Content Warning: Mild Language
The sun burned on a crimson horizon. The man in the hazard suit cried at the pink and blue sky. Sand–fragments of the endless dunes in flight–pelted against his visor in sapranoed pings carried on rhythmic wind.
He rubbed his gloved fingers together and felt the grit.
“So much grandeur, in a single grain.”
“If I fold, will you show me your hand?”
Grayson shook his head, an inscrutable smirk mounted to his face.
Kyle huffed, “Look, I’ll fucking fold if you show me what you have.”
“Not how it works,” Grayson said, hiding a pair of sixes beneath his palm.
The other men at the table chuckled. Grayson was already up twelve days, at this rate he’d retire in less than a week.
“If you’re bluffing, it’s a good fucking bluff.” He threw his cards down, “Fold.”
The table erupted in laughter as Grayson hugged his heap of chips and pulled them towards him.
“One more game.” Kyle pleaded, reaching for the deck.
But the table shut him down. They’d all agreed, this was the last game of the night.
Grayson tried to contain his smile as he counted his winnings, but he couldn’t help it. He had a pocket full of extra food rations, three extra shower vouchers, and he’d just shaved another sixteen days off his duty tour. If he could keep this up, this would be the shortest maintenance deployment of his life.
He’d been deployed four times now—twice as a pipefitter, and once as an exterminator in the server rooms––but this time he had the most dangerous duty of any of the Upholders; he was a surface tech. And despite getting to work fewer hours each day than any of his buddies in the subsurface crews, no one envied him. The surface of the Earth was no place for a human.
As the men filed out of their little cove in the valve chamber, Kyle pinned the steel door open with his boot. “You coming, or not?”
“Hold up.” Grayson said, still shoving his winnings in his pocket.
“You playing again tomorrow, right? Gonna give me a chance to win back some of that time?”
“Of course.” Grayson said.
“Taking an extra week here is bad enough, but if I have to take on your surface responsibilities too, life’s gonna suck.” Kyle shook his head, then lingered in the doorway fidgeting with this radio. “What’s it like up there, man?”
“On the surface?”
“Yeah, is it like they say it is, all fire and brimstone? So radiated that your flesh will boil?”
Grayson shrugged, “Haven’t been up yet.”
“What?” Kyle choked, “Four months into your deployment and you still haven’t been to the surface. What do you do all day?”
“Train. That’s it. Train. All fucking day.”
Kyle smiled, “Well, then maybe I won’t hate doing your job after all.”
Grayson didn’t smile back, “Maintenance is maintenance, man. Any time spent unplugged sucks.”
“Agreed.” Kyle stuck out a fist and Grayson met it with his. “We’re all just counting down the days until we can go home.”
The pills the infirmary gave him didn’t work, he slept like shit, but when the morning reminder chimed in his room, it came more gently than he’d have expected. And when the Edificer spoke on behalf of the Retired, It was the same voice he always heard–the one that spoke from the other side–but knowing that he’d only have to hear the message for another week or so made everything in the Facility a little more tolerable. He wasn’t jealous of her anymore, the voice from Rapture.
“Good morning, Upholders.” The woman said. Her voice was soothing, but vibrant. “The people greet you today with avid appreciation. Your work is meaningful–your sacrifice acknowledged. You are our heroes. Serve well today. Remember where your home is. Remember that you are keeping your world stable, not just the Retired. You’ll be with us soon.”
“You’re right about that,” Grayson muttered. His fourth retirement was right around the corner. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then looked at his hand. It was wet.
Had he been crying?
As he sat up, a faint image clung to his thoughts like a sheer curtain. He had dreamt in the night, a real dream. The kind that was not beautifully designed and coded, but random and fragmented. It was a brain thing–oxytocin and melatonin. Neurons and memories. He saw a woman in blue scrubs which he immediately recognized as the clothing of the women who work the pods. Angels, some men called them. She told him to lay down on the pod, holding out her hand, beckoning him. She offered heaven, but he refused.
Why did he refuse?
“You’ll be home in nanoseconds, once I make the connection.” she said, “Let me plug you in.” Then she smiled.
He didn’t know if he thought this in his dream, or was just thinking it for the first time, but her smile haunted him:
How could she smile so convincingly, wasn’t she jealous that he was going home?
Then he remembered something else–her face. He’d seen it before. Yes, it was the girl who’d plugged him back in after his last retirement, the woman he’d searched for, but never found in Rapture. The girl who’d, unlike other angels, held his hand as he was reconnected.
The girl who touched him.
Why did he refuse her?
He shook the question from his mind. It was just a dream. And then, as dreams do, it faded. The woman, and her pearly smile, the pods and their pearly sheen. Then all that was left was memory–not of the dream–but of the place. The sterile white halls of the Connection bays, as he remembered them, in stark contrast to the gray dusty concrete corridors of the maintenance sectors.
“Have you heard what they’re serving for breakfast?” Kyle asked when he met Grayson at the entrance to the cafeteria.
“Nope.” Grayson said, stretching out his arms to loosen the cramp in his back.
“Bacon.” He smiled. “They only give you two slices, but Greg said he’d trade me for some soy milk. Gave me another one of his conspiracy theories, said, you can’t trust that it’s real bacon because in all his years in the facility he’s never heard of anyone farming animals.”
“He’s got a point.” Grayson said, shuffling his way into line behind Kyle.
Kyle handed Grayson a tray and continued. “I told him that it’s probably been in storage from the old world. If anything, that just makes bacon more rare. I think you’d be stupid to pass up the opportunity.”
Grayson pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Good thing I have an extra food ration to use on such a rare meal.”
Kyle rolled his eyes.
And it was a rare meal. Bacon was incredible. In fact, if he was honest, it may have been the best meal he’d ever had in his life. Nothing he’d tasted in Rapture even came close to comparing. It smelled like warm satisfaction, and made his mouth water. It made him happy. He knew it was just the dopamine flooding his brain, but still. Bacon made him happy; that fact intrigued him.
The elevator groaned as it descended the shaft, grating slowly against the aged tracks. Grayson and Kyle, and half dozen other men, looked up from beneath their hard hats, and watched as the caged platform creaked to a halt. When the doors opened, they all boarded.
No one spoke as the elevator climbed. The slow, cacophonous, ascent reminded everyone that nothing about their deployment would be pleasant, but on queue Kyle broke the silence.
“So, what’s the first thing you're going to do when you plug back in?”
“Uh, I dunno.” Grayson whispered. The grinding gears gave him gooseflesh, and he was in no mood to disturb the somber spirit of the ascent.
“Me, first thing I’m going to do is use my upholder bonus to buy another sector of land. Might build another mansion. Bigger this time, with a helicopter pad on the roof.”
“That’s great,” Grayson said, trying his best to hide his disinterest.
Silence overcame the room again as they left behind the sounds and smells of the cafeteria. Grayson could still taste the smokey meat on his tongue and wished he had saved some for later.
But then another man spoke. “First thing I’m going to do is my girlfriend.” Approving laughter filled the cage. “Then, I’m going to surprise her with a glass submarine, the kind that has a transparent hull to let you see everything in the water, and when we’re a hundred meters down, I’ll propose.” He shrugged, “She loves ocean biomes.”
“This is my first deployment,” one of the younger men said, “When I get back, I’m going to host my own homecoming party. It’ll be the biggest blowout my district has ever seen.”
“First retirement bonuses aren’t that big, buddy,” one man said. “I think your party might be a little underwhelming.”
Kyle laughed, “But what about you, Grayson. This will be your fourth retirement bonus. That check is going to be fat. What are you planning?”
“I don’t know.” Grayson said again.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You haven’t thought about it?”
“Of course, I’ve thought about it. I just haven’t decided yet. It’s not that easy this time around.”
Kyle cocked his head. “How come?”
“There’s nothing big that I want,” Grayson said, “not Mansion-in-a-new-sector big. I don’t feel like I lack anything in Rapture. I just want something new, I guess.”
“What, like you want to travel more?” Kyle said. “You could stay mobile for a long time with your check.”
Grayson shrugged, “Yeah, I think.”
When they exited the elevator and Grayson arrived at his classroom he discovered a note posted on the door:
All surface crews are to report to the Hanger, ASAP.
Bring your hazmat gear, and your tools!
Grayson had never actually seen the hanger. He saw images of it in his training, but this was the first time he’d actually laid eyes on it. The hangar was massive, it had to be the largest open space in the entire Facility. He had, of course, seen larger structures in the Rapture, but something about this place made his stomach churn.
A group of people in yellow hazmat suits had gathered between long rows of identical hybrid half winged, half rotary aircraft–the kinds of vessels that actually relied on lift and other laws of physics. One of the aircrafts was powered on, the blades a blur as it idled.
What were they about to do?
What was he about to do?
He'd trained for dozens of scenarios, but it was anyone's guess why they'd be gearing up next to an aircraft.
A man in a red hazmat suit yelled above the buzz of the rotors, ”Upholders!” Everyone turned their attention to him. “Listen up, we depart in ten minutes. Make sure you have all your shit together. Dust storm came in the night, buried our solar panels in a layer of sand. No solar panels, means no power, no power means no server, no server means no Rapture. The end of the world as we know it. You will literally be saving the world today, people. Better keep your wits about you.”
The butterflies in Grayson's stomach became violent, and he thought that he would vomit. It occurred to him that despite using the phrase butterflies in the stomach in Rapture to describe sensations of excitement or fear, he never actually felt the sensation before. He’d only felt signals sent to his brain meant to approximate the experience. This was much more intense than he’d ever imagined.
The aircraft was even louder from the inside. As the engine burned, and the blades chopped at the air, Grayson could hardly hear himself think. The wind tickled his eardrums, and the vibrations in his seat made his legs feel like they would go numb.
He looked around, hoping to see nervousness on everyone else’s face, but to his surprise, they all seemed unperturbed by the events. Perhaps they were better at concealing their anxiety, or maybe they hadn’t thought things through like he had. Like the fact that the ship was being piloted by AI, a soulless entity with nothing to lose should it crash. Or that they were about to set foot on the surface, an environment that swallowed up more than ninety percent of the Earth’s resources forcing densely populated areas to pack into to subterranean quarantine zones with promises of paradise like virtual worlds where they could live long happy lives in medically induced comas. Coming up with enough beef to meet caloric demand isn’t a problem when everyone is barely alive.
He closed his eyes. No, He wouldn’t let himself be pessimistic, just because he was scared. He willed his thoughts away.
Grayson felt his weight shift as the aircraft banked abruptly. He forced himself to open his eyes. Looking out of the doorless hatch, he saw the shadow of the aircraft rippling across waves of copper colored sand. It was kind of beautiful, he thought, the way the shadow danced.
In the distance, row upon row of solar panels–all of them canted eastward toward the rising sun–dotted the dunes like crops. The term “solar farm” suddenly made more sense to Grayson.
They flew over the fields for several minutes before they touched down in a shaded valley. Most of the solar panels were shrouded in a thick layer of dust. After dismounting the craft, Grayson approached one of the panels and shot a blast of air at the surface with his compressor.
“This must have been a very big storm, to throw this much sand over all these.”
“I think it was.” A voice echoed against the glass visor of his helmet.
Grayson looked over his shoulder and Jesse, a young red haired kid, waved back at him.
“I heard that crew chief talking, “Jesse continued, “telling someone it was the biggest sandstorm in over a decade.”
“I believe it.” Grayson said, clearing off another panel with a blast of air.
“He said that it approached like a wall, and the cameras saw nothing but black for almost an hour.”
“The scale is hard to imagine.” Grayson said, trying to guess how much work went into the construction of these panels. It must have taken ages to complete such a large project, yet a single storm buried it all in less than an hour.
He scanned the blue skies from the valley. He couldn’t see the sun, but a rose colored cloud bloomed above him, shimmered gold, then disappeared behind the next hill. Grayson dropped his pack then started towards it. The sand gave under his thick boots, so he climbed up the rest of the slope on all fours.
By the time he crested the hill, red-gold sand covered his hazmat suit and his breath fogged the glass. The polymer fabric clung to his skin, and sweat dripped down his neck and back. It was uncomfortable, but when the wind came, he felt it even though he couldn’t see it. Almost cooling him, almost undoing the discomfort right there. He imagined how much better it would feel without the suit. He stretched out his arms, feeling the cadence of its cool gusts, sensing he’d learned something new about the wind.
Everyone hated to be unplugged. It was the minutiae of the misery that ate at them. There were no backaches in Rapture, no sleep in your eyes, or hair in your food, no dandruff, or sweat, or real hunger.
But there is also no wind, Grayson thought. Not this kind of wind.
There was wind in the Rapture, of course there was. But it didn’t cool you, or refresh you. There was no need to be refreshed in Rapture.
Therefore, wind in the rapture is not wind, he concluded. And touch, not touch.
Grayson fought to catch his breath, panting into the cool breeze, grinning at the sand as it clattered against his visor. The discourse of the dunes. A new warmth, a pleasant one, pressed against his side, he spun around looking for its source. And there he found it, burning on a crimson horizon.
Kyle’s eyes narrowed on Grayson, and the inscrutable smirk plastered on his face. “I’m not falling for your tricks this time buddy. I raise you.” Kyle shoved twenty days into the pile. “How’s about it, Grayson? Think you can shave another twenty days off your time here? Or are you gonna be stuck taking my shift?”
Grayson smiled, “You know why bacon tastes better here, than in Rapture?”
When Kyle said nothing, Grayson leaned forward, hiding four aces under his palm.“ Because bacon here–no matter what it’s made of–is real, Kyle. Because it’s real.”
Then Grayson threw his cards at the table, “Fold.”