Chapter 10

The Tunnel

Kana lifted up the electric lantern and looked at its underside. She flipped the switch a couple times and checked that the light switched on and off. When she was satisfied that the lantern was working, she resumed walking down the freight tunnel with Una trailing closely behind her. 

Kana said, “It feels weird to be back in the tunnels after the fire.”

“Yes,” said Una.

“I keep thinking that I feel wind in the tunnel, and it scares me,” said Kana.

Una reached out and held Kana’s hand. They walked together down a frequently used tunnel and turned at an intersection to a side tunnel that was in a state of disrepair. The spacing of the electric lights became sparse and Kana switched on the electric lantern. When they reached a gap in the cable car tracks, Kana began counting steps. 

She whispered to herself as she walked, occasionally saying one of the numbers louder than the others. “Forty-six…” she said out loud.

“Six…” echoed Una.

Kana stopped and turned to Una. “Stop it, Una,” she said. “You will make me lose count.”

They continued walking as Kana whispered “Forty-seven… forty-eight…” When Kana reached eighty-two they stopped and looked around. Behind a pillar, Kana found a rusted metal door that was stuck half opened. They stepped through the door and walked down a narrow hallway with only the light of the lantern to guide them. At the end of the hallway was an open doorway and they stepped through into an abandoned freight tunnel. The electric lantern illuminated ancient crumbling masonry and a thick layer of dust.

Kana turned left and the pair walked down the tunnel accompanied by the sound of their own shuffling footsteps. The light from the electric lantern flickered. Kana inhaled sharply. She looked at the bottom of the lantern and at the dim electric bulb inside. They resumed walking and the lantern flickered again. Then the light dimmed down to nothing. Kana and Una stood motionless in complete darkness.

After a long silence, Kana said, “Una, I think the battery died.” Una said nothing. The only sound was Kana’s tense breathing. She said, “Una… what do we do?”

“What?” echoed Una.

“Una… do you know the way?” asked Kana.

“Yes!” said Una.

“Really?” asked Kana. “You know the way?”

“Yes!” said Una again.

Una reached around until she found Kana’s hand. Kana squeezed Una’s hand with hers and Una pulled her forward. They walked down the tunnel with Una occasionally swerving and side-stepping to avoid hidden holes and fallen masonry that were concealed by the darkness.

“Steps!” said Una, and the two of them carefully made their way down a short flight of stairs, crossed over the remains of a cable car track, and then walked up another set of steps on the other side. Una began tugging more insistently on Kana’s hand and the pair of them walked faster. 

“Close!” said Una. She pulled faster. “Very close!” said Una. Ahead of them were faint noises and a hint of light. As the light became brighter and clearer, Una began pulling so quickly that they were almost running. They reached the light, illumination spilling through an open doorway, and together they walked through the door into a warmly lit room.

Inside the room, dozens of nubots were working at tables. A few meeks were scurrying across the floor and a nubot was chasing after them, trying to gather them up. A man sat at a drafting table, focused on his work. 

Una pulled away from Kana and ran toward the man. “Taisuke!” she called.

Taisuke looked up just as Una collided with him. Una lifted up her arms. Taisuke picked her up and set her on his lap. Una rested her head against his shoulder.

“Hello, Una,” said Taisuke. Una made humming noises. “It is nice to see you,” he said. Kana walked closer. Taisuke turned to look at her. “Hello, Kana,” he said. “It is nice to see you, too.”

Kana stood next to the drafting table. Laid across the table was a large sheet of paper that was covered with elaborate and precise pencil marks. Standing on the far end of the drafting table was a meek that was scratching its head.

“What’s this?” asked Kana, pointing to the drawing on the table.

“I am playing with new designs for the meeks,” said Taisuke.

“Oh,” said Kana, without looking up from the drawing. She ran her fingers slowly over the fine pencil lines. “What does this part do?” she asked, pointing to a part of the drawing.

Taisuke leaned forward and looked where she was pointing. He said, “It… makes the balance…” He paused, trying to find words. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.” Kana stared at him blankly. He looked back at the drawing and tilted his head slowly from side to side. Taisuke gestured with his pencil toward the meek that was standing on the table. He said, “Meeks are all one thing. If I try to think of them as parts then it would be like thinking that they are less than one thing.” He poked the meek with his pencil. “Look at Riki,” he said. “Riki has legs and feet. You could say that they are for running, but they are also for scratching his head.” 

Riki stopped scratching his head and grabbed onto the end of Taisuke’s pencil. Taisuke lifted up his pencil but Riki did not let go and he was lifted off of the drafting table. 

“No, Riki!” said Taisuke. “Please let go!” Riki did not let go. “Please be reasonable, Riki,” said Taisuke. Riki climbed higher on the pencil and began chewing. Taisuke grasped the meek by its body and pulled it off the pencil. He set Riki down on the drafting table. “You can eat this drawing,” said Taisuke. Riki sat, resting on his hind legs, and looked around.

Taisuke said, “You can see that Riki is missing an ear.” Taisuke patted the meek’s head. “He is also very scratched,” said Taisuke. “But when I try to repair him, he is very resistant.” Riki ran to the edge of the drafting table, jumped off the side, and then scurried across the floor.

A nubot entered through the doorway and ran across the room. 

Without turning around, Taisuke called out, “Kiko, just a moment please!”

The nubot froze and turned to look at him.

Taisuke said, “Kiko, did you forget to change your hands?”

Kiko looked down at her hands, then turned and ran to a row of shelves situated against the wall. She unscrewed her left hand and placed it on the shelf. Then she took one of the hands off the shelf and attached it to her left wrist. She performed the same process for her right hand. Then she held up both hands in front of her and wiggled them. Each finger was equipped with delicate and elaborate instruments and Kiko seemed briefly fascinated to just play with the subtle and intricate motions of her hands. Then she turned and ran across the room.

“Kiko!” called Taisuke.

Kiko froze and slowly turned toward Taisuke again.

“Thank you, Kiko!” said Taisuke.

Kiko ran to a stool at one of the tables. She climbed up onto the stool and began working. The nubots who were sitting next to her passed tiny mechanical parts to her and then resumed their work.

Kana wandered to the back of the room. There were several large pens with smooth walls that were almost waist high. Inside each pen were a few nubots and hundreds of meeks. 

In the first pen, nubots sat on the ground and fed small handfuls of sawdust to meeks. On the ground, meeks rolled on their backs and sometimes managed to stand up and walk a few steps.

In the second pen, meeks ran around in packs. Nubots chased the meeks. Sometimes a nubot would catch a meek, pick it up, pat its head, and then set it back down.

In the third pen, there were ladders, ramps, boxes, ropes, and dozens of other places to climb and hide. Meeks scampered through the maze. When a meek would get trapped in a tight spot, a nubot would come to lift up the meek and set it back on the ground.

Taisuke stood next to Kana and watched the meeks playing in their pens. He said, “When the meeks are young, they don’t know anything. We put them in the first pen so that the nubots can keep them fed and care for them. As they learn how to take care of themselves, they move on to the more advanced pens. Eventually they are ready to go out into the world.”

Kana leaned over the wall of the first pen and looked at the meeks rolling on the ground. “Why do you make the meeks?” she asked.

Taisuke frowned thoughtfully. “To remind people,” he said, “that things are not always confined by our beliefs. I want to remind people that, even if we choose to live by certain rules, those rules are a choice and there are other ways to live also, perhaps ways that we might like even better if we tried them.” He knelt down by the pen and petted a meek. He said, “The meeks don’t know about our rules and they don’t try to live by them. For that reason, I think that they help to remind people that there are always other ways for things to be.”

“Oh,” said Kana. “I thought you just liked making meeks.”

Taisuke scratched the meek behind its ears, and then he looked at Kana. He said, “Actually… I like that answer better.” He frowned thoughtfully again and rubbed the meek’s belly. “Is it too late to change my answer?” he asked.

Kana looked down at the pen of meeks. She said, “A few days ago I planned to come here to ask you for your help.” She looked at Una, who was standing next to a group of nubots. She said, “You changed Una for me to make it so she would not forget. I was going to ask you if there was some way that you could change her back.”

Taisuke said nothing. He nodded, waiting for Kana to continue.

Kana said, “I was going to ask you whether you would make it so that Una could forget again.” Kana watched Una for a while, then she continued. “But then I changed my mind. Now I just want to thank you for helping Una to remember.”

Riki scurried around the meek pen and stopped next to Kana’s foot. Kana bent down and picked him up. Riki curled up in Kana’s palm and, within just a few breaths, his eyes closed. As he fell asleep he began to snore tiny puffs of steam.