STAR BURN BRIGHT
Two walked on that day. Their protective visors shielded their eyes and prevented instant death – the world around them was so bright. They wore armour several dells thick, which made walking almost impossible, and all the time, there was that brightness!
The light was the result of accumulated energy – energy obtained from a sun that was no longer a source of life but rather a merciless destroyer.
Ten thousand years ago, a star had gone supernova and the resulting thermonuclear explosion had released enough energy to increase the surface temperature of Earth’s nearby sun.
The increase in temperature created an unstable situation in the planet’s atmosphere, as it could not possibly handle the increase in cosmic activity. The planet had burned and mankind had had no choice but to escape. For once, technology could not develop fast enough for sceptics who were thankful when these bubbles were created into which the population ran.
How many of these bubbles existed, no one really knew. They had lost communication a long time ago, so that each bubble became an island.
Massive underground structures were created underneath the bubbles – these became the new cities we lived in. The bubbles trapped and stored photon energy for much-needed power to run the underground structures.
Me, I’m Matt Okri, a technician, and one of the two that walked within the bubble that day, surrounded by stored energy – only kept alive by this thick suit. My companion was Tony Mantis, also a technician, although of a higher rank.
Today we were scheduled to do a little maintenance on some equipment and we went about this task quietly – more to conserve much needed bodily fluids than for anything else. But each of us had his thoughts, and I also had a plan. I turned 50 next week, and the thought had suddenly occurred to me that I had wasted my life. This waste was not from neglect or laziness, because I was in an enviable position, as far as this bubble was concerned – I had an enviable job. For to be a technician, called to maintain equipment in the bubble, meant that I was well placed in the upper echelons of social life in my community. So this thought was not meant to diminish me. Rather, it inspired me. Maybe there was something else out there. Something that my present life had no way of defining and hence employing into that complex equation known as success. Maybe there was success waiting to be explored beyond my borders…
‘We need to get in shortly,’ I heard Tony screech through my earpiece.
‘Tony, maybe you should get that fixed,’ I called back irritably – for I had been jolted out of my daydream, and I could not quite remember what I had been thinking about.
‘Oh, sorry,’ I heard Tony screech back. ‘I must be coming through quite badly?’
‘Quite, yes,’ I replied.
‘Well, that’s OK,’ Tony said, ‘we’re done here anyway.’
‘Fine,’ I replied. ‘Just let me solder these joints.’
‘Hurry,’ Tony said. ‘We’ve been told that the temperature will be over 300 Halls before a Darwin hour is up.’
‘I know. I know,’ I returned. Then: ‘There, I’m done.’ We both gathered up equipment and headed for the safety of the underground structure.
‘So what’s been on your mind?’ Tony asked when we had entered the nexus point – a room with reinforced shielding and cooling systems that ran without stopping throughout the day. The laborious suits were now off and we were back in our civilian clothes – a skin-tight one-piece suit designed to keep the skin cool. ‘I heard you whistling that song when we were outside.’
‘What song?’ I asked. My mind was somewhere else now that I remembered what I had been thinking about before Tony interrupted me whilst we were working outside.
‘There’s a tune you usually whistle when you’re deep in thought,’ Tony said. ‘Or is it when you are in high spirits? I don’t know which.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked irritably, wanting him to leave me alone. I needed a quiet place to think and Tony wasn’t helping matters by yapping needlessly. I decided to throw him a bone and end our conversation until a more convenient time for me. ‘I’m thinking of going to see the game. I have an extra ticket, want to come?’
‘Oh, no,’ Tony said, wagging his finger at me. ‘You’re not going to get rid of me that easily.’
‘Okay, if you don’t want it,’ I started.
‘I want it,’ Tony said, ‘but not as much as I want to know what’s running wild inside that head of yours.’
‘Nothing,’ I persisted.
‘If you’re thinking of some way to make money I want in,’ Tony said, licking his lips.
I stared at him.
‘I’m serious,’ Tony said. ‘I’m in the red right now and I need out.’
‘Tony, you get paid more than I do,’ I protested. ‘What do you do with all your money?’
‘The cards have not been good to me recently, Matt,’ Tony said, shaking his head. He made for a pitiable portrait.
‘When have they ever been?’ I said. But I put my hand on his shoulder, and said, ‘I’m not thinking in that direction now, Tony. The thing is I haven’t for a long time.’
‘A man has got to eat,’ Tony said.
‘Well that’s just it,’ I replied. ‘And then what?’
‘I’m not following,’ Tony said.
I sighed as we walked down a narrow hall to the lifts that would take us down to our home.
‘Don’t you ever get bored of this?’ I asked, as we got on the lifts. ‘What, the job?’ Tony asked. Tony hit the down button – there was only one way to go from here.
‘Not the job,’ I said. ‘Don’t you get tired of the dreariness? The solid walls of rock. The environment.’
‘It’s home, Matt,’ Tony said with a sigh.
‘But what if there’s something else?’ I asked Tony, sensing that his spirit, like mine, was tired and just going through the motions. There is something to be said about a day to day routine that never changes, so that specialisation becomes a killer of the human soul.
‘We were brought up to do this, Tony,’ I continued. ‘Everyone knows where they’ll end up from birth. We’re all given our papers. They decide from the start what positions will be filled by whom.’
‘I can’t breathe, Tony,’ I said. ‘I want to do something else.’
‘Like what?’ Tony asked, confused.
‘Anything else – just something different,’ I replied.
Tony still looked confused as we disembarked from the lifts. The familiar stifled, recycled air reached us as we entered the underground structure. I curled up my nose immediately. It wasn’t that the air was foul – it was just that it was still. The air had no character! Nothing here had any character. We had run down here to stay alive and instead, we had unknowingly buried ourselves. This was our grave and we were all dead.
‘Listen, I don’t understand you,’ Tony said, looking at me. ‘I just want a way to make some extra cash. But here you are with this high talk.’
I pulled Tony aside – there was hardly a crevasse down this hole that was not occupied by some body or other. ‘I’m thinking of going out there.’
‘Out where?’ Tony asked.
I bobbed my head upward.
‘What, up there?’ Tony said. He hissed. ‘We just came from there, Matt. Really!’
‘No,’ I said, hissing back. ‘I mean farther than where we normally go.’
‘You’ll have to wait for when next our scheduled run will be. Maybe we can trade for a team that works farther down. But why would you want us to go that far?’
‘I’m talking about even farther still,’ I said. I now had an impish grin slapped across my face.
‘Matt, you’re off-key today, and I have no way of knowing what you’re talking about. I give up.’
‘Tony, I want to leave the bubble,’ I said.
Tony stared at me curiously, as if trying to figure out the joke – maybe the punch line was yet to come. And then he threw his head back and laughed.
I left Tony and headed for home. We had decided to meet up later that evening at the game. I put the fact that my best friend had laughed mercilessly at me to the back of my mind. I needed to stay sharp for my scheduled supervised meeting with my daughter. Her mother was such a….
The doorbell of my apartment sounded and I walked over and opened it.
‘Hello, dad,’ my eight-year old, Iroro, said. She looked as pretty as always, long hair and intelligent eyes that shone bright as the stars.
‘Hello, kiddo,’ I said to her with a smile that was immediately turned wrong side up when I spied the social services worker. I said, ‘Do you want to take off your backpack and sit, Iroro? Daddy wants a word with your caseworker.’
I allowed the caseworker into my apartment and watched her walk around, inspecting, like she owned the place.
‘Uh, Ms Angela,’ I started – it was all I could do to refrain from pouncing on her and removing her wig – ‘I was thinking that maybe I could have her alone today; I mean without any supervision. I discussed it with Cynthia.’
‘No one said anything to me,’ Ms Angela said, curling her lips into a frown, as she always did.
I would like to bite you, I thought. If only I could bite you without having any consequences.
‘You can call Cynthia,’ I said.
‘Your wife, sir –’
‘Actually, former wife,’ I corrected.
‘Your wife,’ she continued, ignoring the remark, ‘is not my employee. A judge will decide how you are to see your child.’
‘But if we could just use a little common sense here,’ I protested.
Ms Angela curled her lips again.
I managed to cough out quickly, ‘Not that you don’t usually use good judgment. It’s just that in this instance, maybe you can reconsider and be a little merciful.’ I smiled sweetly at her, then said, as jovially as I could handle, ‘I throw myself at the mercy of your court, m’lady.’ I bowed my head, and only raised it to see her decision, but not before smiling again.
Ms Angela looked at me, not betraying her malice, and said, leaving no doubt as to her meaning, ‘No.’
Villain, I thought.
I took Iroro back home later that evening, just before the game, Ms Angela making herself a very visible nuisance as chaperon.
Cynthia opened the door to her cubicle. She frowned at me. She smiled at Iroro.
‘I’ll be leaving now,’ Ms Angela called to Cynthia.
‘Oh, thank you,’ Cynthia called back. ‘I appreciate your help.’
‘My pleasure,’ Ms Angela said. She frowned at me. Then smiled at Cynthia before leaving.
‘What a horrible person,’ I said, entering the little apartment, and shutting the door behind me.
‘Reminds me of someone,’ Cynthia said caustically.
‘No need to start with me,’ I said to her.
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘That’s OK,’ I replied. ‘So what happened today with the caseworker?’
Cynthia shook her head to say she did not comprehend.
‘I mean with Ms Angela, who, by the way, was a real headache today.’ Cynthia smiled, taking obvious pleasure at my distress. ‘I know the woman doesn’t have kids of her own, which explains why she is overly concerned with mine.’
‘Actually she has two – a boy and a girl.’
‘And since when did you become best friends with social services?’ I asked.
Cynthia smiled again. And I noticed her perfect white teeth – but she was so annoying, and this wasn’t fair.
‘Why do I think that you’ve said something to her about us?’ I asked.
Cynthia shrugged her shoulders. ‘She just sympathises, I think.’
‘Sympathises with what?’ I asked. ‘What did you tell her?’
Cynthia’s face grew grave, losing some of its beauty. ‘Whatever I told her was the truth,’ she said. She turned away.
I bit my lip hard and then left without saying another word.
‘Where’s daddy?’ I heard Iroro ask – spying her running into the front room, having changed into her pyjamas. I hurried away.
An hour and a half later and I was sitting down in the fifteenth row of the Space Ball auditorium. These were good seats. And next to me, an empty one, reserved for Tony – if he showed up. I scanned the crowd to see if I could find him among the people making their way to their seats.
‘Hey!’ I heard. He was on the other side of me.
I turned around. ‘Hey,’ I said. ‘I’m glad you could make it.’
‘I wouldn’t miss these kinds of seats,’ Tony said. ‘What did I miss?’
‘They haven’t kicked off yet.’
The game started and the whole auditorium erupted in cheers. We both stood up, as was customary, as both teams walked into the enclosed cubicle. The game was simple, but had a huge and fanatical following. It played very much like handball, except for a computer randomly selecting when to switch the gravity off. Of course, this would make things harder, as player movement would be hampered. Further complexities to the game included the use of gravity boots, which could also randomly be turned on by the computer. The computer could choose to turn any player’s gravity boots on during zero-grav play. It could choose to switch on all boots on one or both teams; some boots on one or both teams; or it could choose not to switch any boots on. All of this was randomly selected. And all of these decisions added to the excitement. There was once a time when there was a lot of corruption in the game, as the computer would be tampered with, thus giving one team the advantage. But the game had been cleaned up – supposedly.