"See before you are seen; strike before you are struck; eat before you are eaten."
–The Exile Law
Cheryl listened as the water moccasin slithered through the slime coating the cool, dark shaft.
She plunged her hand like a spear thrusting toward the sound. Her prize wriggled under her grip. The steel razor duct taped to her right index finger swished through the air, arced across the snake, one centimeter below the head.
"Rabbit," Cheryl hissed, "I’ve got dinner." She used her razor to skin the snake. She dropped the skin into her steel bucket to save for mending her skirt after eating.
A pale, bald head hanging upside down peeped from a shaft leading heavenward–upward to the surface. "What’cha got? What’cha got?" A raspy whisper.
"Get down and find out." Cheryl growled, and then caught herself. Rabbit was valuable, a commodity, sharp eared.
Rabbit jumped down. He was only a meter and a half and barely over a hundred pounds, with that nervous quickness that never forgot his mortality. "Mmm. Lucky, lucky. Snake, my favorite. Tastes just like chicken. Gimme."
Cheryl caught his eyes in the phospho of her hand lamp, "Chicken? When’d you ever have chicken? That’s surf food."
Rabbit jerked his head to the side. "Someone’s sneaking, sneaking’ and creepin’. Jack, probably. Got that slow step, stutter step."
"Rad sludge," Cheryl cursed. "I’ve only got one finger taped. Slime’n’sweat fouled my stash. What’s Jack holding these days? He still exile?"
Rabbit nodded, then giggled. "Too much for you, pretty brown eyes."
His laughter told Cheryl, Rabbit knew more than he said.
Cheryl took hold of her temper. You couldn’t blame Rabbit for being Rabbit. She patted him on the top of his cold, bald head. "All right, Rabbit. It’s okay. We’ll just have to give him our dinner, that’s all. I know Jack; he’ll take the food as part of a sleep truce. He doesn’t need any more enemies."
Rabbit moaned, "Nooo, I like chicken."
Suddenly Rabbit grinned, baring brown teeth and bloody gums as he cupped his long fingers around his lips. He shouted, "Hoses coming! Hoses coming! Surfs coming to clean out the dead weight, rad weight! Hoses coming!"
Cheryl’s heart instinctively started pounding; she almost leapt to her feet as an intense urge to escape mingled with a sudden thirst for clean water.
Scrabbling, sloshing, jangling, and pounding feet erupted and echoed from either end of the shaft as sewer dwellers grabbed pails and tin cans before scuttling and crawling behind grates and holes pounded out of the cement. Rabbit laughed and clapped his cold hands together with glee.
"Now, we eat," said Rabbit, suppressing a giggle. He reached for the meat, but stopped short as Cheryl’s index finger touched his throat, softly leaving the threat of a stainless steel razor.
"Ow, Cheryl! Don’t cut me. Just want some chicken." He stretched out the words, whining for mercy and food. "I can getcha smokes, surf quality, fresh and new, plastic wrapped. Gimme some chicken, please Cheryl."
Cheryl tore off a two centimeter chunk of snake meat and tossed it to Rabbit.
Rabbit popped it in his mouth, crunching on the spiky ribs, vertebrae and meat indiscriminately. "Mmmm. More."
"First, you tell me. Tell me how you’re getting surf stuff."
Rabbit giggled. "Clean water, good water, no water in three. There, I told you. Gimme another piece."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
Rabbit shouted, color rushing to his corpse white face, "True answer. I swear on clean water. Pay. Pay. Pay!"
"Easy, Rabbit, easy." She tossed him another chunk. Rabbit was crazy like most exiles from the rad commune that congregated another two kliks heavenward, just beneath the surf’s sewer system: crazies all, except for herself, Cheryl told herself that, again and again. She kept to the law; the law kept her sane.
"Rabbit," Cheryl spoke softly, "Rabbit, I want an edge."
Rabbit swallowed hard, choking down the meat. "Getcha razors? Surf quality."
"How, Rabbit? How?"
Rabbit pointed up.
Cheryl asked, "The commune?" She tossed him another chunk of meat.
Rabbit snatched it with one hand; the other jerked spasmodically toward the ceiling.
"Farther heavenward? The heavy water tunnels?"
Cheryl handed Rabbit the rest of the snake, slowly, hesitantly. "Rabbit, you haven’t been to the surface? No."
"Yehf." Rabbit mumbled with the tail end of the snake sticking from his mouth.
"Show me how you get there. Take me with you."
Rabbit finished gobbling down the snake; then, tenderly, he leaned forward and kissed Cheryl on the forehead. "Only for you. Only for you. You’re my friend, my only friend." His pale body trembled; he cried.
"Yes, Rabbit." Cheryl held him in her arms, though it felt unnatural. Rabbit was cold and bony and needy. Friendship with another exile, ludicrous. Need, need, need: That was the law behind the law for exiles and Rabbit’s shivering spoke the truth of it. All this yammering for a snake, and this crazy knew a way to the surface. She rocked him back and forth, back and forth until he ceased shivering.
Cheryl spoke softly, "If you are my friend, Rabbit, you’ll show me how to get to the surface."
Rabbit jumped from her arms and started clambering up a sewer shaft. He looked down and beckoned Cheryl with a bony arm. "To heaven, to heaven," and he was lost from sight.
Cheryl scrambled after him. Despite his small frame, Rabbit was true to his name, a fast darter. But Cheryl knew these shafts well and kept pace until her breath ran through her lungs. Finally, Rabbit stopped and began scratching into the muck on the wall of the shaft.
Cheryl smudged some new fungus between the concave mirrors above her wrist and shined the fresh phospho lamp above her. Rabbit’s eyes glinted back a soft green in the light. She climbed the ladder the rest of the way to him. He wasn’t even tired.
"Rabbit, you’re heading straight for the rad commune."
Rabbit grinned and pulled his arm from the muck. Two small rectangular packages were in his hand. "Smokes," Rabbit said smugly, "One for you, one for me. Rad commune gets packages dropped from surfs, but I know angels."
Cheryl returned his manic smile just to keep him calm, but the smokes were proof that Rabbit had some secret in his addled head. She followed Rabbit as he hopped onto the ten meter diameter shaft where the rad commune held sway. Sure enough, a bravo was there: thick in the chest covered by that horrid coat of rat pelts that the commune raised for extra food and clothing. Worse, he had a hunting knife. Too much for the sliver of razor on the end of her finger.
Rabbit moaned, "Going heavenward."
"Again, Rabbit?" the man said, "You sure are a thirsty bugger. Who’s this?" He pointed his knife toward Cheryl.
Cheryl said, "We’ve got the price, rat eater."
Rabbit whined and quickly held out the packs of cigarettes.
The man grabbed them while keeping an eye on Cheryl. "One more," he looked at Cheryl, "for the rats, exile."
"Nonono," Rabbit said, "no more smokes."
Cheryl lunged at his arm and slashed his wrist; the hunting knife fell from his hand. The guard fell to his knees.
Rabbit pulled at her torso, "Go, go. It’s fair enough."
"Greed wants death: That’s almost as good as the law, Rabbit."
Cheryl took the knife and slit the guard’s throat. She grabbed Rabbit by the arm and hurried along the shaft. Ten meters farther, they came to another vertical shaft and Rabbit scampered up with Cheryl following.
Rabbit started to cry and his pace slowed.
Cheryl pinched his backside, hard. "Keep moving. Stop crying, Rabbit. You don’t have to worry; we’re not coming back. We’re going to be surfs and eat chicken every day, right?"
"You shouldn’ta killed him. Rad commune’s ok." Rabbit spoke as he climbed. He crawled onto the next horizontal shaft and curled up in a ball.
Cheryl prodded him. "Rabbit, Rabbit, we’ve got to move. What’s wrong with you? We’re almost to the heavy water tunnels. Don’t be scared." Cheryl wanted to slit her own throat for following and believing a crazy like Rabbit. It might take days to go around the rad commune back to where the snakes and algae were plentiful, not to mention a clean water shaft.
Rabbit sniffed and said, "Hoses coming."
"Rabbit, if you’re lying–" Then, she heard it: a deep whooshing and pounding. She looked at Rabbit, almost left him, but grabbed him and dropped back down onto the first rung of the vertical shaft. The water was coming–clean water, but just too, too much. She pulled off the chain belt that held her snake skin skirt and lashed their wrists together; then wrapped the chain around the bar of the ladder.
Cheryl cried out as the water cascaded over her, clear death moving too fast to drop down on her as it raced through the heavy water shaft. Her ears rang at the deep thrashing sound a few centimeters over her. Rabbit whimpered.
The torrent lasted no longer than ten seconds. It ended in a last rain of water, dwindling to a trickle. Cheryl wished she had a hand free to grab her pail and catch some of that clean water.
She started working on the chains when Rabbit pounded on her shoulder and hissed, "Nonono. White, bright angels near."
It was dark; that last stream of water had washed the phospho from her hand lamp. Cheryl wished she could tell if he was lying or even what he meant, but this was Rabbit’s home ground, not hers.
"Rabbit," Cheryl whispered, "we could go back now. The rad commune’s going to be busy grabbing up the clean water that’s falling now."
"Quiet, quiet, quiet," Rabbit hissed.
A voice boomed through the shaft: "Attention Farming Quad Three: Heavy water test number two-ninety-six in holding tank. Junior Rad and Bio Tech harvesters report to holding shaft three for sampling."
That voice thundered everywhere. Cheryl asked, "G-God?" and she shivered as if she were Rabbit, for she felt that small and helpless.
Rabbit pounded his feet on a lower rung with glee. "Yesyesyes! No water in three! Let’s go." He tugged the chains loose.
After clambering to the shaft, Rabbit danced and shouted, "To heaven, to heaven!"
Cheryl hissed, "Quiet."
Rabbit said, "Nonono! We’re near heaven!"
Cheryl rapped him hard on the shoulder with the hilt of her hunting knife. Rabbit cried.
Cheryl said, "What’s the law, Rabbit?"
Rabbit sniffed and sulked. "Not here."
"I’m not going to let you get me slagged. I’ve lived longer than any exile, ’cause the law made me live." She raised the knife. "Say it to swear it."
Cheryl pushed the edge of the knife against his ribs, drawing a drop of blood. There was no light, but both were used to that. "Rabbit, I’m not kidding."
Rabbit spoke through muffled sobs and sniffles, "See before seen; strike before struck; eat before eaten."
"Good," Cheryl whispered, "and keep any phospho wrapped tight. You lead the way; I’ll follow the sound of your feet, noisy Rabbit."
"Huhn," Rabbit pouted and tried to walk extra quietly, just to make Cheryl strain.
But Cheryl followed him easily; every sense closed down, except hearing. She crept without thought, her mind open only to sounds.
They travelled for two days like this. Occasionally, Rabbit would pause and sniff the air, and Cheryl would mimic, but the air was only cold and clear, unnerving Cheryl. She was used to the body odors and muck of the exiles just hellward of the rad commune. Here, the crisper air made her nose run and the flesh in her nostrils raw.
Cheryl heard a metal clicking coming from Rabbit.
Suddenly, Rabbit shouted with delight, "I rang the heaven bell. Angels’re coming! They’re coming!"
Cheryl cried, "Damn you, Rabbit!"
The wall magically disappeared with a soft sliding sound to reveal a new shaft. But it was the light that burned into Cheryl’s eyes. Brighter than any phospho fungus.
"Damn you, Rabbit," Cheryl thought, "see before you’re seen."
But she heard them: They were four, heavy footed with arrogance from catching her off guard, no doubt. Cheryl lunged, twisting her body to the side to present a slimmer target and stabbed outward with the knife with her first shot, always the strongest. It pierced some tough cloth, but Cheryl was rewarded with a muffled groan. They must be wearing helmets, so no head strikes.
A muffled popping sound erupted in front of her. Her chest hurt. Someone had stabbed her, she guessed. She threw the knife toward the sound; fell down across the door; died.
These angels had no wings; they were covered in big, white crumply suits with shiny big boots and little windows over their faces. One stood next to Rabbit and peered at him through the window over her face. Her face had funny blisters and welts and her hair was all in patches. Rabbit didn’t like to look. The angel had hollow eyes.
The angel spoke, "Why did she want to hurt us?" Her voice was hollow, too.
Rabbit shrugged and pointed hellward. "That’s the law."
Another angel spoke: "Get her body upstairs for autopsy. I want a full immunopsy run. Check the rad levels on her. Not a welt on her. Start a T-cell clone, stat, before cellular degradation sets in."
Rabbit asked, "Are they taking her to heaven?"
One of the angel’s picked up Cheryl’s body and muttered more funny words, "This ‘shroom’s a good harvest. No sign of rad poison. What magnificently pale skin! Don’t harvest many from down deep. They’ve got the best immune systems. Top grade clone cells. Good job, Rabbit."
"Belay that, asshole." And the other angel looked at Rabbit as if words could hurt Rabbit. It almost made him giggle.
"Is the law in heaven? Can I go to heaven, too?" Rabbit asked.
The lady angel said, "Of course, Rabbit. You can stay with us. But, what law are you talking about?"
Cheryl’s body dissappeared behind sliding heaven doors. Rabbit watched the magic doors with big eyes as he repeated the law for the lady angel.
"No such law like that in heaven." and she patted his bald head. "We’ll give you chicken again and let you bring your friends to heaven for even more chicken."
Rabbit saw her eyes go hard and cold, like Cheryl’s eyes whenever the law had breathed within her. Rabbit felt stupid for asking. The angel was just trying to make him feel safe, like when Cheryl used to hug him. If the law was in his angel’s eyes, the law was everywhere, which Rabbit had half suspected all along, anyway.
He didn’t really care. Rabbit understood the law and he reached up to the lady with his bony arms. The lady angel lifted him out of the muck and carried him piggyback to heaven. Rabbit’s long thin tongue licked his chapped lips; chicken would be nice. He was going to like heaven.