"The Metalmen'll get you," old Seli rasped as Maia and her friends hurried past her door.
The other girls giggled and made nasty remarks under their breath about the crazy old woman. Maia knew better than to mock Seli, who had showed her where to find cracks in the Worldskin and crawl through into darkness, to find the glowplants that could be used as medicine or food or even poison against the scratching night critters. That knowledge helped her family when rations were slim or medicine didn't make it down to the Borers' level or when the lightrods flickered and failed during the nightcycle.
More than just the Metalmen roamed the hallways of the lower levels when the sunshield rotated and created nightdark. No matter how low-ranked they were, Borers had the right to protect their families against the critters that bit and drank their blood and ate their few food stores.
Maia stayed back a few steps and met Seli's eyes, and nodded respectfully to the old woman.
"You get yourself home, child." Seli gestured down the passage. "You're smarter than those silly twitters and nicer, even if you are cursed being so pretty. You deserve better than you're going to get when you grow up."
"What am I going to get?" she asked.
A crunch-clang echoed up the narrow utility passage just past Seli's door. A blue-white flicker of light speared out of the darkness.
"The Overseers have orders to send pretty girls Above, to work the tallies and maybe learn healing. Yes, girl, I know it sounds good, and you think you'll send extra rations down to your family. But I've been around long enough. Moving you Above puts you under the eyes of the Stocrats. If you're smart and pretty and healthy, they'll use you for breeding."
"Some Stocrats marry the girls they bring up for breeding," Maia whispered. She tried not to tremble, in legs or voice.
"You get to choose the man who shares your bed, down here," Seli growled. "Up there, you have no choice. And it's only in stories that girls are lucky enough to marry. To Stocrats, Borers are just bodies to fix things and tend the growing vats and wombs to grow babies for them. Nothing more." She spat against the ill omen of her words. "Stay in the shadows, safe and out of the Overseer's notice. You'll be happier that way."
"Breeders can have lots of babies. Not just the two they let us Downbelow."
"And keep not one of them," the old woman snapped. She yanked on her sliding door. "Get home and be happy right where you are." With a final sharp nod for emphasis, she pulled her door closed with a sharp crack-bang.
The creak-squeak of Metalmen on the move came from the darkness. Maia glanced over her shoulder and saw her friends--yes, they were thoughtless twitters--had vanished into their own quarters. She was alone in the gathering gloom.
Everyone on this level had pulled their doors closed for nightcycle. The panel at the southern end of the world had long since stopped rotating, so the moon no longer shone when the sun was blocked. Maia thought of the legends of times long ago, when the moon painted the world in soft silver-blue light and even the Borers had time to laugh and dance and sing at night. She shivered and quickened her steps.
Behind her, a long rod telescoped out of the utility passage, supporting a lens with a thick cable trailing from the end of the socket. The rod swiveled, letting the lens follow Maia's progress up the metal webwork stairs, to the long, dimly lit passageway full of doors leading into Borer living quarters. Only when a stream of gold light spilled from her parents' quarters and she slipped inside to safety did the rod compress back down out of sight.
A few heartbeats later, a lone Metalman stepped from the crevice and creak-scraped down the passageway in the opposite direction, poised on dull silver legs and talon feet. Blue-white light pierced the gloom, from orifices around its six lens eyes that circled the top of its head. Four arms were folded neatly to its metal sides, each equipped with a different tool for holding, drilling, hammering, anything that needed doing. A wave of silence formed, pressing ahead of the Metalman's trail through the levels. The people in their quarters held their breaths and waited until the creak-thud-scrape of those metal feet faded away.
Seli watched through the tiny gap between door and frame. The Metalman paused and nodded, stiffly, in greeting.
"Could she be the one?" she whispered, as the Metalman turned to continue on its way.
Lights flashed around its eyes and the viewscreen in its chest flickered through dozens of images that few now living in the World would have recognized. Seli was one of those few, and even she only understood that the bird in flight pictured on the viewscreen was called a dove, and it represented hope.
* * ** *
Maia thought about the things Seli told her. As she grew up and her figure filled out, she took pains to hide her curves. She volunteered to stay home with Granda, even though the old man smelled as foul as his temper, and pursued her lessons beyond the basic requirements. She found the education menu in her parents' quarters worked without a problem during the day, when most Borers weren't home. Yet the power fluctuated and the education menu often didn't open in the evening, when most of the children her age had time to study. She read whenever Granda slept, which was most of the day.
Her brother didn't care about learning more than the basics, and Mother was too busy tending the orphaned children of their neighbors. Maia learned all she could about everything she could. She decided she wanted to take Tech training, because she liked reading the histories of the World. It was a grand and glorious thing, she decided, to be part of what kept the World running, with power, light, water and heat available for everyone.
Maia braided her hair and bound it in a cloth, to keep it out of her way when she worked. She paid more attention when Overseers and the low-rank Stocrats came down to the Borer levels to inspect the workers. Wearing a one-piece instead of skirt and blouse like the other girls let her fade into the shadows. Stocrats and Overseers ignored her, just like they ignored the men, until a Stocrat woman came down to the levels.
When she was old enough, fifteen Full-Cycles, she took Tech training and learned to use tools and work in dark, cramped places. She became friends with the Techs, who remembered her Granda when he had been in his prime. They teased her, a girl doing a man's job, saying she wanted to avoid staying home and tending babies when she got older. They welcomed her because she was small and limber, able to get into tight spaces where the most delicate repairs were needed. She saved her work team time. They didn't need to bring out ancient, delicate equipment to reach into those tight spaces, so the repairs got done faster. Her team earned bonuses regularly, and that translated into extra rations and sometimes treats, like an extra bolt of cloth for new clothes.
Just after puberty swept through the girls of her age level, Nessa was chosen to go Above and apprentice with the low-rank Stocrats in charge of tending the soil in the gardens. The other girls whined and complained about the chance that hadn't been offered to them, when they all met at the water vat that evening to draw their families' rations for the nightcycle.
Maia stood back and considered them, as if she had never seen them before. Nessa, she decided, took better care of herself than the other girls. She didn't have freckles or pockmarks or blotchy skin. Her golden, curly hair was clean and always clipped out of her way, so it didn't drag in the nutrient solutions in the ponics gardens and get discolored. She took care of her clothes so they didn't catch on the sharp edges of the storage racks and tear. Three girls in their work crew did it deliberately, because they knew it caught the attention of the boys during shift changes. Nessa washed every day and scrubbed her teeth and went to every healer examination day.
Thinking back on what old Seli had said about not catching the Overseer's attention, Maia tried to think like a Stocrat, looking for a girl to carry his baby and give him some pleasure between the sheets. Surely he'd want someone healthy, who knew how to take care of herself, so he wouldn't have to worry. Someone to give him one strong baby after another and no diseases.
The only person who took as good care of herself as Nessa was Maia. If she had been among the girls when the Overseer came through, Maia wondered, would she have been chosen instead of Nessa?
That night, her mother tried to offer her a word of comfort for not getting chosen. Every girl among the Borers dreamed of living Above. There, the sunlight didn't have to bounce off three flectors to reach those Downbelow. Above, the air was clean and smelled sweet and plants grew in soil instead of ponics tanks.
"It's all right," Maia said, cutting off Mother's stumbling words.
Something tight in her mother's voice made her think Mother was relieved she hadn't gone Above, and only spoke comfort because she thought Maia was unhappy.
"I don't want to leave you. What if it isn't as wonderful Above, for the Borer girls who get chosen? What if it's all a lie, so we don't fight when we're chosen?"
"Who's been talking such tales to you?" Father whispered from his corner of the room. He didn't look or sound either angry or afraid. More surprised than anything, Maia thought.
"She looks and sounds like a crazy woman, but she's older than your Granda. She knows things everybody else has forgotten." He nodded for emphasis. "Except maybe the Metalmen. Nobody knows what they remember. Who knows what things are written inside their skulls?"
The next morning, Maia got up earlier than usual to fetch the day's ration of water. She didn't want to talk to the other girls, who would still be complaining about the chance denied them, and probably scheming how to take it away from Nessa.
She didn't see the Metalman standing in the shadows, hidden among the twisted metal supports of the water vat and the scraps and strips of metal scavenged from abandoned living quarters and growing stations. She didn't see him until with a whirr and scrape, he stepped out. Maia swallowed a scream and waited. There was no fighting the Metalmen when they wanted something. Running was useless. Telling frightening stories about the Metalmen kidnapping Borer and Stocrat girls was a favorite pastime during the few Borer holidays, when everyone gathered in the Meetinghalls to tell stories and sing and dance.
Maia had always secretly thought the stories were lies, just to keep children from venturing into the poisoned black depths of the World. She stared at the Metalman and wondered if she had been wrong, and she would vanish into the darkness without a clue.
The Metalman bowed to her.
Maia dropped her bucket. Fortunately, it wasn't full of water and she hadn't pressed the family's token against the red, glowing spot that counted the ration tally.
A taloned metal arm extended. Despite her resolve to be brave, she took a step backwards.
A tiny flash of green, purple and white among the dull gray metal caught her attention. A fragrance like nothing she had ever known before tantalized her nose. She took a step closer. The talon uncurled, revealing something that looked softer than a newborn's skin. The sweet fragrance came from it.
"What is it?" she whispered.
A thin metal sheet slid aside in the Metalman's chest, uncovering a viewscreen. Letters appeared, glowing deep blue among the silver. Maia stared for several long moments, waiting for more letters to appear, before she realized the single word was her answer.
"Flower." She tasted the word on her lips. This was a flower? She had read the word during the stolen, extra hours of study, but the education menu didn't offer pictures.
The arm extended, moving the flower closer to her. She didn't flinch, caught in the wonder of the colors and shape before her.
A giggle whispered down the metal stairs. Maia turned, suddenly hot with a burst of anger she had never felt before. When she turned back, the Metalman had vanished. Only the faintest whiff of perfume from the flower remained to tease her while she filled her water bucket. The other girls arrived moments later. They noticed nothing. The sound of their gossip and laughter seemed to drive the scent of the flower away. For the first time, Maia noticed the sour, stale, dirty aromas that enfolded her friends. What had the Metalman done to her with his flower, that such odors bothered her now? Had he changed her, or the world around her?