By Kiran Manral
The air was thin up here. Thin, precious, rare. It was worth the climb all the way up to the peak. I was breathing heavily, we hardly climbed anymore. I ripped the mask off from my face and breathed in deeply. It smelt different from the air I now knew, the synthetic version of air we breathed in under the earth. This was crisp, slicingly cold. It drilled through my nostrils and pierced my lungs. I breathed deeper.
Humanity had moved underground now, the few of us who remained after the event. Like moles, rodents, snakes, we buried deep into ground rock, through layers of the earth’s crust, through miles and miles, deep until we reached bedrock, where we recreated the earth as we knew it, before the event. We created new suns from mega lights that blazed with a fury to brighten our days, we had moon lamps came on at our artificially induced dusk, waxing and waning through the month in their intensity. We pumped oxygen through ventilation ducts that passed through entire cities, we pumped fragrances to energise us in the mornings, fragrances to mellow us in the evenings, the air we breathed in came from factories in little cans.
Humans now lived for two to three centuries on an average, but we’d become stunted, pale. Every generation was measured and charted, their growth milestones revised, growth hormones pumped into every child as they came out of their birth pods . I was an aberration, a live birth on the surface of the earth, I knew what it meant to run in the grass, to swim in the sea, to climb trees.
We lived now in Subearthea, zones below the continents now called Subearthea 1, Subearthea 2, Subearthea 3, Subearthea 4 and Subearthea 5. I lived in Subearthea 4, densely packed with people, but I had been allocated a hundred square feet of space to live in, in deference to my age. A luxury. Most people had forgotten the surface, it existed mythic, in our memories, of how it was, sky above, sea around, land below. Now it was all one swamp of gas that cloaked everything under a dark brown blanket, unless you climbed high enough to escape it. And here I was, 400 years old today, replaced and returned until I didn’t have an original organ left in my body, standing on the top of the world, Mount Everest as it had once been known. A vertical tunnel took those who wanted to see the surface almost to the peak, where one could emerge, with a mask on, all skin surface covered and an air canister strapped on. The exit permit allowed one to go beyond the massive automated steel doors for a period of exactly one hour.
They would find me after the alarm had been sounded and I hadn’t returned. I breathed in deep, my last breath would be on the surface, I’d promised myself. The air was crisp, cold and pure poison.
(First published in Cosmopolitan India, October 2017).