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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2095622
A dystopian tale about a man's birthday. First place What a Character Contest, Sept 2016.
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Tom choked back his tears. Eve was only sixteen, and he didn't want her to witness his terror. Thank goodness his husband Jimmy would be here to take care of their daughter. Tom glanced around their entrance hall one last time. As his gaze lingered on the framed holographs recording the milestones of Eve's life, his chest tightened. Turning to face her, he ignored the glistening droplet sliding down her ebony cheek. If he wiped it away, his own dam would burst.

Jimmy stepped closer, placed a hand on Tom's shoulder, and squeezed. The sweet fragrance of his cologne reminded Tom of their honeymoon in Firstland two decades ago. How a chubby misfit like himself had snagged a blond hunk he'd never understand, but, God, was he grateful.

Eve sprang forward and flung her arms around him, sobbing. Dampness seeped through the thin polyester of his shirt. “Daddy, I'm gonna miss you so much.”

He patted her back. “There there, Pumpkin. You'll still have your dad.”

“I want my dad and my daddy.”

“It's his Birthday soon,” said Jimmy. “Do you want him taken to the Retirement Home?”

“Of course not.”

Tom unfastened the Timex watch on his wrist, cringing at his sallow complexion, so unattractive compared to Jimmy's healthy tan. He offered the antique timepiece to Eve. “I want you to have this.”

She pushed his hand away. “No!”

“It's been in our family since Earth.”

“You might need it.”

“I want my grandchildren to have it.”

“I'm never having kids. Not if they have to go through this.” She bolted toward the stairs.

Jimmy made a move to stop her.

“Don't,” said Tom. “She'll only get more upset.” He handed the heirloom over.

“I'll make sure she gets it.” Jimmy produced a green woolly hat and placed it on Tom's head. “I knitted this for you. You know how easily you catch colds.”

His cheeks heated; his husband always sought innovative ways to hide Tom's bald patch.

Jimmy's expression took on a faraway look.

“What is it?” asked Tom.

“Anne just neuraled me. She's guarding Gate Thirteen tonight.”

“Unlucky for some.”

Jimmy pulled him into a hug. “Not for you, lover boy.”

Tom yearned to press his lips to Jimmy's and seek comfort in his minty breath, but then he'd never find the strength to go. Gently but firmly, he pushed his husband away. “Are you sure we can trust her?”

“I nursed Anne's wife through her bout of Gaean Ebola. She owes me.”

Jimmy's compassion was one of the many things Tom loved about his husband. In retrospect, he wished he'd opted for a caring profession, too, instead of accounting. But sometimes Jimmy was too trusting. “There's something shifty about her.”

“She's not so bad,” insisted Jimmy. “If you'd seen her beside her wife's sickbed, you'd understand.”

Tom nodded, unconvinced. He scooped his blue backpack from the hallway table. He'd packed one change of clothes and food for two days; the Separatists' contact insisted he needn't bring anything else. When he tugged the straps over his arms, they dug into his chunky shoulders. “This feels heavier. Did you add something?”

“Cookies. Chocolate chip like the ones your fathers used to make.”

Tom's eyes began to sting. “Anything else?”

“Er… Mr. Snuggles.”

“Eve's teddy?”

Jimmy shrugged. “You don't sleep well without me. Eve and I thought he might help.”

Tom squeezed his eyes shut. This was too much. He had to go or he'd lose it. Using his brain crystal, he neuraled their house AI. The door slid open to reveal the dark silhouettes of neighboring homes.

“I could accompany you,” suggested Jimmy. “As far as the mono.”

It was tempting, but Tom shook his head. “You can't be implicated. When they discover I'm missing, they'll check the holos.”


“No! And don't neural me. It'll show on the records.”

“When it's my Birthday, I'm not going to Retire. I'll come after you.”

“Who knows what life's like among the Separatists?” said Tom. “This Refuge could be one place or a thousand. Gaea is a big planet.”

Jimmy clenched his fists. “I will find you.”

Tom stepped into the frigid night air and turned to face his husband. “Love you.”

Jimmy made for the door, but Tom neuraled the AI. The door slid between them. He hurried along the street toward the mono station. His crystal informed him it was three a.m.; he could make the next shuttle.

At the station, an owl's hoot made him jump. He performed calming, yoga breathing exercises. Every workday he'd used the mono, so standing inside the aluminum coach for the five minute journey into Armstrong should have been a mundane experience, but at each stop he held his breath; Eutopia Defense Force troopers might board and question his nocturnal activities. When he arrived in the central station, he didn't exit onto the street. Instead, he boarded an express for New Detroit—a city he'd never visited, though he'd prepared accounts for businesses there.

The seats were upholstered and the air warm. He detected a faint urine odor. What was it with public transport and bad hygiene? Tom wandered along the empty coach until he found a relatively clean seat. Hoping he wouldn't catch anything, he sat.

He stared out the window as fields then forests replaced Armstrong's urban landscape. The shadowy trees blurred; presumably the mono had reached its cruising speed, almost the speed of sound. Tom buried his head in his hands. What was the real Gaea like? Like most Eutopians, he'd never left the terraformed reservation. Were the Separatists civilized, or was their society as bad as Earth?

Light flooded the coach, and all motion ceased. He looked around; he'd arrived. Unlike the dark offices in Armstrong, the buildings here were a hive of activity. Black shapes flickered past yellow windows like a shadow puppet show. New Detroit's manufactories operated twenty-four-seven.

Tom supposed this must be how Earth appeared in the final days: huge factories crowded with millions of workers and little vegetation. At least the people employed here resided elsewhere, in comfortable homes set in landscaped parkland.

Looming over New Detroit was the Wall, the concrete barrier that separated humanity from Gaea's native wilderness. As Tom exited the express, his crystal informed him a short hike would take him to Gate Thirteen.

If it were not for the circumstances, he would have laughed at the sight of tiny Anne Cooper in her black Eutopia Defense Force uniform guarding such a huge gate armed with only a pistol. Gaea lacked serious threats, and few citizens wished to explore outside. As agreed, he stood twenty meters away and didn't neural.

When Anne spotted him, she waved him over. “You took your time, butterball.”

His time? He'd set off as soon as she neuraled Jimmy. Why was she always such a douche? He glanced around. “Aren't there holo-recorders?”

“Of course, idiot. They're hidden. But I have friends in the EDF holo section.”

It was difficult to imagine she had friends anywhere; they must be people who enjoyed getting treated like dirt. “So, how does this work?”

She led him to a door in the gate and opened it. “There's a guy behind those pink bushes, next to that blue tree.”

Tom stepped into the doorway and peered out. In the gloom, he couldn't see any vegetation, never mind its color. “Tree?”

“That giant fern.”

He squinted and made out the outline of something that might be a tree. “This man—he's a Separatist?”

“Shush! Are you an imbecile?”

After glancing both ways, she slid a black tube from her utility belt and placed it next to Tom's ear. Pain like a thousand migraines ripped through his skull. His vision blurred, and his stomach churned. He dropped to his knees and retched. When he'd finished, he glared at Anne.

She stood over him. “Sorry about that.” She didn't look particularly sorry. “Had to deactivate your crystal. If someone passes here without clearance from EDF Headquarters, it triggers an alarm.”

When she didn't offer a hand, he used the door jamb to pull himself up. “How will I neural people without my crystal?”

“Where you're going, you won't need to neural anybody.”

Tom's interest piqued. “You know about Refuge?”

“I went there once.”

“What's it like?”

She smirked and pushed him over the threshold. “Restful.” She slammed the door in his face.

Tom stumbled into the darkness. Restful didn't sound too bad. What might old people be like? He'd only seen them in history holos.

By the time he reached the tree, his night vision had improved. He was relieved to discover a bearded man wearing an odd assortment of clothes: a bathrobe over a snowman-patterned sweater and Wellington boots.

“At last,” said the man. “Let's go.”

Tom slogged after him along a trail up a hill and over the other side. There, out of sight of the Wall, waited an ancient jeep. He was familiar with internal combustion engines from holodramas, but this was the first he'd seen in real life. He hesitated. In those stories the vehicles always crashed, and everybody died.

“Hurry,” said the man. “Get in.”

Reluctantly, he climbed into the back to join a man and a woman wearing normal clothes. An unfamiliar chemical odor caused him to wrinkle his nose. Once he was seated, they set off.

“Hello,” said the woman, a blonde who looked in her late thirties. “I'm Jenny, he's Stuart.”

The black-haired man, around Tom's age, nodded.

“Er… hi. I'm Tom.”

“Birthday coming up?” asked Jenny.

Tom nodded. “Three weeks. Thought I'd better get out before.”

Stuart nodded. “Wise. I left it late. Turned forty five two weeks ago. My cousin hid me in her factory's storeroom until I was able to contact the Separatists.”

“My wife Retired last month,” said Jenny. “I begged her to run, but she was totally committed to the Founders' vision. I held her hand as she drank the Birthday Toast, then watched the light fade from her eyes. The Retirement Home staff pried my hand from her cold fingers. I've nothing left back there, so I skipped early.”

Tom glanced away; Jenny's words had touched a nerve. He might never see Jimmy or Eve again. A future without them was unthinkable. Would a painless death in the Retirement Home have been preferable?

As an orange glow lit the eastern horizon, the jeep rolled into what appeared to be an ancient quarry. Was this a secret entrance to Refuge?

The bearded man braked hard. A squad of EDF troopers sprang out from behind boulders, surrounding the vehicle. They pointed rifles at Jenny, Stuart and Tom.

“W-what's going on?” asked Tom, his heart pounding.

“Get out,” shouted the bearded man, then pointed at the quarry edge. “Stand over there.”

Tom saw no other option but to comply. He stood side by side with Jenny and Stuart on the edge of a sheer drop. A stench of rotting meat filled the air.

The bearded man joined the soldiers. “There's always a few selfish ones. You learn the history: overcrowding on Earth, the famines and plagues; how old people became a burden to society. Yet, you reject the Founders' elegant solution.”

Three soldiers stepped forward, each aiming a rifle at one of the civilians.

Tom glanced behind into the depths. What he saw in the feeble light of early dawn made him gag. Below lay a sea of decomposing corpses. A warm trickle spread down his leg. Jimmy! He reached to neural his husband, to warn him. Nothing happened. Anne had deactivated his crystal.

The bearded man ambled closer. “The Founders predicted a minority would avoid Retirement by seeking Refuge. That's why they invented the Separatists and left this special message just for you.” He grinned. “Happy Birthday!”

Word Count: 2000

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