A journey in the dark

“What?” Old Pete and I said at the same time.

There was no way they could know I was here. Flattop had dropped me off, and he’d been driving fast enough that someone following us would have been obvious—wouldn’t they? I’d had the glasses on all day, too. If I’d made a mistake, I didn’t see what it could be. There hadn’t been any hipsters outside when I’d arrived, but that had been almost an hour ago.

“Hipsters. One of them was smoking clove cigarettes just outside the front door,” Circe said. “Clove, can you believe that? What are you, sweetheart? A teenage goth girl?”

“Did you see any names?” I asked.

“I don’t… No, wait, one of them was called Byron. Yes, that’s right.”

I looked around the library, trying to determine if someone was watching us. There weren’t any obvious Hip that I could see. A lot of people around us were in shadow, though. Any one of them could be keeping an eye on us.

Old Pete was watching me, waiting.

“Yeah, that’s one of them.”

He nodded, his face calm. “You can’t stay here. This is neutral ground, but there is no armed security. There is nothing preventing them from simply coming in and grabbing you, or gunning you down.”

“They’re right outside the front door!”

“What’s going on, Pete?” Circe asked, her face confused.

“Those hipsters outside are likely the Fatally Hip. They’re looking for our friend Cedric here.”

“What business is this of ours, my sweet?” Circe said, her voice cold.

“None. We should stay out of it entirely. That would be the sensible choice. We’re not going to, though.”

“What? Why? Honey, why?” Circe said, grabbing his chin in her hands and making him look her in the eye.

“For the same reason I didn’t turn my face away when you washed up on my doorstep, or when Duke did, or Z,” Pete replied, meeting her gaze steadily.

Circe glanced at me for a moment and then turned away from both of us.

“My love, go find Helen would you, please? I need to pack up my things, and we need to move quickly.”

Circe wordlessly kissed him again, this time passionately on the lips and fled deeper into the library.

Old Pete was rapidly re-packing his bag. I handed back what he had given me when prompted.

“I told you that you have many possible choices and that is still true. You can stay here and fight, or try to escape out the main entrance somehow. I expect the only reason they haven’t come in here yet is because they expect to snatch you when you leave.”

That seemed right. Without Circe’s warning I would have had no idea they were out there waiting. It would have been trivial to grab me, or even just shoot me as I left the building.

“Those are bad choices, Pete. Got anything else?” I asked.

“If Duke and Z were here, we would have more options. Since they are not, we can not risk waiting for them to arrive. Come with me and Circe, we’ll get you out of here to safety.”

“What, out the back door? Don’t you think they’ll have that covered?”

“If they are wise, yes. We will not be going that way.”

He shoved the last bit of paper into his bag and zipped it shut. “Will you accept my help, or not?”

The man had been nothing but kind to me. I trusted him, even if I didn’t know that much about him.

“I accept.”

Old Pete nodded like it had been an obvious choice, and stood up with his bag. The librarian I’d encountered in the past, Helen, walked over to us with a concerned expression on her face, trailing Circe in her wake.

“Peter, what’s going on?” she asked. She looked me over, but I wasn’t sure she remembered me.

“Helen, I hate to ask but there is an emergency. Can you please let us into the utility room downstairs?”

“You know that room is for employees only, Peter. There is sensitive equipment down there.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to risk your employment if it wasn’t important. If we don’t get this young man out of the building immediately, I expect there will be some deaths either in the library or in front of it.”

Helen looked at me again, studying my face with a slight frown. “I know you. You came in with that ridiculous outfit. And once, smelling like an outhouse.”

“Guilty, ma’am.”

“Would I be protecting you from someone, or protecting someone from you, young man?”

“These guys want to kill me and my friend. I’m just trying to stay alive, ma’am.”

She nodded, and that was that. “Follow me. Don’t make a habit of this, Peter.”

At the back of the library a staircase led down into the basement, where the bathrooms, storage and utility rooms were. It was through one of those doors Helen led us. The door was marked ‘Employees Only’ and I mused at just how many of those I was seeing the other side of these days.

It wasn’t impressive. It was a thirty foot square room filled with humming machinery I vaguely recognized as related to water and HVAC. In one corner of the room a steel hatch in the floor was bolted shut, but there were no doors.

“Thank you, Helen,” Old Pete said.

Without hesitation he strode over to the hatch in the floor and threw back to the thick bolt keeping it locked. With some effort he heaved it open, and then the four of us were looking down at a ladder descending into blackness. A faint, musty smell of dust and water wafted up.

“The sewers? No,” Circe said, backing away.

“They’re not sewers, my dear. This leads to the storm drain. It’ll get us to the river.”

“No, I’m not doing it. They’re not looking for me. I’ll just take the normal way home.”

“Circe, be reasonable. It’s too risky,” Old Pete plead, but it was clear he’d already lost.

“I’m not some child you can cajole. I’ll meet you at home,” she declared.

When it was clear he couldn’t convince her, Pete accepted his loss gracefully.

“Be careful, my dear,” he said. Circe gave him another kiss in response.

Helen came forward and handed Pete a flashlight. “It’s nearly a mile to the river. You’ll need this.”

“Thank you, Helen. I’ll return it.”

Old Pete tucked it in one of his many pockets and went down the ladder first.

“Thanks, Helen,” I said. She simply nodded. As soon as my head was below the hatch, she closed the lid with a thud and latched it.

It was pitch black with the hatch closed, not even a tiny sparkle of light visible. I’d had trouble seeing before with the Sunshrouds on, and now it was impossible. I pushed them up onto the top of my head.

I could hear Pete below me, and when he got to the bottom of the ladder he mercifully turned on the flashlight and I could see again. Not much, but anything was better than utter blackness.

I’d never been one of those kids that played in the storm drains, and I was surprised at just how big it was, and how clean. Even down in the tunnels there was graffiti, but most of it looked like it had been there a very long time. We walked in echoing silence for a few minutes.

“You were in the game once, right?” I asked.

“A long time ago. It’s hard to get out entirely, if you live like I and my friends do. We’re all as out as we can be and still afford to eat.”

“What does that mean?”

“Think about it. What will happen to you in twenty years, Mack? Let’s assume that you live that long. What will happen to you? Will you have invested your money wisely so that you can retire?”

I started to answer, but it was apparently a rhetorical question as Pete kept talking. The flashlight bobbed as Pete gestured while he spoke.

“Let’s assume you didn’t, but you’re tired of the game and you want out. What then? Do you think you can just stop earning and your associates will be fine with that? What about your enemies? Will they ignore the fact that you’re now vulnerable and let you peacefully exit the game?

“No, of course they won’t. If you don’t get out right at the top, you don’t get out. That is unless you become someone else.”

“You mean like switching to the light and never coming back?”

“That only works if you can live in the light. If you haven’t burnt your bridges there, and you have some skills.”

I understood what he meant. Not everyone was suited for living a normal life. A life of quiet obscurity working retail sounded like a painfully slow death to me. Not that long ago it hadn’t. Maybe I just had never thought that deeply about it, or what my alternatives were. Since I had, my perspective had changed.

We passed an intersection, the echo of our footsteps and voices carrying back to us and causing us to fall silent for a moment until it passed.

“You changed your shadow name,” I said, suddenly remembering when the system had first prompted me for mine. It had said ‘WARNING: This name is not easily changeable.’

“Wasn’t that obvious? Did you think I entered the shadows for the first time at thirteen years old and named myself ‘Old Pete’?” Pete said, and laughed.

“I guess I should have. So what was your first name?” I asked.

“I didn’t go to all that trouble to change it to just tell people what it used to be. Let’s just say it was something a thirteen year old boy would choose and leave it at that.”

I nodded, remembering some of the more out there shadow names I’d seen since I’d been here. I was sure that I had just scratched the surface.

“That might be one way me and Manny can go. We change our shadow names like you did.”

“You could, but it’s extremely expensive,” Pete said. “A rare, evolved skill from a rare job. You’d be lucky to ever meet someone who can do it. I wouldn’t bank on that as your first option.”

Of course it couldn’t be that simple. I pressed him for more details, but he wouldn’t give them.

“That kind of information has a high value, I’m not going to just give it out for free. Certainly not in these tunnels where someone half a mile distant might hear.”

We’d been walking fifteen or twenty minutes—it was hard to tell just how much time had passed in the darkness—when we began to see the literal light at the end of the tunnel. It was dim, but stood out like a beacon in the pitch blackness of the tunnel.

A few minutes later we emerged on the concrete banks of the San Tadeo river and Pete switched off the flash light. At one point there had been bars blocking the exit, but they were long gone. Outside it was full night, but after our time in the tunnel it seemed brightly lit. I made sure to lower my sunglasses again before I fully emerged.

“That feels nice,” Pete said, looking up at the sky. “Come with me, we’ll go to Nirvana and discuss your problems in earnest.”