Since the beginning of time, people have driven their lives around the sun. That vast, bright, shining, twinkling star, burning high in the sky, without rest or interruption. Hundreds of years ago, everyone overlooked the countless benefits that its majesty rained down on the planet, for it was always there: unperturbed and persevering. Therefore, it was a monstrous shock that this same source of life, of energy, of power, also sentenced an inevitable, forced course towards contingent extermination.
A constant painful reminder of the gradual beginning of an irreparable, irreversible destruction. It was not to blame, of course. Only human hands could bear the weight of such condemnation, of such unforgivable actions. Engineering weapons for pointless wars that took their toll on innocents, dumping toxic waste into the seas, the forests, and even the sky itself. Hunting relentlessly until numerous species became extinct, polluting, leaving trails of filth and poison in their wake. They were senseless, cruel, malicious, and worst of all: naive.
For being immersed in the blinding fantasy that their sins would have no consequences. For ignoring the pleading cries of the earth, as well as its suffering, its incessant calls for help. Howling its torment every minute, second, wailing its agony, its growing delirium. It was only when the world shook, rumbled, roared, and narrowly died, that they realized the magnitude of the mistakes they had ruthlessly committed. mercilessly. Thousands of ideas arose to delay the calamity, hundreds of proposals begged with trembling voices slipped into deaf ears, tears of blood flowed on the dry and withered ground.
But time finally played against them, dropping the sharp edge of the unforgiving sickle, acquiring the silhouette of the Grim Reaper, death in the flesh. The cemeteries were unable to accommodate the number of coffins that arrived with each breath. It was a hard, catastrophic blow to humanity. The ozone shield deteriorated to such an extreme that it was impossible to be exposed to the sun for too long without suffering the atrocious effects, and the heat was terrible, suffocating, and torturous. Ironically, knowing that the scarcity of freshwater quickly climbed to the top of the pyramid of their essential needs, dehydration became the least of their worries.
The nights weren't much better. No amount of wood thrown into campfires or fireplaces could successfully combat the freezing cold, not even those ridiculously large and bulky coats designed for winter enjoyment were sufficient armor. It was like being locked in a freezer with no way to escape. Deaths from hypothermia were no longer a rarity; instead, they were so common that the morgues were overcrowded, forced to leave the stretchers with a decomposing body (sometimes several) exposed, waiting their slow turn to be cremated. It was no surprise to find an amputated toe, burns on the skin, permanent pains in the muscles, the results of the drastic temperature changes. Yes, everything was a disaster. It was as if God had abandoned them all.
Desperate, the countries decided to unify and find a solution that would ensure the continuity of the race, of the plants, of the few animals that persisted. Pacts were signed, treaties were established and, for the first time in what they thought could be millennia, a focus of hope was born. Like a tiny seed at first. Yet it germinated, thrived and blossomed, fueling motivation and an indomitable desire to survive. And so it was how the "Station for Conservation of Races" was built, in the core of the earth.
Colossal, magnificent, filled with all the technology required to support the welfare of the inhabitants, covered with solar panels from the top to its foundations, which simultaneously captured the energy of natural radiation for its use, preventing them from having a direct impact on the citizens. It was called "The Star" because it was later divided into five zones:
The Commercial District, the most frequented. This was not only where food was obtained, but also where it was harvested and processed; it was also responsible for the defense, reproduction and protection of the animals. An endless number of stores and establishments of diverse sizes and productive capacity worked from the beginning of the day until night fell. However, if you were smart, cunning, or brave enough, getting hold of "products" of dubious provenance and frowned upon by society was a possible alternative, of course, taking care not to be caught by the police in the attempt.
The Legal District was where the colleges and universities were established, as well as any other institution that supported the laws: legal offices, courts, prisons. It was not a favorite of criminals, especially smugglers of the Conductive Masks of Superficial Air, or "CMSA" for short. The Star was equipped to fight against such inconveniences as intense heat and bone-chilling cold, but against infected air... Well, some improvements needed to be implemented.
That's why they created the CMSA: breathing devices attached to the nose through two silicone catheters, with flexible and transparent tubes that curved over the ears, like the rods of glasses, at the ends of which there were small filters with a complex filtering system, which cleaned and purified the oxygen. They were expensive to maintain, to say the least. Delays in the payment of the service, as with any other, resulted in the confiscation of the mask and a subsequent fine of an outrageous amount.
Hiding or trying to escape was useless.
These possessed an advanced tracking mechanism, although they had no serial number because immediately when one was confiscated for a debt or given to another due to the decease of the former bearer, they became the temporary property of someone else. That is why they were stolen quite frequently, the bandits making use of elaborate ruses to disconnect the tracker at their convenience. The form of settlement was in "credits". Money as such no longer existed; people accumulated points, through university academic performance or work, which were added to a designated account in the General Bank and could be directly reflected in a digital bracelet that was obtained at age eighteen. And yes, those also had trackers.
The Military District was the most secluded and heavily guarded of the entire station, where the high commanders resided, where the soldiers' training camps were located, and where the patrol schedule was ordered, making sure that no disturbances were generated or borders violated. Events like that had not happened in decades... Or at least that was what they told the public to avoid causing panic or fueling the "terrorist" impulses of the rebels.
The Scientist, with the important task of inventing new medicines to combat the disastrous effects of catastrophic weather, implementing improvements in the CMSA, studying the surface in search of soil in optimal conditions to allow the expansion of The Star. In addition, state-of-the-art clinical centers and medical facilities were located for those of low income.
Finally, and possibly the most important of all: The Industrial District. This is where the distribution of electricity and water was handled, the temperature control, and the manufacture of indispensable solar panels. It was the heart of the station, the raison d'être of the whole structure, the glue that joined all the pieces together to create a masterpiece. To neglect it was a suicidal task. It had to be continuously running, operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, its lights never turned off. It received the well-deserved name of "The Bonfire", Lion more than anyone else knew why.
To be a worker at the Climate Control Plant was to be under the punishment of Lucifer himself as you dived into the fiery lava of hell. Lined from head to toe in safety gear: boots, thick goggles, earplugs, helmet and gloves, there wasn't a hint of skin visible from his body. The steam was suffocating, flooding his uniform with sweat and soaking his hair, having the annoying task of pushing it away from his forehead at every available opportunity. He thought several times about cutting it off, the long blonde locks surpassing his ears and the ends intruding into his dark blue eyes but, in the end, he always decided to save himself that couple of credits and simply tie it up in a bun. Economizing was his life's motto.
His work was overwhelming, demanding and exhausting. While the scientific know-it-alls were behind the monitors, in their comfortable chairs, enjoying a steaming cup of coffee and exchanging gossip, he had to crawl through the ducts to clean the filters of the huge fans, unclog the tunnels that divert the dirt and garbage coming in from outside, repair the pipes. When the night shift was the one he had to cover, as it was then, his job was in the boilers, checking to make sure they didn't run out of fuel so they would continue to generate the heat that was distributed throughout The Star through an extensive network of subway pipes.
Joy was such a distant concept to him, the day would be a little more bearable if at least the pay was adequate. His legs were shaking as he dropped with a groaning sigh into one of the creaky chairs in the dining room. He slowly removed each protector, wiping the excess perspiration from his neck with the cloth he always made sure to carry in his back pocket.
"Beer or water?" the two options were presented in front of him, agitated to hasten his answer.
"Do you really have to ask?" He snorted, reaching out to snatch the beer and take a long gulp. "Yuck, fuck!" He grunted, grimacing in disgust. "It's hot.”
"You know the luxury of refrigerators is not for poor bastards like us," the burly man sat down next to him, stretching his legs wide. "You should be thankful they at least let us consume alcohol during working hours.”
"Don't you think that's counterproductive?" Lion frowned, staring at the murky-colored, cursive label. "I mean, they're supposed to be gifted, smarty-pants brainiacs and all that crap, but they let us drink beer?”
"Their way of telling us: ‘You're scumbags, but we appreciate what you're doing,’ perhaps?" Lion laughed, adjusting the septum* on his nose to center it.
"Yeah, well," he shrugged. "I don't think they'd be grateful if someone drunk accidentally amputated an arm or ruined their expensive machinery.”
"The arm can be replaced, you know,” ah, yes. Those robotic limbs that, it should be noted, the poor wretch would have to sell both his legs and the other arm to be able to finance. "Now, the machinery... that would be quite a dilemma.”
"I presume they'd be standing over the pool of blood demanding that I repair it without even calling an ambulance," he spat disdainfully, taking another sip to try to soften the lump in his throat. "You know we're expendable, Sam.”
Meeting Sam three years ago was one of the best things that could have happened to Lion. He had just turned 18 and, although the moment and the place they met were not exactly the most promising: acid rain splashing its dew furiously, witnessing the coffin containing his father's lifeless body being slowly and bitterly buried, the camaraderie was immediate. He didn't cry, he didn't complain, he didn't ask for answers to questions that would never come. He remained in absolute silence during the ceremony that had only him there to watch, feeling his heart struggling hard for the next beat behind his ribs.
That's when Lion saw him, the guy kneeling in front of one of the gravestones, praying with his eyes closed without giving a shit about how wet he was or if his shoes got muddy. Lion never knew what it was that made him stop beside him, why he wasn't afraid when the stranger stood up and was so terrifyingly big, so intimidating, that he could break even the tiniest of Lion's bones without batting an eyelash. He certainly didn't understand how there, in front of someone who looked at him for the first time without any expression, he crumbled. His brain processed being trapped in a solid, muscular embrace and lulled by soothing sounds a long while later when there were no more tears to shed, his tongue dry, leaving him spent and empty.
It was loneliness that brought them together.
"Accessories," his friend nodded in agreement. “But we can pay the bills and keep the CMSA thanks to this job, Lion." Oh, he truly didn't want to discuss that particular topic with Sam right then and there.
He didn't understand how he could be so gullible, being in favor of a government regime that treated its citizens like fucking puppets with no free will, no decision, bellowing lie after lie that only morons believed. They both lived under the same roof, shared the same hardships, had the same shortages, in the relentless battle to not run out of oxygen in their masks and have bread on the table. What reason would Sam have to root for them? Lion would never assimilate and whenever the issue surfaced, they ended up fighting. His mood wasn't particularly good today, so he opted to take the high road and ignore his comment.
"Anyway, at dawn I have to stop by the Legal District," he tried to keep his tone casual.
"You, in the Legal District?" Sam looked at him, puzzled. "What for?”
"I was thinking about checking out what I'll need to enroll in college,” for Lion, lying to his friend was like getting a direct kick in the balls, every damn time, but he had no choice. He had to. "Or at least a seminar or something.”
"Really? That's great, man!" He had been urging Lion for months to resume his studies, but the stubborn one always refused. Then, when he noticed the joy and pride in Sam's eyes, the guilt almost made him vomit. "I've told you over and over again that you have potential. I'm the brawn and you're the brains, so you should put your intelligence to something better than pretending to die of misery on this plant.”
"Just don't get your hopes up too high, okay?" He scratched the back of his neck, feeling the tension build up with his fingertips. "I probably don't have the credits required to get in.”
"Your grades in high school were impeccable, Lion," Sam patted him on the back a couple of times to encourage him. "With that, I guess you could apply for a scholarship or something, couldn't you?”
"We'll see," Lion muttered curtly, staring blankly at the letters tattooed on his knuckles.
The truth couldn't be more different, embarrassing, but he didn’t dare to face Sam, he couldn't bear to see the disappointment in his honey-colored eyes. Lion couldn't tolerate seeing his reflection in the mirror after returning from one of the many “missions” with the group of petty, inexperienced criminals he frequented, telling some fancy excuse to justify his disappearance, hiding behind the loose wooden plank in the lower-left corner of his tiny closet his share of the loot. They were usually CMSA with a few hours, if he was lucky days, of purified air stored.
Sometimes it was the jewelry of a weak old woman, unable to defend herself, and although he had never physically hurt anyone in the process of stealing their belongings, he couldn't help but feel that he had blood on his hands. The profile of his victims was similar: good quality clothes, fashionable hairstyles, driving luxury cars. If he had the audacity to get closer to get a better look, he could make out the number of zeros on the bracelet attached to their wrists.
"A little more and I quit," was his mantra. But then a debt he'd forgotten about would come back to slap him in the face, or the merchants would raise the price of the goods or the damn gauge on his mask would start distilling red. If only his cheapskate piece of shit bosses rewarded him fairly, as he deserved, he wouldn't be sinking in that pit of deceit and high risk.
As Lion choked on his burden of conscience, the sun reappeared, heralding the dawn. Vast miles away from his position, a young student, on the wondrous cusp of his 23rd year, stretched lazily between the silky blue sheets enveloping his milky skin. He blinked to accustom his chocolate brown eyes to the light and with a groan of protest, got up to go about his morning routine. As soon as his feet touched the floor, the immobile humanoid-looking robot in the corner of his room activated and rushed to make the bed with surgical precision.
The man took a long, warm shower, brushed his teeth, and unloaded his bladder, giving a few final strokes to his ash"gray hair before stepping out completely naked, devoid of any cowing shyness. A perfectly folded change of clothes waited for him. He smiled, pleased to find that his metal assistant finally tightened its screws and got his style right. He picked up his phone, backpack and followed the delicious aroma of brewed coffee and freshly baked buttery muffins.
"Good morning, Dad," he leaned over to leave a kiss on the cheek of the man sitting comfortably on one of the stools surrounding the granite kitchen island, reading the news report from the projected hologram on his bracelet.
"Good morning, sweetheart," he took a sip from his mug, trying not to mess up his neat suit. "Are you having breakfast?”
"Erick should be here soon, so I'd better get something at the u," he sighed, leaning his elbows on the luxurious counter. "You know how he gets if I keep him waiting.”
"Ciel, I've told you I don't much like the idea of you walking around with nothing in your stomach," he gestured to the pile of food in front of them. "You've got quite a feast here.”
"I know," he rolled his eyes. "But I'm not going to waste precious hours of sleep just to wake up earlier and eat here," he pointed to the band on his wrist. "I don't have this for decoration.”
"Don't they teach you not to be wasteful at that university?” He snorted, shaking his head in amusement. "You should manage your credits better.”
"Life's too short," he shrugged, smiling sideways. "Why bother?” The sound of a horn alerted them and Ciel planted another kiss on his father's other cheek before bolting for the door. "See ya!”
"Ciel, your mask!” The boy almost smashed one of the vases as he abruptly stopped, grunting in annoyance at his carelessness.
"Fuck," he whispered, rummaging through his backpack until his fingers wrapped around the delicate material of his CMSA. He quickly put it on, inserting the two catheters into his nostrils.
"I heard that, young man," the man retorted, his voice distant but still irritated at having caught him babbling a vulgarity.
"Bye, Dad!” Ciel reached for the keys hanging on the hook on the wall and opened the door. "Love you!” He shouted, running off in the direction of his friend's car and laughing at his prank.
"Well, well, well. Look who didn't leave me out here for twenty minutes today," Erick greeted him wryly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Did your robot have to pinch you or something?”
"No, just that this time it didn't make a mess of picking out my clothes,” he gestured towards his thin body. "For once it used its tin brain and dressed me properly, not like a fucking clown.”
"You treat the poor thing so badly,” Erick clicked his tongue, pretending to be indignant. "You know, for the paltry sum of three thousand credits, I could arrange your closet.”
"Three thousand?!” Ciel shrieked, dumbfounded. "Thanks, but no thanks,” he showed Erick his middle finger. "Besides, it's bad enough that I have to deal with you five days a week, I don't want to have you disturbing the sacred space of my room as well.”
"So much cruelty," Erick placed a hand on his chest, sobbing. "You hurt me, chick. So much love I have to give and you spit in my face.”
"Let's get the hell out of here," Ciel laughed at his ridiculous act. "You know the temperature regulators stop working at noon, and I don't want to melt from the heat.”
"You being sweaty is a sexy show, chick," Erick curled his fingers like claws and exposed his teeth with a low growl. "Grr, hot.”
"Yeah, but I stink.”
Ciel had no idea that, in the Legal District, in the most unthinkable and unexpected place and as sudden as an earthquake, his heart would be conquered.
*The septum is the cartilage that we have between the nostrils. Interestingly, the ring for the piercing in this area actually goes through a small portion of skin that starts right where the septum ends. This piercing was used as thanks to the gods in some cultures.
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