Tag Archives: dystopia

Morgan, Kimberley Milton

Creak. I pull my blankets up to my chin and listen to the Milkman’s symphony. The gate strains as he makes his way into their front yard, trundling up the steps of their veranda to leave four glass bottles of milk. He stomps back down to close the white picket gate behind him, careful not step on the perfectly manicured lawn as he slouches over to the next house. Each time a gate is opened it reveals its squeaky hinges and I find a sense of comfort in this irritating flaw in our neighbourhood. I brace myself for the Milkman’s entrance to our neighbour’s front yard, but there is an extended silence.

My chest fills with a sudden nervous flutter and the blankets surrounding me begin to feel like a straight jacket holding me down. I fling them off and rush to my window. I slowly pull back the curtain and my vision fills with white. The domes have made it to our street.

Suddenly, a gap appears in the dome and three figures slowly emerge. I can see a man in a white suit, the black tie around his neck draws my eye to his throat and I am filled with hate. Next is a small woman, loose strands of red hair peek out from the curlers that cover her head. Her pink nightgown is pulled in at her waist by the arm holding her. My eyes move up to the tall figure beside her, his eyes the same blue as Tenille’s. I strain to look past the tall figures that are her parents, desperately searching for a sign of Tenille’s red hair and kind smile.

‘Tennile!’ I scream. I press my hand against the glass, as though I can will it to disappear. I want to run outside and rip through the dome, save Tenille from whatever horrors she is about to face. But my legs feel like they are stuck in ice, burning and stiff.

‘Wake up Nathaniel,’ I slap myself. ‘This is just a dream. Snap out of it.’ But nothing changes. My window is still filled with the white material and the gap in the dome remains sealed. But the slap has done something else and my legs are once again free.

I run to my bedroom door and fumble with the doorknob. ‘Shit,’ I scream as I punch the door. Finally, I get the door open and run down the stairs, taking two at a time, not at all concerned with falling down. With a click I unlatch the front door and am temporarily blinded by the glare from the dome.

I will my vision to clear as I seek out the two people I have questions I most need to see.

‘Who was it?’ I pause between each word. The calmness in my voice terrifies even me. Tenille’s parents just stare at me. Their stupid dumbstruck faces make me want to scream. Their slippered feet shuffle backward as I move toward them.

I repeat the question, this time a little louder. I’m close enough now to see their eyes darting around, looking for any chance of escape. This only makes them look guilty.

‘Who was it?’ I’m screaming now, shoving her dad. ‘She would never have a writing instrument and you know it. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about.’ I turn to Tenille’s mum and look straight into her eyes. Her dad seems like he’s going to make a move to stop me, but he’s abruptly taken away by a white suited man.

‘I know it was you.’ I whisper. ‘Tenille saw you with your precious diary. She told me all about how you would write in it when you thought no one was home. What did you do? Hide it in her room and call them?’ My head turns toward the men in the white suits.

My head snaps back to my arm as a sharp pain radiates down it and I see Tenille’s mum clutching my bicep, her fingernails digging into my flesh.

‘You think you’re so clever; that you know everything. You know nothing Nathaniel.’

She releases my arm, but reaches up to my sleeve and gently brushes away the creases.

‘Soon no one will remember her.’ She whispers into my ear. I clench my jaw and my hands form fists, my knuckles turning white.

‘Nathaniel?’ My mum calls. She is running across the grass of our front garden towards me. Her face is a mirror of the sadness and desperation I feel. Tenille’s mum drops my arm and backs away, moving towards her husband.

‘I’m so sorry, Nathaniel,’ she takes me in her arms and holds me against her; I can feel the steady beating of her heart. I suddenly drop to the ground, falling from her arms. She bends down and holds me whilst I weep. In the distance I can hear the Milkman’s symphony.

 

*

 

All this crying is so boring. So she’s gone, big whoop. She’s not dead. But I guess they don’t know that. I can see my big brother crying and my mum crying and Mr Smyth crying and Mrs Smyth not crying. She really needs to try harder than that if she wants to look normal.

I have had to put up with this family for eight years. It’s exhausting trying to be happy and cheerful all the time. But soon I finally get to take my Circle Standard and become a Nineling. Mrs Smyth says she has big plans for me.

Master Isaiah really knew what he was doing when he created the test. All you have to do is draw a circle. Simple right? Wrong. Draw a perfect circle and you are thrown out of Mallar because they think you are insane and dangerous. So I figured it has to look weird and not like a circle that should be enough to pass. The only problem is that they stick a big needle in you before you take the test so you go into, like, some sort of trance thing. But that’s where Mrs Smyth came in. She failed the Circle Standard, but no on ever knew because she swapped her circle with someone else and they disappeared forever. So now she steals writing implements and gets kids that she thinks are special to practice drawing imperfect circles, or sometimes gets them to sometimes just fill a whole notebook with perfect circles to get it out of their system.

I think I’m up to notebook number seven. I need lots of practice at not being perfect.

 

*

 

Two months have passed since Tenille disappeared and I seem to be the only one who remembers she existed at all. Whenever I mention her name or start talking about a memory I have of her, everyone just looks at me like I’ve gone crazy. Especially my sister Morgan, who has been acting really strange, but that could just be because she’s nervous.

In a couple of weeks she will take her Circle Standard and become a Nineling. She’s been spending a lot of time in her room with her door closed. I can hear strange scratching sounds coming from inside her room and every now and then she will let out a frustrated cry. Mum thinks that she’s just tidying her room, but I don’t think that she’s right.

People of Mallar.’ Master Isaiah’s voice booms from the speakers in our house. ‘Please make your way outside to welcome the Ninelings. Each one has successfully passed the Circle Standard. Please help me in congratulating them as they march through the streets. I look forward to their contributions to our fine city.’

The smell of springtime fills the air as we make our way out the front door. The sudden clean air and warm sunshine makes my fears seem ridiculous and they melt away.

Before long the sound of cheering and chanting can be heard. The sounds of muffled footsteps begin to build and before long the streets are filled with a new batch of Ninelings. The sound of their tiny footsteps mirrors the sound of soldiers marching towards battle.

Soon the Ninelings begin to pass by. Their little faces are beaming. Some are jumping up and down with excitement, breaking the illusion that a perfectly trained army was marching towards Mallar, but they were quickly put back in line by their parents who are all proudly watching from the crowd.

Morgan stands in front of me. I find it hard to believe that this sweet little girl, wearing a blue and white checked dress, could be anything but cute. She is waving so enthusiastically to her friends that I am afraid her arm might act as a propeller and she will take off into the air.

Suddenly, there is a slight change, almost as though a ripple passes through her. It is so subtle that I may have missed it if I hadn’t been looking directly at her. Morgan is staring straight into one of the Nineling girl’s eyes. She moves her hand to her neck and at first it looks like she is scratching, but her thumb extends out and draws a straight line across her throat, her head slightly tilted to the side, her face blank. Any remnant joy has been wiped away. Morgan moves her hand from her throat to her ear in an effort to appear inconspicuous. The joy that she had showed earlier returns to her face and she continues waving to her friends as they pass by, as though nothing has changed.

I can’t move. I am pierced by fear and my body goes into immediate fight or flight mode. The tell-tale signs of fear begin to appear. Sweat forms on my brow and my breath quickens. My heartbeat is so loud and fast in my chest; I am sure everyone around me can hear it. Clearly someone does, because in the next moment Morgan whips her head around to look at me.

‘You okay big brother?’ A huge grin spreads her lips wide. It would have seemed like a cute gesture from a little sister to a big brother, but after what I just witnessed I see it as a warning. All I can see is her mouth, full of teeth.

I reach forward and touch my mum’s arm to get her attention.

‘Mum, I’m just going inside to get a drink.’ She gives me a quick nod and then goes back to waving and smiling at the children, pulling Morgan to her and giving her a big hug. ‘This will be you next year,’ she announces to Morgan, squeezing her so tight her shoulders are forced up to her ears.

The next morning at breakfast I can’t look at Morgan the same way. The threat that she made to that little girl is still etched in my mind. It plays over and over on a loop.

‘Nathaniel?’ I am snapped back to my kitchen, where Morgan sits opposite me munching on her piece of toast with strawberry jam. ‘What are the white domes for?’

I freeze and scan the room for any signs of mum or dad. ‘Where did you hear about them Morgan?’ I whisper.

‘I just remember the look on your face when Tenille’s house was covered in that dome. Too bad she’s gone. She was nice.’ A sweet smile spreads across her lips. She pushes back her chair as she stands up. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her voice is low and measured and it terrifies me. She turns and skips away.

Words escape me and I chase after her. How does she know?

‘Morgan! Open the door. Tell me what you know.’ There is silence behind the door. I reach down to turn the doorknob, but it’s locked. ‘Damn.’ I clench my fist and pound on her door again, over and over, calling out her name. The sound has done nothing except draw my parent’s attention.

‘Nathaniel, what are you doing?’

‘I just need to talk to Morgan.’ My mother’s face softens as she senses the desperation in my voice.

‘How about you sit down with her this afternoon? You are both going to be late for school if you don’t leave now.’ She places a hand on my shoulder and directs me to the stairs. ‘Have a good day at school sweetie.’

I grab my backpack on the way out and reluctantly start trudging off to school. I glance over my shoulder at my sister’s bedroom. She’s standing in the window, framed by two pink, chiffon curtains. Morgan doesn’t move, or smile or wave. She just stares at me. I turn around and focus on my shadow as it moves ahead of me, quickening my pace to leave the image of my sister behind.

I can’t focus on anything at school today except for what happened this morning. My teacher is droning on about algebra, but my head is swimming with questions. Should I tell Mum? Is Tenille still alive? Does Morgan know what happened to her?

The more I think about my sister’s strange behaviour, the more I begin to realise she’s behaving the same way as Mrs Smyth. Both are normally so kind and sweet, but that day when Tenille disappeared and she grabbed my arm was unlike anything that she has done before. The cruelty behind her eyes signalled her words as a threat. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her words replayed through my mind and I freeze. Morgan said the exact same words this morning.

Suddenly, I spring from my chair and it rocks precariously on its legs, threatening to fall to the ground. Every head in the classroom turns towards me.

‘I’m not feeling well.’ I announce as I lift the lid of my desk to retrieve my backpack.

‘Okay Nathaniel, just go to…’ but I don’t hear the end of the sentence as I have already bolted from the classroom.

I run home, my feet pounding against the pathway and my backpack thumps against my back. Each perfectly manicured lawn taunts me as I run by. The perfection is too much.

1:00 pm on a Wednesday should place my sister in class, my dad at work and my mum at the grocery store. This is the only opportunity I would get to search my sister’s room.

The sound of our gate creaking no longer fills me with comfort. It only reminds me of the horror of that morning. But as soon as the door closes behind me I am overwhelmed with relief. It creates an instant barrier between Morgan and myself.

I race up the stairs, two at a time and fling open her bedroom door. Her delicate chiffon curtain sucks against the open window as I enter her room. The pink pillows are arranged on her bed in the usual way, but I can see a small white corner peeking out from underneath them. This seems too easy. I push aside the voice and rush towards the pillows. This was it, Morgan’s secret. I needed to know what she has been hiding.

I slowly open the front cover of the book, expecting to see a blank notebook, or perhaps a diary. We’d been taught that people used to keep track of their lives with forbidden pen and paper, instead of using computers like we do today.

I open to the first page and my throat goes dry. Adorning every page are circles, hundreds and hundreds of perfect circles. I drop the book and it falls flat onto the floor, opening up to the middle spread revealing even more pages, each circle mirroring the other. The breeze from the open window rifles through the pages as through they are moving by themselves; revealing their secrets to me. The sound of the turning pages mimics the sound of waves lapping at the beach and it lulls me into a false sense of security.

I pick the book up from the ground and flick through it. Every page is the same. There is barely any space left and almost all the white areas have been filled with menacing circles. I start turning the pages faster and faster.

That’s when the curtain is suddenly drawn against the window. Someone has entered the room. I slowly turn around, my breath struggling to move in and out, as if it is getting caught between my teeth. Morgan and Mrs Smyth stand in the doorway.

‘You shouldn’t be here big brother.’

 

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Vainthrow, Nicolas Fuentes

The takeover was swift and precise. It only took three days for the Liberstats government to impose their rule over the citizens of Vainthrow. All it took was a firing of flares and the power fetish of one man, the ruthless dictator President Kithgo. October 28th of 2057 marked day one, the beginning of a new period for the city’s citizens. Vainthrow – a city marked by its obsession with technology, where street signs are holographic, and goods are distributed through self-service kiosks. Fronted by Kithgo, once a Lieutenant of the tactics division within the military, the Liberstats announced their plans for the city’s future. To ensure civility and compliance with the new regime, Kithgo deployed the disciplinarians to patrol the streets. They represented the regime’s most faithful adherents and were to occupy their thoughts with one sole aim – guard Kithgo’s revolution. Equipped with a precision rifle, Vainthrow’s citizens were coerced into compliance by the disciplinarians.

On the large digital screen attached to the skyscraper of Titan Industries, the pale face of the President appeared. In a repressed compliance, those being held captive in the plaza looked upward at the screen with looks of horror. Drones filmed the central plaza address to ensure that viewers at home would not miss this pivotal moment in Vainthrow’s history.

 

‘People of Vainthrow,

What you just witnessed was my fireworks display to you. A heartfelt welcome to you and the new era of civilisation we are about to embark on. In close alliance with science giant Titan Industries, we have developed a new system of living. It will alter you both physically and psychologically in a way that is, simply – better. Remain calm and follow the instructions. Let the disciplinarians be your guide…’

 

*

 

Richard is an elderly man. He lives life on his lonesome after his wife fell victim to a deadly brain tumour. Richard longed for an extension of his life, for he felt that his time had been misspent. He devoted his entire life to working as a risk analyst inthe finance department of Titan Industries. He would often clock sixty-hour working weeks, spending too much of his time inside the office at the expense of seeing his grandchildren grow up. On the day of the takeover, Richard was at home pruning the weeds of his home’s garden bed. The violent explosion startled him and caused him to drop his hedge clippers and turn his attention to the smoke trail rising in the distance. Grabbing his cane, Richard hobbled his way into their modest sized home and switched on the daily news on his television. On the screen, Richard set his eyes on the following address by Kithgow:

 

‘… A turn of events, my people of Vainthrow. The Liberstats have partnered with Titan Industries, the forerunner in scientific innovation. As we both only want to advance human welfare, we created a dual-system of sorts…’

 

Richard had a vague idea what this was about. During his employment at Titan, he had overheard conversations about controversial tests being conducted in the Labyrinth. While biological ethicists had expressed their concerns, the financial and political might of the Liberstats was far too strong for the dissenters.

 

‘…The transfiguration pods – these capsules give you the power to control your physical appearance. They are also designed to add anywhere between sixteen and nineteen years to your life. For your convenience, we have organised courtesy trams to the GRIDS, the sites where these pods are placed. Upon completing this mandatory transfiguration, all citizens will be distributed an iD-Chip, a handheld device that must be possessed at all times. Please proceed to the GRIDS immediately. Failure to do so will result in forced evacuation.’

- K

 

Richard stared at the television screen in disbelief. What had his city become? He had several questions, yet the state of limbo he was in delivered him no answers. He knew of the atrocities that Kithgo had committed in the past. Whether it was the Grand Massacre that took place during the War of 2042, or experimentation on the debilitated at the close of the war, stories of Kithgo’s war crimes were common folklore in Vainthrow. Staring on, Richard observed the imagery captured by the flying drones. The plaza was unidentifiable. The fountain which once rhythmically spurted out water at the plaza’s centre had been covered by smog. He vaguely made out faces of desperation as they stood helplessly at the behest of individuals dressed in a khaki green. To Richard, this entire event resembled a military coup. He looked onward at the screen to see the disciplinarians holding necks in headlocks and small children being dragged without care. Bodies were being ushered into semi-trailers and driven to a place unknown to him. The media outlets reported the following:

 

‘MASSACRE AT VAINTHROW: LIBERSTATS RULE BY FORCE’

 

*

 

Richard’s eyes awoke to see the GRID site. He had been smothered and taken there after a disciplinarian knocked at his home’s door. Surrounding him were people seemingly embracing the idea of transfiguration by the pod. The CPU, on the pod’s exterior, allowed people to choose their new appearance. Each veiled by a thick white tarp and manned by a Liberstats disciplinarian. Those that waited their turn were not permitted to see their neighbours during the process. They would wait in confinement bays, fed glug and water by the authorities and instructed to wait patiently, sometimes days. Upon leaving the pod, people were given their handheld iD-Chip and sent back to their homes via the trams. From there, citizens had to follow the instructions on the iD-Chip’s screen and continue living their days.

Richard was called to one of the pods. ‘Richard… Alright, old man, you get one shot. What’s it going to be?’ Dressed in the khaki colours and proudly displaying the freedom stars of the Liberstats, the disciplinarian talked down at Richard’s frail stature. Richard fixed his eyes on the CPU screen and attempted to make sense of the prompts. ‘Just press the features you want, old mutt. You telling me you don’t know tech?’ Ignoring the reproaches, Richard perused through the list of features he could select for himself. A large part of him was curious about the process, reasoning that at last there was some excitement in his otherwise empty life. HAIR: luscious golden locks, or perhaps a simple, slick back? His hair was silver and thinning so he could do with a younger look. TORSO: a broad set of athletic shoulders, that ought to do it. After finalising all the essentials, Richard arrived at the most important consideration – AGE LIKENESS. ‘Hurry up old timer! We’re on a tight schedule here, and you ain’t got any special privileges to be taking longer just because your hair is falling out’.

With caution, Richard typed 3-5 into the CPU and waited for the avatar of him to emerge on the screen. Projected on the CPU screen was a digital Richard, five decades younger and sporting a neat, slicked back hairdo. The squiggly indents on his forehead had disappeared, and his frame appeared reasonably muscled. While Richard felt deeply anguished by the political state of Vainthrow, a tiny fragment of his was thrilled with the prospect of added years. At this point, his curiosity had taken over, for he had not yet seen how people were emerging on the southern side. Standing behind a thick steel slab, Richard stripped himself of his clothes and placed them in a bucket labelled “CLOTHING DEPOSITS”. He lethargically carried his bony frame into the confined space of the pod. Numerous suction pads attached to dangling wires hung from the pod’s ceiling. On the pod’s back wall were fastened platinum shackles, one at the neckline and two presumably for the wrists. Lastly, there was a heavy leather belt that appeared to belong to the waist line. ‘Alright old man, you ready yet?’ Called the disciplinarian. Richard responded with a croaky affirmation. Richard was ordered to stand at the back wall. The disciplinarian affixed each suction pad to his body, one at each of his droopy nipples and one at the sternum. The belt was fastened tightly around his waist and, at disciplinarian’s press of a button, the neck shackle loosely pulled his throat to the wall. It wasn’t far off from a strangle hold. ‘We will meet again on the southern side, old man.’

 

*

 

‘Greetings, #471, welcome to your new life, a world of possibility. All you need to rememb — or – shall I say, do, is to follow the prompts on your viewfinder. Here is your ID-Chip, with compliments from President Kithgo and the Liberstats’. Richard was handed a handheld device with a screen. He noticed that the digits “471” were etched onto the plastic. He ignored a prompt on the screen to follow an introductory video, putting it aside for later. These GRID encampments were on the desolate outskirts of Vainthrow and all that Richard could see was the barren land on the horizon. They were a one-hour tram ride from the city centre which allowed for enough secrecy and continual surveillance. A faint call was heard in the distance to return to the tram station. Richard sluggishly followed the marked signs and returned to the arrival point, an area which he had no recollection of. Confusion immediately overcame him as he tried to make sense of his surroundings in a trance-like state. He felt blank, and it seemed that, at this point, that was all he was capable of feeling. As he entered the tram, he was met by the stares of unfamiliar people. Fellow human beings, but he had no label for them. It was as if he was processing information for the first time.

On the way back to the city centre, an announcement began to play through the loudspeaker inside the tram. Richard perplexed alongside the convoy of bodies left in waiting, listened attentively to the words spoken. ‘It is normal to feel dazed. This is new territory for you. Once you arrive home, get some rest. The turn of tomorrow will come and a new day awaits. Further instructions will appear on your iD-Chip.’ Richard looked down at his iD-Chip with its confusing list of functions and operations. The tram moved at its forty kilometres an hour as Richard sat idly staring out the tram window into nothingness. It seemed that everyone in the tram shared his confusion.

 

*

 

The tram re-entered the residential district of Vainthrow and began to disembark the Vainthrow citizens. Each seated passenger looked out the glass window as the disciplinarian led each passenger back into their home. The return journey from GRID was made in complete silence. In between curious glances at the unfamiliar outside, passengers fixed their sights on screens of their iD-Chips. Recurring footage of turmoil and suffering met them. There were moving images of yelping mothers crying out for their infants, as well as a frame of an elderly woman trapped in the firm grip of a disciplinarian. It was difficult to bear the images of these people squirming for their survival. The subtext reeled at the bottom of the viewfinder screen:

‘THE EMANCIPATION: LIBERSTATS’ FIGHT TO VICTORY’

Richard mused over the tragedy of it all. He could only hope that he would never have to encounter anything like it in his lifetime.

 

*

 

The tram pulled up on Richard’s Street. He was led back inside his family home by a Liberstats disciplinarian. He opened the front gate and walked down the narrow strip of asphalt that led to the front door. Still rattled by his surroundings, Richard asked the disciplinarian ‘Where are we and what are we doing here?’ The Liberstats guide told him not to worry and commanded him to enter the dwelling. He explained that the only thing that Richard ought to worry about is following the instructions on the iD-Chip’s viewfinder. ‘This is a prosperous time. Consider yourself fortunate, #471.’ Richard could not understand why he should feel this gratitude and, more importantly, what this iD-Chip even was. He entered the home and scanned the first room. His eyes met an impressive mahogany bookshelf positioned in the far left corner. Richard sluggishly moved over to the bookshelf to examine it. ‘#471, we recommend you rest your body. You ought to lie down and shut your eyes.’ The digits 4-7-1 echoed in Richard’s mind.

Images faced him as he approached the bookshelf. On the upper timber shelf lay a bundle of photos. Richard perused through them, processing the information contained therein. An image of an elegant lady, approximately in her mid-thirties, wearing a silky white gown. The silken fabric left a trail and extended behind her. It was the most beautiful image he had seen in his lifetime. She was clenching a bundle of flowers; a feature he had observed while walking into his home only moments ago. He wondered why she would pluck them from his front lawn. Beneath the image of the elegant figure lay another. He saw a man and a woman standing side by side, one with its arm extended around the shoulder of the other. They stared back at him with a joyful expression. Flipping the image on its back, its reverse side read:

 

Wilma and Richard – 50 Year Wedding Anniversary at Vainthrow Cottage

21st February 2057

 

Richard put both photos into his trouser pockets without the disciplinarian noticing him. His eyelids had become heavy and were beginning to close in on themselves. He determined the carpet to be a suitable resting spot and so without hesitation; #471 dozed off.

 

*

 

Awoken by the sound of the iD-Chip, #471 rose from a deep sleep cycle. An announcement came through the viewfinder and the face of President Kithgo propped up on the screen. ‘As you have hopefully read by now, it is government policy that you maintain a faithful record of the places you visit and the people you interact with. Use the camera inbuilt to the iD-Chip. Data collection makes us better.

An hour later, #471 ventured out of the unknown dwelling. The sun shone brightly, and the streets filled with others walking with their eyes immersed in their viewfinder. #471 remembered Kithgo’s instruction and took out the iD-Chip. The two photos he snatched earlier emerged as well. #471 withdrew them and curiously studied them. His eyes gazed at the two figures dressed in their formal attire, a male wearing a suit and tie with his arm around the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Something seemed strange in these images. Upon leaving the front walkway, as instructed, he switched on the iD-Chip’s camera to record his daily events. #471 pondered the photograph again. Wife…

He aimed the lens at the street and took a snapshot of the holographic street sign. Instantaneously, the iD-Chip assigned a default label to the photo:

 

No. 471: Memory #1

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Day Dreaming, Kendall King

December 31st 2099

The world had been reduced to filth and sickness; the streets contaminated by debris and smog. A putrid odour lingered in the air as if the sewer lines had burst out onto the streets. The cities had become too immense to handle. There was a disease called Rasnac that plagued human existence, which had significantly condensed the population due to malignant tumor growths that formed inside the body—driving the remaining population of North America to a colony in Utah. People were sanctioned into housing estates, providing the survivors with an improved quality of life.

Unit 489-W housed an elderly couple near the outskirts of town. Rodney had worked in the coal mines for twenty years while his wife Daphne raised their son Jack. They had eaten through their life savings, with only enough left to survive for a few more months.

Rodney was very sick; every breath he took sounded like he was sucking air through a whistle. Such a significant amount of physical exertion would go into each breath that it triggered a deep bubbling cough emanating from the bowels of his chest. As a result of the fierce cough, thick hunks of dark phlegm spattered against his red checkered handkerchief—a handkerchief that he received as a gift from his wife Daphne many years ago. It was made of silk and was once used as a pocket square when Rodney and his wife would host dinner parties.

Now, the greater part of Rodney’s dinner would end up regurgitated in the bucket by the side of his bed. Rodney folded his handkerchief in half, concealing the substance he had just expelled. He observed the handkerchief, fixated on the navy checks, remembering how they used to stand out against the red silk. Now it was nothing more than a filthy rag that he held onto for sentimentality.

 *

June 28th 2050

>>> Rodney wiped away the sweat dripping from his brow and placed the handkerchief in his back pocket. As he reached for his pickaxe a searing pain tore through his lower back, bringing him to his knees.

‘Forty-Seven. Get back to work, you lazy fuck!’ his supervising officer bellowed.

Rodney was almost at the end of a fourteen-hour shift; he just needed to push through the next half hour. He placed his hand firmly on top of his axe and pushed down in the hope of being able to continue.

‘Ah, shit!’ Rodney screeched. ‘I can’t do it!’

‘Take your things and go home, Forty-Seven. You’re slowing down the rest of the crew,’ the officer commanded.

Rodney stood there shaking. He couldn’t afford to go home early today. The supervising officer walked closer toward Rodney and stared him straight in the eyes.

‘Could I please receive pay for the hours I worked, sir?’ Rodney asked timidly.

‘If you don’t finish your shift, you don’t get paid.’

‘But please, it’s my son’s birthday,” Rodney begged.

‘I couldn’t give a shit about you or your son’s birthday. No work, no pay!’ the officer shouted. >>>

 *

‘Rodney!’ called Daphne.

Rodney snapped out of his daydream and was jolted back into reality. He realized the memories his handkerchief rediscovered and quickly stuffed it back into his pocket.

‘Do you want tea?’ Daphne asked.

‘Oh, um… yeah, sure,’ replied Rodney.

Daphne walked back into the kitchen, leant against the counter and waited for the kettle to boil. The kettle was an antique from 2015, a simplistic design from the golden age of technology. How things have turned to shit, she thought. Before she could begin to brood over her current situation, she was startled by a gurgling sound that arose from Rodney’s lungs.

‘Oh sh- shit. Blood. Again.’ The gunk still stuck in Rodney’s throat made it hard for him to speak.

He looked at the blood, dark against the brighter red silk of the handkerchief. It reminded him of the horror.

 *

June 29th 2050

>>> The cavern jolted with malicious force. The wooden pillars shuddered, causing the roof to crack, forming boulders that thundered to the ground. Shards of rock began showering Rodney; he could feel them slicing into his flesh. The blood began to seep through his clothes. His white undershirt looked as if it had been smothered with ketchup for a Halloween costume. The cheap wash of the fluorescent lights beat down upon Rodney—the glare was making it hard to think.

A haunting roar echoed throughout the caverns, like a lion asserting its dominance over its competitors. As the tunnels crumbled, debris sprinkled from the ceiling. Rodney could not distinguish where the blast had emanated from—he only hoped that is was from one of the lower tunnels, otherwise there would be no way for him to escape. He began to sprint toward the east end of the tunnel. As he began to exert himself, his breathing deepened. As his diaphragm shovelled oxygen into his lungs he began to taste a burning chemical in the back of his throat. Hydrogen Sulfide. Rodney knew exactly what it was, and he knew it would choke him to death if he didn’t act fast.

Pools of blood were spattered against the dirt floor, forming a wet paste. It reminded him of his grandmother dispensing a hot mug of rosy rooibos tea on a cold winter’s night. Unfortunately for Rodney the sensation was not the same; instead of ingesting a calm and relaxing liquid, it felt like twenty sheets of sandpaper were scraping away at his insides. >>>

 *

‘Hungry?’ Daphne asked.

Rodney quickly tried to conceal the handkerchief once more, but it was too late. Daphne had seen the colour of the cloth.

‘Damn it Rodney! You’ve gone and gotten it all filthy again,’ she exclaimed.

Daphne took the handkerchief into the laundry and began rinsing it under the warm flow of the tap. She had done this countless times before; she was surprised the tattered piece of silk still existed after everything it had been through.

 *

>>> Back in the time when television still existed, Daphne’s eyes were glued to the television set. Journalist Jeff Daniels had called the disaster ‘The Coal Mining Blunder’. The broadcaster was more concerned with ratings than the lives of the miners and families affected by the disaster. Five of the lower tunnels had been obliterated thus far, and it was slowly causing a chain reaction of higher tunnels to cave in.

‘I can’t sit idly by and watch this shit!’ Jack shouted, as he paced furiously up and down the lounge room.

‘Please Jack, sit down,’ Daphne pleaded.

‘No. I’m going, and that’s final!’ Jack said as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. >>>

 *

The water became too hot for Daphne and it slightly scalded her hand, snapping her back to reality. The handkerchief was quick to dry due to the nature of its fabric. She waddled into the lounge room and slipped the handkerchief back into Rodney’s breast pocket.

‘Try not to get it dirty this time,’ she said.

Rodney waited until she had left the room and gone back into the kitchen before he removed the handkerchief.

 *

>>> Rodney had his handkerchief wrapped around his nose and mouth. It was definitely slowing down the flow of chemicals into his lungs, but not enough. The other miners were not as fortunate as him, trying to cover their nostrils with their bare hands. They were unsuccessful in their efforts at preventing the lethal gas from intoxicating their bodies. It was only a matter of time before Rodney collapsed like the rest of them. He heard the thundering force of rubble seal the path behind him.

‘Help me Forty-Seven!’ a voice screamed.

It was the supervising officer. He was trapped on the other side of the debris that had now sealed his tomb.

‘No pay, no work!’ he shouted back. ‘And my name is Rodney!’

He knew nothing could be done to save the man, especially if Rodney wanted to make it out of the tunnels alive himself. He ran as fast as he could. He saw a rope ladder hanging from the roof ahead. He was going to make it. He could feel the coarse texture of the rope against his hands, what a wonderful feeling…

The tunnel lurched. More violently this time—Rodney heard the sound of bone cracking in two. A staggering pain arose throughout his whole body. He couldn’t bear to look down. He could feel his bone protruding through the skin, just like a chicken drumstick. A fragment of the ceiling had broken off and collided with his leg. There’s no way I can hoist myself up now, he thought. >>>

*

‘It was my fault,’ Rodney sobbed.

He used the handkerchief to wipe the tears from his cheeks. The explosion was caused by coal dust being present in the air. Before Rodney finished his shift each day he was in charge of replenishing the limestone rock dust, ensuring it mixed with the coal dust to act as a heat sink. However, on the day prior to the explosion, Rodney was distressed about being sent home with no pay and completely forgot.

 *

>>> Rodney was stranded with a compound fracture. He tried to clamber up the ladder, but he could not get a solid grip. Not without a functional leg. Just as he was about to let go of the rope and give up, two hands gripped his forearm and yanked him through the manhole.

‘Gotcha!’ a manly voice shouted.

His face was coated with a veneer of dust making him indistinguishable—the only unique feature this man possessed was the number 213 on his helmet.

‘We’ve got a compound break over here!’ 213 shouted at another miner.

They lifted Rodney into one of the mine carts; Rodney could feel the flaking rust from the cart scrape against his skin as he descended into the containment area. The cart trembled as 213 flicked the switch that sent them flying down the track at full speed. The wind was gushing past his face, his head throbbing in pain. The bright lights only intensified the ache as his stomach churned over and over again.

Another explosion resonated, this time much louder. >>>

 *

Uhh,’ Rodney grunted as he threw the handkerchief to the floor.

Daphne picked up the handkerchief and sat down on the lounge next to Rodney.

‘I remember that day too, you know,’ she said as she stared at the cloth.

 *

>>> Daphne saw her son on the television as he arrived at the scene. The television crew had a barricade in place to allow prime real estate for filming their reports. Jack was pressed up against the front of the barricade in amongst a swarm of people, shouting towards the camera. >>>

 *

‘Stop,’ Rodney insisted.

Rodney snatched the handkerchief from Daphne and stuffed it back into his pocket. Daphne swooped in and recovered it. They both held the piece of fabric together in their hands.

 *

>>> While Daphne was sitting safely on the lounge at home in front of the television, Rodney was being evacuated from the mine. As he was brought outside and into the light, he could hear the voice of his son in the distance. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the harsh light of the sun. He heard Jack’s voice again, but couldn’t tell where was it coming from. He could see a swarm of people in the distance. He saw the silhouette of a man jump over the barricade and run towards him. Rodney tried to clamber out of the mine cart but he was unsuccessful.

The signal went black on the television set. Minutes passed. Daphne was pacing around the room in the same fashion her son had been doing less than an hour before. Nothing. The hum of the television crackled dissonantly in the corner of the room, and Daphne felt an impending sense of doom as the screen started to flicker. She quickly rushed back to her seat, with the remote control clenched in her hand.

This time, there was no sign of Jeff Daniels, which was very odd for the narcissistic journalist. Instead, the footage was being shot from an emergency broadcast drone. The remote Daphne was holding fractured against the wooden floorboards as she dropped to her knees. She saw the figure of a man sprinting across the barren ground. Running for his life. The flock of people had disappeared; in their place was a void that appeared to travel miles down into the earth.

Jack was the only one who seemed to notice. It was hard to tell at first over the squawking voices of the crowd, but he heard a muffled rumble echo beneath his feet as the earth began to shake. He quickly leapt over the barricade and managed to swindle one of the security guards with some fancy footwork his father had taught him playing football in the front yard. The ground collapsed behind him. There was no need to look back—he knew what had happened. He could hear the screams of people plummeting to their deaths.

The ground began to dissolve behind Jack.

Run!’ Daphne screamed at the television.

The gaping hole in the earth made him look like an ant running away from a gardener shovelling holes in the soil.

Jack could see his father in the distance, concealed inside a mine cart; he looked like a steak slumped inside a frying pan. He waved his arms frantically to attract his father’s attention.

Rodney was not hallucinating. A silhouette was racing straight towards him. His stomach stopped churning. He felt nothing. The earth was disappearing behind the figure, and it was vanishing fast. Before he could process the series of events that lay before him, he was seized by two men and placed on a stretcher. 213 had attached him to a helicopter for emergency evacuation. As Rodney’s stretcher swayed from side to side beneath the helicopter he bore witness to the sight of the cartoon-like figure being swallowed by the earth.

‘Dad!’ Jack screamed as his limbs flailed in the air, a useless attempt at keeping him airborne.

Son?’ Rodney yelled.

He could see the distraught look on his son’s face as he slowly disappeared into the devastation—the devastation that Rodney had created. >>>

 *

If only Rodney stayed at work that day, maybe the lives lost could have been spared. Maybe he could have seen his son flourish into a man. It was a burden he could no longer bear. He placed the handkerchief into Daphne’s pocket, closed his eyes and slowly slipped away.

 

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Playing Catch-up, Kylie Nealon

…Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky…This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised…

‘Playing Catch Up’ is part of a novel-length YA work, set in the not-too-distant future.  Incorporating elements of dystopian and steam-punk fiction, the novel follows the journey of Scout, an Australian girl plucked from an ordinary life to attend the Dorsay Academy. The Academy is part of a global company involved in researching and harnessing ‘extra’ mental capabilities that have been emerging around the world.  Scout, along with her friends Lily and Conor, are part of this new generation where their talents could be used for good – or for darker reasons yet to be discovered.

 

Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky. Blackened stubby grass mounds pushed up from the dusty ground. There was a slight breeze picking up the scent of eucalyptus and hot earth, making her stomach contort with homesickness. In the distance, she heard the faint sounds of cockatoos screeching in the trees. This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised.

The sun was beating down, searing the crown of her head. She tried to shield her eyes to get a better look at where she was, but found one of her hands being held by a small child. Not just any small child – her.  A much smaller version of herself with a confident grin plastered across her face. Scout dropped her hand and stared. Okay, this was weird.

‘Uh, hey,’ Scout said to her.

‘Hey,’ Mini-Scout replied, squizzing one eye up to better look at her in the bright sunlight. She was dressed in what Scout remembered as being her favourite outfit – jeans and a red Elmo t-shirt. She’d loved Sesame Street when she was a kid and that t-shirt was a prized possession. Seeing her smaller self was bizarrely strange and familiar all at the same time.

‘Why are we – you – here?’ Scout asked the small version of herself.

‘I’ve got a message.’ The little girl drew out the last word.

‘Yeah, ok,’ Scout drawled, ‘course you do. Because why else would we be standing in the middle of nowhere?’ She fought off an overwhelming urge to laugh.

‘I have!’ Mini-Scout scowled at her.

‘Ok, keep your knickers on. So, who’s it from?’ Scout was definitely finding this amusing. A small part of her brain registered regret at not having a smaller sibling to do this to in real life.

‘Who do you think? Mum, of course,’ the little girl shrugged, looking around.

‘Sure it is,’ Scout said. Of course, she thought to herself sarcastically. Who else would it be from?

Mini-Scout peered closely at Scout, not quite sure what to make of the eye rolling that this statement induced.

‘I can’t tell you here,’ she said. ‘Come on.’ She tugged at Scout’s hand, urging her forward.

‘Where are we going?’ Scout asked her. The small hand holding hers was hot and dry. The simple touch brought back long-forgotten summer afternoons of carefree bike rides around neighbouring streets, along with the dawning realisation of her ability to see the world in a different way to everybody else.

‘You’ll see,’ Mini-Scout said and kept walking. The ground between Scout’s toes began to change to a sandy texture, and she saw the tip of a sand dune rear up out of nowhere.

Scout followed her up the incline, puffing slightly. She watched as the little girl laughed joyfully as she ran down the other side, legs and arms akimbo and she found herself laughing as well by the time she’d reached the bottom. Her small doppelganger was waiting impatiently for her, feet twitching on the hot sand.

‘Hurry up!’ She grabbed Scout’s hand again, and headed towards the water. The tide was coming in and the shining water hurt her already sun-sore eyes.

They came to a stop near the shoreline, littered with seaweed and shells dumped in piles after a recent storm. Scout glanced around, seeing nothing and no one in either direction. The sea’s mercurial surface slithered around her feet, flashing fleeting images at her. She stared at them closely, only to see them disappear as quickly as they’d appeared. Frustrated, Scout turned her attention to the little girl in front of her.

‘So, how old are you?’ Scout asked her, crouching down to make eye contact with her, ignoring the silvery water around them. Mini-Scout was humming happily as she scooped shells together in the wet sand.

She looked up at Scout steadily. ‘I’m seven,’ she said. ‘You don’t remember being seven, do you?’

‘I guess not,’ Scout shrugged. ‘I don’t remember a lot of things. But that’s okay, I mean, who’d want to remember everything anyway?’

‘I do,’ the little girl announced importantly. ‘And I know why you have to remember now,’ she told Scout.

‘Why? Is that why Mum sent you?’ It’s just a dream, she told herself, dreams are meant to be weird. But if it was just a dream, why did everything feel so real?

Mini-Scout shook her head at the older girl’s stupidity.

‘Mum says you need to remember who you are,’ she said, suddenly sounding much older than seven. ‘She said to tell you that you’re going to have to be ready.’ Mini-Scout looked pleased, as though she’d remembered the message word for word.

‘Ready for what?’ Scout had no idea what the little girl was talking about.

‘You know.’ Mini-Scout scowled at her. ‘But you have to be careful.’ She sat back on her haunches, jeans soaking into the sand and waited expectantly. Scout couldn’t find anything to say, her mind racing to try and figure out what she meant.

‘You’re such a scaredy cat,’ she said derisively, dismissing her older self. From the distance came a sharp clap of thunder. The sky on the horizon had become dark, with clouds that resembled grey waves slowly waiting to crash down. The sparkly sea had turned a bleak grey, a waiting mass of menace.

‘I have to go now,’ Mini-Scout announced.

‘Wait,’ Scout scrambled to get up, tripping over piles of shells and tangling her feet up in seaweed.

‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘But you’ve got to promise that you’ll try to remember and go back to being us. Do you promise?’ she asked fiercely, holding out her pinky for Scout to shake.

‘I promise,’ Scout said solemnly.

‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘Bye,’ and began walking away, up over the crest of the dune. She waved once from the top before disappearing behind it.

‘Wait!’ Scout called out but she didn’t hear. The clouds had crept in closer, forming a dark ring hovering above her. The waves rose up and ropes of seaweed tightened around her ankles with a swirling tug, pulling her out into the cold water.

Quickly losing her footing, she fought back with flailing arms, reaching for the surface, only to be pulled down further into the dark depths.

Entangled in the malevolent swirls, Scout gulped salt water into her protesting lungs, choking. Panic started to set in, and her lungs burned.

Scout kicked hard, freeing herself of the seaweed, reaching the surface when another giant tug pulled her even further down. She was drowning. And there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it.

Come on, she screamed at herself, just keep kicking! Every muscle screamed for mercy. Not yet, dammit, she swore to herself, I’m not going to die yet.

Scout woke up gasping, trying to draw in deep lungfuls of air. The blissful realisation that she could breathe again helped to slow her panic. Her damp hair was mashed to her head and she hastily pulled her wet pyjamas away from her, trying to rid her body of the clammy, wet feeling that they were swaddling her. Come on, she told herself, you’re okay. Breathe in, breathe out. Swinging her legs over the edge of her bed, she rested her throbbing feet on the floor, enjoying the coolness of the concrete.

Glancing a little more closely, she noticed sand stuck crusted to her toes. What the hell? Before her brain could start processing this latest detail, there was a knock at the door, startling her. Shit! She caught sight of herself in the mirror opposite her bed.  Disaster zone didn’t even begin to cover what she saw reflected back at her. She grabbed a hoodie and pulled it over the saturated pyjama top, her skin crawling at the feel of the clammy cotton fabric plastering her body.

‘Hey, Hambleton.’ A muffled voice came loudly through the door, accompanied by another set of heavy bangs on the flimsy wood. ‘Come on,’ she thought she heard the voice mutter impatiently. Hunter, by the sounds of it. Great. The last person she wanted to see.

She swung it open, embarrassed, partially hiding behind the door.

‘Wow, you’re not really a morning person, are you?’ Hunter’s eyes ran a quick scan over her, taking in the full effect of her bedraggled, literally just-washed-up look.

‘I didn’t pick you for one, either,’ Scout replied, pulling the sweatshirt closer around her. ‘What do you want?’ He was taking way too much interest in how she looked.

‘We’ve been called in to some big-deal early meeting before breakfast. Everybody’s been called in to it – students, staff, pretty much everyone in Dorsay, I think. I’m just letting people know,’ he replied.

‘Wow, that’s weird. Okay, uh, thanks. I didn’t pick you to be the messenger type. Not really your thing, is it?’ She bit her tongue. Don’t keep him talking, she scolded herself. Just shut the damn door! She suspected that there was more to this seemingly altruistic act than met the eye.

‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ It appeared that her curiosity had got his attention in some unexpected way, given the amused look on his face. He looked at her more closely, a slight smile ghosting across his face.

‘You might want to rethink the showering with clothes on, though.’ He gestured at her with a casual sweep of his hand. ‘I’m guessing that even in places like Australia, being fully clothed isn’t what most people do – but that’s just a guess. And maybe try to ditch the sand.’ He looked pointedly at her hands, wrapped around the door.

Remnants of the sand that she’d hastily wiped off her feet had clung to her fingertips.  Scout went scarlet and opened her mouth, but before she could reply, he got there first.

‘We’re in the Atrium in half an hour.’ He walked off down the hall and she shut the door with a sigh. This day was getting weirder by the minute and she hadn’t even made it to breakfast yet.

Half an hour later, Scout was standing at the back of the Atrium, Dorsay’s central meeting hall, properly showered and stomach grumbling. She caught sight of Lily and Conor sitting near the front and made her way over to them, plonking herself gratefully on the seat that Lily had saved for her.

‘So, what’s up?’ she asked them.

‘Dunno,’ shrugged Conor, ‘but whatever it is, it won’t be good.’ His gloominess reminded Scout of Eyore, always slightly down about the world around him, regardless of the time of day or situation.

‘Maybe it’s something awesome, like an overseas field trip?’ Lily suggested, her perkiness a deliberate contrast to Conor’s phlegmatic gloom. She looked perfectly groomed in her uniform, as always. Lily always made Scout feel slightly untidy and she found herself smoothing her hair surreptitiously in response.

‘Maybe they’ve flown in our parents for an early parent-teacher conference,’ Scout suggested. After this morning’s nightmare and visit from Hunter, a bit of positive news would be a welcome relief. Conor’s face darkened and he looked away. She glanced at Lily who shook her head very slightly. What had she said?

Stealing a glance back at Conor, he’d already begun picking viciously at the edge of a nail already battered, ignoring them both.

Boys, she sighed to herself. They were so bloody complicated sometimes.

The buzz in the Atrium was beginning to pick up. Glancing around, Scout saw that it had filled up with hundreds of the company’s employees from the surrounding compound. Though Scout and the other students had seen the elegant structure many times from their wing, this was the first time that they’d actually been inside it.

Everyone in the atrium was wearing differently coloured uniforms, the Dorsay logo displayed prominently over the top left sleeve. Scout felt pretty drab in her grey uniform, compared to some of the other uniforms clustered in the large conference hall, which ranged from dark blue to red, green and black. Somehow even though the style was exactly the same on everyone, the colours made them look exotic and vibrant by comparison to the students.

Her attention was brought back to the front of the room by a judiciously placed poke in the side from Lily. Before Scout could register a protest, Lily tilted her head to the front of the room.

‘Ladies and gentleman.’ It was Cerys Westwood-Jones, CEO, Dorsay’s equivalent of the Emperor in Oz’s Emerald City. Wow, that was unexpected, Scout thought. A huge rumour mill surrounded her and, though they’d gotten a brief overview about her when they’d arrived at Dorsay as part of their orientation program, she’d remained pretty much a mystery.

Westwood-Jones stood confidently up on the podium, calmly surveying them all. A woman of relative youth, she appeared to be a woman of tight control and confidence. Her uniform, unlike everyone else’s, was white. More Glinda the good fairy than Oz, Scout thought, wondering if that she could really be that obvious in her choice of colour.

‘Thank you for coming,’ she continued when the noise had settled down. Her voice was smooth with a slight huskiness to it, as though she’d been talking or arguing for ages before she’d gotten up to address them. She had that quality that made people sit forward and take notice of her, despite her relative slightness of build.  The energy seemed to flow off her and Scout found herself leaning forward, straining to not miss a word.

Westwood-Jones swept a smile over the assembled crowd below her. The weak English sun streamed in, bathing the room in light if not warmth.

‘As we all know,’ she began, ‘Dorsay has been at the forefront of scientific and technological advancements for over forty years. The best scientists in the world have undertaken our research and experimentation in human evolution and genetics. The next generation is here, ensuring that these advancements continue.’ At this, she swept a glance at Scout and the students who were sitting near her, lingering for a millisecond longer on Scout. ‘The progress that we have made in the last few years has shown us that we are on the brink of something spectacular.’ Looking at them all, she paused and took a breath. Scout couldn’t help but feel the defiance leaking out of Cerys’ mind, underpinned by a feeling of adrenaline, despite the tight clamp she was keeping on her thoughts.

‘The purpose of calling this meeting is to prepare you for our next step. The ultimate step for Dorsay. We will be launching Stage One of the Alpha Project.’

A collective gasp rose up from the hundreds of people gathered in the atrium.  Scout glanced at Conor who shrugged, looking as baffled has she felt. Lily, on the other hand, sat as though she’d expected every word of what she’d just been told. The pitying look she gave Scout told her that she and Conor were seriously behind the eight ball on this one. Just once, Scout thought, irritated, just once I’d like to feel as like I’ve got some idea of what the hell is going on around me.

‘I know that you will have many questions. Rest assured that the Corporation values your contribution to our shared vision.’ At this, Westwood-Jones shot a lightning-quick look in the direction of what appeared to be the Dorsay board, all wearing purple. Not a flattering colour for most of them, Scout noted, especially the short, sweaty man standing closest to the podium.

‘The next phase of Dorsay’s history will not only be challenging but immensely rewarding. For now, I will leave you in the capable hands of our Director of Strategic Planning, Will Taylor. He will be outlining our program over the next few days and weeks as we work towards the most important step that humanity will take.’ With that, she stepped down, nodded to a podgy, purple-encased man and exited through a side door, leaving behind her an increasingly excited crowd of people.

Before Scout could discuss any of this with Lily and Conor, Will Taylor stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. The sudden silence that fell in the room spoke volumes about him. His expression was harder and more watchful than his CEO’s had been, and his tight collar made his florid face bulge even more, pushing his eye sockets into ever-smaller slits.

‘Good morning.’ His softly accented voice was at odds with the solidity of his frame.

‘Each company sector will have a follow-up briefing, immediately following this meeting. Your sector leaders will be able to answer any immediate questions that you have. This process will be taking place using clear guidelines designed to minimise disruption.’ He glanced around the massive room, enunciating his next words precisely. ‘This information must not leave the compound. Any leaks to the media or other organisations will result in swift consequences for the responsible parties.’

‘That’s all for now. I would ask that you now make your way to your sector meeting rooms.’ At that, the barely-held back murmuring broke into a surge of heated talk. Waves of palpable anticipation bounced off the walls.

‘Um, what the hell?’ Conor leaned forward to voice what Scout was also thinking.

‘I’ve got no idea.’ Scout confessed. Lily started to say something but was interrupted by the sound of mocking laughter coming from behind them.

Conor stiffened and Scout turned around to see her early morning wakeup call sitting with his elbows balanced on his knees, chuckling to himself as though amused beyond all measure by their ignorance.

‘What’s so funny?’ Scout leaned over the back of the chair and eyeballed him. What was this guy’s problem, anyway? She just couldn’t get a handle on his erratic mood swings and superior attitude.

‘I’m just not sure how you two made it in here. She,’ Hunter nodded towards Lily, ‘knows what’s going on. Didn’t you two do any research into the place that you were given a scholarship before coming? For two supposed ‘geniuses’, his fingers twitched in the air around that last word, ‘you’re working the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ angle pretty well. I’m really looking forward to seeing the pair of you get to grips with this.’ Still chuckling, he unfolded his lean frame and slipped casually out into the departing. Scout sat, dumbstruck. Did he really just say that?

‘Man, I thought I had problems, but that guy has some serious social issues,’ Conor said. ‘What’s with him anyway?’ Lily patted him on the shoulder.

‘Who knows?’ she said, dismissively. ‘Don’t listen to him, okay? He gets his kicks out of being an asshole.’ Scout and Conor burst out laughing, both shocked that something so crude could come out of someone who looked so perfect. Conor looked over at Lily, still smiling at her assessment of Hunter.

‘So, Lil, help out an imbecile. What’s Alpha One?’ he asked.

Lily sighed.

‘Please don’t call me ‘Lil.’ It makes me sound like I work in an East End chip shop,’ but Conor just shrugged.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I think it kind of suits you.’ Lily grimaced.

‘I’ll explain what I know as we head back. But could we please not be there late and get shamed again by the mentors?’ Her plea was interrupted by Scout’s stomach rumbling loudly.

‘I’m going to need some breakfast if I’m going to get through these next few hours,’ Scout looked pleadingly at Lily.

‘Yeah, me too,’ Conor nodded vigorously.

‘Fine,’ Lily sighed, ‘but if we’re late, then you two can explain why to Chewy.’ Conor snorted in disgust.

‘We’ve been here three months and the guy still hates me,’ he said.

‘Yeah, might have something to do with the fact that you give him shit every time you see him,’ Scout said wryly.

Conor launched into his best Star Wars impression and the girls cracked up.  Scout realized that Conor wasn’t bad looking, once he relaxed a bit. Catching Lily’s eye, she blushed and shook her head. Lily laughed and stood up.

‘Enough drama for one morning, please! Come on.’ She pushed Conor to get him moving. ‘Let’s get out of here. You two are making me more nervous by the minute.’ They left the almost empty hall in search of something to eat, Scout heaving a sigh of relief. She didn’t think that she’d have a very good answer if Lily asked her about Conor. Come to think of it, she didn’t have a great one for herself, either.

 

Download a pdf of Playing Catch-up

 

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