The tunnels in the lower levels were always dark and smelled of chalk. There was something about the dust in the air that made Ash want to gag. It was hard not to think of all those particles getting into her lungs when she could see them so clearly in the beam of her flashlight. She had a mask—basically a tube top for her face—that she’d pulled up over her nose, but she didn’t trust the thin material to keep everything out. The men and women who worked in the tunnels wore full respirators to protect them from the dust.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
That only made things worse for Ash. Hiding in the shadows of the long empty tunnels were workers in large, misshapen masks and bulky protective gear. They hardly resembled humans, and the way they moved in slow, beaten-down movements, made them appear alien or monstrous. Ash couldn’t decide which. They hardly even noticed her as she passed, her shoes crunching on the loose rock between the boards under the railway.
Keep to the tracks, she reminded herself. Otherwise, she was likely to get lost in the labyrinth beneath Temple, fated to walk the cold tunnels for eternity, breathing in the foul air until enough dust settled in her lungs to suffocate her.
She tried not to think about it.
With a grunt, she adjusted the straps of her backpack and leaned into her walk. It was a little over a mile from the elevator to the first station, and Ash guessed she had been walking for about fifteen minutes already. There were markers calling out the intersections with tunnels; a sign passing on her left read 13A. The station, she remembered, was after 15C. Not much farther to go.
The walk wasn’t so terrible once the end was in sight. Plus, it was an important job, and not one that she had to do very often. On the way back, her load would be lighter, and she could hurry along at a faster clip, so long as Desi didn’t protest.
A light moving deep in a tunnel to the left caught her eye, and when she returned her gaze to the track, a shape crossed in front of her. She put her hand to her chest and gasped, but the man in the full respirator and chalky overalls said nothing. The fatigue in his bones was evident in the way he walked, the way he struggled to lift his boot over the metal rails. On the far side, he nearly stumbled down the slight embankment to the tunnel floor. As Ash passed him, he disappeared into a tunnel.
Dozens of workers toiling in darkness.
It was after marker 15A that she started hearing signs of life. There was conversation, the dulcet sounds of Classical music, and the trickling runoff of water from the showers inside the station. On the outside, Brigham Station was a single unlit panel of wood stretching in a half-moon to fill the entire tunnel. Ash approached the door and entered a small anteroom. There, in a space hardly big enough to hold three men, sat a small gas lantern on a shelf. The last person to come through had turned it all the way down.
Ash leaned forward and turned the key on the side. She stared at the flame until her eyes couldn’t take it anymore. After a few blinks, she repeated the process, until finally the flame was at full bore and she could still see. Then, like the person before her, she turned the light all the way down again and went through the second door.
The first time Ash had come down the tunnel, she’d expected to find Brigham Station an unforgivable, alien landscape with none of the comforts she was used to. Instead, she’d discovered it was a hidden gem of Temple, a large, welcoming space that rivaled the public areas on the upper levels. The floor was simple evercrete and stained with chalk, only in one direction—toward the showers. After that, the space was clean, and stretched out in all directions. Someone had told her that it was as large as the main dining hall, and that three hundred people could stand there shoulder-to-shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing down here?”
Ash turned to find Ellie-Anne standing by the entrance to the control room with her hands on her hips. She was a tall woman, with short blonde hair and arms thicker than Ash’s legs. Ellie-Anne had been a Geologist in the Epoch Quondam, and years of hard work in what she called applied geology had made her a formidable specimen. Hearing her bark was enough to make Ash’s heart skip a beat.
“I…” Ash motioned to her backpack with her thumb.
Ellie-Anne huffed and stomped across the evercrete. Without asking, she pulled the backpack from Ash’s shoulders and slung it over one of her own.
“A girl in your condition shouldn’t be carrying heavy things for miles in the dust. Did Reynolds okay this? Or did you not even ask him?”
“I’m fine, Ellie. I took it nice and slow and wore my mask.” She pulled the dust-soaked cloth from her mouth and smiled. “See? I’m all good.” Ash touched her protruding belly. “We’re all good.”
“I’m going to have a word with Reynolds next time I get to the upper levels. Come on, let’s get you off your feet for a hot minute.” She turned and led Ash to a plain wooden door with the words Rec Room burned into its face.
Inside, three young miners were playing cards at a table in the back. Closer to the door, a woman with wet hair tied up in a bun sat on an overstuffed sofa next to a tall bookcase. Her name was Brooke, if Ash remembered correctly. She looked up when Ellie-Anne and Ash came in and smiled.
“Is that the new delivery?”
“Fresh from the Temple Library to your door,” said Ash. “I found a copy of that book Rota Six you were looking for, Broo…”
“Blake,” said the woman, “but thank you.” She closed the book in her hand and dropped it onto the coffee table in front of her. “This is my third time through Delta of Venus, and I feel like I know every throbbing appendage and undulating vulva by heart now.”
Ellie-Anne kicked a nearby chair with her boot.
“Ash was just about to sit down and rest for a minute. Maybe you wouldn’t mind stocking the shelf while I get her some water?”
Blake smiled; her eyes darted to Ash’s bump. “Yes, of course.” She took the bag from Ellie-Anne and set it down on the table. From inside, she pulled the dozen books Ash had packed an hour earlier. When she came to the copy of Rota Six, she set it aside for herself.
“Thank you,” said Ash. She sat down in the chair without making a sound. She didn’t want to give Ellie-Anne the satisfaction of a sigh or groan.
“Happy to help. How far along are you now?”
“XXX weeks. Dr. Conner says the baby is the size of a __ now.”
“Oh that’s exciting.”
It was exciting, but Ash had become convinced most people were just trying to be nice when they spoke to her about her pregnancy.
“Have the Patriarchs picked out a name for you yet?”
Ash shook her head. “No. And they won’t be. The father isn’t part of the Church, so they don’t have any claim to them.” She rubbed her belly slowly. “We get to pick out a name ourselves.”
“Any ideas so far?” Blake sat back down on the couch and opened her book in her lap. She thumbed the pages absently.
“Yes, but we’re keeping it a secret until they’re born.”
Blake nodded, read from her book. “The wants of a woman are varied, but they all stem from the petals of her flower.” She gave a small laugh. “This is garbage. I can’t believe the Patriarchs allow it in the library.”
“They probably don’t know what it’s about. They saw the title on a sheet of paper and trusted Director Reynolds to uphold some kind of decency. But he says banning books is the first step towards fascism.”
“Banning pre-marital sex was the first step toward fascism. Now look where we are.”
Ash looked down at her stomach. Her faded BYU t-shirt was stretched almost to the breaking point. She covered her left hand with her right.
“I’m sorry,” said Blake. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Have you guys thought about it? Getting married?” She’d put the book aside and now seemed genuinely interested.
“They won’t allow it. And he won’t convert.”
Blake chuckled and leaned back in the couch. “Yeah, that’s a tough leap to make. Maybe he’s one of those non-practicing atheists.”
“He’s a quiet atheist.”
“The good ones always are.”
Ellie-Anne returned with a cup of water and handed it to Ash.
“The good whats are what?”
“Men,” said Blake. “They’re quiet.”
“Wouldn’t know it living in this place.” Ellie-Anne put a foot up on the coffee table. “What time do you and Reynolds close up shop up there?”
“Around six. Why?”
“I’m gonna have a talk with him. Ask him why he thinks it’s appropriate to send a pregnant woman to the depths with a bag of books on her back. Is he trying to punish you or something?”
Ash took a sip of the cool water. “Not him.”
“Blessed be the quiet men,” said Blake.
It took a moment for Ellie-Anne to make the connection.
“The Patriarchs reassigned me to the library when they found out about… I think they just want to hide me in the stacks and hope people don’t notice me anymore. Reynolds didn’t want me to come down here. I didn’t ask him for permission.” She looked up at Ellie-Anne. “I don’t need a man’s permission to go for a walk or to come down here to see my friends.”
“Of course you don’t.” Blake reached out and patted Ash on the knee.
“Those fuckers,” said Ellie-Anne, under her breath. She sat down on the edge of the coffee table and put her elbows on her legs. “You know it wasn’t always like this right? In the EQ, the Patriarchs were good men. Everyone was free to follow Heavenly Father in their own way. But now… in here… the Word of the Lord has been corrupted.”
Blake tried to shush her.
“Let them hear,” she replied, a little louder for the men at the card table. “It’s not the same as it was before and they know it.”
The men pretended not to notice.
“I wish I could find myself a nice nonmember in Temple. I would fuck his brains out in protest every night and twice on Tuesdays.” Blake picked up her book again and flipped to a random page. “I’d thrust my heaving bosom upon his backside until his cries of pleasure could be heard from the Door to the depths.”
Ash tried not to laugh, but seeing the physically imposing Ellie-Anne cringe under the weight of a handful of words was too comical.
“Keep dreaming, Blake. Our little Ashtyn snagged the only one in Temple. Everyone else’s name is in the record. Unless one of those jack holes wants to renounce, I’d say you’re out of luck.”
Blake shrugged. “I’ve got my books and my ingenuity. That’ll tide me over until I find a nice Aryan boy to put a bun in my oven.”
“Then I’d suggest spending your free time somewhere else.” Ellie-Anne tapped Ash on the knee. “And I suggest you try to get as much rest as possible. Sticking it to the Patriarchy by coming down here is fine if it makes you warm and fuzzy, but don’t do it thinking you’re going to change anything. You’re already on their radar, and I doubt it’s going to get any better when that little miracle is born.”
She was probably right.
Ash finished the cup and put it down on the table. Words bubbled up inside her, arguments against the Church and the tight-fisted control the Patriarchs held, but nothing made it to the surface. There was no use complaining about the state of the world post-EQ; it was her reality, like it or not. Life in Temple wasn’t the only life she had ever known, but it was the only one she could remember.
It wasn’t as if she could just… leave. Was it?
“I should go. The Director’s probably wondering where I am. Thanks for the water, Ellie-Anne.” Then to Blake. “I’ll keep my eyes open for more smut.”
“Just the good stuff,” said Blake. “And only female writers. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Ellie-Anne stood and held out a hand. “Come on, I’ll walk you out.”
Temple wasn’t so bad. There were people there who cared about her. Ash walked to the door with Ellie-Anne, but paused before leaving.
She turned and spoke to Blake.
“Desi,” she said. “We’re going to name her Desi.”
Blake put a hand on her chest. “It’s a beautiful name. I can’t wait to meet her.”
“Me neither,” said Ash.
Ellie-Anne smiled and walked her through the door.