Chapters of dystopian sci-fi. A recovering society, an overbearing government, and a boy.
PROLOGUE : The Fall
Another flash. Another blinding, piercing, burning, all-ending flash.
Next will come the thunder, she thought.
The sky split open in sound and soot. Ash, rubble, and acid rain fell upon the burning earth. The pealing detonation rumbled on, and on, and on.
Slime and slag burrowed under her nails, bit into thin skin, and swallowed what remained of her shoes as she spilled to the ground. On her knees, forehead to the dirt, still she cradled her diminutive prize to her chest. With a sputtering, wordless cry she moved her feet beneath her, willing them to carry her further, only a little further.
As she hoisted herself up once more she caught sight of another jet streaking across the sky with a roar.
"No!" she wailed.
Tears cleared streaks of grit from her face, simultaneously clearing her eyes of debris and blurring what little of the world she could see.
With desperation she lurched forward, clutching the bundle of blankets to her chest, unconscious of how tightly she held it.
With relief she threw herself into a pocket of earth, tumbling into serrated darkness. Her ragged breath filled her ears, echoing in the space around her until, finally, an undulating wail echoed instead.
With finality, a flash of light illuminated the tiny, grimy face nestled in her arms. The last rip of thunder tore their world apart.
CHAPTER ONE: First Days
Danni Jernum took in his reflection in the polished metal reflector. He examined every inch of his 5 and a half feet, doing what he could to look his best with what he had. He saw his shaggy brown hair, tanned face, dark brown eyes, his hairless chin, and then grimaced slightly at his already brooding, boyish image. His brow was overset, not in an unattractive way, but in a way that made him look more intense than he liked. Usually, his thin pink lips were found stretched into a mischievous smirk or mirthful grin, if only in an attempt to disconnect the serious facade he could not relate to. Not to say he didn't get into his fair share of mischief. Adding all of that to a face still pudgy with the fat of childhood, he felt he looked like a pouting boy than more a man embarking on adulthood.
Danni sighed as he dropped his hands to his sides and tugged at his shirt, trying to make it reach farther than his belt, but it was a feeble attempt. Every time he raised an arm – something he expected to do a lot of in the coming days – his shirt raised up enough to show his stomach. At that moment his door swung open to reveal his mother’s pinched face.
“For sovereign’s sake Danni, will you at least try to fix your hair?” she said at once.
Danni huffed another sigh and gave his mother an irritated look. “No one’s going to be looking at my hair when my clothes don't fit,” he grumbled, lifting his leg to show his mother his exposed ankle.
Mrs.Jernum tugged at his shirt and patted his hair down around his ears. “Now, now you’ll be fine; aside from this mop on your head.... I wish you’d just let me cut it. You’ll be sitting at a desk most of the day anyway, no one will see your ankles.”
His mother took a step back and smiled up at him from her 5’2” vantage point. “But you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine,” she repeated softly, adjusting her son’s bouncy curls on his brow. Danni rolled his eyes and she swatted his arm before bustling about the room. “Your father dialed in, he’ll be back soon and you’ll be off to School. Please try to be ready and in the den for breakfast before then.” After properly displacing his things, she smiled from the doorway and told him “The first day of everything is always difficult. You’ll be great.”
Danni flopped onto his mattress and stared at the mirror and prints across his room. Most were drawings or sketches by himself, save a photograph tacked to the wall next to the mirror. The most detailed drawing was of his home, while another sketch was of a house he’d seen on Surface while working with his father. One sketch he was most proud of was of his mother and 6 year old sister Lucy. He drew Lucy with a broad smile, showing off a missing tooth, while sitting in his mother’s lap. He remembered trying to draw every one of her hairs until she’d gotten bored with him and ran away with a laugh and a shriek. Most of the remaining, simpler sketches were of plants, organisms’ cells beneath a micro-scope, and circuit boards. They were notes more than they were drawings, a part of his community-led learning, but he felt just as gratified as he looked at each one. They all brought him to this day.
The tattered photograph on the wall was bright and stood out against the surrounding graphite and charcoal. The image was of his grandfather on a green field with buildings in the distance and flags behind him. He was shaking hands with the President of Unistam, his county, following the brokered peace and integration of the Lower Cities. Danni’s grandfather was the acting leader and spokesperson of the Lower Cities, having been one of the few to not only venture above, on the Surface, but also interact with the Surface society successfully.
Whilst Danni’s ancestors fought the creatures of the earth for their own survival, others had been restructuring society. His was the people that returned to social order long after their brothers had, following a long, hard stint in the wilds of a broken world. Those others, the Surface people, had been the children of the higher born privileged before The Fall, and had been tucked away as best they could have been when the world fell apart. While they slowly climbed out of their hovels of relative safety, carrying science and education, technologies and medicines with them; Danni’s ancestors were digging lower and lower into the reaches of the Earth in a desperate attempt to escape the arctic sky and wasted ground. From the Second Beginning they were at a disadvantage, as those seen as lesser were already left behind. But still, here he was, staring himself in the mirror, tugging his too small school uniform.
Danni’s great-grandfather had been one of the first to make contact, and it was through him that his son was in turn able to become a recognized presence in the world above. After bringing education and technology down, the people of the Lower Cities were lifted up. Danni’s mother was one of the first to receive some sort of formal education and now worked as a Surface Nurse. Danni himself was one of the few to begin integrated Surface Education as a child. Other Lower City children had gone before him to the Academies, and for that he was glad. His shoulders felt heavy enough with the weight of his family’s history and reputation.
With that thought, Danni self-consciously tugged at his curls and ran his fingers through his tangles. He didn’t like to cut his hair short, per normal, and he didn’t like to wear the uniform that marked him not only as a student but also as Lower City by the emblem on his chest. Every student wore markers to designate their city or colony, he knew, but that didn’t make him feel better about it.
Suddenly his mother’s excited voice drifted through the walls, followed by the low, barely detectable tone of his father’s. Danni hopped up, slung his bag over his shoulder, and darted into the den where his mother had set out biscuits, a hard-boiled egg, and an unopened carton of juice. Danni quickly transferred food from the table into his pack, just as his parents walked in from the front hallway.
His mother’s smile faltered as she narrowed his eyes at him and the now empty table, but didn’t stop talking. “-and Lucy will need a bath this evening, but don’t skip on her reading for it! She knows what pages I marked for her, and she’ll put up a fuss, but don’t let her win you out,” she told her husband.
Danni’s father, nodded automatically, swiping a biscuit from the table. “Gotit,” the next was said looking at Danni with humour and pity in his eyes, “go easy on’im.”
Danni’s mother harrumphed, picked up her bag, and kissed her husband on the cheek. “I’m going to say goodbye to Lucy, and then we’re leaving.” She, too, directed the latter at her son with a pointed look as she passed him and entered his sister’s room. Lucy had 6 more years until she began her formal learning, so it was the job of her parents and the community to prepare her until then. While Surface children began school at age 8, Danni was now joining them for the first time at age 12 after his own community learning. All week he had been gloating over Lucy. He had been elated when he learned he had passed the exams that granted him entry into Surface Academy 13, but now his knotted stomach led him to envy the girl still laying in bed.
Mr.Jernum clapped a hand on Danni's shoulder and smiled at his son. Danni's father brought him in for a brief hug, and then held him at arm’s length with one hand, his other holding the biscuit. For a moment Danni’s father searched his face, and he must have found what he was looking for because he nodded and said, “Yer strong. Do well.”
Danni nodded seriously. The words meant a lot from his father, a man of few words. Mr.Jernum works in agriculture, a Surface Laborer the scientists rely on to enact their work to cultivate the land. All agriculturers are men of few words; they don’t have much need of them and so don’t waste their precious few allotment. Unlike his mother, a Surface Nurse, for whom it was vital for both her work in medicine and scientific research. Most individuals used a 4,950 word allotment a month like his father. Danni began mimicking his father’s quiet nature after his 11th birthday in an effort to prepare for his own word allotment that began this year.
Mrs.Jernum came bustling down the hallway then, shooing them both along, tittering about being late and getting rest. Mr.Jernum kissed his wife’s forehead and ruffled his son’s hair with a smirk that sent his wife shrieking. Danni grinned and ducked past his mother towards the door, and she came bustling after him. Both on their way to the Surface.
Danni sat between the window and his mother picking the shell off his egg and tossing it out the window of the crowded car that was moving up the cable over his city. His mother caught him tossing his last, large bit of eggshell out the window and flicked him in the ear.
"Stop that!" she hissed, "If you had eaten at home you wouldn't be littering our roof!"
Danni poked his head out the window and looked down in response. "We're over the second tier neighborhood, not ours," he informed her, taking a bite of his egg. "Besides, thought you'd 'preciate the compost."
She swatted him again and he grinned. "Chew your food," was all she said, shaking her head.
Danni rode the rest of the way in silence, sipping at his raspberry and currant juice. He didn't eat the rest of his breakfast. His stomach could barely contain the rest of his juice, it was too full of knots.
Thinking of what his mother said about first times being the most difficult, he tried to remember his first time riding the cables. Or his first time to the surface. That, he could remember much better, but still he didn't remember it being full of the same fear, nervousness, and anxiety that he felt now. Those feelings came later.
He was three years old, back when his father still worked the in mines, when both he and his parents had taken him to the surface for the first time. Danni remembered bubbling with so much excitement that he slept hardly at all the night before. As a result, he'd slept the whole way up, waking only when the sunlight hit his face. Danni had seen sunlight before, filtering down through the gaps and crevices, or when he'd been in the higher reaches of the city, closer to the surface. But he'd never seen the sun like that. He'd never seen the round body hanging impossibly high in an impossibly blue sky.
Mr. Jernum was holding him, and Danni had clambered up his father to sit on his shoulders. He felt like he had to get higher, closer. It was only when he knocked his face into the back of his father's head that he realized something was on his face. He reached up and touched the glasses strapped to his head, but before he could tug them off his mother was there swatting away his hands, pulling him into her protective arms.
"The suns dangerous, Danni," she told him. "It blinds, burns. The sun isn't a’friend, we must be careful."
Danni stared up at her with wide eyes hidden behind dark frames. His mother's expression was difficult to read behind glasses of her own, but her words chilled him enough that he did not need to see her stern look. He looked back up at a bright sky and imagined he could see the dark intentions hidden behind the hazy clouds.
Now, pulling his coat closer around him as he stepped over the gap from the car to the ground, Danni did not wear glasses. Mainstream society operated in the early evening hours and through the night, when the sun was low on the western horizon. The atmosphere was thicker across the earth, and so the suns rays not as dangerous. The dangers of the sun, both seen and unseen, were never forgotten though, even as modern medicine fought against its effects. That was one aspect of farming and agricultural work that made Mr. Jernum's job so dangerous.
“I’ll walk you to 13th Street, the Academy is down only five blocks I think. I’ve gotta getta work after that,” Mrs. Jernum said, pushing Danni through the crowd around the cable cars. Danni nodded his understanding, and she continued, “Tomorrow you’ll be coming up alone, pay ‘tention’ta where we walk.”
“Got’it, ma,” Danni groaned. She’d told him countless times how to get to the Academy. She’d fretted over it so much that she convinced her supervisor to let her come in late to show him most of the way.
Danni would have thought it helpful, had they not already walked him to the Academy a handful of times since he was six. His family was at the steps of the building when the city held a ceremony announcing it would now accept Lower City students. Of course, not one Lower City student sat in a classroom there until 3 years later when one was finally accepted. Again, his family and others rallied to the steps to cheer for the champion child on his first day. Danni had hated that for the boy; he’d turned so red you’d thought he was on his way to the hospital instead of school. Danni was glad only it was only his mother with him now.
The two finally broke from the crowd as they entered the Terminal. The rest of the crowd piled into what could loosely be considered a line awaiting entry into the Surface City. The Jernums stood only briefly in a smaller walkway, swiping pass cards over a small screen as they went. A metal door before them hummed and then clicked open, a guard smiled at Mrs. Jernum and nodded at Danni as they passed through.
“Mornin’ Ralu,” Mrs. Jernum piped happily to the guard. “Got’ma boy with me today. His first day of school. I know’I toldya bout him already, but look how grown he is,” Mrs. Jernum ruffled Danni’s hair, “can’t be prouder, I can’t.”
The guard grinned and tipped his cap to Danni and his mother, then the pair went on their way.
Much to Danni’s relief, the rest of the walk was spent primarily in silence. The knots in his stomach tightened with every step without his mother telling every passerby about his big first day. Eventually, Mrs. Jernum stopped walking, gave her son a heartfelt goodbye, then turned left down a street as Danni continued straight.
He counted the blocks with his head down. Normally he'd be gaping at the iron-wrought and winding glass structures, all shining in the red sunlight. But today he simply milled amongst the increasing number people, attempting to remain as unseen as possible, constantly away of the Lower City insignia on his shirt. Finally, where the crowd seemed to be at its thickest, he recognized the wide limestone steps of Surface Academy 13.
The Academy was one of the oldest buildings in the city. It stood stoic and tall on a street full of renovated or new buildings that were far more impressive to the eye. But Danni didn't like those buildings nearly as much, despite the practicality and beauty infused into their designs. Here was a building of a time past, a people dead.
No, not dead, Danni thought, reborn and rebuilding.
Danni stood there for a minute looking up at the imposing structure, imagining different futures this place would lead him to. His acceptance alone promised a future outside of the mines, and after a couple years he could avoid the hard, sun-beat labor of agricultural work. He envisioned himself developing new technologies that would improve Lower City life, designing railways and bridges to expand the Surface world, or even creating new life that would someday thrive in the harsh environment of their world. Whatever he did, he knew he would improve the lives of the citizens of Unistam and bring them closer to a less frightening future.
With a deep breath he started up the steps, the knots in his stomach finally easing as his excitement grew. He belonged here, he knew.
On the fourth step, his foot slipped. Danni felt time slow as he watched the steps rise to his face. No, the steps weren’t rising, he was falling. Belatedly, he moved his hands to cover his face as he crashed into the hardened limestone.
“Shit! You see that? Sovereign, that’s gotta hurt!” a voice shouted.
Danni felt hands pull up into a sitting position. He rubbed his head, blinking away darkness and spots. Slowly, a pair of boots and tan trousers came into focus. Danni groaned, and a reaching hand entered his few. He took it and was pulled to his feet much to quickly, making his head spin.
“Whoa, shit. Sorry man. If you’re gonna blow chunks, don’t do on me, ya here?” said the voice.
Dannie blinked at the boy in front him. He was skinny and shorter than Danni, although most boys were. He had dark blonde hair cropped close to his head and dark yellow eyes to match. The boy’s skin was pale, but not unusually so, and he wore a uniform like Danni’s with an insignia that marked him as a first year Surface City student.
“Thanks, ‘m not gonna throw up,” Danni finally managed.
The blonde boy grinned. “Spectacular. In that case, you might want to start making your way inside. You ain’t quick, and if’ya don’t move soon you’ll be late.” With that, the boy was loping back up the steps to two other boys similarly dressed.
Danni watched the three students head inside before following suit, thoroughly embarrassed. Not for the first time, he was thankful for his darker skin that hid most of his self-conscious flush.