“Get a move on, Helen,” David yelled on his way from the kitchen to the bathroom. “You’re going to make us late again.”
She sighed. Why did he have to be so self-disciplined? It was a miracle they were still together after ten years. You couldn’t get two more different people, and yet for some reason it seemed to work. Sometimes she thought it was the only thing in this wretched world that did. She dragged herself out of bed.
“You’ll feel better when you’re on the train,” David said. “That always wakes you up.”
“Being thrown around a rail carriage at three hundred miles an hour may not be conducive to sleep, but it does not feel better than sleep, I promise you,” Helen said. “Maybe we should move up to Scotland so we can board the London train when there are still seats left.”
Helen and David had both been hired as telecommuters, but the network infrastructure had become so overloaded and damaged that if they stayed home, they could wait the better part of a day for a connection, and then lose it within five minutes. They crammed into trains with thousands of other supposed telecommuters and rode back and forth from the Lakes to cramped London offices where they didn’t even have desks, but where they could at least make a connection on their laptops to their real co-workers in places like Hyderabad and Las Vegas. Unlike the supposed luxury of upgrading the network, train tickets could be paid for day by day at a deficit. And the whole country was running day by day.
The marshal glanced first at Helen and then at her passport. He nodded and passed it back to her. She shook her head in frustration.
“You know who I am. You see me every day. Why the hell do we have to go through all this?”
“Don’t start, Helen. He’s only doing his job.”
But David’s calming influence wasn’t working this morning.
“The days are long enough without waiting in a stupid queue for half an hour!”
The guard sighed and looked sympathetically at David. He wouldn’t fancy having to live with this one. David took her arm and hurried her through the gate into the station. The train was due any minute and they couldn’t afford to miss it. There was hardly any work in the Lakes now and they needed those jobs in London. David couldn’t admit it to Helen, but he was weary too.
Sixteen hour days just to pay the damn bills. A deficit of time, a deficit of sleep. They left the house in the dark and came home in the dark, in the perpetual January that was global warming’s gift to Britain, the result of a diverted Gulf Stream. Helen looked thin and pale wrapped inside her coat, and she no longer even shivered as one was supposed to in this hellish cold. A deficit of heat.
Was this their life for the next thirty years? God, that was a depressing thought.
So when they arrived home that night and found the intriguing letter with the strange yet appealing invitation…
There was never any question they would say yes.
But they weren’t allowed to gloat. Their letter from James Winters, the Director of the project, insisted they tell no-one. Their destination was so controversial, so disturbing, that only the participants must know of its existence. If the general public found out, they might begin to suspect that life elsewhere was under threat. That this new kind of society would be the only means of surviving in the next few years. And they could be right.
“What do you think it’ll be like?” asked Helen for the hundredth time. She stared out of the windows of the plane, longing to see her new home.
David shrugged. “Sounded fine at the briefings. Although I must admit I’ll miss the great outdoors. It might be cold and dark in the Lakes but at least there were the mountains.”
It was something that worried them both. He caught her hand.
“Hey, we’ll be together and we’ll have the time to do the things we really enjoy.”
She smiled at his reassuring words. Still the old David.
“And they said there’d be specially designed areas of desert, rainforest—almost every kind of habitat all created within the complex. We probably won’t even realise we’re living inside.”
“But why did they pick us, David? They never really explained.”
He chuckled. “The Director said we we’d fit in because we were average in every way. Damned by faint praise, as they say.”
Helen laughed. “We’ve got them fooled. If we had average good sense we never would have volunteered.”
David nodded but he didn’t answer. He really wanted to do this. It seemed like a wonderful chance for a new life away from the hardship and drudgery. But what if there were snags they hadn’t thought about? He shook himself. Why anticipate trouble before they even got there? He stared out at the immense ocean beneath them and the green lushness of the tropical island they were approaching. He didn’t know exactly where they were heading except that it was somewhere off the coast of Central America. And it was breathtaking. His spirits began to rise.
The literature and the briefings could never have prepared them for their first view of the complex. The driver who met them at the landing strip stopped the jeep to watch them marvel at the sheer size and beauty of the spectacle. A panorama of glass and aluminium spread below them across the vast valley, surrounded by vibrant, noisy rainforest clinging to steep mountain slopes.
“I thought most of the rainforest had been destroyed?” David said.
“Not on this island,” replied their driver. “It’s privately owned and the Director needed to preserve the forest to help provide energy for the project.”
“It’s so beautiful,” Helen said, and David nodded his agreement. What else was there to say?
“And the other people?” asked Helen. “Are they inside?”
Miguel nodded. “Yes, Señora, you two are in the last group to arrive. In total, over two thousand from all over the world. You will meet them tonight in the Great Hall.’
He started the engine again and they drove down the dirt track in silence. There was so much they needed to know. So many things they wanted to ask Miguel. But for now they couldn’t take their eyes off their incredible new world.
The entrance to the complex was a sort of airlock, twenty feet tall and large enough to hold two or three jeeps like the one they’d ridden in. Carrying their luggage, Helen and David packed inside it with twenty or so other participants of all ages and nationalities, and a heavy automatic door slid shut behind them. The machinery fell silent, leaving them with no way out, and they both felt a moment of panic. Then some sort of powerful vents blew air down on them from the ceiling, replacing the hot island atmosphere they’d grown used to with one that smelled different. Fresher.
When the inner door opened to admit them, Director Winters was standing immediately inside the facility, among lush water gardens where exotic wildfowl swam idly around a lake. He worked his way through the group, shaking hands and having a brief chat with each English-speaking participant.
“We’re delighted to see you at last,” he said to Helen and David.
“It’s an amazing place,” David said.
“And you haven’t seen a fraction of what we have to offer yet,” the Director said. “But let your block warden lead you to your quarters and we’ll give you chance to unpack and rest for a while. Then later on, we’ll give you the official tour of the facility. A young couple from Scotland arrived yesterday and they’ll be joining us. You’ll soon make friends with everyone here. It’s a very social community.”
“I suppose it would have to be,” David said. “If we’re all going to live together for the rest of our lives.”
Helen nodded but she wasn’t listening. She couldn’t take her eyes off the scene around her. The ceiling of the complex was a vast dome crisscrossed with vines, with patches of solar panels among a great expanse of clear glass admitting the sunlight.
“Is this real?” she asked stupidly, but the Director just laughed.
“For the money we’ve spent on it, it had better be. We’ve devoted extensive study to creating the right conditions for various natural habitats. And we’ve found that the plants and animals are able to survive as well within the complex as they are outside. Just as we hope to prove humans are too.”
“Which is where we come in,” David said.
The Director nodded. “Precisely.”
Helen watched him closely. She guessed he would be about fifty and she had to admit he was attractive. His eyes were warm and intelligent although how much of his manner was sincere and how much was practised, she couldn’t say.
“Humans aren’t quite the same as animals though, are they?” David said. “We need more than a suitable habitat with food and shelter to keep us happy. The human community is a lot more complex than that.”
Helen was surprised by his comment. She was usually the more assertive one in new situations.
The Director shrugged. “I would query that, David. Aren’t our problems—wars, terrorism, all caused by our territorial nature? And by our need to ensure our families aren’t threatened by others—trying to take our resources from us? Maybe we’re not so very different from the animals after all. We just prefer to think we are.”
It made sense to Helen. She knew plenty of folks who lived by the law of the jungle, even in the civilised university office where she worked. And now there was so much poverty. People kept guns in their houses to defend themselves and their property. Wasn’t that exactly what Director Winters was describing?
“Maybe you’re right,” David said. “I suppose this experiment will prove it one way or the other.”
The Director sighed. “I hope so. Because this might be the only way for man to survive if the temperatures keep rising…”
“You sounded critical before,” said Helen, as she investigated their small cottage in the village. She presumed it was supposed to make them feel at home. It definitely had an English feel, although more Suffolk than Cumbria.
David shook his head. “Did I? I’m probably just tired after the flight. I know it all seems wonderful but I guess I’m homesick. Lakes and mountains…”
“Checkpoints and chilblains,” Helen added.
“Okay, I promise to try harder.”
“The village is quaint anyway,” Helen said, looking through the gingham curtains at the thatched cottages.
“A bit twee for me,” David started to say, but he saw the look on her face.
“But very pretty,” he finished.
There was a knock on the door.
It was Bernard, a recent retiree from Manchester who had managed to get himself appointed block warden when he arrived in one of the first waves. “Ready for the tour?”
“So naturally Beth and I jumped at the chance,” explained Simon, their new neighbour. “Scotland has the same problems you were talking about on the tour. Everything centralised in the southeast of England. The highlands are desperate and we didn’t have anywhere to live.”
“We couldn’t understand why we were chosen, though,” cut in Beth. “I mean we’ve no special skills. I was unemployed and Simon laboured for a building firm. Why do they need us?”
“Perhaps you’re completely average too,” chuckled David. “That was our raison d’etre.”
Simon raised his eyebrows. “Yeah but you’ve worked as teachers. You’ve got qualifications.”
“And you two are young,” David said. “Still in your teens, I’d guess. A community like this needs young blood.”
“Breeding potential,” giggled Beth, putting a hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder. “That’s one skill we can claim.”
Helen stared at her. “You’re pregnant, Beth?”
Helen glanced at David. It was one thing putting yourself at risk. But an unborn child?
Beth seemed to read her thoughts. “What chance would the baby have at home? It’s so cold no-one wants to live there. The friend we were staying with was selling up. We would have been homeless.”
Her tone was defensive. David nodded and touched her hand gently.
“Hey, we’re not criticising. You did what you thought best for your baby. And judging by what we saw this afternoon, you’re probably right. It’s a hell of a set up they’ve got here.”
“I couldn’t believe all those different living areas,” Simon agreed. “An English village for us; a Peruvian town for the families from Cuzco.”
“Even a suburb for the yanks with sprinkler systems in the lawns,” Beth said. “Home from home for everyone from Bangladesh to Ethiopia.”
“They’re so small though,” Helen argued. “Was it really worth constructing replicas just to house a few people from each country? That doesn’t seem important anymore. Surely we should be working together here, not simply duplicating our differences?”
David thought about that. But he said nothing.
Later that evening, all two thousand participants gathered in the Great Hall, awaiting the arrival of James Winters. Finally everything would be fully explained, the fine details spelt out. The British couples sat together, excited and nervous.
They watched, fascinated, as a huge screen unfurled in front of them. David wondered idly where the army of technicians had gone. There didn’t seem to be anyone except the volunteers in the Hall. The room grew dark and the recording began. The audience watched Director Winters in respectful silence.
“By the time you see this film, I shall be in New York and you will have the complex to yourselves. You already know this project is an experiment. However you may not have realised it was sponsored by your respective governments. Secretly, of course.”
A murmur of concern rumbled round the auditorium. The first suspicion that something might be wrong.
“I’m afraid this is not a blueprint for a new kind of society, although you weren’t entirely misled. The facility will eventually provide some of you with all you need to survive. But unfortunately the eco-system is only able to support around one thousand people. That’s roughly half of this audience.”
The murmur grew into an angry protest.
“Shut up!” yelled David. “We have to hear what he’s got to say!”
“Before long the earth, too, will only be able to support half its present population. We need to understand how people will react. What sacrifices are inevitable—and what precautions we need to be taking now. This experiment is designed to be a microcosm of the situation in the outside world. Some of you here will survive—we need to know why. What makes you stronger, more successful than your rivals? And what should we learn from that?
“Before you consider trying to escape from the facility, let me assure you that it would be impossible. From now on you are on your own, although naturally our surveillance system allows us to observe the situation. I deeply regret the loss of life and I wish there was another way. But we are at war with nature and your governments need to make sure they are amongst the victors. I’m sorry, my friends. And I do wish you the best of luck.”
The screen went dark and the people were silent. A moment later they erupted in a fury of anger and despair. They hated Winters and they hated themselves, for being stupid enough to be duped by him. Most of all, they were terrified. They knew how easily friends could become enemies. And it seemed it was already beginning. Beth turned to Helen. There was a quality about her Helen hadn’t noticed before.
“I’m sorry but you said it yourself. We’re younger than you. And then there’s the baby to consider. You have to understand if it ever comes to it? If it’s a choice between you and us…”
David pushed her roughly aside and grabbed Helen’s hand, dragging her through the confused, frightened crowd and out of the Great Hall. They didn’t stop running until they were far away, at the edge of the woodland beyond the lake. They collapsed, gasping, in the long grass.
“Oh God, David, what the hell are we going to do?”
“Whatever we have to,” replied her husband quietly, pulling her tightly to him and holding her close.
“We could stay and try to work with the others—or we can try to stay hidden until things sort themselves out one way or the other. But eventually? We’ll do whatever it takes. Like everyone else in this bloody place…”
They scrambled to their feet and slipped quietly away into the dark woods.
The technicians watched their actions with interest. And began to make notes…
Until recently Heather Parker worked for the University of Cumbria, but now she writes semi-professionally. She has won prizes in several literary competitions and many of her stories have been published in anthologies, and British and American magazines. Her new fantasy novel will be published shortly by Drollerie Press. Her website is www.ruslandvalleyscrapbook.co.uk.