by Alan Loewen
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For Amanda and Nick
To say the air stank of diesel would be an obvious understatement. Fifteen levels below the surface of the city of Harrisburg, fresh air was a precious and sometimes unattainable luxury.
Amanda and I sat on the oily floor of a narrow service tunnel waiting for Nick to return from his scouting and scavenging run. Many more levels below us, diesel converters created the new life blood of a world far different from the one of my childhood. Even though separated by miles, my body thrummed in resonance with the vibrations of their unceasing labor.
When American scientists found a way to create cheap diesel fuel from elements deep within the Earth, an unholy marriage of mechanical engineering, nanotechnology, and cheap fuel collapsed the government to make way for corporations, the true purveyors of power. The Middle East went bankrupt, the dollar soared, pollution went out of control, and lifespans dropped. The Age of Diesel reigned supreme.
“See Nick yet?” Amanda asked. I looked through the grating into the dimly lit hallway.
“Not yet,” I said.
“Think a Custodian found him?”
“How would we know?” We sat in silence for a few moments. “I’ll tell you what," I said, if only for the comfort of hearing myself speak, "Let’s give him a half hour. If he’s not back by then, we’ll set out on our own.”
“A shower," Amanda said with a sigh. "A shower would be so welcome right now.” .
I looked at her and smiled. “Oil is supposed to be good for the skin.”
She plucked at her tresses. “Certainly not good for the hair. I can’t remember the last time I had a shower. If we can get out of here …” Amanda was interrupted by the sound of running feet making staccato echoes down the hall.
I peered through the grate, ready to duck back into the shadows. “It’s Nick!” I said.
Opening the grate I held out my hand. Deftly, Nick grabbed it and with a leap, slipped into the access tunnel next to me.
“Close it up!” he hissed at me. “Custodian!”
I managed to close the grate just in time as a Custodian lumbered into view. It walked out of a cloud of its own exhaust, its diesel engine purring inside it. An ambulatory ball of metal and hate, it had its weapons at ready. Instinctively, I pulled back from the grating as Nick and Amanda slid back into deeper shadow.
It lumbered past our hiding place and I noticed that a small spray of fuel jetted out its back where a large knife had penetrated a chink in its armor.
We waited until it was out of hearing and it was only then I noticed how hard I was trembling.
“Nick,” I said, “it was injured. You do that?”
He grinned at me and pulled three protein bars from his pocket. “Yeah, I tried to sever its fuel line, but they’re buried rather deep. Gotta get me another knife now though.” He tossed a bar to Amanda and me and then ripped one open for himself. “Had a little trouble getting these,” he said as he waved the bar in my face. “Store owner didn’t like me taking them without paying so he screamed for a Custodian.” His grin got broader. “And got some even better news. Met a contact. Found a place where you and Amanda can hide for three days. After that, there's sure to be some other group of rebels to keep them busy. They’ll forget all about us.”
Amanda looked up from her protein bar. “You said the hiding place was for Father Bowser and me. What about you?”
Nick spoke through a mouth full of protein bar. “Got a place too. It helps to have a network, but my personal hidey-hole only has room for one.”
I shook my head. “Nick, it's too dangerous. You don’t know how badly they want us.”
Nick waved his hand at me. “You worry too much. You guys will be as safe as if you were back in your sainted mothers’ arms.” He leaned in close. “There’s a guy I know who isn’t very happy with the Corporation Hegemony. He’s got a perfect cover for rebels like us.” He pointed at Amanda and me. “You two are going to become new converts to the Zen Blessed Iron Meditation Sacellum.”
“Are you out of your ever loving mind?” I asked. “If you think …”
Again, he waved his hand in front of my face to silence me. “It’s just a cover, preacher man. You fret too much.” He scooted forward to survey the hallway.” “It’s clear,” he said. “Not a soul, living or metallic.”
Carefully he pushed the grate open. “Don’t close it,” he said to us before he dropped to the floor below. “We might need to come running back here.”
I let Amanda go next and she gracefully jumped down to join Nick. Moving my legs over the edge I took an assessment of the drop. “Stand back,” I instructed. “I’m going to make a racket when I land.”
True to form, my fall was not graceful and the impact of my metal prosthetic legs on the floor created a deep echo that resonated down the hall. We stood still for a moment waiting for sign the echoes had roused a Custodian or something even worse. Delving deep into the earth’s guts to get at the elements that created diesel, we had stirred up things best left alone like rock slugs or slime molds.
After a moment, we took off down the hall, following Nick who stopped at every corner and intersection to scope things out. We met the occasional worker and even surprised a group of drones, unemployed humans who scavenged the underground tunnels for spoil. Dangerous though they might be, they weren’t in the mood to tackle two healthy looking people and an old man with oil-stained metal legs. I might be a cripple, but if I kick you, you’re not getting up right away, if ever.
It was up two levels in the main tunnels we had to be extra careful. Custodians stood on guard and even though we would be hidden by the crowds, our safety would be iffy at best.
Eventually, we made it to the market level. Moving carefully through the mass of humanity, the smell of fried rat and fresh-baked protein bars from the food courts made our mouths water, but we had no credits and it was too risky for a snatch-and-grab. Not when we could see three ambulatory mechanical balls standing still and silent over by the far wall, Custodians that could kill us in a heartbeat.
It was off on a side tunnel that we found an old mechanical shop with a symbol of the Zen Blessed Iron Meditation Sacellum below its name. An old man came out, wiping diesel off his hands with an already deeply-stained rag. He spat on the floor and his saliva was as brown as the fuel he worked with. He looked at Nick. “These the two new converts?” he asked.
Nick grinned. “You got it,” he said. “And they are here for their 72-hours of mandatory meditation to get to the 2nd level"
The mechanic motioned us to follow and deep within the shop, he kicked some garbage away from a stained door. “You’ll be meditating in here,” he said.
The room was just slightly larger than a closet. “You got your 72 hours and then you're gone. Crapper is down the hall. Kitchen is to the left. In the fridge, you get only what’s in the bag. Don’t be touching the rest.” He glared at us for a moment. "And you don't leave this room unless you absolutely have to."
“Appreciate your help,” I said.
“And it would be appreciated if you didn’t talk to me anymore. Now I gotta get back to pounding metal.” Without another word, he turned and walked back toward his workshop.
Amanda hugged Nick and I shook his hand. “You sure you’re gonna be safe?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said. “I’ll pick you up in three days. Try to behave.”
“You too,” I said.
With a grin Nick waved and left us to our temporary shelter.
We never saw him again.
Yet I have my suspicion that Nick made it after all. Last week when the Rebellion swore in the new leadership after winning a two-year long civil war, a man in the background on the vid screen, though looking older and a tad battle weary, bore that same familiar grin.
I can't be certain, but I have that feeling ...