There it was again, that buried sound that made the ground throb. Elon could swear it was getting louder with each passing season. Stronger, closer.
Elon was furiously typing away, pausing ever-so-often to take a quick peek at the screen and make sure his inputs were still being fed to the monitor. The white characters were so small against the black background that he had to squint his eyes to read them, a small sacrifice that needed to be done to conform to the main directive. The smaller the characters, the less power wasted. He looked to his right, where the message was shouted silently in wide capitals nailed to the wall. POWER IS OURS. That was Habitat’s main directive. Because of that the room was very dim. Every room and corridor, every place in every story was, from story 1, roughly 2.4 kilometers towards the center of the earth to story 507, just below the surface. Power consumption was set to a minimum by every mean possible, only directed to sanctioned appliances, the air venting and filtration system, the eight elevators and the million LED’s, commonly referred to by the population as candles, spaced exactly 2 meters apart across the walls and ceiling. Five other people shared that room with him, he couldn’t see them, but he could heat the constant symphony of the keystrokes. He risked to stop for a minute. It was dangerous, he knew, these were gaps when that sharp soul piercing feeling of sadness used to come through, these brief moments when his mind was unoccupied. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a second and waited. This time it seemed, things would be OK. Sometimes he feared he was getting more and more numb, for although the pain was crippling, those overwhelming moments of hopelessness were the only proof that there was still a flame burning inside, a tiny part of himself that still cared, no matter how small. Hopelessness had became his only hope.
He concentrated on the silence behind the noise of the keystrokes for a moment and then took a deep breath and got back to the report. The report clarified the uses of materials to fix any broken light-emitting diodes - candles - across Habitat, mainly from Stories 200 to 400. Below 200 he would rarely go, and above 400 it was beyond his access level, his reports would be compiled together with someone else’s who was higher up in the Resources Bureau to make for a complete report.
He got to level 299 just when the digits on the clock showed hour thirty-six. He decided it was enough for one day, so he picked the blue Habicard hanging from his neck, inserted it into the computer and heard the bip which meant the 2,320 Habicredits for the eighteen hours of work were transferred into his Habicard. He logged off and left.
The big blue numbers marking ‘STORY 240’ in the Elevator Hall has been vandalized by some foolish sympathizer of the subversive Uprising movement. Probably a kid, risking his life for nothing more than a quick thrill. Considering the goal of his next destination, he steered away from the Elevators and decided to risk the Stairway, as he always did. The Eight Elevators were controlled, the Stairway was a no-man’s land, where everything was sold, bought, traded, consumed and arranged and everyone’s safety was a gamble. He wasn’t worried though. He was only going down to Story 221, which was pretty much a safe bet. If someone from two-hundredths was seen in the Stairway below the two-hundred, then there would be a solid reason for concern, a dozen stories down pretty much a death sentence. They would probably kill him on sight for the 4,320 Habicredits he just got and trade his meat in the black market, before his body was even cold. Yep, the lower levels were no joke. Even there in the two-hundredths there were people begging in the Stairway, mainly old people and children. People that were born below the two-hundredths and never had a Habicard or had it expunged. Begging for either food or, better yet, fingernails, the parallel currency to Habicredits, severely prohibited by the Council, to the point where you could even be reinstated if you were caught with enough nails. People expunged were moved down to the lower levels and rarely ever seen again. Sure he had a couple of nails hidden in him but he already had a use for them. Two levels below he saw the flood from a flashlight, which only Arbiters could carry. That didn’t bode well for the beggars, he thought. Two Arbiters, the peace keepers for the Council, were slowly coming up the stairs.
“To the light!”, he greeted.
“To the light, citizen!”, the Arbiter that wasn’t holding the flashlight returned, immediately returning to the conversation they were holding.
Although the Arbiters left a pool of silence in the Stories which they had just come across, Elon decided to give the beggars a courtesy and gave way to a few coughs, in the off chance that they would hear him. If the Arbiters caught them they were on the fast track to possibly a couple of broken broken. Begging was against the order as it was one of the fuels for the illegal nail-system. If you couldn’t get the Habicredits through any other means and you had no one to sustain you, the only chance was to work the Cycles. Most of the populations got their Habicredits from the cycles, the only way to produce energy to the entire Habitat. There were Cycle-Rooms on every story from 1 to 399, although most Cycles below the two-hundredths had already been vandalized for weaponry and partes and mot of what still endured in the lower levels were closely controlled by the Undercrowd to exploit people for Habicredits. The council couldn’t care less where the Habicredits went as long as people were producing power. But then again, most people lived beneath the two-hundreths. If one was lucky, he could do his work and get his credits without them being stolen or extorted by the Undercrowd. If one wasn’t lucky, he had to try again the next day. The Arbiters rarely went below the two-hundredths, so people lived by their own laws, which was the same as saying the law of the Undercrowd.
Between Story 223 and 222 there was quite a crowd blocking the Stairway. Elon had to shoulder through and, from what he understood, there was someone passed out, if it had been the Arbiters or other causes, he could not tell, as he could not tell if he was dead or alive. He knew that half of that crowd was waiting for the other half to go away to pick the man apart, dead or alive it didn’t mattered, if he was unconscious for much longer, he would wake up naked and possibly missing a limb or two. It wasn’t that frequent on the two-hundreths, to have body parts stolen for the black market, but if there is a safe bet is that need will always beat morals any day of the month. Finally arriving to Story 221, Elon left the Stairway and entered the Elevator Hall. He looked stood there for awhile, just to make sure he wasn’t being followed. People passed by, but no one seemed to notice him. Also here the blue letters of the huge STORY 221 sign had been vandalized with the symbol of the Uprising, a closed fist, with the exception of the index finger, pointing up, drawn in rough brushes in the middle of the ‘O’ in Story. They are really pushing it, these few weeks, Elon thought to himself, if they don’t ease up they’ll end sliding down the shafts below Story 1, along with the rest of the Uprisers. Confident that he was safe, he went through corridor seven of Story 221. He stopped halfway, came back to the Elevator Hall and this time went for corridor three. He stopped in Hab 11 and knocked lightly on the door. His hands had started to shake in anticipation, as they usually did before he entered Jack’s. No one answered, he felt the sting of preoccupation, now he was wired, he had to get what he came for, so he knocked again, louder. This time he heard two knocks from inside. He replied with three knocks. The door opened slightly and from inside someone said in a course deep voice “To the light!”. He replied, “And back again…” The door opened fully, he checked the corridor once again to make sure there were no suspecting characters and concluding that it was safe lurched inside, the door closing quickly behind him. As everywhere else in Habitat, the room was pretty much deprived of light, all of which came from several small dots hanging from the ceiling and the walls. What few light was there revealed the silhouettes of several couches and, on the other side of the room, a bar stand. “Teep...”, Elon looked down and greeted the dwarf that opened the door, who just growled an incomprehensible answer back. Walking to the stand, Elon took care not to touch the couches or the people lying in them, lest they be awakened.
When he finally got to the stand he looked the gentleman behind it in the only eye that he had and greeted him with a smile, “Jack!”
“Elon, my friend!”, One-Eyed Jack replied in his deep and coarse voice, “Usual order, then?”
“I s’pose you have the nails for it, then?”
“Right here my friend”, Elon picked some hidden pocket on the inside of his sleeve and deposited two nails on the balcony, one far bigger than the other, “see for yourself, quality good!”
One-Eyed Jack picked them up, one at a time, brought them close to the light-diode on the wall behind him and analysed them carefully.
“This is not quality, Elon...”, One-Eyed Jack held the smaller nail between his thumb and index finger, “it’s not even properly grown, give me something else”
“Jack, I just gave you a perfect thumb-nail, that should have been enough”
“You know the price Elon, three, not two-and-a-half, three!”, One-Eyed Jack made the value know by holding three fingers on his other hand, one of which was bandaged, probably from extracting his own nail. Elon couldn’t see the fingers properly on account of the dark, but he would have guessed the other nails had also been extracted to exhaustion, but there was a limit to how much you could take your own nails, before they became too brittle or deformed to be traded. A smart person would wait six months for the nail to grow properly, and then another three or four before the extraction to guarantee that the next one would be of good quality. Or rather, a smart person would find a way to get nails other than his own.
“Jack…”, Elon sighted, concluded to himself that t wasn't worth it, went to another hidden pocket, now inside his trousers and came back with another nail, which he deposited on the bar.
One-Eyed Jack left the smaller nail on the balcony, picked up the new nail and spend some moments analysing it near the light-diode.
“A’right, choose your nook”, One-Eyed Jack acquiesced with his head, “Stella will be with you in a minute”
Elon turned around and looked for a sofa that wasn't occupied. There was one in the farther left corner, but he knew it for its foul smell, so he decided for one of the five mattresses on the floor near the wall on his right side, only one of which was occupied.
“Business is good…!”, he noted to One-Eyed Jack before he went.
“Times are hard!”, One-Eyed Jack replied, busy with something behind the balcony.
Elon went towards the right side of the room, slipped off his worn-out uniform boots, took off his jacket and positioned it as a pillow and laid down. Now he was really wired, each minute waiting for Stella seemed like an eternity, burning with anticipation. He concentrated in the light-diode in the ceiling above him and was reminded of his grandma who used to tell him tales about stars. Stars. Many centuries back, when humanity lived in the surface of the planet, before it was ravaged by the Great War, there were stars in the sky. Sky was like a ceiling but bigger and it was teeming with stars. Grandma said that stars were like light-diodes, but far more beautiful. Elon could believe that people once lived in the surface, but stars being more beautiful than a light-diode, that seemed a bit far-fetched. Then there was this star, really close to Habitat that shone like a thousand light-diodes, but that seemed a bit unlikely. Elon once saw 9 light diodes shining as one and it nearly blinded him. A thousand light-diodes would be enough to make everyone blind, seemed a bit of an exaggeration...
A figure appeared on his right side and interrupted his chain of thought. Stella.
“Ready, dear?”, she inquired, as she prepared the apparatus.
“Ready…”, Elon answered, trying not to sound too eager.
A few moments later he felt a prick on his leg and soon felt Joy being pumped into his blood flow. He smiled just before he lost consciousness and the light-diode in the ceiling above him called to him.
(Initial Image Attribution: prettysleepy1: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/spaceship-interior-apocalypse-4270618/)