It only takes two minutes to reach the surface of the ocean from Oceanus, if you start timing from the moment the pod leaves the station. The surface, if traveled straight up from Oceanus, is roughly 290 miles off the coast of what was known as the state of Georgia in the United States of America. Oceanus is located along what was known as the Blake Ridge. Surface Explorers generally travel up the Blake Escarpment, the sloped area in the ocean that leads to the Blake Plateau. It's the most direct route to the surface from Oceanus and is used as a guide for the pods. They stay along the plateau; being any closer to the shore could have disastrous effects (why?). We have sensors in place that tell us of the current weather advisories on the surface, especially close to land, so that we can plan our trips accordingly. Even on the best of days, though, being on the surface still poses a great risk.
I had only been to the surface once before now. It was quite a few months back. There was just enough of a break in the weather to allow us to travel to the surface. It didn't last long, though, and we were forced to return as quickly as we arrived. Today, the weather is favorable, and I hope it remains that way for a while so we can continue our exploration.
I've been a surface explorer for just over a year, now. As a child, I was fascinated with what could be on the surface. I spent much of my time as a student ignoring the lectures and the notes scribbled across my eyes and daydreaming about a place that was once known as North America. I had only heard stories; of the creatures that lived there, of the food they ate, their hobbies and careers and their technologies. I laughed at what they thought was intuitive. Cellular mobile devices where they could only hear the person they were talking to? And that was only if coverage was ideal.
There had been a lot of changes over the last thousand years. The Earth declined gradually. First, the polar caps melted and the sea levels rose. Not a lot, but enough to flood the coast. It happened slowly; slow enough for people to realize what was happening. Their beachfront properties became oceanfront. One by one, they made their move. Homes and businesses were abandoned and destroyed. Civilizations moved further and further inland and watched as the sea level rose and drowned their abandoned cities.
It was hardly a tragedy compared to the changes that would follow. Because the polar ice caps were gone, there was nothing to reflect the sunlight back into space, which regulated the Earth's temperature. The dark oceans absorbed the light and, as a result, temperatures rose dramatically. In turn, this caused the jet streams to move further north, which resulted in an increase in precipitation over the arctic, more frequent droughts over the United States, stronger monsoons, and stronger hurricanes. Cold, snowy winters became nonexistent in the northern hemisphere. The melting ice caps also brought additional fresh water into the ocean, another factor in the changing climate. Crops began to fail along with animal life. The human population faced possible extinction.
Of course, while these changes took over the Earth, there were people who were working to save human life. Preventing the Earth's decline was not an option at that point. It was too late to reverse the damage. All they could do was learn to adapt to their changing world.
One thousand years later, and we're now a civilization that lives underwater.
That's what children are taught in school. That's what I was taught when I was young. That's what my son is being taught at this very moment; assuming he's not daydreaming during his lecture like I had done.
I check the CompCall on my wrist. Sixteen past ten. According to the surface monitor in the pod, the surface is a balmy two hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit. There is a slight breeze. My surface suit is temperature controlled, though; I won't be breaking a sweat today.
“Goooood morning, ladies and gentlemen,” a voice says from around the corner. Lance's head pops from around the corner into the control room.
“Oh, it's just you,” he says, taking a seat beside me.
“Laura and Stan are sealing the doors,” I say to him, informing him of the whereabouts of the rest of our team.
“Ah.” He registers his fingerprint on the control panel just as Laura and Stan enter.
“Alright, let's do this,” Laura says enthusiastically.
“Let's hope for good weather,” Stan comments.
“No storms in the near future,” Lance confirms, checking over the pod's surface weather device. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” Lance mocks the old time air pilots he sees in the old movies. He does this on every trip. “Please put up your tray tables and keep your seats in their upright positions.”
“Lance, we don't have tray tables. This isn't an aircraft,” Laura complains, as she does every trip.
Lance taps in our coordinates and the pod comes to life. He peers out the window at the men on the pod docking station and gets the thumbs up.
“Heeeere we go!”
The pod glides forward and traces its way around Oceanus's domed walls. I watch as we pass citizens; they smile and wave, some even cheer, as we begin our trip. The pod picks up speed as we reach the Blake Escarpment and begins its ascent. I check my CompCall once more. Thirty seconds have passed. I watch out the window as the pod cruises past the unsuspecting sea life. The dark ocean begins to lighten and I can see streams of light rippling above. The pod slows as we near the surface before breaking through and coming to a quiet bob. Two minutes on the dot.
We gaze out of the pod for a moment, taking in the sights around us. Even those who have been to the surface countless times are still amazed by the sights. You never know what to expect. It's hard to believe that people once lived in this atmosphere. I can never wrap my head around it.
“Surface conditions check out,” Laura says, examining the weather readings in the pod. “Looks like we might have a couple hours before the next storm. It's a good one today, boys.”
We prepare our suits, double and triple checking each other before making our way to the exit chamber. The doors seal behind us and the pod begins its assessment. When it determines that we are readily equipped for our task, the bay doors open, and we are immediately greeted by the bright sun. I have to remind myself not to stare at it, but it's such an incredible sight; it doesn't compare to the artificial sunlight in Oceanus.
We step into the surface world and take in our surroundings once more. The sky is a brilliant blue, but we can see the approaching black storm clouds in the distance. We get right to work, climbing to the top of the pod where our equipment waits. I see one of our surface weather rods near by, bobbing in the water casually. The little green light flashes on a precise beat, ensuring us that it is working properly and that the weather is in our favor.
Other than the scuffling of our shoes on the pod and the whirr of the equipment, it is eerily quiet. I had been told that, a thousand years ago, you could go to the beaches and play in the waves of the ocean. You could hear the sound of birds, called sea gulls, and children often picked up shells and crabs. I find myself wondering if my son wishes he could experience these things. I examine the sky and imagine flocks of seagulls diving into the ocean in search of fish as I had seen in the old video clips during my student years.
We don't know much about animal life except for what we see in these old clips. We don't even know if anything exists on the land. I consider taking my son to see the farms outside of the city. Those farms are all we have left of cows, pigs, and chickens, and even those are dwindling. Their meat is rare and expensive, and it's not often that we get to eat that. Even the fruits and vegetables that are grown at the farms aren't doing well. Granted, our diet is mostly seafood, and we would not be at a huge loss if something were to happen, but it's all we have left of a past life on land. I cling to the fact that there is something that connects me to this old world; an old world we may never see again. I don't know why I am so attached to this world. Our underwater cities have been all I've known; all my father knew, and his father, and his father before. This is our home. But the ghosts of these lands haunts me nonetheless.
“Atmosphere is unchanged,” Laura says as she reviews the data on our equipment.
“Shall we travel inland?” Stan suggests.
Lance nods. “We have some time. There's nothing for us to do here.” We head back inside the pod so we can travel quickly. The pod glides forward in the water, picking up some speed. I wish I could feel the air on my face.
The pod is able to travel at two hundred knots when we're inside. At this rate, we should reach what was the coast of Georgia in about an hour and a half. That doesn't give us much time on land if the storm is on track. Lance is aware of this.
“We need to be under no later than 12:18,” he says, double checking the weather data. “Let's get in, get what we can, and get out.”
The last time we made the trip to the surface, my first time, we didn't make it to the land. I'm anxious to see what land is like.
“What's it like?” I ask.
“It's a wasteland,” Laura says to me. “The storms have been getting more powerful, destroying the land. Don't get your hopes up.”
“The last time we made it to the surface,” Stan adds. “the last storm had uncovered a lot of fossils.”
“We need to bring more samples back to the lab, too,” Lance reminds us. “Anything we can to continue the atmospheric tests.”
I watch the ocean lick at the pod as it speeds through the water. Behind us, the dark clouds get closer, following us. I hope they stay away long enough to give us time to collect the data we need. I don't want the trip to be for nothing, and I'm anxious to see the land. Lance goes over some of the previous data with us as we wait for our trip to come to it's end. When there's nothing left to go over, we chat amongst ourselves casually.
“How's Camden doing in school?” Laura asks me.
“He seems to enjoy it,” I reply.
“Just as fascinated with the surface as his dad?”
I smile. “I think so.”
“We may have a future surfacer on our hands.”
“Beats being a farmer,” Stan says.
“Please don't let that kid go into farming,” Lance says.
“Not even over my dead body,” I say. He has too much potential to go into such a low career.
“Wouldn't be so bad if he worked in the labs,” Laura points out. I forgot she comes from a family of farmers.
Lance nods his head. “True.”
“There may not even be any farming left at that point,” Stan points out.
We're all quiet as we consider this possibility and the fate of our underwater future.
I see land growing in the distance as the shore approaches. I see the white caps as they crash onto the dirty beach. The pod reaches the land and pulls up onto shore, allowing us to get out and examine the world around us.
The ground is squishy beneath my feet. Debris from the last storm lays scattered in every direction. The ground is flat. I find it hard to believe anyone ever lived here. It is truly a vast wasteland. Not a tree or rock in sight. Just flat, sandy brown colored dirt. The breeze picks up from the oncoming storm and blows dirt and sand all around us.
“Let's double check our suits,” Lance suggests. The last thing we need is our suits failing in a sand storm. We check the security of our suits on one another before beginning our task at hand. Lance and Laura setup the equipment and proceed to collect the data we need. Stan and I check the area, careful not to stray too far from our companions.
“Doesn't look like there's much today,” he comments. I am slightly disappointed, wishing there was more to see. I try to envision what this place could have looked like a thousand years ago. I picture the seagulls flying around and children playing in the dirt.
Something reflects the sun's rays and catches my eye. I bend down and dust the sand away with my gloved hand, revealing a small, red object. It looks to be a tiny version of what was known as an automobile. I stand and lift the item up, examining it closely. I blow on it, removing the extra sand that is caught in it, and the little wheels spin. Stan comes to my side and examines it with me.
“A little red car,” he says.
“It's so small.”
“A child's toy,” he explains. “Bring it home to Camden.”
“We won’t need it at the lab?” I ask.
Stan shakes his head. “We come across trinkets like this all the time. They’re nothing but washed up mementos of the people that once thrived here.”
I smile and pocket the little car. “What are we looking for, then?” I ask.
Stan crouches down, balancing himself on the balls of his feet, and I do the same. I watch as he brushes away the sand near where I found the little toy, revealing another small, toy car. This one is yellow and sleeker looking than the red car, which appears to be a very average car. This yellow one, however, seemed aerodynamic in shape.
“A sport car,” Stan explains to me as he puts the toy in my hand.
Stan straightens as I admire the two cars. How lucky that they were both nearby. Stan brings a device from where we unloaded the pod. A Surface Detector that picks up traces of items in the area. The device whirrs to life, its lights blinking as it begins its readings.
“We’re looking for things that will help us test the living conditions out here. Trinkets and toys like those cars don’t give us many answers, except that some are surprisingly well built. Some of these things have traveled far, through winds and rains and who knows what else. We need any sign of life we can find. Plants, animals, fossils, bones…” He trails off as he listens to the device react as it traces the land around us.
“Naturally, we don’t find plants or animals, but the fossils and bones we’ve found have proved their worth. Over the years, the elements found in these things have changed slightly. At this time, we don’t quite know what it means. We take the data collected from the the surface and compare it to the things we find. The air has changed, just as the elements in the fossils and bones.”
“A good change?” I ask, my curiosity sparked more than any classroom lecture.
Stan shrugs. “I think so, but the results aren’t conclusive just yet. I certainly wouldn’t come up here without our suits. But, there’s a possibility that the air is changing. Who knows - we might be able to come up here without helmets and air tanks some day.”
I follow Stan as we move across the beach with the Surface Detector. My foot unburies a hard object as we walk and it bounces forward. I bend down to examine it. This time, it’s a little black and white car with the words “POLICE” marked on the side. I dust the sand off the toy as I straighten to show Stan. He peers at it curiously, rubbing the stubble on his chin.
“Three toys in one day,” he says. “That’s rare. We never find this much in one area.”
“Maybe they haven’t traveled far,” I suggest. “Have you ever gone further inland?”
Stan shakes his head. “We’ve never had an opportunity. I can’t remember the last time we’ve even been this long on the beach.” His gaze shifts towards the approaching black clouds in the sky as if to confirm his point. An ominous rumble of thunder echoes in warning. We turn to Lance and Laura as the devices began to beep in warning, its lights flashing erratically. Laura meets our gaze, her face hard.
“Let’s wrap it up,” she shouts to us.
Stan nods and I follow him to the pod. We work quickly to pack the equipment, hurrying to load it back into the pod. We scan the surface one last time, making sure we have everything, and pile into the vehicle. It purrs to life and Lance works busily at the controls. The pod obeys, bringing us away from the beach and speeding across the choppy surface. The thunder outside rolls louder and the pod rocks against the strong wind.
I lean my head against the windows, filled with excitement and fear, as I watch the storm darken the sky above us. Powerful, bright strikes of lightning split the darkness as the pod speeds along. At the control panel, Lance encourages the pod faster, and I can feel the increase in speed. I lean back in my seat as we accelerate and catch a glance from Stan. He smiles assuringly to me. I fumble with the three cars in my hand, turning them over and admiring their faded details.
“What if they came from somewhere nearby?” I ask, mostly to myself, as I spin the wheels of the little cars.
I meet Stans gaze. “Could there be houses around?”
Stan shrugs. “It’s hard to say. We’ve never been able to really study the storms inland, but there’s reason to believe that they could be much stronger. We have no idea how these storms could impact any sign of human life, like buildings. I doubt any homes remain standing.”
“We need to get inland,” I state simply.
Stan nods his agreement. “The storms have weakened over the years and have become less frequent. We’ve had a lot of time on the beach today. We may have a chance to go further inland next time.”
Laura’s body turns to us from the seat in front of me and smiles. “I’ve been keeping track of the patterns of the weather and the atmosphere. There have been dramatic drops lately. The storms less powerful, less frequent - just as Stan said. I bet we’ll be finding ourselves making more and more trips over the next few months.” She smiles. “Hell, we could get our first beacon out there in the wasteland. That will give us a greater chance at studying the surface, not just off the coast, but inland as well. We’re making great strides here.”
I can feel my pulse quicken in excitement. The Surface Explorers of my childhood could only dream of seeing the sight of land. Now, we may be able to travel further inland than ever before. Perhaps life on Earth isn’t as far away as we think.
“We still have to be cautious,” Stan reminds us. “Getting caught in one of those storms will be costly. Deadly. The next chance we get, we’ll get a beacon out there so we can study the atmosphere inland. When it’s safe, we’ll be able to travel further. Hopefully with more time on our side.”
The pod rocks violently, jerking us in our seats as the storms continues to rage above us. I watch Lance as he bends over the controls. Even though his back is to me, I can practically see the hard, concentrating expression on his face. I’ve only seen it a few times before when I worked in the control room at the pod station, monitoring the explorers as they made their trips. Lance had battled many storms in that pod, and I am confident that he would bring us through this one.
Lance has a lot more experience than I, and he favored the mechanics of the pod. He prides himself in this particular pod, always choosing it over the others. “I helped build this thing in school,” he had said to me once. “When I joined the team, this was the pod we used. I’ve made every improvement necessary to keep it in good, running order.” Lucky, he had called it. He patted it’s outer shell and smiled as he recalled their adventures together.
Before I joined the team, I remained in the control room back at the pod station where we kept in thorough contact with the explorers. The holographic screens before us showed us every detail of the pod, the suits, and the equipment. I could see what the weather was like on the surface, thanks to the placed weather rods and beacons that bobbed on the surface. We monitored every movement and action, taking readings on the equipment as our explorers made their ascents. We were with them, every step of the way, and I longed for the day I could join them.
The pod continues to rock and battle against the storm until finally it plunges downward, bringing us to safety below the surface of the ocean. I check my CompCall; 12:18. I watch the water darkened as we make our descent and the storm above us disappeared.
Today was an exciting day. I was a part of history. Next time, I’m confident we’ll make it inland, for the first time since our existence below the ocean.
Two minutes. That’s all it took for us to reach Oceanus once more, concluding our trip to the surface. Lance guided the pod easily to the docking station where we were then brought into the safety of Oceanus’s strong, pressurized walls. When the engine turned off, he stood and stretched before turning to us.
“Thank you for flying with Lance Express,” he sings to us with a bow. “I hope you all enjoyed your trip. Please come again!” He shoots us his bright smile and winks at me. I smile as Laura sighs, the first out of the pod. We follow behind her, anxious to get back to the lab and view the results of our trip. Men and women smile, welcoming us back as we make our way through the station and into the lab.
“Another successful trip. Good piloting, Lance.” A tall, suited man greets us as we approach the lab. He shakes Lance’s hand and steps aside as we enter.
“How was your trip, Jordan?” he asks me as he walks ahead of us. His strides are long and he takes no time getting to the machines before we do, eager to study our results.
“He couldn’t have picked a better time, Kent,” Laura says, the next to reach the equipment in the lab. She leans forward and examines the data that flashes before her. Her head nods once and she hurries across the room, sliding into the rolling chair as it brings her behind another holographic screen. Her fingers fly through the air as she directs the screen to the data she wants to view.
Stan, Lance, and I join Kent at his side. We, too, peer at the data that displays before us. Laura breathes excitedly as she studies the graphs where the data is plotted.
“As long as the weather holds, we can definitely get a beacon on land.” Her voice rises higher in excitement.
Kent straightens and turns to us. “Excellent. I want you guys up there the first chance we get. I suspect that could be very soon, so be ready at any moment.” Kent nods his head at us, dismissing himself and leaves us alone in the lab. I finger the three toy cars in my pocket, eager to show them to Camden.
Stan turns and meets my gaze with a small smile. “Good job today, kid. Your background doesn’t lie; you’ve got a promising career ahead of you as a Surface Explorer.”
Laura joins our side. She pulls her brown hair out of its ponytail and it falls onto her shoulders. “So do I,” she remarks with a smirk. “So don’t get in my way.”
I hold my hands up in defense. Laura and I are the youngest people to have ever joined the Surface Explorers. We grew up together in school. While Lance had his interest and experience in the mechanics of the pods, making him a valuable member of the team, Laura’s interests was in the data. She spent hours pouring over her equipment, pushing Lance to make sure it, too, was in top shape, and gathering every bit of data possible. She had always been good at that kind of thing in school.
Stan, on the other hand, being the leader of our little team, carried with him an incredible knowledge of the surface. The history buff of our team, and often times it seemed, the bravest. He shared in my excitement to learn about the surface, but he always had his wits about him, making decisions that would keep us safe. Lance and Stan had worked together for years before Laura and I had joined. Other Surface Explorers had come and gone over those years for reasons of their own. I think they were excited to have fresh, young bodies on their team, and I was eager to prove my worth to them.
“Head home for the night,” Stan says to us. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
I didn’t realize how tired I was until now. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time on the surface, we had been preparing over the last week when we saw an opportunity in our future. The weather would be recorded thoroughly once more in search for another chance for us to make the trip, and when that time came, we would be just as busy as before in preparation. I fumble with the toy cars in my pocket, anxious to bring them to Camden.
Camden greets me as soon as I get home. He knew I would be making the trip to the surface, and I knew his young, curious mind would be full of questions. I bend down as he hurries to me and pick him up in my arms. He’s obviously getting to be too big for this sign of affection, but I never hold back.
“What did you see?” he asks me eagerly. I catch a glimpse of movement at the corner of my eye as his mother stands from the kitchen table. I smile to greet her. Her smile is small and shy, despite the fact that we’ve been together for over seven years. She’s always been quiet and reserve, ever since I met her when she came to Oceanus eight years ago. I was twenty then, with just a year left of school. She was a mystery to me; a girl that came out of nowhere and never seemed to talk about her past. Even to this day, I hardly knew of the life she lived before meeting me.
We were never married, but it didn’t particularly bother either of us. When she told me she was pregnant a year later, I wasn’t quite ready to be a father, but my feelings for her were unchanged. When I look at my son now, I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Sometimes it seems he’s the glue that holds our strange family together. While we never have major disputes, the strain in our relationship is still there, and I could never quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it had to do with Sky’s secretive past, but I never pried.
I put Camden back on the floor and fish for the toys in my pocket. I pull them out and reveal them in my palm. His eyes widen and his hands reach for them, pausing for my approval. I nod to him and he takes the cars eagerly.
Sky approaches us now, her curiosity peaked as she peers at the three cars in her son’s small hands. Her gaze meets mine, but her expression seems worried.
“I found them on the beach,” I explain to her.
“Are they safe?”
I nod. “Completely.”
“What are they?” Camden asks, rolling the cars across the floor.
“They’re toy cars,” I say to him, my gaze still on Sky. She breaks and turns away, walking back into the kitchen. I watch her for a moment before getting to my knees at Camden’s side. “Little boys like you used to play with these on The Surface.”
His wide eyes meet mine. “Can I keep them?” he asks.
I nod. “Of course. I brought them back for you.”
“What else was up there?” He crosses his legs on the ground.
I shrug. “Not much today, but next time we might be able to go further.”
I feel Sky’s gaze on me and I focus on my son’s excited expression.
“Do you think there’s anyone there?” he asks quietly.
I shake my head. “We all live here now, where it’s safer.”
“Because the air is bad, right?”
“Yes. Are you learning that in school?”
This time, he nods. His blond locks bounce on his head. “Mrs. Bradley says it’s really, really hot and you can’t breathe and that there are really bad storms.”
“That’s why we wear suits. It keeps us safe.”
“Can I come see the suits?”
I hear Sky clear her throat. She’s never really approved of my career choice, and I know she doesn’t want Camden to follow in my footsteps.
“I don’t know,” I say to him, getting back to my feet. “There’s a lot of busy, working people over in the labs. I don’t want you to get in the way.”
Camden whines and kicks his feet out from their crossed position. I hold my hand to him and he takes it and I pull him up off the floor.
“Why don’t you wash up for dinner?”
Camden sulks around the corner as he heads into the bathroom to wash for dinner. When he is out of sight, I sit myself behind the table in the kitchen where Sky is readying our dinner. It smells of fish and vegetables, steamed just the way I like them.
“I wish you wouldn’t put ideas into his head,” she mumbles, her back to me.
“I didn’t say anything.”
She turns and places three plates on the table, catching my gaze for a moment. “You brought him those toys.”
“They’re just toys.”
She says nothing as she fills the plates with food. Camden has returned from the bathroom and sits himself at his usual place at the table. Sky pours him a glass of milk and brings me a glass of water with her own glass. We sit in silence at the table for a moment, each lost in our own thought. Camden digs eagerly into his dinner and Sky picks delicately at hers.
“How was school?” Sky finally speaks up. She hardly ever asks me about work.
Camden practically bursts with excitement when she asks. “We’re learning history,” he says to her with a spoonful of peas in his mouth.
“Not with food in your mouth,” I correct him.
He swallows before he continues. “We learned about how people lived on Earth before coming to Oceanus.”
I can practically hear Sky’s eyes roll in her head. I smile at my son.
“There were animals and their houses looked so different. Even their schools were different! Did you know they had to carry these big huge books around? And they had to use these things called pens and pencils to write notes. I got to use one! It hurt my hand.”
Sky practically ignores Camden.
“It never used to be bad up there,” Camden continues. “Dad, you should come tell us about what it’s like.”
I don’t have to look at Sky to know she’s staring daggers into me. “I don’t know, kid,” I say carefully. “I’ve got a lot on my plate with work.”
Camden returns to his plate, sullen.
“Maybe this weekend we can go to the farms and see the animals.” Camden has never seen the animals. They’re a rare sight to see, especially these days. The farms barely have enough room to continue breeding and their meat has become hard to come by. Despite their efforts, we cannot hold on to the life our ancestors once had on Earth. Soon, our diets will rely heavily on the seafood around us. Even the plants that once thrived are starting to take a turn for the worst. But Camden’s eyes light up at my suggested trip. He’s never seen the animals.