*Warning: Brief Instances of Adult Language and Themes*
Yes, definitely Monday.
I threw my hands into the air and groaned aloud in frustration. I’d been doing so well! I’d marked off the days on the calendar throughout December, then—since I didn’t have a calendar for the next year—drew my notches onto the floor underneath the couch in the living room. Every day.
Come on, Nick. Think.
Surely, it was Monday, March 16th, 2071.
But days were not easy to remember, anymore. Not after you spend too many of them in the Hamster Cage, as I liked to call it.
I glanced toward the door that separated my compartment from Meg’s. It shimmered with the same electrified force of energy that comprised the rest of my walls, meaning that it was before 08:00, still too early in the morning for the Warden to flip the OFF switch.
The Warden was never late; she had her own schedule that she needed to follow.
08:00, each compartment door was opened, everyone free to roam for social interaction. Goodbye, privacy.
09:00 to 13:00, compartment doors closed for everyone to get some semblance of work done. People did still work, though no one was paid anymore. It wasn’t so bad when everything we needed was given to us, anyway. Essential workers, like medical staff, teachers, cooks, electricians, and plumbers, moved around the Hamster Cage and used their access cards to enter compartments where they were needed. But everyone else stayed holed up in our own little squares we called home—writers, accountants, lawyers, cat lawyers.
13:00 to 14:00, the QCMs (Quality Control Mitigators, or Mice if you use my version) went to each compartment to take temperatures. If anyone had too high of a temperature, adios. Booted from the Hamster Cage. One of the QCMs came to my humble abode at 13:07 every day. On the dot.
14:00 to 18:00, compartment doors closed for work again.
Then, the Golden Hours—18:00 to 20:00. We can choose whether or not to open our compartment doors. If we want company, open. If we want privacy, closed. If we want privacy with company…closed. My only time alone with Meg.
20:00, curfew. Compartment doors locked for the night.
I used the Warden as a clock. She was always reliable. This has been the same schedule every day since the Connecticut State Government gathered us all into the Hamster Cage on March 18th, 2070, almost exactly one year ago.
And on March 18th, two days from today—I think—, I was getting out of here.
Shit. I can’t believe I lost track…. If Meg doesn’t know the day, our entire plan was at stake.
The energetic buzz surrounding me blinked in and out three times, which was always the only warning we got before the electric force field of our doors dissipated. Suddenly, Meg was standing in front of me, looking absolutely fucking gorgeous with her brown curls gathered into a messy knot, an oversized t-shirt —one of mine, I recognized— hanging off her shoulders, her dark brown eyes vibrant in the fluorescent lighting.
“Don’t comment,” she yawned. “Rough morning.”
I stepped into her compartment and took her into my arms with a smirk. “Beautiful woman.”
She sighed against my shoulder and looked up at me with big doe eyes. “So,” she said, her voice hushed, “ready for tomorrow?”
Tomorrow? I cursed under my breath, which earned a skeptical look from Meg. “Tomorrow. Right,” I answered quickly, trying to recover from my slip-up. “Everything’s ready, I promise.”
Still, I quickly ran through the checklist in my head. Water. Nonperishables for two weeks. A Firestarter. Insulated sleeping bags. A few sets of the forsaken green shirts and red pants everyone was required to wear in the Hamster Cage. All stashed in the cabinets and crevices of our compartments. And the way out scorched into my memory.
“Nick, I know I’ve asked this an insanely excessive number of times,” Meg’s soft voice hesitated, doubt feathering its edges, “but… do we know there is actually something left out there?”
“Meg.” I took her face into my hands. “I ran the numbers. It’s my job.” I chuckled lightheartedly, though a part of me wondered, too. “Besides, if I’m wrong, it will still be better than this place. We can be people again, Meg.” I pressed my lips to her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, before finally reaching her lips. I kissed her softly, as tenderly as I could, hoping to erase any doubt, any fear.
I knew why she was worried. It was not fear of survival, or fear of contracting HURI-070. It was not because she was afraid to leave.
She was afraid there’d be no one left to help. That she would be leaving her post in here only to find an empty, wasted cityscape.
See, Meg was a doctor. A pulmonologist. She may not necessarily like her life in here, but she could still help people. She’d told me one night as we laid together that she felt if she were outside the Hamster Cage, outside in the world, she could help more. It was her idea to leave. I was just running the show for her. And God knows I’d follow this woman anywhere.
She sighed, pulling her face away from mine. “Alright. You’re right. This is what we need to do.”
“We’ll go over everything again tonight,” I promised. “You’ll be saving the outside world in no time.”
That garnered an eye roll and a smile from Meg—my favorite reaction. “Well, this superhero needs to finish getting ready for the day.” She waved me away with her hands, but only with a playful smirk. The beauty of 08:00 to 09:00 was watching her get dressed.
Three hundred and ninety-six days since the first case of HURI-070 was documented in Connecticut. Contagion rate of fourteen people per square mile per day. To this day, in Connecticut, two hundred seventy-eight thousand people infected. Seven thousand seven hundred and thirty-nine deaths.
I ran my hands over my face, my elbows leaning heavily on my desk near my keyboard. Only I and the other data analysts had access to these current numbers; everyone else in the Hamster Cage was kept in the dark. To stifle panic, we were told.
The numbers were striking, but there was good news: herd immunity should be making a significant impact now. If everyone outside the Hamster Cage did what they were supposed to do, the world should be seeing a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Which, if society learned anything from COVID-19 fifty years ago, I hoped they were doing what they were supposed to do.
I quickly typed out the equation once more, and there it was again. Blinking in small, bright blue letters at the edge of my computer screen, PREDICTED DECLINE = 2.3%/24HRS. In two months, theoretically, HURI-070 in Connecticut will be gone.
This, of course, didn’t take into account outlying factors, like travelers, additional deaths, virus mutations, and —God, please forbid— re-infections.
But HQ didn’t want to hear my theory, to see my calculations, to even consider that it might be safe out there again. And the only reason I could see was corruption. They were receiving money to keep this place up and running, but instead of that money going to us, the hamsters, they pocketed it—at least, as far as I could tell. No changes have been made in here since Day One. And I was sick of being used as a tool by these people.
Just make it through tomorrow, I told myself. Tomorrow night, Meg and I were out of here. I kicked myself again for losing track of the day, and I was once again floored by the totally meaningless secrecy of HQ. They couldn’t even give me a damn calendar to hang on the wall.
A quick, electronic beep sounded throughout my compartment, signalizing 13:00. So, the QCMs would be barging in soon. Great.
I heard Meg’s scream, then, very faintly.
To actually hear her scream in itself was impressive; these energy field walls were typically very soundproof. I might have taken a second to appreciate the power of her lungs had my heart not been thudding in my ears, my blood not suddenly racing with adrenaline as I pounded on the wall between us. My fists throbbed as the electric current blasted through me with each strike, but I didn’t care.
“Meg? Meg! What’s wrong? Dammit!”
I began to see black along the periphery of my vision, whether from pain or anger I’d never be sure, as an overwhelming need to get to her replaced every other thought in my mind. I lifted my desk chair above my head and threw it at the force field, to no avail. I resulted again to banging my fists against the wall, until the wall dissipated with a flick of the Warden’s switch.
Three QCMs stood before me in their pristine white uniforms, and my fist, already set on pummeling the now-nonexistent wall, landed hard onto the shoulder of the man right in front of me. He buckled to the ground, but the other two caught me by the arms as I tried to barrel through them. I saw Meg kicking and punching, still screaming, held fast by another QCM. This one was dressed in a white hazmat suit, which meant only one thing.
“Meghana Carfale has a fever of 102.8 degrees,” the man to my left stated, so matter-of-factly that it seemed almost nonsensical to question him.
“That’s not possible!” I shouted. “No one has had a fever in here for months!”
But the man only continued to speak over me. “She is to be ejected from the S.A.F.E., and you will be placed in quarantine, Mr. Fairwright.”
Meg screamed again, an ear-piercing wail of anger. “Let me GO! This doesn’t make any sense! I have PATIENTS to treat!” Her face was red from anger and exertion, and her breathing was becoming more labored with her struggle, none of which helped her case.
The man to my left turned briefly to Meg. “Miss Carfale, good luck.” Then, he nodded to the QCM holding Meg, and the QCM began to drag her away and out of her compartment, heading for the Removal Corridor.
“Meg!” I craned my neck, my gaze careening past the wall of energy. “I will find you! I swear I will find you!” My voice cracked as I glimpsed her messy bun bobbing over the QCM’s shoulder, before they both disappeared from my view.
“Meg,” I murmured once more, my grief and anger making my throat so thick that her name sounded garbled as it bubbled through my lips.
Then, I felt a pinch between my shoulder blades, and darkness enveloped my mind.
“You saw how much food he had stored in his compartment? The woman’s, too!”
“Despicable. Hoarding from the rest of us. He should be ejected just for that.”
The voices sounded distant, as if I were hearing them through a glass wall. I tried to open my eyes, but my lids were too heavy. Just attempting to lift their weight exerted me, and I slipped down a steady slope, sliding gently into darkness once again.
I must be in the Quarantine Wing. That was the only explanation for the extremely potent smell of disinfectant and the uncomfortable cot beneath my back. I didn’t dare open my eyes; my world was spinning even in the backlit darkness under my eyelids.
There was a quiet whirring, which I guessed was an air vent though I felt no air pushing through the room, and the familiar shimmering energy of force field walls was nowhere to be heard. I must be behind actual walls, then, outside of the Warden’s control.
Shit. How the hell was I going to get out here, now?
Footsteps echoed in the hallway.
I chanced fluttering my lids open, slowly, hoping I wouldn’t pass out.
I set my eyes on a brown fleck in the white tiled ceiling straight overhead and listened to the footsteps approach. Suddenly, after sounding as if the sharp clack of shoes couldn’t get any closer, the footsteps stopped, and I heard the click of a knob’s bolt releasing from a door.
It’d been so long since I’d heard a manual doorknob. I raised my head, which instantly made the room convulse, to see a QCM in a hazmat suit enter.
“Nicholai Fairwright,” the woman said, “you have a fever of 103.1 degrees. You are to be ejected from the S.A.F.E.”
A fever? They didn’t even take my fucking temperature! Black dots at the edge of my vision threatened to take hold once again as I struggled to sit up, and a strange gurgle escaped my throat from my effort.
Two more QCMs, also in hazmat suits, entered the room then and grabbed me by the arms. I had no strength to fight them. I just hung there, dead weight swaying between the two QCMs.
“Mr. Fairwright, good luck.”
I was heaved through the hallway, and I vaguely glimpsed door after door, opaque and real, lining the walls on either side. The black dots continued to grow, enshrouding more of my sight with each fluorescent light passing above my head. So, this is the Removal Corridor, I managed to think groggily.
At the end of the hall, a final door. I could hardly see, but the metallic click of five manual locks reached my ears, and a loud, harsh beep sounded, signalizing a final, automated lock being removed. The Warden controlled the final lock to this door, then.
The QCM on my right pushed the door open, and fresh air hit my face.
Then my face hit unforgiving ground.
But it was ground. Not tile, not linoleum. My nose was buried in dirt, grass, and dew.
The door swiftly slammed shut behind me.
I laid there for a second, completely unmoving. Only feeling, hearing, smelling. A breeze tousled my hair—long now, not having been cut since I’d entered the Hamster Cage—and danced through the blades of grass near my face. The rustle of leaves accompanied the breeze, and I’d never heard so many birds in my entire life.
Another sound. A voice.
My favorite voice, so sweet and fierce that my mind would not have been able to remember it correctly had yesterday truly been the last time I’d heard it.
A pair of feet running, cracking across dry leaves. “Oh my God! Are you okay?”
Slender fingers grabbed my wrist, which at first I thought was romantic, before I realized Meg was checking my pulse. Well, making sure I was alive was still sexy.
“I’m alright,” I uttered, though my groaning suggested otherwise. A loud, involuntary grunt ripped through my teeth as I rolled over onto my back. “Are you?”
“Fine,” she answered brusquely. I couldn’t stand the thought of missing out on her beautiful face any longer, so I opened my eyes slowly, one by one. A few strands of her brown curls had gone rogue and escaped her bun, dangling near my face as she looked to the ground, concentrating, counting the beats of blood pounding roughly through my veins.
“Meg.” My voice was hardly a whisper.
She ignored me, still counting.
“Meg,” I said again. I lifted my other hand and gently cupped her face, coaxing her to look at me. As her eyes finally focused on mine, her deep, rich brown irises serious and disbelieving, I felt a smile stretching across my face. “It worked.”
“It worked,” she repeated my words, her beautiful voice a little breathless.
The most jovial laugh I felt in an entire year found its way through my windpipe and trickled from my lips. “It fucking worked!”
I used what little strength that had returned to me to jump up and scamper over to a witch hazel bush a few hundred feet away, nestled into the forest’s brush yet the only one of its kind for another twenty yards or so. Underneath its low branches, cans and packets upon packets of food overflowed from two sturdy backpacks, along with two sleeping bags, a tent, a Firestarter, a metal pot, and two full canisters of water. Just as the Warden had promised.
The Warden had been right about everything else, too— that the QCMs would notice us hoarding food and supplies, would hear us planning an escape, would need to get rid of us before they had a riot of like-minded thinkers on their hands.
Still, I was glad I’d memorized the way out, just in case things hadn’t gone according to plan. And I was glad I’d been good friends with the Warden before this entire shitshow of a pandemic started. Having someone who’d open any door for me was a blessing I would never overlook.
I turned my gaze up to the Hamster Cage, the giant silver letters of Sheltered Antiseptic Functioning Entity blazing at me in the setting spring sun, to the tinted glass-enclosed watch tower perched on top of the metal roof. Even from this distance, I could make out the silhouette of a figure standing there, peering down at us.
I waved in thanks, and I thought the Warden might have nodded once in return before disappearing back to her computers, cameras, and switches.