Impotence beats a steady drum at her temples as Beth retreats to the sanctity of her privacy pod. Her small lithe fingers tap at her comms pod, reactivating it to receive messages from all contacts. It buzzes; staccato at her wrist. She has more than one thousand messages since midday. Slowly, she voices a short message, “Happy Festival! I have no knowledge of decree. Hope to catch up in 2121.”
Beth listens back for her tone. Crisp, clear, joyful and final. There must be no hint of an invitation or uncertainty. Satisfied, she activates the autoresponder and returns to emergency broadcast only.
The throbbing at her temples reaches a cacophonous crescendo, her blood no longer able to navigate the mire of confusion in her mind, and she collapses into the soft cocoon of her pod. The very idea of sleep is ridiculous. She has already had four hours of sleep today evading Jack. Her mind searches. What to do?
Spend all week crafting one hundred precious words for herself and her family? Avoid all contact with people who might ask for assistance? Research great figures in history and duplicate? Isn’t that what everyone else would be doing? Surely the AI would cull plagiaristic notions as a first action? Creativity, originality, empathy. These were the prized human attributes; the characteristics AI was unable to replicate. The key to this was to come up with one hundred original words that yelled save me! Her mother’s words nagged at her skull – one hundred original words that yelled kill THEM not US! What if Jack is right and there really is a “Dark” and there are people out there without a MediBadge? How did they get rid of it?
Her mind races down familiar tracks meticulously laid by her study, her familial duty and the neat, ordered lines of her existence. Each journey ends similarly, the engine dangling precariously into the unknown, her synapses no longer locatable on the map of civilisation she has been raised upon.
“Ping,” her comms device announces sunrise. The answer is clear. She must find out if her “map” is complete.
“Happy Festival!” Beth’s mother exclaims through blurred eyes, her arms outstretched. The family assembles around a table on which small colourful boxes are arranged. Potential death awaits, and instead we decide to spend the day feasting and exchanging gifts! Beth sighs as she leans into her mother’s arms.
“We were waiting for you,” Grandma Eve smiles, nursing a warm cup of coffee, against her thin papery lips. Real coffee! Beth sniffs at the thick curls of steam hovering at her grandmother’s nostrils. Saliva swirls in her palette as she gasps at the sensation.
“Coffee! Grandma. Oh my God – what is it like?” Beth exclaims moving closer to her family.
“Amazing” Jack replies quickly, his own hand cradling the precious liquid. His anger from the previous night has dissolved into Festival good humour, and something else? There is a lightness about him that is unusual as if the weight of his discordant views has been somehow lifted from his usual hunched shoulders.
Beth looks at him, her eyes narrowing shrewdly as he offers her a cup. Jack smiles one eyebrow lifting. Yes, lifting! Jack’s forehead was usually so furrowed with the weight of living that any attempt to lift an eyebrow would have warranted an industrial crane. Beth stares as she accepts the cup, unsure whether the curls of caffeine infused steam are causing temporary euphoria.
“Let’s open presents,” Dad calls “and then we’ll be able to concentrate on breakfast. We have real bacon and eggs can you believe that?”
Clearly the NUN had put twelve months of planning into this Festival to be able to ensure sustenance retailers had supplies sufficient to be able to satisfy the desire of its citizens. Perhaps a show of how life could be with a lesser population? Beth muses as she settles herself onto a cushion in the communal space of their apartment.
“Wanna head out for a walk Jack?” Beth asks quietly. Her family is settled, snoozing on the aftereffects of the breakfast feast and an undoubtedly sleepless night for all. “I’m so full, I can’t even sit down. It’d be nice to see where you get to on your wandering.”
Jack hesitates, looks around the room at his reclining family, and turns to Beth, his lips curling into a sneer. “Since when have you cared?”
“I always care, Jack, just never have time.”
“Yeah right. You seriously expect me to believe that SUDDENLY you’re interested in what I do!” Jack scoffs. “More like, you think I know somethin’.”
“Well,” Beth hesitates, her eyes wide and challenging “Do you?”
Jack turns, his eyes fixed on the solitary window of their apartment, “And what if I do?”
Beth stares at his back, waiting, hesitating. Her response is slow, measured. “I’d like to know…… I think …. maybe …. they don’t tell us everything.”
“Damn right they don’t!” Jack’s hand slaps at his thigh as he steps towards Beth in one long, forceful stride. His dark head looms above her and then swivels to check the rest of the family have not stirred at his outburst. The long dark strands of his hair swing towards Beth as his head lowers conspiratorially. “It’s real Beth, I found them,” he whispers slowly.
“Who?” Beth utters, her voice low and quiet.
“The Dark-Earthers,” Jack’s face beams with redemption. The “black sheep” is going to rescue them all. “I can prove it. Want me to show you?”
The hard ground echoes beneath Beth’s feet as she strides after Jack. A shrill squeal radiates from the nearby playground, followed by a crescendo of laughter as a hapless child is rescued by its bemused mother. Beth looks up startled. Such a different sound to the soft hum of the communal solar shuttles she would normally use on her commute to the museum. She breathes in deeply, her lungs not used to the exertion of pacing after the long strides of her impatient brother and taps at her MediBadge, checking her oxygen usage for the day.
Twenty-five percent of her daily allowance, already gone and they had not yet made it off her usual route. Jack pauses at the green edges of the playground, a smile dancing at the corner of his lips.
“Nice isn’t it?” Jack asks, his shoes discarded, his toes drilling into the soft green wetness beneath him.
“Yes, I’d forgotten. It’s been a long time since we walked anywhere together.”
“Yeah, can’t remember the last time,” Jack grunts. Beth hesitates, reluctant to break the mutual silence, but she knows she must ask.
“Is that where you went Jack? Last night? Did you meet up with them? Where?”
“Out there,” Jack motions, his right hand waving randomly, his eyes fiercely concentrating on the small fawn hairs at the base of his toenails.
“How far?” Beth pushes, unsure if Jack’s gesture is evasive or demonstrative. Jack looks at her and stares for a moment. His lips contort as his tongue rotates across his teeth and then settles behind gritted teeth. Words are forming and retreating, unsure whether they should spill from his lips or be swallowed for reassembly. He stares again at his toes, the grass and the rich, brown humus now squeezing up between them as he digs for a solution to her question.
“Do you really want to go?” he asks. His eyes search her own.
“Yes,” Beth hesitates. “Yes, I do. If there is something out there,” she motions waving her hand dramatically, “I think I want to know.”
“It will mean no big career for you. The docs when they come – they tell me I make it all up. My brain chemistry does it. I’m a grade five, only able to do storehouse cleaning. I get rid of the shit no one wants to see anymore. You, Beth – you’re a grade one! You can apply for whatever job you want. Do whatever you want. If you see it, they’ll know. That’s it for you,” Jack’s words spill forth, his bravado dispelled by a wave of familial concern.
“I want to see for myself,” Beth replies softly.
Jack’s dark eyes challenge her own, and then he nods, hands brushing at the hard fibres of his pants, his duty of care to his little sister fulfilled. “Well, it’s your funeral then, don’t blame me,” he responds and turns quickly, shoving his bare feet into moccasins and picking up pace.
Beth’s slender legs struggle to match pace with Jack as he strides through the city, bustling with life on Festival Day. A city determined to ignore the decree. That is six days away. Today is Festival. It can wait.
As they turn the corner two blocks from the museum, Jack darts into a tunnel, which sits beneath the shuttle route. Why had she never noticed it before? It wasn’t like it was hidden; it was in plain sight. Was she such a “good girl” that she had never strayed from the path chosen for her? The MediBadge tracked your energy usage and provided suggestions for the most efficient way to arrive at your destination. It was considered obscene to overuse the Earth’s limited supplies of oxygen, and her teachers and peers would have chastised her for any deviation. The tunnel was clearly not a suggested route.
It is dark, and Beth stumbles as her eyes adjust to the dim light. She can hear her own breathing, louder than she can remember. She had been taught from a young age to control her input and output. Her breathing is ragged and discordant. Jack was right. Her MediBadge would be recording every abnormality and explanations would be required in due course.
The sounds of the city are smothered as they disappear into the tunnel, replaced by scraping and scratching. Her nostrils flare as an unfamiliar sweetness twists its way into her nasal passage and down into her throat. Soft fur slides across her feet and she gags; the unfamiliar motion of her larynx and fetid odour combining into acidic bile now threatening to erupt with each ragged breath. Jack turns and hesitates, his eyes wide, questioning.
“You said you wanted to know. Are you sure about this? It’s not too late.” Beth shakes her head vigorously. Jack nods and pats her sharply on the back, dislodging the last of her stifled shock from her hesitant throat into a small pool of bile at her feet.
Beth takes a lungful of fetid air and moves quickly, eager to match her brother’s confident step as he navigates to “out there”.
“How far… Jack?” Her feet are sore and her MediBadge is now glowing beneath her wrist. She has used seventy-five percent of her allotted oxygen. It has been over an hour of twists and turns in the dark. Has Jack lured her into the sewer to show her the dark delusions of his own mind?
“There!” Jack points to a small crescent of light that has appeared over his shoulder. They turn towards it and Jack hastens his pace. Beth scrambles, her breath short and sharp as they ascend. Her comms chip begins to beep and she glances dutifully to its call. Her “active” oxygen allowance has been fully utilised and she is advised to rest immediately. Beth scoffs.
Too late for that.