“I feel you,” said Aaron, touching her arm. Under the pads of his hyper-sensitive fingers, he felt the tiny rough nodules of goose bumps rising, prickling upwards. They had come this way to be further from the nest, but that meant that the air here was cooler, sharper. “You’re cold. Here.”
He passed over his blanket, his dearest possession apart from his sucking stick, which he’d had since he was a baby. Without it, he felt chilled and alone. He drew closer to her body heat, luxuriating in the warmth of her circulating blood, the slight rasp of her breath, quickened from the climb. They both found the air uncomfortably thin.
“I feel you too,” she said, her voice sliding across to him out of the blackness. Aaron felt an indescribable joy. It reminded him of when he’d first been separated from his mother, when she left him bundled up and secure to bring in the termite stores with the other adults. Not of that, precisely, but of the gladness and relief of being re-united. It was good to be together, curled up close with the rich smell of each other’s bodies, the whispers and grunts and sighs, the wriggles and snuffles and burrowing. It was good to be many, and it was good to be Two. It was not good to be One.
He placed both hands on either side of Elizabeth’s face, felt the softening in the muscles of her jaw and the upward curve that meant she welcomed his advances. She drew him gently closer, her fingers tracing his invisible flesh. They felt the caress of each other’s warm breath before their faces met, gently, cautiously, nosing about the contours. A tendril of her hair became caught in his mouth, and automatically he sucked it. She nestled towards the hollow of his neck. Oh, how delicious it was. The slight sense of danger only added to the pleasure of it.
“I have some honey,” he said softly.
He pressed his lips to hers, passed the sweetness from the full pouch of his cheek into her open mouth. She sucked it in, and they both savoured the melting stickiness, arms wrapped about one another, close as ratlings. Elizabeth licked her own lips for the precious traces, and then his. He felt the urge, and in the darkness they joined and sighed and wriggled, and came apart – but not too far. No one liked to be out of reach. To be alone was Aaron’s abiding terror, and in this he was like all the children of the Under Night. None of them had ever known a time when a person could survive beyond the range of touch, smell, hearing. When eyes had a function, other than to drip mysterious moisture in fright or sorrow.
But the adults sometimes talked of Up There, a place that had light (but what was light?) and vast spaces, where you could walk for days (but what were days?) and still not have traversed a hundredth of that huge emptiness, where the wind (wind?) ripped at your bones and demons dwelt with fangs of stone and eyes of ice…A place no one in their right mind would want to go, and yet, Aaron sensed a nostalgia, a yearning. There were times, said his mother, when the sun shone and we ate – other things. Times when people didn’t farm termites, and honey, and nest like moles in the earth-warmed dark.
“We’d better get back, they’ll worry,” said Elizabeth, beginning to fidget. He could smell her nervousness, and shared it. They’d been reckless enough as it was, straying out of smell and touch of the clan. Beyond calling distance, even. Among the familiar worm-holes, that wasn’t far really, but he couldn’t help feeling edgy.
Aaron took her hand and they traced their way back along the passages, their fingers trailing over the crumbling clay, the damp stone and the seams of iron and tin. Dirt collected under Aaron’s eggshell-soft fingernails. They could feel the heat increase, pleasantly intense, as they made their way downwards.
Elizabeth pulled on his hand, signalling him to stop. He waited until he felt the length of her body, moist with sweat, against his back, her voice over his invisible shoulder.
“I want to go up.”
“We can’t go up. It’s too cold. We’re not allowed.”
“But I want to. Just once.”
It was always possible – the tunnel divided just at that point, a fork doubling upwards towards the infected surface, and you could feel the chill air sliding down like the breath of an ice-fiend. He’d heard that sometimes, people did go up, out of some ancient sense of curiosity. He, himself, had none. There was honey down here, and warmth, and family. Up there – he shivered to think.
“If you really feel me, you’ll go with me,” said Elizabeth, gently nibbling his neck with her toothless gums. Then she stepped away from him, and he felt the absence of her, a cold and painful surge of emptiness. He was alone!
He turned without a word and stretched his searching fingers upwards, along the wall of the other tunnel – the one that they should not take. Even the rock walls felt harsher, nastier. The air smelled wrong. Elizabeth trailed close behind as they felt their way upwards, the air getting thinner and colder as they climbed.
They turned a corner, and there it was. Aaron screamed and threw himself back. Elizabeth fell under him, squealing. They lay clutching each other in the light – for it was light, they supposed – dim and red like the last glow of a match. She was the first to raise her head, while he hid crying beneath her long hair.
“Look,” she sighed, in a voice of utter amazement.
They peered up the tunnel, at a dark opening a hundred metres above. At the very top a tiny red ball leered down at them. Beyond, they saw small, cold white objects. Aaron squeezed his eyes tight shut against the inhuman glare.
“Demons,” he whispered, backing down the tunnel into the welcoming night. “Just as they said.”
He reached for Elizabeth, turning his head towards her instinctively, and she to him. They opened their eyes, that had never been used, and stood transfixed by the sight of one another.
“He feels hideous!” she thought, because she had no word for the aesthetics of sight, and looking at her, he too felt disgusted. Who would have thought that someone so smooth, so beautifully rich in fragrance, so sibilant in whisper, could be so misshapen. And he – was he the same? He looked at the maggot-white limbs that joined them, at his luminous, webbed toes. At her mouth all shapeless and filthy, at the holes in her face that were staring back at him, pinpoint red.
They hurried down again, each trying to forget what they had seen in that weak and putrid light, and buried themselves gratefully in the Under Night.