Part 1 of 5
I laid on our tattered two seater couch, looking out the only window of our tiny apartment. The air was hot and still. Outside, sharp blue slashes of light criss-crossed the artificial sky like a vast, LED-powered fishing net. Tiny beads of sweat pricked my forearm. I wiped them off as I checked my watch.
5:25pm — just in time.
I settled back into the sofa and put my hands behind my head and the lights began to phase. Sharp blue dimmed into a light silver, barely visible on the underside surface of the leaden dome some six-hundred feet above the city. To my right, our TV faded into outline and the rest of the apartment sank into monochrome darkness. I sat up, pulled the gauzy curtain aside to let in more light and lay back down. Fine golden lines appeared and traced each silver thread, softly glowing as they grew in intensity, gradually emitting a warm yellow light. The apartment glowed golden as the lights stabilised.
And then, it was officially night time.
I looked at my dusty black Casio digital: 5:29pm.
“Four minutes of heaven for an eternity of hell,” I said to the empty room.
I scratched the back of my right hand again. I’d been scratching too much and it’d started to bleed. I needed to stop.
The 5:30 bell sounded from somewhere outside, and to my right, the TV hissed to life as the central authorities powered on all the screens in the city. The Newscast fluttered to life. I smiled at the familiar waves of interference that fluxed through the image, making the newscaster’s face dilate and distend behind translucent, multicoloured snow. I wondered when the eggheads would figure out a clean way to transmit their propaganda inside this immense Faraday cage.
I hoped I — no, we — would be out of here before they did.
Behind my head the front door clicked. It hissed as it slid open.
“We’re home! Did you miss us?” my little sister called.
“Hey Cee. Hey Dad.” I said, still looking out the window at the golden glow.
“It’s hot in here,” Dad said as he hit the light switch, “Remind me, tomorrow I’ll ask Ming again, see if anyone has a fan to barter.”
White fluorescent lights flickered on our ceiling, playing a hollow morse code.
“How you doing kiddo? How as your day?” Dad asked.
Bright lights flooded the room.
I covered my eyes with my right hand. “Gargh! I should have seen that coming. Can you ask Ming if we can get some decent lights too, please? And yeah, I’m fine. Work was the usual slavery. Got home just after you guys left, I think. Slept for a few hours, made some food. Watched the lights shift.”
“Alright. Sounds relaxing.”
“Sounds fucking boring.”
“Watch your language! Jesus, Jack —”
“— Yeah, watch your language,” Cee said, cutting us off. She skipped across to the couch, her pink tutu bouncing against bright green tights. She poked my shoulder and scrunched her face. “Sit up, lazypants. Make room.”
“Alright, alright,” I said, “And who dressed you this morning, Cee?” I sat up, swivelling away from the window toward the TV. I shimmied closer to the window.
“I did!” Cee said, before suddenly turning to face the TV, her pony tail swishing in the air. “Watch this,” she said, then jumped up and backward, butt first. The pink tutu bounced again as she landed. She smiled up at me. “See? I’m only six but I can jump real high. I jumped higher than Deepa today. She’s eight!”
“You sure can jump high these days. I’m glad you’re showing them older kids.” I said, putting my palm up facing her. “High five!”
She leaned forward and smacked her palm to mine, then looked at the TV at the bright, unusual yellow banner scrolling across the screen. It warped behind the multi-coloured snow, carrying large black letters: BREAKING NEWS.
“Can you turn that up, Jack?” Dad called from behind the kitchen bench. I looked at him for the first time tonight. His grey coveralls looked more dirty than usual, and behind his dark beard his face was drawn, eyes pinched at the corners. I didn’t move. He pointed to the remote that lay on our dining table, just to the right of the TV. “Please?” He said.
“Okay,” I said, standing up, ”But I don’t know why you want to listen to this bullshit. You look tired. Why don’t we play cards or something?” I looked at him.
Sweat clung to his forehead above a dark frown. His lips were pressed together. He wiped a hand over his brow.
“Can you just do what I ask? Why do you always have to question everything?”
“Hey, hey, relax.”I said, pushing my palms toward him, “What’s in your bonnet? I’m just saying, this is BS.”
He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “It’s not BS. We haven’t had breaking news since… hell, since I can remember. It’s good to know what’s happening out there,” he put on his preacher voice. “An informed electorate is a — “
“— prerequisite to democracy, yeah,” I interrupted, “I know the line. Except this isn’t a democracy.”
I hated when he got preachy.
Dad closed his eyes, leaned his thick forearms on the kitchen counter and bowed his head. Cee poked my thigh. Her butterfly hair-tie wobbled as she shook her head. She looked up at me and mouthed: don’t.
“We aren’t going to do this again. Not tonight,” Dad said.
There was something in his voice that made me clench my jaw.
I said, “You never answer my questions. We’re all tired, Dad. Answer me for once. Is this a democracy? What choices can we make? We slave for twelve hour shifts — alternating, mind you, so that we barely ever see each other,” I said, feeling my chest tighten. “Twelve hours in a shitty farm that can barely grow enough to feed the adults living under here, let alone the children.” I waved a hand toward my sister. She had pulled her knees to her chest and was looking at the floor. “They,” I said, pointing to the TV, “are always talking about progress, about survival. But who says we need to be living under this damn dome?” I threw a hand toward the ceiling.
Dad had started shaking his head slowly. “Jack, stop this, please, I’m tired —”
“ — maybe we could be out there, under the sky, in the sunshine like we used to be, I mean —”
“ — not now, not in front of — “
“— what if Ma’s still out there?”
My sister turned her face to me her little eyes wide.
Dad gripped the kitchen bench with his left hand and lifted his right palm to his forehead. The powerful muscles in his forearm rippled as he squeezed the bench.
He looked me in the eyes. “The Shield keeps us alive, believe that.” He dropped his gaze to the bench and exhaled heavily. “Look, you’re right. This isn’t a democratic society. It’s a surviving one. We’ve got, what, some fifty thousand souls living under here. We’re the last ones, Jack.” He opened his eyes and looked at our apartment window, as if he could see past the golden lights and through the leaden dome of the Shield, out into the desert that surrounded us. “We send out signals, flares, radio calls, nothing comes back.” He relaxed his grip on the bench and stood upright. “I miss your Ma too. She gave everything so we could be in here.” He looked at me, eyes boring into mine, “She deserves more respect.”
I held his gaze. The Dad-stare used to be more formidable.
A bead of sweat tracked between my shoulder blades as I considered what I could say.
I’d been outside. I’d seen it. I’d helped people get out there, and they were alive as anyone can be. Of course no former slave would answer the call of an old master. His logic was fucked up. And damn, it was beautiful out there. Him and Cee were the only reason I hadn’t already left.
I couldn’t say any of that. Not yet.
The itch in my right hand flared again, but I tamped it down.
Dad broke eye contact first. He stepped from behind the counter, walking over to the table. Then he picked up the remote and turned up the volume so the TV could fill the silence.
“… here with the Lieutenant who led the operation that resulted in the arrest of four terrorists suspected of carrying out a people smuggling operation, taking people outside the safety of the Shield. Lieutenant, thanks for being with us.” The TV anchor said, turning to a uniformed man sitting to his right.
My stomach twisted as I sat back down on the couch. I didn’t know who was assigned to last night’s run. I hoped it wasn’t Matty or Deek. And ’Terrorist’… that was a new label for us.
“Happy to be here,” the lieutenant said.
“So what do we know about these terrorists? What do they want?”
“They call themselves the Sunshine Underground. Sounds nice but trust me, it isn’t. Their end goal is to destroy the Shield, destroy humanity’s last hope of survival. In the meantime, they smuggle people outside, whoever can afford their fee. I don’t want to alarm your viewers, Larry, they can rest assured that we take this very seriously and” he looked right out of the television, right at me, and said, “we will hunt every last one of them down…”
His hand chopped the air as he said it.
I pressed my feet hard into the ground. My left hand gripped my thigh like a vice. This guy had it all twisted. We didn’t charge a fee, and we didn’t want to destroy the shield, either.
We will hunt every last one of them down.
I desperately wanted to meet some of the others to talk this through, but Underground’s protocol was clear — in the event of public exposure, lay low, stay quiet, wait for a signal.
The air and the heat hung close and my breath came shallow as the television gabbled.
I had to get out of here.
“Dad, I need to get to the farm. My shift starts in twenty.” I stood up from the couch.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Say again?” Dad’s eyes were glued to the TV.
I cleared my throat and tried again, louder, enunciating. “I need to get to the farm. I just realised, my shift starts in twenty.”
Dad looked back at me. The Dad-stare again. I waited for the question, but nothing came.
“Okay,” he said, turning back to the TV. He waved a hand toward the kitchen. “There’s food in the fridge for you.”
I stood up from the couch and went to the door, grabbed by backpack from its hook, stepped to the fridge and opened it. The tangy smell of coolant washed out and the cool air hit my face. I stood there looking at brown paper bags slumped next to some expensive eggs and a couple pale hydroponic tomatoes.
I wondered who they’d taken.
We will hunt every last one of them down.
They’d be questioning them. Asking them who else was in the underground. Encouraging swift answers with pliers wrenching on fingernails. Whoever it was would probably give up names.
“Alright Jack,” I whispered to myself. “Get your shit together and get out of here.”
My lunchbox was tucked on the third shelf. I opened the box and found a grey mushroom fry up that pooled slowly downward as I tilted the box. A small egg omelette surfed the kludgy wave. I put the lid on, secured the side clips on the box and threw it in my bag, kicking the fridge door shut with my heel. Later I might be hungry enough to actually eat the damn thing. I thought I was going to need the energy.
I turned to the access control panel and punched the button labeled OPEN. The door hissed and slid wide.
“Jack,” Dad called from behind me.
I paused in the doorway, an ear tilted toward the room.
“I love you. I’m sorry I shouted.” Dad said.
I walked out into the artificial night.