CHAPTER 3, THE ETERNAL CRADLE by GRAHAM M. IRWIN
"Follow me," Dr. Zaan whispered. He ducked off a crowded street into a narrow alleyway.
"Where are we going?" Naia asked. She was teeming with excitement.
"This way," the doctor answered. He pushed open a door marked with a Do Not Enter sign, turned around to wink, and then slipped through the doorway into darkness.
"But that's a No-Entry door," Naia said to herself, out of habit. Citizens weren't supposed to use Great City's tunnel system. But opening the door didn't set any alarms off, and when Naia looked over her shoulder at the bustling street outside the alley, she saw that no one had noticed. She, too, pressed through the doorway.
She lost her bearings after a few steps and tripped. She didn't fall, which she was thankful for when the corrugated metal walkway at her feet revealed itself to be caked with oil and grime. The walkway ran through a tight pipeline overstuffed with cables and wiring. A small amount of light defined the space, coming from dim network panels and gunk-encrusted displays along the walls.
"What is this place?" Naia asked as she looked around, unsure of where the doctor stood.
"This is an access corridor," he answered from shadow.
"I know that, but it's so dirty," Naia said. "Who uses it? Why are we here?"
"No one uses it, which is good for us. And why we're here, too. There's no reason to reach the machines inside here; they
don't ever malfunction."
"What do they control?"
"The whole world we just left. Temperature control, biometric readings, surveillance systems, they all flow through here. The system is city-wide. Where did you think all of the Do Not Enter signs led?"
"I've never paid them any attention, I never wondered. I thought they were for the police, or the sanitation workers. Where does this all lead to? Who are the monitors for?"
"Well, the Descendants, really," Dr. Zaan said. "Or, more properly, your representative government."
"But... why?" Naia asked.
"To make running things easier, But none of that. Here: I brought you a gift."
"I'm sorry, I can't see a thing in here."
"Follow me, there is better light a bit down the way."
The two walked, or rather Dr. Zaan stepped nimbly and Naia tripped, down to the end of the walkway, and then descended a circular staircase. There, a larger monitor display provided better ambient illumination.
"Here," Dr. Zaan said, handing a medium-sized book to Naia.
"What's this?" she asked, taking it and flipping through the pages.
"The Wanderers Guide to Tripping the Gate. It's written by a man who moved regularly between worlds. Ours, and the real one."
"So... I can return?"
"That is a question I really cannot answer. I encourage you to read that book to get a better sense of what you're headed towards. And how difficult returning would be. Your directions for escape are in there too, inside the cover. Written by yours personally."
"But aren't you going to come with me, to show me the way out?"
"I already have, by bringing you here. From here, you're venturing to a place you must go to alone."
"Oh. A personal journey?" Naia asked.
"Well, yes. But also, literally, the scanners at the end of the tunnels would detect two bodies worth of heat if we went together, and we'd be caught," the doctor said. "They'd send in the drones. It's a place you really have to go alone. As such, I'm leaving you here, with the book and this pack."
"That's it?" Naia asked. "But I'm not ready... You can't leave me here alone. I don't know what to do!"
"Just keep taking your medidose until you're out, and then live for all of us still inside once you're free," the doctor said. "With luck, I'll see you in about ten years."
The doctor turned to leave.
"But wait!" Naia said. She wasn't ready to say goodbye to the only person she had ever had real conversation with.
"What's that now?" the doctor asked.
"I'm... going to miss you," Naia said.
"Don't get sentimental," the doctor said. "Like I said, I'll be out one day, too. We'll see each other then. There's no need to grieve about things going right."
"Okay," Naia said. "Won't you miss me, though?"
"You've got to go now, Naia. Take a deep breath for me out there now, you hear?"
And with that, the doctor ascended the circular staircase again and was gone. Naia wanted to shout after him, but was scared of attracting attention. The bowels of the city seemed too aware.
"Now what am I supposed to do?" she asked herself. Her watch beeped. "Take my medidose, that's what."
A flood of familiar pleasure and removal melted over her after she dosed. She opened the book the doctor had gifted her, took some sheets of folded paper from behind the cover, and started to read them.
Step 1: Move south from the large monitor on your right until you come to a break in the tunnel.
"Where's south?" Naia wondered aloud. She searched the backpack the doctor had given her, and, sure enough, there was a ball compass attached to a chain. She put it on like a necklace and headed south.
The path didn't waver for miles. Naia realized how horribly out of shape she was when she began to perspire, and her legs began to falter. In dreams, she had always been able to walk for long distances. But the reality of such a feat was much different. She stopped for another medidose, this one with a boosted pain response.
After four miles, despite the pain medication, Naia collapsed. She could taste the acrid flavor of iron in the back of her throat, and her sinuses burned. She coughed up a dark substance she couldn't believe had been inside her, and felt dizzy and disconnected. It was nearly a half hour before her breathing returned to normal.
"I can't do it," she moaned, lying on the grimy tunnel walkway covered in sweat. "Oh, but what else are you going to do?" She knew she couldn't just give up, in the middle of a tunnel, lost forever. She had to escape. She had to survive. She saw no other option.
After a nap, or a full night's sleep, she couldn't have been sure which, Naia awoke again, under the soft glow of blue light. She took out the paper with the instructions from the doctor again, and read further through them. It looked like she was going to be in the labyrinth of tubes for days. Endless turns, up and down, through and about, for five full pages worth of directions. And it all ended at another door.
Naia shook her head to clear or confuse it, gave herself another medidose, and rose on her achingly sore legs to start walking again. She lumbered forwards for many more miles through the belly of Great City, getting better at avoiding the
random tubes and pipes that stuck up from the floor as she progressed. She came to another staircase, wound down it, and continued south.
She grew weak again, and stopped to take a meal supplement and another medidose. She was so thankful for her medication at this point. There was no way she could have taken the silent, claustrophobic misery of the dark tunnels in a clear state of mind.
Three days of monotonous corridors and mesmerizing display screens later, Naia came to a break in the walkway unlike others before it. Here, the path ended in a drop-off, into a wide and apparently bottomless chasm. Naia peered over the edge into the abyss, then opened her directions again to make sure she hadn't taken a wrong turn.
28. At chasm, listen for exhaust to time extent of current, then ride current (float) rightwards, to eastern corridor.
Naia scratched her head. What had the doctor meant? The exhaust current came, roaring like a thunderstorm, from deep in the recesses of Great City's mechanical organs. It knocked Naia off her feet as it ascended through the shaft in front of her, to be released through grates at the top. Naia had been blastsurfing before, at an amusement park. But did the doctor really expect her to do such a thing over a bottomless pit? If so, his directions couldn't have been more vague.
After weighing all other possible options, Naia realized that was precisely what he had intended. She timed five of the blasts of air, and found that they were uniform in duration. To jump and reach the western corridor, some twenty feet away, Naia had exactly twenty-three seconds.
She positioned herself about ten feet back from the drop-off, listened for the coming roar of wind, and then ran forward as fast as her hobbling legs would take her. She faltered and fell off the edge of the walkway when she came to it, but she was immediately buoyed back up by the air. She spun around head-
over-feet twice, before sticking out her arms to stabilize herself. The other corridor was so close. Naia spun onto her back and tried to guide herself along the cylindrical walls of the shaft with her fingers. She had almost made it to the other side when the exhaust current began to abate. Her right shoulder fell hard onto the lip of the western corridor, and then her bottom half slammed into the wall of the shaft below it. Naia grabbed at the eastern walkway with her sweaty hands, but couldn't find a hold. She slipped and slid off the path and down the shaft, nearly completely, but her right hand got caught in a grate and arrested her fall. Her hand bent under the weight of her falling body, went backwards, and then broke. She screamed in anguish as the bones in her wrist snapped and burst out of her flesh. The pain was so great that a surge of adrenalin washed over Naia's muscles and she was able to somehow pull her body up and onto the walkway.
She winced, screamed, and extracted her mangled hand from the grate. She knew the accident was severe, but the blood had already coagulated. She took another medidose to make sure she wouldn't feel the pain, and then continued on to Dr. Zaan's step twenty-nine.
An hour and some steps later, Naia still refused to look at her hand. Her injuries were always quick to heal, but she feared this latest might be more than her system could handle. Step number 35 required she swallow haxine, in order to lower her core temperature, so that she could make it through the bioscanners in the air filtering system Dr. Zaan had told her about. Once she had made it through the punishingly loud, whirring filters, she was surprised to find that she had reached her final destination at last. And it was a bit disappointing, being merely a simple utility door with a push-bar handle. Still shivering from the haxine's cold, Naia pushed into the door handle and tumbled out of Great City into the world outside.