By Guy de Michêl
LETOUR was dreaming. A young woman with long red hair, strong-limbed, flowing with sensuality, entered his bedroom, removed her tunic and slipped into his bed.
Almost immediately, another woman, a carbon copy of the first, red hair streaming, was also in his bed, electrifying him in a way he hadn’t felt since before the Interdiction.
Or was it a dream? Admittedly, he had consumed several vials of red lyra before retiring, effectively erasing the line between reality and fantasy.
The next day, as he went about his work in the Underground City, Letour considered an extraordinary possibility. What if the previous night’s experience had been real? The mere thought made him dizzy.
By five o’clock, when he tidied up his desk and left the office, he was consumed with the blood-rushing realization that the two women existed, and he must find them, and more importantly, find out how they infiltrated the Underground City. If they were able to do it, Letour reasoned excitedly, then other women could. His heart jumped at the thought.
The Underground City was a thirty-kilometer network of passages, moving sidewalks, escalators, elevators, metro trains, stores, businesses, apartments, saloons, videoramas, hospitals and police stations located directly beneath the original city (once known as Montreal). It was the best of all air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit worlds. With one major deficiency. No women. Strictly the habitat of the male of the species, a sallow lot who never saw the sun, confined and heavily policed under the Homo Sapiens Preservation Act.
The surface city was called, simply, Desus (Above). This was where the female of the species lived. The gender segregated society was initiated by the Earth Authority when sexually transmitted plagues threatened the extinction of the human race. The law was direct and harsh. Having intimate relations with another human being was punishable by death in the N-Chamber.
Marriage was an extinct institution. Procreation of the species was achieved through in vitro fertilization, all strictly regulated by the Bureau of Reproduction. The male parents — if they can even be called that — never saw their babies. The children were raised Above by Earth Authority-appointed au pairs. There, upon reaching puberty, the female children would remain and the male children were promptly dispatched below, where they lived in Education Buildings until the age of twenty-one.
Only then were they allowed to move into their own apartments. Thereafter, Bureau of Reproduction deputies, with their banks of computers and intimate dossiers on each male and female, selected the perfect mates for this “test tube” consummation, which was conducted in the closely supervised Mi-chemin (Halfway Level).
Letour, a healthy specimen of twenty-four, had been escorted to the Halfway Level several times, and each time, the absence of actual contact with a woman and the knowledge he would never see the results of his participation, left him emotionally desolate.
Letour’s apartment was on lower Crescent in the Concordia district. A spotless, tiled pedestrian tunnel led directly from the subway station to an elevator that deposited him in front of his door. He punched in the code and went inside.
The apartment was small: living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. Letour took off his boots and went into the bedroom. He pulled back the sheet and inspected the bed closely. No red hairs on the pillow. No telltale evidence on the sheet. He bent over, his nose an inch above the sheet. Letour’s prominent nose wasn’t purely ornamental. He detected an unmistakable aroma. He remembered it from long ago. How he had loved women. That aroma. It intoxicated him then, and it intoxicated him now.
In the rumpled sheets something caught his eye. He picked it up — a small, smooth block of light-brown grainy wood. It measured about seven centimeters long, three centimeters wide and two centimeters deep. It appeared to be solid, the grain on the top and bottom and both sides undisturbed, but as he fiddled with it, he noticed a miniscule break in the grain a fraction of a centimeter from the top of one end. He pushed with his thumb. A narrow panel on the top slid open and a tightly rolled strip of laminated compufilm unwound and sprang out of the box. Letour caught it before it fell to the floor and held it open. It was twenty-five centimeters long and five centimeters wide, divided in half and containing two maps.
Letour lay the film on the bedside table and placed two books on the top and bottom edges to hold them down. He found his magnifying glass and sat on the edge of the bed and studied the document. The top map, bearing the cryptic heading TN-ANGER-P, resembled a subway system — a network of red, blue and green lines running lengthwise, crisscrossing and interconnecting. It was unfamiliar to Letour. The bottom map was of the Underground City. Very detailed, showing individual apartments for every sector.
Six apartments had been circled. One of them was his. He concluded the little box belonged to the women who had come to him in the night. That would explain his apartment being circled. Letour looked at the other circled apartments. Who were these lucky devils? Were they in for the same sublime surprise that had been visited upon him? Good heavens, he thought, the nymphs of the night may be in one of the apartments at this very moment!
Letour rolled up the map and put it and the magnifying glass in the pocket of his tunic. He pulled on his boots and hurried from the apartment.
The closest circled apartment on the map was near the Bonaventure Metro station. He took the elevator to the tiled tunnel and waited for the subway. He boarded the train and took a seat by the door. The car was empty. He took out the magnifying glass and the map and looked at it more closely. An apartment on President Kennedy Subterrace was circled, the numbers 3-22 written next to it, indicating, Letour figured, the floor and the apartment number — since Letour’s apartment (Apt 1) on the ground-floor was designated 1-1.
Letour got off at the Bonaventure station. A tiled passageway, identical to the one at his own station, led to the building elevator. Letour got in and pressed the third floor. It didn’t bother him that he had no plan, no idea what he would say if he came face to face with the occupant of Apartment 22. He was driven by curiosity, passion and a restless libido re-imbued with the strength and inclination to rise up against the Chief Magistrate.
The elevator opened on a long corridor, empty and quiet. Letour walked all the way to the end before coming to Apartment 22. He reached out to press the teledor, and hesitated. What if his redheaded visitors of the night before were inside, in the very process of fulfilling their mission? He couldn’t interfere with that. He looked at the door-code pad. Ten numbers from zero to nine. That must be how they get in, he figured. They know the door codes. The women must have sources inside Earth Authority headquarters. What he was dealing with here weren’t just two women who came to his apartment and set his soul on fire, but an organized underground movement of history-changing proportion.
He didn’t get a chance to press the teledor. The blast blew out the door, carrying Letour with it and slamming him against the opposite wall. He ended up in a slumped position on the floor, cut and bleeding, head spinning, but surprisingly still conscious. Conscious enough to see a flourish of red hair flash by him. Smoke poured from Apartment 22. Letour squinted down the corridor, trying to focus on the long-limbed body running naked toward the elevator. He got to his feet and stumbled after her. At the elevator, she turned and faced him. God, though blackened with smoke and carbon, her hair tangled and scorched, what beauty! The red hair once again inflamed him. He came closer to her. He heard his voice say, “Take me with you. I can help.”
She said, “How can I trust you?”
“Surely the intimacy we shared last night—” he began.
“You must have been dreaming,” she interrupted.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” he told her. “I’d never turn you in.” Then he asked, “Where’s your friend tonight?”
“My sister. We had to spit up. We’re running out of time.”
The elevator arrived and the door slid open. Letour held his breath. She looked at him, unabashed by her nakedness.
“How will you get out of here like that?” he said.
“Can I have your tunic?” she asked. Letour’s look said, as politely as possible, what about me? “You can take one of his,” she said, pointing down the corridor to the smoking apartment. “He won’t be needing them anymore.”
“What happened in there? Is he alive?”
“No. We were misinformed about him.”
Letour removed his tunic, looked down at his body, clad now only in boots, then back at her. A young boy’s look. She smiled gently. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’ve been there, remember?” She took the tunic from him and slipped it over her head. “Thanks,” she said. She stepped into the elevator and turned to face him. “What’s your name?”
“That’s what I’ll name the baby,” she said.
His heart leapt. She pressed a button. The door started to close. Letour held the door back. “I can’t let you go.”
“You can’t come,” she said.
The elevator door pushed against his hand. He looked utterly miserable. She was touched. “I know you go to Bootes,” she said quickly. “I’ll meet you there tomorrow night.”
“But it’s males only,” he said. “You’ll be arrested.” He couldn’t hold the elevator door back any longer. He released his hand and the door squeezed shut.
Promptly, he walked back to the blown-up apartment. The smoke was clearing. In the middle of what was left of the living room lay what was left of the occupant, his hand still holding a laser. The remains of what appeared to be an old nitrovol tank outside the bathroom indicated to Letour that the weapon’s aim had been deflected (probably by a long, strong female leg kicking the man’s arm), causing the laser beam to hit the tank and set off the explosion. He flicked through the man’s closet, found a short but adequate tunic, put it on and got the hell out of there.
Tomorrow night. Tomorrow night. All through the rest of that sleepless night and the next excruciatingly long day at his desk as a meaningless cog in the grinding wheel of VacuCell Inc., her words kept ringing in his mind. At five o’clock he left the office.
Bootes was a sub-subterranean saloon on Lower Bishop that once rollicked with more wild times than the majority of its present clientele ever knew. Young men went there now to hear the fabled stories of sexual freedom, told in hushed tones by older men, who, in their own youth had been part of it and now could only wallow in it. From his seat at the bar Letour furtively looked around for — for whom or what? She couldn’t come in here looking like a woman. But there was no mistaking her voice: “We meet again.” It came from the person sitting next to him. Letour turned to observe, by all appearances, a foreign man of considerably dark visage, head completely covered by a large, dirty turban and an indeterminate body clad in the grimy coat and heavy boots of an osmium loader. But the beauty of her green eyes was impossible to conceal.
“That’s a hell of a disguise,” Letour said with a delighted smile.
She got right down to business. “You said last night you would help me. It’s too dangerous for me to stay down here any longer. The others have already gone back. I must leave tonight. You can’t come with me. Not all the way, at least. I would need the approval of the Motherhood for that.” She looked away, paused, then, “But there’s just me down here now and…”
Letour waited. Her eyes were back on his. She said, “I need someone to help me get through the Half-Space.”
“Will you do it?” she asked him.
“I’ll do anything.”
Their eyes locked and she put her hand on his arm. “Let’s go.”
She led the way to the Metro station. As they descended the stairs, he asked her, “Just curious, did your information on me indicate a preference for redheads or did I just get lucky?”
Through her ugly disguise, her green eyes smiled. “We do our homework.”
“And two for the price of one,” he added.
“We double up when we can. To minimize the risk of being caught and maximize the impregnation potential.”
“So there may be two baby Letours forthcoming,” he noted.
“More like four or five,” she said. “We’re chosen for our fertility.”
A train had just left. She walked to the end of the deserted platform. “This way,” she said. She jumped off the platform, landing between the track and the wall, a space of no more than sixty centimeters, and disappeared into the blackness of the tunnel. Letour kept close behind her. His voice echoed in the darkness, “Train coming. I can feel the vibration.”
“My timing must be off,” she said and walked deeper into the tunnel, Letour hard on her heels.
A single huge headlight suddenly appeared down the tunnel, coming straight at them.
She stopped and fell to her knees, her hands feeling the metal rivets at the base of the wall. “It’s got to be here.” The single headlight sped silently toward them.
Letour was not a fearful man, but dammit, she was cutting it fine. They would be crushed against the wall. They would die together. At least they’d have that through all eternity. As the train bore down on them, its doors suddenly slid open and a dozen Chief Magistrate deputies began firing. Laser beams sizzled against the wall, centimeters from their crouching bodies.
“I guess you didn’t fool everyone in Bootes,” Letour said, as a beam burned through his sleeve, just missing his arm. “Someone must have called the deputies.”
Her fingers kept probing the wall. “Here it is,” she said, as a shoulder-width metal plate swung inwards. She went in head first. Letour was right behind her. Laser beams scorched the bottom of his boots. It was pitch black inside. They were encased in igneous rock, she in front, he on her tail, crawling upwards at an angle of forty-five degrees.
“In one minute,” he said, “they will find the opening to this passageway and be all over us.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “They’ll just blow it up.”
“That makes me feel a whole lot better,” he said with a muffled laugh.
“You don’t look like a man afraid to die, Letour.” It was the first time she had said his name. They continued to clamber along the narrow passageway at an increasingly upward angle, seeing nothing. Then, looking up, over the outline of her body, Letour saw something he hadn’t seen in more than a decade. A point of blue light. “My god,” he said, “is that the sky?”
“That and more,” she said, scurrying upward.
He heard a rushing sound. His heartbeat quickened as the sound grew louder and the blue light undulated and changed to green and the sound became thunderous.
Her body blocked the light as she stuck her head out the opening. The sound was now almost deafening. “What the hell is that?” he yelled from behind. She tumbled out of the narrow tunnel and cleared the way for him to look. He stuck his head out. She was just below him, kneeling on a water-soaked rock in a concave recess behind a roaring curtain of thick water. He laughed out loud with disbelief. Such a sight he had not seen for what seemed like a lifetime. He opened his mouth to receive the spray from the waterfall. He scrambled from the dank enclosure and landed on the rock next to her. She was already drenched from the torrential spray. The water had washed the dark disguise from her face. He could see her beauty again.
They knelt there together, looking at the waterfall cascading in front of them, the rocky roof of the small cave less than thirty centimeters above their heads. His face beamed and he shouted something at her, but the waterfall drowned out his voice. She put her hand on his arm and smiled. She understood his joy.
Sitting on the rock now, she yanked off the turban which had covered her head and tossed it into the waterfall. Her red hair streamed out and immediately became soaked with spray. She pulled off the heavy boots she had worn as a disguised laborer and threw them over the edge. The water soaked her long, elegant feet. She removed the grimy coat which had concealed her body. Over the edge with it. She sat there naked and wet. She looked at him, touched his tunic and pointed to his boots and made a tossing gesture with her hand for him to follow suit and divest himself of his tunic and boots and throw them over the edge. This he did. She went into a crouch, sitting on her haunches and held out her hand to him. He took it in his. With her other hand she made a diving motion and pointed down. He nodded, crouched accordingly and together they leapt into the waterfall.
The moment their feet left the ledge, the rumbling of an explosive blast deep from within the narrow passageway rushed toward the opening and blew out the rock cave.
But they were well on their way, rushing in the bosom of the waterfall to the river below.
They hit the surface feet first and continued to be swept down into the swirling water. Their descent gradually slowed and she started swimming. He followed. It was a long underwater swim. Letour struggled to hold his breath and keep up with her.
At a rock formation she turned upwards and fishtailed to the surface, her head breaking the calm green water hard by a sheer cliff face. Sunny blue sky overhead. He popped up a few seconds later, gasping for air. He looked skyward, mouth open, eyes filled with wonder. She was at his side. “We have to keep going.” She pointed to the top of the cliff. “The deputies will soon reach that point. We’ll be easy targets.” She swam along the base of the cliff until she came to a narrow ledge just above the surface of the water and hoisted herself onto it. He swam over to her.
She stood on the ledge, facing the cliff, and, arms outstretched for balance, and edged her way along the rock face. He put his hands on the ledge and pulled himself onto it. Now also standing, chest and legs pressing against rock, he followed her as she inched her way along the cliff face, the fingers of her left hand constantly feeling the surface ahead of her. She soon found what her fingers were feeling for — a vertical crack in the rock, no more than the width of a finger, but running half a body length. She held up her right hand for him to stop and moved her body across the crack until it was now level with her right hand. She inserted her fingers into it. He was on the other side of the crack.
“Put your fingers into the Half-Space,” she said. “This takes two people.”
He moved closer and pushed the fingers of his left hand into the crack. Inside it was as spongy as peat moss. “Now we pull,” she said.
It was rock no more. The crack slowly opened like two huge folds of flesh revealing a black hole. When it was wide enough to admit a body she released her right hand, turned her body around, and, gripping the upper edge, lowered herself feet first into the hole. “Hold my arms,” she said, “so that my body hangs free of the sides. I have to be suspended evenly for the receptor.”
He bent down at the opening and grabbed her arms by the wrists. The rest of her body dangled in blackness. Now was the time to look him in the eyes, raw emotion in her voice for the first time. “I’m sorry, Letour, but this is as far as you can go.”
“The hell it is!”
“I told you before you can’t come with me. We are all women here. We have to keep it that way. We’re trying to make a new world. And one wrong man, one Chief Magistrate spy—”
“Don’t be crazy,” he cut in. “You know you can trust me. Your own research showed that.”
“I do know that. And if it were up to me…” she looked briefly away. “But it’s not.”
Desperation kicked him in the gut. “You said something in Bootes about getting approval.”
“Of the Motherhood, yes,” she said. “But that could take months and might never happen. I have to go now. This is my only chance.”
Panic and anger swept through him. “So what do I do? Live on this ledge forever? Go back to that underground nightmare? You can’t just leave me here.”
She looked into his eyes, tears forming in her own. But she was as strong as she was beautiful. She said, “You’re a resourceful man, Letour. I have faith in you.”
He knelt at the opening, holding her wrists as her body hung suspended in the black hole. Suddenly there came a bright light from below her. “They’ve locked onto me,” she said. “Let go my arms.”
“I won’t do it.”
“You said you’d do anything to help. You must do this.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t let you go.”
“You have to. You have to do it now. The light only lasts ten seconds.”
He held her arms. She looked up at him. Eyes pleading. “Please Letour.”
How he loved this woman. “I’ll never see you again,” he said.
“You are alive inside me,” she told him.
His hands opened and she slipped away into the light.
—Translated from the French ‘L’homme souterrain’ by Bill Michelmore