Heaven Below

By Christian Grahn

Sci-Fi, General fiction, Thriller

Paperback, eBook

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180
5 mins

 

Behind me, the door closes with the familiar click of the lock. I turn around and make sure that the door is really shut. A quirk of mine I formed a habit of up here and can’t get rid of. If I don’t, I rack my brain for the rest of the day whether the door is closed or not. It’s horrible, but the only possibility is to really check it every single time.
I go down the short stairs, turn up my collar, take the goggles from my cap and put them on, but it’s too late. The sand has already crept under my clothes and is sliding uncomfortably down my back.
“You should really get used to getting properly dressed before leaving the house, Jim.”
David stands, as every morning, at the foot of the steps on the old weathered pavement. His hooded head is pulled between his shoulders, making him even smaller than he already is.
“You’d think I’d learned that by now,” I reply.
“And it’s not like I remind you every day.”
“Some things never seem to change. Like this eternal sandstorm.”
“Oh, that little bit of sand. Come on, let’s go to the M-Train.”
David is one of the people who are always in a good mood. Every day. I can’t remember ever seeing him in a bad mood. In contrast to me, who can be quite grumpy in the mornings.
We have barely walked ten steps when David pushes his elbow into my ribs.
“Have you really closed the front door?”
“Yes I have.”
“Are you sure? Better to go back and ...”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I interrupt him, and can see the grin through his scarf. “The times you can annoy me with that are over.”
The further we go down the street to the M-Train station, the more people join us. They come out of the side streets and the entrances of the surrounding buildings. We know one another by sight and greet briefly.
“Did you hear about Louis?” David asks.
“No, what?”
“He told me yesterday that the last window in his apartment broke. Now the wind blows even into his bedroom.”
“Damn it. Did he tell you how it happened?”
“The wind had apparently blown some debris before it, and that hit the window.”
My gaze involuntarily moves up the next house. It’s a three-storey apartment house. The façade, once smoothly plastered, is littered with small craters, impacts of swirling objects. The sand gnaws ceaselessly at all corners of the house, grinding off grain for grain, and the wind carries them further into the city, where they then eat the buildings there. Most of the windows here are still intact. The house on the other side of the street is already four-storey, and on the top floor I see more window openings without glass, poorly covered with old sheets or bags, to provide at least a little protection from the wind. The further you go into the inner city, where the houses get higher and higher, the worse the upper floors are decaying. Now in the summer it’s still warm enough, but when the blizzards sweep through the city in the winter, life for many becomes a real struggle for survival.
“Does he need anything?” I ask.
“He says he’ll manage so far.”
“Tell him to talk to us if he needs help.”
“I’ll do that, but you know how difficult it is for him to accept help.”
“We must offer it at least.”
“I agree completely.”
The storm drives us on to the M-Train. We go down the worn and crumbling stone steps into the station. At the bottom, as always, I greet the two guards, whose black uniforms and stun guns visible in their holsters are supposed to convey a feeling of security. As always, I don’t get an answer, they don’t even follow me with their eyes any more.
“Is it really so hard to return my greeting just once? It doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?”
“I must say I admire your tenacity. Every day you try ...”
“... and someday I’ll succeed,” I complete David’s sentence. “You’ll see.”
“Above all, I’ll see how you’ll gaze at the guard with your mouth open, not knowing what to do or say.”
“That remains to be seen. I’ve already made a plan for it.”
“Of course you have.”
I take off the goggles as we enter the half-dark of the station. Once the pride of Riveris, the old magnetic railroad is now just a shadow of itself. The stations are deteriorating noticeably. Down here, though the sand can’t do its slow and steady work, plaster from walls smeared with paint falls off, garbage piles up in corners, collected by the wind and deposited there. Everything is covered by a thin layer of fine sand.
The train is the only public transport in the city. In spite of having several years on the clock, it works perfectly. Regular maintenance keeps it in shape, because the government does know that a functioning transport system keeps everything running in Uptown.
David and I join the queue of the other people waiting. Like pearls on a string we stand on the platform. The draught out of the tunnel announces the approaching train. I close my eyes, take off my cap, and concentrate on the feeling of the air streaming over my face. Wind without sand, ruffling my black hair.
Almost silently, the train enters the station, only accompanied by the slight hum of the electromagnets, which slow the train evenly to a standstill. It’s still almost empty. Ours is only the second stop of the line. We sit down on a free seat and I fix my gaze on a spot between my feet. The train sets off and instantly all the glass panes of the train come to life, showing the usual advertising and propaganda films. They paint a rosy picture to lull people into thinking that with enough diligent work a place in Downtown awaits. I stopped listening long ago. I’ve never heard of someone who was born above and then moved down as a reward for good work. Neither in my time below, nor in the three years I’ve been obliged to live up here. That only happens to the guards after a long time of service.
David always has fun watching the people react to the constant stream of information. Some try to ignore it as best they can, as I do, but many do watch and now and then even discussions arise. The opinions can be quite different, but there’s never a tangible dispute. No one wants to trigger an incident, at the end of which the participants are dragged out of the waggon by guards at the next station. Not all come back from these interrogations.
Again, David pushes his elbow into my side, pointing with a nod at the window. A newscaster is a reporting something.
“... there has been another explosion. The rebels’ target this time was line four. As far as is known, nobody were killed, but some were injured. Until further notice, the M-Train remains ...”
“Line four this time. Well, I’m glad it’s not on our line and we have to walk again.”
“Well, I admire the tenacity of the rebels,” I say so softly that only David can hear me. “They always manage to disturb the flow of normal life with their limited means.”
“I know, but I think it’s pointless. With their actions, they only turn the wounded against them.”
I don’t answer David’s last remark. We have different attitudes towards the resistance to the government, and have had many heated debates, until we recognised that each one of us insists on his opinion and doesn’t converge on the other. Fortunately, this has never affected our friendship.
As we get closer and closer to the final stop, the train fills more and more. Soon all seats are taken and the people have to stand in the corridors. One of the passengers steps on my foot and immediately lifts up his hand apologetically. Just before you think that no more people can fit into the train, we reach the final stop and the people pour out onto the platform. David and I take our time and don’t rise from our seats until most of the passengers have got off.
“Hey buddy,” I say to the guard at the steps leading upwards, only to reap silence once again, and I see from the corner of my eye how David shakes his head.
“Better put on your cap and goggles,” he says.
Right, I almost forgot again.
As we reach the upper end of the steps, the sandstorm blows into our faces with full force. The surrounding buildings form a kind of funnel and make the storm here much stronger than at home. Turning my head to the side, I see the rubbish stacked against the facades of the surrounding high-rise buildings. Whoever believes that life on the outskirts is bad has never been here in the city centre.
We reach the premises of the warehouse where we work. I don’t pay attention, stumble upon a raised edge in the ground and fall against the fence. Though it’s made of thick metal bars, the impact is enough to rattle the barbed wire on the top of the fence.
“Sod it! Ow!” Dull pain in my shoulder.
Immediately one of the heavily armed guards comes up to me. “Hey, watch out!”
“All right, I just tripped, nothing happened to me.”
“Come on, make yourself scarce.”
“Well, this is a particularly amiable specimen,” hisses David through his teeth, after I pick myself up. “Where do they get these guys?”
We pass the large sliding gates for the trucks in the fence, turn around a corner and see the little queue in front of the security gate.



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