The mess hall was packed. It didn’t matter what time of day you found yourself having a meal, there was no way to avoid a long line.
We all had jobs and shifts just like we were told we would have had topside which meant the mess hall was open round the clock. Usually the trays of food you were given consisted of a protein loaf, which favored meatloaf but tasted nothing like it. It had the texture of Styrofoam, and I often said it tasted of cardboard, though I’d never eaten a scrap of that particular thing in my life. In other words, bland, barely edible, but it provided all the nutrients our bodies needed to perform optimally. We also managed two vegetables.
The food here was fuel, and nothing more. We retrieved our trays and found a seat away from the others so we could talk uninterrupted.
“So,” I shoveled in a mouthful of the dense loaf, fighting not to cringe “teh me abou thith plant.”
“Gross, Kai, don’t talk with your mouth full of food. Anyway, we have found a plant that we can sustain hydroponically with minimal lighting so we don’t have to keep the generators powered at full steam, constantly. Its properties are similar to what I’ve read of hemp, but it’s softer like what I’ve read about cotton. We have no guarantees yet, but it looks promising.”
I swallowed hard, forcing the food down and looked at her in awe. It was amazing how much she’d learned simply from reading. I learned my lessons by experience, she gained her knowledge from books. It never ceased to amaze me how much more intelligent she was than most people I knew or had known.
While we ate, she talked more in-depth about her job in the greenhouse, and tried several times to shift the conversation to me and my “adventures,” but I always found a way to circulate it back to her. Thankfully, Ellie was the talker, and I was the listener, so she only gave me a passing glance of suspicion before she was back at her secondary topic of glee, full force – botany. Ellie thought that it was the most important job, aside from mine of course – though she only had a slight idea regarding my job, and I’d never tell her anything in depth. I always just replied, “you know it’s classified, I can’t speak of it.” She’d only stay irritated for a split second before shifting the topic. For which I was appreciative. The truth of the matter is that I simply wanted to protect her from anything that could dim that sparkle in her eye. I selfishly coveted her hope that one day she’d get to venture topside and see all the miraculous wonders that she daydreamed awaited her because I wanted it to be true. Desperately. It doesn’t matter if you know something is damn near impossible, that doesn’t kill hope, not even for me. As we finished our meal, the lights fluttered. It had become increasingly difficult to keep the generators running at full capacity as of late. Our solar panels set topside often became damaged in the near constant storms and the cloud cover often prevented any decent amount of sunlight to grace their exterior anyway. Of course, we made every attempt to use geothermal power as well, but this planet is changing and unfortunately, things don’t work quite like they used to. The lights were the least of our worries during these brief brownouts. The generators kept the air scrubbers running. No air scrubbers, not enough oxygen. No oxygen, no nothing.
The people living in the upper quadrants would likely have been fine. There was a built-in ventilation system in those quadrants, leading to the outside. Air could pass freely from the outside once they had been opened. The lower quadrants, however, burrowed deeper and deeper underground. There were no vents leading to the outside. It was important to keep the air scrubbers running so that the people who made their homes in those quadrants could breathe; not to mention, most everyone who wasn’t exceptionally wealthy or a government official worked in the lower quadrants.
Ellie’s greenhouse was located in quadrant 2, as was the mess hall. We lived in quadrant 4. The quadrants continued downward, deep into the earth for 20 levels. I’d heard tale that the founders had tried to build horizontally instead of downward, but they’d experienced a series of structural failures which caused them to believe that building vertically would be better. Apparently, there was still a hidden entrance to the old failed quadrant somewhere in quadrant 1.
Ellie’s brow furrowed. “Kai, I should really get back to the greenhouse to check on the plants. They’re going to save us one day.” She smiled before adding, “I mean if you don’t first.”
I couldn’t help but smile as she skipped off to save the world. If anyone could do it, it would be Ellie. Her sheer determination and ambition never failed to captivate and amaze me. Despite her lack of experience with anything outside of her realm in the underground, she was incredibly wise. I learned something from her every time we spoke.
With my stomach what would reasonably pass as full and with Ellie off to nourish her plants, I checked my watch. Two new messages. One was clearly not important. The holidays were fast approaching and my brother wanted to know if I was going to meet the family in quadrant 1 for our annual reunion. He made it a point to ask me to participate every year in order to “maintain appearances” even though he knew that my answer would unequivocally be “no thank you.” Though my father had come from very little, my family had grown incredibly wealthy, making their home in the palatial quadrant and they didn’t exactly appreciate that I had chosen to take on a “lesser” assignment. Venturing topside was beneath them, for the low birth group, and they made it a point to remind me every time I happened across them. They had no problem reveling in my accolades each time I accomplished something, however, as it brought more prominence to the family name. Above all else, they were quite hypocritical.
The second message appeared to be innocuous at first glance. The subject line read “Attention Topsiders.” I thought it to be another boring memo from my commanding officer reminding us all to use the appropriate digital form when completing our daily reports. Upon further inspection though, a message from the Resident Chief popped up in the hologram field on my device. His voice echoed through my earpiece.
“Topsiders, it has recently come to my attention that your services are needed now more than ever. While everyone is aware that the generators are becoming increasingly difficult to power, most are not aware of how dire the situation could become. The internal temperature of this planet is beginning to decline. Our scientists feel that it is in our best interests to avoid the use of geothermal power going forward in hopes that we can find ways to slow the process. For those of you who are unaware, if the core were to cool completely, it is likely to leave everything above and below cold and … dead. We could be bombarded with radioactive waves making your journeys topside impossible. With that being said, we need you, each of you, to journey out further than you ever have before. We need new resources. We need new knowledge. We must bring new technologies to life or improve upon ancient technologies, perhaps finding a way to escape into the cosmos as our distant brethren did when the great storms fell upon us. We will provide you with enough food and water rations to sustain you for a month. You will leave well-armed. This is your call to action. Fear not, as we have faith in your abilities. Report to the entry hall in no more than 1 hour. You leave as the moon rises.”
I sat in stunned silence. It wasn’t exactly a shock. All of the Topsiders as a unit knew that this was coming and we’d been talking about it during some of our other missions. We just had no clue it would come to this so soon.
The first thought that ran through my head was that I had to go, I had to do anything I could to help preserve as many lives as possible. That had been the oath I had taken as a Topsider, and it is one I hold very near and dear to my heart. One that I would die to uphold. That I very well may die to uphold on this mission.
My next thought was almost superimposed over the first; Ellie. She always worried when I was away and even though she trusted me to come back, I’d never been away this long, doing something this dangerous, this far away from her. If something happened who would protect her? While I had what I considered a deplorable family, Ellie only had me. We weren’t even sure who her parents were. She was born down here, but sometimes when families weren’t able to take care of their children or didn’t want the burden of taking responsibility for yet another life, they left them outside of our version of an orphanage. No questions, no consequences. To my knowledge, Ellie hadn’t minded her upbringing, saying that her orphanage mother had been kind and doting, and yet making sure she knew how to be self-sufficient.
Ellie was not exactly a delicate flower, but I still worried and had taken it upon myself when we first met at the age of 10, to be her protector, to never let anything happen to her and so far, I’d kept my promise to myself. Now, as I racked my brain to figure out who I could trust to leave as her guardian to watch her from afar, I realized there was nobody else I trusted that much who wasn’t a Topsider. It may sound elitist, but it was true.
I made haste to prepare myself for my month-long venture Topside; it was my duty. I shook off the emotional baggage and filed it away, for now, returning to my room to pack.
At the last minute, I decided to write a letter, though I was never good with words, and place it in an envelope to hand to Ellie when I went to say goodbye. I considered not telling her I was leaving, but I knew that would break something in her, a level of trust that had taken us years to build. Yet, I hated goodbyes. I had to remind myself to breathe upon thinking it could be the last goodbye I’d ever express to Ellie.
I left my pack hanging on a hook in my space and slowly made my way down the twisting corridors, more by memory than by paying attention and arrived at the greenhouse more quickly than I would have liked.
I was peering in through the window and watching Ellie work, and she must have felt it because she looked up and caught me, beaming. Then her face fell as I returned her smile with a small, tight smile of my own. She stripped off her gloves, spoke to one of her co-workers, and came out the door to me, closing it firmly behind her.
“Kai, what is it? What’s wrong?” Her hand went to my arm and lingered there.
“I have to go Topside.”
“Again? So soon?” Ellie’s grip tightened on my arm in worry.
“I’ll be gone for a while, Ellie. At least a month. I want you to promise me that no matter what happens, you’ll be careful. You’ll take care of yourself, and if there comes a time that you have to choose between you and someone else, you choose you.”
“Kai, you’re scaring me.”
My jaw tightened as I did my best to stand there stoically, emotionally numb.
“Good. This is serious, Ellie. I can’t tell you why, or go into details, you know if I could I would. I just want you to be okay. No, I need you to be okay. You are our hope. You always think I’m the one that will save us, but it’s you. I think it’ll be you.”
Her eyes misted with unshed tears, and her lip quivered, but she squared her shoulders and met my gaze.
“Kai, I will not run. I will not back down, and I will not sacrifice someone else to save myself. You wouldn’t either. So, don’t ask that of me. And don’t talk like you’re never coming back, you will be back in a month, and you’ll have me more paper or a book, or a great story about what is up there, but I refuse to believe that there is a chance that you won’t return home. Understand? So, I’m telling you the same thing that you told me, but it is more relevant for you. If something happens, choose you. You make sure that you come home no matter what, and when you do, then I will press you for answers, and you will give them to me.”
I started to protest, but she held her hand up.
“No, Kai. I trust you blindly. It took me a long time to do that, but I do, and you can do the same with me. You know anything you tell me will go no further than me. I’ve let you have your secret missions and allowed you to keep me sheltered, but now I know just how serious it must be, and I deserve to know everything.”
The sadness in her eyes had been replaced with determination. It was then that I realized I have been sheltering the little girl that I felt needed my protection, but in her own way she had been protecting me as well. I hid behind her. What I thought had been her innocence had been hoping, and faith – a lot of that faith was in me.
Without another word I reached into my pocket and dug out the envelope.
“What’s this?” Ellie took it from my grasp and began to open it, but I stopped her.
“If I don’t return home in thirty days, you open this and read it. If I do come home, you give it back to me, and we act as if it never happened, okay?”
“No. NO. You will not say a final goodbye to me, Kai. I won’t accept it.” Ellie tried to shove the letter back into my hand but I balled my fists. It was then that the first tear slid down her cheek, and I wanted to comfort her, to wipe it away, but when you know that you are possibly marching to your death and leaving the only human you truly cared for behind to an uncertain life and eventual death if you fail, there is nothing but cold comfort.
And that’s all I had.
I opened my arms for a hug and Ellie punched me twice before falling against me and crying soundlessly for a few moments. I didn’t utter promises, and tell her it was going to be okay. Those could very well be lies.
When she finally stopped shaking and had wiped her face with her palms, she stood on her tiptoes and placed a kiss on my cheek.
“Be safe, Kai and come home.”
Without a glance backward, she returned to her work, and I maneuvered my way through the flickering corridors to grab my gear and report for duty.