Jaxon

I've never seen the surface, no one here has; leaving the Sprawl is illegal. Not that it matters though, no one even tries to leave anymore. We're safe in our metal cage. Why would anyone want to leave?

The lights gradually switch from their night phase to a slightly warmer color, illuminating the usually dull metal walls a shade of burnt orange. The lights gradually transition from the cold blue of the night phase to the slightly warmer burnt orange of day. It's a passable attempt to make up for the lack of a much-needed day-night cycle. It's my first real warning to head back to bed. I laugh, my body aching for sleep, although I won't be able to sleep with my nerves gnawing as they have every night before.

I move towards the nuclear cores at the heart of my zone, hoping to drown out my thoughts in the obnoxiously loud hum of electricity that the dead zone has around it. At first, it works, and a wave of relief washes over me when I find I can't focus. But the longer I stay in the nuclear dead zone the more I grow accustomed to the sound. Forced deeper into the heart by my thoughts who chase me relentlessly. The noise getting louder and louder with every inch forward, each time without fail, slowly replaced by my anxiety. Step after step until I reach a steel door warning me that I need a hazmat suit to continue further. I lean up against the cold metal door and slide down to the ground. I have nowhere left to run, now forced to be alone with my mindless panic.

"It's just an exam; I've taken hundreds over the last 6 years alone," I tell myself trying to reclaim my resolve.

But I know almost nothing about this one. The day after tomorrow is the Research-Defense surface exam, and like anything to do with the surface, is a complete mystery. As for the people who would, those who took it before me, well, most aren't seen afterward. The popular theory is that they're possibly on permanent recon and gather missions? And those that stay here refuse vehemently to talk about it. So if I fail the exam, I'm not quite sure what to expect. I'd assume you'd just retake it the next year? but then that doesn't explain the missing people... Maybe no one has failed yet? The only person who would know would be the Informant, but She refuses to tell us, saying that it is better we know not to fail than know what happens if we do. Cryptic as usual. What little I do know however excites me. A chance to leave. A chance to explore and to finally learn about the world I live beneath. My stomach turns at that thought as if to spite me. I'm afraid I'm not ready, not strong enough to survive up there. Billions of people weren't, what makes me any different? After all, who knows better than a Research-Defense zoned, that with my protective cage stripped away from me, I'll inevitably find what awaits me out there. What everyone is so afraid of.

I awake to the loud familiar sound of lights switching to the day-phase across the complex. Unlike the slow quiet shifts at night, day-time phases tend to be loud and sudden. I vaguely remember the walk back, but nonetheless, I'm glad to find my soft bed under me. Straining to keep my eyes open I gaze across the room at my desk that lays against the back wall. The digital clock blinking 9:45 a.m. as it does every morning when I'm forced awake by the lights. Like the rest of my room, my desk is disordered and cluttered with papers and various items from the surface that I've "borrowed" from the labs. I would clean it up, but the room won't be mine soon, so I don't care all that much anymore.

Climbing down the ladder on my suspended bed is a painful slog of a process, as the consequences of staying up to pace the halls now take effect. After my morning routine and a much-needed shower, I throw on a boring plain grey T-shirt and my favorite pair of jeans that were over stained with whatever artificial blue dye they used. Lastly, I put on my zone's designation uniform. A plain white jacket marked with black stripes, and on the back is the Research-Defense zone's crest. A simple black circle with a strand of DNA being pulled apart from the top. They don't look awful once they're on you, but it does seem to only add to the unnecessarily clean and monochromatic life under the Informant's surveillance.

Before leaving, I grab my Old-world tech gloves from a small charging capsule hidden under my bed. The exterior of the gloves is a bright white cross weave of steel threads with thick, light blue plastic fingertips and a steel band that rings around both wrists. Both bands have strange etchings and blue wiring across their surface leading to a hole on its underside. Having them brings me no joy at all. Not that I'm afraid of the weapon itself, after all, I'm trained in combat as everyone in the Research Defense zone is. Even more so in these. Private lessons dedicated to making me into a soldier. But having a weapon means that I'm willing to hurt someone and I don't think I'll ever really feel comfortable with that. Nonetheless, I slip them over my hands, their cotton interior makes them surprisingly soft despite being made of mostly razor wire, steel, and plastic.

I don't have much planned for the day beyond heading to the Mundane zone, which means that I'd first need to cross through the Focus. It can take nearly 3 hours to walk across assuming you don't take the hanging rail trams. So with that in mind, I figure I better get going, and step back out into the sprawling hallways once again.

The Focus is a cylindrical room at the center of all three of the zones, a place where people have set up an amalgamation of ever-moving marketplaces and shops. Most of the shops are poorly constructed and made only of wood and cloth as to be easily taken apart and moved elsewhere. The few permanent buildings are usually made of hardwood and metal and some are even lucky enough to have concrete bases. The usual metal flooring I'm accustomed to is replaced by dirt roads, small bushes, and stone paths, which makes for a nice change of scenery. You'd almost forget you were underground if not for the metal walls and ceiling.

I stare out taking in the view from the RD's elevated platform. The first thing that catches my eyes is the Spire, which cleaves the massive room in half. The Spire is a coiling tower made of solid steel plates that acts as a sort of library, holding all the information we have left. Buzzing in circles around it are the rail trams that race above the never-ending traffic of people, leaving behind them a trail of bright neon blue light. Branching out from the Spires base are three pathways, each marked by a unique symbol, connecting back to their respective zones. I spot the Mundane path on the complete opposite side of the Spire from me, barely visible from where I stand. Time to start the walk there I suppose.

I make my way through the sea of people swarming around the various deals and merchandise offered in the nearby markets. Most of it is food and cheaply made clothing. Around me are the familiar sounds of children playing wherever they can find open space mixed in with the sounds of people bargaining with the merchants.

"We have a shipment of real surface artifacts," a deep scratchy voice booms above the unintelligible chatter. "The Informant in Her numerous gracious virtues have bestowed upon us, lowly Mundane merchants, a chance to sell them to you, the blessed people of the Sprawl."

I weave my way through the crowd to get a better view. He's a bald burly man, wearing simple clothes and a knowing smile. I know that I shouldn't use the small time I have on this, but my curiosity overwhelms me and I stop to listen. He tells a thin lanky man wearing rags that the small stuffed animal he is holding is a lion, a creature I've only read about. It looks real enough? He continues to tell him how it was recovered in a daring excavation of the nearby city of New Orleans itself. Lucky for use it tested negative for Catalyiste and that meant it was safe to sell. When the lanky man asked how he got it, he quickly responds he was a friend of the Informant's advisor. He's lying I figure, enough holes in his story convince me of that. Men like him run amok in the Focus; the law only concerned with the Surface and food; not another petty con man. As I leave, I hear him tell the man he'd give him a discount of only 300 dollars or 2 Favor. The poor man accepts.

As I grow closer to the Spire, people begin to recognize me, or well, my jacket. I'm required to wear it as a marker that I'm RD zoned and therefore under the direct protection of the Informant. And while I'm not surprised when they begin to swerve around me, I can't help but feel like an outcast. Regardless it makes my trip relatively easy, the gloves becoming a seemingly needless precaution. Hopefully, it'll stay that way.

At the end of a hidden backroad is a small cozy flower shop that looks like a wooden cabin you'd read in books. The insides are simple wooden walls and a rare unusual tile flooring. In the back is a long glass display case with a vast variety of flowers in finely made vases arranged by their color and type.

"Oh! Please forgive me... I'm so sorry Sir, I didn't mean to keep someone in f-f-favor of the Informant waiting." A young woman with dark skin and long curly black hair held up by a red plastic bow rushes towards the counter stuttering in a common panic shared by most Mundanes. Her voice a loud whisper.

"It's no problem, ma'am."

"W-what can I get you, sir," she says, her hands nervously fidgeting with the golden amulet she has hanging from her neck.

"I'm just here to buy some lilies, preferably white, I think that was her favorite," I said as calmly as I could, trying to assure her that I'm not going to abuse my power as others might.

"Of course, Sir!" she replies dashing to the back of the shop and returning with a huge bundle of white lilies wrapped in a light purple paper. "On the house of course," she nervously laughs, handing them over quickly, going out of her way to avoid touching me directly.

Over time I've grown numb to the feelings of hatred and fear I get from the mundane, so her offering to give it to me for free was unsurprising. Despite that, I insist on paying the full price. The Mundanes don't know this but the RD zoned are paid more than we could ever use for doing nothing at all. I could probably buy her entire stock because I went to my chemistry class 2 weeks ago.

After a bit of reassuring her, I'm not joking and really do want to pay, she finally obliges. Though I get the feeling she thinks of it more as an order than as a transaction. So I make it a point to keep the same calm and happy demeanor as I make my way back out into the busy streets. I hear a sigh of relief as I turn around to leave.

The crowd flows around me as I pass the Spire. The towering monument fills me with the same awe I've always felt. Once, long ago, every 3 weeks meant we had enough money to buy a little fresh food, and Dad would go out of his way to make sure we'd pass by it every time.

"I bet there are still hundreds of buildings taller than the Spire," he'd say lost in his own wonder. After that, he'd usually go on and on about "skyscrapers," though no one here has ever seen one, much less the sky for that matter. In fact, I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't even believe in the sky were it not for the countless writings that it was in, and even then, some people still don't.

My feet burn after the 3-hour walk, with the only reward being my arrival at the Mundanes. The Mundanes archway is just as big as the RD's with the only notable differences being that this gate is on the ground instead of suspended atop a platform and the symbol of a snake biting its own tail carved into the metal frame above. Some sort of remnant of what the Sprawl may have been long before it was made into a city. I have no idea what it would have meant, that symbol has long been lost to time.

The Mundane zone is the worst off of the zones as the Informant cares very little for it. The law, being under Her direct control, follows suit. The Mundanes is a zone for those who simply opted for a normal life. A life that doesn't have to do with the hard labor in the Agriculture zone, or the strict life of the RD zone. The zone itself is a large, multi-floored, open-air room a little bigger than the Focus. Although most of it is inaccessible now covered in rubble and old train stations that no longer work. What's left is a dangerously deep hole you can't help but stare down into. The horrifying drop is filled with massive platforms suspended by steel beams going further down until it reaches the 10th floor which covers the entire abyss. Untrustworthy rail trams break shakily across the pit going from one platform to the other taking people from their shabbily constructed homes to their poorly maintained factories. If I'm being honest, the only thing maintained with RD equipment in the Mundanes is this center rail tram that goes from the Focus to the 10th floor where the Informant solemnly gives a speech, poorly named a 'Rally for Hope.' Aside from the trams, the only other way around are the metal bridges suspended across the platforms and long, spiraling staircases going from floor to floor. Luckily for me, my destination is only on the 2nd floor, so I won't be needing the trams. Besides, I have the time to spare. I lie to myself.

After nearly an hour and a half of walking down the nerve-wracking rundown bridge constructed by people far more advanced than we are now, I reach the first of the many rusty suspended platforms. I'm not quite sure what the platforms were originally built for but now they just feel like a safety hazard. The rightmost platforms are typically dedicated to makeshift factories using old lab equipment deemed unnecessary centuries ago. Despite their poor living conditions, the Mundane zoned do the jobs that keep the place from ruin, such as power production and, ironically, maintenance. The remaining seven platforms are for rows of hand-built houses and tram stations to the Focus that I doubt have worked since the Sprawl was first inhabited. Everyone is aware that the population has long ago passed the capacity of the Mundanes and that only the young and powerful have homes now. Those who have grown too old or sick to help are cast out, now living in the streets or the hazardous warehouses near the factories. No one says anything though, better to live here in poverty than to be on the surface.

The first floor looks fine for the most part, with a slight bit of upkeep spent on it hiding the decay of the other floors. It's arguably a nice walk down what I'd assume old towns would look like. However, the staircase to the second floor immediately leads to rows of destroyed homes. Walking down the dark and empty hallway makes me anxious, and I unconsciously switch my Old-world gloves on in panic. My gloves shake to life and vibrate, making a high-pitched whorl to warn me that they're active and dangerous. I hate to admit it but once I noticed it, I considered leaving them on. Though as my guilt overwhelms my fear, and my mind begins to belittle me, I slowly hit the off switch on the metal band near the empty thread capsule.

Everyone grew up in the Mundanes when they were little; It's a small piece of everybody's history. Yet I don't remember it like this. It's a torn-up and not particularly welcoming sight. Water drips from the visible pipes in the walls and ceilings, and wires hang out of their hatches some frayed and broken. Patches of the walls and bridges have been torn out, likely stolen by people who were desperate to repair what little of a home they have. The second floor's center plaza is covered in dirt and grime and the few people who aren't in the Focus or factories are selling what they can, here. There are a few people asleep on the cold metal floor, nothing to comfort them other than the torn clothing they live in. As I walk by the few laying on the ground fighting off hunger, they bore into me with eyes of disdain at my lack of wants, of my inherent priority over them. It's not hard to see that they see me as their enemy, and I can't really wrong them for that.

I stop in front of a rusty rundown home near the edge whose ceiling seems on the brink of collapse. The number 2346 is painted in fresh blue paint on the ground in front. I spent all day yesterday combing through the DNA database to find this place but seeing it in person feels so much worse. I look down at the flowers I'm accidentally crushing in my hand, hoping they'll bring me luck, and knock on the dirty metal door, putting on my bravest smile.

And after a little bit of waiting the door opens a tiny bit its makeshift lock still in place barely visible in the faint light.

"Hello?" A cracked, aged voice cautiously asks.

"Hello... It's me, Jaxon." I huff out, my voice deeper than usual, more openly nervous than I cared to show.

"Oh..." she whispers to herself, shutting the door.

I stood there waiting for the click of a lock unlocking, and waited, and waited, with each passing second only feeling worse and worse. So much of what I did was for my family, they mean so much to me. I grew up every night with my Dad telling me these grand tales of the surface and how one day he'd love to see it with his own eyes. How'd he love for nothing more than for me to see it too. He would tell me most of them before bed. He'd tell me stories of the oceans and the strange creatures that lived deep within them. He'd talk vigorously about the mountains, some so tall that the Spire wouldn't even be visible from their peak. I knew he himself had never seen these things, but he described them so vividly, bit by bit painting elaborate paintings with only his words. I loved listening to them, the joy so evident on my father's face made any story worth its time. Sometimes during these rants, Dad would get caught up in his own desires and would rant for a little too long. During these rants, Mom would usually interrupt them by commenting on her desire to see the stars. Something that was instilled in her by her mom, who, according to Mom, would never stop talking about how beautiful they must have been to have so many stories written about them. Though I've only heard Mehaw mention it a few times.

For as long as I can remember I've wanted to find a way to make the surface safe. A place where they could live happily, where we could live happily... and to do that I've ruined my relationship with them. Of course, I have my own selfish reasons, not least of all my own curiosity. I know I'm curious to a fault, but upon hearing these thousands of stories everywhere you turn, stories of an entire world right above me, everyday hearing more and more, yet never allowed to see it. Who could resist such temptation? I couldn't. I know deep down I've done what I think will make me happy, I hope, but still, I can't help but grieve over what I've lost. I sigh, resting the lilies in front of the door, and begin to turn away when I hear the soft click of the lock.

"Please wait" an almost desperate voice calls out. An older woman stands underneath the door frame, someone I haven't seen in nearly seven years.

She looks sickly, her limbs barely strong enough to support her throughout the day, if not for her comically large walking stick. Her hair is frayed, reaching down to her waist, and almost completely gray as time has taken its toll. Her left hand nervously plays with buttons on her torn-up white button-up which is half-tucked into a simple purple skirt, littered with holes and sewn in patches. I can't imagine she's comfortable, but it's better than nothing I suppose.

"I'm so sorry I couldn't visit Mehaw," I said, shifting my weight from one leg to the other. "I tried, really I did, but the Informant is strict and-."

I'm stopped mid-sentence by her grabbing me by the hand and telling me to pick up the lilies as she weakly pulls me into the small home, locking the door behind us.

Mundane homes are usually very small, and this one is no different, consisting of only a living room and a shared bathroom between the neighboring houses. Dust covers the floors, hiding the metal's usual gleam, and rolled out on the ground are two sleeping mats, too thin to offer anything more than bare protection from the cold of the floor. The walls are made of ancient moldy wood, patched up with likely stolen pieces of metal. To my left, there's an old, dull, maroon sofa that looked like it was torn to shreds and then reassembled. Even that must be a luxury for the Mundane. Mehaw pulls me in for a hug, a short but sweet embrace.

"Sit down please, I know it's not all too great but it's much better than the cold ground." She mutters before pausing and laughing to herself while she makes her way over to a small cabinet.

I sit on the most uncomfortable couch I've ever sat on and watch her as she places the lilies in a small cup atop the only other piece of furniture in the room. A small warped wooden table. Other than my parents, she's my last remaining family member. Last we spoke, she was an apothecary who gave large discounts to the Mundane who were in desperate need. We ate less sometimes because of it but I always admired her generosity.

"Your parents will be home soon, your mother will be so delighted to see you again," she says bringing me a small glass of water, the same size as the lilies now rest in.

She tells me stories of the many things that have happened in the years I was gone. How the marketplace has grown to be almost five times as large, and that she now gets lost trying to find her favorite bakery. How Mom took over her apothecary and is quickly learning the ropes. Most of the stories were lighthearted and fun but what she wasn't saying was deafening. She wasn't mentioning Dad. Before he met my mother, he used to be RD zoned but two weeks before his exam he dropped out and settled down here. It's common enough for people to drop the Research-Defense but never that close to their final, but then you've practically already graduated. Luckily, no one shamed him for it, but he never talked about why.

Despite that past, he supported and aided my desire to join the RD zone. He taught me everything about the outside world he knew and tended carefully to my curiosity for my whole life, as people did for him when he was young. He made himself the pillar I built my life on, and when the time came, he encouraged me to join the RD zone. I think he took it the hardest when I chose it over the Mundanes. Almost like he was proud that I qualified, proud I made it where I wanted to be, and yet was disappointed when it took my priority. I wonder what he thinks of me now, six years later, standing where he did. Was he hoping I'd drop it too? Or would he still see me as a wide-eyed kid? Would he still support his dream to see the world?

"Jaxon, Jaxon," I hear, snapping back to reality. "You look tired Jaxon, has the Informant been working you too hard?" Mehaw gazes at me with the same sharp brown eyes she had when I was a kid.

"No, no... I'm fine, it's just the surface final exam is coming up, you know" I tried giving her my most award-winning smile, as the fear burrowed a little deeper into my chest. "And I can't sleep," I chuckle. "Nothing too unbearable."

"Huh..." she mutters, looking almost distantly, staring at the cracks in the broken wall ahead. "I don't know how you can study those monstrous things, they scare me," she spoke outwardly, just stating something she's come to terms with.

Flashes of Strains run through my head, their ghastly bodies and feral stares haunting every crevice of my mind. So, I just sit there in silence, my words a jumbled mess in my mouth.

"Yeah," I finally muster. "But somewhere in there they're human, right?" I spoke before thinking. Mehaw turns to look me in the face, and I regrettably continue. "It's not the monsters I see but the people trapped behind them, I guess."

I let out an exhausted laugh─ after all, it was crazy and I knew it, whatever human they once were was long erased.

They were murderous.

They were feral.

They were monsters, demons even... but they were once human, and maybe they still could be again?

She stays silent, observing me.

"Look, I know it's crazy," I start defending myself like I have too many times before, "and I know that everyone hates them but, I just can't shake the feeling... no matter how hard I've tried."

I shut my eyes and wait for the condemning laugh or condescending remarks about such a childish perspective. I wait to be bullied and ridiculed, but Mehaw doesn't laugh. She doesn't look away, she merely holds her stare. Our worlds are so immensely different and for once, I think she sees that I'm not the little boy she knew six years ago. That I've grown, I've matured. Does that scare her as much as it does me?

Several minutes pass until she breaks the mounting tension. "Well," she says pensively, choosing her next words carefully. "Whether or not they're monsters, they're dangerous Jaxon, and I would rather die than suffer the fate of Catalyistes, such a nasty disease."

I sit there rubbing the underside of my wrist, taking a minute to process how she felt, and then on how I felt. I find it strange to assess my own emotions, especially when it's something I've built my whole life around. Of course, there's an overwhelming sense of fear, you'd be a lunatic to not be afraid of them, but intertwined with that torrent fear is an underlying thread of empathy. Still, there was no denying how I felt.

"They scare me too."