SEPTEMBER SERVICE

by A.N.D.


I grew up watching Father lead the Tunnels. Why didn't I notice how much work it was then? Vincent thought ruefully as he made the long hike uptown after checking the seals on the tunnels near the pit that had once been the World Trade Plaza. Six years ago, Father had formally stepped down and the Council had appointed Vincent to take his place. It was hardly unexpected - as the only tunnel dweller who had no chance of building a life above, Vincent was the most invested in making sure that their subterranean Shangri-La continued to run smoothly. Still, he felt so proud that day, as if he was stepping into his birthright.

Now he was stepping into mucky puddles while reciting and rejecting speeches. Checking that the downtown reconstruction didn't breach security was only the third item on a long list of things to be done that day - a day that would end with him leading the September Service, and he still didn't know what to say. All the standard quotes seemed flat and stale, inappropriately trite for the occasion. Vincent secretly suspected that the problem was because he felt flat and stale. Old, even. He'd found his first grey hair yesterday. Father had been notably unsympathetic.

It was a little too early for the tunnel schoolday to have started, but as Vincent passed one of the class caverns he heard the rapid clacking of plastic keys. Peering in from the doorway, he saw no- longer-little Jacob pounding at one of the donated computers. The wiring of the tunnels had been one of Vincent's first acts as leader. How Father had protested! But times were changing above and below, and there was no reason to totally reject such a convenient way of keeping the helpers and the tunnel folk in touch, in addition to providing valuable educational and training opportunities for the children below.

Plus, on the Internet no one knows you're a cat. Vincent had made many far-flung chatroom friends and even taken a few online classes. It was the small but vital difference between the tunnels being his home and his prison.

Jacob's fingers were a blur and he never looked up, but Vincent knew through the two-way bond they had that his son knew he was there. The onset of puberty had brought out more of his father in him; at barely 13 Jacob already had a scruffy blonde goatee to match his tousled hair. The nails flying over the keyboard were slightly thicker than human normal, and that easy smile showed the tip of a somewhat too long canine tooth... but the rest of Jacob was as beautifully perfect as his mother. He would not be trapped Below!

"What are you doing?"

"Watching my auctions. Dad, check this out! You know that box of pewter plates that I got at that flea market Uncle Devin took me to?"

"William hoped that you would donate those to the tunnels. We need more plates."

"Yeah, but it turns out that these things are collectibles! I bought that whole box for less than $20, and look how much it's up to with a day left to go!" Jacob pointed at a number on the screen and Vincent almost swallowed his tongue.

"So much money..."

"Yeah! Tell William that I'm making enough to buy him a set of brand new dishes and donate some to the tunnel budget AND have plenty to put into the bank." Grinning with pride he added, "One more auction like this, and I won't need any of Mom's money for my whole first year of medical school."

Used to giving things freely on request, Vincent found the whole eBay craze among the tunnel teenagers incomprehensible. Still, the money had helped a great deal. A single mechanical toy of Mouse's or one of Elizabeth's canvases brought in food, medicine, clothing, books and other necessities without draining the resources of their helpers. Still... "You know that Father fears that all this trading of yours will make you greedy and materialistic."

Jacob snorted derisively. "He also thinks that I'll go blind if I keep looking at the monitor. Y'know, I don't mind that Father's not part of the 21st century. I just wish he'd get out of the 18th."

Vincent had to chuckle at that, kissing his son on the top of the head before ruffling his hair. "Don't let this make you be late for class."

"I won't." Just as Vincent was turning to go, a chime sounded and Jacob called after him. "Hey, it's an instant message from Mom. She wants to know if they should bring anything when they come Below to the memorial service tonight?"

"No. But tell her to hurry home, I miss her."

Jacob blushed. "Be sappy on your own time!" He sounded out the words as he typed, "Dad says no. Dad says something mushy." There was a pause and another chime, and Vincent came back to read the message over his son's shoulder.

"Tell Daddy that I said something mushy back. Gotta go, Joe needs me. DON'T BE LATE FOR SCHOOL, bye, love you!"

Jacob looked at his watch. "Gotta run!" He rapidly shut down the computer, jumped up, and squeezed his father briefly on his rush out.

Not all the tunnel children went to school Above; in fact, most stayed below until they were ready for high school and too old to blurt the wrong thing to the wrong person. Catherine had fixed it up long ago, filing the paperwork to list some of the helpers as homeschoolers. As soon as Vincent reported back that the seals were holding, it was time for him to join the 9th graders in their English class.

They were studying Lord of the Flies, and were up to the death of Piggy - a bad topic for the date. While Vincent grilled them about the symbolism of the shattered conch shell, he couldn't keep his mind from wandering back to the unallegorical blow against civilization on this day two years earlier. The horrific stench of electrical fires and charring flesh boiling up the tunnels in a toxic cloud of grey soot. The frantic attempts to reach their friends who had been in the area, the hasty patches and arranged cave-ins to shut out the dust and keep the searchers from discovering their tunnels. The oppressive feeling of sadness from everyone above pressing on his sensibilities. And worst of all, the moment Jacob and Catherine, both above at the time, KNEW what was happening. When they went numb with shock the bonds between them broke, terrifying him. But even that emptiness wasn't as overwhelming as their uncomprehending fear and misery, or his knowledge that he could not save them if more terrorists struck.

In nine more hours, he had to find words that would make it all better. But what words could bring back those they had lost, take back the ugly words spoken afterwards, give his people hope that it wouldn't happen again?

***

"People don't seem to be as upset this year as they were last year," Father said encouragingly as Vincent sulked into his study later that day. "Maybe enough time has passed for everyone to begin to forget a little."

"You haven't been talking to Janet or Roger. They've been told that their children won't come home soon after all. All tours of duty have been extended. They aren't the only ones affected. More will be here tonight, hurting and afraid for their families."

Father rubbed his eyes. "This damned war! When will they learn that violence never solved anything?"

Vincent, who had solved several problems in his life with personal applications of violence, avoided answering. "What can I tell them? I can't bring anyone back. We may live apart from the world Above-"

"Not as much as we used to," Father grumpily interrupted. "What's next down here, cable TV? Microwaves?"

"Enjoying that online chess club you joined?" Vincent asked.

"I'm enjoying not being beaten every single game!"

Their shared smile rapidly faded. "We may live apart from the world Above," Vincent repeated, "but we are still part of it. We are no safer down here than they are up there."

Father sighed. "I know. Do you remember those fights about what to do after the terrorist attack?"

"I remember. Some good people left us. I miss them still."

"How COULD Susie accuse us of pretending it didn't happen? How would disbanding the tunnel society help the world Above? Where would that leave you?"

"She wasn't thinking past her pain. Just as Eric wasn't thinking when he announced that he'd never go above again."

"He kept that vow for most of a year."

"I think he was afraid that Susie would make him enlist along with her if he did."

Father sighed again. "Brother against sister, friend against friend, people making announcements of 'what kind' of person should be permitted to stay... that's exactly what this society was founded to prevent. And yet it still came here and almost destroyed us."

"Almost. Just as the gold and then Paracelsus almost destroyed us. Yet we remain together."

"You have no idea how much I fear that the next round of insanity will smash everything. Remember, all that is necessary for evil to triumph..."

"Father, that's IT! Thank you!"

"What?"

"I finally know the right thing to say!" Elated, Vincent hugged his confused parent and rushed out to the next item on his agenda.

***

It was a large and somber crowd that gathered that evening. Like Winterfest in reverse, people arrived with candles. In this case, the candles were already lit; rather than passing the flames along, they deposited the still-burning candles in large cauldrons then found a seat among the shadows, whispering quietly to each other. Although the pressures of daily life Above didn't allow the scheduling of a morning service Underground, Vincent waited symbolically until 8:48 to step out of the darkness into the circle of cauldrons. Silence fell.

"New times call for new traditions," he began. "Two years ago, a new era began in fire and fear. The world we knew ended along with the lives of thousands of innocent people. Family. Friends. Helpers. Strangers." He could see heads nodding in the shadows, hear a sniff or two and even a muffled sob.

"In our pain and confusion, we didn't know where to turn. So we turned on each other. When all was done, those left agreed that Winterfest was not enough to remind us of the ties we shared. We decided that that once a year at this time we would gather to remember and mourn those who have left us."

He picked a candle out of the nearest cauldron. "We remember those whose lives will never light us again. We remember Kipper, interning in the North Tower."

"Kipper," the crowd sighed mournfully back at him as he blew the candle out and picked up another one.

"We remember John..."

It was a long list. Many had been killed in the attacks; caught Above as the towers fell, caught Below in the cave-ins. Others had enlisted in the rush of patriotism afterwards and fallen far from home. And they were not the only names to be spoken; the original tunnel settlers were all very elderly, and were inevitably dying of old age. Vincent listened for Father's, Pascal's, and Mary's voices in the responses, his heart already aching for the time when he would be reading their names aloud. At last the list ended. Vincent held up the bundle of darkened candles, still barely visible in the candlelight that was left. "Remember, oh ye survivors. Remember."

"We remember." A flash of white caught the corner of his eye as he put the spent candles down. Catherine was offering her handkerchief to someone.

Not as long, but equally painful, was the list of "those who have taken their light out into the world. Those who, we hope, will find their way back home by the light of these candles and our love for them." At least Vincent was only moving the candles to one side and not so decisively snuffing them. Still he knew that the rift ran too deeply; some of their former friends would never return. But he could hope.

Furthermore, he could offer that hope to everyone else. Vincent took a deep breath and went onward.

"Last year, I told you all that no one ever dies while they live in our memories. That is still true, but it does not ease the pain of loss. It does not reassure us that terrible tragedies will never happen again. I can't tell you that we will always be safe. But I can tell you this - everything will be all right."

There were puzzled noises from the shadows.

"Earlier today, Father reminded me of the poet who said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. I ask you - when have good people ever done nothing in the face of evil?"

He picked up one of the unlit candles, relighting it in a cauldron. "Many years ago, men did not want to know the truth about their bombs. They attacked and silenced all who stood in their way." He was walking across the chamber now, shielding the precious tiny flame from flickering. "But they could not silence the truth. And out of their persecutions one good man founded all that we have today. His light has guided us all." Vincent gave the candle to Father, who stared at it speechlessly with suspiciously wet eyes.

This time he relit two candles. "When a madman threatened my wife and my child, good people stood against him and brought my family home safely. Good people who have become good friends to all of us Below. Their light has inspired us and brought us happiness."

Joe's eyes were also wet as he accepted his candle, muttering a shy "Thank you." Diana didn't say anything, just nodded jerkily. She was too thin, Vincent realized as the candlelight picked out every hollow in her face. Catherine had said that Diana's precinct had been hit hard two Septembers ago, and that the detective was suffering terrible survivor's guilt, which she was assuaging in overwork. Something had to be done for her. Something would be done, before she faded into that otherworld only she and the departed Narcissa could see.

But that would be for later. Vincent gathered up two huge fistfuls of candles, ignoring the stings of dripping wax as he relit them all. "Two years ago, good people rushed Above to do what they could do to help. They helped coordinate donations, gave blood, helped dig..."

It took him four trips just to give out all the candles for those days. When he ran out of candles to light, he started redistributing the ones in the cauldrons, listing all the good works done by everyone there. He even produced a tiny birthday candle for Ling and Henry Pei's equally tiny latest child "to light her way."

At last, there was only one candle left. Vincent stood over it, flickering alone in its dark prison. "Look around you. We have come to remember, so remember this -- no matter how horribly we are attacked, how badly we are frightened, how angry we can be, how many we lose, there are still good people who will not stand idly by. When the world around you is black, remember the light you hold." He finally picked his candle up, lifting it high as a beacon as he promised:

"A light shineth in the darkness... and the darkness shall never overcome it."