Until now I had never been on the surface…
I have lived over a century, nearly half of my lifespan, underground in the Dwarf mines digging for our beloved gold and iron. With half my life still ahead of me, I had decided to finally act on my wish to see the world outside the caves, like my father had before me.
Training for surface work takes decades, and after that you end up weighed down by heavy gear and have little choice in destination. “I want the freedom to explore! I want to be free to see what I want to see!” That’s what I told myself. So I packed my father’s old battleaxe and some jerky and I sneaked onto the surface workers’ cart. The cart was my way to the surface, but also my way back home. I knew would have to slip back to the cart before it returned at dusk, or I would get left behind till the next run. The cart was made of metal and what we could find for wood. It was very tall, holding spinning tracks and skiis on the bottom. I hid underneath it in between the mechanisms and the cart above them, making sure I was well hidden. If I got caught I would likely never get to see the surface again. I waited for what seemed like forever before I heard voices.
“Did you pack the tent this time? You know we’ll need it if we get stuck out there at nightfall. You know what the sunrise will do to a living creature?! You know how serious it is, how important that tent could be to us?”
“Yes-yes. Don’t worry, I brought the tent this time.”
The cart sank as the surface workers boarded, heavy with gear, I could not be sure, but it sounded like three or four dwarfs. The cart was attached to a giant winch that pulled it up a ramp and toward the large open doorway leading to the surface. When the cart finally made it through the doorway, the large iron doors closed behind it, locked. The only thing I saw from under the cart was the ground; nothing but sand. The air smelled different out here, empty and cold. When I had finally built up the nerve, I dropped off the cart and lay on the ground, keeping my head down so that the surface workers would not notice me. The gritty sand was cold on my face, almost as cold as stone. When the cart was far enough in the distance, I got up and took my first good look around.
Until now I had never been on the surface. The light in the sky is as bright as a sun, the landscape is bathed in that light, but the sky behind it is dark, filled with stars. It must be the moon. Looking ahead, I see only ski tracks and sand dunes. I turn and look behind me and see what I can only assume is a cliff, stretching upward. A cliff! I have to see that up close! Only at a vertical mineshaft have I seen a drop that high.
The journey to the cliff face is longer then I expected. Walking in the sand is hard and my calves burn with the effort. It is colder here than I thought. I take the last steps toward the cliff, reaching out to lean on it. Unlike the sand and air, the rocky surface of the cliff is warm to the touch, likely retaining heat from the sun’s light hours ago. I sit down and take off my backpack, leaning on the warmth of the wall and letting my legs rest. The moon is much lower in the sky then when I arrived.
“I wonder how much time I have before the cart returns…” I ponder as I eat some jerky from my pack.
I look along the walls left and right of me and I see something. There is a large indent in the rock to my left. I finish my jerky and get up to examine it. Huzzah! In my exhaustion I did not notice that the cliff pushes inward to a natural cave formation. I decide to squeeze into the small opening, and inside the cave I am surrounded by blackness.
I am used to the darkness of the mines so I push forward, confident that my eyes will adjust. The ground is slick with water, my shoes don’t grip properly. As my pupils widen, I slowly get a good look at my surroundings. The cave is rather small; there is a dead end in front of me. The cave walls have a ring of slimy algae on them. I take a step forward to get a better look. The algae and moss give off a smell very foreign to me, similar maybe to mushrooms. I take another step forward and hear a splash, echoing off the walls. Startled, I look down. There is a small pool of water at my feet. I quickly take my foot out, but I can already feel the wet seeping into my sock.
Behind me I hear movement, what sounds like meat hitting the ground, or maybe an open hand hitting stone. I quickly turn around, facing the exit, the light from the doorway disrupting my vision. I can see only a large humanoid shape rising from the ground left of the entrance. My axe! Where is my axe! I reach for my bag and grab… nothing. I left it outside. The shape rises, standing on two feet. Maybe it’s friendly? The thought is quickly scared out of my mind as I hear a low guttural growl. The creature is but six paces from me. It’s nearly twice my height. I step away from it.
Three things happen at once. I move out of direct glare of the doorway, only to see the giant hairless creature jumping at me. I step into the water again. My foot doesn’t grip the slick ground and I slip. My heart is racing. It jumps clean over me and hear a fleshy thump as it hits the wall. Adrenaline coursing through me, I scramble to my feet and run. Reaching the exit I take a quick look back at the creature and freeze in horror.
The monster had hit the wall face first, and was thus facing it, but slowly it starts to change. First the legs move. Its knees, facing the walls, twist on their hinges until they face toward me. The foot follows, the ankle joint twisting downward until the top of its foot becomes the bottom. Double joints. The arms start to move next, joints bending and cracking past the breaking point, popping into their new places. The fingers and toes follow suit, each link switching sides, the back of the hand becoming the inside. Everything but the head of the creature is now facing me, but it too has started rotating.
I come to my senses, the adrenaline overwhelming my chills. I run out of the cave and into the sands, grabbing my pack along the way. I dash around a large sand dune, a good distance away from the cave, pushing my hand into the bag for my axe. I look behind me and see the creature in clear light for the first time. It is clawing out of the tall thin exit of the cave, two arms protruding, forcibly pulling the rest the body through the small hole. Our eyes lock. It pulls itself all the way just as my hand finally grabs the axe. The creature stands up, now outside the cave, its grey skin illuminated by the moon. It continues to stare at me as it opens its mouth and lets out a loud piercing scream before lunging toward me. It stoops down to four legs and continues barreling toward me at an even greater speed. It closes the gap between us in little time, launching itself toward me like it had in the cave. I duck, purposely this time, and clumsily attempt to strike it with the axe. I feel as the blade pushes into the monster’s skin. The axe is ripped from my grip. I scramble to my feet and turn around as quick as I can, my wet foot squelching in my boot. The creature is wearing a terrifyingly blank expression. Its eyes are wide open, perfectly round white orbs. It opens its mouth, showing two sets of thick needle-like teeth.
I try to think… The moon is almost setting… Its eyes are wide open. I grab a handful of sand and throw it at the creature’s face. Then mustering my bravery, I lunge to the blinded monster, grab my axe out of its abdomen and slash at its leg. The weapon buries itself deep into its shin. The creature lets out another ear-piercing sheik. My hearing is gone in seconds, but I’ve no time to worry about it. I try to pull the axe out with no success. Giving up, I run back toward the cave. To my right the moon is starting to set. On my left, I can see a brighter light, the sun, rising. My hearing starts to return as I reach the cave entrance. The creature is quiet. I can see the sun’s rays moving across the sands, darker then moonlight but much, much hotter. I squirm into the cave and look back at the creature. It removed the sand from its eyes and has started limping toward the cave.
I watch as the sun’s rays begin to cover the entire visible desert. The creature yells in pain, its skin seared by the sunlight. Its skin turns from pale grey to brown to black. It continues to march toward me, wailing. Its skin catches fire and it starts to burn. I closed my eyes and cover my ears, backing into the cave. I crouch down, trying to get the creature’s painful screams out of my ears, tears running down my cheeks. After about five minutes the screaming stops, but I stay huddled on the ground for much longer. Getting up, I look outside. Unsure if sunrise has passed, I throw a piece of jerky out of the opening. Nothing. I stick my hand out. Nothing. I guess it’s true what they say about sunrise and sunset…
I return to the huge iron doors, and find only one pair of tracks. Lucky; they must have stayed out during the sunrise in that tent. I wait behind a sand dune for them to return, and when they do I climb into the large doorway behind them and move unnoticed through the shadows until the coast is clear. I head to my underground house.
Inside the comforts of my home, I take off my clothes and slide into my bed, closing my eyes. Now I know why the surface workers have so much gear. Now I know why they have specific destinations. I think tomorrow, I will sign up to be a surface worker…