You enter the tunnel heading north out of Oklahoma City. They wanted it in an area without seismic activity. The incline is barely noticeable at first, a grade gentler than Highway 70 coming down off the Rockies from Denver. The road you’re on gently curves to the right. You’re on a spiral to the center of the Earth.
Delicate reliefs of local fossils decorate the walls. All are from the Permian Era or earlier. Only the western third of Oklahoma was above water when dinosaurs ruled. What you see is early amphibians and insects, enlarged enough to be visible at seventy miles an hour. After the reliefs come a history of the oil industry, from Spindletop on.
At first the traffic is heavy. Lots of people come to drive down the first leg of the six lane highway. The Earth’s crust here is only about thirty miles thick, so it’s a morning drive to get down to the mantle where there’s a shopping mall, a rest area, and the turnaround to ascend back to the surface.
You’re not here for entertainment. Pulling into a Texaco, you fill up and head for the neon arrow pointing down. Here there are only two lanes in each direction. The cars emerging from the tunnel look worn and dusty.
There are thermometers spaced every hundred miles tracking the temperature increase as you descend. They start at 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. The rock outside is viscous, flowing sullenly under enormous pressure.
The grade here is twenty-five percent, so you’re driving four miles to descend one mile. This is the long slog, seventy-two hundred miles to the outer core. Gas stations, restaurants, and motels break the monotony. Hilton opened a hotel at the halfway marker, but sold it to Motel 6 soon after the opening of the highway.
The lights here are spaced farther apart, red-shifted as the highway’s architects took advantage of the surrounding radiance. They get brighter when you enter the outer core, where molten nickel and iron glow. Gravity loosens its hold as you travel deeper, the car drifts until magnetic guides grip it and carry it down, where the thermometer reads nine thousand degrees.
And here you are, at the Hub, the Earth’s core. From here highways arc up to Australia, to China, and to France. But you won’t ascend. You’ll stay here, find a job, and live out your days. You give the car to some other penitent ready to rejoin the world above.
He’d brought his new girlfriend, the servants told Cinderella, but he came into the Great Hall alone, wearing the robin’s egg-blue tunic. His own two servants came with him, the only ones he was allowed to keep after the settlement, Dregsworthy and Pullengroin. Charming stopped short when he saw where Cinderella had put his things. She had decided to throw them all in a pile, the remaining flasks of his rosemary mead and his second-best suit of armor, the hounds from his childhood he’d had stuffed after death, his dead uncle’s magical nail clippers that did nothing (“Maybe they’re for clipping magical nails,” Charming had once quipped) … all of it. She had decided to toss it together without regard for denting or chipping or breaking, without regard for mead gushing out onto his favorite hunting cape or gardening tools gouging out chunks of the dead hounds’ hair.
Charming stared at his possessions for a moment before he looked up, gazed into her eyes with his own robin’s-egg blue ones, and said, “You’re looking lovely, Cindy.”
“Don’t be charming,” she snapped.
“Rude it is, then,” he said gently. “But why did you–”
He broke off when a small woman entered. A very small woman. A dwarf woman, in fact. She took Charming’s hand and kissed it unselfconsciously, her red-gold hair cascading over his wrist. She was very elegant, for a dwarf.
Charming bent down and kissed her on the head as Cinderella looked on, speechless.
“Durin’s shade, you’re even prettier than he told me!” said the dwarf women.
“I thought dwarf women had beards,” Cinderella blurted, and the dwarf woman flushed.
“It’s more convenient this way,” Charming said. “They can tell them better from the men!” And he laughed easily, but the dwarf woman was still flushing, and Cinderella realized that she depilated and didn’t tell Charming. In all fairness, though, who would bring that up to a new boyfriend?
“So, Cindy,” said Charming, “I’d like you to meet Gloina.”
Cinderella shook her head. She did not have to be social with him. “Just take your things and go,” she said, and stalked out of the room, wishing she had thrown everything down after all.
Charming helped the servants take the carefully-packed crates out to his carriage. Each one was tied with a satin ribbon the color of a robin’s egg.
The Coelacanth Coat
A coat of coelacanth skin, royal blue with milky patches. Vat-grown to order and seamless. Lost tech out of the lost time. The fit always reminded Aurelia the coat was tailored for someone centuries dead: shoulders loose, waist tight, arms a little long.
When she got it, she emptied the pockets, kept the contents in a box in a desk drawer.
Take things there to recharge. Leave them overnight. Come back.
Lingering’s said to be unhealthy. There’s a shivering you feel in the air, and you can tell it’s coming from outside you, not inside.
They’re big, multitiered platforms like circular parking garages.
Drive your car in on the pad of the lowest level or climb the stairs in the central column to charge smaller objects on the upper levels. Set them on the concrete, or on the wooden shelves that seem to decay too quickly. No metal shelves, and you’ll want to leave coins and belt buckles outside.
What Was in the Coat Pockets
Coins with geometric designs, a scrap of scarlet paper. A metal cylinder, the segments of which could be twisted so that the lines etched on it connected in different ways. It didn’t do anything else.
The Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain
Powerhouses nearer to the reinhabited cities had managers and waiting lists; this one had nothing but a few pilgrims and the occasional curious visitor. So the Walking City stopped there twice a year to unload its powercells and recharge.
The first years after she came to the future, Aurelia travelled with the Walking City. One time they stopped there, she climbed the spiral stair to the top floor and left that metal cylinder on a shelf between a straylight mirror and a couple of moon keys.
Powerhouse By Night
She reconsidered, went back just after sunset.
Her fillings tingled. The ring she’d forgotten to remove ached. The night spooky with all the charging objects glowing. A sound like rushing wind, but the air utterly still.
Her coat’s scales were dull dead brown.
The metal tube was now a telescope that showed a world that didn’t exist anymore, a world of crystal towers and floating bubblecars. The future that had come and gone while she’d been in suspension. Looking through, she felt a sort of sunset sadness.
She gave it to a friend, someone future-born. He loved it.
A holographic movie poster levitated, advertised The Meltdown, made half of New York simmer and boil. Lyssa Vanmaher observed from an outdoor café, sipping a double double espresso She flickered through the response statistics on her contact lenses. If she asked Jasper not to get the viral upload? “94% chance he’d still go.” If she told Jasper she’d marry him? “67% chance he’d still go.” If she knocked him out with a tire iron, stuffed him in her trunk…? “89% chance he’d escape and still go.” Bastard!
“Who are you mumbling about?” Jasper leaned into her space, kissed her nose from across the wrought-iron table. He grinned.
He draped his coat over the back of his chair and seated himself with a whuff, which made Lyssa tingle irrationally. Jasper stretched his hands toward hers, open. “Marry me?”
Lyssa flicked a tableside button, canceling out sound waves from entering or leaving their table. She opened her mouth, closed it again. She said, “What’s the point.”
“We’re in love.” He held his hands out a beat longer before withdrawing. “I’m in love.”
“Eventually, I wouldn’t be married to you. You wouldn’t be you.”
“Can’t step into the same river twice.”
“Drop the clichés.” Her face relaxed. “Help me get something out of my trunk.”
“We’ve talked this to death. If you won’t marry, a date. Before I go.”
Lyssa swept back her hair.
NY continued to bubble, bubble, and toil.
“A hug?” Jasper stood, scraping the chair’s iron legs across the cement. His fingers arched upon the table like flying buttresses. Lyssa froze as his forearms bulged with the scent of violence.
Jasper shrugged into his coat, drank her in, left.
Alyssa’s lens monitor belatedly informed her: His body language boded not violence but impotence. It never ceased to amaze her how differently men and women viewed the same events. She stood, she sat. New York’s boiling cauldron semi-hypnotized her. How did one violently cook a thing for weeks? There had to be a loop. Nothing goes on forever. Once she spotted the loop and broke the illusion, she could go.
Night fell. Waiters rolled up, asked if she would like a refill. They took it out of her credit chip.
The sun arose. The loop didn’t appear. Maybe it followed the pattern of entropy. Everything decays, comes to an end, breaks down. She’d just wait for that to happen.