Tunnel City

I sat with my back to the girl in labour. Of course, at my age, anyone younger than twenty harvests is considered to be a girl. I could hear her screams, her panting. I could hear the midwife reassuring her, telling her to push. I could hear the girl cursing and swearing, threatening to bring down the wrath of Light onto the absent father of the child she was pushing into existence. The pain of labour always brings out the best humour – and language – in a woman.

In Tunnel City, the greatest respect you could show any other person was to turn your back on them, giving them some privacy. Aside from the midwife and myself, the labouring girl had an entire platform to herself. Anyone with an urgent need to pass, did so with their eyes carefully averted. The hope we all felt for this mother was reflected in the eyes of anyone who happened to meet my gaze as they scurried past.

I knew her by sight, of course, but we’d never spoken. The new mother lives on the second level, and I live on level seven. There’s little interaction between the different levels; the only time they mingle is during services at the Church of Binda. The Religious Centre is on level five, right at the heart of Tunnel City.

Eventually, the mother let out a primal scream as a baby cried through its first breath.

“I have it!” the midwife declared. “It’s a boy!”

The mother’s panting rose into another scream; however, this time, the wail was full of emotional pain and anguish. The midwife placed the baby into my arms as the new mother sobbed.

“Ruello,” the midwife told me, her voice professionally flat and unemotional. “Recycle it.”

The mother must already have a son.

* * *

Birth Attendant is my second job, purely an ad-hoc position. As I worked my way Down to level six, where the Recycling Machine is located, Light grew dim and the temperature grew colder. For at least the hundredth time since I’d been woken, halfway through my sleep cycle to attend this birth, I wished I lived on the second level, just below the King’s palace on level one, luxuriating in Light and rarely needing to climb. And, for at least the hundredth time, I shook my head, hoping to dislodge that wistful, almost resentful, thought: that way lay despair and misery. I live on level seven and would never move any higher.

Eventually I reached level six, carefully carrying the screaming, squirming bundle in my arms, and approached the chute that fed the Recycling Machine. It is told, in reverent, hushed tones at story gatherings, that many generations ago there’d been multiple Recycling Machines. Their chutes had been much larger and fluted, with wide lips and shiny surfaces. Now, all that remains is a single machine with a square hole, surrounded by a stubby outcropping which bears the scars of where the magnificent fluted lip and chute had been ripped away. Resources are scarce; extraneous machines with large fluted chutes are pure extravagance.

I glanced around surreptitiously, making sure I wasn’t observed. As I’d expected, nobody took any notice of me. People deliberately go out of their way to avoid me during reclamation birth dumps, and news of reclamation births spreads quickly.

“I’m not supposed to acknowledge you as a real being,” I whispered to the crying babe in my arms. “However, you draw breath. You’re warm in my arms. I wish things were different. I wish you weren’t just a waste of resources that need to be reclaimed. I wish you could live. I wish you could love. May the Light embrace you, and may Binda welcome you.”

I fed the baby boy to the Recycling Machine.

* * *

I climbed down the chain to level seven, feeling a little flat and empty as I always do after a reclamation birth dump, and decided to visit Glinala. There was little time to spare before going to work at my main job, Collector, but the pull to visit my wife was strong. Our sleeping sack was on the other side of Tunnel City from where I stood, so I made my way across and over the various walkways and platforms. Tunnel City isn’t very wide, so it’s not a long journey. The city consists of nine levels of humanity, strung across a tunnel with a diameter of 500 metres. The tunnel is at least ten kilometres long, and we humans are clinging to its sides at mid-point.

Glinala had just woken up and was eating her morning Sustenance, one product of the Recycling Machine. It’s boring and tedious, but it keeps us healthy. Glinala had a tan from working as a Supervisor at a farm on level one. Sometimes she brings home fresh produce. The higher up in the levels of Tunnel City you live, the less Sustenance you need to supplement in your diet.

“Ruello!” she exclaimed happily as she saw me coming. “Would you like some water?”

She reached inside her layers of clothing and withdrew her water container. Below level five, you need to keep your water close to your body or it becomes ice. Above level five, it stays liquid. The lower you are in the levels, the faster water freezes. I shook my head at her offer.

“Are you feeling OK?” she asked, concern in her loving eyes.

“It was a reclamation birth,” I answered.

“Oh, Binda protect the poor soul,” she said automatically, moving her hands in the shape of a globe as she closed her eyes and whispered a silent prayer to Binda. I joined her, remembering the warmth of the babe in my arms as I fed him to the Recycling Machine.

“Your timing is awful,” she continued after a few moments. “I’m just about to go to work. It’s time to vacate the sack for the next shift.”

Only the Royal Family had dedicated sleeping quarters. All other residents of Tunnel City share the sleeping sacks which hang from the walkways and platforms threading the levels. Two other families share our sack, which we now need to vacate for our work cycle so another family can begin their sleep cycle.

Very little Light filters this far down into Tunnel City. Sleeping sacks and public platforms are strategically placed to catch the patches of available Light and, as a result, levels eight and nine are even darker than level seven. I stood in a spot of Light that somehow managed to dapple through, despite the dense six levels above us.

“I can’t stay,” I told Glinala. “I just wanted to see you since I was passing through.”

Glinala and I have been together for thirty harvests, and we’re happy. We had our allotment of children: one boy and one girl who have both grown up, now living in their own sleeping sacks with their mates. Our daughter has even produced her first child. She’s mated well, living on level five. Glinala makes time each day to visit both children and their families on her way to or from work.

We had one reclamation birth – another boy after our son was born – before the birth of our daughter. We stopped having sexual intercourse after reaching our allotment of children; we’re both emotionally incapable of dealing with any further reclamation births. Reclamations are essential – we understand that on a rational level. They’re also mandated by Royal Decree and supported by Church Doctrine; however, that doesn’t make them any easier to accept.

Glinala planted a tender kiss on my cheek as we went our separate ways to start our work cycle.

* * *

When I was young, my first job allocation was Top Level Scraper. Above level one – the level with the farmlands and the Royal Family’s Palace – a net of wide mesh covers the entire diameter of the tunnel. This net catches any large objects that come down the tunnel, preventing them from doing any damage to the levels below. The objects are either lumps of rock, or lumps of ice. The Top Level Scrapers collect these objects and feed them to the Recycling Machine. Working so high Up awards a person a certain status, no matter which level you call home.

I enjoyed working in the Light. Crawling across the net, I could look Down at the farmlands which flourish in the Light. I could also see the Palace, the only enclosed structure in the whole of Tunnel City. I was fascinated by the waste of Light and resources – it had a roof over the sleeping quarters! Such an extravagant waste. I could also see glimpses of the second level in the gaps between the farmlands: gaps designed to allow Light to filter into the lower levels.

Looking Up from the net, all I could see was the tunnel. It extended up for several kilometres, ending in a circle of white which is the source of the ever-present Light. The Light helps the crops grow on the level one farmlands, and feeds warmth to the upper levels. Occasionally – maybe once per generation – an ambitious youngster would start a movement to explore the tunnel, but their dreams are always dashed when they realise the extent of our resource shortage. Tunnel City simply can’t spare the resources required to explore the tunnel, neither Up nor Down.

As I grew older and less nimble, I moved from Top Level Scraper to Bottom Level Scraper. I was happy in both of these positions, as they each allowed me to leave my home level. Most workers in Tunnel City work in maintenance, servicing the platforms and walkways of their home level. As a result, they never go Up nor Down – except for services at the Church of Binda. Eventually, as age crippled my limbs and hands, I became the Cone Collector. This position also allowed me to move between the levels, but my swollen joints no longer enjoyed the adventure.

My ad-hoc position as Birth Attendant also involves the possibility of climbing to any level of Tunnel City, at any time. On one memorable occasion, I even attended a Royal birth in the King’s Palace. Happily, that wasn’t a reclamation birth – not even the Royal Family can sidestep the Royal Decrees they lay down.

I met Glinala when I was young, working as a Top Level Scraper. Back then, she was a junior Farm Hand. I had seen and admired her on several occasions, but never entertained the idea she had also noticed me. One work cycle as I was climbing Up to the top net, I had the opportunity to talk to her. She’d slipped on a wet walkway, spilling a basket of fresh produce which was on its way to the Royal kitchen, so I helped her pick up the vegetables. A few sleep cycles later she moved into a sleeping sack with me on the seventh level. Her parents disowned her – moving down from level five was a scandal – but we were happy.

* * *

Climbing my way Down, I noticed a pile of refuse on level eight which was obviously destined for the Recycling Machine. The Machine breaks down everything into its base elements, both mineral and organic, and produces the items necessary for Tunnel City: maintenance materials, clean water, and Sustenance. Any unused organic matter is used as fertiliser on the farmlands. The Recycling Machine is rumoured to be as old as Tunnel City – maybe even older. Rody, level eight’s Recycler, stood nearby, merely watching as workers added to the pile.

“Rody,” I called out. “I’ll take a load with me when I climb back Up.” I waved my arm at the pile of refuse, wanting to be helpful. Rody was not known for  his work ethic.

“Fuck you, old man,” he replied. “You can do the whole fucking lot.” He turned his back to me, so I continued climbing Down. The Monitors can deal with him. He should cart his rubbish, while he can.

Level nine is the lowest level of Tunnel City. No Light filters through down here; it’s always dark and cold. People sleep in large groups to conserve their warmth. Fluids freeze within seconds of exposure to the cold. It’s a cold and lawless level – even the Monitors don’t come here. Level nine is often the source of insurrection, where the discontent of workers bubbles over into rage. I understand what they’d like to achieve, and maybe even sympathise a little with their sentiment – I just don’t know how we can feasibly achieve it

The Monitors watch the residents of Tunnel City. They ensure births are legal – each female can only give birth to one male child and one female child to ensure the population remains stagnant. The Monitors also supervise work teams. They enforce respect for other people, and adherence to the laws of Tunnel City. However, the Monitors avoid level nine; the threat of violence and rebellion is only ever a terse word away.

Level nine is also the home of the dishonest, the criminal, and the disenfranchised. It’s not uncommon to find level nine residents missing an arm or two, a common penalty imposed by the Monitors. You stole something? Try stealing without an arm. You don’t want to perform your job? We’ll take your arms, since you aren’t using them. The Recycling Machine is a hungry beast, and the city could use the resources.

“Hey!” I yelled at some children who were pinholing – a game they play which is wasteful of both time and resources. “Stop that!”

They just laughed at me, pursuing some infantile need for a successful pinhole. I waved dismissively at them as I climbed down the ladder between level nine and the bottom net.

“It’s ironic,” I mumbled to myself. I noticed myself doing that, more and more of late. “The lower you go, the higher the level of disrespect and malcontent.”

* * *

Beneath level nine is the bottom net – the fine mesh net where the Bottom Level Scrapers work. It’s designed to catch everything that falls from the levels above. It even catches loose and spilled fluids, as they freeze during their fall. The mesh of the bottom net is much finer than the mesh of the top net, so it doesn’t require as much agility to work there. However, even my years of working on the bottom net are behind me. I’m no longer that agile. I made my way even further Down – to the Cone.

The Cone is the lowest point of Tunnel City. It’s a solid, taut sheet of flexible material, attached to the sides of the tunnel in as many places as possible to ensure maximum coverage of the diameter. It slopes downwards from the sides to a low point in the centre. Anything that makes it through the bottom net ends up on the Cone, rolling or sliding into the centre. My job is to collect these things and recycle them

Arguments are often debated in the Royal Court for the dismantling of either the Cone or the bottom net. It seems a redundant system, some would argue, which is a waste of resources. Do we really need the bottom net? Yes, it protects the Cone from any large or sharp objects that could damage it. Do we really need the Cone, or is it just a waste of more resources than it actually saves? Yes, we need it. We can’t afford to let any resources escape Down the tunnel. None.

After reaching the Cone, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. There’s no direct Light here at all, and very little ambient Light filters through down here. After my eyes adjusted, I carefully made my way up to the lip of the Cone closest to me. It’s hard walking on the surface of the Cone – it’s soft and spongy underfoot, despite a temperature that could freeze a tear on your cheek within seconds of leaving your eye.

At the lip of the Cone, I can actually touch the tunnel wall. It’s cold, and feels just like the materials used to build our walkways and ladders. Between the lip of the Cone and the tunnel wall there’s a small gap, one of hundreds of identical gaps caused by the flexible material pulling away from the tunnel wall between the anchor points where the Cone is fixed.

One of my duties as Cone Collector is to monitor the Down tunnel exit for changes. I gingerly got down onto my hands and knees and looked over the lip of the Cone, straight Down. It’s similar to looking Up from the top net; however, instead of a bright source of Light at the end of the tunnel, there’s merely a slightly discoloured disc: the Deprivation Disc. This disc is the same size as the disc of Light that is Up, but this disc is dark. It’s only visible because it’s slightly less dark than the tunnel wall that leads Down to it.

Happy that no changes were visible, I tentatively worked my way into the centre of the Cone. Once there, I spotted three yellow icicles and cursed loudly at the waste. The icicles indicated three successful pinholes – the game played by children where they urinate off the walkways of the ninth level. Typically, the urine freezes during the descent and falls onto the bottom net. However, if a child gets the angle just right, the long yellow icicle passes right through the fine holes in the mesh of the bottom net and ends up rolling into the bottom of the Cone.

Something was wrong, however. One of the yellow icicles was sticking straight up, not lying flat like the others. Somehow, it had imbedded itself in the Cone. I pulled it free, then knelt down to look for damage. There was a small hole. As I watched, the hole became a small tear. Then the taut, flexible material of the Cone began to rip. The two yellow icicles lying on the Cone fell through the gap, and I gasped. My heart started to pound as the gap widened. The surface of the Cone beneath me became loose.

Screaming incoherently for help, I gripped both sides of the rip and struggled to hold them together. I prayed to the Light for strength, hoping I could keep the tear from growing any wider until help arrived. However, the rip continued to tear at the other end. The taut surface of the Cone became even looser and more unstable.

My old, arthritic hands weren’t up to the task, unfortunately. Despite my desperate attempts to hold the Cone together, the material slipped from my grasp and the tear ripped open with an audible finality, complaining about a complete loss of tension. The Cone no longer supported me, and I tumbled through the flailing flaps.

* * *

At first I fell in a blind panic. I flailed my arms and legs wildly as I tumbled through the darkness. However, after a few seconds, I became more aware and rational. I stopped struggling and managed to twist and face Down, watching the dark disc at the bottom of the tunnel grow larger as I fell.

I’ve never wondered what was outside the tunnel – I left that to the great thinkers of the schools on the second level. There were many theories, however. The most popular theory was the one put forward by the Church: Up was Binda, the source of Light, a planet of infinite resources which could support us indefinitely; Down was Deprivation, a zone of complete darkness where you floated forever, totally devoid of any stimulation or resources.

My immediate concern as I fell was for Tunnel City. It couldn’t afford to lose the resources in my aging body. The city couldn’t even spare the resources in those three yellow icicles, which were falling with me into the darkness.

Realising there was nothing I could do about that loss of resources, I relaxed and watched the approaching circle – the Deprivation Disc. There appeared to be a diffuse light in the disc, which became more apparent the further I fell. The diffuse light disproves at least one part of the Church’s theory – Deprivation isn’t a zone of complete darkness. Soon, I will become the first resident of Tunnel City to learn the truth of what lies outside the Down exit of the tunnel. I hope I can report back, one day.

The light grew brighter and the disc grew bigger. Eventually, I rocketed out of the base of the tunnel. What I saw below me overwhelmed my senses.

“Oh, Binda!” I struggled to say. The words struggled to escape my throat, due to the sudden rush of wind. I made the religious gesture of the globe with my hands as I continued to fall.

There were vast amounts of resources below me. There was light, and water, and vast tracts of earth. There appeared to be large expanses of vegetation. I had no point of reference, no way to comprehend how far the resources extended, but I knew I was falling towards the planet, Binda.

As I fell, the air grew thicker. It became even more difficult to breathe. I looked around, surprised to see the landscape disappearing, curving off into a horizon in all directions. I gazed in wonder at the vista below me, my hands constantly shaping the globe of Binda. I was fast becoming light headed, my vision turning grey.

The last thing I saw before my vision greyed out was a flat, land-based city full of people, completely unaware I was plummeting towards them. I may have taken an unorthodox path to get to Binda, but I was definintely there. The Church states that we all end up in Binda, but they don’t mean it literally. Yet here I was.

I will miss Glinala, but I am at peace. My life has been long, happy, and productive. I can go to Binda, content in the knowledge I’ve earned the right to be there.

I closed my eyes and fell.