From the Underground with Love
The metro rattled as the doors slid open. Ece got off. The train barely ran a quarter of its original rout out to the now abandoned third airport. It didn't run as regularly either. When she asked the elderly stationmaster the only member of staff when the return metro would be, he shrugged.
“It depends.” He’d said in a deep smokers voice.
“Well the trains automated. No driver. You know what with the Internet like it is. If it goes down it takes the train with it. That and hackers shut us down sometimes. Just for the fun of it.”
“Really? They do that?”
“Believe it. Last year they fucked with the points, caused a head on collision.”
“AllahAllah, that's terrifying.”
“Yeh, what’s worse is it got covered up. Government didn't want to look weak.”
“But you’re telling me, not much of a cover-up.”
“What do I care? I’m not the government and I haven’t seen a police man or a pay check round here for months so I reckon I can say what I want.”
“That must be nice.”
The stationmaster laughed. “You got to get what you can these days, besides there aren’t many people round here to talk to. You want some tea?”
Ece declined the cup of tea. She still had a long way to go.
She didn't go up the stationary escalators to the warm morning above, but instead to the end of the platform, where she waited. After the train had shuddered off, she swept back her long black hair so that she could strap a head torch over her head. She turned it on and shone the little disk of light into the tunnel's pool of darkness. It was a lot darker than Ece thought it would be. It loomed like some toothless subterranean worm.
She dropped down onto the tracks carefully avoiding the live lines. She wasn't sure if they were powered or not but she wasn't going to risk touching them.
In she went diving into the black. The fine hairs on the back of her arms stood on end from the fear, from the worms breath air and from unanswered questions buzzing round her head.
She strode into the dark with the platform's lights, the stationmasters’ cup of tea and something resembling safety all behind her.
Why am I walking in this dark with only a little dot of light to keep me company? She asked herself. I could be above in the late spring sun with a touch of sea breeze to soften the heat. The answer as she already knew was that those days were over. She didn't know the way above ground and she hadn’t been able to find a paper map. She’d never even owned one. Hoarding maps was the kind of thing her father had done
“They'll be useful one day.’ He’d told her. She’d laughed and with a few swipes had shown him a map of central Ulaanbaatar.
She still had her smartphone of course but its functionality was way down. The most reliable 8G network was an illegal Philippine satellite company that filled your browser with garish jewellery adverts. The other option was the government networks that crashed almost daily and were certainly being monitored, though by who exactly, was a constantly changing ‘somebody’. Theoretically, the private networks still operated but she hadn’t had a signal for months.
It was simply easier to follow the underground tracks in a straight line than get lost in the labyrinth of abandoned city above them. Safer too. Where Ece lived in the old part of the city life continued, people made an effort to live as they had. The old men still sat in the street drinking tea, the minarets still sung their song, and when she opened her widow the smell of bread and sesame seeds still wafted in on the sea breeze.
Out here was different. Although the fighting had for the most part died down the suburbs were still a war zone. Gangsters camped out in unfinished penthouses, rebels and rogue army battalions plotted in gated compounds that had housed the mega-rich and cybercriminals hid away deep in the bowls of almost opened shopping malls. All dangerous people, not to mention the ‘legitimate’ police and army looking for the guilty. It was safer in the dark she’d thought. She walked along listening to her boots in much the same way she listened to her son at home playing in the room next-door.
She’d heard that during the most intense periods of fighting people had sheltered in the subway. When government drones battled rebel jets over the city and tanks had fired indiscriminately on mobs of protesters people had run down here. The modern city wasn't prepared for bloodshed reborn straight from the pages of the history books.
As she walked she wondered how many people still tried to live out here. She wondered if they used the subway in the same way she was. She didn't know. Information, that had been so common they’d given it out for free was now priceless.
She touched the kitchen knife in her jacket pocket. A tool and if need be a weapon. One particularly horrible night when the power was gone, the 8G too and her phone only emitted a drone she’d sat with this knife in her apartment her back to her son Alper’s bedroom door. She’d stood guard as mobs of right wing protesters confronted squads of putsch soldiers. She’d pointed the pathetic little knife at the door when the army opened fire outside her building. That night the mosques' minarets had cried out quite breaking their normal routine. A prayer for peace or a call to arms she didn't know. It hadn’t mattered they’d fallen silent soon after.
That night had passed and the sun rose much the same as it always did and Ece had been left to face another brave new day.
In the tunnel her steps fell into a rhythm. Despite a relatively sedentary job as an accountant, Ece wasn't in bad shape but none the less the going was hard. Her footfalls on the concrete hurt her feet and stepping over the sleepers meant that she had to adopt a short trot rather than a comfortable stride.
To pass the time she did mathematics, recounted times tables and pi to as many places as she could. She found it calming, It remained unchanged by the times. It distracted her from the ridiculousness of her situation and from the possible dangers that lay ahead.
When she reached the first station she took a short break and a sip of water. She didn't have much and she didn't know how long she’d be away for. Better to be careful. When she felt rested she hopped down onto the tracks and started making her way through the black again. She was sure she looked like some sort of fishing bird taking high steps and looking at the ground.
She kept going in that manner. Walk, rest at the stations and do mental maths. Every time she rested she tried to focus not on the situation but on what she needed to do.
“It speaks to the nature of our times that this tinny speck of hope is a sane option,” said her friend Fatma when she’d dropped Alper off at her flat. “That this ghost of a chance is your best bet.”
A piece of paper that was what this was all about. She needed them for her EU visa application. She was fine; all hers’ were in order. Alper was another matter. His application had been at the EU embassy when it had burned. All evidence that Alper had ever legally existed was all gone. The EU wasn't accepting digital copies of any paperwork now. Hacking and forging EU friendly identities had been big business for a while but had been smashed under wave of increasingly draconian legislation. Alper’s last hope for leaving the country was at the end of her journey. A copy of his birth certificate had been given to her lawyer when she’d been divorcing Ilhan. It might still be in his office.
Ilhan, another thing she didn't think about. He’d been a journalist, and like so many in his profession when the trouble began he’d contracted a bad case of disappearing without a trace.
With a birth certificate they could restart their application for a EU visa. They could have tried to go illegally. But that was almost impossible now that the NATO wall had been finished. Interesting she’d thought in the age of unlimited international communication governments have to resort to increasing old-fashioned methods of keeping people apart, of protecting what belongs to them and theirs.
When her stomach started to growl she had lunch. She clambered up onto a platform and walked up to the entrance of the station a pool of light came down from the street entrance. She sat there and ate a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. Nobody had bothered to lock the station up. They could have at least rolled down the shutters. On her walk back down to the tracks out of curiosity she stopped at the security office, a boring little room with a big window so station staff could sit at their desk and watch people walking down to the trains.
“Yep it’s open.” she said to herself as it swung open. The keys were on a little peg next to the door. Abandoned so quickly like so many other structures of the state.
Back on the track she continued her walk and her maths. When she’d first entered the tunnels she’d been afraid, that had mutated into boredom, which had in turn changed into aches by the time she reached her stop. Legs complaining she walked up the stairs back to the real world. She couldn't help feeling triumphant.
She remembered when she’d last been there on a hot summer day. She marched up these unlined concrete corridors that looked like they were made from grey pumice and into the hot sun above. It had been unpleasant, the noise of the streaming traffic and the dust kicked up by the multiple building sights making tower blocks for thousands of people.
The lawyer Mustafa Bey’s office block was so new that she’d passed it by thinking it was still under construction. She only found it when she called him and he spotted her from his office far above. She remembered how clearly she’d seen him waving at her from the nineteenth floor a little droplet of human in a sea of glass.
Out of the station she looked towards where the office block had been half expecting it to be gone. But it was there the sea of glass still shone in the sunlight. It still loomed a near religious monolith to progress. It wasn't alone out there so far from the old city she could see twenty maybe thirty skyscrapers in various stages of construction. Some were ready for business that never came. Others were a mess of hollow concrete, metal work and rusting cranes. It reminded her of the elephant graveyard from the lion king. When the country had fallen into the chaos the foreign investment had evaporated and left the place a bone-yard of dead capitalist gods. Hyena land.
She couldn't forget that there were people out here. None of them the sorts you wanted to meet. People claiming to be the police so they could rob and rape with impunity and the real police who weren’t much better.
She took a deep breath. It was nice to be out of the tunnel's stale air. The air was cleaner than she’d remembered. With the construction halted and the cars gone that's not really surprising she thought.
Ece ducked into the first shadow she could find. Anybody could be watching from those towers, she thought, police cameras, drones or simple men with binoculars none of which she wanted anything to do with. To keep out of sight between the metro and the office block she slipped between a pair of giant cement mixers and into the shadow of a high corrugated iron fence. She followed the fence round then intended to cut across a small ornamental park that had been the entrance to the office block.
She paused smothering a gasp with her hands. Somebody was there. A man. In black combat fatigues like the riot police had worn. He lounged in a cheep plastic chair. He might have been asleep, behind his tinted aviator glasses Ece couldn't tell. He was armed a stubby submachine gun between his legs. Not the kind a solder would use, designed for use in close quarters against large groups of people. It was the kind of weapon bought on mass by a government that didn't trust their populace and was happy to rectify that with force. Her little kitchen knife seemed very inadequate.
Without attention and watering the ground between the trees had become overgrown with tough scrubs, which provided some cover. Ece got down onto her hands and knees and started to crawl keeping her head down. As she crawled the plants cut her legs and hands. She didn't dare put her head up to see if the man had moved. She was sure that at any second she was going to hear the creak of the chair or a shouted warning, feel a boot on the back of her neck or worse a bullet's impact. Her every movement seemed so loud a crackling of dried leaves and branches that sounded like the breaking of a giants bones.
It didn't come, the voice raised in anger, the boot on the neck or the hail of bullets. Ece reached the other side of the park and without a look back she slipped into the shadows at the base of the Ozman building all 232 floors high.
She didn't think about how close she had come to areas, death or worse, she didn't think about how fragile her hope was. She liked maths but didn't want to calculate the odds on this one.
Getting into the lobby was easy; somebody had smashed in one of the big pains of glass. The little shards had spread across the marble floor it looked like a roman mosaic gone mad. She crossed the lobby trying to avoid getting the glass stuck in her boots then turned left. She opened the door to the fire escape staircase and began to climb. The nineteenth floor had seemed like an easy task but her legs after a day of walking complained the whole way. She tried to be as quiet as possible. If there was a person outside it stood to reason that there might be people in here too. Somebody had smashed that window outside.
It was so quiet in the Ozman building at least the underground had had the wind to keep her company.
Up up up she went all the way to the nineteenth floor, flat 112, her destination. Inside was a filings cabinet, inside that her chance to have a life again. She put her hand on the handle.
Oh Allah it’s going to be locked. She thought. Why wouldn't it be? I didn’t think of that. Why not?
The despair that she’d kept in check for so long overwhelmed her. Still standing she cried, she hadn’t done that for months. Fear, hope and sadness they’d all melted together into one numbing emotion. On the 19th floor outside flat 112 that cracked and her ragged sobs broke on the concrete walls of the merciless tower block. Why not?
For all their intensity the tears didn't last long as she sobbed her last sob she pushed down on the door handle. The whole lock fell out of the door.
She peered through the whole. Somebody’s already broken in. She thought. She gave the door an experimental push and it swung noiselessly open. Her laughter was almost as intense as her tears.
She went in. It was a smart office with acanthous leaves printed onto burgundy wallpaper, fake Grecian column pretended to hold up the ceiling and there were some large framed pictures of Islamic calligraphy on the walls. She noticed all the computers were gone. Probably what the thief was here for. She thought.
She went into Mustafa Beys’ office in the corner. It was an office built to impress. It had green leather sofas the kind you’d imagine in a British gentleman’s club. The wallpaper was deep red like outside but the calligraphy was gone. Mustafa Bey a huge James bond fan had original signed posters hung from the wall mostly from the Connery era. Probably more valuable than the computers she thought.
Before opening up the filing cabinets she took a look out of the window. Looking through and past the half built tower blocks she could see the old city that she’d left behind her and beyond that the sea glinting in the evening sun.
She did not look out the window for too long. There was work to be done. She opened up a filing cabinet at random and instead of the paperwork she was expecting she found a black box with the number 007 on it. Curious, she opened it. Inside was a small black gun and a certificate announcing that this was a Walther PPK used by Rodger Moore in Diamonds are Forever.
She remembered the man outside, the very possibility that she would have to defend herself, or at least threaten somebody. She picked it up and pointed it experimentally into a mirror. Satisfied it looked authentic enough tucked it into the back of her jeans.
Feeling oddly pleased with her find she kept looking through the filling cabinets she searched for her file. Mustafa Bey had been an organised man and she found her file sooner than she expected. Sitting behind Mustafa Beys desk to give the moment a bit of gravitas she opened the file. She turned over every page in the file one by one inspecting each.
“Ohh yes yes yes.” She said. There it was, Alper's birth certificate. She had found it. She could prove her son existed and that he was hers and she was his. She slumped down into the plush leather chair exhausted.
She slept that night in Mustafa Beys office on his grand sofa. It probably wasn't safe but it felt it.
The next day the sun woke Ece as it rose. It made the sea shine gold through the morning haze; it made her think of orthodox churches viewed through incense.
She ate a peanut butter sandwich and watched the city. Not so long ago the roads mapped out beneath her would have swarmed with cars like beetles. She missed them.
She put her file into her rucksack after triple checking that the birth certificate was in there, then checking again for good measure.
As she left she thanked Mustafa Bey, he’d helped her even though he’d never know it. That made her sad. In hard times thanks is often all you can give and that makes it even more precious.
Down the stairs she went, thinking about her aches and pains but also happy things that couldn't have gone better really.
She left the office block and made her way towards the station through the park and along the fence. The white chair was still there but the man occupying it had gone. She was walking between the cement mixers when she saw a man. Not the same one as the day before. He was wearing green camouflage and had a gun slung from a belt like a cowboy. His arms hanging at his side gave him a teenaged gangly look. He probably isn’t that far out of his teens Ece thought.
His mouth dropped open into a gawp. “Hey, this is a restricted zone.” He said then as an afterthought added, “you’re under arrest.”
Ece was quicker than him. She pulled out Rodger Moor’s gun and pointed at him.
“Hands up, turn and face the truck” she hissed. He complied with a dumb look on his face. Changeling John Wane, Laura Croft, Dirty Harry and Lt. Ellen Ripley she spoke “one move I don't like and your dead, got it?” the man nodded. “Ok, with your left hand take of your belt. You hand goes near your gun and your dead got it?” the man began to move. “Not yet! Once your belts off throw it up into the drum of that cement mixer. Got it?”
“Ok, do it now.”
“Don’t miss your throw. Allah help you if you miss.” She waved the gun even though he couldn't see her.
The man did as he was told, the belt and attached gun bounced round the inside of the trucks mixing drum, it was horribly loud. He probably has friends around. Ece thought.
“Good, now lie down with your hands on your head.”
The man did it lying face down on the dusty tarmac. “We’re going to find you.” He said. “Take you into custody.” He said with an evil grin. Ece didn't hear that, she’d already run.
She ran as fast as she could every boot impact sent up a plume of dust. She flew down into the dark of the subway. Into safety? A small part of her brain asked.
She ran as far as she could as fast as she could, stepping over the sleepers as she went. She ran until her breath hacked out of her chest and stich was near ripping her apart.
She took in air the unstable sound of her breath the only sound.
No, no it isn’t the only sound. She realised. Behind her carried by the concrete was the sound of voices. She was being followed. Ece hobbled forward on hurting bones. I can outpace them. I have a head start. She thought she couldn't get caught. People who were arrested tended to disappear.
But it is along way. She reasoned I just have to stay ahead of them until they get bored and give up.
Ece tried, she channelled her nervous energy and marched. But she was tired, they were fresh and she could hear their mocking calls getting closer and closer in the dark. For almost two hours the chase continued for almost two hours the sound of boots became more and more audible.
Another hour whistled by. Ece tried to run when she had the strength but it was failing fast the distance she could run was decreasing every time. She reached the station that she had eaten lunch at the previous day. Was it only yesterday? She thought. I could go up. Let them pass me. She dismissed the idea, she’d only have had to make her way across the surface and if she went back down she’d risk running into them on their return journey. I have to lose them. As she thought that thought a plan formed in her head. She sat down on the side of the platform gathering her strength and waiting. She pointed her torch back towards the advancing men and waited until one of them shouted. “I saw a light.” The sound of boots turned to a charge. Ece stood up and waited as long as she dared. When she saw the first one she ran.
“I saw her, going up the stairs.” A voice behind her shouted.
Ece sprinted as hard as she could as much as her muscles protested and her bones groaned. She ran up the stairs, careened into the security booth, grabbed the keys of the peg, locked the door and with seconds the spare dived into the shadows below the window. She fumbled her torch off. She checked the door key was in her hand. It would have given her away if it had been in the lock. She slowed her breathing and would have done the same to her heart if she could have. Damn has it always been this loud?
“She go up?” a gruff voice asked.
“Must have.” Another replied.
“Harkan, check that room.” Ece watched as a torch beam scanned the room. Every second dripped past at a painful pace.
“She could be under the desk or something.” A voice that Ece recognised as the man she’d disarmed.
“Shut up Ali. It’s your damn fault we're down here. She could have been anybody. Government or fuck knows. Shut up and check the door.”
Ece heard boots approach the door and give the handle a wobble. She hoped it would hold.
“Locked.” The man called Ali said.
“ Must have gone up then. Shit, we’ve wasted time.” He gruff voice said. “Lets go.”
Ece waited trying to keep the smile off her face. She waited as long as she dared, until the boots were just out of earshot before she unlocked the door then ran down into the subway. Before she did so she relocked the security booth. It would be too obvious if the door was unlocked when they came back into the tunnel.
Ece ran back down to the tracks. Once there, she took a second for herself to enjoy the cool air and the complete silence. She ran. She knew she should have walked it would have been quieter, with less chance of an ankle breaking trip in the dark.
Down, down and down she went. Onto the tracks and into the tunnel into the dark every wolf trots step taking her closer to safety. She was almost there when he caught up to her. She didn't hear him until he shouted ‘halt’.
She span and pulled out the replica gun. The man Ali was alone his comrades must have gone back without him she thought, they must have got bored and sent him of to scrape back a little bit of honour.
“Caught you.” She said with a vicious grin on his face. “You're under arrest.”
“Trespassing, threatening a militia officer, resisting arrest.”
“If you’re going to do that don't you need some way to do it? Where is your gun? Still in the cement mixer?
“I don't need it. You’re not going to shoot me.” He took a pair of steel handcuffs from his pocket and stepped forward.
“You don't know what I’m capable of.”
“Yes I do.” Ece felt that those words were not about her. They were terrifying. His boyish face didn't seem anything like as young. “You might try to shoot me, that’s for sure but your guns not cocked, the safeties on and your holding it wrong. In fact if you were to shoot me now you’d be more likely to break your wrist than hit me.” He took another step forward, Ece realised how big he was.
Ece froze, he stepped again, Ece remained stuck, the walthers’ barrel wasn't even pointing at Ali anymore, and he stepped again. Like a cable snapping Eces’ paralysis broke, she pulled back her arm and as hard as she could she hurled the gun at him. It sailed through the air like a boomerang and hit Ali in the temple. He fell, knocked down by a priceless piece of film memorabilia.
He fell down onto the tracks and touched the live line, Allah knows how many volts crisped and cremated him.
Ece heaved up peanut butter vomit on her boots from the sight and the smell of cooking man flesh.
She didn't remember the rest of the walk back but it wasn't very far. She remembers climbing up on the platform back in the light and talking to the old guard she found still there.
“I was worried about you.” He said. “I would have called the police but you know.”
“Don't worry I ran into them.” Ece said.
“Cowardly mongrels where have they been hiding. That's what I want to know.” He’d said bristling his moustache. “Do you want that cup of tea now?”
“No thanks. I need to be getting home to my boy.”
“Right, right. Well best get on the train then it will be leaving soon. At least you’ll get a seat.”
She thanked him and got on the train.
Before it pulled away the guard asked her a last question. “By the way did you get what you needed out there?”
Ece thought about it. She had the birth certificate, a tiny piece in a vast beaurocratic jigsaw.
“I don't know.” She said. But she now knew she could do anything to get the two of them out.
By Luke Frostick