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Above Ground

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Chapter One:

The dim lighting of the small mining tunnel blinked and flickered momentarily, threatening to plunge the entire corridor into pitch darkness.

“…The power’s still shitty in this area too, huh?” Grif’s voice was speaking in its usual lazy tone, and he was surprised at how he was still able to act apathetic given the situation.

Very few things unnerved him anymore, but being stuck in a small, enclosed space in total darkness was not something he was all too keen on doing. …Ever.

It was bad enough that most of the worst moments of his young life always seemed to magically happen at night: their dad leaving for who-knows-where when Kaikaina was still a baby; their mother abandoning them for some weird sideshow freak act only a few years later; getting evicted from their shitty apartment only a couple months after that; having to live off the street until they could move into an even shittier apartment later on; those Above Ground dicks vandalizing and picking fights; Kai sometimes going missing and forgetting to even message him…just to name a few night-time instances he’d rather not dwell on.

But then his stupid friend Tucker had recently given him some information on some Earth animals called “bats” that kind of scared the shit out of him.

…Granted, he’d never seen anything remotely resembling the images of bats Tucker had shown him in The Slums and the vast networks of tunnels and mining shafts that were located around and below the underground settlement. It seemed fairly likely that the species hadn’t even been transplanted from Earth before the means to travel to humanity’s home-world had been cut off completely, but that didn’t keep his imagination from seeing the damned things in every darkened corner he moved past now.

Knowing his luck, he’d probably find the only bat in existence on this colony world…and just then the power would kick off completely and some mutated, alien flying rodent would be biting his face.

He shuddered at the scenario, however implausible it probably was.

If the old miner he’d directed his initial question at took offense to that sort of language being used by an eighteen-year-old delivery boy, he gave no indication of it.

Instead, he cast tired-looking eyes over at the lighting panels off to the sides of the hallway. Wires were dangling from one of them in a rather haphazard way that no doubt wasn’t up to any kinds of safety or power guidelines anywhere.

“…Name a place in The Slums where the power isn’t shitty and I’ll double your fee.”

Grif spat off to the side, “And do extra work to find it? No thanks.”

The old man smiled wryly, “Figured you’d say that even if it wasn’t a damn near impossible task anyways.”

He finished counting out the money he owed Grif on his credit chip for the supply run and Grif handed him the storage container of power cells needed to help run some of the equipment and portable lighting located further down in the corridor. It was always best to bring your own, just in case something did finally cause the power to shut down in the shafts, after all.

“Do you want to help out here for some extra credit or do you have more rounds to do?”

The man would always ask thst question, though it was more routine now than him expecting a change in the boy’s response. Maybe he was just hoping for Grif to reconsider his stance: mining was dangerous, yes, but it was honest work and the pay was better than most jobs people in The Slums could get and there were benefits too, which could help Kai as well. He’d been a former neighbor of the Grif siblings and had helped to set Grif up as an errand boy when he’d been desperate to support himself and his little sister. Now that Grif was of legal age, perhaps he thought that a mining job would be the safest bet for him.

Touched as he might be by the sentiment behind the question, Grif had no real desire or inclination to be a miner. The risks outweighed the benefits in his head and even without taking those into consideration, you were gone for days sometimes depending on the job since the resources closer to the The Slums were heavily depleted. Who knows what kind of trouble his sister could get into then? Well, Grif could guess…he just preferred not to for his own sanity.

Besides, the pay for doing odd jobs was decent enough now that he had established himself to make something of a living on. If Grif was comfortable with a routine, he was damned sure not to try to change it anytime soon.

“I have more rounds to do and I have to check on Kai still.”

The older man nodded, “If you change your mind, let me know.”

“Thanks.” Grif gave a small wave and hurried off back towards the more well-maintained areas of The Slums, casting nervous glances in all directions to try to prevent imaginary bat attacks whenever the recess lighting dimmed and flickered.

 

*****

Stepping back out into the overcrowded “metropolis” (he was pretty sure that description was only used because “the shithole where most of the people lived” was too wordy) that made up The Slums proper from the mining tunnels was always an odd experience.

Unlike in the tunnels and shafts, the cavern was relatively well-lit beyond the odd power glitches every area would have once in awhile and the need for constant maintenance work: a throwback from the days when the place had actually been established as a proper mining colony, before a majority of the valuable resources were completely depleted and the more privileged and tech-savvy colonists abandoned the place to live on the planet’s surface away from the rest of the squabble once everyone realized that, for whatever reason, regaining contact with Earth or any of her other colonies or stations was a lost cause. …All of that had happened generations before Grif’s time though, so he only knew the recorded accounts.

From what he could gather, the lighting was only a few shades dimmer than the sun of the old solar system since it had long been established that exposure to sunlight helped promote health. There was a built-in day and night cycle as well, to give people the sense of living outside.

…Of course, Grif had never seen the actual sun of the old solar system or been anywhere close to topside: you had to get a pass for that— which meant you were deemed “valuable” enough to live and work in Above Ground or the other alternative was that you were forcibly being brought up there as a prisoner or indentured servant. One of those things he doubted would ever be a possibility for someone like him, the other he’d be damned if he ever allowed to happen, so he had to take the records’ words and what others said on the subject at face value.

He stepped out of the tunnel’s entrance, the door sealing shut behind him with a soft “hiss” and rubbed his eyes as they watered while trying to adjust to the sudden influx of light beating down on them.

The Slums were huge: blocks of buildings built hastily around, upon, and over one another. There were maps and directories to try to explain the chaotic madness of the design scheme, but Grif never bothered trying to look at them. He doubted he’d ever see the entirety of the place and he’d grown up here. Whenever he was directed to go to an area he wasn’t familiar with yet, he simply found the easiest route there and made a mental note about it. Finding a ton of different routes to a spot he’d probably only ever go to once or twice was far too much of a hassle.

There were “levels” to The Slums as well, with elevators or trans-shuttles one could take to the different subsections or one could use the mining tunnels and shafts, but you had to be familiar enough with them to not get lost and know which ones were in stable enough condition to still be used without any risks. The lower levels were the most cramped and uncomfortable to live in levels. Naturally, they were the most densely populated areas, though population relocation projects were being implemented to move people to the higher levels as residential buildings were finished being constructed.

In a way, Grif supposed the layout and housing areas of The Slums had probably made a lot more sense when the planet had first been established as a mining colony. There had been a lot less people then, after all.

But once The Council had been established after all contact with Earth had been lost and resources became limited, things had changed. The population had started to increase, and mining was no longer a means to provide for everyone.

Once the surface of the planet had been successfully terra-formed, it had first been thought that most people would be moved to Above Ground. But The Council only picked about half the population to live there at the time and sealed off the entryways topside to everyone else.

While living mostly forgotten and cut-off from their more “privileged” counterparts, the entire population of The Slums were effectively their prisoners as well given the superior technology The Council had brought with them to Above Ground. Grif had heard mention of really advanced A.I.s that were still being approved upon even now for instance, but he had no idea whether or not that kind of talk was just hearsay.

History records usually showed that any protests went badly and caused more restrictions on supplies for the entire Slums area.

…Above Grounders were assholes then and they were still largely assholes now whenever they showed up. It wasn’t a big shock to Grif that things had always been that way.

Grif supposed that, initially, his family had almost qualified as luckier than most. While not located on the topmost level with its cavernous overhead, they’d been living in one of the less crowded midlevel areas set up for residents. Things had almost been downright decent then.

It hadn’t lasted, though: once both of their parents were out of the picture the young Grif siblings learned all sorts of grown-up words like “rent” and “taxes” in quick succession. Their parents’ less-than-stellar reputations made it hard for any of their neighbors to want to have the two children living with them for more than a short term basis and, truthfully, there wasn’t a ton of room in residency housing for two extra mouths either given how small most apartments were. They’d been shipped down to the lower levels pretty soon after, where the homeless, squatters, and the cheapest places to rent or buy were.

But it wasn’t too horrible an experience, all in all. …Save for Kai crying a ton: that was one memory Grif tried to constantly get out of his head.

It had made the horribly lazy, disinterested in everything Dexter Grif become responsible and a somewhat functioning member of society: stepping in to fill the roles of both absent parents for his heartbroken little sister. That counted for something, at least.

And while their former neighbors couldn’t offer them permanent housing due to their own personal dilemmas, many of them, like the miner he’d just helped out, gave him contacts that helped to establish Grif as an all-around errand/delivery boy in The Slums. With the money he had gotten from that, he and Kai had been able to afford a surprisingly decent for the cheap price place to call “home”— once they could afford new locks and a security system later on down the road, of course.

…And they’d also found a new friend in Tucker, too. He’d been the first person to introduce himself to the two when they had first moved to Low Town, the name for the lowest level residency area— and when he wasn’t trying to practice putting his questionable “dating moves” on Kai for which Grif would repeatedly threaten to kick his ass for given that his sister was four years younger than the two boys, he was a pretty decent guy.

…It had been quite a few years since then, and all in all— Grif couldn’t complain too much about the way things were going for him now.

Well, he could be working less, but he supposed that was just a sacrifice he’d have to make.

The mining tunnel entrance he had just used was located in the sprawling expanse of Level One. It was just as busy as anywhere else in The Slums, but the high-vaulted ceilings towering high overhead gave the illusion of it having more space.

Sometimes, he would climb the ladders and walkways to reach the rafters and support beams keeping the rock above from collapsing on top of the settlement when he just wanted to get away for a little while. It made for an impressive napping spot, his favorite pastime of all.

…But he still had some jobs to do, sadly— so any impromptu naps would have to be avoided despite how oh-so-tempting they were once the thought of them was lodged firmly into his brain.

Sighing in disappointment at the reminder of the work ethic he despised, but still needed to have at the moment Grif went through a mental checklist of the jobs he needed to do still to see if he’d be lucky enough to have one close by.

The only one on Level One he actually had was on the other side of the area from where he was right now. He groaned loudly at the realization.

…That nap idea was getting more and more tempting by the minute.

*****

“…Guess what happened while you were away!”

Lavernius Tucker’s amused tone and the mischievous glint in his brown eyes indicated that whatever it was that had happened was more entertainment to him than a bad thing.

Grif, only mildly curious because damn it he was tired still, looked at his neighbor crossly.

…Well, that, and he was still kind of mad about the whole “bat” situation.

“What?”

Tucker shrugged indifferently at his reaction, “Well if you’re going to act that way, you can just forget it. Maybe I’ll go tell Kai instead…”

Not sure if it was something he would want his little sister knowing yet or not, Grif sighed, “Sorry, Tucker, I just got home and I’m a little tired.”

“Dude, you’re always a little tired. I’m surprised you actually get any work done at all.” Tucker’s comment was a joke, but he almost sounded somewhat impressed.

“And I had to go into the mining shafts too.” Grif shuddered.

“So?” the blank look on the other teen’s face made it pretty apparent that he didn’t see the issue, “You have to go in them pretty much every other day.”

“Yeah, except now I have to worry about bats!”

That took a moment to sink in, but the second it did Tucker burst out laughing, and Grif was seriously considering killing him— even if that probably meant Tucker’s mother would never give him or Kai desert again. …It was that thought alone that kept him only glaring at his friend murderously instead.

“Are you shitting me?” the dark-skinned boy managed to get out in-between gasps of air and fits of laughter, “I’m pretty sure if there were actually bats on this planet they would have bitten you a long time ago, fatass.”

“Yeah, well I wouldn’t have even known about the damn things if you hadn’t said anything!” he countered, tan cheeks flaring red in embarrassment.

“…Your paranoia’s all on you, dude.” Tucker practically had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. Grif thought of delicious home-baked cake and other sweets, counting back from ten as he waited for him to finish.

Once the laughter at his expense died down, Tucker managed to get back to business rather quickly, “So…you want to hear about what happened or not?”

They were standing in the common area just outside the residential district in Low Town where both of their apartments were located. There were a few businesses, seedy shops and mechanics, and some food stalls nearby…along with several people either going about their way or shooting the breeze like they were. Grif tried to ignore some of the homeless people sleeping around the area— there seemed to be more of them now and it made him nervous that there was going to be another increase in taxes or rent sometime soon.

Truthfully, he had worked pretty much everywhere today so he’d rather just go home and sleep after checking up on Kai, but he was somewhat curious about whatever seemed to be getting Tucker so excited. Usually that meant interesting news, at least: he wasn’t quite sure how he did it, but Tucker was even more knowledgeable about what was going on in The Slums than Grif was a lot of the times.

“…So what happened then?” he asked the other boy.

Tucker leaned over closer to him conspiratorially, “Some Above Grounders managed to get all the way down here to Low Town!”

“Really?” Grif blinked.

That was surprising.

Every couple of days or so, someone from Above Ground would sneak down into The Slums…usually teenagers who just liked to see if they could do it in the first place.

They would cause a lot of problems: “pranks” by their definition (”vandalism” by most others’), and they would disappear back to their haven above to talk all about their experiences with “slumming.”

But they usually never went too far past the upper levels: too much effort or maybe they were just scared of being too cut off from their escape routes back to the surface. They were a pain and a hassle, but nothing that affected Grif too much personally— if he got accosted by one of them during rounds usually in an attempt by one of them to look “tough” to his cohorts, a quick skirmish was just the thing to get them off of his back.

But for some of them actually to be here in Low Town…he wondered what kind of determined mischief-makers they were dealing with this time.

“Yeah,” Tucker nodded his head in affirmation to Grif’s surprised response, “From what I gather though they’ve just been doing the same stupid bullshit they always do: messing up things and just being their usual asshole selves. Teenagers around our age, I guess. …Probably blowing off steam before they’re enrolled in the military.”

Right, Grif had forgotten that it was pretty much mandatory for kids their age who were Above Ground citizens to spend at least a few years getting military training. It had always made him sort of glad he hadn’t been born there: he knew he really didn’t want anything to do with that sort of thing. …Too structured and with too many rules for his slacker lifestyle.

He could almost sympathize with the kids who just wanted to escape for a few days down here from all of that— if they didn’t tend to be such dicks while they were visiting, at any rate.

A new thought crossed his mind then and he glanced around, “Where’s Kai?”

Right, normally both her and Tucker would be waiting around here for him to get off of work. And if there was one thing about the fourteen-year-old was that worried him even more than anything else, it was that his little sister could be a horrible judge of character sometimes.

Tucker seemed to figure out his line of thinking pretty quickly, “Relax, Grif, my mom had a panic attack when she heard the news and made up some excuse about needing help running some errands to keep Kai out of trouble. She’s with her.”

Grif visibly relaxed. Tucker’s mom had taken a pretty strong liking to little Kai when they had first moved here and always tried to keep her from getting into too much trouble as a result of that when Grif wasn’t around: a task that Grif was always grateful and amazed for given how sometimes Kai could even get on his last nerves at times, especially now that she was older and getting into all sorts of trouble he’d never dreamed his little sister would get into earlier in their lives.

“Besides, if I see anyone acting suspicious near her, I’ll kick their asses myself.” Tucker said, momentarily surprising Grif with how serious he sounded.

Grif nodded appreciatively at the comment, glad that Tucker and his mom were such helpful neighbors, “Thanks, Tucker, though you’ll have to beat me to them first.”

Grif was generally lazy and good-for-nothing when it came to most things (of his own volition, of course: he had no doubt he could actually do a lot of things quite well if he could be bothered to do them— look at what he’d done with his small errand business, after all), but the one thing that seemed to motivate him at all was his little sister. It was mainly because he had been so focused on being the parental figure in her life that he did pretty much anything now.

“Dude, all of this bromancing has seriously worked up an appetite and maybe a need for bleach cleaner for my brain.” Tucker looked at him expectantly, “You’re paying, right?”

“What? Since when did we agree to that?”

“My mom and Kai are having dinner out and you just got paid, right?” Tucker’s voice was pleading.

“…Don’t you have your own job?” Grif grumbled, though he was already fishing out his credit chip regardless. He supposed he did owe Tucker and his mom a little bit, and it wasn’t like the food stalls in Low Town were anything expensive anyways.

“Oh, I got fired a couple weeks ago from that one. Apparently the manager wasn’t too thrilled I used my “angel” pickup line on this really hot chick.” The boy paused, frowning, “It’s not my fault though! I didn’t even know he had a wife!”

“…It’s surprising you haven’t gotten shot yet.”

Tucker grinned mischievously, “Who says I haven’t been shot at? I just know when to run really fast.”

*****

While there were some mumblings about the Above Grounders who had managed to sneak all the way down to Low Town, it didn’t really alter the way things operated down there all that much. It was the same thing whenever some of them snuck into The Slums in general: everyone still had their lives to live, so things still happened pretty much the way they always did.

…So long as you weren’t one of the people they chose to give a hard time to or whose property they vandalized or “borrowed”— things were fine.

If you happened to be one of those unfortunates, well, life just sucked and there wasn’t much you could do about it. There were no legal recourses one could take against Above Grounders in particular since Slum residents weren’t considered proper citizens in the first place.

So, after Tucker’s initial comment on the topic, Grif had kind of let the matter drop from his head. He had to focus on keeping Kai out of trouble and on his work too.

“Dex, look at this one!”

Grif groaned inwardly, glancing over at the tank top that his sister was gushing over in the store window.

“…Not in a million years, Kai.”

She pouted, “You suck!”

It was their usual mode of interaction when they met outside of home and Grif wasn’t busy with errands. They argued, but never to any vehement level. In a weird way, Grif had gotten used to the routine: they’d started doing it after their mom had left, probably to avoid thinking of any subjects that were too serious or too unsettling to dwell on at the time.

“What I don’t get is why they always make clothes gray.”

“It’s red.” Not a color Grif was particularly fond of himself, “Maybe we should get that color blindness of yours tested again.”

The fourteen-year-old frowned, “I didn’t like doing that the first time. Those doctors were worse than cops!”

…Well, Grif couldn’t argue there. When she was younger, a lot of people had been curious about Kai’s medical condition because it was something that usually only affected men: they had been far too enthusiastic in trying to research it, which had understandably freaked the then only three-years-old girl out.

Her law enforcement issues came from how the two of them were treated when they had been evicted from their previous home. Grif couldn’t necessarily blame her for either viewpoint, really.

While he was mulling things over, Kai wandered off further down the street. She paused and frowned, noticing the broken window of another storefront.

“…Looks like somebody was having a fun time.” She mumbled.

Her brother frowned, joining her and noticing how it looked like some of the items had been rummaged through amidst the broken pieces of glass in the display, “Vandalism, it looks like, and some thieving too.”

And usually, especially in a more populated/secure area in the middle levels like this…that tended to mean one sort of person would do something in that vein since other residents would know better and probably wouldn’t risk it. He looked around briefly, wondering if the perpetrators were still in sight but seeing no one but familiar strangers and acquaintances he’d passed this way before.

The girl looked thoughtful, “Hey, Dex?”

“Yeah?”

“If people living in Above Ground have everything, why do stuff like this at all?”

Grif blinked, not sure of how to respond at first, “…Because they’re assholes?”

“…They can’t all be, though.” It was odd to see Kai so serious, it was almost unnerving in a way.

“Well, probably not.” He agreed, “But the only ones I’ve met down here have been.”

“Yeah, most of the ones I’ve met have been too.” The girl mumbled to herself, preoccupied with her own thoughts.

Wait…what?

Something about Kai’s comment caused her older brother to ask her to elaborate, but she quickly chose to change the subject instead whenever he tried bringing it up again and he never got a clear answer from her after that. …Much to his annoyance.

*****

It was only a few days later when Grif finally put two and two together about what Kai had meant earlier.

…Unfortunately for him, the whole episode kind of made him seem like a major asshole afterwards— but, oh well.

“…And here are the cables you were asking for.”

Once the money was on his chip from the last exchange of the day, Grif headed back to Low Town with a tired-albeit-happy skip to his step.

He’d had to go into the mining tunnels again and scavenged the requested items from conduits no longer in service. Fair game to anyone if they could get to them at that point: the sooner the conduits were picked clean, the sooner possible hardware updates could be done or there was no longer any reason to hold back on using abandoned tunnels for storage for more active areas of the mines. He then had to trek them to Level Three by himself too, but that meant extra money in his pocket since he didn’t have to go through any sort of middle man for the items. Besides, since the cables were harder to find, he was able to haggle an even better price for them too.

…Maybe he’d take a break tomorrow then, go somewhere fun with Tucker and Kai.

Or he could just nap the day away too: napping was fucking awesome.

He was in such a good mood that he even opted to pay the small fee to ride one of the public transport elevators down to Low Town. If he got home quick enough, maybe he could catch Kai and they could grab a quick bite to eat in celebration.

The crowd of people that had been crammed into the elevator along with him thinned out once it reached its destination, and he made his way to the exit— only having to push his way past a few of the more impatient people who didn’t want to wait the couple of extra seconds to get out of the lowest levels of The Slums while people were disembarking from the elevator still. He muttered a few choice words about them under breath, but they seemed too caught up in their own businesses to care much about an annoyed eighteen-year-old who they probably felt had mildly inconvenienced them already by choosing to leave the elevator at that exact moment.

“D—does it hurt still?” a nervous voice caught his ears, the more shrill quality to it causing it to stand slightly higher in decibel range from the din of voices all around him in the crowd, “Where…where can I get some ice?”

“It’s okay now. It hurt like a bitch when it happened though. …Fucking asshole.”

What had just been slightly louder random background noise a few seconds ago suddenly took on a whole new level of clarity when the second voice Grif heard registered in his mind.

Kai!

He swiveled his heard around, trying to figure out where she was exactly.

Off to either side of the transport elevators were benches meant for public use, usually used by people if they were waiting for the elevators to become active in the morning or if they were planning to meet someone entering the lower levels. …Or, occasionally, someone homeless would use them to sleep on until security forced them to relocate.

He saw Kai sitting down on one of them, a grimace plastered on her tan face. Standing in front of her, wringing his hands helplessly, was a tall pale boy around his own age that he had never seen before. The boy was looking thoroughly panicked.

As Grif approached them, he could see just why the boy was so upset: Kai’s left hand was clasped around a bloody piece of tissue just above her right elbow. There was a pretty big cut on her forehead with blood dripping down her face and a pretty nasty-looking bruise on her cheek just under her right eye too.

“…What happened?” he was standing over her in about two seconds flat, concern intermixing with the need to figure out what exactly had transpired in the first place.

Neither Kai nor the boy she was with had been expecting his sudden appearance and the girl nearly jumped from her spot on the bench when he showed up.

“Dex? What the hell? Don’t fucking do that!” she looked almost embarrassed once she realized her surprised reaction and just what she looked like at the moment, “I…I thought you’d be later.” She mumbled.

“I got off early.” He frowned, glad now that he had, “And don’t try to change the subject. What the fuck happened?”

Kai blanched slightly at the serious tone in his voice and looked down at the scraped skin above her elbow. It looked even worse upon closer inspection, as her skin had been rubbed off from right above her elbow to almost her wrist— Grif tried not to look at it too directly at the moment until he got some answers first. Both it and the cut looked bad enough that she’d need antiseptic once they got home, which he knew from past experience she wouldn’t like because it hurt a lot.

“Those Above Grounder dicks were here and giving my friends a hard time, so I told them to fuck off.” She said finally, hurrying through the story before Grif could lecture her for being too confrontational around the wrong types of people again, “One of them got mad and pushed me into a bench. I think I got hurt mostly from hitting that. …And the fall.”

“…And the dragging afterwards too.” The unknown boy muttered after her. Kai’s expression became even darker at that, as though it were a memory she’d rather not think back upon anytime soon and she shuddered.

“Where are your friends now?” Grif had never liked the crowd his sister chose to spend time with. The fact that they weren’t here at all sort of confirmed his suspicions on that end.

“…Gone.” Her defeated tone seemed to indicate she had realized the same thing about them too now.

“And the Above Grounders?” his voice was surprisingly calm, especially since at the moment all Grif was seeing in his vision was red.

“Gone too.” Kai motioned with her head to the lost-looking redhead who had been anxiously listening in on their exchange this whole time, “Except for him.”

And that’s pretty much the moment when Grif lost it.

If he had been thinking clearer he probably would have been able to put the pieces together well before Kai explained to him later on how the boy hadn’t really been friends with the jerks who had hurt her, how it had actually been him who had stopped them from dragging her off who-knows-where when her “friends” had abandoned her, and how he had been trying to help patch up her injuries afterwards.

But at that moment? His little sister was hurt and Grif wasn’t thinking at all, just reacting.

And his fist ended up connecting pretty hard with the boy’s freckled face as a result of that.

…Admittedly, he felt rather bad about it in hindsight, though.