this room has only ever seen the light of the pickle
[I just gotta write this down while it's fresh. So to speak.]
"Empty your pockets please. Cellphone, matches, PDA, camera, keys, everything."
I tried to convey my skepticism with a raised eyebrow. This was clearly some sort of a scam, or at the very least a prank, but the old man steadfastly refused to recognize my appeal. He simply held out a gray plastic basket for my things. After a few seconds of silence I started to get uncomfortable, so with an inward sigh I started going through my pockets. Camera, cellphone, wallet, keyring, coins.
"Do you need my belt buckle too?"
"No, I trust you. But we have to do this, you know."
I did not. He slid the basket into a cubbyhole in the wall next to the vault-like door. Then he patted himself down, and put his cell-phone in another basket, in another cubbyhole. He picked a strange device off of a hook on the other side of the door. It had a bulky handle like a flashlight, but instead of a bulb and lens it had this funny hook and clamp, with a screw at the top. An unpleasant looking device, but this time I fought down the eyebrow. It wasn't going to get me anywhere, anyway. One thing I had picked up for certain in my visit to the castle at the end of Mount Shadow Manor Lane*, and that was that the people here didn't much care what you thought of their ways. They were blissfully indifferent to both your cynicism and your common sense.
He levered open the lid of a large mason jar that stood to the left of the door. It opened with a slow, wet, "thwup." It was dark down here, and we had come down fifty steps on a spiral staircase to reach this level. (I had counted the steps. I had also noticed that the staircase wound clockwise as we were headed down, so that we were always turning right.) The mason jar was crusted over on the inside with salt, but I was unsurprised when he picked up a pair of tongs and pulled out a large pickle. That was, after all, why we were here.
The old man shook the pickle off, and then inserted one end of it into the device he held. He used the screw on the hook to press down and hold the pickle firmly in place, pierced at each end. It was a very fast motion, and the pickle-torch was ready to go in a matter of seconds. He flipped a switch on the handle and the pickle glowed with a faint greenish yellow light**. He nodded and handed it me carefully, so that it didn't drip on my sleeve.
He briskly pulled a second torch from the wall and inserted a second pickle, then he closed the mason jar. Now that we each held a pickle torch, he started to turn the large wheel on the steel door that I had been staring at since we had arrived at the bottom of the stairs.
"Point of interest. This next room is a working airlock that we salvaged from a decommissioned missile silo in Kansas, and installed here. One door cannot open while the other is open. The doors are airtight, and so of course they block all light as well. There are no windows or lights inside the airlock, other than these." The door creaked open with a nearly imperceptible hiss of equalizing air pressure, and swung open. It was indeed dark inside.
The airlock was a small metal room. We stepped inside, and my guide closed the door behind us. As the light from outside was sealed off we were bathed in the dim green glow of our pickle torches. If I had been a claustrophobic person, this would have been the time. He turned the inner wheel on the door until there was a click, and then he moved across the room to the other door to start opening it.
"We installed the airlock and the electrical circuit facing a bear rock wall. Since the installation of the airlock, only this form of illumination has been permitted inside. So the entire chamber you are about to see was excavated under this light, and has never been exposed to any other illumination."
"Never." I didn't even bother with the question mark at the end of that one.
What do you keep in a room that has only ever seen the electric light of the pickle? You keep an immense golden chandelier, with three tiers of gloriously glowing pickled cucumbers, obviously. You keep a small crop of sickly-looking genetically modified low-light cucumbers, apparently. You keep a family of mice in a large cage. They haven't seen the sun for six generations, but they seem very happy otherwise. There's a tank of seamonkeys next to them. You keep a giant glass tank of brine, too, and you keep a book with drawings and plans. Construction isn't complete here. There's an unfinished mosaic on the floor, and work on another tunnel is in progress. The plantation, the mice, and the tank of brine all have an unsettled look to them, under the shimmery yellow-green glow, as if they're not quite in their final places, as if this particular arrangement is only temporary.
"The work continues, as you can see."
* It's important that you understand that this is not a made-up street. It is real and deadly serious.
**It's important that you understand that this is not a made-up source of illumination. It is real and deadly serious.