“It’s close. I know they’ll eventually find me here. It’s so close. So obvious, right on the tip of everybody’s tongue. There’ll be no containing it when they all realize.” I told him I was sure I had no idea what he was talking about. “Do you ever wear anything other than that uniform?”
I didn’t understand the question. It was the first time I’d considered the idea of alternate clothing and I said so. “And what do they teach you in school? The three Rs. Anything else? Do they have you invent your own words?” More absolute nonsense. Invent a word? Every word already exists. He went on about how none of it was creative. All of it constrained our thinking to prevent realization.
I began to argue that I’d be missed if I didn’t return home. “No, please, I’m alone down here. Sealed myself in because I know it’s almost here. You’re not afraid of old Bill, are you?” I told him I was already breaking one of Dad’s rules by speaking to a stranger. “How can I be a stranger when you know my name?”
Before I left, he got in one last bit. “All of this around you. Nice comfortable homes. Well lit rooms. School, jobs, even the sun and stars. You take it for granted, like that’s just how it is, and happens by itself. It doesn’t. It’s maintained by the constant expenditure of energy, to hold out anything different. If you saw what was outside the dome you’d understand.”
I left the bizarre man babbling to himself behind the crack in the wall and was soon back out on the sidewalk. The rain had finally subsided. I ran back home, in time to avoid a spanking but not quickly enough to avoid stern questions. Mom nonetheless made me a sandwich and a glass of milk.
“Mom, why are things like this?” She stopped in her tracks, halfway to the fridge. Then slowly turned and looked at me with a troubled expression before answering. “What do you mean, like this? What other way would they be?” I sensed I was close to a nerve, so took care to be precise.
“You know. The way things are. Everybody lives in houses. They wear clothing. Kids go to school. Grownups go to work. The sun moves overhead from one side to the other, and we sleep when it’s dark. How come it’s like that, and not some other way?” It startled me to notice she had tears in her eyes as she shook me by the arms.
“Who told you this? Was it that teacher? There’s no other way! Everything’s always been like this and always will be! Don’t you understand how important that is? What we sacrifice to keep it this way?” I didn’t know what to say. Her sudden panic mystified me. “Mom, you’re hurting me.”
She stopped, looked down at her grip on my arms, and relaxed it. “I’m…I’m sorry honey. Never mind. But I don’t want to hear any more about these ideas. You should be focusing on your schoolwork.” I agreed and promised to go up to my room and study once I finished the sandwich. This seemed to placate her. But then, on a whim, I blurted out another question.
“Mom, what’s outside the dome?” She stared, mouth slightly agape. Then took a seat next to me. “This is what I was afraid of. I suppose I’ve put off this talk for too long already. I kept leaning on your father to do it but he doesn’t see any sense in putting ‘unnecessary ideas’ into your head.” I only felt more confused.
She took an orange from a bowl and placed it on the counter. “We live on something shaped like this.” I laughed and shook my head, turning the bowl upside down and insisting the dome was more like the bowl than the orange. “I don’t mean the dome. Outside of it, and all the other colonies, we live on the surface of something round like this orange, but called a planet.”
I studied her face. She appeared dead serious. “Is there just one? Or are there other planets?” She sighed as I said it, as if anticipating the question. “Smart boy. Yes, there are more planets. They all orbit around the sun. The real one.” I glanced out through the window, but she clarified that she meant something round like the orange and vastly larger.
“The planet we’re on travels in a circle around the sun, with several others at varying distances.” My eyes lit up as I recalled some relevant concept from school. “Like an atom!” She flashed a panicked look, but swiftly regained composure. “Y..yes…like an atom, with the orbiting electrons.” It felt immensely satisfying to draw that comparison but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
“Then there must be more suns, right? If there’s more than one planet.” She choked up a bit. The look of fear in her eyes intensified. But I couldn’t stop now. The implications were fascinating. “So just like there are many atoms in a cell, and there are many cells in a person….and there are many people in a colony, and many colonies on this planet, and many planets orbiting the sun, and-”
She immediately started screaming. “STOP! STOP IT!” I reached out to reassure her nothing was wrong but it was useless. “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU HAVE? WHAT’S SO WRONG WITH THE LIFE YOUR FATHER AND I BUILT YOU THAT YOU HAVE TO RELENTLESSLY PICK AT EVERY LITTLE THING?” I stared silently, completely at a loss for words.
What I feared never came. She calmed down in stages, with the help of a small vial of pills she produced from the pocket of her blouse. I’d seen it before on just a few occasions and knew it meant I’d crossed a line and would be punished. When Dad got home, I was. The rest of the three day break was spent in my room, studying.
All the while I heard them fighting downstairs. Shouting incoherently at one another as the guilt burned in me. I knew I caused all of it, I just couldn’t work out how. The textbook was devoted to biology, the chapter I was reading all about the various stages of foetal development. From a single fertilized egg you can’t even see, all the way to a complete newborn baby.
It brought to mind the chapters we’d just finished. How there came to be people in the colonies. With people coming from apes, who came from smaller simpler mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fish and so on back to a single celled creature. Made sense that the two processes would be so similar. But the book contained no mention of the parallels. Seemed like a good topic for my report, so I began writing.
I’d finished less than a page when I was interrupted by what sounded like a distant siren. I glanced outside, noticing two plumes of thick black smoke several blocks away. Then the ground rumbled beneath me. I heard Mom and Dad stop arguing. Then another, deeper rumbling. A bright fireball engulfed one of the security buildings on the far side of the dome.
Then the sun fell. I couldn’t believe it even as it happened. Another explosion rocked the dome, and the sun itself came loose, plummeting to the ground. An eruption of flame, sparks and black smoke billowed up from where it landed, crushing a neighborhood less than a mile from mine.
For a few seconds it was dark, then emergency lighting activated bit by bit until the entire dome was dimly lit around the edge, stars and streetlights were turned on, and I heard the siren again. This time from downstairs. I heard the thunder of frantic footsteps, then Dad burst into my room whispering instructions.
Minutes later we piled into the car, having packed a change of clothing, canned food and first aid kits into the luggage we normally only use for vacations. I was frightened, and said so. “You can be frightened when we’re in the shelter” Dad said, as much of a comfort as ever. Mom wept softly. I grabbed a sheet of crumpled paper from my bag and handed it to her.
After she wiped her eyes, under the dim overhead light, she began reading the page. What little I’d finished of my report, now with her makeup smeared across it. Our car was soon joined by a dozen others. Then hundreds. All with the same destination. “For fuck’s sake. We’d get there faster by walking.”
Another explosion, this time so close that I could see Mom and Dad in the front seats silhouetted against the light from it. Some of the rim lights began to flicker, and overhead I could see a few clusters of stars go dark. Then, shrill screaming from a few cars behind us.
I peered over the back seat and, intermittently illuminated by the failing emergency lights, I saw an old man in the passenger seat of a station wagon coming apart. His head hatched like an egg, a writhing mess of malformed spider-like limbs emerging from it and clawing at the windows. Two children in the seat behind him struggled to open the doors while screaming, but child safety locks kept them inside.
Stay Tuned for Part 4!