Authors: Tobias S. Buckell
“Not as many,” Heutzin admitted. He made a face as he did so.
“Is it worth it?” She stared at him as she yelled. “Really, is it worth our children’s lives?”
Heutzin looked around the courtyard, and Timas pulled back from the crack for a second, then peeked back out again. “You seem to enjoy the fruits. Of all the things I miss the most,” Heutzin took a deep breath, “it’s the freshly filtered air, not the dank must that falls down to the lower levels.”
Itotia looked him up and down and said, with a small amount of scorn, “There is no age limit on xocoyotzin. All you have to do is fit in the groundsuit.”
Heutzin winced and pulled himself out of a slump. He held his hand over his stomach, as if shielding it. “That’s true.” And even though he stood up straight, it looked to Timas like the man had deflated slightly at the reference to his weight.
His mom must have realized how deep the barb she’d thrown sank. She spread her hands. “I’m sorry, I’m angry. That was crude of me. Tell me about the cuatetl, I will have to tell Ollin what I know when I visit him.”
“Timas says it’s very badly damaged. I believe him.” Heutzin’s pained grin displayed his worn and acid-damaged teeth. More indication that Heutzin had once been xocoyotzin. A badge of pride. “They’ll send older xocoyotzin down to check and take pictures for the elders and senior mechanics to look at.”
“You’ll be there.”
“Be sure of it. No cuatetl, no city.”
A voiced fear. Timas shuddered. The city, his way of life, his family: it would all disappear if the cuatetl fell apart.
“We’d be on our hands and knees begging for handouts from the Aeolian cities then,” Itotia said. “Disreputable.”
Heutzin shrugged. “We’ll do what we have to do.” He turned to leave the courtyard. Realizing how long he’d eavesdropped, Timas turned and padded quickly for his room. If his dad caught him listening he’d get a solid hiding, no doubt, even despite the day’s events.
His stomach growled as he ran down the corridor and turned into his room. Before a surface drop he drank nothing but water and ate vegetables to make sure that he would fit in the slim groundsuits.
The post-surface meal usually featured a family celebration, where his mother and father congratulated him on doing his job as xocoyotzin well.
Now he picked over the tray. He gobbled the three still-steaming tamales and then the bowls of sliced fruit.
By the time Itotia reached the room Timas had finished.
“Where’s Dad?” He wanted to talk to Ollin about what happened on the surface today.
“He can’t come.” His mom sat by him on the bed. The ropes under the mattress creaked. “Did you hear about the impact on the city’s shell?”
“A body hit the city. That caused the debris, right?”
“Yes. Your dad went to help seal the dome; if you climb to our roof you might be able see the patch from here. The person who crashed through, he’s still alive. Ollin is with him in quarantine.”
“Quarantine?” Timas had never heard of anything like that before.
“The person insisted. Two days quarantine. The pipiltin decided to do it.”
“So I can’t see Dad?”
They sat and drew comfort from each other’s presence. Then Itotia stood up. “It’s been long enough.”
Timas got up and followed her to the bathroom.
“Do you need help?” Itotia asked.
“No.” He wanted to be alone now.
Timas planted one hand on the edge of the flat, square sink with the oversize drain. A small polished wooden dowel stuck out of a ceremonial cup on the right edge.
Timas picked it up and steadied himself.
Then he slowly pointed it down his throat until it touched the back. He gagged, convulsed, and then whipped the rod out as he vomited.
The sink caught most of it. The door squealed open as he shivered and held himself over the sink. Itotia wet a rag and held it over his head.
“Was that everything?” she asked.
He nodded as he ran the tap and splashed water to clean the sink off. “Enough.”
“Enough?” Itotia leaned over to whisper in his ear. “You don’t want to end up like Heutzin before your time, do you? He left early, you know.”
Acid burned Timas’s throat and the back of his teeth. He rinsed his mouth and spat into the drain.
He raised his shirt. “You look,” he said. “Do you see a shred of fat?”
Itotia leaned over and pinched the side of his stomach. She squeezed approvingly. “I know you’ve had a terrible day, but if the cuatetl is damaged, we’ll need all the xocoyotzin. We depend on you, Timas.”
He felt so weary. “I know. I know.” He let her guide him back to his bed. The room still smelled of fresh tamales. It made his stomach twitch, nauseous again.
Itotia set a candle to burn by his bed as Timas crawled in. He lay still and listened to the city flex as turbulence bubbled past it, shaking it just enough to get its parts to tense against each other: harmless constant metallic earthquakes that ran along the fault lines of Yatapek’s seams.
Later that night the word arrived that the weather remained good and the next shift of xocoyotzin had gone down and returned. Even despite the tough job of assessing damage in the night on the surface they had come to the same conclusion as Timas.
The cuatetl had been badly damaged. Yatapek did not have the resources to fix it.
Neighbors drifted in and out of the courtyard. Worried adult voices discussed what the news meant for their futures, for the xocoyotzin, and for each other.
Itotia sounded calm and measured, but Timas heard the worry in her voice.
Later into the night, once most people had left and the electric lights dimmed throughout the courtyard, scraping and squeaking noises drifted into Timas’s room through the street-side window.
He poured himself a cup of warm water from the pitcher by his bedside and stood up to look out the window.
Cen’s older brother, Luc, pulled a large wooden cart along the road. Bundles of clothing, furniture, and chests hastily stacked on it swayed about, threatening to fall out.
Chantico, Luc’s wife, walked slowly alongside her husband. Behind her: Luc and Cen’s mother.
No longer the family of xocoyotzin, they moved now to the lower levels, looking for jobs where the city crowded on top of itself, where little light reached the buildings, and the alleys smelled of humanity, industry, and badly recycled air.
For a moment Luc paused and looked over at the window. Timas wanted to duck, but instead he nodded at Luc and raised a hand.
Luc didn’t respond. He put his head down, repositioned his grip on the cart’s handles, and kept pulling.
If the cuatetl did not get fixed, all the xocoyotzin would make that journey toward the elevators. The city’s future sat on a knife’s edge.
hen Ollin returned two days later he snagged Timas’s arm and pulled him along through the courtyard away from the watered-down pulque.
Ollin didn’t tower over Timas, but his bulk and presence could intimidate. Ollin made him feel like a child again. Ollin’s wrinkled tunic and unkempt hair were the only signs that he’d been out of the house for two days.
“I know we don’t talk often, now.” Ollin’s words cracked out quickly. Precise, businesslike. “But you’re grown now, you’ve seen one of the worse things a man faces, here on Yatapek, and I should treat you as one.”
Timas stumbled behind his dad into the cool shade. “I tried to bring him up in time . . .”
“There was nothing you could have done. I talked to Heutzin.” The chair creaked as Ollin sat. “Itotia!”
Timas’s mother appeared in the door frame with a tentative smile. “You’re back.”
Ollin didn’t smile back. He raised his hand. “I invited the pipiltin over for a lunch. We have little time, and a crisis to move on before everyone in the city begins to offer advice and rumors to cloud our thoughts.”
“I’ll get the courtyard ready.” Itotia hesitated for a moment, looked at Timas, then backed away.
Ollin leaned over the table and peered at Timas over clasped hands. “Would you believe that the man who fell out of the sky and hit us is still alive?”
“Mom told me,” Timas said. “If he is still alive, can we hold him accountable? Is he from the Aeolian cities?” If so, he might be rich enough to fix the damage he’d done. Unlike on Yatapek, the Aeolians came from worlds where humans had lots of contact with aliens and their advanced technologies. The Aeolians had faced oppression as minorities among those alien worlds. But now they called Chilo their own, using the tools
and technologies they’d wrested away from other races. How could Yatapek compete with that?
“We don’t know.” Ollin shrugged. “But he will pay one way or another for what he did. He’s delirious, he keeps talking about zombies and invasions. We think he may have spent time here before.” People nicknamed Aeolian ambassadors “zombies” due to their awkward pauses and blank looks.
Timas felt a chill at the idea of an Aeolian invasion. His city could do little to ward them off.
“And the cuatetl,” Timas whispered. “What do we do about that while we wait?”
“We’ll talk about it tonight. I know many will say we have to go on our knees and beg the Aeolians to give us a loan.” His father looked disgusted with the thought.
“What other choice do we have?” The almost mile-wide city needed raw resources to survive. The Aeolian cities floated high, some of them even had cables that reached out into space. They got their ores and materials from asteroids. Few got them from the surface with old mining equipment like Yatapek. One of Timas’s great grandmothers had helped purchase the machine. He doubted she anticipated that they would still be using it.
“The pipiltin will figure them out tonight.” Ollin stood up and rubbed his face. His eyes were red from weariness, Timas noticed.
“And you will be there to help them.” Timas also got up and walked toward his room. Everyone knew about his dad’s desire to become one of the guiding leaders of the city.
“That is why I invited them to council here. Where are you going?” Ollin stood in his doorway.
“Back to sleep.” The pulque sat heavy in Timas’s stomach and made him feel weary.
“Sleep? Is that what you’ve been doing all this time?” Ollin entered the room and grabbed Timas’s shoulder. “You at least went running, didn’t you?”
Timas didn’t try to lie. “What’s the point right now? I won’t be needed for a while, and if the cuatetl gets fixed, it will be by the Aeolians.”
Ollin shoved him away. “You are
,” he hissed. “You will keep your shape. You will not fall apart on me.”
The anger in his dad’s eyes didn’t shake Timas. He gritted his teeth. “Like Heutzin?” His father mercilessly hounded him about being primed for the role of xocoyotzin.
“Heutzin,” Ollin said slowly in a neutral voice. “He paid his dues, saw friends die, and risked his life for almost ten years.”
Without children, though, Heutzin remained just another once-xocoyotzin. Timas left the thought in the air.
Ollin shook his head. “You need something to keep your mind off Cen. You keep your schedule, you run every morning and night, and you watch your food. And I think I have something to help you find some direction. It will keep you from circling around yourself.”
Ollin lowered his voice to a whisper. “There’s a delegate from one of the Aeolian cities here sniffing around already, dropped off by airship an hour ago. I was going to have your mother take her around the city, but I think now you’re going to do that.”
His father’s voice had that “no options” edge to it. Timas would spend the day playing babysitter to some snooty outsider tourist. He knew they liked to fly out to Yatapek to enjoy the large and open upper layer for vacations. No wide-open spaces in their packed cities. Hand-made crafts from the lower level markets also attracted them. For the Aeolians the price of a flight here cost little, even though most on Yatapek couldn’t afford to leave.
“Great,” he muttered. Another of Ollin and Itotia’s schemes to get involved with running the city. They’d climbed up from the filth and darkness of the lower layers thanks to him. Yet still they schemed as if the grime lay lurking just behind them.
Ollin ignored that. “Listen to me.” He slapped his hands together, but still kept his voice low. “You will tell her nothing about the man who hit the city, except that we have his body. Do not tell her he lives. You understand me?”
Timas understood. “I understand.”
“Right.” Ollin smiled. “We want to know what we can get out of all
this before we volunteer information.” Yatapek had few powerful friends in the other cities. Again, Timas reminded himself to think about the dying cuatetl. His city needed the resources to fix it. His city needed him.
“Take me to the delegate, I’ll give them the tour,” Timas said.
Ollin pulled his brass pocketwatch from inside a tunic pocket. The city bumped at them from underfoot. Ollin swayed and Timas followed suit. Neither of them paid close attention to the unconscious reaction. “She should be waiting outside. Her name is Katerina Volga.”
Timas walked around his dad and into the corridor where he could see the courtyard gates that led to the street. The girl who stood in front of them wore a silvery shirt and trousers, had her hair cut short to her ears, and her left eye glinted in the morning light.
“She’s my age,” Timas said. “I thought you said she was a delegate from the cities.”
“She is.” Ollin walked alongside Timas as he left the corridor for the courtyard. “You know the young and inexperienced of theirs can wield a lot of power. You’ve seen the tourists. Even the children are rich.”
“She has one of those metal eyes.” Timas had seen Aeolians with them before. “She’s like a robot?”
“Something like that. I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it, it’s hard to get them to shut up about themselves.” Timas looked over at his dad as they crossed the courtyard together. Ollin didn’t often reveal personal opinions about the Aeolians. “Be back by lunch. The elders will want to talk to her.”
Ollin opened the gates. “Welcome, Katerina, to my home. This is Timas, my son. I’ve asked him to personally take you on a tour of our city.”