Freya Attenori is alone.
The damp air from Olive Lake fills the cavern and blows through her ebony hair. The red dirt beneath her feet stirs as she walks along the wall of a large room. The stalactites loom over her as water dances to the ground in a calming pattern. Her hand finds the row of mission vests. Freya takes one off the rack and feels the hard stone of the wall against her back as her arm becomes pinned under the weight. "I'll stick with my backpack, I guess." The veins in her head create what looks like abstract art as she strains to place the vest back where she found it.
The words etched into the stone over the exit of the Great Hall grab her. They are the words of Ernest Emerson, the late founder of Freya's community. She reads them aloud in the most sarcastically dignified voice she can muster, "Not everyone can be a leader, but the truth is most have no desire to lead." Collapsing onto a stone chair in the middle of the room her mind wanders.
I don't know what's so 'great' about this place. It's not even a hall! Why am I here? Freya grew up here. Like most people who grow up in a small community, she wants out. This is my home. My mom is here. My grandfather is here. Her eyes scan the room stopping at the circle where elders tell the same stories every week. Then landing on the entrance to the "planning room" where the adults plan the same missions every month. My prison is here. Her eyes begin to feel heavy from the weight of her own tears.
How can I let this be my future?
The thoughts swirling inside her head compel her legs to straighten and stride forward. The walk to the cavern entrance is over before she realizes she is moving. It is only the sunlight from the outside piercing the darkness that brings her legs to a sudden stop. The weight of her backpack doesn’t stop as suddenly and the ground meets her knees with an unforgiving force. "I can't even handle my backpack." The smooth cavern wall feels cool against her skin as she lifts herself up.
What am I doing? I can't leave Hermitage. This community is my life. Freya remembers watching her father as he prepared to explore the surface. 'For the people, Freya. We fight for the people.' Her father's words echo in her head.
The crayfish drawing she made when she was six years old calls to her from the natural spotlight. It is a terrible piece of art even for a six year old. But in this moment that picture represents so much more than the cave-dwelling water bug.
Life was so simple back then.
Freya’s chest rises and falls with a deep sigh as she longs for her childhood days. Ten years really does create a lot of change. It seems like a hundred. Why do I feel so...so...trapped? I never cared what was beyond the opening before. I was happy here. I wish I were still happy drawing on the wall and waiting for my dad to return from a mission. The sun-kissed stone feels warm beneath her hand as she traces the drawing.
Children aren't allowed on the surface. But I'm not a child anymore. My father is dead, and I am 16 years old. The world can not be as scary as my mom believes it to be.
I need out.
Son of a bitch! The sun is bright! She jumps back into the darkness and smiles at her own absentmindedness. My HueSats! The sun is not kind to underground eyes.
Crouching down beside the light, she flips her green backpack around to get her HueSats. The flap has a patch with an upright blue "A" and a red "R" staring back at her. That's funny. From here it looks like a normal patch. I guess it's all about perspective. We see the Republic as dangerous and wrong. I'm sure there are others who see it as safe and right.
Freya puts her hand on her childhood drawing once more, "Perspective. That's why I have to leave. This cannot be my only view of the world. My mother will understand." The words fill the air because she is hoping if she hears her own voice she will follow through with her intentions.
With her HueSats firmly over her eyes, she steps back into the sunlight. Ah! The effect is not instantaneous! The light over Olive Lake doesn't hurt like this. Knowing the HueSats won't work unless they can see the users eyes, Freya allows the pain of the sunlight to pierce her eyes. After about 10 seconds the pain stops and the world comes into focus. There it is.
The forest looks so thick from where she stands. The number in the top right holds steady at zero. No human life in my field of vision. Check. The number on her left reads 95°. She removes her colorful jacket made of sticky cloth leaving only her grey tank top. Taking the bottom button of her jacket between her thumb and forefinger she presses firmly and holds. The fabric seems to fall apart as it spins quickly and tightly around the button. As the coil comes to a stop the string is encased by a shell protruding from the center on each side. The net on the side of her backpack stretches as she slides the disc inside.
With her pant leg in her hands she guides it to the middle of her thigh and molds the fabric until it's flat against her skin. After repeating the process on her other leg, she's ready. Dressed appropriately. Check. She wants to look back down the entrance to her home one final time. She doesn't. She emerges into the unknown with the confidence of a turkey into a herd of peacock.
She thinks of her dad again and wonders if he'd be proud or angry at her decision to explore the surface alone. Her mind also wanders to what surface cities must look like and what life within them must feel like. The town of Magnolia is just 30 miles northeast of her, but she has no destination. I'm on the surface. I'm on the surface! I'm on the surface? What am I doing? I don't know how to survive out here. A sense of panic begins as a wave in her mind and crawls down through her skin pushing the hair up as it moves into her toes.
This is the moment. Her body longs to return to the safety of her cave. Her mom. Her grandfather. Her home. Her mind craves the adventure that awaits her if she continues towards a surface city. It was her mind that had compelled her out in the first place. She will not let her gut compel her back.
Freya moves. Away from everything she has ever known. Maybe not everyone wants to be a leader because they were never given a chance. Ever think of that, Ernie? Suddenly, she hears a strange sound. She can't quite place it in her mind. As she looks around she notices a road hugging a steep hill about 200 yards up. Her heart starts racing as her mind replays the stories of hunters meant to expose her way of life and extinguish it. She concentrates and forces her mind to flip through her catalogue of animal sounds. It doesn't sound like an animal running, but it does has a distinctive and constant crunch to its gate. It is definitely something moving and the sound is getting louder.
Freya ducks behind the nearest plant that will hide her. It's Fox Sedge. Her eyes are trained on the number in the upper right as she peeks carefully over the bush and down the road. The number jumps to 2 just before a vehicle appears in her line of sight. The line needles beneath her soften her landing as she falls to the ground. Through the sedge she can see the vehicle getting closer. There is no driver. It has four wheels with a platform on each side and a tower rising between the front two tires. A surveiller. There is a large man standing on each platform holding what she assumes to be weapons because of the long barrel, but she doesn't recognize them. The surveiller comes to a complete stop without notice directly in front of where Freya is hiding.
Silence seems to last forever.
"We know you're down there," one of the men screams.
"No other animal hides like that. Only humans. And the only human out here must be a Subterranean."
Freya stays crouched behind the sedge. Her skin is clammy and her breath short. She feels faint. I knew I should have listened to my gut. What if the stories were right? What if these men are hunters. I don't want to die. Ok. I'm sure they don't want to kill me.
"We don't want to hurt you."
See! They don't want to hurt me. I knew my mom was wrong.
"Of course we could kill you right now. You realize that, right? I know you are hiding right behind that bush. I can see your dark hair thrown to one side. Your exposed shoulder is the perfect target for my sensory disabler. Then all we have to do is fish you out of the ravine. It would be better if you just came out and talked to us. We don't want to hurt you."
They definitely want to hurt me. Freya tries to think straight. Her heart feels like a drum beating in unison with the throbbing in her temple. Her eyes sting behind her HueSats as sweat flows down her forehead. She closes them and tries to disappear. Instead she is bombarded by images of her mother, grandfather, friends and the elders. She hears the familiar song her mother would play while they swam in Olive Lake.
What have I done. They want me to talk. They want me to tell them where Hermitage is. Her chest jumps up and down as her breath quickens. Her shoulders sink as she comprehends the weight of the situation. I made my choice when I walked into the sun. Death will be my punishment. But my community will not pay for my actions. My mother may lose a daughter today, but Hermitage will live on to fight the First 400.
She opens her eyes with a new determination. "OK," Freya calls from the bush, "Here I come. I am unarmed and will go without struggle. You just have to climb down here and get me."
"Back up," the man shouts unamused. He fires a shot. Freya once again thankful for the soft bed of pine needles as she dives to the ground and covers her face. A hook drills into the ground and a tight line connects the forest floor and the ridge. A second accordion-like, metal rope stretches out down the line to the floor. There are now two parallel metal rods spaced about five feet apart waiting in front of Freya.
"Step on to the bottom one and hold on tight to the top bar," the other man shouts.
Freya does as they ask. She holds the top bar as tightly as she held her childhood bunny every night after her father left her to fall asleep. I wish I had my purple bunny. I wish I had my father. The bars start to move and Freya lets out a scream involuntarily. The men laugh. Their laughter burns through her skin. Freya straightens her body and her lips. She focuses her dark eyes on her soon-to-be captors trying to inflict the same burn with her icy stare.
"Come on, little girl. Let's have a chat about where Mommy is," the first man says as he grabs her HueSats. Freya's eyes widen as she feels a thin, sharp rod slide into her leg.
"I am not a little girl, and you can talk all you want but these are the last words you will hear from me. Ever." Freya thinks about the promise she made to herself after the men laughed as she begins to fade. She will show no more weakness. Even in death. Death? What have I done? In the darkness, the world stops turning.