In Jiiha Village

*

The little girl was running down the narrow tunnel. "Simon, nyah!" she called back, laughing. "I'm winning this one!"

As she looked back, she trailed one hand against the wall to keep her path. Simon was about four meters back in the dim light, breathing hard, but as he caught her looking, he screwed up his mouth into an expression of childish determination that made her gulp. Cora knew that look. Turning back had probably been a mistake-- it had broken her stride, and now he would get the opportunity to catch up; an opportunity she could not afford him. Cora leaned into the turn as she rounded the last bend, pelting down towards the village square. Simon had boasted he could beat any of his girl cousins, but Cora's legs were longer, and no matter how determined he was, she had to beat him. Miho and Hanna, waiting in the square, cheered as she came into view; they were jumping up and down, chanting "Cora, Cora!" at her, which meant she was still winning, and she felt the grin stretch her face. Simon's footsteps were frantic behind her, coming closer and closer. She had never won against him yet. Cora kicked out her leg for a final leap-- across the finish line, into the cheers and the arms of the other cousins, all collapsing into a delighted, laughing ball of girls as Simon sulked and panted beside them. His dark hair was mopped with sweat.

(In the next race he would beat Hanna by a full stretch, and smile down and give her his handkerchief when she cried over it; and she would love him secretly and devoutly for the rest of the week, until Cora and Miho teased her mercilessly out of it. Two months later Hanna would cough blood into the handkerchief she had never gotten around to returning. Twelve others would fall to the cough that season in Jiiha, and another fourteen to the big earthquake the next year. After Hanna's burial, they would avoid the tunnel as a haunted place, and then ultimately, with the resilience of children, forget it entirely. When it collapsed in the big quake, none of them noted its passing.)

Now, though, the moment was Cora's-- now was her time to reach down a hand and offer him an apologetic grin. Now was her time to be taken aback, briefly and utterly, by the openness of that smile.

*

"Gross--it's that digger, Simon," says Miho. Nalini titters, encouraging her to continue. "Every day he's covered in dirt."

Miho, who spends every day mucking out her mother's mole-pig pens, has grown fiercely diligent in her washing since Nalini pretended to vomit after smelling her hair. Since water is rationed, this means, in practice, abrasive sand: Miho's hands and the edges of her neck and hands are raw and reddened from its repeated use. Nalini might not notice, but Cora does. Miho's nails are smooth and fine as a child's, but her palms are calloused as a man's, and her knuckles bleed every day.

"Maybe he enjoys it?" Nalini offers.

Cora laughs along. "He's holding something weird, too."

"And he stinks," adds Miho.

Simon stands still, eyes wide, unmoving. He knows them as well as they know him. Cora knows that he has almost certainly heard how her father berates her every night next door-- "Cora, a cousin only just your age inherited his father's drill and became the best digger in Jiiha village! And what can you do, Cora? Better find a man to keep you soon." Simon never mentions this. Maybe he doesn't think it's worth mentioning. It has been some years now since he ran down the tunnels with them laughing, and some years since he last looked up from the ground.

"He's looking at us," Cora says, mocking hysterics.

Nalini clutches her arm. "Careful, he might drill a hole into you." She laughs.

As they pass him by, Nalini gives her a dig under the ribs, making sure the full import of the joke sinks in. The rumors about Nalini and Moda have been circulating all that week. Everyone in the village knows she isn't a virgin anymore. Nalini has chosen to wear this as a piece of glamour and mystique rather than cower and deny the scandal. Her fingers are digging into Cora's arm as they walk by, but she will not turn, she will hold her head up, and she will not look at dirty, stunted, childish Simon, who is her own age, not even if she has to raise her chin above her nose to keep him below her.

That night Miho has to help herd up Kamina's stolen mole-pigs, and Cora has to take her shift at pedalling the old generators. Her father is Kiiha's mechanic, which makes it the family business. Now that her mother's gone, that makes for lots of work. She's sweating and smelly by the time they have enough power stored for the evening emergency usage.

"Cora," her father announces after they eat, "I want to train you to help me with the upkeep and repairs for our generators. Soon you'll marry and have children, and you can't spend all day pedalling when you're pregnant. You learn the softer tasks; leave the hard work to a man. Your second-cousin Fulman is getting strong. He'll be stronger than that Kamina, watch and wait."

"I'm only fourteen," says Cora. She can still feel the bruise where Nalini's elbow dug into the soft flesh at her side.

"Well, wait a few years, then," he pats her shoulder. "But neither of us is getting any younger."

*

When the face-monster crashes through the ceiling the next day, it destroys one of the generators. Jiiha is suddenly open to the elements, to the monsters, the structural integrity of their walls is weakened, and their best digger is stolen away-- by Kamina, the delinquent and disappointing Kamina, whom the chief now confesses he had always considered a particularly difficult but potentially promising apprentice.

"And they're dead," the chief says to Cora's father, over a precious tin cupful of whiskey. "Just like that. And with an exit like that one, he leaves me with my hands full trying to keep more from following him into death and exile. Typical Kamina. And my village in ruins."

"That one was always more trouble than he was worth."

The chief sighs, and rubs his hands across his eyes. "We'll declare them both officially dead tomorrow, to get their minds off the surface world. Then, we move the village into the deeper tunnels."

As it turns out, though, there's never a chance for symbolic burial and mourning. All that evening and the next day come ferocious earthquakes and glimpses of more monsters, flashing metallic fury down the gaping hole in the roof. Everyone who can forces a retreat into the deeper tunnels; Cora and her father take what equipment they can on their backs-- not enough to rebuild the generators in full, but enough to start it. They'll have to make several trips into the unstable half-buried debris of the evacuated village, pulling damaged cords and sprockets out of the rubble. The last earthquakes have ripped out most of the power conduits, and destroyed all the rooms on the northeast corridor.

Even with their casualties, there is not enough room for everyone in the low shelters and new developments below, so everyone who has a drill must drill down into the expanding regions, night and day shifts. It isn't long before diggers begin to die in ground left newly unstable by the shaking earth. When one does not come back for his rations, the other diggers must take on the gruesome task of digging down to the bodies to recover the drills. They leave the bodies-- rotting warnings of dangerous terrain. When the digger replacements are chosen, still more inexperienced than those who had died, they often shake as they take hold of the handles. They are well below the familiar now, and they do not know the ground.

Once the basic conduits are laid, the work of repairing and installing the main generator becomes Cora's world. She no longer notes the passing of the days. Her father brings in Fulman sooner than anticipated, his broadening shoulders toiling beside her narrow ones. It turns out that Cora marries before Nalini, although only just. Cora's first child is born thin and wailing two weeks before Nalini's is born blue and still. Nalini cuts her hair and continues working, but her hands shake, and her flesh is too white. Moda did not make it down to the lower tunnels, so Miho takes her in, feeds her broth, and lets her be silent when she needs to. Incredibly, all three women have survived the move.

*

Perhaps because the village lies so much deeper now, and the day to day repairs and reconstruction are so exhausting, they don't notice when exactly the tremors cease.

Cora's daughter Lina does not thrive. Few children look well these days; it is as if the pressure of the low earth is slowly crushing them into stunted, puny things. They all must work now. There are no more races.

Cora doesn't notice her own health until Fulman takes baby Lina from her arms, forces Cora to lie down, covers her with a blanket, and does not wake her for two days. When she finally crawls out of that cocoon, she feels almost human again. The village is smaller, but it lives. The generator is finished; there is space to walk, and even a few moments to sit and breathe before eating. Miho sends her meat for her table that day; whether it is kindness prompted by a word from Fulman, or the practical consideration due a nursing mother, she does not know. She hasn't spoken to Miho in weeks. As she lifts the rich meat to her mouth, her jaw trembles involuntarily. Afterwards her gut gurgles and aches for hours.

It is a month later when the first visitor reaches them.

"Ayako, from Ritona," the dirt-faced woman introduces herself, sipping a cup of whiskey. "We've been trying to dig down and find you for weeks now. Something is happening on the surface. Earthquakes have stopped. The monsters have gone away."

"Here in Jiiha, we have decided it would be better to forget the surface again," said the chief.

"Ritona respects its neighbor's views," says Ayako, furrowing her brow, "but we have always kept one ear to the surface, and we thought Jiiha should know. Are you aware that the name "Kamina" is whispered all across the local villages?"

"Kamina is numbered among our dead." The chief's voice is loud. "He is another thing it would be better to forget."

"Is Jiiha really set on becoming a deep village, then?" Ayako sets the cup down roughly. "Should Ritona forget about you, too?"

After this, the chief speaks with her into his own private room. Ayako emerges some hours later, looking red around the neck, and crawls back into her tunnel. No-one covers the hole. Every so often Cora steals a surreptitious glance, but never when anyone can see her. She knows that the others do too.

Two weeks later, a grape-hippo runs down the Ritona tunnel and into the new village square, where it circles madly, puffing, until the chief manages to slit its throat. They pull out the hot pepper that has been inserted into its anus to keep it running forward; the animal was clearly sent. Carefully tied under its stomach they find fresh greens, red berries, and stick of wood carved into a long, smiling face.

*

The settlement by the oasis is called Jiitona. They farm the wild black rice where reeds once sprouted, and when the aid shipments begin to come from Kamina City, the more plentiful brown rice. Lina is three and growing fat; Cora's father, now past forty, schemes with the other village elders all night about how to bring up the underground lake that once served Jiiha and Ritona, and about the best way to use that water to reclaim more of the surface for their expanding populace. At night, Cora and Fulman take apart the new radios that came in the latest aid shipment, diagramming circuits and checking for parts, getting ready to upgrade the village technology. At last, after the futility of all their trying in the thin times, Cora is pregnant again. Lina will soon have a younger sibling.

Even far from the capital as they are, Jiitona has begun to attract a growing stream of visitors. They're tourists-- or pilgrims, really, seeking out the holy birthplace of the saviors of mankind. This was flattering at first. It is starting to become a bit repetitive.

"Did you know the great Kamina-sama? What was he really like? Do they tell the truth when they tell the stories about him?"

(Years ago, when the chief came up to the gully and heard the story of the Gurren Brigade from the mouths of those few original surface dwellers, he turned white. Kamina had lived, Kamina was alive again; then, with a wrenching turn that was visible in the lines around his jaw and neck, Kamina was taken away again. He sat down then, right in the center of the gully, halting the long line of villagers that was stretched out behind him. They stood craning their necks to see what the hold-up was, feeling the wonderment of the breeze against their faces for the first time; looking up at the high walls of the gully, and the higher blue above. Finally, after a long pause, he waved them on. For nearly half an hour, the whole of Jiiha village trudged by him, one by one, backs laden with all their small possessions, turning to stare at this man who sat there in the raw, warm earth, grabbing hold of it with both his hands.)

"...did he really look like his statue?"

Eventually, one of the Ritonans, who are more literate than the survivors of Jiiha, posts a few signboards around town to stem the flood of questions. Yes, Kamina looked like the statue (although none of them has seen it.) Yes, everyone here knew him. Everyone will tell you that he was exactly the man that the stories told.

With Simon, it's different. Many of the visitors come from Kamina City, where the supreme commander, when he can, walks the streets openly among the citizens. Anyone who hasn't met him knows someone else who has. They've spoken with him about the city repairs, and then boasted proudly about it to all their friends. They've shaken hands with him, and three days later found that they are still standing taller than they did before. They bring stories about how tall he is growing, about the bravery of the giant Gurren Lagann, spotted in border skirmishes with the beastmen, and about the beautiful girl who is always with him. Cora smiles and listens just like the rest of the Jiitonans, letting them share these stories; they're happy to talk and to imagine, in her passive nodding, a deep connection to someone who knew-him-when. But Simon himself does not come to Jiitona. Instead, Nia does.

She arrives without pomp or announcement or a guard. She does not need them. Even without the whispers of the Kamina visitors, they would know her.

"Simon sends you his greetings," she says. "He is sorry that he cannot come himself. Rossiu keeps him too busy, I think. But I wanted to see where Simon comes from."

Nia is all the talk of the village for the three days she is there, and for easily a year afterward. Nia the beautiful and ethereal, so graceful that she seems to glide rather than walking; her voice is as soft as air. It is perhaps because she is so delicate that life seems to radiate out of her at every moment, like a pulse beating through the skin of a woman's throat. The vitality of that pulse seems to be the only thing connecting her to the world of mud and stone; if not for that, she would dissolve into the sky around her. They love her instantly-- the fattening children, the hunger-stunted youths who will never grow as tall as Simon, the working farmers who laugh at Nia's surprising strength when she joins them in the paddies.

Cora and Miho are the ones who take her down into the old Jiiha village. Cora wants to salvage a few more electrical parts from the old generators; resources remain scarce, for all their growing prosperity. Her pregnancy is progressing; this may be the last opportunity for a while.

Down in the old broken square, moss and saplings are sprouting in profusion, and most of the old tunnels are unsafe. They try to keep most tourists away because of the danger. Cora tests the footing on the way to the tunnel to the lower village, as Miho follows behind with Nia's hand in her own; but the two have fallen far behind by the time Cora reaches it, and she turns to see Nia stopped in the center of the square, standing unmoving on a bit of boulder, peering down into the gloom. Cora realizes then in a rush that all the traces of Simon's Jiiha are finally gone; the village is picked over, grown over, and demolished, leaving no past here for Nia to find. There is nothing for her here, only rubble and ruin.

"It must have been very difficult," Nia says at last. "When you moved the village. Even seeing this now, I can't really imagine what that must have been like."

Cora looks down at her hands, the coarse and leathered skin, down at the bulge in her belly. Her hip joints ache, and her feet are beginning to splay. She is nineteen years old.

"Do you want to keep going?" asks Miho.

"No." Nia smiles, and looks up at the sky. "I don't need to see any more. Let's go back to Jiitona; I'd much rather see what you are building now."

*

In the intervals of seasons and crops and children, the earth is saved, and saved again. Deep Jiiha becomes a moon shelter; Jiitona too is once more reborn. Tourists swell the ranks and disturb the ground and force the old village square to be cordoned off and closed; finally, they simply stop coming.

Every day, Lina is digging. After ten years, the government grant has finally come through, a rare concession that the past also has value: that remembering one's origins has a value, that not every scrap of money needs to go to science, progress, and bigger machines. Her mother's generation has been heavily invested in burying the past, quickly, messily, and thoroughly-- in letting themselves forget. Lina can't blame them for that. But now, down in the rubble of Jiiha village-- where she was born, although she was too young to remember it-- there are archaeological treasures whose meaning is almost lost. Old abandoned drills, and the skulls of the diggers who went too far; etchings on the walls, cultivated fungus and lichens. Toys dropped in the bed of an underground lake long since drained. Lagann was found here, once; somewhere there should still be the impression of its metal carapace. Somewhere. She is certain of it.

They have the money for better equipment now, but for treacherous ground like this, the old hand-drills really are best. They don't vibrate as much, and the risk of a cave-in is much less. Lina is drilling alone tonight, on a particularly shaky bit of ground where she doesn't want to risk any of the graduate students who work under her; she's also happy to get a bit of time for herself, for once. Since arriving in Kiitona, Pierre in particular has been openly scornful about all the Simon/Kamina kitsch. Lupa is quieter, but she doesn't need to say anything. After decades of tourists and pilgrims picking over these lean remains, getting lost in the deep ways and adding their corpses to the tunnels; after the lower village was converted to a moon shelter, the greatest portion of its original structure scraped away into a utilitarian Rossiu dome; after the local teens from Kiitona sneaking out to drink and deface the site with their bottles and graffiti; there can't really be much left to find of Jiiha village. Lina lets herself consider Lupa's point of view, sometimes: maybe this is just a place for a middle-aged professor to scrape out one more paper, while she waits for her old mother to die.

Lina is busy pitying herself when the rockslide begins. She drops the drill immediately, raising her arms to cushion her face and head, and tucks her leg in tight. If she can create a space for air, she may be able to live. If the rocks don't bury her there.

"Dropping the drill was your first mistake."

A big hand grips her wrist, finding a sure purchase, and then tugs firmly. Lina's head breaks out over the sliding scree, and she gasps the dusty air. There is a man down in the tunnels with her. He has drilled into the side of the section where she has been digging, and now leans half out, braced on one long arm, grinning at her. Lina's jaw drops.

"If the slide is bad enough to crush you, curling up probably won't help. There's nothing you can do. But if it isn't, and you don't have your drill, you'll be stuck. You'll slowly suffocate. The moral is, always hang on to your drill."

He pulls her into the little tunnel he has made. He's tall, middle aged, and his eyes catch the lamplight strangely. Lina brushes rock dust from her hair.

"Thank you," she says.

"We should go back to Jiitona and make sure you're all right," he says. He frowns in concern; it's a lopsided expression, open and honest, like the expressions she sees on the faces of her students when they aren't guarding themselves. On a man his age, it is so odd that she can't help grinning despite herself. Adrenaline is pumping through her veins.

"My mother's house," she says at last. "We can go there. But I think I'm okay. What were you doing down here, anyway?"

"I heard your drill. I dig here now and then."

"Do you have a permit for that?"

He smiles as they begin the climb through the tunnels. "Something like that."

When they come in the door, Lina limping, the tall man supporting her, Cora sits bolt upright on the couch, knocking the tea with her hand. It's gone cold-- she must have fallen asleep waiting for her daughter. She doesn't notice. The man standing beside Lina is older, and his eyes are strange, but the face is the same. She knows him right away.

"Simon," she breathes, falling back against the couch. "Simon. You've brought my daughter back."

Instantly he's beside her, calm hands supporting her to sit comfortably, mopping up the spilled tea. Behind them, Lina is struck dumb, her eyes wide, dust falling from her shoulders.

"Hello, Cora," says Simon. "So, this is your daughter, after all?" He looks lost for a moment, but then he smiles, gentler. "I think... Nia told me about her, a long time ago."

"I thought you had forgotten us," Cora says. "Oh, Lina, don't be stupid. This is Simon. He's your first cousin, once removed. Show your manners and make up some tea." Then the tears come at last, and at last there seems to be no stopping them.

"I'm sorry," Simon says, beside her. "I'm here now. I have never forgotten any of you."

Cora laughs as Lina quietly sets the warm tea in front of her. "No, I don't imagine you could." She wipes her face. "Lina, we were children together, do you know that? He looks more your age than mine now. This will be the end of me after all."

Lina stands tall, holding the kettle, not caring as it burns her hand. The challenge in her eyes is absolute-- this stranger, no matter who he is or what he has done, is making her mother cry. She had not thought it possible. In all the years, with all the children gone, all the friends buried, the earth saved and saved again, she has never seen it. She had thought the tears had dried out of the Jiiha refugees when they came up out of the earth, as if the earth had all sucked the water out of them, leaving them tough and impermeable to sorrow.

"Lina." Cora's hand, now so light and thin, lies on her arm. "Please, go to bed now. I need to speak with my cousin." She smiles. "A lot has happened, Simon. I have a lot to tell you. I only hope I have enough time left to tell it in."

"We'll have time." He nods. The spiral shines in his eye. "Just tell it big enough, and your life will last exactly as long as your story."