Creative Commons, photo by Eugene Zelenko, share alike 3.0
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Mirjam’s weak voice echoes through the cavern.
Swallowing the bitterness rising in his throat, Jan nods and coaxes a flame to consume the dry wicker of his dead son’s bassinet. His responsibility is now to Mirjam and her children. He discovered them here after the village collapsed, killing his family. Resisting tears, he makes funny faces to entertain two-year-old Noah, who is starting to fuss.
Their colony in the Outskirts had been founded during the Dissonance by those choosing to dwell underground rather than battle the dangers on the surface. After 300 years of subterranean life, the inhabitants couldn’t endure exposure to the sun. Although the surface war had ended, evolutionary developments rendered most surface vegetation and the meat of surface-dwelling animals inedible to Jan and his four companions. The colony’s old storage cave provides shelter and a limited cache of supplies.
Bartholomew and Nathaniel, Mirjam’s twin boys, clamor into the cavern from the tunnel where they were searching for supplies. “Find anything good?” Jan asks.
Nathaniel shakes his head and holds out a nearly empty knapsack. Jan wonders at the maturity that has aged the child beyond his eight years.
“I found water,” Bartholomew, the more adventurous of the twins, announces. “Nate wouldn’t let me climb down to look for swag fish though.”
“Good for Nate,” Jan replies. “And good for you for finding that water, Bartholomew.” He tousles the boy’s unruly locks.
Jan feels a knife twist in his soul as he watches the pride brighten Bartholomew’s dark eyes. He misses his own son deeply.
The knapsack holds a few lichens and a handful of gurba, cave-dwelling worms that have become the group’s primary source of nutrition. The twins help Mirjam sit up near the fire so she can turn the few edibles into something comparable to stew. She insists on preparing the meager meals, despite her illness.
Jan’s stomach rumbles as he eats his portion. Their supply of biscuits ran out a week ago, and the boys are finding less on each foraging trip. He worries that they might get lost in the passages or, worse, that an earthquake might crush them as the first quake crushed his family and the rest of the village. The high-ceilinged cavern is safer—although not completely free of danger—should another quake occur.
“I’m going with the boys tomorrow.” Jan addresses Mirjam abruptly.
The woman stares at him blankly. Usually Jan spends his days searching the surface for other survivors.
“The water—the boys aren’t strong enough to climb down to it. I am. If there are swag fish living in it, that water might save your life.”
Jan squeezes along the tunnel behind the twins. After a couple hours of clambering through twisting passageways, Jan begins to feel anxious. The boys have been exploring farther into the cave than he knew.
Suddenly, the passage begins to shake. The tremor isn’t strong enough to cause structural damage, but falling debris pins Bartholomew’s left leg to the passage floor.
“How much farther to the water?” Jan asks.
“Just a few meters, where the passage heads right,” Nate responds.
Jan quickly clears the debris from Bartholomew’s leg. It’s broken, but the boy’s cuts and scrapes don’t look serious.
“We might have some trouble on the way back, but your mom needs us to check that water. You stay here while I go down.”
Jan leaves the boys and soon emerges into an open space. Directly in front of him, the cave floor falls away. He grabs a loose rock, tosses it into the empty space, and listens for a splash. After evaluating the depth, he takes the rope from his knapsack and secures it to a stalagmite. Tying the other end around his waist, he prepares to rappel down the cave wall.
At the bottom lies an underground lake with a gravelly shore and space to camp along the far side. In the murky depths, Jan can make out the ghostly forms of swag fish, and he knows his new family won’t be dying—at least not today.