Chapter 1:

My Name is Taren

Humanity Has Moved On

The elders say that the sky was even bluer than it is today, back before the Fall turned it reddish-gray. It's hard for me to believe such a thing, since that sky I'm looking at right now is even bluer than the miners' jackets or even the idle glow of our central computer's monitor, but maybe not quite as blue as the gentle pulse of our Home's overhead lights. But the elders insist it was. They even say that the sky was bluer than the ocean, but I've seen the ocean in the encyclopedias in our library, and I don't think anything could be bluer than that, so I have my doubts. I just think 50 years' time is playing tricks on the elders and their memories--the sky's always been a pale reddish-gray for as long as I've lived, and I see no reason to believe the sky would've been anything other than an equally pale blue before the war began. It just makes sense, right?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My name is Taren. Morris. Taren Morris. Ugh, of course I'd try writing this with a pen. Alright, there we go! I don't like writing in pencil very much, what with all the graphite smears my hand makes, but I guess in terms of fixing mistakes this works better. At least my mistakes won't fester on the page. I'm one of the few in my generation who even bothered learning to read and write, after all, so that just makes it even more important for me to do it right! Or should I say write? Hah! Classic writing joke. Elder Dennis told me that one, but I have a feeling it's even older than he is.

Okay, seriously, back on track. My name is Taren Morris, and I live in what used to be called "Mammoth Cave National Park" in a country called "Kentucky." Elder Roger insists that Kentucky was not a country, but in fact a state, though when I asked him what the difference between a country and a state was, he just said Kentucky was part of a country and not its own country. Even though it had its own government like a country does. Maybe it took advice from the bigger country? Sounds like splitting hairs, if you ask me. Thinking about it again, the encyclopedias also mentioned the federation of countries Kentucky was a part of--the United States of America--but I don't remember reading about any big difference between a state and a country there, either. You'd think that would be important. Not like it really matters nowadays. We just call this place Home. Because that's what it is. Back before the war that brought about the Fall, the elders tell us that many of the entrances were sealed off and that the main door we know today was installed when our living quarters were built. The military made a big deal out of renovating the cave for use as a bunker just in case of nuclear war, and that's exactly what we got, so...hooray for the military? Apparently before the renovations, Mammoth Cave all used to consist of stone stalactites and stalagmites and pillars and pits and all kinds of natural hazards, with bats flying everywhere and snakes hiding everywhere. And millions of people used to come visit purely for fun. I mean, the rock formations were probably fascinating, and maybe the bats would add some fun thrill to their visit, but not the snakes. I've read about snakes, and snakes just sound creepy. Sliding around on their bellies, tasting the air with their forked tongues, and gulping down animals in one bite? No thank you. Sounds thoroughly unpleasant. And nearly every book I've read agrees with me.

I keep sidetracking myself. I need to stay on task! But I suppose if you're reading this, then that means I've successfully embarked on my journey already, so maybe I should finally get around to talking about what that is. Okay. My journey. So the Fall happened, and the elders say that nuclear bombs caused something called "fallout" and that made the outside of our Home dangerous to venture out into. One of the first things the elders--specifically Elder Brian and Elder Chuck--taught us about was radiation and how to detect and measure it, saying that high levels of the stuff could give us cancer or melt our faces off or other horrible things. All sorts of effects that made my skin itchy just listening to it. Everyone was very serious about this topic, so I'm going to assume that they weren't just making it all up. It was probably 100% real. But these days, our radiation-measuring devices are showing safe readings, and according to Amy Jo (our current head of the Science Team), it's perfectly survivable outside. She still has to yell at the expedition crew from time to time that their Radsuits remain a necessary precaution. Or at least, she used to. The expedition guys have been bringing back supplies and materials without the Radsuits for about two months now, and none of them have gotten sick or had their faces melt off...well, I mean, Dig Chief Greg already looks like his face is melting, but it doesn't look meltier than usual. Amy Jo and Dave (our chief Field Researcher), have high hopes that we can leave Home soon, and have been making preparations for the occasion for quite a while now. There are about 2,550 of us living here, and while we've got about 5 miles' worth of tunnels and cathedrals to spread out in--which was always plenty for me--many can't wait to finally expand into the outer world. I mean, I wouldn't turn down the chance, either, but man, some folks are just REALLY itching to get out.

Before I go on, I should mention that our Home is led by the Head Council. Each member is an esteemed Elder, who has served as the head of each of the main departments for these entire past 50 years. In brief, the Head Council is comprised of: Elder Laylah, supervisor of the Science Team, who controls the resources for technological development; Elder Roger, supervisor of the Education Team, who's in charge of setting school curriculums and putting together safety information for our workers; Elder Brian, supervisor of the Expedition Team, who is responsible for everything that happens outside of Home; Elder Chuck, supervisor of the Tunneling Team, who has to cover residential issues as well as safety and equipment needs for the miners on top of training the Tunnel-Watchers; and Elder Donna, supervisor of the Chem Team, who overlooks research into everything from industrial cleaning solutions to nutritional solutions. Just about anything that happens here passes by the Head Council, and nothing is decided without their approval.

Alright. Okay. Finally, I'm getting to the point: If we're on the verge of opening up and re-exploring the world and re-connecting with other people, then surely there are others out there who are, too! So the Head Council has decided that, in our efforts to expend and re-settle the country of Kentucky, it would be beneficial to also send out some emissaries to travel abroad and discover/meet some of our fellow survivors and document their stories, struggles, and all that kind of thing! I've already read through just about every book in our library, so I naturally jumped at the chance. Maybe there are some new books I haven't read out there, as well! Actually, to be 100% truthful, there is one book in our library I haven't read. It's this huge, gargantuan beast called "War & Peace," and it's written by this guy whose name I'm not even gonna try to remember how to spell. Pyoter...Dotovsky? Doteresky? Dostoversky? Aw dammit, I tried to remember it, after all! But anyway, I wanted to be one of Home's emissaries because it would give me a chance to learn more about the world outside. Maybe see if the elders were really telling the truth about the world they once knew. I mean, stories are stories, but it's exciting to actually see it with your own eyes, you know? Although I'm pretty sure Elder Laylah was pulling my leg when she said we were scheduled to send a man to the planet Mars, but the Fall happened a few weeks before it could happen. She's always telling such fanciful tall tales. Just seems like another one to me.

Right, so I told the Head Council that I wanted the emissary job, and would you believe it? They actually said yes, right away! I mean, I was worried that they'd think 19 was too young for an emissary and that they'd want to send someone older, but no, they liked the fact that I could already read and write and that I'm top of my class in physical wellness. Oh right, have I mentioned that I can lift 330 pounds on the weights? Because I totally can. To make things even better, when I set that personal record, I know that I saw Lacey looking at me afterwards. She was a year behind me in university, and she intends to join the Chem Team when she graduates in a few months. Wonder if she'll go on a date with me before I leave? Possibly as a romantic reminder of Home? Spoiler Alert: She did not. I'm actually about to head out here shortly, so that all happened about a week ago. It turns out Lacey wasn't all that impressed by my feat of strength, and she doesn't seem to care about physical prowess, in general. Imagine! Not caring about my sweet, sweet record! Can you believe it? I sure can't! Hmph! Well, I'll just find me a sweet foreign(-ish) girl and show Lacey what's what!

So anyway, about the emissaries, there are 4 of us in total. First is me. Taren Morris, of course. I think I've pretty well established who I am. Or maybe I haven't yet? Well, that'll change before too long!

Second up is our chief Field Researcher Dave, who I mentioned earlier. His full name is Dave Minnoia, and he's the oldest of us at age 36. He seems excited to be taking his expertise in exploration and research to a wider scope, or maybe he's just excited to leave Home. He was always the restless type, and for whatever reason, he always valued my input when we'd discuss some of the things he's found. Dave's definitely a people-person, and everyone says he'll talk your ears off, if you let him. I never got that impression, though. But then again, when we were discussing laptop batteries and whether the Science Team could possibly convert them to solar or thermal batteries, one of the Tunnel-Watchers joked they've never seen two brothers with a two-decade age gap before. So, I guess, maybe people think I talk their ears off, too? Huh. Maybe that's why the Head Council was so eager to get rid of me. And here I thought it was my incredible intellect and striking good looks!

Now then, the third emissary is Katya Sidorov, who is actually the youngest in our group at only age 16. She's got a very pretty face that belies her youth, and she'll probably have to use her Sun Staff to keep the boys at bay when she goes journeying. As for her credentials, it's rather unfair how studious and intelligent she is. I might be good at reading and writing, but Katya's definitely got me beat in both departments, as well as logical reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving, and damn near everything else. But can she lift 330 pounds?! I think not! least I hope not! Fun fact, Katya talks normally, just like the rest of us, but her grandma, Elder Stefanya, has a very thick accent that makes it hard to understand what she's saying. She was apparently a traveling student from a country called Chechnya, but I remembered seeing that name as merely being a part of another country called Russia, but Katya told me that her family told her that Chechnya split away only about 3 years before the Fall, and that my encyclopedias were printed before it happened. She's definitely a stickler for details, and I'm sure that her travelogue will be as dry and clinical and insufferably accurate as she is. Ugh.

Our final emissary is Clint Howard the Third, but he writes it like "Clint Howard III." So it's...Clint Howard Three? I'm not quite sure how old he is, but he looks like maybe he's in his mid-20s. His hair's on the longer side, and he only shaves about once every two weeks, so he's constantly got a stubby beard going on. As the elders sometimes say, "different strokes." Whatever that means. Apparently in the old world, people enjoyed watching "movies," which were like our tunneling safety videos but with fictional stories instead of actual information. Side-note, I'm sure these "movies" were interesting and all, but I've always felt that books were superior medium for fiction. I don't think these movies could match up--you'd lose too much background and nuance. But anyway, Clint Three's family were all big movie fans and they were especially enamored with a famous guy named Clint Eastwood. They say he was the coolest guy around, until he got old and started talking to chairs or something, but they liked his movies so much that Clint One's father said that every boy in his family would be named "Clint." Aside from that, I don't know much else about Clint Three. He seems like a pretty boring guy, actually. Really quiet and keeps to himself, but doesn't seem like the "tough loner" sort of guy his family idolizes. I see him reading a lot, so maybe he's actually exactly like me, only more reserved? Well, that would clearly make him the coolest guy around, then.

Once us emissaries were gathered together, we began the process of collecting our supplies for the road. And I gotta tell ya, everyone really went all-out. The four of us were outfitted with strange but practical clothes--an almost entirely tan uniform comprised of a tan jacket, loose tan pants, a white shirt, a brown belt, brown boots, a tan hood, and an enormous brown satchel. On our belts and pants were many, many pouches for holding all kinds of small objects. The Supplies Manager, Elder Dennis, said we looked like Rob Liefeld characters with all these pouches, belts, and boots, but I don't know who that is, so I'm not sure if he was making fun of us or not. Actually, wait, no, he was. He was grinning so wide that his dentures almost fell out. He was totally making fun of us.

We were also given over a month's worth of rations by the Chem Team's Nutrition Division, which was...well, it's the thought that counts. More importantly, Home's premier mushroom farmers, the Mushroom Samba, stuffed our satchels so full of myconid goodness that I was worried there wouldn't be room for field supplies. The Nutrition team are nice guys, and I'm sure they're doing their best and are genuinely concerned about our well-being, but their nutri-veg squares and nutri-meat patties are just the worst. Like, actual torture to eat. On the other hand, the sambashrooms given to us by the Mushroom Samba can make any dish sing, no matter how questionable. And we've got a lot of them! I'm looking forward to that, at least. Both teams also gave us a week-long crash course in food identification and preparation, which was very fortunate, since I've never cooked a meal in my life. It was pretty simple stuff, actually. Kinda wish I learned how to cook and forage sooner. On the last day, they arranged a final exam where we had to prepare top-quality meals using only ingredients that can be commonly found while foraging. I did pretty well, but dammit, Katya beat me! Because of course she did! Her ultra-competence at everything makes me sick!

Speaking of field supplies, and the little room afforded to them in our satchels due to tasty, tasty sambashrooms, we also filled our satchels with stacks upon stacks of paper and other writing supplies. For record keeping, of course, and also to sketch anything incredible we might come across. Just between us, I don't really have much artistic talent, so I think I'll stick to writing. We also received some standard-issue expedition gear: 7 changes of clothes identical to the outfits we've got now, knives, utensils, a fold-a-tent, stakes for the fold-a-tent, a steel thermos equipped with the same kind of miniature heater and filter our Home's water treatment center installed on all the faucets, thick gloves, a compass, and a self-inflating cocoon for sleeping in. It was an extremely tight squeeze, but everything managed to fit! So far, though, very standard stuff. Everything is Expedition Team standard. But luckily, because us emissaries are on a special mission, we got some extra goodies!

Amy Jo and the Science Team went above and beyond, augmenting our basic expedition gear with some incredible new tech they've been developing down in the labs for the past 20 years or so, when the sky first began to lose its reddish color. Four wondrous black devices that store light--any kind of light!--in a compact and hyper-efficient battery. Since the skies are brighter now than they were 20 years ago, Amy Jo betrayed a satisfied grin when she said these items apparently charge faster now because of the increased luminosity of the sun. It's so odd to see her smile for any reason, so she really must be proud of her work.

The first thing they showed us was called the Sun Candle, which was a little rod-looking object that, when the button was pushed, shot a few sparks and created a little fire on the end of it. For starting fires, of course. Sure makes food preparation quicker and easier! Secondly, there was the Sun Light. Simply put, it was a flashlight, but powered by the sun. Apparently it was going to be called the Sun Torch, but someone on the Science Team thought "Sun Light" was a cute name, though they had first suggested "Sun Beam," which was shot down immediately. The Science Team sounds like a more fun bunch than I thought they'd be. I mentioned it a while ago, but the third object was the Sun Staff, which was an incredible object not much larger than the Sun Candle. It had an orb at the end of it, and when you pressed the red button, it emitted small foot-long lightning strikes in a directional cone. The other button caused the rod to extend to over 5 feet in length, just in case some reach was needed. This was useful for stunning dangerous animals or humanely slaying smaller animals for food, the Science Team said. Grimly, I thought it'd make a good self-defense option against bandits or gangs, but surely those things wouldn't be an issue these days, right?

I gotta say, though, Dave was having way too much fun with the Sun Staff. He just kept staring, transfixed, at the lightning as it shot out. It is pretty cool, but I guess it speaks more to Dave than it does to me.

All 3 objects given to us so far had specific slots on our belts, to keep them out in the sun I suppose, but the final tool from the Science Team put them all to shame. They called it the "Sun Rider." Now, I've seen motorcycles and vespas in the encyclopedias, but I've never seen one that looked quite like this. At first glance, if you weren't paying much attention, it wouldn't look too different from an old-fashioned motorcycle, but its wheels were large orbs rather than the traditional wheels I was used to seeing, and it had a secure compartment behind the seat for our satchels. Sleek and black, with accents of gray, gleaming in the outdoor morning light, the Sun Rider was truly a sight to behold. I was suddenly, and unexpectedly, a motorcycle man! Amy Jo explained to us that the Sun Rider had a maximum land speed of over 140 miles per hour, and that its spherical wheel design--combined with internal magnetic balancers--meant that its rider was practically guaranteed never to fall off or tip over. She then glared at us over the top of her thin square glasses, warning that this wasn't a license to drive like a maniac, but rather that sensible driving will be almost effortless. She went on to explain that the dashboard contained an entire computer system, filled with all kinds of information and sensors to aid us on the way, including access to a detailed map of the entire United States, which would serve as our guide in our travels. Amy Jo then had the 4 of us approach and place our hands on those very same dashboards, which activated a handprint authentication system that was apparently in waiting, so now the Sun Riders could not be stolen and used by anyone else. Which seemed a tad paranoid to me, but I suppose it's useful to have such a strong security precaution on such an expensive piece of technology.

We held one last meeting before we were relieved. The four emissaries (me, Dave, Katya, and Clint Three) and our families stood before the Head Council once more. Though the Elders of the Head Council had always seemed rather intimidating, I don't think any of us got that feeling today. I mean, it might've had something to do with Elder Roger breaking down crying, saying in-between sobs how proud he was that four of the best students he ever raised were now going out to see the world, and that the other Elders looked like they were choking back tears as well. I was never one to cry very much, so I didn't really feel the urge here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it'll creep up on me while I'm on the road. It still just doesn't feel real yet.

And in the end, that's everything. I've got 30 pounds of gear on my person, 65 pounds of supplies in my satchel, and a Sun Rider to bear it all on the journey ahead of us. In our last meeting with the Head Council, each of us were assigned a direction--Clint Three's family insisted he be the southwest traveler and it became so, Katya is heading northwest to the great Rocky Mountains and the many plains that precede it, Dave is heading east and then southeast to cover that area of the map, and my mission was to head straight north until I hit the massive Great Lakes, and then take my journey to the northeast as far as I can go. It's been a long time coming, but today's the day. After I've said goodbye to my friends and my parents, I'll be on my way, along with the other emissaries. I'm about as prepared as I'll ever be. We're gonna find the others who used to call this entire continent Home. And we're gonna show them that, even though the Fall nearly wiped us out, humanity has moved on!Bookmark here

Golden Boy
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