LIKE MADNESS IN THE BRAIN
I almost jumped out of my bed. What kept me from doing so was my father blocking my path. I made myself sit up slowly.
"Where is she?" I asked.
"In Grandfather's chambers."
I nodded and with equally deliberate slowness left my bed. As I put on my jeans and a shirt, I said, "How long has she been there?"
"For a few minutes."
"When did she arrive?"
"Just a few minutes before that."
I looked at Father. "Why didn't you wake me up the moment she arrived?"
"Because she did not ask for you. In fact, she hasn't said anything. She just entered the Tunnels and proceeded to Grandfather's chambers."
"What do you mean, 'she just entered?'"
"I mean, she already knew where to find an entrance and how to open it. Jamie was beside herself."
I smiled slightly. "I can imagine."
"Fortunately, she realized that this intruder was Alexandra." Father shook his head. "Alexandra never asked for directions. She navigated the tunnels as if she grew up in them. This is what her gift can do?"
"Yep." I slid my feet into my boots, then looked at Father. "Okay..."
He nodded. We headed for Grandfather's chambers. I moved at an unhurried pace, but my forehead had warmed. I developed a twitch in my right hand. I don't know how I would have behaved if Father hadn't been walking at my side, keeping me centered.
Just before we reached Grandfather's chambers, he lingered behind me. I understood why. Father was always hesitant about revealing himself to strangers. I took the final few steps alone.
I entered the chambers.
She was there.
So was everybody else.
Grandfather was sitting at a table and scratching his moustache. Jamie stood above him on the second level with a crossbow over her shoulder and a suspicious look on her face. Mouse situated himself near one of the bookshelves and watched the newcomer with his inquisitive eyes. Pascal had torn himself away from the Pipe Chamber to be here.
And there were Memory-Guardians and Life-Givers and Protectors away from their galleries and gardens and guardposts. And there were parents with their children. Despite the largeness of Father's chambers, there was not much room left for anybody else.
They were all looking at the one young lady sitting in a chair across from Grandfather. She sat with her back perfectly flat against the chair, her hands folded in her lap and her shoes pointed straight ahead. She didn't seem to be breathing. And she was dressed all in black, including the scarves and glasses disguising her face.
When I entered the room, everybody shifted their attention to me, except for her. At least, I don't think she was looking at me. Her head wasn't aligned in my direction.
Grandfather and the Dwellers watched me as I knelt on the ground before her. She remained immobile.
I cleared my throat and said, "I'm glad you came."
"This is my home. Or Grandfather's home. His chambers. You know what I mean." I indicated the others. "And this is my family. They've been waiting to see you." I coughed. "Well, obviously."
She remained as silent as her clothes were dark. I reached for the hood of her cloak, saying, "You don't have to..."
She raised a hand and blocked me from touching her cloak.
This was a mistake, I thought. And I knew she was thinking the same thing. What had we expected to happen? To fall into each other's arms? To forget the past? To ignore why she was here? I had no doubt that she knew about my meeting with her father. She sat before me as heir to a throne built on blood. I knelt before her as a fool who thought that love could redeem everything.
Then I heard, "Hello, Alexandra."
I turned to see Father enter the room. His face was gentle and warm like his greeting.
I quickly looked back at Alexandra. She was finally gazing straight at another person in the room -- my father. She had known what he looked like. The High Tower had gathered such information through their intelligence services. However, a photograph doesn't prepare you for my father's presence.
"Please," he said as he walked respectfully toward her. "Allow me." He placed hands that could shred flesh onto her hood. She did not stop him as he pulled the hood down to her shoulders. With equal care he removed her dark glasses and placed them on the table. Those who could see her red eyes held their breath.
Then he unwrapped the scarves from her face. Bit by bit her green scales were shown to the Dwellers. Children whispered in amazement. Some people took a step backward. Grandfather shifted his chair. Mouse's eyes widened. Jamie touched her crossbow.
Finally her face was there for all to see. The expression on that half-human, half-snake head was unreadable. Was she frightened? Was she angry? She kept her eyes on Vincent and her white lips closed.
Father studied her face for a long time as the scarves dangled from his fingers. Then he said --
Alexandra tilted her head slightly to the right. Her expression was now puzzled.
"I'm sorry that I was more fortunate than you. We both found our way to places that could protect us, but I received the better home. You should have been raised here. This -- " He indicated the chambers. "-- is where you should have spent your childhood. You would have had more than walls to hide you."
He touched her on the cheek. She did not flinch. "You would have had friends and family. You would have had care as well as protection." He lowered his hand. "I'm not being presumptuous when I say the Tower has not given you those things."
"At least I can get cable."
Those were the first words Alexandra spoke in the Tunnels. The abrupt sound after all of her silence was jarring. Everybody looked at somebody else and all eyes were asking the same question -- 'Did she just tell a joke?'
Father knew. He laughed a low, appreciative chuckle. Mouse was the second to laugh, followed by Grandfather. The laughter spread through the room. It was a nervous yet grateful sound.
"No," Father said. "We don't have television down here."
"Why not?" a young boy asked. And the laughter became stronger and surer. Just as it was settling down, Father held out a hand to Alexandra. She accepted it graciously and stood up.
"Everyone," Father said, "this is Alexandra. She is the love of my son's heart and a new member to our family. Please welcome her."
Grandfather walked over to Alexandra with his hand extended. "I am Jacob's Grandfather. You may call me Father."
Mouse strode forward with his hand waving. "I'm Mouse," he chirped.
She shook hands with them, as she shook hands with Jamie, Pascal and everyone. She didn't need to be told their names. Her talents had already revealed them to her mind's eye, but she appreciated each name-giving as a special little gift.
At one point a small girl asked softly, "Can I...?" She held a hand toward Alexandra's face.
"Of course," Alexandra answered. The little girl ran her tender hand over Alexandra's hairless scaly head. Then every child wanted to touch her, and every child did. The Dwellers moved closer, forming a tight circle around her, bringing her into their group, accepting her as she had never been accepted before.
And I thought, goddamn, I love these people.
Then I was alone with her. I had just spent the day guiding her through the Tunnels. Of course, she already had a map of my underground world in her mind, but I showed her something that her gift could not. I could tell her which books in the library were my favorites and why. I could teach her the songs heard in the Chamber of the Winds. I could show her the spots on the pipes where the vibrations were the strongest. I could explain how I had felt the first time I saw a funeral in the Whispering Gallery. I could bring her to the favorite alcoves and caves of my youth, and point at the words I had carved on the walls. I could share her admiration for the beauty of the Falls.
She knew where to find a place. I could show her its soul.
I never touched her as I guided her through the tunnels. Once I reached out to help her across two banks in a tunnel. Without my assistance, she just nimbly jumped to my side. She never tripped over a bump or slipped on a damp spot. I had spent my youth getting bruised by hidden imperfections in the Tunnels. She saw every potential for an accident coming. She didn't need my helping hand.
But we were lovers, were we not? Shouldn't we have found an excuse to touch after two months of separation? However, we had hardly touched each other during the three days when we had first met. That's how it was in the first hours of our reunion. As we walked through the Tunnels, she would often pat the head of a passing child, but she never touched me.
Maybe I could say it was a love that transcended the physical, but I think that's crap. I like the physical side, thank you very much. Perhaps we were just being cautious. Our love had been born in a fragile situation. Who knew what could have sent it falling down?
In any case, we stayed close to each other, but also apart. We saw many Dwellers who were busy at some task or heading to another part of the Tunnels. They were always friendly. Alexandra particularly fascinated the children. Even in a place occupied by my father, the young remained drawn by the mysterious and the different.
We finally reached the end of my guided tour. The hour was seven P.M. We were in my chambers, just the two of us. The curtain was drawn over the entrance. We were seated on my bed.
Alexandra looked at the posters on my walls. I looked at her.
"I should have come here sooner," she said.
"What matters is that you came."
"Your people are very kind."
"They're the best."
"How much do they know about me?"
"Well...they know about the High Tower..."
"No. Not the Tower. About me. Do they know about Crown?"
I turned my eyes to a wall. "They know he killed Joe Maxwell. And that you killed him. You're not going to find many objections to that around here."
"They are a peaceful people."
"Oh, trust me, I've seen them get their back up many times."
"You know what I mean."
I paused, then said, "Yeah."
Alexandra asked, "Do they know about Masilela?"
I looked back at her. Those red eyes were now gazing at me -- not as an accusation, but calmly.
Well, I had been expecting this. "Father knows. I mean, Vincent knows. And Grandfather knows."
"And so do you."
"You want to know why I pushed for the assassination. So does my father."
I leaned back until my shoulders touched a pillow. One of my feet still rested on the floor. I watched Alexandra from my prone position and waited for more.
When she gave no answer, I said, "Well? Why did you?"
"You have already been given two possibilities. One is that Masilela would have eventually threatened the Tower. The other is that I was avenging those who had been wronged by his actions and influence."
"So which is it?"
"Let me ask you a question -- do you think the two possibilities are incompatible?"
I was genuinely surprised by that question. "Uh, no. I haven't considered that."
"Perhaps I was punishing Masilela for his crimes, but that doesn't mean he was not the possible threat I described."
"Okay. All right. But that doesn't mean he was, either."
"He would have been. I foresaw it."
"Your father said..." I paused, as if I had tainted the room by mentioning him. "He said you didn't explain how."
"I didn't have to. I am Alexandra Bradbury."
I sat up quickly and now our faces were a few inches apart. "I'm not one of the Nobles. Explain it to me."
Alexandra was silent at first, but not because I intimidated her. She spent those quiet moments in contemplation of my face. Then she said --
She laid out the future to me -- the coming twists and turns in African politics, the rise of Baba Industries, the increasing number of politicians in Masilela's pocket. Eventually his influence would have reached the secluded corners of the High Tower's domain. They would not have been able to keep him out, nor would have they been able to make a deal without compromising themselves. By their standards he had to die.
Alexandra's explanation was too long and complex to be transcribed here, but it was convincing. After she was done, I said, "I buy it. The Nobles certainly would have bought it. So why didn't you tell them?"
"I told you. I'm..."
"Yeah, I know. You're Alexandra Bradbury. So you were just doing some territorial pissing."
"Something like that." Then she touched me. For the first time in two months, her hand touched my hand. She was wearing her gloves, but I could feel the warmth of her skin.
"I had to be sure that the Nobles were still afraid of me. That fear, after all, is the reason why you're here and not working for the Tower."
I gave myself over to a brief moment of elation. It wasn't just the touch. Alexandra had given me what I had needed. As long as the Nobles knew that she was still playing by their rules, she was safe. I wanted to hold her, kiss her, lie upon the bed with her...
Then the elation was thwarted by a cold question in my mind. I had to ask it.
"Did Masilela have to die?"
Alexandra did not withdraw her hand. She looked me in the eye and said, "Did Gabriel have to die?"
"That's...that's different. It was the only way to stop him."
"To stop him from abducting you and killing your father, you mean. As long as Masilela lived, there would have been countless deaths. Do those lives mean any less than yours?"
"Of course not. But...look, Alexandra, I've played the vigilante before..."
"I'm not just talking about the ones who would have died because of Masilela's greed. I'm talking about the ones caught in the war between him and the Tower."
She tightened her grip on my hand, just a little bit. "Do not tell my father this -- but if the Tower had not killed Masilela now, it would have to kill thousands in the future. He would have grown that powerful. And the Tower would have become something much more than a hidden shelter for the powerful. It would have become an outright force for tyranny."
"You mean, the very thing the Nobles insist they're not."
"And they are not. Not exactly. But, Jacob, do you really think they hold onto their power simply as a means to protect themselves?"
I snorted. "Hell, no."
"My father has told you the story of how he was playing in an underground shelter while the world trembled at the edge of nuclear war. However, what he hasn't told you is that there have been instances when the Tower has intervened in world affairs. Secretly and only on occasion, but the Tower does this when events are overcoming their ability to retreat -- when they have to protect others in order to save themselves."
"So they would put aside their philosophy to cover their asses."
"Fear of sudden violent death is their philosophy. They hold in themselves the possibility to become the rulers of the world -- if only to keep the world from harming them. They are in denial of this. So is my father. That's why I must ask you to keep this part of our conversation a secret."
I slowly nodded, then reached over and touched her hand. We were starting to look like any other couple -- sort of.
"Look," I said, "maybe you're right. Maybe Masilela had to die, just like Gabriel. Everything I've heard tells me that the world will not miss him. But you're playing with forces that..."
"I never play, Jacob. You should know that."
"Then why didn't you prove to your father that Masilela was going to become too powerful, just like you did for me?"
"I was testing his respect for me, just like with the Nobles. And I knew he would likely go to you for help -- that he would arrange for this very meeting."
I became very conscious of how close we were, how near her full white lips were to my mouth. "So," I whispered, "was it all just a means of coming here?"
"No," she whispered back. "But here we are."
So much for transcending the physical. So much for my doubts about Alexandra. So much for the Tower, Edward Bradbury and everything else. I only knew what was going on in this blinding moment. Alexandra and I started to move across that final separating inch...
And, yes, we were interrupted. Fucking-A.
"Jacob!" the intruder yelled as he pushed aside the curtain. Alexandra and I quickly turned to him with our bodies almost touching. His agitated look turned to a big ol' slab of embarrassment. Alexandra's face became blank and unreadable again. I can only imagine my expression. I was about to yell "Scram!" when I saw that the intruder was Gareth. Gareth was a Protector. He watched entrances for invaders. If he ran from his post for me, then...
I leapt to my feet. "What is it?"
He looked at me, then at Alexandra, then back at me.
"Gareth, what is it?"
"Um, Jamie needs you to come to the Southeast entrance, Level Three."
"There's somebody waiting outside there. She hasn't found the entrance, but she's calling for you."
That's when I hit my forehead. I had completely forgotten something.
"Shit," I commented, then turned to Alexandra. "I...I have to..."
Alexandra had resumed her firm, distant pose -- hands in her lap, back straight. She nodded slightly to me.
I moved like hell, but even a second's time would have been too long for Jamie. There were two things about Jamie that you didn't fuck with -- Mouse and the security of the Tunnels. When I reached the right entrance, she greeted me in the surveillance alcove with a hissed "You mind explaining this to me?" She jabbed her thumb at a slot in the wall. Protectors used it to observe unseen anyone at the entrance.
I looked through the slot and saw Layla Mubarak standing in the tunnel next to the closed secret entrance. Judging from her tapping foot, she had been underground Central Park for some time and wondering if anybody was going to come.
"Show yourself!" she yelled. "What the hell is with you, Jacob?!"
"Funny," Jamie said in a hot whisper. "I've been asking the same thing."
What to do, then? Well, a promise is still a promise, no matter if you are an ass.
"It's fine," I whispered to Jamie. "Let her in."
"Jacob, this is the same woman who held a..."
"I know who she is. But she's with me now."
"I don't care if she's with fucking Amnesty International. We can't just let people in without getting cleared by Father!"
"Please. This is the right thing. She used to work for Joe."
"I don't know her."
"I'm WAIT-ing!" Layla hollered.
"It's a little too much to explain right now, but that woman has to know about us. She's entitled to know."
"So we just let her in and show her the whole kit and caboodle? Including Vincent?"
"Look, one way or another, this is not the last you're going to see of her..."
"ALLEY-ALLEY-OXEN-FREE!" went the echo in the adjoining tunnel.
"Or hear of her. Besides, I'm the one she threatened with a knife. How come I can trust her and you can't?"
"That is a great mystery of our times." She gave me one of the longest sighs I've ever heard. "Okay. But I'm going to keep at her side."
"You'll make her nervous. You're making me nervous."
"I should hope so."
"I'm the only one here who is not a stranger to her. I can handle her. Just get everybody to back off. Clear a path to the Library."
Jamie closed her eyes. She kept them closed until Layla bawled "Daylight come and I wanna go HOME."
"Very well," she muttered. "At least I can get her to shut up." She took out a wrench from her coat pocket and tapped a message on one of the pipes. She got a response that her order would be carried out. Before she left, she informed me, "This goes sour and a hard rain's gonna fall on your damn head."
After she left me alone I spent a moment wondering how Vincent raised a dummy. Then I pulled a lever, and a wall moved to one side.
Whenever newcomers first saw the Tunnels, they were usually impressed by two things -- 1) The very fact that there had been a community hidden under New York City for so long and 2) we looked more like something out of The Hobbit than C.H.U.D. Not to say that the Dwellers were the cleanest bunch you would ever meet, but we wore our rags and anachronistic clothing with flair. Then there were all the beautiful candle-lit corners of our world to discover. We weren't homeless; we had an actual home.
When I showed Layla the Tunnels, her reaction wasn't different than other newbies. Her eyeballs bulged when we entered the Library. She stared at the exquisite homemade furniture and tall wooden shelves full of leather-bound books. The candles flickered around her pretty, startled face.
"Jesus..." she said.
"That's kind of what Joe said when he first came here."
She looked straight at me. "Joe knew about this place?"
"For over ten years."
She looked away from me and shook her head.
"He never gave any hints about us?"
"Well...now that I look back and I can remember...little things. Times where I didn't know where he was. And information he got from sources he never revealed. But I never imagined..."
Her voice trailed off as she pressed her fingers against one of the books.
"How long were you involved with Joe?"
"A little over a year."
"Well, we're kind of reluctant about letting others know about us. Joe would only have told you if we had given permission. Of course, he never told us about you."
Layla shrugged. "Everybody needs a private...wait a second." She quickly turned to me. "Who is 'us?' And where is everybody?"
"Ah, I told the others to keep out of sight for the moment. Your appearance at the entrance was a bit abrupt."
"Didn't you tell them I was coming?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You're kind of dumb, kid."
"So I've been told."
Layla walked over to a chair and sat carefully on it. "Wow," she said, taking another look around the Library. "So how many people live down here?"
"A hundred and twelve, I think."
"Wow. Again. So I take it there is more than just what I've seen."
"A lot more. I hope to show all of it to you soon."
"Maybe later than sooner. I...need a little time to take this all in."
"In fact, could you leave me alone for a second?"
I left the Library and went about thirty feet down the adjoining tunnel. I stood on that spot for a few moments before I heard --
"You said that you were going to stay with her."
I turned and saw Jamie approaching me from a connecting tunnel. She still looked pissed.
"She's right there," I pointed at the Library.
"Out of your sight."
"There's nothing to worry about."
"Jacob, do you even know this woman?"
"She was an assistant for Joe. They were involved with each other. And she's been trying to find out why he was killed."
"This is what she told you?"
"How do you that's true? How do you she isn't working for the Tower?"
"Well, if she is, then she tried to get my confidence in a funny way, don't you think?"
"Maybe the Tower knows you're a funny person. You have to be more careful..."
"Don't lecture me about the Tower," I snapped. "I know all about the Tower. Sometimes I think I'm the only one here who takes it seriously."
"Jacob, you have no idea about..." She stopped herself and took a moment to calm down. "All I'm saying is that you should have gotten permission first. Or at least given me a head's-up."
I grimaced. "Well, you're right there. I guess my guilt got the better of me."
"What do you mean?"
"A lot of people have suffered because of what I did."
Jamie's face softened. She gave me a comforting squeeze on the arm. Then she looked toward the library and back at me.
"She was really involved with Joe?"
"That's what she says."
"Huh. I'm a little surprised."
"That Joe was involved with somebody?"
"No. I'm getting a different kind of vibe from..."
Two screams exploded in the library, one right after the other. The first was full of rage and bloodthirst. The second was ignited by shock. The screams were followed by the sound of furniture being overturned.
Jamie and I scurried toward the library. As fast as we were, the distance there was long enough for us to hear a new sound -- a thundering roar.
I didn't recognize the source of the first scream. The second scream sounded like Layla's. I knew without a doubt the source of that roar. I hadn't heard it for awhile, but my bowels still loosened before its noise.
When we reached the library, Jamie had already pulled back the string of her crossbow, armed it with an arrow and raised it in one smooth motion. She was still too late.
Layla was sprawled on the floor. If her eyes had bulged before, then they were ready to pop out of her head now. She appeared unharmed, though.
Five feet away from her was Alexandra, but not an Alexandra I had ever seen before. She had extended her fangs and was now gnashing at the air. The first scream had come from her throat. It contained the anger of a human, but the alien timbre of an animal. Her whole body was consumed by the effort of crossing those last few feet and tearing into Layla.
This was different from when she had killed Crown. Then her anger had been calculated to scare the Nobles. It had been fed by honest emotions, but she had kept control over herself. She had no control now. She was driven by a pure desire to kill.
What held her back was my father. He had one hand under her chin and an arm tightened over her chest. As enraged as she was, Father was too strong for her to escape.
"Be calm!" he said, a lion's growl mixed with his human voice. "Be calm, Alexandra!"
We stayed on our spots for what seemed a long time -- Layla down on the ground, Alexandra writhing in Father's hold, Jamie at the entrance with her crossbow, me just standing there stupid..
Gradually Alexandra stopped resisting Father's hold. Her fangs pulled back inside her gums. She turned limp in my father's hands and did something else I had never seen her do, despite all the sorrow in her heart.
She cried, loudly. Her chest heaved with sobs.
Jamie still kept her crossbow raised. "At ease, Jamie," Father said without his lion's growl, but with no less authority. She did, but Jamie's expression was still tense.
I forced myself to kneel by Layla. I started to ask if she was all right, but she interrupted me with a question of her own --
"Who the fuck are those two?!!"
What else could I say? "That's my dad. And that's my girlfriend."