The power cutting out in Slantia was not a regular occurrence; in fact, it was not even an irregular occurrence, but rather not an occurrence at all. Slantia’s underground energy source was so massive and constantly fueled that on this very average morning, when the power cut out at the cubicle apartments, none of the residents knew what was happening. As far as they knew, it was the apocalypse.
Even in Agnes’s seventy years of life, she had not encountered this total, random darkness, devoid of all the lights and humming and buzzing and flashing that she was so used to processing in her daily life that she no longer noticed—-until it all suddenly stopped.
Given the previous day’s events, she was still a little on edge and let out a small yelp when the darkness enveloped her cubicle. She heard the background whirring noise power down with a fading whine, and the little lights on her refrigerator and washing machine blinked out, as the ceiling lights clicked off. In the darkness, she could still feel the coffee mug in her hands at the kitchen table, and because she was at a total loss of what was about to happen, and what she should do, she shakily brought the hot lip of her coffee mug to her mouth and took her next sip in the dark. When she set it back down on the table, she could hear the gentle thud of it hit the table, and she realized that was the first time she had ever heard that small noise, though she had been drinking coffee at this table every morning for her whole adult life.
Then the distant screaming began.
It was just before the time the laborers left for the Factory, and so the residents of Agnes’s cubicle complex were all still in their chambers. She could hear as their panicked shouting began, and some of her neighbors began pounding on the walls. Since each cubicle door was opened by handprint ID and the screens had shut off with the power, nobody was able to manually open their door, and so hundreds of thousands of residents were locked in their cubicles like cages, howling like prisoners.
Despite the muffled pandemonium surrounding her cubicle, Agnes’s vision began to grow used to the darkness. Her body and mind met somewhere between rattled from all the changes outside her routine the past day, and calmed from lying absolutely still at home, and Agnes felt an odd clarity at that moment. So after a few moments of acclimating, she stood up slowly and waded through the darkness to her prep room, arms spread out to steady herself and feel her way around. She felt the curtain floating and pushed it to the side.
Fortunately the cubicle was small and minimalist, and Agnes was soon at her bed. She felt around underneath her bed until she grasped the silver fork and tore it away from its secret spot. She clumsily found the machine gear necklace on her bedside table and placed that over her head, and shoved the fork deep into her pocket. Agnes wasn’t really sure what she was preparing for, but now she had both earthly possessions that she cared most about, and which were easiest to take with her. Or, she thought discouragingly, the possessions with which she would want to die.
And what do I have to show for? Agnes suddenly wondered. She thought about all the dishes she had washed during her lifetime, the millions of dishes she labored over every day. Although she had had never allowed the thought to form, in this moment when she thought only death awaited her, she found the bravery to let it form to fruition: And what was the damn point of wasting my one life cleaning plates for some rich a-holes? As feelings of futility and frustration condensed in her chest, tears began rolling down her cheeks, and she felt confused at this bodily emotion: crying? She hadn’t been moved enough to cry since childhood. She leaned into the feeling and let the tears flow heavily.
And then Agnes’s door burst down.
“Who the hell is there?!” Agnes shouted, startled, tears halting, although her face was still damp. She brought her arms up to protect herself in the darkness.
A familiar voice replied, “It’s Ramona, again.”
Agnes’s room was lit up then with the blue light from Ramona’s gear–her utility belt had tech-blue lights running across it in a network-style grid, her goggles were lit up blue, and the wristbands up her arm were activated blue. She looked like an angel.
“Am I going to heaven?” Agnes asked, defeatedly.
“Nope, you’re going to the Mother Ship,” Ramona replied, stepping across the cubicle and towards Agnes on her bed. Ramona reached out with a strong hand to help her stand up.
Just a moment ago, Agnes thought she was going to die, having really never done anything of meaning for herself, and with nothing but regret for the prison she had been born into. Yet still a part of her, a part of her so calloused from habit, second-guessed this opportunity.
“Why should I go with you?” Agnes asked. Now, she could see only Ramona and the area around Ramona illuminated by proximity.
Ramona laughed. It seemed obvious, that she should accompany Ramona if she wanted any chance of redemption in this lifetime. “Because it’s never too late,” she said. Then, realizing this may be too abstract, added, “Because you have my artifact. And, because we have your sister.”
Her sister? The implication of this statement was so ridiculous that Agnes chuckled cynically at the predicament she found herself in, so absolutely close to the end of her usefulness that she could have almost made it to the Desert, whether that meant casual retirement or if it was a euphemism for death she would never know, but with the most effort she ever forced herself to muster, she gripped Ramona’s arm and was pulled to her feet. “Fine. I’m curious what nonsense you have to say about my supposed ‘sister.'”
“Great! Let’s go now.” Ramona turned and asked over her shoulder, “When’s the last time you ran?”
“Probably never,” Agnes replied, following Ramona to the door, arms out in case she tripped over anything in the dark.
Ramona laughed and put on a glowing hard helmet. “Good thing I travel by Cycle-Bike.”
Agnes rode on the back of Ramona’s Cycle-Bike down the dark hallways of the cubicle complex. A blue light projected forward so that Ramona could see, and Agnes sat on the back of the two-wheeled racer, clinging tightly to Ramona’s muscular body. Agnes shut her eyes as Ramona turned a corner sharply and dodged a cart in the hallway. She had never rode on a Cycle-Bike before and her stomach felt like it was going to leap up and out of her throat.
“Whatever happened to the discretion of faking my death?” Agnes asked over the quiet whirring of the Cycle-Bike. Ramona rode down a flight of stairs and Agnes’s whole body convulsed like she was being possessed. Ramona, however, was used to it.
“New plan,” Ramona replied, turning another corner. Doorways flew by; the cubicle complex was so massive, it was almost a city in itself. “This plan kind of kills several birds with one stone.”
Agnes braced herself for another flight of stairs and pressed her eyes closed again, feeling like she was hanging on to Ramona so tightly that Ramona probably felt like she couldn’t breathe. In several more minutes, Ramona grunted, and Agnes opened her eyes as they flew out of an Exit door and into the shocking brightness of the daylight, a lackadaisical rain misting the gray-skied outdoors.
“It’s raining!” was the first thing Agnes said, squinting painfully, her eyes watering and attempting to look around. She was shocked to realize it was still light out; her adjustment to the dark had made her assume it would be dark outside, too. But what shocked her more than that was the rain; it rained only a couple times a year in Slantia.
“Well, the government controls the weather, and we hijacked the government,” Ramona replied, pulling up to a ship parked behind the cubicle complex. The complex itself was towering and miles wide, and they had exited out the back; only a thin, paved driveway led around the building, and then behind the cubicle lot was barren fields as far as the horizon, fields blowing with trash—-plastic cups, sandwich wrappers, unwanted computers, discarded clothing, glass jars, toothpaste bottles, all trash from prior to the labor revolution. It was fenced off in this field, and trash clung to the metal fence in the wind, and got tangled in the mesh, but rarely did it blow into the cubicle lot. Nobody ever exited out the back, and residents were discouraged from venturing outside in their off-time, so Agnes had actually never seen this sight before this moment. Perhaps because it was also raining, the moment was moving for her, and so she gaped at the deserted trash land before her rather than the curvaceous space ship that they were driving towards.
“Here we go!” Ramona shouted over the roar of the Mother Ship as they approached it.
The Cycle-Bike slowed down as a ramp lowered from the silver, sleek space ship. Once the ramp had hit the pavement, Ramona began accelerating again and with a bump, they drove up the ramp and into the space ship, the ramp closing back up as the ship shook and ascended.
“Oh my,” Agnes said. She looked around incredulously. “I’m in a space ship.”
Space ships were the subject of children’s talk, and she remembered fantasizing about them racing across the night sky as a young girl in training school. Although she had dreamt, so long ago, of flying in one, she had never imagined the interior to look like Ramona’s space ship.
They had entered to the common area via the ramp, and the room looked more like a greenhouse than a space ship. Plants of magnificent different species loitered the space, hanging from the ceiling, clustered in a school of artistic ceramic pots in the corner, some atop stools or tables. There was a tweed couch and a wooden coffee table in the middle of the room, but they were shrouded by the plant life. Bursting blue flowers, winding vines, massive leafy plants, and even a couple trees—-Agnes marveled at all the vibrant colors and organic life. Some of the vegetation was even growing from the cracks in the floorboards, and as Agnes gasped, she realized how rejuvenating that big breath of air felt in this room of palpable life.
“Have you ever seen something so beautiful?” Ramona whispered. She had popped the kick stand and dismounted the Cycle-Bike, removing her helmet and shaking out her Mohawk.
Agnes shook her head slowly and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many plants in my whole life.”
Ramona nodded and held out a hand to help Agnes dismount, and Agnes took it and slowly, and with a few groans, was able to get to her feet again.
“So, is now not the time to laugh at your hair?” Ramona asked, once Agnes was upright again and still observing all the plants, stepping up to a bursting bed of wildflowers and taking a large inhale.
Agnes’s thin white hair was totally disheveled, blown back and wispy from their Cycle-Bike ride. The pink tint to her pale white face was slowly returning as she invigorated herself with the green room. At Ramona’s comment, Agnes stopped and gave her a look. “What do you mean?” This was sort of rude and unprecedented; Slantians rarely discussed appearances, only functionality.
Ramona started giggling and pointed at Agnes’s head. “It’s all messed up. You look silly, is all.”
“My hair looks silly? What, and yours doesn’t?” Agnes asked defensively, as she reached for her hair and began petting it to fix it.
“This,” Ramona said, giggling, pointing to her lavender Mohawk, “is a look.” Even though she had the presence of a soldier, hard and defined, it was endearing to Agnes to see Ramona settle into this looseness.
“That’s quite a look,” Agnes replied, also feeling the tug of laughter at her mouth. She felt so lifted amidst this small conversation, seemingly such a casual exchange of hair among an adventure that could lead to her death at any moment. More than that, she felt excited to be interacting with another person; so many months had gone by recently, during which nobody had approached Agnes, not even to ask a favor. It occurred to her only now that she had gotten so used to loneliness that she didn’t even realize that the feeling had become somewhat permanent for her, until now. And on top of even that, there was something about this thriving room that made Agnes feel, just… giddy.
“Ramona! How’d it go?” someone shouted, and the women were brought back to their situation: standing aboard a space ship after escaping the compromised cubicle complex and kidnapping a retiree.
Ramona paused her giggles and turned to Agnes. “That’s Gabe. He’s fun. You’ll see.” Then, Ramona shouted back, “The artifact and her artifact are acquired!”
“You know I have a lot of questions,” Agnes said, feeling the gravity return to her thoughts. “Like, what’s China?”
The space ship lurched a little, and Ramona nodded. “I expect that. China’s like… It’s like Slantia, except it was more or less killed by Slantia. Like, China used to be a great country of mass production, but then Slantia came along and decided it had to be better at everything, and like, not only be better, but destroy all competition—- you know, Gabe’s really better at explaining things. And either way, we should get comfortable if we’re gonna talk, because we have a long ride and I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. You like pizza?”
Part V is on the way!
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