He stares at the visual monitor like he expects to see something out there. He won’t. He tells me to slow down, afraid the engines will overheat and that we’ll be lost out there with only a few hours left in our suits. “Yes, sir,” I say. But I don’t slow down. We’re close. He doesn’t know that, though. None of them do. Hell, he doesn’t even know any of our names yet – except mine. He doesn’t know a thing about any one of us. All he knows is that we were today’s recruits and we were willing to run away with him after he saved our lives.
“Petra, we have to slow down.” He really doesn’t get it. He’s spent too much time reading about the days before The Shift. These trains don’t overheat. And right now, we just need to get there, fast.
He finally moves away from the visual monitor. “It’s hopeless,” he mutters, and a few of the recruits take notice. I should say something soon. I just don’t know how to tell a group of people that I’m the reason they’re on what they think is an endless train ride towards a certain death. But they need something. I can see it in their eyes.
“What are we going to do, sir?” I’m surprised it’s Greggor that asks. I assumed Lex or Mayta would’ve been the first to speak up. Greggor’s always struck me as a bit daft.
“We push on. We hope,” he says. Then, “Look. I am sorry for putting you –“
I can’t let him take the heat for my actions. I’m the reason we’re here. I interrupt. “Everything will be explained shortly.” They all turn their focus towards me. I get nervous. Tet glares with curiosity and moves closer. I motion for him to sit. He hesitates at first, but eventually shifts the co-pilot seat so it faces mine and lowers himself into it. I double check our bearing and increase the speed, then turn towards him.
“I knew your name was Tet long before today. Just as I know his name is Greggor, hers is Mayta, Lex, Rayne, Joller, Greet, Exer, Haim, and Koli.” His focused stare doesn’t waver. But, even through the suit, I can see his muscles tensing. The rest sit in silence, not knowing what to do with this revelation. “I’ve worked very hard to get onto your team, sir. You’re different from other O-1’s. You think. You react. You read. And you try to understand The Shift.”
I realize this is a lot to take in and turn both my and Tet’s chairs towards the other recruits. “We’re heading towards Oxygenation Center 5.” Silence.
I try to figure out how to continue. I don’t know how much to tell them up front and how much I need to just let them experience.
“I wasn’t born at Center 12. I was transported there when most of us were forced to leave Center 5.”
“Most?” Again, I’m surprised Greggor is the one to speak up.
“Center 5 was not unsafe. There was no breach. Center 5 became hope, but only a few of us knew about it.” I can tell from their faces, there are about to be a lot of questions, so I dive right in.
“During a standard boil, near the end of a full rotation, something happened. We aren’t exactly sure how or at least, they weren’t sure at the time I was loaded onto this exact train and taken to Center 12. Somehow, when the day’s steam was supposed to be released into the cooling chamber, a valve opened, and the surge was instead released up and out. It poked a hole in the sulfur cloud and for a moment, for the first time in hundreds of years, we saw the sky. A group of Oxygenators and Braintrust members decided it had to be studied. This could be the first step towards fully understanding The Shift and possibly finding a way to fix it. But with citizens living below in need of air, that was impossible. So, a breach was faked and my people were divvied up amongst the other nine Centers.”
I continue and they listen to my explanation of how my father and a group of others remained to further test their theories, to find a way. All but Tet ask question after question. All are easily answered. Most of the recruits don’t know enough about the Shift to ask the important questions.
“Did it work?” His tone is harsh and angry. He had been so quiet throughout my explanation; I forgot he was sitting so close to me.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Don’t call me, sir. I’m no longer an O-1, and you’re clearly no recruit. If what you’re saying is true, why did you leave?”
The autopilot beeps and I realize how close we are. I shift my and Tet’s seats back to front and attempt to make contact. “Center 5, this is Petra. Center 5, do you copy? This is Petra.” Nothing.
I check the visual monitor but the winds surrounding Center 5 have always been intense. The train itself begins to rattle and the hover engines begin to surge, creating the same turbulence I felt as I cried the morning I left, 76 full rotation cycles ago. I remember my mother putting her arm around me and holding me close. I think back to my first days at Center 12, about the tests my father had taught me to fake which would decide where I would live and what my job would be. Had I answered them honestly, I would’ve been a lock for Braintrust. But, that would’ve done little good. I’d have had no access to the Oxygenation Center, to the top layers where I’d get to know my crew, to the surface, to the control functions of the recruitment process, and most importantly, to Tet. Though, at the time, I didn’t know he’d be the one. He was simply one of nine possible names that would soon become an O-1.
The proximity alarm sounds and I finally pull back the throttle. I check the visual monitor just as we’re about to crash into it. A wall – a giant wall. Where did this come from?
I take the controls and swing the giant hover-train to the right. The crew covers their ears from the scream of the metal scraping against the wall, the protective seal ripping apart as I struggle to pull us away. Tet jumps on the co-pilot controls and attempts to redirect the hover engines to help push us away, but neither of us reacts in time.
The breach alarm blares. Sulfur begins to fill the car. Luckily, our suits still have a bit of time left, but not much. We need to find the entrance. But, I have no idea where we are. I’ve never seen this wall before. I don’t even know if there is an entrance.
“Petra?” I know their all looking to me. I frantically try to reach Center 5. I tell Greggor to take the radio and to try every frequency. I place Mayta and Lex on the visual monitors and I tell Tet to make grab the rest and try to fill the breach with something that will slow the sulfur.
I regain control of the train and steady the hover engines. The wall seems to be circular. I reset autopilot to follow the border, hoping there’s an edge somewhere. It’s enormous. But I can’t tell how high it goes. The wind is even stronger than I could’ve imagined. Both Greet and Haim ask if we should get out and walk, but I fear our suits would be no protection against conditions this severe. Not for more than a few minutes at least.
The car is quickly filling with sulfur and it’s more and more difficult to see. “Tet, do you see anything?” I know his vision is better than ours in these kinds of conditions. He shakes his head and points to his oxygen levels. We don’t have much time.
I stop the train and gather them. I want to apologize for putting them all in this situation. But I don’t know how. I was hoping to be well within breathable air when I had to finish my story. The code my father had taught me, which created the fake breach that led to our exile, was not something most of them would understand, and even fewer would understand why I did it. I wonder if it’s worth it to tell them, to make them hate me. But I need them to know. “I have something I have to tell you all.”
“Petra, save your oxygen. Find us an Underdwelling. Find us something. You’ve gotten us this far.”
His face is so stern and strong. I don’t know how he does it, but I see why he rose so quickly to O-1. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes and think back to everything my father ever said to me. Everything I learned before leaving. Everything I learned since. I think back to the morning of the Surge. The morning the clouds broke and the wind stopped. Then it hits me. It was loud. It was so loud. Even in the deep, we could hear it.
I rush to the controls and shut the train down completely. “Petra!”
“Shhh! Everyone be quiet.” I stand in the center of them, in the darkness, in the whistle of the wind that spills poison into the train. And then I hear it. A release. I hear it.
I open the sealed doors on the back of the train and walk out into the wind. It almost knocks me down, but I hold onto the train and move behind it. “Everyone stay inside.” All but Tet listen. He is by my side before I can finish the warning.
I nod at him and he back at me. I approach the wall and realize, under the many layers of crusted sulfur, it’s transparent. I clear a section away and move aside. Then I watch Tet see it – he sees the same thing I saw inside. It’s real. We begin to pound and scream, but it’s far too thick. He points and I begin to move, both of us feeling our way along the giant wall. Did my father build this? Was he inside? Did we really see what I think we just saw?
We are now beyond the train and have no protection from the wind. The pressure is unbearable. I can feel my suit weakening from the outside and in. My oxygen levels are dwindling. My vision is almost zero, but I can feel Tet in front of me, pushing forward, unwilling to stop. I turn and look back at the train, but even at just steps away, I can no longer tell if it’s there.
“Tet. I can’t –“
He grabs my arm and holds me up against the wall. He stands in front of me, blocking the full force of the wind. And for a moment, I can see his face. His eyes find mine and we stare into each other, knowing we are the last things we will see before our suits fail and our bodies seize in paralysis. This is where we will die. I start to fade away.
“Petra. Petra! Petra! What’s happening –“
I wake up. I can’t move. My eyes won’t open. My suit is gone and I begin to panic. “Calm down. Calm down.” It’s a voice I don’t know. Where’s Tet? Where are the rest of them? Where am I? I try to speak, but I can’t. I can’t move. I can’t see. I don’t understand. The voice continues, “You’re safe, Petra. You’re safe.” I feel a sharp pinch in my neck and everything disappears.
Again, I wake up. My eyes slowly open. It’s bright. It’s so bright I can’t see anything. I try to move but my body is sore and stiff. Everything is slow.
“Welcome back.” If I could jump I would. But just hearing his voice is enough.
I try to speak, but it doesn’t come easily. “Tet… Tet…” I can’t stop myself from crying. He takes my hands and slides something over my eyes. It’s a shield from the brightness and I start to see his face. He smiles. “What happened?” I ask. He smiles again and moves aside. My vision isn’t fully returned, but I see someone behind him. A man, I think. He moves closer and closer until finally, I see.
“Welcome home, my dear, brave daughter.”
I cannot wait for more. I have a picture of the world and so many questions to be answered.