The air in the room came out from under the door frame and condensed into a layer of white.
Joshua Hemmings and Beverly Amherst climbed up and up and up. They had spent weeks devising a plan to avoid the elders who would have kept them from venturing to the surface. In a thousand years, a lot could change. Whatever catastrophes had occurred in the past would have healed by now, the surface returning to its pristine, life-filled abundance. A new Eden awaited.
Their entire population had moved underground over a thousand years before. Thanks to a steady degradation of their technological assets, due to a lack of production facilities and spare parts, it only took a few hundred years to forget their past, forget the surface, and forget where they came from. All they had were the few books they discovered in their library, a rare resource in light of the digitization of all knowledge into a wonderfully handy and portable, but ultimately irreparable, technology.
The physical resources given highest priority were their thermoelectric generators, tapping the core's heat to light the lights, grow the plants, and circulate the air that kept them alive. While their scientists had lacked design data on the generators and pumps, they learned what they had to to duct-tape them into functionality.
But for Jeremy and Beverly, the books from the library opened up an entrancing view of the surface of Earth. Trees and flowers in abundance, animals wandering wild on the Earth's surface, and nothing they could find about why they ended up down here in the darkness in the first place. If the information ever existed, it was lost with the electronic files centuries before. Now there were only tales told by the elders, warning them of the dangers of the surface. "Don't leave the city!" they would warn. "Only death awaits." An ambiguous, undefined death.
Joshua was surprised to see that the metal ladders progressing ever upward had survived a thousand years. Even the rock in which they were mounted seemed more worn than the metal. Dim lights still lit the wide shaft, their permanence and utility attestation to the capabilities of the original engineers. Motes of ancient dust swirled in the cool, dry air. He glanced down at Beverly and said, "I expected these ladders to be completely rusted through. No corrosion or anything."
"This doesn't look like the metal we use at home."
He examined the ladder under his sweating grip. "Maybe you're right." He hung his arm over the rung and sighed heavily. "My arms and legs are ready to drop off."
Beverly, five rungs below him, pointed. "I think I see something ahead. Is that a door?"
Joshua climbed up and stepped out onto a platform. He walked carefully over to the vertical hatch, gripping the railing tightly, still not trusting the strange metal of the walkway. There was a large metal wheel in the center of the hatch. He dropped his backpack to the floor and leaned on the wheel, grateful that the long climb might finally be over.
"You think this really leads outside?" He ran his fingers over a plastic sign next to the door. Unlike the ladder, the sign had long ago cracked, discolored and fractured to an unreadable haze.
"We've been climbing for hours. I hope so," she sighed. "Wait until the elders hear what we found!"
"Huh. I'm not sure I'm going back to tell them." He grabbed the large wheel and grunted.
"Help me," he said. She grabbed the wheel, too, and together they slowly rotated it. It squealed with ancient age. They pulled against the door, and it slowly swung open. A puff of dust swirled out from behind it.
"It's another door."
They stepped inside a small chamber and examined the next door, which had an identical wheel in the middle. At the side of the smaller chamber they now occupied was a button, with the remnants of a cracked and illegible label above it. Joshua pushed the button. Nothing happened.
They spun the next hatch-wheel until it stopped, then pulled against the door. It wouldn't budge.
"Maybe the other door needs to be shut," Jeremy suggested.
They swung the inner door shut, finding themselves in pitch blackness, and pulled on the outer door again. It still wouldn't move.
Jeremy pushed the button again. A hissing sound emanated from a vent above his head. "Guess that was it," he said. He smiled, satisfied, and put his arm around Beverly's shoulders. She snuggled into him, waiting expectantly for the first look at the surface in a thousand years.
After a few minutes, the outer door popped open an inch. Air from the chamber wafted out and condensed in a white layer below the frame of the door. All was silent.
Outside, Mars waited patiently.