You Could Go a Long Way in Shoes Like Those
1571 words long
If you gaze long enough into an abyss, you had better be prepared to run.
Notes from the author:
The importance of a good pair of shoes cannot be overstated; also the importance of a healthy pair of feet to wear them. The literary example that comes to mind is the novel The Time-Traveler's Wife, in which the titular character's husband involuntarily journeys into the past and future while his clothes do not. Nakedness can be embarrassing, but a lack of good footwear is literally crippling.
Should you ever venture into the abyss (having gazed into it long enough to find that pastime passť), be sure to wear a really good pair of shoes.
The network of tunnels underlay the entire continent. The tunnels had been there since prehistoric times. Though they had vigorously resisted geologists' inquiries into their origins ever since geologists first began to inquire, everyone agreed that they went simply everywhere. No exception had yet been discovered.
So you could, in theory, follow the tunnels all the way from the westernmost mountains to the easternmost swamps. (Well, at least, right up to the edge of the swamps; beyond that, things might get squishy.) You could get from the Grand Pehr Desert in the south to the Ice Chimes in the north without ever seeing the sun, if you so chose. And if you were well prepared in terms of food and water. And if your sense of direction was good enough to outlast your compass and GPS. And if you weren't afraid of the sights and sounds and (gulp) other sensations rumored to lie in wait for the unwary and unwise.
Ralph wasn't afraid. He was convinced that the rumors were only that. He had everything he needed, plus a brand new pair of running shoes. He was set, and said so.
Everyone else said he was nuts.
It wasn't that no one traveled the tunnels. They did it all the time. Most metropolitan centers had taken advantage of them to build cross-town subway systems. Two nearby cities, having done just that, might sometimes work together to bridge the gap between their undergrounds. It wasn't entirely without risk, but it could be done. That's how you got the Twin City Commute and the Belle-Graham Subterranean.
Many of the smaller towns, especially those with high resident turnover, parceled up their tunnels into rentable storage units. When your real estate comes with a free basement--or, as was usually the case, several layers of sub-basements--you monetize it in any way you can.
But what people didn't do underground was travel long distances that took you much beyond city limits. About two miles out from under the comforting weight of civilization, things got messed up and weird. Everyone knew that. Most people had a cousin who had a friend who had a roommate who had ventured on foot just far enough for their compass needles to begin spinning lazy, mindless circles. Then their flashlights died. Their cell phones and GPS devices lost signal and bleeped helplessly a short while before running out of juice. When that happened, the smart explorer turned back. Explorers who weren't that smart were never heard from again. Somewhere in the directionless dark, terrible creatures set traps ready to spring--or so it was said.
To Ralph's mind, that was silly. It was wasteful. The tunnels were there, weren't they? The need for cross-continental travel was real, wasn't it? So why blast through mountains, pave the fields, and dam rivers at great expense to ecology, budget, and human life, when all you had to do was lay tracks through the conveniently existing subterrain?
Ralph proposed to Tie the Nation's Bootlaces and Lay the Foundation For the Future. He applied for grants. He solicited laborers and genius engineers. He wrote cunning press releases.
He got bupkis.
He kept trying, but he found it hard to bear up in the face of sustained ridicule and vehement criticism. It was the poison pen editorial in the North Belle Notice that finally got to him. "This Ralph Mahueller is a lunatic. An ambitious lunatic, but a lunatic all the same. If he were content to bay solo at the moon, he could be humored, or at least safely ignored. But he wants a chorus of lunar howls accompanying his aria. He seeks to drag our hardest workers, our best and brightest minds, and the contents of the city's coffers down the black hole with him. If this project is so important, let him prove the concept. Let him run the risk by himself before involving our vulnerable sons and daughters."
Ralph read the editorial at his favorite booth in his favorite cafe. The other regulars had already read it. They sipped their cappuccinos nervously, watching him read. And when he reached the words, "Let him run the risk himself," they all knew it, because they saw him fling down the paper and declare, "Fine! I will. I'll do it! Then they'll see!"
He penned a brief response to the North Belle Notice, outlining his plan.
This was it:
He would bring no compass, no GPS device, not even a flashlight. The only advanced technology he'd bring would be the spider-silk box, a common implement used to create thread of variable gauge, near-unlimited length, and industrial tensile strength. Other than this, his cargo would include a simple protractor, such as you might find in the schoolbag of any high school student, and an empty notebook, and a supply of pencils. He would navigate by pure geometry, using the spider silk both to measure his progress and, should worst come to worst, to help him find his way back to North Belle. He would bring the pen-knife his grandmother had given him for his eighth birthday, as it would be useful in sharpening the pencils and possibly in defense against wild animals, should there be any, and an oil lamp to light his way. He would bring ample water and compact food rations.
And, of course, he'd wear his brand new running shoes.
His announcement was published that week in the North Belle Notice. "I will prove it can be done," he'd written. "I will travel from North Belle through the unincorporated underground ten miles east to Cayman Dale. After my arrival there and subsequent return, perhaps my fellow citizens will look more favorably upon my proposals."
This news achieved what none of his previous attempts at publicity had: it aroused real curiosity. People were watching him now, not just to point and laugh or denounce him, but to see what he would do next. On the appointed day, a crowd gathered so thickly upon the platform of the last stop of the Belle-Graham Subterranean that Ralph could hardly make his way to the end of the tracks. But eventually someone noticed his huge camping backpack and his superb running shoes. "Clear the way," the cry went up, "Ralph's here."
"Ralph! Ralph! Ralph!" they chanted. "Speech! Speech! Speech!"
And he did make a speech, and everyone who claimed later to have heard it agreed that it was a fine specimen of the genre. But the crowd was so thick and its noise so great that it's doubtful anyone understood the first word he said.
When he was done speaking, he held up his spider-silk box and caused it to emit the beginnings of a twine. He stooped to affix the twine to very last spar of the Belle-Graham Subterranean. He affixed it by spider-glue, having dialed the spider-silk box to its stickiest setting. Then he straightened up, waved to the crowd, turned, and jogged off into the dark. A huge cheer filled the tight confines of the tunnel as he vanished, oil lamp bobbing and sneaker heels flashing dimmer and dimmer until they were gone.
Traveling on foot overland, a healthy man or woman can cross the distance between North Belle and Cayman Dale in a day. Ralph, allowing for the unknown twists and turns of the tunnels, told the Cayman Dale Gazette Press Club to expect him within the week.
After two weeks of staking out Ralph's most probable arrival points, the delegation from the Gazette began to get restless.
After four weeks, they called off the vigil.
Midway through the sixth week, the Cayman Dale Police Office received a report of a most unusual occurrence. A strange creature had been spotted in the tunnels under the west end of town. It was presumed to have come out of the unincorporated subterrain, a thing unheard of for more than a century. Its arrival did wonders to revive the old rumors.
The police officer responding to the report described it as having about the height of an average man, also an average man's shape, but it let its head hang low between its shoulders so that its chin touched its bare chest, and it had the broad brow and steaming nostrils of a bull. From its temples sprang forward-curving horns of an alarming sharpness, and its eyes held that red, ferocious glint that calls for blood. When it saw the police officer, it gave a bellow and charged.
The police officer shot it six times in the chest, killing it instantly. But the force of the bull-man's initial charge carried it some twenty yards on before it dropped, so that even in death it nearly gored the police officer.
Once it was clear that the bull-man would move no more, the police officer knelt to examine it more closely. Its strange nature was indeed no hoax, the bull head and neck rising seamlessly from the human shoulders. It wore clothes as humans do, clothes of brand-name mark and recent design. And on its feet were Ralph Mahueller's own running shoes, almost good as new.
The shoes' manufacturer got a lot of custom out of that discovery. They must be exceptionally good shoes. Even a monster could recognize their unmatched quality, and you could sure go a long way wearing them.
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