>>Begin Guardian report 984039
>>Location: Compound Theta 7
>>Replaying events concerning security measure 10392. Measure initiated at 0430, 15.12.508. Begin playback.
Richard absently fingered the trigger of his mining laser as he watched the light play on the barren walls of the mining shaft. The ancient lift groaned its way upward, its unseen gears grinding against each other as it lifted him out of the tunnels. The solitary light source threw criss-crossed shadows through the metal grille onto the dark rocks. His breath made tiny patches of haze on his face shield, each one disappearing as quickly as it had come. Behind him, the four members of his mining team waited in silence. He wondered what thoughts wandered through their heads as the lift carried them home after eight hours of mining duty.
On any other day, his thoughts would have orbited around Rebecca, drinking in memories of her soft voice and smooth skin, reminding him of why he continued working in this pit, making him anxious to get back to their quarters. He would have lingered on the times they had made love, rolling his mind over and over in the sweet sensations. The Guards kept them on a strict schedule: once every three months. They couldn’t risk overpopulating the compound, so they prohibited unauthorized coupling. As a result, he and Rebecca were forced to find other ways of pleasuring each other. He hated it, but it was better than seeing Rebecca’s name on the organic reprocessing list. Any other day, images of her would have filled his worn steel helmet as he watched his breath come and go on the face shield.
Today, however, his mind was elsewhere.
The lift shuddered to a halt, shaking him out of his thoughts. His fingers flexed around the mining laser’s barrel as a series of light above the lift’s gate blinked red, then green. The gate slid back with a sustained creak, and he stepped off the metal grille onto cold, polished rock. The others followed him without a word. The metallic clap of his boots echoed down the large tunnel as floodlights threw distorted shadows of his bulky suit on the walls. He blinked away the glare from the lights. A short walk down the corridor, a stop at ops to change out of his suit, and he was home free until tomorrow. Ordinarily, the thought would have made him happy, but today, it seemed mundane. Mundane and boring. Even the prospect of an evening with Rebecca no longer excited him, and he couldn’t figure out why.
He thought it might have something to do with the dream he’d had that morning. He couldn’t remember any of it now, but the lingering feeling of it had shimmered in the back of his mind throughout the day. The memory contained more than just a mental image. The skin on his arms prickled with the memory of a sensation he knew he’d never felt: the touch of warm, yellow light. His lungs resented the sterile air of the mining suit’s oxygen system today, but yesterday he hadn’t given it a second thought. Even the darkness of the mining chambers, something he’d always found comforting, was suddenly cold and oppressive.
After shedding his suit and reclaiming the brown one-piece uniform of an off-duty miner, he made his way through the compound’s concentric corridors toward his quarters. The solid ring of his mining boots on stone was replaced by the quiet tapping of black shoes on white tiles, but the bright glare of white lights remained the same. Whoever designed this place had little mercy for the human eye, he thought, then caught himself. Since when had he cared about how the compound was lit? Come to think of it, how did he know what the human eye found pleasant or unpleasant? Where the hell were these ideas coming from?
He shook his head. It was just an off day, that’s all. Most miners suffered occasional bouts of frustration which would lead to unusual thoughts and actions; the Guards had told him as much when he was being trained. While he sometimes disagreed with their policies, he knew the Guards were always right about technical stuff like that. He’d seen it happen to members of his own team. Sometimes, a man would simply stop working, dropping his laser and heading for the chamber exit, heedless of any orders spoken into the comm. Other times, one would start babbling into his comm unit, asking inane questions over and over until Richard cut him out of the comm circuit and signaled for a Guard to take him topside. The men usually spent a day or two in the med bay, then they were back on the team as if nothing had happened. Richard never expected it to happen to him, but then again, he was only human.
He looked up. In front of him was a metal door marked B-232. His thoughts had carried him all the way back to his quarters. He pressed his right forefinger against the clear terminal display. After a few seconds, the door slid open. He waited for it to click into place in the opposite wall before stepping through. Planting both feet just inside the doorway, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The familiar smell of the tiny place he and Rebecca called their own filled his lungs.
>>Probability of failure due to variance: 10.35%
>>Threat level: minimal.
When he opened his eyes, Rebecca was standing in front of him, a small smile lacing the corners of her deep red lips. He returned it without a word as he moved forward, folding her in his arms. Their lips met. Memories of her returned to him, fresh as the scent of her hair he wrapped around his calloused fingers. He still wondered how she could stand to hold him like this after he returned from the mines; the reek of the suit assaulted his own nostrils without mercy.
He gripped her shoulders and gently pushed her back. She returned his gaze, her quiet brown eyes looking into him. Still the same.
“How were the mines today?”
He shrugged. “Same as always. Nobody got the fever today.”
“Good.” She smiled. “Are you going to the rec deck tonight?”
“Nah. I’m a little tired. Think I’ll stay in tonight.”
She smiled again.
They ate together, seated side-by-side on their bed. The food was as tasteless as always, but its blandness didn’t bother him tonight. He could feel the gentle pressure of Rebecca’s hip pressing into his own, the rhythmic swaying of the bed as she moved her meal from plate to mouth. He watched her from the corner of his eye as she ate. Watched how her face would change slightly in response to her thoughts, sometimes betraying a smile, sometimes producing a wandering gaze. He watched the delicate way she balanced the fork on the slender fingers of her left hand. He’d heard of many couples who chose not to have a relationship with their Guard-chosen mates, but he couldn’t imagine why. Rebecca made life in the compound more than bearable; she made it worthwhile.
>>Status of subject: satisfactory.
Richard pressed his face into the retinal scanner. The bright green lights blinded him for a second as the system confirmed his identity. He stepped back and turned toward the med bay’s exit, trying to blink away the red streaks the scanner had left in his eyes. Two days of lying in a diagnostic bed, only getting up for biological necessities and examinations, had left his legs feeling weak. He rubbed his palms on his thighs, trying to coax some life back into his neglected muscles. They began tingling after a few seconds, and he immediately stepped through the door and began weaving his way toward his quarters. Being treated like an invalid by the medical staff had been bad enough, but the real reason for his hurry was the brown-haired woman waiting for him behind Door B-232, a brown-haired woman he hadn’t seen for two days. They’d kept him isolated, and though he knew why, not having her next to him while he slept had made him so anxious that the examiners had to administer some of their tests twice.
He had the fever.
He could tell it himself, which he thought was a good sign. It meant he still had control of part of his mind at least. As long as he had that, he knew he’d be okay eventually. He was just tired, that was all. Rebecca had been hard at work preparing for the Cycle Celebration, and some of her stress had worn off on him. That was all.
The red afterimages of the scanner finally dissipated, giving way to the god-awful glare of the overhead halogen lights. Why the hell had the Guards put in halogen lights? Human eyes weren’t meant to endure such harsh lighting. No wonder people in the compound went nuts sometimes. He’d started wondering lately how different their lives would be if they had
something other than an invasive white haze to live them in. The tapping of his plain black shoes clipped along as he threaded his way through the corridors. He ignored the odd looks other people gave him as he headed home. Let them stare. Rebecca was waiting for him after more than 48 hours apart, and he didn’t intend to keep her waiting any longer than necessary.
The door of B-232 hadn’t clicked shut before his arms were around her, his lips on hers. She raked the fingers of one hand through his short hair as the palm of her other hand pressed into his spine, crushing his body against hers. Older couples might have handled such a reunion with more dignity, but neither Richard nor his wife had seen 30 cycles yet. His brown miner’s uniform almost made it through the bedroom door in place, and her grey civilian shirt soon landed on top of it as it lay sprawled in the doorway. The fever, the lights, the Guards, none of them mattered to him anymore. His mind swelled with the heat of her skin, the softness of her belly, the color of her nipples, the smell of her hair. The universe moved with the rhythm of their bodies, each pulse sweeter than the last, until creation exploded and everything turned bright.
After three months, it was their day again.
Afterward, they lay on their backs, their fingers entwined, staring at the empty ceiling. His breathing returned to normal, and he unconsciously flexed his toes.
“What if I actually conceive?” Her voice was still husky.
He smiled. “Then we’ll be parents.”
“You know we won’t get to raise the baby.”
“I know,” he replied, rolling on his side to face her. “It’s enough for me to know that at least one child in this place was created out of something more than the Guard-endorsed demand to reproduce.” She smiled then, squeezing his hand.
They dressed and ate, sitting side-by-side on the bed as always. When they had finished, he put their plates in the cleanser and walked back to the bedroom. Leaning over, he kissed her cheek, pausing a moment to breathe in her smell.
“Will you be out long?” she asked.
“No. Only a few hours. The medic said I need to exercise, but that doesn’t mean I have to do a lot.”
“Okay,” she said. “Don’t hurt yourself.” He kissed her forehead and walked to the door. Looking over his shoulder, he winked at her as the door slid open.
>>Status of subject: uncertain.
Richard ate in silence. Rebecca sat next to him, but he wasn’t watching her this morning. His eyes stared absently at the bare grey wall as he remembered the dream he’d had just before waking. It was starting to fade, as dreams always do, but he could still remember fragments of it. He wanted to hold on to them as long as he could; the bits and pieces he’d managed to collect were memories of something he’d never seen. Something beautiful.
“You were tossing and turning last night,” Rebecca said.
Richard’s eyes snapped into focus. “I was?”
“Yeah. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Sorry if I kept you up.”
“It’s okay,” she said, her eyes searching his face. “You’re sure you’re okay, though? It wasn’t the fever, was it?”
He shook his head. “Nope, I’ve got that under control. The exercises and medication are doing the trick.” He smiled at her. “I was probably just happy to be sleeping next to such a beautiful woman.”
She blushed. “Oh, come on. You’ve been sleeping next to me for three years now.”
“Maybe so, but I still can’t get over how lucky I got on the match drawing,” he said, leaning over and kissing her.
“So did I,” she replied, “but if you don’t quit that, I may just have to make you late for mining duty.”
He sighed. “Yes, duty calls.” Standing up, he took her plate and walked into the kitchen. He deposited the dishes in the cleanser, then moved toward the door. She followed him. “I’ll see you when I get off,” he said, kissing her nose.
“Hurry back,” she whispered.
The steel door slid between them, and he began walking toward the mines. He passed through a large common area, one of the few places one could see the shield wall from the main level. Looking up, he could see the immense grey slab curving upward to its crown, endlessly reaching out for itself, pulling its cold steel curtain around their world.
>>Status of subject: unstable.
They walked hand-in-hand along the rim of the compound’s topmost level, the shield wall always a few feet from their left shoulders. From here, they could see nearly all of its vast, circular expanse. Richard looked at it intensely, feeling the same vertigo he always felt when it was this close, reaching over his head like an endless
ceiling. Only, it felt wrong today.
They should have painted it blue, he thought. Like the one in my dreams.
The dreams had grown steadily more powerful in the last week. Not only could he remember more of them, but they’d slowly worked their way into his conscious mind. The world they contained was so different from the compound, so rich and colorful and alive. Whole fields of flowers, deep green forests, islands of white sand surrounded by bright blue oceans. He found himself thinking about them more and more, comparing them to this
place. The more he did, the more he wanted to live in the dreams. There was nothing but cold metal and hard work for him here.
“Rich?” Rebecca’s soft voice slipped between his thoughts. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“What were you thinking about just now?”
He looked into her face, so focused on his, and his heart began to melt. “Well,” he began, “I was thinking about the wall.”
“It’s so big, isn’t it?” she said, her eyes traveling up its curve.
“Yeah, it really is,” he replied, following her gaze. “Do you ever wonder what’s on the other side?”
She gave him a look. “I know what’s on the other side. So do you. The Guards told us.”
“Yeah, but…” he trailed off, unsure. Should he tell her? He looked into her eyes. Yes. “What if they were wrong?”
“Rich! Don’t say that!” she said, putting her hand over his mouth and looking around. “They might hear you.”
He pushed her hand away. “So what? Maybe they should. What if they’ve been lying to us, Becca? What if there’s something besides cold rock and other compounds out there?”
“You know there isn’t,” she said, her tone firm. “Don’t you remember what the Guards said about that man who escaped?”
“Patrick,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Yeah, Patrick. They say he went crazy, kept babbling about other worlds outside. And look what happened to him. He died. He left the compound and died.”
“That’s what they told us. How do we know they weren’t lying?”
“They weren’t, Richard. Why would they lie about that?” Before he could answer, she went on. “You’re just having a relapse of the fever. Did you take your medication this morning?”
“This isn’t the fever,” he said. “It’s just me thinking about the possibilities for once. Don’t you even wonder sometimes?”
“There’s nothing to wonder about,” she replied in a voice that let him know the discussion was over. Frustrated, he looked back up at the shield wall, wishing he could see
those little points of light he sometimes saw in his dreams. They were so beautiful. He wanted her to see them.
>>Status of subject: unstable.
The dull orange glow of the mining laser filled Richard’s vision, reflecting through his helmet’s face shield until everything became tinted. Not that it mattered in this pit, anyway. All he would see when he released the trigger was his fellow miners, enslaved by the Guards, working their mines for them day in and day out. This was no way to live.
He knew his dreams had to be real. How else could he remember things he’d never seen? They had to be memories of long-past days when people were still free, before the Guards and the compounds. It wasn’t possible to dream about things that didn’t exist. The wonders of his sleep lay just beyond the compound walls, he was sure of it.
He would get out and find them, and he would take Rebecca with him. He could see her happy and free, no Guards watching them make love, no cold artificial light dampening her beautiful face. They would have such a wonderful life outside. He would lead her to freedom.
A crystal broke free of the wall, tumbling to the floor of the chamber. Richard picked it up and threw behind him, then began carving up the next promising growth. Such stupid, repetitive work. He wouldn’t be doing it for much longer, though.
A sudden thought made him forget the mining laser, and the orange beam started boring a hole in the rock wall as a chill swept through his body. His breath seemed to hide in his lungs as the thought dug into his mind with the cold efficiency of his mining laser.
What if she didn’t want to come?
She never seemed willing to talk about it, always changing the topic or telling him to take his medication. What if, when it came down to it, she refused to leave? She believed all the bullshit the Guards spewed about there being nothing but cold emptiness beyond the shield wall. What if he couldn’t convince her?
He shook his head, turning his attention back to the mining laser. Of course she would come. He would convince her tonight when he returned. They would journey to the new world together. No, the three of them would go.
>>Status of subject: highly unstable.
“It’s all out there, Becca. I know it is. We just have to go out and find it.”
Rebecca backed away from him. Her concern cut lines around her eyes and across her forehead, forming deep trenches in her lovely face. Richard watched, knowing that if he could only make her understand, those lines would disappear forever.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to experience that?”
“Richard, you’re scaring me. You’ve been acting crazy lately, talking in your sleep, talking about the Guards like they can’t hear you.”
“I’m starting to awaken,” he said, his eyes wide with excitement.
“You’re not waking up, you’re losing your mind,” she replied. “The fever is taking you.”
“There is no fever! It’s all a hoax the Guards use to keep us here, working like slaves. They don’t want us to know about the outside world because we would all escape.”
“Dreams, Richard,” she said, her voice quiet. “They’re just dreams. None of that is real.”
He started pacing. “You’re wrong. It’s all true. Night after night I see these things, Becca. They keep coming back to me.”
“You stopped taking your medication, Rich. That’s why they keep coming back.”
“Those pills are supposed to keep me pacified,” he said. “They’re supposed to make me believe their lies so they can keep me here.”
“Yes, here!” she said, pointing to the floor. “Where you’re safe. Where you’re with me.”
“Where I’m enslaved.” He shook his head, eyes incredulous. “Do you want to be a slave? Do you want our baby to be a slave?”
Rebecca wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I want our baby’s father to live, even if he is a slave.”
“We can both live, and live free. Come with me and I’ll prove it to you.”
“No, Richard,” she said, her voice calm. “I won’t go with you. I can’t.” She turned her back to him and walked into the bedroom.
Richard leaned against the cold steel door of their quarters, staring at the floor. What the hell was he doing? How could he even think of leaving her? As if in answer, another memory from his dreams blossomed in his mind: sunlight sparkling on cold water as it tumbled over a waterfall.
He had to find that place. He had to find it and show it to her. If she wouldn’t come now, he would go first and return, to prove to her that it was real.
He stole into the bedroom. She was lying curled up on the bed, eyes closed. Sitting at the foot of the bed, he touched her ankle.
“Becca, I’m sorry,” he said. She didn’t respond. “You don’t have to come.”
“You don’t have to go,” she replied, her eyes still closed.
Crawling up behind her, he put his arm around her waist. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, you do,” she said, and he felt her shudder beneath his arm.
He buried his face in her back and didn’t answer. Closing his eyes, he filled his lungs with her as their breathing fell into sync. Maybe he didn’t have to leave yet. A few more days. He could wait that long. Just a few more days with her, then he would leave.
The dreams burned. They called. They commanded.
He kissed her back through her shirt, then stood to his feet. Pausing at the bedroom doorway, he looked over his shoulder.
“Richard, please,” she whispered. “Don’t go.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll come back for you.”
Standing in front of the door, he took a deep breath. The sweet scent of flowers filled his lungs, and he smiled through his tears as he pressed his finger against the pad. It beeped at him, flashing green as the door slid back to reveal a long stretch of beach. A few meters ahead of him, the waves rolled over the sand as the blood-red sun sank below the horizon. His smile widened as he stepped through the door.
>>Post-operation report: stolen freighter discovered 4.6 kilometers from Compound Theta 7.
>>Subject was deceased.
>>Outcome of subject’s rebellion and subsequent death reported to remaining population of Theta 7.
>>Disposition of remaining population: satisfactory.
>>Security measure 10392 successful.
>>End Guardian report 984039.