February 17, 2021

Cracked

The new law cradled in her hand, red, thin, light.

Cracked

The new law cradled in her hand, red, thin, light. Delivered in the dark by a drone she never saw, never heard, the law waited in the box when she awoke. The way of things, now. The new owners preferred secrets to signs.

Marilee fished water from the pipe, pouring it into her third glass, the one with the dancing mouse on the outside. A trembled smile at that memory, a souvenir so old and so unforgotten. She kept the law in her hand while pouring the water. To lose it would be to lose everything.

Her sole window looked out into an amber day. The sky held its usual brown and black, orange scattered in between. Smoke rose, but it was always rising. At least today Marilee could see the sun if she tried. A golden eye peaking through the dust.

A buzz sent Marilee rubbing her left wrist. The bracelet, always on and always reminding her what needed doing. Not that it buzzed often: Marilee's apartment didn't have enough in it to be dirty, and she didn't have anything on the calendar. Not since the new owners arrived.

Breakfast came and went in a blur: powders in the water that would, the owners said, keep Marilee running just as well as the old meals that took time to prepare. The taste didn't quite match, with chalk serving as a poor comparison to actual flavor. But there were always complaints to be found if Marilee went looking for them.

The law went down with the powder.

Designation Red meant Marilee's closet held five cherry shirts and five light jeans to go with them. She'd always been partial to green herself, but the owners hadn't seen fit to give her floor that assignment. Someday, maybe, Marilee might get that chance.

Not today.

The light above her door began to blink. Every flash came with a kind chime, like glasses clinking in a toast, as the whole compound did in every evening's celebration. Five minutes to compose herself before the blinks would turn red, before the owners would notice.

She made it outside with four minutes to spare.

The broad hallways speckled with screens guided Marilee and the other Red residents towards the courtyard, the daily meeting place where a census would be taken. Marilee always watched the screens as she walked, as did everyone else. They showed places so unlike her home: mountains, forests, other planets. In the evenings, after the celebration, Marilee would fall asleep and dream herself to these wonders.

"Did you take today's law?" asked a tired voice pumping in over ceiling speakers. "Do your part for Red!"

"I did my part," Marilee muttered, as did the shuffling group around her, all in red t-shirts and jeans.

The ritual repeated as they moved along the hall and down the long slope towards the courtyard. Another shuffling crew, this one wearing that kelly green Marilee loved so much, came up their own sloping ramp to meet them in the middle before the open doors leading outside.

Beneath the orange, burning sky the groups assembled in straight lines. Marilee put herself next to Candace and Everett, as she always did. Red formed near Green, opposite Blue and across from Yellow. Space cut between them, and a small circle, enough room for the leader, remained in the center.

"Hello and good morning!" shouted the leader, emerging from the Center, a building Marilee had never been in but that rose, to their left, like a silver knife stabbing the heavens. "Today we have a new law to celebrate!"

The assembled groups, Marilee included, cheered. Marilee's throat scratched now that she breathed the scorched air, and her stomach roiled. Her eyes teared up. Dizziness played about her edges.

The leader always wore a thick mask. It made him look like a machine.

"This law is special," the leader said as he reached the center. "Every group has received their own version. If it works, and the owners believe that it will, our future is bright! We will be able to see the world long denied to us!"

The leader turned as he talked, looking at everyone through his metal mask. When his gaze passed Marilee, even as sweat poured from her head and her knees trembled, she felt a glimmer. The leader had once been among Red. Perhaps she could be the next.

Candace fell.

No warning. One moment, the older woman stood like the rest of them. The next, she laid in the dirt, unmoving. Lines appeared across her skin, bright and glowing like small fires. They burned through her shirt, tracing checkered patterns as they went.

Another fell, behind Marilee. And then a third. Nobody screamed: this must have been the owner's plan. This must have been expected.

Marilee's own body flushed. Her t-shirt felt like fire. Her--

More fell around her. Bodies to the ground without a sound. The leader stopped his speech. He, along with the other groups, watched as Red collapsed.

Marilee stayed standing. Never one to believe in her own strength, she clung to it now, to those screens and their far off destinations, their miracles that might be hers if she could only prove the owners right. If she could only prove their law would work.

She stood alone among her group. Along her arms and legs, orange lines burned bright through her clothes, but Marilee held her look on the leader. On the owner's promise.

And when the lines began to cool, when the leader began to clap, ordering the other groups to do the same, Marilee began to dream.


Story by A.R. Knight
Artwork by grandfailure