Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Cube

This is another build-a-story that I wrote for the girls on Babycenter. You see, 15 days ago I was bored, and offered to write a story based on a picture of a house. The house they found, well let's just say it brought out my Sci-fi upbringing.

See the inspiration house here.

When I started writing I didn't expect all this to come out, and this had better be the longest post I ever put on here. It's 26,000 words, and therefore a Novella. If it were printed and bound it would be 90+ pages. True to the purposes of this blog I've left it in first draft state, with only minor corrections. See the original thread, complete with my emotional breakdown 6,000 words from the end, here.

So grab some popcorn, put the kids to bed, and get ready for The Cube.

The Cube Part I – The Cube

"Here we are," she said in that monotone voice of hers as she shifted the hummer into park. As she snapped the engine off I stared in incredulity at the strange black concrete box in front of me. I wondered why the driveway led to this side of the building if there were no entrances. By the look of the militaristically groomed grass going around the sides NO ONE ever walked that way either. I half expected a sign stating that walking on the grass was punishable by death or incarceration according to statute blah blah blah point blah blah blah.
I decided in that moment I was going to kill my mother for sending me here for the summer.
My aunt was out of the door now and hauling my suitcase out of the back of the hummer. She still had that pinched look about her mouth, like she was sucking on a sour candy, or mulling over sour thoughts. Why had she agreed to take me for the summer if she was going to be this mad about it?
It wasn't like she and mother had ever been close, not since I had been around anyway. The only way I had been sure she was my aunt at the airport was that she looked so much like my mom. The same hair, the same eyes, the same toughness in the set of her chin. I had always thought working in corporate litigation had made my mother the human thunderstorm I knew so well, but now... now I was starting to wonder if it was a family trait I might end up being cursed with.
I ran my hand over my jaw thoughtfully as I wandered after my aunt. She marched my case towards the midnight cube that apparently was her house. I had barely been able to lift it off the luggage carousel at the airport, but she carried it like it was as light as a purse.
Speaking of which... she didn't have a purse. Where did she keep her... well she didn't seem to wear makeup. But even if she didn't need to carry a pad or anything she had to have credit cards and ID, right? She must keep all her stuff inside the pockets of that strange gray flight suit. Imagine having to transfer all that every day. It was worse than being a purse schitzo, at least changing purses all the time made you chic.
My aunt halted on the pavement and looked back over her shoulder at me in annoyance, so I clutched my purse to my side and scurried after her. She resumed her pace and when we were about ten feet from the blank wall it suddenly started moving.
I stumbled in surprise, but managed not to do one of my standard sidewalk-meet-face maneuvers. I tried to cover my clumsiness as I watched massive sections of the dark wall bulge outward and then start to slide to the side.
My aunt nodded her head at the corner of the building, and I realized that what I had taken for lights were really cameras mounted high on the wall, and tracking our progress. Now that I was stepping right up to the moving wall the camera was cocked at a funny angle, peering down at me like some electronic bird, or worse. I clutched my jacket closer to my chest and wished I hadn't chosen such an attractive neckline today.
The wall had now opened enough to allow us onto some kind of patio. I barely had time to take in the reinforced metal roll up door that seemed to extend the entire left hand side of the building before my aunt was impatiently motioning me through a set of glass doors.
The doors closed behind me with a strange kind of sucking sound and I spared a glance backward to see that a light above them flick from red to green. My aunt was leaving me no time for acquainting myself with my surroundings though, so I hurried past the Spartan furnishings to follow her through a set of metal doors.
They closed behind me with an ominous thud and a harsh click. Once again an indicator went from red to green. Green for good, green for secure, green for locked away from the world with an aunt I was now convinced was absolutely crazy.
My aunt stopped here, in this completely plain, white, boxy hallway and set my suitcase on the floor. She spun and faced me in a way that made me think of every Nazi movie I had ever seen. Her face was nearly as scary as she drilled into me with those pale blue eyes.
"Mathilda," she said, and I didn't have the guts to tell her everyone called me Tilly, "As a member of my family I expect that you have a higher intelligence level than those shoes would otherwise lead me to believe." She glowered at my zig-zag strappy wedges like they were an insult to austerity, which I guess they were. "You will," she said returning that ice cold star to my eyes, "have surmised that this is no ordinary house and that I live no ordinary life. I do not usually allow anyone to interfere with my work and I expect that you will respect me enough to keep your interference to a minimum. Reynolds will see to your needs, but I request that you not make yourself a burden upon him either. I will see you at dinner, 1900 hours sharp."
She did that pinpoint turn again and placed her hand on a doorknob. There was a click before she turned it, and then as she did turn it my fear of her was overtaken by my fear of being left in this suffocating box within a box all alone. "Wait!" I said in a panic. She cast a raised eyebrow in my direction. "Umm," I said with a gulp, then asked the only question I could manage to form under that icy stare, "Who's Reynolds?"
As if in answer to my question a door to my right opened. I was torn between watching it open and watching my aunt step without a word through the other door. As her door thudded and clicked green a young man in a black flight suit stepped out of the other.
The stitching on the name tag above his pocket said Reynolds, but a whole list of other names came to my mind as I focused on his face, Adonis, Brad Pit, Ryan Seacrest, Prince William, Justin Bieber, and Justin Timberlake, by Prada he was hotter than all of them rolled into one.
His face was impassive, but there was a glint of humor in his eye as he stepped across the room towards me. "Miss Moren," he said extending his hand. I stared at him like an idiot for another two heartbeats before I thought to shake it. The humor in his eyes faded into a look of concern. "I'm sure this is all a bit overwhelming, if you will just follow me I will explain what I can."
He dropped my hand, my heart dropped to the pit of my belly when he did, and he picked up my suitcase instead. As he reached for the door he had just come in through I heard that click and saw the little light flash to red. Red, enter at your own risk, I thought.
I was going to risk it. Whatever was on the other side of that door, I was going to face it. Whatever my crazy Aunt was up to, I was totally IN.
As long as Reynolds was the one explaining it all to me.
I thought differently when we got to the elevator. He pushed the button for down and my heart was right back up there in my throat. It was bad enough to live inside a cement cube, but to live under it? I think I'd rather brave the roof.
Assuming there was access to the roof. Which there probably wasn't. Because this place was bunker and impervious to anything normal.
The elevator dinged then and the doors slid open. We stepped onto the shiny black floor and he set my suitcase down with a thud. It closed completely and started moving, before he had pressed any buttons at all.
"How does it know where we are going?" I asked quietly.
Reynolds jerked his head up to the corner where yet another camera looked down on us. I gave the lens a nervous smile and then concentrated on keeping my hands away from my neckline. Who was on the other side of that camera?
The elevator plunged downward for what felt like forever, and I was beginning to wonder if my room was in China. At last the whirring sound above us slowed and the odd lightness in my legs changed to that heaviness that meant we were stopping. The elevator dinged and the doors sighed open.
Light poured into the elevator and I blinked against it as I followed Reynolds’ nearly indistinguishable form into it. At one point I lost sight of him completely and halted. I felt a hand on my elbow and allowed it to guide me until at last the light faded and the darkness rendered me a new kind of blind.
"Sorry," Reynolds said as I blinked and tried to adjust my eyes. "It's always like that this time of day."
"Day?" I asked. "I thought we were underground," I said.
"We are, but the crystal at the pinnacle lets the light in," he said.
My eyes were once again relaying information to me, but I wasn't sure I trusted it. I was in some kind of... hollow pyramid. The four walls slanted up above me with floor after floor of windows slanting down to look at me. I could see people walking past them, all in those strange flight suits, all looking very busy.
Where on earth had my mother sent me and how did the National Enquirer not know about something this big?
Reynolds led me along the wall until we reached one of the corners. Here there was another elevator, or something like an elevator. I could see it coming down towards us along the slant of the ceiling... wall.. ceiling... whatever. The people in it were looking out the glass back and towards the center of the pyramid's floor. I followed their eyes and gasped to see tree tops peeking above the wall.
A bird darted by and disappeared into the lush green leaves. The air was damp, warm, and tasted of earth. I could hear twittering and water babbling. I wanted to go and investigate this indoor forest, but Reynolds was there, leading me into the elevator.
We entered the conveyance from its side and I eagerly went to the window so I wouldn't miss a second of the sight as the ascent changed my point of view.
In the center there was a fountain of sorts that fed four waterfalls, which in turn fed four streams. The streams wound their way through a landscape of varied settings. Raised pathways crowded in among the fruit laden branches in one quarter and stretched gracefully over open sheep pastures in another. The other two quarters were well tended gardens and fields of grain.
The whole thing was massive and I stared in shock at it as we climbed higher and higher. "Is this place self-sustaining or something?" I asked Reynolds.
"Finally," he said.
I turned and looked at him, "Have you been here long?"
"Half my life," he said with a little grin. I couldn't decide which was more fascinating; the fact that people lived here for years on end, or the perfection of his dimples and teeth.
"What is this place?" I asked him, turning back to the view out the window.
"Well, the government calls it Retreat of Last Resort #9, but we just call it "Nine" or "The Resort."
"The American Government?" I asked looking over my shoulder at him.
He wobbled his head a bit, like answering that question would have taken a good deal of effort he didn't want to expend. The elevator doors opened and he escaped out them with my suitcase, but I was hot on his heels.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"What does what mean?" He replied.
"That thing you just did with your head," I said in irritation.
"It means..." he sighed, "It means there's a whole lot of things going on with the governments in the world that they don't teach in High School and I don't have the time to explain it all right now. I've got to get you settled in General Moren's apartment and back to my duties."
"But my Aunt said you would see to my needs, and I need to know what is going on here," I protested as we moved down the short hallway to a door.
He reached for the handle, but I could have told him it wouldn't open, the light was green. After unsuccessfully trying the handle he stepped back, glared at a nearby camera and said, "Peters!"
The door clicked immediately and Reynolds rushed me through it.
I hadn't given up on getting some answers, but I took a moment to figure out why the room felt so weird to me. I finally realized that it was because the only windows were what I had thought were mirrors when we were in the hallway. The far wall was lined with storage cabinets.
The furnishings were Spartan again. All hard lines and sensible cloths. I could see through to a tiny kitchen with a table and three chairs below another window that looked out on the highest levels of the pyramid. If she was a General didn't she rate better digs than this?
"Your room is through there," Reynolds said pointing to the room off the kitchen. "Go ahead and unpack. Here's a little reading material," he said pulling a booklet out of his long thigh pocket and handing it to me. "I suggest you read it carefully before dinner."
He looked at his watch. "It's nearly 1400 hours, I've got to go, but I'll check back on you at 1730 and see how you are coming along," he was already backing out the door, and I watched him go with a dismay only slightly tempered by the booklet in my hand.
He paused just before the door closed and he poked his head in, "And... don't go wandering around, I don't have time to go looking for you today."
I glared at the door for a few minutes. It wasn't like it was my fault I was here. I hadn’t done anything that warranted being shipped off to the destination of last resort, or whatever it was called. My mother was completely over-reacting.
I threw my hands in the air in frustration and then exerted all my effort to move my suitcase to my room. When I got there I wished I hadn't bothered. It was like the cheap hotels on TV that they hid witnesses in. Bedspread from the stone-age, window with exactly the same view as the other room, a little desk, no TV, no iPod dock, no color, blah, blah, blah. What was this, a prison?
I kicked my suitcase over and then climbed over it to unlock it. Once I had it open I started putting things in the drawers and hanging stuff in the closet. At the least it had plenty of room for my shoes, the slanted back wall made sure of that. When I was done I shoved the empty suitcase under the bed and plopped down on the mattress.
It wasn't very comfortable. I rolled over and grabbed the booklet. This thing had better have a few answers.
I finished the twenty-seven pages in just as many minutes and then started over again, sure I had missed something. It didn't make much sense and kept referring to government organizations I had never heard of before, even in Sci-fi flicks.
When I was finished with it the second time I tossed it aside and went to raid the fridge.
That wasn't going to pan out, unless I wanted some weird smelling yogurt or eggs. She didn't even have ketchup! This was insane.
I walked to the front door of the apartment and was happy to find that I could get out of it without waiting for "Peters" to open it for me. I looked up and down the hall and decided to see just how far I could go. I went the opposite direction of the elevator I had taken, only to find myself at an almost identical elevator bay. I walked around it, now looking down on the cotton ball sheep in their lush green field. I watched them wader around for a bit. They looked as bored as I was, only they got to walk around on a bed of food while I was starving.
I walked further around the level, coming to the elevator opposite the one I had taken before. As I went to go around the door a man's tenor came from the speaker by the doors.
"Didn't Reynolds tell you to stay put?"
I looked at the speaker and then looked around for the camera. Finding it I looked it dead in the lens, "Reynolds was supposed to see to my needs, not give me orders. I need something to eat, Peters."
The elevator started whirring behind the doors and when the light above it popped on the speaker sounded again, "Get in, I'll take you to the Mess level."
"Thank you, Peters," I told the camera.
"Just don't get me in trouble," the voice said as the doors closed.
The doors opened and the indicator light above the door read "M." Peters' voice spoke to me again. "Just follow the arrows and give them your name."
I stepped out and was walking away when I heard a faint, "I'm sending Reynolds after you if you aren't back in this elevator in twenty minutes!"
I winked at the closest camera and then did my best "these shoes make you want me, don't they?" walk down the hall. I could imagine Peters' panic level rising the more I ignored the arrows on the wall.
My rebellion didn't pay off though, because like the floors above, this one brought you back to where you had started, it just took longer. I might have walked right by the Mess hall and made him worry through another loop, but the scents coming from the kitchens were far too lovely. What they had called "lunch" on the plane had been tiny and inedible.
I strode purposefully toward a long buffet where food was displayed and a middle aged, grumpy looking woman stood guard. She watched me the whole way, but then so did others, and I wasn't about to tone it down for her when so many of the other glances were appreciative.
"I'm Tilly Moren," I said.
She looked at me blandly and started tapping a screen. She looked from it, to me, and back again. "Okay, go ahead," she said.
I went down the line, wishing there were chips or something, but settled for a bunch of fruit and some fries. It was something anyway, I didn't think dinner was too far away.
Once I had my tray filled I turned to survey my table choices. There were a lot of empty tables, but one large one was nearly filled with cute, athletic looking guys.
I walked towards them, and didn't even bother asking if I could sit down, the welcome was in their eyes. There was a general shift in positions at the table, as each guy tried to get his good side towards me. This was going to be fun.
"I haven't seen you around here before," the one on my left said. I reached to shake Smith's hand, and introduced myself as Tilly to the group at large.
"What department are you in?" Jones asked from my right.
"I don't think I'm supposed to talk about that," I said with a grin as I popped a grape in my mouth. It tasted wonderful.
I got the laughs I was looking for.
"You can talk to anybody in the Resort," Smith said. "We're all one big happy family at Nine.”
"Big happy family, huh..." I said, hiding my amusement at the word family. I doubted any of them was chummy with my relative. "So all the departments intermingle?"
"Oh yeah, a girl from eco just married a guy from IT last month," Jones said.
"Those are two very different departments," I bluffed.
I had guessed right, judging by the nods. "So how about up and down the scale?" I said as casually as possible. They exchanged glances and I read them like a book. Class distinctions existed no matter where you went, even in hollow mountains that stood ready to see a select sampling of humans through a nuclear crisis.
"I guess it's a good thing pyramids are broader at the bottom," I said opening my sandwich box and taking a huge bite. Smith seemed to get a kick out of watching me eat, and I was getting a kick out of toying with him. I wiped a bit of mayo off my lip with my finger and then licked it off. It worked just like it had on my ex-boyfriend.
I tossed my hair over my shoulder and asked, "So what department are you guys in?"
The answers varied but matched the standard stereotypes. The overly buff ones were in security. The quiet one was in eco. The one with the ponytail was in operations, which basically meant he did everything from mopping to fixing things.
"What are you in?" Jones asked again. I guess his security instincts were telling him something was up.
"Trouble," I said with a grin, I put the last bite of my sandwich in my mouth. "I have to get back before I'm missed."
I grabbed my salad bowl and stood up. Some of them looked like they wanted to protest my leaving, but Jones and his security buddies were looking downright suspicious. "Maybe I'll see you guys around," I said as casually as I could under the scrutiny. "It was nice meeting you."
I carried my dishes to the window by the kitchen. The lady collecting the dishes said it was fine if I took my salad with me. I wondered what it was like washing dishes all day in a whole in the ground. It had to suck.
When I turned back around to leave the whole group of guys were crowded around Jones as he did something with his phone. His eyebrows were knit together in the middle and he didn't like what he was seeing. I smiled and waved, but the waves I got in return were less than enthusiastic. My social life was going to suck if this is the way people reacted when they found out I was General Moren's niece.
I approached the elevator with a few minutes to spare and waited for it to open for me.
"What level?" a female voice asked as I entered.
"I have no idea," I said. "Did Peters go on break or something?"
"I'm sorry, I'll connect you immediately," she said hastily.
The elevator started moving upward and Peters' voice came on the speaker. "You are on level 95," he informed me, "Apartment N-95-3."
"My aunt doesn't rank level 100?" I scoffed.
"Nothing up there but the crystal Miss Moren," Peters said.
"I guess she's pretty high on the ladder then?" I asked.
"The only ones who out-rank her are the ones that will only show up when it hits the fan," Peters said. I decided right then that I liked him.
"So are you like the head of the invisible people department?" I asked.
"Nope, just lucky enough to be assigned floors 90 and up, and special services to certain residents," he said.
"So it's your job to keep an eye on me?" I asked.
"More or less, hope you don't mind," he said.
"Only if you don't mind me making it difficult for you sometimes," I said with a wicked grin.
"Only fair I guess, but if you ever need me, just ask at any com," he said.
We lapsed into silence as I wondered how hard it would be to lose him. Plans for the summer: Pet the sheep, explore the forest, find a place to hide from my new friend, and find someone to make-out with when I got there.
"Here you are," Peters said as the elevator stopped and the doors open. "Short way to your right, long way to your left."
I took the short way, he'd rather taken the fun out of deliberately going the wrong way. I took my time though, watching the people on the eco section walkways move along like ants on a branch. The height didn't bother me, especially not with this thick pane of glass and bannister keeping me safe. A city girl like me was used to views where the floor drops away and it's just you, the air, and the city below. I rather liked the way the view felt from here, it was more like flying.
I resisted the urge to spread out my arms and let my imagination run free. Peters might be watching, or someone else. There were cameras everywhere.
"It's a good thing I'm photogenic," I said to myself and grinned at my thought.
I was stepping away from the glass when I realized something. I wasn't up high enough. Not to be on the 95th floor. I stepped back to the glass and counted the levels, keeping my finger on the glass on top of every tenth floor to keep track. I had been right. I counted only 70 floors from the ground to the ceiling. There were only two above me, that I could see anyway, so was the crystal on floor 100 or not? Where were the other floors? Could there really be dozens of levels beneath the forest floor?
I stepped back and picked a carrot out of my salad to nibble on while I walked. This was not only the strangest place I had ever been, it was also the strangest place I had ever imagined. Of course, now that I was imagining, I thought of all kinds of strange things. I didn't really believe any of them really went on in the sub-sub-terranian levels, but it was fun to think none-the-less.
By the time Reynolds showed up, precisely 1730 by the clock on the wall, I had exhausted my mental repertoire of monsters and myths and had taken to going through the cupboards in my aunt's living room, looking for either information or entertainment, I would have taken either.
I had skimmed the contents pages of a hundred books before settling on the one I was reading, "Psychological Effects of Closed Environment Living." I'd only gotten a few pages in before he knocked.
He noticed the book right away, and gave it an odd look. He gently grabbed my wrist and brought it up for a peek at the page I was on. It was a little insulting, but he was a little too close, and his touch was a little too welcome on my wrist to be really mad at him. After all, how many almost-18-year-olds would read such a book?
"I take it you finished the information pamphlet," he said.
"Not that it contained any real information," I said with a sniff.
"Peters tells me you took a field trip," he said, striding across the room and settling into one of the chairs with the air of a man who has been on his feet too long.
I shrugged and folded myself up on the couch. He watched me tuck my legs up under my skirt and casually adjust the way the gathered tiers fell across the cushion. I was sure he got exactly how little I cared that I had been "caught."
"I wouldn't recommend making it a habit to eat in the mess, your aunt won't like it."
I cast him a dark look. Behind his poker face I saw a glimmer of laughter in his eyes. That's right, I thought, I'm not going to be tamed easily, but I bet you'd like to try.
My pleasure at the thought must have come through on my face because he looked away quickly. He noticed where I had left one of the storage compartments open and he got up to close it. Then he stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked around the room for something to talk about.
"If this is the 95th floor where are all the others?" I asked him.
He blinked at me, surprised I had added it up. "The walls extend that far down below what everyone thinks of as the ground floor. The center isn't hollowed out though. It's mostly machinery and storage."
"How do you generate the power?" I asked. I was looking around for something to use as a bookmark, but my aunt's Spartan lifestyle was failing me.
"I doubt you'd follow the science of the advanced solar system," he said re-opening the cupboard and retrieving a bookmark I had not noticed before. He sure knew his way around my aunt's apartment.
"I'm not that stupid, I graduated in the top 5% of my class," I said with my eyebrow arched.
He looked a bit sheepish, which was terribly sexy, and admitted, "I don't think I could explain it very well. There’s a generator on the underground river too."
I let the wry grin lift the left corner of my mouth, but decided not to be mean. You catch more flies with sugar, after all. This was one I would dearly like to catch.
"Your brain is probably way too full of the things you need for your job," I said. "What department do you head?"
The compliment made him forget why he retreated from me. He settled into the chair again as he explained exactly what a top level HR person has to handle in a place like this. It was mildly interesting, but what made it fascinating was the amount of pride and energy he associated with his job. He was absolutely delicious looking when he was energized.
"So if you have an entire department to run, how come you are here instead of my aunt?" I asked when he had wound down.
"I do what I can for your aunt," he said.
I arched my eyebrow, my mind immediately leaping to the full extent to which that phrase could be taken.
He hastened to correct me, "No, no, not that. She has... well I'll let her tell you about that, but we're co-workers and friends, that's all."
I tried not to show my hand too much, but I was very relieved he wasn't attached to my aunt. I was tempted to ask if he had a girlfriend here, but decided to bide my time.
"I guess there isn't a lot to do here in the evening, when you are a high level officer," I said instead.
"Yeah, she doesn't socialize much down the chain, but it's not like she has a lot of free time," he said checking his watch.
I looked over his head at the wall. 1755, nearly six o-clock and my aunt was still at work. Would she be this late every night? My mom was, back home, where it was almost eight right now. I wondered if she had even gone home yet, or if my absence was freeing her to be the work-a-holic she really wanted to be.
Reynolds reached to the center of the coffee table, where there was a little wooden box. It was the room's sole gesture towards decor, but I should have known it would serve a functional purpose. He took out a remote and pushed a button. A screen raised up from inside a cabinet across the room. He pushed a few more buttons and a menu came up with a list of foods available for dinner.
An indicator at the bottom showed that my aunt had already placed her order. I bet myself that she had ordered it at the same time as she ordered breakfast. She seemed boring that way.
He asked me what I wanted and then showed me how to enter my selections. It was pretty easy, just like operating a DVD player or something. Then he entered a code and ordered his own meal to be delivered here also.
When the confirmation screen came up I noticed there were several people joining us for dinner. "Who are all those people?" I asked Reynolds.
"The other department heads," he said. "We do dinner a few times a week."
"Don't the wives and children resent that?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I haven't heard any complaints. They are all together for lunch every day anyway. How many surface jobs can you say that about?"
I agreed there probably weren't many.
My expectations for the evening had gone way down now. The conversation was likely to be incredibly boring. I probably wouldn't be able to ask any of the bazillion questions I had running around my head and my curiosity would have to go un-sated for another day. I hoped the dessert would be more satisfying.
"Well, that's done," he said getting up and handing me the remote. "I'm sure you can figure out how to get the TV to work. We've got every channel in the world. I'll be back in time for dinner."
"Okay," I said, choosing to sound surprised he was leaving instead of disappointed. I didn't really feel like watching TV. What could be more interesting than this place? It sure beat Hilarious Home Videos.
As the door clicked shut behind him I decided to see what else this thing could do. I backed out to the menu and then searched around until I found where I could access Nine's information database. A little more digging got me into the floor plans and I clicked through the levels for several minutes, acquainting myself with the major features. There was the mess hall, and the school was on the same level. I also found the gym, the pools, the bowling alley and the racket ball courts on the levels below the "ground" floor. I had counted correctly, the forested level was number twenty-seven.
There were three levels beyond the window at the top, all dedicated to power collection and conversion. It was reached by only one of the "inclinators" as they called them. Apparently there was only one elevator, the one I had first entered up in "The Cube." It only let out on four floors, three in "The Cube" above and the entrance to the 27th floor. In between was nothing but solid rock, all the way up..
Looking around some more I discovered that level 90 wasn't just some even number they picked to assign to Peters. It was the level that held all the administrative offices. Above it were apartments assigned only to the bigwigs. Levels 85 through 89 held more offices, but the majority of the work done in at Nine was done below that, where the lesser ranks spent their lives.
A notification popped up on the screen and told me that my meal was leaving the kitchens. I checked the time and was surprised to find that I only had five minutes until everyone converged in on me. I backed out of the menus before turning the TV off, then scurried to my room to touch up my make-up and re-arrange my travel worn curls. If I was going to be dining with important people several times a week all summer, I wanted to make a good first impression.
I heard the click of the door and poked my head around the door frame to see my aunt come through the front door. She looked tired, like all she wanted to do was climb in a hot bath and forget that the world existed for a while. I knew that look. I had seen it on my mother's face a hundred times, a thousand times. She only ever wore it for a few minutes though, because as soon as she saw me watching her she would marshal on.
My aunt leaned against the door as she closed it softly behind her. She looked at the ceiling then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly, and when she drew in her next breath that strong face was back in place.
I pulled my head back in my room, picked up and dropped my eyeliner and waited for her to come find me. My hair was extra fluffed by the time she appeared at my door. She leaned against the frame, a kind of fondness in her eyes.
"Welcome home," I said, pretending I wasn't done with my preening.
"Thank you, you too," she said. "I know I kind of dropped all of this on you, but things came unraveled right before I had to go meet your plane."
I looked at her in confusion, and her jaw tightened as she drew a breath. I didn't know much about what she did, or what this place was really for, but if there was an emergency that required her attention, it was an emergency on a grand scale.
"We aren't being attacked are we?" I asked her. I now regretted not watching the news.
"Not yet," she said. It came out in a level tone that spelled out the certainty of her knowledge.
"Is my mother coming?" I asked her, "Why didn't she come on the same flight as me?"
"She has a few days," Aunt Marsha said comfortingly. "She'll be here soon. She's helping get others notified and transported."
"Wait...she's... my mom works for you?"
"Madeline has been part of this since before you were born," Aunt Marsha explained.
"And no one ever told me? Is my father part of this too? Is that why she never talks about him?" I asked, a little spark of hope flying amidst the worries that filled my chest.
"Your father is not part of this," she said through slightly tightened lips. "I'm afraid I don't know much about him."
I nodded. My mother didn't either, but then... she had kept all this a secret, hadn't she? I was going to have to talk to her, when she was safely here.
"I have guests coming for dinner I'm afraid," my aunt told me. "I was going to delay it but..."
"Things unraveled," I finished for her. "It's no big deal. Should I eat my meal in here so you can talk freely?"
She looked at me with a little more respect and considered, "No, you may eat with us. You are a Moren. You may be young, willful, and disobedient, but I expect you will be a fine officer someday."
"Officer?" I asked in surprise, but just then there was knock at the door.
Aunt Marsha went to answer it, and I followed slowly. It was the food, stacked on trays inside an insulated cart. I followed my aunt's example and moved the trays to the coffee table. There wasn't an inch to spare around the little box.
As the Food Services girl was leaving Reynolds came in. He and Aunt Martha worked silently, moving the kitchen table into the room, raising the leaves, and then pressing unseen catches under the coffee table to make it rise up to regular table height.
Between the two tables there was plenty of room for the ten trays of food. Reynolds went around re-arranging them according to the names written on the lids. Aunt Marsha stepped into her room and re-appeared minutes later in casual clothes, shaking out the tight knot that had restrained her hair.
"We aren't going to fit at this table soon," Reynolds said taking his seat. I looked for my tray and found it by my aunt's, whose tray was at the end. I wondered if my mother's position was high enough that she would have otherwise rated a place at this table. I didn't know how to ask though, and someone was at the door anyway. They had barely knocked before my aunt opened it. On the other side of the door stood a burly man in his late forties who took a moment to take stock of me before turning to kiss my aunt fondly on the cheek.
They were being quite proper, but I noticed the way she clung to his arm, the way their cheeks lingered together, the way he took a deep breath before letting her go. So this was my aunt's boyfriend. Not bad. He obviously cared for her, and he was the right rank to boot.
He crossed the room to me and I met his firm handshake with one of my own. He didn't fail to recognize the "Moren grip" as my mother called it. "It's good to meet you Mathilda," he said.
"It's good to meet you too, General Heinz," I said with a quick glance at the name stitched onto his uniform.
The door chimed again and he released my hand with a nod and made his way towards my aunt's bedroom. He was unbuttoning his collar before the door closed behind him. I turned my eyes towards the front door to see all the rest of our party stream through it.
There were no name tags to cheat off of this time, so I went through a round of introductions I was sure to forget. They were Lyman from Eco, Harris of Operations, Packer from IT, Dr. Reed of Health, Foreman from Power, and Leeds from Services. Heinz was definitely security, going by his haircut and bulky shoulders. He was back now, standing next to my aunt in a comfortable way.
We all took our places at the table then, and I followed the others example in stacking my tray's lid in the middle of the table and then digging in. I was about a dozen bites in when Heinz looked at my plate with a grin. "Are you sure you are going to be able to finish all that after such a late lunch?"
I tweaked my mouth to the side. Of course he knew about my trip to the mess, he was security. That didn't explain the grins on everyone else's faces though.
"You guys must not get a lot of new people, if my eating habits are common knowledge already," I said.
Reynolds smiled, "We hear a lot more of the gossip in our departments than they think we do."
"Well I'm glad to have given everyone something to distract the masses while you dealt with bigger issues," I said taking a bite.
Several of them glanced at my aunt and she nodded. The tone in the room changed quite a bit then. I listened attentively as arrivals were outlined and plans were made for the next day.
I still hadn't figured out who was attacking us, but I got the feeling that it was an international us versus them thing by the way Packer talked about translators. My aunt kept mentioning names I was sure I should know; had I paid more attention to the news my mother was always watching. Whatever it was, it was big.
The phone on Packer's hip went off and he checked the screen. He nodded to himself and then passed it over to my aunt. A bit of the strain around her eyes eased and she passed it to me. I looked at the screen and breathed a sigh of relief. My mother was on a plane and would arrive in a few hours.
I passed the phone back to Packer and noticed the way Heinz gave Aunt Marsha's hand a squeeze. She smiled at him and then cocked an eyebrow. He grinned and nodded, and she cleared her throat to get everyone's attention.
"We've just received word that my sister, Madeline, will be arriving at 2300. As you know, it has been many years since Ambassador Moren has been with us, and I've been putting something off until she could be here. If it wouldn't be too much trouble I'd like to invite each of you, and your families, to join us in the courthouse at 0900."
Cheers were erupting around the table before I managed to catch what she was saying, but the grins filled me in. It seemed the Heinz-Moren wedding had been a long awaited event here in Nine. I double checked to make sure my mouth wasn't hanging open.
It was odd, to be celebrating amidst the preparations for an impeding disaster. I was having this odd glimpse of how this community was isolated from the rest of the world, both physically and emotionally. I wondered if I would ever come to grips with my providence in contrast to that of nearly everyone I had ever known. The guilt that I had been trying to ignore all day had built inside me until it threatened to overflow. I pushed it down, and plastered on a smile, but I doubted I was fooling my aunt.
As the boisterous congratulations ebbed away so did the urgency of my emotions, and I had them under control by the time conversation had returned to the logistics of the next day.
My aunt couldn't get away to go to the airport, so I rode over with Jones and Smith in a bus. My mother wasn't the only one coming in under the cloak of darkness. The local airport was going to get a lot of flights in the next few days.
I sighed in relief when she came around the corner. She was still in her suit, wearing those killer heels and pulling a wheeled carry on. It was a familiar sight, and it comforted me in a way I would never admit. Nothing could get the better of my mother.
When she reached my side she passed off her case to Jones, and folded me into a hug. I soaked in the feel of her, and vowed to myself I would never take her hugs for granted again. I tried not to think of all the last hugs that would be exchanged soon all over the world.
We didn't speak as we rode back to The Cube in the crowded bus. Everyone else was quiet too, except the exhausted children whose cries were muffled by the luggage packed in every spare inch. The adults look strained, the teens looked angry, and many eyes were red amid brave faces.
When The Cube opened up for us I saw the looks of confusion on the faces of the teens and children. They had not been told either. I felt bad for them, at least I had been able to say goodbye to my friends, even if I hadn't known it was permanent.
The elevator had to be taken in shifts, and Mom and I remained in the Cube until the last load with Smith and the last of the luggage. We arrived at floor 27 amid quite a bit of confusion over suitcases. When it was all sorted out I noticed mom had packed almost all the suitcases we owned. I didn't think there was room in Aunt Marsha's apartment for all of them.
Reynolds was approaching the group, but Mom didn't seem to think we needed to stay with the others and listen. She grabbed ahold of the cart with our bags on them and headed off to an inclinator. I followed behind, but hesitated when she turned towards E-95 instead of N-95.
She looked back over her shoulder at me, "Don't tell me you thought we were sharing a room for the rest of our lives," she said with a smirk. I smiled and shrugged, following her to E-95-1. The door unlocked as she approached and together we managed to get the cart through the door.
Our apartment was bigger than Aunt Marsha's, with a third bedroom down a hall, and a full dining room instead of an eat-in kitchen. The furnishings were better too, reflecting my mother's contemporary taste and favorite color palate. It made it feel more like home.
"I should go get my stuff from Aunt Marsha's," I said heading for the door.
"We can get it tomorrow," Mom said.
I scrunched my face at her, "Yeah but I don't want to get up at the crack of dawn to iron a dress for her wedding. I'd rather do it before bed."
Her jaw dropped open.
"Oh... she didn't tell you?" I said.
"Well...," she stammered. "She said she had a surprise for me for when I came to get you... but getting married, amid all of this?" She said waving her hand around in the air.
I grinned, "0900 hours," I said brightly as I opened the door.
She was on my heels, and passed me up as we rounded the bend from East to North. She knew just where to glare when the handle wouldn't turn, and Peters quickly complied.
The apartment was empty. After my mother peeked her head in the rooms she went right back out the front door. "Alright, where is she?" she asked the camera.
"General Moren is in the command center," Peters politely responded. "Welcome home Ambassador Moren," he added as Mom double timed it to the inclinators.
"Thank you, um..." she said.
"Peters, Andrew Peters, Access Specialist for 90 plus," he said from the speaker next to the inclinators.
My mother nodded, the distraction apparent on her face as she waited for the inclinator to return.
"Would you like me to order anything up to your room?" Peters asked, probably concerned by the tapping of my Mother's toe.
"Not at this time, thank you," Mom said.
"I'm going to need about a gallon of chocolate ice cream," I said. Peters was only too happy to assure me it would be in my freezer within half an hour. His position on my friends list jumped about five spaces.
The doors opened and we stepped on the inclinator. It was a short ride down to 90 and we were soon marching through the lobby towards a tired looking secretary. She jumped up and opened a door for us, saying, "General Moren is expecting you,” as we went right by her.
Aunt Marsha turned away from the wall of screens to receive the bear hug my mom had for her. General Heinz was close at hand to receive the congratulations and dire warnings of his soon-to-be-sister.
I turned to watch the screens, gathering what information I could from them. It didn't take long to discover I was looking at maps of all the communist countries in the world. I shook my head, saddened that mankind was still fighting this battle.
A row of people were bent over their computers at the end of the room, reading furiously and occasionally selecting blocks of text and copying it up to the big screens at the front.
My mother surveyed the information with a grave face, shaking her head. "You sure you can spare the time for the ceremony? Maybe you should have it in here."
They did spare time for the ceremony, but then the courthouse was only around the corner on level 90 and Lyman from Eco was some kind of justice of the peace. It took about five minutes for the bride, all dressed in blue, and the groom, in his dress uniform, to say I do and exchange rings. My grandfather Moren's ring was a little tight for Heinz's muscular finger, but the rings he had ordered online months ago for Aunt Marsha fit just right. Someone mentioned they were glad we had a jeweler in Nine, because online wouldn't be an option in the future. I prayed my aunt hadn't heard the comment. Let her have her five minutes, people, I thought.
I was filing out the door behind them when I noticed something at the side of the room that completely distracted me from being happy for my aunt. Reynolds was at the end of the bench, his arm around a cute blonde with a miniature nose and an impressive rack. His head was leaned in to hear what she was saying, and the glimmer in her eyes killed every hope I had of changing my last name to Reynolds. I didn't know who she was, but he was hers.
I shoved the disappointment aside and decided it was his loss. It just kind of made me sad to let go of the hope. I had spent more time with him than most of the other people in Nine, and now I didn't want to hang around with him if he wasn't going to find me as interesting as I had found him. I suddenly felt rather lonely.
After the ceremony they all went right back to work and I wandered into the room with the big screens along with the rest of my family. Judging by the screens that were showing news stations, it appeared that the rest of the world was starting to catch on to the tensions we already knew about. The President had a press conference scheduled, senators and representatives were unavailable for comment, people were out on the street with signs proclaiming the need to repent immediately. It was kind of sad to know how right they were.
"Hey," I whispered to my mom as a thought occurred to me, "The President isn't coming to live here, is he?"
She shook her head, "Politicians don't usually meet the criteria for admittance." She smiled a little, "Though once we are in lock down we have to elect The Council and we'll have them anyway."
"Won't the department heads just lead the resort?" I asked.
"No, we'll do our jobs, but we will answer to The Council," she said. "Your aunt's life will be a lot less busy then. She's been like an acting mayor and council all in one for far too long. It's about time she took a break."
"What exactly will she do then, and what about you?" I asked.
"I'll be working with Marsha in IRC-IDC, Inter-Resort Communications and Inter-Department Coordination, or Inter-net as we call it between ourselves."
"Inter-net?" I asked, not following the sisterly joke.
"Yeah, because we'll be the net catching all the crap that falls through the cracks," she said with a grin as she looked back at the screens. "It's designed to be a temporary department."
"Temporary? Why?" I asked.
"Because we are supposed to be sewing up the cracks and making the whole community work together better. If we do our jobs right we can retire in a few years."
I couldn't imagine my mother as a retired person. She'd go crazy in a week. Then I'd have to quit my job and take care of her. I wasn't sure what my job was going to be though.
I was about to ask my mom when a screen lit up and she had to go converse with some guy in Scotland. I wandered out at that point and decided to finish moving my stuff out of Aunt Marsha's place and into my new home.
"Don't look so bored," Peters teased me as I stepped into the inclinator.
"I'm not bored, I'm thoughtful," I said. "I'm headed back up to 95," I told him.
"Credit for your thoughts?" he asked.
"Credit?" I asked.
"Yeah, we don't have pennies, just credit for hours worked," he said.
"Oh," I said. "Well you can keep your credits; I was just wondering a bunch of stuff."
"Like what?" he asked as the doors opened at my level.
"Like a lot of stuff. I don't need to waste your time, you've got work to do," I said.
"It's not so bad right now, and I'm off in an hour, finally," he said from the next speaker as I walked down the hall. He did sound tired. "Feel free to look me up on the com if you need anything though," he said. "You know how to use it right?"
"I'm learning," I said. "You get some rest though, I'll be fine."
He let me in Aunt Marsha's apartment and I pulled the suitcase out from under the bed and started loading it. Once it was full I nearly yanked out my arm getting it to the hallway. I was glad no one seemed to be around on the floor because I was sure I looked like an idiot lugging it a few feet at a time down the hall.
I got nearly to the corner and a door opened. Reynolds came out and blinked at the sight of me. My face got warm.
"Hey," I said feeling highly awkward.
"Hey yourself," he said coming over and lifting the huge case easily. He started walking in the direction of my new apartment and I matched his stride.
"Everyone here must work out a lot," I said.
He shrugged his free shoulder, "I'm doing a tour in an hour for the new arrivals, we'll go right by the gym, if you want to start," he said. He looked about as tired as Peters had sounded. I was starting to wonder if I had been the only person sleeping on levels 90 plus last night.
We reached my door and it unlocked for us. He carried my case into my bedroom and left without saying much else. I was a little relieved that he, like everyone else, didn't have any time for me today.
Nearly an hour later I was in the inclinator headed to 27 to join the tour. I found a large crowd in the lobby by the elevator. There were people of every sort here, every color, and every social class (going by the clothes). The thing that seemed to unite them was the overwhelmed look in their eyes.
I made my way through to Reynolds, who had plastered on a happy face though his color was off. He was going over a list and counting heads, trying to match them to the list. What he really needed was a nap, but failing that at least I could help him.
I climbed up on a bench behind him and looked out over the milling and anxious crowed. No wonder he couldn't get the list matched up, half of them were pacing. I could fix that.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I called out, and the hubbub died down. "Thank you everyone. We'd like to get started, but we need to make sure we have everyone accounted for. If you could stand with your families and then send forward one family member to report to Reynolds here that would be great."
Reynolds flashed me a thankful grin as the crowd complied quickly. Soon the list was all checked off and Reynolds was ready to lead us out. I walked behind him a few steps but then noticed out of the corner of my eye that a young couple was having trouble with their three kids, so I took the oldest one by the hand and walked with them.
Reynolds mostly showed the group the features I had noticed yesterday on the maps I had discovered on the com. When we got to the 90th floor he had everyone check in with the harried workers in his department so they could be given ID badges, and the adults could be assigned a mobile communication device.
Reynolds brought one to me, too. "Technically you don't rate one of these for another two weeks," he said. I was surprised he knew when my birthday was. "I figure you might as well have it now."
"Thanks," I said. Looking up at the screen overhead and following the directions to place my right thumb on it and speak my name. "Tilly Morden," I said. It remained silent in my hand.
He smiled, "You have to use your real name, Mathilda," he said.
I scrunched my face at him, and for a second it felt like we were friends, but someone pulled him away and the conversation was over.
I tried again, successfully claiming the phone. Then I listened as Reynolds told everyone they could return to their apartments and their supervisors would be contacting them shortly. I debated on what to do, then I decided to pop in on my mom before going back home.
She was at Aunt Marsha's side, looking like she was going to fall over. I didn't distract her from the screens, but found a com and ordered her favorite caffeine to be sent up immediately. I went out to wait for it in the lobby, and when the cart arrived I pressed it into her hand. She looked down at it in surprise, and then shot me a thankful smile before returning her eyes to the screens.
I did that a lot over the next few weeks, popping in and out of the Communications Room, making sure my mom ate and slept enough to function. The days started to blend together. I slept when I felt like it, poured over every bit of information I could get my hands on, ordered meals when my belly said to, and added everyone I had met to the chat list on my phone, just so I wouldn't look as friendless as I felt.
I was a little surprised one day when I waked into the Communications Room and saw a familiar set of numbers up on the wall. It was my birthday. I had been an adult for hours and hadn't even known it.
My mother was still in her zombie state though, so I decided to live up to my age and not pout. The world was falling apart, I was lucky to be alive today and not a shadow on a wall, like millions of others on the surface had become. It would be selfish to demand attention at a time like this.
I was coming out of the Communications Room when the phone in my hip pocket vibrated. The screen said A. Peters and I looked up at the camera in the corner as I answered it.
"Did I hear your Mom call you Tilly in the inclinator this morning?"
"Yeah... I said wandering out to the hall and leaning against the glass. "Everyone calls me Tilly... or at least... well you know.... Hey how come you never called me before?"
"I wasn't sure you would want me too," he said. There was a slight uncertainty in his voice, and I felt bad. He had always been so helpful, and I had been a snobbish 90 plus to him for weeks.
"Of course I would," I said. "You're like the only friend I've got in this place."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, because I have a little surprise for you," he said.
"You do?" I asked in surprise. "What is it?"
"A SURPRISE. You'll have to come get it though, my break is almost over," he said.
"Umm..." I said spinning around and trying to think which direction to go. I didn't have a clue where to find him.
He chuckled, and the sound of it made me smile. I didn't think I had smiled a real smile in over a week. It felt good.
"North-West inclinator," he instructed me and I turned and walked towards it, my step light and my completely un-sensible shoes kicking at the front of my tie-dyed skirt. The inclinator was open and waiting for me when I reached it, and then closed in the faces of others approaching it. It zipped down to level 50 and then Peter's voice in my ear instructed me to turn left. I walked quickly along the hall, anticipation building in my belly.
"Stop," he said. The door on my right clicked to unlock and I reached over to push it open.
Inside the room was pretty dark, and I squinted to make out the pictures on the screens on the walls. A million little pictures of halls and inclinators were being watched by a dozen dark forms at keyboards. Their pale fingers flew over the keys, moving inclinators, opening doors. Their voices were a low babble as they communicated with people all over Nine.
"I'm over here," I heard from my left, and it echoed in the phone at my ear. I lowered the phone to see the flicker of flame as a lighter brought a row of candles to life.
"Better come blow them out before they set off the sprinklers," said the friend I still couldn't see.
I leaned over the warm orange glow, grinning at the words "Happy 18th Tilly!" carved into the icing on the cake. He must have written it while I was walking here.
Now that I was faced with the candles though I found I was unable to make a wish. My life had changed so much in the last few days; the world had changed so much. I had changed so much. I would have wished for so many things, before... but now...
"That must be some wish," Peters said with a chuckle.
I grinned and shrugged, "I'm alive, what more is there?” I gulped in a breath and blew out the candles while something inside me begged for the wish I would not allow my mind to form. I would not wish for love, I would never again cheapen the gift I had been given by wishing for more.
In the darkness I saw a pair of hands fanning the smoke with me, but he stepped away before I could see his face. As he stood in the light of the refrigerator across the room I studied his form. He was built well, like he belonged in security instead of up here with the headset zombies. There was one obvious difference though, where his right foot should have been there was a black piece of metal instead. I was still staring at it when he turned around.
My eyes traveled up his body, but he ducked his head and lifted the unorthodox prosthetic to give me a better look. "This isn't going to weird you out, is it?" he asked, that uncertainty in his voice again. "I wasn't sure if I should warn you..."
I wasn't paying attention to his prosthesis though, because I couldn't take my eyes off his face.
He took a step towards me, his eyes locked on mine, his emotions flickering across his face faster than the racing of my heart. He kept looking back and forth between my eyes like he was trying to read my thoughts.
I didn't care if he could read them, in fact I wished he could, because all I was thinking was I had just found the thing I hadn't dared to wish for.

The Cube Part II – The Pyramid
His brown eyes were twinkling under those wild and thick brows. I don't know how long I stood there smiling into them before someone approaching us made him look away. I could have looked in Andrew Peters' eyes all day.
"We'd better get this cut," he said putting down the juice I hadn't even noticed in his hand and picking up a butter knife.
"You going to eat all of that yourselves?" the other Access Specialist asked coming into the break area.
"Of course not," I said. "Do you want some?" I offered him the piece that Peters had just cut for me.
"Thanks," he said, taking the plate and sitting down at the table. He dug in while Peters shook his head and cut me another piece.
"You eat this one, Tilly," he said handing me the plate.
"No, no, you eat it, your break is over soon," I said pushing the plate back at him and taking the knife. His grin twitched a bit and my heart skipped a beat, he had such a sexy smile.
"I didn't know you had a girlfriend, Peters," the other guy said around his last mouthful of cake.
Andrew's face colored a bit in the soft glow of the screens and I worried he was going to choke on his first bite.
"Imagine that, an Access Specialist who doesn't know everything about everyone," I said sitting down next to Andrew with a swish of my skirt.
Andrew got control of the food in his mouth, "We're not... um..." he started but I cut in.
"We don't want to start a bunch of rumors right now, not with everything that's going on," I said. "I'm sure you can understand that..." I squinted at his name tag, "Henderson."
He clearly didn't understand why anyone would care if Peters had a girlfriend. He cast his eyes over at the cake which now read Happy Till and then looked back at me, trying to place my face as I happily ate my cake.
I doubted he was having much luck. I didn't look much like my mother's side of the family. I assumed I looked like my father, but I didn't really know because I had never met him. My mother knew him very briefly. Very very briefly knew him, if you get what I mean.
"How long have you got left?" I asked Andrew.
He glanced at the clock, "About five minutes."
"Walk me to the inclinator?" I asked standing up and carrying my empty plate to the sink.
He stood up without a word and placed his barely touched cake on the counter. I looped my arm through his and we strode from the room. As the door closed behind us I heard the rattle of a chair being hastily stood up from.
"You're still blushing," I whispered to him as we strolled along.
"Do you realize that you just started a rumor about us?" he whispered back.
"Uh-huh," I said with a grin.
"And you realize they are all probably watching us right now?" he whispered.
"There's always someone watching," I said. "You should know that better than anyone."
"Yeah, but what I don't know is why you just did that," he said stopping and pulling me over to the window side of the hallway.
I had been a lot braver in the half light of the Access Room. Now, in the full light shining down from the pinnacle I realized how rash my actions had been. I looked around nervously for the closest camera, anything but meeting his eyes right now.
"Don't worry, this is the dead zone on the hall," he said in a low voice through tight lips. "As long as we keep it down they can't hear us."
"Well that's good," I said ducking my head. "I'm sorry, I don't know what got into me," I told him. "You can go back and tell him it was just a joke. It won't be long until everyone knows I'm a bit of a wild card."
He grinned and glanced at my tie-dyed skirt. I laughed. It was such a contrast against his crisp, navy-blue uniform.
I glanced up at him and my heart skipped a beat. He had an unmistakable tenderness in his eye, and that sexy smile was on his lips. It curled as perfectly as his eyelashes did. I could spend a whole day with an eyelash curler and never get lashes like that.
He was studying my eyes again, trying to read my mind. If he had been able to he would have known how desperately I wanted to kiss him right then, find out if his lips were as soft as they looked. I kept looking from his lips to his eyes, wishing I had the guts.
"What would you do," he asked with a mischievous glint in his eye, "if I didn't go back in there and bail you out of your little joke?"
"I don't think you want to know," I said arching my eyebrow evilly.
"Oh I think I do," he said.
I grinned and looked out the window for a moment, getting my words straight before I said them. "Well, I see it like this," I said, my belly twisted in knots. "You've got two options. One: You can go in there and tell them your friend Tilly was just having a little fun with them," I paused and his eyes twinkled in expectation of the threat. "Or, Two: you can go in there and say nothing, and let them watch you come up for dinner at my place, whenever they let you out of that dark little hole."
I didn't stay to watch his reaction, but spun around and flounced off down the hall to the inclinators, certain I had left him befuddled and bemused in the dead zone. I was battling down a many headed monster that had erupted inside my belly, knowing full well that I may have just alienated my only friend.
I tried to tell myself I didn't care, that I wouldn't have been able to hide my feelings for him every time I looked at the camera anyway, but I did care. I wanted him to be a real part of my life, not just a casual friend. I had known that the moment I saw his eyes.
I stopped at the door to the inclinators and folded my arms around me to try and calm the beast in my belly. I clutched my shirt and took a deep breath. I was letting it out slowly when I felt a hand on mine.
I looked back over my shoulder and he was there, right behind me and looking down with the most perplexing expression on his face. I arched my eyebrow and he leaned into my ear to whisper, "I choose option number three. I felt his arms snake around my waist and he placed a kiss on top of my head. It burned through to my scalp and sent shivers down my spine. He hugged me to him and said clearly, "I'll see you at 1830?"
"If you know what's good for you, you'll be there at 1815," I said tilting my face up to look at him.
At first there was laughter in those brown eyes, but then they became clouded with heat. His eyes slid down my face to my lips and I prayed, prayed harder than I had ever prayed, but then he winked and released me.
I watched him walk away. So natural and strong on that simple yet efficient curved metal prosthetic. He was incredible. He disappeared through the door to Access, and I nearly missed the inclinator behind me.
As I stepped out of the inclinator on my floor I was unable to contain my grin. I had a spring in my step as I walked to my apartment door and winked at the camera. It opened for me and I went directly to the com.
I pulled up the meal menu and selected a meal to be delivered at 1830. At the end of the process I noticed A. Peters had already ordered his delivered at 1810. I clasped my hand to my mouth in excitement.
I decided to make sure my date was un-interrupted and after moving my delivery time to 1810 I ordered my mother's meal to be delivered to the Communications Room at 1800. I hoped she wouldn't notice that it wasn't me that brought it in the room tonight.
With hours to wait I decided to tidy up the apartment. Then I changed clothes about twenty times. Finally satisfied with my appearance I tried to read for a while but I simply couldn't concentrate.
I turned to the com for entertainment, but most of the stations were off the air now, so it was depressing news or Resort information. I flicked through the information menus and then noticed that one was labeled "Personnel Files."
I doubted I would get far without some kind of password, so I opened it up just to see. The Resorts were listed, one through twelve, with their country of location around the world. There were four in North America, two in South America, one in Scotland, two others in Europe, one in Africa, one in Australia, and one in India.
I clicked on Nine and it brought up a list of departments. Clicking through I found I could access a short bio on each person, but of course was asked for a password to pull up the full file. Back on the main Nine screen I found a list marked "Dependent Personnel."
Sure enough I found my own file, complete with a picture of me that seemed to have been taken as I approached The Cube on my arrival. It wasn't too bad I supposed, I looked strong and defiant. I bet my aunt had picked it out, though I had no idea when she had found the time.
It listed my full name and, thankfully, listed my preferred name after that. My age had been updated to eighteen already, so I supposed it was electronically generated. Under "Career Status" it listed me as an Adult Dependent. I wondered how many other Adult Dependents there were. It kind of irritated me. I didn't want to hang around with nothing productive to do all day, but as long as my family stayed shut-up in the Communication Room I was stuck being a no-body.
I started reading the bio,
Daughter of Ambassador Madeline Moren, niece of General Marsha Moren, and grand-daughter of Lead Architect Miles Moren, Tilly Moren was raised in Washington D.C. while her mother conducted recruitment and fundraising missions. Tilly exhibited a hereditary pre-disposition for intelligence when she taught herself to read at the age of four. She was enrolled a year early in Private School and Graduated in the top 5% of her class.
Not a word about my father there either, which shouldn't have surprised me. By this you'd think I was born by way of immaculate conception and therefore, doomed to greatness.
What did surprise me was that my grandfather was listed, and not just listed, given what was obviously a Resort title, Lead Architect. I only remembered meeting him once, when I was very little. He was very sick and in the hospital. I wasn't sure but I thought he may have died shortly afterwards.
I looked everywhere I could think in the com but couldn't find a file on him. I was just about to throw the remote at the screen in frustration when there was a knock at the door.
I looked at the clock in a panic. It was 1805. Was that Andrew or the dinner cart? I was so flustered I wasn't ready for either.
The knock came again. I ran to my room and checked myself over then deciding I wouldn't get any better in the next thirty seconds I ran back to the door. I stopped with my hand on the handle and took a deep breath. I let it out slowly and then opened the door.
The attendant with the cart was raising her hand to knock again, and looked flustered when the door moved from under her hand. She had barely pushed the cart through the door when Andrew appeared in the doorway, looking melt-your-butter delicious. How was it he was wearing the same outfit as earlier that day, the same navy blue the entire Security Department wore, and he still made my knees weak? I'd spent a good deal of time getting ready for him and he looked entirely un-phased by my beauty.
The attendant left, not doing well at hiding her interest in what two people from such different levels were having a private dinner together for. I didn't care what she thought though. Apparently Andrew didn't either.
He closed the door behind her as I opened up the trays on the dining room table. "You weren't trying to hack into my profile were you?" I heard from the other room.
Now why hadn't I thought of that? I hadn't even opened the Security Department personnel files.
He seemed to have taken my silence wrong. "Tilly, they take hacking very seriously here," he said.
"I wasn’t hacking, Peters," I said. He looked doubtful. Maybe he had read that ridiculous bio on me. "I didn't even try to guess my mom's password, Andrew." I said defensively. This date wasn't getting off to a good start.
It only took a second for him to decide he believed me, and I was very relieved to see his shoulders shrug a bit as he said, "Okay, so did you find what you were looking for?"
"No, but I'll look later," I said dismissively. "Have a seat."
"After you," he said going around to pull out my chair.
I couldn't help but grin as I took my seat. I'd been out with a lot of guys from school. Youthful heirs of political dynasties, home-state transplant sons of grass-root congressmen, the occasional dot-com brat, but not one of them had possessed the humble self-assurance that Andrew had.
He sat down across from me and fixed those brown eyes on me, then he smiled. "This is the first first-date I've been on where we didn't have menus to hide behind for the first ten minutes,' he said.
"I know!" I said with a laugh. "It's very weird, isn't it?"
He smiled and took the lid off his salad.
"So... you haven't been on many dates here at Nine?" I asked as I poured my raspberry vinaigrette over my strawberry salad.
"None, actually," he said.
"How long have you been here?" I asked him.
He looked at me oddly, "You really didn't read my bio?"
I flushed, "Should I have?"
He shrugged, but with his eyebrows and not with his shoulders, like he was surprised, like it was something everyone did. He poked at his food before answering, "I've been here about a year," he said.
"And before that?" I asked.
"The Army, training, deployment, hospitals, rehabilitation," he said.
"You must have started pretty young," I said. I wasn't sure how old he was, but he had to be less than 25.
"Enlisted on my 18th birthday," he said proudly. "It was only a week before I was at Fort Jackson."
"Did you like it?" I asked, because his eyes seemed a little sad.
"I did, I really did," he said.
"But then you got deployed..." I said.
He nodded, "I didn't get to stay long though." I heard a scrape as he moved his prosthetic on the floor.
We were silent for a while; he lost in his thoughts and me wishing I could read them. "You miss it don't you?" I asked.
He looked at me in surprise, "Yeah, I do."
He kept his eyes on mine then, and I tried not to cry, I didn't want him to think I pitied him. Because he was anything but pitiful, he was remarkable. I was terribly proud of him, though I really had no right to be.
I felt like I did though. I felt like he was mine.
"It must be hard, being down here when the fight is out there," I said.
He shrugged his shoulders this time, and then said, "I'm still serving. I'm here to protect..." and I knew he almost said "I'm here to protect you."
I ducked my head down, because tears were threatening again, and I didn't even know why.
"This is probably the worst conversation to be having on your birthday," he said apologetically.
I laughed. "No it's fine. I want to know about you." I said.
"I want to know about you, too," he said. "Let's talk about you for a while."
"There isn't much to tell," I said. "You read my bio."
"Yeah, that'll be great for our grandchildren to read, but it doesn't say much about you." He went on to talk about how I got up on that bench my second day and acted like I owned the place, but I was still stuck on the word "our" and how completely right it had sounded falling from his lips.
"It kind of reminded me of the way your Grandfather was in that video," he was saying, and my mind went into overdrive catching up.
"There's a video of my Grandfather?" I said in shock.
He knitted his eyebrows together, "Well yeah... didn't anyone sit you down and make you watch the founding videos?"
I rolled my eyes, "No one tells me anything."
He chuckled, "You want to go watch them now?"
"No," I replied. "I'll watch them tomorrow when you're at work and I'm doing nothing but being a useless 'adult dependent'."
"You're not useless," he said reaching his hand over and putting it on my arm. "You take care of your mom all the time, I've seen you. Besides, you'll pick a career path soon. You only turned 18 today."
"Maybe I'll become an Access Specialist and hang out with you all day," I said.
He shook his head, "We Cyborgs only see each other on breaks," he said. I'd rather you got a job on 90."
"Yeah but then I'd only see you on breaks," I whined. In the back of my mind it occurred to me that some people might find it creepy for your boyfriend to watch you through a camera all day, but I found it comforting, because he would be watching out for me, like he had all along.
"Yeah but you're the one who's nice to look at," he said running his finger up and down my left forearm in the most tantalizing way. The simple touch was making it harder for me to breathe.
"I like looking at you," I said letting my eyes wander all over his face.
He slid his hand down to my hand and picked it up. He brought it to his face and placed a kiss on my fingers. The thrill of it ran down my arm and straight into my heart. His eyes twinkled beneath those curly lashes and I completely forgot about my food for the longest time.
A ringing on his belt broke the spell and he took the phone quickly from its pocket. He answered it, and nodded at the information being relayed to him. "Thanks man," he said and hung up.
"Are you on call?" I asked.
"No, that was Henderson," he said. "He thought we should know your mom is on her way up." He looked down at his unfinished meal. "How do you want to handle this?"
"She'll be cool," I said.
"You sure?" he said. "I'm mid-level at best. She might have something better in mind for you."
"Don't say that about yourself," I said sternly, but I tempered it by moving my foot over by his so our ankles touched.
He was still a little nervous when she came through the front door, rising respectfully as she turned into the room.
She blinked at him in surprise, "Oh, I'm sorry Tilly, I didn't know you had company."
"It's alright, Mom," I said rising also. "Mom, this is Andrew Peters. Andrew, well you know my mother."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ambassador Moren." He said shaking the hand she extended with more confidence than I had expected a few moments ago. I was so proud of him.
"Peters," she said thinking, then glanced at his prosthetic and seemed to recall, "Oh yes, the Access Specialist. I hear good things about you from my Brother-in-law. He recruited you personally I understand."
"He did, Mam," Peters said, that adorable blush coloring his ears. "He came the day I was discharged."
"A discharge you were fighting, as I recall," Mom said pulling out a chair and sitting, because we both knew he wouldn't sit back down until she did.
"Yes, Mam," he said as he stepped around the table to help me into my seat.
"Well, their loss is our gain," Mom said with a pointed look at me as he took his seat. I grinned slightly. He had her stamp of approval. "I hope you'll stay for cake," she continued. "It's Tilly's birthday."
"Yes, Mam," he said again, a smile playing across his lips. I wasn't going to tell her either. It would only make her feel bad.
"The others will be here in a few minutes," Mom told me. "Reynolds might be a little late; he forgot to put your brief together."
"Brief?" I asked taking a bite of my stone cold pasta.
"Your Career Options Brief," she said. "You don't have to decide tonight, but it's time to get you started."
I glanced at Andrew and he flashed an I-told-you-so grin at me. I stuck my tongue out at him. I hoped my mother didn't notice the gleam that came to his eye at that. It was intriguingly indecent. We both pretended to be very interested in finishing our meals at that point.
As we polished off the last of our meals she spoke again, "Well, I'm going to go get changed out of this thing," my mother motioned to her gray uniform. I was glad she was changing; she looked like an Aunt Marsha clone in that thing.
She got up to leave and I stared after her, a horrible thought coming to my mind, "Oh no," I said, letting my fork drop to my plate with a clatter.
"What?" Andrew asked looking around for the problem.
"Are there any departments that don't have to wear those things?" I asked. My life flashed before my eyes, a life in drab, shapeless, horrible jumpsuits with great big pockets everywhere.
He tried to look sympathetic, and his attempt was pathetic. I threw my napkin at him. He caught it easily. I picked up the little salt shaker to throw at him but he half-stood and caught my hand before I could fling it.
I struggled against him for a moment, but there was no breaking his grip, gentle as it was. So I lowered my hand, and his followed it. His other hand was on the table between us, his face above me, his smile still mocking my little tantrum.
I licked my lips and his lips were mocking no more, instead his face became very serious, and very hungry. He lowered his head. Only inches separated our faces, I could feel his Salisbury steak breath on my face. It flowed around my lips, caressing, teasing. I reached up for his face, sliding my fingers along his strong cheekbone and up into his close cropped, curly brown hair. I raised myself to close those last few inches.
As soon as I brushed my mouth against his he sucked in air, like waiting for my kiss had rendered him un-able to breathe and my lips had at last set him free. He sought my lips then, gently, carefully, like he worried I would evaporate if he pressed too hard. I pulled down on his head increasing the pressure, showing him I wasn't going anywhere.
The slightest moan escaped him and I smiled against his hungry lips. He spread his mouth wider to reclaim mine. I clung to his neck for support, and he clung to my hand around the salt shaker like a life-line. I'd lost track of my feet, my legs, where we were, all that I could think of was those soft, nimble lips.
The knock on the door had not permeated my haze, but my mother's voice calling from the other room certainly did. Can, you, get, that, I'll, be, out, in, a, and minute, were now the most hated words in the English language.
I was the one sucking in breath now as Andrew pulled away and cleared his throat. I shook the fog out of my head as I walked around the table and made my way to the front door, which was being knocked on again. I could hear Peters stacking the dishes behind me as I opened the door.
It was just my cake, and the same attendant that had brought our dinner. "Sorry about the double trip," I told her.
"Oh it's fine, Happy Birthday, by the way," she said wheeling the cart into the dining room. She took the two dirty trays from Peters and then wiped down the table for good measure before moving my cake and the plates to the surface. She was just about to leave when she looked up at Peters and the color went from her face.
"Um," she said looking flustered, "Sir, you've got... um," and she made a wiping motion at her mouth. His fingers reached his own lip about the same time my eyes did and I think we both blushed.
The attendant quickly handed him the napkin from his tray and as he wiped the mark away he grinned and said, "Caught red lipped, I suppose."
She and I giggled and I asked her, "Am I okay?" I motioned to my own lips.
"Just a little uneven," she whispered. I rubbed my lips together and she nodded her approval, then retrieved the napkin from Andrew.
"Thanks so much," I told her. "I don't even know your name..."
"I'm Celia," she said quietly ducking out of the room with her cart. "Happy Birthday, Miss Moren," she said again.
"Please, call me Tilly," I said following her to hold open the front door for her.
She started to protest, but my friendly smile stopped her, "Um, okay, Tilly, Goodnight."
Andrew came and stood at the door with me, watching Celia retreat down the hall with the cart. As she walked away my birthday party guests disembark from the inclinator. We waved to them and they called greetings back to me.
Peters snapped to attention and saluted General Heinz, who went smoothly from a return salute to a handshake. "Peters, good to see you," he said, though of course he was a bit puzzled as to why he was seeing Andrew.
I decided to fix that. I claimed the hand the General released and turned to my Aunt, "Thanks for taking time out to celebrate with us, Aunt Marsha," I said. When I leaned over to give her a quick hug I was sure not an eye in the crowd missed the fact that I was still holding onto Andrew's hand. "Come in, come in," I said, stepping out in the hall with my captive so they could pass through the door.
Several of them exchanged glances with my mother as she came out of her room. She was cool enough to play it off like it was no big deal that I was dating the guy who let them into their apartments and offices. I was so proud of her.
Of course... she didn't know we had only met officially today. I wasn't planning on telling her either. Let them all think I had been seeing him for the whole two weeks they had spent in the Communications Room.
Everyone milled around talking until Reynolds and his blonde plus one showed up. "Sorry we are late," Reynolds said coming through the open door. "This time it's not Lynn's fault though," he said holding up a memory stick, and then tucking it in his pocket.
I watched the memory stick slide to the bottom of his pocket and felt an unexpected excitement. My life's work started with something on that stick. I couldn't wait to see what was on it.
Mom lit the candles on the cake and everyone gathered around us as for the second time that day I faced the candles. I looked up from them and into all the faces around me. My eyes rested on Andrew and he winked at me. I smiled, drew in my breath, and blew the candles out without making a wish at all. Maybe if I never made another wish I would end up as happy as I was in this moment.
With the cake cut and the slices passed around it was time for my presents. My mom went in her room and came back out with a strange looking trunk I had never seen before. She placed it gently on the table before me and her eyes sparkled with anticipation.
"I guess I'm pretty lucky," she said. "Most kids would have hated me for keeping all this from them their whole lives." I grabbed her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze, I didn't hate her. She squeezed my hand back. "Your Aunt and I have been working on this since you were born, making copies of pictures, documenting the side of your life you never got to see."
My jaw was hanging open, and I opened the clasp on the trunk with trembling fingers, inside the trunk stood a row of scrap books. The ones on the left were bulging, straining at their binding, while the ones at the very right were untouched in their plastic wrap, history to be made. A box between them held pens, scissors, and packages of mounting corners.
I pulled out the first book on the left and opened it to the first page. It held an old picture of a young family. I studied the faces of my grandfather, the grandmother I had never known, and the little girls that would grow up to be my aunt and mother. All these years I thought my mother had been running from her past, from her family, and she had been keeping it safe here all along.
I looked up at my aunt and mother, blinking back tears, "Thank you," I whispered through my choked up throat.
They would have responded, but were having similar problems with their throats, so Aunt Marsha gave Reynolds a nudge. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the memory stick and passed it over to me.
"When I turned eighteen they gave me a paper file about an inch thick, but I'm sure you've noticed we don't really do paper anymore. On there you will find all the entry level positions available and examples of the career paths possible from them. I've also included a review of your aptitude tests which point out your strengths, which should help you identify which positions would be best suited to you. When you have a short list let me know and I'll arrange interviews with the appropriate supervisors."
My belly twisted at the thought of interviews, I'd never applied for a job before. My nerves must have shown on my face because Reynolds answered, "The interviews aren't bad, just a chance for everyone to make sure we get you in the position that is the best fit."
I nodded, a little relieved but still nervous. I put the memory stick in my pocket and thanked him. He shrugged and smiled. It was his job.
"Well, not to break up the festivities," Foreman said, "but I haven't read a goodnight story to my kid all week." Mrs. Foreman looked relieved, and then cast me a guilty glance.
"No, don't feel bad," I said. "Of course you should go home to your families. It was so lovely of all of you to come, really, thank you."
It wasn't long before we had bid the bigwigs farewell. When it was just my family, Andrew, and I, I re-opened the trunk full of treasure and pulled out the first book. I opened it up to that first picture.
"He looks much older in the videos," Peters remarked.
"That was taken just a few months before our mother died," my mom said. "He changed a lot after that."
I flipped the page over and the back was filled with my mother's handwriting, explaining the picture of the house where they had lived. I had never seen this picture either. There was so much I didn't know.
My Aunt and Uncle stayed a few hours, but eventually they all went to bed and left Andrew and I alone to slowly uncover my past. He was there with me though it all. We read about my grandmother's cancer, about the way Grandpa became obsessed with protecting his little girls from all the bad in the world. He wasn't a soldier though, he was an architect, and a fine one. He worked on the plans for the resort at night, crumbling more and more until a good friend came by to try and yank him out of it.
That was when those with means got connected to the vision. That was how my grandfather's dream became a secret world-wide project. Someone believed in him, even in his worst moment.
I felt a slight jerk in the arm behind me and looked up for the first time in hours. "You okay?" I asked Andrew who was rapidly blinking his eyes.
"Yeah, sorry, I just kind of drifted off there," he said. I looked up at the clock and was shocked to find that it was 0300.
"Oh, sweetie," I said apologetically. "I had no idea how late it was. You need to get to bed. You've got to work in a few hours."
"It wouldn’t normally be a problem," he said sounding even more apologetic than I had. "But I've pulled a lot of 24 hour shifts in the last two weeks, and it's starting to take its toll."
I tried to convince him to sleep on our couch, but he insisted on going back to his apartment. I walked him as far as the inclinator, soaking in the feeling of his arm around my shoulders. I fit just right in the muscle padded crook, and I didn't want to let go when we reached the doors. He pulled me around in front of him as the inclinator whirred towards us. I snuggled into his chest and he rocked me back and forth gently. As the doors opened behind him he bent to place a kiss on my forehead. He was long gone before the warmth of his lips left my skin, and it didn't leave my mind for the rest of the night.
I wasn't sure what woke me, but I wasn't happy to be awake. I lifted my head and squinted in the bright light of the room. The clock offended-ly informed me that it was almost 1500 hours.
I placed the long ribbon between the pages of the scrapbook that was open on my bed and then carefully closed it before I headed for the bathroom. I had a bit of a headache and couldn't recall in the slightest how late I had been up. I found a bit of pain reliever in the cabinet and took if before turning on the shower.
Clean and dripping I made my way back to my room to rummage through my closet on a quest for something that suited my mood. What exactly should I wear while digging through the history of my family and this place? Tan cargo pants and a white t-shirt seemed to fit the bill, so I slipped them on before going back to the bathroom to throw some product in my mess of curls. I had just washed the remnants off my hands when I heard a buzzing in the living room.
I found my phone on the coffee table and pressed my thumb to it. It opened my message center and there were a string of messages from Andrew.
Good morning.
Lunch time, and still no sight of you. You get too far into those books and I'm never going to catch up.
I'm starting to feel like a stalker, but I went ahead and sent lunch in to your mom for you, she hadn't ordered it yet. The last one said, it was time stamped 1457. That must have been what woke me up.
You are an angel. I sent back.
I took the phone with me on a quest for food. I found what was left of my birthday cake in a container in the fridge and decided that would hold me over until dinner. I was just placing a massive piece on my plate when he messaged me back.
I thought about not telling you, just so I could wake you up personally in a few hours. Henderson wouldn't agree to let me in your apartment though.
I could always go back to bed, ;) I replied. Then added, My mom would come home right after that though.
She doesn't scare me, he said.
LOL, liar.
Okay a little, he replied just as I was finishing off my cake. Is it crazy to say I miss you?
You working 90 plus right now?
I walked outside my apartment and blew a kiss at the closest camera.
When I got back to my phone it said, Right back at you, see you in a bit.
I bit my lip in anticipation, and then decided I had better distract myself. The next few hours could be long ones.
I went to the bathroom and rummaged through the dirty clothes until I found the memory stick in my pocket. I dropped the laundry in the basket and took the stick back out the living room.
I brought up the screen then pushed the button that opened the drawer where the keyboard and mouse lay. I had found it the other day when I tried every button on the remote, just to see what they would do. I plugged the memory stick into the slot on the end of the keyboard and it opened the folder for me.
I opened the document labeled "Aptitude review," and started to read what Reynolds thought of me.
It wasn't too bad. At least all the years of doing my homework had paid off, one of the strengths listed was Highly Intelligent. The others looked more like the way any girl my age could be described though, Persuasive, Creative, Ambitious, and Socially Motivated. I was going to have to find out Reynolds exact definition of Socially Motivated before I took that one as a compliment.
I didn't see how this was supposed to be helpful. I exited out of the document and opened the list of available positions. Food Service, Health Clerk, Education Assistant, Textile Handler, Supplies Clerk, Agricultural Helper, and Sanitation Worker, were the only ones on the list. I frowned. "Okay, Tilly," I said. "Look at where they can take you."
I opened each up and looked at the management structure above it. Well if I worked really really hard in twenty years I could be the person who took complaints about stains not getting out. Joy of joys. This sucked.
I glared at the screen a while and decided the only one that sounded remotely interesting was the Education Assistant one. I opened it up again and read the packet. I would assist in the classroom 5 hours a day and study three or more in order to qualify to be a teacher in 6 years or so.
Well, it was better than nothing I supposed. I exited out and looked at the clock. It wasn't even 1630 yet. 1800 was ages away.
I grabbed my sandals and decided to go for a walk. I went down the inclinator to level 26 and took the path into the center so I could look at the fountain and enjoy the sunlight.
The fountain shot up quite high above me, then the water splashed back down through the circular walkway in the center to play on the rocks and feed the four rivers. The mist flowed around me and the slanting light from the pinnacle made it sparkle.
It was a shame no one else was here to enjoy this. They should set up tables here so people could have lunch. The path was wide enough. Maybe it wasn't the most practical way to spend your lunch break, but it would be a whole lot nicer than eating in a break room.
I wandered up a few levels to the mess hall, wondering how much of a bother it would be for Food Services to deliver meals to the fountain from here. Even if I couldn't find the right person to take my idea too, I could probably talk them into letting me borrow a table and chairs so I could get Peters out of that dark hole for lunch tomorrow.
The only person I saw there was the grumpy looking lady at the cart, so I pretended that I was after an apple and wandered back out while I munched on the sweet fruit. I had just turned into the hall when I accidentally ran into someone.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," I said turning to see who I had maimed with my typical Tilly-the-klutz act. It was Reynolds’ plus one, Lynn.
"Oh you’re okay," she said with a smile. "I wasn't watching where I was going. There isn't usually anyone up here this time of day."
"You like the mess when it's empty?" I asked with a dubious look at the lonesome tables. She didn't seem the introverted type to me.
"Oh no, I just need some crackers," she said with a pat at her lower belly. It took me a minute to catch her meaning, but then I realized that her curvy figure curved a bit more in that area.
I think I might have been a little too surprised, "Oh Wow! Seriously?! Lynn, I'm so happy for you," I said pulling her into quick hug.
"Well thank you," she said with a grin as I released her. "I thought everyone knew."
"I'm afraid I don't know much about you," I said apologetically. "Everyone's a little too busy for gossip it seems."
"Well that's probably a good thing," she said. "Usually the problem around here is that everyone knows everything you do before you are done doing it. My dad knew about Brian and I before Brian asked me out on our first date. I don't know how you kept thing so quiet about you and Peters."
She tipped that pretty head of hers to the side and looked at me like she was debating something, "You know I've got an hour or so before Brian's off of work. I should be writing my lesson plan, but would you take a walk with me instead?"
"I'd love to," I said and turned back into the mess hall with her so she could get her crackers.
We strolled and talked, it was half an hour before we ended up back on the circular walk around the fountain. "This is my favorite spot," she told me, "ever since I was a kid."
"So you grew up here too?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," she said. "My dad was recruited when I was really little. My little sister doesn't even remember what the sky looks like," she said.
I looked up and tried to imagine what that would be like. "They should have painted the hallways blue," I said.
She grinned, "That would make my students happy," she said. "It's hard to help them adjust to all this, they miss the sky a lot." She shrugged, "It'll never happen. It's not a practical use of our resources."
"I'm sure that's what my Aunt would say," I said. "My mom might go for it though, and help us convince Harris."
She looked at me funny. "Tilly... Harris is my dad..."
I laughed. Man I didn't know anything about anybody here. "So you can help us slide it past him."
She rolled her eyes and shook her head, "You don't know him like I do. He's all about making it through the next 300 years. There is NO WAY."
We exchanged identical unhappy looks, but I didn't want to give up that easily. Then I thought of something. "Did your teacher's courses go into psychology much?" I asked.
"A little, why?" she asked.
"Well if we can convince them of the benefits of a blue sky they'll have to let us paint it. What do you think, 50 and up?" I said.
She laughed and shook her head. "Brian said you were a force to be reckoned with," she said. I blushed, hoping he hadn't told her how he had formed that opinion. If I'd had the slightest clue he was taken, and by such a lovely person, I really wouldn't have flirted with him.
"It's almost time for him to get off work," she said. "Thanks for walking with me, you're really fun."
"You too," I said sincerely. "I'll see you later?"
"Definitely," she said, waving the last cracker at me and walking off to the inclinator.
I stood there a minute longer, letting the mist wreak havoc on my curls and coat my face. I squinted upward again, picturing the walls a lovely azure blue. We would have to do the ceilings of each hallway too, for the right effect, We could leave the inclinator housings the way they were though. I wondered if they let me have the supplies how many years it would take me to paint 50 and up all by myself.
Andrew was leaning on the wall outside my door when I got there.
"Have a nice walk?" he asked opening his arms. I stepped into them, sliding my arms in the space between his lower back and the wall. He breathed in deeply then let it out in a long happy sigh. I listened to his heart thumping steadily in his chest. It was such a comforting sound.
He kissed my hair again and I turned my face up to him to get one on the lips too, but then the door clicked beside us and I was denied my kiss while Peters cast a look at the camera.
"Is that your way of saying 'get a room,' Henderson?" he asked.
"Just a friendly suggestion," Henderson replied. "Larson's actually looking at the monitors today."
"Who's Larson?" I asked as Andrew lead me through the door.
"My supervisor," he said closing the door and leaning on it, then pulling me up against him again.
"Has he got a problem with inter-level fraternization? I asked.
"He's got a problem with me," he said.
"Why has he got a problem with you?" I asked, surprised that anyone in the world wouldn't adore Peters on sight.
"He didn't like it that they gave me 90 plus. He thinks I've been here too short of a time," he shrugged. "It doesn't really matter, he'll be stuck in that office long after I've moved up the chain. Lazy, entitled people get what's coming to them."
"Well if that's the case I'd better take that job in the laundry right away," I said with a grin. "I wouldn't want to be a lazy, entitled, 90 plus, Adult Dependent too long, you might break up with me."
"Hey," he said running his hands up my back and into my mess of curls. "Don't talk like that about my girlfriend."
I sucked in air happily, the word girlfriend ringing in my ears. It sounded so lovely. "Mmm," I said kissing him gently, "Say that again."
"What? Girlfriend?" he said a twinkle in his eye. He pulled my head closer and kissed me again. I gently explored the taste of the word on his lips. It was better than chocolate.
He pulled his head back for breath a few moments later, and I took the cue to step away. I didn't want to be leaning up against the door still when my mom came home. Besides I was starved.
I looked over at the clock, dinner would be there soon. I went to the kitchen to load the day's dirty dishes onto a tray. Andrew looked in the fridge.
"Hey, where did the caked go?" he asked.
"Cake?" I asked in an innocent voice.
He grinned and closed the door, "Man that was good cake, I was hoping for some more."
"I liked the first one better," I said.
He grinned and moved in for another kiss, but there was a knock at the door and he went over to let Celia in.
As we exchanged greetings I had a thought. "Celia," I said, "How hard would it be to get a bunch of trays down to the walk by the fountain around lunch time every day?"
She blinked at me, "Are you planning a picnic?" she asked.
"No," I said with a laugh. "I was thinking I might try and talk someone into putting a bunch of tables on the walk. Don't you think that would be a nice place to have lunch, or dinner?"
She grinned and gave me the same doubtful look that Lynn had given me. "Sure it would be nice," she said. "But good luck getting the tables requisitioned."
"But it wouldn't be a problem taking the trays there, instead of people eating in the mess?"
She shook her head, "Not a lot of people eat in the mess," she said. "It's kind of wasted space now that they staggered the shifts so not everyone is eating meals at the same time. Most everyone eats in their department or at home."
That meant not a lot of people made friends outside their department too, I bet. I didn't like the sound of that. Nine shouldn't be operating like a bunch of different entities stuffed in the same hole in the ground.
I had a lot to talk to my mom about.
I wasn't quite ready to talk to her about all of it though, I wanted my ducks in a row and my arguments refined so I could gauge how effective they were when I presented them to her. My year on debate team was coming in handy, just needed to do the research.
Speaking of research, I realized I had forgotten to look up Andrew's bio again. As he let Celia out the door I grabbed the remote and sat down on the couch facing the com. He came and sat next to me and I snuggled into his side as I started down the electronic path to his bio.
"Are you looking up Celia's bio?" he asked as I entered the file menu.
"Nope," I said.
When we got to the security department and I scrolled way down the list he started chuckling. "You're going to look this up with me here?" he said.
"Of course, this way I get to know your life story, and I can ask you questions right away," I said. I thought I was doing a good job covering that I had forgotten I had this resource available. I just hoped we could get through some of it before my Mom came home.
Andrew John Peters Age: 22
Career Status: Security, Access Specialist Level 3
Andrew Peters was the only child of Sargent John Simeon Peters and Ruth Wright Peters of Evans, Wyoming. After Sgt. Peters was killed in the line of duty Ruth and Andrew moved back to Evans to her family's farm.
Peters determined at a young age to follow in his father's footsteps, a decision that saw him through the loss of his grandfather, the farm, and then his mother.
He spent a year as a ward of the State and then enlisted in the Marines on his 18th birthday. During his first tour in the Middle East he rescued a young boy from a mine field, but was injured himself. Though capable of performing every duty on his prosthetic, the military gave him a medical discharge.
He was recruited the next day by General Heinz and has been an invaluable asset to the Access team ever since.
I sat there with my mouth hanging open as I read it.
I regretted not doing this sooner. There was a lot more in his past than I had expected. It all added up though, Peters was a survivor. I didn't know what to say, so I just wrapped my arms around him and held on as tightly as I could.
He picked up the remote and turned the com off. He sat there stroking my hair while the revelations soaked into me.
"It's killing me, wondering what you are thinking," he murmured.
"I think... I think I see now why you are so amazing," I said lifting my head to look at him.
He started blushing again, "Well if you think I'm amazing you should..." then he stopped and thought again. "Never mind, you aren't allowed to read any more bios." He took the remote and tossed it on to the couch on the other side of the room. "I'm starved, should we call your mom and remind her she ordered dinner for 1810?"
"Who's bio don't you want me to read?" I said starting to untangle myself from his arms. He thwarted my attempts and a wrestling match ensued, which of course lead to some kissing amid the scattered couch cushions on the floor. While I had him distracted I carefully reached for the remote and then leapt away with it in my hand, yelling in my delight. I spun around to avoid his wild grab, only to find my mother coming through the door.
"Oh, hi, Mom," I said with a giggle, and he used my distraction to snatch the remote from my hand.
Mom surveyed the mess we had made and shook her head. "I've heard of fighting over a remote..." she muttered making her way towards the dining room table as I tried to reach the remote held high over Andrew's head. "Are you two going to clean that up before we eat?" she asked, the spoil sport.
Dinner was a serious affair. Andrew asked Mom about the state of the world, and her answer was more than depressing. There seemed to be no hope of peace at this point. Major cities had been decimated, rural areas suffered greatly from the fallout. No matter how emotionally prepared my mother had been for this, it was still hard for her to watch.
"Thus far there has been no damage to any of the Resorts. The main concern at this point is how badly this is going to effect the atmosphere. There is little hope for anyone on the surface now," she said. She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.
Andrew reached over and placed his hand over hers. She looked up at him, a little surprised that he would be so bold. "It's not your fault," he told her. "It's not your fault they are dead when we are alive."
She drew in her breath sharply and shakily then and worked her jaw muscles while blinking. My mother had always been so strong, so sure. Watching her struggle to keep it together like this was like watching the earth split and lurch beneath my feet. I reached out and clasped her other hand. She looked at me, and for a minute it looked like I had made it worse, but then she pursed her lips and gave one decisive nod of her head and she was in control.
She speared a bite of her food and asked Andrew how his day had been before shoving the bite in her mouth. The way she chewed you would have thought it was all the enemy tyrants being ground to death between her teeth.
Later that night I sat on the floor and read the lovingly created pages of my scrapbook. The only sound was that of Andrew's deep slumber on the couch behind me. All was peaceful in Nine.
Battles raged around the world, people were dying in the streets, children drew in death with every breath, but here the warrior slept watched over by his young maid.
His leg twitched and a pained moan escaped his mouth. My heart sank. No, the warrior wasn't sleeping, he was battling in his mind, re-living. I reached up and held on to the hand that rested on my shoulder. Slowly the pained expression on his face faded away, and I prayed he was in another dream.
I almost felt like I was in a dream, perhaps the last dream that humanity would ever conjure, a dream of hope in a hopeless world.
I turned back to the page before me where my grandfather stood, an arm around each daughter, on the day the first families moved into Resort One. This was his dream, the dream that no matter what, humanity would survive.
His daughters carried on that dream, had given everything to it their whole lives, and now it was my turn.
What could I bring to this dream? What would I protect, what would I make survive?
Then I realized, I would never be content to just help something survive. No, Tilly Moren was made to help the human race THRIVE.

The Cube, Part III – The Whole
My alarm went off at 0530 and I rolled out of bed with a groan. I stumbled to the living room to wake Andrew up, but when I got there he was on his feet... or foot anyway, and folding the blanket I had tucked around him a few hours ago. I walked right into it and he folded it, and his arms, around me.
"I keep falling asleep on you," he said.
"I keep staying up most of the night," I replied.
"What's all this?" he said reaching down and picking up the sheet of paper I had torn from the back of my diary last night to make notes on.
"Ah, ah, ah!" I said snatching it from his hand. "No peeking."
"You can't keep secrets from your boyfriend," he said reaching for it again.
"It's not finished," I said in a serious tone, and he immediately stopped fighting me to reach it.
Having won I stepped back into the arms he offered, and he wrapped them around me once more. We stood there cuddling for a minute before he whispered, "You really aren't going to tell me what it is?"
I chuckled, "It's my nefarious plan for getting out of having to wear a uniform for the rest of my life."
He chuckled and shook his head, then kissed my forehead. I pulled him down to give him a real kiss before letting him go and get ready for work. As soon as he left I headed for the shower. I had to get to work myself.
At 0615 I knocked on my Aunt's door. General Heinz answered it, his uniform half off. The scent of shaving cream filled the air.
"Oh, good morning, Tilly," he said in confusion.
"Good morning," I said. "I hope I didn't come too early, but I wanted to borrow a few books from Aunt Marsha."
"Come on in!" she called from the bedroom. "Borrow anything you like."
"Thanks," I said crossing the living room to the cabinets at the back. The first one I pulled out was the one I had started a few weeks back, "Psychological Effects of Closed Environment Living." I scanned the rest of the spines, making a stack of likely titles on top of the first book. By the time I had finished my aunt and uncle were standing by the door watching me with puzzled expressions.
"I don't think anyone has touched these since my father died," Aunt Marsha said scanning the titles in the stack that reached from my fingertips to my shoulders.
"Do you want some help getting those back home?" my uncle asked me.
"No, no," I said stepping out the open door. "I'll manage. Thanks again!"
A buzzing in my pocket woke me up, and I squinted against the bright light that filled the living room. I fumbled around and got the phone out of my pocket. It was 1000 and Andrew had sent me a message.
I go on lunch in half an hour
You want to have it up here?
Depends, is your nefarious plan going to get me in trouble?
Which nefarious plan? The one to avoid the uniform or the other one?
What's the other one?
I'm not saying, but it involves you and me and a store room.
It was a while before he responded, and all he said was, See you at 1032.
I laughed and then woke the com back up. I saved the document I had been creating, then switched over to order my meal. I switched back and reviewed the notes that I had made this morning, wishing I had not fallen asleep while skimming the psychological study. It wasn't that I found it un-interesting, just... dry. I had begun to wonder if the researchers had been more entertaining if the subjects would have fared better.
As it was, the facts were lining up on my side. My grandfather had marked in the margins and incorporated the findings into his design, but his focus on survival and sensibility was evidenced in the things he left out. What was the point of saving the human race if we lost all appreciation for the things that made us human?
I was still expanding on my notes when Celia came to the door. I saved and closed out my work before I let her in. I was stacking the books out of the way as she knocked the second time.
She wore a grin when she came through the door. "Guess what I found," she said. She reached in the cart and pulled out a tablecloth, a vase, and a fake flower. "These were in the storage room behind the kitchen," she said excitedly. "After we talked yesterday I remembered seeing the boxes. I think they were from the grand opening or something."
"Celia, you are BRILLIANT!" I said, taking the table cloth and holding it up in the light. "You really caught my vision, didn't you?"
She nodded excitedly, "There are a lot of them. I'm sure they were meant for special occasions but..."
"But special occasions happen every day!" I said. "Birthdays, Anniversaries, first dates, proposals, romantic lunches, it's a waste to be alive and not LIVE."
We were both grinning from ear to ear when Andrew walked in the room. He looked back and forth between the two of us and said, "Oh wow, a tablecloth," in a typically male mocking tone.
I sent him the look of death. "It's not a just a tablecloth," I said. "It's a sign, an omen." I swirled it around and let it drift into place over the table. Celia followed my lead and placed the vase and flower on top of it. Then we took the plates off the trays, set the silverware and glasses in place and looked with awed reverence at what the dining room had become.
"So... which nefarious plan is this part of?" Andrew asked.
I'm proud to say I didn't throw a single thing at him.
I kept putting my mom off when she asked how I was coming on selecting a job. "I'm putting a lot of thought into it mom," I'd tell her, or "I want to make sure my contribution counts," or "I can't rush a decision like this, Mom, this is my LIFE you know." She had noticed the tower of books in my room and the way I had become chummy with Celia. What she didn't know was exactly how much I was getting done while she was at work every day.
Andrew knew of course, after all, I needed his help. He was uniquely situated to help me gather information on who I could enlist in my cause, and if the resources existed for each of my strategically planned battles. He had even agreed to help me with a little reconnaissance.
That's why Tuesday, instead of getting the table cloth out of my closet and having lunch at home, we had snagged some snacks from the mess and headed for the north-east inclinator. "One," he said as we entered the box and soon we were sliding past solid walls of concrete instead of the pleasant panorama we saw on an assent.
"Who's?" I said with a slight jerk of my head towards the camera.
"Moua," he said with a nod at the camera, pronouncing the Asian name with ease. "He's cool."
"Thanks, Moua," I said with a smile.
"No problem," he said. "I really hope your plan works, Miss Moren."
"It's Tilly," I told him with another smile, wondering exactly how many people Andrew and Celia had taken into confidence. I told myself that whatever the number was, it wasn't nearly as many as I would be letting down if I crashed and burned.
The inclinator ground to a halt and opened to darkness. The air was cool and damp, and there was a strange humming in the air. We stepped out of the inclinator and Moua turned on the lights, illuminating a passage about a third of a mile long.
"Explain to me again why you come and run down here," I said as we walked along the suffocating gray tunnel, "and not on the power generating treadmills like everyone else?"
"I put in my miles per week on those things," he said in an offended tone. I had recently been informed I had to start logging miles on them, too. I had refused to run at the same time as Andrew though; I was having a hard enough time keeping up with Celia.
"So the quota isn't enough for you?" I asked as we reached a door and waited for Moua to unlock it.
He shook his head and opened the door just after it clicked unlocked. "Running is..." he hesitated.”It's how I think, how I deal with stress, how I burn off the dreams," he added that last part in a murmur I was sure Moua wouldn't have heard.
"And you don't want to be on the treadmill," I said feeling I understood a little.
"The treadmills remind me of therapy too much," he murmured, then said "Lights" out loud.
"Don't take too long," Moua said. "Remember that Larson comes on shift in an hour."
Peters started walking as soon as the lights came on, and I scurried behind him down the aisles between the towering shelves. The shelves were bolted to the ceiling about 10 feet up, and there was a lot more room between the hall and the outside wall here than on any of the other levels I'd been too.
We went all the way to the back wall then turned left and I saw what Andrew had been talking about. There was an archway that allowed access out further than the back wall. When we reached it Andrew grabbed a corded light and plugged it in. It dimly lit a large, rough blasted room full of shelves that were different from the organized and indexed storage behind us.
Andrew handed me the light and then plugged in another for himself, "You see what I mean?" he asked as he lead me into the room. "This stuff isn't on the inventories. I bet Harris has forgotten it all exists, if he has even bothered to check out what's in here."
"There's no way we're going to look in all these boxes in an hour," I said.
"Well, let's look in as many as we can," he said. "Remember, you just have to know about a few things he doesn't that you can use from in here. Then when we get all this approved you can spend as much time as you want treasure hunting."
We were sweaty and dusty 45 minutes later when Andrew called a halt to the search. I couldn't believe the things we had found, and was thrilled with the possibilities that had opened up to us.
"I just wish we had found some blue paint though," I said as we wound up the light cords and put them away.
"Blue paint?" Andrew asked in confusion. "What you need with blue paint?"
He didn't stop chuckling until we were back out in the hall and headed for the inclinator. He just laughed harder when I punched him in the arm. "I'll hand it to you Morens," he said. "When you dream, you dream big."
"I see how you are," I said. "I tell you I'm going to get us the sky back and you laugh."
He put his arm around me and kissed my temple. It was hard not to forgive him when he used tactics like that.
"Are you planning on telling me what you are up to any time soon?" My mother asked me over coffee the next morning.
"Who says I'm up to anything?" I said, doing my best confused look.
"My intuition, that's who," she said putting her cup down and giving me that level look that always meant I was in trouble. "It's been nearly two weeks since your birthday, you haven't picked a job yet, you aren't meeting with any supervisors, you're pouring over books that haven't been opened in decades; something is up."
"You're right mom," I said. "But I can't tell you about it yet, it's a surprise."
"A surprise?" she said. "A surprise for whom?"
"For everybody, well except the people I've got in on it, of course," I said.
She scrunched her eyes and studied me as she took another sip. I kept my face completely calm and took a sip with her. My calm did not reassure her.
"Don't worry mom," I said. "I'll tell you all about it Friday night."
"Friday night we are all having dinner at your Aunt's, remember?" she said.
"I remember," I said calmly.
That tightness was in her jaw again, the very place she always got tense when she wanted to say something but was holding it back. I tried not to stare at it while I took another sip. I had originally planned on presenting all of this to her first, but the more I had thought about it, and the bigger it had gotten, I decided that it was best if everyone could tell I had blindsided her too. This was my plan, my presentation, my success, or my failure. I was a big girl now, and if I was going to play ball I couldn't drag my mom and my aunt to the mound with me.
She wasn't in the best of moods when she left for work, so sent a message to Celia that my mom's secretary might need some chocolate in an hour or so. Then I fired up the com and went back to my careful review of the bios of every adult that lived in Nine.
I had just finished yet another list when Celia brought my lunch. She passed along the thanks for the chocolate, and let me know she had talked her friend into re-routing the meals I needed miss-directed. "Has Andrew worked out his side of things?" she asked.
"We've got the man power, and the electronics," I told her. "It's just a matter of pulling it off now."
"Man I hope this works," she said, excitement lighting her eyes. I hoped it did too. I hadn't told her this yet, because I didn't want to get her hopes up, but this would be a big thing for her too. If all went well she wouldn't be pushing a cart all over nine anymore.
The evening sun was casting a warm peach light through the crystal, and it bounced around the glass encased atrium, not content to leave the sunset in the unseen western sky. I stepped out into the hallway, and pressed my face to the glass, peering down on where the fountain gurgled alone far below.
I turned and walked down the hallway, battling down the feeling in my belly that had absolutely nothing to do with being ready for the evening meal. Ahead of me I could see the bigwigs flowing by twos into my Aunt's Apartment. I had been having dinner with them twice a week for a month now, but I had never really fit in.
Next time would be different. Next time I would either be unwelcome, or I would be one of them. I tightened my jaw and prayed. Please, please let this go right.
My aunt greeted me at the door, looking lovely in a blue satin shirt and pinstripe suit pants that I knew for sure my mother had forced upon her sister. General Heinz was still in his uniform but everyone else had changed for the evening. I was relieved to find the power suit I had so carefully selected from my closet was not out of place.
"The trays seem to be a bit late," my aunt was telling me. "But Reynolds is late again anyway so it's probably for the best."
"Poor Lynn," I told her. "Her closet isn't serving her very well these days is it?"
They arrived in minutes, and as I greeted them at the door I cast a glance and a nod at the camera. Now we could get started.
Within five minutes the bigwigs were starting to get restless. These dinners were late enough in the evening without the food being delayed. When the knock came at the door Celia had the room's undivided attention.
She wasn't wearing her uniform, but instead wore a white shirt and black slacks with a white half apron tied around the front. Her hair was up in an elegant bun, and I was happy to see she had taken my advice about the makeup. I had known she would need confidence for her part in this, and the change in appearance seemed to have done the trick.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," she said. "I apologize for the delay in your meal time. If you will just follow me," she stepped back out of the doorway and gracefully raised her arm in invitation.
I was so proud of her I could have screamed, but of course I did not. I just stepped forward, and prayed that Lynn was ready to do her small part too.
She was at my side as I reached the door, Reynolds trailing behind her in confusion. The others fell into place behind us, like a herd of fat sheep behind the shepherd.
They might have demanded an explanation inside the inclinator, but Lynn saved me from that too by gasping and pointing out at the atrium below us. I carefully stepped to the side as the others gathered at the window of the inclinator and then I moved over to give Celia a congratulatory squeeze of the hand. She returned the gesture and then we separated before anyone was the wiser.
As the inclinator came to a stop the tone of the group had gone from confusion to anticipation, and you could hardly blame them. Andrew's friend in Power had worked a miracle. He had spent the last several nights rigging lights below the walkways to make the fountain glow. The reflected light on the mist shrouded circular walk was perfectly romantic.
Harris, Leeds, and Foreman were exchanging glances, and my belly twisted inside of me. We were to the tables now, and Celia directed each couple to their table, where they were surprised to find their meals under fine metal domes instead of inside the usual trays. As my mother sat down across from me she cast me a suspicious look and I couldn't help but smile.
Celia walked over to the bridge and a light mounted in a nearby tree came on. It was show time. I rose from my seat on shaky knees and walked into the light. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," I said. "Since the dawn of time men and women, like yourselves, have struggled to survive."
Right on cue the lights below the bridge went out and the projector turned on. I could hear indistinct whispering from the tables, but with the light in my eyes I was not able to see their faces. It was a blessing, and a curse. They couldn't frighten me, but I couldn’t gauge their reactions either.
I gestured to the slowly changing pictures that played on the glass of the incline behind me. "Even the earliest of peoples, while living under primitive conditions, were not content to just survive.
"They played music, created art, changed everyday necessities into treasures that represented their cultures. They passed these skills, this knowledge, these treasures down to their children." The scene behind me changed, to show a world map with green spots all over it. Andrew's friend in IT was pushing the buttons for me, keeping the visuals on track as I recited the script I had committed to memory. "In Nine alone we have representatives of 60 distinct cultures. We have 42 residents with Art Education, and 29 residents who can play at least one instrument. We represent every major religion. Fifteen languages are spoken by two or more residents.
"You and the founders have saved the intangible essence of all that is beautiful about the human race. We have bottled it up, labeled it, and stored it on the shelves so it will survive until the surface is safe again," I said.
The picture went black, "But humanity is not something you can keep in a bottle. It is not something we can store. It is not something we can chemically preserve. That's because humans were not meant to survive, they were meant to thrive."
The projection came alive again and my audience was subjected to rapidly changing pictures of landscapes, some real, some imagined, some lush, and some desolate.
"We don't know what we, or our children, or our great-great-great grandchildren will find when we once again set foot on the surface. But I promise you this, the most precious thing we will have, no matter what we find, will be the humanity that we bring back with us.
"But without use, without nourishment, without the necessary attention that humanity will stagnate, deplete, and eventually be lost. We cannot allow that to happen. We cannot allow all the good of human history to be lost to our children. We cannot allow them to grow up not knowing their destiny. We cannot raise them under a tan sky and expect them to reach for the blue.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight I propose the creation of a new department, a department devoted to the preservation and, more importantly, the development of the human culture. If you will agree to create the Community Activities Department, then a portion of our physical and human resources can be devoted to this valuable endeavor. We can ensure that whatever generation reaches the surface doesn't do it without knowing who they are and all they represent."
"Thank you for your time," I concluded. "In the morning each department director will have a proposal brief in his or her inbox so you can make an informed decision. Either way, I hope you enjoy your meal." The light on my face faded and the lights below the bridge came back on. I walked bravely back to my seat through the pale mist, terrified I would trip, and terrified of what my mother might be thinking when I sat down.
I was still a little blind as I sat down, for which I was very thankful, and I focused on what was in my visual range, my dinner. I went to uncover the plate, but a hand was on top of mine.
I looked up, struggling to get my eyes to focus, and as they did I noticed a glimmering streak going down my mother's face. I bit my lip, searching for the words to apologize for embarrassing her, for getting up there and saying that all she had done wasn't enough, that all her father had done was not enough.
She cleared her throat and looked down at her plate. Then she looked up at me and smiled. Another tear spilled from her eye. "I am so proud of you," she said.
The band was in full swing by the time I made it to the mess hall after work. I wasn't really in the mood for the crowd and noise, but by the time I had a spare moment to order my dinner Andrew had already done it for me.
I stood in the doorway scanning the room, not having any luck finding him. I decided to try for another angle and went around the back of the room. He wasn't with the dancing children, he wasn't at the bachelor's table, he wasn't at any of the small tables in the back either. I was taking out my phone to call him when it went off in my hand.
"Where are you?" I shouted into the phone, scanning the room to see if I could see him waving or something.
"The next cart is ours," he said. "Grab it and bring it to the south-west inclinator."
"What?" I asked plugging my ear and trying to make heads or tails of what he was saying.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and one of the Food Service girls was smiling and passing me a food cart. I put my hand on the push bar in confusion and she pointed out the door to the hallway.
"What's going on?" I asked Andrew as I pushed the cart out into the hallway.
"Going the long way?" he asked me as I turned into the hallway.
"What do you mean?" I asked stopping to look at the closest camera.
"I'm not there," he said after a moment. "South-west inclinator."
"Where are you?" I asked struggling to turn the cart around with one hand while I held the phone with the other.
"You'll see," he said with a chuckle. "I've got a surprise for you," he said.
"A surprise?" I said, "but my birthday isn't for another couple of weeks."
"I know," he said. "It's not a birthday surprise." His tone was a strange mix between cryptic and excited.
I hoped there was a cake in the cart I was pushing, a big chocolate one. I needed it after today. I'd lost another round with Harris over the paint, and wasn't in a very good mood.
As I approached the inclinator it opened for me, and I pushed the cart right into it. I glanced up at the camera, wondering who was behind it. I could never keep track of who worked what shifts. It started moving upward and I stepped to the glass to watch the happy couples around the fountain grow smaller and smaller. I was thinking about having the artists' guild paint the waist high walls along the walkway. Maybe the children could do a section too. Harris would hate that, but as he wasn't budging on my sky project I rather liked the idea of irritating him. He had sure irritated me.
I was picturing the shade of purple that his face would turn when a large block of concrete obstructed my view and the inclinator slowed to a stop. I looked around to get my bearings, having not realized this was the inclinator that went all the way to the top. The doors opened behind me to display a wall of solar panels so black it was like looking in a dark mirror. I pushed the cart out of the inclinator and it closed behind me.
"How did you get permission to have dinner up here?" I asked. The question echoed around me and then Andrew was there at my side.
"I know a few people," he said with a smile, extending a hand to me.
I put the phone in the pocket of my slacks and took the hand he was offering. He grabbed the cart and pushed it down the narrow passage. Once we were past the inclinator bay we stepped into an open room so bright that I had to narrow my eyes to the tiniest of slits. He led me to a table and passed me the wraparound sunglasses that sat next to a vase of real flowers. He must really have called in a lot of favors to get real flowers. He then led me over to a spiral staircase that went right up to level 100. The floor here was all glass, and I stepped carefully on it, irrationally concerned that my high heels might damage our precious light.
We had to climb now, to get between the steel support beams that held the car sized crystal in place. It was hot as hades up here and my hands kept slipping on the beams. When we reached the slanting slab that was the corner of the south and western walls and climbed up it I decided it had been worth it all.
The vista before us was so breath taking that all I could do was stare with my mouth wide open. The sun was setting behind a jagged ridge of mountains in the distance. They cradled it as carefully as the bars behind me cradled the crystal.
I took off the glasses and peered down in the valleys between, my heart racing with joy at how green and lush they were. The climate must have changed a great deal for this formerly desert place to be so full of life. I knew that this was one of the possible outcomes that scientists had postulated, but hadn't even dared to hope. It was too much to hope that such beauty could come after so much destruction.
I breathed a sigh of relief and felt tears of joy fall down my face, "Oh Andrew, we didn't destroy the world. Just look at it!"
"It's still very dangerous out there," he said. "But I thought you'd like to see nature thrive."
I smiled at the use of the word I had painted across my office wall. I turned to kiss him but found that he had backed away from me and was holding a little box between us. My breath caught in my throat.
I nearly choked when he opened it. The rock on the ring was almost obscenely massive. It glittered against the velvet.
"Now I have to explain," he said, he was blushing. "This isn't a diamond. The jeweler had plenty of those, but I found this when we were going through the boxes in the extra storage room. I thought, maybe, a crystal would mean more to you than any diamond, because it would remind you that you are the light of my life."
More tears spilled down my face as he carefully took the ring out of the box and tucked the box back into the pocket of his uniform. He looked around, like he wanted to get on his knees, but it was impossible among the bars and concrete slope. So he blushed some more and then looked at me with terrified eyes.
"Tilly, one year ago today I opened the doors of The Cube for you, and you stepped right into my heart. You are the most incredible woman in the whole world, and I want to spend every second of the rest of my life helping you achieve your 'nefarious plans.' Will you marry me?" he asked.
The yes that overlapped the word me made his eyes sparkle brighter than either of the crystals in the room. I eagerly extended my left hand and he slipped the ring on my hand with shaking fingers.
I carefully climbed over the space between us until I was perched, holding on to two bars above me and balanced on the same beam as he was. I leaned back against the wall and he raised himself up and grasped the bars above my head. He leaned in, his body pressing firmly against mine as his mouth lowered and lit a fire in me brighter than the sun that set behind me in the pure blue sky.

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