He stood on the last rung of the ladder, his arms sweating underneath the cooling suit. He put on his helmet, fastened it, checked the air seal and turned on the air conditioner built into the suit. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with cool air as he braced himself against the imminent heat blast that was about to engulf him as he opened the latch.
The heatwave hit him hard. The suit needed an entire minute to regulate the temperature inside. The temperature outside read 58°C.
He bit his tongue as his skin began to burn as he panted. He hated every moment. So did the compressor as it screamed at the extra load it had to work on.
He crawled out of the underground tunnel. He closed the hatch, revealing a setting sun hovering over a beautiful landscape. The orange sun above brown lands with solar panels as far as the eyes could see under the brownish-orange skies. Bliss.
It would’ve been an even more beautiful sight if only there was any sight of green around. The elders always spoke of the days before the “Great Burrow” where the lands were green with trees all around. They said, there was water on the surface too.
But he had never seen the life before. The sight in front of him was of utmost beauty. He never understood why the elders hated this. The sight meant freedom. The world called out to him for exploration for life.
His visor began fogging up from the outside. And it wasn’t moisture. No. Those days were gone. Earth’s surface no longer supported human life. Or life. Or at least that’s what everyone was told. The liquid was an organic gas cooling on the visor.
He was no scientist. He didn’t know which gas it was. He didn’t care as long as it didn’t leak inside his suit. But he definitely knew how to use a gun. He picked up his special High temperature and dust resistant rifle.
Most humans melted to death on the surface three decades ago when temperatures at night went as low as 45°C and peaked to 120°C. But humans do figure out ways to survive. Some found a way to live out there, above the clouds. They lived on spacecrafts orbiting the Earth.
Those who couldn’t afford to live within Aluminium cans that floated around the earth with nothingness engulfing it for hundreds of miles, retreated below the surface. They lived in tunnels and bunkers. This was called the “Great Burrow”.
It was now up to Scouts like him who dared to venture out on the surface in search of life.
He wiped his visor. Checked the compass mounted on his wrist. He needed to head north-west.
He dragged himself across the desert that once were forests. The trees burnt with rising temperatures. The flames didn’t spare roots too. All that was left now, was dust.
He could see the dead city in the distance. He made his way towards it.
As a scout, he left the safety of the underground from dusk to dawn when the day is cool as their suits couldn’t work in temperatures above 65°C.
Scouts always travelled alone. They were solitary men, not by choice, but for duty. Each scout had a designated area they had to keep a watch over all through their life for they’d know the lands like the back of their palms. They walked all night with a headlamp braving the odds searching for plants, digging the ground, searching for water. They slept through the day.
He had been doing this for over a decade. He used to take different paths each day. He found nothing. Every day he hoped to see a plant. Every morning he slept hoping to find one in the evening. He was one of those people who always smiled and never lost hope.
But then, it has been over a year he stopped scouting. These days he always headed to the city. He had to make it before midnight. And he did so every night. Not because he lost hope. But, because he found hope.
He was a man on a mission trundling through dust and brown earth and a goal to deliver freedom to those locked under the surface. It’s weird how humanity imprisoned itself to safety. And the prison was the same earth that they ruined. And yet, the planet shields them.
He never entertained any other thought, else he’d slow down. Time was of utmost importance. Especially when what he did was against the law. Against everything the leaders and the army stood for.
He hummed as he pushed forward. Music was illegal in the world below. Music meant freedom. The leaders believe that it was freedom that brought doom to all of humanity.
It wasn’t just music. Any form of art was banned. No one wrote fiction. Poetry was found in books of the long past. Those books were burnt. No one painted. No one sang. Arts were acts of disharmony and a threat to the order. Art had the power to instigate movements. Art instigated coups.
Order couldn’t be challenged. Order shouldn’t be challenged.
No art, No threat.
People had traded Survival for order. They traded freedom for unity. They traded art for safety. A unity of warring factions below, each proving themselves to be right and viewed the others as enemies. None of the leaders saw eye to eye. There was no peace.
What was the trade for? Who benefitted? He had no answers. But he knew that the leaders had a bath every day, ate lavish food, wore great clothes that smelt fresh. While every other person wore rags or uniforms. They were fed grub each day, worked each day or night swearing their life to their leader Supreme who waged wars over colours, gods and ideas.
Up above, he was free from everything that happened below.
It was a full moon night. He couldn’t see the moon though. He could make out lunar cycles with the shade of the brown skies. There no longer were clear dark nights. It was a Sepia world.
He made his way through the ruins of what once was a city. The records of the were erased from school curricula. All he knew was that the language and writings were in Tamil. No one spoke Tamil below. Or no one spoke Tamil publicly. He had never met anyone who could though. If only he could, he would’ve gotten stuff to them to translate.
The city was abandoned. Rather, all life abandoned the city. The city still housed the truth of what humans have done. The city housed knowledge of what humans were capable of. It stood as a testament to everything humans shouldn’t do.
The desolate city was nothing but an ocean of wisdom. But, did humans learn from the mistakes 30 years back? Well, how can humans learn from something that they do not know of, can’t speak of or think of?
It’s weird. People hurried underground to save their lives, yet the leaders found ways to destroy every iota of evidence of the days before the “Great burrow”. They burnt libraries, offices and any location of collective knowledge and wisdom. All they left behind was ash.
He was forbidden to reveal what he saw to the common men. He reported to the leader’s scientists. And that was all. All of his social network.
He asked these questions every time he slogged through the streets of the city. All alone. Breathing slowly. Pushing himself one step at a time against raging sand and light debris flying in the air. That was a typical pleasant night.
He exhaled as he reached his destination. A building which was once a radio communications centre of the armed forces of his predecessors. The generation that warred. The generation that used up all the earth could provide by living beautiful lives. The generation that killed themselves with greed and ego. The generation that ignored the signs and argued in the name of colours, flags and the gods that abandoned them. The generation that taught their children that the ground was the limit.
He thought about how life must’ve looked when people looked up at the sky and dreamed of travelling to the stars. Not much has changed now. People still look up to the air vents, dreaming of travelling and exploring the surface which strives to suck the life out of humans.
He wiped his visor only to see the entrance for a moment and dashed towards it.
He had broken the door about a year ago when he was stuck in a thunderstorm of acid rain. He had found a way to the basement protecting him from most of the elements, except, the air would kill him if he took his helmet off.
Trapped inside for a few days he had searched every room in the building, on every floor above the ground and in the basements, multiple basements.
Most of the electronics fried over the years and temperatures. All the things humans developed back then, everything was lost. In the end, the only pieces of engineering that survived were mechanical objects. Were humans always short-sighted? Moving from one shiny silver coin to another? If only they had… He didn’t even know what to say, for he never learnt what humans did before the “Great Burrow”.
He came across a few rooms that were sealed. Airtight.
Most of these rooms were empty. Some had rotten corpses of people who locked themselves up in wait for the heatwave to pass or were ordered to stay.
But in the sealed rooms underground, the temperatures were much more hospitable. There was one room in particular that fascinated him. It was the room he went to everyday shirking his duties as a Scout. That was the room he locked himself in to free himself and every other human underground.
He stood right in front of the sealed door. Each time he went in he felt a shiver of excitement run through his body. He smiled! Something he barely had any reason to back at home. This was one place where he could truly be himself. He could dream here. He could dream of what the world could be beyond the brown skies, for all people back home can only dream of a good next meal.
He touched the door, feeling the metal that brought him immense joy. The black metal door stood right between him and his freedom. All he had to do was pull the lever, wait for the mechanical air seal to unlock and squeeze through.
And that’s what he did. He closed the door instantly. He didn’t want to contaminate this room, which smelt like history. The stale air trapped inside for 30 years was the freshest and cleanest air in the world above.
In front of him was an aluminium cube closing off one of the walls. He had set it up after his first few visits. The cube contained a controlled environment where he could take off his mask and suit. He entered it.
And there it was, the thing he looked for every day. The radio. The only radio out here. The only radio that survived. The only radio that could play music from disks that were so overused that all writings on them disappeared.
He plugged the battery of his suit into the cube. He waited for two minutes until the readings showed optimal numbers indicating he could take his suit off. The lights turned on, lighting the entire cube.
He jumped out of his suit. took a few breaths of the clean air, stretched his muscles and sat down in front of the radio.
He felt the radio with his hands. The cold metal of days past brought him the joy he couldn’t comprehend. He couldn’t smile. He sat there paralysed in front of this magical device. A tear parted from his eye as a testament to everything he felt inside.
He cleaned the radio. He did it every day for it was his prized possession. It was his baby. It was his. But he wasn’t selfish. He was a good man who knew what freedom meant.
He was here on a mission.
He plugged the radio into the cube. He waited as it powered on. He never forgets the excitement of seeing the dials light up, the green and red lights flickering around.
He picked up the speaker, stood up and placed it facing the airvent on one of the walls. Music wasn’t something just for him. It was for everyone.
He had figured out that the air vents were connected. The music he played here, could be heard through the air vents in the underground city.
He picked up a disk, put it in the player.
He held the microphone close to his mouth which he covered with multiple layers of cloth. He pressed the broadcast button.
“Hello people. Here is your daily dose of freedom. Your Daily dose of hope.”
He pressed the Play button.
The song began to play. He sat on the ground in front of the radio with his knees close to his chest and his arms curling around his shins. He buried his face between this knees and thighs.
He cried tears of joy. He rocked back and forth, goosebumps forming all over his body
He freed up. He stretched, looked at the radio, and beyond. He was in a trance.
He was paralyzed. He was frozen. He felt emotions that would be considered illegal at home. He knew everyone down below would be feeling the same way.
He pitied the armed forces. They had to carry out orders of the leader. They beat up every single one who attempted to sing. But those were the initial days. Now, a few of them just stop in their tracks and enjoy, for music evokes our primal emotions, music freed them too. They were human after all.
His head swayed left and right with the rhythm. He opened his eyes. Tears blurred his vision. If they found out he was the one playing music, they’d kill him. He didn’t care.
The song came to an end. He stopped the disc. He had to.
He wished he could play more songs, but the battery in his suit wouldn’t last his return journey.
He feared this moment, but never hated it. It gave him hope to live for one more day. Live. Not just survive. Live.
He held the microphone near his mouth.
“Let hope live. One more day. A new day. Another song.”
He could feel the cheer from the underground city as the sound rumbled through the vents. The sound was light and barely audible. But he could hear it. That was the sound of The city below uniting, keeping their inhibitions aside, feeling happy and hopeful together.
For Five minutes.
Atleast Five minutes.
He knew he had to come back tomorrow. He had to risk it all.
The people need someone to liberate them. Relieve them.
People need to feel human again. Rather, Become human. If not him, who else?
He’d perhaps be killed for playing music and shirking his duties.
He had done his part, though not in ways the leader expected.
As a scout, his job was to scout for signs of new life. Wasn’t hope life?
He found the life for the dead.
Some stories bring hope, some break our hearts.
Some stories help us fly, and some drown us in our own emotions.
It’s weird how sometimes unexpected things inspire stories. I’m not sure if this one is a good one or not, but it sure is a story. A world in the eye of my mind!
I still am surprised how a simple paragraph about a child and his love for a radio from a book titled “How I became a Nun” by “Cesar Aira” helped me come up with this story.
It’s really weird how music can help us lose ourselves, help us win our own selves, or strangers together and lights hope in each of us. And so do stories.
More Power to you!
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