by Malcolm Carvalho
Pafor Angvil woke with a throbbing headache. He rubbed his eyes as he propped himself up on his cot and blinked at the sliver of sunlight that fell through to a corner of the room.
Domira Hendrick, Minister of Energy for the Surface Nations, sat opposite him, coolly flicking the ash of her cigarette into the matchbox-shaped ashtray.
“Pafor,” Domira said. “I hope we can talk now.”
Pafor tried to speak. His tongue felt heavy. Now it all came rushing to him. He had tried to escape from the energy generation chamber. In desperation, the guards had fired a tranquiliser at him. Nothing else could have worked when he was in that frenzied state.
He struggled to say the words. “How much longer will you keep me here? You know the Surface does not suit me anyway.”
“Relax. We can’t send you back so quickly.”
“Why not? I have already powered up your energy grids.”
“Come on, you know our energy needs here on the Surface. We’ll drain out the grids in no time. We need your energy generation for longer.”
“Then stop keeping me here in isolation. I’m going crazy all by myself. Get some people from Nebania. I’ve left my wife behind there. At least bring her here.”
“Can’t do that. You have no idea of the resources we spend to keep you here. It’s not easy, shielding a Nebanian guy from our elements – the heat, the dust, the ultraviolet radiation. If only you guys were a bit more resilient. Of course, yours being an underground race, I should have anticipated this. That’s beside the point though. If we get more of your people here, it will be a further drain on our resources. And to think we got you here to solve our energy crisis in the first place.”
Domira paused, switching her glance from the tip of her cigarette to Pafor’s eyes. “We can’t send you back either. It’s a dilemma. Yes, we have charged all our grids here with the energy you generate. But without you, we can’t keep it running perpetually. And you know the needs of our world. What power you generate in a week, our people consume within a month. So, let’s do the math. You’ve been here for three months. That gives us…”
“About a year. You could have someone else from Nebania come here by then. Right now, you don’t have any more grids left to charge. My presence here is useless.”
Pafor dropped his hands on the cot. “You tell me it’s been three months? I was to stay here only for forty days.”
Domira smiled. “My dear Pafor. Do you think it is only us Surface guys who are holding you back?”
“Who else can?”
The Minister stood to leave. “Maybe you should ask your own people.”
Pafor composed himself as the hologram loaded up. He had to play this with a calm head.
“Hello Pafor,” the figure in the hologram said. It was Febin Morte, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Nebania. “Let me keep this short. We can’t have you back here. Our agreement with the Surface…”
“What agreement are you talking about?”
“I have to break this to you now. Sending you out there was part of the treaty we signed with the Surface. We could have sent anyone. You’re not special, just the lucky one our random picker selected. In exchange for our energy production, they would supply us with water, food and technology.”
“Food? We manufacture our own food.”
Febin shrugged. “Well, if you can call that food, yes. The stuff we get from the Surface though is far more superior, and natural. You must have tasted it yourself. Surely you know what I’m getting at.”
Pafor ignored the question. “What’s this treaty you mentioned?”
“Okay, so this was the deal. You know those guys had been probing for us for decades. Not specifically us, just any sort of underground intelligent life.”
“And they established contact with us three years ago. We all know this.”
“Yes. Of course, it didn’t take their sensors too long to notice our race had learnt to generate energy with our bodies. So they made us an offer. They would provide food and technology in exchange for the power we could generate. You know that with our mutation, we can power their machines so they can run perpetually.”
“And you simply signed this deal?”
Febin looked away. “What could I have done? Those guys would beat us with their technology. Have you seen how they can blow up entire continents with their nuclear bombs? Even with our energy reserves, we’d be no match for them in an armed conflict. And think about the benefits to our people here. The Surface tech would help connect all of Nebania with their communication systems. And I’ve already told you about the food imported.”
“And for that, I will be here alone for the rest of my life?”
“We hope in time you will be able to teach one of those Surface people how to generate power.”
“You must be kidding me. Ours is a genetic trait. You know it can’t be taught.”
“Okay, let me put this clearly. You’re on your own, Pafor. We might have to think about how the Surface would take care of its energy needs when you die. They may want us to send another person out there. Considering you are only thirty-three and still quite healthy, I guess they’d have another sixty to seventy years to decide. As for Nebania, you don’t exist on our records. Your wife’s memories of you have been wiped out. The Surface people’s technology did that without a glitch.”
“You rascal!” Pafor clenched his fists.
“That you don’t have children or any other surviving relatives made it easy for us. Anyway, we’ve reported that you died in transit to the Surface a month ago. And now, I have more pressing matters to attend to. Goodbye.”
Pafor watched in horror as the hologram switched off. The bastards had abandoned him. The Surface people would keep sucking the life out of him, draining him for their energy needs. How far could he escape before the sun blinded him and scorched his skin? No, that could not work. He could not beat their technology either. Even with his mutation, they still had the upper hand.
What if he just turned things off? If he stopped generating power for the Surface people? Would they send him back? Unlikely. The treaty meant the energy generation could not stop, and even if he did not agree, his people back home would force him so that they could keep their end of the treaty.
“It’s a one-time thing, this trip to the Surface,” his Minister had said. Pafor had looked at it more like a tourist visit then. He remembered the excitement he had felt when he was to see the sun for the first time, even though it was through a thick tinted glass wall. And then over the weeks that followed, the Nebanians had phased out their interactions.
So this was what it had amounted to. He might as well agree to what Domira had been saying, he thought. At least this way, he would be guaranteed the comforts of the Surface. Maybe this would work.
Or he could find a way to go back. Even if he escaped house arrest – yes, even with the luxury they provided him, it was as good as house arrest – he would have to figure a way to handle direct exposure to the sun. He would not last in the outdoors for more than a minute. No one back in Nebania would remember him; even then it was still home.
He was lost in these thoughts when Domira appeared at the door.
“I hope we can work together with better cooperation now.” She had a glint in her eyes. “The grids are waiting for you. Whenever you’re ready.”
She walked away. Pafor wondered what she might be thinking: “We’ve got you here for life buddy.”
He logged on to the Surface HyperNetwork. They had got some new machines and he had to learn how he could interface with them. He would take time to learn, his supervisors had told him, and that was okay. The payoffs of course would be huge for them.
The thought struck him as he browsed through the manuals. If he could learn to interface with the machines, he could also browse through the network, and learn ways to protect himself in the outdoors. Or just build something, perhaps a suit that would shield him from the sun. Alternatively, if he pried around harder, he could find a way to intimate the Planetary Council. Maybe they would rescue him.
For now, these were all just maybes. He could only learn by exploring his way around the network. It would take time. Months, maybe even years. So be it. He would figure out a way to get back home.
He plugged himself into the Generator network and watched silently as the grid powered up. His moment would come. Soon.
Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/_shammael/