Image by rakratchada torsap via freedigitalphotos.net
Halfway City used to be a great and awesome underground city. It was the most beautiful among the cities of refuge on this side of the world. It offered the best air technology that provided the cleanest air for free. It was also a very green dwelling place. Green because it was literally filled with plants and trees; and because it succeeded in using renewable energy and reusable resources. It was well-managed too. The government had great leaders and they took their mandate to take care of the citizens seriously. The people of Halfway City were probably the happiest in the blighted world of 2112. No one on earth was as happy as the people of Halfway City after the 2100 nuclear holocaust.
But that’s not true anymore.
Halfway City is now but a whisper of its former self. The predominant color is no longer lush greens but gray and brown. Its air-tech, that used to be the best, is now dilapidated and unmaintained. The smells of humanity are offensive. Airborne diseases have spread uncontrollably, TB being the most common. Old gas masks are now a common thing. The city is now a depressing, humid and suffocating place to live in.
This is where the brothers, Horencio and Mauricio, have lived for 30 years. Horencio was a sergeant in the police force and Mauricio was the city treasurer. They lived together in their house in floor 49. Just like all housing units, it was designed like a giant cement nodule sticking on the walls of the underground tunnel. There was a dimly-lit little porch outside their door just like everyone else. And from there, a ladder led to the main floor where the establishments were. They were looking down at random people as they had a few cold beers on their porch. This has become a tradition of theirs every Saturday night.
Mauricio, the older of the two, was reminiscing about the old days again.
“I miss the old days,” he said. “When one could smell clean, crisp air – not this fecal smell we smell every day. I remember it took a long time before we got used to this air – “
“- 6 friggin’ months. Good god, was it that long?”
“They said they’ve finally fixed it and the smells have gone away – “ Mauricio added. Horencio was shaking his head in protest. “But the truth is that they just threw away some muddy filters. And we all just got used to what’s left of the smells…”
Both men took a swig of their beers. Mauricio put a few nuts into his mouth before continuing.
“You know me. I don’t like to complain. But this government has failed us all. All you have to do to realize that is too look around and take a sniff of the air. If Mayor Gomez is as good as he says he is, where are the trees, shrubs and flowers that once grew on every floor? Where is the freely flowing clean water? Now we have to pay for clean water. And where are the beautiful lakes and falls we once had in the bottom floors 100 and 150?” Mauricio paused for another drink.
“Remind me again, why is Gomez and his idiotic friends in power?” he asked.
“Money.” Horencio said, being consistent with his quiet nature.
“No, no ,no. It’s the people’s fault. It’s not that Gomez had a lot of money. It’s because Halfway City wanted all the money it could get. It’s greed that got us here, brother. And it’s greed that will keep us here.”
There were a few moments of silence as Mauricio reached for two more bottles in their cooler. He opened both and gave one to Horencio.
“From being the best underground city, we’re now second from the bottom,” Mauricio said as he settled on his seat with beer in hand. “It’s times like this that I wonder why I’m still working for that prick. I mean I’m glad he didn’t sack us when he came into power. But it’s obvious now. In this little town, he can’t choose all the people he wants to have. We still have our jobs because Gomez and his people knows that were irreplaceable.”
Horencio grunted in approval.
“I understand why Jesse Magno had to leave. I mean, checking what’s going on in the surface is important, of course. But why hasn’t he sent us a letter all these years? A letter could’ve stopped the people from holding elections. If he’s still around, we wouldn’t be living in this poisoned air.”
“It’s been two decades. Maybe he’s dead.” Horencio said as he went inside.
“Well, if that’s true, this city has lost its only hope. That boy knew how to run things. It was as if he was made for this situation. He was an angel sent to us. I wish he didn’t have to leave.” Mauricio drank most of his beer this time.
Horencio came out with a bottle of Purity Pills. He shook two pills out and gave one to his brother.
“I’m done with that Ensyong.” Mauricio looked away as if the pills could hurt his eyes.
“You have to take it,” Horencio insisted, “they say it’s for the poisoned air. You want to get sick like the others? You don’t want to get out of here?”
“You and I know that that pill’s a fake,” Mauricio looked his brother in the eye, “That’s probably just a sugar-coated anti-depressant. All the antibiotics and vaccines were destroyed in the nuclear war.”
Horencio squatted to meet Mauricio at eye level, “Do you want to take the risk? What if they’re telling the truth? Maybe they’re research has paid off…”
“I highly doubt that…”
Horencio forced the pill on Marucio’s palm and said, “Your choice.”
Maurcio lingered in the porch as Horencio went inside to sleep. He stared at the pill for a while. Halfway City has been fooled into thinking that this little yelow pill could save them. The people consumed hundreds of the Purity Pill daily. The government claimed that when the time came for humans to resurface, only the purest would be allowed out. The huge steel gates will only open to the healthiest humans. And taking as many Purity Pills a day will guarantee one’s passage through the formidable gates in the future.
They’ve been consuming these for decades. Small as it may be, every citizen here is enslaved to this tiny pill. This was the only hope the city had for a better future.
Mauricio sighed and tossed the pill into his mouth and chased it with the rest of his beer. Desperation turns even the smartest man into prey.
He was woken by Horencio at dawn.
His brother was in full uniform and talking to his radio. The voices from the radio were stressed. Something was wrong. It took a while for Mauricio to realize that he fell asleep in the porch. He dreamt that he was a fighter losing to a formidable opponent. It was actually Horencio kicking his feet until he woke up. Seeing that the lights were still dimmed, he reclined again.
“What?” Mauricio groaned.
“You’re gonna want to come.” Horencio said.
Mauricio rolled onto his side and willed himself to sleep. It must not be 3am.
“Suit yourself. The gates are unlocking. I just thought you might want to come,” Horencio said as he climbed down the ladder.
Mauricio’s eyes snapped open. His sleepiness was suddenly gone.
“The gates?! You- you said they’re opening?!” He screamed excitedly as he hurriedly stood up and scrambled for the ladder. He grabbed his gas mask on his way down.
“Be quiet.” Horencio scolded him. “And be careful on your way down. All of the forces will be at the gates and if you fall down, help won’t come until things are cleared.”
Horencio kept walking as he heard the clanging of the metal ladder behind him. When Mauricio reached the bottom of the ladder, he scampered to his brother’s side. He then saw other police officers going the same way as they. Then he saw the level chairman with his officers. They didn’t even notice that Mauricio was there.
“I don’t think you’re cleared for this, so don’t do anything that would draw attention.”
Everyone boarded the huge elevators. There were 10 on this side of their floor and they fit on just 3. Someone pressed a button and they felt the lift respond with a nudge. They were on their way to level 2: the level where the city gates were.
Mauricio felt a tingling along his spine. His excitement was uncontrollable. And he saw that everyone felt the same too. Except for the gate keepers, no one has been near the gates for a long, long time.
The trip seemingly took a long time when it has only been a minute in the elevators. No one talked.
“This is taking forever,” someone finally said. Mauricio saw that it was their level chairman talking to his aides, “You might as well brief me now.”
“An hour ago the gates’ gears began moving. It hasn’t stopped since. It’s like it’s going through an unlocking phase…” a man Mauricio recognized as Major Manida reported.
“Who’s there now?” the chairman asked.
“Everyone is going up there, I would assume. Every floor was told.”
“When was the last time this happened?”
“The opening of the gates? The last time it opened was 20 years ago when Mayor Jesse Magno left against everyone’s wishes. He’s been missing since,” One of the chairman’s aides answered, “But it has never been opened from the outside.”
“What could it be?” the chairman pondered.
Mauricio too was clueless. The tunnels were interconnected by underground networks. But none of the networks reached to the surface. No one knew how the tunnels and its gates to the surface worked exactly. Did the gates automatically activate when the outside world cleared up? Everyone left on the surface died during the nuclear war. So could it be an alien machine opening the gates? Or has the other underground colonies found out that everything was clear and finally searched for us? Is it Magno finally returning? What took him 2 decades to return?
The elevator halted with a clang and they spilled out into a brightly lit room. The leaders quickly grouped together with Mayor Gomez. The police men and soldiers grouped together with their officers. Mauricio didn’t seem to belong anywhere at the moment and didn’t know where to put himself. He found himself grouped with the reporters after a while.
In front of them all were the enormous steel gates. It was big enough to fit a five-story building in it. Attached to the gates were gears and rods of varying sizes. And they kept on moving, making clanging and grating sounds as they move and snap into place from time to time. He heard a lot of chatter as they waited for the gate to open.
“This is the biggest story of the decade!”
“Could this be a political gimmick?”
“You know, if what comes through that gate is hostile, this is our last day on earth.”
That last comment turned Mauricio pale. It didn’t occur to him until now that he could be in potential danger. He involuntarily glanced at the elevators in his nervousness and started walking towards them.
Then there was a very loud metallic creak.
“The gates are finally opening! Gas masks on! Everyone suit up!” someone shouted.
Mauricio realized with dismay that he was among those who came without a radioactive suit. He searched for Horencio with a panic. He would know what to do. He hurriedly put his gas mask on and then resumed his search.
He finally saw his brother across from where he was. He was also looking at Mauricio. But he was not panicking like the others. He didn’t even bother to put on his mask. It bothered Mauricio that his brother even had a peaceful smile on his face.
He knows something, Mauricio thought.
The doors slammed against the concrete walls. In the middle of the entrance was a silhouette of a man. He was walking towards them casually. Mauricio didn’t expect their government’s response.
“Don’t come any closer! Stop in the name of the people of Halfway! I am Mayor Gomez. Identify yourself!” came the voice of the stout official through a megaphone.
The man just kept on approaching. The army pointed their guns at him at the mayor’s command.
“Stop or we will shoot!” The mayor had his hands up, threatening to give the signal to fire.
“Is this how you welcome back a son of Halway?” The man said.
This paralyzed everyone. They all wondered who it was. Why would he say that?
“It’s Jesse Magno! He’s back!” someone yelled.
A great chatter erupted in the pass. Then there was jubilation. Then came an applause as Jesse came near enough to see. Jesse’s appearance changed little if any at all. He seemed larger than before. The crowd pressed to the front. He shook the hands of the mayor and of the others nearby. Only the officials weren’t happy. Seeing that Jesse wasn’t wearing any gear, Mauricio took off his mask like the others. There was a breeze from the outside and everyone was elated to know that it smelled clean.
“Why have you returned Jesse?” Gomez asked. The jubilation died right away. Jesse’s eyebrows furrowed.
“I see. You’re not happy to see me,” Jesse looked around. “Perhaps, I have disturbed your happy existence here?”
“Make your business clear, and leave.” Gomez stated coldly.
Jesse shrugged and faced the crowd, turning his back on the mayor. The mayor was furious.
“Citizens of Halfway, I have returned as promised. When I left two decades ago, I thought it was the end of me. The air choked me. I thought it was the radiation, but I later realized that it was my lungs that were polluted. The air was pure, and my lungs were not accustomed to it. It took a while before my body accepted the pure air. However, the surface was desolate. For a long, long time, I saw no other human being. I was happy because the earth had been restored with its air, plants and waters. But I saw that there was a need to create a place for us. I was hoping to have a sustainable place for humans to live in, this time around.”
“And who are you to decide that for us? You should have told us right away. You have left us here to rot for decades,” Gomez interrupted. Jesse ignored him.
“I tested everything. I created a home and then a farm. After a while, I found more brave, wandering humans from other underground cities. I welcomed them to my home. It was such a blessing that our little group had the same hopes for humanity. Together, we agreed to create more habitats and test everything out in a larger scale. Now, we have families in these new habitats. We ate and drank what the earth gave us for 20 years. We found that it is now safe to live outside the surface once again. We and our children are well. Earth is no longer how it was. And we have created houses, mansions of many rooms for everyone. And today, we returned to the place where we came from to spread the news. And that is why I am here, today. It is time to surface!”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” It was Gomez’s Chief of Staff. “You should’ve cut the blabber and told us. You’re too fond of delays.” He and Gomez’s group sneered.
“Everybody out, now!” Gomez ordered everyone.
“You can’t do that,” Jesse said.
Gomez and his army walked towards the exit. It didn’t take long before they broke into a jog. They were excited to see the surface.
Mauricio and the others stayed behind, waiting for Jesse’s permission despite their envy for those heading out. Jesse was simply smiling peacefully and calmly tapping his feet.
The shouts of joy by the men rushing out were abruptly silenced. Soon, they were jogging back into the pass. Mauricio saw that they were fleeing from something. Then the light from the outside darkened. An army of large humans in armor, shield and swords approached. Their size caused all to step backwards in fear. These giants look like they can tear people apart by hand.
The mayor panicked when they were about to be cornered. “Open fire!” he shrieked.
That was when Jesse calmly raised his hand. He was holding a device of some sort. He depressed a button on it and then all guns in the room erupted in fire and smoke. Those who had the weapons threw them down to avoid getting burned. Gomez looked small and frail now that he’s been disarmed.
“Now,” Jesse continued. ”As I was saying, it is time to surface – but in an orderly way. Earth was scorched in the past by an impatient, arrogant, incompetent civilization. As we begin again, we will cut-off wickedness and ignorance from the beginning.”
Jesse saw that everyone was still staring at the army of giants in front of them.
“Oh! I forgot,” Jesse said cooly, “these are the new children of the earth. They may be larger in size than you’re used to. But that is what the earth offers humans now. Because everything was miraculously reset, all the food and water and air is able to once again nurture us maximally. Thus, what you’re seeing here now. The effects are best seen on those born on the surface. Not only are they stronger, they are way smarter than us. We made sure that they got the education of the ancients. They built on that knowledge and surprised everyone with new sciences and technology – such as this Gunpowder Deactivator,” Jesse dangled the gadget in his hand. “This can cause any weapon, with primitive gun powder or the like, to set fire for a short period with little damage. It’s effective for 1000 kilometers. So don’t bother to call for reinforcements, mayor. All your weapons are useless now. And don’t attempt to reach those elevators either. These guys can beat you there in no time.”
The mayor went pale and didn’t know what to say.
“The only people allowed on the surface are the purest,” said Jesse.
At this, Mauricio’s hopes were extinguished. He hasn’t been very religious with his Purity Pills. The others, including the mayor and his goons, were elated.
He didn’t know what came over him, but Mauricio found himself asking, “What will become of us?”
“Sorry?” Jesse asked, looking for the person asking.
“Sir,” Mauricio stepped forward, “what will happen to men like me?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Jesse asked.
“Well…” Mauricio sighed, “I haven’t been taking my Purity Pills regularly. If you scan me, I’m sure, you’ll see that my blood is one of the most infected. I understand why you’re concerned about quarantining the sick. The earth must be filled with very healthy people like these kids now… But what would happen to me, sir?”
“Ah, the Purity Pills. That’s a hoax, really. It doesn’t really contain anything but sugar and anti-depressant.”
“That’s not true!” the mayor objected. “How would you know?!”
“Mr. Gomez,” Jesse looked at him calmly, “I know. I have spies within your ranks. I have eyes everywhere in the city.”
Jesse sniggered. “All those working for me, please step forward and come to me.”
Everyone was astonished to see that Jesse indeed had many spies in this group. And Mauricio was even more stunned to see his brother to be among them. Horacio smiled at him from the front. He’s been playing Mauricio this whole time. But Mauricio didn’t feel anger, He felt a great sense of pride for his brother instead. He let out a short laugh and jokingly waved a fist at his brother. Horacio laughed as well.
“So… No one’s qualified to go up there?” someone asked.
“About the standards I mentioned a while ago, I wasn’t referring to physical purity. I was referring to character and attitude.” Jesse explained.
“But that’s absurd!” the mayor exclaimed. “You can’t screen us like job interviewees! How can you possibly know everything about us?!”
“You’re a bit slow for a mayor,” Jesse said. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I have reliable people who know everyone in this underground city. My spies know everyone from every walk of life and their tendencies. They were handpicked for the job.”
The mayor was wordless again.
“Your spiritual purity will be the basis to resurface. If you’ve been paying attention, you should know that the new children of the earth are smarter than we ever wished to be in the past. They have found the cure to every disease that ever plagued the earth. The hope of the people of Halfway City is here.”
“So let us all out!” the chief of staff yelled.
“We need to make sure that we don’t go back to what we were before. What we have now out there is very special. We might not have this chance for a better human race again. We have to make the right decisions, now.”
Jesse’s face turned serious. He was now like a powerful king about to give an order. “Now, let the rescue begin. We have created a database of the purest citizens in close coordination with our spies. Anyone found in this database will be waken and brought out now. Our soldiers will get in and get them out. Anyone not in the database will remain here.”
The soldiers moved towards the elevators. Everyone scuttled to get out of the way.
“You can’t do this! I am the mayor! You have no power here! We will resist you! This is war!” he protested with panic.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” Jesse said gravely. “We’re not here asking for your permission. We’re here to get our people out. After that, you can deal with whoever that’s left.”
Mauricio broke down in tears when his brother approached him.
“It’s time to go home, brother. Today is the day,” Horencio said.
“I guess we won’t need those pills after all, huh?” Mauricio asked as they approached the sunlight, arms intertwined.
“You were right. They were no cure at all.”
A blast of warm, fresh breeze hit them. Their lungs resisted, at first, the new atmosphere. But it quickly welcomed what it knows is pure air. The brothers gasped when they saw the world outside.
They were, at last, seeing the new earth.