Darren took a sip of his water, he hated how metallic it always tasted. His mother had always told him it was because of the storage tanks above. His little sister Debbie didn’t mind it, none of the younger children did, but then that was because they’d never drank water without that taste. He was nine when they came here. He didn’t remember much of that night, mostly just images. His mothers fearful face as she shook him awake, telling him they had to go, that they had to hurry and be as fast as they could. Flashing lights and loud noises, the sound of gunfire, people screaming, a baby crying somewhere then a meaty thud and silence. Heat that felt like it was going to burn him alive. Men pointing guns at them while his father shouted something at them. Dark, cold tunnels, bright lights, so bright he couldn’t open his eyes. They had been preparing for the day the world ended for years, and it had finally happened.
Darren wasn’t entirely sure what happened to the world above and he was afraid to ask. He had tried once or twice when he was younger but his mother would go quiet and start crying. His father would look at him, his jaw clenched and his eyes dark. His father had been a kinder man when they lived above, gentle, always there with friendly advice or an encouraging smile. Not here though, down here the dark and the metal infected his soul, making him rougher, harder. The birth of Debbie had made him a little kinder, but the hard core was still there.
Life down below was monotonous, the children were taught every day, learning about the world above, how it was. Learning how to read and write, how the systems down here functioned. Everyone had a job to do, though usually they knew how to do two or three others should someone get sick or have an accident. Accidents happened a lot in the early days. There had been over a thousand people down here in the first few weeks, but now it was down to eight hundred or so.
Darren moved his food around his plate. He was hungry, but it didn’t change how the food tasted. He knew that it was likely in his head, but he remembered vegetables tasting different. Better, sweeter perhaps. Besides that he missed some of the fruits he used to eat, apples in particular. Biting into a juicy apple and the sudden sharp, sweet flavour that filled his mouth. He couldn’t remember the last time he had one, same with a lot of foods. It had never seemed like a big deal at the time. There were some good ones still, strawberries in particular, though they were only in small amounts, a few berries per person, and that was if you were lucky. The meat was edible and that was the best thing that could be said of it. Bland and rubbery was the only real way to describe it. The chicken was better, but only slightly.
After eating he cleared his tray away and left the cafeteria, he had already finished his work for the day, checking over some of the agricultural systems for any faults, and had some free time. He wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do, they were showing movies in the theatre, but he never enjoyed the experience. It always felt like he was crammed in with everyone. He would normally read in his room, but he and his mother had an argument about that. People would talk, it was weird, he was wasting his time. He could never say anything to make her think differently, it was sad too, she was a big reader before, always buying him new books. The library was well stocked, but he seemed to be one of the few visitors. It was looked down upon as antisocial and a waste of time.
Darren was in his room, it was small and stark. A single bed, a desk that just had enough room for the school work he used to do at it and a chair. There was one shelf on the wall that held knick knacks and some books. Everyone was out doing something else, he didn’t know what nor did he really care. He enjoyed the silence, it was comfortable, there was no fear of someone else bursting in or trying to engage with him. He felt a little guilty but sometimes he just needed to turn off and think. Most of the time he thought about the world above. Things he missed, like a fresh breeze on your face as you biked, or the smell of just cut grass. Sometimes he thought about people, Bobby his best friend, Mrs. Carmichael, his teacher. She had always been so kind to everyone. He shook his head, it didn’t matter anyway. They were all gone now. Bobby and his family hadn’t made it, nor had anyone else he knew besides his parents. His mother had always told him how lucky they were, if his father hadn’t been working for J&P Unlimited they would never have gotten inside.
Sometimes he wondered if it was safe to go above again, if the world was growing wild and free without human interference, or if it was just barren wasteland as far as the eye could see. There had been other places like this, but most of them had stopped communicating in the early days. One or two had massive power failures in key systems and everyone listened in horror as they begged for help, others had just gone silent. Sometimes he thought about just going, no one guarded the doors to the surface, though he wasn’t sure if they were still capable of opening. There had been no talk of bombs or radiation sickness, but that didn’t mean anything. There could be anything up there. Anything at all.
As far as he knew, no one had ever tried leaving, everyone just seemed content to go about their lives, happy to live in this artificial world and unless he was willing to risk his very life, he would have to learn to be happy with it too.