The Dark Side of the World
Snippets of conversation and laughter drifted through the brisk air. The shadowy figure observed from a distance as the small family huddled around the fire. The stranger had been watching them for what felt like days, scavenging their scraps for survival, hesitant to come out of hiding despite the group’s benign appearance. Things were not always what they seemed on an unknown planet.
The ship had exploded following the crash, destroying the navigational equipment and anything else that might have provided a clue as to where this place was. It was a stroke of luck to have escaped the wreck alive, and landed on a planet with a breathable atmosphere.
It was an eerie land, cloaked in twilight, with sunlight visible on the horizon. The stranger had been walking toward the light when the ramshackle settlement came into view. Why did these people choose to live out here in the darkness, instead of closer to the light? The question needed an answer, before further travel in that direction was attempted.
The stranger strode into the camp.
Aaron pinched his sister’s arm. “I saw that. Quit hoarding the protein pods. I want some too!”
Lucy squealed and slapped his hand away. “Stop that! I wasn’t done yet!”
“Both of you stop it!” their mother scolded. “We do not fight over food.”
Preoccupied with bickering, none of them noticed the stranger striding into their midst until the crunch of gravel underfoot caught their attention.
Donna’s eyes widened at the sight of the shadowy figure. She scrambled backwards, shoving her children behind her.
The stranger reached a hand into a jacket pocket, withdrew a small device and aimed it at Donna.
“Please don’t hurt us!” she pleaded. “Take whatever you want. We don’t have much, but it’s yours if you spare our lives. Please! Kill me if you have to, just don’t hurt my children!”
The stranger lowered the device and removed the battered helmet from her head. She smiled at Donna.
“Looks like I won’t need this thing,” she said, placing the translator back in her pocket. “I’m not going to hurt you. I am lost on this world and in need of help.”
The woman’s age was difficult to guess; she looked middle-aged, yet her athletic, muscular physique gave her a youthful appearance. She wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense, but no less striking. Tattoos snaked up her neck, over her cheek and one side of her half-bald scalp like alien tentacles. Silver hair cascaded to her opposite shoulder. Metal rings glittered in her nose, ears and lips. A thick lens covered one of her eyes, held in place by metallic bands embedded in her flesh.
“Go and get your father,” Donna whispered to Lucy, shooing her toward the cluster of tents and shacks.
Aaron knew it was rude to stare, but couldn’t tear his eyes away from the fascinating stranger.
Donna’s fear evaporated when she recognized the woman’s military uniform. “Come and warm yourself by the fire,” she offered. “You must be cold, traveling out in the wasteland. I’m Donna, and this is my son, Aaron.”
“I am Vista.”
“Where did you come from?”
Vista pointed toward the Dark. “I have been walking since my ship crashed. I don’t know how far or how long. The darkness… it’s confusing. I kept moving, toward the light.” She pointed toward the bright horizon, where Summerland was. “I saw your fire, but didn’t approach at first. I didn’t know if you were hostile. I have been watching you from a distance.”
“No, what I mean is, where are you from? How is it we speak the same language?”
“I am from Earth,” Vista said, “As I assume you are.”
Lucy returned with her father in tow. Her eyes widened at the sight of the woman seated beside the fire.
“Donna, are you all right?” He held a flashlight in his hand, and he shone the beam in Vista’s face, revealing rough, twisted scar tissue beneath the tattoos. The lens on her eye made a whirring sound as it adjusted to the light.
Donna stood and gave her husband a brief embrace. “Yes, we’re fine. Darius, this is Vista. She is from Earth. Her ship crashed near the Dark Line. She was traveling to Summerland when she came upon our camp.”
“Summerland?” Vista’s brow furrowed. “What is Summerland?”
Aaron pointed toward the horizon. “Summerland. Land of the Light.”
Donna scowled. “Land of the Deviants, you mean.”
Aaron shrugged. “Well, that goes without saying.”
“What do you mean?” Vista asked.
“First, you explain some things to us,” Darius said. “How can you be from Earth, if we have never met?”
“I think you just answered your own question. Have you met everyone from Earth? I haven’t.”
“What I mean is, you didn’t come here on the ship with us.”
“No. My ship crashed. I don’t know where I am, only that I am far from home.”
“You’re military?” Darius asked, indicating her attire.
“Yes. North American Air Force. Captain Vista Daune.”
Lucy sat on the bench beside Vista. She reached up to touch the tattooed, marred surface of her face.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Lucy!” Donna scolded, “Don’t be rude!”
“It’s ok.” Vista put an arm around Lucy. “You’re not rude. You’re direct. It’s a good quality to have. Don’t ever lose that, sweetie. I’ll tell you, as long as it’s all right with your parents.” She looked at Donna, who nodded her consent.
“When I was younger, I worked at an amusement park. A low-budget little place, way out in the desert in Nevazona. It featured low-tech, cheesy attractions, enhanced by spraying the patrons with a mind-altering drug while they stood in the lineups. Anyway, to make a long story short, there was a malfunction on one of the attractions, a train ride that was supposed to mimic time travel. Riders started disappearing. They’d get on, but when the ride returned, it was empty. We asked our bosses to shut the ride down until we could find the problem, but they refused. One day the train returned with a single rider on board, and he was freaking out, bad. He’d had a reaction to the ride drug, and he insisted he was from the past. I tried to calm him down, but he was trippin’ balls somethin’ awful. He accused me of being part of a conspiracy. I gave him the antidote to the drug and sent him on his way, but apparently he didn’t swallow the pill. He returned later, still in a psychotic state, and threw a jar of acid in my face. Turns out the amusement park was actually a military experiment. They were testing mind control drugs. The idea was, use a drug to make subjects suggestible to whatever reality they chose to feed to them.”
Lucy gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth. “That’s awful!”
“It’s not so bad.” Vista pointed at the lens. “The optical implant is better than a regular eye. I can see things really far away, even in the dark.”
“Cool!” Aaron said. “I want one!”
“Well, first you need to find a sharp stick…” Vista joked.
“You must be hungry,” Donna said, offering her a wrapped package of food. She shot her husband a stern glance, and Darius passed Vista a bottle.
“Thank you.” She took a sip. It tasted sweet and fruity, some sort of wine.
“After the accident, the military wanted to keep me close, because I knew too much. They offered me a job. I enlisted in the space program where I worked as a mechanic.”
“What year did you leave Earth?” Darius asked.
“I left in October, 2048,” Vista replied.
“But that’s impossible! You couldn’t have! The planet was long – ”
“Destroyed? Yeah, no it wasn’t. That’s just what they told all of you to convince you to evacuate. I know the story. A giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, extinction level event, blah blah… everyone needed to evacuate or they would die.”
“Yes, exactly. And after we were off the planet, we watched it hit. We all watched Earth being destroyed on the screens, from the safety of the ships.”
“What you saw was fake. Spectacular special effects, staged for your benefit. They just wanted to be rid of you.”
“The ones in control. Governments.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I worked for them. I helped build the ships that brought you here, and countless others who ended up who knows where in the universe.”
“I don’t know,” Darius shook his head. “It all sounds pretty far-fetched. Not to mention coincidental that you ended up here, the same place where we landed.”
“It’s quite logical, when you think about it,” Vista said. “The ship I came in was built with the same technology as yours, though a bit more advanced, being a newer model. But both were built with the same type of navigational system. They’re programmed to seek out habitable planets. The difference is, yours landed safely. My landing gear was damaged during the flight and I crashed.”
“Assuming what you’re saying is true, why did they send us away?”
“As you probably remember, Earth’s governments were run by the wealthy. Every high office in the world was for sale to the highest bidder. The Elites wanted the planet to themselves. They’d tried genocide in the past, but then they realized it wasn’t race or religion that was the problem, it was population. The masses of non-wealthy were taking up space they felt they were entitled to and cutting into their profit margin.
“So they made up a lie to make us leave?”
“Yes. What better way to get rid of a problem than by shooting it into space? They’d been doing the same thing with their garbage for years: out of sight, out of mind. And then they took credit for cleaning up the planet. They did the same thing with what they viewed as human refuse. Anyone they decided was a burden – basically anyone who was in the wrong tax bracket – was sent into space like so much trash.”
“How did they decide who was a burden?”
“Anyone with a bank balance of less than a million dollars was immediately disqualified. After that, the heads of the nations met, and each came forward with a list of those they deemed worthy. The chosen ones were informed. Everyone else was told the planet was about to be destroyed.”
“I remember,” Donna said softly. I was only sixteen years old. My life was just beginning. They told us we were going to die. I’ve never been so afraid in all my life. Before that day, my biggest problem was getting the boy I liked to notice me. In an instant, my whole world changed. Everyone’s did.”
“And the bastards let you all think you were going to die. For weeks they fed you a mixture of doomsday bullshit and false hope. Their ‘brilliant’ scientists were working on a solution, they said. And then, two months after the news of the asteroid, came the big announcement. Humanity was saved! Everyone would escape the doomed planet onboard a massive intergalactic cruise ship, with a chance to find a new world somewhere out there. Tickets were free, of course, but passengers had the option of buying upgrades – private quarters, individual stasis pods – all stuff that made no difference in the long run, but the Elites never failed to grab an opportunity to make a buck. Billions of people blasted into space in every possible direction. Some were doomed to die; some are still out there cruising, locked in stasis until their ships find a liveable planet. Some got lucky and found a place to land.”
“We got lucky, I guess, if you can call this lucky. My family signed up right away. But my grandparents refused to go with us. They preferred to stay and die in their home. I wonder what happened to them?” Donna sighed. “I miss them. I wish we could go back.”
“Actually, no, you don’t. After the evacuation, the Elites tried to starve out the squatters by making life as rough as possible for them, dangling the promise of food and shelter aboard a cruiser. A lot of them gave in and finally left, but some refused to take the bait. The survivalists fared the best; many had been stockpiling for Armageddon since the turn of the century. Those who were unprepared just starved.”
“But there must have been some chosen ones who didn’t agree with the plan!” Donna said. “What happened to them?”
“The penalty for non-compliance was execution. They couldn’t risk putting them aboard a ship with the masses once they knew the truth. The secret had to be protected at all costs. A few chosens met their end that way, but not as many as you’d think. Wealth and corruption go hand in hand.”
“Why did you leave?” Aaron asked. “Were you sent away too?”
“No. Military was exempt. They didn’t want to be left without defenses in case of attack. The Elites didn’t trust each other. They were so worried about being betrayed by one of their own, they overlooked the real threat.
Once the Elites got rid of everyone, they didn’t have the planet to themselves for long. Hostile aliens landed and took over. Our guess was they intercepted one of the evacuation ships and tracked it back to Earth. Our weapons were no match for them. Most of our armed forces were wiped out. As a mechanic, I never saw the front lines, so I survived. The Elites lost everything. They were forced to live in squalor, slaves to the new alien overlords.”
“Serves them right, the bastards.” Donna threw a bundle of sticks on the fire with more force than necessary and it erupted in a shower of sparks.
“Right? It was kinda beautiful, to be honest. Anyway, I escaped, stole a ship and got the hell out of there while the rich idiots had the aliens distracted, demanding rights and fighting to keep their country clubs. I didn’t know where I was going; just set the autopilot and went into stasis, hoping to land on a world less corrupt than the one I left.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Darius said, “but it isn’t.”
“What? I left only fifteen years after the evacuations. How could anyone fuck things up that quickly? You got some kind of Lord of the Flies thing happening here?”
“Some kind of. I don’t have much basis for comparison, to be honest.” Darius reached for the bottle and Vista handed it to him.
“We left aboard a ship called the Aldous, four months after the doomsday announcement. Donna and I were teenagers, traveling with our families. We didn’t meet on the ship; everyone went into stasis shortly after takeoff. We met here, after we landed.”
“And what is “here”? Does this place have a name?” Vista inquired.
“We named the planet Xterra.”
“I get it. Ex-Terra. Kind of a clever play on words. It was also a model of car, if I remember correctly.”
“Apparently, yes. I don’t remember, but that’s what someone told me.”
“Where are the rest of you? That ship had a capacity of five hundred thousand. Are there more settlements like this one?”
“Yes, there are more like this, but not everyone is out here. The rest live in Summerland.”
“And why aren’t you there as well?”
“Because,” Darius said, passing the bottle back to Vista, “Summerland is only for the Uppers.”
“What the fuck is an Upper?”
“According to what you’ve told us, a lot of people who considered themselves Elite didn’t make the cut. They took what they believed was their rightful place. As for the rest of us…” Darius gestured at the surrounding camp.
“So you live out here in the dark, while those entitled assholes get to live in the sunshine? How do you survive? Where do you get food?”
“Why we work, of course. For the Uppers. And for the record, this isn’t the Dark. This is the Twilight Zone. The Dark Line is still a great distance from here.”
“You live in the Twilight Zone? You can’t be serious.”
Vista shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Suitable, I guess. What’s this Dark Line?”
“The Dark Line is where Twilight becomes Dark. It’s the borderline between the habitable and inhabitable zones. Xterra is different from the planet we came from. Remember how Earth rotated on an axis? I mean, I assume it still does.”
“Xterra doesn’t rotate?”
“Yes, it does. The way my father explained it, this planet turns so slowly it travels around its sun faster than it makes a single rotation. On Xterra, a day is longer than a year. On Earth we had short days and nights, seasons, cold places and warm places. This planet has those as well, but the dark and light move very slowly.”
“Your father sounds pretty knowledgeable.”
“He used to work for NASA.”
“And yet they sent him away.” Vista shook her head in disbelief, even though she already knew most of Earth’s scientists and scholars had been evacuated.
“Yes. Their loss, Xterra’s gain.
“I’d like to speak to your father.”
“So would I,” Darius said, hanging his head. “My father died, a few years after we landed.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“He was sick. Cancer. That’s why he retired from NASA. He wasn’t expected to live more than a year when we left Earth. He beat the odds, survived a deep space flight and helped colonize a new planet. He completed his life’s work and died happy, given the circumstances.”
They passed the bottle between the three of them in silence. Finally Vista spoke.
“Tell me more about Xterra.”
“The sides closest and furthest from the sun are inhospitable. The Scorch burns everything in its path. The Dark is frozen, like deep space. In between, are the regions where we live. Summerland is the ideal place to live. The sunlight is warm but not too hot, and the constant light is great for growing crops. We plant crops at the edge of the Twilight Zone, and by the time they reach the Scorch Line, they have matured and been harvested.”
“You must have water here, then.”
“Yes. The Dark is covered in ice, like Earth’s poles were before the climate change. As the sun advances, the ice melts and flows toward the warmth. The Scorch evaporates it into clouds and it rains and snows, just like it used to on Earth.
“Which explains the atmosphere. But your homes must also get scorched. What do you do, move the camps?”
“Yes. We move the camps as far as we can into the Twilight Zone, so we don’t have to move as often. It’s dark and cold for a while, but it gets warmer and brighter as the Summer approaches.”
“But what about the people who live in Summerland? They must have to move as well. Do they come out here too?”
“The Uppers? Oh, hell no. They would never leave the light. Moving them is a constant process. It keeps all of us working. Those who aren’t tending crops, working in the city or serving in the homes of the Uppers are on Moving duty.”
“You mean they move the tents and camps for the Uppers?”
“Tents! Ha!” Donna chuckled, opening a fresh bottle of wine. “I’d love to see an Upper sleep in a tent!”
“But how do you move them, if they don’t live in tents?”
Darius said, “We build. And dismantle. And rebuild.”
“Let me get this straight. You take apart entire buildings when the heat gets too close, and rebuild them where it’s cooler?”
“And you’re ok with that arrangement?”
“Yes. We earn our food and whatever else we need, and everyone is happy.”
“Happy? Yes, I’d say so, considering the alternative.”
“But why can’t everyone live in Summerland? Like you said, it’s a huge planet.”
“Because the Uppers won’t allow it. They don’t want crowds of Workers cluttering up their space.”
“Just like fucking Earth,” Vista muttered.
Vista accepted the family’s invitation to stay at the camp. They provided her with a tent and some necessities. Getting a job wasn’t a problem. Everyone worked, and the Uppers didn’t question who was who as long as the work was being done.
Vista couldn’t wait to get a look at this Summerland civilization.
Crews worked around the clock on Xterra because Summerland was daylight all the time. With no discernable day and night to guide them, they relied on Timekeepers to notify them of shift changes. The few remaining functional timepieces from Earth were used to create calendars based on Earth years, to give them a relatable way of measuring time. Shift changes were announced by the ring of a Timekeeper’s bell.
Vista was scheduled to start a shift on the next bell.
Aaron accompanied Vista into Summerland for her first shift. He was also scheduled to work at the next bell. Darius and Donna had finished their shifts and were at home asleep.
During the walk to the city, they chatted.
“How old are you, Aaron?”
“Mom says I’m about thirteen, in Earth years.”
“And you work? Don’t you go to school?”
Aaron laughed. “School? That’s only for the Uppers. They go to classes in the church. We don’t have to. Our parents teach us all we need to know.”
“Church? Seriously? They’re still flogging that old horse?” Vista laughed and shook her head. “Some people never learn.”
“All the kids work, as soon as they’re old enough.”
“Even your little sister Lucy? What is she, about eight years old?”
“Seven. Lucy works with my mom, on the Cleaning crew.”
“The Uppers like everything clean and polished.”
The sky grew lighter as they neared the city, and the temperature warmed by several degrees, like an ordinary sunlit morning. People came into view, other Workers, all walking in the same direction, toward a small building that looked like a toll booth.
A bell sounded in the distance.
“We’re almost there. We’d better hurry up and punch in.”
“You punch in at the gate when you get there. Keep your card with you and don’t lose it. You’ll need it to punch out at the end of the shift.”
“The card keeps track of our pay?”
“The card is your pay. It’s a voucher. You collect vouchers, and then you can spend them in the marketplace.”
“Huh. Cut out the middleman. It’s so simple, it’s almost brilliant.”
They had reached the toll booth.
“Where do you work, Aaron?”
“Here.” Aaron took his place inside the booth, relieving a youth of about the same age. He punched a card and handed it to Vista. “Remember to punch it again when you’re done, or it will be worthless.” He beckoned to a man standing behind Vista. She recognized him from the encampment. “This is Carl. He’ll show you what to do. You’re both on the same Moving crew.”
Vista tried not stare as she entered the city of Summerland. She intended to keep a low profile, but her jaw dropped in awe.
Shining towers rose all around, connected by raised, enclosed walkways, like a giant above-ground ant colony. Workers moved about the streets at ground level, while figures in flowing white robes traveled through the walkways.
“What is that made from?” she asked Carl, pointing at the towers. “It’s so shiny!
“Gold, mostly. And some copper.”
Carl shrugged. “We use what is available. The Aldous came equipped with plenty of tools, and seeds to grow crops, but not a lot of building supplies. We mined the planet’s minerals and smelted the metals. There happens to be a lot of gold available. There are other materials, but the Uppers prefer the gold.
“Of course they do.” Vista shook her head at the absurdity of it all. “So you have gold towers with thatched roofs?”
“And I thought Earth was fucked up.”
With Carl’s guidance, Vista survived her first shift without asking too many questions. She turned a few heads, but transfers from other shifts weren’t uncommon and nobody questioned her presence.
The crew was in the process of dismantling a mansion-sized home on the hot side of the city. Each building, she learned, had a duplicate next to it, which the occupants lived in while the other was being moved. Once the first home was rebuilt on the cool side of the city, crews went back and dismantled the second. And so on… building by building, until the entire city had been moved. Half of all buildings in the city were unoccupied at all times. And yet the people who did all the work were living in tents in the darkness! Vista fumed as she worked. The job never ended. As the city moved, the sun advanced.
Vista pondered what the Uppers would do if they had nobody to move their city for them.
The Uppers did nothing for themselves. Household servants prepared meals, cleaned their homes, shopped in the market for them and brought them everything they needed from the outside.
All buildings were connected by walkways, allowing Uppers to travel anywhere in the city without coming in contact with the ground. They were obsessed with cleanliness; their shoes never touched dirt and they wore spotless white garments. All the Uppers Vista saw were overweight, some morbidly so. The place was like a country club for obese germophobes.
They even had an above-ground golf course on the roof of the marketplace, with live sod planted over a fabric membrane. The marketplace was like a gigantic open-air shopping mall, with vendors of every description gathered under a roof like a giant parking garage.
One shift, while transporting materials to the cool side, Vista caught sight of something shiny. She zoomed in with her implant. The Aldous! The magnificent ship that had transported them to the planet sat a few miles outside the city, past the farmlands.
An idea formed in her mind.
Later, in the encampment, Vista and Darius were seated at a table in the tent that served as a pub.
Vista asked, “What happens to the Aldous during the move? Do they move it as well, or does it stay in one place?” She had to speak loudly to be heard over the chatter of voices in the busy pub.
“In the past, Captain Samuels would fly it deep into the Twilight Zone,” Darius explained, “as close to the Dark Line as possible. But he was old. He died recently, and the person who took his place doesn’t know much about the ship. On the last flight, it had a rough landing and now the engines won’t fire. We have nobody who knows how to fix it.”
“Yes, you do.” Vista grinned.
“I spent my entire military career working on that propulsion system. I know it well.”
“The ship should be moved if possible,” Carl said, “We don’t know if it would survive the Scorch and the Dark Freeze.”
“I can answer at least half that question. The Aldous was built for intergalactic travel, which means it was designed to withstand extreme temperatures. Yes, it would definitely survive the Freeze. That’s equivalent to the temperature of space. As for the Scorch, I’m about fifty percent certain it would survive that as well. Though the ships weren’t designed to fly into something as hot as a star, they are well insulated, in case of landings in harsh environments. I don’t know enough about this planet to say for sure. I don’t know how hot it gets. But that’s irrelevant, because we aren’t going let it get trapped in the Scorch. We want that thing accessible and operational, and I’m going to make it happen.”
“Vista, what are you plotting?” Darius asked. “If the Uppers find out…”
“Then what? Tell me, WHAT will happen if the Uppers find out?” Vista’s voice rose. “What will they do?” She gestured around the room. “What can they do to any of us that they haven’t already done? Is there some sort of punishment I don’t know about? Public beatings? Executions? Prison?”
“No, nothing like that! But they could cut off our food supply,” Carl said. “Without the crops, we’d starve. We need access to Summerland to survive, and the only way to get access is to work there.”
“And what if you didn’t? What if none of you did?
“What are you saying?” Darius asked. A murmur rose across the room. Vista had the attention of other tables besides theirs.
“What would the Uppers do if everyone refused to move their damn houses for them? Would they pick up the tools and do it themselves? Of course not! They wouldn’t know where to begin. I’ve worked over a dozen shifts and haven’t seen one of those pricks set foot on the ground.”
Vista stood and addressed the room.
“Don’t you people realize you’re the ones with the power, not them? I say fuck the Uppers! Let them burn when the Scorch comes! We’ll survive, because we have tents and know how to move them. We know how to plant crops. Who would feed the Uppers if we didn’t harvest their crops or serve them their food?”
“Fuck the Uppers!” came a shout from the crowd.
More voices joined in until it became a chant.
“Yeah! Fuck the Uppers! Fuck the Uppers!”
Vista turned to Darius and said, “That, my friend, is what we Earthlings used to call a strike.”
Word of the strike spread through the camps, along with instructions that everyone was to work their normal shifts until told otherwise.
Vista traded shifts with one of the farm Workers. The first chance she had, she slipped away, to the Aldous.
Walking onto the bridge of the old ship was like coming home. Vista blinked back tears. If she forgot about the messed-up civilization outside, she could almost pretend she was back on Earth, back at her old job, before everything went to shit.
The Aldous was easy to fix; just a loose connection caused by the impact of a rough landing. She completed the repair, then accessed the ship’s navigational system and reprogrammed it. If this strike went the way she expected it to, the Aldous would take care of their problem for them.
Workers gathered in the wasteland at the edge of the settlement where they awaited instructions and answers to their questions.
Vista did her best to alleviate their fears.
“In our old lives back on Earth, we were used to working for someone else. We all had Uppers to answer to. It’s natural to want to continue what we’ve always known. It feels safe.”
Several heads nodded and voices murmured in agreement.
“But the rules have changed! This is a new world, and you have the power to write new rules. The Uppers are playing by the old rules. Their power lies in your willingness to obey. Take that away and they have nothing! If nobody shows up for work, the Uppers will be afraid. They will be in a position to negotiate, and we can ask for whatever we want.”
“But what if it doesn’t work? What if the Uppers won’t negotiate?” a voice in the crowd asked.
“We have the Aldous. We will threaten to leave, and tell the Uppers to take care of themselves. Believe me, they’ll negotiate.”
“We could actually leave this place?” another voice asked.
“I think that’s a question we need to ask.” Vista addressed the crowd, “Would you want to leave on the Aldous, and take your chances in space? There’s always the chance the ship’s navigation system doesn’t locate another hospitable planet, or that the one it finds is inhabited by a hostile race.”
A woman spoke up. “I think I speak for most of us, when I say, we don’t want to leave. This is our home now. Our children were born here. We want to negotiate better living conditions for ourselves.”
The crowd voiced its agreement.
“Ok, it’s settled, then. We will leave only as a last resort. We are going to demand equal treatment for everyone. The Uppers will have no choice but to share Summerland and all its luxuries with us.”
“How long will it take? What if we run out of food?” someone asked.
“There’s nothing stopping us from helping ourselves to the crops in the fields. Nobody goes there except us.”
The chatter of voices rose. Apparently nobody had considered the obvious.
“Just give me three shifts. You all have enough food to last that long. Three shifts. I promise you, we’ll know the outcome by then.”
A cheer rose from the crowd, followed by chants of, “Fuck the Uppers! Fuck the Uppers!”
When the next bell rang, all Workers went home, but no new shifts took their places. Even the Timekeeper left.
The Uppers woke from their clean white beds to find no clean robes to change into. Their breakfast wasn’t made. Their household servants didn’t arrive with fresh goods from the marketplace.
An eerie silence had fallen over the city. The constant sound of construction was absent. No Workers bustled in the marketplace. No Timekeepers’ bells marked the shift changes.
Nobody did anything at first; they just waited for their servants to arrive. After the second sleep with no meal, they ventured out of their homes.
The Workers had vanished. Only Uppers were left.
They raided the marketplace, stripping it of anything edible. When the food was gone, what would they do? Nobody knew.
There was plenty of food in the fields, but with nobody to harvest, how would they get it? With nobody to run the bakeries, who would make the breads and cakes the Uppers loved to eat? More importantly, who was going to move them away from the Scorch? They were going to burn to death!
Panic gripped the city.
BONG! BONG! BONG!
The Timekeeper’s bell sounded in the courtyard.
The Workers were back! They were saved! They rushed to their windows.
A lone figure stood in the courtyard. A strange looking woman nobody had seen before.
“Uppers! We need to talk!”
The meeting with the delegation of Uppers went as expected.
Vista studied the row of ponderous, balding old men, lounging in their overstuffed armchairs. She recognized a few of them as former politicians from Earth.
“I regret to inform you, that as of this moment, all work in the city will stop, unless our demands are met,” she told them.
The room erupted in laughter.
“Get back to work!” A man who looked like Colonel Sanders dismissed her with a wave of his hand, as if swatting a fly. “Everyone needs to get back on the job, right now. There’s work to be done!”
Vista joined in their laughter.
“What’s so damn funny?” Sanders demanded.
“Suddenly I have a craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she giggled.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Just a moment, gentlemen, before we get down to business, I need to take care of something.” She withdrew a small aerosol can from her pocket and covered her mouth and nose with a cloth. She sprayed the air above the men’s heads.
“What is that?” a man who looked like an aging Cabbage Patch doll asked.
“Just a precaution. A little disinfectant for your protection. I came from outer space, remember? I don’t want to expose you to any deadly space germs.” When Vista stole the mind control drug from the amusement park, she never imagined she would use it on an alien planet one day.
Their eyes clouded with confusion. The atmosphere in the room changed from belligerent to complacent as the spray took effect.
“Thank you,” Cabbage Patch said.
“Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Sanders said.
“I was from Kentucky, once,” a voice drawled. The owner of the voice resembled a sweaty 500 pound wax figure, melting in the heat. “Senator Roy Gubbles.”
“I remember you, Mr. Gubbles.”
“Senator Gubbles,” he corrected.
“Whatever, Gumby. Actually, you were only a senator on Earth. Here, you’re just… I’m not sure what you are here. Jabba the Hutt, I think. Such a shame your colleagues didn’t choose you to stay.”
“What do you mean? Nobody stayed. That planet is dead. Destroyed by the asteroid.”
Vista grinned. “Oh, no, dear Gubbles. That’s what they wanted you to believe. The sad truth is, they chose the ones worthy to stay and blasted the undesirables into space. You, sir, did not make the cut. Did you piss anyone off, by chance? Money troubles, Senator?”
Gubbles hung his head and she knew she had nailed it. He’d fallen into financial trouble and his cronies were tired of bailing him out.
“Why should we believe you?” Sanders said.
“Because I was there. Long after you all got kicked off the planet, I remained, along with your old golfing buddies. If you don’t believe me, I have a little video you might want to see.”
Vista clicked a button on her implant and turned around. An image projected on the wall in front of them. It was the phony broadcast shown on the ships, of the asteroid destroying Earth. Except this video wasn’t on a ship’s screen. It was displayed on the giant screen in Times Square, with a party of New Year’s Eve proportions in full swing below. Billionaires from around the world cheered and celebrated. Champagne corks popped.
The Uppers watched in stunned silence.
“Sorry guys. Hate to break it to you, but there was a big party, and you weren’t invited. They celebrated after you left. You were duped. Thrown away by your own kind.”
“But… what…?” Sanders sputtered.
“Chicken butt!” Vista giggled. “But seriously, boys, if I were you, I’d be pissed off. I’d want revenge! Those bastards took everything you had! Your jobs, your property, your money!”
“Those bastards!” Cabbage Patch repeated.
“You know what I’d do if I were you? I’d go back there and take back what was mine.”
“We can’t! The ship is broken!”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, I can fix it. I can program a course for Earth and send you on your way.”
The Uppers murmured amongst themselves.
“Think about it fellows! The assholes who sent you away will be long dead by the time you get to Earth. But you – you’re still young and strong and… erm… healthy, thanks to stasis travel. You could take your families back home and take your rightful place on the planet of your birth.”
“What do you want in return?” Gubbles asked.
“Why nothing, really. Just leave this planet, this pain-in-the-ass, useless, always-having-to-move planet, to the less fortunate. The Workers have no place to go. You wouldn’t have to take them with you to Earth. You’d have the ship all to yourselves.
It didn’t take the Uppers long to reach a decision.
Vista moved the Aldous closer to the city in preparation for boarding. The Workers built a walkway for the Uppers, leading from the city to the gangplank to allow them to board without having to walk on the ground. The Workers loaded the Uppers’ belongings, most of which were made of gold. Hopefully the alien overlords of Earth liked gold. Maybe they’d be able to bargain for their miserable lives.
The new citizens of Summerland gathered to watch the massive ship and its equally massive cargo rise into the sky, and then in a flash it was gone.
Donna gave Vista a huge hug. “I don’t know how to thank you. I can’t believe you convinced them to leave. How did you do it?”
“Let’s call it the power of persuasion.”
The new Summerland thrived. Everyone did their share of work, and everyone shared in the benefits. The ridiculous golden towers were left to melt when the Scorch came, and the city was replaced with more practical, easily movable structures to suit the Summerlanders’ nomadic lifestyle. Aaron and Lucy grew up and had children of their own.
Even though Vista was old and blind in her real eye, she was not blind to the trend developing in the new generation. Some citizens stopped doing their share of work, opting to saddle others with their workload in return for goods or favors. As the lazy ones increased in number, the working class was pushed toward the edges of the city. One day she overheard someone suggest they move the workers out of the city, into the Twilight Zone.
Vista’s fingers caressed the spray can in the pocket of her robe. Some people never learned.
“Here we go again,” she muttered.
Copyright © 2017 Mandy White