Ami crouched, her swollen belly between her knees, and stabbed the long end of the bleached jawbone deep into the mound. Angry ants swarmed out of the wreckage and flowed up the bone. She tugged it out and sucked up a mouthful.
“Keep going,” he whispered.
She huffed, then stood up, still hungry, and continued walking until she had reached the mouth of the cavern. It had been in her sight for the last three days, a cleft in the bluffs deep in the blasted land. Now she stood at its threshold, weary and wary. She stepped into the shade.
“There’s a vertical shaft in the rear of the cavern, in the depression to the left. It leads to the first chamber.”
She nodded and started for the back, picking her way around jagged rock and thorns. Cobwebs and hanging roots brushed her face. Chortling noise erupted from behind her--cave dwelling tukhlahs.
She bolted, no longer careful where she stepped, their panting and scraping claws right behind her. The jawbone wouldn’t be much defense against a pack of them but she held on to it; she had a plan.
“The shaft is ahead.”
Ahead was a solid wall of rock. But then she spied the narrow gap. She sprinted toward it, and once there, she turned and hurled the bone as far as she could. As she hoped, the scavengers wheeled around to investigate. While they were distracted, she quickly scrutinized the shaft. It was a cramped, rough-hewn tunnel with rusted out metal rungs. She backed in and began to scrabble down, legs splayed, hands and feet grasping and searching for purchase in the crumbly rock. Slabbering howls from above followed her before finally dying away.
She continued to scrabble down, slipping and catching herself and slipping again, before the shaft unexpectedly dropped from beneath her. She fell the rest of the way, landing hard amidst the fallen rubble. She sat stunned in the dark, the only light coming from the opening high above dimly illuminating the sloped tunnel she found herself in.
“I can’t.” she rocked in pain, her lower back spasming. “I feel like Tukhlah shit.”
Ami groaned and stood up, one hand on her lower back, the other leaning on the wall for support. “Go where? It’s too dark to see.”
No return answer.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she screamed. The words echoed down the dark space. But she did as he asked. With one hand grazing the tunnel’s wall and the other held straight out in front, she walked haltingly downward. Soon, all light was extinguished.
As time passed, she stopped worrying and hurried along. Then she ran smack into a low hanging ledge. She fell back, tears starting. She spun and flailed, trying to find empty space, but instead banging into solid rock. “Please, help me!”
She sat down, her head aching.
“Close your eyes.”
She closed her eyes, squeezing out warm tears.
“Breathe. Hold the amulet.”
Ami pulled her amulet from under her thin tunic and gripped it. He had taught her how to calm herself many months ago, to breathe deeply and evenly, while repeating to herself that he was always with her. Her breathing slowly steadied.
“I’m sorry I’m so much trouble.”
“You are young.”
She continued breathing deeply, letting her thoughts wander to the past.
The Umanite had conquered her planet when she was a little girl, bringing the Great Remedy to their backward people, they’d said. That was when the dreams had started: a smooth-skinned child who whispered to her every night. He whispered the truth about the Umanite. They were not the Gods they made themselves out to be.
When she reached the age of menses, it was he who guided her to the Umanite captain and showed her what to do. And, after she had become pregnant, the child had guided her through the blasted land to this place.
She tucked away the amulet and stood up, hand held over her head.
“I didn’t bring you here to die, my beloved,” he whispered. “I will guide you. Go back ten steps and find the main passage.
She did as directed and found open space again. She walked, but not so fast as before. As she moved silently through the pitch black, the air in the tunnel began to change, becoming cooler, smelling of mud.
“There is an opening near your feet--an air duct leading to the main complex below. Crawl through it.”
She got down on her knees, her hands searching for an opening. She found it--the source of the mud-scented air. She got down on all fours and crawled in.
At first, the gently sloping duct was roomy enough to crawl through. But as the rocky passageway narrowed, Ami was forced to crouch low, then to creep along on her side with her belly tilted up, using the walls as leverage.
After some time, the air duct grew steeper and narrower still, and her arms became wedged tight against her body, and she was limited to short jerky movements, a kind of squeezing and pulling with her shoulders followed by pushing off the sides with her feet. Push, pull, push, pull.
She wouldn’t panic this time. He hadn’t brought her here to die. Push, pull, push, pull. Her swollen belly threatened to wedge her in like a clay plug and trickling sweat burned abraded skin.
“Tell me about old Earth again,” she said, her tongue thick in her mouth.
“Are you scared?”
In the months of travelling, he had taught her about Earth before the Fall. He’d told her about the forests and blue skies, the warm blooded mammals and flying birds and giant sea creatures, how fresh water flowed from cold mountain tops through fields of growing, ever replenishing food.
“A thousand years ago, our planet was a paradise...”
“No, no. Tell me again about how clever we used to be.”
“As you wish. We were scientists and explorers. We built thinking machines the size of mountains to run cities soaring into the clouds..”.
As he spoke, Ami thought about the incredible machines the Umanite had brought with them. Rolling, flying, building, curing, thinking machines, their spacecraft flashing like jewels across the sky. Technology, he had explained, was applied knowledge, not magic, as her people assumed. And her people had once had such technology!
Images then flooded her mind--shining structures, cities under emerald oceans, spacecraft ferrying perfect people to cities on a rock circling their planet--a moon long gone. Beautiful world, beautiful moon, beautiful people--gone in a flash.
A final shove, and her head popped out into open space. Fresh air! She cried out with relief, laughing at hearing her voice set free. Light streamed from somewhere in the distance. But it was the sound of running water which caught her attention.
She squirmed forward with all her remaining strength, kicking wildly--her hips and buttocks stuck for one ghastly moment before she finally worked herself free, to fall several lengths onto the hard rock below. She lay dazed, working to catch her breath.
She finally sat up, woozy, and brought a raw knuckle to her parched mouth. Bioluminescent mold clustered throughout the cavern, carpeting the ground in some places, smothering rocky outcrops in others. Their strobing glow contributed a mild green light to the chamber’s mysterious light source.
“Go to the stream.”
She stood up slowly and tugged her thin tunic back into place. Everything hurt. She staggered toward the sound of running water, skirting around cracked rock like sharp teeth. She rushed forward as she neared the stream, compelled by thirst.
She threw herself down on the dewy carpet of mildew clinging to the rocky bank and drank icy water from cupped hands until she felt like she’d burst. The child inside drank deeply, too. She sat up, both mother and child satiated.
“Cross the stream.”
She stood up. Her actions released a glimmering cloud of spore dust as fine as smoke. She laughed and clapped her hands, watching as the dust settled into the crevices and nodules of her dirt slicked arms, making them beautiful.
She waded into the fast moving water, her belly tightening at the shock of the cold. She kept wading out, arms cradling her swollen belly, and then held out to steady her. At its deepest, the water came up to her chin. With numb legs and feet, she clambered out the opposite bank.
“Follow the stream.”
The stream broadened and raced, carving its way through the cavern, tripling in size before branching in two. The smaller branch flowed off to the right, disappearing from sight under a mass of rock. The larger branch rushed forward before pouring over a sheer drop that led to another chamber below, the source of the diffused light. The roar of the fall was deafening.
“Jump from the center of the fall into the pool below.”
Ami crawled to the precipice’s edge and looked down. The waters drained into a lake far below, half obscured in mist. She watched for a long time, observing how the falling water churned and roiled, breaking against protruding ledges, spewing up violent clouds of stinging droplets, drenching her.
She sat up. “I can’t do it.”
“Beloved, I did not bring you here to die.”
“I can’t do it!” She cried hard, banging her fists and feet against the ground. For the first time since she had fled her village, she missed her mother and wished none of this had happened to her.
Her energy sapped, Ami slumped over and sobbed quietly, hiccupping.
She wiped her eyes and nodded; she would do as he asked.
She went to relieve herself first. Despite being alone, she hid behind a looming rock to urinate. She wasn’t the first one behind it. Strange Images and symbols were etched deep into the rock, across the entire surface. Burning cities, tongues of flame, mountains of bones. A cracked pale disc. She ran her fingers over the symbols running alongside the images. Who had made them? She stood up and straightened out her damp and torn tunic.
“What do these…”--she searched for the word--“...writings...mean?”
“They are a record of the Fall,” he said. “Later, I will teach you how to read. Now jump.”
Ami headed back to the stream and waded in. She had to fight the current, strong and wild, in order to reach the center of the slippery ledge where the water rushed over. The torrent tore at her legs. She pulled out her amulet and clutched it tight, then leaped.
She plunged through the mist, falling forever before slicing through icy water, her feet landing lightly on sandy bottom. She hung there for a moment, watching the underwater world, shimmering in the green light, small glowing jelly creatures, bubbles and foam before her need for air compelled her to the surface. She began the long swim to the lake’s shore, then walked out onto a soft carpet of luminescent finger fungi, trailing glowing footprints.
Warmth permeated the lower chamber. She thought about taking off her soaked tunic but she wore nothing beneath it.
“Why are you ashamed?”
“I’m so ugly.” She thought of the Umanite captain and what was beneath the suit. So beautiful.
“You are beautiful, Mother. It is they who should be ashamed. Take off your tunic.”
Glancing around, she tugged the tunic over her belly and head and let it drop with a wet smack. The warmth caressed her naked body. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the heavy, heated air. It felt so good to not be chilled.
Fungi grew thickly near the water--jelly fungi, mud soldiers, yellow blisters, pus whips, dead man’s fingers, shrivel caps. Spongy rot carpeted the ground. Ami felt drowsy from their earthy fumes. Like the fungi growing in the chamber high above this one, many here also pulsed and throbbed with bio-luminosity.
She walked over to a clump of short stemmed mushrooms clinging to the sides of a stony slag, one of her favorites--whores’ nipples. She sat on the slag and began to pinch off fat caps and stuff them into her mouth. She closed her eyes and savored the taste. She ate until she couldn’t eat another one.
“Follow the path ahead.”
She stood up, her hips cranky, her feet swollen and bleeding. She limped along an ancient path of hard-packed earth. She passed rotted out structures, dilapidated machines, decaying banks of forgotten technology. When she leaned over to touch a piece of rusty metal, it disintegrated, leaving behind a bloody scent. But as she continued forward, she began to pass structures and machines which were spotless, as though new. They reminded her of Umanite technology.
What had appeared to be a sheer wall of rock comprising the back of the chamber slowly revealed itself to Ami to be instead a monstrous façade of throbbing, gleaming metal--a machine of some sort. The metallic wall soared upwards, curving threateningly over the chamber, its true height lost in vapor. She came to a dead stop. Barely perceptible, the machine pulsed in and out of focus, each pulse throwing off a glimmer of light. A wave of dread surged through her.
“What is this...thing?”
“Our temptation, our ruin, our salvation.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t bring you here to die.”
Ami started walking again, eyes locked on the gleaming machine still at a distance.
The ground abutting the trembling structure was free of all debris, even dust and grit, only exposed smooth rock visible. From an arm's reach to the ground, the wall bristled with controls, blinking indicators, and strange knobs. Ominous images and symbols crawled across its immense face with each pulse of light.
“What am I to do?”
“Sit and rest. I will finish the story.”
Ami hesitantly placed her palm against the throbbing metal. To her surprise, the metal was warm. Its pulses a vibration from deep inside. She sat down and leaned against it, letting the warmth soak into her aching body.
He began. “A thousand years ago, the Umanite and our people were one race. In the pursuit of knowledge, a group of scientists conceived of and built the Glimmer, an artificial intelligence designed to explore the underlying structure of reality. Too late, they realized they had created a living bio-weapon, capable of pulling apart the fabric of life. The scientists swore to destroy their work but they betrayed each other. Soon, the Glimmer came to us all.
“We feared the weapon, worshiped it. We built underground complexes like this one to house it and to survive it. It gripped our minds, turned us against each other; and then the inevitable happened.
“A small group of people who had anticipated such an event escaped to our colonies throughout the solar system. The Umanite now thrive throughout the galaxy. The rest...a few managed to survive by going underground. We are the descendants of those survivors.”
“Why have they come back?”
“To destroy us.”
She thought about the Umanite, at their extraordinary beauty under the suits--tall and straight, smooth and supple. She recalled their incredible machines and invisible power sources, their spacecraft. Her people had once been them, had had that future. Now her people resembled the fungi which grew in place of the forests. How wretchedly her people lived! How powerful and wonderful were the Umanite! Resentment flared.
“I want to finish.”
“Good. Go to the main control panel.” He flashed an image of the panel’s identity markings.
She stood up and began to limp alongside the metal machine, past flashing green lights and instrument panels, looking for the proper markings. She stopped before a barely perceptible panel, a slot in the center.
“Your amulet is a key. Take it from around your neck and insert it in the slot.”
Ami took off the amulet--a rectangle of smooth metal, finely etched with strange symbols. She rubbed the slightly raised image of a lightning bolt on one side. She had come to love her good luck charm. She slid the key into the aperture. A small, square section of metal vanished, revealing an array of instruments. An outline of an Umanite hand blinked in the center of the panel.
Ami stood on tip toe and placed her small hand flat on the larger hand. A rectangular device unfolded, rows and columns of symbols across its face.
“This part is too difficult to explain. Lay your hands on the keys and I will guide them.”
She did so, and her hands flew across the keys. Symbols streamed across the screen above. Another panel appeared, another device unfolded. Now each hand worked a keyboard. She recognized the symbols as the same ones etched into the rocks.
“That’s why I chose you, Mother. Because of your intelligence. I have the knowledge of the Umanite and the physical superiority of our people. Together, we will lead our people across the universe.”
Ami smiled, already beginning to understand some of the symbols from a long dead world. She guessed the meaning of the last ones her fingers tapped out: launch.
Hundreds of launches, thousands, hundred of thousands scrolled across the screen. The lights running along the machine changed to red, but other than that, the weapon showed no change. Her hands were set free, and she sunk down and leant against the machine.
“What will happen to us?”
“We will live. The Umanite will be exterminated from our planet, from their spacecrafts and stations, their colonies, their worlds. Their technology will remain intact. When we are both strong enough, we will return to the surface and start civilization over.”
Ami thought about the Umanite captain she had killed while forcing the impregnation. That hadn’t been her intent, but he had fought so hard. He had been kind to her, as had all the Umanite, claiming to be there to help her people. But they were weak. And arrogant. They thought to remake her people in their image--to cure them.
She felt an eruption from her arm. She looked down. Tiny black filaments and mushroom tops were pushing through her flesh. She’d soon give birth. She brought her hand up and ate a mushroom from one fingertip.
“Now sleep. Tomorrow I will be born.”