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Three Hundred Years

November 30, 2016

 

 

“Three hundred years.”

When the announcement was made it took about a week to sink in.

The presentations then began in earnest. People flocked to theatres and universities, local schools and libraries, anywhere they could to see the results and ask the questions that burned on the tip of every tongue.

“How?”

“Why?”

“What do we do now?”

It was that last question Betty heard everywhere she went. From people sitting in coffee shops, standing in the middle of the street, gathered in groups or sitting alone, always asking that one question. “What do we do now?”

Funny thing. No one asked her the question. They asked everyone else though.

Her mother and father dragged her and her siblings to the community session. Her older sister Kate didn’t want to go. She “raised hell” as Grandma would have put it had she still been alive. Kate was eighteen; a legal adult and she didn’t have to go. Their mum put her foot down hard.

Kate went, fairy-floss pink lips pouting the entire way to the community centre. Champagne tresses were perfectly curled and shining, highlighted and dark shadowed eyes glared at anyone who turned her way. Betty’s brother Dave was there and he wasn’t. Which was typical. Betty didn’t know if he’d even heard the announcement. He didn’t watch the news, or television and he didn’t have a tablet or iPad. His phone was an ancient brick-type thing that couldn’t even connect to the internet. Betty didn’t understand him at all.

Betty had every piece of technology she could afford. iPad, tablet, Galaxy phone, laptop, TV, apple TV, Netflix and cable. She even had a Fire that she’d had shipped from overseas. To pay for them she worked after school at the local library. And she didn’t spend her money on what she considered frivolous items, like clothing or shoes or nail polish. “Anything trendy” Kate said. Betty didn’t understand why Kate was so angry about it—it had nothing to do with her, but apparently Betty was atmosphere and sitting around with her headphones on watching Star Wars in her tracksuit pants was not good atmosphere.

Dave sat beside Betty in the car. He always sat on her right and Kate sat on her left. Dave was staring out at the sky, his wide set eyes lost in the distance. Betty wondered what he was looking at—or what he was searching for. Kate asked him once. He shrugged and gazed her curiously. His eyes had flecks of gold inside them. “Does it matter?”

Her sister shrugged back. No, it didn’t matter. She hadn’t asked him again.

Kate leaned over Betty and tapped Dave’s hand where it lay on his thigh. “What do you think?” she asked.

The car fell silent, everyone suddenly listening, hoping to learn what Dave thought. Maybe he would have the wisdom of the universe. All he said was, “It doesn’t matter.”

Betty wanted to ask what he meant by it—or what “it” was, and why it didn’t matter. Did it only not matter to him or to everyone else? Betty didn’t have time to think of a question because her dad stopped the car and turned the engine off.

No one moved.

She wondered what they were waiting for. “Come on then,” her dad said at last and led them into the community centre. They froze in the doorway. The room beyond was filled to bursting. Betty checked over her shoulder. There were not enough cars in the parking lot to account for so many people. She had no idea where they had all come from. They must have walked. Betty was startled by that thought. No one walked anywhere anymore.

Her dad pushed his way through the crowd. Though he was a small man he made up for it with an imposing presence. The crowd parted and he found them five seats in the middle of the large room. Betty had been here many times before. Club Christmas parties, karate presentations and school ceremonies. It was a wide rectangular room ten metres by twenty-five. She knew because she’d heard her mum on the phone with her aunt discussing it as being “plenty big enough” for grandpa’s eightieth birthday. Plastic fold out chairs filled the room, but there were more people than chairs. Betty wondered where the people who didn’t fit would go.

Two figures in white lab coats entered at the stage end of the hall. They walked to the table set up in the middle of the stage.

“If we could have some quiet?” the darker skinned woman asked, her voice travelling out over the mumble rising from the crowd. She was wearing a microphone attached to her lapel.

Everyone sat who could, leaving many to congregate at the back of the hall. A silence fell, thick and expectant.

“Good afternoon,” she said, this time softer. She wore flat shoes and practical trousers. Her green shirt was mostly covered by the lab coat. She peered at the crowd through thick-rimmed spectacles. Betty thought they made her look intelligent and wondered if that was why she was wearing them. The woman looked as though she’d watched every TV show Betty had ever seen and designed the perfect looking “scientist.” Her costume department must have had a field day, make-up too. The woman’s face was understated yet professional. The only colour was on her lips, painting them blood red. Even her hair was “scientist-y,” tied back in a tight ponytail. The man beside her must have been cast from the same talent agency. Grey hair at his temples, thinning hair on top and spectacles too. His white lab coat was hanging open over a large belly. His shirt was wrinkled and possibly stained. Simple black trousers and black shoes completed the picture. Betty wondered if the look had been cultivated to inspire trust. She was curious to see if it would work.

“As you are all aware, The Announcement made last week appeared on all television channels, radio stations, and online. We are here today to speak to you about your questions. Before we do, I would like to briefly summarise The Announcement to ensure we are all on the same page.” The woman sucked in a deep breath. “My name is Doctor Emily Sunhoiser. I am a doctor of astrophysics from our own university. To my right is Doctor Lee Miner. Doctor Miner also works at the university in the psychology department.”

Betty watched Doctor Miner give Doctor Sunhoiser a strangely blank look. Maybe Doctor Sunhoiser had forgotten something in her introduction. Betty glanced sideways to see if anyone else had seen it. Her parents were staring straight ahead. Betty’s mum was biting her  unglossed lip. Kate’s face was scrunched up making her look ugly. Dave was staring above the stage. Betty followed his gaze to see what he was looking at. There was nothing on the wall above the heads of the two scientists. Doctor Sunhoiser started talking again. Betty forced her mind to focus, wishing there was a TV screen or projector to give them something interesting to look at.

“The Announcement consisted of six main points. One—world scientists have conclusively confirmed our sun is dying. Two—it is estimated we have three hundred full rotations or three hundred years until the Final Death. Three—when the sun dies, so do we. Four—we do not have a way to stop this. Five—governments and royal states across the world have met in confidential conclaves and are in agreement. All world resources will be assigned to investigate this problem. Six—changes will come dependent on the outcomes tabled by the newly formed world-wide think tanks. Rest assured, your government is fully aware of the seriousness of this problem and we are fully committed to resolving it. This is a world-wide problem. We are all in the same boat.” The seated audience in front of Betty turned to check the reactions of the rest of the hall. “Now, are there any questions?”

The room erupted in noise. Harsh shouting, cries of alarm and fear drowning out any sensible question that might have been asked. Betty clapped her hands over her ears.

Eventually, a tapping sound was heard penetrating the wall of sound. Several voices in the first few rows fell silent. Once a crack in the wall was formed more voices dropped. In moments all that could be heard was the tapping.

Doctor Sunhoiser lowered her pen from the microphone at her lapel and stared into the crowd. Her glare softened. She waited a beat longer and then held up both hands. “I can see you fully understand the ramifications of The Announcement, but please do not panic. We are nowhere near a panic event. Three hundred years is a long time. Calm yourselves. We are here to listen to you. You and hundreds of others like you, in thousands of community centres in this state and across the world are experiencing the exact same emotions, and asking the same questions.”

“So answer our questions!” A voice called from the back of the room.

There was an ominous rumble from the audience. Betty glanced over her shoulder. All she could see was a lot of fist waving and teeth. Her dad put his hand on her arm. Betty looked up to find his eyes darting in all directions, watching everyone closely. Betty had never seen that expression on his face before. She checked her mother to see if she’d noticed. Betty’s mum was perched on the end of her chair. She looked as though she was about to jump up off, but to do what? Betty caught the look her parents shared. She didn’t know what it meant.

Doctor Sunhoiser spoke again. Her voice, magnified by the lapel microphone, soared over the room. “I’m afraid we know little more than you do at this time. All we know for certain is that we must work together. I have two microphones that we will circulate throughout the room. We ask that if you have a question please raise your hand. Our student spotters wearing the green coats will take note and ensure the microphone gets to you in due course. One at a time, please.”

Hands rose and those green jacketed students moved around the room. Betty looked at the people in the front rows who turned to follow the movement of the microphone. All the faces looked worried. Betty recognised some of them as her neighbours or people from school—teachers or parents. Three hundred years was a long time. It would be long after Betty’s grandparents died, long after her parents died. Longer than she herself would live. All of the people in this room would be dead when the sun died. Their anger didn’t make sense.

A voice spoke; the sound of every “p” crackled and popped. Betty climbed onto her seat to see over the crowd. She couldn’t see who was speaking. Her dad pulled on her shirt. “Get down,” he hissed.

Betty climbed back down and sat facing forward, annoyed that she couldn’t see.

“What’s the government going to do to stop it?” There was a rumble that sounded like agreement. “I mean, can they stop a sun from dying?”

“A good question, sir. One the think-tanks are tasked to find.”

Another voice—a woman—spoke next. “When will they start doing something?”

Doctor Sunhoiser’s face looked thoughtful as she listened to each question. She nodded at the audience grumble that followed. “For the moment discussion is an important part of the process. When they have come to an agreement on—”

“And when will that be?” A new voice shouted, unmagnified, followed by several more. “We just sit back and wait until they’re ready?”

“Who will pay for this?”

“Everyone please.” Doctor Sunhoiser cried out, her hands raised against the increasingly negative crowd, but it was too late; they’d stopped listening.

Betty felt her sister’s hand clutch hers. She looked down at it for a moment confused and then squeezed Kate’s hand back. For what felt like ages, Betty sat and listened. Her mum and dad asked no questions. Betty didn’t think anyone in the room was going to learn much. It was like a school assembly. The audience wasn’t really listening to what was being said. They were just anxious for the bell to ring.

Doctor Miner remained silent, watching everyone through narrowed eyes. If he wasn’t going to speak then why was he on the stage?

At one point someone asked for an explanation of the math. “How can you be sure it’s only three hundred years and not three thousand?”

Betty straightened in her seat as a projector lowered from the ceiling. Finally, something to watch. They should have started with the video. People were always quiet at the movie theatre or in front of the TV. Well, mostly. Sometimes her mum spoke over whatever they were watching at home. Betty knew that annoyed her dad.

For a while they watched the movie play. There were numbers on the screen. A lot of numbers but that was okay because Betty liked numbers. She understood numbers. Numbers became patterns. Patterns made sense. The numbers told her everything. Three hundred years. After the lights came back up and the screen switched off, Betty’s chest hurt. She blinked rapidly. The crowd was hushed. Betty saw strange faces, sad, confused and tired. She wondered at them. Didn’t they see that three hundred years was a very long time?

The trip home was quiet until Kate spoke, “So what does it mean?”

Betty waited for her mum and dad to answer. They always had an answer. Today they didn’t. Betty wondered if she should speak up and explain what she saw.

She didn’t. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to think. She’d probably change her mind many times in the next few years. She’d like to think that mankind would find a way to work together and devise a plan that would save the world, but if they didn’t, she planned to enjoy what she had. Her friends and the family she loved. She wondered if knowing the end date of the world would lead to changes or if everything would stay the same.

Later that night, Betty looked at her family seated at the dinner table and was surprised. They never sat down together. She shut down her laptop, put it on the couch and joined them.

Her mum smiled as she sat down, “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

***

 

Betty heard strange noises that night. She woke and stared into the darkness. The smoke detector on the ceiling outside her bedroom door emitted a green glow. She didn’t need to turn on the lights when she got up to go to the bathroom. That was usually why she woke in the middle of the night. She waited to see if she needed to go. She didn’t.

A noise from the kitchen sounded loud in the silence. That was what had woken her. Sometimes, her mum’s migraines forced her to get up early and eat something so she could take her tablets. At first that was what Betty thought the sound was until she heard a mumble of voices. One was lower—more of a rumble not a mumble—her dad was up too.

Betty pushed off her blankets and crept to the door. She squinted and peered through the crack. Her mum walked around the kitchen island. She was wearing her old pink robe. Dad was in a T-shirt. He reached out pulled her into his arms.

“What happens now?” Dad asked.

Her mum’s answer was muffled by his shoulder. A moment later she raised her head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t feel real.”

“I feel like we should plan—but I don’t know what for.” Betty’s dad stepped away and picked up a mug off the bench. He drank and pulled a face at the taste.

Betty went back to bed. Her feet were cold.

 

***

 

She heard a lot of the same over the next few days. Everywhere she went, people she’d never seen talking to each other were sitting together sharing stories. Talking like they were old friends.

“Nothing we can do?”

“We have to wait. They’ll tell us when they know something.”

“…just sit here and do nothing, knowing what’s coming?”

School was cancelled for a week. It was weird, not even winter. There was no snow on the ground. It wasn’t summer either—no one went to the beach or to the shops or away on holiday. It was like the weirdest long weekend break ever. Everyone just stayed at home and worried.

Mum’s brothers dropped in on Sunday afternoon. Betty was sitting in the lounge room reading her school text book. They walked in, called “hey” to her and then sat down at the table next to Betty’s mum. Her dad put the kettle under the tap to fill it while they talked.

Uncle John had forgotten to take his work boots off at the door. Betty stared at the clump of dried mud on the wood floor beneath the table. Mum wasn’t going to be happy about that. Uncle John was the only uncle who didn’t look like Betty’s mum. His hair was red, curly and cut short above his ears. Uncle Mike was shorter than Uncle John but he shared her mum’s nose and eyes.

“I think it’s a hoax,” Uncle John said after he sat down. In seconds they were all shouting. The kettle boiled, drowning them out. It forced Betty’s dad to rise and cut the argument short.

Uncle Mike waited until Betty’s dad brought the coffee mugs back to the table before he said, “It couldn’t be a hoax. It was everywhere. Even the Prime Minister did that speech.”

“And they had the numbers,” Betty’s dad reminded.

“Those numbers could have been anything,” Uncle John said. Betty peered over her chair. Uncle John was pointing his hand right at her dad.

Betty’s dad shook his head. “All the scientists agree.”

“So they say.”

Her mum stood up. “Enough of this. It’s just talk. No one knows for sure what it all means and what is going to happen. Speculating won’t give us answers any sooner.”

Betty couldn’t read with all the noise, so she took her book outside. Kate was down by the back fence with two of her friends. Kate didn’t tell her to “rack off” like she usually did so Betty figured it was okay to stay. She sat down two metres away, a safe distance, and opened her book. Lost in the story, her attention was dragged out sometime later by raised voices. The sun had moved. It now speared straight into her eyes. She shifted around until her back was to the sun’s rays and looked to where the noise was coming from.

Kate was plaiting her hair while her friend Gemma talked loudly. “—There’s just no point, is there?” Gemma ended her speech by throwing her hands up into the air.

“We’ll still be here. You never know, they might even ask for our help,” Kate told her.

“They’ll make everyone change what they’re studying. Don’t you see, no one will get to do what they want to do anymore. They’ll force us to learn mechanics or science or make us do military space study.”

“There’s no such thing as military space study—you mean like NASA or general military cadetships? But that makes no sense, does it?” Kate said. She wrapped the tip of her hair with a black band.

“Of course it does. They’re going to need everyone working on the problem. No more time for art or music or gap year holidays. Everything will change.” Gemma stretched out her long dancer’s legs. Her body was wiry and flexible. She did tap classes and gymnastics. Betty wished her body looked like Gemma’s. Kate was a little heavier, but you couldn’t tell because Kate wore tight clothes and Gemma wore bigger, looser fitting outfits.

Kate’s other friend Cathy wore jeans and a superhero shirt. She always wore jeans and a superhero shirt. “Do you really think so?” Cathy asked.

Gemma brushed non-existent grass off her black jeans. She actually growled at Cathy’s question. Betty almost laughed at the sound. She didn’t though, because she didn’t want to remind Kate’s friends she was there.

“It has to. There are billions of people on Earth. Unless they find a way to stop the sun from dying, we’ll all die.”

“Do you think all the world’s wars will stop now?” Cathy asked.

Gemma and Kate just looked at her. “Maybe there will be more,” Kate suggested.

Betty didn’t agree with that. Why would people still try to kill each other? Did they think going to war would save them from a dying sun?

“Mum wants us to go to church on the weekend,” Cathy said breaking the silence. She didn’t look very happy about the idea.

“Like that will make a difference,” Gemma said.

“Maybe it will,” Cathy offered. “I mean, look, would it hurt to go—?”

“How can praying help?” Kate said. “It’s the sun—”

“—my point being,” Gemma raised her voice. Kate gave her the evil eye. Gemma ignored it. “The government is not going to let us do what we want. In the grand scheme of things, three hundred years is not a lot of time.”

“You think we’ll be conscripted?” Kate asked.

“They can’t do that,” Cathy said.

“They can. My parents think it will happen,” Gemma said in a quiet voice.

“They told you that?” Kate’s eyes widened.

“No. I overheard them talking. They didn’t know I was there.” Gemma said, her eyes searched over her shoulder.

“What did they say?” Kate asked.

“A lot of parents have been talking. They’re all worried about what might happen,” Gemma whispered.

“Are you scared?” Cathy asked.

No one answered her.

 

***

 

School started again the following week. The kids were all quiet, almost tip-toeing along the halls. Even the teachers were subdued. No kids caused trouble like they used to.

“Waiting,” Betty heard one of the teacher’s aides say when she passed. Waiting for what? Betty would have asked but something always stopped her. A bad feeling in her stomach swirled like a tornado. The same feeling stopped her from concentrating on her homework or listening to her teachers. It also woke her up at night. She found herself staring out of the window or at the wall but she couldn’t say what she was looking at. Was this how her brother felt? If so, she wondered what Dave had been feeling squinchy about before The Announcement?

There was a weekly update on the television—often by the Prime Minister, who sat in his office flanked by flags and staring at the camera. Sometimes, it was a video link of the US President or the Queen of England. They all said the same things, “We are still investigating, plans are being formed. We will tell you more as information comes to hand.” No one seemed to have anything more to say. They did talk about the protests, disapproving of those people who refused to help. So did the nightly news programmes. It seemed as though every town had some sort of protest or sit in. Betty watched as the five p.m. newsreader on every channel reported escalating violence.

She was surprised. It had been only three weeks since The Announcement.

Betty’s mum and dad wouldn’t let Kate and Dave go out at night anymore. “Too dangerous,” they said. Betty knew Dave snuck out. She caught him one night. He swore her to secrecy. “I just want to find out what they’re saying,” he told her.

Before long, school returned to normal or at least what passed as normal. Morning classes were followed by a psychology session to discuss any fears and uncertainty. At the school lunch break Betty went outside—her friends often sat on the grassy hill over-looking the oval. Betty’s friends were like her, nerdy, but in different ways. Pete liked technology, Kevin liked Marvel, Sara loved playing with her phone and Charli liked computers. Charli built her own laptop last year. It was pretty cool. Betty was just Betty. They liked her and that was enough for her to like them back. She sat down on the grass beneath the big wattle tree. Its branches weighed down with yellow balls in spring so that it arched over them like an umbrella and hid them away from the world. In autumn it wasn’t so cosy; still it was their spot and the rest of the school left them alone up here.

Sara, half-Japanese, always looked so focused. She glanced up when Betty grew near. “The teachers are talking,” she said.

Kevin and Pete were both dark-skinned boys. Kevin was part aboriginal and Pete was African, from a little town Betty had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce. Both boys looked up at Sara with wide eyes. “Why didn’t you say something before?” Kevin asked.

“I was waiting for Betty,” Sara answered as if it were obvious. Charli ignored everyone. Her blond hair hung in her face the way it always did. Betty didn’t know how she could see her computer screen with her hair in her eyes, but she managed somehow.

“I thought you weren’t allowed to bring that to school anymore?” Pete told Charli as Betty sat down. He nudged the girl when she didn’t reply. Pete repeated the question. Charli speared Pete with a green-eyed glare. “No one knows. You’re not going to tell are you?”

Pete shook his head.

Sara coughed dramatically and said again. “The teachers are talking.”

“What about?” Kevin asked, shoving his lettuce sandwich into his mouth.

“A new course guide is coming out. They have to teach us different subjects next year.”

“What?” Charli asked. She started typing; her fingers flew across the keyboard. The rest of the gang ignored her.

Pete leaned back on his hands. “Like what?”

“More math and science. Mechanics and metal work. More phys-ed too,” Sara told him.

“Blah! More running?” Kevin grumbled.

“Yeah. And they’re cancelling the school production,” Sara added.

They all shrugged at that. None of them liked drama class anyway.

“I don’t know why we have to change our subjects,” Pete moaned.

“What do you mean?” Sara asked, leaning back and resting her weight on her hands.

“Well, it’s not going to affect us, is it? The Death will be years and years after we die. Why should we have to change anything?”

Sara looked at him earnestly, “What about your future kids or their kids? One day it’ll affect them.”

“Why have kids if they’re gonna die?” Pete asked.

They all stared at Pete; even Charli looked up from her screen.

“You’re not going to have kids one day?” Sara asked.

“Well, like you said. They’re gonna die. Or their kids will. So why have them? The government will probably decide that for us too you know.”

“What are you talking about?” Kevin asked. When Pete didn’t answer Kevin punched him in the arm. Pete flipped him off. The two boys wrestled for a moment until Pete pushed him off.

“Dude,” Pete said holding up a hand in case Kevin jumped at him again. When he didn’t, Pete looked at Sara. “Imagine they decide to build a space ship or several space ships to leave Earth. Not everyone’s going to fit on it, right? So they’ll have to be selective about who to take. The less people born, the fewer they leave behind, right?”

Betty pondered that.

Sara shook her head, her face angry. “So, we let them tell us not to have kids? That’s not right.”

Betty didn’t know how to feel. Did she want kids? She’d never thought about it. She just assumed that one day she would—or wouldn’t. Betty didn’t think she’d like to be told what to do. Her friends argued over whether it would be better to have kids or not. If people stopped having children altogether then the sun dying wouldn’t even matter. There would be no one alive to see it. Would it be right to have children if a solution wasn’t found? Would you want to have kids who have kids only to die horribly when the sun died?

“Again—why do you care—you’ll be dead,” Pete said emphatically.

He was right. No matter what happened, whether the government came up with a plan or not, no one lived for three hundred years. No one alive now would live to see what happened.

“But, who will remember us if we all die?” Sara asked.

“Who will remember us if the sun dies? Doesn’t matter.”

Did it? Betty didn’t know. She just knew it wasn’t as easy as all that. Maybe that was why she didn’t say anything.

 

***

 

Things did change. Little things at first, but bit by bit they added up to a whole lot of change. People flocked to the church. Governments talked to each other. School changed. Betty was put into the technology systems program. She didn’t have a choice but she didn’t mind because she liked technology. Learning how it all worked was fun. Things seemed to be going well. So when the biggest change happened the public was caught off guard.

“In order to prepare for the sun’s impending death the world must work together. This will be our life’s work for the years to come. History will show this as a time of great co-operation. The world’s planning commission has assigned the programme of work as follows. World team one: The Evacuation of Earth will be led by North America, South America, Asia and Greenland. World team two: The Salvation of the sun will be led by Europe, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.”

Meetings were held to explain the world’s planning commission’s reasoning. The salvation of the sun team was to investigate whether the sun could be saved and how to do it. All of the population on those continents were to be trained to assist in achieving that goal. The evacuation of Earth team was to prepare for planetary evacuation should the salvation of the sun team fail. Not many people listened to the explanation. The regular protests became riots with accusations of bias, prejudice and bribery. People died.

After the first school was hit, the fighting stopped and an unsettled truce reigned.

Everyone in the world waited for the fallout. No one knew what would happen next. In the meantime, priorities changed. Technology companies stopped producing personal devices and launched a massive redesign phase; they would program the great ships. Farmers and agricultural experts began mass producing world-wide staples, creating hardier plants, and durable grains and fruits to last for an age.

And then the biggest change of all.

Conscription.

Betty was sent into the technical services. Dave went to one of the big farms and Kate was sent to the first officer training academy set up in the city.

For Betty, the technical services training academy was just like school—only with less free time. At least she was able to Skype her parents once a week. Everyone had a task, everyone had a priority. The world was focused and working toward two great goals.

It didn’t last long.

Betty was sitting on her bed when the sirens rang. Her first thought was “fire,” her second thought was that they were under attack. But from who and why?

She was dressed in her tech services gym wear. A part of her mind, the quiet, sensible part, hoped this drama would mean they’d miss the forced exercise period. She didn’t know how right she was. Or how wrong. Along with all of the students in her dorm, Betty was forced to run to the rear yard where the student buses were parked. Sweat poured down her face by the time she arrived. She was ushered into the first bus. It was still unclear what was going on.

Sitting in her assigned seat, she was surrounded by a majority of the network specialists-in-training. She recognised three of her fellow students.

An Asian girl Betty’s age fell into the seat beside her and asked, “What’s going on?” Betty shrugged her answer. “I’m Anna. You’re Betty, aren’t you? You’re in my class on Tuesdays.”

Betty nodded.

A boy in front of Betty turned around. “Are we really under attack?”

“That’s what I was told,” Anna said as the bus’s engines rumbled to life. Betty could feel the vibration all the way down to her feet. The bus began to move. Through the window Betty could see three other buses full of students pull out of the storage shed ahead of them.

The bus travelled faster than usual. Panic was in the air. All the faces around Betty were wide-eyed and sweating. Anna tapped Betty’s arm. “Did you hear anything?” Betty shook her head. It was still dark outside. The sun hadn’t risen. A shadowy figure moved down the center aisle. He stumbled with each step and swayed in time with the rumble of the bus. “Remain seated!”

An older man—dark-skinned with short cropped greying hair—stood at the front of the bus next to the driver. He yelled to be heard above the bus’s straining engine. “Brace your arms on the seat back in front of you in the event of a crash.”

Crash? Betty peered through the window but couldn’t see what they were running from. Her mind supplied an image of a dinosaur from that movie her dad took her to see a few years ago. It was a silly thought but it worked to distract her long enough for her mind to focus beyond the shouting or the loud engine. There was a high-pitched scream. As it grew louder the bus’s occupants fell silent. Behind them was a godawful bang followed almost instantaneously by several explosions.

The bus rocked wildly. The rear section lifted up off the ground and swung to the left. Betty threw her hands up against the seat back in front of her. Anna screamed. Betty could barely hear her. The world ended, or at least to Betty it felt like it did. She was thrown into the roof as the bus rolled.

When all movement stopped and silence fell, Betty’s legs burned. She fumbled around with her hand. Her legs  were stuck beneath the bus seat. She didn’t know if it was her seat or the seat in front of her. She was hanging upside down. Anna groaned. She was trapped too, pinned at her legs by the same seat as Betty. Anna’s arm was bent almost in half. Betty had to look away so she wouldn’t throw up. The air was filled with the sound of moans, groans and soft screams. Betty was afraid of making too much noise, afraid whatever attacked them would find them. She imagined the rest of the bus’s passengers were just as scared as she was and for the same reasons. Betty closed her eyes as pain ripped through the very heart of her.

When she forced her eyes open she found herself staring at a white ceiling. The fluorescent light above her head flickered. If she blinked she would have missed it. She felt slow and thick headed. Her eyes lowered and she was forced to push them open again. The blanket covering her was too thin—she was shivering. Lifting her hand, Betty found something plastic clipped to her finger. It pinched so she pulled it off. Dropping her hand back to the bed she saw a tube sticking out of the top of it. What had happened? She tried to remember but her mind was blank. She blinked slowly. Her mind was swimming through soup to form coherent thought—the soup was lumpy.

A nurse bustled in through the door. She looked at Betty and tsked softly. “You shouldn’t take off the monitor.”

Betty stared and blinked again. The name tag on the nurse’s uniform said Liz Apter. She had bright blue eyes and her brown hair was tied tightly in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her hair clips were pink. Betty couldn’t tear her gaze away from them. She counted three. It was an odd number. Betty liked numbers but she didn’t like this one. It made her uncomfortable.

“Can you tell me your name, hun?” Nurse Apter asked. She leaned forward and shone a bright light into Betty’s eyes. There was a bruise on the Nurse’s jaw.

As the light hit Betty’s  right eye, her memory returned in a jumble of sound and pain. She remembered screaming—Anna’s screams. Of dark shapes, shifting pain, a man’s voice telling her to hush and that he would get her out. She remembered, he spoke to her for a long time. That she’d felt groggy with pain and the drugs he poked into her arm. He’d said there had been an attack. That suspected rebels had levelled the school. As he moved Betty’s arms around, he speculated that the rebels were angry about the government’s plans. They had threatened to make the world wake up to the truth. Betty shook her head. The man’s voice had changed, becoming twisted and angry. A lot of what he said she couldn’t make out clearly or just plain didn’t understand. Who were the rebels and why did they want to hurt people? Betty gasped, surprised and confused, forgetting where she was until the light disappeared and  Nurse Apter called her name.

Why had the nurse asked for her name when she already knew it? Betty blinked rapidly. Her eyes were wet. Nurse Apter wiped Betty’s tears away and said, “You were in an accident. Your bus overturned. Take a breath and let it out slowly. Your parents are outside. I’m going to get them for you. Just breathe.”

Betty did, taking a deep breath and released it slowly.

“Good girl,” the nurse told her. She moved to the end of Betty’s bed to write on a little clipboard. A moment later she left and returned with Betty’s mum and dad.

“Betty, honey,” her mum said in an explosion of sound. She rushed to take Betty’s hand. Betty flinched as the tube and needle in her skin shifted. “Oh, I’m sorry sweetheart.”

“Betty,” her dad said. He took her other hand. He’d been crying. She could see it in the redness around his nose and his watery eyes. Betty clutched his hand tightly.

The nurse told Betty’s parents she had concussion, three broken ribs and a twisted ankle. Betty couldn’t feel any pain. She wanted to tell them she was okay but her mouth felt funny—sort of metallic and dry. She tried to lick her lips but her tongue got stuck to the corner of her mouth. Her dad noticed and lifted a cup with a straw he’d picked up from somewhere. The water was warm.

Nurse Apter left. Betty didn’t see her go. She was tired and closed her eyes for a while. She didn’t sleep. Her mum and dad talked softly beside her.

“It’s getting worse.”

Betty thought her dad was talking about her but she felt fine so it couldn’t be her. Who was he talking about? “Four attacks—on children no less! Something has to be done.”

“What do you think they can do?” her mum asked.

“People are scared, they have—”

“Don’t excuse them!”

Betty’s dad sighed. His voice stayed soft. “I’m not. Dave—”

“Don’t say his name to me. Look at Betty! Look at what they did to her.”

“Dave didn’t do this,” her dad said. His voice sounded weird.

“No, but he is with them. He did this to someone else’s girl. I can’t—”

“—I know. We have to find him.” Betty had never heard her dad sound like that before. His voice was laced with desperation. Her parents were quiet then. Betty’s eyes were too heavy to raise and check if they were still in the room. She listened hard. When she heard someone breathing she assumed it was her dad.

He spoke and Betty was surprised. It was not her dad. The voice was higher. She had to listen to it for a while before she realised it was Dave. He begged her to wake up. “Come on, Betty. I didn’t know. They didn’t tell me what location they were going to hit. I would have stopped them. Please open your eyes. I need you to forgive me. I can’t read your chart. I don’t know how badly you’re hurt. I… I can see the bandages around your leg and there’s some beneath your gown. Betty, the people I’m with, they think the same way I do, but they’re angrier than I am. I promise I’m not like them. They mean well. It’s all about what’s meant to be. I know you understand, don’t you? If our sun is dying then it’s meant to die. We shouldn’t fight that. It’s against nature. This is how we’re supposed to end. We shouldn’t tamper with that. I don’t want people to get hurt though, not you. I never wanted you to get hurt. Please wake up. Please forgive me? Betty?”

She tried. She really did. But she was just so tired. She wanted to make Dave feel better. She didn’t like hearing him so sad and upset.

He fell silent. After a while, she couldn’t hear Dave’s breathing anymore.

 

***

 

Betty was kept in the hospital for a few weeks. When they took the wrappings off her ribs she could breathe easily. They made her walk around the halls so that her ankle and legs grew strong again. She wasn’t even limping when she was sent back to school. This time, her school was a long way away. She wasn’t permitted home to visit her parents anymore and guards patrolled the school grounds. They were big men with big guns. Betty had never seen a real gun up close before. It looked scary. All black and full of death. Betty felt afraid.

She watched them from her barred window when she took a break from her computer. She was learning how to code. It was interesting work. She liked the numbers. They made pretty patterns. Soon she was able to make new patterns with them. It was fun; she often got lost in the work. Every now and then they moved her to a new location. Higher walls, new guards. She had a special identity card she had to clip to her shirt every day. It had her name and photo on it. She had another card too. Each door had to be swiped with the card before it would open.

Betty had a whole room of computers now. No one else was allowed inside when she was working. She wasn’t supposed to contact anyone from her giant bank of computer screens, hard drives and server racks but she liked to send emails to her friends. To get around the security lockout she changed the numbers. It was pretty easy. Today she had a message from Kevin. He was at another school and was building heavy-duty panels for the new ships.

Remember the old days when we used to have days off? he asked in part of his email. Betty did remember. She’d hated those days. She never knew what to do.

These days she wasn’t permitted to go outside or go shopping or to the movies. She had a big TV screen in her room and access to the online database but since the studios stopped making new shows Betty had watched and re-watched everything she’d ever wanted too. Nowadays, she just wanted to work. When the bosses stopped giving personal days, Betty was happy. She didn’t notice time anymore.

She finished reading Kevin’s email and was about to reply when her account notified her of another message. Charli’s weekly message. Betty didn’t know where Charli was—she wasn’t allowed to say.

Hi Betty. I hope you are well? I’m excited to tell you I’ve found your family. They’re in the sanctuary at Bellfire. Mine are there too so I’m happy about that. Hopefully, they’ll keep each other company. I’m still looking for Kate. She’s scheduled to go through the protection protocol. I think that’s why I can’t find her.

Betty re-read the last line of Charli’s email again. She understood why Kate ran. Kate had always wanted children. It was sad that she’d been chosen to go through the protocols. Betty hadn’t minded. It was an easy procedure, had only taken a day and she’d been able to go home afterward. There hadn’t even been any pain. Betty hoped Kate was somewhere safe. Runners often got hurt when they were found or so it was reported.

The rest of Charli’s email talked about the strides they’d taken with the programming plans for the great ships. Betty wished she could see them. She pictured them a lot in her mind, especially after she’d located the plans. They were the size of a football oval, and there were giant rooms and sectioned off areas dedicated to learning. There were group sections for meals and activity times, and giant rooms for the storage of foodstuffs. And then there were the engine rooms full of giant computers. It would take years and years to build. Betty had seen the roadmaps and deliverable time lines. The engines alone would take over a century to complete.

Betty monitored the build on her blue screen. Her green screen was her favourite—she used it for coding. Her yellow screen followed the numbers. Betty deleted Charli’s email from her servers when she finished reading it. She deleted Kevin’s message too. She’d reply later, when she knew the network was swamped and her encryptions wouldn’t be spotted. She returned to her screens. They were as beautiful as ever.

Then Betty’s phone rang.

She stared at it over her shoulder. It was charging on the bench behind her. It rang again. Betty just looked at it. Her phone never rang. No one ever called. Surprised, she rolled her chair back and stared at the screen. She swiped the call to connect and raised the phone to her ear. Her mum started talking before Betty could make a sound. She was crying. There was pain in her voice and she sniffed a lot. For a while Betty couldn’t understand what her mum was telling her. When she did, she clamped her eyes shut. Tears spilled from the corners and ran down her nose. She didn’t wipe them away.

Kate was dead.

“Daddy found her. Katey’s gone, Betty. I should have known. I should have been there, talked to her. I knew she was upset. I knew she didn’t want…that she wanted…”

Betty pictured Kate as she’d last seen her. Kate’s eyes had been red, like they were on fire when she’d told Betty not to worry. “It’s just not the way things were supposed to be, Betty. We used to have choices—lots of choices. We don’t have anything anymore. It’s not fair. None of this is fair. It’s like there’s no point anymore. Why bother arguing with these people? They don’t understand. They don’t care, Betty, they say they do but they don’t. There’s no point in fighting it, right? I know you don’t. You’ve not fought for anything, but I can’t…I just can’t do that anymore.”

Betty remembered the matter-of-factness in her sister’s tone. She thought that maybe Kate had thought this way for a long time. She hoped her sister was happy now. Betty’s mum was crying again down the phone line. Betty didn’t know what to do. She thought it was wrong of Kate to do it where their father would find her. She was angry at Kate for that. Betty wondered if she was allowed to be angry at Kate now? It seemed wrong but she wasn’t sure what else she was supposed to feel. She listened to her mum for a long time. Her mum went from sad to angry, returned to sad and cried some more. Then she began to shout. After a while she became quiet. Her nose sounded clogged. Her voice crackled and croaked, it sounded lower than usual.

Betty looked up at her screens. The numbers continued to flow. Orderly and constant. The patterns soothed Betty’s erratic emotions. She wondered if she should send some of the numbers to her mother. Maybe the patterns would help her too?

Her mother hung up a little while later and Betty went back to her screens. She was quiet for the rest of the day. No one noticed because Betty was always quiet. She felt different, but no one asked her how she was feeling.

The funeral was a few days later.

Betty was permitted to attend and stood next to her father at the side of the casket. Her mum sat in a chair in the front row. Betty glanced over her shoulder at the protesters standing outside the cemetery’s entrance. She didn’t know if they were there because of Kate or because of Dave who sat next to their mum or because of Betty. They might have been there for a completely unrelated reason. Betty turned back to the casket. The priest who spoke didn’t look at Betty once during the entire service.

She kept her eyes turned away from Dave. She felt he wanted to talk to her but she was not in the mood to indulge him. After the priest finished speaking, Betty brushed her hands over her grey uniform and picked up a handful of dirt. She threw it on the casket and walked back to her father’s side. When her mum approached, Betty hugged her and then walked back to the car that was waiting to take her to the airport. She heard Dave call out but she didn’t turn around.

She returned to her room. On her blue screen she opened a new window. Charli had shown her once how to access the cameras in the streets. It didn’t take her long to find the camera that pointed toward the cemetery’s gate. She searched the recorded files from earlier that morning and zoomed in on the faces of the protesters until she could remember each and every one. They were young and old, women and men—even a few children. The banners they held demanded freedom. They asked to be left alone. Betty was confused by the anger on their faces. In the background she saw a man walk past the gate. The protestors left him alone. Changing the focus on the camera she followed the figure until she caught a glimpse of his face.

Her brother walked past the crowd of people, his head tilted low and twisted as if he knew he could be seen, as if he knew someone was looking for him. He couldn’t know Betty knew how to manipulate the camera to change the angle or to focus on the reflections in the cars that passed by.

Betty followed him to a single story house. There were many who lived there, young men and women who attempted to mask themselves and randomise their path through town. Betty waited until she had marked all the faces and knew all of their names before she sent three messages. Anonymous missives with photographic stills as evidence and then watched as the security cars gathered and the officers stormed inside. Her brother was led out in cuffs along with all of his colleagues.

From her desk Betty followed the arrest and the trial reports. She listened to the verdict and the judgement.

He would be safe now, behind the locked doors and window bars.

Betty glanced over her shoulder and stared at her own windows and at the bars that protected her.

 

***

 

In the years that followed, Betty worked hard on her screens. She watched the codes come alive beneath her fingertips. The patterns took shape and formed new and beautiful pictures. Via messages from Sara and Kevin she watched the great ships grow.

Charli disappeared.

Betty searched for her, wondering at her lack of communication. When, at last Betty found her, Charli was moved again. Betty’s intrusion into their networks must have been discovered. But Betty had her now. Her screens followed Charli’s path through flights and trains, in cars and boats. Now that Charli was exposed, Betty could follow.

As soon as Charli was settled, Betty opened a path and knocked at her electronic door.

Betty! How did you find me? Charli had always been quick to recognize Betty’s digital signal. I cannot talk for long. As soon as they discover your code they’ll move me again. Betty, I found the original calculations. I checked them all. They’re right but they didn’t tell us everything. The shockwave. Betty, no ship can outrun the final shockwave. It doesn’t matter, none of it matters. It won’t make a difference. I’m sending you the files. Don’t contact me again. They can’t connect us. I don’t want them to find

As soon as Charli’s text stopped Betty backtracked her path through the network and wiped away all her tracks. There was no way they could find her. After that, Betty looked at the file.

And the numbers.

So many numbers.

The numbers told a greater story than she’d been told. She pulled up all of her reports on the ships and the deadlines and the decline. Charli was right. There would be a shockwave of such magnitude no one could run from it. No matter how fast the ships could go they would not escape.

Betty stared at the numbers for a long time and then she closed the file and returned to her screens.

That night, Betty stared at the family photo on her phone. Scanned years ago and saved to her account by her dad.

Kate, Dave, mum and dad looked so happy in the photo.

Even Betty.

She stared at the image. Three hundred years was a long time. Five years felt even longer.

Did it matter? Did anything?

Betty coded for three days. Barely left her room, didn’t stop except in dribs and drabs. When she finally activated her program she sat back and breathed. Had she done enough? Would anything be enough? Lights began to flash on her screens. Sara connected to Betty’s secured video network first, then Kevin. Pete came online ten minutes later. Betty stared at the faces of her friends and for the first time in her life, she spoke.

“It matters. We have work to do.”

 

 

THE END

 

© Laurie Bell (aka Solothefirst). All Rights to the works and publications on this blog are owned and copyrighted by Laurie Bell (aka Solothefirst). The Owner of this site reserves all permissions for access and use of all documents on this site.

 

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4 Comments
  1. This was spectacular. I can see why you love it. I so enjoyed it and feel fortunate in having read it. Thanks.

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