Like an elusive phantom, the cold of Tartarus hung over Micah’s body, frigid and thick as fog. Not caused by wind nor by weather, the ambiguous chill burrowed deep into Micah’s bones, weighing him down, heavier than the pack slung over his back. Perhaps it was the lack of sunlight, the density of the thickly packed earth. Perhaps it was the ever-present darkness that seeped into every hole and crevice of the underground city, drowning out all light. Whatever the reason for the cold, it was constant, lingering, undeniable, but after eleven years without seeing the surface, Micah had grown used to it.
Cautiously, he pulled his pack tighter against him. Tonight, its contents were precious. Slinking deeper into the shadows of the underground alleyways, he made his way through the twists and turns with the ease of someone well-practiced in the art of remaining undetected. It was an art essential in Tartarus, as EPs lurked around every corner and on every street, sometimes dozens of them clustered together, heavily armed and dangerous, and always looking for a fight. Here, EPs were like God’s chosen few, above the law and without mercy, the gatekeepers of all Tartarus.
Tartarus. Micah rolled his eyes. Once, this trash heap had been glorified as a safe haven for the poor and destitute of Elysian Island. A safe place for those too sick to defend themselves from the toxins of nuclear war. But now, it served as nothing more than a bastardized excuse for a sanctuary, a crawling expanse of dirt and grime that stretched on for miles, as far as the eye could see. Tall granite pillars reinforced a ceiling of clotted dirt, while massive air vents interspersed occasionally along the fringes of the ceiling provided the airflow necessary to maintain life below ground. Because even the dregs of humanity needed to breathe, Micah thought with a sardonic smirk.
The mines were empty tonight, Micah noted, abandoned at the end of a slavishly long workday. Micah darted past, ignoring the creeping feeling of dread that fell over him whenever he got too near. He’d been told the mines were slowly drying up, the oil becoming more difficult to extract from the layers and layers of hardened earth. If that was the case, how much longer would the people of Tartarus last? When their purpose expired, what use would they be to the esteemed and noble government? He pushed past, wiping those thoughts from his mind.
As Micah wound his way through the shambled and decrepit alleys of the falsely illuminated Pleasure District, his head began to pound, thrumming with threads of emotional life. Lust. Rage. Pain. Fear. Lust. Rage. Pain. Fear. Micah clenched his teeth, forcing those unwanted emotions from his head. Not now. Not tonight. Shut them out.
Whores emerged from doorways with bosoms exposed and bodices torn from harsh treatment, as slovenly bar patrons sloshed alcohol and flashed gold pieces. Micah swallowed back his disgust. This was what it had come to, the plight of those who lived in the underground city. Live or die. Fight or be killed. Adapt, survive, or disappear. Tartarus had a way of separating the weak from the strong. It had a way of breaking those without the will to fight. Luckily, Micah had never had trouble baring his teeth. And for all its drawbacks, Tartarus had hardened him, made him stronger, forced him to fight. To survive. Life lessons in Tartarus were learned the hard way, but knowledge was power, so even painful lessons bore fruit. Or so Booker would have said.
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