The revolver twinkled in the light of the small fire. He spun the cylinder, the metallic clicking blended with the campfire’s hissing and popping. Beyond the six foot circle firelight, all was black. Not a star in the sky, no moonlight strong enough to filter through the blanket of gray above, no other campfires to share the burden of warding off the encroaching night. From above, his little light would seem to be floating in space, lost within an eternal void of darkness.
He spun the cylinder again, hearing little gunshots in his head. The flames licked high as a pocket of gas ruptured, the tiny explosion collapsing the kindling tepee in an exhausted heap. With a curse, he gathered more twigs and arranged them over the flames. He was nearing the end of his supply and he sure wasn’t going out for more. The thorns cut up his hands enough in daylight, never mind how vicious they’d be at night. His tepee complete, he leaned against the road cut and looked down the highway.
The entrance to the tunnel, his home since birth, was just a quarter mile from Exit 248. Number Two-Forty Eight they called it. Not terribly imaginative, but since when did a home need a name? It was off the highway, on the westbound side. Long ago, before the Departure and what many called the End Times, motorists would take that merry exit off the highway, pay the fee at the gate, and cruise across America in the glories of three-dimensional travel. The next best thing to teleportation. Now the tunnel system that criss-crossed North America were hollow and neglected. Thousands of miles of concrete and steel, worming through the earth’s crust, lay still and dormant like some giant, abandoned ant colony. Except it wasn’t entirely still. Pockets of humanity marched on, carving out a living in the cold, dark tunnels like scavengers, sucking the marrow from civilization’s corpse. He had been like them once, but not anymore. Now he was outcast. Now he was Non.
Number Two-Forty Eight was no longer his home, and couldn’t go back if he tried. That’s what happens when you try to kill in the tunnel. He sighed through his dust mask. He poked at the fire with a stick, his fingers twisting the embers much the way they twisted the lock of the young man’s apartment. With a satisfying snick, the latch slid home. The door creaked open on rusted hinges, loud as shouting in his ears. Like most of the apartments in the tunnel, it was bare. A living room with a single chair salvaged from some dump years before, a bookshelf with old magazines propped against each other like tired old men, and an open door at the end of the passage leaking dim, yellow light. Dust motes danced to the syncopated rhythm of pleasurable noises.
The Non balled fists, forcing back unbidden images of his little girl making those same noises. He strode into the apartment, boot heels pounding on the concrete floor, but the couple in the room didn’t notice. The moans grew and swelled in his ears, the cacophony of their coupling all around him. He stopped at the edge of the light. Sam was mounted on a girl, Shawn Barbo’s daughter probably, a girl not much older than his own. He watched them, his heart pounding in time with their gyrations, from the doorway before he finally stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.
The girl screamed. Sam disengaged and leapt back, cursing all the while. The girl wrapped herself in the blanket and backed against the headboard, eyes wide with shock and embarrassment. When Sam saw who it was, saw the quiet fire raging in the Non’s eyes, panic crept into his voice.
“Wh-what the fuck are you doing here, man?”
The Non chose not to reply and began to close the gap between them. The young man, torn between covering himself and protecting himself, backed away from the Non with a hand outstretched between them.
“Is this about your daughter? Is it? Shit man, that was months ago! You knew what the punishment was. She tried to kill me!”
The door opened and the Non heard the girl dash out of the apartment screaming for help. So much for keeping it quiet. Sam smiled wide, two of his teeth were missing, the scar on his forehead gleamed in the light.
“She deserved what she got. And when she went up top, no one heard you complain! So what are you doing here now, huh? Sobered up enough for a piece of me? You’ll be banished just like her.”
The Non grabbed Sam’s wrist and twisted, forcing the youth to turn around with a yelp of pain. The Non wrapped his other hand around Sam’s neck and started to squeeze. Sam clawed at the hand, but the Non silenced the protest by breaking his wrist. The youth writhed like a chicken being prepped for slaughter and with every passing second, the resistance grew weaker and weaker.
If they had come just five seconds later, Sam’s windpipe would have been crushed in his strong, gnarled hands. If the girl hadn’t run away naked and screaming, no one would’ve known until the following morning. Of course, if he hadn’t been so drunk on whiskey and revenge, he wouldn’t been sitting here, banished to the surface, with a campfire as his new best friend.
In this dead world of ash and cinders, there was nothing. His entire life had been down in the tunnels below. All that was left was a four-gallon canteen, a bag of jerky, and the revolver. He spun the cylinder and put the cold barrel to his temple. It would be so easy, just wrap that gloved finger round the trigger and pull. Lights out. He held it there, but his finger would not execute the plan. With a sigh of frustrated relief, he set down the gun. The overpass seemed like a good candidate. He could stand on the railing, feeling sorry for himself, and wait for a strong desert wind to blow him over the side, though he wondered if the fall would kill him. He body would hit the pavement, broken and mangled, and very much alive. There he would lay, collapsed in a half-inch of volcanic ash, until the vultures and coyotes found him, fighting for his flesh while he watched.
Had her thoughts been just as bleak? Had she cried out for her daddy while he drank and swore and cursed his bad luck? Doubtful. While he nursed a slow death through the neck of a bottle while she grew and flowered, and when they came, she didn’t struggle or say a word. He protested through string of slurred curses, but they restrained him with just a word of command. He slouched back into the moldy armchair with tired, bloodshot eyes.
“Don’t follow,” she said.
He didn’t. Months passed until he woke to the void screaming at him to end it all. He searched for a focus for his rage, something other than himself to shoulder the burden, and so found Sam. Look how well that went. Now, she was gone, lost somewhere in the wild world. She had the optimism of youth and her mother’s persevering nature, and perhaps her father’s vices, but would that be enough to survive? A sudden conviction swept through the Non. A clarity piercing the clouds of depression and the ashen world of drink. His girl was alive, and she needed her daddy – had been needing her daddy for years. It was just a matter of finding her.
He took out his map and spread in front of the fire. The tunnels of the NATS unfolded out before him, a spider web of industry inviting him to travel the breadth of America. His own tunnel was little more than a dot on the map in the far south. With no indication of where to go, the Midland-Odessa junction seemed a likely enough place to start. A hundred mile walk did not phase him, but a hundred miles with only jerky and water sounded like torture. A blanket wouldn’t hurt either. He folded up the map and stashed it in the front pocket of his backpack. Stock was little more than fifteen miles to the west. It was a friendly enough place, trading openly and with good connections to crops and goods out east.
He stretched out on the ground, snuggling up to the dying fire, half his body in the cold, half touched with intense heat.
But it had been years since his last visit, and though life in the tunnel goes unchanged, for outsiders, for the Non, life changed with a bullet.