Chapter 20

Michael lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
His body throbbed tiredly, but part of his his mind still hummed with energy. Like so many of the recent nights, he couldn't shut it down. This was strange; for so long, he'd been able to cover his thoughts with a blanket of fog, slipping under with the faintly remembered images of the day's events. Yet it seemed that ability had been taken from him; his only defence against the world was gone. He was now exposed and vulnerable to the light outside, after years of living below the surface.
Michael gave it up. He swung his feet onto the floor, the taste of sandpaper in his mouth and his hair limp and dank on the back of his neck. He had been placed in a room roughly the size of Chaballa's study, furnished with a simple bed, chair, table and dresser. There were no windows, obviously, and he had no idea where the others were lodged. Nor did he care. His engines were merely running cold; restlessly, he slipped on his shoes and crept out the door.
More stone hallways. He'd get lost if he walked anywhere without a marker. He looked around inside the drawers of his unused dresser and found, to his incredulous surprise, a ball of twine.
How convenient, he thought to himself as he tied one end to the torch bracket outside his door. I wonder why anyone would keep string in the back of their dressers...
It was silent underground, save for the continuous clanking and hissing that vibrated the walls around them. Michael couldn't tell if it was coming from the giant clockwork city Gulf had shown him above ground, or if Chaballa's little group had some mechanical devices of their own for supplying water and running the elevators. He found it somehow soothing, and he could feel the distant rumble of machinery in his fingertips as he lightly ran them across the wall.
Lost in his own sensations, Michael didn't notice the small, slender figure ahead of him until she turned, the torch in her hand making her hair and eyelashes shimmer in the darkness. He stopped. "June?"
June stared at him over one shoulder. "Michael," she replied in that smooth, monotonous voice. Michael jogged up to her.
"What are you doing up?" he asked, eager for some distraction. June turned away.
"I'm going to the eating hall," she said tonelessly. "I can't get to sleep."
"Me neither," said Michael. "Mind if I join you?"
Perturbed by this unsatisfactory verbal transaction, Michael followed the girl up the hallway, string trailing behind him as they walked. Soon they came to a large room, carved roughly out of the earth like all the others. It was set up to resemble a school cafeteria, or some such area meant to accomadate large numbers of hungry people. Strangely, and Michael's mind registered this with a fair amount of surprise, there was even a Coca-Cola machine set up in the corner of the room.
June walked over to it and Michael heard the clink of coins rattling down the machine's interior. A loud 'thunk' followed, and June walked back to him with two Cokes in each hand.
"Hey," he said, pointing at the can, "They got the spelling wrong on the logo." The label spelled 'Coca' with a 'k'.
June gave it a perfunctory once-over and said with conviction, "It's not a spelling error. That's what it's called."
Michael looked dubiously at the can, with a small but growing sense of horror. "Oh. Maybe it's some kind of Norwegian brand." Nothing felt right now.
They sat down together at one of the tables, facing each other and sipping at their drinks. Circulated air moved busily around the circumfrence of the room, pausing to chill Michael's wrists and the back of his neck. He hunched up his shoulders, staring moodily into his coke can. He could feel June's eyes on him as she unabashedly stared at the top of his head.
"So... uh..." Michael ventured after a long silence. "What do you guys do around here?"
June swung her can back and forth, holding the top by her fingertips. Her eyelashes fluttered in the stream of air. "We wait, mostly," she said, looking him in the eyes. "When the time comes to stop waiting, we act."
"Jeez," Michael said, non-plussed. "Sounds exiting. Don't you ever go up to the surface?"
"Not usually. Now that you're here, though, we'll probably be doing it a lot more often."
Michael idly rattled his coke can on the table, then stopped. "Oh."
Gloomily succumbed to the notion that the uncomfortable silence growing between them would never dissipate, Michael was startled when June suddenly spoke up again. "I'm sorry if you're a little weirded out by all of this," she said, with a hint of conversational interest lacing her voice. "I'm also going to apologize in advance for not being able to answer all of your questions. There's nothing I can do about that, believe me. I'm sure you already know all about that, though, right?"
Michael nodded slowly. "It might be hard to believe..." he started, twining his fingers together, "...but of all the things I'm having difficulty grasping right now, what that Chaballa guy told me back there is the hardest to understand."
He cocked his head and looked June straight in the eye for the first time. "Why do you think that is?"
June shrugged and look away. She said simply "Chaballa has that effect on people. What you ought to do is let his words wash over you like a wave. Your mind will absorb what it needs to. If you try to analyze it, go over it with a microscope, your picking fingers will pull it apart. You see?" She made little wave motions with her left hand, the wide sleeves of her black T-shirt billowing slightly as she did so.
"Hmm. I guess so. It's still pretty weird."
"Well, get used to it," June replied, and there was an almost desperate ring in her voice as she spoke. "Just concentrate on finding what you need to find right now."
Michael's mind bloomed with flurries of snow. "The woman in white," he murmured aloud.
"Maybe," June said mildly, and Michael was surprised by her noncommital response.
"What do you mean by 'maybe'?" he said. "I thought I was supposed to go and rescue her, y'know, since it's apparently my fault she got kidnapped or whatever. Kind of like a mission."
"I just meant maybe things aren't so simple," June replied almost sadly, and the conversation suddenly wilted. She tapped the table once, twice, as if in a gesture of farewell, and then she was standing, heading down another corridor. "I'll come get you in the morning," were her final words as she disappeared around a corner, footsteps quickly lost in the invisible activity of the machines behind the walls. The coke can she had left behind stared at him, the 'k' in 'Coka' jumping out almost obscenely in his mind's eye. Suddenly, everything felt out of joint, as if the universe was a giant pane of glass that had mysteriously fractured somewhere. Michael was left alone.
Shivering, he deposited both cans in a nearby recycling bin, then found the string and followed it back to his room. He huddled in a corner of the low bed and fell asleep wondering if he would ever wake up.