Henry dozes on the transport to the historical sector. It’s been his commute for years: live in the Pod, commute to Xibalba. He wakes to the lights flickering, images of Holly fading away.
Air scrubbers can’t remove the scent of the euthanasia lab and samples storage. The transport stops, doors opening. “Population Overflow Department,” a pleasant female voice chimes. Henry holds his breath until the doors close.
He thanks every god he knows he was bred as a historian, not a scientist. He probes books; they probe sores, finding new ways to trim the fat off the population. He’ll never stop it. Poor little bunker baby, he thinks he can.
The Historian faces the council of lords, tiered to infinity above him. Projected faces of dead geniuses stare down in apathy. These are the collected consciousnesses of the deceased, converted to data and stored in the servers of Xibalba. Henry speaks to ghosts.
“I propose cultural assessments of the surface. There’s unrest in several sectors; if we can apply new understanding of surface behavior, perhaps we can assert more control here.”
The dead masters of Xibalba confer.
Leaving the transport, Henry heads directly to the elevator. He knows little of the surface, only that they call Xibalba’s elevators “Raptures,” granting ascension to Xibalba’s chosen few.
Special forces wait for him: two of them, decked out in heavy gear. He enters the elevator, wincing as the doors bang shut.
“First time?” one soldier asks. “It’s not so bad. I’m Jacob.”
Henry shakes Jacob’s hand, then the hand of the SO, Iacov. The soldiers team up, getting Henry in his gear: oxygen mask, visor, gloves, skin protectant. Wearing the folly of hope, the three ascend.
The elevator opens. The expanse is revealed: choking sand in place of fresh air, blackened soil where flax and English lavender grew. Despite knowing what it would be, he had still hoped for flowers.
Trading a dingy dungeon for a wide open space, this field drab, flame licked waste, he feels exposed. His mouth runs dry. Sweaty palms, tingling fingers, he sways from sudden dizziness. He breathes fast, fogs his mask; he wants to tear it off.
All he can think of is Molly, suffocating, Molly, out here, pregnant and scared.
“Is his mask malfunctioning?” Jacob stares.
Iacov places his hands on Henry’s shoulders, staring into his eyes. In the deep black shadows of the elevator, his blue eyes seem violet to Henry’s oxygen flooded brain.
“You’re hyperventilating,” he explains, which doesn’t help. “It’s a panic attack. It’s okay, it happens-”
“I-can’t-go-out-there,” Henry gasps. It's nearly impossible to speak.
“You don’t have to,” Iacov has Henry sit.
“That’s it, head between your legs, that’s ok, just breathe,” he coaches. “In your nose, out your mouth. Just go slow for me.”
And with time, it’s okay. It’s really okay. Henry decides to keep going, if only for that tiny idea that Molly could be out here, somewhere. Maybe she survived.
The crater isn’t far. They trudge through the farrow fields, unsown and infertile. The sun poises above them, lingering for its day, twice as long as before the event. The crater is filled with debris, the detritus of life survivors cling to They’ve built a garbage city in the crime scene.
He catches things glinting in the sun. There are traces of beauty left behind: aquamarine in feldspar, opal in granite; to him they seem as exotic fish in black coral.
A mural catches his eye, on the side of a mud hut. A great eye, made of flame, atop a black tower.
“I’ve seen that eye before,” Henry runs his fingers down the mural. “An illustration, in a child’s book.”
Jacob pauses to look,while Iacov tenses, scanning their surroundings.
“Sauron’s eye,” Henry mutters. “Lewis, I believe.”
“Nah, it was Tolkien,” Jacob spits into the rubble, bored with the mural.
“Don’t matter! We need oxygen. The hub is close.”
They pass signs of life: recent fires, fresh paint. They hear screaming, drums beating, pulsating through the crater city. They follow the sounds.
The oxygen hub is here, in the middle of a celebration. Dancing and singing, leathery skin and matted hair, the surfacers lack the emaciated pallor of the sun-starved bunker babies. Tanned revellers undulate in ecstasy to rhythmic drumming.
“Shit,” Iacov spits. “They’re all over our oxygen.”
The revellers drift into the children of Xibalba, pulling them into the frothing mess of bodies. Henry loses sight of his soldiers. Someone tears his mask off, pours sweet wine down his throat.
Sounds distort, crucifying his brain with auditory phantoms. Colors bleed, shredding into Henry’s eyes. Streaking out, forming halos around souls, the colors are alive. He’s falling into some vast, deep, infinitely disgusting alien armpit, feeling for handholds where there are none.
A woman, belly swollen with child, dances near Henry. Her body is stained with dyes; her water mingles with them, rainbows running down her thighs. She’s a myth come to life, a woman brought to life from rock with a baby inside her, one of Con Tiqui’s humans.
She walks out of amber, fully formed. She dances with Henry as Inca dance with Tolkien. All the stories he studied fragment, reforming as euphoric fever-dreams.
Henry forgets about collision courses and expeditions. He finds his body tangled up with Iacov’s, waking again and again to each new morning, the joy of being setting his veins on fire.
“How many years has it been?” Henry flips through the pages of his battered Silmarillion.
Iacov, tousling his fingers absentmindedly through Henry’s hair, glances down at the historian and smiles.
“About three, I think.”
“And have we seen any asteroids since Xibalba cut contact?”
“Not one, Hen.”
“Well fuck,” Henry closed his book. “Our lives might just be boring.”
Hundreds of miles away, Holly descends into the Earth, riding Rapture into the heart of the Pod sector. She asks the first person she sees to take her to her husband.
"Tell him we had a daughter."