Sandy finally made it.
The years leading up to this point were absolute mayhem: countless sleepless nights of studying and preparation at the public library, nerve-wracking competitions to determine one’s worthiness, forced smiles, and constant stress. The years felt long but looking back on it, they passed faster than The Flash’s cameraman. The only thing that mattered was that Sandy won.
The helicopter landed gently on a helipad atop a skyscraper. She hoisted her backpack onto both shoulders, each hand gripping one strap, and descended the ramp that connected the helicopter to the building’s rooftop. At the foot of the ramp, she looked out at the vast metropolitan cityscape. Darkness blanketed the world but small specks of bright, moving lights suggested that although the artificial sun had slept, the people of Red Wel remained awake. For the first time in her life, Sandy inhaled a full breath of clean, pure air. This breath of fresh air reminded her of all her previous competitors who would continue to breathe grey, smoky air. Her excitement turned to guilt.
Red Wel was one of the few cities that had resisted the ultimate climate disaster. While other cities were wallowing in smog, floods, and droughts, Red Wel’s domed climate, perfected by the nation’s best scientists, sported clear skies and purified air. Large, deep magma mines on Red Wel’s outskirts harnessed the Earth’s inner heat to power the city. Acres and acres of land were protected by a large dome that depicted a hyperrealistic image of the night sky. However, this incredible world was not free for all to enter. Each month, a competition was held to determine a person worthy of a life in Red Wel. Worthy meant being educated, capable, or filthy rich. Sandy, an outsider, spent years studying to be the best engineer, and just last week, she was chosen to construct a new, eco-friendly community building within Red Wel’s town square. Anyone who contributed their part would earn a lifetime residence in Red Wel.
Over the last 200 years, Red Wel amassed a small total of 2,400 residents from competitions. It was the only way for poor outsiders to have a chance to live in an EcoCity. The other one million people descended from Red Wel’s starting population of 100,000 genetically sound individuals or paid their way in.
This is it. I’ve made it. I can finally live comfortably and do my part. Are you proud, Ma?
Sandy rode the elevator down all 70 floors to ground level where she hailed an electric taxi. The taxi driver, an old man well into the later ages of life, was kind. He must have been one of the first people to be admitted to Red Wel.
“Where can I take you, ma’am?”
“4810 Engi Avenue, please.”
And they were off.
Sandy peered out the window, a sober expression decorating her face like a 2012 sad, Vevo music video. Through the car window, she could hear the steady beat of lively music and the friendly laughter of outdoor diners. Even so, all these sounds were muffled and distorted inside the empty car. Sandy observed the bustling streets and warm, welcoming restaurants. She wondered how many of these people had felt the real climate first-hand. She wondered if they had gone through unbearably sweltering temperatures only to be punched by a cold front a few hours later. She wondered if they ever needed to wear gas masks to ward against hazardous air pollution or buy their water from checkpoints or the black market. She wondered if their home had ever been swept to sea and forced to relocate to a grimy, back alley shack. Lost in her thoughts, Sandy didn’t realize that they arrived at her new house.
The taxi driver cleared his throat after a hot minute. “Ma’am. You’ve arrived at your destination.”
Sandy left her thought palace. “Oh. Thank you. I don’t have much, but I can pay you whatever I can.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Newcomers get free rides. Think of it as my thanks for your contribution.”
“How did you know?” Sandy didn’t recall mentioning her status as a new citizen.
“All newcomers arrive at the skyscraper. Didn’t you know?”
Sandy received her keys from the ground floor receptionist and took the elevator to her apartment. Upon entering, hanging bell-shaped lights illuminated the room in a golden glow. It was modest and humble. Modern themed and cozy, the apartment held a living room, kitchen, bathroom, balcony, and office. The room was warm and inviting. Plants occupied every corner of the house, making their air fresher than a forest.
I can work with this.
And yet, although Sandy knew she should be jumping for joy at her very own living space in Red Wel, an unsettling feeling flipped her stomach as she surveyed the empty rooms. The small apartment seemed to be larger than any building Sandy had ever occupied. Nothing moved. Sandy didn’t move. The plant's branches seem to hang limp and uninviting. She cleared her throat to break the silence that she swore had begun to suffocate her. Pulling out her phone, she played 90’s songs as loud as she could without bothering the neighbors as she showered, ate, and hit the hay.
The promise of a new day provided little comfort. She pumped herself full of false confidence, readying herself for the first day at work.
Fake it ‘till you make it, Sandy. Fake it ‘till you make it.
After exiting the apartment complex, she rented a bike and cycled to her job. Criss-crossing through streets that rivaled New York’s activity, she weaved between pedestrians and traffic lights. Towering business buildings and multiple sprawling communities lined Sandy's route. They created a physical tunnel-vision effect. A few turns and stops later, Sandy arrived at her destination. Thick concrete slabs piled on top of each other to form a wide, intimidating building. The Engineering Department labeled the building in large, bold letters above the grand, revolving door. Sandy locked her bike into the community bike rack. Making her way past the Doric columns in front and through the doors, she passed a plethora of workers who didn’t so much as glance her direction. They were completely absorbed in their own groups, their own friendships, and their own conversations. The lack of interaction made Sandy feel as if nothing changed: she was still the young girl looking longingly at Red Wel while people lived unbeknownst of the little dreamer.
Sandy shook off the bitter feelings and picked up her yellow manilla envelope. Inside was her ID, a map of the complex, and instructions for her first job. A few wrong turns and a quick question later, she arrived at the correct conference room. Upon entering, it was clear that the discussion was in full power. Unfamiliar faces of her coworkers offered suggestions while others pointed out shortfalls and advantages. To her disappointment, any plans of sneaking in quietly were obliterated by the squeaky door.
Seriously? An engineering building and they can’t even balance their doors.
“Uh, hi guys. Pardon the intrusion, I got lost on the way here. I’m Sandy, your new supporting engineer. It’s a pleasure to meet you all.”
A hot second passed by of silence and Sandy thought she was going to die.
“Alright, Sandy.” declared a large but short, burly man at the head of the table. “Feel free to take a seat anywhere you like.”
With that, the discussion continued, but with less fervor and conviction. Sandy felt like collapsing within herself like a star and winking out of existence.
From that day forward, Sandy did her job. She made suggestions, finished her plans, and made calculations. However, throughout the years, she yearned for the day when it would be over. 4 years later and the building was constructed. The open ceremony celebrated the engineers, ending as soon as it started. Sandy was straight up not having a good time. She fell onto a park bench, nibbling on a croissant snagged from the ceremony. Over the years, this park had easily become her favorite hangout cove. Great oak tree leaves concealed the sky and sunlight filtered through the leaves, bathing the whole area in a calming, green glow. As the branches swayed in the breeze, sun spots danced on the ground and the air was filled with a faint whooshing sound of rustling leaves. Fearless pigeons and cats roamed freely. As a testament to the amount of time Sandy spent at this park, all the cats were best friends with Sandy. With her head propped back on the bench, one leg crossed over the other, and eyes closed, she let out a great sigh.
Sandy contemplated her existence.
Am I happy?
For every year, as long as she could remember, Sandy yearned for the future. The only reason she studied mathematics and physics to be an engineer was to win the Red Wel competition. After winning the competition, she endured 4 years of planning and construction to secure her spot in Red Wel. She had done it. She could finally live. For the first time in years, Sandy lived in the moment. With sunlight freckling her face, the soft swish of leaves, and the fresh breeze playing with her hair, Sandy was happy. She came to a realization: this was true happiness. Winning the competition and completing the building was nothing compared to the freedom Sandy experienced.
A foul smell pushed Sandy from her reverie. She opened her eyes.
What is that smell?
Sandy surveyed her surroundings to find the source of the foul smell. She squinted at a plume of smoke in the distance. A family BBQ had ignited the tablecloth which was blown toward the fire by the wind. As the family desperately attempted to suppress the fire, the stench of smoke brought her back to the outside, back to the climate disaster of the real world. A tsunami of guilt washed over her entire body. Sandy shuddered.
How did I forget?
Sandy leaped from her bench. A cat that had settled into her lap yowled in protest.
“Sorry, kitty! I’ve got important work!” Sandy dashed back to her apartment and began planning an organization to bring more people into Red Wel. One person per month was way too meager. Millions of people were suffering out there, while people lived in ignorance inside EcoCities. They didn’t know how bad it was.
After a few minutes of searching online, she discovered that there was already an organization working toward spreading awareness and aid for outsiders. She volunteered and in working with others, she found that she was infinitely more content to help out than work in engineering. By joining the organization, she befriended more people in a month than 4 years at The Engineering Department. By joining the organization, she found herself.