Part Two: Holding Up The Sky
The mighty Umbressi. The largest of the Lowcity’s residents, they are an intimidating sight to those unfamiliar with their mostly peaceful ways. Tripedal, with two powerful front legs that end in surprisingly gentle cloven hands and a huge trunklike rear leg that can provide both ambulation and a powerful swinging kick- or, should the need arise, an apparently quite comfortable seat for a reclining Umbressi- they are quite unlike any other of the Lowcity’s people. Of course, none of the Lowcity’s residents is much like any other. Many in the ancient Lowcity think of the Umbressi as proud, arrogant even. To an Umbressi, this notion is absurd. They are a humble people! If they happen to think of themselves as better than the other residents of that subterranean place, well, they probably had good reason to. After all, they were instrumental in the creation of this place, in the continued survival of all who call it home. It seems only fair that they would lord that over their fellows, if only a little bit. In truth, though, the Umbressi do not hold their role in the creation of the Lowcity over the heads of its other residents. In Umbressi society, once something is made it simply is, and no credit should be given or particular pride should be held over its creation. So, to the Umbressi, the Lowcity simply is. They played a large part in building it, one of the few facts about its creation that is still widely known to this day. But now it is built, and it exists, and to the Umbressi that’s about where their concern for its creation ends. It was already built. Move on. There are other things to build.
That is not to say, of course, that the Umbressi do not benefit in some noteworthy ways from their part in the Lowcity’s creation. On the contrary: their lives are, in theory, the easiest and most secure of all the city’s residents- although one should not say as much to a Lesh. But they do not rest on their relative laurels. There is always more work to be done, work to be found! If you’re not doing work, you’re not contributing, even if whatever you build is not itself a valuable contribution. The work is what matters, not the outcome. Work is at the core of the Umbressi way of life, the simple joy of creation- whether alone or as part of a team- the thing that brings them together, that binds their society. Despite some stereotypes, this does not just take the form of industry and engineering: there are Umbressi artists, and teachers, and any other number of roles that might be found in other societies. Umbressi are also some of the most socially mobile people in the Lowcity, their love for the new and different taking them as far beyond the Umbressi tunnels as their bulk will allow. Umbressi art, in particular, is some of the most diverse and fascinating in all the Lowcity, with every prominent piece guaranteed to be utterly unique; they may not see quite so much appreciation outside of Umbressi circles, but within them originality and effort will always be rewarded, a principle which holds in almost every aspect of their world. In theory, Umbressi society should be a flat hierarchy, with everyone equally honoured for their labour. In practice, as always, things are more complicated.
First, one must consider maintenance. It is true that the creation of new things is paramount to the Umbressi, but that does not mean that everything must be replaced entirely. The Lowcity itself is, of course, the prime example of this. It isn’t as though the Umbressi can simply get bored of it and make another, after all: this is the world, now. So, somebody must make sure it remains stable, habitable. In some cases tweak it or expand it in unremarkable ways. The honour of doing so falls to a certain… caste of Umbressi. Now, the Umbressi themselves will never acknowledge that a caste system exists- they have no time for such a thing, and enabling one would obviously harm the much vaunted Umbressi traits of practicality and straightforward comradery. Umbressi society is based around the idea of constant evolution, improvement, growth! A rigid hierarchy obviously has no place in such a society. Umbressi society is based on a lie, then. For this social stratification does exist, and has existed for longer than any can recall. In fact, it has existed since the very beginning of the Lowcity’s existence.
None remember more of the Lowcity’s history and origins than the Umbressi, and none remember it better than the members of the Maintenance Class- it has no formal name, as it does not formally exist. The Lowcity did not begin as a city. It was a mine. Initially, not even a particularly noteworthy one: just a place where some Umbressi used their powerful muscles, and then their powerful machines, to pull ore from the ground for use in other projects. Then the mine grew deeper. And some enterprising Umbressi had the notion that it would be more efficient to live closer to the ore, rather than making daily treks down the deep shafts before they could begin their work. So, subterranean homes were dug into the tunnels of the mine, where workers could rest between shifts, take their meals, and so on and so forth. To many this life lived entirely underground would probably sound hellish but… Well. Then, some of these miners decided that, actually, they quite liked this arrangement- or, at the very least, they found that living underground was more than worthy as a sacrifice for the increased efficiency it provided- and began to live in the mine on a permanent basis. Families were moved into the tunnels, then other infrastructures, then other forms of industry moved below the surface to support this new subterranean community, and then one thing led to another and eventually it was not a mine, but a town. In those days it was far from its current scale, but still by far the largest subterranean community on the planet- give or take some Mycelial networks. And then, one day, the Umbressi living in what came to be the Lowcity received a diplomatic visit from the Lesh Empire, with a proposition. The surface world was soon to be uninhabitable. But these Umbressi appeared to have, quite by accident, produced a solution.
As the construction and expansion of the Lowcity progressed, people flocked from far and wide to aid in its creation- and to secure their spots, of course. These newcomers included Umbressi from other towns or cities who believed, for one reason or another, that the Lowcity represented their best chance at survival. There were many projects in those days dedicated to averting or surviving the End, many of them spearheaded by other enterprising Umbressi who probably relished the challenge they now faced. As far as anyone in the Lowcity knows, none of them managed it. Some Umbressi saw this coming, and so they came to the fledgling Lowcity where they united with their fellows. The rest is history. But it was not a perfect union, by any means. That concept of originality, of innovation, that is so core to the Umbressi way of life, cannot be so easily overcome. The newcomers, welcome for the expertise and manpower they could provide, were… not exactly begrudged for their joinership, but they weren’t exactly forgiven for not having been a part of this project from the beginning. It is a difficult concept to communicate or understand if one is not a member of Umbressi society. It might even sound hypocritical, considering that the notion of turning the mine city into the Lowcity didn’t even originally come from the mine’s residents. But there is no point in debating ancient hypocrisies or contradictions. With enough time they simply become the Way of Things, after all, and surely when the Lowcity was complete this conflict would melt away: it is the Umbressi way to consider a completed project as resolved, and move on to the next one. But the Lowcity is not complete. Not really. It never will be: it’s more of an ecosystem than an infrastructure project, one that must constantly be maintained and changed to fit the shifting needs of its residents.
Maintenance. A word not wholly unfamiliar to the Umbressi, but one they dislike. Why maintain something when you can make a new and better version? In the case of the Lowcity that is not, of course, an option. This subterranean world is, as far as its residents are concerned, the entire world. They cannot simply start over, but the idea of perpetually keeping a place running, dedicating one’s life to its continuance instead of making something new, is anathema to what it is to be Umbressi! It is a conflict that ought to have no easy solution, but one was found: the joiners. Those Umbressi who had come to the mine only after it had already begun its transformation into the Lowcity. They, and their children, and their children’s children, would be responsible for maintaining the Lowcity, as recompense for being allowed to become part of it. It is at once an honour, and a curse. It is the most important of roles in all the Lowcity, and a form of indentured servitude from which there can be no release. Another contradiction, among many at the heart of what now constitutes Umbressi Civilisation in the Lowcity. All work is work, but not all work is Work.
To this day, it remains the case that there are two kinds of Umbressi: those who create, and those who maintain. The Maintainers live well, especially compared to some other less fortunates who live deeper within the Lowcity. But it is difficult, on a deeper level than mere material conditions, to be a Maintainer. There is nothing wrong with the sort of labour they do; in fact, the unflashy and unromantic work of maintaining a society is among the most important there is. But, if anything, that just makes it harder for them. Their work is simultaneously of the utmost importance, and a punishment for something that wasn’t even a crime, that wasn’t even committed by them. Every day, they must live with that internal conflict, the hypocrisy, the lie at the heart of the Umbressi way of life. There is no way out. They cannot simply stop doing their duty, go on strike for better conditions, because any break in procedure- no matter how small- could have disastrous consequences. They must be ever vigilant, for the smallest oversight could lead to terrible consequences somewhere down the line, and when the entire world is reduced to one city terrible consequences are terrible. So they work. And they don’t complain. Their work is invisible, because the only way it would be noticed would be if they failed.
Today is different, however. Because today, something will happen that many fear, but which is thankfully rare. Something that has become more legend than fact among the deeper citizens of the Lowcity, but for which the Umbressi are alway vigilant. Today, a quake will strike the Lowcity. The region in which the Lowcity is located sees little seismic activity- this is part of why it was chosen, both by the Umbressi for the original mine and by the Lesh for the Lowcity. It has been several decades since the last tectonic event struck the Lowcity, but the Umbressi responsible for maintaining the city are constantly vigilant. They monitor seismic activity ceaselessly, using some of the most advanced technology in all of the Lowcity to detect even the tiniest of tremors. In centuries past, quakes were something that could only be prepared for in the abstract sense, as predicting them was an impossibility. But now, the ingenuity of the Umbressi has led to advances, new technology that allows for the prediction of seismic events. For a long time it was only hypothetically functional, as there were no quakes to predict. But, three days ago, the machine came to life, spitting out data on an imminent event. Today, it will strike. A particularly potent quake is about to strike the Lowcity. Were it not for the vigilant efforts of the Maintainers, a great deal of the city would likely be obliterated. But they have prepared. They have maintained. They are ready.
One of the people responsible for this readiness is named Holoran. An Umbressi who has dedicated all the many decades of his life to the preservation of the Lowcity, a thankless and yet vital task, whose moment of glory is soon to arrive. For two days and two nights Holoran and his fellow Maintainers have worked tirelessly, checking everything that must be checked, reinforcing that which must be reinforced. They travel high and low all throughout the Lowcity, spreading the word along the way, sending their Skitterling assistants to locations they themselves cannot reach. To the Gasbags who live in the Lowcity, they recommend evacuation: as the sole people capable of leaving, they should take the opportunity as a precaution. Teams of Skitterlings and Golnur Drones are assembled, tasked with rescue operations should cave-ins occur. All others are instructed to restrict their movements to designated areas until the danger has passed.
Today is the day that the danger shall come and pass. Now Holoran walks the halls and tunnels along with the rest of his kin, making final checks and waiting for the moment for which they had long prepared. Holoran is old, even for an Umbressi: he remembers the last quake. He knows how devastating they can be. He knows how important his role is. So strange, that something could be feared for decades, anticipated for days, then over in a matter of seconds- give or take the repairs that might follow. It was almost enough to make one philosophical, but even if Holoran was prone to such thought it would be far from his mind today. His heavy three-legged gait carries him down a tunnel, his wide eyes scanning the roof for cracks that surely would have been sighted during the previous checks had they existed. He checks anyway. This is his duty, and he will not shirk it. His flat ears prick slightly as a low sound echoes along the tunnel walls: he was nearing the cathedral of the Fallen, where nearly every last one of the birdfolk now crooned their mournful dirge in anticipation of what was to come. He doesn’t know if they were praying for salvation, or destruction. Perhaps they are the same thing, to a Fallen. Holoran does not disturb their vigil, either way: he and his fellows inspected the Cathedral thoroughly yesterday, with the understanding that they would not be able to today. He continues on, poking his mighty head through openings to make sure that side passages were unoccupied: if disaster should strike, it will be easier if there are fewer places for rescuers to search. It pleases Holoran greatly that he finds very few stragglers in places they shouldn’t be; apparently the threat of a quake is severe enough in the minds of the Lowcity’s denizens that they are actually following instructions for a change. If only they took the orderly running of the city so seriously under normal circumstances. Just as that thought crosses his mind, Holoran spies another Umbressi up ahead, one he recognises to be of higher standing than himself. He begins to bunch up his body to one side, as outside the central areas of Umbressi tunnels there are few tunnels where two of their size might comfortably pass. But, a surprise! The other Umbressi, also recognising Holoran and by extension his purpose, bunches up instead, politely nodding to Holoran that he might pass. Now this… this Holoran could get used to.
The hour approaches. Hour being about as specific as they could be; it is only through concerted effort over many years that it has even become possible to predict quakes, granular specificity is still some time away. Holoran makes his way to a marketplace, a two-chamber affair with a narrow passage between, each room lined with stalls and booths selling a variety of goods. It was quiet for the time of day but still busy under the circumstances; no matter how measured and cautionary the warnings had been, there is always going to be some degree of panic-buying and price gouging at a time of crisis. Dismaying, but inevitable. All Holoran can do is hope that the aftermath of the quake will be orderly enough for consequences to be meted out. He is just about to turn and leave when something makes him pause. Some nagging, itching feeling that his cloven fingers couldn’t quite scratch, a sense that something wasn’t quite right. He scans the marketplace again, the walls, the high ceiling that tapered down to the passage between sections, the crowd mostly consisting of Grib, Skitterlings, and Lesh, the- Holoran’s mighty brown collapses into a frown. He has studied the plans for this area a great deal over the last few days; yes, despite the wilful ignorance of many who prefer to dig their own tunnels, and to the frustration of many Umbressi who wish to wreak their every whim upon its structure, there is actually a great deal of planning that goes into the more central areas of the Lowcity. Any flaw in the construction of a significant area could lead to cascading catastrophes should any part of it collapse, which is why such care must be taken in the planning and construction of new areas, careful calculations must be made and then those calculations must be recorded. And now, staring out at this marketplace, Holoran’s mind conjures up a memory of the designs for this place. And they do not match. The gentle sloping of the ceiling that leads into the other cavern- that should be a clean right angle with signs of concealed support infrastructure, but instead… nothing. Holoran rushes forward into the passage, heedless of the cries of irritation his immense form elicits from patrons. His head almost brushes against the ceiling of the tunnel as he peers into the other section of the marketplace: smaller than the previous, but just as filled with stalls and a few dozen patrons, some of whom stare at Holoran with alarm, their eyes glinting in the light of the Phosphor lamps. But Holoran pays no attention to them: he has eyes only for the walls, the ceiling, of this second chamber. He has, himself, visited this market on occasion, although one of his colleagues had been the one to make the pre-quake checks. And now, to his mounting horror, Holoran sees what he and his colleague missed. The slightly irregular slope of the ceiling, the chisel-marks that pock the walls. He looks, desperately, for the telltale signs of hidden reinforcements and struts that should be built into the walls and ceiling- installed for safety, then hidden for the residents’ peace of mind- and sees none. Which can only mean one thing: this is a natural cave, not a constructed one. He can almost see it, the process of some unscrupulous fool discovering a weak spot in the wall and puncturing it, discovering a natural cavern on the other side. The expansion of the tunnel, the smoothing of walls on the other side, the effort gone into making it match the visual standards of the rest of the area. They had probably even thought they were doing their due diligence with this aesthetic work, but they hadn’t known, or perhaps had known and had underestimated, the importance of good structural engineering. Holoran’s hackles raise with indignation- then with fear. This isn’t just a disrespect to the work toward which he and his fellows dedicate their lives. This is dangerous. This is-
The ground beneath Holoran’s feet begins to shake- no, not the ground. The walls, the ceiling, everything is part of the same structure and it is all vibrating, the packed soil returning to dirt as it separates from the violence of the quake. Cries of alarm ring out all around Holoran, mingling with the rumbling of the compacted dirt that surrounds them, and in the chamber in front of him people begin diving under tables and stalls. It should warm Holoran’s heart to see people following the safety instructions he had helped design, but this is not the situation for which they had been intended! A table might shield one’s body from some falling dirt or rocks, but this… this is a little more dire than that. His mind races, complex calculations spooling through his brain in less than a second as he processes the situation. He looks up at the “ceiling” above him, dust already beginning to filter through growing cracks. He looks back into the cavern, and understands what he must do. Resting his weight onto his back foot, he reaches his might arms over his head and spreads his cloven fingers as wide as they will go, nearly encompassing the entire breadth of the tunnel roof. He looks back into the cavern and, for what may be the first time in his life, he raises his voice, crying out to the cowering people to leave before it is too late. No response. The people, mostly Grib with a couple of Lesh, look through the falling dust with looks of confusion. A clump of dirt lands on a table, a crack above beginning to spread across the ceiling. Again, Holoran speaks, this time a roar louder even than the rumbling of the entire Lowcity attempting to shake itself apart. And this time, perhaps trusting that Holoran knows something they don’t or perhaps simply because the sight of a bellowing Umbressi is enough to cow anyone into compliance, the people begin scrambling out from cover and rushing toward the passage. As the packed dirt above Holoran begins to crack apart he spreads his hands even wider, and it is as though they could encompass the entire ceiling, the entire artificial sky. He barely even notices as the people crowd around him, squeezing past his bulk and out into the other chamber. His entire focus is on the weight of the world above him, pressing down and threatening to collapse just as the room in front of him is doing, the roof now crumbling and tumbling down right on the heels of the fleeing. Tables and stands splinter apart as they are crushed by falling debris, the rumbling of the earthquake drowned out now by the crashing and clattering of destruction, in turn drowned out by a roar from deep within Holoran’s chest that he does not even know he is making. The ceiling above him buckles, begins to collapse, but as the last evacuees squeezes past him Holoran does not relent, even as he feels his arms lowering with the lowering ceiling he does not relent. It is only when the last of the people are out of the room, and the rumbling has ceased, and the room before Holoran’s eyes has turned to a wall of dirt once more, that he lets his arms fall. But Holoran does not see the wall. As he falls back into the chamber, sprawling in the dirt among the grateful survivors, he does not see the ceiling above, either. The quake has ended, Holoran’s work is done. His mighty heart has given out. And now he rests.
Today, the Lowcity mourns the death of a Maintainer. Even those who do not understand Umbressi society, who do not know that there is a difference between the Umbressi- because, of course, there is not- can feel that this is significant somehow. The Umbressi named Holoran, who dedicated his life to the future of the Lowcity, who gave his all to that work, has now given all he could. A monument will be made, in place of a grave- not even a sacrifice as great as this could save Holoran’s body from being recycled, even if he’d wanted that- a small and tasteful plaque on the wall of the market where he died. It will serve as a reminder to those who see it that life in the Lowcity can be fragile, and that they should cherish it and give thanks to those who make it possible. In time, perhaps it will become something more. Maybe the merchants and their customers will notice an increase in the number of Umbressi patrons frequenting this small and out-of-the-way marketplace. Perhaps these patrons will take an extra moment or two before the plaque dedicated to one of their dead, though their observers cannot possibly know why. Even if they had known of the existence of the Maintainers, they wouldn’t recognise them here, just as they couldn’t have known of the changes that would follow on from one’s death. Slow changes, perhaps not great changes- perhaps not even noticeable ones, to some. But change, nonetheless. The Lowcity, like the Umbressi, is contradictory at times. It is both ever-changing and stagnant, fluid and brittle. When change happens it is either instantaneous and seismic, or slow and subtle. On very rare occasions, it may well be both. But that will be another tale, one of an infinite number, like motes of dust drifting to the floor of a marketplace somewhere in the Lowcity.