“It began in the south. Temperatures continued to rise and what they called the o-zone layer, which protected the Earth, was failing. In their attempt to fix it, they created a process that ultimately led to The Shift. The refineries began to pump sulfur into the air at an unprecedented rate, and as attempts were made to create an artificial o-zone layer, our atmosphere, the air we breath, shifted, and before anything could be done, the world began to die…”
The old man carries on about the science behind The Shift and how the human race escaped to the Underdwellings. The recruits do their best to absorb the information, but so much of it is over their heads and beyond their understanding, there’s a lot of blank nodding. Petra listens, tears streaming down her cheeks. No doubt, partially out of excitement simply to hear her father’s voice again, but more out of relief. She got us here.
She looks at me and smiles. I motion for her to follow and we wander into a near by house – something I never thought I would see outside of my Encyclopedia collection, which I assume by now has been confiscated by the Braintrust along with everything else I used to hold dear.
“A lot to take in.” I nod in agreement. She sits. “I’m sorry, Tet. I really wanted to explain, but I didn’t know how.”
“I know. I get it.”
She explains how she caused the breach – the same way her father had faked it at Center 5 all those cycles ago. She tells me why I was the one she chose, the one she felt she could trust to do the right thing. I don’t really know what to say to it. Had my neighbor not stupidly let slip the reality of Center 12 and the impending release of the Oxygentors, I would have never risked a breach by putting my life above those below. And now, to see that Center 5 has not only survived, but has found a way to live above ground, to exist safely, without need for oxygen tanks, I don’t know what to do.
“We have to tell the other Centers,” I say just as Iban finds us.
“That’s not possible, sadly.” I turn towards him, startled and surprised. Petra stands and helps him into a chair. “Thank you, my dear. Grab me that long tube by the window.” Petra jumps and brings it back it to him. “You see, what we didn’t account for, when we began to use the same process our ancestors used to seal in the Earth, to manufacture a protective layer to shield us from the sun, we did not think that it would cut us off at the same time it saved us.”
I listen, understanding some of what he explains, but there is something he isn’t telling me and it’s making me nervous. Using the process he called Tetrafying, named after the company that first developed it, Iban and his fellow Braintust members, created the wall. It took nearly thirteen cycles for it to stretch high enough, above the sulfur clouds. But on the day it did, he says, “The sun shined down on us and the richest, most beautiful sky you could ever imagine seeing spread out above. It was then that we attempted to contact the other Centers, but the wall wouldn’t allow our signals to penetrate -”
“But, then all you have to do is send the signal from outside the wall.”
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “My dear, Petra, we tried. That’s the only reason we built the two entrance tunnels, which allowed us to save you. But, for safety, the tunnels were dug from some of our deepest Underpartments and are kept locked and sealed.” There’s something in his tone, fear. His voice quivers and he struggles to defend his reasons. “You see… well, none of us that remained, by the time we’d reached the sky and learned of our disconnect from the other centers – keep in mind, they all thought this center was abandoned, so no signals were being sent and we could not risk anyone disrupting our work, so we made no attempts – by then, none of us that remained were strong enough to move the necessary equipment through the tunnels. And even if we were, I can only stand to be outside for maybe an hour. The others aren’t much better – I couldn’t even get word to my darling daughter to tell her to come home.”
She hugs him and stares at me. I don’t trust him, and I think she has her doubts as well. I ask, “Do you still have the ability to spray suits?”
“And, if we send a signal from outside the wall, we can reach the other centers?”
“Yes, but what do we say? We can’t bring everyone here.” Again, nervous and defensive. He keeps shifting in his chair. Petra definitely notices now and we share a look.
“We can teach them,” I say. “So, they can build their own walls. This could save tens of thousands. Water is running out. Center 12 only has maybe a dozen cycles left before they run out of usable water.”
I realize this was news even to Petra. “What? How can they not tell people? They’re going to just, what, let everyone on the top layers die –“
Lex and Mayta walk in and Iban quickly excuses himself and disappears. A few other recruits enter to invite Petra and myself to join them on a guided tour of the Underdwellings. Petra jumps at the opportunity to show them her first home. I run after Iban. I want to know what’s going on.
He’s nowhere to be seen when I get outside. My eyes are still adjusting to the brightness. Even with the eye shield they gave me, it’s more light than I’ve ever experienced. I follow the path around towards the Oxygenation Center. I can’t find Iban, so I decide to investigate myself.
I press the door release on the outside of their center. It’s the same deign as The Office. I could do it blindfolded. But as I release the air lock valve, the door remains locked. I attempt to override, but before I can, Iban is behind me. “No, no, no. You don’t want to go in there. Very warm.”
“I just wanted to see your tanks. Sort of miss it.” I lie. I want to see what’s going on around here and why Iban is so afraid.
“Maybe we can arrange a tour later. You didn’t want to join the others down below?” His tone says it all. But, I don’t want to go down below. I’ve spent most my life down below. I want to send word to the other centers that there’s a way to live above ground again. He stares at me, starting to catch on to my distrust. “Come, let’s catch up with the others.”
The Underpartments in Center 5 are not as lavish as Center 12, especially in the deep. But that’s probably because no one’s lived here for 76 cycles. There are markings all over the walls, not like the etchings in Center 12, more like someone scratching and clawing.
Sara, our tour guide, is very quiet as she walks. She locks each door behind us and enters each room first. I ask why they keep the doors locked with no one living here. “To make sure the oxygen we have only goes to the areas where we are, conservation.” Something in her tone, I don’t believe her.
I get the same feeling when I press her about the marks on the walls and doors. “Those are so old, who knows?” Then she moves on to another topic, picking up a photograph of what the world once looked like. The group’s excitement distracts her and I’m able to sneak away.
The doors are locked, but, again, they use the same system Center 12. I override the door-lock and wander into the main tunnel. It’s cold and dark but the air seems fine. I’m barely out of the doorway when I hear her behind me. I turn and see her staring at me. I put my finger to my lips, telling her to stay quiet. She nods and follows close, grabbing my shirt so we don’t lose each other.
We pass a number of Underpartments and intersecting tunnels, all locked and sealed. “Tet, what are you looking for?”
“I don’t know. But something doesn’t feel right.”
I keep moving forward, Petra close behind me. The darkness is thick around us. Were she not pulling my shirt, I’d never know she was there. “Do you hear that?” I do hear it, but I don’t answer. It’s a scratching coming from one of the doors up ahead. We move quickly towards it, making sure to stay as quiet as possible.
It’s an Underpartment door. I press my ear against it and hear the scratching coming from inside. It’s quick and sporadic. I turn to Petra, even though I can’t see her. She pulls out her oxygen meter, which supplies just enough light for us to make eye contact and read the label on the door. “Family Unit – 4: Sylar, Toran, Lam, Bisot.”
I reach for the override valve and Petra stops me. She is afraid. So am I. But I need to know. I lift the valve handle and press it forward, unlocking the door. The smell is immediate. It hits us both and we cough violently. An alarm sounds and the lights turn on as we see Sara running towards us. But, as she is about to reach us, the door tears open and an arm grabs her from inside, pulling her into the brimstone cloud.
“Sara!” We all scream for her and reach after her. But, the sulfur is thick and none of us can enter without a suit.
Iban appears from a nearby tunnel with two other men – one sealed a suit. He rushes in, disappearing in the orange thickness. Iban shuffles us away. “Hurry, this way. It’s not safe here. We must hurry.”
I turn back and look as the man emerges from the room, holding what’s left of Sara. She’s been torn to pieces, her body barely holding itself together. “Iban, what the hell was that?”
He pushes us into a tunnel and seals the door behind us. Then we hear it. Screaming and clawing coming from the main tunnel, getting louder as it gets closer to us. “What is that?”
“Quiet, you fools. You’ll get us killed. We must keep moving, to the surface.” Iban pushes us and stifles all of our questions.
The man in the suit finds us as we reach the top levels. His suit is torn and he has cuts and gashes all over him. Sara’s body is nowhere to be seen. Iban puts his arm around the man and carries him the rest of the way.
Back in the brightness, we all collapse. Iban’s team tends to the man’s wounds. I look at Petra, who is breathing heavily, tears in her eyes. The entire group is pale with fear. “What is going on, Iban?” I’m not letting this go. He turns to us, his eyes heavy and his jaw quivering.
“We are not alone here,” he starts. “And we must be vey careful. Because none of us are safe.”