I do not like to scrounge in the lower levels. I would rather stay at the top, to weed the garden or to clean the pump filters, but Lee keeps those jobs to himself. What would I do, Lee asks, if I were alone at the top, and a Shimmer came? I tell him I can shoot a negatizer better than he can, but I know that is not good enough. Lee is older, almost seventeen, and he makes the rules.
Lee’s voice crackles over the communicator. “O? Are you there, O?”
I press the button on the side of the communicator. “I’m here.”
“Did you take an extra flashlight and set of batteries?”
“Yes. They’re in my backpack.”
The lift creaks as it continues its descent into darkness. When I first began to scrounge in the lower levels, the lift felt like a cage, with its ugly steel ribs and dim lighting, like a prisoner’s elevator. Lee used to come with me, and he told me that I was a princess who was escaping from the evil sorcerer, and journeying into the depths of earth to find refuge with her goblin cousins. He made me feel brave. I am no longer afraid, but I still do not like the lower levels.
The lift jerks to a halt, and hisses as it opens like a gumless mouth, one panel of the door sliding upward, and a second sliding downward into the floor. I switch on my headlamp, shift my backpack on my shoulders, and step out into the lower levels.
The darkness feels like oil and I am sure it clings to my skin. I imagine that when I return to the surface, my skin will have turned black, like the skin of my friend Katie. I miss Katie. I wish her family had stayed. Lee thinks they are dead now. I hope he is wrong.
I have already scrounged through many of these rooms. My headlamp casts a ring of trembling light on the rough stone walls, and I catch occasional glimmers from shards of glass and old nails.
Step by step, I penetrate the darkness and continue deeper into the level. I wonder how anyone could have lived down here. The ceiling is low, too low for a grown man to stand at his full height, but spacious enough for me. The corridors are narrow, and the rooms airless and small. They remind me of the time, before the Shimmers, that Lee was angry with me for trying to follow him and his friend to the fishing place on the river. He locked me in the linen closet, and the dark and the loneliness scared me. When Mom found me later, she punished Lee. He would not speak to me for days, but he never locked me in the closet again.
The lower levels are worse than a closet. You might find a spider in a closet, but I prefer spiders to what I find sometimes in the lower levels. One time, when Lee and I were first learning to scrounge, I found a body. The skin had been shrink-wrapped to the skeleton, and the eyes were gone. I called for Lee. When he saw the body, he made the same sound that he made that time I punched him in the guts because he called me fuzz-brain. He gripped my arm with claw-like hands and made me sit against the wall outside the room.
Then he scrounged the body for valuables while I sat against the wall. When he returned, he had a pocket-knife and a pair of shoes, and he smelled sour. I was sure he had been sick.
We had not gone scrounging for several weeks after that, but soon our need for supplies grew too heavy. Lee did not dare leave me at the top by myself, and he did not want me to scrounge on my own, so we went together. Lee made a rule. If I find a body, I am to mark the place on my map and he will come back to scrounge it.
I use the map now as my guide to find rooms where I have not yet scrounged. The first thing I find is a can opener. We already have seven, but Lee is good at inventing new uses for old things. I put it in the backpack. Later on, I discover some nuts and bolts. I know Lee will make good use of those. They go into the backpack too.
I begin to pretend. Lee taught me to play games when I scrounge, and he makes up new games for me every so often. In the old games, I have been an enchanted princess, collecting items for a spell to break my curse. I have been an explorer, mapping out new places for people to live. I have been a hunter, on the trail of a mysterious beast that leaves signs of his passing just to tease me. Today, I pretend I am a treasure-hunter in an ancient, secret temple.
I mark a metal cot frame on my map. Lee will fetch it later.
The headlamp catches a gleam of white underneath the frame. When I reach under, my fingers touch paper. A book! Books are rare. Not many people brought books with them when they came to the quarry. Some of the pages are missing and others are tattered at the edges, but the sight of the crisp black words makes me grin.
I brush the dust from the covers, and draw my thumb over the pages so that they ruffle like feathers. The title is printed on the front cover in large gold letters: PROMETHEUS AND THE FIRE OF THE GODS. Then, under it, in smaller gold letters: And Other Stories From Greek Mythology.
I sink back on my heels and my eyes flicker over the pages. The words send shivers down my spine. Thus Prometheus set out to steal the fire from the gods, and bring light and warmth to the human beings who dwelt in the shadow of Mount Olympus.
The communicator crackles and Lee’s voice interrupts me.
“Check in, O.”
I grasp for the communicator at my belt. “I’m here.”
“What have you found so far?”
I check my backpack. “An opener of the sacred cylinder.” The can opener.
“Some silver fasteners.” The nuts and bolts. “Three cleaning spells.” Bar soap. “And a collection of secret runes.”
“Not bad for just an hour. What’s the book?”
Lee sighs. “I was hoping it was a manual for the pumps. If you ever find one of those, let me know immediately.”
“I like stories.”
“Stories don’t irrigate the garden.”
“They irrigate the soul!”
Lee laughs. “You sound like Dad. Okay, treasure-hunter, carry on. I’ll call you in another half-hour.”
A few minutes later, I find the door.
I almost walk by it, because it is tucked far back in a dim dead-end passage. But I am thorough, and as soon as my headlamp illuminates it, I know I have found something important.
I call Lee.
“What have you found?” He’s excited, and I feel sorry I might disappoint him.
“What kind of door?”
“It’s all shiny metal and very smooth.”
“Any marks? Dials? A lock?”
“A vault,” Lee guesses, and I detect both excitement and hesitation in his voice. “It’s locked?”
“How can I tell? There’s not even a handle.”
For a moment, Lee is silent. Then he says, “Mark it on the map. Carry on.”
I study the door for some time. I draw my fingers down its smooth surface and wonder what could be beyond it. Maybe it is a treasure that will help us fight the Shimmers. Maybe it is the missing soldiers. Maybe it is just more bar soap and can openers.
I shrug and turn away.
When I get hungry, I tell Lee I am coming up. The lift whines and groans as it reverses, drawing me up to the surface. When I step out, I squint against the glare of the setting sun. The horizon is on fire, and the landscape is orange and black, striped with shadows like a tiger. The trees that still cling to the bare rocky land look sick, except for the ones close to our irrigation system.
I gaze out over the giant quarry. It is shaped like circle upon circle, with rows of doors and windows cut into the rock in spirals, down and down, until you can catch the glint of blue-brown water at the bottom. The water used to be bright blue, but it browned quickly when the families moved in. We used to live in one of the middle levels, but when the families left, Lee moved us to the top level. I like the top level better.
When we first moved up, I told Lee that we now lived in a palace tower.
“Not a tower,” Lee grumbled. “A cave. A bare, stinking cave.”
“We can pretend it’s a tower.”
“What’s the use in pretending?”
Lee was in one of his sulky moods. I decided to let him be.
Now, as I make my way through the maze of top level homes, I hear Lee singing. He must be making something. Lee always sings when he makes things.
“Howdy, O,” he says when I enter our home space. He is making moccasins from the leather I found last scrounging. The moccasins are too small for him, so they must be for me.
“Howdy, Lee,” I reply, and, pulling off my old moccasin, I offer a foot. He tests it the new moccasin, marks a few places on the leather, and nods to himself.
I unload the contents of the backpack, putting each item in its place on the plastic shelves. Our home space is like a dwarf cave: bare stone walls, ugly shelves of heavy-duty plastic, metal cot frames with thin foam padding and sleeping bags, threadbare rugs thrown over the cold stone floor, and an open floor plan that combines bedroom with kitchen and living room. A clothesline, hung with a blanket, stretches across a corner between two hooks in adjoining walls, to give privacy to whoever uses the chamber pot behind the blanket. I hardly remember the convenience of a flushing toilet.
When I am done, I tell Lee I am going topside to milk the goats. That is Lee’s rule: Each of us must know where the other is at all times, plus keep a communicator handy.
“Take a negatizer,” Lee reminds.
Topside is my favorite place. The irrigation system spreads a net of moisture all around the quarry, a ring of green that supports trees and grass and a variety of shy animals. When it rains—which hasn’t happened much this summer—the long man-made lagoons capture the water and funnel it to the irrigation system. I like green places. They remind me of home. I wish we had not left. It was all the Shimmers’ fault, and that is why I hate them.
The goats get lonely, even though there are eight of them, and they set up a racket of bleating and baaing as I approach. Three of them are female kids, born this spring; three are milkers; and two are bucks. The bucks stink, and pee all over themselves to make themselves stink even more. The big one peed on Lee once, which made Lee mad. He punched the buck in the ribs and the buck exploded after him, bellowing. Lee shimmied up a tree and called Panda to chase the buck back to his enclosure. I laughed my head off.
Panda emerges from the ramshackle barn, waving his tail lazily over his furry black-and-white body. He presses himself to my legs, leaning heavily on me so I have to widen my stance, and licks my hand in greeting. As I milk, a few runny-eyed kittens circle my milking bucket and, when the ornery doe steps back on purpose and tips the bucket, the kittens lap noisily before the milk can penetrate the earth.
Nearby, the pumps hum as they draw and filter the water from under the earth and from the bottom of the quarry. I heard someone say once that the practice isn’t eco-friendly or sustainable, but those protests didn’t last long. The damage to the environment was less of a concern than the immediate threat of the Shimmers.
Lee, however, is worried. The water level in the quarry is reducing. That is why he is building a rain-capture system topside so that we have another option when the autumn brings more rain. But we haven’t seen much rain, period. Not since the Shimmers.
Panda’s pert triangle ears twitch and his warmth leaves my side. Probably a squirrel. He is obsessed with squirrels, though he never catches them.
There is no need to feed the goats; we let them roam and graze, with Panda to herd and to guard them. Anyway, we don’t have any feed. I clamp the top of the milk bucket down tight and turn toward home, the grass sweeping around my bare ankles.
That’s when I see Panda.
He stands in the pathway, legs stiff, the fur on his spine prickling, his ears flat. I pause, and slowly lower the milk bucket to the ground.
My eyes trail in the direction of his stare, every hair along my arms tingling to life. I can’t see anything but the same rocky horizon and spare vegetation that I’ve seen for months, and that scares me.
READ MOREYou never see a Shimmer. At least, not outright. You might see a patch of liquid motion in the area, like the shimmer of heat that rises from the ground.
If a Shimmer touches you, even a little bit, that part of your body vaporizes. The survivors say that contact feels like fire—white-hot and intense. Before the families left, a few people were known in the communities as the Lucky Ones. One man’s hand was gone, clean-cut like a surgeon had amputated it. Another man had lost both legs, shorn at the knee when he had fallen in battle and a Shimmer had passed right over his legs. One woman—the Luckiest, we called her—had lost her nose. Most who contacted the Shimmers were not so lucky. Most were simply erased.
It’s impossible to tell how close or how far a Shimmer is, whether it is approaching or withdrawing, whether it is large—the size of my family’s old minivan—or small—the size of an infant.
Humans can’t tell, but animals can. That is why Lee says that Panda is a better protector than a loaded negatizer.
Even so, my fingers close around the negatizer and I tug it free from the magnetic clip at my belt.
Panda’s growl crescendos softly, and I squint into the setting sun.
And then I see it: the skitter of a shadow down a distant incline, marked by a puff of dust.
Not a Shimmer. Something else. Something with substance.
I sprint for the cave, with Panda at my heels, alternately dashing ahead of me, then pausing to review the intruder.
A dangerous animal? I wondered. A bear, maybe, or a stampeding moose?
Or… The thought almost choked me. A person?
I shout as soon as I’m within range.
“Lee! Lee! Something’s out there!”
I expect to call again, but I see Lee’s sun-bleached hair emerge from the cave almost instantly. He carries the negatizer rifle, and his posture is taut.
“Where?” he barks.
I point, but he has already read the location in Panda’s stance. He unclips the visor from the rifle and presses it to his forehead. The visor adheres, and its lenses extend over Lee’s eyes. It’s an older visor, so he must control it manually instead of cerebrally, choosing the lens he needs.
I wish he would let me use the visor someday. Lee says it helps him see in the dark, recognize patterns of thermal energy, see further than any human eye, and so much more. But Lee says I am too young. I think it’s an excuse. If I am old enough to say “thermal energy,” I should be old enough to see it too. I think Lee’s a hog.
“A man,” he says tightly.
“Just a man?”
“ ‘Just a man?’ Who’d you expect?”
“A girl,” I say, squinting up at my brother. “Maybe Katie.”
“What’s he doing?” I ask after I’ve gotten over my disappointment.
“Running.” The way he says it sends icy fingers all up and down my spine.
“From what?” I ask, a little quieter. I think I know the answer.
“He’s a fool,” Lee snaps suddenly, retracting the visor so that he can see with his own eyes. “A darn fool. No one can outrun a Shimmer.”
“So there is a Shimmer!” I cry. I’ve never actually seen one. I’ve just heard the stories.
“Shh!” Lee stands still, and I notice that sweat is beading at the ends of the fine hairs of his mustache. At least, Lee says it’s a mustache. It’s really just fuzzy hair. But he’s proud of it, so I don’t tell him it looks stupid.
Lee stands for a long moment, his chest quivering with breath and his finger sliding up and down the trigger of the negatizer. Then he turns to me and I feel a little afraid. I’ve never seen Lee like this. His eyes look hard and burning and cold, all at the same time.
He kneels and touches my shoulder with unexpected gentleness.
“O, I need you to go to the control room. I need you to stand next to the control panel and listen for me on the communicator. When I say ‘now,’ pull down the lever as hard as you can.”
“You’re going to turn on the energy field?”
“No. You are.”
I’m scared, but I’m mostly excited. The field is never activated unless we’re under attack by Shimmers. Plus, I’ve always wanted to pull the lever.
“Can you do it, O?”
“Then run. Fast.”
I run. After a moment, I realize Lee’s sent Panda with me. He bounces around my heels and yips frantically and I yell at him because he almost trips me.
There are eight control rooms, spaced evenly around the first level at each point of the compass. The western one is closest and I know that this one is what Lee meant. It may sound impressive, but the control room is really just a closet with computers and blinking dials and four screens. And a big red lever.
There’s just one problem.
The communicator crackles. “O? Have you got there yet?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “But I can’t reach it.”
His voice is terse. “Well, find a chair.”
“We took the chair. Remember? It’s in the cave.”
“A box then!” He is losing his temper. “Hurry up!”
There is no box. I try to get Panda to stand underneath the lever, with the hope that I might be able to climb onto his back, but he’s too fidgety and keeps licking my legs and hands and whining.
I notice an old-style computer desktop tower in the corner. Back-up or broken, it is now my box. It is also a lot heavier than it looks. I trip over a snarl of wires and the tower crashes to the floor. When I pick myself off the floor, I notice that one of the four screens has blinked to life. Lee stands, legs spread apart, negatizer rifle to his shoulder, visor flipped down across his eyes.
I catch my breath.
The running man looks like a blur of black. He is lean and I cannot see his face from this distance, but the way his legs swallow the distance makes me feel a flutter in my chest. I have never seen anyone run like that. It is like nothing can stop him, or catch him.
I hiss. Behind him, the landscape quivers and warps. His pursuer is either one giant Shimmer—bigger than I have ever heard of—or a whole pack of them.
They are still a quarter mile away from Lee, but the distance between them is closing fast.
Then, the man’s body seems to twist, as though I watch him through water. The Shimmers are ahead of him now. He’s done for. Dead. Once a Shimmer touches you…
That’s when I see it. Or at least, I’m pretty sure I see it. Like I said, it’s nearly impossible to tell the direction of a Shimmer’s travel.
What I think I see is this: The Shimmer passes right over the man’s body.
And the man does not erase.