“The Mission is an arbitrary task. Not that it means we can change the fact it exists. We sort of trudge on in a daze for the meanwhile, however many eons it’s been now. I’m not sure I want to live beyond the 175,000 square feet that all 5,000 of us have to live with. I’ve grown very comfortable with my specific 35, actually. It’s somehow… cozy. I don’t know how else to describe it. We don’t take our education too seriously down here, unless you plan on taking The Mission. It’s a matter of urgency, you know. Every generation brings double the people, which halves the living space, which sucks. You can only sleep in a space that fits your body, after all. That’s why every twenty-seven years or so, we send out enough to attempt The Mission, in the hopes that our 175,000 square feet comes to an end. But it never does. We’ve become a desperate shepherd that drives half his livestock off a cliff to save the rest from starvation. All I know is, the dead find ways of talking, my friend. God Speed, and whatever you do, don’t stop.”
For living “underground” there isn’t a whole lot of “-ground” to work with. Only an iridescent pearly material, which textures the walls like an opaque wallpaper that cannot be broken. For all we know, we could be above ground. No one’s been Outside for generations, so no one knows for sure. It’s just… nothing, for miles on end.
I stare behind this woman with grey hair in a grey room.
She is only a doctor, or should I say, ex-Candidate.
Down here, we classify you based on a single attribute: whether you’re a Candidate, or a non-Candidate, with ex-Candidate belonging to the latter. Ex-Candidate can be even further divided into occupation, education, stratification… Any assortment of these power structures can belong to you. However, no combination of them can compete with the class fortunate enough to bear the title of ‘Candidate.’
Candidacy for The Mission is based off of health and your age. 27 is generally the age that one is allowed to step outside the front door of this place. I happen to be 26. Whoopee….
Otherwise, life can be pretty bleak down here. We use leftover carcass fat to supply the candles that must be kept burning every day. The non-stop burning of fatty human tissue gives this place an overall putrid smell, but it’s better than nothing. Well, almost. Anything is better than being a non-Candidate.
Candidates are treated like kings in this place. We go anywhere we please and do as we please. We only get away with what our Mission Leaders allow us to. If a Candidate gets in too much trouble, it usually means they are getting spoiled, or sloppy at their work. “Be good or good at it” is the unspoken down here. Performing small criminal acts and getting away with it is actually an indicator that the Candidate can survive out Beyond.
Truth be told, I think we’re all equal here.
Mothers will stand nervously by their newborn in hopes that a cough, anything will come out of the baby so they won’t be hurled off into The Mission just for being too healthy. They want something to hold on to so they don’t join The Poor in their retirement years. If a non-candidate doesn’t host a Candidate in their later years, then they will gradually be shoved back to The Poor.
You don’t want to join The Poor. They live at the back of Our Home. You don’t want to go back there. We often call it The Door, because whoever ends up at the very back is typically on Death’s Door. We haul those who die through the door that leads to the incinerator. We then use the ashes to feed future generations of people. Nothing is wasted down here, we live on in perfect ecological harmony, farming and surviving and shitting, one day at a time…
As if reading my unsettling thoughts, the doctor backed away from me. “Healthy as a horse.” She muttered, turning toward her desk and jotting everything down on her chalk pad, which would remain that way for as long as she could memorize it, before she would erase it and analyze a new patient. The fundamental purpose of The Mission these days, not that there aren’t many, is to usher an influx of materials so we can expand.
“Thanks Doc,” I say, buttoning up my shirt over a puffy chest that seems to say ‘Winner.’ The Doctor wants me, I’m sure. “—your ’35 is always so inviting.” She was flipping through her tablets, muttering to herself in some trance-like state to avoid missing a single detail. It set my spine on fire to see her struggling like that, to see anyone struggling like that. ‘This is madness’ I think to myself.
We call areas “Spaces” in Our Home. Each one is exactly 7 x 5 square feet. Each one takes up the space that a person could be living in.
I was on my way to Entrance Space, which is special in that it covers enough floor for a thousand people: 200 x 50 x 35 feet. Anyone can survive just outside The Real Door as long as they stay within a few miles of Our Home. It’s an inside joke that we like to tell around here: ‘You don’t want to walk out The Door,’ ‘Which one, The Door or The Real Door?’ It’s always a constant debate which one is worse to walk out of. One allows you to live a full life, albeit in squalor near the end, but a full life nonetheless. The other one almost guarantees death by 35. That is the maximum age before losing candidacy for The Mission. Lethal Injection or firing squad. Apples or Oranges. It’s all the same. One just means you get hot cups of dandelion tea every day.
The doorway to the Entrance Space is always wide open, as our community is constantly bustling with trade. Our living quarters contains four blocks, two of which house apartment buildings large enough to fit all 1000 of us comfortably. The other two are for R&D. Otherwise, we’re out in the Beyond, collecting the dead bodies of other Candidates, and seeing what resources they were able to recover. We have a pretty nice trail so far. Out in the Beyond, there’s nothing. It’s just darkness and coldness. It’s all made with some sort of shiny material that we can’t break, miles and miles and miles of it. Nothing but nothing—forever.
We’ve had a few individuals that reached the Outside and returned. How they accomplished such a task is never clear. These individuals are called Champion Candidates. They are the kings of this kingdom, no matter what age, gender, or background. So far there have been five.
The first one was Marty. He wasn’t even part of Our Home until we saw him. He just sort of wandered in from the Beyond one day and said his name was Marty. He died as soon as the name left his lips.
The second was Bullet. Bullet was… kind of from Our Home. They were born here, under a different name, but Bullet’s mother had died of complications at birth. Bullet was an orphan to our humble community. Then one day, Bullet vanished.
Bullet wasn’t heard from for several generations. That was until a century ago, when a Candidate found Bullet’s skeleton… a thousand miles from Our Home. Bullet had managed to go Outside and bring back a few plants, from which we were able to collect dandelion seeds. Thanks to Bullet, we have created a self-dependent ecosystem, and our population rose from the previous 1000 to the current 5000 in just a hundred years. No one ever knew if Bullet was a boy or a girl; no one cared. Bullet was a hero, and if we ever survive past the Outside, we have only Bullet to thank for it.
The third and fourth were from a successful Mission, in which a crew had gone Outside and come back alive. There could be others still Outside from that very mission, it was only fifty years ago. All we know is the two that returned were Beatrice and Shelly. Beatrice was pregnant when she came back, and Shelly helped return her safely to Our Home before she went into labor. Beatrice gave birth to a healthy baby boy. That baby boy would be me, Harmon. I was named in the hopes that one day, our people would achieve harmony with this prison, as well as the Outside, and live without barriers or suffering, and everyone would finally be free.
The latest Champion Candidate to return was Kaza, from the base established near the Outside about fifty years ago. Kaza is an old woman now, but she came back with very valuable information, terrible information, but valuable nonetheless. ”Our struggle is pointless,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we had a hundred thousand years to inhabit the Beyond. We could turn all twenty-four thousand miles of it into a blushing paradise, and develop highly advanced technology. But what lies Outside is death. Vicious creatures that had millions of years to evolve in competition with one another… they can never be defeated. To see one is to die. I only saw one through indirect means… as well as a d--,” Kaza had difficulty repeating her traumatic experiences. “As well as a dead one…” That’s the last information that Kaza would tell to the public. She was then recovered with the best that Entrance Space had to offer. What occurred to officials at headquarters was brutally clear: The Outside is a very dangerous place. Further exploration should be limited to search and retrieval missions only under the most desperate of circumstances.
Well, circumstances have become desperate. An ecosystem can only survive so long on recycled materials, and we would need to retrieve more very soon. In fact, there was another mission scheduled for next year, when I would be 27.
My name’s Harmon Outsider, and I am a Candidate for The Mission.