Eli kept her face passive as she felt the cool material of the smooth polymer gloves and biohazard suit slide over her body, and then a high definition EQ-12 helmet, a standard, adjusted on her head. Nothing new. Just her usual attire. Her eyes squinted, the only emotion she showed as the metal casing of the preparation cells at the end of headquarters opened. She was met with bright artificial light. Harsh and white. She efficiently stepped off the raised platform and mechanically walked across the smooth, white, shining floor. It was made of marble; no doubt been salvaged from the manufacturing plant of the old days, pitilessly left to decay and rust.

The fact that the whole floor had been made by marble was by itself would be considered a miracle by the general population of the city, to whom even a broken tin was like some treasure, bestowed to them by the hands of the gods themselves. They didn’t know about marble and several other luxuries that the government greedily hid from the world.

Moreover, whether gods existed, by itself posed a question keeping in mind they had left the entirety of the human population to rot in this mockery of a planet.

Yet it could be argued that the human population had brought it upon themselves.

Cutting a neat diagonal across the floor, Eli banked left and moved through the invisible screen on the main entrance of the headquarters for the recovery team. The screen was a device, which clearly expressed the extent of human creativity. To an observer from outside, in the day, the light falling on the screen would give the illusion of it being opaque and like a door, but all the members of the squad knew that the screen was no more than a viscous liquid suspended in the air like a door, which activated or deactivated the person’s suit, depending on the direction they moved in. However, if an intruder were to get certain ideas there was also a security sensor in the screen which will alert the compound of their presence and before they know it, they would most likely be signing there execution slip.

Leaving the alien, stoic looking white compound, which stood out like a sore thumb in its surrounding ramshackle neighborhood, Eli stepped out and turned her attention to the real world. A soft hiss of air, through slits in Eli’s mask, was the only sign of those cleverly hidden purifiers doing their work. Even though this kept Eli alive by preventing her from being in direct contact with the dark haze that hung over the city like a wet blanket, she did not want it. She wanted to breathe the free air, unaltered natural air even if it may kill her, she will take it. She was sick of the tasteless, colourless, texture-less air that she forced herself to exhale and inhale repeatedly. she was sick of the city in which she knew she must spend her whole life, or at least, what was left of the city, the strung-up “houses” that littered the streets, held together with sticks and cloth

Well maybe not her, considering she was part of the elite class who had been admitted in the meagre workforce to work for the government. However, she still would not have the freedom, to do as she wished, to live as she wished. She would have to survive and wait and bear it through the next 10 years until she was 25 and sent back to her home. Retired with enough wealth to last several generations to come after her. This fact was only exaggerated, by the fact that she didn’t have any family left.

Nevertheless, this was just what living in 2105 entailed. She shook her head, clearing her mind of such thoughts and jogged automatically towards her deploy unit. She stood at her usual spot, a position in the last row of the neat orderly perfect robot-like humans that made her team.

A small voice inside her head snarled in disgust but outside the imaginary world of her mind, she sighed through her nose and breathed in the same air again as she tried not to zone out, while her unit was allocated their assignment for the day. Suddenly, the rows started moving forward in perfect unison, as was expected of them. Snapped out of a reverie, Eli followed them to an old helicopter wheezily trying to whir to life. However, she did not escape the stern look she was awarded from her superior, confirming that her slip had not gone unnoticed. She just gave him an apologetic look, but she was not sure he could make it out under the translucent green glass coating which acted like night vision cum infrared cum x-ray cum yada-yada googles, which sat like a swollen balloon above her nose.

She was not particularly interested in how much money the government had wasted on her department when it could have been used to fill the bellies of the millions of hungry people lining the streets. Her department worked to save the survivors of natural or artificial disasters which, unsurprisingly, had increased in frequency over the past years. But her work had no significance apart from namesake and casual assurance to the masses. The world government didn’t care about the leftover pieces of land that used to be nations.

She reminded herself to focus. She did not want to be pushed even lower than the last row of the unit. This was her only chance to get out of her house and see the world, however, wasted it may be. She was lucky to have this opportunity, she reprimanded herself as she missed a step striding towards the helicopter and almost fell. At least she wasn’t locked up in her house, vomiting too much to breathe, virus contaminating her body till the last cell. At least she wasn’t caged. Although, she quite doubted the last comment.

Seated on one aisle of the helicopter as the others filled in, she made quick work of her helmet and slid it under her arm, as she breathed in the purified air of the helicopter and looked out of the taped-up window of one of the few remaining banged up vehicles still used for aerial transport. A privilege to be even sitting here. Millions would die for her place but Eli just did not seem content with her position in the world.

A cold voice sneered from the other side, “I see our star student’s plan to be demoted is coming along well.”

Eli turned to find twin boys about her age, around 17, a brunette and a blonde, giving her twin smirks.

Yes, it was true, she had been the class’ top student and had been the original selection for the leader of the unit, but had been transferred to a reduced rank, due to her certain disregard for the rules.

The reason for turning down the next best thing to ruling the world?

She did not want to be another blank face behind a mask. A robot. She wanted to be human, see and explore. To travel the world or whatever was left of it. She wanted to believe that there was still some beauty, some splendor that this broken world could offer her. She wanted to see the ocean and see for herself whether the ocean was as vast as her great grandmother had described, the water, just as salty, the waves just as tremendous and the pristine sky just as magnificent.

 

Turning her attention back to the scenery below her, she ignored the twins. Tying to see through the breaks in the purplish-black fog that wrapped around the sky.

Oh, look at how she grasps that crusty old necklace she has. Too scared to fight Elsie?”

“Sam, what are you doing? We do not talk to lowly people like her.

The brunette twin committed to his brother, purposefully emphasising the penny to denote just how old and priceless of a relic she wore around her neck, but she could not bring herself to sell away the pearl necklace. It was her great grandmothers before her. (change phrasing – perhaps, “it was passed on to her by her great grandmother”)

A roaring filled her head. She could tolerate everything, but insulting her family heirloom?

Ignore. Breathe in, breathe out.

She knew they would be landing in a minute or two, the site was not far away, but they could not risk land transport.  The broken alleyways, the tumbled over poles and wires, all succeeded in crafting together a devil’s snare. A perfect trap for anyone dumb enough to fall into the hands of the local band of thugs, who roamed the streets unchecked.

Suddenly a falling sensation gripped her gut as the plane dipped low and the faintest of blue was visible on the horizon. A shudder ran through her bones as the old helicopter made a rocky landing on a sandy strip of land and finally came to a halt. Nimbly untying her seat belts and donning her gear again, Eli tried to ignore the smell of retching and vile that pushed itself up her nose as one of her companions lost her composure completely.

However, all was forgotten as she felt a crisp wind enter her helmet through the small gap that she had purposefully left open and disguised with her hair.

Surely, a bit of this air won’t hurt her?

She took a great gulp of the air and savoured it, her first-ever breath of natural air. Even though it irritated her nose, she forced it down her body and quickly adjusted her helmet as she walked towards the security checkpoint.

Slowly the line in front of the security check post advanced and soon she found herself stepping across the yellow safety line and into an open-ended metallic box. She was scanned from head to toe and given a small Y shaped device, with a little yellow light at the top beeping softly. The emergency flare, in case everything went down the drain. Along with that, there was a gap, fed with the co-ordinates of her investigation site and a small wireless radio, connected to her mouthpiece, which would help her communicate with the rest of the unit.

Her demarcated area was the east wing of the charred shell, which was what remained of what had earlier been a sprawling factory compound

She stood in line as the team leader, the obnoxious brunette twin Sam, co-ordinated their systems, until all had been checked and properly strapped up by security. A good to go from him had all the arsenal jogging towards the area which had been allocated to them. Soon, everyone was a speck in the distance and the only sound was of an ancient motor whirring away and the sound of Eli’s footfalls on the concrete. Her legs felt weak, but she kept ongoing. Her plan was working.

Focusing back on her assignment and ignoring the devil in her, which prompted her to throw it all in the water, she focused on the assignment at hand. As she finally entered the eastern wing, the reek of leaked oil reached her and she scrunched her nostrils as she continued to sign for body heat signatures and following the co-ordinates on her Y.

Taking larger and larger footstep, making wide arcs with her Y, walking, jumping and sometimes crawling around the debris, she covered the area. As she reached the end, the hopes of ever finding any survivors, especially after an explosion of this scale were low. She debated whether or not to just leave the last smelting room and return. shivering,  the temperature dropping every few degrees with the minutes passing by. She turned, but then almost fell on her bottom as a rapid beeping from her device startled her. She whirled around in the direction indicated by the device and was met with the sight of an old fashioned light bulb which had fallen from the ceiling, flickering and lying in bits and pieces around a section of the wall, on which a white moth-eaten cloth was haphazardly strewn. Taking a tentative step forward, she grew even more surprised as the beeping issuing from the Y grew steadier. Then all at once, Eli was moving as fast as she could, removing cement mortar and concrete, and ripping apart the white screen to reveal a passageway leading from a broken part of the wall.

Adrenaline pulsing through her blood, heart racing she found a dank and dark corridor, with the ceiling lights half dead. A site, which emanated a mysterious presence. Exactly what Eli was always looking for. One hand holding the Y, the other opened the supply pouch to pull out a torch. Her hands shook slightly as she advanced through the corridor, which must have been leading her to the last smelting chamber.  As the frequency increased with each step and the heat signature became too high for a human body, Eli’s hands encircled the emergency flare, but still, her consistent steps didn’t falter.

Hadn’t the information centre done a sweep already? There wasn’t a fire left out, was there?

Soon the hallway opened and the moisture in the room increased, as the finger that Eli rested upon the button dropped. A low thunder reverberated through the chamber. Could it be what she thought it was?

Leaving all formalities and precautions behind, sending gravel flying across the floor, she ran for the opening.

The stones grew slick and-

She laughed aloud. She could not remember the last time she had been this happy, as she beheld an underground pond being fed by a waterfall emerging from an opening in the rock above. Lichens coated the lip of the pond and small shells and remnants of soil could be seen under the water, cast into a shining brilliance as the light of her torch fell on them.

Undiluted glee danced in Eli’s eyes as she fell to her knees and sighed through her nose at the spray of water on her. Even the filters in her mask couldn’t snatch the salty tang of the water from the air.

Surrounded by the perfect fairy-tale setting, daunting ideas lured her fantasy and without second thought, Eli took off her helmet and breathed in the natural air that surrounded her.(improper phrasing) She could not seem to get in enough of it in her lungs. Oh, gods!

Pulling her hair from the tight bun on top of her head, she let her cherry wine hair cascade down her back as she slowly walked into the shallows of the pond till the edge of where the soil plunged into a deep opening. She revelled in the beauty of the clear blue water around her and just as she started bending into the water, something caught in the toes of her foot. Thinking it to be simply a part of the mass-produced garbage, which had been dumped into the ocean ages ago, she bent down and extracted the small metal piece.

Smiling to herself, she tucked it into an inner fold of her uniform. She deemed it a gift from some forgotten god.

All of a sudden, spasms of coughing gripped her body as she shook with the force of it. Willing the irritation to go away, she dunked her head in the water. She felt as if she got brain freeze. The water was like ice, numbing her sense and sending her nose running.

Surfacing and coughing even more than before, her breath a pant, she sputtered and hacked her throat. After what felt like an eternity, she found herself lying by the side of the pool, panting through her teeth and fingers tracing unknown patterns on the water.

But while she warmed her face with the help of the drier in her helmet, her mind didn’t sit idle.

She was sure of at least one fact.

The water was not stagnant. Otherwise, the lower levels of the factory would have been completely submerged ages ago.

And the second fact was a bit of a gamble.

The corals, the seashells, the residual sand could only mean that the pond was connected to the ocean. She hoped she was right and this wasn’t just some old aquarium in some forgotten part of the world.

And she held this kernel of hope as she rolled sideways on the shore, took a deep breath and splashed straight into the water.

The automatic motors in her shoes whirred to life in the presence of water and propelled her forwards. Without them, she didn’t believe for one second that she could have willed her limbs to move in the water and searched for the opening. The water stung her eyes as she waddled flimsily; trying to remember the swimming classes she had been forced to take as a child in the city.

It was a biting cold monster, which opened its jaws and tried to consume her whole.

Water-cooled her scalp as the motors installed in her boots helped her glide over the rock surface and find a small opening like a tunnel out of the place.

She felt wild and out of the character. This wasn’t something she had been taught in class. But she couldn’t tolerate being stifled any longer. Her recklessness, her anger, her rebelliousness was who she was. Not an ideal model of societal standards, but rather, a fire. A fire, which would burn everything in its path.

Her lungs screamed as she felt her vision go black at the edges. The tunnel hadn’t finished and she needed air. Regretting her impulsive decision, Eli had almost given up, but a small light at the end had her frantically clawing at the water despite the spots that consumed her vision.

Water pressure thinned around her and a breath of relief escaped her –

She was out. She was alive.

Gasping and panting Eli hauled herself on the rocky lip nearby.

Spread eagle on the rocky surface, her headache fading and vision clearing, Eli managed to sit up by scraping her elbows and pushing herself up. What met her eyes, made her blink twice.

Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes threatened to well up.

She was in some sort of cave which had been built or formed due to natural cause. Eli did not care. But what it overlooked, made the swim through the freezing water worth it. The scenery was beautiful. The setting sun turned the waves a gold red and the sky different hues of pink.

She was here. She was finally here. A mad kind of laugh escaped her mouth as she beheld the beauty in front of her, but she was tethered back to harsh reality as she sneezed loudly and her body shuddered in the wind that blew through her sodden clothes. Soon the sun will set and she would have no source of heat.

Putting weight on her arms that were weak from the cold, Eli crawled and then managed to walk to the mouth of the cave. It was a sheer drop, no way down. She slipped and then adjusted herself awkwardly in a sitting position between two large boulders at the lip of the cave and let her feet dangle. Her shoulder ached from where it hit the stone and her hands stained green from where the lichen had rubbed into her skin, skinning it a bit.

But she loved it, every second of it.

She wrapped her arms around herself as she let the CO in the corrupted atmosphere into her lungs. The only thing, which for her, meant sure death. The only thing which could make her case of bronchitis a lethal one.  Leading to inflammation of her bronchi and a complete seal off of her air passage.

She sighed contently, as she took out the metal object she had found earlier by the pond. A clasp. A relic of another world, just like her necklace. A perfect fit. She took out the necklace from around her neck, tied with string and replaced the string with the clasp.

She rubbed the pearls, the moonlight which had replaced the sunlight, set them glowing and made them objects of her ethereal beauty. The stars twinkled above, like a beacon, through the gaps in the haze, and she felt satisfied, as she completed the final phase of the plan she had decided upon before she took on this recovery mission.

The world needed to remove the bandage of human civilization’s burden and heal, and the sooner the people realized this, the better. Nature will destroy them in its vengeance and it won’t show mercy. So they needed to pull up their pants and she was more than willing to become the symbol that became a wakeup call for them. She could almost imagine tomorrows headline,

“The sole heir of the Brannon estate found dead this morning, her corpse dangling from the rock face.”

Therefore as she lay on perhaps the last good place on earth, as her breaths became short and rapid, and the world started to look darker, she embraced the darkness and let the low lapping of the ocean on the stone below sing her to oblivion and into the arms of death.

 

AFTER

Several footsteps echo in unison across the cement and gasp in surprise as the eyes to which the faces belong, are met with the site of the hole in the wall, leading into a dark and dank hallway were further out a beeping Y shaped device could be found lying on the ground. Eli’s Y’s unresponsive functioning had called the whole of the deploy unit to find the hallway and successively trace her path.

But it was already too late. Night had fallen hours ago.

A wandering seagull pecks through one of the thousands of cans littering the beach and looks upwards to observe a beautiful human girl, her hair like fire, in the brazen, golden sunlight, lying on the highest rock of the cave. On showcase as if she was a part of nature. And even from a distance, the ease of her posture and the wide grin on her face could be seen. The cave was the only place on the beach not littered with garbage. The only place untouched by destruction and demolition. The last good place on earth.

 

– Meher Nerula, Delhi Public School, Noida

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