Hayden squinted through the periscope, staring out into the expanse of desert outside and above. A blinding array of solar panels stretched along one side, and a flat plane of dust met the horizon on the other. But that’s not what he was looking for. He rotated the scope until he made out the small burrow nestled against the base of one of the panels.
Before he’d spotted the rat’s nest, the most exciting part of his job in Observation happened when enough dust blew into the lens to warrant a “weather event” entry in his logbook. Since he’d spotted the rat two weeks ago, Hayden had come in before lights-on nearly every day. If he came before sunrise, he could see her scurrying to and from her burrow, cheeks chubby with seeds. She wasn’t only cute; she was proof that the world outside wasn’t the radioactive wasteland that the administration wanted everyone to believe it to be.
A few years ago, the administration had ruled that Observation’s findings had to be reviewed before being made public. They claimed it was to “check scientific merit.” More like check if it fit their agenda. None of Observation’s findings had been accepted in years, so no one in the bunker except Hayden and his boss, Millie, knew about the rat, let alone the shrubs that grew between panels.
“Hayden!” Millie snapped as soon as she crossed the threshold. In one hand she had her Tom Clancy novel, and in the other she had one of the three LED bulbs allotted to all of Observation. She extended the bulb toward him. “Get us a new one, would you?”
“Can I look out at Muffin for a sec? She hasn’t come out of the nest yet.”
Millie whacked his shoulder with the paperback. “I told you not to name it! Are you trying to get extra radio duty?”
Millie knew he hated twisting the dial of the radios, listening to the white noise, waiting for calls that would never come in. Hayden sighed, extending his good hand. “Fine.”
Lights-on had already begun when he made it out of Observation. The murmurs of gathering protesters filled Hayden’s chest with dread. As he entered the cafeteria, the heat from the mass of bodies made him sweat, and the air was so thick that breathing felt like suffocating. Breakfast hadn’t been served yet, but around a hundred people—almost half of the bunker—were gathered around the calendar in the cafeteria. Was it that day already?
The calendar was an arm’s span wide, so that from the back of the room, you could still make out the numbers. At the close of every day, someone drew a dark, ominous X over the next square. Hayden used to think it was a stupid, nostalgic remnant of something long since gone. With no weather and no place to go, did it matter if today was Tuesday the 26th?
Artemis had told him once that Before, no one printed calendars years ahead of time. This one had been specially requested by the shelter’s engineers so that ten years later, the people could still imagine themselves driving to yoga class and hanging tinsel up on Christmas.
But the calendar was now out of days.
They were supposed to have emerged by now.
The man who’d been leading these protests, Tyler, scrambled to the top of a cafeteria table. He held a bulky binder: the Procedures Manual. “We should begin our day by reading statute 28, subdivision 5.”
The crowd cheered and surged closer to the front, jostling Hayden. He was trapped behind a wall of people. He clutched the lightbulb to his chest and stood waiting for the crowd to calm.
“The administration shall prepare the citizens for a peaceful return to the surface in Year 10.” The man threw the manual, and it bounced off the edge of the table and hit the floor with a thud. “They say we’re the rowdy ones, breaking the rules. But we are the ones in the right. We are the ones following the guidelines set out from the start. It’s time for the emerge surge!”
The people around Hayden thrust their arms in the air, clapping and whooping.
The pro-emergence movement had been planning around this day for months. They had also read this section over and over, conveniently ignoring the following line about reentry being contingent on safe conditions outside.
Hayden had mixed feelings about emergence. Ever since the other bunkers had stopped radioing back seven years ago, Hayden had been wary of going outside. The radiation levels outside were severe enough to significantly lower life expectancy, according to a textbook. But then again, their equipment was ten years old, and there was a rat’s nest not far from the periscope lens. If everyone knew that, a lot more people would be pro-emergence.
More people arrived every moment. He wasn’t going to get a convenient time to leave, so he began elbowing through the crowd, clutching the bulb to his heart. Finally, he made it to the Supply Ward, a large room full of clerks and desks. Artemis, a classmate of his, stood at one of the stations, and Hayden’s breath eased. Behind him, the crowd’s jeers leaked into the room.
Like always, Artemis stood at her little podium, hands clasped in front of her. Her long, jet-black hair spooled onto and past the counter.
“How’s it going?” Hayden asked as he walked over. He set the bulb on the counter.
Artemis grabbed it for a complete inspection. She was working with less robotic efficiency than normal, and swaths of purple ringed her eyes.
“You look tired,” Hayden said.
“I’ve been helping Rod prepare a statement for the townhall meeting coming up. We’re arguing for a supply run.”
“I’m telling you, there are cannibals out there,” Hayden tried to joke, but he couldn’t believe that even Artemis was taking part in the emerge surge. She was always so timid—since when was she an activist?
After turning the bulb in her hands a few times, Artemis screwed it into a socket on the counter. She twisted the top of the bulb, struggling to open it like it was a mason jar of peaches.
“What are you doing?” Hayden asked.
With a final “humph!” Artemis managed to unscrew the top, which Hayden hadn’t realized was possible.
“Our bulbs were specially made to be fixable,” Artemis explained. She opened a drawer and pulled out an electronic device that looked like an overgrown calculator with a dial. Artemis began pressing a stylus against either side of each metal square at the top of the bulb.
Hayden watched her nimble hands as she worked.
Three of the squares lit up as she pressed, which made Artemis smile. “There are a few diodes still working in this one. We can scavenge them to use in other bulbs.”
“You can do that?”
“Yeah, we’re going to have to.” Artemis leaned in closer, glancing around. “We only have a few unused bulbs in stock. But you can’t tell anyone I said that.”
Hayden nodded solemnly as Artemis put the shielding back on and unscrewed the bulb from the socket. Then he stood there, waiting for her to go with her jangling keys into the back room to grab him a fresh bulb, like always.
Instead, Artemis blinked at him. “Can I help you with anything else?”
“Don’t I get a new bulb?”
“Sorry,” Artemis said, tucking a long bunch of hair behind her ear. “New policy. We’re not allowed to give Observation new lights.”
Artemis shrugged. “I didn’t make the rules.”
“Then I guess I’ll take this back,” Hayden said, reaching toward the bulb on the counter.
“No!” Artemis scrambled to take the bulb before he could. It slipped from under her palms and past Hayden. Hayden made a last-ditch attempt to grab it, but it fell on his right side, and he couldn’t quite get his hand to close in time to catch it. The bulb hit the ground with a loud thump, bouncing off the concrete several times before ultimately rolling around on the ground.
The shielding didn’t appear cracked, so maybe it would still work. Hayden knelt, grabbed it with his good hand, and gave it back to Artemis. Her hands shook as she screwed it back into the socket, removed the shielding, and rechecked each square.
None of the squares of light flicked on. Artemis’s face crumpled.
“Artemis. . .” Hayden raised his right hand as a reminder that it wasn’t his fault. He’d damaged a nerve when he was younger, so he had no sensation in his pinky and ring fingers on that hand. Those fingers were permanently curled back, and he didn’t have as strong of a grasp.
“I know it’s my fault.” Artemis’s shoulders caved in. “I’m so stupid,” she said.
“No, you’re just stressed out. It was a mistake.”
“But I have to be more careful. We all have to be more careful.”
Hayden put his good hand on Artemis’s shoulder and squeezed. “Everything is okay.”
She flinched away, clenching her arms with stretched white knuckles. “No,” she said. “Nothing is okay.”
“I can help explain to Rod, if that’s what you’re—”
“I don’t need your help.” She spun on her heels and walked toward Storage.
Hayden sighed and started back toward Observation empty-handed. Protesters still lingered in the cafeteria, but the fervor was quelled as non-protesters lined up with trays, patiently waiting for breakfast. He easily slipped past the crowds.
Hayden had never seen Artemis that angry, but she’d always rejected help like it was a sopping-wet sock. Hayden forced the little fingers on his right hand straight with his left, a nervous habit he’d developed after Dr. Kohlmann had warned him that those fingers would curl in on themselves and form a “claw hand.” Hayden couldn’t help but wonder, would she still reject his help if both of his hands worked?
“You look like hell,” Millie told Hayden as he made it back to Observation. “And where’s the bulb?”
Millie harrumphed after he’d explained and turned back to her Tom Clancy novel. “I knew this would happen eventually,” she muttered.
Hayden tipped down the edge of her book. “You knew this would happen?”
Millie shrugged. “We’re not exactly the administration’s favorite ward.”
Hayden grabbed a couple of stevia leaves from Millie’s stash and settled on his stool in front of the periscope. He chewed thoughtfully on the sweetness. So, he’d have to find a new job. He brought the scope to his eye. If he was lucky, he might still get to see Muffin one last time.
Instead, there was a person. A woman was peering into the lens, pressing her fingers against the glass. Her skin was sunburned but smooth, eyes tired but most definitely alive.
Hayden had peered through the periscope many times, but he had never seen something beautiful.
He leaned back because it had to be a dream. But when he squinted and took another look, she was still there—looking straight at him. She was crying. Then she fell outside of his view, and he wildly swung the scope around until he found her again. She was collapsed on the ground, scratching at the dirt.
“Millie,” Hayden said, more calmly than he should have. “There’s someone out there.”
Millie walked over and pressed her eye to the lens.
A moment later, she drew back and flung open the hazmat suit cupboard. She grabbed one for herself, then threw one at Hayden. They dressed in under a minute. Together they passed through the airlock, climbed up the stairs, and turned the vault door that opened up to the outside world.