The Community

The Community

by Melanie Brown

Copyright  © 2013 Melanie Brown

Marty and his friend Tom attempt a daring escape from the only life they've known.

“Tommy!” I yelled to my friend. “Tommy, help! I’m caught on something!”

“Quiet!” Tommy hissed as he worked his way back up through the web of girders and struts towards me. “We don’t know if anyone else is down here!”

This really was no place for a ten year old kid. Tommy was a year older and was pretty much always getting into trouble. I’d heard stories that his intelligence had measured off the scale and that made him invaluable to The Community. So he got away with a lot. We’d been friends for quite a while, since I was one of a few kids he knew who liked going on his wild adventures with him.

The metal rods and braces we were weaving our way through were rusty with a lot of sharp edges and was just barely wide enough for us with our backpacks to pass through. It was also poorly lit with only a few scattered lights dangling from the water-stained concrete ceiling high above us. It was obviously long unused. Many of the struts we were stepping on were damp from condensation. Pipes and conduits ran above and below us and disappeared into the blackness.

In this particular area, there was an air space between the bedrock and the re-enforced concrete outer wall of The Community. It felt really weird knowing we were outside the safety of the walls of The Community. I looked down, which was a mistake. Pipes and support rigging disappeared into the blackness below me. I clung to the support beam as I waited for Tommy to come and unsnag me.

Tommy and I had heard rumors, mostly from other kids, that there were spaces you could get to that were actually outside The Community but still safe from the toxic inferno the surface had become. In that endeavor, we had succeeded. But it wasn’t safe from other dangers. One slip and there was no telling how far we’d fall.

“You’re about as helpless as a girl, you know that?” snarled Tommy as he finally reached me. He reached behind me and tugged my backpack free of whatever it was it had been caught on.

“I’m sorry, Tommy!” I pleaded. “I was afraid to let go to reach around. I was sure I’d fall.”

Grunting, Tommy said, “You’re not going to fall, twerp. This strut we’re walking on isn’t that narrow.” With his flashlight, he pointed towards The Community’s outside wall. “See that light jutting out over there? I think that’s the door we’re looking for. Look, there’s a catwalk leading up to it.”

I placed the beam of my flashlight where Tommy had pointed. It definitely looked like a catwalk. I slowly ran the beam along the catwalk to what appeared to be metal stairs going up.

As we carefully climbed down towards the catwalk, I said, “Tommy. Did you see those stairs?”

Without looking back at me, Tommy said, “Yeah. What about it?”

“Do you think they go to the surface?” I asked with a bit of awe in my voice.

Laughing, Tommy said, “I doubt that, doofus. I mean, come on. We’re miles below the surface. Nobody is going to build stairs that go that far. I’m sure it just goes to another level.”

Another few minutes of climbing and we reached the catwalk. Just as Tommy predicted, there was a door, paint peeling and stained with rust. A small service light that was emitting a loud buzzing illuminated the doorway.

Our steps made loud creaking sounds on the metal walkway. “Man, I hope this door isn’t locked.”

I looked back longingly at the stairs. I was dying to know where they led to.

“The knob turns, so it’s not locked,” said Tommy. “Help me pull on it, Marty. It’s probably rusted. I bet we can pull it open.”

We tugged on the knob and both of us slipped and fell backward with a loud bang on the metal catwalk. Tommy had cried out, and then looked sheepish as we both lay on the metal walkway, mere inches from the edge. He got to his feet, and removed his backpack. He unzipped it and removed a large screwdriver from inside.

“Maybe we can pry it open,” Tommy said as he pushed the flat end of the screw driver into narrow gap between the door and the frame. “You pull on the knob while I pry on it.”

We both struggled with the door for several minutes; I tugging and Tommy prying. There was a sudden, gut-wrenching shriek of tortured metal as the door finally partially opened, knocking us both down on the catwalk again. The awful noise the door had made echoed throughout the open space we were in.

“I hope nobody heard that!” I said as I struggled to stand up. Tommy had already jumped up and was trying to wriggle through the narrow gap of the partially opened door by the time I’d regained my feet. Following Tommy, I pushed my way past the door.

Tommy let out a low whistle as he did a slow turn around in the small room. “Nobody’s been in here in years!” Everything was covered in dust. There were some cans of something on the floor, papers and other debris. A trickle of water streamed down one wall.

But what held both Tommy’s and my interest, was a computer terminal sitting on the desk in the center of the room.

Tommy swung his head around in all directions. In an excited voice, he said, “No way. An unsecured terminal. There’s no cameras in this room.” He sat in the dust covered chair that squeaked under his weight and let his hands hover of the keyboard.

Standing next to him, I said, “Do you think it still works? I mean, it could have been here a thousand years!”

Tommy smirked as he said, “I doubt that. The Community is celebrating its tri-centennial next month. But, there’s only one way to find out if it still works.” Tommy reached around to the side of the box trying to find the power switch. He hesitated with his finger poised over the button. He set his face with determination and pressed the button.

At first, nothing happened. But after waiting several long seconds, the display flickered to life. The display bloomed to a bright and distorted image, before settling down to a normal brightness. An image formed that resembled some kind of company logo. In bold letters it read, “Human Habitat III” and below that it read “Member of Sustainable Communities, Denver District.”

“Can you type in a command or something?” I asked.

“You have to log in first, doofus,” said my best friend Tommy. “Let’s see if the maintenance ID that Mr. Wilkes gave me works.”

“The janitor at school gave you a login?” I asked. “How would he have any logins?”

As he tapped on the keyboard, Tommy said, “He wasn’t always a janitor. He said he used to be a systems engineer until he got into an argument with his bosses. He said the maintenance IDs didn’t change as these terminals are in restricted areas. Like this one.”

As he tapped the last key, the display changed and a list of options appeared.

“Voila!” exclaimed Tommy. “Wow, Marty. We have access to everything.” He perused the menus, scanning the screens quickly. He stopped on one screen and said, “Oh wow. This is cool. Look at this!” Tommy clicked the mouse button on a few menu items.

“Hey, that’s your apartment!” I exclaimed while pointing at the monitor.

“I know,” grinned Tommy. “We can look up any camera in our district. Maybe even the whole Community.”

Frowning, I said, “I didn’t know there were cameras in our apartments.”

Tommy shrugged and said, “I’m sure it’s for our security. And I doubt anyone looks in on us very often. I mean there’s fifty-thousand apartments in our district alone.”

“There’s your kitchen,” I said needlessly.

Tommy clicked another button and said, “Yeah, and here’s my parents…you gotta be kidding me!”

The camera in Tommy’s parents bedroom. “That’s not your dad, is it?” I asked after a few moments of silence.

Obviously embarrassed, Tommy said, “Yeah, it is.” Tommy shook his head in disbelief. “I thought he’d stopped, but obviously…” His voice trailed away.

Staring at the display, I said, “You’ve seen him wear your mom’s clothes before?”

Nodding, Tommy said, “Yeah. He didn’t see me except that one time. I’ve seen him crying for no reason too.” For almost a minute, we watched as his dad changed to a different dress. He was wearing a bra and panties as well.

Tommy suddenly clicked a few boxes on the screen and it showed we were logging off. Pushing himself away from the desk on the rolling chair, he said with a tinge of irritation in his voice, “Okay, I’m done. Let’s get back before they send the police after us.”

“But…but,” I protested. “You were going to change my grades!”


*          *          *


It had been five years since that day Tom and I had gone beyond the walls of the Community. I don’t know what made me think of it. We’d never gone back. Tom was convinced that our activity there would lead to the terminal being secured. We both thought it odd that we never saw Mr. Wilkes again.

“Marty! Where are you?” called my dad from the living room.

“In my room, Dad!” I yelled back.

A moment later, my dad entered with a frown on his face. He paused at the door for a moment and I turned the sound down on the program I was watching. Still frowning he looked at a paper in his hand and said, “You didn’t get into trouble at school again did you? I thought I’d talked to you enough about it.”

Biting my lower lip in thought, I said, “No Dad. Everything’s been going pretty good.”

Without looking up from the paper he said, “Hmmm. I wonder what this is about. You’ve been summoned to come to the office of our district’s director. It doesn’t say why. Just that your mother and I must both accompany you.”

“I swear, Dad,” I said. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” As far as I knew, I was being sincere. I had let Tom get me into some trouble a couple of times that required my parents to come down to the school. But to be called to go to the district’s director? I would think that would have to be something pretty serious.

Dad shrugged and said, “I guess we’ll find out on Wednesday, right after you get home from school.”

I was really curious now on what the district’s director wanted with me. I decided to call my friend Tom. After all this time, we were still good friends. And his computer hacking skills were pretty awesome.

“Hello?” said Tom in a sleepy, bored voice.

“Tom. It’s me, Marty,” I said. “Dude, can you run a query for me?”

“Maybe,” said Tom not really interested in anything I had to say.

“Cool. Listen, the district director wants me and my parents to go to their office,” I said. “Can you find out why?

“District director?” asked Tom. “Seriously? Those areas are hard to crack into. What kind of trouble did you get into, anyway?”

I threw up my hands in a useless gesture over the phone. That’s just it. I haven’t done anything. It’s driving me bat-shit crazy!”

I heard some tapping sounds coming over the phone. Tom said, “Let me see what I can do. It may take a few minutes.”

I sat on my bed listening to Tom’s keyboard being typed on for several minutes. Finally he said, “Wow. That’s all I can say is just wow, Marty. There’s a huge file on you and the encryption level on your data is too high for me to break. They sure want you, dude. I just can’t tell you for what.”

I was suddenly very worried. Was I about to disappear like some people occasionally do? One of my friends from grade school just vanished after being summoned to the district’s director’s office.

I said, “Oh great. That’s all I need. Maybe I should run?”

Tom laughed. “Run where? There’re very few places in the Community where you can’t be constantly tracked.”

“What about to that abandoned office we found? The one with the computer terminal.? I’m convinced that stairway leads to the surface somehow.”

“For the thousandth time, forget the surface, will ya, Marty?” scolded Tom. “Here, I’m looking at the readings from Weather Station Four-Sixteen, that’s the one that’s at least two miles directly overhead. Current Temp: One-oh-five Celsius. Humidity: zero. Winds: gusting to two hundred twenty-seven KPH. Except for certain bacteria, there’s not a single living thing on the surface.”

“For over three hundred years?” I asked. “I hear rumors people make it to the surface every year.”

Tom laughed and said, “You goof ball. You’ll believe anything I guess. The airlocks to the surface are kept sealed. Nothing I’ve broken into over the years say anything different.”

“Well, anyway,” I said. “I’m worried.”

“I’ll keep nosing around, man,” Tom said. “But every year their encryption gets harder and harder to break.”


*          *          *


“Please be seated,” said the man with a fake smile. I recognized the district director from the news.

I sat down between my parents. I was nervous. Mom and Dad seemed a bit uneasy as well. Nobody was summoned to the district director’s office to just shoot the breeze. After we were seated, the district director sat down, clasping his hands on his desk in front of him.

Smiling, the director said, “Good afternoon, Mr. and Ms. Kurban and Martin. I am Mr. Duschen, the director for our district.” He beamed his smile at each of us before continuing. “I’m sure you’re wondering why you are here. You may relax. You are not accused of any transgression or crime.”

I looked at my dad and flashed him a weak smile. That was good to know, but it certainly deepened the mystery as to why we were there.

Mr. Duschen stood up and walked to the front of his desk and leaned up against it. He said, “Occasionally, we..ah..we call upon the citizens of to perform a small sacrifice for the greater good. The Community’s computer systems scoured the profiles of all our citizens in the district and came up with your son, Martin.”

Looking skeptical, Dad asked, “Sacrifice? What kind of sacrifice are you asking of our son?

Mr. Duschen looked down on my dad with an air of contempt. He said, “Mr. Kurban, the Community’s computers are continuously monitoring every aspect of our lives, not just in our little district, but throughout the Community as a whole. They not only monitor the health and well being of our citizens, they also make predictions.”

He smiled when he saw my parents’ expression. “The computers aren’t using a crystal ball and aren’t predicting the outcomes of things like soccer matches. They look at human trending throughout our society. With a great deal of accuracy, they predict if there will be a shortfall of some role vital to our Community. Maybe we won’t have enough factory workers or enough teachers or more to the point, an imbalance of the male to female ratio.”

Her brow furrowed, my mom asked, “What does all this have to do with our son? He’s just a kid. He’s not a teacher or anything yet. He won’t even have his aptitude evaluations until next year.”

Mr. Duschen smiled again and said, “Ms. Kurban, the Community’s computers have predicted a deficit of women as Martin’s generation reaches the age of majority. The Community tries to maintain a ratio of fifty-two percent females to forty-eight percent males, allowing for a ten percent of total population that do not reproduce.”

My dad leaned forward and with irritation in his voice asked, “And? Again I ask what this has to do with our son.”

Mr. Duschen did not smile this time as he pulled himself to his full height and said, “Due to illness, accidents and other population dynamics, our district will be short approximately twenty-five females. The Community’s computers have selected twenty-five boys of fifteen years of age with the best disposition for successful conversion to be repurposed into females capable of bearing children.”

My dad’s jaw dropped and I heard my mom gasp. I just sat there, stunned. Surely the Director didn’t just say what I thought he said.

Dad jumped to his feet and shouted, “That’s absurd! You can’t just change my son into a girl!” Mom took my hand.

Mr. Duschen must have pressed a hidden button because four armed police quietly entered the room, automatic weapons drawn. Outside of video dramas, this was the first time I’d seen an actual firearm. Mr. Duschen said with distain dripping from his voice, “Sit down, Mr. Kurban. We can and we will do whatever is necessary for the sustainability of the Community. You belong to the Community and you will do as you are told.”

Two of the police stepped up and each took one of my arms and pulled me roughly from my seat. I shouted, “Dad! I don’t want to be a girl! Dad, help me!”

Dad took a step towards the District Director yelling, “You son of a bitch!”. The other two policemen pushed Dad to the ground and pulled his arms roughly behind his back.

Two more police appeared from somewhere and one held Mom while the other kicked Dad in the gut screaming “Stop resisting!”

I struggled against the policemen, but it was useless. I was removed from the Director’s office and someone in a white lab coat gave me a quick injection of something. And then everything faded…


*          *          *


I opened my eyes. Everything seemed distorted and I felt a strange detachment from everything. A woman in a white uniform bent over me and said, “Oh, sweetie. You’re awake. I bet you feel disoriented. Here, take these.” She handed me a couple of pills and I dutifully swallowed them along with the cup of water. Everything went blank again.

Great job, Megan! You’re really catching on to wearing make-up. Next we’ll go over some cute things you can do with your hair. We can’t show you everything. It’ll be fun discovering hairstyles with your friends at sleepovers.

Wow Megan! Nobody would believe you haven’t been a girl all your life! You’re so cute and feminine! You’ll have no trouble getting a guy, that’s for sure. I bet you’re excited!

I have a headache. Oh! By the Administrator! I have boobs. What have you done to me?

Oh yes! I love this dress. My closet at home is going to be filled with dresses? That’s awesome!

How long have you kept me here? How do I have a pussy? And boobs? I don’t want to be a girl!

Look at how my hair and skirt fly out when I twirl! I love it! Do you really think I’m pretty?

Yes, it looks like a second session will be needed to cement the female psyche. Schedule one for next week. Socialization will help, but it won’t be enough.

Let me out! I want to see my mom and dad! Hello? Anyone out there?


*          *          *


“Where are we going?” A person from the Director’s office was supposed to be leading me back to my apartment, but instead, she was leading me an unfamiliar section. I was embarrassed to be out in public wearing a dress along with some light make-up. My hair flowed down to the middle of my back. My eye color was now an ice blue when they used to be somewhat gray. And being a girl felt completely natural to me. I was both amazed and appalled they were able to do such things to my body.

“I’m taking you home, sweetie,” said the woman with a pleasant voice. “We’re almost there.”

“I know where I live, lady.” I said sternly. “And this ain’t it. I know these endless corridors tend to look alike, but I know this isn’t my section or floor.”

“This is your new home,” said the woman, smiling. “New life. New home. Oh, here we are.”

The apartment number was wrong, and the location of the apartment was wrong. “My new home? Did you move us so the neighbors won’t notice the difference?”

The woman gave me an odd smile and said, “Yes and no.” She pressed the door bell button.

I couldn’t wait to get back home where there’d be some sense of normality. I knew my parents would accept me even though I was now a girl. Must be the conditioning they gave me because I’m already resigned to being a girl for the rest of my life. I wondered if Tom would still be my best friend?

The apartment door opened and a woman, appearing to be in her early 40’s; a woman I’d never seen before, stood in the doorway and said with a hint of suspicion, “May I help you?”

The woman from the Director’s office said, “Good afternoon, Ms. Goodwin. As promised over the phone, I have safely returned your daughter Megan to you.” To me, she said, “Here you are, Megan. Back home, safe and sound.”

Ms. Goodwin glanced down to me with an uneasy expression. To the woman she said, “Oh, yes. Thank you. Tell the Director thank you for finding my missing daughter and returning her to me.”

The woman smiled and said, “My pleasure, Ms. Goodwin. We at the Director’s Office are here to serve the citizens of the Community.” With a nod of her head, she turned and walked briskly away, the click of her shoes echoing in the empty corridor.

I just stood there in anguish and stared at Ms. Goodwin. “You’re not my mother!” I hissed.

With a quick arm gesture, Ms. Goodwin snapped, “Get in! Now! You little trollop.”

I looked up and saw the ever present nearby video camera embedded in the ceiling. Frowning I entered the apartment and Ms. Goodwin quickly shut the door.

I spun and confronted Ms. Goodwin immediately. Almost shouting, I said, “Who are you? Where’s my parents? Where am I?”

She slapped me across the face and snarled through clinched teeth. “Enough! I’m not exactly comfortable with this situation either. Like it or not, you’re now my daughter. Call me ‘Mom’. As to why you’re here, my real daughter was killed six months ago in a horrible accident on her way to school. The Director promised he’d make it up to me. And here you are.”

Rubbing my cheek, I said with anger growing in my voice, “You’re not my mother. I’ve never seen you before. I want to see my real mom! I want to go to my home!”

Ms. Goodwin grabbed me roughly by the arm, her eyes wild as she said, “Look, little girl. I don’t want any trouble.” She glanced over her shoulders quickly and continued, “I don’t want any more trouble, you understand? I don’t like it. You don’t like it. But we have to adjust.”

A man entered the living room and said, “What the hell is going on out here? Don’t give our new daughter a hard time! The Director said this was the last one you’re going to get.”

I glanced back and forth between the two adults for a few moments, my mind racing. I gave Ms. Goodwin a shove as I shouted, “Fuck this!” and bolted for the door. I slung it open and ran into the endless maze of corridors. I glanced quickly at the corridor markers and had a rough idea of where my home would be. I ran as fast as I could.

“Megan!” shouted Ms. Goodwin. “You come back! Don’t make me call the cops!” She was still yelling as I rounded the corner at the first intersection.

I alternated between running and a brisk walk for the next half hour. No police or anyone else for that matter approached me. Passing through a food court reminded me of how hungry I was. But I couldn’t stop. Even if my new ID card would pay, I didn’t want my exact location being fed into the District Police’s computers.

Finally, there it was. My own apartment. My heart leapt as I ran to the door. I threw it open and shouted, “Mom! Dad! I’m home!”

A young couple I’d never seen before was sitting on their sofa watching T.V. None of the furniture looked familiar.

The young woman looked up and said, “I don’t think your parents are here, sweetie. Are you lost?”

“What’s going on?” I asked in a breathy tone. “Just what the hell is going on?” I glanced wildly about the room. “This isn’t happening!” I shouted and turned and ran for the door and into the corridor. Where could I go? Eventually a cop is going to try to question me.


*          *          *


The door opened and an attractive woman about my mom’s age smiled to me and said, “Yes, sweetie?”

Hating the sound of my new voice, I said, “Is Tom here?”

Tom’s mother said, “Yes he is. And you are?”

I nodded and said, “Yes. My name is Megan. He doesn’t know me though. I…uh…I have a school question for him.”

The woman continued to smile and said, “Sure. Please come in and have a seat. I’ll get him.” She walked down a hallway and I heard her call out, “Tom? You have a visitor. A girl. Her name is Megan from your school.” There was a muffled response and his mother lowered her voice, but I could still hear, “That’s what she told me.”

A few moments later, Tom enters the living room and stands across from me. Funny how I never noticed before that he was kind of cute. “You wanted to ask me something from school? You’re not in any of my classes.”

I stood up and said, “I’m a grade below you.” I looked around the room and couldn’t see his mother. I continued, “Look. I have to talk to you. Privately. It’s a matter of life and death. It’s…it concerns Marty.”

Tom frowned and said, “Marty? Is he okay? I haven’t heard from him in over a month.”

“A month?” I exclaimed. “It’s been a month? Shit.”

With a worried expression, Tom said, “Who are you? What are you talking about?”

“Tom, is there some place we can talk? Privately?”

Tom nodded and said, “Just my room. It’s pretty solid. Is Marty in trouble?”

As we headed towards Tom’s room, I said, “You don’t know the half of it…”

Tom gestured for me to take the chair in front of his desk while he sat down on the end of his bed. Even though I’ve been in his room dozens of times, I suddenly felt nervous about being in a boy’s room.

“Megan, right?” asked Tom as he stared at me with a bit of curiosity. “I’ve never seen you at school before. Marty’s never had trouble coming to me himself and pestering me about his problems. What’s going on?”

I took a second to look around the room, and then studied my feet for a moment. Finally I looked Tom directly in the eye. Why beat around the bush? I said, “You’re not going to believe what’s happened.” I paused and took a deep breath. I wouldn’t believe what I was about to say myself. “It’s me, Tom. I’m Marty.”

“Bullshit!” said Tom eloquently. “Do you expect me to believe that? Really? Where’s Marty? I have homework to do before dinner and this has to be the lamest joke he’s tried to pull on me.”

I stood up and pointing at my chest said, “I’m serious, Tom. I’m Marty. I swear before the Administrator!”

Tom jumped up and growled, “Careful! Look, what you say is impossible.” He stepped closer to me and looked me over. “Although, you do look like you could be Marty’s sister. Except he doesn’t have one. Just tell me who you are and where I can find Marty so I can kick his ass.”

I started to cry. Through sobs I said, “It’s me, Tommy, it’s me! I know it’s crazy, but it’s true!”

Annoyed, Tom said, “Okay. Tell me something only Marty would know.”

I thought a moment and then said grinning, “I kicked your ass in Yugioh with my blue eyed white dragon with a power pack and took your dark magician!”

Frowning at the memory, Tom said, “Tell me something else. Marty would have told you that.”

My expression went cold as I said, “You made me swear on the Administrator’s grave never to repeat this to anyone. Your dad is a crossdresser. We watched him on the apartment monitor wearing your mother’s clothes that day five years ago at that unlocked terminal.”

Looking drained, Tom sat quickly back on his bed. “Marty? What the fuck? Look at you! How?”

I quickly told Tom everything I remembered. Tom just sat there with his mouth hanging open, nodding occasionally. When I finished, he just sat there, silent, staring at the wall.

“Tom,” I said, breaking the silence. “I need to find my parents. I…”

“Tom?” asked Tom’s mother through the door. “Is Megan still here? Her mother is here with a District Police officer.”

“Oh shit!” I gasped. “She’s not my mom. That’s the person I told you they assigned to be my mom.”

“They traced you here through the cameras,” Tom said. “Look, you have to go with them. It’s the District Police, for Admin’s sake!”

“Meet me later, okay?” I asked as I nervously stood up.

“Yeah, Mom. She’s still here.” Tom said through the door. As he stood up to open the door, he said to me, “Sure. Where?”

I thought a moment before saying, “The food court next to GamingWizard in Sub-District forty-seven. Around eight tonight?”

“Sure,” he said as he opened the door.

A District cop was standing next to Ms. Goodwin who ran up to me exclaiming, “Megan! Don’t scare me like that! I didn’t know where you were!” Pointing at Tom she said, “I told you not to see that boy anymore! He’s too old for you.” She was lying of course, but I’ll give her credit for thinking quickly on her feet.

As we left Tom’s house, the cop said to Ms. Goodwin, “Try to keep her under control. You’ve run out of the Director’s favors to you. She’s scheduled for another session in a week. After that you shouldn’t have any problems with her.”

Ms. Goodwin jerked on my arm and snarled, “Why not tomorrow? I really don’t need a trouble-maker.”

“I’m not one of the med-boys, lady,” said the cop. “All I know is you wind up with a vegetable if the sessions are too close. Have some patience. It usually takes a week for a session to take complete hold anyway.” To me the cop said, “A word to the wise, girl. Do as your mother says. If you cause too much trouble, the Director will probably transfer you to a pleasure center on your sixteenth birthday.”

The cop left and “Mom” and I walked in stony silence back to her apartment.


*          *          *


There was around a half hour before I was to meet up with Tom when I walked quietly down the hall from my new bed room. The bed room was fairly nice and decorated for a teen girl and the closet, as promised, was filled with nice dresses and other pretty clothes. It did creep me out to think that another teen girl was living here just a few months ago before she died.

The people who would be my parents were sitting on the sofa watching something on TV. I held a soft, cloth bag that I had put a small flashlight and some clothes into, close to me so it wouldn’t make any noise as I tip-toed behind the couple and into the kitchen area. Fortunately, the light was off, so hopefully I wouldn’t be noticed.

As quietly as I could, I put some non-perishable food into the soft bag. I didn’t really have a plan on where to go, but I couldn’t stay where I was. In another week, everything left of who I am would be eradicated. Being a girl and having these strangers as my parents would all seem normal. I desperately wanted to find out where my real parents were.

There wasn’t much to put in the bag. I didn’t want to take anything that needed cooking or I wouldn’t be able to open with my bare hands. On my hands and knees, I crawled to the kitchen entrance and peered into the living room. The couple was still absorbed by what they were watching. I got up quietly and moved as quickly as I dared to the front door.

I looked back towards the couple one last time, took a deep breath and slowly turned the knob to open the door. There was a click that to me sounded like an explosion, but neither of the couple turned around. The door swung easily on its hinges and I quickly stepped outside. I eased the door closed and looked up and down the length of the corridor.

My breathing was heavy and my heart was racing as I ran from the apartment towards one of the nearby commercial hubs. The commercial hubs were always crowded with people shopping, dining out, and other activities until midnight when these hubs closed for the night.

I wanted to run, but I managed to force myself to just walk at a brisk pace through the crowd. It was brightly lit and I made no attempt to hide. As I walked, I saw other girls my age shopping, either alone or with friends or family. Some sat at outdoor cafés talking with friends and some walked hand in hand with their boyfriends. I stopped for a moment and watched a girl with her boyfriend sitting on a bench near a market. They were holding hands and laughing. The boy suddenly leaned in and kissed the girl as she put her arm around his neck. I shuddered as I started walking again thinking how I did not want that to be my future.

I was beginning to think Tom wasn’t going to show. I had been sitting at a table trying to make a soda last for the twenty minutes I’d been waiting when I finally saw him running up the walkway.

“Tom!” I said as he sat down next to me. “I was afraid you weren’t going to make it.”

Breathing hard, Tom took a few breaths before answering. “The cops showed up again at my apartment looking for you. I had to make sure they were gone. They’re really pissed at you, Marty.” He glanced around the area for a few moments. “Why did you want to meet? It’s not like I can hide you.”

“You know the computer systems, Tom,” I said as I sucked the last of my soda through the straw. “You break into them all the time. I need to know where my parents are. And I need to get away. Somewhere. Anywhere. I don’t want to be some boy’s girlfriend with no memory of who I am.”

In a hushed tone, Tom said, “Not so loud. Yes, I can get into the computer system. But I can’t go deep. I don’t think I can get into personnel records like that. And you expect me to hide you somewhere? I just said I can’t.”

“At least help me find my parents?” I pleaded.

Tom frowned and said, “And then what? You can’t just move in with them.”

“Can’t you change the data to show they have a daughter?” I asked. “I know they’ll want me back, even if I’m a girl.”

Tom shook his head. “I don’t know about that, man. I’ve never done anything like that. It’d be pretty risky.”

“Sounds like it’d be a big challenge,” I said with a sigh. “You’re probably not up to it.”

Sitting up a little straighter, Tom said, “I didn’t say it was impossible. Just risky.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Maybe one of your friends could do it?”

“I’m pretty sure I could do it!” said Tom in an annoyed voice.

“Let’s do it then,” I said.

Tom said, “We need to locate an unsecured computer with access to the central net. Those aren’t just lying around you know.”

I smiled and said, “We know where one is!”

Tom shook his head again and said, “That was over five years ago. I’m not even sure if I remember how to get to it. And besides, I’m sure it’s locked up by now.”

Looking disappointed, I said, “Wow. You sure are being negative today. I bet no one’s been in that room since we were there. It’s obvious it’d been abandoned for years.”

“True,” said Tom. “And, the Community’s software doesn’t get updated very often, so if the terminal is still there, it’s probably still functional.”

“Let’s go, then,” I said with a grin.


*          *          *


Tom had rushed back to his apartment to gather his backpack with some snacks and a flashlight. However, we met our first disappointment and thought our mission was over before it began when we found that the entrance to the abandoned area that led down to the hidden computer terminal was now all built up with new construction. After some snooping around we found a chain-link gate set into a concrete entrance leading into blackness beyond.

The gate was secured with a large chain wrapped through the links and locked with a high-security digital lock. Well, high-security if you didn’t have a banned hacker app on your phone like Tom did that unlocked the lock wirelessly. A few moments later we were on our way.

It took almost two and a half hours to finally reach the catwalk leading to the old abandoned office where we had once found ourselves five years earlier. Half the climb had been through a maze of girders and beams stretching across a dimly lit narrow cavern. We were both sure there was an internal way to reach this office, but had never explored enough to find it.

Instead of hurrying off and leaving me to fend for myself in navigating the steel maze, Tom stayed close to help me through the metal lattice work. I was glad for the help too, as I seem to have lost some upper body strength.

Tom took my hand and helped me down to the catwalk. Surprising to both of us, the door was still cracked open the way we left it. Catwalk creaking, we slipped through the partially opened door.

I did a quick look around the room and said, “Well, except for five more years of dust, it all looks just the same. It’s amazing no one comes down here.”

Tom brushed the dust out of the chair and plopped down. He shrugged and said, “From what I hear, there are a lot of such abandoned areas all throughout the entire community as populations have been moved to newer and more spacious apartments. I’ve also heard that some of the upper levels have actually become uninhabitable from the heat slowly seeping down into the crust.”

I looked up as if I could see through the ceiling and said, “What do you think of the stories of people who have escaped the Community? You know, either gone to the surface or have created a sanctuary community in these pockets between the Earth and the Community?”

Tom started tapping on the computer terminal’s keys as he said, “Well, going to the surface is out for obvious reasons. A sanctuary?” Tom shrugged and said, “That’s anybody’s guess.” He studied the screen for a few seconds before tapping on the keys some more. “Now, let’s find your parents.”

After a few minutes of digging into the bowels of the Community’s computer systems, Tom said excitedly, “I found something!” He squinted at the display for a few moments before letting out a slow whistle. “The Admin’s mother! Shit, Mega…um, Marty. You’re not going to like this at all.”

I stepped up closer and leaned over his shoulder, our faces almost touching. I said, “What? What did you find?”

Leaning back in the chair and shaking his head, Tom stared blankly at the display as he said, “I found your parents. Shit.”

On the screen’s small letters, I read, “Subject: Jack Kurban Citizen ID:56342M5I112 Status: Citizen became overly aggressive in presence of the District Director. It was decided citizen was no longer a productive member of the Community. DNA recycled. Subject: Maggie Kurban Citizen ID:4639F7I093 Status: Adjustment completed. Re-assigned District 7AA-5 Pleasure Center 866.”

I took a step back and said, “I don’t get it. What does it mean?”

Pointing at the screen and shouting at me, Tom said, “DNA recycled…Your dad is dead, Marty. He’s fucking dead. And your mom. She’s a prostitute now, man. You don’t have parents any more…” Tom’s voice trailed away.

I pushed past Tom to re-read the display. Angrily I shouted, “No! It can’t be! My dad can’t be dead! It’s a lie!” I started to cry. I collapsed on the floor by the terminal and cradled my face in my hands. I was crying so hard and muttering “No!” so much I could barely breathe.

Tom looked at me sitting on the floor and said, “I’m really sorry man. I can’t believe they did that. And your mom…”

“But why?” I cried. “Why did they take my parents away? All our lives we’ve been told the District is here to help us. To keep us safe and happy. And then they do this?”

“Um…drilling a bit deeper there’s a report,” Tom said with a detached tone. “It seems your dad attacked the Director as you were being pulled from his office. Your mother threw a desk lamp at him and hit the Director on the head. Both arrested and sentences carried out within an hour of arrest.”

I sat on the floor and continued crying. “What am I going to do? I can’t go back? My parents are gone. One more conditioning session and I’ll be a total girl, no memory of my parents or being a boy. Shit. I don’t want to be a girl.”

Tom frowned as he looked down at me. “Well, you are a girl. You can’t change that. The conditioning shouldn’t make you forget who you are…it should just make you accept…” Tom’s voice trailed away. He started tapping on the keyboard.

After a few moments, new text and a few images flowed across the display. Tom’s eyes widened as he said in a quiet voice, “That explains it.”

I looked up from my sobbing and said, “What explains what?”

Pointing at the display, Tom said, “My dad. I looked up his record. It explains his behavior. He was born Rachel. He was a girl until he was fifteen or so. The District he lived in at the time changed him to a male for much the same reason they made you a girl.”

I stood up and looked at the display. I said, “How can they do these things to people? What gives them the right to change who you are?”

Tom laughed without humor. “I get it now. My dad would always curse the Administrator by saying sarcastically, ‘whatever serves the greater good.’ We’re just cogs in a wheel.”

I stood a little straighter as I filled with a new resolve. I said, “I’m going to find that sanctuary. I’m convinced those stairs out there lead up to it. Or at least in the general direction. I can’t stay here.”

Smirking, Tom said, “I doubt those stairs go anywhere but just up to the next level. You’d never make it out here on your own. Let me see if I can get you re-assigned…”

We both jumped when Tom’s personal communicator started beeping. With an embarrassed grin, Tom put the device up to his ear. Tom listened intently for a few minutes before blurting, “You can’t be serious!” He listened for another minute, tears welling up in his eyes. He said, “When you get the chance, Dad, follow us. We’re at that place I told you about. Just be careful. I love you, Dad,” before putting the device back into its holster.

I said, “You look sick. What did your dad say?”

Staring blankly, Tom said, “He told me not to come home. Told me to hide. He said there was a major shake-up in the District. The Director wants to increase diversity. Moving people around, splitting families. It’s chaos.”

“This is getting crazy,” I said. “I think we should just…”

Tom raised his hand and made a loud shushing sound. He pointed to the open doorway that lead to the Community’s interior. “I hear something,” he whispered. He got out of the chair as quietly as he could and stepped lightly to the interior door.

Slightly muffled sounding, I could just make out some guy saying, “Nobody can be down here, Ray. I mean, come on. Every door leading up here has been locked.”

A different voice, a little closer, said, “Something’s going on, Bob. The board showed grid activity in this area.”

Tom turned his head towards me and whispered, “We’re fucked. We’d never be able to climb through that lattice-work out there in time.”

I pointed at the wall behind me and said, “Those stairs. They’re the only way out.”

Tom whispered, “We don’t know where they go! They might go nowhere!”

“They lead away from here!” I whispered.

Tom stood up and took a step towards the exit. He said, “Well, I can’t argue with that.” He turned off the terminal and then took my hand and led me to the catwalk.

Every step we took on the rickety steel catwalk seemed to echo throughout the small cavern it stretched across. Stepping quickly, we made it to the stairs in just a few seconds. I stepped on the first step of the metal stairs disappearing into darkness above us and the aging metal shrieked under my weight.

“Be quiet!” hissed Tom.

“I’m trying!” I hissed right back at him. I took a few steps slowly and as they made almost no noise, I then started racing up the steps to the second landing. Tom was right on my heels.

Tom looked down just as I was about to start up the next flight of steps. He whispered, “Hold it a second.”

Below us in the dim light, shadows dancing on the cavern walls stood two men. One gestured with his arm and said, “I heard something out here.”

The second man folded his arms and said, “I don’t see anything.”

My heart stopped as the first man pointed upward in our general direction. He said, “Maybe we should check out those stairs…”

The second man said, “Ray, maybe we should check out your head. I’m not going up those stairs. Part of that wall collapsed twenty years ago and took out all the power. It’s pitch black up there.”

“We know someone’s been here, Bob,” said Ray. “You saw that terminal. And those stairs are surface access. We should make sure it’s secure.”

Bob turned back towards the little office and said, “You go up there then. I’m heading back. It’s twenty minutes to knock-off and it’s going to take thirty to walk back.”

Ray said as he started to follow Bob, “But someone needs to check that out!”

Bob’s voice became muffled as he said, “We’re not District Security. Turn in a report and…” and their voices faded away.

Tom shook his head at me when I opened my mouth to speak. We sat on the landing, afraid to even breathe as watched to see if the two men would return. After a few minutes, we relaxed.

I shook Tom’s arm and said, “Did you hear what that one guy said? These stairs lead to the surface!”

Tom shook his head again and said, “Nobody’s building a stairway two miles long. And there’s been a cave in or something.”

“Maybe we’re not as deep as they’ve told us,” I said starting back up the stairs. “I’ve kinda lost faith in anything they’ve told me.”

As Tom started to follow me, he said, “Yeah, I have to agree on that.”

We climbed several flights of stairs that just seemed to hang out over an abyss. There was absolute blackness except for where our flashlights landed. The silence was deafening. Even the sound of our steps seemed absorbed by the blackness surrounding us. It was unsettling when a drop of water fell from somewhere above us.

I almost slipped and fell when I was startled by the buzzing sound of Tom’s phone. Tom’s face was illuminated in a bluish light as he studied the display.

“It’s my dad!” Tom exclaimed. “Hello?...Yeah, Dad. We’re fine. So far anyway. I’m glad you’re okay…yeah…yeah…no...Oh, yeah, sorry I forgot. It’s the only really dangerous part. Is Mom doing okay? Be careful, there are patrols around there…I sure hope so! I mean, it has to go somewhere…yeah, that’s true. But we aren’t the first ones to come this way. We keep coming across empty water bottles and used food packets…Bye. Love you too.”

“Wrong number?” I asked.

“No, it was my dad. They’re about a two hours behind us.” Tom said.

“I sure hope this goes somewhere…and soon,” I said. “I’m getting tired.”

Frowning, Tom said, “Stop being such a girl.”

Waving my arms, I said with a tinge of anger, “Gee, Tom. I’d love to.”

A few more minutes of walking and we came upon a wide, flat area in the steel mesh that formed the stairs. Half of the area was covered with a rock fall from somewhere above us. The walk way terminated flush at flat area of rocks just before a tunnel entrance made of concrete. The face of the tunnel entrance was stained black from years of water running down it. Eating away part of the concrete of the tunnel, a steady stream of water cascaded through a channel on the left side of the tunnel past the rocks and disappearing in the blackness below the mesh. Stenciled in faded paint where the words “Maintenance Tunnel 56-33W.”

“This looks like a good place to stop and eat something,” Tom said.

I dropped my bag and said, “Good thing I brought something to eat.” I dug out a candy bar for each of us and handed one to Tom. Tom sat down on the mesh, and I found a fallen rock. We turned off our flashlights to conserve the battery and were plunged into total darkness. We ate our candy bars in silence.

After I finished mine and had a drink of water, I said, “Why are your parents following us? This way we’re going might not go anywhere.”

“True,” said Tom from somewhere in the darkness. “But they didn’t feel comfortable where they were. Dad’s heard of rouge groups of citizens who have left the district and set up sanctuaries. The fact that we keep coming up on trash, makes me think he might be right.”

“I’m tired and cold,” I said with a shiver. “Why is it cold here? I touched the water coming out of the tunnel and it’s like ice. Aren’t we getting closer to the surface?”

Tom said, “We could be in a natural cavern. The District is supposedly miles below the surface. We don’t want to reach the surface; we want to reach one of these groups that have escaped.”

“What if they don’t exist?” I asked trying to ignore being cold.

“Hey, this adventure was your idea, remember?” Tom said as he got up with his light on, blinding me for a moment, and then sat down close, next to me. He put an arm around my shoulder and said, “I’m trying to warm you up.”

“Thanks,” I said. It did seem to help and I did feel more secure with Tom holding me. We sat in silence for a few minutes. I felt a bit warmer with him so close to me.

I looked over at the tunnel while Tom had his light on. I turned my light on and something caught my eye. I disengaged Tom’s arm and slowly got to my feet. I walked over to the tunnel. There appeared to be writing on the wall near the opening! Excitedly, I said, “Tom! Look at this! It’s some writing. It says, ‘Don’t give up. You’re very close. Don’t use the tunnel, follow the arrow instead.’” I looked more closely and sure enough, there was an arrow pointing to the side and then up.

As he played his light along the direction of the arrow, Tom said, “That’s crazy. That’s a hard climb, a narrow crawlspace and it keeps us in this cold cavern. I’m taking the tunnel.”

I followed Tom down the tunnel for a good twenty minutes until we came to a point where the tunnel’s roof had collapsed, blocking our way.

“Well that’s just great!” I shouted. “We should have believed the sign. This will cost us almost an hour! I’m tired, cold and I feel like all this darkness is suffocating me!”

“I’m sorry,” said Tom. “How was I supposed to know? I’m tired too.”

We turned around and walked back the way we came, but at a quicker pace. In a little more than half the time we made it back.

Tom shined his flashlight again where the arrow pointed. He said, “That’s going to be a bit tough to climb. And we’ll be off the main path, so who knows where we’ll wind up.”

“We don’t know that now!” I said. “That tunnel or hallway wasn’t going up. It was running flat into the rock. I don’t think there are any sanctuaries. I think it’s a myth. And this was a bad idea. I just wanna go home!”

“You don’t have a home, remember?” Shouted Tom. “I don’t either! It’s obvious that others have been through here. We just need to follow them. Let’s go.”

“I need to pee,” I said.

Tom said, “Go ahead.”

I said, “Do you mind turning that light off? I’m not peeing in front of you!”

I stumbled over to one side and pulled my pants down. How am I going to do this? There’s no toilet to sit on. I squatted down and figured, I’d still get my underwear and pants soaked. I had been holding off relieving myself for hours until I couldn’t stand it any longer. As a guy, this would be no problem. As it was, I squatted in the darkness, pushing my underwear and pants as far into the back of my knees as possible. During the process, my footing slipped and I had to put my hand down to brace myself. My hand went down into my own puddle. I growled in frustration as I shook my hand.

“You okay over there?” Tom asked.

“No!” I hissed back at him. “I’m not okay. Being a girl sucks!” I heard Tom chuckle as my hand slapped back down in little puddle I was making in the rocks. “It’s not funny!” I shouted back in the darkness.

Still laughing, Tom stood and picked up his bag. He said, “Okay, I think that’s enough rest. Let’s move on.” He approached wall of rocks next to the tunnel entrance and studied it a moment. He tossed his back up into the opening a few feet above our heads. He grabbed my bag and tossed it up as well.

“I’ll go first,” Tom said simply. “Then I’ll help you up.”

I looked at the climb. It wasn’t very far, but it was almost straight up with just a few rocks for footholds. “I’m not sure if I can make it.” I said honestly.

Tom was half-way up the wall and called back, “You have no choice.” He grunted a few times and then disappeared into the opening. A moment later, he reappeared and extended his hand. “Come on! I’ll help you up as soon as I can reach you.”

I hesitated for a moment, looking at the wall, shadows dancing all around me as our lights bounced around. I grabbed a rock and started to pull myself upwards. My foot slipped a couple of times while trying to push myself up. About halfway, I was able to take Tom’s hand. He then pulled me the rest of the way to the opening.

Breathing hard, Tom said, “That wasn’t so bad.” He then rubbed his fingers together and sniffed his hand as I had offered him the same hand I’d dipped into the puddle. He wiped his hand on the bottom of his pants leg and said, “You bitch!”

“Now it’s funny,” I said with a grin.

We had to lie down and crawl through the narrow, rough passageway, pushing our bags in front of us. The tunnel appeared to be natural, perhaps at one time a water channel. As we went, the passageway widened, but didn’t get any taller. More than once I hit my head on a low hanging rock. I hoped the passageway eventually opened up somewhere. Turning around would be extremely difficult and we’d have to crawl backwards to get out.

Suddenly I stopped moving forward. I pulled and pulled, but I seemed caught on something. “Tom! I’m stuck!”

From ahead of me, I could see Tom try to look back towards me, his light casting long shadows across his face. “What is with you and getting stuck all the time? I can’t come back there and help you. There’s no room.”

Panic suddenly flushed through me. The thought of being stuck in this narrow tunnel shot a spear of fear through my heart. “I’m stuck, dammit! I’m stuck!” I started to cry. I shouted, “I can’t move! Help me!” I started to thrash around.

Tom shouted back, “I can’t get to you! Stop moving so much, you’re stirring up too much dirt! Try to stay calm!”

“Calm?!” I shouted as I banged my head against the rock roof of the tight passageway. “I can’t get my hand down to see where I’m caught.” I thrashed around some more.

“Stop it!” shouted Tom again. “We’re not going to be able to breathe with all that dust in the air.”

He was right, I thought as I coughed on the dust I was breathing in. I stopped moving and felt cold tears slide down my face.

“Can you back up? You might be able to dislodge yourself from whatever you’re caught on,” said Tom in a calm voice.

I started taking slower, deeper breaths. I slowly pushed myself backwards, but whatever I was caught on wouldn’t allow me to go backwards either. I felt panic building back up and the walls of the tunnel seemed to be closing in on me.

I tried rotating to my right, but I couldn’t move that way either. I tried rotating to my left and suddenly, I felt something on my pant leg pop loose. Still on my side, I tried pulling myself forward.

I laughed and called out, “Tom! I’m free! I can move.”

“Thank the Administrator! Let’s continue on,” Tom said, relief in his voice.

Twenty minutes of crawling along the narrow passageway later, it suddenly widened out. It was obvious someone had deliberately cleared the rocks. In the tunnel floor was a rusted grate large enough to allow a person through. A spring loaded clasp held the grate in place, but very little pressure caused it to swing downward.

Tom flashed his light down the hole after the grate opened. He said, “Looks like a hallway. We’re in civilization again. Sort of. I’ll go first, lower the packs to me and then I’ll help you down.” He then, with a grunt, dropped to the smooth floor below.

I dropped the bags through the hole and Tom shined his light back up through it. He said, “Okay. It’s not a long drop. Just lower your legs first and slowly bring yourself down. I’ll catch you.”

I took a deep breath and swung my legs into the hole. As I started to lower myself, I felt Tom grab my legs and give me support to drop down slowly and easily. I sighed with relief when my feet touched the solid floor. I said, “Oh! I am so glad to get out of that tunnel! Where are we?” I looked around, but except for our flashlights, it was totally dark. It appeared to be a hallway. At intervals there were light fixtures in the ceiling but they weren’t on.

Tom grinned as he shined his light on the wall. He said, “Look!”

I looked at the spot on the wall where Tom played his light. Painted in red letters along with an arrow pointing were the words, “Surface Access Level III”.

I shined my light on the floor. I said, “Look at the floor. See those prints? They head in the direction of the arrow.” The floor was very dusty and there were obvious footprints leading away from us. The prints didn’t look very new. Only a few went the opposite direction.

Tom said, “Obviously we’re near the surface. But how is that possible? The air in this hallway is chilly. It should be insufferably hot.”

I collapsed to the floor and said, “I need to rest.” I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. I was out in seconds.


*          *          *


As I started to awake, I could hear voices, vague at first. I’d had a series of weird dreams. I dreamt I was still a boy. It took place at the rec center and Dad was there. Dad…Mom…I was suddenly draped by an immense sadness.

“She’s waking up,” said female voice. I slowly opened my eyes and at first I saw what looked like three people standing near me, lit by flashlights. My butt felt sore from sitting on a hard floor for too long.

Trying to shake the sleepiness from my head, I stood up, unsteady at first. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I could see that Tom’s parents were here with us.

Tom’s mother stepped towards me. She held out a hand to hold my arm to steady me. She said, “Megan? Is everything okay? You were crying.”

I nodded and said, “I’m fine. I’m glad you got out too.”

Tom’s dad said, “Yeah. We barely got away. They started sealing the district down pretty tight.”

I took a drink of water from my water bottle and said, “Why? Isn’t that kind of unusual? What brought that on?”

Tom’s dad shrugged and said, “Who knows? It might have been about you, Megan. The District Director declared an emergency lockdown and a re-shuffle of the population. I know of one other time that’s happened in our district.”

Tom said, “If everyone is rested, let’s see where this corridor leads.”

Tom’s mom said to me, “Are you ready to move onward, Megan?”

“Yeah,” I said as I picked up my bag. “Let’s try to find other escapees. Surely there’s a camp or something nearby.”

“I hope there’s something up ahead or we’re screwed,” said Tom.

As we walked along the corridor, our feet stirred up dust that caught the light of our flashlights. The darkness was complete. The corridor was long and straight with no doors to break the monotony of the blank walls.

Tom’s mom broke the silence and said to me, “So Megan. How are you adjusting? Oh, and call me Mandy.” She pointed at Tom’s dad and said, “And that’s Greg.”

I smiled without humor and said, “I really haven’t been able to give it much thought. It pisses me off. Why did they ruin my life by changing me to a girl? I don’t want to be a girl! And…and…” Tears began to well up. I continued, “And my parents! My dad is dead! We…he…he was going to take me to the District Games coming up. We’ve been planning it for weeks. And now he’s gone. He’s dead because of me! He tried to save me…” My voice trailed away.

Mandy put her arm around my shoulders and drew me close. As she stroked my hair with her free hand, she said, “I know it’s hard, honey. Don’t blame yourself. None of this is your fault. Some program on a District computer in trying to predict the future decided there was not going to be enough girls to sustain the District. The District does it more often than you might think. Last year, a friend from work had her son converted to a girl.”

I was appalled. I said, “This is crazy! How did her son handle it?”

Mandy frowned and said, “She never saw her new daughter. She never knew what happened to her. She and her husband weren’t allowed to have any more children.”

“I hope we never have to go back to that place,” I said grimly. “I don’t even want to talk about what they did to my mom. In some ways, I think what she got was worse.”

Greg said, “Well, there won’t be any going back. By coming here, I’d say we pretty much burned any bridges. At best, we’ll all be re-assigned with new conditioning.”

Tom held up his hand and whispered, “Dad! Shh! There’s an intersection coming up and there seems to be a light.”

We started moving along the corridor more slowly and quietly. As the ambient light increased, we turned off our flashlights. The light seemed to be coming from the right side of the intersection. Some words were stenciled on the wall at the T-shaped intersection.

To the left, in the direction of the darkness an arrow pointed and above the arrow were the words, “To Surface Access Level III”. Another arrow pointed towards the light and printed above that were the words, “Surface Access Security.”

Greg took the lead as we slowly walked down the curving hallway. We didn’t go far before we heard voices. Set in the corridor wall were windows and what appeared to be an office area behind the glass. Across from the office was a metal doorway, much like an elevator door. Inside were two men dressed in District Police uniforms. One of the men took off his riot helmet as he sat in one of the cushioned chairs.

The police officer who just sat down said, “I told you it was a waste of time to come up here. Just look. This panel is secure and see that? The blast doors are still magnetically sealed.”

The other officer stood there, and pushed his helmet back on his head. He said, “All it means is that they’re not here yet. Or they went straight to the access area. We should either go back down the hall and wait for them to come through the vent or just chill here until they come back since they can’t unseal the blast doors without using this panel.”

The seated officer propped his feet up on the desk, leaned back in his chair and said, “I just hate coming up here. It creeps me out. And what if one of these clowns thinking there’s some kind of safety on the surface managed to open the inner and outer blast doors at the same time? By the Admin! The whole Community would be at risk!”

The standing officer said, “Nah. Not gonna happen. The fail-safes won’t allow both doors to be open at the same time any more. Plus, I doubt they’ll make it. What are we looking for? Some boy and girl? They probably fell into the cavern.”

The other officer laughed and said, “Hey, being here a few hours or back in our district, it all pays the same, right?”

Greg motioned for us to go back down the hallway. We passed the intersection and went a little ways into the darkened passage to the surface access before he whispered for us to stop.

Tom said, “What do we do now, Dad? We can’t open the door unless we use that security panel.”

Tom’s dad said, “This leads to access level three. That means there must be others. I mean thousands of people we brought in through those doors and these hallways don’t seem big enough.”

I sat back on the floor, exhausted and said, “Are they nearby? They could be hundreds of miles apart. Sorry. I know it was my idea, but this was stupid! We risked our lives to get here and they just took an elevator!”

Tom frowned at me and said, “That elevator probably goes directly to a security office. We wouldn’t have access to it.”

Mandy said, “We don’t want the surface anyway, do we? Aren’t we looking for a refugee colony or something? The surface is still uninhabitable.”

“All I know is,” said Greg, sounding tired. “I’ve heard for years about people managing to drop off the grid, leaving the influence of the District. People seem to have come through here. I say we just wait them out until they leave that office.”

We were sitting there in the darkness and quiet for several minutes while we pondered what our next action was. That was decided for us when I was suddenly and roughly grabbed by my arm and jerked to my feet into the darkness. There was clicking noises as gun safeties were flipped off. We were all blinded by a bright light.

“Well, well,” said a gruff voice behind the light. “What have we here?” Apparently there was more than just the two officers.

A second voice behind the light said, “Sam, Jake. We have the targets. Two male, two female. Looks like a family.”

“Roger that,” crackled a voice through a helmet radio. “Bring them to the security office.”

“Oh, shit!” exclaimed Tom. “You gotta be kidding!”

“Shut up!” commanded one of the officers as he whacked Tom across the head with a flashlight. “Move.”

The officers pushed us back down the corridor towards the office. There was little we could do. They had guns. We didn’t.

The District Officer who was seated stood up and tapped the other officer with the back of his open palm and said, “Looks like you were wrong, Jake. They didn’t fall off a cliff. And there’s two more than we were expecting. Good work, Tony.”

One of the officers behind me said, “They were just sitting there in the dark. They never saw us approach.”

Jake, the officer who was standing in the security office said, “So, what do we do now? Take ‘em on down or have some fun first? The younger ones will just get reprocessed and the older two will most likely have their DNA recycled.

Sam said, “I’ll take the boy. You can have the girl, Jake.” He started to take his shirt off.

Tony said, “Hey, I found them. Shouldn’t I get first dibs?”

Jake said, “You got first dibs last time! At least there’re two women this time.”

Tony laughed and said, “Yeah. Those two boys we found last time are now girls working in a Pleasure Center. Man are they hot! I blew over a hundred credits each.”

Sam nodded and said, “That’s what they usually do with runners. Can’t trust them to be good citizens anymore.” Pointing at Tom, he said, “Okay, kid. Strip.”

To my surprise, Tom removed his shirt, but he didn’t drop it. He said, “You touch her,” Tom pointed at me. “I swear by the Admin, I’ll…”

Sneering, Sam said, “You’ll do what kid?” He picked up what appeared to be a stun rifle from the table.

Greg said, “Tom, be careful!”

Sam took his eyes from Tom to look at Greg. In that instant, Tom snapped his shirt right into Sam’s eyes.

“My eyes!” squealed Sam as he dropped the stun gun. Greg grabbed my arm and jerked me away from officers and I fell to the floor. As Tony started to bring his projectile rifle up, Greg grabbed the end of the barrel and jerked it free from the surprised officer’s grasp. Mandy fell to her knees at my side, unsure of what she could do to help.

Tom picked up the dropped stun gun, engaged the trigger and slammed the tip into Jake’s chest. He let out an agonized yell and sank to the floor. Greg rammed the butt of the rifle into Tony’s mouth, snapping his head back and he crashed backwards onto the hard floor.

Recovered, Sam grabbed a part of the stun gun and tried to wrest it away from Tom. As they wrestled with the stun gun, I quickly crawled over to the fallen Jake. His side arm was exposed and nestled in its holster. I pulled it from the holster and stood up. The pistol wasn’t a stun variety as it felt heavy. Hands shaking, I stuck the business end of the gun against Sam’s ear. Sam let go of the stun gun and Tom pushed the tip against Sam’s neck and with the strangest expression, he fell to the floor.

The fourth, as yet unnamed District officer dropped his weapon and put his hands behind his head as Greg leveled Tony’s rifle at his chest. Tom ran up to the officer and whacked him with the tip of the stun gun. The man collapsed to the floor. Tom then returned to the unconscious form of Sam and pressed the tip of the stun gun several times to Sam’s groin.

“Asshole!” shouted Tom to Sam. Tom then turned and ran to me, placing his hands firmly on my arms. “Are you okay?”

Shaking, I said, “Yes. I’m fine. Scared, but fine.”

“Thank the Admin!” He pulled me close to him and held me. “I couldn’t let them hurt you, Megan.”

Greg extended his hand to his wife and said, “Are you alright, honey? Things happened kinda fast there.”

Mandy let Greg help her up. She put her head on Greg’s shoulder and closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m okay, sweetheart. I…I was so afraid. They were going to rape us, and then have us killed. What’s happened to our world, Greg?”

Greg held her close and said, “It’s not our world, anymore.”

I looked at Mandy and then put my head on Tom’s shoulder. He responded by holding me closer. I couldn’t explain why if someone had asked, but I found myself smiling and feeling a sense of security. Standing in the middle of four unconscious District Police officers, I felt safe in Tom’s arms.

Greg said, “Tom. Take off their belts. We need to tie them up. Remove their shoes so we can stuff their socks in their mouths.”

“Okay, Dad,” said Tom as he disengaged his arms. I felt small standing there, watching him and his dad go to work on the officers. Tom had put himself in danger to defend me. It left me with an odd feeling.

After the officers were bound and gagged, and dragged from the office, Greg said, “Tom, can you figure out this panel? We need to open those blast doors.”

Tom hesitated and said, “I’m pretty sure I can. But should we? The monitor there is showing surface temps at one hundred fifteen Celsius and winds over two hundred KPH. Just a dry, wind-blown surface. It’s not exactly a pleasant day out there.”

Greg set his jaw and said, “I think it’s a lie. This whole place has been a lie. Just open the inner door so we can look through the blast windows of the outer door.”

Tom turned to the panel and said, “I think I can do that. Let me hack into the terminal right quick.”

Tom poked around the control panel for a minute or so and nothing happened. Frowning he looked over at me and said, “Megan, check those officers for a key card. I think I need one to unlock this panel.”

I nodded and hurried over to where Tom and Greg and piled the unconscious and tied up police. I was still afraid to get too close. I’ve seen too many movies where the bad guy or monster you think is out suddenly grabs you. After looking through the pockets of two of the officers, I found a red plastic rectangle hanging from a chain on Sam’s neck. I quickly pulled it over his head and ran back to Tom.

“Is this it?” I asked as I held it out to Tom.

Tom grinned as he took the card from my hand and said, “Yes, it is!” He turned in his chair back to the panel and inserted the key into an empty slot on the panel. The large monitor in front of him as well as several lights and buttons lit up. “We’re in business!”

Tom tried some options on the control panel to open the door. Nothing was working. He then flipped a lever labeled “Fail Safe Over-ride” on the panel, and a klaxon in the distance began to sound. A yellow warning light on the panel began to spin.

Greg said, “Let’s hurry down the hall so we can see if the inner door has opened so we can see outside.”

Tom and I ran ahead of Tom’s parents. We were almost giddy with anticipation. We ran into large, wide, high-ceilinged room. The floor was strewn with abandoned equipment. It became obvious that the flat area we were standing on was actually a large freight elevator. The klaxon was loud and yellow lights flashed in each corner and above the huge doors. Our eyes were suddenly fixed on the doors.

“Holy shit!” shouted Tom as he grabbed my arm to stop me. “Both doors are opening! Not just the inner! We’ll be incinerated!”

A loud mechanical groaning and grinding as gears that haven’t moved in decades slowly raised the blast doors and light spilled into the large chamber. We wouldn’t be able to run fast enough. We just stood there, waiting to be engulfed in the searing winds from the barren outside.

I stood there, clinging to Tom, terrified. But nothing happened. Tom’s parents walked up behind us. A cool draft blew in from beyond the doors. At first, the light from the outside door was so bright from within the darkened chamber, we couldn’t see. Greg walked towards the gaping doorway.

“Dad!” called Tom. “Wait…”

Greg kept walking and said over his shoulder, “Wait for what? This is incredible! Come on! Look!”

I looked at Tom and he looked at me, and then he looked back to his dad. He took my hand and led me to the open doorway. I was not prepared for what I saw.

From the doorway led a paved path to a clearing with quite a few abandoned buildings. Beyond the fence circling the clearing was a view that was impossible. A sun-bathed mountain valley covered with tall pine trees. Large puffy clouds rolling across the sky. Birds flitting across the sky. I stepped beyond the doors into sunlight. I let go of Tom’s hand and sunk to my knees. In the absolute quiet of the clearing, was an odd rushing sound from the trees. There was small buzzing sounds and as I looked to the ground and the air around me I saw insects. A cool gentle breeze stirred my hair.

“Tom,” I whispered. “Can this be real? Can we really be on the surface?”

“They lied,” said Tom in hushed tones. “It was all a lie. But why?”

Greg said, “Fear. Control. Who knows.”

Suddenly a low whooping sound broke the eerie silence and rose and fell across the valley before us. A woman’s voice, in a soothing tone filling the air around us said, “Citizens! Warning! You are in danger. You have left the safety of the Community. You must return immediately. Citizens! Warning! You are in danger. The District Police will soon arrive to help you to return to the safety of the Community. You are in danger!” The message just kept repeating.

Greg said, “We must get away from here and fast!”

Mandy said, “But where? And how? There’s a fence all the way around this area.”

Greg said, “I have no idea where to run, but we can’t stay here!”

Not wanting to, I began to cry and said, “They won’t come outside will they? Won’t they be afraid?”

“Oh, they’ll come,” said Tom in a serious voice. “You can count on it.”

Looking back towards the great gaping concrete maw of the surface access doors revealed no exit path up the rocky cliff in which the doors were set. A large, faded sign above the doorway read “Denver District.”

“Tom!” called Greg. Pointed towards the fence and what appeared to be another gate, he said, “Run down there right quick and see if that gate is opened.”

“Okay, Dad. Come with me, Megan.” Tom said as he darted off towards the fence.

As we neared the fence, we could see small red and yellow lights blinking at the joints where sections of the fence were connected. Under the lights hung a sign in faded letters that read “DANGER. Electrified Fence.” Other signs along the fence had the biohazard symbol along with the words, “Danger. Do not go beyond fence.”

When we arrived at the gate, we were disappointed to see a heavy chain keeping the sides of the gate from swinging open. A heavy lock secured the chain.

“Can’t you use your gizmo to unlock this?” I asked. “Like you did on that lock back in the District?”

Tom picked up the lock and examined it. He said, “No. This is old school. It uses a key, which we don’t have.”

Nervous, I said, “We’re wasting time! They’ll be here any minute!” Drifting through the air, the woman’s voice droned on in her warning.

Tom said, “Maybe there’re tools in that chamber. It certainly had a bunch of junk in it.”

I followed after Tom as he ran back to the chamber’s entrance. After a few minutes run and out of breath, we stepped back into the shadow of the chamber. Tom starts looking around, trying to find some kind of tool he can use on the lock. I was just standing there, doubled over trying to catch my breath. And that’s when I saw it.

I walked over to the place on the floor where for all the world it looked like someone had scratched an arrow on the concrete floor. I looked where it was pointing and it looked like a small, metal door. I walked up to the door and stamped into the metal was a sign that read, “Maintenance Tunnel to Surface Access Level II”.

“Tom!” I shouted. Pointing at the door, I said, “I think I found where we’re supposed to go.”

Tom stepped next to me and read the sign. He grinned like an idiot and said, “This is it. Nobody else ever opened these doors before. They needed the key!” He turned and kissed me full on the lips and then said, “You’re a genius!” He turned and ran outside to get his parents’ attention.

Minutes later we were all running down the dimly lit tunnel. After several minutes, the tunnel began to turn and started to slant downward. In the distance, it appeared the tunnel ended with a bright light. We never slowed down and we were all out of breath when we finally reached the end of the tunnel. But it wasn’t really the end of the tunnel.

The tunnel was blocked by jumbled rocks. But the side of the tunnel had been breached, leaving a gaping hole just big enough for us to squeeze through. Apparently a rock slide had both closed the tunnel and collapsed the side, providing an exit. Just a few more feet from the hole, was another concrete frame for blast doors set into rock. The doors were mostly buried from the rock slide.

Tom had just helped push me through the hole and was reaching up for Greg’s hand when he turned and called out, “Dad! Hurry! They spotted me!”

As Greg pulled Tom up through the opening, I scanned quickly around for an exit. A large rock had rolled down the path from the blast doors and had rolled right through the gate.

“The gate is open!” I shouted. We all bolted for the broken gate to the forest beyond. The sun was lower in the sky. I stopped to look for just a moment. I had only seen the sun in old pictures and movies. My reverie was broken by Tom grabbing my hand and pulling me along.

The woman’s calm voice that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere continued to inform us that we were in danger and to stay calm until the District Police arrived to rescue us and return us to safety. The voice told us that everything beyond the fence was toxic.

After we entered the cover of the trees, we turned to see four or five police wearing odd looking helmets that covered their whole heads like they were wearing space suits. They were all carrying rifles and not the stun variety.

One of the police said, “Citizens! Please do not enter the forest. You are in grave danger. Please let us help you. The forest is highly toxic. You must return with us to the safety of the Community.”

I looked around and said, “Is that true? Are we in danger?”

Tom frowned at me and pushed my forehead and said, “Dope! You think they’re going to start telling the truth now?”

Greg said, “Stay in the cover of the trees, but let’s follow this paved road. It must go somewhere.”

We all turned and almost bumped into three armed men. Tom said, “Shit!”

One of the men put his finger against his lips. He whispered “Quiet. Don’t follow that road. Come with us.” The other two started to walk deeper into the woods.

Greg said sternly, “And just who are you?”

The man just smiled and said, “Friends. We’ll help you get to the town. Trust me. You don’t want to get caught by those guys.” He frowned at the District Police and said, “Looks like we’ll have to close this part of the railroad. Too bad.” He brushed his longish blond hair from his eyes.

As we followed the three men, Tom said, “How did you know we were here? How do we know you’re not leading us into a trap?”

The blond man smiled again and said, “You don’t. But we’re not. We have people monitoring the mountain looking for refugees.” He stopped for a moment and held out his hand. “I’m Glenn. Up ahead are Bob and Ernest.”

We all introduced ourselves and shook hands with the trio before hurrying on. We could no longer hear the voice of the woman droning on.

“Where are we going?” I asked, trying to keep up with Glenn. “Who are you people? Why are you outside the Community?”

Glenn turned to me with smile and said, “Good questions, little lady. You just escaped from the Denver District. From what I understand it’s grown to be one of the largest districts in the world. New Deli District is the largest, followed by Tokyo, New York and LA Districts. We’re on our way to a town called Evergreen. There’s not much left of the actual city of Denver.”

I gave Glenn a sidelong look and said, “Okay. You know about us, but we still don’t know anything about you.”

“Zachery likes to inform all the new refugees about our history when he welcomes them,” Glenn said. “I don’t want to spoil his fun. Suffice to say, we’re descended from folks who refused to be rounded up and tossed into the sustainable communities. Most of the major cities didn’t survive the riots and government purges. After a while the District governments started leaving the smaller towns alone.”

For the next hour or so, we walked in mostly silence. Glenn slowed the pace some after saying that it was doubtful we were still being pursued. I didn’t mind the walk though. There was so much to see. The trees and sky kept most of my attention. There were plants and birds and rocks and things. I was on sensory overload. I got excited when I spotted a deer.

The sun was just about to disappear behind a mountain when we reached a paved road. Glenn said, “Just around that corner up ahead and then a couple of blocks over to Zachery’s house. He’s expecting us.” Bob held up some kind of communications device and waved it at us before clipping it back to his belt.

I sucked in my breath and came to a sudden stop as we turned the corner. I felt as if I had suddenly been transported back three hundred years. Stretching before me were paved streets with personal cars being driven on them. People walking down sidewalks or performing activities in their own yards with their own houses. Kids running down the streets or tossing a ball back and forth. It looked little different from the pictures I’d seen from the time before The Community. Before the Districts.

Tom took my hand again and led me across the street with Glenn leading the way. Tom was grinning. He said, “Can you believe it? I really believed all this was gone. That the surface was just wind blasted desert.”

As we approached a corner house with several people sitting on the porch, Glenn turned to Bob and Ernest and said, “Good job today, guys. I’ll meet you guys over by Lookout Rock around ten tomorrow.” As the two departed, Glenn opened a creaky, white painted wooden gate.

An older man stood up from his rocking chair on the porch and waved a greeting to us as we neared the steps leading up to the porch. I’d never seen anyone this old looking in the District.

“Greetings, friends! Thank God you all made it here safely.” said the old man with a smile. “Come on up here. I’m Zachery and this is my wife Janet and my boy, John.” He shook hands with all of us. “Please, sit down. Have some tea. I’m sure you’re thirsty after that long walk.”

On the table were cups made of actual glass with ice inside along with the tea. Greg and Mandy sat on the couch and I took a seat in a wooden chair with a cloth seat cushion. Tom just stood behind me, his hands on my shoulders.

Zachery waved his arm in a broad gesture and said, “Welcome! Welcome to Evergreen. And especially, welcome to freedom. Refugees from the Community are always welcome here and well…everywhere. It seems we get a dozen or so every month.”

I said, “How is it that you’re here? We were told the surface was barren.”

Zachery smiled and said, “Well, miss, that’s the story they use to keep everyone down inside those underground cities. About three hundred years ago, there was a massive societal upheaval. The powers that be decided to that the surface of the earth needed to be purged of human beings, so construction of the great underground cities began. A vast underground network was created to link each district. After the riots and the Great Purge, not much is left of the once great cities. Smaller towns like Evergreen were left alone for the most part.

“The people left in the aftermath of the Great Purge do what people have always done. They survived. They coped with a destroyed civilization and tried to put the pieces back together. It took awhile, but civilization on the surface has mostly returned. We have smaller cities, but there’s stores, businesses, factories, etc.” Zachery paused to look at our faces for a moment. He said, “I know this all looks quaint and rustic, but outside Evergreen, our technology and science is very close to what you had in the Denver District.”

Janet leaned in and patted my hand and said, “Don’t worry hun. We’re civilized here. We have all the same things that girls everywhere are interested in. Trust me, you’re going to love it here.”

Greg took a sip of his tea and said, “You seem to know a lot about the Community.”

Zachery grinned and said, “Yeah, we tapped into their communications grid a long time ago. We probably know more about the Community and its history than you. We know that the Chicago District has gone dark after a report of widespread crime. The Atlanta District openly rebelled against the Administrator and wanted a return to the surface. The Administrator had the district imploded to keep the rebellion from spreading. The Admin controls the media so they managed a total black out. That was only about thirty years ago.”

Mandy said, “I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about that any more. It is so lovely here.” She squeezed Greg’s hand. “I’d be content to just stay here.”

Janet said, “We’d love to have you. Our winters do tend to get cold though. You’re free to stay here or go to any town you wish. Just about every place needs people.”

Glenn, who had been silent since arriving at Zachery’s house said, “We’ll be honest. It’s a lot of hard work up here. But, it’s not like you can go back to the Community.”

Zachery looked over at me and then at Tom. He said, “Son, that girl is going to need a good, strong man to take care of her. Do you think you’re up to task in this surface world?”

Tom straightened and drew himself to his full height. He said, “Yes, sir. I am.”

And that’s when it finally hit me. I’m a girl. I’m a girl for the rest of my life. I looked up at Tom’s face and he smiled at me. I suppose I don’t have to accept it, but it appears that I’m not only a girl, but I’m Tom’s girl. I’ll probably have his children. I’ll be a wife and a mother. Oddly, I felt okay with that.

Everything about my old life was dead and buried in the Community. It was a clean break. Ties to everyone I used to know, except for Tom had been completely severed.

I took Tom’s hand and held it against my cheek. I looked at the tree covered mountains in the fading light. I was a girl forever and a calmness engulfed me like a warm blanket.

And I was happy.

The End

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