Crushed Underground


We will omit, here, tired narrative of a typical prole's day in the life in this dark, oppressive, grimy dystopia-- the daily trials, the endless toil, the lack of privacy, food, enjoyment, comfort, companionship, love. We will skip over lengthy, detailed descriptions of the internal structure and endless maintenance of the kilometres-wide, hermetically sealed, utterly inescapable Talmansk Arcology, prison of humanity.

We will start, instead, with a lone man, sitting this evening at his liquid crystal desk, moving virtual objects to and fro across te arcology's internal network, in an office in a suite in a secret bunker where he dwells alone and has issued forth, electronically, rules and decrees for decades and decades, at the moment that the Revolution bursts into his office, automatic weapons blazing.

He lunges for a red button which has sat in the same spot on his desk, disregarded, for almost as long as he has held his position, and bullet-proof glass slams down all around him. The glass holds, just about. The man-- he looks late middle-aged-- collapses into his chair and just stares in frank amazement. Four or five bullets smoke in the wall behind him.

They're not warriors. Hardly any of them even look like credible threats. Two in the back are only boys, fourteen or fifteen years old, skinny, white-faced. There's an older man, greying, bulky, in need of exercise, he can't quite keep his gun straight. They are trained, yes, they all move with speed and attention paid to their surroundings (which are lavish, deep-coloured, with books and carpets), but... a word drags itself out of the depths of his vocabulary. "Rag-tag". And their eyes are all too wide.

After the rebels stop firing and a call is made for a demolitions expert, he finally recovers himself and turns on a speaker so he can talk to them.

"I can't describe how proud I am that you managed this," he says. "I honestly didn't think you would ever manage it. I'm sure you're even more acutely aware than I am that I have the most awesomely totalitarian surveillance and security system known to mankind at my disposal in this bunker. There are fail-safes for the fail-safes for the fail-safes. There is no way that I could think of, in any conceivable eventuality, that it would be possible for anybody to infiltrate their way all the way into this bunker without being detected from the moment you entered at floor zero. That you're here and my security board is all green is amazing. Truly amazing. You deserve applause." He claps, not insincerely. "You there, you're in charge, am I right? What's your name?"

"Nohta Brown," says the tallest man, the dark man in the heaviest armour, stepping forward. "What's yours?"

"I'm the Governor. Surely you know that already."

"What's your real name, Governor?"

The Governor sighs. "Calrus. Mitchell Calrus. I haven't had cause to use my real name in a long time. I doubt it means much to you. But I suppose you are owed something for making it all the way down here. Why are you here?"

"You know why we're here, Calrus. We want it to end. We want to leave this... sick experiment of yours. We want to see the world you've kept us secret from for so long. We want to be set free."

"Free?" Calrus leans back in his chair and folds his arms casually. "You can't," he says, matter-of-factly. "It can't happen. Sorry."

The demolitions expert comes in. Brown talks to him for a moment. Calrus hears but doesn't quite understand the jargon. No matter. The expert begins work on the glass.

"You've been lying to us," says Brown. "We've been kept down here, in this so-called 'arcology', for at least three generations. Probably much longer, if what my grandfather told me is to be believed. But it's not true. This story you've fed us all. About us being buried underground. About the world outside being obscured because of wind and... and mud piling up on the arcology roof. But it's all lies. I've spoken to older generations. Since I was just a child. All of us have. We know what these chemicals in the food you feed us do to us. Keeping us docile. We know about the oceans. And the forests. I've read books about... about this sky thing and wind and... and fish and animals. And the Sun."

"You're not supposed to know what the Sun is, Nohta," says Calrus. "Those stories are banned."

"You can't destroy knowledge."

Calrus nods.

"Everything you've heard is wrong," he says. "Everything I've told you is correct. There is nothing left outside this arcology. We do have to stay here. For the rest of your life and the rest of your children's lives. There's no Sun. There's no such thing as love, or any other emotions you may have heard of. You're off the dose. Go back to work. All of you. Please. This is your universe. There is nothing outside it, understand me?"

"You're going to let us out of here," says Brown. He pulls out a crumpled rectangle from a pocket. "What is this? What is it?"

"A fiction," says Calrus, barely glancing at it. "You know everything can be faked. If you kill me, you'll never get out of here, not past the diamond carapace, not with all the high explosives you can muster. You have mining to do, Nohta Brown. Your shaft is untended."

The demolitions man, still unnamed, begins attaching shaped charges to the bullet-proof screen. Calrus moves to the farthest corner - next to a bookshelf - and, with effort, turns the desk and chair over as shielding for the explosion. "Automatic weapons and explosives. With your resources. Unbelievable. It must have taken you years. Where do you operate from? How did you learn how to subvert my security? Did you have help?"

There's no answer. The squad is retreating to safety. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to, of course," he adds.

The explosion is too loud to even register as noise in Calrus' ears. He survives the explosion but is dazed and extremely deaf for some time afterwards, as Brown and his men hurry back in, lift the shattered desk off him, lay into him with the heavy ends of their machine guns until he stops fighting back, and finally drag him away.


They tie his arms behind his back with heavy industrial tape. They make him lead them out of his suite and back through the mazelike bunker to the elevator. They travel straight up, without stopping, to the Crow's Nest, the top floor of the tallest building in the arcology, the gigantic kilometre-tall stalactite which supports the arcology ceiling. They take him to the edge and hold him there and hijack the city-wide video network to show the teeming masses their leader, at their mercy. They threaten to drop him.

Millions of people find the gear change difficult to comprehend. No more Governor? So... what would they do?

Some kilometres away to the southwest, the drug factory is in flames. The signal should have hit Calrus' desk hours ago but it was masked and he never even knew. Soon everybody will be off the dose, whether they like it or not. Withdrawal will kill a few, but the survivors will be so much stronger! Then they'll know what to do.

"Don't kill me," says Calrus. "Just don't. I'll show you what you want to see. I'll show you the light outside. Just let me live. Let me come with you. I want to leave as much as you do."

"You're a prisoner too, eh?"

"Did it look like I had the option of leaving? Through those locks?"

Calrus shows them the way. It takes some hours. He leads them to the ground floor of the arcology and then they set out on foot, as a procession, with people gathering around them by the hundred, by the thousand, increasing in volume, some of them getting the idea and starting to throw things and shout. It seems like half the city is following them by the time the tiny band of rebels and their captive reach a building wedged into the farthest southern corner of the arcology, where the hexagonal diamond pattern meets ground level. Calrus, his arms freed, deactivates the security for all of them and enters. Three hair triggers are pointed at him from behind. If it is a trap, he will be the first to die. And everybody will still be free. So he has nothing to lose. That is the reasoning.

Hundreds of people, the less well-programmed, crowd in behind them, trying to follow the rebels.

They reach a wide open room, dark, grimy, full of mining equipment. Calrus opens a rusty panel and enters another code. Elderly hydraulics begin to whine. One wall of the room begins to unfold, dislodging some of the equipment stacked against it. The door is ten feet thick. Behind it is a long, fluorescent-lit tunnel. "This leads beyond the boundary of the arcology. It leads to the surface. The airlock at the far end will lead you outside. Follow me."

The tunnel is almost a kilometre long. It bends gently and climbs gradually upwards. The further they travel, the cleaner the sections of tunnel seem to be. As if they were built later. As if the tunnel had been extended over time. Every fifty metres or so are gigantic slots in the walls - doors, retracted. The last door is closed, with black and yellow signs covering it. It's convex, like the exterior of a shell. The text becomes visible slowly:




"How much of this do you believe, Nohta Brown?" asks Calrus as he plugs yet another code into the panel in the wall. The first gigantic door rotates into the ceiling.

They step into the enormous, spherical cell behind the airlock. "Forgive me," says Calrus. "But I'm going to continue this charade for as long as possible." He goes to the final wall panel and opens a large locker behind it. There're half a dozen radiation suits behind it, and plastic masks on long cables hooked into air compressors in the wall. Calrus straps one mask over his face.

"Just open the door," says Brown, refusing Calrus' offer of a mask of his own. Behind him, his followers likewise decline. They clutch their weaponry nervously.

Two green lights flash.

"Freedom," says Calrus, and pulls a very large lever. The airlock closes behind them. And the second door opens ahead of them.

The first thing the rebels feel is their ears, popping as air rushes out through the opening crack. Then the stink of strange air coming back in. And then the wind.

Black and yellow dust streams in under the door. There are mountains of it out there. Piled up as part of the ruse, obviously. Here it comes. Here comes the Sun.

The door folds away over their heads, leaving them exposed to the elements in a low chasm between several large hills of earth and dust. Nohta Brown runs up the high dune ahead. He is already gasping as he reaches the top. The air is foul, choked with strange metallic and chemical smells. There doesn't seem to be enough oxygen in it. Calrus follows him, trailing his air hose.

He scans the horizon.

"This is it, Nohta," says Calrus, slightly muffled through the mask. "This is what you asked for. You feel that air movement? That's light wind. Three hundred miles per hour, it goes, on bad days. You feel the sting of dust and sand in the air? That's earth. Smell the fresh air, Nohta. Feel the fire of the Sun," says Calrus, and points to the livid orange glow behind the livid yellow sky.

Behind them, the arcology looms, just a mountain of mud from the outside, some of it hundreds of metres thick. The tunnel from which they just emerged can be seen leading off, towards it, worming its way into the filth. In every other direction is desolation. Hills of rock and sand and mud. On one horizon is a collection of angular blocks; gigantic hollow husks of buildings, shifted by tectonic plate movement, worn down and bent over by constant grinding wind.

"This is all there was left after the disaster," shouts Calrus. "This and the arcology we live in. I'm trying to reverse it. I'm doing the best I can. I'm using algae to regenerate the atmosphere, and I have DNA samples of the fish and animals and trees you've heard of. Your picture, it's an oak tree. And the green stuff on the ground is grass. There will be grass again. But it's going to take almost two thousand years longer, can you understand that? A hundred generations. And we have to wait for that to finish. I have to keep humanity alive and breeding in our burrow until the world is ready for us again."

"I don't believe you!" cries Nohta. He turns around and around, taking in all the space and all the freedom. There's nothing over his head and it makes him feel scared and exposed.

"This atmosphere is dangerous for you. Even if you could breathe it for the long term you'll die of radiation poisoning within days. Use my mask. We can go back inside. I have to go back myself. We need to rebuild the chemical factory. The work has to continue. Just take this!"

Nohta refuses the mask. "No."

"What don't you believe?" shouts Calrus. "What of this looks fake to you? How long have you believed what you believe? How young did you start listening to the lies?"

"I don't remember," Nohta gasps. "I was no more than... six..."

Twenty years. Calrus bites his lip. Then turns away. And walks away from him, back down the dune.

Nohta's followers have found a few additional masks where the first one is attached, and are breathing from them in turn.

Calrus looks up at the figure on the hill, who has fallen to his knees. Then he checks for the two green lights, and pulls the lever again.

Next: Taphophobia

Discussion (10)

2008-05-02 01:36:10 by scratskinner:

Hmm.. "Nohta Brown" "not a brown" Anyone see a reference to the Powers there?

2008-05-03 19:06:48 by Val:

Calrus? Calrus? THAT Calrus, who discovered FTL? Just please, don't include [Valuable Humans In Transit] into this storyline...

2008-05-04 02:04:30 by MGargantua:

Oh man, I forgot about that name. There are no coincidences in a well told story. Mr. 4D invents FTL travel, which might just be what their giant computer is calulating how to do.

2009-02-26 19:56:38 by Aegeus:

So, does the blasted radioactive wasteland imply that Mitch and Anna failed to stop people from destroying themselves with nuclear weapons?

2009-07-29 21:50:03 by Ray:

I can't help thinking that this is either a precursor to the Crashes. The radiation warning and complete destruction of the Earth's surface seems to be consistent with nuclear war, but why isn't Anne Poole there? Maybe Anne and Calrus were discovered and outed before they could complete their task in 1970-, and it ended in nuclear war? The present day timeline seems to go off in a different direction- the elimination of new technology or their one time (ab)use would seem to indicate that nuclear war is the least of our problems.

2009-10-07 18:10:29 by aero:

This reminds me of Gurren Lagann, but better somehow.

2009-11-19 09:21:12 by qntm:

This story was retroactively incorporated into Fine Structure in February 2008.

2011-10-10 22:54:54 by Pladd:

I need to learn to stop reading the comments until I'm done with the entire book. They spoil things that I'm not even sure are spoilers. Anyways, keep up with this writing, Sam. I expect to see a full-length novel in a bookstore near me within a few years.

2011-10-21 17:51:37 by Unclevertitle:

A very interesting subversion of the common dystopian future, where the big bad totalitarian power actually turns out to be the good guy with everyone's best interests at heart. Not too often that you see this in fiction.

2015-03-24 03:54:51 by GoldFish:

Hey dude your stories are Awesome! But I think Hollywood is stealing them. This reminds me sooooo much of Snowpiercer.

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