Emerging from Subterra is, in a sense, impossible.

A short story inspired by Italo Calvino.

As you descend below street level and pass through the gates of the Subterra, remind yourself that this is no longer a single city. One city exists above you, bright with sunlight and the noise of human activity, and the other is an alien wonderland of shrieking metal. Hurry along the cavernous hallways and seek out the passageway you must take; the only heartbeats you hear are the thump-thump, thump-thump of the arriving and departing trains. Voices sink, insignificant, against the onslaught of the machines. In fact, you sometimes believe that they are hushed not with the impossibility of speech as the trains tear through Subterra, but with awe at the existence of such a system.

You find yourself in Subterra always with a trace of wonder. Men and women, sauntering along with ease above-ground, are transformed here. They wait tensely like sentinels, arrayed like warriors along a battlefield.

The first signs are a bone-deep rumbling, a growl at the very horizon of hearing. Orphan scraps of paper drop, flutter and swirl with the approach of the train. A light breeze arises from the bowels of the tunnel, accompanying a faint light that strengthens by the second.

Even with these warnings, you find yourself entirely unprepared when the beast bursts from the tunnel, roaring its mechanical sovereignty.

When you step aboard, you are accosted by a sense of inexorable purpose. We are travellers, rushing onwards to an inevitable end while the world turns slowly above us. Subterra holds, for you, a touch of the mystical. You begin to assign signs and symbols to the objects on your journey.

Deeper in the tunnels, there are workmen’s signals — splashes of paint, scraps of cloth as markings. So purposeless do they seem that you might even fancy they are secret communiques. You’ve amused yourself in the past by giving them values — puns, perhaps, or political commentary. A winding workman’s legend, written on a cold winter’s night for entertainment. Or perhaps a plot, a coup, a modern day smugglers’ hideaway.

As the train sweeps into your station you begin to feel a hum of anticipation, a tightening of tension amongst you and your fellow passengers. The passengers rise as one; the train, as it halts, is only momentarily at rest and never at peace. You leap from its maws precipitately, while it roars again to life and departs.

Emerging from Subterra is, in a sense, impossible. When you leave the underground, you are accosted by life, by the air and sun and wide open spaces, but deep within you there remains an imprint.

It is the reflection of the second city, of Subterra.


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