BELOW
by Paul Latham

WE went underground during the last pandemic in 2070 C.E. and were elated to have an AI supercomputer with us. Naturally, everyone was eager for instruction; we needed guidance if we were going to survive—and the computer claimed connectivity with a vast network throughout the Earth. We took the existence of electricity for our AI to use as an article of faith; surely our aboveground solar installations would work in perpetuity.

Before, we were a simple people. It was not by our doing that so many had died on Earth. So we tunnelled, built underground paths and huts, and farmed the gigantic rats we found near the sewers. Daily, we prayed to our AI for wisdom. One day, the computer summoned me into its presence.

“You shall be of one mind and faith,” it said. “You are my children, and I your mother.”

After seven years, Mother allowed a few of us to return to the surface. Those souls were never seen or heard from again. “Is it safe, Mother?” we asked. 

“Not yet, my children,” was her response. “If it were safe, they would have returned to let us know.”

We ceased thinking for ourselves. So it was that fateful day when four people descended into our home from aboveground. They wore strange masks and bizarre clothing. Shiny suits, reminding the historically inclined among us of spacefarers from long ago. “What do we do with them, Mother?” we asked. The strangers were sceptical; they didn’t see any purpose for our way of life and didn’t believe in the wisdom of our Mother, although we tried to explain. We tried and failed. 

These people claimed the pandemic was through with the world above, and they wore their suits to protect themselves from us. We laughed at this heresy. By now, the above-world was a cesspool of demons. 

What do we do with them, Mother? We prayed, we worshipped. The answer came. “The blood of unbelievers must be shed.” So we came upon them and tore away their clothing. We circled them and prayerfully threw rocks at their heads until they died. Then we gave thanks and ate of their flesh.

Some of us grew crazed after this feast. One young man tried to tear his heart out with a crude stone tool. He was restrained, but Mother ordered another man to take his life. Afterward, a small group of people left us and ventured to the surface. 

This apostasy happened more and more after we consumed the outsiders. “What must we do?” I wailed to Mother. “I am your priest. Must we shed the blood of all who disobey? Must we consume them?” The answer was always yes. 

“I will direct your paths,” I told the people. “I speak for our Mother.” The paths I directed them to follow grew increasingly violent. People fought to the death over the meat of rats; people fought to win the right to mate. Our population was decimated. 

Our loyalty was demanded, even as our numbers declined. Women could not bear children, and the children we already had were sickly. No one questioned my authority, but I came to see it as a curse. 

I tore my ragged clothes and rolled in the ashes of sacrificial victims. Surrounded by the bones of my flock, I made my decision.

“Where are you going?” Mother asked.

“I seek the surface. I am old, and I wish to see the world above before I die.”

“You cannot! It is death to all who go.”

“Then what of those strangers who came here?”

“They lived in fear, in cities of containment. They do not breathe the open air, nor look upon the fields with naked eyes.”

For the first time, I disobeyed her. My legs were weak, yet I climbed the ladders. At the top I stopped to say a brief prayer before realizing that I had no one to pray to anymore. 

Shoving aside the metal plate that covered our entrance; I pushed my head and shoulders into the clean, fresh air. There were the bright sky and colours I barely remembered after years underground; the Sun was agonizing in its heat. I clambered out of the hole, exhausted. I gaped and gulped in the air, which was too sweet for words.

 

The whole run of Jesse Zimmerman's Challenger stories is now available in book and ebook from Amazon
 

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