Hollow

(Another busy Friday, so here is another piece of fiction from a while back. This isn’t a story really. Just a description of a world. I really like it, and now and then I’ll get inspired and add a couple new paragraphs. It isn’t done.)

The night breathes quietly beneath the world. Everything glints and shimmers off the water-smooth curves of ‘tites and ‘mites, catching the half-light of pale glowing fungi in ways our eyes never evolved to expect. Who knew the earth would be so porous?—a termite-tunneled maze of twisting underground rivers and Cthulhu-carved caverns the size of small countries. Mine shafts spiral down at right-angles towards the core, crisscrossed by lava tubes and spun out into the fractal temples dream-dug by renegade swarms of nanobots. At some point the subway builders of New York and Tokyo simply forgot to stop digging and drilled down deeper and deeper into the dark depths with cult-like precision, leaving whole underworlds in their wake: a promised land for hobos and mole-people. Occasionally a train will head down the wrong track, carrying its passengers further and further into the hot night to found strange kingdoms floating in the bubbles of volcanic seas.

I’ve always loved the hidden places, those old surface places that sunk into the earth for their eternal rest, still and silent, content to finally dream away the eons in peace. Tall towers mark dead cities like headstones, as if to say “Here Lies Los Angeles,” “Here Lies London.” We try to keep these old names as best we can, so I was named Manhattan to remember an island of bright lights and straight streets. Maybe one night the people come to me and say “Manhattan, tell us of your old place. We will remake it in the New World.”

We try so hard to remember now. Some folks move slower, trying to memorize every person, every step, every story. Historians of These Days obsessively scratch diaries and news stories into tunnel walls, carving whole catacombs with the details of a single night. The Blogging Elite crouch in fortresses, collecting parchment memoirs and found footage to archive in binary on slabs on gold. We didn’t used to think of ourselves as archeology, didn’t think that our bones and pocket change might one night be museum treasures. Now we know better. We have accepted that we may again find catastrophe our only recourse, and this time we want to be remembered. Cataclysm is a forgetful thing.

It weighs so heavily on some people, not knowing what came before. So much has been forgotten. We don’t remember why the Movement started, or why it was abandoned when the earth was still half-unmade. Were the people mesmerized by the sparkling emerald geodes larger than most houses? Did they walk for weeks along the shores of oil-black seas, eating lichens haphazardly, entranced by the subtle soothing symphonies of gasses glub-glubbing out of the water, smelling of sulfur and sending spirals scuttling unseen across the otherwise still surface? Did they suddenly catch themselves thinking, “Couldn’t we live like this forever?”

In Subway Town drumbeats echo headlines and advertisements through the tunnels, a data-rhythm that informs the footsteps of an entire city. Street corners are dotted with priests communing silently with bits of surface scrap, while emcees and slam poets peddle mix tapes between battles. The air is thick with aerosol as graffiti writers spray paint every conceivable surface with the tags of their respective routes: Grand Central, Red Line, Up Train, Drop Train, NJ Transit, Tube Atlantic, Metro Core.

Ragged refugees from Honeycomb sit at café tables with nervous eyes, watching the train schedules and compulsively sketching hexagons on napkins. Almost no one stays in Subway Town forever; everyone is on their way to other places, other lives. Recently recruited emigrants from the outlying caverns wait on a crowded platform, looking sheepish in their ill-fitted red robes as they awkwardly practice their kata. Beside them, his lips curled into a practiced smile, their new supervisor scans the sea of faces for potential last-minute converts, droning on about the necessity of these bizarre low-grav exercises. An inforunner barters for transport to backwater farming communities, intent on delivering long overdue letters and news before the start of the next growing cycle. Everything about him is in tension, his long, rough fingers protectively clutching the flash drives that hang from his neck as his leg muscles coil and uncoil absentmindedly, ready to spring at the first sign of corporate data-miners. A wild-eyed soonsayer paces back and forth through a connecting passage, shouting frantically at pedestrians who avoid his gaze, “Soon, soon…don’t you see? Our destiny is almost upon us! We have to return to the Movement! We have to finish what was started!”

Occult agents of the ultraculture move lightly through the crowd, distributing hallucinogenic mushrooms and fresh pieces of rune-carved fruit to hungry travelers—a ritual of social manipulation designed to twist the collective imagination into bizarre new patterns. And all the while the trains come and go, carrying passengers to all corners of the planet: Hive, Worm City, Aghartha and Shamballah, Tiananmen Sphere, Plug-In, iTown, Little Brazil, the bird sanctuary, New Jerusalem, Hot Core, Cold Core, Fort Stalag, Wireless City, and a half dozen tiny surface outposts in the crust, like Mammoth Cave and Iguassu Falls.

But life goes slower out here in the deep caves, far from the noise and energy of civilization. I’ve been spending my nights playing dice and listening to the women of an old mining tribe tell stories of good times past. “Yous shoulda been der, Miss Man’attan,” they tell me with rich tribal accents, “yous coulda made ah fortune, ah girl like you.” There had been a gold rush around here a few decades ago, but now this shell of a former boomtown has become just another small fishing village. A few hundred meters from shore, fishermen cast nets and toss stun grenades from the backs of pale elephants, pulling several dozen eels and a couple of blind fish from the shallow subterranean lake before heading back in for the night. Things are quiet, peaceful, hurried only by the crumbling of the hotel’s plastic walls and the occasional rumbling of far-off quakes. On holidays, when the village president declares a forty-hour siesta, I spelunk through the backtunnels under the lake to my favorite island and just sit, listening to the night’s long, heavy breaths reverberate through the thousand lungs of a hollow world.

When you’re down here, in the deep places, the darkness takes on a substance all its own—a strange aether, not luminiferous but umbral, saturated with subtly slinking shadows that shiver the spine and infect the back alleys of your imagination. What if they’d been right? you start to wonder, thinking of all the obsolete science you’ve encountered in old travel journals or found scrawled on bathroom walls: phlogiston and caloric, miasma, Odic force, Higgs boson, and all those tripped out hippy cosmologies. What if they’d been on to something…? When such questions hit you in the quiet of these natural isolation tanks, vast new regions of possibility emerge, and you find yourself chasing glimpses of new kinds of lives to be lived in new kinds of worlds.

I’ve heard the stories of whole towns possessed by bizarre memes, daring to question accepted models and rewriting the history of their understanding to explore an impossible idea: would the universe still work the same way if science had turned out different? They built radionic control towers to “manage the flow of social energies,” replaced hospitals with orgone machines, dug trenches to alter ley lines, set up biophotonic defense grids, and eschewed electromagnetic chauvinism altogether. Occasional reports trickled out of such places, describing half-documented cases of telepathy and magic powers, of contact with Mothmen and Greys, and of devastating explosions caused by nothing at all. But these are just stories, chocked up to bad mushrooms and put aside for debunking next to blurry pictures of reptoids. Still, one can’t help but wonder: if we are a product of our history, would changing that history change us as well?

Maybe this was what the Movement sought: to capture and make real these ephemeral experiences flashing in the periphery of what-ifs and could’ve-beens. Down here in the deep, feeling the creaks and groans of the earth settling onto its foundations, it becomes so easy to think they might have been right: remake the world, remake ourselves.

On the surface statues stalk storms under a patchwork sky. The enormous Buddhas and Christs and Maos step slowly, one hulking foot in front of the other, their weathered golden skin concealing gears and hydraulics installed by men made mad by a landscape torn away. What bizarre factories cast the iron for their swinging limbs, chipped away the marble for their hollow chests, carved the hickory for their ligaments and toes, and blew glass baubles for their empty eyes? No one really knows, and few would care to find out. Some say there are men inside them, locked away within those colossal forms—perhaps a single pilot, hooked in by the brain, or a dozen of them all climbing about from knee to elbow, pulling levers and spinning dials. The statues follow the weather, wandering from cloud to cloud over the rubble of shattered mountains, seemingly waiting to get struck by lightning or…or something. On clear days, with no rain in sight, these giants go mad themselves, lobbing boulders or scraggly trees at scattered settlements and trading train-wreck blows with each other across small rivers. Most folks nod knowingly when they hear of this behavior, and say something to the effect of: “Can you really blame them?”

For impossibly high above these titans’ solemn heads it hangs, huge beyond words, a quilt of glass, stone, and sky strung together with a thin steely spider web and propped up by two mountain-dwarfing spikes that curve into view from below the horizon. The surface is a landscape between worlds, unfinished. A place tragically trapped in transition. The towers were built and the magma started to flow, but the monuments were never collected, the great rains never came. The shell of a new Earth sits ragged and vacant above us, like the roof of an old abandoned house. It’s a sight so grand and magnificent and disappointing that I cried when I first saw it as a little girl, my arms thrown tightly around my mother’s neck as we all gazed upwards, unable to look away.

But if we have learned anything, it’s that new worlds lie hidden where you least expect them. We found ours right under our feet, buried inside the very planet we were willing to rip apart to build anew. There are other planets out there, other places to live, and even other shapes our own might take, but maybe every place is as good as every other. Maybe everything we need is already here, just beneath the surface.

“Have you heard of Alice City?” People whisper it in smoky backrooms and candlelit temples, ominous and worrisome. “Do you know about Alice City?” You hear it everywhere, with all sorts of meanings and connotations, but always in reference to something new, something unique—a possibility overflowing with danger or imagination. Martial artists mutter it quietly to themselves before a tournament, praying for ferocity in battle, while lovers breathe it lustfully into each other’s ears at night, hoping for a different sort of fierceness entirely. Alice City is the first of the new places, the oldest. It is a sacred place, made mystical not by gods or ghosts but by us, trickling down into the cracks and crevices of the planet to be reborn into our new homes of soil and stone.

Alice City started with a simple shaft a thousand meters deep, and from that hollow seed grew not stems and leaves, but roots. Chutes sprouted out and down from the center in a twisted tangle of tunnels, as the people began to chip and chisel the chunks of earth away into ant-colony avenues that matched the maps of their imagination. No phallic skyscrapers, struts, or spires, Alice City became the entrance to a living, feminine womb of rock and ore, the sexual center where two worlds met.

The trains don’t come here anymore. Pilgrims have to walk the long road from Lower Shingwa, through the gaudy Shinto villages with their neon shrines and past the chattering cyborgs that line the path, offering subscriptions to shady gift economies and blinking lewd and eyeless at pretty girls. I last made the journey with a pair of sufis from Latifa-e-Nafsi. Together we shared bread and sake as we hummed tuneless drinking songs and talked of the other people we saw traveling the other way. “Why is it that folks are drawn here, but leave so quickly?” I asked one night as a group of somber figures hustled by us in hushed silence.

“Oh ishta, for all sorts of reasons,” the elder one replied. “Ask why it is that men choose to seek God or not to seek God. All the reasons are the same. This place is both now and then, so people come to look for direction. They think they can find direction in a city! Ha! But direction, like God, cannot be found in a city—only in the heart. So they leave when they do not find it. But…maybe some of them find direction anyway. Maybe the city helps open their heart.” He paused and scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Of course, any city can do that, insha’allah.

“So why are you going there, if there is nothing really to find?” I asked, taking a swig of sake and passing the jug back to him. “What are you looking for?”

“We are going to the surface, to pay homage to the four yōkai. There are disaster spirits said to haunt the ruins around Yomi-tokyo. The atomic god-twins Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Aum Shinrikyo, the Last Call. And what do you seek, sagheerah aasal?”

I smiled and replied, “Direction.”

But really, I already had direction. It pulled me up and away from Alice City, towards the true places of power and mystery that lie elsewhere, nestled within the shallow corners of the crust. These are the in-between places, where the old world had crept down beneath the ground, poking quivering tendrils of civilization blindly into the rough night, and then scurrying back to the light when the darkness poked back. Catacombs of ancient kings, abandoned sewers and metro stations, the labyrinthine dungeons of unremembered cults—all haunted for sure, and occupied only by hobos, vagabonds and tramps. Down here you’ll find everything forgotten: posters from forsaken films, signs directing you to nowhere, and the junk-pile altars of lost god-like things. Rats and spiders slink stealthily through the silence, tending to their dank kingdoms with care. They don’t bother to hide from visitors, but still they’re rarely seen. Old subway tunnels echo with the rickety rattle of ghost trains that still roam beneath the cities, trafficking suburban legends and homeless gods on their eternal commutes. Trusting mole-people sometimes try to follow them, hoping to be lead to the remains of underground raves or creepy, buried carnivals. The walls swim with salt stains and multicolored moss, occasionally glimmering, wet and iridescent, in the flickering glow of torches or the bright beams of flashlights shone by spelunkers gone astray. City shamans have been known to sneak up here to collect the molds and puddle scum. From these they brew a tea, sweet and psychedelic, used in summonings and initiations that reveal the bygone passages for what they really are: portals to the faerie realm, to the lush palaces of djinn, and to the dark domains of sleeping urban egregores.

Bomb-blasts bring broken daylight over bone-yards. The air is heavy with decomposition and filled with thick clouds that billow and swirl in a dance of dust and dead skin. Folks used to put their dead in the Earth, but what good is that now? These days we’re all buried, all beneath the ground.

So this is where we bring our bones, where we scatter them and burn them, where we stack them into monuments and pack them into mausoleums. Crazed and fanatical mourners fit together ribs and femurs to build the walls of ivory babel towers, making a thick mortar out of ash and tears. Above them pale slave masters rap funeral hymns and speak in tongues, their strange orders echoing out of the graves and into the the hollow skulls of long dead giants and the fossilized skeletons of tar-pit-trapped tyrants and prehistoric kings.

Warring tribes of grave robbers fire chemically questionable roman candles and lob antique IEDs out of coffin filled foxholes. The explosions set the feasting flocks to flight, sending them cackling and cawing angrily above the fields of dead, the mountains of gray skulls lying beneath them, unbleached in the darkness. As the birds whip and whirl around pillars of funeral pyre smoke, the thump of their wings lays break beats over samples of a death-born symphony: the tragic wail of mourning mothers, the cymbals and trumpets of Nawlins marching bands, and the punctuating crackle of twenty-one gun salutes. No one knows how they got here, or how they learned to navigate the night. Maybe the vultures simply followed the smell of carrion all the way from the surface or the sanctuary, scuttling down the long winding Funeral Road, feeding on the scraps of drunken wakes. Maybe some uplifted bats came as prophets to the rooks and crows, teaching them to echo-locate and leading them on a flapping exodus, away from the oppression of a broken sky.

Vertical forests spiral up into the sky and double-helix their way down into the ground. Half hanging gardens, half hydroponics gone wild, the beanstalk is an intertwining tree-tangle of limbs and chutes, leaves and roots, all spinning together into a seamless mass: god-plant and world-weed. Deep within this towering thicket lie beehives the size of bungalows, whole libraries written on scrolls of mutant birch bark, and the hidden vegetable house villages of Lafoly cults. Bizarre organic plumbing systems pump fresh topsoil up from the mountain-sized compost heap that surrounds the trunk, while clusters of tree house towns draw electricity from potato-battery power plants. On holy days children scamper along the branches and boughs to hang crystals and mirrors from the vines that dangle dozens of kilometers below city-sized limbs, and for a few weeks the reflected sunlight reaches inwards, far into the canopied crevices of this World Tree. Still the innermost reaches are always dark, populated only by the bats and blind angler-squirrels that glide silently amongst the giant spires of ghostly Indian pipes; and the mad monks and mad poets sit in the shade, scratching sinister jungle book fantasies into the moss, forever tripping on the faintly glowing sap of radioactive maple trees.

The night breathes quietly beneath the world, long, endless inhales that swirl softly, warm and moist, through every cave and crevice, every hollow. The planet spins, the sun shines, and the core smolders; in the middle things cool and convex, the volcanic heat of the ever rising currents dissipating into sunken glaciers and silent subterranean seas. Air rushes in and out of the deep, an infinite wind tunnel, each breath carrying with it such strange seasons and strange storms.

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