*Author’s Note: “The Mole Has Turned” is a standalone story, set in the same universe as my other Reedsy short-stories, with overlapping characters/events.*
I was barely an adult the last time I saw a sunset, but this one had surpassed any genuine memories left in my mind. It was so beautiful we’d watched it on a loop for the last hour. Troy had arranged for us to have the same shifts this week, so today we could both spend our free-time together. It had been my best day, even though I still hadn’t felt real daylight on my skin for years.
Time in the contemplation room was precious. Troy had secretly made trades with his friends so he could surprise me with a whole day spent in there. He wouldn’t tell me what the trades had cost him. He only repeated that if he’d paid twice the price, it would’ve still been a bargain to be able to spend this day with me.
We had gone for walks through wild-flower meadows, through cherry blossom woods, and admired the beauty of nature – how it used to be. I’d always loved nature. Once my unpractised legs began to ache, we stopped for a riverside picnic. We ended our perfect day lying on the grass, talking while we shared a bottle of his finest moonshine. We watched the clouds roll over the ceiling screens until our looping sunset began.
The technicians had to kick us out once our time was up. They were immune to the fantastical bribes we’d offered for five more minutes. Once we finally left, we cheerily walked through the sterile corridors back to our room. The moonshine kicked in harder once I had to walk on solid ground, rather than the multi-directional treadmill in the contemplation room. Troy was happy to steady me by holding me close.
We stepped into our home, which was a stark contrast to the functional corridor we left behind. Safety trumped beauty in our new world, but our home was an exception. Thanks to my father, I had more space and comfort than most. It hadn’t always been a home; Troy proved to be the jigsaw piece I didn’t realise my puzzle was missing. There was so much light in my life now, the darkness was a memory too distant to wallow in. I was content. Some days I completely forgot that there was an unimaginable tonnage of dirt over my head, which protected my perfect life. But it was always there, with enough stored kinetic energy to smother my personal sanctuary in an instant.
I poured us both a nightcap, but Troy was already loading the toaster with bread to soak up some of the fun we’d already drunk.
“Oh, thanks,” he said, as I brought him his glass.
“Not struggling are you?” I gave him a wicked smile, “I don’t remember marrying a lightweight.”
“No…no, not at all. Cheeky mare.”
“Oi!” I punched him in the arm, and spilled some of my drink with the effort of my swing. “I’m no common mare, I’m a unicorn.”
He gave me his exasperated smirk that he knew I loved, and the warmth in his brown eyes was intoxicating.
“I just built up an appetite from all that walking, and fancied some toast.” At that moment the toast popped up as if it knew we were talking about it. Troy freed the bread from the toaster, and it smelt delicious.
We ate in the lounge, enjoying a comfortable silence; I hadn’t realised how hungry I was. With nothing but crumbs left, I put on some music and snuggled up to Troy, resting my head on his chest, and he wrapped his arm around me.
Luther Vandross’s beautiful voice flowed out of the speakers, and filled the room with his loving soul. Vandross was Troy’s favourite singer, even though he was already a golden oldie before my parents were even born; but Troy had never felt the urge to venture past the ‘classic’ filter of his music library.
Music never failed to make my heart swell, even if I did miss having new bands to discover. I waited for Troy’s usual butchering of the chorus, but it never came. He seemed distracted, and his chest felt tense.
“Did you have a good day?” he asked.
“Of course, it was perfect.” I looked up at him and he leaned forward to kiss me. A loving peck on my lips. The silence that followed didn’t feel as comfortable as it usually did.
“Nature is beautiful,” he said, staring ahead at nothing in particular. “Even when it’s just photons emitted from a screen.”
“So pretty.” I sounded like a cave-woman, and the fact I realised it meant I must’ve been sobering up. I grabbed my glass from the table, and Troy observed me as I brought it to my lips. There was an intensity in his eyes that I didn’t notice before.
“It’s resilient as well.” Troy picked up his glass, but didn’t drink. “As well as beautiful.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I mean the surface.” Troy sat more upright, and I did the same. “They said there’s new shoots growing everywhere.”
“That’s great for the future generations.”
“Could be for us too.”
“Oh, yeah I’m sure my father could get us added to the next crew that goes up-top.”
“I was thinking more long term.”
“Oooh.” I took a gulp of my drink, and had the feeling my every movement was being watched and analysed. “But you said the doggy bag wasn’t enough to survive?”
“Yes, based on my calculations, that was the assumption I made.”
When we were first married, we’d had the conversation about leaving the bunker to live on the surface many times. Anyone could leave the party down here, but resources are finite, so what could be spared for your doggy bag was limited. Starting a new life cost a lot.
“Have things on the surface improved enough to change that?”
“No, but we can take more.” Troy recognised the outrage on my face, and raised his hands to prevent the looming tirade about his selfishness, which was already on the tip of my tongue. “We’ll only take what we need, and there’ll be plenty left for the community to carry on.”
I had to think. I felt like there were a hundred eyes watching me. I held my empty glass for comfort, and eyed Troy’s glass, which was still at the same level as when I poured it. The temptation to down his drink clawed at me; to pass out and dream that this day ended at the sunset like it should have done. No! My heart contracted. It was according to his plan that it didn’t end at the sunset, he’d arranged today to soften me up for the purpose of this conversation.
I let my anger bounce around my mind, clearing away the fog. I slammed my glass down onto the table. I would not be manipulated.
“I won’t leave my father. He needs me.”
Troy took my hands into his, and spoke softly.
“Your father is obsessed with his work. He doesn’t have time for anyone that’s not helping him get closer to his goal.” He squeezed my hands gently. “Not even his daughter.”
“He isn’t a good father…but he’s my father.”
I scanned his eyes for a calculating mind; one thinking of which chess piece to move next. All I saw was love. The eyes I’d married. The eyes that had loved me every day since. And I saw that my pain caused by his words, hurt him more for being the one saying them. I had to look away before I began to cry – damn moonshine made me emotional.
I looked into the far corner of the room.
“Your father’s mission is admirable, but it’s his mission.”
The second Troy revealed his true purpose for today my mind was drawn to that corner. I’d resisted the urge, but now as Troy continued talking, the corner had all of my attention. Troy was countering my arguments for staying here before I could even think of them, let alone say them. So my mind left him to argue with himself; he was winning after all.
“I understand he feels responsible for what happened, because he couldn’t persuade them to listen to his warning about the end of the world.”
Lying on the floor in the corner of the room was a person I hadn’t seen for a long time. Someone I’d neglected, because I hadn’t needed him. I was just as guilty of the things Troy was accusing my father of; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, even when it’s deep underground.
“He’s living in the past, but we should be living in the present,” continued Troy.
The boy in the corner hadn’t aged a day since the last time I saw him. He lay on his front, with his elbows on the floor, and his chin rested in his hands. His knees were bent, and his feet swung back and forth like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I-spy would be more fun if we went up-top,” said Fred.
I smiled to myself as Fred hadn’t changed at all; life was still a game to him. That’s why he wouldn’t survive on the surface.
Troy misunderstood my smile and took it as encouragement.
“Your father is focused on saving every timeline except our own.” I looked back to Troy, and his eyes were watery with the passion he felt about my life, and our future. With Fred in the room I was able to hold back my own tears. “Since we can’t have children, we owe it even more to ourselves to make the most of our lives. We can’t just live and die underground like moles.”
People always used children to justify doing what they want to do. My father used the death of his son as an excuse to throw himself into his work. He told himself he was inventing time-travel so he could stop his son crossing the road that day, but the real reason was so he didn’t have to face his daughter. He missed my childhood trying to save his son’s. The irony was that the time-travel he invented could only discover the future, not change the past – so he lost both children.
Now Troy was hiding behind a child rather than face his own reality.
I had lied to Troy. I could have children, but this scorched world was no place to raise a child in. I altered my medical records because I knew given enough time, Troy would have been able to change my mind.
“And the knowledge we have, could really help the people living on the surface too.”
Troy’s argument was hard to deny, and I turned to Fred for support.
“Don’t look at me, he’s right.”
Troy released my hands, and brought his to my cheek. I took comfort in the familiarity of the rough skin of his hand, which was caused by having to wash them so often because of the work he did. He guided my gaze back to him – he expected to see tears, but there were none.
“Please Joan, just promise me you’ll think about it?”
That’s when I realised I hadn’t said anything for a long time.
“What if we wait until my father passes, and then we can start our new life?”
Troy looked broken. I wasn’t sure if it was his heart, his hope, or both. He withdrew his hand from my cheek.
“With the doctors he’s brought down here, he could live for a long time yet.”
“So, we receive the same treatments too. Our lives will be just as long.” Troy sat back, and listened as I continued, “And the medical advances would be even better by then, so we’d be even more help to the people on the surface.”
“We might not have that long,” explained Troy. The tone of his voice had a sharper edge to it now.
In the corner of my eye I saw Fred reposition himself; he now sat cross legged, intrigued by what Troy had said.
“What d’you mean.”
“I’m not the only person that thinks there’s a life for us beyond this bunker.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The man that I thought was the missing piece of my life’s puzzle, was about to throw all the pieces against the wall. I feared for my father first, and then for the community he’d created and protected for all these years.
“We…I appreciate what your father has done for us,” explained Troy. I looked to Fred and he looked equally unimpressed. “But us leaving doesn’t have to mean the community here will be destroyed.”
Fred’s expression changed, as curiosity spread across it.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s why they came to me,” explained Troy. I was curious who this ‘they’ was, and more importantly how many of ‘they’ there were. “Because of my work. They don’t want to destroy what we’ve built here. They’re our friends and family, they just want to have the freedom to live the life they want to live.”
“They’re free to leave,” I snapped. I resented the idea that anyone was held prisoner. Only moments ago he said he – or is it ‘they’ now – appreciated what my father had done to save their lives…and now he’s talking like he’s a despot.
“With that allotment of resources it’s a death sentence.”
I looked over to Fred again and now his legs and arms were crossed.
“Look,” said Troy, leaning forward in his seat. “I’ve done my calculations, and the ant and mushroom farms are more established now than when people first asked to leave.” Troy was animated; he always got like this when there was a problem for him to solve. “I’ve worked out what we would need to start new farms wherever we settle on the surface, and with the current growth rates of both, it would only take seven months for the mushroom cluster and ant colony to return to their current size.”
So he must know the number of ‘they’, in order to work out his calculations.
“And if more wanted to leave too, then those that stayed would need less, so it would just be a matter of shifting that balancing point.”
“I see you’ve thought this through,” and if he had, I knew his calculations would be correct. They always were.
“I wouldn’t even consider it if there was any danger to those we left behind.”
I didn’t know what to think, this was all too much to take in, and I was starting to crave hair of the dog to chase away this headache tapping away at my temple.
“It doesn’t have to be either or,” continued Troy, “we could live as two communities, helping each other survive. We could find new allies among the surface survivors, and do all the hunting and gathering of food for those that stayed here. And in exchange they could still provide us with any healthcare or technological support we needed, while your father continues his good work from the safety of the bunker.”
The way Troy explained how it would work, it did sound like a harmonious way of living together, rather than deserting anyone.
“It does sound like a good compromise,” I said. “And I’d love to take a real walk through a wood. Even if the trees did look thread-bare compared to the ones we saw today.” Then I chuckled to myself, which sounded more erratic than it felt.
“They would be beautiful, because they’d be real.” Troy leaned forward and kissed me. In that moment all my trepidation evaporated away. When he sat back again, I didn’t have to look to know Fred would have been disgusted by the sight.
“I’m so glad you feel this way too,” said Troy. He was giddy with excitement, and it made his words flow faster. “I told them I wouldn’t do it unless you agreed. This is great. They were hesitant to involve us because of your father. I worried what the alternative might have been. It’s much safer for us to be involved, with everyone on the same page.”
Safer? My hackles rose at the back of my neck, and Fred got to his feet. Safer for who? What would the alternative have been? Fred paced up and down in his corner as he understood the implications too, but my face showed no signs of what I was thinking.
“Exactly, if your calculations show it can be done, we’ll have the best of both worlds.”
“That’s correct, and the future plan was always to return to the surface eventually,” Troy gave me a warm smile. “The only disagreement is the timing of that transition.”
I smiled back, and it looked equally warm.
“But we have to make sure there’s going to be enough resources for both communities to thrive.”
“Of course,” he said, “I can show you my calculations, it’s quite simple really, once you input the data for the last few years.”
Perfect. Those calculations would show the exact number of ‘they’ among us. And that was a start. I looked over to Fred and he’d stopped pacing. He nodded in agreement, and blinked three times in quick succession like he always did before disappearing.
I knew he’d be back soon, I’d have some decisions I couldn’t make without him. But that was for later, right now the most important thing was to stay part of the conversation, and in the loop.
“I was working on the numbers earlier, I’ll go get them.”
“That’d be perfect,” I said, as Troy scurried off into the other room.