Congratulations to Herika R Raymer for taking the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Herika’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.
THE FINAL EXIT
Herika R Raymer
Hope wondered what sunlight felt like.
The phosphorous light emitted by the limestone in the cavern walls was a poor imitation, she was sure. The cavern’s warmth emitted from trenches of ever-burning fire glass to keep the area dry. She watched over the fire glass and made sure the barrier between it and the flock was not damaged. Occasionally, she paused to watch them jump/fly to their coop carved into the higher parts of the cavern.
“Guess it is a remnant memory,” Rima, her fellow fire-tender, mused aloud as he also watched the poultry make their inane trips from the cave floor to their nests above.
“From what?” Hope asked as she examined the barrier for breaches.
“Time Above.” He answered off-handedly.
She looked at him with start, and then scanned around them to be sure no one heard. It appeared not. The farmers were busy. No one paid attention to the fire-tenders. She sighed with relief and shot him a warning look.
“Idiot,” she admonished him.
He snorted. “Why is it so bad just to mention Above?”
She elbowed him, even as she shared his frustration. Like him, she was born Below. Life Above was a story told by elders, so why was the mention of it tacitly forbidden when they spoke openly?
“Pay attention to what you are doing,” she cautioned him.
He shrugged and returned to checking the metal fuel lines that kept the fire going. It was dangerous, but Hope enjoyed it. The task had an advantage, it was as close to real sunlight as she could imagine. Still, this danger was better than being arrested for dissention. Rima was taking a big risk saying things like this. The Overlords did not like their ways being criticized or questioned.
“I want to see it.” Rima whispered to her.
“See what?” her voice quivered as she scanned about again. Their conversation was drowned by the activity in the cavernous room.
She gaped at him. “Are you crazy?” she hissed.
“No,” he responded. “You heard old man Derrik last night. There is more than this. There is a whole world Above.”
“It’s dead, Rima.”
“No maybe, you know the history.”
He pinched a face, but yes he knew. Everyone knew what happened. It was the first history lesson elders shared. They remembered. Above was unprepared but Below knew about the inevitable. From the blinding flash which announced the first bloom of many mushrooms, Below was ready. Denver Center already had Overlords established in the underground cities and communities since their infancy. Once the panicked masses flooded into the tunnels, sewers, and caves, the underground communities swelled to an incredible size. The Overlords stepped forward then, and decided who could stay and who would fall to the radioactive oblivion of Above. They continued to do so today. No one knew how many generations had grown up Below, but it could not have been many. The elders talked about Above like it happened within their lifetime. Yet Hope, Rima, and a few others wondered if Above was still inhabitable.
Stories of a green land decorated with an array of colorful flowers and majestic trees. Furry animals shared the land of Above with reptiles and birds. Large oceans of a beautiful shade of deep blue full of fish and other aquatic life. The tales wove a realm incredibly vibrant, with an open sky above both land and ocean that stretched forever. It was a glorious blue during the day, decorated occasionally by white fluffy clouds and splashed with incredible color during a sunset. At night, the sky was then marked by lighted dots called stars. During the day, there was a great fire in the sky which warmed the skin and allowed people to see for miles around. So much clarity! Nothing hidden! Hope shook her head free of the temptation.
It was a fairy-tale. An imaginary place painted with expressive words. Yet the life described was spoken with such energy and passion, it was infectious. Hope was sure more than one listener in the audience had been transported out of the confines of Below to the openness of Above. To be honest with herself, she was one.
“I want to see the sky,” Rima insisted.
She finished with her task and wrote the results on her chart. “What if it isn’t there?” She heard the catch of disappointment in her own voice.
He paused, considering this. “Well, I won’t know unless I go Above.”
“So you would risk dying just to prove a myth exists?”
She was moved by his certainty. “How do you plan on getting out?”
“You there!” a new voice interrupted sharply.
The two turned and saluted to the Regulator of this room. The masked figure pointed at them. “Complete your task,” it breathed through the elongated beak.
“Done, sir,” Hope answered briskly. “We were just leaving.”
“Well done, move on.”
The two acknowledged the order and made their way out to enter the nearby subway tunnel. In the dimly lit hallways, they passed by others on their way to various tasks. The only sounds the shuffling feet and muffled speech. Heads bowed, the crowds moved listlessly and mindlessly, going about their assigned jobs. Her own head bowed, she watched her neighbors in her peripheral vision. Her fellow’s postures and demeanors were disheartening.
“We’re going to the exit,” Rima hissed.
She felt a thrill run through her. “When?”
“Tonight, after curfew.”
“How will you avoid the Sweeps?”
“Briac has been watching their patterns, he has mapped it.”
“The Sweeps are different every day.”
Rima shook his head. “Briac insists there is still a pattern. He has watched it for the last two harvests. He says he knows when they will pass. We just have to be sure to meet him.”
She looked around, “Where?”
He grinned. “Does that mean you’re coming?”
She hesitated. He had risked a lot in telling her about the Exit attempt. The Overlords determined who was allowed to brave Above in search of what resources might still be scavenged. The assignment was usually given to loyalists. Except, why would they send expeditions Above if there was nothing left. The loyalists were the only ones who could answer the question if anything was left Above. If the sun still shone. If the land was green again. Only they did not answer, or would not answer. If she wanted to know what true sunshine felt like, she had to be brave.
“Okay,” she agreed before her good sense talked her out of it.
Rima grinned at her, quickly taking her hand and squeezing it. “I will come get you.”
“But—” she had no chance to finish the thought as he ducked down another tunnel. She could follow, but decided against it. Their routine dictated they separate here, so best not do anything different. It would be noticed.
The wait until curfew was the longest one Hope had known. Each fire-glass pit she visited was a sliver of the sunlight promised Above. It was possible there was none, but she had been infected with the desire to see. To know. To be able to look up and not see the shadows of a natural or cement ceiling.
Finally done, she was returned to the claustrophobic confines of the sleeping quarters to be counted for curfew. She submitted her reports to the Monitor and eased down the aisle to her destination. Waiting for Rima was excruciating, but eventually he came. She didn’t know how he got passed the Monitor, but with the promise of Above so close, she did not care.
He motioned for her to keep quiet and he escorted her out of the sleeping chamber. They made their way to the cafeteria, where the night shift ate. Stopping just outside to grab and don the proper uniforms. Inside, he took her to the farthest table. They sat together, quietly, surreptitiously watching Briac. Once again, the waiting was torment. Fear was setting on her now. What if they were caught? What would happen? Was it really worth it? Sensing her distress, Rima took her hand and squeezed it again. Only this time he did not let go. When she looked at him, she realized it was time. Briac was thrumming his fingers on the table to catch everyone’s attention. Once he had it, he stood and made his way to the exit. The others stood and filed in line behind him.
She could not believe it, she could see the tail end of a Sweep! Briac really did know how to time their exit!
“Quick now, we do not have long!” he said and dashed down the subway tunnel.
The group ran after him, blood racing and ready to see Above. They went down the dimly lit corridors, turning one way and another, feeling the steady incline. Finally, they arrived at the bottom of crumbling steps going upward. The sound of a siren wailed behind them.
“They know!” shouted one of the others. “Run!”
As a group, they ran and stumbled up the steps. Pain jarred through Hope’s hands and up her arms as she scrabbled up the debris. She cried out as her footing slipped and she began to slip backward. A firm hand grabbed her wrist to arrest her fall. She looked up gratefully at Rima. Another scream besides them. This one was not so lucky and skidded down the ruined steps to the waiting spears of the Sweepers. The remaining climbers watched in horror as their comrade was pinned to the ground.
“Cease and return!”
“C’mon!” Briac screamed.
The others turned and continued their tortuous ascent. At the top of the steps was a dilapidated station. There were tracks here, some abandoned rooms to the side, and a strange smell. She could swear she could feel a breeze! Excited, she quickened her pace. Eventually, they could feel the incline again, quickening their hopes. The hollowed sound from the massive empty halls did not deter from the groups’ determination. They continued onward, heedless of any danger that might be ahead. All they could feel was the increasing breeze, the sweet scent of fresh air, and the change in air from being below ground. Finally, they came to steps which went up. The group slowed to a walk and cautiously approached their freedom.
“This is it,” Hope breathed. Her heart was in her throat, but there was a tingle of trepidation. She did not see the golden aura of daylight. Had she been lied to? Or were the clouds truly blanketing the sky?
“C’mon,” Rima urged, pulling her forward.
Hope’s breath caught in her throat as she looked at a diamond-studded sky. It went on forever! Seeing the beauty above brought forth tears. No clouds here, no natural or cement ceiling, nothing obstructing the view. It was all there. And the different colors! No one said the stars were colorful. There was a streak in the sky as well, filled with clustered stars. It was awe-inspiring.
Hope turned to Rima and saw his tear-streaked face.
She was about to say something when she noticed something burst from his chest.
He went rigid, coughed a dark substance, looked down in shock, and finally crumpled.
Still holding his hand, she fell to her knees beside him. She looked up to see the snout masks emerging from the underground passageway. They had spears ready.
“You have done well, Briac,” one of them said.
“Then you keep your bargain?” he asked desperately.
“You will become a Scavenger, and will stay Above.”
Hope looked at him, incredulous at the betrayal. “Briac?”
He had the decency to look ashamed. “Sorry, I just could not take being below. Above is recovering, there are more and more places to scavenge. But the rebellious element Below had to be rooted out. I-I’m sorry.”
The last sight Hope saw was the towering figure with goggled eyes and snout filter blocking out the brilliant stars beyond.
She never felt the sunshine.