“Jack, mate, how are you? I didn’t think you’ld be back for a few days.” Beth can hear a man calling to her brother as they emerge into the bright light. In front of her men and women hunch amid swaying straps of green and gold grasses that brush their thighs and hips. They bend and then lift sharp curved knives monotonously, leaving a trail of hollow stalks in their wake. Small lithe fingers of young children compete with the stooped shoulders of old men and women to collect the golden lengths into a row of waiting wheeled boxes.
“Tran – yeah neither did I!” Jack steps forward as his outstretched hand is enveloped by the square hand of a man whose broad shoulders are now obscuring the full intensity of the sun’s rays. Beth gapes at him, her tiny frame hidden in Jack’s shadow. His face is round and flat, a broad nose protrudes from a mat of dark facial hair that extends to the dark V of his shirtfront. Brown skin is caked with grey dust that shimmers silver in the searing heat as perspiration gathers at his temples.
Jack steps to the side revealing Beth. Her eyes dart frantically, gawping at the workers in their dull heavy garb, their heads bowed under woven straw hats that shield them from the sun, glaring mercilessly down on their bent backs. A woman looks up briefly and scrubs at the deep clefts in her bronzed forehead with a harsh cloth as she leans backward, her palms pushing deep into the small of her back. Her hat dislodges as she leans revealing long lank strains of grey hair tied firmly together with a thick cord.
Beth searches the horizon seeking the solid familiarity of sharp grey angles, instead, the land bends subtly and disappears into a shimmer, melding the gold of endless fields into a searing blue that cuts her retinas. She dips her head and blinks to clear the white spots now obscuring her vision, her soft hands wiping at the unfamiliar damp now dripping from her forehead.
Tran lowers his head to meet Jack’s eyes, his jaw clenches. “We don’t do visitors Jack. Take her home.”
“Please!” Beth gasps. She draws a long slow breath to focus her mind and body, an attempt to control her gaping jaw and hungry eyes. “Jack has spoken about you for so long and I…, “ her face flushes a shameful pink as she looks toward her brother, his face beaming in the golden sunlight. “Clearly, I should have listened.” Her head lowers again and she shifts uncomfortably in her soft shoes, now thin and worn, unused to the rough contours of her unapproved travel.
Tran steps forward. Sinewed fingers tuck beneath folded arms, a vein pulses absently at bulging biceps, it too attempting to find a cooler locale. He is measuring her. She can feel the heat of his gaze; copper-brown needles that inspect her soft pale skin, already prickling to a delicate pink unaccustomed to an unregulated environment. He sniffs and spits as if trying to displace the distaste of her conformity from his person. His back turns and he resumes inspection of the fields.
“Are you staying Jack? Is that why she’s here? To say goodbye?”
“Dunno. Yeah. Maybe,” Jack’s eyes flick between Tran’s back and the crown of Beth’s contrite head. Beth’s head jerks up in alarm and her throat contorts on a rapid inhalation. This was never the plan. He was showing her, not leaving!
Beth’s Comms chip snaps at her; a sharp high-pitched warning. Her communal obligation to conserve oxygen use has been breached.
“And her?” Tran turns to face them, his dark lips pursed to ward off the sharp intrusion of her world. His dirt-encrusted fingertips flick as he speaks, urging her presence back towards the dark tunnel behind her.
Jack glances at his sister and softens his tone. He is quiet, measured. “This is my sister; Beth. Reckon, she just wants to know. Up to you what you tell her. She’s real smart though. Might be able to figure out that problem you have.”
Beth stares at Jack as the eyes of the two men meet in silent conversation. Tran considers her, reassessing. Her confusion is apparent in every crevice of her pallid skin. Small balls of sweat are settling on her lip and she licks at them absently. Her MediBadge beeps, alarmed at the disparity of her body temperature as cold flickers at her spine, yet heat simmers at her lips.
“Bzzt,” her MediBadge is insistent. It has determined she is overheating and must rest. The Badge begins a cyclical drone, rising in crescendo with each repetition. The combination of her societal oxygen theft and body heat has escalated its concern. Unless she sits, the Badge will send a small impulse to her nerve centre and she will have no choice.
“I have to sit. Please!” Beth’s eyes flicker between the men, interrupting their silent exchange.
Tran spits at the ground again and storms ahead. “Follow me.” His hands shield his eyes from the harsh light briefly and then slap at his side as he turns striding towards a cleared area where men, women and children are gathered.
The table is heavy and solid, salvaged and reassembled from wooden beams, scored and disfigured with use in the old world. A heavy metal pot is resting over a fire, its base is blackened and dull. A fire. A real actual fire. Beth has not seen a real fire in her life, only pictures. An odd crisp, grassy scent arises on a spiral of steam from inside the pot and she inhales deeply, imagining herself inside a fairytale. Perhaps that was it? The fumes from the sewer had asphyxiated her and she was now inside the same delusion Jack had each night in his adventures in the underworld.
“Sit,” Tran orders, his long arm waving towards a long bench beside the table. Beth obeys, her eyes blinking like a newborn. Tran sits opposite, his face a mask of practiced obfuscation.
Jack’s lips parted in a triumphant grin, as he lowers himself to the bench beside her. “Well, this is it, Beth. The Dark. See, I told you!”
Beth stares at the heat-flushed faces of the families as they dip mugs into jugs of cool water and pour steaming cups of tea.
“How long? When? How did..? ” Beth’s questions are slow and confused as she attempts to slowly orient her observations with the cannon of her upbringing. Her MediBadge remains placid. For the moment it is silent, satisfied with her response.
Tran’s eyes narrow at her questions, his mask remains intact as his lips blow a cooling breath across a chipped tin mug now cradled in his vast hands.
“You can trust her Tran. I think she can help, or I wouldn’t risk it.” Jack’s eyes silently extol her virtues.
Tran swigs at the tea, swills it around his mouth and swallows. The apple at his throat lowers and then rises with each of Beth’s practiced breaths. Square fingers lower the mug to the scarred wooden tabletop and he raises an eyebrow towards Jack from across the gnarled beams. Beth watches the exchange as Jack nods in silent answer. It is clear; Jack is her guarantor. Whatever ill she brings, will be Jack’s also. Tran swills again, draining the mug in one long swallow and clears his throat.
“I was born here, my grandparents moved here after the wars. Said they didn’t want to be part of it all. Do it on their own. The NUN left them alone – something about freedom of choice and consequence. I guess they just forgot about us. We don’t hide. No one wants to know anyway. We maybe get a hundred or so who find us each year. Your brother found us about a year ago. Most people come, stay for a while, say it’s too hard and go back. Maybe twenty or something stay,” Tran replies. He lifts his mug again and offers a plate of flatbread to Beth. It is dry and tasteless, and Beth takes her time chewing and swallowing small morsels softened with tea.
Tran and Jack are content to drink and chew. Words are not necessary as they watch the families return to their toil in the sun.
“How many of you are there?” Beth says. Her genteel throat is still stinging from the trespass of the tough biscuit, and she coughs, hoping the action will hasten its passage.
“Reckon about a thousand or so. We don’t live as long as you lot. Any of the old people that’s left talk about people who could fix you when you were sick, we don’t have that. You are lucky to make sixty here. Both my parents are gone. Can’t remember my grandparents.”
Beth stares in disbelief. Her great-grandmother was still alive. In a care institution, cared for well using AI program intelligence. She was 120. This man before her was maybe 40 and his parents were dead, his grandparents a fragment of memory only. No wonder the NUN left them alone. Who would want this life? Was this what her brother wanted? In her world, every individual lived in equilibrium until their mind and body ceased around 150. Or they expected to until yesterday. But still, even with the decree a ten percent chance of a painless death each year, versus a lifetime of labour till the age of sixty if you were lucky?
“Can you taste it, Beth? Isn’t it amazing? Freedom. No one is watching, listening, nothing beeps.” Jack interrupts her reverie.
Beth swirls her tongue about her mouth. Is this what freedom tastes like? A strong grassy tang mashed against coarse grains that stuck and lodged between her perfect teeth.
“Enough talk. Let’s see what you can do. Follow me.” Tran stands abruptly, his mug rattles harshly against a rusted metal pin securing the tabletop.
“What?” Beth stammers. What has Jack said?
Tran’s long strides lead the way to a clearing in the distance. Beth follows obediently, her small soft feet picking across a muddy path until they stand outside a large metallic container. The door to the container whines as Tran pulls it towards them and motions her inside.
Beth blinks, looks in, and then back towards her brother, now also beckoning her forward. Surely he would not let any harm come to her? Cautionary tales snap at her synapses as she peers into the darkness. A light of some description flickers ahead, and a scrap of fabric is lifted to allow the sun to seep into the box.
“It’s OK, Tran’s a good guy.” Jack gently places an arm at her elbow to help her step over the jagged edges of the doorframe. As her eyes adjust to the darkness Beth can make out the far side of the container. Against a far wall, mid-twentieth century technologies are patched together. A screen is now coming to life with a flicker. Characters scroll across the display repetitively, in a primitive process of communication. Beth stares in dismay from the doorframe.
She steps forward, her eyes assessing, astonished.
“What is it you want me to do?”
Tran turns, revealing a chest covered in a heavy tarpaulin. Dust particles shoot upward and then suspend in the dappled light as Tran lifts the tarpaulin and eases the heavy lid open. He reaches inside and retrieves four thick wads of tattered paper.
“This,” he carefully passes one of the paper volumes to Beth. “These books are manuals we think. How to make better crops, water, animals – stuff like that. If we can use them, we can farm better, maybe live longer. No one here can read it. Jack seems to think you can.”
Beth opens the dusty book provided to her; it is late twentieth century. How it had survived she cannot imagine. Threads of the language are known to her; an indigenous language, and the pictographs are sufficient to complete the story. This was knowledge through storytelling, an ancient linguistic tool. Not standard Global English. She searches her mind trying to place it. The brief period at the end of the twentieth century when they thought they could “fix” the climate.
How they had all laughed at the naivety of the “climatologists” when the Professor had explained the temporary blip in language diversity in the twenty-first century. It seemed these experts had surveyed and documented all living cultures reviving the use of language considered long-lost. This information was then programmed into AI and modelled by the brightest minds of the time, working to “fix” the climate.
Employment of the brightest minds cost money and solutions proposed were filtered accordingly to those which were feasible and achievable with the funding available. History had shown the Great Climate Protocols produced no discernable climactic response but had left a “blip” of research that anthropologists and linguists continued to treasure and preserve.
Here in front of her was one of the great linguistic treasures of her time. Her fingers hover reverently over the text of the satiny pages.
“Can you read it?” Jack asks.
“I think so. But it is a task which would take years!” Beth turns, staring at her brother. “Remember Jack, we have only seven days.”
“No, but that’s it! It’s not just seven days! They can stop it – disable the MediBadge so it crashes – won’t work!”
“What… how?” Beth turns to face Tran, his face guarded.
“It’s true. Our tech guys were trying to design a monitor to assist with health diagnosis. They removed a MediBadge from someone we found dead in our field. Whoever it was must have tried crossing over and something happened. Their MediBadge was non-operational. We thought we could use the chip diagnostic tech to improve our tech. We were able to figure out how the AI receives the health data and disable it using a virus code. People who crossover and stay have their MediBadge disabled.”
“So, you see Beth. We don’t have to do the damn hundred words. We can just bring Mum and Dad and the Grans here and work. Guaranteed. Not 90% chance, guaranteed! I found out last night. I came here after dinner. I was so pissed off and I told them about the decree. Tran told me.”
Beth stares at Jack. The reason for his Festive bonhomie now evident. Their parents and grandparents would not survive in this world. In her world, they had a 90 percent chance of survival.
“I’m not so sure,” Beth’s lips close in a firm line, attempting to still her tongue from unleashing the full force of her logical mind.
“There you go again. Negative! You never believe in me – always know what’s best! I bring you here and you still don’t get it!” Jack storms out leaving Beth to stare at his back.
Tran’s head is bowed, his eyes fixed on the dusty chest before him. “You’re right. Only the young and strong survive. Of the hundred who come, forty might stay, and about half of them die.”
“Jack will make it. He’s young and fit and he knows what it’s like.”
Beth thinks slowly, digesting. Jack will not survive the decree. He will refuse to submit on principle or provide one hundred words of divisive invective. Would he stay without them, or will he drag them all to the Dark? Mum and Dad, the Grans, they’ll die here, but according to Jack, at least they’ll be “free”. If he goes back he will be taken for “treatment” again, for the “health and safety” of himself and the rest of the family, and that’s if he is not one of the ten percent.
Jack has to make his own choice. It had always been that way, nothing anyone said or did would change his mind. But, perhaps if they could still maintain contact, that might be enough. Beth surveys the technology in the room. Clearly, it is used for communications purposes between the community. But how?
Beth rocks back and forth on her soft shoes, her body a pendulum to her thoughts.
“Ping,” her Comms chip demands she check in to organise a medical assessment, her aberrant oxygen usage and MediBadge temperature has been noted. Tran starts at the intrusion, removing the precious volume from her hand and replacing it carefully to the chest.
“I think, your mind has already been made up for you.” Tran’s eyebrow lifts as his long thick forearm directs her firmly towards the rusted doorframe.
“Wait! Can this be used to communicate with our world?” her frantic fingers wave at the array of screens and wires against the wall.
“Yes. That’s how the crossovers find us. They reckon it sounds like soft static on your side.”
“Could Jack stay here, and I could talk to him?”
“No, it’s too weak. You can hear us but we hear nothing. The crossovers reckon it takes years to find the source.”
“But you say one hundred people every year find you?”
Tran nods. “But, we are not the utopia they imagine,” his hollow laugh echoes inside the container. “Your brother is an idealist, but young enough. We can help him and his labour will be useful. HE can stay. But, it is time YOU left.”
Beth is doing the sums, her mind engaging, planning, reorganising, assembling, counterarguments are presented and discarded. It is possible
“But what if these books can help, make the land more fertile? What happens if you don’t find better ways?”
“If the crops fail, we die, simple as that. That’s why they leave us alone, think we’ll die out eventually, not worth their trouble. Come on. Enough time has been wasted.” Tran slams the door on the heavy chest as he strides towards the light.
“This work. I can’t do it in seven days, but I can do it!” Beth shrieks desperate to slow Tran’s departure. Her MediBadge buzzes again, alert to her escalating emotions. She stops. Breathes. In. Out. The buzzing stops. Tran waits, an eyebrow lifted in mock scorn. “I have an idea. I can read your book and we can make this work … together,” Beth pleads, her hands tapping nervously at an imaginary screen on the hard surface on which the monitor scrolls its messages incessantly.
“Please. Just give me ten minutes to explain to you, Jack, and whoever runs this thing,” she points at the flashing monitor. “If it won’t work, I’ll leave straight away.”
Tran stares at her. “I think we’ve wasted enough time already.”
Beth breathes in deeply, her slight stature erect, neck arched to ensure her grey eyes meet Tran’s copper-brown derision. She speaks slowly, deliberately “or I may have to tell them where I have been and that you have the ability to deactivate the MediBadge.”
A nerve wriggles at Tran’s temple and jumps at his jaw. “I will bring Vlad; he is the operator. When I return, you have ten minutes to explain.”