John is in his prop plane. His prop plane is light. It has a certain unhewn look. He has assembled it by hand from parts predating the Collapse.
He flies north. North, past the edge of the village. North, past the Scary Forest. North, beyond the hills, into the fire in the sky.
“So far,” he says, into the radio, “it’s flying well.”
Gruff old Sid back at the base clicks his radio to send. “What’s it like out there?”
“Worse than I thought,” John says. “Heavy turbulence as far back as the hills. Rains of brimstone ahead. There’s a stench. And there’s someone standing in the sky.”
“Standing . . .”
“He’s too big to really see,” John says. “But he’s got wings. And a sword. I’m going to go closer.”
Sid sighs. There are years of resignation in that sigh. “Check.”
There’s a pause. John says, after a moment, “If I don’t get back, Sid . . .”
The plane ascends, trying to rise above the level of the brimstone rain. Winds rock it. Static plays about the instrument panel. John leans in, his face spotted with flecks of brimstone.
“Sid!” he cries. “Sid! I can see his eyes!”
Burning stones pelt against the wings of the plane. There is a terrible cracking sound. One engine sputters to a halt.
“Eh?” says Sid, back at the base.
“I’m going down,” John notes.
“Is it bad?”
Only a burst of static answers.
The plane tears down through the sky. The last words Sid hears are, “There’s a city.”
There is darkness.
John wakes up. His arm is in a sling. His forehead is bandaged. He is in bed.
“Are you all right, sir?” a woman’s voice asks.
He tries to sit up. Somewhat to his own surprise, he succeeds.
“I crashed,” he says.
Sheila is seated next to his bed. She is wearing a pale blue skirt and top. She has blond hair. Her voice is lightly accented. “It happens,” she says.
“I think it was divine wrath.”
“Most likely,” she says. “We get a lot of that around here.”
He looks around. “My name is John,” he says.
“Where is this?” he says.
“The City under the Storm,” she says. “Or just the City.”
He looks blankly at her.
“We were cursed,” she says. “We were sinful. We are in the process of being smit from the Earth. Would you like coffee?”
“You have coffee?”
She rises. She walks to the eastern wall. There’s a Mr. Coffee plugged in on a table. She scoops fresh-ground beans into the filter, pours water into the machine’s body, and starts the machine running.
“It is not a bad life,” she says. “Perhaps our afterlife shall be worse.”
He looks around. Lamps glow with soft light. The walls are panelled wood. There is a window, and beyond it, a great dark city sculpted from black and purple glass.
“You have electricity,” he says.
“And running water,” he says.
“How?” he says. “How, in this condition? How, in this place? When so much of the world is savage now?”
“We have a limitless source of energy,” says she, “in the Storm.”
He looks at her.
“Divine displeasure,” she says. “We power our city with it.”
He spends days there, recuperating. When he is well, she takes him out into the city. She laughs at how even their Starbucks is a marvel to him.
“You must tell me,” she says, “how the outside world fares.”
“Savage,” he says. “At worst, barbarian. At best, a frontier. Sid—”
John hesitates. Then he looks shocked. “He will be terrified for me. Do you have a radio?”
“No,” she says. “Interference from God.”
“Oh,” John says. He slumps. “. . . I will need to go back,” he says. “To tell people this is here.”
Sheila nods. She pulls him from the street to a table at a sidewalk cafe. She sits him down, beneath the great arched dome of the city. The brimstone light casts strange sunbeams through the glass.
“Your plane is ruined,” she says.
“Then I must make another.”
She frowns. “You could stay,” she says. “You could record for us tales of the world outside. You would not lack for anything.”
John shakes his head.
“Then,” Sheila says, “we will help you return. Not by plane. You would crash again. But we have considered the problem before.”
The waiter comes to their table. John is flustered, at first, as his attention was elsewhere; but he quickly makes a selection, and Sheila the same.
“If you are to travel from here,” she says, “you will need to go beneath the surface of the earth. We have studied old pulp movies, and believe that an appropriate device can be constructed. It will drill its way through the darkness like a mole.”
She laughs, lightly.
“I do not believe there shall be chuds.”
John stares at her, hardly believing. “You would do this for me? Your city, your people, your government, would do this for me?”
She smiles. It is distant. “We have little else to do.”
“I should help.” He starts to rise to his feet. Her hand is on his arm, and pulls him back into his seat. “It’s impossible. I cannot simply let you do this for me.”
“After lunch,” she says.
Over a meal of pasta and duck, she says, “You shame us with your surprise.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“You would help me,” she says, “would you not, if I crash-landed in your home?”
He looks down at the plate. He mumbles. “Yes.”
“I do not know that you can help our scientists,” she says. “You are self-trained and somewhat primitive.”
“I must do something,” he says.
“Then I will take you to the sin factory,” she says, “and you may do a measure for our town.”
John and Sheila walk through the streets. They are clean, but not too clean. Grass has grown through cracks in the sidewalk. Dirt provides a pattern on the glass. It is a sleeping place, but not a dying place.
When a man or woman passes them, John tips his hat.
“This is the sin factory,” Sheila says. “Here, we gather the displeasure of the divine.”
She leads him in.
“Must I . . .” John flounders a little. “Must I steal? Hurt? I would not like to hurt someone.”
“No,” she says. “We find such crimes unsavory. So we pray before false gods. We handle goods tainted with ejaculate or with menstrual blood. We eat shellfish, dredged from unholy places. We practice usury and gossip, here. It is not sin. It is the engine of our survival. And we do not love.”
“No love?” says John.
Sheila leads him into the factory. She holds her hand out and to the side, brushing it against a parrot’s perch. The parrot steps down onto her hand.
“The mascot,” she says. She brushes back the parrot’s headfeathers. “We call her Jezebel.”
John laughs. “Is a parrot’s heart so black?”
“Jezebel is the only parrot we have left,” she says. “So we keep her here. She reminds us of what this is for. One adorable parrot. She would freeze and die, here, if the engines of our city stopped. So she is our mascot and our badge of sin.”
“Yet . . .” John flounders. “No love?”
“Love could bring grace to us,” she says. “And stop the power source our Storm.”
John hesitates. “What if it were forbidden love?”
“No,” she says. “Not here. Not now. There is a channel through the glass that shows unto Heaven our hearts.”
“The parrot . . .” John says. “Surely, to love an adorable parr—”
Sheila thrusts the parrot into John’s face. Jezebel explodes into a fury of wings and beak and claws. John shrieks and staggers back.
“That is the other reason,” Sheila says, “that Jezebel is our mascot.”
John rubs at his face, which is nicked and scratched. Jezebel flutters back to her perch.
“I see,” John says.
“Come,” Sheila says. “Let us eat forbidden shrimp.”
John walks with her to the shrimp bar, and to the hall of idols, and to the room of stained fabric. For a time he sins.
The days pass.
On some days, John sins.
On others, he does not, or, at least, not so much that anyone would notice.
“Do you live your lives without love,” John asks her, “or is it only in the factory where you must hold back?”
“We slip,” she says. “We must slip. We are human. Love slips out, around the corners. But it is the enemy, and so we hold it back. It is not our way, John, to be pleasing unto Heaven.”
He takes her hand. He squeezes it. There is an infinite sympathy in his eyes; but he says nothing.
“It is different elsewhere?” she says.
“My wife is dead,” he says. “But there are my children. My aunt. My wolf. And Sid.”
He fights it. He keeps his tone flat and natural. But there is something in his eyes as he speaks.
Later, she will say, “It was those words that carried the plague.”
“Let us speak,” John says, “of something else. Perhaps a blasphemy.”
“Yes,” she says. She is shaken. “Yes. Perhaps the story of the ‘pogo stick’ and how it found itself wedged in an inappropriate location.”
When the machine is done, she takes him to it, and watches as he leaves. He drills under the surface of the world. He is shielded from the Storm, and from the man who stands above the Storm, though Sheila does not think it hides John from those eyes.
“He was a fine man,” she says, in her report. “There is much to be valued in the world beyond the Storm.”
Her life is happy, but the plague is eating at her heart.
She finds a man. She lives with him. They have three children. One day, she smiles at him, and the plague takes her.
And the lights go out.