"Mel...? Mel, are you awake yet?" a man's voice echoed into the room, deep, gentle and mature. The words sounded broken, skipping slightly as they resonated from a small speaker hanging in the corner. "Come on girl, it's time to get up, you can't lie about all day."
The room was small and dark with a dim swaying bulb to provide the sole illumination. The walls were a dull grey and looked to be crafted from thick steel, ancient and rusted. Hardly any adornment could be found in the plain, industrial chamber.
A young woman rested upon a small loft bed. Wrapped in a blanket with her head on a pillow the girl slowly began to stir, rolling over to gaze at the small black box sitting atop a shelf just next to her bed. White numbered panels flipped over to reveal the time, moving with an audible click. It read 9:47am. "Uhhh?" the girl mumbled, tilting her head to the side as she observed the clock.
"Come on Mel, we can't waste any more of the day."
The man's voice alerted the girl for a moment and she seemed to catch her senses, eyelids flitting as she cleared her head.
"Oh, oh uhm, sorry!" she cried back. There was a stumble in her voice, her tone rising and falling in an uneven manner reminiscent of a child or someone unfamiliar with a language.
Mel pushed away the covers and dropped down off the bed, gripping the side and swinging her legs toward the ground, her form unsteady but quick. Her bare feet touched the cold ground and she found herself looking into a mirror, the surface coated in a thick layer of dust. Pausing for just a moment she stared into it, her hand rising and wiping away the thick blanket of grey, revealing her reflection in the cool silver. The touch of the mirror sent tingles through her fingers, the clearing dust tickling her skin.
Her visage was that of a young woman, relatively small of stature, with a slim build. Her hair was dark and unkempt from the night's rest, hanging to her shoulders in a disheveled manner. A pair of bright blue eyes were set neatly in her round face, graced with small, pert features.
She stared into the mirror for a moment, slowly raising a brow as she examined her facial features curiously. Raising her hand to her cheek she pressed her fingertips against the flesh. "Hnyaahhhh!" Mel yawned, rubbing her eyes in an attempt to clear the groggy feeling the plagued her that morning.
Turning away from the mirror she quickly dressed herself, pulling on a snug, clean white sweater and a pair of baggy overalls that looked a size too large for her. Stepping away from her reflection she moved to leave the little room, pushing aside the ragged curtain that served as her door, before stepping out into a large, open chamber. It was cluttered but comfortable enough, various wires and trinkets hung from the walls and ceiling, intertwined and travelling about, all connected in an incredibly complex series.
The room was furnished in the manner of a small sitting room, but retained the same metallic, rusted look as Mel's bedchamber. Raising her eyes she stared up at the ceiling, a sectioned glass dome with an intricate honeycomb pattern allowing the morning sunlight to cascade down into the chamber, creating a soft glow. The golden rays touched her skin and filled her with a pleasant warmth, bringing a smile to her face.
At the head of the room a metal balcony extended out from the wall, casting its shadow onto the sitting area. Leading down to the ground level was a sturdy steel ladder. The balcony supported several aged consoles, terminals and a few tables, adorned with various pieces of scientific equipment and tools.
Standing on the balcony was a man, his hand resting atop the rail. He was an older fellow in his late forties, tall with tidy mahogany hair, streaks of grey interjecting themselves between the brown. His eyes were dark with light creases appearing around his face; highlighting a small smile.
As Mel entered the room the man flicked a switch on the terminal nearest to him, before slowly walking along the balcony toward the ladder, his hand running against the rail as he moved. "Good morning sweetheart, I was wondering when you'd finally get yourself out of bed," he said calmly, stopping next the ladder. "Today is a very important day Mel, are you ready?" he asked, stroking his short, trim beard.
"Morning daddy," she replied while rubbing her eyes. She blinked and smiled for a moment, though as her father's question sunk in, a small quizzical look appeared on her face.
"Don't tell me you've already forgotten what today is?" he asked, pausing to slide down the ladder, dropping to the floor with a solid 'clang'. As he hit the ground he stepped around the ladder, arms out at his side. "Well, we can discuss it later, come on then give your dad a hug."
Mel nodded cheerfully and took a small skip forward, wrapping her arms around her father and squeezing. "Love you daddy," she said as her father gave her a slight pat on the head. The pressure eased her, letting a calm sensation travel through her body.
"Good girl, now go on and wash up, it's time for breakfast."
Mel took a small step and broke the embrace. She opened her mouth to speak but she was promptly interrupted.
"We'll talk about it later, go on and get cleaned up, I'll be waiting in the kitchen."
She said no more and hurried off toward the exit, heading left.
As she entered the next room she stopped short, the area rather small and enclosed. A little basin sat on the ground with a hole that funneled out into a tiny trench carved into the ground, which led down into a pipe. Where it went from there she had no clue, not that it bothered her much. As they say ignorance is bliss and Mel was a happy young woman by all accounts.
Over the basin there was a pump and pipe that Mel quickly grabbed and gave several yanks, pulling back on the handle as hard as she could. She grunted slightly, her tone high pitched and soft with each motion. After a short time water began to pour from the pump, splashing into the tub with a satisfying crash.
Sighing quietly, she wiped her brow with the sleeve of her sweater before dropping to her knees and dipping her hands into the basin. She washed herself as quickly as she could, splashing the cool water over her face and running her moist hands through her hair, shaking it out and combing it down. It wasn't perfect but it sufficed. She took one last moment to cup some water in her hands and take a long drink before scampering to her feet and dashing toward the kitchen.
As Mel arrived, stumbling into a small room just off to the side of the sitting area, her father was setting down a steaming bowl of soup, placing it upon the table with a soft clink. Mel was greeted with a quiet smile, the older man calmly taking a seat across from hers. The bowl waited as Mel stood silently, eyeing it, and smiling from across the room.
The young woman practically jumped into her seat. The legs of the chair skid across the kitchen floor with a loud scratch and she wasted little time getting to her meal.
She seemed particularly voracious, attacking her food as opposed to eating it. The clang of the spoon hitting the bottom the bowl rang out through the kitchen, each time accompanied by quiet gulp.
"Mel please, you're a grown woman. You need to pace yourself while eating."
Mel slowed herself to a stop, the spoon stuck in her mouth and a drop of hot red liquid streamed down her chin. "Uhm... sorry dad," she muttered, her words distorted from the utensil still hanging between her lips.
It wasn't long before breakfast was over and the dishes were being gathered and placed in a small tub, set aside for later. Mel stood at her father's side as he cleaned up, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her shirt, leaving a red stain upon the white fabric.
"Alright Mel, come with me. I have something special I need to show you today," he said as he got to his feet with a quiet breath.
"Something special?" Mel repeated, in a curious tone.
"Yes, something very, very important," he continued, placing an arm on her shoulder, guiding her out of the room and into a long hallway. The corridor was rather similar to the previous rooms, with thick metal walls and dull, fading light bulbs. The most distinct aspect of the hallway was the excessive amount of long cables that ran along the ceiling, pouring into the next room. The entire ceiling and parts of the walls were coated with black cables all bolted in place and kept out of the way.
The corridor eventually led into a large room, rather unspectacular save for the singular terminal that stood close to the doorway. Near the terminal was a large metallic circle on the floor that took up the vast majority of the area, sectioned into various overlapping plates. At the other side of the room was a massive metal dish with rigid and corrugated rims, pressed against the wall and bolted in place. It appeared rusted but sturdy. The object had always been a mystery to Mel; she had no idea what it was or why it was there.
"Sit here a moment Mel, I need to take care of one little thing first."
Mel complied taking a seat beside the door, resting her back against the wall and pulling her knees up to her chest. She looked on with a rather intrigued expression on her face.
Mel's father stepped up to the terminal, his hands resting upon its surface as he gazed at the room. His eyes closed gently and his face stressed, a state of deep concentration emerging, the lines and wrinkles that decorated his features deepening. "Alright, let's see if I can remember how this is done," he muttered to himself.
Reaching back he ran his fingers through his hair and brushed a few strands back off of his forehead. "Okay Mel, are you ready?" he asked, turning to face her.
She nodded in response, growing more and more curious as to what exactly her father wanted to show her.
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, his hands going to work upon the various switches and dials. "It's been two decades but I still know what I'm doing," he muttered under his breath. The reaction was delayed but soon enough the sound of rusted gears turning and a laboured whir filled the room.
The plates on the floor began to shift, drawing back and sliding away. It was a strange mechanical device that Mel couldn't even begin to identify, yet she found it impressive nonetheless. As the plates shifted and folded in, a strange frame with a wide bowl mounted at the top rose up. The bowl emanated a pale glow, a luminescent blue liquid resting within. It didn't just glow, it hummed. The whirring of machinery came to an end but an audible hum remained.
Mel's father smiled as he took a step away from terminal and offered a hand toward his daughter. "What did I tell you Mel? Special."
Mel was quick to move, jumping to her feet and running to her father's side with an awestruck expression. "Whoa... What is it?" she asked, the two taking a few strides forward, getting closer to the pool of blue liquid. It was as if she could feel it. She could feel the glow on her skin, it tingled and sent shivers down her spine.
"This is Aether," he said with pride. "It is by far the most valuable substance in the world. It is very special and it is vital to our existence."
Mel was speechless. She only stared into the azure pool with wide eyes and parted lips.
"It is what creates life in a barren world and lets us do extraordinary things. Most importantly for you, it powers this facility, our home. It keeps us safe. Aether exists in all life, it is what gives us the potential to create, and to alter the universe around us. It is so much more than that Mel. Aether allows certain, very special individuals to do very, very special things."
Mel's father brought his hand up and spread out his fingers, palm facing the ceiling. A small twitch travelled through his hand and suddenly the aether began to stir. At first gentle ripples travelled through the surface and then slowly it began to elevate until waves of blue were rolling around the basin. After only a few more moments the aether started to rise and levitate above the bowl in a flowing, gelatinous sphere.
Mel's face lit up as the liquid miraculously began to float. She gasped, hands clasping together in joy, but soon enough the liquid dropped back into the bowl, trickling down as if through an invisible funnel until it had returned to its previous state.
Dropping his hand back to his side he smiled down at his daughter. "So do you see? Do you see how special aether is?"
The girl nodded in compliance, smiling cheerfully.
"Come on then, have a seat. We need to discuss something." Guiding Mel away from the aether and flicking a switch on the terminal as they passed he moved her to the edge of the room. The shifting of the plates repeated itself in reverse, returning the bowl of aether to the depths of the facility from where it had come.
Taking a deep breath he motioned for her to sit before he continued speaking.
Mel exuberantly dropped down, sitting cross-legged and looking all around the room, still excited from moments ago.
"Now that you understand why aether is so important to our life you will understand what I'm going to say next," he stated, a bit of apprehension finding its way into his voice. "The potency of that aether-."
The word potency drew a small quirk of Mel's brow, giving her father pause. Realizing she wouldn't understand the word, he attempted to rephrase his sentence.
"Sorry, what I meant to say was that the aether we have here won't last forever. The last time I refilled it was just under twenty years ago, when you were still a baby. It won't last much longer and I'll need to go out and gather more."
Mel's face lit up once again, beaming a bright smile. "Does this mean I can go outside!?"
Mel's father sighed deeply as he replied. "Mel we've talked about this, you know you can't leave this place." His tone carried such exasperation and regret. "I know it's difficult for you to understand but you're a very special girl and there are people out there that want to hurt you."
Mel certainly didn't look like she understood, her hands sitting in her lap, thumbs swirling about each other. "Hurt me?" she asked.
"Yes, very bad people who want to hurt you, it's not safe," he looked away as he spoke, avoiding eye contact but dropping down to one knee and taking Mel's hand in his own. "Do you remember when you were a little girl and you were exploring the forgotten parts of the facility? One day you had an accident and you tripped? You twisted your ankle and you couldn't stop crying."
Mel thought back and a twitch went through her cheek. "Hn... yeah," the young woman replied, a bit confused.
"So you remember that feeling, that pain? You remember how bad that felt? There are people out there that will do things far worse, bad things and if you go outside they will find us. I only want what's best for you Mel, so please you know you can't go outside, not ever."
"Some time ago I said I wouldn't be around forever. I said that you may have to take care of yourself someday, do you remember that?"
Mel seemed to think it over for a moment, unsure. She concentrated, thinking hard, trying her best to recall the conversation. She did indeed remember, but had never given it much thought. It was something she really didn't want to think about. "Y-yes. I remember," she stammered in a shaky tone. "I don't like this daddy, do we have to talk about this?"
"I need you to pay attention to what I'm about to tell you. I know this may be hard for you but please I need you to follow my instructions."
Mel's face was growing more and more distraught, but she nodded in compliance nonetheless.
"I have to leave for a few days, I know you've never been alone and that I've always been around to take care of you. You'll need to get used to the idea of being by yourself. Do you think you can do that?"
Mel's heart sank almost immediately, her eyes slowly dropping to the ground. "No," she replied bluntly.
"Mel listen to me, it can't be avoided. It won't be all that bad," her father attempted to pacify her worries but she wouldn't hear of it.
"No, no cause if you leave then-then I'll be alone!" Mel exclaimed, fingers clenching and pulling at the knees of her pants.
"Mel I need to leave for a while, I need to gather some new aether. If I don't we'll be in danger. Please, you need to be a grown up and realize that this must to be done," he didn't sound angry but his tone was growing more and more stern.
"I knew you'd respond this way. I promise two days, that's it. You're a big girl and you can take care of yourself for that long, can't you?"
Mel breathed a long sigh as she replied. "Maybe."
Mel's father bowed his head, relief washing over his face. "I know you can. Now come on let's go back to your room, I found something, a present to keep you occupied while I'm gone."
The pair travelled back toward Mel's bedroom. The girl was rather nervous and still deeply uneasy. The usual skip in her step was gone as she just shuffled her feet from place to place. They arrived rather quickly, her father pulling the curtain aside for aside for her.
"Don't frown so much, it's not going to be so terrible," he said, attempting to reassure her.
Mel didn't seem convinced as she silently averted her eyes.
"Up we go," he added in a playful manner as he placed his hands under her arms and hoisted her up, setting her down on her bed. "Now cheer up Mel, I can't have you all mopey when I leave."
Mel adjusted her position on the mattress and stared back at her father, attempting a smile as best she could. "Well then I'll just stay sad and daddy will have to stay here," a more genuine smile appeared on Mel's face, her father reciprocating the expression.
"Alright now about that present I promised you earlier. Wait here just a moment." Stepping out of the room he disappeared only to return a short time later. In his hands he held a rectangular item wrapped in cloth. "Here you go, I think you'll really like this," he said, holding it out to her.
She stared at it with curiosity. Holding it aloft in one hand she pulled the cloth away with the other to reveal a book. Hardcover and rather tattered with the words 'The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz' written across the surface. "Ohhh... A book?" she asked.
"I know you've never managed to finish one on your own but maybe when I'm gone it'll give you proper motivation to try. I think you'll like this book Mel, it's very old but I checked, all the pages are still intact. It's hard to find something like this anymore."
Mel was still staring at the object, vacantly blinking at it. "Thank you daddy," she murmured, throwing her arms out and pulling him into a tight squeeze. "I'll finish it before you come back, okay?" As she spoke she started to sniffle, her voice growing weak, but her father's comforting hand gave her a gentle pat on the head.
"That's a good girl. And remember be careful, if you hurt yourself you'll be all alone for two days, I can't come and help you. Remember that, alright Mel?"
She sniffled once more, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "I'll remember daddy, I won't do anything bad, and-and, I'll s-stay inside and I'll be careful, I promise." A tear rolled down her cheek, one followed by another. Though she did her best to hold it back she couldn't quite manage it. Her eyes burned and her face felt hot.
"I know you'll be good. I have to go now, are you okay?" he asked, releasing the embrace.
"But why now? Why can't you leave tomorrow?" she asked, voice breaking and her tone rising, a few final tears running down her face.
"Because what I need to do is very, very important, the aether could fail at any moment and then you'd be in danger and I'll never let that happen. Think of it this way the sooner I leave, the sooner I get back."
Mel pulled her father in for one more hug, squeezing as tight as she could.
That was that, he turned and left, stepping out with a long sigh, leaving Mel alone, book in hand.
Moments later he stood in his personal chambers, a locker before him. He pulled it open with a loud creak and inside sat a coat and sword. Strapping the scabbard to his hip and pulling his through the sleeves of the black coat, he was dressed for the journey.
"Hm, it's been twenty years and it still fits. I guess I'm in better shape than I thought I was," he said to himself as he rolled his shoulder and adjusted the coat, getting used to its fit once again. "A bit tighter than I remember though."
He hurried on ahead, moving back to the large room where he had shown Mel the aether pool. Moving up to the terminal he made a few quick motions and a loud squeal began to fill the room. A flashing red light shone down from overhead, the huge steel dish pressed against the far wall beginning to shift, the rusted mechanics turning as it laboriously rolled out of the way. The bolts pulled back and the whole thing shifted several metres to the right until a gaping entranceway was revealed.
Huddled in the hall and peeking around the corner was Mel, watching her father take those last few steps through the threshold and into the outside world. For a brief moment she had her first glimpse of the world outside the facility she called home. It was green and bright, a kind of light she only saw diffused through the few available apertures in the building, all coated with dust. She now witnessed it undiluted and pure. The fresh air rolled in, it was different and she'd never experienced such a sensation. Then, in an instant, it was all over. The great door slammed shut and a loud clang echoed through the following silence.