Authors: Tobias S. Buckell
Timas put his hand on Cen’s helmet and urged the elevator to
as he promised every god he could think of offerings at the family altar if they could just get winched back up to Yatapek in time.
he elevator slammed down to a slower speed on the final approach to Yatapek’s city docks. Timas waited as the massive lower airlocks engulfed the small elevator and sealed themselves shut. Through the ruined portholes the lower curve of the city dominated the sky above, and in the distant gloom clusters of maintenance blimps floated, ready to intervene in case anything went wrong for this final stage of the winching up.
Pumps whirred as clean air flooded into the chamber. He looked out of the doorway into the lock and banged his armored fists against the side of the elevator to get attention.
Heutzin, one of the mechanics, ran in, pulling a large heat-safe glove onto his right hand. He popped the seals on Timas’s helmet and Timas took a gasp of fresh, unsweaty air.
“You’re back early.”
Amoxtli, the doctor, stepped in next.
“What happened?” Heutzin looked him over and wiped his greasestained hands on his chest. “I told them something had been knocked loose. There was debris. Doctor!”
Heutzin had been a xocoyotzin in his young teens, now his belly spilled out of his shirt. No groundsuits for him. But he knew exactly what the panicked look on Timas’s face meant.
“The debris got him,” Timas said. He kneeled down next to Cen and started to try and crack the groundsuit, but with his hands still in armored gloves he fumbled with the clasps and catches.
Heutzin pulled Timas up to his feet by his one heat-safe gloved hand. “Was his suit holed?”
“I think it was the heat vanes.” Timas turned back toward the elevator, but Heutzin turned him right back around and pushed him forward.
“Keep moving,” he snapped.
Behind them Amoxtli cracked the suit. Timas could hear steam whistle out. An odd smell drifted through the chamber.
Timas gagged, and Heutzin kept pushing him toward the airlock out of the chamber. “Just keep walking.”
“What happened up here?” Timas asked.
“Something hit the city.” Heutzin rubbed the few hairs on his upper lip, leaving a long streak of grit.
“An airship?” Timas screamed. Why right then?
“No. A person fell out of one of the clouds. Hit some solar collectors lashed near the farms, knocked them off. I thought I saw debris headed your way, but the doctor and others were too busy to notice. They were running around, holing up the patch in the city and trying to save the guy who hit us.” Heutzin helped Timas sit on a bench near the showers. He hit the chest clasps with his gloved hand, and then unbolted the cumbersome wrist joints.
Timas flexed his hands until they felt like they would crack. He said what came right to mind, what scared him. “I don’t think Cen’s alive. I think I killed him.” He did kill him. He should never have asked Cen to go into the debris field.
He should have followed the rules, just as carefully as Cen.
Should. Should. Timas grabbed Heutzin. “We saw something. We saw an alien. We tried to go see it. And I think it’s my fault Cen’s dead.”
“You let the gods and Amoxtli decide that.” Heutzin lifted the chest shield up on its hinge. Timas crawled carefully up out of the steaming hot groundsuit. “Now stop talking.”
By itself with the top hinged back, the suit looked like a monster from the deep. A soulless, bug-eyed alien.
Timas didn’t have anything left in him. He leaned forward and rested his head in his sweat-wrinkled fingers.
Heutzin grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. Timas swallowed nervousness as Amoxtli stooped through into the shower room, a grim look on his face.
He shook his head.
All three of them stood surrounded by the giant unmoving ground-suits. Somewhere on the far end of the room, behind the lockers, water spattered as a shower turned on.
“I’m going to go tell Cen’s father.” Amoxtli snapped the black bag he carried with him shut with a sharp click.
“I’ll stay with Timas,” Heutzin said.
Amoxtli walked over and put a hand on Timas’s neck. “Lay something at your family’s altar tonight, will you?”
It felt a little late for prayers and incense, Timas thought.
Timas walked alongside Heutzin in a daze, stumbling as the docks shifted and swung in the wind. Large clamps for airships, gantrys, and walkways, all spiderwebbed and dangled from underneath the city like scraggly vines. They acted as a counterweight to the floating globe of Yatapek above.
“Breathers.” Heutzin handed Timas a breathing mask as they dodged the hoses and electrical lines snaked around the grated floors. He held it to his face to make a seal.
The rickety cage elevator took Timas and Heutzin up through a chaotic free-swinging structure. The docks hung like wind chimes, downward facing cylinders of girders, with large tubes spiked out in random directions away from each other for airships to dock at. Random pockets of enclosed and air-filled workspaces, corridors, and storage facilities clung wherever.
It all passed them by as they rose toward the very bottom of Yatapek proper: the curve of the city’s south pole swallowed the cage up with another set of locks.
They left the bottled air and masks, cycled through the doors, and both stepped into Yatapek’s lower streets. Dim lights from the top of the fifty-foot ceiling flickered, struggling to penetrate the haze of overworked air scrubbers.
“You’re damned lucky to be walking the streets now,” Heutzin said.
“Lucky,” Timas mumbled. He grabbed Heutzin’s arm. “Lucky! It hit the cuatetl! Cen died!”
Heutzin sighed. “It’s been damaged before. We’ll barter for replacement parts.”
Timas shook his head. “That doesn’t make it lucky.” He didn’t know why he was arguing about this. He just didn’t want to feel like something
good happened today. “I shouldn’t have gone for the alien. I wish I’d never seen it.”
Heutzin stopped and grabbed his shoulder. “Shut up about aliens. Don’t repeat that ever again. It’s heresy. We see shadows, nothing more. And some have died running off into the muck to chase those shadows. Besides, you’ll lose the honor of being xocoyotzin if you keep saying that. So trust me, Timas, you must shut up!”
Timas stared down at old, scuffed plastic sidewalk. “I’m sorry.”
“We’ll talk to the pipiltin tonight. It is their duty to run the city, not yours,” Heutzin said. “They’ll probably decide to send xocoyotzin down tomorrow to assess the damage. But likely, the city will be focusing on Cen, and on the damage done to the city. Stop blaming yourself.”
Timas wanted to go home now and crawl into his room. He felt like a ghost following Heutzin around the street.
Here at the bottom of the globe, the lowest layer of the city housed the heavy factories. Timas could taste the smoke and fire in the air as they walked down the industrial street toward the city’s core.
“Heutzin?” Flickering streetlights cast a shadowy hue over the thick-armed workers going about their business.
“You know any xocoyotzin who died? When you worked the surface?” Timas looked at the man. Heutzin didn’t look like he’d once worked on the surface: his stomach alone would have trouble fitting in the largest of the groundsuits.
They stopped at the Atrium, the cored-out center of the city. Heutzin looked up. The layers of the city dwindled away overhead, and elevators constantly crawled their way up and down the inner sides of the shaft, filled with tiny groups of people going about their business.
Yatapek floated above the clouds, where the sun filled the atrium with cheerful orange light. It felt like a different world after going on the surface.
“Heutzin?” Timas prompted.
“Yes. It isn’t exactly a safe thing to do, going down there. You’ll lose many more friends before you give up your groundsuit.” A distant groan from a large shifting deck plate filled the air around them.
“I wouldn’t do it if the family didn’t depend on me,” Timas said. “It feels like I’m holding them all up on my shoulders.”
“And it doesn’t feel fair, does it?”
Timas shook his head. “No.”
Heutzin led them both into an elevator along with a small crowd. Timas stared at a boy who looked his age, but far more muscular, who carried a bag with papers sticking out over the top.
As Timas watched the boy rubbed his forehead, pushing aside a fringe of flat black hair. “What you looking at?”
Heutzin grunted. “You shouldn’t talk to xocoyotzin like that.” He stepped forward, menacing, and the other boy shrank back into his peers. They all stared up at the dirty mechanic as he leaned over them. “In my day even little runts had some respect for those risking their lives on the surface.”
“It’s okay.” Timas put his palm to the glass of the elevator, looking down as it rose farther up the massive atrium shaft.
The elevator stopped, and the boy and several of his friends shoved their way into a crowded street. They were middle layer. Not top. Not like Timas and his family.
Neon signs blinked just past the elevator doors, and garish track lighting bathed this layer in a blue glow. The houses jammed together, reaching from the floor to the ceiling: warrens. Many of them looked unsuited to stand, strung between wires reaching from the bottom of one layer down to the next. Timas wondered if the city’s Balance Commission fined them for illegal weight distribution, and if they ever paid. Tight alleyways, dirty and filled with litter, disappeared behind the doors as they shut. The smell of body odor and frying oil hit Timas.
As the elevator continued up, more and more people got off, until just Heutzin and Timas stood with each other. They glided to the dizzying top, where the parks and farms basked under the sun’s warmth, protected by the city’s globe above them.
Here the crowded underlayers and streets of Yatapek fell away.
A cool mist hung over the gardens just outside the elevator entrance.
A noble elderman with his hair tied up in a jade clip and wearing a deep red tunic nodded as he passed them and took their place in the elevator.
“Do you want me to walk home with you, or are you okay?” Heutzin asked. He took a deep breath of the misty air and looked around at a low hedge of hibiscus bushes.
“I . . .” Timas almost said he would be fine, but Heutzin had a mournful look to him. Timas suddenly realized how long it must have been since Heutzin lived among the upper layer as a xocoyotzin. The gardens, the clean air, the constant sunlight: all this he would remember as he toiled in the lower layers of the city. Heutzin, even though escorting a grieving friend, now had a brief chance to relive those days.
A small point of anger flared as Timas wondered if Heutzin had so quickly helped him below just to get back to the upper layer. But Timas quelled that thought. That wasn’t fair to Heutzin. Heutzin always checked his groundsuit twice over and listened to him when he thought he’d heard odd creaks or whistles while below in the murk and pressure.
Timas felt a sudden surge of hatred for the generation that came to Yatapek. Seduced by pills and technological tweaks to keep their bodies svelte and elfin, they’d never assumed their great grandchildren would fall into near poverty and that only their children would fit in the groundsuits they’d purchased for the city.
Yatapek couldn’t afford to replace the aging suits. Choices made long ago now made Heutzin a low man, using tricks to visit a part of his own city. And those same choices made Timas responsible for his own family, if not the entire city.
Sometimes at night it felt like the hulking groundsuits sat on his chest, the pressure crushing his lungs to the point he could hardly breathe.
“Yes,” Timas said. “Please, come with me.”
He could use Heutzin’s support to face his mother anyway.
But when they arrived Itotia didn’t get upset. She waited by doors to the courtyard. Her hair lay flat. Her simple white cotton dress stood out against the brown brick of their house. No warrens in the lower layer, but a solid house with a straw roof over the metal rafters. A haven for Timas and his lucky family.
“Heutzin.” Itotia nodded at the mechanic. “Thanks for bringing him up. One of the dock workers used the telephone to tell me what happened.”
“It was no problem.” Heutzin looked down at the ground. “I know what it’s like. The ride back up is long after you lose someone down there.”
“Mom.” Timas wanted to run up and hug her. But not in front of Heutzin.
“Come.” She turned and led them into the courtyard where several pitchers and wooden jicara bowls sat on a table. Timas took off his shoes at the threshold as he followed them across the cool courtyard flagstones.
Itotia poured him a bowl of pulque. Mango flavored, orange, yellow, and thick, the alcoholic afterbite stung when Timas sipped it. Warmth dribbled down into his core. He relaxed.
“The servants have a meal ready for you in your room. I’ll come in when you’re finished,” his mom said. “I want to talk to Heutzin for a moment.”
“Okay.” Timas felt his stomach twist slightly from the pulque. Normally she didn’t let him have it, even when his dad drank it and offered him a sip.
Timas walked across the courtyard into one of the many interconnected rooms. He closed the wooden door behind him, but then stayed by the crack to spy on them.
“He’s safe, he’s okay,” Heutzin told her. Timas watched through the crack as his mother’s shoulders slumped and her head drooped.
“Every time he goes down, I burn something on the altar for the gods. Was I too stingy this time? Should I have burned something more?”
Heutzin shifted from foot to foot. “He came home safe. You did right by the gods. But then, who knows what the gods want? In this case, it seems to have been Cen.”
“Tomorrow it could be Timas.” Itotia pushed her hair back and paced, her voice getting shrill. “Their suits get older every year. Already we’ve lost one xocoyotzin, and the year is just begun. Last year we lost five.
. When you were xocoyotzin how many did the surface take?”