Below the Darkness
Natural light from the sun could not reach them, whose city was buried under too many layers of dirt and tyrannism. Instead, their lives were brightened only by the artificial luminescence of the glaring light bulbs installed in every room of every home and in every corner of all streets, and nothing else. Despite the bleak outlook, some are still convinced that there is more than this life in the darkness.
About a millenium previous of the year 5555, the ancestors of the underground city dwellers had attempted to blow each other to bits with nuclear arms to the extent that the atmosphere was ruined and life was unsustainable on the earth’s surface. Survivors were forced to burrow in the ground like moles, taking refuge in underground matrix that had been built in preparation for some impending disaster.
Life underground soon resumed similarly to what it had been before the nuclear war, and an efficient government had been formed. However, some of the high ups got comfortable being in charge, and things took a turn for the worst towards a system similar to slavery. Currently, in order to expand the city, the eldest child of every family was to be extracted and sent to be put to work in the hazardous construction site. Those who tried to evade the work draft by hiding or running away suffered public punishment.
Nowadays, Nathan Brooks could often be found staring into space as he was lost in thought. The same two things were the usual occupants of his mind. The first was the recent deaths of his cousin and her parents, who had all been hung in the city square for attempting to hide their daughter while also trying to organize a rally. When accused, they had denied everything that connected them to the skirmishes against the authorities that had once been small but had recently grown in scale and violence. However, someone that was thought to be trustworthy turned out to be the ultimate tattle tale, and their sentence for treason was death.
The other lovely pondering was of the first work draft to be called in that decade. Fresh laborers with strong backs were needed to replace the old ones in order to build more. It was common knowledge that the conditions in the construction site was harsh and the dangerous equipment had tendencies to malfunction and maim their operators. At age sixteen and the oldest sibling, Nathan qualified to be sent out to that way, although he loathed to go. Everyone did. His aunt and uncle had fought for the last years of their lives, organizing rallies and protests, so no child would ever again have to be subjected to blistered hands and the potential loss of limbs. Which is why Nathan slipped out from his family’s compartment after the curfew without the intention of returning.
His decision had wavered over a fine line. His parents and sister were aware that he might try to run, and each had spoken to him, trying to convince him to stay. Penalty for deserting the draft was either death or lashings, he reminded himself more than once.
“It’s not worth it,” His mother warned.
“You don’t know that,” Nathan replied blatantly.
To resist being found, Nathan had to abscond to the one place that most people avoided, and that would be the sewer system that snaked all the way around the city. The lights above him were dim compared to the glare elsewhere in the city. The brackish water came up to his knees, and a sulfuric smell accompanied the stench of more grotesque things, and that alone caused him to vomit several times in a day. How lovely.
Rats were his only companions, except when they stole his food. Despite the sharp teeth, beady eyes, and scaly tails, he still preferred their company over solitude. That is, until he ran headlong into a small group of young fugitives such as himself. After that, he gladly forgot about the creepy little thieves.
There were four of them, looking as grimy and disgusting as Nathan felt the whole time he’d been trudging through sewer water. After a few minutes of hushed conversation, he learned that they all came from different parts of the city and came together in the same manner of stumbling across each other in the sewer. For their similarities, the contingent now consisted of five. Their destination wasn’t aimless, they traveled the sewer system in the direction towards the oldest part of the city.
Known by its common name, The Grid, the ancient, outermost section of the city had been evacuated two years previously in fear that the supports would collapse. Abandoned, it was the perfect place for outsiders and deserters of the work draft to go. The government was also aware of this, and sent frequent patrols through the Grid, but fugitives hiding there knew how to take precautions to avoid any encounters with the authorities that were bound to be pleasant.
The oldest boy in the group, Thomas, knew exactly how to navigate the sewer tunnels to the safe haven, and claimed that he would know when they were in the Grid. Nathan figured that Thomas was paying close attention to the subtle changes in the architecture and their state of corrosion. So when the every space along the sewer wall was discolored with lime and rust, and the waste water was below their ankles, it was obvious that they had arrived.
The colony of deserters that were living in the Grid equaled to hundreds, all ranging in age from twelve to early twenties. The Grid itself was in skeptical condition. The lights in this part of the city were also dim, and many had burned out. Nathan liked it there, for its crumbling imperfections and the people that had banded into a tightly knit community. On first arrival, however, his main source of confusion came from the bright green grass that sprouted in the cracks in the streets and growth of moss. How plants could grow without sunlight or fresh air, he knew naught. When he asked about the plants, he was told of the Green Thumb.
The Green Thumb was something of a phenomenon. The most common theory concerning him claimed that when he traveled to the surface, he was somehow bestowed with the ability to make plants grow. Nathan couldn’t be sure of this, he had a long practical streak, but nothing else could explain the uncharacteristic green spotting around the Grid.
Nathan’s time in the Grid had been short lived, when a tremor so strong forced anyone on their feet at that moment to lose their balance. Then everyone heard it, the earsplitting screech of scraping rock and a thunderous rumble as a latticework of fissures and crevices branched across the expanse of the cavern city’s ceiling above The Grid. The tremor ceased after a few moments, and all was still, in fear that any sound or movement would bring on dire consequences.
“We can’t stay here,” Whispered the girl nearest to Nathan when the tremor struck, voicing what they were all thinking. There was no question, they had to leave.
While preparations were being carried out, the second tremor hit, and all hell broke loose. A stalactite the size of small house fell from a thousand feet above them, shattering into pieces as it crashed into the buildings below. Screams arose, and panic ensued as chunks of rocks began to fall on them. The manholes leading to the sewers were opened up and the fugitives began to clear out, on the move back to the city’s center.
Nathan was far from the nearest manhole, and it was hard to run and look out for descending stalactites simultaneously. To make things even better, the ancient gas lamps shattered and exploded, catching on fire the only structures in the whole city old enough to be made with wood.
He watched as flames traveled up one of the towers faster than he could have thought possible, and soon its supports weakened, and the entire building came down, forming a burning mass of debris between him and the nearest sewer entrance. There were no words profane enough to express his frustration right then.
Before Nathan could decide on any action, hands grabbed onto him and hauled him into a little hut with broken windows. He saw that a wedge of stone fell on the exact spot where he’d been standing a moment before. His savior had been none other than the dark haired boy that he recognized as the Green Thumb.
There was no time to thank him as he doused both of their shirts with water and instructed Nathan to pull the wet collar over his nose and mouth. Apparently running through the skeletal remains of the fallen tower currently engulfed in flames while dodging chunks of rock was the only thing they could do at this point.
They darted from the hut, running headlong towards the section of the blaze that was the least severe. It would be a fifteen foot stretch of flame and debris that they would have to sprint through. It was possible, and Nathan knew he could do it, he just really didn’t want to. So when the time came to bolt into the inferno, he hesitated, and the impact of a nearby falling boulder knocked him to the ground.
“Come on!” Green Thumb screamed, and more or less pushed Nathan into the burning mess. After that he was forced to move. Those few seconds were the worst of his life. It was so searingly hot, he could never stand to wear a sweater ever again. Immediately, all exposed skin began to blister and the ashes blurred his vision. A disintegrating support fell into his path, and he had no choice but to leap over it, and that got his pant leg caught on fire. The extreme heat he felt on his leg was almost too much to bear, but the Green Thumb was there to do his job and forcefully pushed him the last few feet out of the hellish scorch.
The hair on his forearms had been completely singed off, and some of his eyebrows too. Nathan patted out the burning fabric of his pants with his hands, which caused welts to rise immediately, but he could not worry about that now. They were the last to make it to the manholes. Everyone else had already fled or were crushed by stone, but the main objective now was to escape the pending collapse of the Grid and adjourn to the heart of the city, near Nathan’s home.
It seemed that most of the population was crowded in the center of the underground dwelling. There wasn't a soul who hadn't heard or felt the tremors, and hysteria was reaching a breaking point as citizens waited for instructions or reassurance or the confirmation that they would all die today.
Nathan and the other deserters no longer worried about being caught by the authorities who had other things to worry about. The first place he visited was his family’s home, believing they would all be there while anxiously waiting for news. His family was nowhere to be seen, and though he’d been thrown headfirst into a world of sewers and crumbling structures, the familiar place brought him no comfort.
It was on a stroke of luck that he spotted them among the thousands in the square. Luck and the fact that his sister was one of the few born with bright red hair that happened to be very visible amongst dark heads and gray clothing. They were huddled together with the neighbors. Nathan pushed past everyone else, the desire to be with his family growing stronger than his need to escape the work draft ever was. He was wrapped in a many armed group hug only moments later. There was strained laughter, and joyous crying of course to complete the Hallmark moment.
Finally, the third tremor shook the whole cavern. The ground shaking was found to be so violent to force everyone to the ground, where they stayed crouched low to the ground. The farthest edge of the city glowed with fires and destruction, and at that moment it was popular belief that the underground city was about to become a mass grave. With a booming sound that reverberated in eardrums and echoed throughout the cavern, the expanse of stone above the Grid came crashing down. As the rock fell down, dust and debris went up into the air and hung in a cloud over the city for many moments. It blinded and choked, but when it settled, it revealed streaming sunlight through the massive gap in the ceiling of the cavern. Long overdue, the city was wholly exposed to the unbelievable majesty of the light of day.