Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy
to watch him disappear
Around me, I see only red dust. The sun is shining. I shiver. This isn’t the sun I grew up with. It’s more distant, colder, fainter. It never lights up the entire sky. Standing here like this, I often wonder about my being here. I have to remind myself that I can always leave, it’s been long enough. Not that I would, at this point. There’s little for me anywhere else; here though, I can imagine that this entire plain is mine, its beautiful rocks and craters, and no one will stop me. Some afternoons, when everything feels particularly slow, I go for long walks to the stratification a few kilometers due south. It’s close to the beginnings of the great canyon system, and I know that millenia ago, water flowed here. Only the road disrupts the landscape. The LED lights, implanted in the dusty ground along the asphalt, are the only reminder of the bustling city further north. It, too, isn’t like the one I grew up in. It shines brighter, definitely, but feels colder all the same.
I’m not as young as I used to be. The walks have taken me longer and longer with the years. Time means nothing here, though, and so I continue.
The bus approaches me. I step off the road to make sure I don’t interfere with the infrared signaling. People emerge from inside. There’s something melancholic about the last bus of the year. Last week, a dust storm struck me by surprise on my way back from the canyon. It reminded me that winter is coming, that it’s time to close up shop and lock in. I cleaned my clothes for two hours, but they still stained red.
As each person steps off, I watch their face and try to guess what brought them to me.
The young girl appears bored. A look at her badge confirms that she’s a new recruit at the Department of Information. This trip is part of their mandatory training. I used to resent those like her, who are unhappy to be forced so far from their homes, even for a day. What do they know of distance? Now, I find that I don’t really care.
“Welcome to the Treasury,” I say, to no one in particular. “The only library in this solar system! Fully automated, except for yours truly. I’ll be your guide today.” The girl frowns.
The man with a sad face, salt and pepper hair, a full suit and briefcase and worn shoes is breathing heavily. He seems pale. I think to offer him help, but notice the hints of an oxygen tank under his jacket. He’s new here. Perhaps he’s a pilgrim; I get a few of those every year. He doesn’t look like one, though, his features too rough, his clothes too mundane. He turns to me, nods.
We’re sitting in the police car. I’m looking at Levi, retracing the curve of his spine, trying to commit it to memory. He’s looking out the window. He turns to me. Now we look at each other. We’re silent as the car speeds through the slums, further out past the city, and into the deserted wasteland. Then he nods, and I understand: this is it.
My mind speeds to David. We left him with friends last night, just a small bundle. It hurt, but what could I do? The last of the independent neighborhoods was on track to be bought by the conglomerate. I was needed. So many have told me about the power my writings had inspired in them. Yet it also feels so insignificant now, in this police car. What would become of my baby?
I lead the group into the bunker. We take the elevator down through the layers of blood-stained earth, a kilometer beneath the planet’s surface. The Treasury was quietly built and quickly buried, hidden away. Blink and you’ll miss it.
“These are the stacks. Here, you can find every book ever written by humankind. I am the guardian of the Treasury, so feel free to ask me any questions…” I notice that the old couple and a few other visitors had already wandered off to consult the computer terminals: “… or feel free to use the digital assistant. If you get lost, follow the blue LEDs on the shelves back to this point. We’ll reconvene in five hours.”
The group dissipates. I turn to return to my quarters, but stop when I notice the salt and pepper man standing still, watching me intently. I can’t place his expression.
“Is there any way I can help you?”
“Oh!” He blinks rapidly. “I apologize, I hadn’t meant to keep you.” He looks around, as if trying to remember where he is. “If it’s not a secret, why does this place need a keeper? Surely it’s not necessary?”
In the fifty years I’ve been here, no one had ever asked me that.
We’re standing before the judge. Forty years in prison. A death sentence, really. No one leaves the slum jails alive. I squeeze Levi’s hand. We turn to leave, but stop short. There’s a second option. I could be sent off-world, given a job.
Forty years, and I’d be free.
Levi doesn’t get a choice.
I think of David and let go of my husband’s hand.
“The Department of Information believes the Treasury benefits from… a human touch,” I tell the man.
We stand in silence for a moment, looking at each other.
“I don’t mind it, really,” I say. Why do I feel as though I owe him an explanation?
“I don’t suppose you could point me to the archives about this place and its history?”
Not many people visit that section. I bring up the map on my tablet and hand it to him. I want to ask him why. Why does he care? No one cares about this place. Yet I can’t form the words. It isn’t my job. My job is to oversee. He nods curtly and I watch him disappear into the stacks.
The guards arrive to escort me away from our cell. I look at Levi again. His hands are shaking. He stands still, watching me with hurt and – is it understanding or just love? I nod, because what can I say? He nods back, and looks away.
We’re standing in the elevator. I watch the odd man watch his reflection in the glass walls. The red earth speeds by outside. Everyone had gathered without incident, but he hasn’t said anything more to me since our conversation five hours before. I wonder if he found what he was searching for.
Above ground, I thank each guest for visiting. My eyes linger on the salt and pepper stranger. As he’s getting on the bus, I can’t take it anymore. It’s against protocol, but I have to know:
“I’m sorry, but… Could I ask your name?”
He looks at me for a while.
“Of course. David Geld, at your service.”
David extends his hand, and I take it. Geld was Levi’s last name.
“The Department of Corrections congratulates you on the completion of your sentence. You are free to leave the Treasury. You may obtain your documents at…” I can’t read the rest. I turn the console off. I hadn’t been expecting the message, and somehow that’s the only thing I can focus on. Shame burns at the base of my spine while I stare at the dark screen. How many years have I been here?
In the days that follow, I leave the console turned off. Its screen becomes a black hole in my room and I consider everything it could contain. They probably turned on my Internet connection, so I should have access to public death records. I could… know. There used to be so much I had wanted – needed – to know. About my people and their continuing struggle. About Levi. About David. The longer I stare at the black hole, though, the more I realize that I don’t want to find out. I turn on the console and disconnect from the network.
The bus leaves and I watch it go. I hear the dust storm alarm go off inside. I know I should go back. I should lock up the doors, set up for hibernation. I watch the bus instead. It disappears into a speck on the bloody horizon. I can’t see it anymore, yet I cannot move. I stand and watch the red dust approach me until the storm is so close I can smell it. Finally, I turn and run.