“Freedom has a price.” That’s what my old man used to tell me whenever I didn’t want to go to the mines. He’d say, “son, if you’re ever going to live the life you want, you better be willing to pay the piper.” I was a kid, of course. Try teaching a 10-year-old booger basher the value of earnest labour; or what a piper is. It’d be easier to hold a gun to his head and force the work right out of him. But with no gun in sight, my dad resorted to nagging, and I guess I just always thought he was a buzzkill for it. Yammering away on the fat chance that his bonehead son would start to listen. Now, maybe I’m not so sure.
In 2103, the US and Russia engaged in nuclear war. They aimed thousands of hydrogen bombs down the throats of major cities. Obliterated each other to dust. Then the tons of black smoke floated up to the sky and changed the weather. All the crops died out; the animals too. They called it a Nuclear Winter. If the radiation didn’t get you, then the weak ozone layer spreading its legs to the ultraviolet light might have done the trick. We barricaded the doors and never opened them again.
Governments built bunker cities deep underground to protect us. Transferred all the survivors there in droves. But that kind of speed meant that there was no time for any administration. Countries were dissected and mixed. Families, broken apart. Underground there was no family. We all belonged to small communities, called Patches.
A vast network of tunnels, initially intended to jumpstart supply chains, connected all the Patches together. You could theoretically walk, and more importantly, transfer goods to anywhere – assuming you had the legs for it. The world is massive, if you dig deep enough.
Underground, ventilation was mechanical. You could feel it in every one of the less than satisfying breaths you took. Then there was the handicap on communication. The stench of earth and sweat perfuming around in the confined space.
For some, quite understandably, this life was no dice. It wasn’t uncommon to find your bunkmate swaying from the ceiling in the morning when you woke up. Then the body was your problem. Your clean up duty. But the ones that chose to stay needed to survive – and with food supplies shortening, people weren’t that far away from starting to take bites out of each other. Governments knew that. So, they came up with a solution.
Pollen. A golden mineral found deep in the slabs of the Earth. You get enough Pollen, and you can power up the printers – they ran on the crystalline carbonite you could only extract when you heated the Pollen north of 300 degrees. You power up the printers, and you can print your next meal. Simple. Efficient.
They pinpointed areas chock-full of the stuff and set everybody loose to mine it. But there were quotas. You could only take 1 gram of Pollen home every day. Anything else you mined was your contribution. Your tax for the lights and air you enjoyed 24/7. For the privilege of being kept alive.
Even with Pollen keeping our legs from buckling, society seemed to be on its knees. More people were getting sick. Patches were committing mass suicides every day. It was only a matter of time before sanity itself disappeared into the Earth’s core.
But that all changed when a neuroscientist called Sophia Marlow created a device called ‘Link’. It’s a brain-computer interface used to augment the mind. All you do is drill a small hole into the front of the skull, and slot in this tiny little chip. The electrodes extend out of the chip into around 10 millimetres of the brain’s surface and voila, you’ve meshed.
The first iteration could dilute neurological ailments. Helped people avoid strokes and the like. Next thing we knew, it was curing blindness by stimulating the visual cortex. Restoring motor neuron function in people with ALS. Within 3 years, you could speak to others telepathically – and within 5, you could regenerate the damaged cells in your body to slow down aging. All this, through Link.
With that little device, Dr Marlow gave the world a fighting chance, and we worshipped her for it. Elected her as the leader of the entire Patch network. The ‘Mother’.
But despite Link’s upheaval, people couldn’t take much more of the mines. They were going to crack eventually, and through that crack would slip away our only source of food. Dr Marlow expected it.
“I only ask, that we all make sacrifices for the greater good,” her reassuring voice would beam into your Link.
She understood human nature. Knew that the sting of working the mines could only be balmed with something honey sweet. So, she had the electrodes on her newest Link chip connect directly to the pleasure centres of the brain. The more Pollen you racked up at the night count outside the Matriarch’s office, the better the rewards sent by the Link Control Tower directly into your head. Visual stimulations. Dopamine. Serotonin. A mind-bending high, every single night. Orgasms you could never imagine, pumping into your brain and body like a 50-megaton blast of rapture. We accepted. Of course we did. By 2117, Link became mandatory for every single human alive. And soon after that, Dr Marlow unearthed her most important discovery.
She had figured out a way to manipulate the crystalline carbonite from the Pollen. Extract the elements and fuse them in a way that could destroy the dark cloud hanging above the surface. She hatched a plan to load the cocktail into a warhead and shoot it up into the heart of the sky. A nuke that would clear the atmosphere. She said that it would free us.
“The future is bright, my children. I promise, as God as my witness, I will get you home.”
Dr Marlow needed 100 tons of the mineral to even stand a chance. She increased the Pollen tariffs and put up rationing policies almost instantly. Now, you were only allowed to hang on to a quarter gram of the gold stuff each time – the rest, and there was a lot of it, had to go to the Mother. That meant gruelling 15-hour mining days and little food in return. It was even rougher than it sounds. Sooner or later, starving miners started shoving little gold rocks up their asses and sneaking them home.
If the Mother found out you were withholding Pollen, she’d punish you. Lock you out of the night’s pleasantries for weeks at a time – and believe me, people would go nuts real quick. Bedsheet necklaces from the roof of the tunnels. Sometimes it felt like the merciful thing would be to nuke us all instead.
The Link servers meant that you were completely cut off from other Patches – though your Patch was fair game. You always knew who was at the mines and how much they were mining. You could coordinate. Act as one living organism. The Mother always said that a Patch is at its strongest when it works together. And if all Patches worked together, then maybe we would stand a chance.
Patch C-41, my Patch, worked the Lower Eastern Tunnels of Hive 3. My father, well, my underground father, was a workhorse. He’d wake as soon as the first bulb signalled daylight. “Quick, get dressed!” He’d yell like a sergeant. Within 10 minutes, we’d all be out of the Cart.
My father hauled the most Pollen in the Patch. Like a dog looking for a bone. Tap, with the pickaxe. Tip, with the shovel. His 50-year-old hands moving at a speed of hands half their age. Then, at night, he’d disappear into fantasy. Writhe in euphoric dreams. Before bed, a prayer to the Mother, and finally, out cold until the next day. We act like we’re these complex beings but all we really are is code. Crack the code, and you can make a monkey out of anyone.
“Dad,” I said to him when the lights were off. “Do you think we’ll ever get out of here?”
By then, he was fast asleep.
Days bled into one another like they were just an endless minute. For me, the nights were also getting stale. I guess even euphoria can become pedestrian if you get enough of it. Overconsumption is the devil, they taught us. Anything extra goes to the Mother. Anything that doesn’t, weighs us down.
Every morning, I’d wake in the damp, earthy soil of the tunnels, get my helmet and my digging gear, and drag my withered meat sack to the mines. I’d feel my chest get heavier with every chip or smack onto the rocks. All the while, Dr Marlow’s soothing voice would beam directly into the Link.
“…With current projections, we are still a long way away from reaching our goal. 15 years, to be precise. For me, that is 15 years too many! That is why, my children… I must ask more of you.”
We dug 100 miles deep into the Lower Eastern Tunnels. My father, with the output of a golden retriever, leading the charge. Focused only on tearing as much Pollen out of that fucking ground as humanly possible. At night, he was nowhere to be seen. And with me drifting further away into my limp orgasms and curious thoughts, we became distant.
Then one day, in 2123, I banged on a stubborn piece of rock that didn’t want to crack. There was some type of way that the metal ricochet off its surface. It made me feel like there was something inside. After hours of impact, you could finally start to see some dark tinted Pollen creeping through the middle.
“What… What is this?” I whispered.
I made sure that no one was watching. Shoved it deep into my asshole and walked around like a drunk penguin for the rest of the day. My heart beating into my lungs, and all the while I expected my rectum to swallow the Pollen and turn my insides a dull shade of gold. At home, I birthed it out and ran it through the scanner. It was 10,000 times purer than a normal Pollen stone. That’s 10,000 times stronger, in crystalline carbonite terms. 10,000 times more valuable in orgasms.
My father examined the stone under a magnifying glass and gulped. “This… This is it…”
“It is!” I exclaimed. “Now, we can print more food!”
C-41 had been feeling the brunt of the rationing. My brothers and sisters were becoming thin. Dying, day by day. Powering the printers was the only thing I could think to suggest.
“Yes,” said the brother. “Yes!” Cried the sister.
My father didn’t speak. Not a word, not a whisper. He clutched the stone tight in his hands. His eyes brooding. We all knew what the Mother would do if she caught us…
“Dad,” I said, glancing at my brothers and sisters whose skin had vacuum-sealed their bones. “They’ll never know…”
He gritted his teeth.
“If we keep that stone,” I continued, shaking on each muttered syllable. “We’ll never go hungry again.”
My father shook his head, squeezing the Pollen for dear life. “It has to go to the Mother.”
“Please understand,” I told him. “If we don’t get more food, we’ll die here in anyway.”
“It’ll slow us down, son…”
Suddenly, I felt a blistering rush of blood to the head. “You’re in the mines 15 hours a day!” I screamed “You get your Pollen, you get your crumbs, you get your paradise and you go to bed. What a life,” I threw my hands into the air. “Bowing and scraping and doing whatever you’re told. For what, huh? You think she gives a tunnel rat’s ass about you? About C-41, or whatever the hell this abomination is?” Steam shot through my ears. “But I guess that’s all in a day’s work for you, isn’t it? Just another fucking worker bee.”
He was silent. No one in the Patch had ever uttered words like that. No one.
“Forget it,” I said. “I’ll do it myself…” My father was unfased as I approached. “Just hand it over,” I told him, holding out my hand and grinding my molars. “Give me the stone, right now.”
Suddenly, his eyes went feral. He swung at me, clipping my chin and flooring me to the dirt. Next thing I knew, he was standing above me and stomping at my ribs. Punishing my skull with blows. The rest were too shocked to react. Before long, I started to think that it was going to be the end. Death by family.
He beat me to a pulp. Left me bloodied and broken. Trampled on like a pile of dog shit.
“You…” I breathed out heavily, my jaw locked out of place. “You…”
My old man looked down at me with that same wet blanket expression that I endured day in and day out in those tunnels. The one that said ‘get up, son – it’s time to dig.’ The one that asked, ‘do you want to say the prayer before dinner?’ My old man, he looked at me with that god damn irrational rationality, and he said, “I will never let you jeopardise this Patch again.”
My dad returned the Pollen to the Matriarch’s office. As a reward, they plugged him with a dose so high that it bamboozled his mind. Shot him a couple miles beyond heaven and then some, I imagine. Because from that day on, he spoke to no one, and slept at the mines. Wanted nothing else but to dig. He called it his awakening – though I just thought it was another way of saying ‘orgasm lobotomy’.
In the next 10 years, the rations got smaller and the digging more intense. It became all anyone ever wanted to do. Dig until your fingers bleed. Dig until you can’t stand on your own two knees, and then, from the ground, dig some more. I refused to abide. I’d dig just enough to meet the tariffs and leave it at that. Ended up living in the Cart alone while the rest stayed at the mines.
There was no need for enforcers. People did well to police themselves. And the more they dug, the less they’d listen to reason. In a world full of liars, I guess it’s the honest ones you can’t trust. The more they dug, the less recognisable they became.
One morning, Dr Marlow delivered a comms announcement, reporting that there were issues with the machine. Apparently, the pressure of the crystalline carbonate created dents around the edges that would cause the gold stuff to escape. It added another 10 years to the project. She made up for it by increasing the potency of the waves at night. They all praised her. Cried out her name in the tunnels.
I spat a wad of phlegm by the side of my feet and continued to pound away at the rocks.
It had been brewing in me for a while. Hate for the Mother. Where everyone else saw a saviour guiding them to freedom, I saw something else. Something ugly. My father died at the mines in 2132. We buried his body under a mound of piss-ridden mud and went back to digging the very same day. It was in that moment, when the sauced up dirt finally covered his face, that I knew I had to find a way out.
Over the next few months, my eyes became curious. They’d drift off the ground I was beating and wander over to the passageways beyond our station. They connected all the Lower Eastern Tunnels back when they were used as import routes. Now, those passageways were run down and abandoned. A web of roads that led to nowhere.
Rumour had it that if you walked far enough, you could find another Patch. I figured that maybe there were still people who hadn’t lost their minds yet. Who didn’t bend down to the Mother. But the tunnels were too long. Even with a portable printer, there was no way you could steal enough Pollen to power through the whole distance.
Or, I thought to myself as I held the cold handle of the shovel, maybe there is.
So, I dug. I dug more than my brothers or sisters. More than my father. For 4 years, I dug and I dug, and I ate, and I got the orgasms, and I slept at the mines. I wore my fingers down to stubs and tore the skin clean off my palms. Until finally, on a cold afternoon in the Lower Eastern Tunnels, I heard the sounds of a hollow rock sing against my pickaxe.
My heart went limp. My breath, shallow. I looked around and then I hit it again. A dull edge, jagged, protruded from the exposed side at the top. Black Pollen.
I picked it up in my hands and squeezed as if my palm was trying to digest it. My mind soared with the possibilities. “Y… Yes,” I whispered, my hand twitching. I spat onto the bluntest edge like a firehose and drove it far up my ass. There, it took on the role of interior decorator. Rearranging my insides with little cuts and tears. I braved every last one of them.
At night, I took my portable printer and I ran into one of the openings. It was dark and wet. You could feel the worms slithering on the back of your neck whenever you leaned against the edge. My new reality.
I printed once a day. Barely comprehensive, but enough to stay alive. The road was long, and I had to stretch the Pollen out as much as I could. Then, somewhere around the second night, they logged me as missing. I could tell because they turned off my nightly hits. They reckoned that if you were to run, you wouldn’t get far without them. Of course, I thought that I could prove them wrong.
But the deeper I went, the more my blood felt like breaking out of the walls of my skin. I began to shiver uncontrollably. To sweat profusely. Eventually, I couldn’t even sleep. All the insomnia caused delusions. And when the Link tried to intervene, it skewed my cognition instead.
I wandered for months, maybe even years, lost somewhere in those tunnels. Made friends with the moles and the rats that tried to claw my eyes out when I’d fall asleep. The wet ground ensured that my feet had lost circulation and nerve function. Made walking nothing short of hell. Again, I tried to correct it with the Link, but it gave me nothing.
When the road was blocked, I crawled through miles of sewage pipes and even spent a few nights nestled in the sludge of shit and piss. I had nothing left to puke but my organs.
On odd occasions, I’d catch my reflection in the pools of murky water. A devolving Neanderthal with hair everywhere. Far more pointy bits and pieces sticking out of me than usual. Paper-thin skin, shrink-wrapped over bone. A crushed shell of whatever the tunnels had left of me.
“What was that thing he used to say?” I whispered one night among the scurrying vermin. “That thing…” My fingers shivered. My mind, insane.
The animals squeaked. Their feet speeding along the wet ground.
“No,” I yelled at them. “You already said that! What was the other thing he used to say? Huh?” They didn’t know. “Come on,” I ordered. “Remember!”
They nibbled at my toes, which had been chewed down like a piece of plywood. The voices in my head played hymns of gibberish. My father appeared and disappeared in front of me like a ghost. He was better company than the rodents.
I picked up the printer to get their attention; manically banging it against the edges of the tunnel. “What was it?” I echoed again. “It was important!” But each pummelling blow broke the printer further away from repair. “What was it?” I repeated as it cracked and smashed on the walls, my thoughts only in one place. “Come on!” I yelled, wrecking the machine so that it could never print again. Finally, I threw it into the distance and screamed at the black nothingness ahead. “WHAT WAS IT?”
The Link in my mind was defective. That’s how I ended up there, anyway. No one with a working Link leaves their Patch. They don’t need to. But even though I was a deserter, my brain remained hungry for that sweet honey wave of the night. I wanted it to wash over me. To bathe me in its bliss. I was Moses lost in the underground desert, desperately searching for the land of milk and honey.
I collapsed, and the illusions danced above my body. They had to keep busy, or even they would lose it. Every heartbeat felt slow and laborious.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness, I heard a sound coming from above. Then, this hot gust of air blowing into my face. My eyes, barely able to see, suddenly noticed something opening above me. A blinding ray of light started spreading into my periphery. I figured I was dead.
But then the ray got bigger, and bigger. Then, someone lowered down from the roof of the tunnel. I could swear it. Like the shadowy outline of an angel, scooping his hands under my skeleton body and pulling me up. Pulling me towards the light.
Is it over? I thought, finally ready for the gift of death.
And when I got through, the light burned my retinas. I glued the top eyelid to the bottom for what felt like hours. But when my eyes finally adjusted, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
The surface. It was real. It was there and I was there and it was all so fucking real. I made it.
“H-h-h-how?” I asked, barely able to string the letters together.
“Rest,” said the angel. “When you wake, I will tell you everything.”
The rugged man who saved me went by the name of Goran. “It means mountain,” he said in a strange accent from the side of the bed. He had hooked me up to IV drips and bandaged my limbs to high heaven. Through the drip, there were all kinds of nutrients and goodies getting fed right into my body. Nursing me back.
I took a big inhale through the nose. Clean air. Real air. God, I remembered that feeling. Fulfillment. I hadn’t felt it for almost my entire life. My eyes swelled up with tears. “H… How?” I asked.
You see, Sophia Marlow was right. You could harness the crystalline carbonite to clear the atmosphere. But to keep the air clean, you needed a constant stream of the stuff rather than a lump sum – and no war head could ever get that done. Instead, you would shoot it into the sky perpetually. That’s how you would make the surface liveable. And of course, there was no other way to get crystalline carbonite than through Pollen. Pollen, deep underground. Cities. Patches. Whatever the fuck you want to call them. They existed, to make the surface exist.
Because somebody had to do it. Some poor slave who nobody paid a second thought to. Some worker bee. Though I guess keeping us all motivated was its own challenge. We didn’t mine for food, we mined for hope – and eventually, even that wasn’t enough. So, they engineered a way for us to mine for something better. Something that would never get old. Gratification. All the correct switches flipped at the same time. The perfect dose of paradise to make you forget that you were actually in hell. That’s how you can dig for 40 fucking years and not say a word to nobody about stopping. That’s what ate my old man. Dance monkey, dance!
My mouth hung open. It felt like someone had just taken a sledgehammer to my already defective brain. The massive TV on the wall displayed a rally. There was Dr Marlow, out in the open, telling these men and women in their chrome outfits that with her leadership, they could make sure that the atmosphere would remain purged of the sins of our selfish past. She promised, as Sophia Marlow tended to do, that they would never go back to the tunnels again. I couldn’t believe it. Our entire lives, manipulated by that bitch and her machine. My stomach tied itself into the figure-eight knots you used to learn at Bear Cub scouts. Though now, it was preparing to serve digested IV drip instead of cookies – scouts honour. What was left of my top teeth ground onto the bottom ones. My brain boiled in the rage of its own juice.
“They used us,” I whispered, clenching my claws into what used to resemble a fist. “They… They…”
“Shh,” said Goran. “You’ve had a difficult journey, my friend. When you wake again, I promise, you will feel more like yourself.”
I dreamt about my father. He stood at the helm of Patch C-41 with a pickaxe in his hands. He looked righteous. An incorruptible glow around his face. He eyed the Pollen creeping out of the rocks, and then he looked right at me with a smile. “Freedom,” he said.
The words jolted me awake. “HAS A PRICE,” I yelled out as I opened my eyes, coughing and wailing. Freedom has a price. That was it. That’s what I was trying to remember in those god damn tunnels.
Goran sat at my side, again. I smiled, and laughed. “That was fucking it,” I told him.
“What was it?”
I tilted my head back and sighed at the irony. “He knew we’d never get out,” I burst into laughter. “He didn’t dig for food. He didn’t dig to get to the surface either.” My smile extended from ear to ear. My chest pumped up and down with funny springs.
“Why did he dig?”
“Just…” I laughed again, only this time a little more subdued. Like I was finally grasping where I was and what was happening. “It… It doesn’t matter.”
Goran stood up and fiddled around with some sort of remote. “Your Link device was broken,” he told me.
“… I figured.”
Suddenly, he pointed the remote at my face. “Hey, what are you-”
And then, a warm golden blanket covered my mind. This familiar feeling, like slipping into a hot bath. The water cradling your body. Your brain. Dopamine grenade. Serotonin blast. All tying together in this beautiful golden bow. This perfect little thing. My perfect little thing. Finally, it twinkled in my skull again.
But then he clicked on the remote and it was gone. The beautiful colour viciously drained out of my world once more.
“NO!” I yelled. “NO… NO, PLEASE,” I screamed. “PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE BRING IT BACK!” I begged him. “DON’T MAKE IT STOP!”
“You will get your time,” he told me, picking up a pair of black goggles and handing them over.
I was confused, breathing in and out like a maniac. “I… I don’t understand.”
Goran pointed at the goggles. Told me to wear them. When I did, I could see right into the hell of the Lower Eastern Tunnels. I could hear them, and smell them and feel them. My legs trembled. “W-what… What is this?” I asked.
This anthropoid pickaxe simulated every movement of my limbs. Every turn of my head. It’s like I was there. Like I had never left.
Goran’s voice spoke to me from the outside world “15 grams,” he said.
“What?” I asked in a panic.
“15 grams, for 15 minutes…”
And then, he walked out, shutting the door gently as I sat there in the quiet room and stood in the mines at the same time. My skin felt irritable. Cold. The seconds of heaven had been yanked straight from my soul, and now, it was bare, again. It needed respite. Freedom.
I held the pickaxe in my hand. Played around with the sharp metallic edge and looked at the rocks scattered in front of me. They were goldmines of Pollen. If I can find another black stone, I thought, who knows how much time I could buy?
Then I raised my pickaxe high up into the air, divine in my mission, and I smashed it against the rocks. Like my father, I dug for freedom. And do you know what the biggest buzzkill about freedom is? It’s never free.
George Nicolaides grew up in a small Mediterranean island called Cyprus. He has been writing stories since he first learned how to write words, spending his formative years scaring his English teachers with strange narratives that strayed away from typical happy endings. After devoting a year to travelling the world and writing, George now works as a lawyer in London. Though he moonlights as a writer currently in the throes of his debut novel. Publishers, do your worst. He also runs his own writing channel on social media called Mindoglyphics, and is the Editor in Chief of a feature page called Untwineme.usa.
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