The Odd One Out
"Yo Jake! Hey, you, come on man, it`s time for your six monthly."
I glanced away from the screen. "What, already? Boy, it only seems like, what, six months?"
"Very funny. Look are you going or not? It`s no skin off my nose, but I was told to tell you that you`re next. Hey, you never know, this year you may go up!"
"That`s what I`m afraid of," I mumbled as he walked away. I turned back to the computer screen and studied my position again. The computer should beat me in four moves now. Should.
I, however, had different plans. Playing chess against a computer is different from real people. You have to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the programme itself, which is set, and will determine what the computer will do in a given situation. In this instance, I knew I could save myself by sacrificing a rook. Not only would this buy me time, it would also weaken the computers position and hence allow me to exploit it.
And how did I know that the computer would fall for this? Because I was the one who had written the programme. I suppose in a way this was cheating, but in a world that strictly condemned any sort of crime, it was one of the few rebellions I was allowed.
I left the terminal and began to make my way to the test centre, when I saw Alex Andrew watching me. He came across to intercept my path.
"Playing chess again Jake! That the programme you wrote?"
"Yes sir, it is."
"It`s bad you know. Flawed! Programming errors."
"They`re human errors sir," I corrected him, then excused myself and left him shuffling his feet awkwardly.
"With a bit more effort, you could go up. UP!" he called after me.
He knew I had been right about the programming though. As right as he was about me going up. It had been decided many years ago, as soon as the technique had been honed to perfection, that computers should never be allowed to programme themselves. That would always remain a human responsibility, and it was a decision that kept me in one of the highest paid jobs around.
And yet it too, along with the intricacies of life, provided it`s own problems.
Every six months, all people holding any technical jobs were tested. The testing itself involved hours in front of a computer screen answering questions on everything from mathematics, to general knowledge to science. Many times I had decided to see how many questions there were, and of which particular category, but in the process of answering the questions themselves, I always lost count.
The actual purpose of the test was twofold. Firstly it determined how you were doing in your current job, as over 50% of the tests were trade specific (i.e. 50% of my test questions were all about computer languages), and from there decided if you were worthy of a pay rise, or indeed if you should still hold your current position.
Secondly it determined if you were worthy of going up.
Results were graded thus: a `D` grade meant it was time to look for alternative (and lower paid!) employment. `C` and you were doing just fine where you were. `B`, and hey presto, have a 10% pay rise!
`A` - and yes, you`ve guessed it - up you go!
The trouble was, it wasn`t even as straight forward as that! The gaps weren`t evenly spread. Getting a `B` and hence a pay rise would have been far too easy. So, just to keep things a little more carefully balanced (on their side of things) they kept a note of your score from your last test. You had to beat it to get a `B`.
AND, to make it even more complicated, no-one I`d ever spoken to knew how the test was marked, or where the threshold levels were set.
So this year, I promised myself, would be the last time I`d go for a `B`. One more pay rise, then I`d stop. Honest.
Because I knew I did not want to go up!
"Yo, Jane," I called as I came into our apartment. "You in?"
She came out of the kitchen holding a knife, her hands covered in blood. "Just getting dinner ready Jake. How was today?"
"What, today as in `test day` or just in general?"
She had started to turn round to make her way back into the kitchen, but suddenly she stopped. "I forgot it was test day." Her eyes looked into mine, and though she didn`t ask, I knew she was burning for an answer.
"I GOT A `B`!" I yelled, throwing my hands in the air. Jane screamed in delight and ran to me (mindful of the knife of course) and we hugged.
"Oh Jake that`s wonderful. Another pay rise. That`s one every six months for four years now. I can`t believe you pulled it off!"
"Yeah, all that work looks to have really paid off eh?" Ever since we`d met, Jane had always gently mocked the hours I spent at the reading screen in the study. I was an insatiable reader, covering everything from history to current affairs and even the old fiction novels they used to write back on Earth. I say old, whereas maybe I should say ancient. I do know that the novels used to be written on paper and compiled into what were called books, and that they were written back in days when people still died of diseases that we have never even heard of, such as `cancer` and `aids`. In time these books were all transcribed onto the computer system that the people on Earth had all linked together and called `The Internet`, as they were not allowed to chop any more trees down to make paper. Oh, how I wished I could see a tree.
I know all this from my reading, as this sort of useless information isn`t of relevance to us here. An education here can depend on many things, not least of which is how rich your parents are.
After a session of reading I would tell some of these things to Jane, who would gently laugh and tell me off for believing everything I had read.
"I don`t believe everything. Not all of what I read is fiction." And I would tell her about things like how the people used to vote for others who would in turn make all the decisions about how everyone lived. The idea that a successor wasn`t simply chosen by the off going head seemed crazy enough to Jane, but when I explained that everything people did, bought or spent their money on was taxed, she flatly refused to believe me.
"So why didn`t these government people just stop half the money earned in the first place, instead of taking little bits from all over the place?" she`d ask. I would explain that they did some pretty silly things back then, but she would ask more and more questions, until in the end I would have to concede that I didn`t know everything - just a fair bit about quite a lot.
We sat at the dinner table later, eating the meal that Jane had prepared.
"You know Jane, I reckon now that we`ll only have to wait another year before we can afford that baby, what with this extra pay rise."
She beamed at me for a moment, then her eyes fell away. "Why do we have to pay so much though Jake?" she asked.
"Come on love. We`ve been through all this. I want everything above board when we have this baby. We`ll pay the money and get him registered legally. I know it`s a lot, but it`ll mean he`ll be able to get a good education, and then later get a good job."
"Another year then," she nodded.
"Just one. Though I`m not going for any more `B`s in the test. I just can`t take the risk that I might go over into the `A`s!"
She stopped eating and looked me straight in the eyes. "You`re the craziest man I ever met Jake. Everyone else I know would give their right arm just to be allowed to sit the test, let alone the chance of actually going up! And you? You deliberately get answers wrong."
I cast my eyes down. "You know why that is Jane."
"I know, yes. But Hell, surely you must be tired of living down here! Don`t you even want to go and look, to walk about on the surface? God, just imagine, fresh air! And, what do they call it - wind? And hey, maybe there are some of those things on Earth you used to tell me about, all that water separating the land...?"
"Oceans," I mumbled.
"Yes, oceans. And maybe you`d get to see what trees look like. Do you think they`d have trees Jake?"
I shrugged. "Maybe, by now. They sorted the atmosphere out before my father was born, so maybe they`d have trees by now."
Jane had forgotten her food now as she talked excitedly about what it mike be like on the surface. "How many people do you think are up there now Jake? Think they like it up there? I never heard of anyone coming back down, so I guess they must eh?"
"They might Jane. I`d hate it. They only let the so called `best` go up, and you know that they wont even let you sit a test. I`d rather be down here with you, than up and alone."
And that was it really. That was my story. It was why I consistently struggled not to achieve an `A` grade, and why I wrote programmes that had tiny but obvious flaws in them - because if they ever found out how cleaver I was, they`d send me up and separate me from the woman I loved.
I turned and saw Luther coming towards me. "Yo Luther," I greeted him.
"Hey, here you failed to get to go up again Jake."
"Yeah," I said, trying to sound disappointed. "But I`m not too upset at the pay rise!"
"Yeah I heard that," Luther continued. "That`s eight in a row. Boy, you must have missed out on an `A` by the skin of your teeth."
That`s right, I thought, I had been sweating myself a little too!
"So anyway Jake, you hear about the upcoming event?"
"No. What event?" I asked
Luther smiled an "I know something you don`t" smile. "The Owner`s visiting!"
My mouth dropped open. "The Owner`s coming here?"
"I know man, that`s what I thought. Apparently he wants to meet some of the programmers. And guess what?"
"I don`t know Luther, you got me already!"
"He wants to play chess! AND... guess what?"
"The next bit I can guess. He wants to play against my programme!"
"Nope, but you`re nearly right. He`s already played the programme. He wins on every level."
I shrugged. So could I!
"Apparently the Owner`s good. He wants to do an exhibition match against ten of us. Ten separate boards, all playing him at once. Alex Andrews has played him before. Alex lost!"
I raised my eyebrows at that one. Alex was good. I had played him several times, and had yet to win.
Things could get interesting.
In the time before the Owner came, I read nothing that wasn`t directly related to chess. If someone as high up as the Owner wanted to play games with one of his employees, I thought, the lest that employee could do was give him a good game.
And so I did what I was best at - I studied.
No one else apart from Alex Andrews had met the Owner. On the hierarchical structure of things, Alex was my bosses boss, and as such needed contact with the Owner, but we were aware that this contact was extremely limited. The Owner, we gathered, was a reserved person who merely wanted his workers to do their best at everything they did. He did not expect people to fall at his feet, but rather to look him straight in the eye and answer any question truthfully. As no pictures of the Owner hung around the walls at work, for all any of us knew we could have already met the man and not known it.
The day of his visit arrived, and he made his first appearance to us all. If the surprised looks on our faces upset the Owner he didn`t show it.
Or should I say she?
Because the Owner was a woman!
As nobody apart from us workers had every referred to the Owner by gender, we had come, somehow, to assume the Owner was a man. We were quite wrong. At almost two meters tall she towered over all of us, but it was her pasty white skin, her white hair and those pink eyes that shocked us more I think.
After a short speech about how nice it was to finally get to see our faces (a joke I wondered??), she explained how much of a fan of the game of chess she was, and how she looked forward to some stiff competition.
"Now lets play," she said.
Ten tables had been set up in a circle. The Owner stood in the middle of the circle, slowly rotating to play at each board in turn. Surprisingly, I thought, she had not insisted on playing either solely white or black, but had rather left it up to chance. I had held my hands out in front of me, closed, a white pawn in one hand, a black in the other. The Owner chose my left hand. She played black.
When all the sides had been chosen, the boards reversed on several tables where necessary, the games began.
I had no idea how the Owner played, and I had been in some dilemma for the past few days as to what strategy to adopt. In the end I had decided to leave any decision until I knew which colour I was playing. I was white, so I decided to attack.
I opened carefully, mindful of any silly traps which could leave my rear ranks open to counter-attack, yet massed my forces ready for an onslaught down the right hand side of the board. I monitored the Owners moves, and saw that she too was doing the same thing on her right. I stopped and analysed my position.
My head began to throb from the numerous possibilities that faced me, and when I looked up to glance at the other players, I was surprised to see that after only thirty three moves, seven of the others had already conceded their games. Only myself, Alex Andrews and another player remained.
Thrilled, yet unpurturbed, I studied the board again. I reckoned that if I attacked now, the Owner would have no option but to meet that attack, so delaying any plan of her own. Slowly her forces would be drawn in to meet mine and do battle on her side of the board, rather than be allowed to reek havoc in my territory.
In one smooth stroke I moved my queen, captured one of her pawns and threatened to put her in check. Her next move, I thought, could well decide the game. Though many moves were available to her, I considered only two to be viable. As the Owner had not yet moved either her king, nor the rook on the left hand side of the board, she could castle. This is the only time in chess when a player may move two pieces. She could move the king two spaces towards the rook, and the rook would swing round to the other side of the king. This would remove the possibility of me putting her in check, but I would then be in a position to capture a rook from the right hand corner of the board. If she moved the rook instead, I would capture a pawn, and place her king in check.
I felt good. I was in command, and things were going well.
Yet to my horror, the Owner did neither of these things. Instead, she merely moved her king one space forward and to the left.
I panicked. My eyes bulged and I stared at the board in bewilderment. In one swift move I went from calm and in control, to wild eyed and hesitant. I suddenly felt out of my depth. I glanced up and saw that only myself and Alex Andrews now remained. Most of the spectators were gathered watching his game, and I was glad that they could not see the dilemma I was in.
Was it a trap I wondered? Was there something deep in there that I had not yet seen? I stared and stared at the board, but no answers came forth. Next I wondered if the Owner had simply made a blunder. Maybe she was concentrating more on the other game than on mine, and didn`t consider me a threat.
For the next three moves nothing existed for me but the sixty four black and white squares in front of me, on which twenty chess pieces fought an intricate dance of death. My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by loud applause. I looked up and saw that Alex Andrews had lost after a valiant effort. The crowd now came and gathered around my table.
By now I had realised the subtle design behind the Owners move. She had now manoeuvred her king into a tight defence, yet had left the rook safely tucked into the rear left hand corner, aware that I had no white bishop that could sweep along the diagonal and threaten it. It was time for something desperate.
Aware that I had already won a small victory by being the last standing player, I made a bold move with my queen. I picked her up and placed her next to the Owners bishop, which itself was tightly protected in the Owners main body of pieces.
The Owner herself stopped and looked at me, a small smile of - well maybe it was sympathy. "I sincerely hope that move was not intended as an insult," she said. It was the first time she had spoken to me directly, and her voice was at the same time sexy yet authoritative.
"I`m sorry?" I ventured.
"I have played your programme extensively. I am aware of it`s flaws. I hope you have not based all your strategy on the sacrifice of that piece."
With a flourish and a gesture that was almost comical in its theatrics, she ignored my queen and advanced a totally unconnected pawn. As I`d hoped!
I pretended to ponder, then, as if in reluctance, moved my queen behind her defences to a previously inaccessible position. I realised that it would not have been totally impossible to get her there, but the moves required to do so would have made my intention far clearer.
The Owner herself gave a small shrug, now of the clear opinion that despite lasting this long, I was not worthy of her skill, and advanced another pawn. Though this advancement was threatening promotion of a pawn to a more powerful piece when it reached my side of the board, I did not have time or the spare pieces to hinder their progress.
Instead I manoeuvred one of my knights. "Check."
The Owner gave a slightly annoyed sigh, and went to move her king. That was when she saw it. For there was only a single free spot to move her king to. My queen had cut off one of those previously available. Not only this, but once she had moved her king, her bishop was left unprotected. It could be taken by my knight, and she would again be put in check, forced back to the rear of the board, and pinned next to the rook she had earlier refused to move.
I watched as she checked and re-checked all the pieces for any glimmer of hope, but I could tell that she knew as well as I did that it was all over. It was check mate in three moves.
I looked as her head came up, and she pulled herself to full height, towering over me. There was a look of panic in her eyes for the briefest of moments, and I felt an almost unbearable need to tell her it was just a game, but the moment past and she half smiled at me. And with another grand flourish she reached out and gently laid her king on its side in the gesture of admitting defeat, and I had won!
As I sat in the office waiting, I reflected how I had told Jane last night about the game. She had been thrilled to hear that I was the only one who had beaten the Owner, and jokingly asked if this meant that I was in for yet another pay rise.
Alex Andrews finally arrived, and sat down heavily in his chair, eyeing me coldly.
"So then Jake, tell me about it."
"Er.... What do you want to know?"
"Come on man. The fact that you took me for a fool is bad enough, but the Owner is taking this very personally! I mean, did you really expect us to simply believe that it was possible to get eight `B`s? No-one has ever got eight `B`s before. EVER! And you got them consecutively."
My mouth opened and closed, but my brain simply refused to supply any words. Where was all this going?
"They say chess has a lot to do with memory. And I for one certainly agree that you must have one hell of a memory Jake. Not that that has any relevance now."
"Sir, what`s going on here?"
"GOING ON? I hoped you were the one who could tell me that! The Owner tells me that you`re going up!"
"WHAT?" I leapt to my feet. "It was only a game. She said she wanted some stiff competition. Can`t she take loosing?" I shouted.
"Well the Owner says that they need people like you up the top. What are you worried about?"
"People like me? How would she know that, has she been?"
"I would say that yes, she probably has. A person of that stature can come and go as they please. Whereas you, you`re just going."
"Sir, please. I don`t want to go up. I have my own reasons, but please, I`d far rather just stay here."
He looked at me, and I couldn`t tell if there was any real pity in his eyes or not, but his voice belied the fact that he did have some remorse in what he was about to say.
"I`m sorry Jake. It`s the Owners orders. If you don`t go up, you`re out anyway. Now if you want my advice, just take it gracefully. Sort out any loose ends that you have to, then report back here same time tomorrow." He stood and offered me his hand.
I turned my back on him and left, wondering what the hell I was going to say to Jane.
The doors slid open and I was blinded by searing bright light. My eyes hurt anyway from where I had been crying all night with Jane, but even when I shielded them, I could still feel the brightness burning through. The heat, too, was astonishing. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived on the surface, but heat and light seemed to be all there was.
Hands grabbed me. I was guided out of the lift, eyes still closed tightly, as I followed blindly. Suddenly I felt the heat diminish and the light reduce. I opened my eyes and saw that we were now in the shadow of what appeared to be a huge wall. As I looked I estimated it to be well over seven meters tall, and extended in either direction as far as the eye could see. The head of the lift shaft itself seemed to rise out of the ground like some sort of stone shoot. Between it and the shadow of the wall was a good five or six meters, and it was over this ground that I had been guided.
But it was the sight above the wall that held me transfixed. - because there was no roof there! What I was looking at, for the first time in my life, was the sky. It was a strange shade of green, and stretched from the horizon on either side, over my head, and then disappeared behind the wall.
It was then that I became aware of the buildings. They were low, and of the same light brown as the surface of the planet, giving the impression that they were constructed from the stone or soil that made up the ground that I was standing on. I would hardly have noticed the buildings, had it not been for the low shadows they cast.
The heat and light were emanating from what my studies told me must be our sun. It was impossible to look in even its vague direction, so white and bright was it. And hot. Had it not been for the shade provided by the wall, I feel sure my skin would blister and peel within minutes of direct light, and immediately guessed that the wall had been constructed solely for the purpose of providing shade.
The two people on either side of me decided that I had had enough time surveying my surroundings, and began to guide me towards one of the buildings.
"Let me look for a few more minutes," I said.
"We have to get you inside. You can come out later, after you`ve been briefed. It`ll be cooler then anyway."
It seemed completely ironic to me, that when the people down below spent most of their lives wishing they could get up to the surface, they were unaware that the first thing that would happen to them would be that they were taken indoors.
I was taken to a large briefing room, and watched as one of the men who had been guiding me turned and left. The other remained and took a seat, indicating that I should do the same. After several minutes of silence, a door opened and a small man entered, flanked on either side by two very much larger men. They appeared to be guards, and this both frightened and intrigued me. Below the surface, violence was almost unheard of, as the punishment for such acts was hideous. Besides which, as most people were happy with what they had and lived simple yet satisfied lifestyles, there was little to get violent and upset about.
So what was so different up here?
"My name is Bartholomew," the small man began. "I am in charge up here on the surface, and I consider it my job to welcome everyone personally when they arrive. It`s a little unusual to have a solitary newcomer, but the Owner tells me that there were special circumstances."
I opened my mouth to speak, but one of the two guards stepped forward and indicate that I refrain from doing so by slowly shaking his head.
"Now, the man on your right is Dave. Dave has been assigned to be your friend. He will be able to tell you all about our customs and rules here on the surface, and so should be able to answer all of your questions. I believe you will be starting work at the solar power plant in the morning."
"But I`m a computer programmer," I blurted.
Bartholomew smiled. "We have no use for computers up here Jake. There is much work to do, and I believe it falls on the gifted intellectuals to help with this work - for the sake of those less fortunate, don`t you agree?"
I said nothing. My mind was racing and I had a thousand questions to ask my new "assigned" friend, Dave.
"Two last things before you go. Firstly, stay away from Ian Brenchly. I understand there`s some friction there, so he`s been assigned an enemy of yours. Secondly - well, just stay out of mischief, eh Jake! Dave will show you to your quarters now. Have a nice stay, and try to keep out of trouble."
Dave whispered to me that he would explain everything soon enough, and I followed him through a maze of corridors to my quarters.
On opening the door I first noticed that though they were very luxurious, this new place was only half the size of my apartment down below. This struck me as particularly strange, as I would have thought that there was less room below.
Dave offered me a seat (strange, seeing as we were in my quarters) and got me a drink from a cabinet. A young woman appeared from another doorway which I assumed led to the kitchen, but by this time I had ceased to be amazed by anything. She introduced herself as Lynn, and took a seat on a separate part of the couch. When Dave sat down, I began grilling him. The situation was thus:
Contrary to popular opinion from below, life on the surface was not all a bed of roses at all. Quite the reverse! The decision to send up only the most intellectual amongst us was for a purpose that had escaped everyones notice. It was based upon research that people with a higher level of intellect were far less prone to violence than their less intelligent counterparts. Whilst violence down below was at a minimum, it was carefully (and strictly) controlled to keep it that way. The fact that we all lived in an enclosed environment actually helped. Up here though, if a violent man were to become upset and possibly involve others, even start an uprising.....
And so it was that we, the mentally stronger, yet physically weaker, were set to carry out the manual tasks required.
And that was not the worst part. For it transpired that not everyone had to sit the tests to get up here. Some of the more violent were deliberately sent up here - to act as guards over us! They were here to ensure that no uprising could occur, and to act as a general deterrent for any "antisocial" behaviour - such as refusing to work.
But it was the last part that really got me. For the reality of it all, was that all the electricity produced via the suns power, all the food grown under the suns rays, and all the shafts that were manually constructed to provide air, was all for the benefit of those living below the surface - those very same people who tried every six months to make it up to the surface, unaware that we were the actual prisoners, slaving away to provide the freedom and luxuries that in their innocence they desperately wanted to leave behind.
"So, that`s the truth of it," Dave concluded.
I sat back, exasperated. "But what`s with you being "assigned" to be my friend. Can`t I make my own friends?"
Dave looked slightly hurt at this. "Well they do an analysis on everyone, and they keep their profile. When someone new arrives, they assign them friends who they know will be compatible."
"OK, I can sort of see that. But what about this guy Ian Brenchly. How the hell have I made an enemy already?"
"I suppose that`s the flip-side. They know that the two of you have opposite personalities, ones that wouldn`t get along, so they want to keep you apart. Look, there`s a lot to take in at first, but once you get used to it, it`s not that bad. I`ll leave you to it for a while. I live just across the way. Name`s on the door if you want me for anything. See you later Jake. See you Lynn."
I turned round to look at Lynn, who had not spoken for all this time.
"You staying?" I asked.
"Haven`t they told you? I`ve been assigned to be your wife."
The first few weeks passed more quickly that I would have thought possible There was still so much to learn, that I discovered I had an insatiable appetite to glean everything there was to know about life on the surface, the hows and whys.
It transpired that we lived in sector 2. Sector 1 was on the other side of our wall, heading in the direction of the sun. Because of the strange way our planet spun in relation to its orbit around our sun, there was not much to distinguish between day and night as I had learned there was back on Earth. Our sun rose to its pinnacle, which in our sector was around 50 degrees, and dipped down to around 30 degrees. In sector 1, the sun rose to over 60 degrees, and consequently their wall had been built substantially higher to offer them some shade from its deadly rays. There were no sectors beyond sector 1. The sun was at too high an angle on this part of the planet. Later though, (much later so it would seem) there were plans to build buildings under which to shelter.
The last sector, sector 8, had a wall of only 1 meter in height. This far round on the planet, and it did actually get dark at night. Beyond sector 8 and it was permanent darkness.
The work that I had been assigned to do turned out to be far from as bad as I had envisioned. The psychologists up here certainly knew their stuff, and to avoid the stress and boredom that comes with repetition, everyone in the factory rotated through the twelve jobs, from the supplying of the materials to build the solar panels, through construction, to fitting and finally testing. It was a far more physical job than I had ever been used to, but I surprised myself one day by humming tunelessly whilst working.
Besides which, there were far worse jobs that needed doing. Much of the work up here was to do with construction, and all the raw materials had to be mined from the unforgiving crust of our planet. This work took up the greatest percentage of our work-force, and it was only thanks to my arrival as an individual as opposed to a member of large group that I had somehow managed to avoid becoming a labourer.
It seemed that the grand plan was to eventually be able to house everyone (if they desired) on the surface of the planet. As I mentioned earlier though, we had specifically been chosen to carry out all the work as we were less likely to rock the boat and rebel, and I quickly got the impression that those in charge up here were in no rush to see the hordes from below colonise or ruin their empire - at least not within their lifetime.
And so even though we were worked hard, it was not fast, and the days were no longer than they had been below. We were also treated well (if we played by the rules) and there was little to really complain about - if you allowed yourself to get used to it.
It was now four weeks since I had played the Owner at chess, and I truly believe that I could have fitted in comfortably with life on the surface - Except that I missed Jane to much to allow that to happen.
"Yo, Lynn," I called as I entered my quarters.
"Yo," she replied. She came out of the kitchen with blood on her hands, and the sense of deja voux was too strong to ignore. When she saw he look on my face she said, "What`s the matter love?"
She had taken to calling me "love" after the first week, and though it rankled me at first, for the most part I just let it ride.
"What`s the matter?" I yelled. "The matter is that I DON`T WANT TO BE HERE! I NEVER wanted to be here. I was happy where I was, living with Jane, programming computers and reading. I had no aspirations of living on the surface. This was forced onto me, and try as I have - I DON`T WANT IT!"
I`m not generally an emotional person, and this outburst was quite un-character like. It also exhausted me for some reason, and I had to sit down.
Lynn came across, but she could see I didn`t want any affection, so she sat on a chair opposite me. "But what else can you do Jake? You`ve got to accept that she`s down there, you`re up here, and there`s nothing else you can do except get on with life."
"And why can`t I go back down?"
She looked at me as though I must be stupid for asking such a question. Of course, they didn`t want anyone below thinking that life was anything but perfect up here - they still wanted a regular influx of ideal (and voluntary) workers - and yet I wasn`t referring to asking permission about going back below!
When I had told Jane about my fate, we had realised that I had definitely upset the wrong person by beating the Owner at chess. She would see to it that not only would I lose my job at the programmers, but also that I could not get another (decent) job anywhere else. If I really dug my heels in, there was no telling what might happen. Jane might even lose her job too!
And so I had decided to leave. I gave all the money to Jane, saying that I wouldn`t need it on the surface. If they were going to make my life not worth living below, what choice did I have but to go up? We would miss each other, but there just wasn`t an alternative. I had left promising Jane that I would do whatever I could to get her up as well.
But now my plans had changed. Life not worth living below suddenly seemed a whole lot better than not having a life without Jane. The life I lived up here had too many conditions, and even though there were no walls on the surface to press me in, my life was contained nevertheless. That was not to say that I didn`t actually enjoy both Lynn and Dave`s company. I was surprised to find how compatible we all were, but I missed my other job. I missed my reading and my previous lifestyle, my dreams of life on the surface had been shattered, and I knew I couldn`t go on any longer without Jane.
"I`m going out," I suddenly said.
"Out? Where to, Dave`s?"
"No, I`m not going to Dave`s," I replied.
"So where are you going then?" she asked
I was going to ignore her, but on an impulse I replied, "Why should I tell you where I`m going?"
"Because I`m your wife!" she called after me, though by now I was out of the door.
"Ha! My wife! Says who?"
The man who opened the door was taller and broader than I had been expecting. He didn`t say anything as he looked at me, so I decided to introduce myself.
"Yo. My name`s Jake."
His eyes went wide for a second, then he said, "Jake? Boy you`ve got some nerve coming round here. If you`re looking for a fight than I`d suggest you wait until tomorrow and we`ll do it on the surface. This is my home!"
"I can assure you I do not want to fight. To tell you the truth, I never even heard the name Ian Brenchly until I got up here. I don`t understand why we`ve been assigned as enemies. I`ve never been enemies with anyone in my life!" I paused there letting him think, but then I added, "Well, apart from the Owner that is."
He studied me for a moment, but then seemed to come to a decision and invited me in. A stunning looking woman with dark hair sat on one of the chairs in the main room.
"Who`s this Ian? I didn`t think we were expecting guests."
"This," he said, "Is Jake."
The woman leapt to her feet. "Jake? This is the man you keep ranting and raving about? What is he doing in our house?"
Ian put his hands on her shoulders and told her to calm down. Her name was Belinda, and I listened as he explained to her that something was wrong, and that we were going to get to the bottom of it. He then offered me a seat, fetched me a drink, and we started to talk.
"A while after I got up here," he began, "Must be about four or so weeks ago now, Bartholomew brought me in and told me that a man by the name of Jake was coming up. He told me that man had been having an affair with my wife down below - wait, please hear me out - and that all possible measures would be made to keep us apart. He said we had been assigned as enemies."
I was shaking my head as he explained all this to me. Belinda still looked furious at me, though whether this was for intruding on her evening, or whether she actually believed the story I couldn`t tell.
"Ian, let me tell you something. I was a happy man down below. I had a girl, Jane. We were planning to have a child. I had a good job, and we were beginning to get together all the money to pay and have a legal baby. I wasn`t having an affair with anyone! And I most certainly did not want to end up here on the surface."
Ian suddenly turned and looked at the girl. "Belinda. Go for a walk," he commanded.
"GO," he yelled, and she quickly scurried out.
"I don`t trust them," he muttered. "Do you think they`re spies?"
My mouth dropped open. "I, er. I hadn`t really thought about it. Now you come to mention it, I have always wondered why I was immediately given a wife, and my assigned friend Dave hasn`t got one, even though he wants one. But that aside, why do you think they would make up a story like the one they told you?"
In answer Ian seemed to change the subject. "Why did you end up on the surface if you didn`t want to come? Why didn`t you just fail the tests?"
"I did. Well, I got `B`s anyway. I never wanted an `A`. The Owner came round to our work place and challenged a load of us to a game of chess. I beat her, and the next thing I knew I`m getting burnt by the sun."
Ian sat back, his fingers pressed together in a steeple under his chin. "You know what I think? I think they didn`t want us to ever meet, certainly never to get along. Let me tell you why. I was in a similar situation to you - wife, child on the way. Every six months I`d take a test and either get a `B` or a `C` - anything to avoid having to leave my family behind."
"But something happened to make them send you. You weren`t offered a choice, right?"
"That`s right. See I started asking too many questions for my own good. I`d done a lot of research into life back on Earth all those years ago, and I wanted to know about energy. One of the rules about energy is that it can neither be created nor destroyed, right? So I began to worry about where all the energy for lighting, powering the machines and everything came from. As most of the lights below are ultra violet, I started to build a machine that would capture some of the energy and re-cycle it, similar to the solar panels up here. When they saw what I was doing they asked why. Well my explanation must have been enough for them to guess that I was cheating on the test. I was in that lift within a few hours."
I shook my head as I listened to his story. "I thought I was the only one you know! I really did. Everyone else wanted to come up here. They all enjoy it in some weird way. Me, I just want to get back, to see my girl. I don`t know what we`ll do from there, but as long as we`re together...."
"So how about it then?" my assigned enemy asked. "Still want to go home?"
"Of course. But how? The lift shaft is too heavily guarded, both at the top, and at the bottom."
"Yeah, well I`ve been thinking about that for some time now. And I may just have a plan!"
Ian Brenchly told me of his plan. I couldn`t say whether it would work or not, but just the thought of it set both our hearts racing and breathed life into us - life that had slowly been sucked out of us during our brief stay in "paradise" on the surface.
It would be five weeks before we would be able to carry out the plan and attempt our escape. The reasons for this were several. One of the main reasons was the party.
Below the surface, one of the biggest employers that would be recruited from sector 2 (all the various sectors "recruited" from different places, mainly due to the geographical location of the lift shafts to those sectors) was an electronics factory called Cybertell. This factory was due its six monthly test in five weeks time, and this always produced an extremely large number of workers emigrating to the surface. Now whilst those in charge up here welcomed the extra manpower, a large number of disillusioned men and women could rapidly cause an equally large disturbance. In an effort to pre-empt this dissatisfaction, a huge party was held, supposedly in the honour of the newcomers, and the following week would be far easier going than normal, to allow the crowd to find their feet - and their position in their new environment. It all sounded a bit dubious to me, and far too transparent, but Ian assured me that it was a tried and tested idea.
The plan was that we would enjoy the party for a while, then when we felt the time was right, we would slip away to make our escape. We hoped that the guards would be watching the newcomers for any sign of disturbance. Naturally, as assigned enemies, we could not be seen together, but we would be only one or two people amongst all the others going home to their quarters - except we planed to go a bit further than the rest.
The time was also needed to construct some tools that we would need on our journey. Ian had actually been planing to escape on his own anyway, but he was happier now that he had someone to go with, and that he now had a set date to prepare for.
Over the next five weeks we readied ourselves. We were still unsure whether the wives assigned to us really were spies or not, but to be safe we carried on as if nothing had happened. We had to agree that we could not see one another again, not until the night of the escape itself. We knew what had to be done between now and then, and it would only take a subtle nod on the night to indicate it was time to go.
Ian`s job on the surface was as a farmer. It was hard physical work, assigned mostly to those intellectuals who were physically bigger, and looked (even if they weren`t) capable of violence. In this way the authorities could keep them permanently tired and incapable of trouble even if they did want to cause any. The advantage in our case was that Ian had devised a way of fashioning rope from the stalks of the Sunrose plant. Apart from a few cactus and some rough scrub, it was the only plant that seemed capable of growing under our harsh sun, and its fruit provided us with our staple diet. Its rough green stalk peeled away in thick layers, and this too was edible. Indeed the stalk was used in many of the dishes we ate, but a dead, eaten plant cannot grow fruit, so it was a luxury as opposed to an everyday dish.
Ian, however, had learned that the taller plants could have several layers peeled off them and easily survive. These thick ribbons of stalk could then be trimmed into thinner lengths and by weaving and tying them could form a rope that could easily hold a mans weight. Ian had been smuggling lengths of rope home for several weeks, but as we didn`t know how much we would need, and as he could only smuggle relatively small lengths each day, we reckoned we`d need the five weeks to get a satisfactory amount.
For my part I smuggled several lengths of the metal that we used as the frames for the solar panels. Strangely I found them easier to get out of the factory than into my own home, as Lynn always seemed to be hovering and wanting a cuddle. If she had felt the thick strip of metal down my side, she certainly would have been curious.
Several days before the party, I decided that I had enough metal for just about any eventuality, and spent the next few nights smuggling it all out of my home so that I could bury it ready for easy access. When it had all been removed from my quarter I went home. There was nothing I could do now but wait - and hope that Ian had been able to keep up his end of the bargain.
The party was actually going quite well. There was plenty to drink, lots of dancing, and only the really cynical people like me must have noticed all the guards doing their best to blend in. Outside they even had an open fire on which the food was being cooked. Below the surface open fires were naturally never allowed, and even up here they were strictly regulated. This was indeed an honour.
Bartholomew himself was here too. He had made a speech earlier, welcoming the newcomers and telling them how their efforts would be remembered by generations to come. The crowd actually cheered. I wondered for a brief instant whether everyone else had somehow been drugged since their arrival here, so that they really did believe that they were in paradise. But I knew the reality was different, and that the psychologists were right. These people had set their minds on what life was going to be like on the surface, and now, afraid to admit that all their efforts proved to be in vain and their dreams were shattered, they would not grumble, but instead would make the most of what was given to them. After all, what choice did they have anyway?
I looked round to see if I could spot Ian. He was with a large group of people who were all shaking hands with him, and I realised with a sort of worried shock that he had just met a group of friends amongst the newcomers. Would this mean that the escape was off? It didn`t bear thinking about, but as I watched him weave his way through the newcomers, talking to many of them, I decided that I was going to go tonight, whether Ian came or not.
"Come on Jake, lets dance." I had been trying to loose Lynn in the crowd for over an hour now, but it seemed as if some cruel joker had manacled her to me.
"When I get back. I`m off to the toilet." As if on cue, Ian looked up and gave me a brief nod. I threaded my way towards one of the exits, and made my way out into our hot and bright night.
The sun was at its lowest, indicating that it was around midnight our time, and the shadow from our wall extended way past the lift shaft from whence I had arrived. Ian appeared by my side, and without a word we set off. Firstly we made our collections of metal bars and lengths of rope, then we made a direct line for the wall of sector 3.
The theory was that if we were missed, the guards would comb our sector before even thinking to search farther afield. Our best hope though, was that we weren`t missed at all for some time. Tomorrow was a half day, starting at midday, so we hoped that it was possible to go unnoticed until then.
Ian set a cruel pace across the hard surface, and laden with my metal bars, I struggled to keep up with him. After what seemed like the longest walk of my life, we could see sector 3`s wall. This sector was farther away from the sun than our own, and the curvature of the planet meant that it`s wall did not need to be as high as ours. It must still have been about six meters! Ian set to work without a word. Most of the lengths of rope had already been fastened into a single long length, and with the aid of a large rock, and lots of brute strength, Ian fashioned some hooks out of my lengths of metal. Using some extra lengths of rope which were spliced onto the large piece, he produced a three pronged hook.
"Right. Now if I`ve just managed to bend these, I don`t know how long they`ll hold our weight," he began. "I`m going to go up first, then I can lean over and support the rope. Bring those other lengths of metal when you come up," he said, taking three bits himself.
With my heart in my mouth I watched as he hauled himself up the rope. He made it look easy, but I wasn`t used to this kind of thing, and I knew I was going to find it difficult.
I was only half way up when my arms began to tire. "I`m not going to make it!" I called.
"OK, you just concentrate on holding on then," Ian called in a hoarse whisper. "And keep your voice down man!"
I held on as tightly as I could, and then to my amazement I realised that Ian was pulling me up, hand over hand, via the rope. I suddenly felt my shoulder grabbed, and with fright I clung onto the top of the wall.
"Now at least that`s going to be the last of the climbing up," he whispered.
After a brief rest Ian lowered me over the wall. When he had lowered me as far as the rope would allow, I climbed down the rest of the way to the ground. At least going down was easier, I thought.
"I`m down," I called softly, though that was quite obvious. "How are we going to get the rope back?"
Ian didn`t answer. He started to lower himself down slowly, but after about two meters he stopped. Suddenly the rope seemed to snap, and Ian fell the remaining four meters, landed with a thump, rolled, and lay on the ground grinning at me. He held up a knife to show me that he had cut the rope.
"Glad we only have to do that once though," he said as he rubbed his backside, and laughing softly we quickly set off.
"How far are they from here?" I asked.
Ian shrugged. "I`m only guessing that they`ll be in the same location as they are in our sector. The work-force here might be up soon, so lets hope we find them soon."
"And you`re sure we`ve got enough rope?"
"No? What do you mean, no?"
"Look, from here it`s all guesswork. Until we get there and find out, we`ll never know." And again he set off at his fast pace. Moodily I followed.
At last we came to them. Two metal tubes sticking out of the ground, each around a mete in height and just over a meter in diameter.
"Which one do you think we should chose?" Ian asked.
I stuck my hand over the first one and felt a strong wind upwards. "This is the outlet. Probably too many bad gasses in that one. We should go down the inlet. At least we know that`s breathable."
Again Ian fashioned some hooks from the metal strips, but this time he used all the remaining six and hung them over the lip of the tube. He then threw the length of rope, perhaps a hundred meters long, into the blackness, and we listened in vain for any sound.
"So, who goes first?" I asked, eager that we get this final part underway.
Ian suddenly appeared deflated, as though this adventure had sapped all the energy from him. "You go," he simply said.
"No. Come on, you`ve done all the hard work. You go first."
To my surprise Ian suddenly sat down on the hot hard soil. "I`m not going Jake."
"WHAT? But why, after all this -"
"She`s dead Jake, my wife - dead."
I sat down heavily next to him, wondering what there was that I could say now, or how I would feel.
"But how do you know?"
"Those guys that came up tonight. I used to work with some of them. They`re not sure exactly what happened, but they think that -" he sniffed heavily and suddenly put his face in his hands. "They think that she killed herself."
I simply didn`t know what to do. It was obvious now that Ian had only come this far to see that I stood a chance of escaping, and now that I was almost there, he simply wanted to sit down and die.
Abruptly he pulled himself together and stood up. "Come on. You`re not home yet. Let`s get you back first, then I`ll have to decide what I`m going to do."
"Look, Ian. I can -"
"I`ll go first," he continued as if I hadn`t spoken. "If the rope`s not long enough then it`s all lost anyway." And without a word he disappeared over the edge and into the blackness of the tube.
I waited on the surface, feeling the suns rays grow stronger by the minute, and wondered if he was simply going to wait until he was enveloped by the darkness and then throw himself off the rope. Surely not, I thought. If he had wanted to do that, he wouldn`t have had to deceive me into thinking he was still going to help me.
Suddenly I heard a voice. I put my head above the tube and shouted down for him to repeat what he had said. His voice came against the flow of the wind and I couldn`t make out what he had said, but the fact that he was calling me instead of climbing back up to tell me it was hopeless must have been a good sign. I lowered myself over the edge, and clinging on tightly with my feet, began to lower myself into the gloom.
I was quickly surrounded by darkness. I looked up, and watched as the circle of light above me grew smaller and smaller. My arms began to ache from gripping the rope too hard, and several times I had to stop my decent, wrap the rope around my legs as best I could, and rest one arm at a time.
It felt like I had been climbing down forever. Surely the end of the rope must come soon. "Ian?" I called.
"Hey, don`t shout." His voice was so close that it shocked me. For an instant I relaxed my grip on the rope. I dropped maybe half a meter, and was surprised to feel my feet hit solid ground.
"Hey, I`m down! We can`t be there already!"
"Don`t move!" Ian warned. "This is only a resting platform. It`s very small. From here down there`s a ladder built into the side of the tube. My guess is they didn`t build it any higher because they didn`t want people escaping illegally to the surface!"
This almost made me laugh, and had it not been so utterly dark, and had I not been so tired, I may well have done so. We rested for a short while, then Ian guided me to the ladder, and slowly we continued our journey downwards.
"What`s that noise?" I asked.
"I`ve been wondering that for some time," Ian replied from below me.
As we continued down, the rumbling sound grew louder and louder, and though I think we both must have guessed what it was, we didn`t like to acknowledge what it meant.
"I can see light!" Ian exclaimed. "We must be getting there. The light`s flickering."
But as we neared the underground world, so the noise grew louder, and so we became to realise that the light wasn`t flickering at all. We rested on another ledge, a meter or two above the two huge counter-rotating fans, and looked dumbly at each other.
"You know," I said. "What did we really expect?"
I could see Ian clearly enough now to see him nod. "Actually, thinking about it, I find it hard to believe there`s just the one fan."
"There were probably other shafts coming off this tube, but in the dark we must have missed them. There must be loads of these tubes going up to the surface. Anyway, what now?"
"If we hadn`t used all those metal lengths, we could have jammed one in between the fans. I suppose the only thing is for one of us to climb all the way back up and get one of them."
I looked at him, and he knew instantly that even if I could make the trek up the ladder, I wouldn`t be able to climb all the way up that rope. We sat there, swinging our legs from the narrow ledge, and Ian gave a short harsh laugh.
"This is crazy, you know. Here we are, no more than what, four, five meters from home, after helping each other get this far - and we`re supposed to be assigned enemies!"
"Well I don`t know about me helping you that much, but -"
"I envy you Jake. Up until just a little while ago, me and you were so much alike. But all I had to live for is gone now." I watched as he stood up and sighed heavily. "Take good care of that lady of yours." And as I watched in horror he threw himself between the blades of the fans.
"NO!" I screamed, as the blades tore into him. He gave a choked, gurgled cry as the fans struggled against the obstruction, and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that if I didn`t move quickly, his sacrifice would have been for nothing. I dropped down onto the now still fans, feeling horror when I accidentally trod on Ians lifeless arm, then dangled myself at full stretch and dropped with a heavy thud to the floor.
Ians battered body was starting to bleed as the blades continued to tear into him, and I knew I had to avoid walking around covered in blood if I was to be able to make it back to my apartment. I said a quick goodbye to the assigned enemy who had given his life that I may continue mine, and tried to act casually and walk as normally as possible, despite knowing that I was the only person ever to have gone to the surface, not liked it, and escaped. The tears in my eyes obstructed my view.
I kept my head low and eyes to myself as I passed people, and thought of nothing else but getting back to my Jane. I had no idea how either of us would react, and knew only too well that this was just the beginning of my problems. The easy part was over with now.
At last I arrived at our apartment. I had no way of getting in any longer, as there had seemed no point in keeping one of the electronic keys, so I knocked as loudly as possible, hoping that Jane would still live here. I heard some movement from within, and after a short time the door slid open, and Jane stood there, a look of utter disbelief on her face.
"Oh Jake! Jake it`s you." She flew into my arms and we held each other tightly. "What happened Jake? It seems like so long since you left. How come you`re home? Are you here to stay for good again?"
"Oh yes. I`m here for good," I said. "I didn`t like it up there. They didn`t have any trees!"