Durell and Grayce worked side by side in their bunker. Grayce was a drone traffic regulator, which was a good thing, Durell thought. It made her tense, but it paid well, and everything was so expensive: the oxygenator, the desalinator, the Metanutrite, the Link healthcare, the Link education for their daughter, Raycelle—on and on.
Durell managed solar-paneled fields and hydroponic greenhouses remotely. Technical glitches and damage—from weather events, animals, or Outsiders—were frequent, and he often had to dispatch a team to deal with them. Then there was monitoring the everyday biochemistry of the plants—fertilizers, pests and pest control—not to mention the frustrations of trying to grow anything green under intense cloud cover or near-desert conditions. But the Creators liked their fruits and vegetables. Durell couldn’t blame them. He himself looked forward to a modest dish of land shrimp and mushrooms at the end of the day, even if Raycelle insisted on calling the land shrimp “bugs.”
Sometime before the morning Koffee break, Raycelle emerged from her room, dressed in a shift dress she had knit herself from vintage plastic bags. She tiptoed between Durell’s bed and Grayce’s table, trying not to disturb them on her way to the anti-bion chamber, but Durell could not help marveling again at how beautiful she was. Her dark brown hair, coiled in tight spirals, hung loosely, radiating outward from her head like a cloud. Her brown skin and almond-shaped eyes made you expect the usual dark irises, but hers were a rare jeweled aquamarine, not at all like her parents’ muddy green, while her lips, without any of the Creators’ genetic or cosmetic enhancements, were two dark ruby pillows that would have made her look pouty if they had not so often been parted in a smile.
True, her figure was far from the elongated Creator ideal plastered all over the Link. Her breasts were small, her hips wide, her legs sturdy and muscular from years of exercise on the CreatorClimb. Still, Durrell thought, turning his attention to an unexpected crop failure in Greenhouse 197, she moved with a lilting grace that would surely catch the eye of any man. And she was educated, just two months shy of a technical diploma. It was not too much to hope . . . but there was so much to fear, too.
It was easy enough for a pretty young girl to get snapped up by the Creators. Then for a time, she would be guaranteed a life such as Durell’s great-great-grandmother could just barely remember: real food every meal and swooning nights under the stars with handsome, well-dressed young men.
But making the transition to permanent Creator status was much harder. If you played your cards right you could marry in—but Raycelle was not the calculating type. Or you could market yourself into a holo-icon, but it helped to have a gimmick or Creator connection that would hook the Link audience. You could also make a great contribution to national culture, or become an indispensable lackey to the Creators. But few had the luck, genius, or time to manage this.
Much more likely was that Raycelle would become addicted to drugs or simply grow too old. Then they would eject her. And once you were an Outsider—Durell shuddered—an infinite number of things could happen, almost none of them good.
Raycelle came back from the anti-bion chamber, smiling with irrepressible joy and dancing lightly to the music in her earpiece. Grayce waved at her and smiled, but Durell knew that Grayce was just as worried about Raycelle’s future as he was. He and his wife had lost hours of sleep discussing this, and they agreed it would be better for Raycelle to get her technical diploma and stay within the service class like her parents. It wasn’t much of a life, but they had as much security as a non-Creator could get these days. They didn’t have much time to talk to Raycelle about it, though, and she tended to get exasperated when they tried.
Before his break, Durell discovered that a leak had developed in the irrigation system of Greenhouse 197, and salt water had seeped in. He dispatched a maintenance worker and, feeling satisfied, went into the storeroom, where they kept the CreatorClimb. He set the incline low and the speed high, took off his long shirt, and turned on the holo-program. Soon Tygra, a scantily clad young woman with coppery skin and blue-black hair, began to flit through the holo-jungle, always just ahead of and a little above him, sometimes crooking her finger to beckon him forward, sometimes encouraging him in her sexy South Asian accent. “Not getting tired, are you, Dynamo?”
Durell kept his legs pumping for the allotted eight minutes, but what with his hypertension and his worries about Raycelle, Tygra and her many exoticized sisters no longer had the same effect on him they used to, when he would grab Grayce as she came in for her break, and she would hold onto him as if she were drowning.
Now when Grayce came in he went on toweling off the sweat and sucking down his water ration. She touched his cheek lightly and started her own holo-program. “Things OK?” she asked.
“Pretty good,” he said absently, trying to ignore the rippling muscles of the male Creator ideal who had materialized in front of Grayce as she stripped down to her bra and panties and began to stretch. “We got a leak in one of the greenhouses. You?”
Grayce turned down the volume so the Creator ideal’s compliments became a lascivious murmur. “I hope it’s not vandalism,” she said. “There’s been a rash of Outsider incidents. We’ve had some with the drones.”
“All under control, I hope?” Durell hurried to pull on his long shirt. If it was vandalism, he needed to stay on top of it.
“For now,” Grayce said. She turned her program back up so that as Durell was leaving he heard the Creator ideal saying, “You’re so firm.”
He sealed the door hurriedly. It was only a fantasy. There was no sense getting worked up.
Reactivating his Link connection, he checked in with maintenance. “Looks like it is sabotage,” Eban, the technician, said, and showed him the broken seal around the irrigation pipe. “Someone pried it loose with a hammer, so salt water’s been seeping in with the fresh.”
“I’m dispatching a repair crew,” Durell said. “And I’ll contact Security. Outsiders shouldn’t be able to get so close to the greenhouses.”
“Could have been an inside job,” Eban said.
“I’ll have them check that possibility too. Thanks, Eban.”
Durell noticed Raycelle out of the corner of his eye and looked up at her. “I’m just taking an interest, like you suggested,” she said.
Durell was pleased. This was a first. “Provided we catch whoever did that, it’s a fairly simple problem,” he explained. “Now here—“ he flipped to a table of hydroponics data, but Raycelle was already at the doorway to her room.
“Sorry, D., but I’ve just remembered. I have to take my statistics test today or they’ll make me repeat the whole course.”
“Oh,” said Durell. “OK. I’ll fill you in later.” As her door sealed, he noticed a chemical imbalance that required his attention.
In the afternoon, after they’d all had their breaks, Grayce said, “Durell, we have a leak.”
Her voice was tense and urgent. He brought up the bunker monitor on his screen. Sure enough, water was coming in from a leak behind the desalinator in the storeroom. It was coming in fast, too. The overflow vents in the door opened and began to spill water into the rest of their home. They had a pump, but it wasn’t strong enough for this; a stronger one would exceed the bunker’s power capacity.
Durell had dreamed this so many times he felt numb now. “Get Raycelle,” he said.
They had an escape plan. He was responsible for the survival kit: food, shelter, energy. Grayce was responsible for Raycelle, who would help her carry clothes, the laser gun, aid kit, and anything else useful they might grab. Each of them strapped on a screen generator (around the wrist) and an oxygenator (around the waist).
Durell checked conditions outside—calm and warm, fortunately. Everyone got boots on and rubbed UV screen and insect repellent over exposed skin. The water was rising.
Durell unfolded the exit ladder and unsealed the bunker portal in the ceiling. “Karmatastic!” said Raycelle. “I can’t remember the last time I went out.”
“I’m glad somebody’s happy,” Grayce said, drily. The catastrophe was so great that there was no appropriate reaction to it. Durell clenched his jaw till it hurt; Grayce became wry and bitter. Raycelle spread her arms and danced on the windswept rocks where once, long ago, amber waves of grain had rolled.
Durell looked around, assessing. A hint of a breeze from the ocean, an hour’s walk away, stirred the still air and subsided. A seagull flew overhead, gray against gray, squawking as if scolding them for having nothing to give. “Where should we go?” Durell asked.
“Oh, please let’s go to the ocean. I’ve never seen the ocean,” Raycelle pleaded, circling back to them.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Durell said. “We might get some wind power for our generator.”
“Use your oxygenators,” Grayce told them, “or we’re not going anywhere.” They fumbled with the devices at their waists, turning them on and straightening out the O tubes. They inserted the O-tube ends a little way their nostrils and clipped them on one side.
Grayce moved close to Durell while Raycelle danced again. “You haven’t seen anyone, have you, D.?” she asked, in a low tone, looking around nervously.
Durell pulled up a mini-screen from his wrist generator. “There’ve been no sightings in the area.”
“Still, we better stick together,” Grayce said. She raised her voice. “Raycelle, come back here.”
“OK, but let me carry the gun,” she said. “I’m the best shot.”
It was true, though they hadn’t had a chance to practice with her in a while. Durell gave her the gun. “OK,” he said. “G. and I will just get ourselves on the Service List, and then we’ll go. You’ll see—we’ll have you back in a house in no time.”
He tried to sound hearty and reassuring, but Raycelle rolled her eyes. They all knew it wasn’t that easy. It wasn’t worth anyone’s while to repair their flooded bunker, so they were Outsiders now and had to start over at the bottom of the housing lists before even thinking about being hired because without a home they were too vulnerable to be reliable. The population was declining, but the economy was uncertain, and there was just no telling when a home would open up, or whether they would be able to get to it.
Still, there was nothing else they could do. After he and Grayce put their profiles on some lists, they hitched their packs up on their backs and set out for the sea, Raycelle alert and excited, her parents bent and plodding.
After a while, Grayce nudged Durell. “She’s heading for the biodome,” she said, nodding toward Raycelle.
“What biodome?” Durell asked irritably. His back hurt from the pack, and his nose was sore from the O-tube clip. The air was still mostly dead and balmy, and he was sweating.
“Haven’t you noticed the drone traffic?” Grayce asked. “They’ve put up a new dome on the beach. They think it’ll stand up to the hurricanes all right.
Durell had noticed a few drones but not considered their significance. He had been looking out for danger, trying not to think, letting Raycelle lead them over the rocks. But the only thing close to menacing had been a pack of wild dogs, and they were so small they were hardly a threat. Big animals couldn’t survive in the oxygen-depleted atmosphere.
Now he began to see and hear more and more drones of various shapes and sizes, descending from all directions. Soon the lights of the dome were visible as a hazy glow on the horizon. “Don’t get too close,” he warned Raycelle. There would be security, and they were Outsiders now.
“I know, D.,” she said.
When darkness fell, they could hear the sea distinctly, and smell it. They climbed up a small ridge and saw the dome directly before them, shining in all its evening glory. It was big, big enough to house a luxury seaside village of five hundred Creators and their lackeys. A golden glow radiated from it, and they could hear a distant beat of music from some nightclub.
Around the dome were an impressive manmade beach and the water, also illuminated, as if sharing in the festivities, but Durell knew the lights were jellyfish, thousands of them, each venomous enough to kill with a single sting of its treacherously un-illuminated tentacles. “Well, we won’t starve,” said Grayce, eyeing them.
“Can I use the ocular?” Raycelle asked.
“Sure,” Durell said. “Let’s rest a while. I’ll dig it out.” He was dizzy, but didn’t want to admit it. Even with the oxygenator, exercise was a strain.
They all took turns looking at the biodome and its beach through the ocular. They could see Creators walking through the streets in fine clothes, talking and laughing, or drinking alcohol and dining on real food at sidewalk cafés. Raycelle excitedly spotted a crew and some actors shooting a holostream. In the center of the dome, where the top was highest, a five-story luxury hotel rose. On its roof, as if floating on the manufactured dome clouds, was a garden where Creators sat talking, drinking, and taking drugs, served by Creator ideals in black and white uniforms.
“Like gods,” Durell thought, but he refused to say it. Creators were just luckier people. Besides, Raycelle was star-struck enough already. She thought she recognized one of the rooftop Creators as the famous musician she had a holograph of in her room, and she wanted to get closer to be sure.
Grayce didn’t say much. Her hatred for Creators, Durell knew, was in proportion to her yearning to live like one. Both her yearning and her bitterness had been fed, over the years, by every romantic holostream to come over the Link. And both gave Durell a nagging sense of inadequacy that had gradually driven a wedge between him and his wife, though neither of them spoke of this.
Now Grayce called their attention to the darkness in the sea behind the dome. “The Creators must have a way of keeping the jellies out, so they can swim,” she said. “And look how big that beach is!”
“Oh please, let me see,” Raycelle said, nudging her mother’s arm for the ocular. Sure enough, though they couldn’t see the strip of land between the dome and the sea, the beach clearly stretched out for some distance on either side of the structure. The Creators had even planted dunes with grasses, to anchor the sand against storms.
“Can we camp down there, D.?” Raycelle asked, getting up and dancing again in excitement. “We’ll be just like the Longagos.”
Grayce and Durell looked smiled at each other in the dim glow from the biodome, remembering how Raycelle had loved the Longago stories when she was little. “That’s right, ‘Celle,” Grayce said. “‘The Longagos at the Seashore.’
“It’s not a bad idea,” she continued, to Durell. “There’ll be more oxygen, from the grasses, and we’ll be sort of hidden—from Outsiders and Creator security. Also, I can cure some jellyfish for us if we stay a couple of days, and meanwhile the sea breezes will charge up our generator.”
So they picked up their gear again and scrambled down the ridge to the far reaches of the dunes, giving the dome and its security sensors a wide berth. Durell found a little valley between two large dunes, and they put on gloves and pulled up the grass where their pop-up would go. Raycelle was chattering about the Longagos—how they would have had a bonfire and sung songs—but Grayce was only half listening as she grabbed the grass and pulled with gusto. Perhaps each clump was a Creator neck to her, Durell thought.
They trampled the bare spot they had made to level it as best they could. Then Grayce went off to gather jellies with the clippers, a pail, and her screen for light, while Raycelle did guard duty and Durell erected the pop-up. It was only a canvas cube stretched over salvaged aluminum rods, but Durell had made it himself and was proud of it.
The pop-up stood by itself, despite the uneven sand, but it didn’t have a hope against the violent storms that were likely to blow up at any moment, unless Durell anchored it with strong cables running from the sides and top to long stakes hammered into the ground. Durell searched in his pack, but the hammer wasn’t there. He went around to the front of the pop-up to ask if Raycelle had seen it.
She was sitting there, facing the dome but absorbed in her screen, the laser gun forgotten beside her. Durell was about to scold her, but he remembered her statistics test. “Keeping up with your school work, I see,” he said. “Good idea.”
She started, reaching for the gun, though it would have been too late. “What? Oh. Yeah, D. School’s important.”
“It is,” Durell agreed, wondering how long they could keep paying the fees. “Listen, have you seen the hammer?”
She took her eyes off the screen and looked at him, stricken. “No I haven’t. Is it very bad if you can’t find it?”
Durell smiled at her tendency to make melodrama out of everything. “It’s OK,” he said. “I can pound in the stakes with a rock.”
“I’ll go get one,” she said, jumping up and handing him the laser gun. Durell looked after her. She was a good girl.
By the time Durell had erected the pop-up, stowed their gear, and made sure the little windmill attached to their generator was whirring briskly, they were all tired. Grayce covered her jellies with briny seawater and left them to cure in their pail. Raycelle put out two more buckets to catch rain, if there was any. The three of them sat outside and had Metanutrite and a water ration.
Raycelle told Grayce how Durell couldn’t find the hammer and did just as well with a rock, but instead of praising his resourcefulness, Grayce frowned deeply.
“I must have mislaid it,” Durell gabbled, knowing that sounded irresponsible. “But don’t worry. That rock Raycelle found did the job.”
Grayce’s brows still knit together over her sharp nose, so he reached out and gently touched her silky brown hair. She didn’t respond, but she let him play with her hair, and she stopped frowning.
After dinner, Raycelle said she was too excited to sleep and would go on guard duty.
“All right, but guarding’s serious business, especially at night,” Durell said. “I better not look catch you on that screen again.” He didn’t ask if she’d taken her statistics test. She had enough to deal with right now.
“Remember, our lives are in your hands,” Grayce said.
Raycelle nodded. “I’ll remember, G.”
When Grayce and Durell had sealed themselves into their sleeping bags, Durell wriggled his over to Grayce and kissed the back of her head. “I love you, G.”
She reached her hand backward and stroked his bearded cheeks awkwardly. “I love you too, D.”
Durell was visiting his great-great-great-grandmother, who was just a kid, living in a farmhouse that used to be near Durell’s bunker. Durell was standing on the porch, looking out at the golden corn waving right to the edge of the endless blue sky. Near the horizon was a huge, spider-like irrigation system.
He wanted to find his ancestor, who was somewhere inside the house, but the Longagos were visiting too. Some were inside already, and another RV-full of them had just pulled up.
The Longagos were happy and noisy. They tumbled out of the RV, with their pale skin and orange and yellow hair—colors you’d only see in a dyed or altered Creator these days, Durell thought, though in the dream these days hadn’t come yet. A lot of the Longagos were eating and drinking. The mother was carrying a casserole past Durell and into the house.
Durell became aware that the rushing sound he had heard was water. A little redheaded Longago boy was working a pump handle in the front yard. The handle made a squeak, squeak noise, and the water rushed out and over the boy’s hand, delighting him, so that he pumped more, and more water streamed out, as though it would never end.
Inside, too, water was gushing and rushing, madly. The Longagos were using every toilet, every sink, the dishwasher, the clothes washer, the refrigerator dispenser, the tubs and showers. A sprinkler started up in the side of the yard opposite the pump, and two little blond Longago girls ran through it, shrieking.
Durell stood frozen on the porch, too shocked by the waste to look for his relative. He hoped the Longagos might offer him a drink and some food, but they seemed completely preoccupied with their own lives.
Suddenly, he looked down to see a child of about four, with brown hair and pale skin like the Longagos’. “Great-great-great-grandmother?” he asked, softly, so as not to alarm her.
The child looked up, and he found himself looking down into Raycelle’s blue-green eyes, though this girl’s were rounder, and a little scared. She began to whisper something, and Durell bent down to catch the words, but all he could hear was a long, drawn-out “Shhhhh!” that blended with the water sounds, and then she led him off the porch, past the sprinkler and the squeaking pump, into the great, rustling waves of tall corn that surrounded the house and its yard, stretching in every direction.
She let go of his hand then. He was searching for her, trying to hear her “Shhh!” and distinguish the louder rustle of her passing from the wind in the corn, when he woke up.
Still feeling the urgency of finding the child, he lay monitoring his surroundings. The pop-up was dimly illuminated by the biodome, but there was nothing new to see. His nose was sore, and he switched the oxygenator clip to the other nostril, though that was a little sore too. He was hot, not with the sun’s warmth of his dream, but with the sweaty, funk of his Insolate sleeping bag. Beyond that, though, he felt and smelled fresher air, and he could hear dripping sounds. It must have rained.
There might have been wind, he thought, blending with the rain and the rush and slap of the surf to make the confused sounds of his dream. Now the air was calm, but the generator’s windmill blades were turning over in the ocean breeze, making the squeak, squeak of the pump handle he had heard. There were also two rustling sounds: the wind in the dune grasses, and another, closer sound he couldn’t identify, though in his dream it had been the movements of the child in the corn. The “Shhh!” was easy to place when Grayce suddenly changed position and began to breathe heavily again. There it was, whenever she exhaled, rushing and falling like the noise from the surf.
Stooping under the canvas ceiling of the pop-up, Durell unsealed the door flap and peered cautiously out, hoping to identify a benign source for the rustling. Immediately he smiled and relaxed his tense muscles. The sound was coming from Raycelle’s plastic dress, which was shifting as she danced, a few paces away from the door. Once again the gun lay forgotten. She flung her arms up, stepping triumphantly to some internal musical celebration.
Durell watched her for a little while, marveling at her unquenchable joy. But he had to remind her about the gun. He was just about to say something when there was a faint hissing as a portal opened in the biodome, and a red light streamed across the beach toward the pop-up.
Music began, with a roll of drums, and then a deep male voice boomed out over a dance beat: “Raycelle Chang Hinman—Welcome to paradise!”
By now Grayce was standing beside Durell in the opening to the pop-up. “They’re taking her,” she said, in a small, steely voice.
Raycelle paused in her dance and blew kisses to her parents. “Please understand. I have to do this.” Before Durell could step through the door flap, she was already running into the red beam of light—the “red carpet,” they called it—first hopping down through the dunes, then jumping lightly over jellyfish.
When she got to the boundary beyond which the sand stretched clean and jelly-free, she turned again. “This isn’t goodbye,” she called. “I’ll help you. Stay in touch!” They could barely hear her over the music.
“Whoa! Slow down, little lady,” boomed the announcer. “Strike a pose for the Holo-news.”
Raycelle danced and processed more slowly toward the portal, her head held high, and the voice introduced her to the Creator community. The parents heard their names, their former careers, their current Outsider status (everybody loves a hard-luck story). They heard of Raycelle’s incomplete education and her interest in dance, recycled textiles, and fashion design. They saw cameras flashing around and above the portal and tried not to think of what her sponsors might expect of her.
She was far away now. Durell hurried back into the pop-up and rummaged in his long-shirt pocket for the ocular. When he came out, Raycelle was almost at the portal. He tried to give the instrument to Grayce, but when she felt it in her hand, she said, “You can have it,” without taking her eyes from the dot that had been their child.
Durell jammed the small tube to his eye just in time to see Raycelle hesitate at the portal and turn back toward the pop-up, just for a moment, before two hazmat-clad lackeys took her into a decontamination chamber. Then the red light and the noise switched off, and the portal hissed closed.
Durell put his arm around Grayce’s shoulders. “That’s it,” she said, her voice cold and distant.
Durell tightened his grip on her shoulder. He had to make her stop hating and come back to him. “It was just bad luck,” he began. “Having that leak, coming here . . . ”
She turned fiercely toward him. “Really? Where do you think your hammer is?”
In a flash he saw Eban holding up the seal and showing how the hammer had loosened it. He remembered how pleased he had been by Raycelle’s interest in his work.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have kept an eye on her. I should have tried . . . ” He trailed off, knowing his words were useless.
Grayce made an effort to smile. “What’s done is done,” she said, stooping to pick up the gun. “I’ll guard for a while. I won’t be able to sleep anyway.”
Her words stung Durell. He stooped and retreated through the entrance flap, resealed it, and lay down. He didn’t think he would sleep either, but after lying numb, rigid, and hungry for some time, he fell out of consciousness.
Sitting outside the pop-up, Grayce thought of all she might have done to save her daughter. She should have talked to her more. She should have been more understanding of how trapped a teenager was bound to feel in a bunker. Instead, she remembered, she had spent her breaks being complimented by holostreaming Creator ideals. She had told herself she needed that—she’d earned it. Naturally Raycelle wanted the same thing, but for real.
The air shifted. A sharper, fresher breeze came from the sea. Far off, near the horizon, a whitish glare appeared through the cloud cover. Back in the bunker, Grayce would have been scrambling into her dress, gulping down her anti-depressants and Koffee. Here she sat motionless, the gun clammy and inviting in her hands.
She must not weigh Durell down with her failure. Even before this latest blow, he had been growing distant. Grayce did not wholly blame herself, though she knew he could not bear her bitter moods. This life was just too hard. Durell shouldered his own troubles and took care not to put them on anyone else, and she must do the same.
She stood and walked around the pop-up, looking for Outsiders. The tent was a few meters above high tide—no jellyfish in the dunes—but she stepped carefully on the uneven ground. She thought of Durell, how he would feel, finding her as he stepped outside. In the long run her suicide would be easier for him, she knew, but she couldn’t put him through the guilt.
She came to the bucket of jellyfish and tipped some alum powder in to continue the curing process. This gave her an idea. Picking up the shears she had used to remove the jellyfish tentacles, she set the gun down and ran toward the ocean.
A new crop of jellies was being stranded by the ebbing tide. Four of them lay, glowing wanly in the dawn. Their tentacles were entangled, harmless to one another, for they did not sting their own species. Grayce held her shears as if she would use them, but that was so Durell would think it was all a tragic accident. He wouldn’t blame himself, or not for long. The thought comforted Grayce, and as she fell forward into the poison bed, she thought of how restful it would be.
Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama, with a Ph.D. in English from Yale. She co-won third prize in the 2019 Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Competition and was a finalist in the 2017 Jerry Jazz Musician and 2016 Neoverse story contests. Wood’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Online Writing Tips, Horror USA: California (Soteira Press anthology), and NoSleep Podcast, among other venues. She has also published creative nonfiction, poetry, and scholarly essays, and she is Senior Editor of Gemini Magazine.