Orphans of Biringan

by Matthew Jacob Ramos

Until very recently, no one had ever made the mistake of confusing Biringan for Biri. Biringan was a city, said to have spires as tall as mountains and a skyline glittering with treasure. Another important difference was that no one was quite sure if Biringan even existed. Some elders claimed it remained hidden in the jungles of Northeastern Samar, concealed between the towns of Catarman and Calbayog. In one story, satellites from a Japanese mining company had even detected traces of gold and other precious metals within the region, only to be met with knitted woodland after days of fruitless searching. No further signs of Biringan’s whereabouts surfaced until a truly rare substance was unearthed from the offshore island of Biri: Uranium.

To many, the discovery of Uranium was perhaps the first real sign that a glorious city of some kind was lurking out in the fringes of Northern Samar. But the fact that it was found in Biri raised many eyebrows as well. The island was the furthest thing to a city. Instead of glowing metal spires, the only towers here were the battered limestone formations that populated its eastern shoreline. Its roads were no wider than two motorcycles standing side by side and electricity there was as fickle as the weather. Domeng, one such resident of this island, had always hoped there was more to his home but the fragility of Biri had become common knowledge ever since the San Bernardino Earthquake struck during his sixteenth year. Thankfully, the island’s sinking that followed was a slow affair. Biri’s rosy beaches didn’t disappear beneath the waves until after three more years had passed.

What the sinking revealed was ultimately far more profound than what it took away. It was around the time when the dikes around San Vicente were finally erected that a tremendous noise, like that of a cannon, echoed all around them and a pillar of smoke rose from the grass fields to the east. Papa, as everyone called Domeng’s father, ran to his son with his hands still dripping with pottery clay, shouting, “Dom, come quick! The sea has torn through the island!”

To their collective astonishment, a strange kind of hot spring emerged, one that spat out boiling water high into the air every few hours. Nothing like it had been seen in all the islands, so the mayor and the priest proclaimed that it was the very breath of God exhaling upon the world. Some of the fishermen had even bottled small vials of spring water and sold them to tourists as tokens of good fortune. This reverence prospered until people living close to the spring began to fall ill.

While the physicians recognized the spring’s water to be poisoned and the holy men feared a curse, Domeng’s friend, Surio, who had also fallen sick, claimed that his fever had been cast upon him after he had broken the heart of a woman he ferried to the island a day before. This woman, who appeared to have vanished since, was also said to lack a philtrum.

“I swear to you, Dom,” Surio whispered. “The space between her nose and lips was as smooth as banana skin. Just like that of a Biringanon.”

Domeng shook his head at the claim. The denizens of Biringan—the Biringanon—were said to take on the shape of people, with bark-like skin, and none of the temperament common to mortals. One trick they were known to employ was to feed lost travelers food that left them unable to leave their city. Domeng thought of this often when more visitors arrived in the days that followed. These were a mix of men and women, each foreign in their features, who began to take residence in Biri. They spoke in an English only heard in films and they bought nearly all the island’s rum for themselves. Surely these were the illusive Biringanon after all?

These outsiders had come to Biri to witness the spitting hot spring, although they saw it as something even more unlikely. A “nuclear reactor” they called it, as if this completely satisfied the many questions the people of Biri had about its appearance. Domeng had heard of such things but he had always imagined them as hulking buildings in cities half a world away, a plantation of lights at their feet. Never had he heard of them sprouting from the ground like spring water.

This knowledge gave these outsiders the power to dictate what crops were still safe to eat, the places on the island they were allowed to go to, and which wells were clean enough to drink from. So strict were their edicts that when the sea currents pushed Tio Adula’s fishing boat into one of the coves deemed forbidden, his catch was immediately repossessed and buried under half a meter of soil. People were rightfully upset. The mayor, who was like a trained dog around these outsiders, shook his head at the very idea of compensating those affected by all these changes.

Papa told Domeng to watch what was happening with open eyes. Biri was being remolded in more ways than just earth and the Birianon were pebbles mixed into the clay. Domeng, for one, questioned surrendering all authority and understanding of the hot spring to the outsiders. He believed that a nuclear reactor couldn’t be that difficult to comprehend if one could appear by chance.


Some of the outsiders called “researchers” were terrified to learn that the mineral they had recovered from the spring was still as hot as fired coals hours after they had encased it. It was just a piece of rock, no bigger than a can of sardines, but they treated it with the same caution given to a jellyfish. Surio was so amused by their panic that he pretended to burn his hand in front of the elder village men in the hopes that they might spare a cigarette. It was when Domeng smiled alongside them that he realized he knew little about Uranium.

He recalled his classroom in high school, which had an illustration of the periodic table of elements on one of the walls. Visiting it also meant seeing Ms. Odette again, the same woman who graded him so poorly all those years ago. To his relief, his teacher showed no misgivings when he returned to her and was quite surprised that more hadn’t come with the same questions. She did apologize, however, since her study of chemistry was only ankle-deep, advising him to continue his research in the mainland port of Lavezares where internet connection was reliable. Since Domeng crossed the stretch of water between Biri and Lavezares every weekend to transport and sell Papa’s pots, it felt like a good way to pass his free time.

Learning about Uranium eventually filled Domeng with odd comfort. Most reassuring was that it was the heaviest naturally-occurring element in the world. He knew that weight had its place in life, like the anchors that kept their boats from drifting or the massive bells in their church that tolled during Sundays. Only the most precious stones were used to weigh down their ears and only the heaviest emotions lingered in their hearts. If weight was the basis in which they judged the value of things, then Domeng could understand how Uranium might be more sought after than gold.

But the essence of Uranium that had drawn everyone’s attention to Biri was its warmth. This was not the same heat stored in wood when they lit up a bonfire or cooked fish in an open spit. Instead, the heat came from a source that appeared to be at the core of all things.

“But Domeng,” laughed Ms. Odette when he returned to her with his findings. “We covered atoms when you were in high school. You can’t have forgotten them already.”

He shifted in his seat. It was possible that Ms. Odette wasn’t the only one listening to him. More of the researchers had taken up residence within the school thanks to an agreement with the mayor. Speaking in Waray was the only way to avoid embarrassment.

One look at Domeng and Ms. Odette’s smile shrank. “Granted, it has been some time since our lessons. You ask difficult questions, Domeng. Even for me. But let me try to explain again.”

As Ms. Odette spoke, Domeng began to imagine individual grains of sand so fine that even the winds had no purchase on them. Atoms were said to be finer, made of still finer pieces, and it was the arrangement of these pieces that shaped how they looked and what they did when they began to clump together. Uranium, being a heavy atom and made of so many fine pieces, was like a catamaran loaded with too many people. It was on the verge of spilling over.

“And the outsiders are afraid of this?” he asked.

“When a tree is about to fall, do you not stay away from it?”

She had a point. But it was the size of the tree that threatened people. An atom was too small to even see. It was not until Domeng’s second visit to the Lavezares public library that he learned how energy poured out of atoms when they came apart—a flood of energy. And it was possible to arrange Uranium atoms like a tower of cans so that their tumbling pieces collided onto those next to them, continuing this disassembly even further.

What he didn’t understand was why such energies were pursued to their extreme. Textbook upon textbook depicted bulbous clouds spanning whole islands, clouds that rose high enough to blot out the sun. That Domeng hadn’t made the leap to such awesome power was the first time he questioned his sensibilities. When the spitting hot spring first appeared, Papa’s friend, Dayang Ting, erected clotheslines around one of the steaming pools to hasten the drying of laundry. Some families were even able to cook fish by dipping their pots into the water for a few minutes. These, he thought, were completely acceptable uses for such heat.

“It is human nature to get the most out of what we’ve learned,” said Ms. Odette. “When your father found that he could use the terracotta from his jars as aggregate for mortar, didn’t he try to sell concrete? It is the same with Uranium. A growing imagination fuels our confidence—even recklessness—to shape the world.”

Domeng was beginning to understand this. Just this morning, Papa had him sweep the ash out of their cooking shed. He couldn’t help but think how useful it might be to have charcoal that didn’t crumble away after every use. A fist-sized piece of Uranium could have served this purpose and last them the rest of their lives.

Ms. Odette watched as he pondered on these things until her expression turned curious. “Domeng, doesn’t this discussion bother you? A nuclear reactor on the island—it’s frightening.”

He wasn’t too sure. Knowing how close to approach a flame before being burned was one of the reasons why Papa permitted him to work by the furnace. He suspected that the same must be true of Uranium.

During his next visit, Domeng wanted to know how it was possible for Uranium to glow bright blue under the right conditions. Makeshift festival lights, perhaps? But as he entered Ms. Odette’s study, he crossed paths with three researchers who were on their way out. They were polite enough to smile, which was the first time any of the outsiders acknowledged him as far as he could recall.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” Domeng said as he took his seat facing the doorway.

Ms. Odette’s smile was mild. “It’s okay. They’ve been asking me to assist them with their research for some time. Mostly small things. But now they’re looking for a long-term trainee from among the Birianon to ease discussions with the local government. It’ll be an internship in Manila.”

He sat up at the mention of the capital city, so far away. “Congratulations.”

“Oh, no. I’m a bit too old to learn anything so sophisticated these days.”

It took a moment for Domeng to fully understand what Ms. Odette meant. Once he did, he had every instinct to withdraw from the room. “Me?”

“Do you remember my first few months here in Biri, how all the other children never talked to me outside of classes? How you avoided me?”

It wasn’t something he regularly thought about. “That is how we are with all new people.”

“And yet you reached out to me when I began learning Waray. Everyone laughed at the way I pronounced words, always correcting me. Then talking to me for no reason at all. People recognize effort, whether they appreciate it or not. And I think this is the best way to help you.”

The sense of pride that came off of Ms. Odette was brief but it eclipsed everything Domeng saw in that moment. It had been so long since he had considered a life outside of Biri. When he failed to finish high school, he was certain that the only city lights he saw were from shorelines too far away to sail to. As he looked again at Ms. Odette, his mind became a breathless turmoil lit up by hundreds of these lights.


Being lured away from Biri in exchange for a more prosperous life was not uncommon for the Birianon people. In the stories told alongside those of Biringan was the tale of a Birianon woman named Berbenota. Some retellings depicted her as a giantess; others believed that her lower half was that of a fish; and there were those who were certain she was the daughter of a fisherman. Only her beauty remained true in every tale. After a family dispute, Berbenota ventured out to the rock formations by Biri’s eastern coast in search of solitude. That was when an enchanted prince named Tamburusan chanced upon her. He was so taken by her beauty that he offered her a life of freedom and wealth in Biringan’s neighboring city, Araw. From there, Berbenota watched over the Birianon people, stranding galleons and merchant vessels when Biri’s supply of food fell short.

By comparison, the gifts that Domeng sent back were not as grand. The government’s stipend was too small to support anyone other than himself, leaving him nothing to share except the stories of his life in Manila. For Papa, who had never ventured outside of Samar, the sheer amount of concrete alone would have brought him to his knees. All the cement they had mixed in Biri was enough to fill a small pool. Here, the city sprouted concrete buildings to claim every open space. And wherever they grew, they took on every kind of shape imaginable. Nowhere was this more evident than at the research institute.

Rising five storeys above Quezon City’s commonwealth area was the institute’s centerpiece. Neighbors from the nearby call centers called it “The Egg” due to its tapered shape and enamel skin. It made Domeng wish Papa had been here. His father was always fascinated by how masons molded concrete into domes. Its smooth slopes might have inspired him to make a chapel or a granary. Its spacious interior had fixtures of metal piping seen in other power generators. Constructed in the 1960s and lost among the sprawling cityscape, this small building held, for the longest time, the country’s only functioning nuclear reactor.

Learning how it worked, studying it, became the focus of Domeng’s life as an intern. He was given a basic understanding of mathematics, science, radiology—and a dozen other disciplines whose names he never thought to use again after high school. Physics more than any other knotted his mind, leaving Raymund, a fellow intern, the arduous task of using what little Waray he knew to educate him. When this wasn’t enough, Domeng reached out to any Birianon over the phone to see if they might help make sense of these teachings.

Surio was especially helpful. After a long night of arguing over the wisdom of a particularly thick textbook, he lowered his voice and whispered into the phone, “But don’t they know you’re stupid?”

Domeng sighed. “I don’t think anyone else has noticed yet.”

In many ways, Domeng’s enthusiasm for their science was as much a performance as it was an attitude. Anything to assure the institute that they had selected the right envoy among the Birianon. Everyday, Surio recounted how many more of Biri’s unmarried women had shown new interest in Domeng now that he had taken on a higher calling. Domeng didn’t know how much Surio admired his position until a nasty spate of coughing forced an admission. “Better you there than here anyway,” he said.

“I’m sure you would have enjoyed being so far away from the sea and fresh air.”

Surio didn’t appear to have heard him. “Dom, we’re being evacuated.”

Domeng sat up. “From San Vicente?”

“The whole island. Everyone’s getting sick.”

That was when Domeng learned how a nuclear fire released more than just heat. The splintered remains of Uranium atoms traveled incredibly fast, piercing flesh and bone alike, weakening everything it riddled. These pieces, toxic in all their forms, had gotten into the soil, the groundwater, the very air they breathed, until all of Biri was poisoned.

Over the next few days, news channels showed figures in pale masks rushing Birianon men and women onto boats, sometimes seizing their mattresses and silverware from their shoulders and screaming at them to board faster. And because the mark of Uranium stayed with the land long after generations had lived and died, returning home any time soon was out of the question.

Trying to get a detailed account of the evacuation was next to impossible. Even Surio entertained Domeng’s calls to a point, preoccupying himself instead with thoughts beyond his health.

On days of intense work, Surio would sometimes lose himself in his thoughts. “I see them. Large ships circling around the horizon, their metal bodies adorned with foreign flags. We’re not being told everything and I don’t think they care for our safety.”

Domeng could hear the irregular rhythm of his breathing. “And the evacuation?”

“They want it all, you see? They want Biri for themselves.”

It wasn’t until most of their people had left the island that a mutual friend of theirs relayed what Surio had kept secret: He and a dozen others were deathly ill. Their refusal to leave Biri had left them exposed to a fatal dose of the land’s radiation.

Domeng frantically searched his readings for an explanation, doubling his efforts to unravel the mathematical formulas and descriptions laid out on every page. When his eyes began to hurt, he took it as a sign of how ill-equipped he was for the task. That it had taken him so long to realize this was evidence of his own delusions. He spent the rest of the evening running water over his bags in the hopes of washing away all the Biri-dust that had run away with him.

Surio refused to take any of his calls thereafter, with many claiming that the island’s darkness had swallowed him whole. Not knowing what else to do, Domeng distanced himself from his fellow interns and researchers, all of whom had resigned themselves from acknowledging the realities enveloping his hometown. Only he recognized his obligation as an envoy, that it was his duty to confront the true source of their sufferings. He reached out to Raymund the following afternoon and asked him if they could see an actual sample of Uranium.

Raymund’s eyes came alive at the request. They were soon joined by two elder researchers who accompanied them to the Egg, where Domeng was allowed deeper into the structure than ever before. Raymund then asked him to wait outside a glass partition where he began to don a pair of boots, a face mask, and some gloves. From out of a sealed container, Raymund produced a metal ingot in the shape of a disk and held it before the window for Domeng to see. The letter “B” on its face signified that it came from home.

It reminded Domeng of a piece of grey driftwood he and Surio had stumbled across during one of the hotter summers of their childhood. Why it refused to ignite underneath the noon sun was a mystery to them both. Finally fed up with waiting, Surio plucked a shard of glass from the beachfront and used it to focus the sunlight on a single splinter until a trail of smoke appeared.

What Domeng failed to recognize before was that a nuclear fire began the same way. A material was needed to focus wandering particles onto a Uranium atom in order to cleave it apart. Of the few substances capable of doing this, the most available was water. In a sense, the Egg had more in common with a giant kettle. Bathing the radioactive fuel in water released heat, causing the water to boil. Similarly, Biri’s sinking had unknowingly exposed the island’s Uranium ore to water underground, starting off a chain of reactions that eventually became the hot spring.

It took all of Domeng’s strength to remain still, to avoid reaching through the window and throwing the ingot at the wall then and there. As far as he was concerned, its secrets were paltry nothings when laid against everything they had lost. He only hesitated because of how smoothly it yielded to Raymund’s touch. Its texture bore the resemblance of pig iron pots and sheet metal. There was also one other unavoidable truth: this ingot shared the same soil and air that had nursed him since his birth. He could not, in good conscience, strike a fellow Birianon.


The longer Domeng served the institute, the more he was certain that they were all in the trade of telling new stories. To his fellow researchers, the origins of Biri’s Uranium was told in competing voices, some with the squeaks of markers across whiteboards, others with the tapping of fingers on keys. It was all a low murmur that remained predictable until the day when one of them came forward with a revelation. It was discovered that the ore was the youngest of its kind ever found—less than seven hundred million years in age.

Such a number bore no weight in Domeng’s heart but he saw how the tide of stories swelled towards it. In the institute’s most nurtured version of the tale, the ore was only so young because it was not born with the rest of the world. Instead, they spoke of another sun that was brighter and mightier than their own, whose life flashed so quickly, its end came with a ferocious eruption to rival that of creation. It was the ashes of this fire that fell as rain upon the already living world, resting on Biri undisturbed until the day it sank to meet the waters of the deep.

This explained why Biri’s Uranium came unspoiled and ripe with energy. Older ore could be made as pure, but concentrating it was an undertaking heavy in labor. It was the difference between being handed a freshly cooked meal and trying to assemble a stew by sifting through the bones of someone else’s leftovers. Stumbling across such a pristine gift only left Domeng more appreciative of their circumstance.

Few shared in his admiration, however. On the island of San Juan, where their people had relocated, Domeng was given accounts of children bottling shavings of ore and wearing them as necklaces. The swelling on their hands was said to be a reminder of the home they could never return to.

In Northern Samar, a pair of men in jerseys was detained by the police for raiding a dig site in Biri and defacing a number of boats there. Their tattoos and jewelry belonged to those of a Waray Waray gang but the disfigurement above their lips was something Domeng had never seen before. Their philtrums appeared to have been stitched together with dark thread. Such startling mutilations reminded him of all those times when men in their village used fishing line to close cuts and gashes.

When a third man with the same stitchings was found dead among the victims of the Mauritius, Domeng knew then that they were of the same people. The Mauritius was a metal ship anchored at Biri’s southern coast. A small explosion had torn through its side, unleashing a storm of smoke and sulfur that was visible for many kilometers. No Waray Waray gang had the power to ruin bare steel this way. Studying the explosive revealed a device more intricate than any misshapen firecracker, using shards of spent Uranium which splintered and burned with an unrivaled intensity.

Domeng knew that he and Surio had encountered this uncommon property of Uranium during one of their shared studies. He could think of no one else among their people who knew to use Uranium in this way. Reaching out to Surio once more, however, only solicited silence among their peers.

One fisherman had even refused to acknowledge Surio’s existence, complaining instead about how he had to resort to charcoal-making now that people were getting sick from fish. More than the story, it was the way he talked that bothered Domeng. It was almost as if his lips were mangled in some way. Perhaps stitched in much the same manner that others have been doing to conceal their philtrums. If this was true, then the illusive Biringanon had truly descended on their people.

It didn’t take long before these brazen acts were finally answered. Raymund spoke of envoys like Domeng, but from lands much further away, who grew weary of the strange developments in Northern Samar. These were men and women who each staked a claim over Biri’s potent ore—a negotiation that had taken the institute itself months to secure. Since they were made known to him, Domeng wondered why these outsiders felt entitled to the wastes of his homeland.

Now he was quiet, waiting for a verdict that hung silently over their heads. He caught Raymund after one exhausting discussion with these envoys, Domeng’s mouth numb from pressing his lips together for so long. “They can’t mean to take all of our ore?”

Raymund crossed his arms. “Why not? Our people are certain that nothing good can come from it while everyone else wishes it was theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if our leaders sold the ore tomorrow for a bargain just to rid themselves of these headaches today.”

A part of Domeng knew he was right. They were, in many ways, still children, toying with things too big for their hands. And yet children were not the only ones to despair when their worlds ended. The Biri that had sheltered their families throughout the years was to be cracked open and hollowed out, their split people apart like the atoms that had doomed them. If they were not meant to voice their frustrations through reason, then perhaps a more formidable response was needed.

Domeng pulled Raymund aside as he spread some of his hurried notes on a table. “Is there any way we could use some of the ore for ourselves?”

“Use?” The very word had turned his voice brittle. Raymund had studied to be a physician once, hoping to use substances like Uranium to see into the bodies of the sick in order to root out their illnesses. Domeng was hoping this same passion had endured despite the shadow of recent events.

“You don’t understand, Dom. Nobody trusts us with Uranium. The institute’s efforts here are dwarfed by entire industries built by more experienced people. We simply don’t have the resources or the expertise.”

Domeng gave him a look. “I doubt the nuclear reactor that burst onto our fields had to worry about such things.”

“You’re comparing a wild and unregulated nuclear source to the institutions built upon the blood and riches of millions. Taming the atom requires a commitment and discipline that we aren’t known for. You think I’m being unfair? Scour our seas and ask the fish that still live there about our use of dynamite.”

He then asked if it was within Domeng’s power to control a raging fire for a hundred years, to have his children and their children dispose of its harmful wastes without fail, and to look upon the faces of all who supported them, knowing that they risked agony beyond death. All of these had to be addressed when taming the atom. A fire started must be seen to its end.

Who then, Domeng wondered. Who can be trusted with this power? That others had earned their right to it through death filled him with no confidence. Throughout the evening, his thoughts simmered over the possibility that there was something special that made the people from the cities more capable of wielding nuclear fire; that it was some inherent skill they had or revelation that the Birianon were not privy to. But the first nuclear reactor had been built by hand, with beams of wood piled on top of graphite bricks. The reactor in Biri was even simpler, made of bedrock and hardened minerals. It seemed that nature played no favorites; a fisherman was just as likely to split the atom as those with gloved hands.

Something stirred within Domeng at the image of Papa holding a piece of Uranium like a chicken egg. For the longest time, all the authorities could tell them was that they had to be strong for the hardships to come. He remembered these sentiments because of how sour Papa’s face became afterward. Papa believed that any plan was cheapened when it so heavily relied on resilience. To him, resilience demanded little from its advocates while exacting a steep toll from those that had to bear its full weight. Resilience only kept them in the dark. The only way forward then was to act.

The silhouette of an idea emerged as unannounced as the coming sunrise. In the open lawn, the glare coming off of the Egg was almost triumphant. This made Domeng realize that if the people were to be rehabilitated, there was no reason the Uranium had to be denied the same opportunity. If they were to make a new home for themselves, the Uranium could be built one, too.


Everyone watched as the four arrivals lifted a large metal casket from their boat onto the beach. Coddled inside its many layers of steel and plastic were fragments taken from the deepest recesses of Biri. Its attendants did not need to remind us to avoid approaching the container. Domeng thought it was fear that kept them rooted in place but he also came to realize that this was the closest many of them had ever been to a piece of home since their exile. They wondered if they had any right to be near it after abandoning Biri for so long.

Inspections took up most of the afternoon as members from the government and foreign envoys from across the world validated that the contents were safe to move. Once it was confirmed that the vessel remained untampered, they made their way deeper into San Juan’s port. Men and women gathered to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals and their cargo. Those not lining up to see the procession grilled pork and served coconut wine on the sides—a marked improvement from the limited rations that greeted Domeng during his return from Manila. Dwellings previously overrun with refugees were themselves transformed into colorful backdrops for the night’s festivities. If all was successful, the feast would go on for another few days.

Further south, just outside the village, were the remains of several furnaces, now quenched after churning out tens of thousands of fired bricks, mortar, and blackened wood. Papa had overseen these efforts with the aid of a dozen other men, all of whom now resembled ghosts thanks to the grey muck that clung to their skin. In their absence, the only other souls here were those buried within the grounds. A number of passing headstones held victims of sickness while others took the names of those that had despaired after their relocation. Only one grave in particular frightened Domeng, the body that had suffered most of all. He lingered by Surio before pressing on.

Their final destination was a rise approaching the center of the island. Here, bricks had been laid across an area nearly half a hectare wide, forming the base of a small hill. More brick layers had been stacked atop one another in smaller circles to form a gradual slope, all held together by cement so that it was solid nearly all the way through. Soybeans planted on a crust of soil allowed the entire structure to take on the same vibrant green that had once been the grass fields of Biri. So tall was this hill that even halfway up, it was possible to see the blemish of Mount Mayon peeking from the northern island of Luzon. Because of this and its resemblance to an anthill, the Birianon called the mound “Pungtod.” The first of these, named “Berbenota”, sat waiting to house their recently acquired store of Uranium.

Raymund was among the first of the project’s foremen to receive them. He emerged from underneath the legs of some bamboo scaffolding that sat atop the mound, his face a porcelain mask.

“I hope you’re shaking as much as I am.”

As he said this, the trembling in Domeng’s right arm surged again before blossoming into true pain. Running his fingers across the skin, he felt the swollen flesh and reeled against the grooves where lesions had set in. Surio’s broken laugh rang between his ears. “A little bit,” Domeng greeted back.

He was lucky to have Raymund. No visitor, no matter how interested, was going to convince the research institute to support such a construction and he was little more than a curiosity when he first came to them. Which was not to say that Raymund had it any easier. Even now, their staunchest critics saw their efforts as reckless, if not dangerous. Part of Domeng’s eagerness today was a determination to prove them wrong.

That was the hope at least. Even together, it took them two months to divert a nearby spring so that a constant flow of freshwater cooled the interior of the Pungtod. Carbon was also added into the reaction in the form of charcoal rods. For three weeks, all of San Juan’s air smelled of ash as bonfires throughout the island supplied charcoal briquettes that were then fashioned into large logs. These were then inserted into the heart of the mound through a series of burrows embedded within its slopes. An arrangement of pulleys and counterweights lowered these rods to stoke the would-be nuclear fire within.

It was a cage. They had created a snare of earth and stone that was as deep as could be dug and as simple as they could build it. The moving rods were the trap’s teeth and the only way to spring it was to have a hundred other people hold them in place. Muscle alone would have to be enough to keep the atom at bay.

Raymund directed the new arrivals to the peak where they were to bring their precious shipment. There, the ground opened up into a meter-wide shaft that plunged into shadow. Only the sound of gurgling water could be heard below them. The attendants then began to place the Uranium fragment onto a cradle suspended above this pit, where it would be lowered to join nine other pieces of equal size that were already resting below them; a collection that, when complete, was just large enough to overcome the critical threshold needed to begin a chain reaction.

Before long, metal pans banged against each other in both alarm and celebration. There were only thirty minutes left before the final fragment was to be lowered into the heart of the Pungtod. Before the insertion of the carbon rods closed their trap. They began making their way downhill. No one was to remain near the mound now.

A dozen other men and women waited for Domeng in the southwest trenches, their faces a mix of sweat and clenched jaws. The few among them who were still composed were also the first to pick up the braided rope that ran between their legs. In his eagerness to lift it, Domeng let out a muffled scream. The skin around his fingers had broken. What was once taut flesh had given way to further lesions, marking the rope red.

Pull, came the order. Pull hard.

The frayed ends of the rope had bristled into spines sharp enough to pierce Domeng’s fingers. Ms. Odette commanded two more of them to take on the slack and to press all of their heels into the hard earth beneath them. One step back and then two as the rope relented. A meter of clearance was all they needed to move the weights into place. If something were to go wrong now, a command would be given to release the rope, pulling the charcoal rods out from the reactor.

He wished Surio were here, the fool. He too had tried to invoke the city of Biringan in his own way, to return their people to a bygone splendor in the midst of disaster. Perhaps that was why so many of their elders whispered stories of a hidden city in the wilderness. What was Biringan if not an image of greatness unrealized? But Domeng’s yearning for Biringan was not of a lost past but a place that had yet to become. A city yet to be shaped. His time in Manila had shown him that cities were grandiose, cities were complex, but that the trappings and decorations he had highly regarded were mere stone and mortar and energy. None were beyond their reach.

There, from the peak of the Pungtod—an electric-blue light. It was a pale glow framed by the new evening, a distant warmth that left Domeng shivering in the dark. Nestled deep within the mound, a creature as old as the universe itself was straining against its new restraints. This was not yet the time to celebrate. Fishermen knew they were most vulnerable when fish had taken their bait. A frightened catch could just as easily drag the unsuspecting to their doom. The only reasonable action then was to dig in their heels and pull harder. 

And so they did.

About the Author: Matthew Jacob F. Ramos has made it his business to write stories about woven computers and rocketry in the midst of revolution, with articles that have received accolades in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards and the Nick Joaquin Literary Art Awards. You can find his writings in Philippine Genre Stories, The Philippines Graphic, Cha: Writing the Philippines, and The Geek Anthropologist.

His career as a speculative fiction writer became official when Matthew received his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from the Ateneo de Manila University. These passions allowed him to pursue advertising in a number of small startups throughout the Philippines, before becoming an officer of engagement at a national bank. Today he resides in Quezon City, using his corporate career to fuel his graduate studies into the relationship between islands and technology.

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