They argue with each other that they know the etchings on the wall, as they call them, are from before The Shift. I find that hard to believe, because the tunnels weren’t dug until after. And that was only 227 years ago. Hell, I have a computer older than that. But, these guys don’t have computers. Or books. Or a lot of stuff I do. They live on the top levels. They’re practically surface dwellers. To them, The Shift was the beginning of history. Anything before that is wasted oxygen.
The elevator is cramped and smells like cleaning solution. It stings my nose and makes my eyes water. I don’t know why they won’t let us wear the suits in the elevator. There’s plenty of space. Not like there’s too many of us itching to walk the old streets.
The sulfur hits me. But, as soon as I smell it, the arm connects my oxygen tube and begins to spray on my suit. I’ll never forget my first time. I moved and the spray was uneven – imagine, a solid mass of latex silicon on side and practically a condom on the other. I try to make a joke about it, but most of my team has no idea what a condom is or why anyone would use such a thing. Again, they don’t have books. They don’t know the history. They don’t realize that after The Shift, population control was a necessity; that prior to it, any one and every one could get pregnant. And, back then, the idea of a daily vaccine treatment would’ve been absurd.
As my suit starts to seal and dry, during the few minutes a day I really get to relax, I wonder what it would be like to live back then. I’d wake up and drive my car to work. I’d have lunch at a fast food restaurant. I’d smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. I’d go to college and work in a cubicle. I’d watch movies and go on dates. I’d bring a sacked lunch to work and write my name on the bag. I’d buy Christmas gifts for my friends. I’d throw parties. I’d take vacations. I’d grow a garden. What a place it must’ve been. My suit is nearly sealed and translucent. The arm retracts and the lights begin to flash. The door opens and the sulfur rushes in. I call out for us to move, and we head to The Office.
My neighbors in Underpartment 51327 sometimes invite me over to hear stories about it. The sulfur. The heat. The bright, blinding light. The old world, they call it.
I’ve gotten used to it, so I barely notice anymore. I watch some the young recruits, the ones that are the age I was when I first started my surface runs, they can barely see enough to read the warning signs from the evacuation. I can tell a couple of them won’t be back again. Don’t have the stomach for it. Even with the suit, you can smell it – the sulfur. Personally, I find peace in it. I know what I’m doing is important. Without us Oxygenators, the UnderDwellings would be lost.
“Recruits. Keep breathing. The air in the suit is clean and safe. Now, just focus on the feet in front of you. What is your routine?” A lot of times giving them something else to think about calms the nerves. They speak in unison, as they’ve been trained to do when asked this question.
“Meet in Tunnel 12-7. Take the elevator to the surface house. Stand still while suit is applied. Breath normally and calmly. Follow O-1 to Oxygenating Center 12. Once inside, check temperature levels, cycle in the previous day’s boil…”
I zone out and take in the landscape. From what I’ve been able to assess, we’re not far from where Detroit used to be. Motown they called it. Motor City. Not much left now. The nineteen surface houses that lead to the tunnels servicing all seventy-seven UnderDwellings. And then there’s The Office – that’s what I like to call Oxygenation Center 12.
They continue. “Once brought to boiling temperatures, move to level 7. Monitor the purification process –“
“And how long does the purification process take?”
Again, in unison, “27 full rotation cycles, sir.” I love our training process. 27 rotations cycles is what it takes to remove impurities from the remaining lake and ocean water. These youngsters are too green to realize, as I and but a few others do, we don’t have much water left. And when we run out, no one knows what we’ll do.
I have a few neighbors in the Braintrust, and when they invite me over to hear stories about the surface, it’s clear they’re concerned. Last night, one of them told me he’s pretty sure we’ve got less than ten cycles left. And that all those in my position will be let go – that’s a nice way of saying sent to the top levels. Sometimes it’s more of a burden to know. My position grants me an Underpartment on the deepest level. The air is clean. The temperature is mild. The lifestyle is comfortable. But, I know things and have access to things that no one else on my crew could dream of – including the knowledge that we will soon be expendable.
Many in the deep waste it. They live lavishly and spoil themselves with drugs and showers and produce. They don’t read the rescued books from the old world or wonder what will come next. For many, the deep is an oasis. Utopia. Once granted access, they’ve not even thought about leaving. They’ve forgotten about the struggle to get there. Or in some cases, the worst ones, they were born there – born to horrible, rich, powerful parents that weaseled a birth license from the Braintrust. They know nothing of the heat, of the devastation man once caused that led to The Shift. They merely exist. They are nothing. And I am ashamed to share space with them. Especially while these soon-to-be expendable young men and women that I walk with, who stuggle every day just for an extra oxygen tank or can of protein supplement, risk their lives to bring oxygen, water, and electricity to the tunnels.
The Office is enormous. Originally, twelve of them were built in a last attempt to save the human race. Two were lost to air breaches – Center 2, which was somewhere near Poland, and Center 11, near Alberta. Center 5, on Greenland, was deemed unsafe for unknown reasons. The inhabitants were split up and transported to the remaining nine. The train that brought them is our one remaining option for escape. But it can only carry 927 of us. And even if we could decide which 7% of us would go, where would it take us?
As much as our suits are required outside, it’s nice to have the temperature control inside. The boiling chambers get pretty toasty. A few of the new guys comment on it.
“Quiet down. Pay attention. Everyone to your station and submit your readings.” They scatter to various terminals and call up the day’s information. I climb the nine stairs to the central terminal.
I can see it before the alarm sounds. Red Line Terminal 8. New recruit. “Breach!” I scream. The alarm sounds and steam blasts us from above. The giant engines grind to a halt and power is diverted to reserve supply. We cannot risk the breach reaching the reservoir.
I push the twenty-two old newbie out of the way and frantically attempt to restart her terminal, hoping it’s nothing more than a glitch in the circuitry. If this is an actual breach, it’s the first we’ve seen at 12. Reports have come in from Centers 7, 3 and 6 that they’ve begun experiencing intermittent breaches for the last seven cycles. It means the water is getting worse. Our filters are failing.
Red Line again. Shit. I rush back to the central terminal and relay a message to the Braintrust. The response is immediate. “Initiate Purification.”
I look around at the twenty-two newly recruited Oxyginators on my team. I don’t know a single one of their names. I don’t know where they live. I don’t know if they have family. I don’t know anything about them except that, like me, they were willing to risk their lives for everyone below us. Each one of us swore an oath, pledging to, at all cost, protect the tunnels. I just never thought I’d actually have to, and all I can think about is my neighbor and how casually he told me I was going to be “let go” soon.
The tanks are too big to find out where exactly the breach is coming from. Purification reseals the entire room, including all who might be there, with a thin layer of lead steel. Our suits will keep us alive for at least another ten hours beneath it. Ten hours of darkness, unable to move, feeling the world around us harden and disappear. No. I can’t go out like that. “Negative,” I reply.
“Initiate Purification.” The message comes through twice. “Everyone, outside!” They weren’t trained for this. They hesitate and I repeat the command. They rush to the airlock. I slam the seal and the air begins to cycle out. I hear command override take effect and the purification process starts.
We’re outside. “Everyone gather around. I’ve just disobeyed a direct order that would’ve led to all of our deaths. We cannot return to the surface house. We’ll be stripped of our suits and exiled. As you know, without a suit, you don’t have a chance out here.” Silence. Shock. Anger. I take each one of their faces in. “What’s your name?”
She’s strong. No fear. No anger. “Petra, sir.” It was her terminal that Red Lined. “Petra, I’m Tet. What do you think we should do?”
She looks around and sees it just as I do. “The train, sir. We leave.” I nod.
“Anyone who doesn’t want to join, I understand. Anyone who does, move out.” I lead, being one of the few who can really see where we’re going. Petra is right behind me. I can hear more behind her.
The train’s technology is fairly ancient. Petra plots a course, though it really doesn’t matter where we go. “North is our best bet,” she says. “Furthest from the dead zones.” The other nine who joined us look at each other in confusion. They’ve never heard of the dead zones. Even I’m surprised Petra knows about them. But now’s not the time to ask how. We’re speeding away, escaping an unknown fate, leaving everything and everyone we’ve ever known behind.