The Devil Above
Featured image: Bullet holes in pictograph panel, Utah public lands © John Miles
By Sariah Ramsay
River ran his hands over the lush green of the grass in which he sat, feeling the cool dew, the calmness, the aliveness of it. Small flowers sprung through his pallid, white fingers, blue, yellow, pink; all complex and different and in every way perfect. It was a special joy every week, coming to the church. There was nothing in this little world like it.
Around him, others were opening their eyes on the verdant clearing, marvelling just as he had; as they always did. A large congregation today, he thought, looking around from his place near the front. The clearing was huge, a great swathe of long, soft grass between lines of trees as high and ornate as cathedral walls, stretching back from the front where Leader Briar stood at a modest podium.
Leader Briar was a preacher for the Church and one of the people in charge of running the community – generally the roles were one and the same. He also trained new clergymen, a path that River eagerly intended to take when he came of age the following year. Leader Briar looked drained, solemn. He was the most prolific speaker among the Leaders, and when he’d urged the people to come, if they could, to today’s sermon, they had curiously acquiesced. Usually joyous to be in the sacred place once again, the preacher’s expression made River uneasy.
“I try to lead you on the right path, children. I try” Leader Briar said all of a sudden, no warning, as the congregation was still getting their bearings. Though he spoke quietly, little more than a breath, the words were amplified oddly across the span of trees and green. The abnormal start triggered a susurrus of hissed whispers among the hundreds in attendance, like the wind tracing out ripples across a grassy plain. River shot a glance at a pair to his left, smuggling questions between them in urgent, hushed tones. He was confused too, uncomfortable, but nothing was strange enough to excuse disrespect to the church or the sermon.
“Our path…it’s not the easiest one. We’ve given up so much. We live with so little.” Leader Briar looked up through damp lashes, coughed awkwardly.
What is this? River felt the unease turn to something like dread in the pit of his stomach. This is not a sermon.
He’d spent the last few years studying the intricacies of the Church with the intention of becoming a preacher, even a Leader, some day in the future. The Church was everything to this world; the whole society had been built around its ethos and it was the reason they still existed today.
Nature is our creator. We love her; respect her.
We take nothing that we can live without.
We will leave this world exactly as we found it.
River came out of his reverie, looked up. Others did the same. Was that a faint tremor they felt? Surely they didn’t all imagine it.
Leader Briar had felt it. Lifting his chin, he calmed his expression and spoke, finally, in that all familiar powerful baritone.
“My children, my beloveds, we haven’t had much to fear in the last few generations of our world. We are secret, we are alone. There’s little that can reach us down here, and for generations we’ve enjoyed a peace and solitude that a place like this, the church, can truly allow us to appreciate.” Sunlight sparkled through the canopy of leaves like stained glass, painting a watercolour of orange and green on the cross-legged listeners, now silent.
“But we have always had our one fear; our one enemy.” Leader Briar’s eyes darkened again. “We have always had the devil above.
We live here, alone and quiet, and we hope that the devil overlooks us. We build ourselves a vault, underground, so the devil will never see us. We make our own power and energy, so the devil never tries to barter with us. We never take what we can live without, and we make for ourselves anything we need. No waste, no cost, nothing.
And yet, even so… in the past few weeks, we have learned – ” A falter in the preacher’s usually unshakeable rhythm. He tried again. “We have learned that the devil has found us.”
Leader Briar turned his eyes skyward. A sliver of impossible blue could be seen through a zigzag of treetops; beautiful and suddenly sinister. As the hushed, uneasy murmurs start up again; “The devil has found us and is mounting an assault on our little world.”
River recoiled. He locked eyes with Leader Briar for a second, less, and the coolness of the grass below rose up through him like a winter.
“The devil is causing these earthquakes,” the preacher said the moment that River thought it.
“Our crops,” Someone yelled from behind. River whipped around accusingly, but could see hundreds of faces, identically aghast, in the crowd.
Leader Briar nodded slowly, despite the disrespect. “Our particular species of nutritional algae is completely manmade. It doesn’t possess the complexity that Earth could have made for it; we didn’t engineer it to withstand any kind of environmental change. We didn’t think we’d have to. As a result of the nearby drilling we’ve spent the past few weeks in temperature flux and – well, it doesn’t grow. You all know by now that our stocks have been at an unprecedented low. The devil is killing our crops.”
“Children,” Leader Briar tried to calm them. He raised hands, tried to speak over the rabble. “It is important that you remember – we have done nothing to deserve this. We are faultless worshippers. We give so much to this Earth – not as much as she deserves, but as much as we have to give. We live in the dark, in the cold – for her.”
A mechanical creak rang out across the church; perhaps another tremor incoming, the hidden metal walls around them groaning to compensate.
“We are born, marry and die without seeing real sunlight, feeling wind on our skin, hearing birdsong – true birdsong, not a recording taken by our forebears 250 years ago.”
MCR screwed his eyes closed, tried to focus on the feel of the grass in his now balled fists. It was almost real. The sweet twinkling notes of distant birds. They were real, once.
“It drives some mad. It’s unsurprising. We don’t have the resources to create for ourselves that perfect world, or even a part of it, without expanding our community and taking from the Earth resources we don’t need. All we can support is this, this perfect clearing, the sights and the sounds and the smells and the green…” Leader Briar paused. It was usually with reverence and joy that they spoke in this place. It seemed callous – sacrilegious, even, to speak ill of the church. It seemed inappropriate to be sad here. He lowered his voice, and quietly continued. “Technology doesn’t have to be the end of the natural – it can, and should, be its saving grace. That is why, despite the fact that we, men, are born to live in the sun and with the sea and among the animals with whom we share this Earth, we have locked ourselves away in this vault – in our little world. This is our burden. We have seen nature for what she is – our deity, our creator – and we have owned up to the responsibility that brings. That is why the closest any of us will ever get to experiencing the truly sacred natural world on the surface is here, in this virtual approximation of some beautiful place out there. We could have joined the devil above, but our forebears were good, and kind, and chose to use their powers not for selfish greed, but in worship. They created us this world so that nature doesn’t have to pay the ultimate price for having made us, and they created this church so that we can experience what it was like, 300 feet above us when good men still walked the earth, without having to disturb her for our own benefit.” He looked down. “In reality, we can’t even be sure this beautiful place still exists.”
It was heart-breaking to hear such a thought pierce the peace and the beauty of the forest clearing. The words themselves seemed to hang in the air, and now the colours looked too bright, the smell of dew and sap growing life was cloying and sickly-strong. How realistic was this simulation, really? No one they’d ever met had even seen the outside world. It would be hubris, sacrilege, for one of their community to venture up there. None had ever dared. All the beauty and complexity that they gave everything up to save; seeing it destroyed was not worth giving up the chance, tiny as it may be, that they’d left a place like this out there in the world. Maybe this place. Faith was better than knowledge, for that.
“Men are kind, if foolish.” Leader Briar continued. “The devil, however, is not. When our forebears discovered the cost of their presence on the earth, the good men came together and built our world for us, down here. The bad, the greedy, the gluttonous, the insane…” Leader Briar’s eyes turned skyward again. “They stayed above to continue to wreak the havoc we were trying to prevent, uncontested.”
River averted his eyes from that familiar zigzag of blue, now too bright, too sad. The rustle of trees and bushes in the simulated wind had a tinny, artificial ring to it. It had never sounded so unconvincing – even though River knew every high and low whistling note of the sound recording from his years of attendance here.
Leader Briar took a moment to compose himself, cleared his throat, and forged on with specifics. “The devil above has purchased the piece of land directly above this vault and is landscaping it for the purpose of constructing an industrial centre for an oil refinery. Other surface drilling operations are taking place a few miles to our southwest. While they are not digging deep enough in this location to expose us to the surface, the work they are doing is damaging and will eventually collapse the structure of the tunnels that are housing this community. Every week for the past three months, we suffer critical damage to our home’s structural integrity, our generators, or one of our life support systems. For the past two weeks, it has been every two to four days. Changes in pressure have warped the walls of urban section four so severely that we are considering an evacuation of all the families in that area if the compression worsens. To where, we don’t know. The constant temperature flux as a result of the surface activity is causing our algae crop to consistently fail, meaning that within the next few weeks most or all of you will spend a few nights hungry. Debris, pollution, and surface waste have started to accumulate in one of our water sources, which we do not have the capacity to filter out, and there have been instances of airborne carcinogens noted in the air filtering system, meaning we’ve had to shut down two separate pipelines to make sure that our population isn’t slowly poisoned.”
By now the congregation was suppressing hysteria. The rapid-fire repairs that they’d had to enact on various machinery or structures in the tunnels had been strange, but there had seemed to be no cause for alarm. The Earth moved, she flexed, every so often they needed to adapt to compensate for her. The Church had taught them this, for years. They had no idea it was because the devil was coming for them.
“They have to stop!” A woman’s voice came over the beginnings of a wail from one of the children beside her. She stood. “What if we told them we were here – we revealed ourselves? What if they knew about us?”
“The devil above knows we’re down here. They’ve always known.” Leader Briar was quiet again, but the artificial amplification seemed now louder than ever.
“And?” An old man. “Have we communicated with them?”
Leader Briar looked down at his podium display. “’We can’t halt the frontier of economic global progress for the sake of a few tunnel-dwellers’ – ” he quoted.
“We’re a community of over 30,000 people!” The same old man interrupted, outraged. “There are families here! Children! What do they expect us to do?”
Leader Briar paused, then tapped a command onto the display in front of him. A stark, white rectangle, probably ten feet tall, appeared in the space behind him, in front of the trees. River was horrified. The protocol of immersion in this beautiful place had already been bent and twisted in this sermon, undoubtedly, but the use of the secondary display screen system outright broke it.
Words appeared on the unnatural display; a letter to the Leaders, seemingly from a representative of the devil above. This was unheard of, and the congregation reacted with a mixture of anger, fear, and impious curiosity. The words didn’t seem as demonic as they might have expected at first glance. Still looking down at his own podium, Leader Briar began to read them aloud to the congregation.
“ – ’Your compound is buried beneath what, until recently, has been publicly owned land. The dissolution of the American National Park Foundation and subsequent availability of the now freed assets has led to this plot being subdivided and sold to a number of developing clients. Yourselves and your community have the opportunity to move at any time. These clients cannot evict you because your compound does not exist within the land boundaries of this property, and you cannot have meaningful impact on their work here for the same reason – ’” Leader Briar looked up from the podium and asked “Where would we go?” before a listener had the chance. “There is nowhere to go. The Leaders have been reaching out to as many other underground communities as we have access to communications with. Several are unresponsive, who may have already fallen prey to their own local devils taking advantage of the apparent rescindment of National Park rulings on the surface. I pray that they’ve found a way to relocate elsewhere. If they did, they left us no way of telling.
Many communities did respond. There are none within the hundreds of miles we canvassed that would be capable of taking on tens of people, let alone hundreds or thousands. We couldn’t, as a community, even if all of our operations were fully functional.”
“How far is a hundred miles?” another voice above the terrified crowd. “What about beyond?”
“We have no idea how many communities like us there are across the world, and outside of our neighbours here, we have no way of contacting any others. Even if a distant community said they could take all 30,000 of us, we’d have to go above ground to get there.”
The concern of the listeners audibly increased. Above ground was sacred, secret – terrifying. There was an elevator to get to the surface; it hadn’t been used since the tunnel’s construction was complete. No one even knew if it still worked, and if it did, it’d deposit them directly into the property just purchased by the devil above – if they hadn’t already demolished the other end.
“We’ve been sealed in for two and a half centuries.” Leader Briar continued. “We’d have to leave everything we’ve ever known and go into that alien, sacred land, see what has become of it, and probably die there. We have no mode of travel, no destination, and no idea what would befall us if we reached the top.”
River saw the couple sitting to his left disappear. He turned and realised they weren’t the first. The crowd had considerably thinned as people hurriedly exited the simulation to go back and warn the families and loved ones that hadn’t made it to the sermon. Big patches of grass and flowers were left conspicuously behind as watchers closed their eyes on the simulation and sat back up in their real, grey, underground world.
“So, if we can’t leave and we’re at risk of collapse if we stay here, what are we supposed to do?” The mother spoke out again after a pause. She was still standing up. She was met with a chorus of further “What do we do’s?”
Leader Briar didn’t speak. Another pause.
“Can we try talking to them again?”
“Could we reinforce the tunnel?”
“Is there anyone out there who could save us?”
The preacher averted his eyes from the crowd. He leaned all of his weight onto the podium, as if he had just discovered he could barely stand without the support. Quietly, but loud enough for all those who stayed to hear, he breathed “I think, now, all we can do is pray.”
River put his head down, clasped his hands, and as another tremor rocked the church so severely the cold and the steel and the grey flickered again through the projected wilds, he prayed.
~ This story ran first in New Orbit (neworbitmagazine.org), “a place to speculate on the possibilities that lie our future …” New Orbit recently ran a feature on rewilding, which includes an interview with Rewilding Earth editor John Davis. New Orbit and Rewilding Earth both encourage more exploration through fiction of the future of life on Earth.