(originally published by 365 Tomorrows 9/4/10)
The cattle car filled to capacity rattles slowly down its elevator shaft, squealing through a black punctuated only by intermittent amber bulbs casting a wash of rust across steel bars and the small faces between them. Eyes blink, unaccustomed to the dark; tight fists rub away sleep. Full of questions, they remain silent for now, carried deep into the bowels of the earth.
Far above, the world’s nuclear foreplay heaves toward an inexorable climax leaving nothing in its wake. Nation has risen up against nation, blindly arrogant and afraid—a dangerous emotional cocktail when survival instincts run high and missile launch codes are recited from memory, chanted as fervently as prayers.
“Where are we going?” the boy whispers, clasping tightly to a hand beside him.
“Be quiet.” The girl squeezes his hand and presses her forehead against his temple in the dark.
Strangers, the pair of them, like all of the others crammed into this cold steel basket. In any other situation, they would have done everything in their power to avoid such close proximity. But here, in the otherworldly unknown, they have temporarily forgotten the taboos of their preteen life on the surface. They find comfort through touch, skin against skin.
“They want us to be quiet,” she breathes into his ear, and only he hears it. He nods.
There are four of Them, one stationed at each corner of the mesh screen platform beneath their feet. They wear white coats and carry clipboards. They could be scientists or doctors for all he knows. They stare down at the children and don’t utter a word. Government officials, someone said as the young were herded into this car. Representatives of the United World.
The shaft quakes without warning, rumbling from above. Tremors travel downward, and the car jerks side to side, screeching against concrete. The cables hold. Short cries and murmurs arise among the startled children as they regain their footing. The scientists, grasping at the steel bars, recover their composure. For a moment there, they looked unnerved as well.
The boy faces the girl in the confusion. “What’s happening up there?”
“Bombs. War. Don’t you watch TV?”
“I was asleep.”
“We all were. They took us in the night, in vans. And they brought us here.”
“War?” he frowns. “But the world’s been at peace for years and years. The United World—”
The scientists demand silence, even as another quake rumbles downward. They reassure the children and explain how safe they are here, that soon they will reach the bunker below and there will be all sorts of fun toys and games for them to play and more food and drink—candy, even—than they could ever imagine.
“Why us?” the boy asks her.
She almost smiles. “We’re special. Didn’t you take those tests?”
“They never told me my score.”
“I think you passed.”
They all did.
These are the world’s best and brightest, their only hope for the future. One day, when the ash clears and the nuclear winters have finally passed, these children will rise up from the depths of the earth as adults to reclaim the sterile wasteland left by their parents. They will be fruitful and multiply—if they can. If the news world allows them to.
“How will we live down here?” he asks.
She squeezes his hand again.
“Together,” she says.
(originally published by 365 Tomorrows 9/4/10)
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