Our city was dying.
There was no use in sugar coating that hard fact like most people in Utopia were doing with polite statements of "the Elders will carry us, this only be a temporary problem" and such. Whenever I heard those murmurings I usually just nodded, smiled, and rolled my eyes when my back was to them. Another thing, I always found it darkly humorous that our over-crowded and starving, disease filled city was called Utopia, maybe it once was…
A bit over two hundred years ago when War and disease spread across the United States. Millions died and countless others moved away in hope of finding a better life. The few hundreds of thousands that stayed either fought in the world and civil war, died from diseases from lack of too few medical resources to spare, and what was left of that congregated together in what was once the proud west-coast but had suffered greatly from pollution, natural disasters and effects from the wars. For years the community struggled to make the land a better place, a beacon of hope for citizens who couldn't move away. Eventually, the people's efforts came together as they hoped, the land was successfully farmed, clean water was found and over decades the city earned its name. There are not any records to be found from any book keepers of what happened during that time, all we know is what we learned from the school, which is all itinerary regulated by the Elders so, any knowledge I know I was fed from five old men and women who were taught by the last five old men and women before them and so on.
Only in the last half a century had the land begun to spoil again, making crops unsafe to eat, water was no longer found fresh and safe to drink in the wells, and disease had begun to spread faster than the healers could take care of it. it was safe to say, no matter what other citizens here believed, that his was no longer the Utopia the old people had worked so hard to create and preserve; it was in fact a dystopia, which I discovered, much to my deflation- that some kid had beaten me to spreading my witty and fitting town name change by taking red clay mud and smearing the word over the welcome sign at the entrance to the city.
Call me a pessimist if you will but I just couldn't delve into the belief that our city council of Elders could just wave their pale, wrinkly hands and suddenly make our land livable again. Perhaps it was my youth speaking, I- a female of only 23 am often brushed off as being young and careless; just another one of ye with little faith, according to every person above age 50 in the town. Perhaps it was less my age and more of the fact that I worked for the Council. I saw the elders every day in all of their ancient not-so-splendor. my job wasn't directly under them or anything though, I merely worked in the same building in fact, my job was the upkeep of the building, the entire city actually. Me and about 100 other people who tried our best to keep the city from literally falling apart, we were something a little more than dignified carpenters. As people who took care of the physical being of our city we were required to live in the Council building in what was affectionately known as home to most and to the rest "the barracks". For me, it was a bit of both, not the most spacious and best smelling of homes but the people I worked with since obtaining the job when I was sixteen had become family to me. Not that my biological family was gone or anything, they also just had demanding jobs so I never saw them, such was life in Utopia.
When I entered the meeting hall where I and the rest of the up-keep faculty met every morning to receive our specific jobs for the day, I was greeted with loud noises and aggressively posed bodies all crowded near the Elder's table, arguing. There was too much noise for me to pinpoint what the fuss was about so I looked for my direct superior. When I found him he was in a crowd of nineteen, trying to calm all of them down. It appeared that I was the last one in my section to show up as usual. Our eyes met across the way and when I was finally in earshot my boss, Cullen, answered my look of complete confusion with a shake of his head and words I would never put past Cullen to say.
"I should have guessed you would have no idea what's happening, Bell." He greeted me by my last name as he did with everyone who worked under him.
I rolled my eyes and ran a hand through my long bronze hair. "You know me so well, care to fill me in?"
Cullen sighed and shook his head, the rest of our sector all waited, most seemed pleased that there would finally be a group explanation of what was going on. From what I gathered from the chaos in the hall it seemed most people who had more of an idea than I on whatever the fuss was about only knew little more.
"The Miners were instructed to dig a new well on the south side of Utopia. They lost control of the drill and it kept drilling way past the watermark and broke out into…" He paused and shook his head, unable to believe the words he was about to say next. "Broke out into air… open clean air- a sky-"
"You mean a cave? Big whoop." I raised my eyebrow in confusion over what I was starting to believe was an over done fuss over a cave discovery.
"No, not a cave! It's a- well it's…" He scratched his head, lifting his dirty cap from his thinning hair and finally, shook his head, giving up on an explanation. "You wouldn't believe me if I tried to sit and explain what they found and it's a waste of breath anyway because you're going to see for yourself."
"I'm what?!" I asked, my mouth falling open in shock. "My expertise include the safe-" I began in a nervous panic but Cullen spoke over me.
""-upkeep and maintenance of Utopia, don't feed the lines I fed you when you were hired back to me, I know." He started.
"Not, cave jumping, or exploring or whatever it is the Elders are choosing us to do with this whole-!"
"You're not cave jumping! I- argh!" Cullen's face grew red and he took a moment to pinch the bridge of his nose and calm himself down. Seven a.m. and he was already done with me, new record. He took a deep breath and continued, "you're not cave jumping. You and and Fern here are leading a group of environmentalists and safety specialists into and through the newly discovered under-...lands or what the hell ever is down there." He took a moment to look between me and my apparent companion, a young and scruffy looking male around my age, Fern.
Fern in return, frowned and opened his mouth to speak. "Okay, I am all for being on an expedition through new lands- or...cave." His eyes flicked over to mine and I rolled them in response before he carried on. "But why are we- glorified maintenance people, being scouts to a grand expedition into unknown places?"
Cullen nodded, listening and even rolled his own eyes when Fern mentioned a cave. "Okay, A- it's not going to be just you two and one expedition, it will be two from every sector in the upkeep field and each pair will lead an expedition. B- we have been trained to be able to catch something wrong with our city from a mile away and work to fix it on our toes before the city ever knows there was something wrong to fix. We're not perfect…" His gaze lingered on me for longer than was necessary and I showed my notice of his subtle asshole-ery by giving him an intense stare and fluttering my long lashes in a mock show of innocence.
"-but we get the job done. We're the field with the highest productivity rate and lowest accident rate, and also we have the most people to spare for this in our field and still have plenty here to carry out their jobs, okay? Now get out of here, and head with the others to the south side of Utopia, if you get lost just look for the large crowd of people gathering around a half-built well." he said and waved us off, turning towards the rest of the crew in our sector that all started asking questions at once.
With nothing else left to say I looked to Fern and shrugged, following behind him as his long strides put him ahead of me toward the exit of the building.
"Oh hey, also-! If nothing else, try not to be late to this, eh Bell?" Cullen shouted after us. The sector chuckling in response.
I turned around and walked backwards, giving Cullen a wink and turned back forward almost missing the playfully disapproving head shake from Cullen.
"So Bell, expedition buddies, eh?" Fern slowed his strides to keep pace with me as soon as we exited the building.
I sighed and shielded my eyes from the blinding sunlight with my arm, and glanced at him through squinting green eyes. He squinted as well, and looked at me with a scrunched up face as we hurriedly turned down a shaded alley. I blinked a few times, letting my eyes adjust before I answered him. He waited patiently, his whole composure cool and collected. In fact, I remembered the first day he joined our sector only a year prior. One of the old members said if it had been a century or so earlier he would have been considered a 'stoner' apparently, his long hair and scruffy beard didn't help sway that image either.
"Lilium" I corrected and put my hands in my jumpsuit pockets as we strolled along the thin concrete walk. "You don't have to call me by my last name." I added with a small nod.
Fern took a moment to consider this and finally nodded back. "Lilium, I dig it hehe." He said, giggling at his own well/cave/whatever joke.
I nodded, not caring to ask his first name. It wasn't that I was uninterested in getting to know him or anything like that, I was nervous about the expedition and the closer we got to the South side of Utopia, the more my stomach churned. The rest of the walk was silent until we reached the edge of the large crowd that surrounded the half-built water well. There were many voices all talking at once from the very large crowd that surrounded the roped off perimeters of the well. It seemed as if the whole South side and them some had come to see and get an explanation.
It didn't take Fern and I long to find the person who seemed to be in charge, on the edge of the crowd, wearing a hard hat, like we do and a dirty uniform was Dusty Baron, Utopia's Sheriff. He was standing inside the roped area, trying to calm the crowd.
"Alright now, alright! Everyone just stand back, stay behind the rope, I know it's a spectacle out there people but just let us do our jobs and we'll keep you updated, please!" The burly man coaxed through his thick grey mustache. The people seemed disappointed in their lack of immediate information but ultimately they backed off a bit. When he saw us he his face brightened and he quickly ushered us under the rope. "Finally! The last two of ya'll show up!" He said with a hearty chuckle and slapped Fern on the shoulder, almost sending the poor thin guy off his feet.
I felt my face grow hot, remembering Cullen's jest before I left town Hall. "Haaa, yeah- anyway where do we go? We don't know all the details we were just told by our supervisor that we're leading an expedition…" I sighed and blinked a few times, unable to believe my own words coming out of my mouth. "Apparently, we're cave jumping or something?" I added with a quick shrug.
The Sheriff gave me a confused look and scratched his head, but before he could respond Fern interjected.
"Uh, well- not cave jumping, please disregard that- what we mean is are we going to be given further instruction or details on what exactly we're doing, it all was dropped on us quite suddenly…"
Sheriff Dusty gave an understanding and satisfied nod as Fern elaborated what I said. "Oh, surely. You two are the last to show up so you'll be heading out with research team number uh…" He looked down at the clipboard that looked oddly small in his chubby hands and searched for our placement. "Number 30 out of 30! You'll need to speak to Dr. Tamara Bindi, she's the head environmental researcher on ya'lls team, she'll fill you in on all the details you're missing." With that he gave us a farewell nod and returned to maintaining the crowd.
It didn't take long to find Dr. Bindi, she was a short and eccentric looking woman with dark skin and darker long, wavy hair. She wore a pair of glasses that was comically big for her face and she greeted us with a frantic wave of her hand and a string of curse words.
"Where have you been?! We've been anxious to take off!" She scolded and ushered us along towards the hole. "We're at least two hours behind everyone else!" She immediately started attaching harnesses and ropes to my jumpsuit.
"Whoa, wait just a minute!" I exclaimed, wiggling around as she frantically tried to catch me with a metal clip to a part of the harness. "What do you mean we're two hours later than everyone else?! What exactly are we even going down there for, what in the hell is going on!" I yelled and suddenly Dr. Bindi froze and looked up at me with wide eyes.
"Oh my, well…" She seemed less phased by me yelling and more taken back by what little Fern and I knew. "Well, the men building the well last night discovered this fantastic find in the wee hours of the morning and immediately reported it to the elders and ever since then the town's been crazy with gathering researcher's and the rest of the crews to make these expeditions happen. We think we may have found fresh soil, and light, and clean water, possibly more, the only way to find out…" She clipped the last metal hook onto my harness and moved onto Fern, an excited spark in her eye. "Is to go in and see for ourselves, but we…" She struggled with one of Fern's hooks for a second before finally clipping it into its loop on his harness. "We can't go in until you go in ahead of us and scout a clear way." She tugged on his harness to make sure it was secure before taking a step back and smiling at us, the excitement growing on her face.
"Most things we'll take care of, there isn't much you need to worry about other than does the way ahead look safe enough to travel, if not find another way around." She handed us a backpack each and helped us load it onto our backs and clip them around us to keep them secure. "This will have many essential supplies in them, food rations, some sanitized water, batteries, a flashlight each, a hunting knife, and a first aid kit." She gave a happy little nod and looked toward the dark hole.
"Batteries?" I muttered, too in shock to think of any other question. This was one hell of a prepping. No one had any idea what we were about to jump into, for all they knew the other twenty nine expedition groups could be dead down there.
Dr. Bindi smiled and grabbed two communication radios from a table behind her. "Of course, for these." She answered my question and clipped the radios to our jumpsuit pockets before taking an extra one from the same table and pressing the button.
"Check one two!" She said and Mine and Fern's screeched to life with her high pitched voice.
She seemed satisfied with the results and set hers back on the table. "Okay, as soon as you find a clear path down there just radio us back and we'll be right behind you!" She said and gestured to a different table behind her that had four people, three serious and scholarly looking males and a younger, blond female, surrounding it, staring intently and stacks of papers.
"Well, looks like you two are all set, after you!" Dr. Bindi said with a cheerful smile as she offered each of us a shake of her hand and turned away, quickly grabbing a spot at the table with the other four.
"Alright then… now or never, yeah?" Fern spoke, cool as spring rain.
I wasn't sure what to say. I wasn't too excited to just jump into the mysterious dark hole, but I wasn't chicken either.
"Meet you at the bottom." I said with a deep exhale and hooked the end of my rope to the end of the one tied around the well.
It took me exactly five minutes to reach the bottom. I know that doesn't sound very long but I was booking it down the hole, zip-lining down as fast as my rope would let me without it getting too hot too touch, and not by choice either, I had Fern coming in hot over my head above me and I had to keep from him kicking me on the top of my yellow hard hat.
I expected my boots to find muddy ground but instead I was greeted with squishy movement under and around my feet. I held back the urge to squeal and immediately took out my hunting knife in one hand and my flashlight in the other. Fern landed next to me and loudly let go the boise I was holding it.
"Sweet benevolent Elders, snakes!" He squealed and started stomping around the hissing, writhing masses of tangled bodies.
"Whoa, whoa wait!" I grabbed his shoulder to calm him as I gave the snakes a closer look, the light from my flashlight bounced around the tunnel we were in but I was clearly able to see the light yellow and white patterns on most of the bodies and the flat- wide based heads. Upon closer inspection, they all seemed to be small pythons, or well small compared to the books of endangered and extinct species they had in Utopia.
Fern froze, his eyes were wide but he followed my light and looked at what I was so closely examining. "Oh, they're not venomous...or big enough to crush our bones.." He sighed and relaxed a bit, but still looked uncomfortable standing in the middle of dozens of them. He took his flashlight out and shined it down the length of the tunnel. "How far does this thing go…?" He whistled and squinted and peered as far as the flashlight would allow him to see.
I was about to answer with some smartass remark about how I couldn't possibly have any idea when my radio buzzed and Dr. Bindi's voice erupted through the speaker, making us jump from it's loud echo in our dark, loud space that I was now fully committed to believing it was a cave.
"Is everything okay? Is it safe for us to follow?" She asked, her voice pitched high with excitement.
I took a second to collect my nerves and turn to volume down on the radio before I replied. "Yeah, it's safe, there are small pythons down here but they are harmless."
Dr. Bindi's voice radioed back immediately. "Really? That's fascinating! We're on our way!"
Not too long later, Dr. Bindi and the rest of the expedition landed through the hole. Most of them seemed more excited by the snakes than frightened and as I watched each of their reactions, I couldn't help but look at Fern and laugh, remembering his frightened squeal. He seemed to understand my jesting glance and giggle because he replied with a swift middle finger as he pretended to stretch.
"Wow, did you know how long it's been since one of these were seen in the flesh? This is wild! How did it come to be in this… tunnel?" The peppy blond whom I had come to find out her name was Emma, asked as she held up one of the small dark coloured ones in one hand and took a picture of it with an ancient looking throwaway camera with her other hand.
I was only half listening to her's and the other's words when it came to the pythons and their trivia. I, along with Fern was more focused with scouting ahead to find an exit from this tunnel. Unfortunately for us, the last twenty nine expeditions that went ahead of us didn't leave any breadcrumbs or signs that told us which way they went. Not for any reason in particular we decided to go right from where we landed. Our flashlights swept across the dank tunnel. We could hear the echos from the rest of our team behind us bouncing all around the echoey dark space, and other various sounds of water dripping and few hisses from the dwindling number of pythons that we politely tried to avoid stepping on.
"Well, we're either going to find a way out or find ourselves traveling further and further into a smelly, wet, snake infested cave." Fern attempted light conversation.
"So you admit that this is definitely a cave?" I said, a playful smile pulling at the corners of my lips.
Fern chuckled and lifted his flashlight to settle on an old metal sign. it's words were nearly unreadable but I was able to make out the word, caution. It looked like an old maintenance sign. "I do believe it's slowly turning into one. I think this was once an old maintenance tunnel to something, I don't know what… it's strange, perhaps southside Utopia was once full of large business offices, perhaps a metropolis, I can hardly imagine it looking nothing like the cramped shanties and dirt covered...everything that it is now…" He sighed and turned his light away from the deteriorating sign.
Behind us I could hear the echoed steps and loud, excited chatter of the group catching us to us. Above their racket, dr. bindi called to me. "What have you guys found?"
I looked over my shoulder and saw the group approaching. "We think this may have been old maintenance tunnels." I stated and gestured at the sign. Fern held his light up so that Emma could snap a few pictures.
"Fascinating." One of the serious looking men of the group by the name of Darren said as he adjusted his dirty glasses on his slender nose and pulled out a map that looked barely made and drew a continuation of the tunnel we were in with added notes to the side. I assumed he was the expedition's cartographer. I gave him a minute or two to draw his map before Fern and I continued our trek ahead.
"I keep thinking we're going to just run into the remains of the other expeditions that headed out before us." I mumbled loud enough for only Fern to hear.
Fern gave me a sidelong look. "You, Lilium Bell are a very Macabre young lady." He replied but his tone told me he had also given the dark expectation a thought.
I didn't reply, just gave a small carefree shrug and continued on our way as we lead the hyper group of young scientists into a tunnel we knew nothing about, much less where it led. Eventually we started to see a light at the end and after a few jokes about us probably being dead and this was the light at the end of the tunnel we all quieted down and focused on the growing ball of brightness that awaited us at the end of the old service tunnel, that as we neared the opening began to look more and more like a cave.