The streaming upper level clouds soaked up the sunrise like an impressionist’s canvas. Morning had come and it would soon be time to head underground yet again.
Jacob sighed, but there was really no choice. The deadly ultra-violet rays would kill him. Maybe not right away, but they would speed him on his way nevertheless.
With one last look at the slowly rising glowing orb, Jacob headed for the tunnel that would lead to Warren B-6.1...home.
The tunnel glowed with an artificial light that was tranquil, almost sad when compared to the natural surface light. This was humanity’s home now, far away from the source of life, buried like some blind nocturnal animal.
Looking at the shadows on the wall, Jacob wondered if they’d ever be able to leave their cave, or would they be forever doomed to watch shadows dancing on sterile stone?
Glancing at his timepiece, Jacob realized he was going to be late for dinner. He’d once read that at one time people ate breakfast around sunrise, but the movements of the life-giving star meant nothing anymore. Time was now based on one planetary time centered around Warren G-42.8. Someone once told Jacob that Warren G-42.8 was under what had once been England, but Jacob wasn’t sure if that was true. For that matter, Jacob didn’t even know if it was important. What was England anymore?
Breaking into a jog, Jacob realized that he smelled like the outside. He loved the smell, but his parents would be furious, especially his mother.
"You’re late," his Dad said from the dining area, barely taking his eyes from the Vid he was enveloped in. Jacob could barely even remember what color his dad’s eyes were, so rarely did he see them. A lot of kids complained about that until they too became caught up in the Vids, or some other kind of synthing, electronic or narcotic.
"Get washed up," his mother said, but she grabbed him as he tried to run by. Making an exaggerated sniffing sound, she frowned. "You’ve been outside again, haven’t you?"
"If you already know, why’d you ask?"
"Don’t back talk your mother," his dad said, momentarily diverting his attention from the Vid. "You’re only 12, that doesn’t give you a right to do as you please. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Jacob said in an acquiescent tone, even though he was secretly happy just to have gotten a reaction out of his father.
"Any sunlight can kill," his mother said now that his dad had gone back to his programs.
"I’m not trying to argue Mom, but there’s enough atmosphere near the horizon to protect us. My teacher told us so."
His mother frowned. "Well, I’m going to have a talk with that teacher."
Jacob knew the conversation was over, so he headed for the bathroom, cleaned himself up, then sat down to eat yet another quiet dinner of reconstituted vegetable paste, the creamy variety.
The carved passage echoed to Jacob’s footsteps. After dinner, his mother had made him watch the "educational" tapes yet again. He already knew about the pollution destroying most of the ozone, and the ozone building nanos going crazy and destroying the rest. It seemed pointless to watch it all over again, but Mother insisted, and Jacob wasn’t one to argue with Mother, at least not very much.
"Mom, what did the doctors say at my last check-up?" He’d asked the question a dozen times; usually the answer was silence.
"They didn’t have anything new to report, dear." That was Mom’s second answer, but Jacob knew the truth. He could feel the cancer in him growing day by day, slowly devouring his intestines and moving towards his brain.
"The nanos aren’t working, are they, Mom?"
"Mom, it’s my life. I have a right to know."
His mother looked at his father who gave a shrug. It wasn’t a shrug saying that he didn’t care. Rather, it was a shrug saying ‘the boy’s old enough to know what’s going on,’ and he was.
Now, walking down the empty passageways, Jacob wished he’d never asked the question. Fourteen didn’t seem old, but Jacob now knew that he’d be lucky to live to see it. All the technology they’d developed in the past before research had been slowed, and they still couldn’t find a cure for most cancers, mostly because the cancer virus had now found a way to mutate faster than ever. Every new drug would only last for a few years before the cancer would adapt itself to it. One theory said that the virus had captured part of an AIDS virus, but Jacob really didn’t care. All he knew was that he had it, and it was killing him more quickly than he’d thought.
Morning came, at least the underground morning, and Jacob woke to find his dad sitting on the end of his bed, trying to smile at him, and failing miserably.
"What’s up?" Jacob asked, rubbing his eyes in the hope that that would somehow wake him up quicker.
"Did you know there’s going to be a lunar eclipse in a couple of hours?"
Jacob had to think for a minute what his dad was talking about. He’d only seen the moon twice in his life, and it had been more than five years since the last time. "And?" Jacob asked, not in the mood for games.
"Why don’t you skip school and we’ll head to the surface to watch it."
Jacob stared at his dad for several long seconds trying to force back the excitement and dread he felt building…something wasn’t right. "Did the doctors call or something?"
His dad shook his head before standing up and walking to Jacob’s bedroom door. He glanced outside like a conspiracy was about to take place. Walking back to Jacob’s bed, he frowned even though he was trying his best to smile. "This might be the last eclipse before you…"
Jacob nodded. "I’ll get dressed," he said.
Earth’s shadow was just starting to fall upon the moon when they reached the surface. The glowing lights of the two colonies glistened like jewels on a sandy beach. Jacob had forgotten how spectacular the night sky was. Jacob had also forgotten how cold the night air could be, especially in what he knew would be winter on the surface. The temperature in the Warrens never varied by more than ten degrees.
His dad set two backpacks down and laid a blanket on the scrubby grass that had mutated to survive the intense U-V radiation. What if humans had tried to adapt, Jacob thought. With the technology they had, it should have been possible, but playing with genes wasn’t thought very highly of. That’s why the cancer resistant gene wasn’t allowed to be played with. That was why Jacob was condemned to die.
"What’s with the bags?" Jacob asked.
His dad shrugged. "Just thought we might want some refreshments later. These things last a while."
"Not that long," he said pointing to the bags.
His dad shrugged again. Jacob didn’t understand. His dad never seemed to have time for anything, but here he was on the surface with him, a place Jacob knew his dad hated. In the last two hours, they’d said more to each other than they had in the previous two years.
"Are you sure the doctors didn’t call?" Jacob asked again. Maybe he was going to die sooner than he thought. Jacob sighed. It really didn’t matter. He couldn’t fight death, nobody could. He was just glad to be away from the shadows on the cave walls.
"No, they didn’t call."
The eclipse progressed and Jacob was amazed by how many shades of orange there really were. The surface world was so much more vivid than the Warrens. Down there everything seemed to be differing shades of gray and brown. Sure the other colors were all present, but those colors paled compared to their surface counterparts.
As the moon was totally engulfed by the shadow of the Earth, Jacob’s father put his arm around his son’s shoulder. "There are people on the surface," his dad said in a whisper.
Jacob was confused. "You mean others watching the eclipse like us?"
His dad shook his head. "No, there are people that live on the surface."
"What about the radiation?"
His dad sighed and gazed off at a trio of stars in a row. "That used to be called Orion’s Belt," he said. "Probably still is."
"Dad, the radiation?"
His dad smiled. "It’s not as bad as the people below think. The ozone has been built back up by naturally occurring microbes. Nature has a way of correcting the errors of Man, at least if they’re not too bad."
"It’s safe to be on the surface?" Jacob asked with sudden excitement.
His dad shook his head. "It’s safer," he said, pointing at the moon, which was about to leave totality. "There’s still a lot of radiation, but it’s tolerable for a few. A lot of the people up here still die, but some make it."
Jacob nodded his head in understanding. "And they’re the future of the race."
Jacob’s father stood up. "The people down there," he said, pointing back at the entrance to their Warren, "are decadent. Most spend all their time watching Vids or doing some sort of mind altering. Look at me. I barely have the courage to come to the surface at night."
"I don’t understand," Jacob said, suddenly very scared.
His dad shook his head. "No, you probably don’t," he answered. "Just remember that I love you," he said, pointing towards the mountains in the distance, now obscured by the inky darkness of the night. "Your mom loves you to. We always have, even though we never showed it enough."
Jacob felt tears beginning to fall from his eyes. He was dying, he thought.
His father pointed towards the unseen mountains again. "I’ll try to find a way to explain this to your mother. I’ll tell her you’ve gone in search of a cure, which you just might find. The people up here still believe in scientific research. They’re probably moving into the future, where you belong." He smiled, a very genuine smile. "Always remember that I love you."
His father then turned and walked back towards the Warrens, leaving the blanket spread on the ground between the two backpacks. Jacob began to cry uncontrollably, unsure of what was going on. After a few minutes, he bent down to the nearest backpack and opened it. Inside he found several days worth of food and water. There was also a cream marked as UV Protector, a hat, dark glasses, and a picture of him as a small boy with his parents.
Jacob laughed. For the first time in years, he laughed. He then rolled up the blanket and stuck it through the bottom strap of one of the backpacks. Throwing that backpack over his shoulder, and picking the other up, Jacob headed for those unseen mountains, forever leaving the shadows behind him.
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