The Smoking Lady

Waking up underground

A picture of a uniformed woman smoking in an underground mall, by Rui Tomono.

“I don’t understand, I’m up to date on all the fees. The paperwork is all in order. You can check the records, just last week I-”

“We’re not here because of your business, Mr. Grey.”

“But you’re with the bureau, right? I can tell. The armband. Look, this place isn’t much but it’s all I have. I can’t afford to lose it. You of all people should know how hard it is to find a stable area down here, I can’t-”

“Do you sell cigarettes?”

“Wha- Y-yes, we do. They’re over to your right, right by the-”

She grabbed a pack from the shelf without looking at the label, opened it, and lit up. I may have been caught off-guard, but I wasn’t stupid enough to ask her to pay. She was with the bureau all right, as if the mask and armband hadn’t made it obvious enough already. I noticed the cruel scar that tore across her left cheek. She must have earned it while fencing at the academy, a cut made by a sword identical to the one she had left on the bench while she smoked. I had heard stories about bureau regulators taping their bleeding wounds open after a duel and packing them with salt to delay the healing as long as possible. They were trained to be brutal but fair, not just instruments of the law but the law itself.

“We’re not here because of your business, Mr. Grey.” She repeated herself in a singsong voice, as if she were speaking to a child. “You may not know this, but the Federal Bureau of Spatiotemporal Normalization is responsible for a bit more than just real estate.”

“Can I at least know why you’re kicking me out?” Talking back to a regulator was foolish enough to be a punchline among the underground’s inhabitants, but at this point I no longer cared. It was already over, I had lost the store. There wasn’t anything worse she could do to me.

“No, you may not. What I can tell you is that accommodations have been prepared for your relocation, and that-”

A loud, dry cough cut her off. Her partner, a worried-looking little man who had been talking quickly into the payphone this entire time, had looked up and was clearing his throat while furiously shaking his head side-to-side.

“Hmmmmmm. Hmmm, hmm. Hm.” She hummed to herself and took another puff of smoke. “Well, it seems I may have misspoken. You’ll still have to come with us, Mr. Grey.”

“Tell me why. Tell me what’s going on.”

I could tell she was already growing tired of the conversation. “Someone will tell you all you need to know at the station. Take what you need.” “You’re not being detained,” she added before I could ask, “we just need you to come with us for a while.”

“I’m not getting out from behind this counter until either you or your friend there” - I waved my arm at the man who had gone back to talking on the phone - “tell me what’s going on.”

There was a long silence. The regulator stared off into space and momentarily ignored her cigarette. The man continued to mutter into the phone, and despite the quiet I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Where was everyone? It was only a little after noon. Most people on this level should have started their lunch break already, but the coffee shop across the way was still deserted. Had the owner reported me to the bureau? What had I done? Another secret, another thing about this world that didn’t make any sense. It was too much.

“Look, I’ll come with you. I’ll cooperate, I’m not digging in my heels out of spite or anything. I just think that if you’re going to destroy my livelihood I’ve at least got a right to know why. I want to know what’s going on.”

“That’s not a common attitude.” She suddenly flicked her cigarette into the wastebin and strode back to the counter. The singsong voice was gone. In its place were the cold, clipped tones of a bureau regulator acting in full knowledge of her authority.

“Most people down here take it for granted. They don’t ask questions, they believe us when we tell them that the regulations are for their own good. They tell themselves that it’s better than going back to the surface. It’s been over a decade, but they still remember seeing their friends torn apart and their homes rearranged like building blocks. They’re afraid, Mr. Grey, and they cope with that fear by telling themselves that what happened that day will never happen again. All they have to do is follow the rules, keep their heads down, and pretend like this is all normal. You of all people should know that.” Her reusue of my phrase was deliberate, and it stung.

“We’re here today because what happened twelve years ago isn’t over. In fact, it never stopped. This little hole of ours is still being carved out of the ground by the same process that tore reality apart on the surface. That’s no secret, Mr. Grey. You know that as well as anyone else, but like the rest of them you see the fluorescent lights and linoleum tile and assume that we’re in control. We’re not. They’ll tell you otherwise at the station, but I won’t lie to you. All of us are trapped in the belly of a beast, and your store is a vein leading directly to its heart. If we don’t act quickly and sever the vein we’ll all be chewed to death. That’s all there is to explain.”

The man at the phone hung up and sighed. “Maritza, please. There’s no need to lecture the poor man. They’re saying the adjustment will have to be twice as big as we expected, and if we don’t move now-”

She had been staring directly at me for the entire speech, but I wasn’t able to meet her gaze until she had stopped talking. Her eyes were cold, the blue-grey color of tempered steel, and they pinned me in place like a blade. It was the intense and unforgiving gaze of the law, but there was something more behind it, something that I couldn’t make out. This woman was no ordinary regulator.

“Will you come with us, Mr. Grey?”

“Yes, just let me get my things.”

What else could I have done?

To be continued, eventually.

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