Every once in a while you see something strange. Sure, life in the Bunker is remarkable in itself. It is, even if you believe all that crap they pawn off as history. Everyone knows human beings aren't meant to live their whole lives underground. No one needs to tell you that. You feel it in your bones. But you get used to it. It's the only thing you know. There's nothing strange about sleeping stacked up on top of one another like briny strips of Algatine in a can, eating slop, and blindly following the orders Control hands down. At least not to me there isn't. But like I said, about a yearstretch ago I saw something strange. Something real and strange at the same time. And I don't care what those smack addicts in the Underground say. They're all traitors anyway.
It was after breakfast and I was out with the crew cracking open stones looking for uranium ore. It's what I did every morning. It's what I did all afternoon, too. Working in a uranium mine is the fate Control assigned to me the moment it approved my birth and entered me into the Communal Registry. Like the Bunker, it was all I'd ever known.
My crew is decent enough. We all get along. Sure, there's the occasional scuffle, a broken bone maybe, but the medibots patch you up and you're as good as new. Why hold a grudge?
So like I was saying, I had just put my drill through the rock and was about to sift through the pile of rubble at my feet when someone called out.
“Hey, Terry!” It was Clyde. Nice enough fellow once you get past the smell.
“Is that you?”
“Is what me?”
“There! On the tube!”
Annoyed, I looked up. I didn't need any distractions. We were behind on our quota, and there was precious little time to make it up. I was about to snap at the boys to get cracking, but I never did manage the words.
Normally at that time of my daystretch they're blasting the Anthem of The Patriot or dispensing hygienic advice or going through the most recently updated Thousand Most Wanted List. But that morning when I looked up at the tube, I didn't hear or see any of that.
What I did see was a man who looked very much like myself, trying desperately to diffuse an alarm.
A lot of people look like each other from far away. But this guy was a spitting image, right down to the crooked nose and oversized knuckles and uneven teeth.
In the background, the shrieking of the alarm was mixed up in the louder groaning of what sounded like huge cogs and gears turning. They were badly in need of an oil bath.
Underneath the video feed was a moving banner. TRAITOR CAUGHT IN THE ACT!
“... how he ever managed to land on the asteroid in the first place. Your friends at Homeland Security have initiated an investigation and several terminations have already taken place. It isn't yet clear who this traitor was, and – those of you who've already seen this feed know what I'm talking about – it's unlikely he'll be identified from the primary evidence alone.”
“Is that because all the primary evidence is floating around in space?”
“That's right, Bob. It's just a chunky red spray. Not much you can do with that.”
The invisible cameramen chuckled.
“If any citizen has information which leads directly to the identification of this criminal and the subsequent arrest and termination of his co-conspirators – ”
“Sorry to interrupt, Felix. But here it comes.”
“Is it boom-time, Bob?”
The man in the feed was sweating profusely. He must have known what was coming.
“It's boom-time, Felix.”
The tube went black. A moment later, it lit up again. Bob and Felix were sitting behind their desks, smiling and cracking jokes.
“Hey, Terry,” said one of the guys. “That bloke looked just like you.”
“You got a twin brother or something?” asked another.
“No one has twins anymore, you cancerhead!”
“Who are you calling a cancerhead?”
“Control's got a strict One Child Only policy.”
“Yeah, but it's only been in effect for the last ten or fifteen yearstretches! Ain't I right?”
I stood by while the boys argued. The whole experience was surreal. I knew I should try and put it out of my mind, but I couldn't. It was almost as if I knew I might be implicated in that sap's treason just for looking like him.
My PA lit up. The boys stopped arguing and stared. I pulled it out of its protective casing and opened it up. The head supervisor was looking at me from the little screen.
“Renfield?” he barked. “Did you see that feed?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“The whole Bunker saw it.” He paused as if carrying on a debate with himself. “Put Hal in charge,” he finally decided. “And get your ass to my office! We've got to have a little chat.”
George sat on the other side of his desk, eyeing me intently. In one hand he was playing absently with a rivet of some kind. He was in a pensive mood, so I decided not to interrupt. After all, he had a security clearance.
Once upon a time, George was one of the crew. But a few yearstretches back he turned one of the boys in to Control. Luca was his name. George accused him of belonging to the Underground, and whatever evidence he had was solid enough that Homeland Security was called in. They pump you up full of drugs that make you very agreeable, or else they use the enhanced techniques, but either way you end up confessing. Everyone confesses to Homeland Security. They dragged Luca away screaming.
When we thought the security cameras weren't looking, me and the boys debated whether or not Luca was actually guilty. But it was impossible to tell. That's the way it is with traitors. Anybody could be one.
After that they put Luca on meds and transferred him to a psychotic ward until he got better.
George got a promotion. I don't know what security clearance he has, but he must have access to better food. In the yearstretches since he's been our head supervisor, he's grown chunky. No one gets chunky eating slop.
“That guy looked just like you, Renfield. Wouldn't you say?”
I nodded even as a sinking feeling took hold of my stomach. “Yes, sir. He did.”
“It was uncanny.” George chewed on his bottom lip and played with the rivet some more. “You called in sick last weekstretch, didn't you?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“Didn't show up at all the day after.”
“I was sick.”
“You could have called in.”
“I wasn't required to! Regulations –”
George stuck out a hand. He swung his legs off the desk and leaned forward. He was trying to seem earnest. “You've been with us a long time. Never a problem.” He gestured at the little, glowing screen on his desk. “Clean record. I mean, a few little altercations, a night or two in the slammer for drinking and brawling, but nothing serious. No treason.” He smiled at me. “Terry, I've only got your best interests at heart.”
Here it comes, I thought.
“Maybe it's best if you take some time off the job.”
I was caught by surprise. “Time off?” I started to protest. “But, sir –”
George held out his hand again. I bit my tongue. “It's for the best, Terry.”
Stunned, I stood up. All I could think about was how long I had until Homeland Security would come for me.
“Oh yeah, before you go...”
When I looked again I saw he was holding out a neat, little package.
“Do you mind taking this over to Central Management? I mean, now that you have some time on your hands.”
So that's what this is about. I was relieved. He needs an errand boy, and I'm a convenient, no-clearance citizen obliged to serve my betters. Still, I hoped I could get back to the job after the package was safely delivered. You have to be useful in the Bunker. Otherwise, they get rid of you. You'd be accused of some treason and it wouldn't matter to Control whether or not you were actually guilty. There aren't enough resources for slackers.
My eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What's inside?” I asked as I reached over and took possession of it.
“Sorry, Terry,” George replied smugly. He leaned back in his chair and put his legs back on the desk. “I'm not authorized to tell you.”
The sinking feeling was back.
“So what's in the box?”
We were sitting at one of the many flimsy, fold-up tables laid out in a haphazard fashion across the floor of the Endurance Community Dining Hall in Q-16 sector. I don't know if you've ever been there, but I'm pretty sure it's the largest commissary in the entire sector. It's got to feed thousands – maybe even tens of thousands – of hungry workers like myself. You name it and you'll find them swarming there. Builders, welders, food pit and reactor core attendants – the lowest of the low. Any time of your daystretch, Endurance is packed. The Bunker never sleeps.
Sitting across from me, unenthusiastically stirring her slop with a stained plastex spoon, Sally was peering at the package. I had set it on the table next to my tray.
“Beats me,” I said and eyed the bowl in front of me warily.
“It's called Goulash,” she assured me wryly. “Whatever that is.” She still hadn't put any in her mouth. “The drink today is Yellow Flavor.”
“It tastes the same no matter what Flavor it is,” I grumbled.
“Watch your tongue, citizen,” Sally hissed and jammed a spoonful of gunk into her mouth. She winced but somehow managed a smile.
“Calm down. No one's paying attention.” I wasn't ready yet to try mine.
“They've upgraded the security. The cameras are equipped with lip reading software.”
“I'll bet. They can't even keep the reactor core online.”
“It's triggered by certain words,” she went on and stuck more of the gunk in her mouth. “Facial expressions.”
I still couldn't bring myself to try the slop. My stomach, not quite on the same page as my brain, grumbled loudly.
“Better eat it while it's warm,” Sally advised me. She was right. As bad as it was, it tasted even worse after it hardened.
The first few spoonfuls were always the worst. Once I got past them, I was usually able to stop grimacing.
Sally's curiosity about the box resurfaced. “Who's it addressed to?”
If she weren't my girlfriend, I'd have thought she was being nosy. In the Bunker, people who are nosy tend to end up floating face down in a food pit or volunteering as shielding for the reactor core.
“Jeremy Whiles.” I read the name off the box. “Building 6, Ronald Reagan Plaza, Q-7 Sector. Green Pastures Recycling, Recycling and Reclamation, Production and Logistics.”
The man next to me suddenly looked up and peered over at us. Sally hadn't noticed, but I caught it out of the corner of my eye. I could have stared him down – hell, maybe I should have stared him down – but I gambled I'd gain some advantage if I pretended I hadn't noticed. I didn't. A stretch later, he was chatting softly away with the others at his rickety table. Chatting softly, just like I should have been.
“Ronald Reagan Plaza?” Sally muttered. “That's not far from Deeper Delvers, Inc. George probably takes the metro through it to get to work. He could have taken it himself!” She leaned closer. “Does it have a security clearance?”
It did. “Delta.” The funny-looking letter was embossed in the upper right corner.
“Delta!” Unlike me, she managed to keep her voice down. “I hope you got a waiver to carry it!”
I had forgot to ask.
“I'll bet you can't even get in the building.”
I hadn't though of that, either.
A smile broke out on her face. “Let's go find out.”
“Don't you have to get back to the grid?” Sally worked as a first responder for Repair On Demand, a firm in the Housing and Construction conglomerate.
She shrugged and gestured at what was left of the slop clinging to the sides of her plastex bowl. Hardened bits were already flaking off. “I'll call in sick.”
In the Bunker, you've got to survive. I don't know if God said it or some bloke named Derwin or whoever, but it's a fact of life here. You know it. I know it. None of us is a traitor, but everyone else could be. It's why those goons from Homeland Security are standing by the exit. Even the local commissaries could be targets. Biological, nuclear, electromagnetic – the attack could come from anywhere, anyone, it could be anytime. I'm glad those typhoids in latex and kevlar are there. Even if they scare me. They make me feel safe. Sort of.
We left the Endurance Community Dining Hall. They didn't scan our I-chips, and the security cameras didn't budge. Everything seemed okay.
Control isn't really concerned about us grunts. We're the vast majority of people here – but also the most powerless. Those with a security clearance are considered more trustworthy. They've been rewarded with greater access and luxury, but they are also saddled with responsibility.
Ironic, isn't it? The more privileged they get, the more Control tightens its grip. After all, where am I going to get my hands on a thermonuclear detonator?
The corridor outside the commissary was packed.
“Hey, keep close,” I said. I don't know why, but I was more tense than usual. In the Bunker, you don't question such feelings.
But Sally knew what she was doing. She can handle herself. Even in the mean corridors of the Bunker. “Get dysentery,” she said and pulled her arm away.
I love that woman. There's not another one like her.
Stretched out before us was a narrow, stunted tunnel lined with corrugated steel. The lighting came from unshielded bulbs that stabbed at the eyes. All around were fellow citizens, dressed in their own personal flavor of brown, grey, or Color of the Patriot – pewter, if I remember the announcement last week. Very metallic, in any case.
This was it, the Utopia that was the Bunker. The Anthem to the Patriot was blasting. The posters on the wall told us to be vigilant. Everyone was happy.
The crowd surged forward. We went with the flow.
Someone elbowed me in the kidney as he passed.
There is no way to identify citizens with a security clearance just by looking at them. According to Control – not to mention my old learnbot, Ms. Bits; after all these yearstretches I'd still love to have a go at her with my drill – ours is an egalitarian dreamland. Who am I to argue? But some of us are more equal than others. We have our ways of showing it, too. Chewing gum, for example. A little, handheld mirror. Hair gel.
Someone bumped roughly into me. I was set to give her a piece of my mind – a very swift, blood-letting piece – but some survival instinct insisted I look first.
The woman I had almost knocked over was standing on a flat, motorized pod floating a few centimeters off the ground. It was no larger than a dog.
Oh yeah, did I mention that steppods and similar ambulatory aids are a perk reserved for Delta clearance and above?
I swallowed thickly. “Please excuse my behavior, citizen.”
Fortunately, the woman was on meds. She was having trouble focusing. I darted to the side just as a column of guardians was passing by.
Sally was waiting just up ahead, trying to stifle a laugh.
“It's not funny!” I hissed even as I scanned for a security camera. Sure enough, there was one pointed a bit further up the corridor, right where I had been. The little red light underneath glowed sternly. It swerved even as I stood there gawking at it. It was trying to pick me out of the crowd.
“You should be more careful,” she told me as we hurried along.
“I know, I know. I was thinking.”
“That's a change for the better.”
We were already coming upon the entrance to the metro station. The line was so long we were standing in it before we even got inside.
“This is going to take forever.” But there was nothing we could do except wait.
I started to wonder whether or not George would have to wait. After all, higher clearance also meant access to doors and corridors off limits to the rest of us. Like that turnstile there. Could George have got past it? Because if so, there was no point to me carrying around this damned package for him.
But then again, why ask me at all?
It's only when you're idle that you start thinking about such things. And I know from experience that thinking things through can be a life-saving exercise. It's just that in the Bunker, you're usually too damned busy.
George was my supervisor. I didn't know him outside Deeper Delvers, Inc, and I certainly didn't know what clearance he had or what he had access to.
His clearance was at least Delta. The clearance on the package was Delta. I checked it again just to make sure.
A bearded man in a white, laboratory coat clutching a clipboard strode imperiously past us and up to the turnstile. As he approached, one of the Homeland Security goons scanned his I-chip. I guess he had been tagged, because a moment later the two of them drew their blasters.
“Easy now,” one of them growled.
“There's nowhere to run,” confided the other.
The bearded man stopped.
“It says here you're carrying anthrax,” said the first goon.
The line of people waiting to get into the metro stepped as a single body away from the turnstile.
“No, I left the anthrax back at the lab,” remarked the bearded man softly. There was something odd about his voice. “I'm on official business. Does it say that there, too?”
The goon peered at his scanner. “No. It says we got to arrest you. And be careful, too.”
The second goon swallowed thickly. “Should I just blast him?”
“We got our orders!”
“I thought maybe he was acting – you know, threatening.”
The first goon addressed the bearded technician. “Is there anything we should be aware of, citizen? Remember, you are responsible for any harm that comes to us. You could be charged with further crimes.”
The technician laughed. The voice was decidedly tinny. Unreal, even. “Is there something you should know? Why, yes! I am a test run. A pretty convincing one, wouldn't you agree?”
At that point, the orderly line suddenly degraded into a mass of agitated individuals, all trying to get away. Given how crowded the corridor already was, we made limited progress. The hair-pulling and kidney punches didn't seem to help, but we doled them out anyway.
“Should I blast him now?” the second goon asked hopefully.
“A test run?” repeated the first goon uncertainly. “What does that mean?”
“I'm a hologram, but imbued with certain material qualities that, for instance, are able to return a reading to your scanner. Pretty neat, eh?”
The first goon, not sure what else to do, nodded.
“I could explain to you how it works, but you wouldn't understand.”
There was a brief pause rife with uncertainty. “So what now?” the first goon asked hesitantly.
“Did I mention the bomb? I'm a test run, but I'm also a diversion. Efficiency, that's our motto.”
“If we can't blast him now, Tom, then I'm working for the wrong side.”
But the bomb blasted them first.
In the chaos and confusion that followed, I nearly got separated from Sally. Through the smoke, we could see the charred bodies of what had been goons just moments before. Behind them, a large hole had been opened in the station's wall. The hologram was nowhere to be seen.
An alarm was sounding, although it was hard to hear over the ringing in my ears. Several watchbots zipped into the area, their tentacle-like sensory perceptors extended and waving awkwardly about. It was then that I noticed – we all noticed – the security camera monitoring the entrance had been vaporized, too.
All citizens in the Bunker are loyal. This is especially true when we know we are being observed. However, in those rare moments when we know we are not, a strange thing happens. Our loyalty takes on new, previously unthinkable shades of meaning.
Afterwards, if confronted with evidence of this troubling, anti-social behavior, a citizen will readily agree that indeed everyone else was acting in a most criminal fashion. However, he himself was not, and he will brazenly explain why.
For example, no one wants to stand for hourstretches in a line, even if it is the loyal thing to do. So when an illegal but unobstructed entrance to the metro station suddenly appears and the security camera has gone offline, a number of citizens might decide to shorten their wait. And this is exactly what happened. I was among them. The others were traitors, you see, but I had an important package to deliver.
Sally, though, held me back. At first I didn't understand why, but then she discretely motioned towards a citizen standing near the watchbots barely visible in the swirling smoke. She had her PA out and was aiming it at the crowd of people streaming into the station. She was recording them.
As I was saying, all citizens are loyal. And one of the most important duties of the loyal citizen is to report – accompanied by detailed evidence – the crimes of her fellow citizens. After all, it is not only criminal negligence to witness treason and ignore it, but it also happens to be the most reliable way to get a security clearance.
I had never been to Ronald Reagan Plaza before, and – standing there now – my initial suspicions were immediately confirmed: there was no way they'd let us into any of the buildings. In fact, I was surprised we had even got this close.
Ronald Reagan Plaza is located in Q-7, the center of the vast nexus of the Production and Logistics conglomerate in the sector. But no work is actually done there. All around we could see the office buildings, high glass towers stuffed with managers filling out forms, and that means people with security clearances.
The ceiling was high – higher than I'd ever seen before. I didn't know the Bunker was capable of supporting domes that stretched so high. The top must have scraped the surface of Mars. Ventilation ducts weaved their way like metallic arteries across its surface. Their constant droning filled the air. I had never seen so many people before, either, except maybe jammed into a sweaty commissary. But here there was plenty of space to accommodate them. The plaza must have stretched two hundred meters from one end to the other.
The high buildings on all four sides of the plaza were branded with the names of the firms whose headquarters operated the conglomerate. They issued the directives which flowed ceaselessly to the supervisors in the field and they processed the statistics sent back into reports which Control subsequently reviewed. It was a process which should have led to the highest efficiency and most optimal allocation of resources. But like everything else in the Bunker, it worked out better in theory than practice.
Take the dome here above Ronald Reagan Plaza. At first glance, it looks like a technological marvel. But there are no technological marvels in the Bunker. All the technological marvels were built long ago, and we're just trying to keep them patched together. Take a closer look, and you can see the rust under the peeling paint. You can hear the buzzing of shorted wires. You can feel the dreadful throbbing of malfunctioning equipment. I'll bet my pinky finger the choicest offices in these buildings are located near the ground floor. In the Bunker, no one trusts the lifts.
Officially, we're a shining example of utopian progress. You can't improve a utopia because it's already perfect. Anything that isn't perfect is, well, the work of terrorists, traitors, and social deviants. That's why Control wants us to be vigilant. But everyone here knows the truth, even if it's treason to say it. We're slowly decaying. One daystretch the domes will crack and that will be the end of us. Some people actually believe we can turn the tide. Some of us actually believe this system can work.
I'm not one of them.
“C'mon,” Sally said and pulled my arm.
We made our way across the Plaza, threading our way inconspicuously among our superiors. They didn't have to identify themselves. The cocky spring to their unyielding step was enough.
The entrance to Building 6 was unobstructed, but just inside the wide, double, glass-paned doors there was a checkpoint. Above it hung a large letter, glowing ominously in yellow neon. It was an Epsilon. It was the lowest of the security clearances, but even so, it was treason for us to be anywhere near it.
I stiffened, but Sally pulled us onward. I wanted to warn her this wasn't a good idea, but now that we were under surveillance, I decided it was safer to play it cool. I started to drum up all the innocent excuses I thought might help us avoid a reassignment to hard labor.
I wanted to go in front, but she was either ignorant (unlikely considering she was still alive) or on some kind of pep pill, because she kept snaking through my grip.
They scanned us. We got through the checkpoint.
I was shocked but had enough of a grip to continue as if I knew what I was doing.
What was I doing?
Sally had found the floor map. She pointed towards the listing for Green Pastures Recycling. It was on the sixth floor.
Next to the floor map was a bank of elevators. One stood invitingly open. When she made for it, my instinct for survival suddenly reasserted itself.
“Let's take the stairs,” I suggested.
“How did we get through?” I squeezed the words out of the corner of my mouth. Stairwells aren't usually well monitored, but they're still outfitted with cameras. There was one at every switchback. The red light, though, wasn't always shining.
This stairwell had smooth, unpainted, cement walls and dim lighting. The stairs were flimsy structures made of hard plastex strung up like ribbons and held together with rivets that squealed as soon as your feet put pressure on them. Still, it didn't feel like it was about to give way. Whatever that means.
“I don't know,” Sally whispered back. “Must have been a mistake.”
I hate mistakes. They happen all the time. They usually end up badly, even if they don't start out that way. I started searching for quick escape routes.
George, you son-of-a-bitch. Why didn't you bring the damned package yourself? “It's a trap,” I said. There were some other people in the stairwell, but no one was close enough to overhear.
“You always think it's a trap.”
“Sometimes I'm right!”
Sally shrugged. She's being way too callous, I thought to myself. What's gotten into her?
She pulled open the doorway that led to the sixth floor. The hall was well lit by glow panels running along the top of the wall. A twisted stone structure – was it supposed to be some kind of art form? – about waist high stood on either side of us. A corridor stretched off to the left, lined on either side by opaque, plastex doors. To our right was the bank of elevators after which the corridor took a sharp turn.
“I think it's down this way.” I followed Sally. We passed door after door. She was peering at the little plates mounted next to them.
“There.” She pointed. Up ahead one of the doors was cracked slightly.
Maybe it was because it was the only door that was open. Maybe it was the heavy silence that hung in the air. Maybe it was just luck. Whatever it was, I sensed something wasn't quite right.
I pulled Sally back and rudely gestured for her to shut up. Then I slunk forward, and – holding my breath – peered carefully inside.
A man was sitting in a chair next to the door, cradling a laser pistol in his lap. He wore sunglasses. His hair was meticulously parted. His clothes were pressed. Homeland Security.
“Oh, shit!” I hissed and started to back away.
The goon heard me. “Someone's here,” he announced and sprang up.
Fortunately, I had my own laser pistol. In a single, fluid motion, one hand reached into my boot and the other pulled the door closed. There was a bright flash of light and some smoke. When it cleared, the locking mechanism had melted.
“Where under the dome did you get that?” Sally asked, amazed, staring at the warm barrel of the gun in my hand.
But there was no time for that now. We ran down the corridor back the way we had come. The stairs loomed ahead. But they had become a deathtrap. I threw the door open and kicked over one of the stone sculptures. It started to tumble loudly down the stairwell. I hoped it would make the switchback. Even if it bought us mere secondstretches, they would be enough.
“What are you doing?”
The frazzled door to Green Pastures Recycling wasn't going to hold out much longer.
There was only one thing we could do. Something unexpected, and the risk of death was only marginal. “We'll take the lift!”
We made it to the ground floor long before they ever could. Even so, it felt like a long time. Once the heaving lift slowed to a crawl and we heard grinding. There was a camera in there, too, and if we had stood holding each other, cowering like we wanted, and somebody on the other side of that lens had had a hard time getting the morning's slop down, we'd still have had a problem even if we managed to get out of there. But, like I said, we made it. When the doors opened, we faced a panel of incredulous faces.
We might have taken bows.
It's only when you're thinking back that you know what you should have done. But at the time our thoughts were elsewhere.
We pushed roughly past our audience and headed for the checkpoint. My muscles relaxed somewhat when I saw they were only scanning the people coming in. The exit seemed to glow warmly, framed as it was by the artificial light from outside.
We stepped through the glass doors. The stale, recycled air of the Bunker washed over us. It was the same recycled air as inside, but somehow it felt refreshing. We pressed forward through the crowd until we neared the middle of the Plaza. I was sure we weren't being followed. They would have got us by now.
I grabbed for Sally. I was going to kiss her. Then I was going to chew her out, but I was going to kiss her first. But somebody shoved a laser pistol in my side, and I froze instead.
“Homeland Security,” the voice barked clearly in my ear. I could smell the sour breath. A badge flashed briefly in front of my face. “Drop your weapon or I'll lay you down right here.”
A vision passed through my mind. It was fat George. He was saying, Do you mind taking this over to Central Management? I mean, now that you have some time on your hanCentral Management. The package was addressed to Production and Logistics. I didn't know what it meant, but now I was sure of it: George was setting me up.
I didn't know how or why, either, but I sure as hell was going to find out.