Lorna stared outside the minuscule turquoise porthole, her roiling furious thoughts only tempered by the thought of the whole universe outside she had never known. Outside was a scarred wasteland of a landscape, poisoned by government and political leaders who had made the ravaged land into what it was now. Grassless, airless, lifeless, without lush blooming plants and flowers, or tall, protective emerald trees. Only the most courageous and selfless strode across the dead onyx plains, relentlessly giving up their precious time to plant new seeds and try to clear the murky, unstable atmosphere. Lorna admired their unperturbed courage: in newspaper cuttings and on the news headlines, always heading towards a brand-new breakthrough. She longed fiercely to be like them. For the whole of her predictable, humdrum seventeen years, she had lived inside the secret underground network of bunkers. Safe and sound.
Early on in Earth’s destruction, humankind had decided that something needed to be done: a last resort, a feverish contingency plan. So the greatest, most innovative engineers built a ribboning, labyrinthine maze of comfortable and spacious underground bunkers, like heady rabbit warrens, excavated deep, deep underground. Current political heads mocked them; said they had no use, and together, they would combat this. For once, they desperately struggled to undo the metamorphosis the troubled earth had been through in the past years, but too late: the public was now too far gone in their endless, useless consumption and littering. One by one, beloved animal species became extinct forever, only myths and legends in yellowed history-books. Now mankind was a civilisation, entirely underground, while the opened ground, and whole planet, lay dead and deadly above them.
Going up to land took as much care and consideration as surfacing into the alien void of outer space. It had to be methodically planned: what protection suit you were going to wear, filed in meticulous rows in the dusted closets; which reluctant friend or family member would go with you on the daring trip; and, most importantly, why would you want to see the once-majestic Earth? The solitary and adventurous souls who did were met with unsolicited badgering and questioning, as annoying as a flock of mosquitoes on a perfect summer night. Eventually, like jutting-out rocks pounded by waves, they were worn down. The great surge of discomfort at seeing the land again always won, and most were glad for it. Safety always went first.
But for Lorna, she had grown weary. She was gazing dreamily outside the ever-important porthole at the ‘cleaners’, as they were dully named, pick up the leftover, drifting garbage and empty them into colossal dark containers, or planting newborn sprouts and seeds with the tenderness of a sweet mother nursing her first, precious baby. It was sacrificial work; something that they had given up carefree safety and free time for all for what might be a false hope. The restoration of a beautiful, natural Planet Earth.
However, Lorna had already gone through her segmented, boring days over and over again: doing all her school duties efficiently, with the intelligence of a calculator, reading her well-thumbed books until the heavy bound spines cracked, sketching what little excitement and drama there was, as humans darted like arrows from one bunker to another. Sometimes the whole system resembled rows and rows of huge, unexciting apartments and buildings built underneath all the rotting carcasses and withered trees. And Lorna had always wanted to do work that would benefit the whole human population; to do good. She wasn’t hoping for gleaming gaudy trophies, or dinky little medals; Lorna kept replaying murky memories of laidback summer picnics under the shade of sprawling jade trees in her mind. She knew her parents would support her choices, no matter what, so she decided to sign up for the cleaner program. And could that summer picnic vision, impossible as it may sound, come true again someday?
She tried at dinner time, after an unsatisfying and cold meal of sausage and mash. Her mother, flying around in a cloud of smoke after a cooking accident, smoothed down her stained and scratched apron flung over her work clothes. Lorna watched and waited, with her courage and resolution growing by every tense second. Dad only privately read the weekly Bunker newspaper, which had already grown intensely uninspiring for Lorna to read. His glasses jiggled as he shook his head over the ‘annoyances’ of assertive cleaners who went around giving tips to people on how to be more environmentally friendly. Lorna fumed silently at his instant disapproval, her heart in its sturdy cage of ribs beating just a pulse faster, with both fear and adrenaline.
This was going to be challenging.
’Hey, Mum and Dad, can I speak to you guys for a second?’
’Sure, what’s up?’ replied Dad, putting down the Bunker.
‘Well, I was wondering about something...can I please try the cleaning program for six months? As a trial? I’m finished with my schooling and searching for a job, while at university, and I want to do something that benefits the world as a whole. It would make me so happy, Mum and Dad, and-‘
‘Hush, darling’, Mum interrupted. ‘As a matter of fact, your dad and I were just going to discuss that as a job option for you. And our decision is...’
Lorna waited. Her heart trebled in its ongoing beats, which were nonstop staccato, and her palm lines housed small rivers of sweat tendrils. The silence was intolerable as Mum and Dad traded silent signals with their eyes, seeming to finally come to a definite solution. She tapped her knee a solid hundred times in boredom, and was about to start on the other, when her parents stared at her stern and rebuking, and began to speak.
Three months later, Lorna stood back from the now germinating seed, proud of her work. She fluidly undid her heavy belt and snipped a ravenous weed growing from the tiny patch of fertile soil she had made out of countless hours of toiling. Lorna then stepped forward to give one last childish pat to her beloved seeds. She was doing genuine groundbreaking work: benefits would be enormous, she could feel it in her full heart as she worked, even in the barren landscape. One day there will be singing birds and grass here, she told herself. Lorna was working to fix the earth, so that no-one would have to be confined inside the bunkers, ever again.
And there, on the warm pile of soil, a symbol of all that had already come and all that was yet to be, was a starry violet-and-navy flower, accompanied by a plump fluttering butterfly.