Fiction Romance Science Fiction

The first thing we’re told in school is that there’s nothing outside the bunker.

Mr. Morgan used to tell the story every September, the mark of the new year. “The world was once lush and green, until the humans corrupted the land with their greed. Before long, the world was too contaminated to continue living in it. Luckily, by the brilliance of our forefathers, we were able to build a home here in the ground, deep below the corruption seeping into the soil. In time, even our home may be overtaken, and woe be the day that occurs.”

Kind of a heavy thing to tell a bunch of five year olds, right?

He also liked to tell us that we were built from the same stock as those that corrupted our world, and so had to be extra careful. He built his curriculum around self-denial. Nothing in excess, lest we bring about our own destruction.

Again, we were five.

Personally, when I’m with a “friend” and need a trick to not get too, well, excited, I always imagine Mr. Morgan’s face, with his weird and wiry goatee and his gloom and doom preaching. Sometimes it works too well.

My best friend, Penny, takes a different approach than I do. It’s kind of funny how we ended up so close, what with her giving in to her own desires so little. I mean, she took a vow of chastity when we were 15, to last until the Council assigned her a husband. As far as I can tell, it’s never bothered her, but I know I would chafe against that kind of restriction. Just like I’ve never been able to participate in the weekly fast. I always break before lunchtime, and eventually I stopped trying.

It’s always been like this, me needing more and more, and her a calm center to my chaos. She keeps me out of trouble, and I keep her from being a total hermit. Not that she’s dull, but she does tend toward topics other people find uncomfortable. Soil erosion, for instance, and population statistics. She follows the radio channel about the Council’s meetings almost religiously. But when she’s fired up, you know it.

I guess, knowing her as well as I do, nothing she does should surprise me. But it does, especially getting the news through the gossip vine that she’s in the prison cells, though no one seems to know for what.

“I’m sure they’re wrong, whatever it is they think she’s done,” I say to my father, the second he steps through the door. He was in the hospital ward all night, doing who knows what, but I know he knows what I’m talking about.

He holds up a hand. “You don’t know anything more than anyone else.”

“You know,” I say, accusatory. “You know what happened and I want you to tell me right now.”

I’m acting like a child. I didn’t intend to, but I’ve been in this living room, shaking, since I heard about it. I was supposed to report for work three hours ago, but no one’s come to find me, so I’m assuming they’ve all heard, and have wisely chosen not to bother me.

My father sighs, rubs a hand over his forehead, far too wrinkled for his age. “It won’t change anything.”

“Bullshit. I can prove she didn’t do anything.”

“She left a note, Ulysses.” It’s a shock hearing my real name, a name only he and Penny use. His voice is weary, but he does continue. He tells me about the chaos Penny’s caused. About the wrecked lab samples, the destroyed research, the destroyed back up research. She knew how to completely decimate what the scientists’ plans for plant modification, and when she was done, she left a note on the computer monitor confessing to everything.

And it sounds so much like her that I can’t stand anymore. The couch is too far away, so I sit on the floor, trying to catch my breath. Damn her for being so meticulous. What was she thinking?

“I need to see her,” I say.

He doesn’t say anything for a long time. I don’t look at him, but he’s still standing in the doorway, as if he’s afraid to come inside. When he does speak, it’s only to say, “Come on. We’ll do what we can.”

I follow him down the long hallways, down two sets of stairs, through a door no one is supposed to go through without express permission. But there’s nowhere Dr. Wyatt Scott is not permitted, not after what he’s done for the people in the bunker. I feel like I’m going straight down to the core of the Earth, especially as the hallway we walk slants steeply downward. But eventually, we come to another door. It’s a testament to how focused I am on getting to Penny that I don’t notice the guard until he’s holding his gun in front of my to halt my progress. My father has stopped of his own accord.

I don’t remember the exact words of what follows. All I remember is the guard saying no, me yelling at him, calling him names, demanding entry. My father is calmer, the voice of reason, but the guard still doesn’t let us in. It’s not until my father politely asks for the guard’s communication device and speaks directly to a Council member that the guard finally lets me pass, and only, as he says, for five minutes.

Nervous energy pumps through my veins as I stride down the hallway, heedless of whether or not the guard is following me. I can see Penny now, through the big glass door to her cell. She’s not looking at me, not really looking at anything, though I can see her eyes are open, even as she slumps forward on the bench where she sits. Her hands grip the metal beneath her so hard her already pale fingers are stark white. I pick up my pace.

The guard behind me puts his key card in the slot slowly, probably intentionally so, and I bounce on the balls of my feet, trying really hard not to imagine punching him right in his stupid ugly face.

The door whooshes open, and Penny looks up slowly, and I can see the tears in her eyes, along with the surprise when she sees me and not just the guard, who has already started shutting the door before I’m all the way through. But it doesn’t matter. As soon as our eyes meet we’re rushing across the room to each other.

There’s never been anything romantic between Penny and me, by mutual agreement that we were not compatible. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, because she’s gorgeous. But she’s always been the person I want to see at any hour of the day, the person I most want a hug from when my day’s been shitty.

It’s no surprise I need one of those hugs now.

I had a plan, when I came down here. I wanted to say so many things, not the least of which is “What the hell were you thinking?” But as soon as she’s in my arms, all I can do is hold her. She’s shaking, and I realize she must be freezing. It’s not exactly warm down here, and the paper-thin jumpsuit they put her in is no help at all. I step back enough to strip off my sweater and throw it over her head. She doesn’t question it, just slips her arms inside before she squeezes against me again and damn, does she look cute, way too small for the dark green synthetic wool hanging over her body, offsetting the fire in her hair.

For a long time, we don’t say anything. I almost expect her to cry, but I’m not surprised when she doesn’t. I can’t ask her about why she did it, but eventually, she answers anyway.

“We destroyed the earth before,” she whispers against my chest, “with all our meddling. I couldn’t let them do it again. They were going to alter our food, and I couldn’t let them. What if we destroyed the bunker? All those people would have nowhere to go.”

My heart swells. Of course she thought she was doing right. What else should she think, after all this time believing the stories of our past? I’m actually just surprised no one else did it first.

“They’re sending me above-ground.”

This freezes me, my arms tightening around her body, holding her close. It’s likely I wasn’t supposed to know that would be her punishment. I know that if my father had told me, I would have come down here swinging. But hearing it from Penny, with such resignation in her voice, all I can do is hold her tighter.

How am I going to live without her? I can picture her now, sprawled out on my bed with her nose in a book. Where would I go if not to her room, to fiddle with her radio that never worked right? I wasn’t kidding when I said there was no one else I’d rather be around than her, and I’m suddenly struck with such deep regret that I never asked her on a date, which is such a weird regret to have now.

The door behind me whooshes open, and the guard steps in, with his stupid, ugly face. I wish I could break his nose, just to have someone to pin all this anger on.

“Time’s up,” he says, tapping his fingers against his gun. Penny stiffens in my arms, and I slowly release her, my hand tracing down her arm until I can interlace my fingers with hers.

“No,” I say, standing up as tall as I can. He’s still a little taller than I am, and of course, armed, but I think maybe I can take him. Except I don’t think I’ll have to.

He looks stunned, squinting at me, and he takes a step back. “No?”

“No. I’m staying here.”

“You can’t. That’s not allowed.”

Probably no one’s ever wanted to stay in one of these jail cells before. I mean, most people aren’t allowed visitors down here in the first place.

“Make it allowed. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’ll have to call the council.” He manages to make it sound like a five year old threatening to tell Mom. I wave a dismissive hand at him.

“Call them. Please.”

He steps back out the door, the thin glass one, and I can still see him when he presses a hand to the communicator in his ear.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Penny says. “You’re going to get in trouble.”

“You’re one to talk,” I say with a smile. I don’t let go of her hand, even when I move to sit on the little bench, pulling her along beside me.

It’s strange, it feels like the moment we should be saying all the things we never got a chance to say to each other before. After all, I’ve probably only got a few minutes before I never see her again. But instead, we sit in silence. She leans her head on my shoulder after what seems like a battle with herself, and I stroke my thumb over the skin of her hand.

When a harried looking Councilman comes in, I give him a charming smile, the one that gets girls and boys alike into my bed, the one that gets me out of trouble when I’m found somewhere I shouldn’t be.

And that’s when I get the idea.

“Morning, Councilman Jones.”

Grim-faced, he crosses his arms over his chest. “What’s all this?”

“Oh. I’m not leaving. I assume the guard told you that?”

“You were granted this boon because of who your father is, Scott, and you are overstepping the bounds of our allowance.”

“Okay. I’m fine with it.”

“You will be arrested if you don’t comply.”

“Do it, then. Arrest me. In fact,” I hold up one finger as he starts to speak again, “if you’re going to arrest me, I think I ought to make a confession.” Penny sits up straight, and I can feel her looking at me, even though I won’t turn and look at her. Not until I get this out. She’ll know exactly what I’m thinking as soon as she sees my face. “I helped Penny with the sabotage of the lab. Yeah, I know you guys weren’t sure who disabled the cameras. That was me. Oh, and I used my dad’s password. He keeps his passwords in his desk at home. Locked, of course, but when has that ever stopped me?”

I stick as close to the truth as I can. My father really does keep his passwords in his desk. And it’s a well-known fact that I sneak into places I shouldn’t be, locked places, all the time. The Councilman’s gray brows creep closer together.

“You weren’t mentioned in the note.”

“No, I wouldn’t be, would I? In fact, I didn’t even know Penny was going to leave the note. She intended to take all the heat for me. I can’t let her do that.”

Penny’s gone still, and I can imagine those big gray eyes even bigger as she stares at me throwing my life down the drain. I stroke her hand with my thumb again, hopefully soothing her.

Councilman Jones, still looking uncertain, says, “I’ll have to have you sign a statement.”

“Good. Please do.”

He takes a step toward the door, slowly, as if he thinks I’m going to change my mind. But my mind’s made up.

When he’s gone, Penny grabs me by the cheeks and turns me to face her. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I’m not leaving you alone,” I say with a shrug, my voice coming out a little wonky since she’s squeezing so hard.

“You know they’re sending me above-ground. It’s a death sentence. And now you’re going to die, too, and it’ll be all my fault.”

“You don’t know that. Maybe the Earth isn’t as contaminated as it once was, and we can make a go of it.” I take her hands away from my face, hold them between us. “I don’t want to stay here without you. Where you go, I go, okay?”

She doesn’t have time to answer before the Councilman returns.

It feels like hours of paperwork, and then even more hours of sitting. After a time, we’re able to talk again, though it’s clear from our stilted words that we’re both nervous. I do my best to make her laugh.

All too soon, someone comes for us, and we’re led down a different hallway than we came from. This hallway is lined with glass walls, windows that I assume look into other cells, long out of use. A way to show other prisoners what could happen to them, to show them someone walking to their own execution. But with Penny’s hand in mine, it doesn’t feel like an execution.

The Councilman from before says a few words from our book of laws, but I’m not listening. I’m looking at the big circular door that’s opening in front of us. I expect to see the outside world, though that wouldn’t make sense. Instead, I see a set of stairs that seem to lead up until forever.

I give Penny’s hand one last squeeze, turn back over my shoulder for one last look at the home I’ve lived in forever.

And I see my dad. He found some way to watch me from the other side of the clear glass hallway. He offers one last wave of his hand, and I swear, he’s crying. I give him a smile, and wave back.

And then the door closes behind us. Penny and I look ahead, and she’s still looking ahead when I turn to take her in. She’s still wearing my sweater, and it’s worth the chill I feel to see her like that. When she looks at me, she swallows hard.

“Ulysses?” I make a humming sound in response. “I’m scared.”

I press a kiss to the back of her hand, and take the first step up the stairs. “We’re together. What’s there to be scared of?”

March 12, 2021 12:01

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