. There were multiple levels to the chamber, lit by lanterns. Rope bridges and walkways criss-crossed the underground cavern, and condensation built a gray-blue mist that gave the whole area an ethereal fairy-tale sheen. Above the surface of the water were enormous steps; large enough that each of them was used as a busy street by all the people. The steps all had stalls and tents pressed against the edge of the next step up. And above the wide steps, the cavern was domed; with caves and tunnels in the rising dome walls, spaced at regular intervals.
The lanterns that lit the whole space seemed electric, and some of them were surrounded by mirrors and reflective surfaces, so that the light reflected back, magnified across the chamber. Enough light to see by, but not enough to shine a light on the mystery of the place. There was a constant hum of music and laughter, as though a hundred street performers were plying their trade. Vincent could see fire jugglers and walkers on stilts here and there.
But the people here had noticed Vincent instantly. With careful, suspicious eyes, the easy camaraderie and conversation faded to silence as he approached, their eyes glowing by reflected lantern light. They would have fit in at a homeless shelter. They would have fit in at a carnival sideshow. They came in all shapes and sizes, yet only a few of them had a normal physique. Most of them were rail thin, and very pale. They looked... untamed, disorderly, but not filthy. Vincent supposed cleanliness would be important to people who lived underground; more so than keeping clothing or hairstyles up to date. Most of them wore large heavy jackets, or leather vests. Many of them had feathers or beads in their hair, and their visible skin was marked with tribal inks.
Yasi paused at one of the stalls in the Market, and produced a pendant from around her neck, with a large crystal hanging on it. She offered it to one of the peddlers, who smiled and traded it back for a fob watch. Yasi took the watch, flipped it open, and smiled. Vincent suddenly realized that she had stopped to run a quick errand, while he got used to the scale of the place.
Vincent didn't say anything. The peddler at the stall was old, his face was lined, and the open suspicion in his gaze was intimidating.
Yasi read that in his face and smiled broadly, putting him at ease. "Don't worry, Toshi. He's my lawyer."
The peddler's face softened and he gave a deep chuckle. "You bet. Here, I took care of it while you were Above." He reached into his tent and pulled out a sword in a scabbard. It looked like a genuine samurai sword, and Yasi took it from him, obviously comfortable with it; slinging it across her narrow shoulders.
Vincent shivered. She was suddenly terrifying, just by adding the weapon.
Yasi took off again. "It's best if we don't linger too long down here. Twelfth Level is usually pretty safe, but the folk that live here have reason to distrust people from outside."
"Outside… what, exactly?"
Yasi smiled secretively. "That's a good question, but not one for me. Come on."
She led him to the side of the chamber. Up above was a cliff wall of stone and brick and steel that went high enough he couldn't see the top of it in the gloom. There was a large basket, like on a hot air balloon, hanging by a large set of pulleys. Yasi went to the basket and circled around it to a counterweight on the opposite side. There was a large set of free-weights, clearly salvaged from some New York gym, somehow fitting right in with the rest of the salvaged mismatch. Yasi selected a few weights, muttering calculations under her breath as she added them to the counterweight.
Vincent had started his career as an engineer, and immediately saw the mechanism for what it was. It was an elevator. An elevator run by simple physics alone. No power, no generators, just the application of weights and pulleys. He stepped into the basket, and she joined him, pulling the lever. The ropes released, the weights moved, and the basket rose.
Up from the lowest point in the chamber, Vincent got a look at this strange world at last. It was like some incredible subterranean cavern, but it was not natural. The stone walls were clapped together in concrete and marble and steel. The sides of the cavern were honeycombed with holes, each the size of a room. Vincent looked to the opposite wall and its 'rooms'. Most of them were closed off by draperies and curtains, but he could see lights burning in some of them.
And as the elevator climbed up the side of the cavern, he could see rope ladders and swinging platforms leading to rooms on this side too.
They rose half a dozen levels, and the gears stopped. Yasi stepped out onto the nearest platform, swaying from dozens of ropes and cables made from all materials.
Vincent hesitated. There was no way he could do this. He'd never even had a tree-house. He'd grown up in New York, he'd never even climbed a tree before.
Yasi looked back at him expectantly, and he forced himself not to freeze. The platform had no guard rails, not even a rope to hold on to. Vincent was a city planner. Making places safe was what he did for a living. This mysterious cavern was a deathtrap.
"Hey! Wait for me!"
Vincent felt the basket shift for a few moments, and he held onto the side of it, as a young boy came clambering up over the side. He landed in the basket, spared Vincent the barest glance and calmly jumped out the other side, almost flying up the ropes and pulleys.
Vincent paled in horror on principle. The boy couldn't be more than five years old.
Yasi hollered up after him. "Wait your turn, Tecca!"
The boy waved down absently and leaped from the rope into one of the tunnels, vanishing from sight.
Feeling upstaged, and more than a little foolish about his fear, Vincent stepped out onto the platform, and followed Yasi up a rope ladder. He took it slower than she did. The rope ladder was not nearly as taut or rigid as it could have been, and made it all too clear how far the drop was on the other side.
Getting closer now, he got a clear look at the 'caves' in the wall for the first time. They weren't caves, they were rooms. Rooms with people in them. The openings in the dome were living quarters.
The ladder they climbed led to one of the rooms on a higher level, and Vincent poured all his concentration into not looking down. He was inside one of the chambers before he even realized where this woman was taking him.
The chamber was lit by candles. Ornate candelabras with dozens of candles, small tea-candles that flared the scent of incense into the room, and big wide candles that would look more in place at St Patrick's Cathedral.
There were shelves lining the wall, filled with strange little bits and pieces, the like of which would fit equally in a Wizards Workshop, a Bazaar, or a Junkyard. There was a hammock above the centre of the room, drawn up out of the way on pulleys and ropes that hung from the ceiling, made from stitched together leathers and cloths.
The place was a wild mixture of bohemian creativity and salvaged scrap. He felt like he'd tripped and fallen into Aladdin's Cave.
In fact, he was so enchanted by the room, he almost missed the fact that he was not alone. Over in the corner was an older man. He seemed to be in his sixties, but easily carried himself as someone a lot younger. He was dressed in a coat and tails, with a leather vest over a crisp white dress shirt. The first word that came to Vincent's mind was 'Gentleman'.
Yasi smiled and met the gentleman in a hug, and turned back to Vincent, as if showing him off. "Here he is."
Vincent felt like he was meeting her father for the first time. "Sir." He said, mostly because it felt appropriate to call him that.
"Yasi, you brought him! Wonderful." The man said jovially to Yasi. "Did anyone see you leave the surface?"
"Nobody. I made sure." Yasi promised. "The station was locked down for a few hours tonight. We'll have to put the right papers in place."
"I'll take care of it." The older man said shortly, and turned to Vincent. "My name, and my profession, is Archivist. Welcome to the Underground."
Vincent shook his hand automatically, and turned back to the open wall, staring out at the chamber. "It's huge." Vincent whispered. "How can this all be down here?"
"Originally, it was an intersection of sorts for a large section of the whole place." An unexpected voice responded witheringly. "But things happen, and it became the Residential area."
Vincent spun, almost tripping over the side, and looked up. An old woman was perched above his head, hanging over the drop, sitting on an edge less than six inches wide. She rolled off the ledge and landed at Vincent's feet, crouching on the edge of the chamber entrance.
"There are miles of tunnels that have been sealed up for decades, and we moved in and took it over long ago." She said. "It's deceptive. There's no more space in here than in a thirty story building, but you hollow out the inside of a thirty story building and you'll feel like you've got more space than you'll ever need." She finally raised herself to stand upright, and pulled the scarf from her face and the hat off her head, making a bow. "My name, and my profession, is Keeper." She creaked. "Welcome to The Underside."
Vincent licked his lips. "I… My name is-"
"Vincent McCall." The old woman said with him. "Yes, we know. We've kept an eye on you for the last week, as we do when we consider recruitment."
"Recruitment to what?"
"Doesn't matter. You didn't pass." Keeper said cuttingly. "But we needed to talk with you, and I figured Yasi would have a better chance of getting you down here peacefully than I would."
Vincent sent the lean woman a slightly scandalized look. Yasi didn't speak, didn't even notice, as she cast aside the long black coat, revealing her true self underneath. She was rail thin and dressed like a tribal warrior, with her torso bound in tight leathers, the many buckles and straps giving the impression of modern chain-mail armor. Her arms were bare, and inked, though he didn't know if the markings were drawn on or tattooed. She was dressed to intimidate, with a unique and daring style. It made her look beautiful and dangerous.
Vincent couldn't believe any of it was really happening. He was almost literally down the rabbit hole. Two hours before, he was on the train back to his apartment, trying to decide if the woman across from him was actually flirting, and now he was here, in this world beneath the world.
Yasi actually grinned at him. "This is exciting." She offered. "We rarely do this."
Vincent looked back, and observed the Triumvirate. Archivist, dressed in fine clothes that were a century out of date, but still immaculate, like he was expecting luncheon with the Queen. Keeper, an impossibly ancient old woman who looked like a cross between a scarecrow and a tribal Medicine Woman, eyes sharper than a hawk. And between them was Yasi, much younger, the only one armed, her face and exposed skin painted with minor ancestral marks; his first taste of this strange existence.
They sat down at a small serving table, which was barely above ankle height. The three of them just settled down easily into a crouch, as Vincent sat somewhat awkwardly on his knees. There was a Chinese teapot on the table, and Keeper poured for them all with great ceremony. The tea was sweet smelling, and Vincent couldn't begin to guess what kind it was.
"So... You have questions." Keeper said. "I'll tell you right now, we won't answer them all. But we'll answer more of it than we've ever told anyone."
"What is this place?" Vincent asked.
"This is The New York Underside." Archivist said. "It's where we live."
"And... where exactly are we?"
"About four hundred feet down. Under Manhattan, under the subways... We have tunnels that reach through all the Burroughs, though they are relatively new."
"How long has this all been here?"
"Over a century, at least. The first of us, Werner, Wells and Camden, they came down here and saw the space they could use. They were wealthy men, great builders. They envisioned a Secret City, where people could hide. During the Great War, they were convinced that the war would last for decades, and devastate the globe. They spent their fortunes trying to rebuild their expensive world, far underground. A bomb shelter the size of a city. They wanted it to be very plush, very uptown. Well, that never really came about, but they put in a lot of necessities. We've added a lot more over the years."
Vincent looked out over the huge dome, and the crowds of people making their way below. "How big is this place?"
"That's hard to define." Archivist answered. "It's not all in one spot; some of it is sealed at one time or another. We have routes all the way through to-"
"That's not important." Yasi put in, cutting off any details before they could be given.
Vincent took the brush off for what it was and moved on. "How many people live here?"
"A lot. Thousands. No need to be specific." Keeper told him. "New York City has several million, and we live in the cracks between them."
"How come we don't know any of this is down here?"
"For the most part, because you don't look. But if you mean: why isn't it on the records? It's because the Original Makers kept it to themselves." Archivist explained, and Vincent got the feeling he was used to telling the history as a story. "Remember, it was meant as a bunker. No matter how big it was, there's no way there'd be enough room for everyone in this town. They promised places of safety to the wealthy, to the powerful, to their friends... The money kept pouring in, and they kept digging out the room, but then the war ended and the Depression started, and most of those people jumped out a window. That's the Shelter, but the Underground itself didn't start until a few years later. The millionaires were suddenly broke and had nowhere to go, and nothing to fall back on, so they sold the last of their possessions, spent the last of their money and moved into the places they had built down below. Then time passed, and..."
"I know this part. Or at least I can guess." Vincent interrupted. "The subway tunnels were left as the station maps changed and new tracks were laid, and the steam pipes were left as the city moved to electric..."
"Some of them at least. And we inherited it. Just like the Shelter, just like the tunnels..." Archivist sighed. "The Underground is a world made of the places long forgotten."
"And the same goes for everything else, I assume." Vincent was already trying to comprehend the logistics. "Power, water, air..."
Archivist started counting on his fingers. "Air gets pumped through the subway tunnels already. A few extra shafts and it comes to us as well. Water trickles down, like most everything else. Power is tricky because it costs money. People notice things that cost money. We've been doing this a while, we know a lot of tricks."
"What about… garbage?" Vincent seized on something that came to mind just by looking around. "How do you deal with that?"
"Boy, you are a city planner, aren't you?" Yasi was amused.
"We handle our refuse the same way you do. We throw it away." Keeper said simply. "There are supermarkets Above. They throw out more food than they sell most days. They padlock the dumpsters so that the homeless can't get in. Anyone from our world knows how to slip past locks like that, so we take all the discarded food and goods out, and replace it with our own garbage at the same time. The next night we repeat the process."
"And that works every night?" Vincent found it hard to believe.
"How often do you check that you've got the right garbage?" The older woman shot back.
"Not often." Vincent conceded.
"Nobody checks what the garbage is, because it's like us: Too distasteful for people like you to think about."
"You don't like us do you?" Vincent said with wry amusement. "And the people?" He waved at the large chamber. "Where did they come from?"
"Same place everything else did. The people who live here are the ones that nobody notices are missing."
"So, the Homeless work for you?"
"A lot of them do, many do not." Yasi responded. "You don't think we could leave them all to starve? That's what your world does, not ours."
Vincent felt terribly ashamed suddenly. His mother's voice came back to him, from across the divide of years. 'Be nice to the beggars, for they may secretly be kings.'
"A Lost World made of Lost Boys." Vincent said in open wonder.
"Girls too." Yasi put in.
Long silence.
"So... I can only guess at how much you appreciate your privacy." Vincent said finally. "Why am I here?"
"There's been a new development." Keeper explained. "The old tunnels are going to be noticed again."
"Why?"
"But of course… you know why." Archivist said coolly.
Vincent blinked, and realization crossed his face. "The Fiber-Optic deal."
"The new broadband network is planned to go through the old tunnels. The Underside will be discovered."
"That was the plan." Vincent nodded. "It protects the Fiber-Optic cables from accidents, terrorist attacks…"
"People are looking deep again. Urban Explorers we can handle. Homeless and runaways populate every level. They're of our world. This is the first time we've had to look outside our own to protect this place."
Vincent let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "And my office is making the decision."
"A word from you could have the construction go anywhere." Keeper said. "Anywhere but here."
Vincent was silent a long moment. "And if I refuse to help?"
There was the sound of metal rasping on metal, and Vincent spun to see Yasi draw her sword from its scabbard. Fear crossed his face as she looked casually down the edge of it, testing the blade against her thumb.
"Yasi!" Keeper barked.
The warrior woman jumped. "What?" She blurted, surprised to see both of them staring at her. "I haven't sharpened this thing in a while, I was checking to see if Toshi had done it…"
Vincent relaxed by ten degrees, and Keeper almost smirked. "Timing, my dear. Try and pay attention."
"Yes'm." Yasi said, properly shamed, and she put her sword away.
"To answer your question, Vincent; if you won't help us, then we will have to find another way... and we may fail." Keeper said wearily. "There are other places. The world is old. Everywhere there is a city, there are forgotten places. And where there are such places, there is this. If this one falls, then the others will go on, but we will not. It's the nature of things."
Silence.
"Guys..." Vincent said finally. "I... make my living making sure that buildings and bridges and roads are safe and viable and useful... This place is not only dangerous, it's illegal. Technically, you're squatters."
"Squatting in a place that nobody knows exists." Keeper retorted.
The silence stretched for a time.
"Our lives are in your hands, Vincent." The old woman said coolly. Vincent knew that Keeper had likely never asked for help in her life. "If you won't help us, there's nobody else who can. And all this, will be remembered. And being remembered is the worst thing that could happen to us."
And that was effectively the last word. It felt like the little meeting was coming to an end, and everyone rose to their feet.
Yasi led him to the edge of her room, and drew back the hanging that served as a door/wall. There was no hallway, no steps. The chamber just stopped at the edge, the room itself like a cave in a cliff wall. Vincent shook off the sudden vertigo as the air beyond opened for him.
"We'll take you home now." Archivist said.
Vincent spun on him. "But... I just got here."
"It's best that you don't spend too long with us." Yasi said. "There's a reason that your world doesn't know we exist."
"But I know." Vincent said. "How do you know you can trust me?"
"You know one way in." Yasi explained. "This time tomorrow, that entrance will be gone. Sealed tight. You can lead the entire city to that subway station and spend an hour clawing at the floor. You won't find anything, and you'll be locked in a nuthouse for your trouble."
"There are old asylums down here too, Vincent." Keeper put in. "You don't want to be in a place like that, even if the ones up there are cleaner."
"And that's assuming you'll ever find anyone that believes you anyway." Archivist added. "Come on. I'll go with you."
Vincent sent Yasi a quick glance, but she was already at the entrance. He watched as she rose from her crouch and launched herself upwards; a standing spring that took her five feet up, to catch the ledge Keeper had dropped from, and from there she launched herself at the ropes. Her movements were liquid steel. He followed her, peeking at Archivist out of the corner of his eye. There was no way the old man would be able to handle the climb down...
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind, when Archivist simply stepped off the edge, flashing his cane out. He caught the rope with the handle and seemed to zip-line down the ropes to the platform.
Vincent didn't question it. It was the latest in a long list of impossible things that had happened to him since he got on the subway that night.
~oo00oo~
Yasi started to lead him home, and he put a hand out. "Can we take the long way?" He asked meekly. A child asking to stay out longer to play.
"We really shouldn't." Yasi said. "Keeper said we needed to be straight with you. That doesn't mean we have to tell you everything."
"Did Keeper say that you should get me out of here the fastest possible way, before I see anything interesting?"
"Yes."
"Oh. That's disappointing." Vincent complained, and Archivist's deep bass chuckle echoed behind him.
They had returned to the lowest level, back to where the water lapped gently. Vincent's eyes had adapted, and he looked closer. He could see the water marks where the boats had risen and fallen. He boarded the boat, Yasi taking a seat in front of him, Archivist standing behind with the pole.
They took a different route, moving away from the chamber down one of the omnipresent tunnels. There were hundreds of them on the lowest part of the chamber, and Vincent began to get an idea of how this world worked. The Twelfth Level Chamber was the heart of the Underground, with the lowest part of it filled with water. Artificial rivers leading through hundreds of pipes, each big enough to walk through without ducking.
It was hard not to be intimidated by the scale of the place, made all the more awesome by being subterranean.
Archivist had drawn something from his vest and passed it forward to Yasi. The small device looked like a small windup alarm clock, only made from polished brass, with a handle instead of alarm bells. Yasi wound the key several times, and Vincent could hear something winding up like a fan in response. A moment later the front of the device glowed, and Vincent laughed. It was a flashlight.
They went into the pipe, slowly paddling along through still waters.
"Don't touch the water." Yasi warned him as he tried to get a look at the water beneath the boat. "Dangerous."
"Alligators in the sewers?" Vincent asked, stunned.
"Alligators on higher levels. Down here... Riverfolk."
"Who are they?" Vincent asked with interest.
"Don't ask." Yasi said immediately, with a voice that spoke of absolute doom.
"Where are you taking me?"
Archivist fielded that one. "We detoured you tonight. We can drop you off closer to home at least." There was a smile in his voice, and Vincent suddenly realized why he was being taken a different way. Archivist was quietly showing him more of the Secret City.
~oo00oo~
"What is that music?" Vincent asked. "It's beautiful."
"The Met." Archivist said. "There are steam pipes that still run through the whole city. All the old buildings. All the new buildings with old buildings within or beneath them. Plus a few where we added pipes ourselves when you weren't looking. When the city went electric, the pipes never got taken out, so we open and close them as we like. We can echo sounds through the whole underground. What you're hearing is the New York Philharmonic rehearsing for a concert tomorrow."
Beats the hell out of elevator music. Vincent thought to himself, as the three of them walked down the Gothic underground path to the sound of echoing chamber music.
"In an hour or two we'll close those pipes, open another set that lead to an old movie theater on the West Side." Yasi added. "They're playing Planet of the Apes."
Vincent's head jerked around to look at her, amused. She nodded blandly. "Yeah. We know all about New York. We know what movies are playing, what the Museums are showcasing, what the hottest restaurant is, where the best clubs are, who's playing what game, and what's on TV."
"This is our town too, Vincent. Our city has its own spirit, its own soul." Archivist crooned. "We just live under Park Avenue instead of above it. Every inch of this city is our home. Places you don't even know about."
Vincent watched Yasi for a time, and followed. "What exactly do you do here?"
Yasi didn't look back. "Security. I'm the one that makes sure we stay hidden, makes sure the other Secret Cities don't start with us."
"There are others?"
"Sure." Archivist said behind them. "Every city has lost places, lost people."
Vincent just went with it, listening to their footsteps echo. "You were serious before, weren't you? About the way I came in vanishing after I'm gone."
"The ways in and out change all the time." Yasi counseled him. "The tunnels can be latched so that they're easy to open, or sealed up like they were never there. The place we showed you is Twelfth Level. It's where most of us live in the West Side. The levels go down, like on an elevator. The first level is closest to where people not unlike you live. The sewers, the phone lines, the subways… Below that is us. We let ourselves in through subway tunnels, through manhole covers, through building foundations. You have rush hour traffic, we have The Rhythm."
"The Rhythm?"
"The Rhythm of the Underground." Archivist explained. "The Underground is largely closed. Not exactly airtight, but we can seal a lot of the ways in and out at will, so... every breeze that comes in can only do so if it goes out somewhere. Every pipe or tunnel that floods has to have an exit. Sewer lines can flood, rainwater can overwhelm subways stations… The ways in and out change every day, every hour. We follow the Rhythm of the place. One tunnel is clear to walk, another needs a boat. The Rhythm changes with the tide or the weather or the people who live here, and suddenly this boat we just used will be beached, or the tunnel you came in through is full of sewage."
"Incredible." Vincent whispered. "It's like my city. I'm a city planner. When someone wants to put up a stoplight or a crosswalk, we have to decide if..."
"If it screws up the Rhythm in New York." Archivist agreed. "We have planners too. When we make changes, add things, someone has to make sure it doesn't screw things up. That's what I do. An Archivist is a knowledge-dealer. Especially when it comes to the Underside. You and I are in the same business."
Vincent grinned, despite himself.
~oo00oo~
The path turned upward, and suddenly there were stairs. Spiral staircases that went up for hundreds of feet. The Underground people were well used to it, to the point of being almost superhuman in their endurance. Vincent had been puffing the whole time, until they came to another intersection. This tunnel was lit warmly with more of those kinetic lanterns.
The tunnel was full of people. Young, old, male, female. They were all dirty, but unashamed of it. They were hard workers, and it showed on their faces. They were all carrying loads. Some of them had old trolleys or wheelbarrows, most just had packs of goods piled high on their backs as they trudged through the intersection, heading toward the Main Chamber. Vincent assumed so at least. He was so turned around that he didn't have a clue where any of this was leading.
"We have to pause here for a while." Yasi said. "The largest cargo gets the right of way."
Vincent didn't care that she was taking pity on the poor, out of shape, surface dweller. He just collapsed as he looked around the much wider, much higher tunnel. It was as ornate as the Main Chamber, with paintings on the walls like cave dwellers had hand-painted them. Vincent looked and realized that one of the stick figure sketches on the wall was of him in the boat with Yasi. "How?"
"The kids." Yasi said, as though that explained everything. "They see everything. And everything they see they draw. It helps them. It's good for us too. Keeps the history."
"The Gremlins get everywhere." Archivist added. "Eventually, we have to paint over the walls on this level. That's okay though. We always have more paint."
"From where?"
Archivist waved at the large caravan of human pack-mules passing by.
"Who are they?" Vincent asked, the questions just kept coming non-stop.
"Those are the Borrowers." Archivist said richly.
"What do they borrow?"
"Everything. Have you ever misplaced your keys?"
"Sure."
"Ever find a jacket in the back of your closet? One that's been hanging there in the back so long, you forgot you still had it?"
"I… don't really look in the back of my closet that often."
"Ever bring your washing in, and find that you're one sock short?"
"Sure, everyone does that at one time or another."
Silence. Yasi just smiled at him. "Just wait. It'll come to you."
Vincent felt his jaw drop. "You guys steal stuff?"
"Borrow. There's a difference. When we need people to go Above, they need to fit in. We… borrow things, to see what they look like, how they work, if we can copy them, if we can adapt it to our lives here. Then of course, we give the original back. It's our way. And if it's the sort of thing that won't be missed… Well, you'll see a lot of people down here wearing mismatched socks, Vincent."
Vincent nodded, having seen it already. "I suppose that's where you guys get everything. The clothes, the bits and pieces on your shelves, the books…"
She shrugged. "How many books get thrown away in this town? You lose a few pages, tear the cover, and you buy a new copy. We repair them. This place is the second chance for all the garbage of your world. Clothes, books, machines, people. My world is made of the stuff that your world has cast off."
One of the tall lanterns dimmed. Yasi went over to it and pressed on the base with her foot, and Vincent was able to see the foot pedal set into the lamp. She worked the pedal with her foot a few times, and the light brightened. The engineer in Vincent marveled. Kinetic torches were not a new idea, but these people had improvised them, and likely had done so for years. Even decades.
Vincent shook his head in open wonder. "How is it possible that we never noticed you? That nobody ever noticed you?"
Yasi did not show the slightest hint of sympathy on her face. "Let me ask you this." She said. "How many stairs are there out the front door of your apartment building, Vincent?"
He blinked. He'd gone up and down those stairs to his apartment at least a thousand times. Probably more. "Um…" He racked his brains, before giving in and chuckling at his own foolishness. "I don't know."
"Exactly. If you saw us, you'd think we were robbing the place, but you wouldn't wonder where we came from."
"Plus, it is New York. A woman wearing combat boots and a leather corset isn't even close to the weirdest thing I've seen on the subway." Vincent grinned.
Yasi almost smiled at that.
~oo00oo~
There were more stairs, then ladders. Vincent could tell when they were leaving the Secret City and entering simply abandoned places. There was mess and debris all over the place, rusted refuse and heavy graffiti.
"Don't think I haven't noticed. I'm not stupid." Yasi said after a while, without any real anger. "You're taking the long way."
"Yasi, you know it takes a lot longer to go up than down." Archivist said patiently.
"Yes, it does. Especially if you go around in circles and take the long way." Yasi said. "We don't do that."
"We can't ask him to save a place he's never seen." Archivist said sagely.
"It's my job to protect our secrets." Yasi told him softly, mindful of Vincent right there.
"Today it's his job too." Archivist returned earnestly, giving the final word on the matter.
Yasi sighed, conceding it was true. "Fine. But you're telling Keep why we took so long."
Archivist shivered. "Flip you for it. Two out of three falls."
"Nope."
Archivist sighed. "Then I'm going to need something to eat."
"Eighth Level Market. We showed him everything else this far." Yasi sighed.
Vincent stayed very quiet.
~oo00oo~
The room they were in looked like it had been a cafeteria once, but now it had been stripped out and turned into something else. Neon lights had been bent around the corners, and over the stalls.
The people were varied and organized. They gathered as people in New York did, concentrated around fires, making trades, traveling back and forth to places Vincent couldn't even guess at. Some were working, hammering odd bits into shapes. People moved back and forth between tents and tin stalls filled with strange bits and pieces, and it finally dawned on Vincent what he was looking at. It was another marketplace! A street Bazaar, at the heart of a subterranean world, smaller than the one he'd seen at Twelfth Level, but with a wider range of things.
The stalls were tents and huts, with people sitting in their doorways, and their wares up for sale out front.
The Entrance was guarded by some of the scariest people Vincent had ever seen, even in New York. They met Yasi's eyes and bowed deferentially to her. Archivist went into the marketplace, leaving Vincent and Yasi out front. Vincent started to follow, when she put out a hand and stopped him. "Market Rules. Only one to a group can trade. This close to the surface, there's too much foot traffic."
Vincent didn't understand, but had given up trying to follow the rules of this crazy place. She led him to an alcove in the tunnel, one of several dozen such alcoves. Getting used to the constant twilight, Vincent could just barely make out the shapes of people moving in some of them, waiting for people to leave the Market.
Yasi wound the lantern again, and it glowed merrily. She placed it between them as they waited, sitting in relative privacy. It was the first real chance he'd had to rest, and Vincent was suddenly aware of a low chorus of whispering. The sound seemed to come from everywhere. In fact, now that he thought of it, he could hear the low whispers ever since he'd fallen out of his world.
Yasi was at the other end of the alcove, sitting cross-legged, close enough that their knees were almost touching. "What are you thinking?" She asked him finally.
"When I was a kid, I locked myself in my own closet once." Vincent volunteered. "I was trying to get to Narnia."
Yasi grinned. "I love that book. I found a first edition in a dumpster. It took me almost a week to find someone willing to restore it for me."
"First edition. Nice." Vincent said in approval. "You guys live pretty comfortably down here."
"As much as anyone." She answered. "We have all that we need, and not as much as we'd like; just like anyone else in this city. There are those more comfortable than others. The Secret City has many mysteries. Some places I wouldn't go without my whole team and a pump action crossbow."
"Crossbow?"
"Don't use guns down here. Ricochet is a killer." She grinned. "But yeah, we have what we need. Your world lived without wi-fi and Facebook for a long time, and we don't dare blog about our lives. We can make, salvage, repair, scrounge, and adapt most anything your world could possibly use. We live, we laugh, we work, we love, and we hurt. The fact that we live Underground is entirely beside the point. We're just like you."
The more he learned about their lives, the more Vincent wished he'd been born here instead. "Is there nothing our world can offer that interests you?"
Yasi didn't answer right away. "Not really."
Vincent pointed. "Ha! That's a 'yes'."
Yasi looked embarrassed. "It's silly."
"Tell me anyway."
"Well, we can scrounge food, we can borrow equipment, we can make gadgets as we need them. Sometimes..." She held out her hands. They were calloused and strong. "I wish I had soft skin. Moisturizer and stuff doesn't get brought in. I could go up if I wanted, but... it's a luxury. We don't really put a lot of value in luxury." She looked down, embarrassed for the first time. "Anyway, that's... Nobody throws it out till they use it up, people notice if it's missing..."
At that moment, Archivist came back. "Hey. Wasn't sure what you wanted, so I got the stew. Vincent, you won't like the meat we use, so I got the vegetarian option for you."
Vincent calculated the odds of livestock existing in the Underground, and gratefully ate the vegetable stew. It was hot and spicy and the bowl was carved with elaborate designs on the outside.
They ate for a while without speaking. Vincent broke the silence nervously. "What do I tell them?" He asked. "If I do this, they'll ask me why I voted against them laying pipes and cabling through the old infrastructure, and I don't know what to say."
"Tell them whatever you like." Yasi waved it off. "Tell them that doing so will be more expensive, tell them that doing so will be a slow process. Your kind have no patience."
Vincent sent Yasi a look. "You don't like us, do you? People up Above? You don't like us. I thought it was just Keeper, but it's you as well."
Yasi met his eyes coolly. "Vincent, when we figured out it would be you who could help us, we watched you for a while. There's a homeless woman out the front of your building that wasn't there a week ago. What does she look like?"
Vincent froze, not having an answer.
"Have you ever even looked at her?" Yasi challenged. "I have no patience for people who can't look at the world in front of their faces. I don't know you, Vincent; and you've never done me any wrong, so I don't dislike you. But your world cast off the people that I call family, and didn't even notice when they disappeared. I dislike that."
Vincent went silent. "Can't blame you."
And with that, they were done eating.
"What do we do with the bowls?" Vincent asked.
Archivist set down his bowl and pushed it. It skidded loudly across the tiles, and someone reached out and snatched it, almost before Vincent could register the movement.
A low giggle came from behind Vincent, and he spun around to look for the source. There was a nanosecond, just the vaguest hint of something ducking out of sight, but it was gone before Vincent could get a look at it. He turned back and noticed his bowl was gone.
"We're always around." Yasi said with a cold grin.
More giggling from behind them, and Vincent turned to look. Again there was the feel of many tiny people ducking into hiding places, but everything was still by the time his eyes focused enough to look.
"Let's get moving." Archivist boomed.
~oo00oo~
"This is where we say goodbye."
"Where are we?"
"First level. The subway. The closest our two worlds come to touching. 26 routes with 6,200 cars that stop at 468 different subway stations." Yasi put her lantern away, plunging them all into darkness again.
"You were actually paying attention." Archivist commented to her with amusement. "I'm touched."
"Who are you people?" Vincent asked wistfully of the black. The adventure was ending, and far too soon.
"We Are The Lostkind." Archivist said simply, the deep powerful voice gliding off the walls and surrounding him, rich enough to shake his cells apart.
"We are the cast-off, the unworthy, the invisible." Yasi whispered to Vincent, as her fingertips led him through the dark. Their footsteps made no sound, though he could hear his own stumbling feet easily. It was so dark that Vincent wondered if he still existed; if maybe the magic of the underworld had shattered him into the ether.
"We are the ones that you have trained yourselves not to see." Archivist's voice took on a spooky, ethereal quality. "The child that walks alone with purpose, so you assume he is not lost. The filthy beggar that offends your senses, so you turn your eyes away. We are all around you, Vincent. The story of a city is told in the memory of all those that walk through its places. Look around sometime, and you can see the fingerprints of a thousand lives in the walls. We are the living memory of this city, and we have been for a hundred years. Don't be afraid, Vincent. We'll get you home safe."
Vincent shivered, and lost contact with Yasi for a moment. "Wh... Where are you?!" He froze, lost. She was six inches away and he was helpless to find her.
"Shh. You're okay. I'm right here." Her voice promised warmly. "There's nothing to be afraid of in the dark. Nothing that wouldn't be there in the light." Her voice led him through the darkness, a darkness so deep he could not see his own feet. There was just his arm, reaching straight out blindly ahead of him, her fingertips pulling him along through the barest touch, and her voice, haunting and strong, asking for no pity, and giving no forgiveness. "You're with us here, and this is our world. We are the 'they' that people speak of in whispers, the Gremlins that flit away when you notice something move behind you, the Ghosts in the Machine. But we are not the enemy, and we are not afraid."
Her calloused fingertips led his hand to a sudden stop, and his fingers closed automatically around a steel ladder rung. He waved his other hand forward in the dark and felt another above it.
"Now climb." She commanded softly. "And forget that you ever met us, Vincent McCall."
He did so, spellbound. He could not disobey her words, did not even think to try, as he emerged into open air. The streetlights and buildings above him were so utterly normal that Vincent felt stunned by it.
Clank.
He spun around, and saw that the manhole cover had slipped back into position. It was fixed in place like it had never shifted at all.
The rain was light and the air was crisp and cold. It was not unlike getting a bucket of ice-water thrown in his face, and he wondered if he'd dreamed it. The spell of Yasi and the Underground had broken the instant he had seen the sky, seen the city lights. It seemed too fantastic to be real. It couldn't possibly be true.
He walked for a while, wandering the city without seeing it. All he saw was the Underside, the caverns, the people, and Yasi. By the time his mind escaped the Labyrinth, he barely registered where he was.
He noticed a 24 hour pharmacy across the street and grinned, despite himself.
~oo00oo~
"You think he'll help us?"
"I think it's more likely he'll have a swarm of reporters down here."
"We sealed the entrances he used."
"He's a City Planner, Yasi. He could find a hundred ways in if he put any thought into it."
"Keeper?" A small voice called from behind them.
Keeper didn't turn to look. "Yes, Tecca? What is it?"
"We found this on the first level. Someone dropped it down a sewer grate. It was marked for Yasi."
"You know you shouldn't be on the first level without Wotcha. You're too young." Keeper told him.
"Yes'm." Tecca said, and handed over the object in question.
It was a bottle of skin moisturizer. Someone had written on the side in black marker: 'For Yasi, Twelfth Level.'
Keeper watched Yasi critically. "Hmm. Didn't realize you two were giving gifts."
The younger Lostkind didn't bother to respond to that.

~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

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