Beneath the surface (a short story)

Photo by Elisabeth Fossum on

Have I really been chosen? I turn and see if the messenger is gone – he must have disappeared in the crowd. I wipe the soot off my goggles with my sleeve. Perhaps I’m imagining things. I am exhausted. I carefully look at the print. It’s undeniable; the mark at the bottom of the letter is the official AHAW (All Humans Are Worthy) emblem printed with sublime purple metallic ink.

No one notices me and the letter I’m holding. I can only hear drilling and shouting. People are too busy either being sick or preventing our infrastructure from collapsing. Power lines hang limply from poles, while building scraps fall and pipes leak along decaying roads.

History tells us this place was once beautiful. This must be a myth, like how Greek gods once lived in gilded palaces in Olympus watching over their people.

I only know of our horrid air, toxic from the ash in the sky and the chemical sewers. But I’m afraid my four-year-old is not yet immune.


            “Don’t leave, mommy,” Lilly pleads, coughing up blood while clutching my arm.

She’s too young to understand how our fates could change forever. If I win, no longer will I worry that Lilly will die of poisoning before she’s ready for grade school.

            “I’ll be back soon,” I reassure her. My neighbour will watch over her while I’m gone.

I hug her one last time. I could hold onto her forever, but I must go. The ceremony awaits.


I bring all my gear including my lucky plunger and nanoswifts, handy bots for cleaning pipes and removing blockages. They will likely be useful. I arrive at an open-air arena; a towering, steel-framed behemoth that rises from the barren wasteland. I’m ushered in among hundreds of other tradespeople. Like me, they are filthy, covered in grime, their clothes ragged and torn. I tried to look polished, but cleanliness is impossible when even my soap bar is tarnished.

            “Today marks the annual Ceremony of Scarcity,” a faceless woman in a purple jumpsuit speaks into a microphone on stage.

            “You have all been selected to compete for our limited supply of mentos as a tribute to our peace treaty and a recognition of your hard work as skilled tradespeople.”

            “The first challenge,” she announces, “will be the survival of the pipes.”

            My heart thuds. Horrors lurk in these sewers.

            “And remember, you are all worthy.”

            With that, the ceremony officially begins.


I enter beneath the surface through one of the dozens of pipes that protrude from the arena. I’m terrified but also relieved that the first challenge is in the sewers. I am a plumber, here in my element. However, there’s much I don’t know about this place. I smell fear. Sweat trickles down our trembling bodies. Our breaths are heavy. There are over a dozen of us standing here, waiting for the start signal. The ominous sounds of water dripping above us fill the silence. Our headlamps only show us a dark passageway ahead.

            I will survive I keep telling myself. Not only that, but I will also make it to the next round.

            “Do you know what’s in there?” asks a gaunt young man, his voice shaking.

            “I don’t,” I reply.

I have only heard that weird things have happened before the age of peace. The residual effects of nuclear weapons have warped our ecosystem and mutated animals. I haven’t seen these mutations in person.  


There’s the blaring sound of the horn. We’re off to the races, splashing our way through the sewage in our new biohazard coveralls. My toolbox is heavy. It’s hard to move fast. No matter. In here, it’s better to tread carefully.

            Most people are ahead of me, some splitting through a different tunnel. Various human-sized pipes protrude from the walls, allowing us the opportunity to crawl through.

            I’m lagging behind with the gaunt young man. He must be too terrified to move.

            “Not too loud,” I hear him whisper. “Let’s not alert the creatures.”

            “I’ll try,” I say in a low voice, matching his volume. I will not let fear slow me down. I wade a little faster, trying not to make too many splashes.

            A bloodcurdling scream echoes through the pipes, followed by a sudden silence. My frail companion jumps at the noise, his trembling hand clutching my shoulder. I feel a primal urge to abandon him and run back. I don’t want to be eaten. But I can’t go back. Not now. I can’t let Lilly down.

            “It’s okay,” I say. “I have an idea.”

            I unlock my toolbox, and the nanoswifts swarm out, assembling before us like miniature furry soot balls with pipe cleaner legs. They crawl along the murky sewage water, working in a fevered frenzy to find us a safe exit.  


The sewage reeks as we wade through it. One of my nanoswifts returns dripping with blood.

            A beast-like growl rumbles through the tunnels, followed by claws scraping against concrete.

           “Run!” I scream, my heart pounding in my chest.    

We rush through the tunnel, our footsteps overshadowed by the growling. The growl gets louder and more terrifying with each passing second. My toolbox weighs a ton, slowing me down, but I can’t afford to lose it.

            Then, I hear a scream. I turn to see my companion stumbling backwards, a scaly creature with a lion’s head and a gator’s body tearing at his pant leg.

            Without thinking, I heft my toolbox and bring it down on the creature’s skull with all my might. It lets out a piercing shriek, then slinks back into the murky water.

            “Thank you,” my companion gasps, his chest heaving.

            “Anytime,” I reply, my hands shaking with adrenaline. “Let’s get out of here.”


One of my nanoswifts returns from a pipe as narrow as my arm, its legs covered in gleaming white powder.

            Is that mentos? I couldn’t believe my eyes. Why would this mineral be in the sewers?

            “No way,” says my companion. “Do you think there’s more?”

            I can feel his excitement. If there’s more, then we don’t need to finish the competition. We can pocket some mentos and leave.

            I pull out my pocket laser cutter that I normally use for cutting through metal pipes. With precision, I cut a large hole around the small pipe, revealing a secret tunnel. We follow through the tunnel leading us to a secret warehouse.


            “Holy smokes. There are a million crates full of mentos here! Probably enough for our entire city.” His expression turning from excitement to anger.

I am speechless. Why have they been hiding this from us?

            “My mother, grandpa, aunt, uncle… all of them would be still here if they had an ounce of what’s inside of these boxes.”

My timid companion has done a complete turnaround, like a cat emerging from hiding and ready to pounce. He turns to me.

            “We must expose them. Tell the world that we’ve been wronged this whole time.”

He’s right. We can pocket some of the mentos for ourselves, but there are still gallons of these minerals that can save thousands of lives.

I explore the warehouse, looking for our next exit. We can take some mentos with us, and tell everyone there’s more, way more. And how the institution has been lying to us this whole time.

            “Don’t move,” my companion shouts. I freeze. Why is my companion paranoid again?

            Above us is a motion detecting drone. One step, and it would set off security. The drone hovers around me. I hold my breath, before it flies off into the distance. Phew. That was close.

            “Thanks for that,” I say.

            “No problem, I’m a scavenger. It’s my specialty to watch for these things.”

            That explains his need to be cautious. I’m grateful for our pairing.


There are other rooms that lead to this warehouse. We discover AHAW’s headquarters had been in these sewers all along! Taking the scavenger’s lead, we hide behind laundry carts and corridors, avoiding all cameras and drones, looking for the control centre where all external communications are being held. There were AHAW staff everywhere in their purple jumpsuits.

            “Wear this.” He hands me a purple uniform.

            “How did you —”

            “Shhh,” we don’t have much time. He puts on one as well.

            “Do you have any weapons?” he asks.

            I have my laser cutter, but the thought of slicing someone in half is far too gruesome. I feel sick to my stomach.

            “We’re not butchering anyone,” I tell him.

             “Oh no, I wasn’t thinking of that,” he laughs nervously.

            “Here,” I say, extending my lucky plunger to him. It’s a relic from my family’s long line of plumbers, outdated and practically useless, but I always carry it for comfort.

            “This is perfect,” he says.


In our disguise, we make it through the hallways without arousing suspicion. There, we find the door that says CONTROL CENTRE. We open the door and see the woman, the announcer of the ceremony, with a look of terror in her eyes. Behind her were multiple screens, live footages of the ceremony. I wince when I see the appalling scene of someone being eaten by the creature.

            “How did you get here?” she demands.

            “We know the truth,” I confront her. “Why is AHAW hoarding all the mentos rather than saving all of humanity? Isn’t the institution all for protecting its citizens?”

Her stare remains blank for a moment, then she erupts into a voluminous laughter.

            “You truly are naïve. And rightly so. If everyone knew, our world would return to chaos. Everyone vying over the mentos. It’s best to keep this a secret.”

            “And let them all die?!” I’m almost screaming.

            “In the name of preserving humankind, yes,” says the woman. “If we share all our mentos, we’ll run out before the end of the century.”

            “But what about us? Everyone who’s now living? Don’t we all deserve a chance to a healthy life?” I plead, my throat chokes. What about Lilly?

            Her lips curl.  

            “No,” she says. “Not everyone’s worthy.”

            At that moment, the scavenger swings the plunger and knocks her unconscious. He hits the BROADCAST button and we’re now live.

            “Go,” he says.

            I reach for the microphone.

            “My fellow citizens of AHAW, it is with a heavy heart that I must inform you of a grave injustice. For too long, we have been deceived by the institution that hoarded the precious resource of mentos, while we struggled to survive in a world poisoned by toxicity. But today, things will change. The mentos are not the property of the institution, but the birthright of every citizen of AHAW. There is enough for all of us, and we need no longer live in fear for ourselves or our children. Let us unite and claim what is rightfully ours.”


Days have passed and I no longer recognize our once peaceful city. As I make my way home, I pass by the body of a young girl lying in the road. My heart stops. But as I get closer, I realize that it’s not Lilly. The girl’s head has been punctured by a laser, a victim of AHAW’s killing drones.

Rioters flood the streets, their anger and frustration palpable. For once, people are showing resistance, but at what cost?

I check on Lilly, relieved to find that her coughs have subsided. The mentos I’ve been giving her must be working. She looks up at me with tired eyes.

            “Mommy, I love you,” she says.

            “I love you too,” I reply, embracing her tightly.

So many lives have been lost. Taking down AHAW is almost a pipe dream. Even though the fire of rebellion is being quenched, at least I can save my daughter.

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