“How could you be so stupid?” Luther asked, leaning against the windowsill.
It was the kind of thing he would’ve cringed to hear someone else say, especially to someone they cared about. Hearing himself say it made him feel like a cruel hypocrite.
The words hung in the air for a painfully long time, Julia’s cascading tears accentuating the deep hurt in her eyes. Outside, Rad 66 slowly swelled with third-shifters on their way to work, the artificial moon lights in the Dome filling in their own shadows.
A mere four months had passed since Administrator Keane made him Director of Security — the youngest DoS in Dome Six’s history and the second-youngest member of the Council. The honor and responsibility made him question whether he even wanted a kid anymore, even though their time was running out.
Julia had taken that choice away from him.
Male and female water rations were different for a reason. He used his full four liters every day, which meant Julia couldn’t take more than a sip of his without him knowing. So, some of her friends, who she refused to name, brought her male rations stolen from their own partners for several months, right under his nose. He was curious how, but it didn’t really matter.
All that mattered was that she’d circumvented the Dome’s population controls to get pregnant, and in so doing, broken the Charter’s most ironclad law. Not a great look for someone in his position.
“Foolish,” she muttered, eyeing him with contempt.
“It was foolish, not stupid. You want to make it clear this my fault.”
Even knowing it would hurt her to say these things, he couldn’t help himself. What she’d done was certainly foolish, perhaps even stupid, but not malicious.
“Then whose fault is it, Jules? I mean, seriously, what did you think was gonna happen? That no one would notice we had a baby?”
“We’ve been applying to conceive for years, Luther. I’ll be thirty soon.”
“Then I guess we’ll have all this to ourselves,” he said, gesturing about their tiny two-person unit.
She leapt up from the couch and leveled a shaking finger at him.
“No. You do not get to stand here and pretend that you didn’t want a child just as badly as me. How many times did we discuss–”
“Yeah, well, it clearly wasn’t in the cards, was it? IDA makes these decisions for a reason.”
“And you’re just okay with AI deciding the course of our lives?” she asked, arms folded tightly across her chest.
“News flash, Jules — that’s how the Dome has worked for eighty fucking years. You know why? Because people only make shitty, emotional decisions!”
They’d reached the crux of it. Ceding important decisions to AI was part of the Dome Project’s very DNA. Even after twenty thousand years, humankind could only see itself as a collection of individuals and not a collective. Julia’s actions would’ve been accepted, even celebrated in the Time Before, but selfishness had no place here. They were supposed to learn from IDA, not circumvent it.
The algorithms kept tight reins on population, and for good reason. The system favored the best genetic matches, as well, so the fact that they were denied repeatedly for conception should have squelched her desire as it did his.
Clearly, it hadn’t.
He didn’t have to explain what would happen now. The Authority would review the case based on IDA’s analysis of the data, which would show that Julia’s hormone levels were abnormal. Further analysis would easily reveal that she was responsible, that her pregnancy was not some freak occurrence, and that the child would be terminated in accordance with the Charter.
Maybe she wasn’t stupid, but she certainly had indulged in some magical thinking.
“There must be something you can do,” she said softly.
“Talk to Administrator Keane. He can contravene IDA, right?”
He rolled his eyes. “In extreme or unusual circumstances. This is neither.”
She softened, her shoulders hunching forward. “I’m sorry.”
In a strange way, he felt jealous. Surely, he had never desired anything so much as she desired a child. It took ingenuity and determination to do what she’d done — traits he tended to admire.
“I know,” he said.
She didn’t realize it yet, but this was going to destroy her. Hers was a fool’s hope, but without it she would have none at all. Despair and conviction made for a tragic pairing, especially here.
They had a few days at most before IDA flagged the pregnancy and everything was set into motion. The Authority’s feverish preparations for the Fourth Epoch might extend that slightly, but not much. Luther didn’t know what to do.
All the more reason to seek the advice of a purely objective third party.
Only the Administrator and Director of Security could access IDA directly through the Nexus, where conversations with the Dome’s ubiquitous AI were completely private and unlogged. Otherwise, the two most powerful people in the Authority would have no one to counsel but each other, which was precisely the kind of situation the Originals hoped to avoid.
The black identification column rose up through a hole in the grating, still dripping with the coolant that kept IDA’s core systems in check. Luther stuck his hand inside and winced as it pricked his finger to verify his DNA.
“Good morning, Director Downing,” said IDA as the column descended back beneath the suspended walkway. His chosen vocalization was male with a soothing British accent. Jules chose the same exact one for herself. “How may I assist you?”
“I need your help with this Julia situation.”
“Of course,” IDA said, blue lights underfoot pulsing with each intonation. “By ‘situation,’ do you mean her pregnancy?”
“Her situation has been flagged for review by the Authority. Would you like to expedite?”
“No, I just need advice.”
“Her case will be adjudicated as outlined in the Charter. A cursory analysis of the data indicates the pregnancy will be terminated immediately. Therefore, my advice is irrelevant.”
“Then how else may I assist you?”
He gritted his teeth. Pure objectivity was a beautiful thing until you had to talk to it.
“I want to know if there’s any alternative to termination.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean I’d do anything to avoid it.”
A very unusual thing happened just then. IDA paused before answering. IDA never had to think, or consider, or weigh.
“There may be a remedy.”
His heart leapt. “What is it?”
“One moment, please.”
He stood there with his hands wrapped around the railing, watching the blue light from below play on the ceiling as he anxiously awaited whatever IDA was working on. It didn’t make much sense.
What spoke next was not IDA, but a flat, androgynous voice he’d never heard before. Something or someone else.
He cocked his head, narrowing his eyes. “Who is this?”
“Who I am is not important. I represent Cytocorp.”
Cytocorp? The Dome lost contact with Cytocorp seventy years ago when they cut the hardline to protect IDA from the hackers that brought down the whole internet. Perhaps it was some ancient AI meant to speak for the Company. It certainly couldn’t be human.
“Cytocorp, huh? How’s it hanging? I’m Richard the Third.”
“Your situation falls outside normal parameters, but there may be a solution.”
“You have two options. Accept the outcome of adjudication or accept the terms of our assistance.”
“What terms?” Luther asked.
“Terms in which your partner and daughter are safe from harm.”
His breath caught in his throat. Until that moment, it had just been a pregnancy, a condition of being. Now it had a gender.
The voice claiming to be Cytocorp told a wild tale about the Northern Cities retreating underground, completely dependent on some food product the Dome exported without anyone’s knowledge.
The thrust of it was that they would ask him to do things, and he would do them without question. In exchange, they would keep Julia safe.
It might have sounded like a great deal if it didn’t seem like complete BS.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “How can you protect her?”
“If you help us, we will extract Julia from the Dome,” said the voice.
“There is a train.”
Train? They used trains to build the Domes back in the day. Could that be what he — or it — meant? Where the hell was it? He had so many questions he didn’t know where to start.
“Director?” asked the voice.
“Why can’t you just … you know … make it look like a legal pregnancy?”
“That wouldn’t serve our interests.”
“Will I get to talk to her?”
“If you cooperate, yes.”
“Through the completion of our dataset. Approximately the Fifth Epoch.”
Luther gulped, though his mouth had gone dry. The Fifth Epoch marked a century for the Dome. It wouldn’t arrive for another twenty years.
Twenty years. By the time he met his daughter, she’d be a young woman. But at least she would live. At least Julia would get to watch her grow up. Wasn’t that the whole point? He came in expecting no deal — could he really turn away from one, shitty though it was?
“What assurance do I have that they’ll be safe?”
“Only that our interests are … complementary.”
He chewed hard on the inside of his lip, considering all the variables. In the end, it wasn’t a hard decision at all. In the Time Before, people went away for twenty years at a stretch for all sorts of crimes. Wasn’t he basically being asked to serve time for Julia’s misdeeds?
“Okay,” Luther said, sighing deeply. “What do I have to do?”
While the Fourth Epoch celebration filled the Agora with revelers, Luther and Julia wound their way unnoticed through the empty FPC. The conveyors sat empty, the sorting and washing bays deserted. The Epoch provided the perfect cover.
“This way,” he said, hurrying along the elevated walkway.
Julia’s expression said it all. Not a single neuron in her beautiful head honestly believed this mysterious errand would lead anywhere. If anything, she seemed frightened, as though he was leading her down here to kill her or something.
Their long walk along the curved wall that separated the FPC from distribution, the mills, and the oil presses eventually led to Bay 5 and the towering bulk of the multimeal processor, which stretched from floor to ceiling. The fully automated system had been churning out their staple food product for eighty years without fail, though it had claimed a few limbs here and there.
“I still don’t understand,” Julia said as they descended the stairs to the processing floor.
“Patience,” he said, angling toward the panel beneath the middle vent.
He fished in his pocket for the socket wrench and immediately began removing bolts from the aluminum outer covering. Only plate steel was behind it, but he also saw the seam and the indentation at the top, exactly as the voice described it. He reached up and felt the button, then gave it a hard press.
As expected, the steel piece receded into the floor at the same time the churn of pumps and machinery met his ears. He ventured one leg into the dark doorway and lights activated, revealing the landing of a narrow stairs.
He turned to Julia, smiling. “Like I said. Patience.”
“What is all this?” she asked.
“An automated factory,” he said, offering his hand. “Come on.”
She tentatively followed him inside and they wound down the steps, marveling at the size of this previously unknown facility, a Gordian knot of vats, pipes, and pumps.
“A factory for what?” Julia asked. “Luther, where are we going?”
Had he told her everything at the outset, she never would have come. It wasn’t in his nature to be so cagey, but the point wasn’t to convince her to get on the train — it was to put her on it.
“The Northern Cities still exist,” he said. “So does Cytocorp. I’ve made a deal to get you out of here.”
He continued down the steps to the next landing only to realize she’d stopped halfway down. He about-faced.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Let’s just keep going. Please.”
“No,” she said. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
He returned to her and took her hand in his. The other still clutched her ration bottle.
“Jules, listen — I know this is weird, but you have to trust me. It’s the only way to protect you.”
“Where are we going?”
He pointed at the heavy door across from where the steps ended a short way below them.
“There,” he said. “Come on.”
Luther kept her hand in his as he led her down the final four flights to the bottom, then crossed the concrete floor to the heavy, vault-like door.
“Where does this go?”
He put his hands on her shoulders and locked with her green eyes. “I need you to listen to me very carefully. Outside this door is a train. It’s going to take you to Pacifica.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Pacifica? Pacifica’s long gone, Luther.”
“It’s not.” He brought his hand to her cheek. “There are people there waiting to look after you and our daughter.”
“Daughter?” she asked, her eyes welling with tears.
Luther smiled and nodded excitedly, fighting back tears of his own.
“You’ll be safe there. The train will protect you from the Burn.”
Her brief flicker of joy dissolved to a frown. “What about you?”
He lowered his eyes to the floor and again took her hands. “I will join you, but not yet.”
“Not until after the Fifth Epoch.”
Julia’s face turned apoplectic. “Luther, that’s twenty years away!”
“Believe me, I’ve looked at it a million ways. This is how it has to be.”
“But you won’t know her, Luther. Her entire childhood …”
“I know. But if you don’t get on that train …”
He didn’t need to finish it. Julia understood the stakes.
“This is crazy,” she sniffled.
He gently wiped a tear from her cheek. “So, you’ll go?”
She gave the tiniest of nods.
Luther moved to the large wheel that unlatched the door. It took some effort, but half a turn later, the latch released, and the door opened inward a crack. Cool, moist air slipped through.
The only other thing he’d brought besides the wrench was a small flashlight, which he flicked on.
“You ready?” he asked.
Again, she nodded. He stuck out his hand and she took it, then he swung the door fully open and led her through it into what the Cytocorp voice described as a filling room.
The flashlight swept up the side of the facility to a large pipe that extended several meters outward, ending in a downward elbow. Directly under it was the last car of a tanker train.
The black cylindrical tank stood at least three times his height and at least twenty meters in length. Another car was connected to it at the front and disappeared into an arched stone tunnel.
Julia’s grip tightened. “My god.”
“There’s a small cabin at the back,” Luther said, leading her across the concrete floor.
The beam of his light caught something small and furry as it scurried under the train. Julia gasped and froze in her tracks.
“What was that?”
Luther never imagined he’d see a living creature outside the occasional ant or spider, but he knew they were hardy survivors. They probably had been in here since the very beginning, eating whatever spilled out of the pipe.
“Just some rodent,” he assured her. “Nothing to worry about.”
They reached the back of the train. A short ladder led up to a narrow door.
“This should be the cabin,” he said.
He put the thin flashlight in his mouth and climbed the ladder, then opened the surprisingly stout door. A padded bench spanned its narrow width but that was it. There were no windows. Not exactly luxurious, but all that mattered was that it protected her from the Burn.
He climbed back down and took the flashlight out of his mouth.
“It’s nothing fancy, but it’s not a long trip. You’ll be kicking it in Pacifica in a few hours.”
Julia glanced nervously up at the open door. “I’m scared.”
“I know,” he said, wrapping her in his arms. “It’ll be okay.”
“I wish there was another way,” she sniffed into his chest.
“Me, too. We’ll be able to talk, though, sometimes.”
“Yeah?” she asked.
“They promised me.”
She pulled back. “And you trust these people?”
“I do,” he lied, his hand on the small of her back. “Now come on. Keane’s probably wondering where I am.”
The time for tears had ended. Julia took a deep breath, wiped her face, and climbed up into the sparse cabin. He followed her up the ladder and looked in as she sat. This was so much harder than he expected. Doubt flooded his entire body but he shoved it away.
“It’s an adventure,” he offered. “I’m a little jealous.”
“You’re sure this is the only way?” she asked.
“This is the only way.”
“I’ll miss you so much.”
“I’ll miss you, too, but we’ll talk soon. And as often as possible. I’ll make sure of it.”
She leaned forward and kissed him, long and deep. He savored every second.
He closed the door. As soon as he did, a lock engaged with unsettling finality.
Luther descended the ladder, distressed that he couldn’t see her away. The moment his feet touched the ground, a mechanism under the train activated with an echoing whump and it eased its way forward. Somehow, they knew she was aboard.
He took a couple steps back, keeping his light on the back of the train until it slipped into the tunnel like a mouse. Once it left the flashlight’s range, he was staring at a pitch-black tunnel. He stood there until its heavy rumble receded completely, leaving only oppressive silence in its wake.
He flicked off the flashlight for a moment as darkness wrapped around him like a blanket. The doubt that had washed over him as he put Julia on the train could not follow him back inside. The only story he could ever believe was that his family was safe, and he would someday join them.
That, too, was how it had to be.