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The Interpreter

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Maryem (pronounced Ma-REE-yem, written in the shorthand as M, which was what everybody used anyway, because why write longhand when everything was so scarce: light, time, good chalk,) was ten years old before she learned the word "surface" and understood it.

She was ten years old before it entered her conscious understanding that if there was an underground, then there must be something that wasn't "under" and wasn't "ground." She was ten; she had shoes with velcro that had been ten points off her mother's ration card (shoes with laces would have been another point, so they made due,) a part in her hair that wouldn't stay straight, and a new context for the word "above."

It happened on a train day.

They've had train days as long as Maryem's been alive, but they didn't mean much -- no special food or extra light or anything. Just people kicking benches and setting their trays down and asking each other, "did you hear the train?", which Maryem found exceptionally boring. Did you hear the train? What, did you hear that one particular rumbling in the warrens that were always groaning and rumbling, depending on your proximity to wherever the Tunnelers were that day? Yeah, she did, what of it?

They happened once a year, like birthdays and C-47 Day -- same day every year, even, fifteen days into the month of July.

The year Maryem turned ten, she moved up to the big kid class, the 10-15s who didn't have to sit with their tablets in the schoolroom, and instead had their lessons out in the warrens. So that's where she was -- in the History Tunnels, squeezed in between Big Abed, who was tasting dirt off his palm with a thoughtful expression, and Little Abed, who was not -- when the rumbling started, on the fifteenth of July, also this year the fifteenth day of Muhurram.

The earth spilled from between Big Abed's fingers, and he looked up, saying simply, "Train."

Maryem followed his eyes, seeing nothing but rock.

For the first time, she stopped, and she thought, and then she asked, "Abed, what's a train?"

 

-

 

As with all things big and terrifying and never seen, the train must have a name, and so the name it was given was Snowpiercer.

"Think of it like a drill," her mother said, enlisting her help in flinging the rugs over the railing, handing her a smooth stone to start beating out the rock dust. Maryem often went to her mother with questions like this, because she was better at putting her answers into terms that Maryem would understand: better than other people, at least, who tried to explain unknown terms with other unknown terms. How was Maryem supposed to know what a tram or a car was?

Maryem's mother pulled her scarf up over her mouth, squinting as the dust exploded up from the impact. "To the Snowpiercer," she said, muffled but audible. "The wind and the ice is as what rock is to us, but unlike us, a train can never stop, so it must keep drilling, forever."

Maryem put her rock down, and looked at her. She was struck, not for the first time, with how small her mother's eyes were, how small all the adults' eyes were.

Our eyes are equipped for a different environment than yours, she'd been told; by whom, she couldn't remember. Her mother, maybe, or a teacher, or Crabgrass. Yours are bigger because they need to be, down here.

"What happens when it meets something it can't drill through?"

"Well." Thwack! "We still hear the train every year, don't we? So it hasn't happened yet."

 

-

 

When Maryem went searching through the History Tunnels for Snowpiercer, what she found was this:

Its first mention came at the beginning, and since the beginning of history was the release of the C-47s, so there, too, was Snowpiercer. These parts of history came in color, as those who Descended brought with them paints and canisters and set to recording their history on the colorlessness of the warren's walls. Further down, as the colors ran out, history came recorded in chalk, and then in even cheaper charcoal. The 10-15s were often sent into splinter tunnels, chasing the fragmented stories of how the world came to be.

But the beginning of history was strangely beautiful; all the color.

Maryem only saw the color blue, for instance, in the artifacts the adults had -- a china doll, a Muslimah's scarf -- and in the blue sky of the History Tunnels. They were heavily featured, the skies in all their moods, the way imagination will exaggerate things that don't exist anymore; papercut airplanes, spilling trails that shredded up the blue, and Snowpiercer, bursting free from a thousand frozen, grasping hands, speeding to meet it. It did look like a drill, with its fearsome, snarling mouth.

Later, further down in history, it was said that Snowpiercer was the only thing that lived and moved aboveground. Thin metal, thin tracks, and thin control was all that protected its passengers from the cold that killed every other living thing.

It was inferior to the Colonies, they were taught; rawness to the warrens' sophistication, a primitive beast to the warrens' expansion and progress.

It was driven by a man named Wilford who wasn't concerned so much with tyranny, with power, or with his survivors as much as he was concerned with his own narrative. Paying passengers, freeloading passengers -- it didn't matter to a man like that, so long as he could write his own story and have it sound exciting.

"Why can't they come down here?" Aaliyah had asked, once, biting at her knuckles. She did this to stop herself from crying. Aaliyah cried at everything; Maryem's mother said she was sensitive.

To what?

To everything. Some people are.

"They don't know we exist," Sister said, and that was that. Train days happened once a year, as Snowpiercer shrieked its way above, running its circuitous loop around the globe, and below, people asked each other, "Did you hear the train?"

 

-

 

Maryem turned fourteen: fifty points were added to her mother's ration card, a gesture of good will that, of course, preempted Maryem's contribution back. She was granted a personal gathering with sugar cake, which was like the grain-heavy bread they served with soup, but sweeter, and she and her guests all gained one extra portion of light to find their way home with.

She still attended school -- learned history from the rocks, learned agriculture and economics and sociology from them too, doing no better or worse than any other child -- and after, she headed down to the mills sector.

Big Abed, who knew the difference between ninety types of soil based on taste and feel alone, had been tapped by the Tunnelers and thus worked on the fringes of the warren, ever focused on expansion and maintenance, but Little Abed did his work shift down in the mills sector -- a deep man-made cavern that in eighteen years had grown up and around, filling up the space to become a labyrinth of ladders, walkways, and machinery. The mills produced pills, medicine, fabric, and several things it probably shouldn't be able to, but there weren't a lot of options.

Maryem's mother hated the mills, especially the ones that made the protein pills they all ate. But Maryem liked standing on the platforms above the mixers, planting her elbows on the railing and leaning out to watch the cockroaches, centipedes, maggots, and other insects get ground into fine gel.

"I can't eat those," Maryem's mother insisted, pushing the tab of pills back towards her. " I can't unknow what's in them. I know, I just know they'll break open inside me and start crawling around."

Which was silly; all she had to do was come down to the mills to watch them get made, and she'd know that wasn't true. It's not like anybody was trying to hide it.

Transparency was absolutely key to life in the warrens: you can't fear what isn't hidden from you, and you have no reason to destroy what isn't frightening.

Thus, peace.

On her way home from one of these trips, where Little Abed reached fearlessly into a mixer to snatch up a small, white cave cockroach and pretended to drop it and lose it on Maryem's hijab, she made a fantastic discovery:

A whole piece of chalk, stuck between the struts between the platform and the rock wall.

Carefully, she picked and plucked it free, turning it over in her hands in wonder.

The next day, instead of heading down to the mills, she headed up, into the History Tunnels. Here, the crevasses and cavities in the rock were too shallow, too unstable to be worth further excavation, but humans crawled up here on their own with chisels and charcoal to carve out their own spaces anyway. The walls sprawled in every direction with lives recorded; longhand flowing into shorthand, pictographs ground into dust.

Maryem started at the beginning of history, climbing up the path the Descendants took below the earth, finding handholds above Snowpiercer and the papercut planes. She squeezed herself into a crack in the blue sky.

Some more wriggling pushed her out into a pocket in the rock, a small cavern no bigger than their room in the living sector. The air here was stale, but comfortable on her face, and Maryem put her light down and contemplated where to begin.

When she started, what she wrote was the story of her parents: how Maryem (pronounced Ma-REE-yem, written M,) came to be.

 

-

 

Cheung Min-ho, as his daughter understood him, only came into existence when he left home to attend university in Malaysia in the year 2009: there, he converted to Islam.

She knew nothing of what came before that; of what she'd asked her mother, the answers made no sense, and thus she made no effort to retain them. Cheung Min-ho did not exist before he came to Malaysia to learn, armed with a student visa and thick glasses. This, she had a clear picture of: this was her father's birth.

He was on hajj when the C-47s tore the sky apart, which is how he became the only Korean-speaking man to Descend with them before the surface froze.

By the time they established contact with the Colonies to the east and the option to relocate in with other Korean survivors, he'd met Maryem's mother, who once sold petrol to pilgrims outside Mecca and now sold history to the under-10s (which everybody else called teaching) and stayed until his kidneys failed him the year Maryem turned four. Some people adjusted to the diet underground, the change in medicines: others didn't.

Everything that had been his was reabsorbed into the colony, reused and recycled, except for one thing: his language.

That, Maryem kept for herself.

 

-

 

For train day that year, the rumbling started while Sister checked Maryem's work. The assignment had been to find five strengths and five weaknesses of the Empire of Ottomans in the History Tunnels; the two were recorded in different tunnels, as each had had a different bearing on history.

"Good, Maryem," said Sister. Maryem's tablet sat as a pale grub in her dark hands: this was something else that never failed to amaze Maryem about the adults. Their small eyes, their rock-colored skin. "Where did you find #3?"

"In the room of the Five Pillars," Maryem answered immediately, and not without pride. "There's a ledge by hajj, three handspans above and two to the right, but it's hard to see from the ground."

Sister smiled.

Above their heads: a low and growing sound.

Maryem and Sister both looked up, instinctive, as if they ever expected to see anything but rock.

"Train," said Maryem, and imagined Snowpiercer -- with the snarling muzzle, slitted eyes, and claws fastened to the tracks -- bounding its way along the surface.

The rumbling grew, intensifying, making dust shiver down; neither of them bothered to brush it off. Now that she was older, Maryem could appreciate just how different Snowpiercer's passing felt to any time the Tunnelers blasted through for excavation: the sound of Snowpiercer's passing built up, like music did, where a blast just felt like falling down.

Almost instantly, though, she became aware of a change. It wasn't the train.

Or rather, it was, but the noise was different, more: it came from two directions.

"What --" started Sister, her brow furrowing.

Suddenly, from above, somebody flung themselves against the side of the railing, shrieking down to them:

"Avalanche!"

And then lights plunged, blackening them completely. For a startled moment, Maryem wasn't even sure she still existed, that she hadn't just been smudged out, like someone had been etching her shape in charcoal but decided against her at the last moment. The absence of light was complete.

But no: she could hear Sister beside her, her breath small and hitching, like she was scratching it out of her lungs.

Maryem reached out. Adults got so frightened in the dark. So did she, true, but Maryem spent a lot more time in the dark than they had.

"Sister," she asked, loud now to be heard above the noise. "What's an avalanche?"

The lights came back slowly; a embryonic red glow, the palest of the emergency lights. If there were sirens, they couldn't be heard. If there were instructions, they couldn't be heard, but Maryem knew what she wanted. She wanted her mother, so she pulled inexorably on Sister's arm.

Sister came as bid, tugging at her band with the other hand. Only recently had she committed to wearing hijab full-time, after years of adjusting her faith around an underground life and being ribbed about it by her students, who couldn't see that faith was any different here or on the surface, and she still pulled at it when nervous, like she knew it didn't belong.

"It's -- it's a collapse," she struggled to say. "It's -- on the surface, when snow starts to melt, it can come plunging down and gains momentum, like rocks rolling down a hill."

Maryem nodded.

The earth quaked and shook. They grabbed the railing for balance. Even hundreds of feet below the surface, they still felt it: Maryem feared collapses, especially in the weaker sections of the History Tunnels and the new parts of the living sector.

Then:

"Wait," she flung herself around. "Snow melts?"

Yes, snow melted: she knew this, because ice became water whenever they pulled it down into their irrigation canals. But it didn't melt on the surface. The snow on the surface and the snow underground were two entirely separate entities; they didn't deserve to share the same definition of snow. Snow on the surface never melted.

The shape of Sister's head turned towards her, remembering this fact in the same instant.

"Snow melts," she said, and the howling of the rocks above crescendoed, and then all fell silent.

 

-

 

It was Crabgrass who came and spoke to all of them, after. To everybody who gathered in Tunneler's Hall and to those that didn't: her voice came from the speakers above Maryem's bed.

The Snowpiercer, she said, had been knocked from its tracks. It was buried. It was destroyed. It was dead.

There would be no more train days.

 

-

 

Hours later, in the quiet, Maryem was still there, her knees drawn to her chest. She imagined it:

Snowpiercer, still and silent and in pieces, flung out on the white rock (this is what she thought snow to be, having never touched it herself: rock, becoming water as it warmed.) She imagined its maw shut, its heart cleaved open, all its mechanics on display and petrol smeared like black blood around it. She imagined its claws, still reaching for the tracks, still trying to run.

"Do you think anyone was alive?" her mother whispered into the ember-lit darkness. Her words struck like coal, red glows that made Maryem flinch. "Snowpiercer's been running its loop for eighteen years, nonstop. Do you think its passengers survived that long?"

"Why wouldn't they?"

And then, of course, the obvious thought:

Whoever survived eighteen years on the train was dead now, buried like viscera beneath the snow.

 

-

 

A week later, Maryem found her mother outside their room, beating out the rugs with a peculiar expression on her face. She looked up, saw Maryem standing there, and turned away. The tail of her hijab fell down her back; Maryem watched it for a moment, perplexed. They didn't beat the rugs this time of day.

She set down her tablet, thinking she might want her hands free for this. "Do you need help?" she asked.

"No," her mother said, speaking slow and strange. "No. There's -- someone here for you."

Maryem went inside.

The Crabgrass was sitting on her bed.

She stood the same time Maryem sat, nearly missing the edge of her mother's chair. She grabbed it to steady herself; Crabgrass's small eyes watched, her mouth a soft grey pucker of amusement in her face. She stood taller than anybody Maryem knew; she wore the yellow bands of a councilwoman on her shoulder.

Nobody knew Crabgrass's real name. She had lived down here long before anything on the surface changed; she had been here since the warrens were just sewers that nobody liked to think about, and when people Descended from the surface, they found whole groups of people already living there. Her real name became lost -- she called herself Crabgrass because that's what she was. She was a weed, until somebody looked at it and wanted it, and someone else picked it and boiled it in a stew. Then, suddenly, she was valuable.

That's what the Colonies were, she explained. They were built on the backs of what homeless people had already made for themselves. They had belonged to the poor, up until the rich decided they needed it.

Of the thirteen discovered Colonies, eight existed beneath Asian soil, four were African, and one Australian. The Australian colony was the largest, as people had been building underground cities there as far back as the seventeenth century, and the one sophisticated enough to establish contact with Colonies it couldn't physically tunnel to. If there were Colonies beneath the Americas, no one had reached them yet. And there might be others, as yet undiscovered -- even nearby to their own warrens, they'd already found isolated pockets of spaces full of bones of refugees who hadn't made it, but there might yet be those that did.

The Colonies survived because they were deep enough underground that the surface temperature didn't mean anything. Down here, it was 22ºC, permanently and perpetually.

They dug for well water, they irrigated crops and diverted most of the power for the light to raise them, leaving the people to adjust to an existence in near-gloom. They tunneled and expanded and built and grew, maintained and recycled and planned and traded with neighboring Colonies, and every decision was presented to and vetted by a council of Tunnelers, on which Crabgrasss had sat for eighteen years. Together, they survived, and children like Maryem grew up learning everything from the rock.

Children like Maryem never dreamed of the sky. The only skies they knew were paint.

There were two paths, Maryem had heard, to the surface. Crabgrass knew one of them. They harvested wind power, they farmed snowmelt. When an avalanche conquered Snowpiercer and laid its corpse down the mountainside, she sent a team up to assess the damage.

"Maryem," she said now. She stood among all the small, collected artifacts of their lives: their regulation clothes, the basin they use for wudu, charcoal sketches gifted to them by the five-year-old a few doors down, her mother's mirror that she'd brought with her from the surface, the stained glass flowers in its frame that Maryem had rubbed permanent fingerprints into.

"Maryem al-Cheung, daughter of the Korean. Do you speak your father's language?"

 

-

 

They brought her to a room, high up in the warrens -- higher than she'd ever been. She swore the air felt harder up here; the hairs on her arms rose to meet it.

The low ceiling hunched, the concrete floors scraped at her feet, and a creature that was all hair, brown and speckled white, crouched in the corner. The under-10s were shown pictures of all surviving animals on their tablets -- cows they grew at great expense in the African Colonies, too few wolves they were trying to breed back and domesticate up north -- but nothing she'd ever seen looked like this. It'd dragged the mattress off the cot, and it hunched back when the door opened.

Maryem glanced back at Crabgrass, not entirely convinced she wasn't about to be eaten.

Crabgrass inclined her head. For a lot of women in the warrens, wearing the hijab just became a natural extension of the kind of headgear they had to wear about their daily work; off came the helmets and hard hats, on came the headscarfs. Regulation fabric, of course, but some women still had the scarves they wore when they Descended, and many others added personal touches to theirs wherever they could; embroidery here, a makeshift clip there. Aaliyah had a scarf that she'd glued crunched-up beetle shells to, so that when she draped it a certain way, iridescent shards fell in a cascade down the left side of her face.

But Crabgrass had chosen never to wear the hijab, and her thick black braid was pulled forward across her breasts like a fat, well-fed snake. Maryem swallowed, and entered the room.

The brown-and-white hair came up, and she experienced a nasty moment of shock, like putting your foot out over a staircase and finding no stair there at all.

A girl materialized out of the hunched-over shape, with a young cave-colored face and eyes as large and wide as Maryem's own, their pupils swollen with black. Hair framed her face in a loose way -- "fur" and "hood" were words Maryem didn't have yet, and thus couldn't place -- and she looked first at Maryem's hands, then up into her eyes. She didn't squint the way adults did.

"Who the fuck are you?" she demanded.

It took a moment, a twist of a handle on the rusty faucet in Maryem's brain before language gurgled and start spilling out, and then she couldn't help the grin that stretched her face.

"I'm Cheung Maryem," she said in the words of her father. "Who are you?"

If possible, the girl's eyes grew even wider -- recognition made a clear, glassine portrait out of her face. At the sound of words she knew, however small, she flung herself to her feet with an exclamation -- and immediately swooned, grabbing onto the wall for support.

Maryem jerked forward, hands out in the instinctive way you do to catch something that's falling, but stopped just short of making contact. The coat had fallen open, showing another figure attached to the first around the waist, stumbling to regain its balance without releasing its grip. Maryem couldn't see the face, just more thick hair and feet, and adjusted her understanding of "she" to be "they."

The girl's arms went around the child's head, her eyes closed, and Maryem glanced again over her shoulder.

"Snowpiercer birthed them into the snow," Crabgrass said, as quiet as settled stone. "Seven days ago."

 

-

 

Her name was Namgung Yona. She was three years older than Maryem, but like Maryem, had never been alive in a world that didn't crack like ice underfoot.

She pronounced Maryem's name the way her father had -- Cheung Mar-yem, skipping the middle syllable entirely, and hearing it made Maryem feel like a child again, sitting in her mother's lap while her mother tried to teach her father to trill his r's the Arabic way, Ma-REE-yem, only to laugh when her father just said, Mar-yem, with the stubborn insistence that he was doing it just fine, didn't she hear it?

Missing him felt like jamming her finger, a spreading ache in her ribs like a bruise. Was this what adults felt like, talking about the surface?

But perhaps stranger than that was that they were making her miss school.

Even stranger: how much that meant to her. Like every other child, Maryem's life was structured around her education, scheduled by it, had been since she was old enough to hold a tablet, and she'd rarely ever missed a lesson. The thought crept up on her frequently in quiet moments: what are the others learning in the tunnels, right now?

Maryem spent most of her time now sitting in between Namgung Yona and the councilors, turning the gears of language one way, then another, slipping over words she had no context for. Yona had much to tell, and the Colonies had much to tell her in return -- their existence, for one, was the first thing explained. Wilford had truly been arrogant enough to think his luxury train was the only thing equipped to survive the end of the world, and the only evidence Yona had that the outside world had changed was her father's stories and the glimpse of a single plane, melting free.

For the first few weeks, Yona answered a lot of questions about Snowpiercer, again and again, and mocked Maryem's fumbling as Korean rusted and squeaked on her tongue. She suspected parts of her story were lost simply because Maryem didn't know enough to translate them, and she was right.

"Are you my gatekeeper, then?" she asked her, taking the charcoal offered to her to sketch something down and passing it to Timmy instead, who, delighted by the offering, started marking his own face with racing stripes.

Maryem certainly felt like a gatekeeper, seated between Yona, Timmy, and whatever visitor came that day. The snow-children kept their backs to the corner, ignoring cot and basin and door, and Maryem found herself positioned defensively more often than not. Adults were so oblivious to how much they loomed.

"Can't they bother somebody else?" Yona snarled once, after Crabgrass and two of the Tunnelers left. Her eyes were still dilated, huge in her face, but bloodshot now, too. She shook like she was cold.

Maryem's chest ached.

"There's nobody else," she said, and Yona's shoulders hunched up. "The Crabgrass said they've sent out searchers on snowshoes every day since the crash, to identify the wreckage."

Yona turned her back. She hadn't bathed, hadn't once removed the coat even when sweat visibly stood out on her face, and she drew it around her now. She reeked, but after awhile Maryem didn't even notice, and focused instead on a dried-black streak at Yona's waist. Blood, Yona identified it the first time she pointed it out, her tone gone blank. Curtis's. He'd grabbed her by the waist in the crash, expecting there to still be a hand there to protect her with.

"They haven't found any other survivors from Snowpiercer, I'm --"

"What's that?" Yona interrupted. She repeated the word, deaf to its pronunciation. "You say it a lot when you're talking to each other."

"It's --" Maryem didn't know how to explain. "It's our word. For the train."

"Oh." She spoke to the wall. "I didn't think about that. If we had to differentiate, we called it the train. Otherwise it was just," she paused, fishing, her eyes scanning the ground in front of her like perhaps she'd dropped the rest of her sentence, and then she picked up a word and fit it into place. "The world."

A beat.

"Gone?" she asked.

"I'm sorry," said Maryem helplessly.

She nodded.

Her howl started quiet, then, an ember of a wail that stoked in her lungs until it suddenly it blazed, and she sank to the floor. Timmy rose silently and went over to her, headbutting her shoulder and leaning on her.

Maryem sat in her chair, hands clenched on top of her knees, and wondered where she'd be on another day: on the way down to the mills, probably, descending the rickety staircase with Little Abed's voice following her, teasing her that she'd be the only one of them to turn fifteen without a profession lined up for her afterward. She'd be there, and she'd be oblivious.

 

-

 

"Has she talked to you about the crash?" Crabgrass asked, looking over the renderings they've made on her tablet -- they recreated Snowpiercer and neatly dissected it into parts, all its compartments labeled like an anatomy text in accordance to what Yona could remember. Maryem was envious: she was only allowed a tablet for school. They were too costly to power otherwise, so if she wanted to write or draw, she went to the History Tunnels with charcoal like everybody else. Her fingers itched to take the tablet, to give Snowpiercer its teeth and claws, its howling ferocity. It looked too much like machinery, laid out on the screen like that, and if there was one thing Maryem was certain of after weeks with Yona and Timmy, it's that Snowpiercer was more than just machinery.

She watched Crabgrass, and thought about the way Yona dissected herself.

The blood at her waist: Curtis. Her loose tooth: the Undead Man, who stabbed Grey and then was stabbed and got up when Grey did not. The soot under her fingernails, the smell in her hair: her father the engineer. In the warrens, you wrote on tunnel walls. Yona kept her history written on herself.

"No," she lied. And, "They crashed because of the avalanche, right?"

 

-

 

But those sessions were rare. In the beginning, Yona was not often so lucid.

"You have to understand, sister," said Farid, who'd been studying to be a doctor before he Descended and became a doctor in the warrens less by certificate and more by experience. Maryem had seen him several times throughout her life, but what she remembered most was how he held his own hands, one clasping the other by the wrist like he was leading himself across some dangerous track, when he explained Cheung Min-ho's options to him and his wife. The procedure necessary to save her father's kidneys, he said, conscious of Maryem's four-year-old eyes watching him, could not be replicated in this new world.

He wasn't holding his own wrists now. He had them up, blocking Crabgrass's approach.

"Sister, be patient," he said forcefully. "To force company on them now would do more harm than good. They are both recovering from their injuries from the crash. They are traumatized. Their whole world was that train, where they were kept and drugged."

Crabgrass's eyebrows jerk.

"Yes. They exhibit withdrawal symptoms. It's possible that's how Wilford controlled his passengers, but I don't think that's the case: they're presenting too differently. They were drugged, yes, but by different sources."

"Yona said Wilford used Timmy like an engine part," Maryem blurted, and Farid looked at her, first at something above her head and then adjusting for her height, blinking owlishly.

"I see," he said. "It wouldn't take much, to hijack a child his size. You must be patient, while their bodies adjust. There's a lot to adjust to -- new food, new water, new environment, and the lack of drugs they probably depended on. It's no wonder they're constantly too sick for company."

"The drugs," Crabgrass's voice curled in her mouth, shrewd, and she parted her teeth only just far enough to let it escape. "For Yona al-Namgung, could it explain the dilation in her eyes?"

"It --" the doctor hesitated.

"If she grew up on the surface, in sunlight -- and that train had windows -- you'd expect her to have eyes more like yours or mine. Instead, her eyes more closely resemble Maryem's here -- nocturnal eyes. Surely you've noticed."

Farid crossed his wrists in front of him, one hand holding the other by the pulse point.

Crabgrass sighed. "Brother," she said, in the same firm tone he'd used when listing the snow-children's symptoms. It was the tone of someone with a subject they had monopoly on. "If I went looking for evidence that Yona had been deliberately drugged in such a way that prepared her optimally to adjust to life underground, would I find it?"

"Mashallah, that would be a blessing for her. It is possible."

He was reluctant, and Maryem darted her eyes sideways, so she saw the way Crabgrass nodded, deep and satisfied, like she expected nothing less.

 

-

 

Seven days turned into weeks turned into a month, and Timmy still didn't speak.

He let Farid inspect his mouth and throat, and carefully, the doctor concluded that whatever Wilford had done to turn Timmy into a living, breathing, obedient engine part, he hadn't mutilated him. Timmy could speak, he just wouldn't. He drew with charcoal, he banged on the basin with his shoe to make noise, he slept pressed into Yona's stomach crouched up against the wall, but he didn't speak.

"He probably doesn't understand what you're saying," Yona said the first day, when Maryem's attempts to relay questions was met with expectant eye contact from Timmy, but nothing else.

Maryem blinked. "What?" Then, "He doesn't speak Korean?"

Yona shrugged.

"But. How?"

"I don't know what he understands." She looked at Timmy, who pushed his hood back enough to return the regard, poised on his haunches and still radiating readiness. "I don't even know his family name."

"How can you not know his family name?" Maryem asked stupidly.

The look Yona threw her was completely withering. "Because, you fuckwit, I met him for the first time seven fucking days ago."

Behind her, Crabgrass leaned forward with the questioning silence of the uncomprehending, and Maryem half-turned to deliver a translation -- at least, the abridged version when she weeded out the cussing. Never let it be said that she wasn't getting an education. She'd have a whole wall full of insulting things to call people before this was through.

Crabgrass said nothing, but instead lifted her head to look at Yona, steely. Maryem shifted, trying not to get caught in it, imagining it was the same look she wore when the other adults Descended and promptly tried to roust Crabgrass and her kind out of their homes.

Yona's shoulders gathered up around her ears, and when she spoke, her tone was flippant, her avoidance of their eyes studious.

"I don't know. I was crew and then I was a prisoner. I've never been to the tail sector in my entire life, and he never left it, but Wilford's secretary did something? I don't know, I wasn't there," She shrugged, a gesture that would have been sharper had it not been blunted by the weight of her coat. "He's just tail sector scum, maybe they don't bother with family names back there."

"It's funny," Crabgrass's voice remained mild. "How often the scum are usually the first to engineer a solution, and when the rich decide they need what the scum have, are expected to let them have it. I doubt you'd be alive without your -- sorry, your what -- ah, your -- your tail sector scum -- these warrens wouldn't be here without the homeless, and yet, here you are, still trying to tell us we don't have names."

Maryem didn't have the political sense to navigate that, and delivered it straight.

A moment passed. Yona remained still, looking at the floor.

Then she said, "His mother's name was Tanya, and she loved him," and beside her, Timmy made a soft noise like he'd been stepped on.

 

-

 

Farid checked up on Timmy several times -- "I have no way of knowing if he's up to date on his vaccinations, if he is at all" -- but after the first time, when he introduced himself as a doctor and said "medical check-up" and Timmy dove for the ground and Yona twisted the faucet off the water basin with surprising strength and went after him like it was a bludgeon, they figured that whatever "doctor" meant in the warrens, it meant something entirely different to tail sector scum.

After, Farid earned Timmy's trust with food, with silly little songs he sang about body parts and their health as he checked each one, and once, after a round of shots, a single nub of colored chalk that made Timmy squeak with delight, high up in his nose.

Yona watched from the cot, legs drawn up to her chest. Her hair stayed caked to her skull -- she dug absently at her scalp, strands of hair forming deep ridges around her nails. She refused examination. She kicked. She spat.

Maryem washed her face, then stood aside for Farid to do the same. She slipped her shoes off, wetting her hands and scrubbing down her soles, one foot at a time. Behind them, Timmy chirruped wordlessly, climbing up next to Yona. His examination over, his treat today was a small sewn bag of beans, which he immediately began to toss from hand to hand.

"What are you doing?" Yona asked.

"Ablutions," Maryem explained. "Wudu. We do it for prayers."

"Oh. That sounds stupid," was said casually. "Why?"

"So that no matter the time of day, my feet are cleaner than your face."

Yona's fingers paused.

She blinked.

Farid ducked his face to the water, using his hands to hide its expression. Maryem tugged her shoes back up over her heels, smiled, and sat down in case the doctor had any more questions before the call to prayer. Yona looked at her like she'd never looked at her before.

"Fuck you," she said; belatedly, and almost cheerfully.

 

-

 

The rest of it fell away slowly. One day, she came by and Yona's coat was gone, dumped with the other one into the pile that made the bed where they slept. Timmy poked his head out in greeting, but when Maryem looked, she couldn't see Curtis's blood stain anywhere among the fur. Yona wore the standard blouse the rest of them wore, its blended color two shades darker than her skin.

Wearing it, she looked born of the earth like the rest of them, not born of blood.

"How much food do I get, if I let the doctor examine me?" she demanded.

The day after that, it was her hands. The next, her face -- all of Snowpiercer's ash and oil, washed clean from Yona's skin. Her hair came after that, and she sat cross-legged on the cot wearing the relief of the clean as assuredly as she wore the blouse, and crunched almonds as Farid pressed a hearing aide to her back, listening to her lungs. He complained, without impatience, that the chewing was disrupting the results.

It had been a month and nine days since Snowpiercer's descent.

 

-

 

During the worst of her tremors, Yona hurtled abuse indiscriminately, and Maryem talked her through them while Timmy squirmed around in her lap in that unconsciously bony way kids do.

Afterwards, they all washed their faces, feet, and hands, as slow and calm as translation.

"It'll pass," said one of the councilmen told her, after Maryem politely turned him away at the door -- Yona was in no state to answer questions about the surface today, brother. Like Crabgrass, he'd lived in the warrens before everybody else Descended, back when the warrens were just sewers. He'd seen all kinds of people, and judged lightly. "Trust me, it'll pass, so long as you keep her away from her drug."

"She calls it kronol," Maryem said, careful with the pronunciation.

He scrunched his face up thoughtfully. His cheeks, nose, and forehead all clambered close together: his features were lumpy, potato-shaped, and pock-marked from some disease he had as a child, but his eyes always crinkled kindly when he smiled. "Do you know if it has an Arabic equivalent?"

She shook her head.

"Then maybe it's just a train thing. I remember Wilford Enterprises, before the Descent -- I wouldn't put it past that man to manufacture a drug that would keep his population too blissed-out to bother his lifestyle."

"There is no bliss now," Maryem said grimly.

"No," he agreed. "Ishna'Allah, she will adjust."

Then, on some good day, Yona dodged Maryem's polite questions and said, "We want out of this room."

It was the first time she expressed that wish, in all their time in this room.

"Ne," agreed Maryem, dragging the syllable out as a sound filler while she thought. "What do you want?"

Yona didn't even hesitate. "More food."

She could have guessed that.

"We have set meal times. They rotate depending on the tasks being done for the day: schoolchildren always have first rotation, though, so you and Timmy can come with me for that." She smiled, already imagining the excitement that'll ripple through the under-10s when she brought in the snow-children. It'll be like the History Tunnels, in color all over again. "You'll be very popular."

Timmy elbowed at Yona, who said, "Are there kids Timmy's age."

"Hundreds," said Maryem instantly, and then, at the expression on their faces, corrected swiftly, "But you don't have to meet them all at once. We can sit with the 10-15s -- the younger kids know they're not allowed to come over there, and the older kids segregate themselves out of habit, so we can sit with small groups."

She didn't think to ask for permission. If Yona and Timmy wanted to leave their room, why shouldn't they?

Nothing was hidden -- especially not people.

 

-

 

They didn't get far.

The corridor outside their room was large, one of the original tunnels blasted through after the Descent, so it was weathered into shape, stamped down by traffic. Staircases zig-zagged up and down the walls, connecting the rooms that had been widened out of nooks and crannies at random. They weren't really resident rooms anymore, not since everybody moved down to the living sector with quarters that were more specially designed to support them, but they were multipurpose and served Yona and Timmy fine. It was an easy area to access, for the Council, for Farid, for Maryem.

Yona flattened herself against the wall. Her boots scraped at the metal platform as she pushed back.

Maryem spun, hands already going out like she was trying to catch the pieces of Yona's attention as they scattered everywhere. "Are you all right?" she said in alarm.

Timmy ducked under her arm, peeked out over the edge of the railing, and retreated quickly, his eyes crossing.

"Why does it need to be so big?" clattered out of Yona, and it took Maryem a long time to realize she was talking about the corridor. But she'd come through before, after they rescued her out of the snow. Didn't she remember?

She glanced around. "I guess it is," she said dubiously, trying to understand.

If she didn't like the corridor, what would she think of the main caverns, which were much larger?

"They don't like open spaces," she reported to Crabgrass after the excursion got to the edge of the staircase before it had to be called off. It seemed like a relevant thing to report: not too private. She considered these carefully. "Or heights."

"No," Crabrgrass agreed, unsurprised. "Why would they? Have you thought about the train, Maryem al-Cheung? It has neither open spaces nor heights. Think about it."

Maryem did as she was told, tugging at the ends of her sleeves so they came down over the heels of her hands and following two steps behind her councilwoman, whose tablet chimed with some reminder she tilted up to read.

"How did those people survive?" she wondered, finally.

Crabgrass turned her head without looking, passing down from her great height. "They had no other choice."

 

-

 

Everything about the snow-children was peculiar in its own way. It bothered Maryem only when she let it.

What was the point, she said to her mother as they beat the dirt from their rugs, in resenting them for being different than what she was used to? That's why she was there -- to interpret. Besides, she'd grown up in the warrens and she still wasn't sure if she belonged or where she fit in, how could anybody possibly expect Yona or Timmy to assimilate? If everybody else wanted to meet the children Snowpiercer birthed upon its death, they were going to have to be prepared for that.

The most peculiar thing about them, though, was the way they walked.

She'd noticed it before -- the wobble, the way they set their legs out all bow-shaped, absently reaching out for walls or hand-holds to balance themselves -- and assumed it was injury. Certainly, as the cuts and abrasions from Snowpiercer's crash faded from their bodies, the shakiness on their feet eased, but it came back in full force during excursions out of their room.

Following Maryem's lead, nobody else addressed it.

Then, in the dining hall, Yona tripped over perfectly flat ground. Her soup bowl skidded across her tray and almost slopped over, and she reacted with the same terrified gasp Maryem would have, had their roles been reversed -- clearly, food had the same priority in Yona's culture as it did in Maryem's.

She righted herself before Little Abed, who was nearest and who'd lurched up from the bench, could reach her, and her alarm flipped over into anger as if hinged.

"Why does the ground keep pitching?"

"It … doesn't," Maryem said blankly.

"It does, yes, and I hate it," her voice choked, and her expression pinched into annoyance.

She set her tray down in between Big Abed and Maryem. Everybody cast quick, glancing looks at her face like they were afraid of touching something sharp and then peeked uncomfortably at Maryem, waiting for a translation. Yona wore the same regulation blouse and pants the rest of them wore, and her hair was pulled back into a twist at the back of her head. She'd folded her headscarf fabric into a band, tied around her head with the knot off-center above her right eyebrow. Maryem thought it was less because she understood the significance of the hijab and more because the fabric had been made available to her, so she was going to use it.

"I really don't know what you --" and then, suddenly, Maryem did. "How did you walk on the train?"

Yona looked at her blankly, but Timmy jolted, like he was getting ready to stand up. He stopped when nobody else moved, looking up at them shyly.

"Go on," said Maryem, gesturing with her flatbread. "Show us how you walk on a train."

So Timmy swung his legs over the bench and slid to the ground. He glanced back to make sure they were all watching -- they were, even Little Abed, who could usually never be distracted from his breakfast for anything less dire than a cave collapse, or a pretty girl stumbling. Then he strode to the end of the table; normally, at first, the way they did, but by the time he reached the end and turned around to come back, his stance had shifted. Bow-legged, hand out for balance, the way you do when you're going down a staircase that hasn't been bolted into the rock properly. He leaned -- exactly as if the ground were pitching.

"Oh," said Maryem. "That makes sense."

"No, it doesn't!" Aaliyah's older sister's voice (her shorthand was written as , and Maryem could never remember if it was Aanwar or Anwarah, and so didn't call her anything for fear of saying the wrong one) rose from further down the table.

"Sure it does. If you were born and raised on a train that moved, how are you going to differentiate movement from nonmovement? Nothing ever stops moving. You know how Sister taught us that we're on a planet that's going through space --" nods all around, although their grasp of "space" was more or less the same as their grasp of "sky": they understood it theoretically. "Well, we don't feel that acceleration. Although I'm sure we would if it stopped. But what I mean is: to us, movement feels like stillness. So walking on solid ground probably feels like movement to you." This last was addressed to Yona, who looked back at her uncomprehendingly: she was speaking in Arabic, which Yona still categorically refused to learn. "Because the ground isn't where your feet expects it to be."

 

-

 

Of all the people Maryem slowly and carefully introduced the snow-children to, Yona liked Big Abed the best.

He brought a lockbox with him when he came to visit -- it had belonged to his parents when they Descended, a square metal box with a lock-and-tumbler that had once held their valuables, but Big Abed proudly inherited it from them when he got his position with the Tunnelers. Inside, he kept a collection of all the different types of stones, rocks, and minerals he'd ever encountered, crawling through the peripheral tunnels or bartering with visitors from other Colonies.

He coaxed Yona to sit with him at the edge of the walkway outside their room, their legs dangling out into space. Timmy, of course, remained tucked under Yona's arm, ignoring the drop, and Maryem leaned against the wall behind them, unobtrusively translating. Yona probably understood more than she was willing to let on -- but that, Maryem supposed, was like her not washing. If she let go of her language, what of her home did she have left?

Big Abed showed Yona every rock he collected. Apparently, he'd taken it quite personally when Yona, smirking like she knew exactly how mind-boggling her statement was going to be, told them she'd only felt dirt on her hands for the first time when she was seventeen years old and about to overthrow Wilford's tyranny. The first time. She was seventeen!

Yona didn't seem to mind Big Abed's lengthy spiels, though Maryem got hard-pressed sometimes to find translations: Korean, it turned out, had a number of words for "rock," but not nearly as many as they used in the warrens.

"This," he explained. "Is also dirt, but it's different than what I just showed you. This is what we use for growing, it's --"

"I know what it is," Yona said quellingly, grabbing his palm to tip it towards her; the loose earth spilled through the creases in his hand. "You taste it, right?"

"Right!" said Big Abed, clearly pleased.

He poured a little into her palm, and together, they dabbed it up with their tongues, considering. Yona's eyebrows hiked in surprise. "Fuck, it tastes different!"

"I told you!" he said. Then, almost wistfully, "I wonder what it was like -- Snowpiercer's dirt, I mean."

A shrug. "I only had it once, I couldn't tell you," and she grinned when Maryem and Big Abed just shook their heads, dumbfounded.

 

-

 

Meanwhile, Maryem's mother made Timmy her project.

They had a pretty good idea what languages Timmy understood. His eyes tracked Maryem and Yona's back-and-forth with no hesitation, and he followed directions presented to him in Korean, though whether it had been his language before Yona had pulled him out of Snowpiercer's broken-open ribcage by the hand, nobody could say. Once, he'd given his toothiest grin after Aaliyah burned her hand and cursed in English, and smugly accepted the crust of her bread as payment for not tattling before Maryem could tell her Timmy wasn't going to tattle.

Being a teacher, Maryem's mother was coincidentally conversational in the five most common languages spoken by the under-10s, but now she was trying even the most peripheral phrases she'd ever heard, seeking recognition.

"Oh, habibi," she sighed. "What do we got to do to get you to talk to us?"

Not a single word had crossed Timmy's lips since his arrival.

Yona's eyes darted askance at Maryem.

When she explained, she got a dismissive shrug of Yona's shoulders in response. "Oh, that," she said. "I keep telling you, he's not going to talk. All his words have been scared out of him."

"So he's mute?"

Yona's shoulders jumped again, like cooking beans. "Sure."

Maryem passed this along to her mother, who considered it and nodded. "That can happen, with trauma," she said. That's what Farid had said, too.

Timmy nudged sideways with his elbow, and Yona dragged her bowl closer, possessively, before remembering herself. She let her arms fall so Timmy could press up against her side, digging his spoon into her soup.

"You could be like Grey, you know," she told him, nudging back. He tongued at the spoon and watched her, already nodding. "Being mute isn't so bad if you get to be like Grey. Tell you what! When you grow up, we'll get you covered in tattoos. Do you guys do that here?" She fired at Maryem, then continued without waiting for an answer, "Whatever, we'll do it ourselves. We'll make our own ink. It'll glow in the dark, you'll look so cool! You'll have tattoos all over your body -- 'yes' on one fist, 'no' on the other, 'eat a dick, motherfucker' in huge letters on your chest, how does that sound?"

Timmy brightened in response, displaying a gleam of teeth.

His future apparently secure, he went back to swinging his legs and sucking on his spoon.

Maryem's mother arched her eyebrows questioningly. Her Korean was almost nonexistent; she'd buried her language with her husband.

"Grey sounds pleasant," Maryem commented, thoughtlessly, and in the next instant felt like she'd walked over someone's grave.

Chagrined, she tugged on the tail of her hijab, and Yona smirked. While Maryem sat there and desperately wished for something less humiliating to happen, like maybe an earthquake or an emergency drill or Little Abed to drag her down the aisle between the tables, holding her hand and chanting haram, haram hand-holding, oooo, Maryem so haram!, she slurped at her soup and then said casually, "His tongue was cut out. Grey's."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Yeah. When he was a baby." She gestured with her spoon, then gobbled up another bite and lifted her elbow out of the way for Timmy to do the same. "There was this guy who slept in the bunk below them, but he couldn't sleep when Grey cried, and Grey cried a lot. Grey cried all the time. Grey cried for months. His mother got tired of trying to soothe him, because there wasn't anything to do. So this guy picks up a knife and climbs up to Grey's cradle and forces his jaws apart --"

"Stop!"

"And cuts out his tongue. After that, the only noises Grey could make were these awful fucking whimpers. It was worse than the crying."

Maryem set her spoon down. Her mother's eyes roamed back and forth, her mouth thinning.

"What happened to him?" she demanded, needing it. "The man, I mean."

Yona thought about it, wiping soup off her chin. "Gilliam sent Curtis," she said, in such a tone that it sounded like an entire answer; a whole story concluded in three words. Timmy smiled again, content with this, but when Yona looked at Maryem and found her looking back, expectant, she rolled her eyes and elaborated, "The rest of the tail sector had the guy confined to his bunk. They handed his knife to Curtis."

Her eyelids slid shut, eyes roaming underneath the skin like she was picturing it playing out.

"Curtis made two bigger guys drag him out and forced him to kneel in the aisle. He stood over him and he said, 'You have mutilated a child for your own comfort. If the crying of one child bothers you so much, then the solution is clear, don't you think?' Then he lifted the knife," she demonstrated with the spoon, eyes still closed. "And with everybody watching, he cut the man's ears off: his left, then his right."

The hairs on Maryem's arms rose on end. How disposable were body parts on the train, anyway? Arms, tongues, ears. No wonder Yona and Timmy came out of that wreckage looking like they'd been birthed in blood.

"That's awful," she muttered.

Yona shrugged. "That's how you lead by example. What happened to Grey never happened to any other kid."

 

-

 

"But Maryem," Aaliyah pointed out, stepping to the side to let Mohammed and Muhamed go racing up the stairs in the other direction. "How did she know?"

"Know what?"

They were on their way to Deck E, where (Maryem still wasn't going to ask which pronunciation of that was correct) lived with her new husband. She worked in the repair sector and came home with a number of useless bric-a-brac that had chipped off, broken off, or fallen off other things and couldn't be recycled back. She let them comb through tins of the stuff, looking for pieces to turn into jewelry. Maryem wanted to see if there was anything Yona might want to use to decorate her headband.

"About the baby? You said Yona told you she'd never set foot in the -- the -- the tail sector, was it? So how could she know about the man and the baby and the knife?"

Maryem jerked her shoulders. "I don't know, maybe somebody told her before the crash?"

"Really?" Aaliyah was politely dubious. "Didn't she talk about it like she'd been there, you said?"

"Well, yes, but …"

She stopped walking. Maryem continued another few steps before she stopped, too, and turned to watch Aaliyah watch her. She thought, unbidden, of her mother, calling Aaliyah sensitive. She thought of how Aaliyah cried all morning on that last train day; fat drops that cut wet tracks in the cave color of her face until she brushed them away, bewildered, saying, I don't know why I'm crying.

Three days later, she brought it up.

"Yona," she said slowly. "Are you clairvoyant?"

"Fuck off," Yona replied.

"Are you a mind-reader?"

"I know what clairvoyant means, you fucking clump of dirt, now fuck off."

"But how did you know? About --" there was that grave-crawling feeling again, like Maryem was calling on their bones just by saying their names, like if she turned around they'd be right there, Yona's stalwart and half-rotted protectors. "-- Curtis, and how Grey became mute?"

Yona flicked a look off of her like she was brushing away dust, dismissive. "That's easy. The train told me."

The train: fierce, gleaming teeth and grill and bounding claws, ripped from its tracks and flung into the snow, its ribcage cleaved clean open. This was how Snowpiercer looked in her mind; a snake that ate its own tail. The adults, Crabgrass and her mother and Farid, they all talked about the train like it was an object, like trains have always been objects. The only train Maryem knew was Snowpiercer, and Snowpiercer was not an object. Snowpiercer wasn't even a machine.

She looked up, and found Yona studying her, suddenly fixed.

"You know what I'm talking about," she said without hesitation. "You do."

"The caves," Maryem said by way of explanation. "My friend Aaliyah -- my mother calls her sensitive, and she is. I think sometimes she knows what's going to happen in the tunnels before they happen, and she knows about things that have happened And me, the feeling I get in the History Tunnels --"

"We listen to the things we grow up with," she nudged at Maryem's knee with her own. "The train was as much my mother as, I think, the caves are yours. It's parent. It's society."

She pulled out the word Yona had used for it. "The world."

And Yona grinned.

 

-

 

Every now and then, a small team of Tunnelers in protective gear came and got Yona and Timmy and took them to the surface -- mainly because they would have gone anyway. They got caught once -- they didn't get very far, because their distinctive walk gave them away, and also, they were trying to sneak out wearing their coats. Why would anyone try to sneak? Nothing was hidden. It wasn't even exactly forbidden to go to the surface (those doors were locked, but from the inside: they were protection against anything else that might Descend) -- it was just that nobody did. The surface meant death.

The surface had meant death from the beginning of history, since C-47 Day. This wasn't a problem they've had before, people trying to sneak out.

"Not recently," murmured Aaliyah, which Maryem had ignored at the time because it was odd, but in hindsight, it made the hairs on her arms go up.

By the time they rousted Maryem out of bed to come interpret for the would-be escapees, Yona was backed into a corner, all spines and rocks underfoot, jutting her chin out and saying that they wanted to see the polar bear again.

Maryem wasn't allowed to come on these excursions.

"You have to understand, little sister," said Benata Nnenge, chucking her under the chin. "It would take months to train you -- you don't have the eyes, and you've never experienced cold like the cold on the surface. Do you know what wind is? Of course you do, you've been told. They can do without their interpreter for a little while. Go and be well with your family."

They went after midday prayers, when the temperatures on the surface were at their peak for the day -- the window of time for a survivable outdoor environment was only an hour, maybe two.

Second-hand, Maryem learned about their treks down to the crash site. As the avalanche had scattered Snowpiercer in every direction for miles, they went to the main one; the engine, Yona called it, where she and Timmy had been born.

They walked around under the bigness of the sky -- "is it blue?" Maryem asked, and when Yona said "yes" with an uncharacteristic kind of reverence in her voice, she closed her eyes so she could better picture it -- and crunched through the hardness of the snow, and Timmy scooped up handfuls in his gloves and ate it.

Snowpiercer's engine wasn't visible anymore, as fresh snowfall had buried it deep and drifted it over, so Yona built two humps in front of the wreckage. Snow obediently gathered up and humped up around it, and she stood in front of them like gravemarkers -- one for Curtis, one for her father.

"It feels right, watching them," said Benata. Like Maryem's father, she'd been on hajj when the C-47s forced them to Descend or die. "It's why none of us ever complain about them coming along. They belong more to the surface and the snow than we ever did."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," and here, Benata smiled. "If we're ever going to Ascend again, we're going to do it by following those two. When they're grown, perhaps."

 

-

 

Belowgrounds, there was one other place that Yona and Timmy enjoyed -- the farms.

They weren't the only ones. The sight and smell of fertile black soil (Big Abed had a more scientific name for it, of course, but Maryem always forgot what that was five minutes after talking to him) and green, growing things cast a power over people very rarely replicated by anything else.

Regulations dictated that nothing interfere with farm production -- they depended too much on their yields, with little room for error -- but people often came down in their free time anyway. Small tokens of appreciation appeared here and there: a small shrine sat amongst the pea plants; strings of pebble charms dangled from the heavy heat lamps; a necklace of dried good-luck centipedes lay looped around the water pump. Signs of prayer were everywhere.

At fourteen, Maryem's faith was still unformed, vigorous vines planted in her that grew everywhere but bore no fruit yet, so it puzzled her sometimes, the way adults would bless Allah like they sensed his presence.

But when she met Daphne with the snow-children in tow, Daphne said, "Mashallah, the crops are well," Maryem breathed out and returned, "Mashallah," and maybe even meant it.

Timmy's favorite game involved a hide-and-seek chase around the fields of crops. He took off running, leaving Maryem and Yona to follow the soft snatches of his laughter as they dodged and raced in between rows of beans, tall grain grasses, low spreads of tubers and leaning vegetables. Everything smelled like green, and the light from the lamps stung her eyes and made them water. It was always much, much brighter here than anywhere else in the warren.

The rows were planted neatly -- like the spine of a train, like aisles, Yona pointed out, and then put her feet down harder, like she needed to outrace the statement.

Sometimes, they disturbed Daphne's workers, who looked up from their scales and moisture readers and just smiled.

 

-

 

On the day that Timmy started school with the under-10s, Maryem took Yona up into the History Tunnels to show her her own history.

She'd seen the mural before -- had stood in front of it and put her hands on her hips and said "is that really what we looked like from the outside?" in a vaguely unimpressed way and "fuck, this is shit, I could really use some kronol right now" -- but this time, Maryem took her deeper into the tunnels, chasing Snowpiercer's story as the details unfolded: Wilford's apathy, the subjugation of the crew and the freeloaders in the tail section. Some of the information Yona had already corroborated in the early days, when Crabgrass and the rest of her council came frequently to mine her for answers, but it was still another thing entirely to show it to her.

Yona frowned at the shorthand letters, sounding out the ones she recognized.

"This is weird," she decided, and then swung her underground eyes on Maryem, suddenly intense. "And you call me clairvoyant. How the fuck do you know all this?"

"Hmm?"

"About Wilford. How did you know about the passengers -- that there were fucking rich shitheads who paid to be protected while everyone perished, and then there were people who jumped on and forced their way inside and almost starved while crew like me and my father were told to find a way to recycle them? Weren't most of your people already underground when that happened?"

"I --"

She stopped and thought, tracing back through her memories to see if she could put a face to the information. Someone had chalked it into the walls. It was here, in the History Tunnels, therefore it was someone's history. "We've always known it."

Yona snorted. She looked back at the text on the wall.

"Mar-yem," she said, her voice a quiet thing poking its head into the silence, the little pool of light cast by their glow-light. "Cheung Mar-yem, how fast does information travel between Colonies?"

"Ne." Another question she wasn't prepared to answer. "I'm not sure. Not very fast -- all information has to be delivered in person. I think there's a Colony to the east working on establishing -- communications? With wires? But --"

"Will there be other people coming to ask me questions?" Yona interrupted. Her eyes were dark, the reflected light from their glow compacted into pinpricks on their surface. "As the news spreads?"

"Maybe. Probably."

Yona nodded, slow. "Good," she said. Then, inexplicably, "I want to meet her."

 

-

 

The month of Rajab crept in quietly while nobody was paying attention, and with it, everything changed.

In the 10-15s class, a group of twenty celebrated their fifteenth birthdays and graduated permanently, Big Abed included. They were relocated into their early adulthood job placements; ten years from now, they would have the option to be reevaluated to see if their qualifications had changed, and maybe moved to another placement from there. Big Abed promised Yona and Timmy that he would come visit, because really nothing had changed, and Little Abed teased him, "If you wanted to date her, who would you even ask for permission?"

"Maryem, probably," Big Abed answered without missing a beat. "And Yona al-Namgung doesn't want to date. She just wants to know about dirt."

"He says," Little Abed muttered out of the side of his mouth. "Like that's somehow better."

Maryem's mother's ration card had enough on it by now to get them new shoes, and, more delighted by that, Maryem shrugged it off when the news filtered through that a convoy had just arrived from an eastern Colony, bringing with it the valuable resources it produced that Maryem's Colony couldn't produce on its own: new wires, drill bits, and chalk. New shoes were still more relevant to her life, she figured, and much more exciting.

And then the summons came: Maryem's services were required in the Tunneler's Hall.

Tunneler's Hall was the grand meeting cavern, the only one large enough to physically hold the entire population at once if necessary, where they delivered important warren-wide announcements and held community meetings. Crabgrass had told them about Snowpiercer here.

When she arrived, Yona and Timmy were already there, standing among a cluster of Tunnelers in their distinctive hard hats; Yona with her new glittering headband tied around her head and Timmy still holding his school tablet, having been brought straight here from Maryem's mother's class.

"Do you know what this is about?" Yona demanded as soon as Maryem was within range.

She shook her head. "Just that I'd need to translate for you."

So they stood side-by-side, Timmy half-tucked between them, and waited.

 

-

 

When she came, she stepped straight out of her convoy, and all attention fell on her. She wore her pants flared and loose the way they did in her Colony, her hair long and straight and black, and under the low lights its highlights caught the same blue color of milk. Her eyes were underground eyes, wide and dark as wreckages, as caves.

She stepped down the dais; one foot, then the other. Crabgrass stopped mid-sentence. Feedback buzzed from the speakers, then died away.

The traveler spoke. Her voice winged across the dirt, like a hard rock flung and made to skip.

"Namgung Yona?" it called. "Namgung Yona, is that you?"

Yona stepped back, instinctive, and bumped Maryem. Timmy made a throaty noise and grabbed her leg at the same time Maryem steadied her with a hand to her back.

The woman's face cracked, rounding her cheeks and exposing her teeth. She looked lit up with joy, radiant.

Her words cascaded out of her. "I don't believe it! Look how much you've grown!" She used English, and Maryem looked to Yona for translation. "Oh, of course you'd be grown, you're … you're what, almost eighteen now?"

"Qaanik?"

And just like that, her arms were around Yona's neck and Yona's hands came up, splayed wide and belatedly like she'd meant to catch her. Her eyes were shocked wide open.

"Oh, beautiful girl," said the woman. "How can you remember that?"

She pulled back, cradling Yona's face in her own hands for a brief moment -- Maryem looked, and saw calluses and bleached-white skin and thought you've been in the snow -- before her hands drifted to hover over Yona's shoulders.

"But yes, I am Qaanik. I am called Snowflake for the same reason our sister Aisha up there is called Crabgrass. Oh, Yona," her mouth wobbled. "Look at you. You look so much like your father."

"You're dead!" burst out of Yona, who didn't seem to know whether to recoil from the touch or lean into it. "You're fucking dead! We pass your figures every year. You're a fucking lesson they teach in school! The Flight of the Seven, you're called. Seven people who tried to fucking escape, and you froze solid in twenty steps. Everybody knows what happened to you."

"Yona. Sweet face," Qaanik's eyes folded with sympathy. "Do you know how easy it is to build human shapes in the snow? You've seen how the snowfall gathers. All we had to do is make the right number of lumps there, let the snow build up on top of them and pack down into ice, and your imaginations did the rest."

Yona's mouth worked, open and shut. Timmy watched her face for a cue, and Maryem kept a hand on her back.

That explained it, didn't it? How it could be in the History Tunnels, all those things about Snowpiercer nobody else should rightly know? They knew because someone'd jumped from the train and survived. They knew because she was standing before them now, with Yona in her arms.

It struck her then: wherever Yona went, whatever Yona decided to do, they would follow. Timmy the snow-child, and Cheung Maryem, they would follow.

Yona was the train: the train was her. Namgung Yona -- Snowpiercer Yona, all heart and teeth and claws, and what do you do with trains except follow them?

"We made it," Qaanik continued, gentler. "We all lived, Yona. I'm sorry Wilford used our escape to further his oppression of you and your people, but we weren't ready for him to learn that we could survive without him. And we couldn't, not really. It was luck that we were found so quickly by the Colonies. But. But. I taught your father. I taught him everything I knew about snow in the hopes that he'd follow the same path one day, when the surface had melted further. And here you are."

A noise, harsh, choked, wrung itself from Yona's throat.

Around them, everyone stood silent and in their places, as was their way. Nothing was hidden, but it wasn't theirs to have, and so no one intruded.

Then Yona was crying, as raw and horrible as a handless man's blood on her coat, and Qaanik hugged her with all her energy, murmuring, "We made it. We're alive, train child. We're alive and so are you."

 

 

 

-

 

fin