(Interstellar – the revenge)
(As you see, the title of this story is still in flux. If sources are to be believed, a flashy title is the most important marketing tool for any book. Don’t mind if I experiment a little.
Here is what happened before:
That night Michelin couldn’t sleep. His thoughts kept on turning around what the vagrant had said. Out beyond the horizon. Proclaim that you were going to live. What an idea! They all had known the day that the Murph had departed from this planet that they were doomed; they were the Left Behind, the ones that had no chance. Earth was finished. The Blight had consumed all edible plants; animals had died out and become extinct from thirst, dust and the unmet need to eat. If Michelin thought about it, he didn’t even know how the girl kept alive; but she was certainly more alive than he was, because she was a Free Breather.
She had to be hungry! And she’d have wanted a bath, of this he was sure – though now that he thought about it, while her face was always smeared with dust, she didn’t smell worse than anyone else in a dust storm. This meant that somehow, she must have access to water. He wondered.
She had wanted to show him something. What was that? His curiosity had turned into a sandworm, tunnelling its way through his every attempt of falling asleep, eating holes into his erratic dreams and devouring everything until it was alone, looking for more to eat… and it found him and opened its huge ragged sandworm mouth, looming above him ready to engulf him… he couldn’t even run, because his legs didn’t get enough oxygen, he sank to the ground and whimpered helplessly, and wheezed, and strained to breathe…
“Michelin!” His mother’s hands shook him awake, and she forced a teaspoon of liquid down his throat. Instantly his breathing eased. The most precious substance on the planet: pelargonium extract. She brewed it herself, from home-grown pelargoniums… which were protected and pruned carefully, but sacrificed leaves and sometimes whole branches to the Blight every year.
It was the only substance that he swallowed that didn’t make him want to retch. It was bitter and dark, but to him it tasted better than that vile blighted corn. And in time, the aflatoxins of the Blight on the corn made people go blind; pelargonium didn’t do that.
If only there were more different foodstuffs, he thought. That might solve the whole crisis. Half awake, he saw how the sandworm was actually the Blight; and how he grabbed a sharpened knife and stabbed at it until it collapsed, dead; and how he cut its tough hide open and ate its flesh, in a reversal of the food chain.
When he woke up the next morning, he knew with unwavering certainty that he had to find Trissy and squeeze her secret out of her. Whatever she knew – it would be interesting, but it might be important.
Finding Trissy was as easy as going to school. There she was, in the common classroom as always; very intent and serious, bent on her level of reading and writing. There was something different about her today. He puzzled about it; and then he had it. She looked cleaner. She seemed to have washed her tattered clothes; and her hair was still damp, but styled into a rough plait. Also, her ubiquitous blanket that she carried with her everywhere ever since some boys from the school had played a joke on her hiding it, was nowhere to be seen today. Maybe she had washed it, too.
That definitely meant she had access to water. Michelin’s curiosity was peaked. Where did the girl find water in a town where even the deepest boreholes had run dry a decade back? Did she sneak into people’s houses and use their recyclers?
He had to wait for break to catch her attention, and then she was very off-hand with him.
“Trissy, I want to talk to you.”
She didn’t even reply; merely looked at him and then looked away, studying the horizon.
“You wanted to show me something.”
“Yea, but you’re not the right one,” came her careless reply. “Never mind.”
He decided to lump it all in.
“Trissy, if you really know a secret by which we can live until we’re old, I’d very much want to know it.”
“Oh?” She studied him with raised eyebrows, almost down her nose. “I thought you were looking forward to dying young?”
“Maybe I can help you look beyond the horizon,” he said. “The heavens know, I’m sick of the way things are.”
“No kidding,” she said, giving him a knowing glare. And then she took a deep breath and got up from her perch. “Alright, then. But I’d better not regret this.”
She led the way out of the school grounds – not that teachers cared who attended and who didn’t these days. She picked up her rolled-up (and damp, as Michelin had correctly presumed) blanket from behind a rock and shouldered it, like a cooling scarf across the back of her neck, holding onto both ends of the roll. And she strode out – straight into the direction of the desert.
“We’ll be walking for a while,” she said. “Hope your parents won’t mind.”
“I should leave them a message,” he said, looking back wistfully at the school buildings they were leaving behind them at a pace.
“Too late for that now,” Trissy commented. “Anyway we won’t be gone all that long. Not this time.”
“What do you mean?”
She stopped and turned to stare piercingly at him with her intense blue-green eyes.
“I said I’d better not regret this,” she said softly, almost with menace. “You asked; you’re in this now until the end. Is that understood?”
“Without knowing what it’s about?”
She hissed in frustration. “Alright, Michelin. Make up your mind; either you’re in, or you’re not. If you’re in, you’re in until the very end, and you do as I say without asking questions. If you’re not, you turn around now and go home like the good boy you are, and I’ll never rescue you from your asthma again because you’re not interested in living anyway.”
Michelin stared at her with wide eyes.
“I’ve fallen on my face before with this,” she added. “I think someone has courage, and at the wrong moment they opt out and call me crazy, and I can start again. So decide!”
Michelin looked back at the school, wondering about his parents.
“Alright,” said Trissy and started walking away.
“No, wait!” Michelin ran to catch up, and ended up wheezing and feeling drained of energy. “I’m coming with you. If you’re really onto something, I want this chance.”
“I’m onto something,” she promised, and studied him with his asthma. “Oh boy, this is gonna be difficult!”
“Sorry,” he wheezed.
“We’ll have to go slowly,” she said resignedly. “Don’t exhaust yourself. I don’t know what to do when you get an asthma attack.”
“Pelargonium,” he panted, catching his breath. “My mother grows it and cooks extracts from it.”
“Really?” She sounded as though she had just been given the coordinates of an amazing treasure. “She grows it? And it helps?”
“It does,” said Michelin.
“Next time, bring some,” instructed Trissy. “Come now.” She led the way into the desert.
They had been walking, with plenty of rests, for about three hours when the afternoon storms loomed in the distance. Erratic gusts of wind announced the arrival of the evil dust clouds.
“We’ll have to hurry,” said Trissy. “Can’t you go faster?”
“I’m going as fast as I can without triggering an attack,” panted Michelin, bent over his arms folded across his chest. “I’m trying!”
“It will catch us,” she predicted glumly.
True to her prediction, the daily sand storm came spilling over them three minutes later. Michelin crouched down on the sand. Trissy joined him and spread her protective blanket over them both.
“We try not to get caught in these,” she explained as the sand started swirling outside. In here, the breathing was strained with the damp blanket.
They huddled together, waiting for the storm to abate. Trissy was silent and sullen, refusing to say anything more. Michelin would have liked to fish a bit more out of her, but it was such an effort to breathe that he couldn’t imagine the added effort of trying to persuade her to part with her knowledge against her will.
When the storm had passed, Trissy stood up and whisked away the blanket again, with a flair that was becoming familiar to Michelin. The day was three hours older; shafts of late afternoon sunlight played through the dust that still stood in the air, settling slowly.
“Need to create you a filter,” she said. “Don’t worry: We’ll get there.”
She strode out purposefully, deeper into the desert between rocks and weathered old tree-trunks. Michelin fought to keep up.
They made their way up the low hills that had always been the limit of Michelin’s horizon. After another hour’s climb – the sun was hanging quite low in the west now, its rays coming over the top of the hill, filtering through the ubiquitous dust and turning the sky a spectacular red long before it was time for sunset – they reached the top of the hill.
They walked across the plateau at its top and looked down over the other side. Michelin suppressed a gasp, as his asthma had forced him to learn how to do, and stared at the vast expanse.
Low shrub grew sparsely across a dry wilderness. There were no more fields; no maize. Patches of the wilderness looked black and burnt; Michelin knew that some if it may be from fires, but at least some of it would be from the Blight.
“Are you ready to carry on?” asked Trissy.
“Not quite yet,” he wheezed, catching his breath. It had been a steep climb after a power walk; his legs felt like jelly, his heart pounded like a sledgehammer and his body wanted him to fall asleep on the spot for rest and recovery. He sat down on a large rock. Trissy plonked herself down, too.
“This is what you wanted to show me?”
“That’s not all, but, yes,” she said. “That’s the start.”
“Nobody can live here,” he pointed out. “What will we eat?”
She stared at him again.
“You attend school, but you miss the best parts,” she said disdainfully. “Do you really believe that the most valuable information comes from the teacher’s head? The teacher’s a teacher because she’s got nothing else to keep her busy. She’s not a scientist, or an engineer.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“When you look at this,” said Trissy and swept a hand across the vast panorama, “what do you see?”
“I see plants,” said Michelin. “But no food plants, you can’t eat these.”
“Says who?” challenged Trissy. “Anyway, is that all you can see?”
“What do you see?” he asked back, almost belligerently.
“An ecosystem,” said Trissy. She met his blank stare. “You don’t know the meaning, do you. It’s a lot of stuff surviving together, depending on each other. It’s how our Earth works. Humans destroyed that; this is why the Blight came to destroy us too.”
“Humans didn’t destroy what was before,” said Michelin with disgust. “That’s just nonsense.”
“Oh, they did,” replied Trissy. “Not all humans, of course. Not even most humans. But humans did. Evil humans, who felt their own profit was more valuable than the very planet they lived on. They died, of course,” she added with a little laugh. And she jumped up, stepped forward to the ledge, climbed onto a protruding rock and flung her arms aloft. “And nature remains unvanquished,” she proclaimed jubilantly. “This is the biggest, most important thing I wanted to show you, Michelin. The rest is detail. This is what counts! Nature survives! And so shall I.”
“So,” he remarked cynically, “you’re going to live off little pebbles and dry sticks?”
She glared at him and jumped back down from her rock. “C’mon, enough dawdling.”
“I thought this was it? What you wanted to show me?”
“It was, for today,” she said. “I’d have given you a break, so you could go get your medicine. But you’ve just changed my mind. If I stop now, you’re going to drop me. I don’t think I can let you go home yet.”
“But,” started Michelin, but she held up a hand.
“You gave your word,” she reminded him. “You’re in this until the end, and you do exactly what I tell you to.”
“But…” Michelin tried again.
“Your first command is silence. Now shoosh, and follow me.”
Michelin clamped his mouth shut and followed her, scrambling down the western side of the hill. He’d wondered what lay behind the horizon; now he knew. It may look interesting and pretty, but essentially it was only more desert.
Trissy maintained a stubborn silence as she led the way. At some point – the sun was only a hand’s width above the horizon now, his parents would be worried by now – she led him onto a path that ended with a tunnel mouth. The hill was hollow? She dipped into the tunnel – it was dark in here – and emerged, pushing a machine of sorts. It had two wheels, resembling a motorbike a little; but a strangely shaped motorbike. Trissy mounted it, placing the blanket roll across her legs. There was a second seat behind hers.
“Hop on,” she ordered.
“And shut up,” she added.
“You’re stretching my patience,” warned Michelin.
“And you’re stretching mine!” she snapped. “Now shut that trap until you have something intelligent to say!”
He mounted the strange vehicle behind her, wondering where she was off to. She pushed a pedal and did something he couldn’t see, and instantly he had to cling onto her as the vehicle slid into motion, silent as a shadow, into the darkness of the tunnel. Its broad tyres crunched on the gravelly ground. She clicked something, and powerful headlights came on. The walls of the tunnel, ragged rocks, were a bit too close for comfort; but that didn’t slow her down.
They rode downhill for a while; rock was replaced by wooden beams that held back earth. The earth had been crumbling at some point; but it was dry and hard as bone now, no risk of collapsing. Strangely though the air in this tunnel was surprisingly pure; he breathed better than in a long time.
“We’re going slowly,” commented Trissy, “because I don’t want to lose the blanket. Usually I sit on it but I can’t because it’s now muddy from the storm.” And she turned to focus on the tunnel again.
At some point the tunnel widened to make an intersection of various tunnels, and a bit of a chamber. Trissy chose one that went down to the left, and pursued it. There almost seemed to be some moisture in this part of the tunnel system.
“So this is where -“ started Michelin, but Trissy shooshed him once more. He watched in fascination as the tunnel changed its colour and consistency, from wooden beams to cement walls. They were now travelling through something that looked like a tube. It made Michelin uneasy, though he couldn’t tell why he’d felt more comfortable in the tunnel carved out of the Earth.
Eventually they came to a metal door. An old lock system greeted them with red and green lights in a touch panel. Trissy touched a combination of them, and the metal door slid away sideways. She drove the motorbike over the lintel and followed the passage as the door closed again behind them.
“Now we’re locked in,” said Michelin. “Doesn’t that freak you?”
“That was not an intelligent comment, so shoosh,” she replied curtly.
The tunnel had changed shape again at the door; it was now a somewhat larger, square, white-tiled corridor with a very smooth cement floor. Floor-lights came on along it as they moved past. After a few bends and turns, and Trissy passing various locked doors, at the end of the passage another metal door waited, with another keypad lit with green and red lights. Michelin watched as Trissy opened this one too with a code. She told him to get off the motorbike and pushed the vehicle into the dark room behind the door, and flicked on a light switch.
The place was full of long, white work-tops and cupboards. At the far end there was a sink with two taps. Two fridges hummed in the background, their insides showing through glass doors. There was nothing in them. Various other white items lined the worktops along the walls. Michelin gaped.
“You’ve found the Murph’s underground workstation!”
“Not quite,” said Trissy with a smile.
He trawled around the laboratory. “And how is this going to save us if the Murph couldn’t?”
“I haven’t unshooshed you yet,” warned Trissy. “You’re still far too stupid to comment.”
Michelin snapped his mouth shut, taken aback.
“How’s your breathing in here?” she asked.
“Amazing,” said Michelin. “Can’t believe how easy it is!”
“Your lungs will keep on healing,” said Tris. “I’ll keep you here for a while.”
“My parents must be worried by now,” objected Michelin.
“We’re going back tomorrow,” she promised. “Anyway they’ll think you’re staying over at a friend.”
“I never do,” said Michelin.
Trissy snorted in disgust. “You’re such a mommy’s boy! How old are you anyway?”
“Sixteen,” he said, embarrassed. “It’s just because of my asthma.”
“Most people have asthma,” she snapped. “Sorry, you’re not that special. Most still have a life anyway.”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
Seeing so much electronic equipment in one spot made Michelin’s head spin. Electronic devices such as televisions and cellphones had packed it in a generation back. They had not been built to last; the last technological generation had been all out for more profit rather than for the long-term view, leaving this one with nothing of their wonderful world of achievements. If Earth were to regain any kind of technology beyond the basic combustion engine, people would need to reinvent a lot of things. Some people still owned a functional fridge, powered by the solar cells that still survived. It meant that they could keep some of the corn cobs fresh rather than drying all. Michelin’s mother’s fridge had given up its ghost a few years back. That was when she had learnt how to cook the pelargonium leaves down into a sticky, brown goo that didn’t spoil.
“So if this is not the Murph’s hub, what is it?” he asked.
“You’re still under shoosh,” Tris said with a smile. “If I tell you too much now, you’ll turn around and run. Into the door. Because,” she laughed, “you don’t know how to open it!”
“I’m your prisoner,” Michelin proclaimed glumly.
“Guess that’s one way of seeing it,” she agreed. “For now. You’ll come to your senses and then you’ll want to find out more. Until then…” She had moved to the door with her motorcycle, and now she flipped the light switch. Everything went dark. “Sleep tight,” she called, opened the door – light spilled out, but as Michelin stormed at it, he tripped over one of the high stools that were standing around, and before he could recover, she’d kicked the door closed behind her.
He picked himself up from the floor in the pitch dark, swearing loudly. And flinching at how loud his voice sounded in here, how it reverberated off the clinically bare walls. He shuffled forward carefully, felt his way along the benchtop, tripped over two more seats and reached the place where the door was. In the blackness he groped along the wall for the light switch and found it, and switched it. The lights came back on. It made him highly irritated that the vagrant girl had abducted him like that… abducted? Vagrant? He was beginning to see Trissy in another light altogether.
So she had found an amazing place to hide from the storms and dust. What did she eat? Clearly not corn. Alone in the lab like this, he started to wonder. He had read about the way people had eaten meat, generations back. But the only meat that survived by now, were… humans…
It was creepy in here, all alone, deep under the ground. He wondered if his parents wondered yet where he was. What would it help? They couldn’t have any idea what had happened to him. Surely some of the children at school had seen him and Trissy leave together – willingly, staggering off into the desert. And any tracks would have been wiped out by the sandstorm.
He paced through the lab, looking at all the strange apparatus, and trying to find any opening. There was another door at the end of the lab, but it too was locked; a heavy door that sealed tightly, as did the one at the entrance. He doubted even air could escape through these doors.
In one corner he found something that could pass for a bed. It was a kind of sack sewn from bedsheets and when he tested it, it appeared to be filled with sand to give it a mattressy effect; with a clean vagabond blanket folded at the one end of it. He lay down on it. The makeshift mattress was surprisingly comfortable, moulding around his body. He pulled the heavy blanket over himself, closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He would need his wits and strength about him tomorrow, to try and escape.
At least, was his last thought, his parents were not worried in vain. He had indeed been abducted, and maybe they would send someone to find him.
Find him? How? He didn’t even realize how easy his breathing had become in this cold, super-pure air.
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