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The Seventh Rule
A short story by Cheeseburger Brown
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The Seventh Rule, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

V.

Even the woman's sense of climbing was crazy. She had no feel for the natural world. Ladders were strange to her, and she could not find north. She could well enough read the arrows and ordered marks on the walls but, inexplicably, ignored the water stains.

"What's your name?" she asked me.

"Yield is my name. Yield to Right Turning Traffic," I said. "It is a sacred name. A name for heroes."

"Do you want to know my name?"

I shrugged. "Supper, your name is." With my spear I gestured to the convolution of middleworld worm-ways before us, visible through a gloriously rectilinear aperture in the wall of the lesser root. "This is where your whale swam. Now you will be my guide. Which way to the overworld?"

She moved her baby from one hip to the other. "Is that route six?"

"This is a root," I confirmed. "A very thick one."

She shook her head. "I can't help you. I don't know this place. It's just a line on a map. A purple line."

"But you travel here."

"The car knows the way."

I frowned. "The things you say make no sense. You are helpless. I cannot understand how a person could live in such ignorance."

"You wouldn't last ten minutes in the city. It would eat you alive, kid."

I straightened and scoffed. "Monsters are monsters. My spear is sharp and my hammer heavy, my cock trimmed and my heart hard. Test me against your dreaded city -- I would prosper."

She sniffed and said nothing, head down. "Six runs north-south. We should walk south, because it slopes up."

"You laugh at me."

"I wouldn't dare."

I narrowed my eyes.

We walked south, the roots rising in stages. Their character changed with every elevation, the skins of the walls composed of lighter or darker panels or showing different contours. The air thinned and turned dry -- the very vents sung a different note. I took this in stride until the lamps changed from their familiar amber glow to a harsh and steady greenish white. I shrank away from the next stretch of tunnel, hand raised to shield my eyes.

"What is it?" she cried, startled.

"The lamps have forsaken us," I said, teeth clenched. "You must have failed to make a sacrifice of light and shadow before traveling. Do your people truly know nothing at all?"

She touched my arm, one corner of her mouth drawn into an oddly fearless little smirk. "It's a newer section of service tunnels, that's all. Different kind of lamps here. It's no big deal."

I shrugged off her touch, still poised for attack. "But what does it mean?"

"It just means this part was built later."

I let my spear droop, looking sideways at her. "Built? Why do you say ‘built' like the way a man builds a tent? The roots are not a man's tent. Your words are wrong."

"Built," she said again, "because people build tunnels. Well, not really. I mean, they do but they don't. Machines do. But robots drive the machines and robots take their orders from people." She paused, furrowing her brow. "Well, not literally. They follow the orders they've always followed."

I raised a brow significantly. "They have rules, these rowboats. Old rules. Like the Twentymen."

"I suppose so," she agreed.

"So rowboats are your true masters," I reasoned. "You must be a slave. Judging from your bosoms you are some kind of fertility cow. Now it all makes sense."

She shook her head again. "Don't you get it? It isn't me that doesn't know anything -- it's you. Normal people are like me, not like you. How many of you could there even be, anyway? You live in the woodwork. You're scavengers."

"We are not scavengers -- we are proud hunters!"

"You're not even real citizens. You're like beasts."

"Beasts cannot speak because they have no ghosts."

"Yeah? Well robots can speak and they don't have ghosts, either. Speaking isn't everything. My toothbrush speaks."

I spat on the floor. "Lies or mistakes," I declared. "Beasts have no rules."

She smirked again. "Listen, it doesn't matter what you think. The fact is there's fifteen billion people up there and none of them care even the smallest amount about the weird rituals of some service tunnel cult of lost inbreds. We've got bigger problems. Much bigger."

I sneered. "You denigrate my ancestry because you are frightened of my true words. Do you imagine there is no rule against contributing seed to your sister's baby? Of course there is. You count as a child does, using numbers that have no meaning. Your worries might be large but they are stupid if they lead you to forget basic facts about the world."

The baby started to cry, which I took to be a sign that the baby agreed with me, but she did not see it as I did. Instead she sat upon the floor and began digging through her layers of extraneous clothing in search of flesh. When she found her breast she gave it to the baby. "See?" she said. "He's just hungry."

"One can be hungry and hold an opinion at the same time," I argued.

She sniffed again and looked down, petting the suckling infant.

I paced impatiently.


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