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Milton was almost twenty-five when IT happened.
Actually, it was the day like yesterday — and the day before yesterday — just another day at work. Milton was finishing his daily route, when stones that surrounded him shook and grunted. Dust fell from the ceiling of maintenance tunnels and he understood something was very, very wrong. He picked up his pace and almost ran to the main garbage processing room, feeling more tremors with his feet.
Walter was standing in the middle of the vast empty room looking up at the ceiling as if he could see through the stone. Chester was nowhere to be found, but it didn’t matter to Milton. Ground kept shaking, though violence of shocks ceased a bit. He ran to Walter, stroke his shoulder and asked in a trembling voice:
Walter shrugged, for he knew as much as Milton. They waited, watching crying stones and breathing in dust. At one moment it seemed that walls were going to give in and collapse; Milton felt very mortal and foolish, living his life as he did. And at the same moment he understood that he didn’t want to die here, no matter how meaningless and boring his life had become. His hands became wet, while mouth dried out.
Milton was still standing in the middle of the garbage processing unit; Walter was kneeling down near him in a futile attempt to hold on to the ground.
Another shock took out the lights. Milton felt blood pumping in his head: something was terribly wrong. Is the facility collapsing? Is he going to die?
Will everyone die now?
Somehow, all he could think of was whether he was going to survive. Whether facility was going to be ok. Whether Amy was going to be ok.
A thought of Amy brought him back to reality.
The ground shook so hard that Milton lost his footing… and then it did not shake anymore, everything went horribly quiet. Milton never heard such quietness before.
Soon he could make out Walter’s rough breathing, felt and almost heard wet drops go down his own forehead. It took him minutes to understand what he was missing: machine sounds. No machine hummed or bummed or whistled, no gear was grinding, everything was silent. All lights were out and Milton found himself in pitch-black darkness for the first time in his life.
He had never experienced such thick and all-embracing darkness. People never turned the lights out while living underground because they dared not to extinguish the only thing that saved them from the agony of blindness. They lived under the dim lights of bulbs and slept under the light of dim bulbs. Even while walking the maintenance tunnels Milton always had powerful portable light with him and never feared darkness. What was around him now was maddening and sobering at the same time.
Milton heard a sob, most probably from Walter; he himself could not find courage to make a sound. Infinite time later, Milton scrambled to his feet. Legs felt watery, he made a titanic effort and moved an inch from where he stood, then one more and one more in the direction of emergency staircase that led to the upper parts of facility.
Elevator had no power and Milton was forced to use stairs. He had to climb them only once before, when elevator got jammed in the shaft with weeping upper deck children that came down for some stupid courage test.
But it didn’t matter now. Nothing did.
Milton reached the stairs and felt darkness embrace him even more tightly than before, for emergency staircase was only six feet wide. A dark and dump tunnel that went up steeply like a ladder.
As he breathed stiff air of emergency staircase, hair on his back began to stand up. To his utmost disbelief Milton smelled smoke mixed with dump and oily dust native to the stairs.
Oh God. Something was burning. Something was indeed terribly wrong. He had to go up and see for himself what was going on.
‘Like ants in an ant farm.’
‘Your ancestors would understand. Like ants in an ant farm. Crawling behind the glass walls.’
Suddenly Milton was aware of himself. Though the only thing he understood was that he WAS. He existed.
Deep and melancholic voice kept on talking from the distance, echoing from invisible walls.
‘…have no notion whatsoever of your situation. You do not interest yourself with the world you live in. You take for granted everything you are told. You do not think. Your kind at first seemed flexible and ingenious, yet now you prove to be shallow-minded and primitive – ‘
Milton couldn’t understand where he was, because the only thing he saw was blazing white space. He looked down where his hands and legs should be, but saw the same white space with no sign of flesh. Somehow it didn’t surprise him.
Everything looked like a dream, though Milton was amazingly sure it wasn’t.
‘… do anything’ the voice went on. ‘You live your meaningless lives and think no further than present. You do not learn about the world around you even being given all the possibilities and resources. You use what you can without knowledge about things you use. And if we make things break, you just forfeit them and crawl deeper into your cave. So much for a kind that once ruled the center of the galaxy – ‘
Galaxy? The word was unfamiliar to Milton, yet he somehow sensed it was important. His conscience became clear and he felt pleasant warm air flowing around his invisible body. The voice was coming from some distant place and bore regret in it.