3

Chimal grabbed the girl by the arm, pulling her away from the metal box and throwing her to the floor. The box had a round disk on the front, and buttons, as well as a slotted opening. A voice came from it.

“Watchman Steel, your report has been heard. Now we are checking the ralort. What is your exact location…”

Chimal raised the killing thing and pressed the metal lever. It killed black boxes as well. The voice spluttered and stopped and the box exploded with flame.

“That won’t help,” Steel said, sitting up and rubbing her arm, her lips curved into a cold little smile of success. “They can find out where I called from, so they know you are here. There is no way to escape.”

“I can return to the valley. How does that metal door open?”

Reluctantly, she crossed to the spot where a bar with a black handle protruded from the wall, and pulled the bar down. The plate swung outward silently, and daylight flooded the cavern. A vulture, about to land on the ledge outside, frightened by the motion, flapped loudly and soared away. Chimal looked out across the valley, smelling the familiar cool air above the odor of bird excrement

“They’ll kill me at once if I go back there,” he said, and pushed the girl out onto the ledge.

“What are you doing?” she gasped, then screamed as he pushed the handle the other way and the door began to close. Her loud wails were cut off suddenly as rock thudded against rock.

There was a rising, whining sound coming from the tunnel behind him, and a gentle breath of air was driving out of its mouth. Chimal ran and put his back against the wall close to the opening and raised the killing thing. The noise increased and the wind from the tunnel blew faster. These people had great powers: what strange thing were they sending after him, to kill him? Chimal pressed his body hard against the rock as the noise grew louder — and from the tunnel burst a platform with many men on it. There was a great squealing and it shuddered and stopped and Chimal saw that the men all carried killing things. He pointed his weapon at them and pulled the lever. Once, twice the flame burst out, striking among the men, then the thing died in his hands and nothing more happened no matter how hard he pulled and, in desperation, he squeezed too hard and the lever broke off. Swinging it like a dub he attacked.

Chimal thought he would die before he advanced a foot, and his skin crawled, waiting for the fire to wash over him. But his two blasts had struck among the crowded men and had done fiery work. Some were dead, and others were burned and in pain. Violence and inflicting death were new things to them; but not to Chimal who had lived with these twin inhumanities all of his life. As long as he could move, he would fight. Before a single flame could blast at him he was in among the men, swinging the metal thing about like a flail.

It was an unequal battle. Six men had entered the cavern, yet within the minute two of them were dead and the others wounded and unconscious. Chimal stood over them, panting, waiting for some movement. The last one that had stirred had received a blow on the head and was now as motionless as the others. Throwing away the useless killing thing, he strode over and pushed the handle that opened the feeding door. Watchman Steel was slumped against the rock, as close to the door as she could get, her face buried in her hands. He had to drag her in because she made no move to help herself. She stayed where he dropped her while he removed the wounded and dead from the platform, being careful not to touch the little shining buttons and rods at the front. He was beginning to learn about them. When it had been cleared, curiosity got the better of him and he examined the thing. Underneath there were wheels, such as were sometimes used on children’s toys, that rode on the metal bars that were attached to the rock floor. Some power, controlled from the top, must make these wheels turn and move the platform along. The most interesting part was the shield that rose up in the front. It appeared to be as hard as metal, yet it was clear as water: he could look through it as though it were not there.

The platform rode the bars of metal. He followed them with his eye as they crossed the large cavern and vanished into the smaller tunnel ahead. Perhaps he would not have to go back to face any more of the killing things.

“Get up,” he ordered the girl, dragging her to her feet when she did not respond at once. “Where does this tunnel go to?” She looked first, in horror, at the wounded men dumped on the floor, then followed his pointing finger. “I don’t know,” she finally stammered. “Maintenance is not my work. Perhaps it is a maintenance tunnel.”

He made her explain what maintenance was before he pushed her to the platform. “What is the name of this?” he asked.

“It is a car.”

“Can you make it move? Answer without lying.”

Violence and death had drained her of hope. “Yes, yes I can,” she answered, almost in a whisper.

“Show me then.”

The car was very simple to operate. He put a new killing thing into it and sat beside her while she showed him. One lever made it go forward and back, and the further it was pushed the faster the car went. When it was released it returned to its middle position while a second lever did something that slowed and stopped the car. Chimal started them forward slowly, bending over when they entered the tunnel until he saw that there was a good deal of space between his head and the rock above. The lights, he had learned that word too, moved by faster and faster as he pushed on the lever. Finally, he had it jammed forward as far as it would go and the car raced at a tremendous speed down the tunnel. The walls tore by on each side and the air screamed around the transparent front. Watchman Steel crouched beside him, terrified, and he laughed, then slowed the speed. Ahead of them the row of lights began to curve off to the right and Chimal slowed even more. The curve continued, until they had turned a full right angle, then it straightened out once again. Immediately after this it began to start downward. The slope was gradual, but it continued endlessly. After some minutes of this Chimal stopped the car and ordered Steel out to stand against the wall.

“You’re going to leave me here,” she wailed.

“Not if you behave, I won’t. I just want to see about this tunnel — stand up straight, will you, as straight as you can. Yes, many Chimalman bless me, we’re still going down — to where? Nothing lies inside the Earth except the hell where Mixtec, the god of death lives. Are we going there?”

“I…I don’t know,” she said, weakly.

“Or you won’t tell me, it is the same thing. Well, if it is to hell, then you are joining me. Get back into the car. I have seen more wonders and strange things these last few days than I have ever dreamed, awake or asleep. Hell can be no stranger than them.”

After a period of time the slope flattened out and the tunnel went on, straight and level. Finally, far ahead, light filled the width of the opening and Chimal slowed and approached at a crawling pace. A much larger cavern gradually appeared, well lit and apparently empty. He stopped the ear short of it and approached on foot, pushing Watchman Steel before him. They halted at the entrance, peering in.

It was gigantic. A great room as big as the pyramid, carved from the solid rock. The tracks from their tunnel ran across the floor of the chamber and disappeared into another tunnel on the other side. There were lights along the sides and set into the ceiling, but most of the illumination poured in from a great hole in the roof at the far end of the chamber. The light looked like sunlight and the color was very much like the blue of the sky.

“’That just cannot be,” Chimal said. “We turned away from the valley when we left the place of the vultures, I’ll swear to that. Turned away into the living rock and went down — for a long time. That cannot be sunlight — or can it?” A sudden hope swept through him. “If we went down we could have gone through one of the mountains and come out in another valley that is lower than our valley. Your people do know a way out of the valley, and this is it.”

The light was growing brighter, he realized suddenly, pouring in through the hole above and shining down the long ramp that led up to it. Two tracks, very much like the ones that carried their car, only much larger, ran down the ramp and across the floor, to finally descend through an opening in the floor that was just as large as the one at the far end.

“What is happening?” Chimal asked as the light grew stronger, so brilliant that he could not look in the direction of the opening.

“Come away,” Steel said, pulling at his arm. “We must move back.”

He did not ask why — he knew why. The light blazed in and then the heat came, blasting and searing his face. They turned and ran, while behind them the light and heat, impossibly, intensified. It was scorching, a living flame playing about them as they threw themselves into the shelter of the car, arms over their eyes. It grew, light as hot as fire splashed about them — and then lessened.

After its passing the air felt chill, and when Chimal opened his eyes they had been so dazzled by the light that at first he could only see darkness and whirling spots of color.

“What was that?” he asked,

“The sun,” she said.

When he could finally see again it was nighttime. They went forward once more into the large chamber, now illuminated by the lights above and in the walls. The night sky of stars was visible through the opening, and Chimal and the girl walked slowly up the ramp toward it, until the ramp leveled off at ground level. The star? above came closer and closer, swooping down brighter and brighter until, when they emerged from the tunnel, they found themselves standing among them. Chimal looked down, with a fear that went beyond understanding, as a glowing star, a disk as big as a tortilla, crawled down his leg and across his foot and vanished. With a slow dignity, born of fear and the effort needed to control it, he turned and led the girl slowly back down the ramp into the welcoming shelter of the cavern.

“Do you understand what has happened?” he asked.

“I don’t know, I have heard about these things but I have never seen them before. Dealing with these matters is not my work.”

“I know. You’re a watchman and that is all you know, and you won’t tell me about that either.”

She shook her head no, her lips clamped shut in a tight line. He sat, pulling her down next to him, with his back to that opening and the inexplicable mystery of the stars.

“I am thirsty,” she said. “There is supposed to be emergency rations at these places so far distant. Those must be cupboards, over there.”

“We’ll look together.”

Behind a thick metal door were packages of rations and transparent containers of water. She showed him how to open a container and he drank his fill before handing it to her. The food was just as tasteless, and just as filling, as before. While he ate he was conscious of a great and overwhelming tiredness. In his mind as well as his body, because the thought of the sun passing close to him and the stars crawling at his feet was so inconceivable that it did not bear thinking about. He wanted to ask the girl more questions but now, for the first time, he was afraid to hear the answers.

“I am going to sleep,” he told her, “and I want to find you and the car here when I wake up.” He thought for a moment and then, ignoring her feeble bleatings and resistance, he took the box, on its chain of metal beads from around her neck, and weighed it in his hand. “What do you call this?” he asked.

“It is my deus. Please give it back to me.”

“I don’t want the thing, but I do want you here. Give me your hand.” He wrapped the chain around her wrist, and then about his own hand with the deus held inside against his palm. The stone looked hard but he did not care: almost as soon as he closed his eyes he was asleep.

When he awoke the girl was asleep next to him, her arm outstretched and bent so that her body would be as far away from his as possible, and sunlight was streaming through the opening at the top of the ramp. Could the sun be coming again? He had a moment of intense fear and shook the girl rudely awake. Once he was fully awake himself he saw there was no immediate danger and, after unwinding the chain from his stiff fingers, went to get food and water for them both.

“We’re going out there again,” he said when they were finished, and pushed her up the ramp ahead of him.

They stepped out of the opening onto the blue sky. It felt hard under foot and, when Chimal hit it with the back of the killing thing, a patch of blue chipped away revealing the stone underneath. It made no sense — yet it was the sky. He followed it up and away from him with his eyes, up to the zenith and back down to the mountains on the distant horizon. As his gaze reached them he cried out and staggered back, his sense of balance suddenly disrupted.

The mountains, all of them, were facing toward him, tilted up into the sky at a 45 degree angle.

It was as though the entire world had been pushed up from behind, tipped up on its near edge. He did not know what to think: these events were too impossible. Unable to bear the vertigo he staggered back down the ramp to the solid safety of the hewn chamber. Watchman Steel followed after him.

“What does all this mean?” he asked her. “I can’t make myself understand what is happening.”

“I can’t tell you, this time because I don’t know. This isn’t my work, I’m a watchman and the maintenance people never talked about this. They must know what it means.”

Chimal looked down the darkened tunnel into which the sun had vanished, and could not understand. “We must go on,” he said. “I must find out what these things mean. Where does the other car tunnel go?” he asked, pointing to the opening on the far side of the large chamber.

“I don’t know. I’m not maintenance.”

“You’re not much of anything,” he told her, with unconscious cruelty. “We’ll go on.”

He brought the car slowly out of the tunnel and stopped it while she loaded food and water aboard. Now that he was beginning to distrust reality he wanted his own supplies with him. Then they crossed the cavern and plunged into the tunnel opposite. It was flat and straight though, for some reason, the row of lights ahead appeared to be going up hill. Yet they never came to the hill: the tunnel remained perfectly flat. Some difference in the texture of the tunnel appeared ahead and Chimal slowed the car until it was barely moving and crept forward, stopping when he came up the ladder rungs that were set into the solid rock of the tunnel wall. They went up the wall and into a pipe-like opening that had been cut through the ceiling.

We’re going to find out where this goes,” Chimal said, forcing her out of the car. He stood back while Steel started up the ladder ahead of him. It was about a twenty foot climb up the hole, which was just a bit wider than his shoulders, and two lights were set into it to show the way. The uppermost light was just under a metal lid that covered the top of the shaft

“Push up against it,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be sealed.”

It was thin metal, hinged at one side and she opened it easily as she climbed up and through. Chimal followed, up and out of the solid rock and onto the blue sky. He looked up, first at the small white clouds that drifted overhead, and then past them at the valley, with the thin cut of the river and the two brown villages, one on each side, which hung directly over his head.

This time he did fall, pressing himself to the solid surface of the sky and grasping at the edge of the hole. He had the sensation that he was faffing straight down, plunging from the sky down to broken death in the fields by the river. When he closed his eyes to cut out the fearful vision it was much better. He felt the solid rock beneath him and the weight of his body pressing against it. After getting slowly to his hands and knees he opened his eyes and looked down. Blue paint of some kind over solid rock; it chipped when he picked at it around the edge of the hole. There were even dusty footprints on it where others had walked, and metal tracks passed close by. Wide-spaced tracks like those that had carried the sun. He went over to them, still on his knees, and clutched the solidity of the blue metal bar. It was worn on the top and shiny. Raising his eyes slowly he followed the tracks across the sky, as they grew closer and closer and finally vanished into a black opening high above, up the smooth curve of the sky. He tried not to think about this or to understand it. Not yet. He had to see everything first. Then, slowly, he rolled onto his back, still clutching the rail.

Above him was the valley, visible from end to end just as he knew it should look. On both sides were mountains, pointing straight up at him, and more mountains beyond the valley ends. There was the barrier of rock and the swamp at the north end, the wandering path of the river between the fields, the brown buildings and the dark splotches of the two temples, the trees in the south and a glint of silver from the pond. The waterfall was barely visible; but there was no sign of a river leading to it. There were a few mountains there and the blue bowl of the sky began directly behind them.

A flicker of motion caught his eye and he turned just as Steel vanished down the shaft in the rock.

His vertigo was forgotten now as he jumped to his feet and ran to the opening. She was climbing down fast, faster than he would have thought, not looking up. As he started down behind her she reached the tunnel below and jumped from the ladder. He went a few more rungs, then let go and dropped the rest of the way, landing heavily on the solid rock below. Fire washed over his head.

Steel had the killing thing ready, waiting for him to emerge so she could destroy him. Now she gaped at the blackened rungs and wall and, before she could correct her aim, he was upon her, tearing the weapon from her hands.

“Too late for that,” he said, throwing it into the car and pulling her around, up against the wall. He clutched her chin tightly, swinging her head back and forth. “Too late to kill me because I know the truth now, all about you watchmen and the world and all the lies I have been told. There is no longer any need for me to ask you questions, now I can tell you.” He laughed, and surprised himself when he heard the shrill edge to the sound. When he released her she rubbed at the marks his hard grip had made on her chin, but he did not notice this.

“Lies,” he told her. “My people have been lied to about everything. It is a lie that we are in a valley on a planet called Earth, that goes around the sun — which is a burning ball of gas. We believed it, all this nonsense, floating planets, burning gas in the air. That flash of fire Popoca saw and that I saw, when the sun set, was a reflection from the tracks, that is all. Our valley is the world, there is nothing else. We live inside a giant cave hollowed out of the rock, secretly watched by your people. Who are you — servants or masters? Or both? You serve us, your maintenance people watch our sun for us and see that it always shines as it should. And they must make the rain come as well. And the river — it really ends in the swamp. Then what do you do with the water — pump it back through a pipe and over the falls again?”

“Yes,” she said, holding her deus in both hands and lifting her head high. “We do just that. We watch and protect and keep you from harm, by day and night through all the seasons of the year. For we are the watchmen and we ask nothing for ourselves, asking only to serve.”

There was no humor in his laugh. “You serve. You serve badly. Why don’t you make the river run strong all the time so we can have water, or bring the rain when we need it? We pray for rain and nothing happens. Aren’t the gods listening — or aren’t you listening?” In sudden realization he stepped back. “Or are there any gods at all? Coatlicue stands quiet in your caverns and you bring the rain when you wish.” With sudden sorrow and realization he said, “Even there you have lied to us, everywhere. There are no gods.”

“There are none of your gods — but there is one god, the God, the Great Designer. He was the one who made all this, who designed and built it, then breathed life into it so that it began. The sun rose from its tunnel for the first time, took fire and rolled on its first voyage across the sky. The water sprang out from the fall and filled the pool and dampened the waiting river bed. He planted the trees and made the animals and then, when He was ready, He peopled the valley with the Aztecs and placed the Watchers to guard over them. He was strong and sure, and we are strong and sure in His image, and we honor Him and fulfill His trust. We are His children and you are His infants and we watch over you as He has ordained.”

Chimal was not impressed. The chant of words and the light in her eyes reminded him very much of the priests and their prayers. If the gods were dead, he did not mind seeing them go at all, but he was not adding any new gods that quickly. Nevertheless he nodded agreement because she had the facts that he must know.

“So it is inside out,” he said, “and we have been taught only lies. The ball of gas is gone and the Earth is gone and the stars are little spots of light. The universe is rock, rock, solid rock forever and we live in a little cave hollowed from the center of it.” He bent a bit, almost flinching away from the weight of that infinity of rock that surrounded them,

“No, not forever,” she said, clasping her hands before her swaying. “There will come a day when the end will come, the chosen day when we will all be set free. For look,” she held out her deus, “look at the number of the days since creation. See how they mount and revel in their passing for we are doing our duty by the Great Designer who is father to us all.”

“186,175 days since the world began,” Chimal said, looking at the numbers displayed. “And you have kept track all that time yourself?”

“No, of course not. I am not yet seventy years old. This deus is a revered treasure given to me when I took the oath of Watchman…”

“How old are you?” he asked, thinking he had misunderstood. Seventeen?

“Sixty-eight,” she said, and there was a touch of malice at the corners of her smile. “We hew to the days of our service and do our duty, and the faithful are rewarded with the years of their lives. We are not short-lived like the lower animals, the turkey, the snake — or you.”

There was no answer for this. Watchman Steel appeared to be in her early twenties. Could she possibly be as old as she claimed? This was one more mystery to go with all the others. In the silence, the tiny, distant whine buzzed like an insect against his consciousness.

The sound grew, and the girl recognized it before he did. Pushing away from the wall she began to run back down the tunnel, in the direction from which they had come. Chimal could catch her easily, but as he turned he recognized the sound too and stopped, poised on the balls of his feet, uncertain.

Another car was coming.

He could catch the girl, but he would be caught himself. Get the killing thing — but what would be the point in killing her? The different courses open to him ticked by, one after the other, and he discarded them. The car would have many men in it with killing things. He would have to flee, that was the wisest course to follow. They would stop to get the girl and that would give him time to get ahead of them. Even as he was deciding this he jumped into the car and pushed the lever forward as far as it would go. Something whined shrilly under the floor of the car and it shot forward like a released arrow. Yet, even as the car picked up speed he realized that this wasn’t the complete solution. Was there anything else he could do? Even as he thought this he saw a dark spot in the tunnel ahead: he quickly pulled on the other lever and brought the car to a bucking halt next to the ladder.

It was another exit from the tunnel, with the rungs climbing up through the opening — to what? To the sky overhead, undoubtedly, next to the sun track. This was the second of these openings, and the chances were that there should be more. As soon as he thought of this he jammed the speed lever forward again. By the time he reached the next one — if there was one — he would have figured out what he had to do. It meant taking a chance, but everything in this strange new world meant taking a chance. He had to plan.

Food and water, he must take that with him. Using one hand, he opened the front of his clothing part way and stuffed in as many of the food packages as would fit. Then he drank his fill from the open water container and threw it aside. He would carry the full one with him. The only remaining problem was the car. If it remained below the opening they would know he had gone out that way and would follow him. He did not know if he could escape from a number of men at once. Was there any way that the car could drive on by itself? After all, it would keep moving just as long as the lever was pushed forward: even a child could do that. He looked first at the lever, then around the car. There was nothing to fasten onto, or he would have tied it forward. What about pushing it? He tugged at the seat next to him and it moved slightly. Then, still holding the lever forward with one hand, he stood up carefully and turned around, bracing his back against the panel that held the levers. He pushed one foot against the back of the chair, harder and harder, until something cracked and it toppled over. Yes, if he jammed it in hard it looked as though it would fit nicely. Just as he sat down again he saw the next ladder far ahead.

Chimal was out of the car even before it had stopped moving. He dropped the container of water and the killing thing by the ladder and grabbed up the broken-off seat. The other car was not in sight, but he could hear the growing, far off whine. Bracing the bottom of the broken seat against the other seat he jammed the top against the lever. The car leaped forward, brushing against him and knocking him aside — then slowed and halted as the seat slipped out of position. He ran after it as the sound of the other car grew louder behind him.

This time he turned the seat end for end, with the square-edged bottom against the lever. He jammed it down hard and jumped away. Whining angrily the car lurched forward and kept going, faster and faster. Chimal did not stay to watch it. Head down he pelted back to the ladder as the sound of the approaching car grew closer. He grabbed the water and the killing thing to his chest in one arm and sprang for the ladder, almost running up it, moving as fast as he could with a single arm.

His feet were just clear of the tunnel when the other car shot by underneath. He waited, holding his breath, to hear if they were stopping. The sound grew fainter, slowly and steadily, until it had vanished completely. They had not seen him and they were not stopping. By the time they had discovered what had happened he would be far from this spot. They would not know which of the exits he had used, which would make his chances of escaping that much better. Slowly, a rung at a time, he climbed up to the sky above.

As he emerged from the opening he felt the sunlight warm upon him. Wanner than he was used to,

In sudden fear he turned and saw the great, burning sun rushing down upon him.

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