*this story contains an easter egg from previous stories*
Alaina! Enough already! If I hear one more word about the Surface, you’re grounded! Now please, decontaminate.” My mother shouted. “Mama I just want to see what it’s like. We’re learning about it in school, and I’ve been in the oxygen pods my whole life, don’t you think it’s possible the Surface has clean air by now?” My mother put her fingers to her temples and rubbed in a circular motion. “Alaina your whole life is ten years. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not long at all. We have been down here MY whole life, roughly three times yours, and you don’t hear me talking nonsense. The Great Migration happened years ago, in your grandmother’s time. We didn’t always have access to the technology that allows us to breathe underwater. You should be grateful you have the ability to even survive down here.”
“You mean we didn’t always gills?” I asked, touching the rubber webbing attached to my neck. She put her palm to her face. “No, sweetie. And those aren’t gills. If we had gills, we wouldn’t be able to breathe in our oxygen pods. A very smart man developed gill adapters when the Surface started to become unclean, so that we could survive. Now please. I need you to decontaminate, I have to start dinner before your father gets home.” I nodded, taking in all this new information. I stepped into the decontamination chamber, holding my arms up as the hot steam hit me from all sides. I removed my “not gills” and placed them carefully in their holder before taking in a crispy, sharp breath of air. It wasn’t real air, like the wind that blew on the Surface, but artificial air, created by our air conditioning unit. Mama said that used to mean something different before the Great Migration. Ours is just a funky little box that takes oxygen from the water and filters it before spitting it into our oxygen pod. That’s why we decontaminate before we come inside. The oxygen in the water is from the surface, so it’s not clean.
Our home in the pods is small, but I like it just fine. Mom and dad and Erica, my older sister live here with me. Mama said there used to be something called “pets”, but they didn’t survive the Great Migration. I would have loved to have had one. To be honest, I don’t think much is known about when humans walked the Surface. Only stories, and stories can lose facts over time. That’s what my teacher, Miss Vahn, taught us. I like her very much. I think it’s because she isn’t afraid to talk about the Surface like so many other people here. She taught us about a season called “Autumn” in second year. I’m in fifth year now, but I loved that lesson so much, I remember it well. When I was little, I was staring up toward the surface, and could have sworn I saw a fire. I woke Mama out of a sound sleep because I was so scared. She explained to me that the trees the foragers planted were changing color, which was the strangest thing to me. So I asked Miss Vahn about it the next day, and she changed her whole lesson around so we could talk about it! She told us paper used to be made from trees, not colored seaweed, like it is now. We spent the day making paper leaves to decorate a class tree with all our names. It was beautiful. I think that’s when I decided I want to be a forager.
The foragers are the people in our clan who go to the Surface for food, and to try and make it livable for future generations. It sounds like such a cool job if it weren’t for the monsters still living up there. We don’t quite know why we can’t breathe on the surface and they can, but we do know they’re dangerous and have attacked foragers before. All that in mind, I still want to be one. Except every time I mention it to Mama, she gets upset. She doesn’t know Erica wants to be one too. I think it’s exciting, seeing new places. All we get to see down here is blue, blue, blue for miles. I want an adventure. I want to see something different for once!
I hear Mama next door in Erica’s room, shouting. “Where has that girl run off to now? Honestly…” Erica has snuck out 4 times this week without telling anyone. Mama was mad she wasn’t home for dinner. I’ve seen her leaving a few times, but I didn’t tell Mama. She may be my sister, but Erica is 16 now, and she doesn’t have much use for a little girl like me, so I try to be cool, to impress her. I don’t know where she goes, but it must be somewhere Mama wouldn’t approve of. “Can I help, Mama?” I ask innocently. “As a matter of fact, you can tell your sister she’s grounded when she comes home!” She shouted. I slouched down, not wanting to be the next target of her anger. That’s when I spotted it. Dark, messy, specks, dotting the floor. I wasn’t sure what it was, only that I didn’t want mama to see it. She took a deep breath. I scooted myself sideways so I was standing over the crumbly spot, and she kissed my head. “I’m sorry, sweetpea. I’m not angry with you. I’m just worried about your sister.”
I know, Mama. It’s okay. I’ll look for clues for where she went.” She chuckled. “You go ahead. Just make sure everything is back where you found it, please.” She said as she walked down the hall. I immediately went for the spot. Whatever it was, I‘d never seen it before. It was dark brown, and dry. It crumbled when I touched it. Almost like the sand on the ocean floor, but messier. It was in a pattern that almost looked like the bottom of Erica’s shoe. The stuff had a strange odor to it too, like rocks or seaweed, but I couldn’t figure it out. Whatever it might be, it’s probably a good idea to clean it up before Mama sees. I quietly got the dust pan from the hall closet and tossed out the mess into a bag to ask Erica about it later.
It was late before Erica got back, but I waited up for her. She didn’t notice me creep into her room until I startled her.
“What the hell, twerp! Get out of my room!” She tried to whisper and yell at the same time.
“You have to tell me where you’re going, or I’m telling Mama about the stuff I found on your floor!” I responded. “What are you talking about?”
“This! I shouted, pulling the bag out from behind my back. She opened it and a look of horror spread across her face.
“Now tell me what it is!” I barked. It felt strange having leverage over my older sister.
“Dirt.” She said plainly.
“What’s dirt?” I questioned.
She let out a deep sigh. “Dirt...is earth that covers the Surface.” I gasped. “You went to the Surface!?” She cupped her hand over my mouth. “Would you shut up before you wake Mom and Dad? Yes, I went to the Surface. But it’s not what you think it is.”
“What do you mean?” I said, shoving her off me with a puzzled look. “I mean, the air isn’t contaminated like everyone thinks. The “monsters” they are so afraid of aren’t monsters at all, they’re the people who couldn’t afford the gill technology. The man who created it convinced everyone the air on the Surface was polluted so badly we had to start a new society and abandon our old one, but the only way to do so would be to pay for the new device he invented. So all these families went into hiding because they knew they wouldn’t survive, but... It was a lie, Alaina. The air was never contaminated. He wanted a pure society of wealthy people. Our whole town believed him. It isn’t like this in other places. Just our city. He wasn’t able to convince other towns to agree.” She could see the doubt in my eyes.
“Listen I know this is a lot for a kid to take in but it’s the truth and I wouldn’t lie to you. This guy explained everything to me, he investigates strange occurrences like this, he really knows what he’s talking about. We’ve been exchanging notes for a few days now. Mine about our underwater city, and his about the Surface. There’s a whole world out there Alaina! I wouldn’t expect you to understand my need for a way out though. You’re just a kid, after all. I know I’m not just walking away from this so what do you want? I have to do your chores for a week?”
My cheeks grew hot and I huffed at my big sister. “I understand more than you think and I’m old enough to know I want to go with you next time. I want to meet this “expert”. I want to see the world with you!” I collapsed into her, giving her a huge hug. This could be my chance after all. “And if you did it and came back, I could come back too, and show Mama and Dad and Miss Vahn...we could tell everyone!” Erica pulled back and put her hands on my shoulders. “Slow down. It isn’t that simple. That doctor’s grandchildren are still here with us. They could cause a lot of trouble if this gets out. Let’s start small. Just the two of us. All I know is, we have to talk to my friend on the Surface. Ugh I can’t remember his name! Something with a tree...Well, it doesn’t matter. We meet at our usual time, 4pm, tomorrow. Be ready.”
The next day felt like it lasted forever. Finally, 4pm rolled around. I told Mama I had a headache after class and was laying down so she wouldn’t expect me for dinner, and snuck out the window with Erica. I felt terrible for lying to my mother, but it had to be done. I had to see what was up there. “Now listen up.” my sister barked. “When we get close to the Surface, you’ll hold your breath and take the gills off. Put them in your pocket so they don’t get lost. My friend should be at our usual meeting place already. I’ll introduce you, just try not to say too much. He’s nice enough but I’m still leery of strangers.” I nodded. I couldn’t believe I was about to go to the surface and see everything for the first time, and it wasn’t through blurred, murky, water.
As we approached the Surface, Erica signaled to me it was time to take the gills off. I removed them and did my best not to suck in water. We broke through the water, and I looked at her in panic. “It’s okay! Breathe! You can breathe now Alaina!” She smiled at me, and I took my first breath of Surface air. It was amazing! I glanced around, just floating on the water’s surface. Everything was incredibly bright, so much so it hurt my eyes. I wasn’t used to how strong the sun was up here. But it was all so colorful, in a way I’d never seen before. The trees really did look like they were on fire, but in the best way. As I took in my surroundings, I became aware of a figure on the shore line.
A very tall man in a bulky, stained shirt with a bag wrapped around it stood there. His hands were massive, bigger than I’d ever seen on a person before. Like bear claws almost. His hair was long and brown, with big streaks of silver through it. As we approached the shore, I floated there, staring up at this strange looking person in front of me in awe. He glanced down at me with piercing honey colored eyes, and held out his big bear claw to me. I heard Erica’s voice in the distance telling me to accept his help out of the water. “It’s okay, Alaina. He’s the guy.” He smiled at me. “Hello little one. Pleased to meet you. My name is Cypress Wormwood.”