Dashing Under the Ground
To the naked eyes of humans, the catacombs beneath Moss Bay’s old town would be a place of absolute darkness, one in which the only hope of escape was navigating by bumps in the cold metal walls, tiny differences in the texture that would inevitably, in one’s time trapped inside, leave the fingers calloused and cut by old, hard clumps of rust.
With enough patience, one might be able to make it out, but a single misstep and you could careen to the floor, tripping over the dry bones and sallow skin of someone who died before you or cutting yourself upon broken shards of metal and loose rocks, or worse, falling down a decades-old industrial shaft and dying at its unmaintained, jagged bottom.
For the three women in the catacombs now, it was different. One was a robot and two were witches; all had eyes that could see through the darkness, and it was not a place of fear for them. Not for Mem, who knew that statistically the darkness was little more dangerous than any other time and was only an advantage for her. Not for Eleanor, whose demonic blood came from the underworld where even fire could not brighten the darkness. And not for Vivian, who had seen through the shadows in human minds, many of which were deeper and darker than those underground.
Nor did any of the three fear what was about to happen. Mem and Eleanor had agreed upon it, and Vivian was to be a referee, not to participate.
“Hey, Mem,” said Eleanor, kicking aside a fist-sized rock as they made their way down yet another indistinct grey tunnel. “Aren’t you going to go on a spiel about this place’s history or something?”
“I have determined that you are attempting to appear uninterested in Moss Bay’s history.” Mem walked side by side with Eleanor and Vivian, hands folded in front of her. “In order to better accommodate your feelings, I have avoided dispensing knowledge when it is not asked for. Since you asked, however…”
Eleanor tugged on the side of her hat as if to pull it over one of her ears. “I wasn’t asking you to do it, I was asking why you weren’t doing it! Ugh, whatever.”
“Oh! I understand now,” Mem said. Eleanor frowned, wondering if she was saying that because she’d suddenly understood, or if she’d known all along and was playing innocent.
So Eleanor kept going. “There probably isn’t much to say. For better or worse, these tunnels never got used.” She pointed to a door on their right. “I’ve been here before, and that’s full of triple-deck bunk beds. But they’ve just sat there. They’ve been made for years. Now they’re rotting like that!”
“For better, maybe,” Eleanor flicked her head towards the door. “This place was hard to get to, so the destruction thinned out more of the chaff. People these days know better than to mess with demons.”
“Or,” Vivian said, a tart smile on her face and her hands behind her back, “they learn how to mess with them safely.” Both Mem and Eleanor could use the reminder, Vivian thought, since Mem was a robot and Eleanor’s power was partly hereditary.
“Yeah, yeah.” With each exaggerated step forward, Eleanor flicked her head from one side of the tunnel to the other, trying to see if there was anything she’d missed the first time coming this way. The answer was, nope, not really; these bomb shelters weren’t built to be fancy, and they sure as hell weren’t built to handle demons. They wouldn’t have lasted long even if people’d gotten inside, she thought.
“Eleanor, I would have thought you would be in a better mood.” Mem rotated her head to look at the witch.
Eleanor had been leaning forward and to the side, looking ahead for fun distractions as the tunnel curved and then continued for at least half a mile. When Mem addressed her, she snapped her head back to look at the robot and put her hands on her hips.
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Because we are going to fight!” Mem said. “You enjoy fighting in all circumstances, and I am guessing that you’ve wanted to fight me for some time, as the person who issued the challenge. Having a chance to fight someone you dislike is exactly the sort of thing that has improved your mood in the past!”
Vivian startled. Eleanor squinted, looking like she’d bitten down on a lemon. She stared at Mem, who wore that same dumb smile without breaking.
“The hell are you talking about? I don’t… dislike you, whatever you mean by that.”
“Its meaning follows directly from the word ‘dislike’. You find being around me to be a negative experience. Or, that is what my ongoing analysis has led me to believe.” Mem’s smile didn’t budge an inch as she made eye contact with Eleanor, those relentless red LEDs drilling right into her.
Eleanor leaned most of her weight on one foot, arms folded. “Well, listen, Mem. You might be the smartest woman around in terms of brainpower, but you’re an idiot when it comes to emotions. How I feel about you isn’t some damn math problem!”
Turning on her heel, Eleanor resumed her steady stomping down the tunnel, breaking pebbles and scattering clouds of dust with every other footfall.
Mem turned to look at Vivian, and after a couple seconds, frowned rather than smiled. “I am not sure how to interpret this response. The example conversational trees in my personal database are not designed with someone like Eleanor in mind. I would like to ask if I should be worried.”
Rather than respond right away, Vivian focused inward, then reached out. A person’s own mind, Vivian thought, was like a hospitable little cabin just for them: the fire, though stoked, rarely burns them, and their surroundings are comfortable and familiar. Vivian also knew, however, that for herself among others, this wasn’t always true.
She’d grown used to passing by mental doors that threatened to break off their hinges, doors that if opened would lead to worries she’d eased, secrets she’d kept, crimes and carnal desires she’d found hidden in some of Moss Bay’s best people, all spilling out. Her own worries, meanwhile, roamed freely in the hallways of her mind, and today they were active, greeting her as she passed, asking her what she expected to see in Eleanor’s mind.
That was always an interesting question, because even with Vivian’s supernatural senses and her mastery of negative energy, she didn’t really see; she felt. She already knew what was likely going on in Eleanor’s head, and as she entered it, she was not surprised to find herself in a sweltering furnace of a mind, a place of darkened steel walls and blazing coals. Eleanor had always hidden herself behind multiple layers of emotion, and so, Vivian decided, nothing was truly out of the ordinary here.
Vivian pulled back, regaining consciousness where she stood and opening her eyes to look at Mem.
“I don’t know how she feels about you for sure,” she whispered as quietly as she could, knowing Mem would hear her anyways. “It’s always invasive. But if she hated you and was trying to bury it, or she’d lied… Eleanor doesn’t usually lie, really, then I would’ve noticed that. I think you’re okay.”
Mem nodded and replied, her voice reduced to its minimum volume, a replica of its normal self except for its whisper-quietness. “I understand. This is another example of what humans call ‘belief’. It’s novel, but unsettling. You have given me strong evidence to believe that Eleanor is neutral towards or likes me. Now I have to decide if I will listen to that evidence, or indications I have found independently that she dislikes me.“
Vivian smiled wryly. “It’s rarely useful to do the second one. That’s what humans call ‘anxiety’, and I think you should avoid reprogramming yourself to experience it.”
“Hey!” Eleanor shouted from around the next bend in the tunnel, before peeking back out towards them so she could see them. “If you can’t even keep up walking down a tunnel, how are you going to keep up in a fight?”
There was a whirr that would be inaudible but for the quiet, echoing confines of the underground. Mem snapped her neck back up and towards Eleanor, a smile once again on her face. “We are just taking a break, so as to have the most available energy for when the battle begins. Without doing that, it would indeed be difficult to keep up with you.”
Eleanor trotted back over to them, coming to a stop just ten or so feet in front of Mem and Eleanor. Then she threw an arm out and pushed open a nearby door, one that led into one of the many smaller bunkers in the complex.
“Well if you’re taking a break, don’t just stand around. Do it here.”
A hog-nosed pink plushie, shoved mercilessly into the corner of the room atop an end table with a chipped leg, was the main source of colour in this retrofitted room. The majority of the storage space was on a pair of bunk beds with the bedding and mattresses removed, replaced by wooden planks nailed together, creating a sort of makeshift desk with an upper shelf.
The rest of the room, though plainer at first glance, was definitely well-furnished: there was a tall wardrobe, painted mint-green over white in a slapdash attempt at covering its wear and tear, with a pair of doors and dresser drawers at the bottom. On one side of it was a poster, depicting a boy band that had been popular a few years ago on a psychedelic purple-and-yellow background; on the other was a painting depicting a misty, surreal landscape, where lavender flowers grew between blades of crystalline grass and a river of lava flowed off into the distance. A dusty ruby-coloured loveseat sat by its lonesome in the last remaining corner.
“Ah,” Mem said, “so this is your base of operations when you explore these tunnels?”
“And a bunch of other tunnels, too.” Eleanor grinned, and Vivian noted tiny wrinkle-like dimples forming on her cheeks. They were always slightly out of place, making Eleanor look at once more youthful than she already was, but also a bit like a hag, the sort stories were told about, who’d steal your children or turn you into a toad.
Vivian kept that to herself, of course.
“There are other tunnels connected to this one? My database does not include a great deal of information on regions outside of the Moss Bay metropolitan district,” Mem said. Faint whirring began as one of her internal fans kicked on. “Would you be willing to tell me about them, Eleanor?”
Eleanor’s grin broadened. Her steps became more exaggerated, each leg kicking forward as she walked, and she raised her shoulders and tilted her head back, making herself look slightly bigger.
“The most important thing you need to know is, most of them never even got used. The company that was handling security, building the airlocks, all that stuff, went overboard and didn’t communicate with the government at all, or that’s what this one guy’s tablet said. I think he worked for them. So I bet there was a lot of good stuff before the bikers and the rest of us got here. Hell, sometimes there still is!”
“That is an extremely interesting historical datapoint to me,” Mem said, broadening her own smile with a couple soft clicks which were barely audible from the insides of her cheeks. “The company has a policy of ensuring they receive as much communication as possible, eliminating single points of failure, and acting quickly in the face of potential emergency. Enacting that policy is a large part of C’s job.”
“Well, maybe they’ll be better prepared if another disaster happens again.” Eleanor shrugged and pulled out the dresser drawer at the bottom of her wardrobe. She opened a mini-fridge, connected by a portable battery, and grabbed a delicious, fleshy nectarine. “Doesn’t affect me either way.”
“Speaking of conditions that affect you,” Mem said, her gaze locked on the dresser drawer and the attendant mini-fridge, “is it safe to assume that you spend time here often, given that it connects to so many other tunnels?”
Mem’s fingertips extended. One of her hands now ended in bristles, three fingers on the other in feather dusters, and the remaining two in hose-like nozzles.
“Hey, woah, woah!” Eleanor jumped off of the loveseat and ran right in front of Mem. “It might be a dirty base, but it’s my base! You can’t clean it!”
“Since you invited us to use it under extenuating circumstances, I would consider it to be our base. The explorer’s base.”
“Don’t you have any idea what property means!?”
“Changing the write access on a file is a simple matter for someone with the proper access. In this case, my access is a bevy of cleaning tools and the knowledge that you will thank me later.”
Grunting, Eleanor spun around and attempted to get ahead of Mem in the cleaning: moving things around to better spots, kicking loose furniture into place, and wiping down her valuables with a microfiber cloth she’d pilfered from an electronics store. Mem, for her part, was simply happy to have help, and allowed a few stray traces of dust to live in areas, such as on the posters, where Eleanor had at least made an effort.
Vivian watched as the room practically reconfigured itself at their hands, sitting down on the sofa after Mem had dusted it from cushion to cushion and vacuumed up crumbs and coins from its crevices.
Then, Eleanor stood, hands on her hips, at the centre of the refurbished room.
“Eh. It’s not that much better.”
“Statistically,” Mem said, “the AQI has improved by 30 points.”
“Yeah, but not statistically, it’s not that much better.”
“Well, it is difficult to disprove a subjective opinion, so I will concede this point to you if you would like!”
“Uh, I don’t care if you argue with me.”
Vivian cut in. “Which means she wants you to.”
Eleanor pulled her hat down over her face, covering her scowl.
“Unfortunately,” Mem said with a lilt in her voice, “I do not have any additional arguments to offer beyond the statistical argument I have already provided. It would be improper for me to offer a stylistic appraisal of a base that you designed with your own unique tastes in mind. However, I would note that your The Sensationalists poster is nearly five years old. You could purchase a newer one at several stores downtown.”
“So?” Eleanor barked back. “Old shit is cool. Once it’s out of print, you can’t replace it. It’s like elder magic; not all the good stuff is from the past, but some of it you just can’t replace.”
“You say that not all of ‘the good stuff’ is from the past. I am curious about your worldview, so would you tell or show me what good stuff is from the present?”
Eleanor bit down on her thumb and drew a trickle of blood. Then she put her hand together into a loose fist and rubbed her fingers together. When she opened her palm, she conjured an enormous, glowing orange flame above it. “Whatever I can do.”
Vivian put her hand over her mouth as if witnessing something unpleasant, but her eyes told a different story; really, it was just to quiet her laughter.
“Ah,” Mem said, and she briefly paused. Then, she continued. “You mean to say that the accomplishments of modern witches are unique and worthy of praise. I agree!”
“I was talking about me,” Eleanor said, “but yeah, I’m a modern witch, so I guess that’s one way to put it.”
“You don’t have any praise for me?” Vivian asked. “Not even after I listened to you talk about your problems and painted your nails? Do you remember that night?” Her voice was sing-song and her smile was teasing.
“God damn it,” Eleanor turned her head away and pulled her hat further down over her face. “Listen, me and Mem were gonna fight, and we should get back to looking for a spot to do that. Come on.”
Before either of the other two could respond, Eleanor pushed aside the door to their underground base with a squeak of steel and left. Mem and Vivian followed, smiles still on their faces.
The gently curving tunnels of metal twisted and turned onward, a sprawl that continued west and south and east, except where age and impact had taken its toll and led to cave-ins of rock from above or collapsed, jagged steel from the sides. Mem knew that, objectively, the landmass that Moss Bay was on was not enormous. But to be in these tunnels, wide but enclosed and worming about, made it somehow feel much bigger!
“I would like to play a game of trivia and awareness!” Mem piped up after an hour and a half. “In what direction do you think we have travelled the most – north, east, west, or south?”
“It’s gotten chilly in here,” Vivian said. “So my first instinct is to say north.”
“Don’t be dumb,” Eleanor said. But there was less of an edge in her voice than there had been in some of their conversations that day. “If we went north we’d be underwater, and that’s impossible.”
“Is it?” Vivian wondered aloud. “But before the end of the world, they used massive cables underwater to move data from place to place. That was the Internet. They must have had tunnels. Is it impossible, Mem?”
Ooh, that was a good question, Mem thought. One of her eyes flicked off for a few seconds as she devoted a greater amount of processing power to retrieving the answer from her crowded mind.
“It is not impossible for us to be in an undersea tunnel,” she replied with her usual detail. “However, such tunnels were carefully made and very short. The largest undersea tunnel in history, the Channel Tunnel, stretched between the countries of England and France. No tunnel was long or deep enough to accompany the undersea cables that powered the Internet!”
“Told you.” Eleanor smirked.
“Now I’m just disappointed,” Vivian said. She was still smiling, though; good company kept all sorts of negativity at bay, and minor disappointments among that. “We don’t have an aquarium in Moss Bay, and I’ve always wanted one.”
“Yeah, well, talk to the rusalkae,” Eleanor said almost wearily, “or don’t. They really don’t want anyone hogging the fish.”
“That was your fault for spearing fish on lances of blood and trying to roast them with fire magic,” Vivian responded immediately. “And you polluted the water while you were at it. It’s not the city’s fault they blamed everyone instead of you.”
“Come on, Viv, get over it. A girl’s gotta eat.”
“I do not!” Mem chimed in.
“Yeah?” Eleanor asked expectantly. “Well you’re gonna eat dirt after I’m done with you. Hey, this looks like a good spot.”
The trio stopped at the end of a narrow tunnel, one that’d split off from a larger tunnel which had in turn split off from a long winding main tunnel heading west. This tunnel did not end in a door, or a cave-in, or a branch leading to two different tunnels, as they’d grown accustomed to, but in a long, wide, empty room with a domed roof.
Mem scanned the area and found it was about twelve hundred square feet of space. Vivian noticed that the floor was covered in gravel; that probably wasn’t too bad, since both Mem and Eleanor had well above human durability, but it might be a small disadvantage for Eleanor, since it’d soak up blood better than a flat floor. Eleanor, for her part, was just happy to have a place to start their fight.
“Is this really necessary?” Vivian asked, as the other two walked out into the empty space.
Once they were in the middle of the big room, Mem turned on a dime to face Eleanor, but Eleanor turned to face Vivian instead, frowning. “Is anything necessary, Viv?” she asked. “We’re doing this ‘cause it’s fun and yeah, sure, it’s necessary. Now watch this. I’m going to win.”
Eleanor turned back to Mem, who blasted gravel and dust in a ring around where she’d been standing as she propelled herself, with the rocketry in her legs shedding smoke, towards Eleanor. Eleanor swore and held her arms up in front of her, one holding the other. She dug her nails into her own skin, and the trickle of blood that oozed out expanded in an instant, rippling like a flag as it became a rectangular crimson barrier.
The barrier shimmered and hedged out all non-living things, shoving the gravel and dirt and even some of the loose concrete aside into tall, neat piles like those left by a snowplow. It also repelled Mem, who flew back a few feet before drifting to the ground. Eleanor grinned, then threw her right palm out, fingers curled into claws at their ends. A beam of bubbling ruby-red flame half her height shot out towards Mem, filling the air with the scent of sulfur and blood.
Mem’s eyes focused in the milliseconds after Mem cast her spell. Eleanor’s bloody flames would corrode her body, and if she were exposed to them long enough, they may even burn into her circuitry. There was not enough information to predict what would happen then, which was intriguing, but personal safety and her directive to win took priority over her burgeoning curiosity.
Mem spread her left middle and index fingers, and then they snapped aside, pointing in opposite directions as a small disc of partitioned steel emerged from between them. With a whirr, the disc pushed itself onto the back of her hand and then fanned out, expanding into a larger, thinner circular shield. Mem raised it and blocked Eleanor’s spell; the flame rolled off of it in either direction with a hiss, dissipating in the air in front of and around Mem. Then Mem remembered to click her fingers back into their proper place.
Sounding a lot like her spell, Eleanor hissed. “Don’t just copy my moves!”
“I am not copying your moves,” Mem said. “I am only copying your tactics, and only because they are effective.”
Fine then, Eleanor told herself. She brushed her barrier with the back of her hand, and it fell like a sheet of rainwater before being sucked back into the pinprick wound from which it came. Her arm pulsed with heat, and she felt a quickening in her veins, but she ignored it. She would not attack Mem again, not yet. Instead she walked to her left, and in response Mem walked to her right.
Vivian watched with trepidation as the two circled the room, but neither paid attention to her.
Their focus was on each other, and both of them hoped – in subtly different ways – that the other would let their guard down, or slip up, or make a mistake, or best of all make the next move.
It was a minute later, during maybe their twelfth rotation around the room, when Eleanor frowned. It would have to be her. Mem could probably walk around the room like this for days without getting tired, let alone bored. Eleanor wasn’t tired yet, not even close, but she had to admit that her stamina might not hold up against that of a well-built android. And she was definitely getting bored.
So what would work on Mem, Eleanor asked herself as their eyes remained locked? Electricity? Nah, she was an android, and a special model made by THE company. The one that must’ve had at least a third of the city under its thumb. There’s no way electricity – or even water – would do the trick like she wanted. Eleanor knew a few really obscure spells, but none were good for a battle – unless it was a battle to the death, maybe. Her scowl deepened as the two of them paced across the gravel… and then she realized: the gravel!
Eleanor raised her hand, and every pebble in the room followed it. Mem took that opportunity to charge at her. Her right hand spasmed, and a ceramic sword sprung out of her palm. But by then the spell was already half-done. Eleanor smirked as she slammed her fist across the air in front of her, from one shoulder to the other, and the entire collection of rock and dust spun like a blender. She had herself a sandstorm and it blew Mem off balance; the robot’s sword swung through the air with unsettling speed, but it didn’t even get close enough to cut off a lock of Eleanor’s hair.
“Weak!” Eleanor shouted into the grit as she flexed her arm, and blood skittered out of the cut she’d given herself. A thin barrier of blood swam around her, head to toe, casting all of her features in ruddy red and making her look more like a demon than the human she usually did. It would also keep the gravel away – Mem probably didn’t have a way to do that.
Eleanor raised her other hand and a flickering bar of flame sprang forth. She charged forward into the sandstorm. If Mem wanted a straight-up sword fight, they’d have one – on Eleanor’s terms!
Eleanor’s blade passed through something in the depths of the sandstorm and she heard a pleasing sizzling. A moment later, Mem’s white sword passed in front of her chest, at least a few inches away from its target. Eleanor drew her weapon of flame back past her shoulder, getting ready for a big swing, when a loud blast signalled a volley of grapeshot from further inside the sandstorm.
“Shit!” Eleanor had to raise her other arm and smear the bullets with a layer of blood to stop them from hitting her. It was less blood loss than she’d deal with if they hit her, but that was one of the only weaknesses of a blood mage: eventually, you run out. And Mem didn’t have any to take and use, because of course she didn’t.
Eleanor rushed forward and finished her swing, the heat of her flame-blade ripping through the storm. Again something sizzled, and a smile grew across her face in spite of the flying grit and blood battering it.
Then gunfire pierced the dull roar of the sand as bullets peppered the ground around her feet. One pierced her foot, and Eleanor yelped.
Mem had to be able to see her in the sandstorm, she thought. She’d been stupid not to match her before now! The problem was, like it had been for the entire fight, that Mem didn’t have any blood. That took away her best option: the ability to see blood, and blooded beings, no matter where they hid. So she had to work off herself, and it was going to suck.
Eleanor focused for one lengthened instant, and her blood began to change its course. It all rushed to her head, and she pushed away the dizziness that followed with all the force she could muster. Her eyes became deeply bloodshot as they pierced the sandstorm, and she began to pick out movement and different colours.
Mem trudged away from her through the sandstorm, speed faltering as all the debris got into her joints. Between the two of them, a half-burnt tiny gun mounted on a tripod, maybe ten feet from Eleanor, fed itself with an even smaller belt clip of ammo. Where had she gotten that?
With a battle cry Eleanor sprinted forward and kicked the drone off its tripod and at Mem. She was in no position to avoid it, and it struck her shoulder with a resounding metallic clang.
Vivian’s voice cut through the noise. “Okay, enough! I can barely tell what’s going on anymore, and it’s just turned into a slugfest!”
Eleanor cursed to herself; right, she’d forgotten that Vivian was supposed to be the referee, or that there even was one. Mem would definitely be listening to her, and that meant there was no fun to be had in pressing the attack, which she really wanted to do.
Instead she corrected herself, almost toppling over as her blood resumed its normal flow, and then she let the raging sandstorm end. Sand and pebbles hit the floor and a thin, gross, chalky cloud rose up all around them. Eleanor coughed, and Mem’s body began to emit several tiny whirrs, like the fan of a computer -- in fact, they probably were exactly like that.
Eleanor turned her head to get a better look at Mem. There were lines of brownish spots where she’d been scorched by Eleanor’s blade of bloody flame, and tiny bits of sand caked some of her joints. She looked pretty bad compared to her usual, all white and shiny and not composed, and Eleanor felt better about her own state: dizzy, short of breath, and more slumped over than she’d like.
Mem withdrew her sword and capped her fingers, and Eleanor dismissed the bar of writhing fire in her hand.
“What gives?” Eleanor asked.
“I can’t rein you in if there’s a sandstorm blocking the entire fight,” Vivian said, hands halfway up her hips. “I had to go off how long it usually takes you to go overboard.”
“Your sense of timing in that regard is very good,” Mem said. Her voice was lower in volume and slightly higher in pitch, with a tinny quality to it it didn’t usually have. “It is clear that neither of us felt it necessary to end the fight despite mounting injury or damage.”
“You got that right.” Eleanor dusted herself off. “But what do you mean ‘overboard’? Mem’s the kind of opponent you throw everything at.”
“Which means you two can’t fight.” Vivian looked for a moment at Mem, then back at Eleanor. “Most people would call it off once it hurts, or at the first blood. Or they’d pass out. You’re not most people.”
Eleanor balled her fists at her sides. “Which is exactly why we need to fight!”
Vivian shook her head. “If you two can agree on some rules of engagement, and get me or maybe C to approve them, you can fight. Until then, it’s too dangerous. For both of you.”
Mem looked Vivian in the eyes. “I do not agree with your appraisal of the situation. My and Eleanor’s defensive parameters are well in excess of what is necessary to keep fighting.”
“Maybe you don’t, but I’m the referee you picked, and you already agreed to listen to what I say.” Vivian strode up to the two of them, and then turned back the way they came. “We’re heading back to town to get you looked at.”
Eleanor’s smile didn’t last long, and she glanced at Mem. At least, she thought, they were both frowning this time. Neither of them followed Vivian for a few seconds, but Mem went first, and Eleanor trailed behind her.