I can't seem to get the title to appear right. it should read:
If you haven't read The Cube, stop right here and go read it (Aug, 2011). If you have read The Cube, you may proceed to read.
Oh and if you are new to this blog, I write stories based on random things my friends throw at me. I don't really make up the plot in advance, I just let it pour out, and I really don't edit. So, if you find this un-professional, well that's because they aren't supposed to be. They are supposed to be fun.
This is a sequel to one of my more popular ones. Alex, my dear friend, talked me into writing a sequel over a very yummy lunch one day in OKC. It took me a year to finish. I never take that long to write these, but... I moved, got a demanding job, got injured, got divorced, got surgery, got hurt some more, took 12 credits summer semester... yeah, my creativity bucket has been on the fritz. So, sorry it took so long Alex... but then again, I'm glad I have something to give you right now of all times. Love you so much. (7/23/13)
Part 1- The Axis
We rounded the corner, our feet falling in a long practiced unison on the concrete floor. I ran beside my husband, sweat beading my brow in spite of the cool temperature. As much as I enjoyed our runs, I was glad we were almost done with this one.
The once plain corridor stretched out before us and I strained my eyes to make out my favorite spot in The Level One Never-ending Mural of Dreams, Hope’s unicorn. It grew before us as we approached, the white blob taking on its familiar shape, the golden horn becoming more distinct. She had only been six when we painted this mural, and already her artistic skills had surpassed my own. Now that she was ten she was taxing even her art teacher’s ability to help her improve.
I was so proud of my daughter.
I was proud of my son too, but in a way as completely different as they were from each other. John was just like his father, strong, gentle, noble, handsome, and completely devoted to me, as all little boys should be. Aunt Marsha had big plans for him already, and the poor little soldier was only five.
Andrew’s pace slowed and I matched it, glad to finally be on our cool-down lap. As my muscles cooled down my brain started up, going through the list of things to do that day. Wake the kids and get them to school, head for the office, then there was the meeting after lunch; which included all the Department Heads, the Mayor, and the Council.
It was bound to be dry. Everything had gone fairly smoothly over the last several years. I’d even gotten the blue paint out of Harris about five years ago. Well… I say I did, but really what it came down to was Lynn told him she was naming her daughter Azure and not Emily if she had to hear about it over one more dinner.
Never argue with a pregnant woman, especially not that one. The round innocent face, the blonde angel hair, the way she bursts into tears at the slightest thing… isn’t she the best best-friend a girl can have? I love her. We have plans for John and Emily, by the way, just don’t tell Reynolds. I think he’d die that she was talking about his four year old’s wedding. When Lynn had to requisition some training bras for their twelve year old, Brian nearly had an aneurism.
It was crazy to think that twelve years had gone by already. I didn’t feel twelve years older. I didn’t feel like a thirty year old mother of two with stretch marks and a career. I felt like… Tilly, off-beat, up-beat, and down-right sexy Tilly who had changed in only one way, the world was no longer about me, and thank goodness for that!
We reached the inclinator and started into our stretches while Moua rattled off Andrew’s morning update through the speaker. I half-listened while my thoughts returned to my own day, but caught the end, which was my favorite part. “And that’s about it, Sir,” Moua said.
Sir, it was the loveliest word. Andrew didn’t brag about his promotions, but I was very proud of him. Certain people, for obvious reasons, say Andrew got the promotions because he married well, but I know differently. He got them because he was talented, intelligent, trustworthy, humble, hardworking, patient, and the hottest man in all of Nine.
Okay so that last bit didn’t matter much to anyone but me, but that didn’t make it any less true. My man was absolutely edible… I mean… incredible… yeah… ehem.
We got the kids up a little late, so we dressed, fed, brushed and rushed down to the school, only remembering when we got off the inclinator that Hope had a project due. Andrew looked at me, and I knew he was going to offer to go and get it, so I beat him to it. If one of us was going to be late to work it shouldn’t be the one in the department that actually cared about clocks.
I was headed back down the inclinator, solar system in hand, when it happened the first time. The familiar whirring B Flat tone I knew so well lurched up to an F as the inclinator just about dropped out from under me. I caught myself against the glass, failed to save Neptune from pulling a Pluto, and then looked in shock at the camera; as if my husband was still directly on the other side instead of several links up the chain.
I almost demanded an explanation out of the access specialist, but then realized that if it was anything more than a minor glitch, I would know about it before he would. There were certain advantages to being a big wig, even one who had to hastily re-glue a planet in the school supply closet and thus was even later for work than usual.
I was still peeling little translucent strips out of my fingerprint when I walked through the door, so I didn’t even notice the irritated look on Celia’s face until she spoke.
“You forgot your phone again,” she said, “and I’ll have to get it for you because the meeting has been moved up, to NOW.”
“Which meeting?” I asked, but of course there was only one meeting today over which I had no say-so on its timing. “Seriously? I haven’t even finished typing my notes!”
Celia mirrored my exasperated expression without taking her eyes off her screen, “I’ve got half of the morning rescheduled, but I can’t seem to pin Harris’s office down to another time.”
“Well, it’s not like the stuff hasn’t been molding out in that cave for decades,” I said going over to my desk and grabbing my tablet. “A few more days won’t make a difference. Thanks for handling all this for me,” I added heading back out the door.
“I’m holding your phone hostage!” she called after me.
“Have I ever failed to produce chocolate?” I called back through the closing door. The poor thing, I’d give her a raise, but that doesn’t exactly happen on the credit system.
Naturally I was the last to arrive at the meeting, but this time I wasn’t the only one looking a bit frazzled. There was a strained pitch to the whispered conversations going on around the room, a tightness across brows that hadn’t been tight in years. Okay, I thought to myself, apparently this elevator thing IS something more than a glitch. I just couldn’t imagine what.
My taking my seat was a signal of sorts, one that had developed unintentionally over the years, and just as I booted up my screen the Mayor clicked her gavel for the meeting to begin. Mayor Pope did it with her usual efficient air, and I hoped that in the upcoming election she ran for a second term. Next to my mother and aunt she was the most capable woman I knew.
Speaking of which, both my aunt and my mother were present today, which was odd. Usually only one of them came. As they predicted their jobs had gotten easier and easier over the years. It had gotten to the point where my mother had become a regular fixture in the Library and had often been found helping out in the school, which Hope and John loved. She was an excellent grandmother, but today she was back to business with a vengeance, and to tell you the truth that made me a little nervous.
The others settled back into their seats, assuming the order demanded by the Mayor’s Gavel. I called up my notes on my screen and set my hands to the keys, trying to be ready for anything, guessing I wasn’t. I was right.
“The meeting will now come to order,” Mayor Pope began. She glanced up at the camera in the corner of the room. “Recording now,” the voice of an access specialist said from the room’s speaker. We recorded all of our meetings with the council. Sometimes I found it annoying to have to weigh my words so carefully, sometimes I saw a distinct advantage in everyone knowing there was a clear record of exactly how cooperative or un-cooperative they had been.
“The record will show all nine council members, Mayor, and all nine Department Heads in attendance,” Mayor Pope continued, “with the addition of… which Co-Head of IRC-IDC are we listing as extra today?” My mother raised her hand briefly and the Mayor said, “Ambassador Moren.”
“The regularly scheduled monthly meeting has been moved up at the request of Director Foreman of Power, and therefore his order of business shall precede all others. Director?”
Foreman cleared his throat and leaned into his microphone, “Thank you, Madame Mayor. I apologize for the disruption in everyone’s schedules, but I felt this warranted immediate attention.”
He then started in on a lengthy and technical report that would have put me to sleep if I hadn’t been curious about what the point was and WHEN he was going to get to it. He had jazzed it up a little with graphs and charts, but I really didn’t get why we needed the re-cap of the weather on the surface over the last 12 years.
They were all over the place. First things had gotten hot and muggy. The winters that usually covered this area in deep piles of Olympic grade powder had instead brought monsoon like rains and continued plant growth. It had been that lush, green world that Andrew had shown me the day he proposed.
After that, things got a little nippy, alright, downright cold. After the third winter had failed to melt away I figured we were in an ice age. Everyone seemed to concur, as all the other Resorts reported similar conditions. I tried not to worry about it, but that was when I started pushing the fantasy bit with the community. I wanted them to start thinking of positive outcomes to all of this, outcomes that were wildly different, but still a future on the surface we would thrive in.
So wasn’t it a good thing that the temperature levels had been climbing for months? Didn’t this mean that the frozen vegetation had a greater chance? I didn’t get why Foreman’s expression was so grave.
“Due to the increased energy output from the generators on the underground river we have had to divert the power along…” Foreman droned and I knitted my brow trying to figure out the complex electrical schematic on the big screen. Why couldn’t he just SAY the batteries are full and we are wasting power and then get on with it.
Finally he did. He explained that after the surge that had jolted my inclinator this morning they had shut down half the generators. And I’ve been listening for 30 mninutes, for that? I thought.
“How long do you expect the water table to remain this saturated?” My mother asked.
“That’s the problem,” Harris interjected just as Foreman opened his mouth, “The water table. It’s getting too high.”
Foreman nodded, “All of the Resorts have reported similar issues, but it is resorts eleven and four which are in the most immediate danger.”
“Danger?” a council woman asked out loud while the word reverberated in my own head.
Several of the Department Heads exchanged glances, but it was my Aunt that answered the question, “Of flooding, or to be more precise, of a Great Flood, one that might grow to cover the whole earth.”
After about a decade of shocked silence Foreman shuffled his feet. I had been looking back and forth between my Aunt and Mother, holding my breath and begging inside for the twin tightness in their jaws to disappear. Oh no, oh no, oh no, I thought. This isn’t good. If they are that stressed about it that means they don’t have a plan. If they don’t have a plan it means Grandpa Moren didn’t plan for this. If Grandpa Moren didn’t plan for this… oh no, oh no, no, no, no, there has to be a way out!
It took every ounce of maturity in my body to remain in my seat. I wanted to run, I wanted to run to the school, grab my babies, and run. But where would I run to? There was nowhere to go, there was no safe place in the world. This was it, we were Noah without the ark in a concrete cave that was about to get flooded.
“So,” the Mayor said slowly, like she didn’t trust her voice any more than I trusted mine, “What’s the plan?”
“That’s exactly what we are here to come up with,” Aunt Marsha said in that nearly forgotten militaristic tone.
“Come up with?” Councilman Adams asked in a tone that jarred the nerves. “COME UP WITH?” he repeated nearly shouting. His face was well on its way to purple. “YOU MEAN I MOVED MY FAMILY INTO THIS HOLE IN THE GROUND SO YOU COULD LET US ALL DROWN?”
General Heinz looked thunderous but his tone was measured when he said, “Mr. Adams, your family has survived a dozen year longer than the rest of the human race thanks to this organization, and getting angry will not prolong the time any farther.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Adams growled, “All high and mighty in your 95+ apartment, while the rest of us are on 45 and 53.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” I burst out. “Do you honestly think we’d let anyone drown first down there? Think about it! The generators are what… fifty stories down? The trees are all on 27! Who says we would even survive to drown if we ALL lived on 100?!”
“The point is,” Reynolds said, “not to panic. We need to pool our resources, work together, and come up with some options.”
“I’m sorry,” Councilwoman Moralez said. “I haven’t been reading the reports on the surface because I don’t really understand them. Is it even an option? Is the air still toxic?”
“To tell you the truth,” my mother said, “We don’t know. The instruments on the surface have been giving faulty readings for months now. It’s the same at all the Resorts.”
Adams crossed his arms and humph-ed. I thought my aunt was going to deck him, I felt like decking him. Did the man seriously think this was deliberate negligence?
“So, there’s no way to fix that either?” Councilman Lin asked, pushing his glasses up on his tiny nose.
“There may be,” Aunt Marsha said looking over at Harris and then Packer.
“Like I said before,” Harris said, “It’s risky, but with this kind of melt off it may be possible.”
“Risky how?” Mayor Pope asked. “What have you talked about?”
“We send someone up to the surface,” Harris said.
“Or we send a robot,” Packer added.
“A robot could malfunction,” Harris said in a way that made me think this conversation was on its fiftieth run around the idea table.
“A human would be stranded in de-tox for months,” Packer said. “We should try the robot first.”
“Either way, we break the seal,” Dr. Reed said quietly. He had his hands folded together in front of his face, his forefingers sticking up like a steeple. He pressed them to his lips, forbidding the worst to be spoken. What if it let something in?
Would it matter in the end?
There was so much to weigh, so many lives at risk, it was hard to think through the panic that was swimming in my veins. I was sick to my stomach, but there wasn’t time to give in to the panic. I had to be strong, like Andrew.
Fear surged through me, and then I fought back tears at the next thought. If the sent someone, Heinz would insist on a soldier. How would they pick from all the members of the Security Department, and what family would be left behind?
“Couldn’t you build a robot that would take accurate readings?” I asked. “I mean they sent those robots to Mars, right? They got all kinds of Data from there.”
“Yes, with limited success,” Harris said. “We don’t really know what it will face up there, so it’s hard to plan.”
“Yeah, remember when that one robot landed wrong and couldn’t even get around?” Councilman Washington asked. “It was a wasted mission.”
“And we would have exposed ourselves to contaminants,” Councilman Muskowvitz added.
“We could seal off the elevator on this end, right?” Mayor Pope asked.
“It’s not the elevator shaft,” Harris said shaking his head. “That’s just the last seal. The door to 27, the door at the top of the shaft, the hall, the living room, the outer wall,” he said as he ticked them off on his fingers. “Each was set up as a containment area. The question has always been how well the containment would last through the unpredictable events of the cataclysm.”
“Well how do we even know if the elevator will work? I mean is the cube even there?” Councilman Ivins asked.
“It is, unless an avalanche took it,” I said, then I blushed. Not many people knew that Andrew and I had been up at the crystal many times over the years. These days you couldn’t see anything through the snow built up around the top of the mountain, but the cube had been there a few years ago.
“How do you know that?” Adams asked.
“It’s there, we would have known if it had been ripped off,” Harris said dismissively. “I still don’t think any robot we send could be properly equipped for all the problems it could encounter up there.”
“So send two robots,” Councilwoman Gutpa said, “Or three, or four. Safety in numbers, load them in the elevator, send them all up and they can help each out. Surely you can figure out how to control them independently of one another.”
There was a little boy twinkle in Packer’s eye at the thought of building four robots. Harris just looked like he wished he had thought of that before a woman had. I didn’t care what it did to his pride, as long as we got those readings.
Part 2 – The AlgorithmIf only it was as simple as putting a remote control car or two in the elevator and pushing the up button. No, it couldn’t be. It had to be complicated, complicated by part fabrication, postulation of obstacles, and above all keeping it quiet so the children wouldn’t be frightened.
Keeping it from the adults for more than a few days had been completely impossible in such an intertwined community. Between the leaders, their spouses, the need-to-knows and their spouses, everyone had an inkling within the day and my mother was busy putting rumors to rest by morning.
Anyone with any tinkering experience was called in, and we were happy to find that Andrew’s friend Henderson in Access had helped his father build battle robots for years. The gangly blonde looked more like he belonged behind a comic book shop counter than hunkered down in Nine trying to save the human race, but he took on the task with an awkward kind of assurance.
Andrew spent a lot of time working with them, too. It wasn’t his department, but he worked better with Henderson than anyone else. He also had a rough knowledge of engines and mechanics from his time on his Grandfather’s farm, and besides he wasn’t one to sit back when there was action to be taken. It wasn’t in his nature.
I popped in late one night with a cooler full of drinks, hoping they would call it a night once they noticed the hour. It wasn’t that I wanted to slow them down, but I was sure they weren’t doing their best work during hours 18 and 19 of the workday. Even heroes need sleep you know.
They were hunched over this huge frame on the counter with a chain saw at one end, wheels at the other, and wires spiraling off in every direction. There were gadgets and gismos lined up in rows along the table and I couldn’t decide which scent was more powerful, that of metal, grease, or unwashed man. I felt like I was trespassing in an alien world.
“Is that the chain-saw from the cave?” I asked.
Henderson jumped a bit, he had been so involved with his work, “Man, you have a habit of appearing out of no-where, don’t you?” He glanced at Andrew before returning to whatever he was doing with his soldering iron, “Does she sneak up on you like that at home?”
“Nawh,” Andrew said reaching a grubby hand for the sports drink I offered him. “I keep track of her, somebody has to keep her out of trouble.”
Henderson laughed, “More like she gets you into trouble. Remember that time you lit those candles in Access? Larson was out for blood, man.”
“You got in trouble for that?” I asked him. He’d never mentioned it. I hadn’t even known it was against the rules.
“Are you kidding?” Henderson asked again with a snort in his laugh. “Man he was so smooth… where’d you get that charred video card anyway?”
Andrew smiled and shook his head, “Now who’s getting me in trouble?” he asked passing his old buddy a drink. Henderson cast me a nervous glance before chugging down half of his preferred energy drink.
“Kids in bed?” Andrew asked me wiping his hands on a rag that was just as dirty.
I skirted his reach for my waist and grabbed him a clean cloth from the far counter. I passed it to him as I answered, “They’ve been asleep for hours, Peters. Don’t you have a clock in this hole?”
“Used to,” he replied with that sexy secretive smile.
“Used it for parts,” Henderson said bending back over his work.
“You’ve used everything for parts,” I said looking around at the collection of gutted appliances, yard tools, and things well beyond my powers of identification.
“Most of it was in the cave,” Andrew said, his hands now clean enough to hold. “That place is like a genie for people with nefarious plans.”
“It’s always served us well,” said with an impish grin, thinking of the number of times we had taken long amorous breaks while searching through that no-man’s land of cast off treasures. I ran my thumb up and down the back of his thumb and gave his hand a squeeze. “You two going to call it a night anytime soon, or should I bring you breakfast?”
Andrew’s loyalties were split, he wanted to be with me of course, but he wasn’t one to shirk a work so important. I could see the indecision in his eyes. Henderson had no such conflict of priorities and went on working.
“Maybe after we get the arm outfitted on #3 here,” Andrew said apologetically. “It shouldn’t be too long.”
I doubted that. The nights had gotten longer and longer over the last two weeks. I kissed his cheek and left him, wondering what time he would fall into bed tonight, wondering if he would get home before the kids woke up, wondering deep down if this was a waste of the remaining nights of our lives.
I wasn’t sure I was going to get any more sleep than my husband.
The tray on the paint had been dipped into by so many brushes that the patches of original color were just little rings amidst the secondary and tertiary hues swirled and streaked all over the surface. My mind wasn’t on the paint though, and it wasn’t on the mural we were painting on the south wall of level two. My mind was 25 levels up where the robots were being loaded onto the elevator, while the majority of Nine was here, distracting the children.
“Can we go now?” John asked his father. “I finished my sheep.”
“Hope isn’t finished yet,” Andrew said looking over to where Hope was carefully depicting the way the light at the pinnacle looked through the branches of her favorite tree.
John looked from the painting, to his father, back to the painting and his sister’s deliberate and careful movements. He sighed deeply and sat down beside me with a thump. “Can’t we just let her finish it alone? It’s not like she needs us here, she doesn’t even know we’re here.”
He was right you know. When Hope was painting she lost track of all else, time, people, hunger, I was lucky she breathed. Normally I would have packed up when all the other kids were done with their simple paintings and then let her find her way home. Not today though, today nobody left level 2 until all the evidence of what was happening on level 27 was gone.
Andrew challenged John to a race around the level. John was always up for trying to beat his father in a footrace. Several of the more boisterous children joined them as they made their way down the corridor, to the relief of the crowd in general.
I waited by Hope, watching the way she filled in each vein with the utmost care. She looked almost spellbound, and I would have thought her in a trance if it were not for the furrow between her brows that belied her concentration. I wished I had focus like that.
“She never ceases to amaze me,” my mother said, startling me. I looked up and smiled then quirked an eyebrow at her. She nodded almost imperceptibly and my belly twisted inside. The robots were off. It was time to report to my station.
“Baby,” I said touching Hope lightly on the shoulder to get her attention. “I’m going to go look at the rest of the mural with Grandma. Daddy’s around somewhere, but there’s no hurry. We’ll come get you for dinner.”
She nodded mutely, not taking her eyes off her work, and I took the helping hand my mother offered. We left her there and walked along the corridor, praising young artists as we went, our simple presence a silent signal that it was safe to disperse. I was proud of our citizens for putting on such a good show of festivity and calm at such an unnerving moment in Resort history.
We finished our walk up and down the corridor then took the inclinator in turn with the other ascending parties. It stopped again and again and again to let other passengers off, but that was okay. There was no way they were starting without us.
We had to wait when we got there; several of the Council Members hadn’t arrived yet. We waited in tense silence some of us watching the door, waiting for them to come through, the rest staring at the screen where the camera on #2 was trained on the dark line where the elevator doors met.
Councilman Young opened the door and held it open so Councilwoman Benitez could come through first. She looked a little out of breath, and I wondered if I looked that flustered every time I showed up late for meetings. The looked around, taking stock of the fact that they were the last to arrive, and then we all turned our focus to the screen.
“Access, is everyone in place?” Aunt Marsha asked.
“Affirmative,” my husband’s voice answered. It looked like dropping John off with his little friend had been a smooth transition after the footrace. I was glad that, even if he couldn’t be in the room with me, we were sharing this experience.
"Henderson?” Aunt Marsha asked the lank form at the controls in front of us.
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” he replied. I wished I could ignore the layer of doubt in his response.
“Then please proceed,” Aunt Marsha directed.
“Opening elevator doors at Cube Level 2,” Andrew said, and again I twisted up inside at the level of worry that I heard. I doubted the others even noticed it, but I knew him too well. He was just as worried as I was.
The little dark line on the screen started spreading, growing wider and wider until the whole screen was a massive black blank. “Now let’s see if the lights still work,” Andrew said. There was a short pause and then a flick, flick, flicker before the lights came on in full. I had to blink against the sudden brightness. Someone sneezed.
The room before us was familiar, though I knew I hadn’t been in this one. This was the second floor of The Cube, and I had only been on the first. We needed to use #1 here, at the sample portal. It was the safest way to test the conditions outside.
We watched through the camera on #2 as #1 rolled through the door and into the box hallway. #2 moved behind it and they both approached the far doorway. Henderson controlled them all with the skill of a long time video game addict.
The robots halted.
“Closing elevator doors,” Andrew said. I heard the soft rolling sound, which halted after two seconds and there was a slight sucking sound as the seal engaged. I imagined the little light going from risky-red to good-to-go-green.
“Opening Upper-Lab door,” Andrew said. There was a soft click. Henderson worked the controls for #1 and a long metal arm came into view. It pulled on the door lever, then pushed the door open. The lights struggled less in this room, and in moments #1 and #2 were though the door. I heard it click closed behind them as the robots moved across the floor. “Door sealed,” Andrew confirmed as the camera turned and approached the exterior wall of the room.
Set in the plain white concrete surface was a round metal plate. It was about the size of the plate behind my shower knob, but looked more like the things that R2-D2 kept plugging into in Star Wars. #1 extended its collection arm and plugged in, in a similar way.
I held my breath as #1’s little electronic lungs sucked in the atmosphere from outside The Cube.
A guttural sound of frustration came from Henderson’s lips, and looking at his screen, I knew why. I had watched enough of the development that I knew what the read-out meant as soon as I saw the water saturation and temperature levels of the sample. The cube was still under a snow cap.
Henderson explained this to the others. I tried to ignore the tense discussion going on around me and watched carefully for the other signs Andrew had explained to me a few nights before. Sure it wasn’t anything conclusive, but it was a start, and so far I was encouraged.
“What are you looking at?” Gupta asked over my shoulder, so close that I could smell the argan oil in her long black hair.
“Well,” I said. “I don’t pretend to understand all of it, but I haven’t seen anything flagged as radioactive come up yet.”
“Can we trust that?” she asked. “This sample doesn’t contain much air, and who knows how many feet of snow there are.”
“It’s not conclusive,” I said. “But you know me, any opportunity to look at the bright side.”
“Are we ready for the drill?” Andrew asked over the hubbub of conversation.
“Affirmative,” Aunt Marsha replied. “Commence secondary procedure.”
Plan B, I thought. I hope we don’t have to get through the whole list.
#1 backed away from the wall, at the command of Henderson’s nimble fingers. The camera swiveled around as #2 took position by the portal. As the camera rose it tilted downward. We watched as the drill apparatus on #2 engaged with the portal. Then with a loud grinding and lots of vibration of the camera the 4 foot long drill bit started churning through the snow.
First there was a puff of snow thrown backward, and then I watched spots of water form all over the apparatus as they were thrown back from the portal. In a few minutes the end of the bit had been reached, and Henderson reversed its direction. It was time to switch robots again.
As the camera tilted up and away I saw that a puddle had formed on the floor below the wall, was it toxic water? Toxic or not #2 tracked it all over the floor and Henderson rolled #1 into it. The second set of electronic lungs sniffed deeply of the air from the hole.
The analysis started scrolling by, and so many of us were reading over Henderson’s shoulder that he hit a couple of buttons to split the main screen and bring the readout up for all to see. The gobbley-gook of science terms scrolled upward, and not able to understand most of it I looked at the little bars beside the words, normal, normal, normal, high, low, but only moderately so, if only I knew what the variances all meant. I needed someone to translate it for me.
I looked over at Dr. Reed and watched his face as he read all of the information carefully. He looked cautious, like he wasn’t going to make a decision without a lot more information. Still, I would take cautious over crestfallen any day of the week.
“Are we sure this isn’t a pocket full of old air? It still looks pretty cold,” Dr. Reed said.
“Well,” Henderson said tilting his head to the side. “Maybe we can take a peek.” He moved #1 away from the hole again and then messed with the camera angle again and again, trying to get it to line up exactly with the hole.
“There!” Shouted Adams as we all caught our breath at the flash of light.
Henderson carefully backed up the control until the distant speck of like beamed at us from the screen. Four feet, I thought. Less than four feet of snow between us and the sky.
“Peters, Henderson,” Aunt Marsha said. “While the diagnostics of the air sample continue, please proceed with Phase Two.”
The screen split again, and the camera on #3 showed the dark line of the elevator doors to us again. The elevator was whirring, and soon my husband announced that he was opening the doors. Darkness, light, the boxy hall with a door on each wall, the robots rolled forward. Peter closed the elevator doors, and we waited for the suction to complete before he opened the door on the far side of the hall.
As #3 opened the far door I remembered pulling it closed behind Smith twelve years before, the night my mother had come. Had I been the last one to touch that door? How things had changed since I had closed that door on the world.
#3 rolled through the door, followed closely by the satellite dish topped #4. The plan was to plow or cut our way out, get readings, and hook into the few satellites not taken out during the war. The dish on top of the cube had been buried in snow for years, but once again, the stuff in my cave had come in handy.
“Lights, Andrews?” My aunt prompted.
“Not responding, I’m afraid,” Peter said.
Well, we can’t expect everything to work right, I thought.
“Harris, we’ve got a light bulb out,” Packer said wryly.
“Packer, we’ve got a communication glitch in the line between Access and the socket,” Harris threw right back.
The laughter was as weak as the joke, but it did make me feel a tiny bit better to be reminded that this was all in the hands of capable men. We refocused on the screen, trying to make out anything by the light coming out of the hall.
“Attempting to activate kitchen and dining area lights,” my husband said. Then added, “Not working either, sorry.”
“Let’s just hope the door works,” Aunt Marsha said, and I could tell she was a little worried it wouldn’t.
“Trying the patio door lock,” Andrew said. A tiny red light appeared in the distance.
“Watch out for the couch,” my mother said to Henderson as he rolled #3 forward. He skirted the couch and headed for the glass door that separated the open floor plan living area from the patio. As #3 approached the red light moved around on the screen, then moved steadily upward. He slowed #3 to a crawl and squinted at the screen, looking for the handle of the door along the wall of glass.
“Gotcha,” he said, and reached forward with the arm to grab the handle.
I squinted in the dark and watched as the grippers closed around the handle and pulled. Suddenly there was a deafening crashing and the screen erupted in a trillion little specks of light. I wasn’t the only one who jumped away from the screen in fright.
“What in the blazes was that?” Adams roared even as Henderson called out his apologies.
“Sorry! Sorry!” he said. “I guess the glass wasn’t rated for these temperatures.”
“Well, you could have warned us,” Adams grumbled as the rest of us took calming breaths to steady our nerves.
“Sorry,” Henderson repeated but when he turned away I could tell by the look on his face that he was thinking something more along the lines of “Like I knew the door was going to shatter!” followed by a few choice words. He directed his energy into lowering the shovel on #3 and clearing a path through the gleaming pile of safety glass.
Once the robots were past the mound of glass it was only moments until they reached the roll up door which opened out onto the mountainside. “Opening blast door,” Andrew said, “this may be noisy, if it works.” I held my breath hoping the electronics would not fail us again.
There was a massive screeching, which only quick thinking on Henderson’s part silenced. His nimble fingers had muted the feed even while he watched with us as the dim light showed an ever expanding strip of white appearing along the floor. The snow pack reflected the dim light from the hall, but we could not see any light coming in from the other side. I wondered how much thicker the wall of snow was down here on the first floor of the cube, as opposed to the 4 feet at waist height on the second floor.
There was no way to know until we started digging, so the stopped the door at about 4 feet up and Henderson got to work with the chain saw and shovel on #3 while the rest of us supervised uselessly. Andrew offered to bring down #2 and use the arm on that, but Henderson said they’d just be bumping into each other if he did. I went and found a seat. This could take all night, thank goodness I’d asked Celia to check on Hope, someone had to make sure she ate, and I couldn’t very well leave.
Henderson had turned the sound back on, probably to irritate Adams, and the sounds emitted from the speakers were almost alien. There was the chugging whirr of the chain saw, which squeaked and screamed when it hit the hard packed snow, there was the chunk, thunk, crunch of the shovel as he alternately pushed and pulled at the loosened chunks. It was definitely hard on the nerves, and so I tried to tune it out and think of other things, until a cuss word cut into the awkward rhythm and the work halted.
“Frozen?” Andrew asked.
“Yeah... we’re gonna need #2 until it gets thawed out,” Henderson said grumpily.
“Right on it,” Andrew said and Henderson started moving #2 to the elevator.
“Sure didn’t take long,” Henderson grumbled. “Probably wearing out the blades anyway.”
It wasn’t long before #3 was warming by the hairdryer mounted on the back of #4 and #2 was picking away at the upper edge of the tunnel, but unfortunately that didn’t last long either. They kept switching machines, but the longer they kept at it the less effected their inventions were against the snow.
If Councilman Adams looked frustrated it was nothing compared to the look on Henderson’s face about the fifteen time the chainsaw froze up. The vein in his temple was so large I thought it was going to burst. I sent a text message to Andrew stating exactly that and asking him what to do about it.
“Excuse me, Doctor Reed?” my husband’s voice came over the speakers. “It looks like #1 has finished its full evaluation of the sample. Do you need us to take a break to give you a minute to look it over?”
“That would be very helpful,” Dr. Reed said from his station. “If I could have half an hour or so, do you mind?” he asked, looking at Henderson with the kind of humble respect that could diffuse anyone.
“Yeah, sure,” Henderson, said in confusion. “I’m just gonna go for a walk.”
“Hey bring me a drink while you are up,” Andrew said.
I followed Henderson out into the hall. “Oh, were you going to see Peters?” Henderson asked uncomfortably.
“Nawh,” I said. “I’m going to go vent to my assistant about what an idiot Adams is,” I whispered. “Plus, I’ve totally got to go pee.” The smile on his face as he walked away made me feel a lot better about how the rest of the project was going to go, the poor man.
Half an hour later we were all back in the room and Dr. Reed was still pouring over the samples. We waited quietly, although not very patiently, for him to make his decision. He was a careful and thoughtful man, which had been GREAT when I was pregnant, but right now I wished he would hurry up a bit.
Finally he looked up and sighed. “I am cautiously optimistic about the air quality on the surface,” the room started buzzing and he raised his hand to silence it. “We only have just these two samples though, and we don’t know if it is consistent with the rest of the air in this area, or if this area is consistent with the air around the world. We must proceed as if any air from the outside is polluted and dangerous until we have more data.”
“What about the radiation levels?” my mother asked.
“Both samples show radiation at acceptable levels, but again, that’s not enough information to say it is safe.”
“So, if we suited a man up,” General Heinz said, “We could send him up to evaluate, or to address any problems that might arise with the equipment.”Dr. Reed took a long deep breath and let it out slowly, “Only as a last resort, and only if he goes through decontamination on the way back.”
Suited a man up, I didn’t like the sound of that. I understood it would be necessary at some point, but it made me worry. If Andrew wasn’t such an up-and-coming, reliable, level-headed trooper I might have felt a little better about it. Plus, he was family, and while in most families that meant skipping out on things that others had to do, it meant the opposite in our family.
Maybe his metal leg will exempt him, maybe it won’t work with the suit, I thought. It was a slim hope. It was really a paper thin hope, considering how resourceful Resort people tended to be, but I clung to it.
While I worried I watched the screen as Henderson resumed his work. The break had done him some good, and while I had not really abused Adams to Celia, I was sure that Andrew had let Henderson vent. I just hoped this didn’t go much longer or we would need another excuse.
After another hour or so I noticed that I could see better than I could before. The rough square of the snow tunnel was lighter at the end. I was about to point this out when the words were swept out of my mouth by a sudden spark of brilliant light.
That spark, though short, energized the whole room. Henderson sat up in his chair and rubbed his hands together. He backed out #3 and sent #2 into the tunnel, arm raised for the strike. Pick, pick, pick, pick and it was through! Light poured in, stinging my eyes and filling my heart. I joined the cheers and then laughed to myself as Adams pounded Henderson so heartily on the back I was afraid the lank hero might snap in two.
It still took some time after that to open the tunnel completely, but it passed in the blink of an eye as we all sat back and enjoyed the ever expanding, bright blue portal. I watched the screen eagerly, waiting for something to appear below the blue. I wasn’t sure what I hoped for, green would have been nice to see, but it would have worried me about the melt off. What is good news at this point? I wondered, but I didn’t ask. There were so many variables. It was better to see what we had and then go from there.
As it turned out, I didn’t even notice the distant snowcapped mountain until Councilman young asked if anyone knew anything about the peak. I had thought it another chunk of snow. I squinted and sure enough there was a section that didn’t jostle about while #3’s shovel tore at the pile.
My mom reached over to the panel and expertly navigated through the computer until she found the things she was looking for. She split the screen again and displayed a picture of the view from the patio of The Cube, and also the geological information on the distant peak. We all read it, but some of us got more out of it than others.
“So at that elevation, it would normally have had snow until early summer, right?” Young asked.
My mother and aunt exchanged glances, and Aunt Marsha nodded, “I’ve seen it still there as late as mid-June.” My mother started typing on the computer again and soon she had found a database with national park weather information for the area. I looked at this month. In early March the whole mountain would still be white. I looked at the temperature charts on the screen. Would they match, or would it be too hot?
“Can we get #1 down to run another analysis?” I asked. “The air has been exchanging in that room for a while now.”
Andrew and Mom worked together to get #1 down the elevator while Henderson continued cutting a path through the snow with #3. Each trip down the tunnel the camera on #3 showed a little more of the outside world, until at last #3 was able to plow forward, shovel down, and meet little opposition.
We were on the lawn.
Henderson reached over and operated the controls to move the camera around. The snow sloped down in front of us sharply. We had dug clear to the end of the lawn area and our precious robot stood right on the edge of the mountain slope. The camera tilted down to look in the valley belowe, and my breath caught at the sight.
Green. There was lots and lots of green.
I didn’t know how it was possible after the ice age, but somehow the evergreens had survived. There were stately pines and shrubbery, moss and even some small plants that were hard to distinguish at this distance, but looked leafy to me. I shook my head in awe. How could all this life have survived?
My Aunt walked over to another computer and started typing away. It wasn’t long before the eleven black boxes on her screen came to life, showing grainy images from the other Resorts. I watched as she relayed the information we had, issued cautions, and then allowed them to view the feed coming in from #3.
“Have you been able to establish contact with any satellites yet?” one of the faces asked in a thick Scottish accent. No doubt he was anxious to get that information. His Resort was one of the ones with the lowest altitude.
“We are about to clear an area for the dish, if we can get a signal I will relay the feed immediately,” Aunt Marsha said.
Henderson took that cue and trained the camera on the task at hand. He expanded an area to the side of the tunnel, then backed #3 out so #4 could take its place on the hillside. With expert hands he guided them out simultaneously, using the camera on #3 to make sure #4 was taking a safe route.
“Searching for satellites,” Andrew said. The dish on #4 moved slowly, panning the sky. “YES!” he exclaimed. “We found one, a functioning weather satellite. I’m attempting to hack it now.”
“Watch out,” I said, “They take hacking seriously here.”
The others were puzzled by my comment, but Andrew chuckled as he worked. I could hear the clicking of his keys over the microphone.
“Need some help?” Henderson asked, after a minute.
“I think I’ve just about, GOT IT!” he said triumphantly. The screen in front of us split again and my Aunt’s fingers flicked to relay the data to the rest of the resorts. It took me a while to figure out what was what. I watched as Andrew browsed through the layer functions until he found one that showed a direct camera feed.
I didn’t recognize what I saw. The familiar shapes of land masses were gone. The white areas were rimmed with green, but the disconcerting thing was the blue, blue everywhere. The Gulf of Mexico extended until an ice sheet that spread down from Canada, there was a long island to the east that had to be the Appalachian Mountains, but they looked more like Japan now, sticking at an angle out of the ice cap.
Aunt Marsha started clicking again, splitting off a section of the main screen again and bringing up a topographical map of the way the United States used to be. The east coast was gone. Texas was gone. Gone, gone, gone, the world was gone.
“It is as I suspected,” the Scott said, “Everything below 400 meters is under water.”
400 meters, that was what? 1200 feet? I thought. There goes the bread basket of America. There goes most of the farmable land in the world.~
I looked over my shoulder to see how everyone was taking this. Gupta had a pinched look on her face. Benitez had red-rimmed eyes. Mayor Pope looked crestfallen. Lin and Moralez looked like bobble-heads as they tried to take it all in. Washington and Muskowvitz looked like they were carved out of stone, except that Muskowvitz’s hand kept clenching and releasing. Red-faced Adams was white as a ghost and Young had his face buried in his hands.
It was hard to see, hard to grasp, exactly what we had done to our world, and it could get worse still. Those mountains that were islands could also disappear, and us with them. I felt like my heart was pouring sorrow by the bucketful all over my insides.
I wanted to throw up. I wanted to burst into tears and wail. I had thought my sorrow for the loss of the world had dissipated over the years, but now I knew that it had only been hiding, and hardening in some far corner of my heart. I felt like the grief was going to kill me.
I looked to my mother and aunt, both standing there resolute, un-deterred in their lifelong ambition, with that old familiar hardness in their jaws. Morens didn’t die of grief. Morens didn’t let fear paralyze them, they chopped it up, threw it in their furnace of ambition and powered the world.
I was a Moren. I stood straighter, locked my jaw against the sobs in my heart and glared at the screen, daring that water to TRY and take my babies. We would find a way, and that was all there was to it.
“Peters,” I said in my most business-like tone. “Does that thing have a thermal function?”
He didn’t reply, just brought up the requested mapping layer in two clicks of a mouse. I studied the image, consulting the legend at the side to figure out what the globby-bands of color meant.
The southern end of the map was somewhat warmer than what pre-apocalyptical temperatures would have been. It was still very cold here, still completely frigid to the north. I wondered how much of that was because of the snow pack, and how much of it would be some kind of permanent imbalance.
I wondered how much pollution was still up there in the atmosphere. I presumed that pollution is what caused the ice age, from what I had gleaned from science lessons and the readings we had from before the sensors went on the fritz. The air looked pretty clear though, now. White fluffy clouds, blinding white light bouncing off the snowcaps, it looked like a fresh clean world. It just all depended on how much of the ice caps melted.
I prayed they wouldn’t melt all the way, even if they were smaller, just… not all the way.
My mother requested a look at the ozone layer, which was far too technical for me to understand. I just watched the tightness in her jaw for any sign of good news. A little at a time it relaxed, and my galloping heart followed suit. There was hope, somewhere in all that techno-babble she saw hope.
Around dinner time my mother politely encouraged those of us who weren’t scientists to take a break. No decisions were being made at this point, and the analysis of the data we had gained was going to take a good deal of time to analyze. Several of the Council members looked to me, and I realized quickly that if I didn’t leave, neither would they, so I stood and got on my phone to figure out where my kids were at.
I knew Andrew would stay at his post, and these days that was kind of normal for the kids, so thankfully they didn’t ask where he was at dinner. We read a few chapters of Huck Finn, wrote in our journals, and Andrew popped in just before it was time to tuck them in. It was just a regular night at nine for them, but I was dying to ask Andrew for an update the whole time.
When they finally fell asleep Andrew sprung into action, “Put a note on the com in case they wake up,” he said heading for our room. “Tell them there was a meeting and to call Celia if they need anything.”
“Celia?” I asked, obeying and bringing up the com. “Well, what do I tell Celia?”“Tell her we’ve gone spelunking,” he said.
“Umm, you’re kidding me, right?” I asked as Andrew handed me a flashlight with a crank on the side.
“Nope,” he said.
“Why aren’t we using the corded lights like we usually do?” I asked.
“Because they won’t reach where we are going,” he said. “Tonight we venture beyond your little treasure trove.”
“BEYOND?” I asked. “You aren’t seriously thinking about breaking the seal, are you?”
“Tilly, there’s no seal down here. They back filled the tunnel. It’s completely blocked off.
“Well if it’s blocked off, what are we doing this for?” I asked him as we walked past the familiar piles of cast off belongings and towards the massive dark hole in the back that I had always pretended didn’t scare me.
“I’ve got a hunch,” Andrew said.
“What kind of hunch?” I asked raising my flashlight higher to try and dispel the darkness that was folding all around us.
“Well, it’s more of a wild hope, but when they built the resorts they had to run tunnels a great distance underground, to hide what they were doing from the rest of the world. I’m hoping that they left us something, something we can use.”
“What, like wooden beams?” I asked shining my light over towards the wall. There weren’t wooden beams here, just concrete columns and arches. “Wouldn’t wood have rotted away by now?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Andrew said. “That’s why I’m here with you, in case this is a wild goose chase.”
It kind of bothered me that he was grasping at straws. What kind of conclusions had he reached looking at the data from the satellite? What kind of future was he trying to protect us from?
“Do you really think it’s going to get that bad?” I asked him.
His usually plump and delicious lips were pressed into a line. His brows were knit together. He didn’t have to say it.
I fought the tingle in my nose, and brought my flashlight down to crank it. The grinding, rhythmic motion worked off some of my anxiety. That was why we were down here, because Andrew and I felt the same, we couldn’t face our fears in stillness, we had to act.
I brought it back up as we rounded a corner in the tunnel. The blackness stretched suddenly out on either side of us, and we slowed our steps as all but the floor in front of us disappeared. We were in some kind of cavern it seemed. We moved our lights about and the beams of light played off stalagmites and stalactites, reaching for each other in a slow motion embrace. I barely had time to register the beauty of the cave before my light played over something unnatural in shape and I brought the beam to bear on it.
“YES!” Andrew said, with perhaps too much enthusiasm for the inside of a cave. His exuberance echoed all around us as we hurried forward to look at the dust covered blocky stack. As Andrew wiped furiously to determine its composition I looked beyond it and my beam fell on another, and another, and another. They weren’t all the same, some were beams, some were like this, and some were crates stacked neatly in piles.
“It’s sheet metal, Tilly.” Andrew said. “I knew he would have had a plan.”
I didn’t have to ask who “he” was. I just wondered how my mother and aunt hadn’t known about Grandpa’s back up plan.
“Andrew, look,” I said as my light fell on a panel bolted to the wall nearby. “What do you suppose that is?”
He was running to it in an instant, and I was right behind him. Again we encountered decades of dust, but sleeves solved that. As I rubbed I could feel depressions in the panel, like it was engraved. I stopped rubbing and trained my flashlight on it. It was engraved all right. Engraved with blue prints, detailed plans on exactly how we were going to survive the flood.
Andrew was standing back now, looking with me at the diagram. “Well,” he said with a broad smile. “It’s not gopher wood, but it will do.”
“Gopher wood?” I asked.
“Yeah, ‘build it out of gopher barky-barky’” he sang, but it didn’t help. Did gophers chew wood like beavers?
“It’s a boat, not a dam,” I said gesturing to the steel inscribed design.
“Not a boat Tilly, it’s an ARK. You have heard of Noah right?” he said with an incredulous chuckle as he went back to dusting the plans off.
“Well, yeah… okay did the gophers help him or something?” I asked helping him wipe. He wasn’t making any sense.
This time he really laughed and looked at me hard. “Okay, Tilly, when we get out of this mess, you are reading the Bible.”
I rolled my eyes. If God got us out of this mess I would read the Bible, the Koran, that blue book the Mormons were always leaving all over the place, and every Buddha quote I could find. There had to be some Universal power if we were going to get this boat, this ark, built in time.
Part 3- The Arc
Aunt Marsha and Mom started in disbelief at the plans before them. “Marsha, did you…?” My mother asked her sister.
“No, he didn’t say a word,” Aunt Marsha replied. “How on earth were we not notified about this?”
“Well…” Andrew said. “You were kids. Maybe they didn’t tell you about it because they wanted you to trust in the Resorts.”
Just like we just did, I added in my head.
“Yeah, well, still,” Mom said. “It wasn’t like they didn’t have a million opportunities once we were grown.”
“You’d think that Harris would have known about this, at the least. Wouldn’t this have been listed in the inventory?” Aunt Marsha said shaking her head.
“I wonder if they put them at all the resorts…” Mom said turning to shine her light on the piles behind us. “It would make sense.”
“We’ll have to go and ask,” Aunt Marsha said already starting to walk back toward the passageway.
“Don’t you think we should confirm that it’s all here before we get their hopes up?” my Mother called after her sister.
“Like Dad ever did anything half way,” Aunt Marsha said. Then she added, “We’ll let Harris do the inventory, we’ve got Inter-Resort-Communication and Inter-Department-Coordination to do.”
Peters and I followed them up to the communications room. We found Dr. Reed asleep at a desk, lit by the flickering light of the screen saver. I went over and gently shook him awake as my Mother opened the lines of communication to the other Resorts.
Some of the other screens popped right up, and others took a while before the lackeys could summon someone in charge. We waited several minutes for the last of them to appear. By the look of the faces on the screen it was trying the last of several people’s patience to wait.
When the last Resort was on-line my mother started right in, “Thank you for your patience. I’ve called you all to discuss a discovery that may, or may not present a feasible solution to the problem at hand.”
The faces on the screen leaned forward, almost in unison. “Do you have a final analysis on the air?” one face asked.
“Actually,” my mother said turning to the Doctor who had resumed his work without a word when I woke him. He shook his head. “We are still working on that. That’s why I said I’m not sure if this solution is feasible.
“We’ve made a discovery,” she continued. “In the natural caves adjacent to our resort we found supplies and plans for an… Ark… of sorts. We haven’t started an inventory, so we aren’t sure it’s all there, but I wanted to let you know, so you can check your back tunnels to see if you were similarly supplied.”
“What do you mean, you just found this?” One of the faces asked in shock. “You mean to tell us there was a Plan B and you didn’t know about it?”
My mother wasn’t used to being in position, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so apologetic. “Mr. Rastogi, please be assured that if either I or my sister had been informed of this we would have made the information available to you.”
“Why wouldn’t we have been informed?” another face asked in incredulity. “I’ve read all the manuals cover to cover and a boat was never mentioned.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied. “Perhaps they wanted to protect the supplies from use on other projects, perhaps they wanted to prevent premature use or unwarranted use. All I know is that I’m glad that Peters here was thinking outside the box.”
Andrew was blushing a bit, I couldn’t as much tell by his face as the way his mouth was set. He looked so relieved to have a solution. I just hoped that it was one we could use, that the air quality results continued to come back good and that it would be safe to go up to the surface.
The leaders of the other resorts were dispatching missions into the un-explored regions of their service tunnels with some excitement. They were all trying to be professional, but the thought of an escape was certainly an excellent spur. Then, the teams sent, they turned back to us, faces expectant, like this was the first of a list good news notices we had to hand out that night.
We in turn turned to Dr. Reed who was still glued to his screen. He didn’t notice the silence, so I broke it. “Dr. Reed,” I asked, “Do you have any preliminary findings to report?”
He looked up from the screen and at the faces all looking down at him. He took a deep breath, “Well I can tell you what the results are saying so far, but this is by no means conclusive.” My mother reached over and switched the camera at his station on. His face came up on the screen, and he continued, “I’m hesitant to share these results, because I have no way of knowing if they are going to apply to your regions at all. You have to understand, the air in any given area may be toxic, you could be killing everyone in your Resort by breaking your seals.
“With that said,” he added clearing his throat. “The air samples we have been able to obtain here at Nine are all within acceptable ranges. The soil samples show some elevated levels of radio-activity, but thus far it is still within acceptable ranges. We have gone as far as we can with our robots, and pending the return of acceptable results on the tests currently running, we will be implementing the next phase of our analysis.”
“What is the next phase?” someone asked.
“The next phase is to send a team to the surface to conduct additional testing,” Dr. Reed answered.
“More tests?” someone else asked. “How many tests is it going to take? We are running out of time!”
“I’ll be lucky to have generators in a month,” the guy from Scotland butted in. “If I have an Ark down there, I’ll be lucky to get it done in that time.”
“Then run your own tests,” Dr. Reed burst out angrily. “I can’t guarantee anything from the other side of the world.”
He looked abashed at his outburst and looked around at our faces before turning and leaving the Communications room. The faces on the screen were a mix of contrition and anger. I started to go after him, but Andrew put his hand on my arm, so I stopped.
My mother switched the camera back to her own station, “You’ll have to excuse Dr. Reed,” she said more pointedly than apologetically. “He takes his job very seriously.”
I woke. In the dark I reached across the bed to find nothing but the flat expanse of the sheet. I rolled over and groped around, finding first the ledge of the table, then the switch for the lamp. The light was brutal to my exhausted eyes, so I turned away from it and looked at the empty place beside me, then onward to our bedroom door. There was a thin band of light at the bottom.
He was up again.
I went out to the living room and watched him stare at the com screen, unblinking, thinking, lost in the troubles of his mind. I waited for him to notice my presence, but after a while I couldn’t stand staring at this statue form of my husband. I longed to smooth the worry from his brow, to take the burden off those big shoulders of his. I crossed the room and sat next to him on the couch.
He blinked then, taking his eyes off the screen long enough to clasp the hand I offered in both of his own. Then he continued looking at the screen ahead. It was a map of New Mexico. I wondered how much of it was left, how much was above the water line. I wondered if it was all green now, with the never ending rain that was happening in all the thawed areas of the world.
Andrew however didn’t seem to be thinking of blooming deserts and brimming rivers. He seemed angry at the map. He kept scanning up and down, and with a little time I found what he was tracing. It was as if some great secret lay in the course of the Rio Grande, and he was determined to unravel it.
“First spelunking and now white water rafting, aren’t we adventurous these days,” I said, trying to be as light hearted as possible. It had been a trying few days, in spite of all the good news.
The inventory was completed, and it was all there. The test results from our robot were back, and they were all “satisfactory” or “acceptable.” Several of the other resorts, the ones at lower elevations, had sent teams up to the surface, accepting the possibility that those teams may never return. So far the test results at those locations had also been “satisfactory” or “acceptable.”
Things were looking up from a few weeks ago, but no one trusted the flow of news not to take a down turn at any moment. So we watched, and waited, and debated. Oh how we debated. What if, what if, what if. It was all I heard these days.
“What if the whole earth floods?” was the most common question, and the fear in our eyes added, “and it stays that way?”
“What if there are people out there still?” I also heard, but the more rational among us shook our heads in doubt. If they had survived the war, they had died of the fall-out. If they had survived the war, and the fall-out, they had died in the ice-age. If they had survived the war, the fall-out, and the ice-age, then the torrential flooding and mudslides of the last few months had probably killed them. I’m sure all of us had woken from a nightmare about mutant surface-dwellers at one point or another, but we had little to fear from that.
“What if the flooding speeds up even more and they don’t get out in time?” was the most pressing question. The Resort in Scotland had already abandoned testing and moved on to building its ark. They were only at an altitude of about 1000 meters. At the rate the water was rising, their generators were greatly at risk of flooding.
Andrew exited out of the map he was looking at and brought up another one. It was a map of the world showing the elevations in colored bands. My heart sunk once again looking at the areas color coded as the lush green farmlands that used to be. Gone, 500 meters and down, gone, the last 100 meters in the few weeks since the first meeting we had about this.
“There,” Andrew said pointing to the right side of the screen. “Do you see that?”
He was pointing at a large white and purple area on the Eastern Hemisphere. It was roughly shaped like a whale and spanned the area above the Himalayas. The narrow “tail” end reached over towards the middle east. I looked down at the legend, the white and purple color-coded boxes were at the very top, the highest elevations in the world were white and purple.
“That’s a lot of land,” I said. “Isn’t one of our resorts over on that tail end, the one in India?”
“Yes, yes, it is,” he said, but he didn’t say it happily or excitedly, he said it with a hard kind of voice I had rarely heard from him. That was his soldier voice.
“But, they have the highest elevation of all the Resorts,” I said in confusion. “So why are you worried for them?”
“Because all of this,” he said taking the cursor and circling the largest part of the “whale,” “is in China.”
“But… well… I mean you don’t think they survived too do you?” I asked him.
“Think about it Tilly,” he said. “If your Grandfather and a handful of others could keep a secret like this in democratic countries, what kind of secrets could a communist government keep from their people in a region this large and almost completely uninhabited?”
The thought was gut-wrenching. My hands got all sweaty and my lungs got tight. I thought I was going to throw up. “You think they are armed, don’t you?”
“If they have Resorts, you can count on it,” Andrew said.
“It’s not that the possibility didn’t occur to us,” General Heinz told us later that day in his office. “It’s just not something we talk about with the rank and file.” My uncle by-marriage was tapping the templed tips of his fingers together in rapid succession, and by the gaze he had fixed on my husband it made me feel he was adding things up in his head.
“Yes, sir. I see, sir,” Andrew said in a tone that was all business. Andrew respected General Heinz’s authority, but more than that he respected him as a leader. If General Heinz said that there was a plan, Andrew Peters, Access Manager, would trust that.
I however had never been part of the “file” and I was pretty sure I had enough “rank” to take the old man on. “Does that mean that they have a way of defending themselves? Does that mean there is a plan in place to keep the others from finding out about US through the other resort? Does that mean that there is some kind of escape plan in place for them in case they are invaded?”
“Of course,” General Heinz said, with a bit of irritation in his voice.
“Of course to… which? All of the above?” I queried.
General Heinz just kept tapping his fingers, adding, adding, or more like weighing, weighing, and it was wearing on me. If he thought he was going to keep this from me he had another think coming. I locked my jaw and gave him my fiercest impression of my mother’s “tell me” look.
He didn’t outright laugh, but there was a twinkle in his eye as he gave in at last, “Okay, you win. But if you tell your aunt it was this easy to break me I’ll be back in the barracks by 1700 hours.” He looked at both of us, obviously waiting for some sign of agreement before proceeding.
Andrew and I exchanged glances and then nodded together. General Heinz nodded in return and then stood up. He stepped around his desk, crossed to the filing cabinet on his wall. Opened the bottom drawer all the way, then gave it a jiggle and opened it even more. When the back of the drawer rolled out we saw a box attached to it, a box with an electronic keypad.
“Peters would have seen this at one point or another anyway, with the way he’s been climbing the ladder,” General Heinz said as he typed in a number sequence so long I was starting to think he was playing a song. The box beeped, and then there was a grinding sound as a flap opened in the back. There was a book inside, hardbound, black, and a good two inches thick.
He pulled it out and stepped over the drawer to bring it back to his desk, “This,” he said with an almost reverent tone, “Is the doomsday bible.”
That wasn’t what it said on the cover of course. The cover read:
Security Operations and
Andrew and I leaned forward. “I thought there were only four volumes,” Andrew said in a hushed tone.
“There ARE only four volumes,” General Heinz said, “as far as you two are concerned. Marsha didn’t even know about this baby until she got back from her little trip down to the bottom with you two.”
“You kept a secret from Aunt Marsha?” I asked in shock.
“Wait a second,” Andrew said, way ahead of me, and a little angry, “You knew about the arks?”
“Yes, yes I did,” General Heinz said with a sigh. “I had been trying to talk the other security department heads into revealing that intel to the other department heads when you so kindly took the problem out of my hands. Of course, Marsha figured out pretty quickly that I had already known and… well… it wasn’t pretty.”
He clenched his teeth against whatever impression Aunt Marsha had made on his memory, and opened the book. He thumbed through the pages. Finally finding the one he wanted, he turned the book around for us to read.
I hadn’t really had any expectations, not having a clue what to expect, so I couldn’t decide how I felt about the things I was seeing on the pages before me. We were armed alright, armed to the teeth. It comforted me and chilled me at the same time, and I wondered what my grandfather had felt as he laid these provisions in place. I wondered how many nights he had lain awake debating, surely feeling as I did, that we had scarred the world with enough war.
Yet at the thought of danger, at the thought of enslavement under a cruel regime I had immediately wanted a way to fight. I had immediately wanted a way to defend my children from the evils of the world. There was too much to protect to stand with empty hands.
What if we never got the chance?
What if the waters kept rising? What if the purple disappeared and all that was left was the white on the map, the tip of Everest? How would our little Navy of nine arks fare? They were not battleships. They were not nuclear subs with sonar and torpedo bays. They were just great big boats to fill with sheep and chickens and bales of hay while we floated and prayed.
I reached up and rubbed the triangle between my eyebrows that was constantly knotted these days, and only skimmed as Andrew read. By the look of concentration on his face he seemed to be memorizing the plans. My soldier would protect us single handedly if it came down to it. My soldier would defend us with his…
“No!” I said slamming my hands down on the table and pushing the very thought away. In my distressed state I turned towards the door, but the thought of facing the people on the other side of it turned me around again at the knob. Then there was the book, and the hard set faces of the two men I trusted most in the world. I couldn’t face them either, so I turned again and again, pacing back and forth insanely as I fought the tears brimming at my eyes, spilling past the bulwark of my lashes, streaking across the plains of my face to fall, fall, fall and soak into the sea of tears that had already drowned the rest of humanity.
Andrew’s arms were around me then, and at first I fought them, but then I sank into them, I surrendered to the overcoming sense of futility. “There is no end,” I sobbed. “There will never be an end. All we have done to save what is beautiful about humanity and we’ve brought it with us, we’ve brought war with us.”
“Tilly, honey,” Andrew whispered softly in my ear, “We had to…”
“I know,” I cut him off. “I’m not completely illogical you know.” I said, trying to wipe and sniff my lapse in decorum away.
“Believe it or not,” General Heinz said quietly, “I feel the same way. I never wanted to use these weapons; I never even wanted to admit that they existed. I wanted to believe that humanity could make a fresh start.”
“A lottery?” I asked, sure I had heard Councilman Adams wrong.
“That’s right,” he answered looking a bit smug. “That way it’s completely fair who gets the honor of being the first to ascend to the surface.” He didn’t have to add the part where he was preventing my family from getting “preferential treatment,” it was written all over him.
“You do recall that Resorts Three, Five and Two have been on the surface for over a week building their arks, don’t you?” Councilwoman Gupta asked, not managing to hide all of her irritation.
“Yes, but those aren’t here are they?” he asked. “They aren’t here on this new continent . They are on the Appalachian Islands, the UK Islands, and The Australian Islands. We have our own history to write, our own new civilization to form, and every member of it deserves an equal opportunity to be in the history books. Wouldn’t you agree Mrs. Peters-Moren?” he finished fixing his eyes on me with a glare that dared me to disagree.
I was so tired of the man I wanted to offer to send him up there right now. The insufferable, pig-headed, inconsiderate, oh he was such an oaf! New continent? It was exactly his brand of separatist thinking that was going to tear our world in pieces even as we tried to re-build. We could STILL lose every inch of land we had on this “new continent” and spend the rest of our lives adrift and he was worried about his place in the history books?
“I agree,” I said finally, but followed it quickly with, “on one condition, I don’t want to be in the lottery at all, I withdraw my name.”
“And mine,” Mayor Pope put in. She was followed immediately by several others, and I watched carefully as the momentary triumph in Adams’ eyes fell further with each withdrawal. “So I do I hear a motion to remove the names of all Department Heads and Council Members from the Lottery?” Mayor Pope prompted.
“You don’t think that will make people think we are afraid to go up, do you?” Councilwoman Benitez asked.
“That’s why we should be sending a science team up first,” Dr. Reed said disapprovingly.
Adams actually rolled his eyes at this point, “You haven’t had one bad test result!”
The room erupted in unrestrained conversation. I buried my head in my hands and sighed deeply. When I looked up at my mother she was watching me from across the room with laughter in her eyes. I stuck my tongue out at her. No one noticed, because all around us people were talking over each other. Mayor Pope was rapping her gavel like she was pounding in a nail. Finally Aunt Marsha put her fingers to her lips and gave a deafening whistle, which effectively called us to order.
It was the strain, all of us were feeling it, some of us more than others. I barely ever saw my husband anymore, because he and General Heinz and an elite group of others from Security were going around checking all the weaponry in secret, making sure that everything was good to go, just in case. Of those of us in the room only General Heinz and us Moren women knew that we had already breached the surface here at Nine multiple times. It just wasn’t up at the Cube where everyone was thinking, it was at the end of each launch tunnel.
Thankfully no-one had noticed, or at least hadn’t started any rumors about the council that met in General Heinz’s office all day every day. It was sheer luck that no one had discovered that they were slipping through a secret trap door and navigating the extensive labyrinth of secret tunnels in the defense network. I worried every day that someone would figure it out.
From what Andrew told me, all of the resorts were doing the same, except for Eleven. India had not been provisioned with weapons, and instead of a secret defense manual had detailed escape plans and multiple smaller arks. They also had a self-destruct button, so that there would be no way of tracing the locations of the other resorts through Eleven’s communications network.
Grandpa Moren had planned for it all, but I wished the dire predictions of our predecessors would stop coming true. The more predictions that turned out to be true, the less hope I had for a better future. Adams could talk about history all he wanted, I just wanted there to be a world left.
I left the meeting completely drained but with a to-do list that I had to get to. Adams’ idea of a lottery had passed, and now it was my job to officiate it. Just where exactly did he expect me to fit every last person in Nine at once? Where?
I was just walking into my office when the phone at my hip went off. I waved to Celia as I answered it, but stopped dead when I heard the tone in the Security Specialist’s voice, “Your presence is required in the Communications Center immediately.”
I did an about face and walked right back out the door, my heart thumping. They never called me in like this, never. I tried for my sanity’s sake to come up with something, anything other than the thing I feared, but my efforts were in vain.
The phone went off in my hand, and as I raised it to answer it I realized that my knuckles were white from gripping it. I tried to sound normal as I answered, “You know I’m thinking we should put your desk in the back and mine out front so I can actually make it to my desk once in a while.”
Celia wasn’t biting. “What’s going on?” she demanded.
“I don’t know, and with the way things are going I don’t know if I want to know,” I told her as my definitely-not-for-speed-walking high-heels wobbled beneath my near jog.
“What can I do?” she asked, being for the millionth time a better woman than I. I’d have been throwing a tantrum in her shoes.
“Pray,” I said. “Oh and find out how many people there are in Nine over the age of ten. I’m here already, I’ll call you asap,” I said hanging up.
I rushed right past the secretary outside the Communications Center, and into the big screened room. I almost thought I was in the wrong room, but getting my bearings I realized that was because the room was not lit by the screen this time. Everyone was standing around in a circle instead of facing the one wall, so I joined the circle and waited for the others to arrive.
When Muskowvitz closed the door behind him Aunt Marsha broke the silence that had been strangling us all. “Thank you for coming, I’m sorry to call you all back here so soon after a meeting, but some top secret information has come to our attention that you needed to be informed of right away.”
I tried to catch my mother’s eye, but she wasn’t looking my way, so I kept my face impassive and looked back at my aunt. Were they really going to tell the others about the defenses? Shouldn’t that wait until we were attacked, or at least until we could get Adams off the council?
“About ten minutes ago there was an aggressive attack on the security of the satellite system we have been using. Our team was able to keep it at bay long enough to wipe our usage history and activate the spy virus they designed in case of such an event, but we have lost major control over that resource,” Aunt Marsha said.
“Lost it to whom?” Councilman Lin asked.
My aunt walked over to the computer and activated the big screen. The image that came up was that of what was left of the Asian Continent. Someone was very interested in the new coastline south of the ice shelf. It kept zooming in and out, searching the locations of what used to be cities.
I looked to the side of the screen where the legend box sat. As I suspected, the language had been changed from English to Chinese.
Again I sought my mother’s eyes, and this time she met mine, giving me an almost imperceptible shake of the head. I was to keep quiet about what I knew. I blinked a confirmation back at her and then turned back to the screen.
I held my breath as the image scrolled past the area where Resort Eleven was hidden in the mountains of northern India. Thankfully the sparkle of the crystal at its peak was mistaken for ice, and the Chinese took no interest in the mountain but moved on to study other areas that had previously been inhabited. I wasn’t the only one who let out a big sigh.
“Looks like they don’t know we are here,” Councilman Washington said clapping the distressed looking Lin on the shoulder.
The initial relief faded fast. Soon the Council Members were asking the same hard questions that Andrew and I had faced just days before. I left the answering to those more skilled with evasion and half-truths and tried to gauge how the others were taking it.
I had expected Adams to explode. Instead he took a seat and looked at the screen with the most piteously crestfallen expression. An hour ago he was ready to lead the charge into a new world, but it seemed he was not equal to this kind of threat.
A few of them were overwhelmed by the possibility of another war. We had counted on peace, trusted the silence outside the resort walls meant an end to conflict, only to find out we were in a 12 year cease fire. I didn’t fault them any of the tears I saw hastily wiped away.
Most of the council was in fix-it mode. They wanted to take action. They wanted to save us from the impending disaster. I didn’t blame them, but right now being still was the safest course of action.
“That snow pack isn’t going to last forever in this melt off,” Councilman Muskowvitz said with a sour expression. “How long until the Chinese get curious about the peak on top of Eleven?”
“There’s no way to know,” my mother said, “But at least with our spy virus we will know when they take an interest.”
“We have to get them out before then,” Benitez said in the most firm voice I’ve ever heard. “Do they know at Eleven? Are they watching this too?”
“They are, and they will be looking for solutions. Right now we must urge you to keep this information absolutely top secret. It could cause widespread panic and create lapses in security that would tip-off our enemies to our whereabouts,” my mother said, fixing a firm gaze on each of them in turn. “There is a reason we have not got Access on the line with this, there is a reason we do not have interpreters in the room right now. This is classified because it is vital to our survival.” She ended by locking Adams in a look hard enough to break marble, and the wilted man was nodding and gibbering his agreement in seconds.
I stood there, staring at the screen, until the only ones left in the room were Heinz and us Moren women. The satellite was studying the mountains of the middle-east now, flipping through the input layers to see through the torrential storm that seemed set on washing the mountains of Iran into the ever expanding Persian Gulf. “Do you think there are Resorts there?” I asked the room in general.
“No, that region has been watched far too closely for far too long, both physically and fiscally,” General Heinz said.
“Are we really expecting to keep this from everyone for long?” I asked.
“As long as we can,” my mother said, “though we do need to get our Chinese interpreter up here.”
“Councilman Lin will be relieved to have his wife back in the loop,” I said. I turned to leave but stopped at the door, “Oh and, is my husband in the loop on this?” I asked.
“Of course he is, who do you think we had write the virus?” Aunt Marsha said flashing me a grin.
Andrew and I were up most of the night. First we were fighting about exactly what information we were allowed to keep from one another. Once we had that settled we then spent hours and hours poring over the world map. We both knew it was irrational, hoping that something would come to us that would somehow bring our friends safely around the curve of the earth and leave our enemies on the other side. No matter how the world had changed, the arc was just the same, and peace was just as fragile in the hands of grasping men.
Part 4- The Least Common Denominator
I watched Father at the screen, standing there, owning the room as he always had. His shoulders were thrown back, his head was high, his feet were spread to hold the weight of all his titles. He was the Commander, he was the Emperor; my father the ruler, my father the conqueror, my father the murderer of the world.
I stood at his side, I watched with him as he studied the new coastlines of the world. The rains still fell, the waters still rose, and yet instead of fear, in his eyes I saw only the greed, the lust, the thirst. The world would be filled to the brim with water and still he would thirst.
I hated him.
I hated him in silence, for that is the only way to hate the most powerful man in the world, especially when you cannot escape him. Twelve years I had been stuck inside this mountain with him. Twelve years I had pushed my hatred down harder and harder so now it sat, like a lump of lead in the pit of my stomach.
Yet he never suspected, and it was no wonder why. I was a dutiful son, always at his side, always quick to study, quick to obey. I knew the price that was exacted of those who did not obey my father. I had watched the world pay that price, as he rained atomic bombs down on them. I had watched my mother pay that price, as she wept and reached her hands skyward, as if her pleading could be heard over the berating beat of the helicopter blades, as if there was any mercy in my father’s heart.
I had loved him once.
I had loved him when China was great. I had loved him when China was proud. I had loved him when China was1.3 billion strong. I had loved him when my mother lived.
Now China was shamed, weak, a few thousand tucked into holes in the ground.
Now my mother was dead.
Now I was dead inside and yet hanging onto life out of pure instinct, an instinct as old and deeply rooted as China. I lived while dead, for in me China lived while dead. As I lived, China lived; as China died, I died.
I and China, China and I, we were one. My father ruled us both. My father had decreed our deaths.
We were going to drown in the sea of his sins.
My father clapped the young computer tech on the shoulder to congratulate him for breaking into the satellite system. The tech bowed his thanks to my father his head nearly touching the keyboard, but it was to me he looked. I praised him with a blink and a twitch of my nose.
“There,” my father said. “You see my son? Do you see how far China extends? They thought they could stop us, but I, I out smarted them all. They thought they could conquer China, and now, now China will be the word for Earth. No more Greek, no more Latin, Mandarin!”
He laughed, and I pretended to laugh with him. He would not know it from my real laugh. I didn’t even know my real laugh anymore.
“You have indeed changed the whole world with your own two hands, history will never forget you, Father,” I said, and I meant every word. If I succeeded in my plan, if I and the secret band of youth that followed me managed to save any of this world, we would never let his sins be forgotten by time.
He bored of his newest conquest in moments, as I had known he would. He issued orders for studies and reports and then went back to his pleasures. I remained behind, not having to feign my interest in the information the satellite relayed.
Patience, patience was key to winning this game. Patience was needed to see if the flooding continued, patience was needed to move only when it was most effective, patience was needed to kill only when the blood was needed. Fifteen plans lay sorted in my brain, fifteen carefully crafted plots which all lead to one end, China and I lived, and my father died.
I was at my father’s side when he received the reports, and while the scientists tried to dumb-down the information without making it sound like they thought themselves more intelligent or educated than the ruler of the world, I easily read the charts and graphs. I quickly came to my own conclusions. I had not wasted the last twelve years as he had.
Naturally there was no guarantee that the gradual evening out of atmospheric conditions meant that we weren’t facing a complete flooding of the earth, but I doubted it would come to that. What concerned me was how high it would get before it stopped and how long it would take to abate. We had reserves, but they would only last so long. I worried that he wouldn’t put the replenishment plans in place soon enough. The land on the extreme altitudes was only arable to a certain degree. We needed to act and act soon if we were to survive.
I watched them try to impress this upon his tiny, twisted mind, but if they didn’t use more forceful language he was never going to understand the peril, so I cut in. “I beg forgiveness, but I am young and unable to see as you do,” I began with an extra gesture of respect to my father, as if I thought he understood anything at all. “You speak of planting and farming, but how long will we have to wait before we see any real benefit from this?”
The strain in the scientist’s eyes eased a little as, with a nod of permission from my father, he turned to explain things to me. I continued to feign ignorance, asking questions about the expected growing seasons, the atmospheric conditions, pollutions, land arability, and last but not least, elevation. “Your charts only show this area,” I said. “Won’t it take much more work to farm such slopes? Why don’t we plant lower, closer to the elevation we are now? There is much land on the map showing that color.”
The scientist paled, “Honored Heir, didn’t you hear? Perhaps we did not mention… all the land at this elevation will be flooded within a matter of weeks.”
At last the information penetrated the layer of ego protecting The Emperor’s mind. I saw his eyes widen for a moment, before he regained his composure. Then he turned to me and cast me a look of scorn, “You should listen better, my son, and not make them repeat themselves. We are wasting valuable time when we could be preparing to… to… re-establish ourselves on the ancient soil of China. For in the beginning all life sprung from the soil of China…”
He went on like that for some time, somehow under the delusion that his propaganda was more important than actually issuing the orders that would assemble the ships, relocate our precious resources, and ensure the survival of our people. While he continued his impromptu speech I did a little communicating of my own. By the time he issued his first order I had received confirmation that my blinked and twitched orders had already been obeyed.
Again I was at his side, and again I wanted to smear that smug smile with his own blood through the liberal use of my pounding fist. It was uprooting day, the day we disassembled the carefully planned and cultivated horticultural hall and loaded the trees, fields, and gardens segment by segment onto our ships. He acted like the system of carefully designed containers had been his idea, like he had personally overseen the whole project.
Everything was going according to plan, or at least that was the way he presented it to the masses that stood cheering below us. They didn’t know that in less than 48 hours their homes would go dark. They had no idea that the lower levels would be flooded in less than a week. He didn’t tell them what was in store, he only issued orders.
I scanned the crowds below us, carefully noting among the uniformity the differences only we would know. The youth under my command, while never betraying their loyalty with any outward show, were easy for me to spot. We marked ourselves, not with colors or clothes, but with honor, determination, and vigilance. I could tell them by the way they walked, by the way they watched as they cheered, by the way they moved through the crowds. My years of training them had paid off.
Now I just needed to get away to join them.
I waited for him to tire of overseeing the operation, and when he did I was released. I wove my way around the underground city, finally coming to one of the secret service entrances that we had made safe through a careful hacking of the internal surveillance system. I slipped through the door and carefully closing it behind me made my way down the ladder. I had taken it so many times I didn’t even have to count the rungs anymore, I just knew when to reach out my hand to feel the ledge of the airshaft in the wall behind me. In the complete darkness I placed my hand on the cool surface. It was slicker these days, the humidity from the rising groundwater coated the cement, the rungs of the ladder, it clung to my clothes.
Several meetings ago one of our members showed up with soaking wet shoes, she had decided to find out for herself how high the waters had risen. No one had liked how few rungs she had gone down before her feet splashed. The number decreased every day, and she reported it to the others as she loaded their breakfast trays at her station in the food service court. Of course I knew how high the water was, those of us in the control room knew it all too well, but for those in the lower levels, she was the most direct connection they had with our timetable.
I pushed my thoughts of her out of my head as I crawled down the shaft. There would be time to think of her when this was all over. Right now I needed to get us through this alive. Then I could think about marrying her.
The grill on the end of the shaft was open, and I could hear the idle tapping of the all clear signal. It was almost imperceptible over the sounds of the power plant on the other side of the wall. I tapped the entrance sequence before dropping silently to the floor.
A hand reached out to greet me, tapping across my shoulder and feeling up to my collar. The insignia there was instantly recognized by the searching hand, and I recognized the hand that lingered at my collar. Funny that it was her when I had just been thinking about her, but then… Mi was always lingering in my thoughts.
She tapped my shoulder twice then seven times, to tell me I was the twenty-seventh to arrive, then her hand fell away in the darkness and I stepped away from her, reaching out to find the wall I would follow to the door. I slid my hand along its familiar rough surface. How many times had I touched this wall? How many times had I reached for this door handle? How many times had I jerked it just the right way to make it give-way though it always remained locked to the untrained hand?
I entered the small storage room where we met. We waited in silence. Not out of necessity, but out of practice. Every member was valuable, so we set a time, and only if someone was more than ten minutes late did we start without them. We usually didn’t have to wait, especially not these days when matters were so urgent.
It was only two minutes later when there was a tap at the door and our last arrival slipped in with Mi at his heels. They took their places among the storage shelves and someone flipped on the dim and yellowed light. All eyes were on me.
I looked around, taking stock of the expressions on their faces. Some looked worried, some looked excited, all of them looked determined. My eyes lingered for a moment longer on her face, taking in the resolute line of her jaw, the protective look in her eyes, that strange mix of strength and adoration Mi wore when she looked at me.
“Whose turn is it to be the bird?” I asked. When Pu, who worked the kitchens and struggled with his weight, moved toward the shelves Mi stepped up and climbed to the perch for him. She opened the ventilation grate ever so slightly and the light from the main generator room striped her face. I would have blinked my thanks at her, but I knew she wouldn’t look away for even a second, not Mi.
We had a lot of business to cover today, and I got to it. Ship assignments had finally been posted and it was time to organize the teams that would work together after launch. We hadn’t been able to weight the assignments like I had wanted to, there was too much participation from mid-level supervisors in the selection and distribution of labor. Our changes would have been noticed. One of the ships had a single China Fighter. Another had seven. My ship had three, plus me, and our mission was the most difficult, because we had to deal with my father.
I announced the team captains, and we divided to discuss the implementation of our plans on each ship. Only three of my fifteen plans were appropriate for use on a ship, and all of our plans had to be altered after we landed. Everything was changing, the world we had been raised in, the halls and ventilation shafts we had wandered for most of our lives would be gone. I knew that the time to act may not come at all on the ships, but I knew that preparing them not only would keep them ready to act, it would keep them united during in-action.
After the meeting we left in our usual fashion, two or three at a time, and in complete silence. Mi kept watch, until in the end it was just her and me. She closed the grate and quietly climbed down to the floor. “Do I need to tell you about your part?” I asked her.
“I listened,” she said. “I can use my eyes and ears at the same time you know.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “Then there is no reason to linger.” I flipped the light off, and then we slipped out the door. Mi followed me to the shelves that had served as our ladder to the ventilation grate all these years. I reached for her hand in the dark and pulled her toward the wall, but she resisted, freed her hand and shoved me slightly. I gave in and went first, leaving her to secure the grate behind us. She didn’t like anyone taking care of her, especially not me.
I stepped out of the service door and let it click shut behind me before I moved out to the crowded street. I had gone about five steps before I was seized from behind and shoved up against the wall. Startled women screamed and the area around me emptied immediately, all except the two security guards at my back.
“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded in my most authoritative voice as I struggled against my captors.
One of the guards recognized me, and turned in surprise toward his companion. “Officer, this is Jiang Bang! Are we supposed to arrest the son of Jiang De?”
“He’s not going to be happy when he hears about this,” I said haughtily.
The other officer’s face flickered with confusion only for an instant before he said, “Sorry, Sir. Our orders are to arrest all personnel using the service passages without clearance. That includes you.”
“Without clearance?” I sneered. I raised my voice, “I have clearance levels you haven’t even heard of.”
“Then why didn’t you know not to use the service passages today?” the officer replied as several other officers appeared out of the crowd. He turned and called to them as he snapped the cuffs around my wrists, “Check through this door, I’m taking this one in.”
I hoped she had heard me. I had certainly made enough noise, and Mi knew the service shafts well. Maybe she would get away, maybe some of the others had too.
Walking down the jail-block my heart sunk lower and lower. Though none of us betrayed our acquaintance, and some of them were putting on a good show, demanding explanations through the bars as we passed, we had nearly all been caught.
I began evaluating which of my men was the weakest link, which of them I needed to bolster even while I figured out how I was going to get us out of here. We had plans for this, excuses tailor made for discovery in difference situations. I reminded them of their excuses by dropping code words while I yelled at the guards to let me talk to my father. They slipped into their roles well, tailoring their behavior to match their excuse. Some wept, some cowered, some rocked nervously, and some stood and yelled through the bars with me.
It was nearly an hour before General Zhou came marching down the block, heels clicking, aides fanned out behind him. He ignored everyone else and walked right up to me. He fixed his piercing gaze upon me and asked, “How is it that I find you here, boy?”
“He sent you?” I asked feigning pain. “First I am thrown in jail like a thief and then he cannot even come to hear me?”
“I asked you a question,” the General said with iron in his voice. “Do not make me repeat it.”
I slumped against the bars, “I was meeting a girl,” I said. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
“Really?” The General asked, unconvinced. “What girl? Where is she? What’s her name?”
“I don’t know, she’s just a girl,” I said. “I don’t usually get their names,” I added with a wink.
“You make a habit of this?” The General said with distaste, as if he never did the same thing with the beauties my father kept around for just that purpose. That particular perk was nothing either of us would mention in public though, so I just looked at him and shrugged.
“Fine, I will inform your father of your bad habit,” he said turning on the ball of one foot.
“Oh come one, you’re not going to leave me here…” I called after him.
“It’ll be good for you,” he called over his shoulder.
Leave me there they did. There was no response to my repeated demands, there was no response to my refusal of meals, the guards didn’t even speak to us after that point, and eventually we all went quiet. I watched the clock on the wall spin around and around as the hours went by, as the waters rose beneath our feet, as the launch loomed closer. Just as I was beginning to think we were going to be left here to drown the silence broke, with the sound of chains.
They marched us out of our cells, a serpent line that clinked and jingled. The marched us past the waiting masses. They marched us into the first of the ships. My father glared down at us from the railing as the crows screamed and hissed at us. My men looked scared.
The brig inside the ship was a single cell, better suited for a single insubordinate worker than for eighteen China Fighters. There was hardly room to sit, much less lay down. No one was looking at me. They rubbed their wrists, they hung their heads, and they waited in silence.
I woke in the middle of the night to feel the room lurching. We fell all over each other and the confusion broke our silence. The guard woke too, and, wanting information as badly as we did, he rushed out the door of the room.
The door to the room swung to close but was butted open again and again. The hallway was packed with people, panicked expressions on their faces. They screamed and yelled and climbed over each other, some heading left, others heading right. In the melee a few people were knocked into the room. An old man tripped and fell, his head hitting the bars at my feet. I knelt down out of instinct, trying to help him through the bars, but his wife beat me off, as if I had been trying to harm him.
Then another form was thrown into the room and landed against the bars. She cried out in pain, and I was so concerned for Mi’s injury I almost didn’t notice that in her thrashing she slipped a ring of keys through the bars. I reached to help her up, but she also batted my arms away, even while feverishly blinking and twitching directions to me. She then rushed from the room, rejoined the feverish mass in the hallway, and slammed the door behind her.
I hadn’t been the only one reading her face, and the requested riot commenced immediately. I was slammed against the bars by the bodies behind me. They screamed, they climbed the bars, they threw their shoes.
Then one of the shoes hit the target, and the sole security camera was knocked askew. Immediately the press abated behind me and I started trying the keys. As soon as I got the door unlocked someone vaulted past me to rip the camera right off the wall. Others started ransacking the room, looking for anything they could use in the fight.
There wasn’t much. We busted a chair, grabbed a few pens, they would do in a pinch but more than I feared our lack of weapons I feared the crowd. They knew our faces now, there would be no getting past them unreported.
The others looked to me for orders, and I tried to think of a plan, any plan, but this was something I had never planned for.
The door burst open again and a bundle laden form fell through the door. My men had the door closed and the intruder pinned before they even recognized it was one of our female China Fighters. It was Fang, the one that worked in laundry, and she had brought us a present.
As we quickly dressed in the Security uniforms Fang explained that she and Mi had sabotaged the support beams that kept the ship upright on land, and that the storm tossed rising seas, were battering the ship against the rest of the pylons. “Everyone is rushing onto the deck, it’s mass hysteria,” she said with her eyes gleaming.
“Where is Mi?” I asked, “Who else have we got?”
She shook her head, “Just us,” she said motioning at the hastily dressing men.”Mi’s plan was to gas the bridge, but I don’t know if she’s gotten there yet…” she stopped short of expressing her concern that Mi could carry out her plan.
Gassing: plot number eleven, risky, especially on ship as the ventilation would eventually carry it throughout the ship.
“Do we have masks?” I asked.
She again shook her head, “We went with a non-lethal, we have to get there after it clears and before they wake up.”
“Let’s go!” I called, and was nearly crushed in the stampede for the only door.
The hallway was clearer now, and the stragglers quickly got to the side at the sign of our uniforms. Halfway to the bridge I remembered where the security supply room was and we made a detour to tey our keys in another door. I didn’t know if Mi had acted yet, but I preferred to be over prepared than under.
The guard in the security room had remained at his post, but between the surprise entry of nearly twenty combatants soon convinced him to cooperate with his own binding. The floor was still lurching under our feet as we raided the Security room, I didn’t know if the massive cracking sounds we heard on occasion were pylons or thunder, but either provided much needed cover.
“You,” I said to the guard, “Does this computer tap into surveillance?”
He glanced from me, to the computer, to the gun Pu held on him, and rattled off the access code as fast as he could. Cong was on it, and he brought the feed from the bridge up to show a room shrouded in gas, bodies lying slack all over their stations, one dainty body prone on the middle of the floor. Had I not known that profile so well I would never have recognized her in that whore’s dress. It had been the perfect disguise.
My men sprang into action without command, rushing the bridge. Between the masks and the uniforms we met no opposition. As I entered the bridge though my heart sank, nowhere among the limp and useless command crew was my father to be found.
I growled in my frustration, “Where is he?” I shouted. I gestured wildly for my best techs to man the computers while the others took on the task of binding the bodies and locking them up in the board room.
I knelt beside Fang who was administering to Mi, trying to rouse her, “Please tell me we just took the Flagship,” I said.
“Oh he’s onboard alright,” she said, “Unless the coward jumped in a lifeboat.”
“I bet he would,” I said. I wanted to ask if Mi was going to be okay, I wanted to reach and feel for her pulse, but I didn’t, because right now I had to finish the fight she had carried out almost alone up until now.
In moments I was on the deck, fighting against the press of people, two of my best men at my back. I made little headway. I looked wildly about the crowded deck, people screamed, wept, and clung to anything bolted down to avoid getting knocked overboard.
“He wouldn’t be up here!” I shouted to my comrades over the din of the storm. We turned and made our way back to the bridge in frustration.
The others looked up in surprise at my quick return. “Roll back the videos, find out where he went!” I shouted. “And someone check his stateroom and make sure he’s not still in bed!” I said throwing my hands in the air.
I felt completely useless. All these years of waiting and plotting and hating, for what? To have him slip away right when things got interesting. I turned to leave, desperate to do something, anything, but the sight of Mi’s prone form turned me back around. I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t think of that, so I started pacing, back and forth, back and forth, like a mad-man on a trip. Maybe I was a mad-mad.
I had just spun around at one side of the room when a hand to my chest stopped me. Angua, my right hand stood there blocking my way. “Stop,” he said, “and think.”
“I’m trying to think,” I growled, “but you are in my way!”
“Fifteen plans,” he said. “Fifteen plans and you’re PACING?” He grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me against the wall. “You wanted to lead, you wanted to take the world from the despot, now TAKE IT!” He gave me one last shove for good measure and then spun away in frustration. I thought about turning him back around and punching him, but as I came away from the wall it came away with me. I turned to stop what I thought was a falling wall panel, only to find instead a door swinging into the room.
Beyond it was a set of stairs, and caught on the railing, a sequined scarf.
Any noise I had made coming down the stairs would have been covered by the raging of the storm, but still I proceeded with caution, leading five men into what could quickly become our deaths. How many would my father have brought with him? Besides the girl that was… how many men would he want to save with his private escape route?
Would he even still be here?
Reaching the bottom of the stairs I halted, and peered around the wall to where a small yacht hung, ready to be delivered to the sea via a sophisticated lift system, were it not for a broken pylon which blocked the opening. My father stood to the side, giving useless instructions to the four sailors who were trying to dislodge the massive post, to no avail. There was no sign of the woman, and no time to account for her. We could be discovered at any moment.
I signaled my men to follow me, and silently we crept forward. I raised my gun, smoothly bringing it to rest on my Father’s temple as I placed him in a grip I was sure he wouldn’t be able to break, even if he hadn’t stiffened with fear at the gun.
“I would have thought you would have at least come to visit me,” I whispered.
He yelped. Yelped. I felt him shiver even as the sailors turned to discover the laser dots resting on their torsos.
There was a scream and a breaking of glass, after which one of the Sailors tried to be a hero, only to find the boys with the guns didn’t really need the guns. As he grunted in pain under Angua’s grip the others got to their knees slowly.
“Wise decision,” I told them. “He’s not worth dying for, he’s not worth the lives that have already been taken in this war.”
“Who did you kill?” my father whimpered.
“I’m not the killer here,” I replied. “Yet,” I amended pressing my gun tighter against his head.
I wasn’t stupid enough to think I had won. I knew it was an act, but the sailors didn’t know that, and I needed to handle this well if I was going to keep him subdued long enough to lock him up. Killing him now made me an assassin. Trying him and sentencing him for war crimes, that made me the leader of the new regime.
We stood at the railing, looking out over the endless sea. It had been called endless before, but now it pretty much was. The only things left in my world that were solid and firm were the arms around me.
Peters and I did this every morning after our run around the deck. Others were still running, we had quite the running club going these days. It had grown slowly as the past eight months had drifted past. We were all a little stir-crazy, or sea-mad, or victims of cabin fever, whatever you chose to call it. It was all the same, after hiding in the earth for a dozen years we were being driven mad by the sea and the sky.
Andrew pulled away from behind me, the military time clock in his head telling him it was time to go. It was almost time for our daily radio communication with the other arks. It was time to talk to my mother about the nothingness going on in our lives.
Showered, dressed, and sitting in the conference room we waited for the radio to come to life. We didn’t wait long, Aunt Marsha and Mom were as punctual as Peters. After all, they were the “Inter-net.”
The long list of check-ins began, as if we wouldn’t have noticed if one of our floating neighbors had gone missing overnight. All the resort arks had been gathered here for months now. We sat here, floating somewhere above Colorado, waiting for the waters to wander away, waiting for the peaks to poke out of the waves.
It hadn’t been a firm plan, for everyone to meet up here. After we had lost the satellite to the Chinese though, they just came. I was a little more relieved each time, and then we were complete. I don’t think any of us could stand the isolation anymore. Just standing on deck seeing all the arks around us, main decks lush with trees, sheep running the lower decks, children somewhere in-between, it was hope, it was community, it was humanity.
I was about to respond for our ship when an unknown voice crackled onto the frequency. At first I couldn’t understand it, had one of the kids gotten a hold of a radio? Then the voice came again and my lungs froze inside me.
I was still trying to find my voice while Andrew was calling battle stations over the ship’s comm. The room had been griped in a fist of fear, but thankfully some found their feet while the rest of us tried to find our heads.
“New China Fleet call American Fleet, do you copy?” the heavily accented voice repeated.
“What do we do?” I asked Andrew, the radio in my hand.
“Not our call,” he replied. “Lilly Lin is on her way up. Maybe we should have assigned her to a different ship.”
I nodded, she would have been more useful to be in the room with the people who were really in charge.
The hail came again. “New China Fleet call American Fleet, do you copy? We come in peace.”
The ship’s comm crackled came on, “Confirmed sighting of three ships, they are sailing in out of the sun. Sorry…”
I felt bad for whoever was in the crow’s nest this morning. Not that it mattered. We were equipped for survival, not evasive maneuvers. We were loaded to the teeth, but we were also loaded down, with precious cargo.
If they could hear our radios they were close, too. We used short range radios for just that reason, so distant enemies would not detect us. I wondered how they had found us, they hadn’t shown any interest in our location on the satellite at all. We knew, we watched it every minute of every day. They pretty much kept it trained on the tip of the Himalayas, waiting for Everest Island to become a mountain again. It had almost disappeared six months ago, all but the very tip. The waters were receding now. The Chinese were farming, and we estimated another two to three months before we could land on peaks of our own.
“New China Fleet call American Fleet, do you copy? We come in peace. Please answer.”
Lilly Lin ran into the room and leaned on the table to catch her breath. She was still in her pajamas, her braid still frayed from sleep. She looked embarrassed.
“New China Fleet call American Fleet, do you copy? We come in peace. Please answer. We hold our position.”
She looked at me, “Am I to answer for us?”
I looked at Andrew, Captain Peters as he was called these days. He shrugged. I started at the radio, then jumped when it came to life with Aunt Marsha’s voice, “New China Fleet, this is General Marsha Moren of the Western International Fleet, please hold for Ambassador Mathilda Peters-Moren and our Mandarin Interpreter.”
“Did she just say?” I asked the room at large.
“Yes, yes, she did,” Andrew said.
“Talk about the fast track,” Gupta said with a wink, like this was any time to be funny.
“Oh honestly,” I said running my fingers through my hair. “Lilly isn’t the only Chinese Interpreter in the Fleet.”
“It’s not me they are entrusting with this,” Lilly said coming to sit by me.
“Yeah, but why me?!” I asked.
“Ummm,” Mayor Pope said, as quietly as I had ever heard her speak. “Remember that Mayor’s meeting I went to a couple months ago?”
I buried my head in my hands.
“We kind of voted you in charge… in emergencies,” she finished.
I wanted to point out exactly how unfair it was to vote someone into an office they never had run for, but before I could the radio came on again. “Ambassador Peters-Moren, please proceed when ready,” Aunt Marsha’s voice said.
Oh okay, give me a week, I thought.
I closed my eyes, sighed, handed Lilly the radio handset. “New China Fleet,” I said, and she translated, “This is Ambassador Peter-Moren, we are listening.” When she turned off the microphone I turned to Andrew. “I think it’s time to use that virus of yours to take the satellite back. We need to know if it’s just the three of them.”
“I’m on it boss,” he said, leaving the conference room and heading for the bridge.
The Chinese answered back and Lilly took notes and translated, “Ambassador Peters-Moren, we are a diplomatic envoy from the New Republic of China, sent by President Jiang Bang. We wish to express the peaceful intentions of our new government and our hope for peace for the future.”
“Here,” Andrew said bringing in another radio, “Madeline’s on channel 11 and wants a relay of what’s being said.” He handed it to Mayor Pope, who consulted Lilly’s notes and relayed the translation.
“Does he have a name?” I asked Lilly.
She shrugged and asked, then replied, “His name is Han DaZhong, he’s translating for Jiang Mi, the First Lady.”
Eyebrows went up all around the room, and Mayor Pope relayed the news. I began to have hope. If she was the wife of some new President, then this could end in peace.
“It’s just the three ships,” Andrew said, poking his head in the room. He cocked an eyebrow at me, and I gave him a half grin. He could stop checking on me now. He had guns to man in case this went bad.
“First Lady, we extend our greetings and express our happiness that the waters of mankind’s mistake are receding from the mountains of your homeland,” I said.
“Ambassador, we thank you for your happiness and express our concern about your welfare. We are encouraged to see so many plants on your ships. Perhaps this horrible end will be a new beginning for all of us,” was the reply.
“We are curious about the mission of your envoy,” I said. “Did you come to negotiate a cease fire?”
“We came to inform you of our new government, to express our peaceful intent, and to open correspondence. Our President and our people believe that communication is the path to peace. We hope this overture of peace is acceptable to you,” replied the First Lady. “Our President wishes to assure your President that he is not like his late father in character or politics.”
“Late Father?” I asked.
“Yes, Emperor Jiang De was tried by the people and executed by drowning for his crimes against the People of China,” she said. After some surprised silence she added, “We apologize if we acted preemptively. My husband instructed me to convey his willingness to be tried in his father’s stead, if it would prevent further war.”
The stunned faces around the table mirrored my own. I didn’t know what to say.
First Lady Jiang De was pregnant, very pregnant. Part of me wanted to call her husband and chew him out for sending her on a mission at such a time. Then looking at the determined set of her eyes I wondered if he had been given a choice. I introduced her to my husband, and to Hope and John. She eyed my husband’s uniform, but when she saw his metal leg respect filled her eyes.
We walked the fruit level of our ark, she particularly liked the birds that hung heavy on the branches. She worried that the flocks wouldn’t be supported by the ecosystem, and I knew just what she meant. At the back of the ark I showed her the farm, the floating gardens we hoped to keep safe from the elements until they could be planted in real soil. Hurricanes were a concern for her people too.
We walked past one of the big guns, and she talked about how she fell in love with her husband while they planned the liberation of their people. She said she still had breathing problems from the gas. She said it was a small price to pay if it was the last battle, especially as they hadn’t had to kill anyone that day.
The children loved her, and I could tell she liked them. She kept looking at Hope and putting her hand on her bulging belly. I asked if she was having a girl. She said she hoped she was having a President, either way, but they wanted it to be a surprise.
She visited us each day for a week, and I visited her smaller ships, each swift and lightly armed. She invited me to come to her home and meet her child someday, and I told her I really hoped I could. They were simple conversations, one woman to another. Perhaps someday they will be historic, perhaps they won’t, but I know they changed me, they gave me a friend on the other side of the world.
So long mankind has divided the earth, so long it has broken the world in pieces and compared their size to one another. Now, now instead of looking at what can divide us, we look at what we have in common. We find what good things we have in common that can multiply us, not so we can compare our size, but so that we can add to each other.
And in this, mankind has not died, but grown, exponentially.