Oyarsu—Terraforming Earth

— Dooshima Tsee

No matter how high the ceilings were, Wuese always felt the weight of more than a hundred thousand tons of earth and stone pressing down on her. It was the beginning of a new day cycle and Wuese was teaching her weekly history class when she felt tremors beneath her feet. Almost fifteen years had passed since the last underquake. Shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates barely registered Overland. Here, however, they wreaked havoc within the carefully constructed tunnels, buildings and the technology that kept them all alive four hundred miles below the earth’s surface. She stopped in the middle of explaining the Kigali Accords to the children. Her wide eyes flew to the terraemometer. It stood stubbornly still. Other than a slight flickering, its display screen showed less than a seven percent chance of a quake.

She took several deep breaths and breathed out slowly through her mouth as she mentally counted to ten. At a hundred and four years old, she should know better. Not every tremor meant that the roof was about to cave in on them. She slowly turned back to the children. Barely discernible mists of fine sand floated down from the hundred-foot-high rock ceiling almost constantly. More than sixty years after they came down into the heart of the earth, Wuese’s palms still sweated whenever she felt the tremors. Her shoulders tensed every time the earth shrugged her massive shoulders and settled into a more comfortable position like a gossipy housewife.

The children in the brightly lit classroom had barely looked up from their screens during the tremor. They were making their way through the latest decision simulation. Wuese leaned over to her right and watched as Denen scrolled through the choices for the dam simulation. He selected the channel option and, using the build tool, started to construct a wall over the true-to-scale digital copy of the narrowest part of Oyarsu’s main river. Wuese smiled as she waited for the inevitable collapse. She had done exactly the same thing when she went through the simulation herself. As the pressure built, the wall began to cave outwards. Denen huffed in the way he did when he was annoyed. He hit the pause button and bit his thumb as he stared at the screen. Wuese leaned closer and whispered to him, “Think about your physics lessons. The water needs somewhere to go.”

“I know, GG. But if I make more sluice gates at that point, it will flood the homes in this district further down the river.” He scrolled left and tapped on the screen to show district 14.

“Yes, I know,” Wuese said. She had also tried adding more sluice gates.
“What should I do?” Denen looked at her imploringly.

“I cannot tell you that because I do not know myself. But keep working at it. If no one finds a solution, then that means a dam isn’t in the best interest for everyone.”

“But we need a dam. It’s the only way we can keep the water as the levels drop lower.”

“It seems like the only way, but the obvious way might not be the only way. Especially if it does not benefit everyone, we must find a better way. At the end of the simulation, you can suggest a different way if the dam doesn’t work. Remember the fish farms?”

“Yes!” He smiled and nodded, almost bouncing in his seat. “I can’t wait till they finish building them.”

Wuese smiled and rubbed his shoulder. “Back to finishing the simulation then.” He smiled and bent back to the tablet.

Seventeen children, ranging in age from three to eleven, sat on colorful mats spread across the laboratory floor. Wuese wondered if she had ever been as innocent as the eager faces scanning the screens. She still woke up on odd nights drenched in sweat, remembering the mad flight across the baked sand of the desert. Teaching the children history was one of the few time-blocks she allowed herself outside of creating the technology that had sustained Oyarsu for decades. Many members of the tribe well into their twenties had never ventured upwards from the deepest parts of the territory called Oyarsu. Wuese envied them their ignorance of the chaos that had consumed Overland. She also pitied them. To have never seen the sun, even in its cursed glory, was the saddest thing she could imagine.

Tersoo poked his head around the door. Wuese raised an eyebrow and immediately sat up straighter. Sweat ran down his brow and he was breathing heavily. Except something dire needed her attention, she was hardly ever called away from her classes.

Tersoo jerked his head upwards and her eyes narrowed.

“Denen, Manji. Pass out the colouring pads and crayons to the little ones.” She instructed as she rose to her feet.

“The rest of you, after the time for the decision simulation is done, pull out your workbooks and read the assigned text. Tomorrow we can discuss any issues you want to brainstorm for your simulations. Also, prepare for a test tomorrow about the first decade, constructing Oyarsu and the tunnel collapses.” She ignored the groans and stayed just long enough to make sure the boys were handing out the coloring pads.

The regular teacher was waiting in the small anteroom. Wuese nodded at her and followed Tersoo out into the corridor. He paused only to say, “The council is convening,” then he turned right and his long strides ate up the yards as he strode down the corridor.

Wuese frowned. She tried to keep up, but had to stop after less than three minutes. She leaned against the wall, pressed her hand to her left side, and took deep breaths. She rode the pain in her side as she gripped the wall for support. This was one of the older rock corridors. Natural whorls from the original rock were smooth from decades of hands rubbing against them. “GG! What’s wrong?” Tersoo asked. Tersoo never called her the name the younger tribe members had adopted for her. She opened her eyes and tried to smile at him, but she suspected it must look more like a grimace.

“I’m fine,” she gritted through clenched teeth. “You forget that I am old.”
Tersoo’s brow furrowed and he continued to look at her. “But…you’ve never… Are you sure you are okay? You don’t look so great.”

The pain was subsiding as it usually did after a few minutes. “I’m fine.”

“Maybe we should go and see the doctor?”

“I said I am fine,” Wuese snapped. She pushed away from the wall and started down the corridor slowly. “Why is the council convening?”

It was a testament to the gravity of the situation that Tersoo immediately let it drop.

He kept pace with her.

“Overlanders want to meet for a discussion.”

Wuese stopped. “What?!”

“I said…”

“I heard what you said. Who are they? Why do they want to meet? Where are they?”

Tersoo looked away furtively. “They are on the third level.” He stretched out his hand, conciliatory, when Wuese opened her mouth to speak. “One of them is injured. We had to get him to a level outfitted with more than basic first aid.”

As far as Wuese knew, no Overlander had ever gone past level two, about seventy miles below the surface. Level two was technically still Overland territory but was universally accepted as neutral ground where Overlanders and Grounders, as her people were called, could meet. No good ever came of a visit from Overlanders, Wuese thought grimly as she walked with Tersoo to the closest elevator with upward access to level three.

“Wuese!” Nanen’s hearty voice echoed through the chamber as she walked into the sickbay on level three. Nanen always tried to cover awkward situations with a laugh and an inappropriate joke.

“Nanen,” Wuese responded evenly and inclined her head at the five other council members. She looked over at the strangers as she half-listened to Nanen talking loudly about the dunes that had moved over several eastern gates. The Overlanders were gathered close to one of the utility tables pushed against the far concrete wall. Blood dripped off the table into several shallow basins placed around the table. Some of the blood was already congealing on the floor. A bloodied Overlander was stretched out on the table. Manasseh, one of the Oyarsu’s healers, was bent over the man. Even from across the room, Wuese could hear low, painfilled moans. The other Overs stared back at her. Two women and five men, counting the man on the table. They all had the red scaly skin that came from living Overland.

Nanen’s voice died down in the background.

“Who are you, and why are you here?” Wuese asked the Overs. The group looked sidewards at the heavier set of the women and Wuese turned to face her.

The woman met Wuese’s look directly. “We come to you in peace.”

Wuese scoffed inelegantly. “No one who truly comes in peace starts the conversation by declaring it. Why should you not come in peace?”

The other Overs shifted their stance and subtly drew closer to the woman. Wuese allowed a slight smile to touch her lips. “What do you want?”

The woman hesitated and then lifted her chin. In a voice that rang through the hall. “I am Armbi Hernbila, the Proctor over Libya, and I would like to discuss terms to buy your fusion reactor.”

A startled laugh escaped Wuese’s lips before she could catch herself. She looked towards the council members and they all looked away furtively. So, this is how the land lay, she thought wearily.

She kept her face carefully blank when she turned back to the Proctor. She spread her hands before her as she said, “You are mistaken. We do not have the technology to make a fusion reactor. How will we hide such a massive undertaking?”

The Proctor’s angry red skin stretched taut over her face as she smiled. “Old woman, we know you have either completed or very nearly completed a device that functions like a fusion reactor and is small enough to hold in one hand. We come to peacefully ask that you share the technology for this device with us…” the Proctor’s hand waved towards the roof “…with the rest of the world. It could save humanity. Make our planet habitable again.”

Wuese shook her head and chuckled. “How is your father?” she asked.
The Proctor looked confused. “My father?”

“Or maybe it’s an uncle or even a husband. I can never tell how old you Overlanders are anymore.”

“I see no reason why any of my family would be of importance to…”
“You do not? Well, you wouldn’t. But they are of paramount importance to me.”

Remi, one of the council members, cleared his throat and tried to intervene. “Wuese…”

She lifted her hand to silence him. “Hiram Hernbila was Proctor over Libya in 2067, not so? I am curious, do they still have dogs patrol at the border?”

The Proctor’s lips flattened and she clenched her hands at her sides.

“Whatever interaction you had with my father, I assure you that we come to offer you a mutually beneficial partnership. If you would share the technology for the fusion reactor with us. It is in your best interest to work with us.”

“Do not tell me what is in my best interest,” Wuese snapped. “Your father set dogs on us at your borders when we fled to you from the barren fields of our homeland. I buried a husband and two children at your borders while we waited for asylum that was never granted. I watched your genetically modified dogs tear my sister to pieces with her son in her arms. Do not speak to me of what is in my best interest!”

A keening cry came from the man on the table and the Proctor glanced back. Manasseh was slowly suturing the thigh wound.

“There are forces at play on the surface that you have very little knowledge of,” the Proctor said.

“You might be surprised to find that there are also forces at play beneath the earth that you have little knowledge of. For decades you Overlanders have worked to poison relations between underground colonies across the world. But just as you make alliances Overland we have found allies underground. So do not presume that Oyarsu is cut off from the other Undergrounders across the world.”

That seemed to give the Proctor something to think about. “As abhorrent as you might find it, believe me when I say that our offer, and our method of making it, would be one of the more…peaceful you are likely to receive.”
“Are you threatening me? Us?”

The pause was almost imperceptible. “I am not. But trust me, the threat will come and is closer to your doorstep than you think.”

Wuese looked more closely at the Overlanders. Their stretched red skin was dust-covered but in the time while they talked, the humidity had caked the dust and Wuese saw that they all had some injuries. Even the Proctor held her left hand stiffly and the left sleeve of her tunic looked crusted in blood.

“Manasseh, what is the cause of injury?” Wuese asked.

Manasseh’s voice was matter of fact, “Several laser shot wounds on his upper torso and arm. Some blunt force trauma to the head, but the leg wound is the most concerning. It looks like some large animal ravaged his thigh. Compound fracture to the tibia and his arteries are a mess. Lots of blood loss. I’m really not sure he’ll make it.”

She turned back to the Proctor. “Dogs. What have you brought to our gates?”

The Proctor sighed and sounded almost regretful. “It is at all our gates.”

The Overlanders had accommodations for the night on level two. Even Wuese grudgingly let them stay. With the nightly sandstorms raging over the Sahara, there was no way the Proctor and her team would make it back to their closest cities before the night cycle started.

The council was back in the congress room on level seven. The room was at least three stories high. At the far end, a waterfall trickled down the rock face into one of the many water channels that ran throughout each city in Oyarsu.
“Who told them about the fusion reactor?” she asked. None of the council members would meet her eyes as she looked from one to the other.

Tersoo alone did not look away. “I did. But it was the children who agreed that if the fusion reactor could make it possible to terraform the earth, we owed humanity a chance.”

The betrayal was more of a dull ache than the sharp pain in her side. Her own grandson.

“The decision simulation the children played last week wasn’t theory.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Tersoo shook his head.

Wuese looked at him and, ironically in that moment, was so proud of the man he was becoming.

“Tersoo, where is your mother buried?”

Tersoo sighed and looked away. “At the Libyan border. GG, I understand that evil has been done to us, but this is not even the same generation that did those things.”

“And you think dogs no longer patrol the borders of Libya or Egypt or Morocco or any of the countries under which Oyarsu is built?”

“I hear they use machines with artificial intelligence these days, not dogs,” Remi offered helpfully.

Wuese’s disgusted glance quelled any other helpful information he wanted to share.

“I am one of the last of the original people who started the descent into Oyarsu. I do not expect you to have the same emotional anguish that I have from being hunted like rabbits and seeing your parents and grandparents rent apart by dogs while the soldiers watched and made sport of our efforts to escape. But by God, I had hoped you would at least have retained enough of our history to know that Overlanders cannot be trusted!”

“This is not an issue of trust,” Tersoo said quickly. “It is about doing the right thing. If we save the planet, we all benefit. How long could we live underground knowing that humanity is slowly going extinct on the surface? How long will our species have, even underground, if we do nothing to save the planet?

“Wuese… GG… Grandmother,” Tersoo said in a pacifying voice. “The reactor could save the planet. We have discussed this. It will give humanity a chance. We would be able to reclaim land that has turned into boiling landscapes of dust and death.”

Wuese bitterly regretted encouraging her grandson to join the council. His hope and faith would doom them all.

She refused to look at Tersoo as she spoke, “We have thrived under the surface. Without their help! Sometimes in direct opposition to them trying to exterminate us like rats in holes. We owe them nothing.”

Nanen wiped his hand down his face. “It is already done. We have signed a contract with Libya to share the technology for the reactor.”

“Without my endorsement as a member of the council, any agreement is void!” Wuese said through clenched teeth.

The other council members watched as Tersoo stood and turned to face her. “The Future decided. The little ones completed the decision simulations all last week. Some of the questions were in the classes you taught and you agreed with their decisions.”

Wuese thought back over last week’s simulation and bit her lip. She remembered how proud she had been of the children. Even the ones as young as five had understood, to some degree, the complex politics of trade, intellectual property, and patent rights. The problem was the children didn’t know a viable reactor was in the final stages of testing and she had been looking at the theory of it. In the rush of accomplishment after the initial tests succeeded, and seeing how the children went through the simulation, she had forgotten that the council was bound to act on every decision from the future.

“That is unfair! To go ahead and act on votes from that simulation without discussing as a council.”

“But grandmother, that was exactly why you pushed for these decision simulations. The children’s vote always carries more weight than whatever the council decides.”

“I know!” she shouted. “I designed the program. I know what we agreed.” She bit her lip and looked away. “But they do not understand the evil the Overlanders are capable of. They have never encountered anything like that in their lives! A decision like this will have consequences!”

“And we programmed those consequences into the simulation,” Tersoo retorted. “The history of aggression, changing policies and going back on agreements. Those were accounted for in the simulation.”

Wuese sat down heavily and covered her face for a few seconds. There was no winning. She had designed the system and persuaded all of Oyarsu to embrace it. It worked. She knew it did.

“You understand that they will live with the results of this decision.” She felt a hand on her knee and looked up into Tersoo’s eyes. He knelt beside her chair, and even through her tears, she could see that his eyes were also wet.

“That is why they should be the ones to make this decision. The Overlanders will not stop till they get what they want—however they have to go about getting it.”

“And that does not worry you? The elements that make a reactor that small are only found this deep into the earth. They will destroy Oyarsu to get to those minerals.”

“It does worry me. But what is the alternative? Of the five countries over Oyarsu, we have the strongest agreement with Libya. This is the best of poor options.”

“Why did you have to even tell them about the reactor?”

Tersoo said gently, “It was inevitable that they would find out eventually. Is it not better that we tell them and set the terms of how the technology is used?”

It was astonishing to her that any of them thought they would have any control over how the reactor would be used after the Overlanders got hold of it.

“We could seal off the gates on the Libya side.”

Even before the other council members shook their heads, she already knew that was not practical.

“After all they have done, you would just hand over what I have worked my whole life to achieve?” Her voice almost broke on the last word.

Tersoo held her hands gently. “Grandmother, of all the wonderful gadgets and machines you made…we made, none are weapons.”
“I will not make weapons.”

“And I would never ask you to. But this reactor is a weapon, not to destroy but hopefully to rebuild. Seventeen years since we started making decisions using the decision simulations, and you have always trusted the simulation results. Trust them now.”
Wuese’s communicator chirped with a reminder: Doctor’s appointment in two days. Remember not to consume any food or fluids before you come in on appointment day. She rubbed her side absently as she stared at the screen. She slowly toggled to the RSVP link and clicked cancel. She already had the most important information. Less than six months to live, and she didn’t have it in her to spend her remaining time fighting. The first tears ran down her cheeks as she looked round the table.

“Do what you think is best. I am resigning from the council as of today.”

They all started to talk at once. Trying to reassure her that they didn’t want her to resign. But Wuese knew it was time to hand over to a generation unburdened by the hate and anger she had carried for so long. Hate and anger she could not put down.

She left them talking in the council room as she walked slowly down the corridor towards the schoolroom. There was still time before learning hours ended to see how far Denen, or any of the other children, had progressed with the decision simulation for the dam.

Dooshima Tsee

Dooshima Tsee works in the development sector as a communications strategist. She is an award-winning photographer and writes technical content for nonprofits. In her free time, she likes to garden, start DIY projects and read high fantasy books. Dooshima is Nigerian and currently lives and works in Lusaka, Zambia with her varied collection of houseplants.

First Published: Omenana issue 22