They dug for almost a century. Burrowing deeper and deeper into the mantle of the Earth. They needed to be close to the core. But more importantly, they needed to be away from the crust. Millions of people were driven underground. The ones that managed to survive. They were forced to form a new society.
“Sir, we’ve hit a wall,” said Dawn.
“Mark it,” said Leon. “Start digging in another direction. Are all the pillars holding?”
“Did you check them?”
“Not all of them. The ones I’ve checked show no stress.”
“Good.” Leon swiped his hand across his forehead. “Can you get Hans for me?”
“Thanks.” Dawn exited the room, which resembled an office.
It was rough and looked like it had been carved out of a rock. The door was also rock and opened like a sliding glass door that receded into the wall. Leon sat at a desk, also carved from the rock. It was connected to the floor and had three sides that came up and a flat top. As flat as crudely carved rock can be. The chair he sat on was also was carved from rock. Though it was hollowed out as much as possible to make for easy lifting. He also had a bed. But it didn’t look comfortable at all. Nothing looked comfortable. Nothing was comfortable.
Hans walked down the corridor leading to Leon’s office. Fitting with the theme of the place, it was uncomfortably narrow. To fit two people through you’d have to walk sideways. But it had to be this way. Anything to make less digging. There were many rooms along this hallway. All dealing with what little regulation they had in this new colony.
Hans took a deep breath and looked at the chiseled name “Leon” on the door, then entered. He said nothing when he came in and Leon looked up at him.
“How’s the food doing?” Leon asked.
“It’s okay for now.” Hans looked a little sheepish.
“But it won’t be for long.”
“We’ve lasted the better part of a century down here. What’s gone wrong?”
“It’s a little hard to grow things underground. In rock. With no sun. And no resources. We made preparations, but we can’t last forever unless somebody makes some kind of major invention.”
Leon sighed. “I don’t know what to do.”
“There’s not really much you can do,” Hans said frankly. “We’re screwed.”
Petra swung her crude tool at the rock. Ever hollowing it out for the millions of people that had to live there. She was one of many diggers. Time came to quit and she put down her rock hammer. Not quite the rock hammer you might be used to. This was more along the lines of a sledgehammer. Her earpiece had been going bad for a long time now. Sometimes it would cut out, sometimes it would get different transmissions at the same time. She heard “quitting time” clear enough, but then it started fizzling and she heard a bunch of different conversations at once. As she was about to take out the earpiece, she heard something that made her stop dead in her tracks. She heard How..food doing? *fizzle* then silence. Then a bunch of other transmissions trying to fight for attention. Then We’re screwed. *fizzle*
How she picked up the transmission was unclear to her. She didn’t know exactly who was talking. It sounded like the Organizer, but she couldn’t be sure. She ran up to another digger and asked, “Did you hear anything about a food shortage?”
Her new friend blinked at her. “Food shortage? What the hell are you talking about?”
Petra looked closely at the other girl’s earpiece.
“Get away from me!” The girl cried, smacking Petra in the arm.
“Is your earpiece working?”
“Yeah, it works just fine.”
“It doesn’t intercept other transmissions?”
“No. Don’t walk so close to me.”
Petra walked away and decided to let it go. She was surprised to find later that day that everybody was talking about the food shortage.
“How did this get out?” asked Leon, slouched back in his chair. Hans just stood there, hands folded in front of him.
“The only two people who know about it are you and me,” Hans said.
“Apparently not.” Leon gave him a cold stare.
“Before talking with you, I told nobody. After our talk, I said nothing more about it.”
“Well put an end to it. The last thing we need is a panic.”
As Petra was eating the bowl of mush that passed for food her earpiece began to crackle. How…get out? she heard. She pounded on her earpiece. Only…people..know about it…you and me. She stopped and listened. Put an end to it.
She realized what she heard must have been true. They’re running low on food. And they’re keeping it secret. A righteous fury overtook her. She was part of the working class stiffs that hacked away at the rock every day. And they were sitting in their uncomfortable chairs with no clue what to do about anything. She didn’t want to be them. There was no part of her that desired to have the kind of responsibility they had. But they had a responsibility. And they were squandering it.
Petra stood up. “Listen up!”
Surprised, everybody in the cafeteria looked over at her. This was highly unusual behavior from what they’ve become accustomed to. They were used to drudgery and just “doing your job” all the time. No yelling.
“I can hear everything the higher ups are saying!” she said. They listened. “A malfunctioning earpiece has given me the gift of revelation. There is a food shortage. And they’re trying to keep it a secret.” There was an uproar. “Instead of asking for help from the millions of people that live here, they try to come up with a solution by themselves. What else aren’t they telling us? What if the surface of the Earth is just fine? I say we leave! Who’s with me?”
They all cheered. Hans looked on in horror from the edge of the hallway and immediately ran back to Leon’s office. He swung the door open and slammed it shut behind him.
Hans slammed his hands on Leon’s desk and said, “Sir, we’ve made a horrible mistake.” Upon recounting what Petra said, Hans and Leon ran down the hallway and out into the common room. There was chaos. Running, screaming, fighting. Hans followed Leon through the corridors leading to the room that led up to the surface. It was open and there was a line of people barreling through.
“This isn’t good,” said Leon. Hans didn’t have a response. “They don’t understand what’s up there.”
“We had a good run. Looks like it’s over. At least we didn’t starve to death.”
“You wanna follow them up there?” Leon almost wasn’t surprised.
“Why not? We won’t survive long down here anyway.” Leon knew Hans was right.
“It’s a thirty five mile trek.” A last ditch effort by Leon to discourage the thought of returning to the surface.
“After you.” Hans extended his hand. Leon looked back at the people fighting in the common room. The ones not joining the mass exodus.
“What about all them? We can’t leave them behind, can we?”
“They’ll follow. They always do.”
Leon looked back at the tunnel leading to the surface. He joined in the crowd. Hans followed.
Luckily the tunnel was inclined enough that it wasn’t like climbing a mountain. But it was still walking up an incline for thirty-five miles. It took several days. They would stop at springs of water or little trickles running down the rock to keep hydrated. To keep millions of people hydrated. There was some fighting. It was unavoidable. There will always be fighting. The need to survive and the threat of not being able to takes over people’s instincts.
Lights lined the tunnel. Self-powered by little perpetually moving mechanisms. Put there by the original diggers. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Then came another, much bigger light. Staring at the multitude from the end of the tunnel. Petra was in the front of all of them. She was too tired to run towards the light, no matter how badly she wanted to. Everybody was too tired for that. But then she finally reached it. She could smell a different air. The light blinded her. And then she emerged. It was odd. On the one hand, she had been selling everybody on the notion they were being lied to about the surface being uninhabitable. But deep down she had the sinking feeling that they weren’t lying. And here she was, standing on the Earth, looking out, and seeing all sorts of green things and crisp air. Not a threat to be found.
Hans and Leon emerged and expected to die pretty much instantly. But they hadn’t been hearing screams. And when they got to the surface, they were surprised. Leon nearly kicked himself.
“It was all a lie,” he said.
“Maybe the monsters are lying in wait somewhere,” replied Hans. “Or maybe they died out.”
Leon looked up. He saw things floating in the air. They looked like giant aircraft carriers. They were little cities. Leon had heard about them. How the more wealthy took to the safe skies, while the less wealthy were forced to go underground. He turned to Hans and said, “Or maybe they didn’t want us here anymore.”