by E. E. King

Jennifer was tired, always tired. She couldn’t remember a time she hadn’t been. She bent down to rouse Francis, her youngest son. “Francis,” she said. “Francis, wake up.”

He slept. She took his frail shoulders in her hands, shaking him gently. His tiny frame rocked back and forth, but he did not wake. “Francis! Francis, time for school!” She shook him more violently, his small body undulated like a rag doll.

His eyes opened blearily, unfocused. She continued shaking. Somewhere inside she knew she should stop. But she was too tired. Abruptly she let go. His body fell backward on the bed. “Get dressed,” she said.

Everyone at work had been so irritated today. They were always irritated, exhausted and rushed. She could not remember a time when it had been otherwise. But she did remember seeing pictures. She had watched an antique movie on grandpa’s incluscreen. It was black and white . . . something about Christmas. She enjoyed the lack of color, the fact that Santa’s red suit was only a lighter shade of grey. And the time. She remembered all the time. All the light. She envied those people. Not their happy endings. Not even all their time or light. She lusted after their worries. They worried about such silly things— whether Santa was real, whether dreams had meaning and whether true love had shape. Jennifer had never worried about such things.

Jennifer was too tired, even to worry about eight-year-old Francis, so pale, so lethargic. Like everyone, he had been inoculated as a child, so he must be all right. She staggered into the kitchen. Her husband Mark and their oldest son Jay were already at the table, vacantly spooning cereal into their mouths. She poured a bowl for Francis.

Mark left the kitchen and returned, dragging a sloppily dressed Francis by the elbow. Mark sat Francis down, still nodding with sleep. His head fell toward the bowl hitting the spoon, upsetting the delicate balance. The bowl toppled, soft protein balls rolling and sticking to the floor.

Jennifer reached over and backhanded him, upsetting a glass of calcium onto the floor. She knew she should clean it up. She knew she should be sorry, but she felt nothing. Abruptly she left the room; she fell onto the bed and slept.

“Don’t mind your mother,” said Mark. “She’s just tired.” Just tired, aren’t we all, he thought. He tried to remember a time he hadn’t been. But he could not. He had been born after the 24-hour day, born after the move underground. Genetic manipulation had been in its infancy then. The secret communication of DNA through Biophotons and electromagnetic light waves had only just begun to be understood. It was the early days of being able to change the messages that Biophotons sent to the proteins. They began with simple, practical transformations. Light was needed. Light was the messenger. The Biophotons in hair follicles were enhanced. Hair became bioluminescent. Streets were lit by the glow of humans, walking under the night and eventually under the earth.

But the air had become too poisoned to breathe. Luckily the problem, human technology, contained the solution. Underground, air, climate, even emotion, could be controlled . . . to a degree. Fear was more difficult to control than light. It is easier to illuminate hair follicles than the human soul. Still, inroads had been made. There was a secret. A failsafe. A tiny seed, implanted at birth. The seed was activated by imbalances of serotonin or adrenaline — the hormones of emotion. When the world seemed too dark, the warren too crowded, when a person was losing their ability to be a productive member of society, the seed would explode. The system would short circuit. Emotions would course through the brain, like the sea through a paper cup.

The effect varied. A man might collapse, heart beating faster than a humming bird’s, unable to deal with the sensations surging through his system. A woman might see visions, beautiful or terrible. Rushing to meet them, she might run headlong into an oncoming train. A child realizing he could fly, leapt off the subway, discovering too late, that he lacked wings. Whatever the reaction, the result was the same, an end to the problem, annihilation of the glitch, the final solution.  

Mark’s parents could remember the time before. Everyone had lived above ground. Everyone went out in daylight. Everyone slept at night. Mark remembered pictures of the old days — airplanes, private cars, bicycles, and horses. The cars had been big and shiny. The people had been too — big, shiny women, glowing with sun and dazzling white teeth, big, shiny men, wearing hats and dark glasses shielding their eyes from the light.

Best, he had liked the bicycles, ones with huge back wheels and tiny front ones. They looked so unbalanced and so free, Icarus' carefree earthbound cousin, soaring, but never burnt.

It had all started with the schools. No one remembered who first thought of the idea. It made sense. Schools opened at 7:00 and closed at 3:00. All that unused time. All that unused space. Oh, the janitors’ union had made a fuss. But really, no one needed that much time just to clean. And after all, schools weren’t exactly hospitals, were they? Schools didn’t need to be sterilized. It started innocuously — just a few after hours, meetings, a PTA potluck, an Elks’ social or small business dinner, but there was still all that unused space, all that unused time. So many hours! Hadn’t that always been humanity’s problem? Not enough time. Not enough space. Why not make the schools 24 hours?

Oh, some bleeding hearts had protested at first. But they were soon silenced. Mark was lucky. His parents had lived close to the upper level, and he had inherited their apartment. Natural light filtered down the shafts to light the hallways. Below him, the lower levels were lit by compact fluorescents.

There had been rumors of an explosion in one of the lowest levels. Mercury had leaked out, an entire tunnel blocked off to prevent contamination. There had been whisperings of deformities. . . . Had the people died of poisoning, affixation, starvation, or thirst? Had they resorted to cannibalism? Were they still alive, some mutant race, cut off by walls of stone and soil? No one knew. No one would ever know. No one wanted to. There had been talk for a while that some of the gases were leaking out. That vapors were even now swirling through the tunnels, causing fevers, hallucinations or worse.

Mark was lucky. He knew that. He had been brought up on the daylight schedule. He had not been switched to night until his junior year in high school. It had seemed fun at first. An adventure, being up past bedtime on a school night. . . . But soon, he grew tired. He had been tired ever since.

Jennifer had grown up switching schedules. Mark first met her in high school on the night schedule. She had been delicate and pale, like some basement plant. She had been tired, even then, even when she was beautiful and young, before her eyes were circled by purple bruises, before she was too fatigued to laugh, or to feel pain.

Mark opened his door into the tunnel. Jay stumbled in front, Mark pulled Francis behind. Jay was first. A door opened into the subway, Jay entered. It closed with a sharp inhale of air sucking Jay down the tunnel. Francis was next. Mark had to bodily lift the little boy into the train. A teacher grabbed him . . . he was gone.

Mark looked after him, worried. There had been a rash of disappearances lately in the tunnels. People fell, or jumped or perhaps were pushed onto the hot, clattering subway tracks. Maybe it was the gases, invisibly altering perceptions and balance? Maybe it was the constant half-light causing madness? No one talked about it.  

It shouldn’t be like this, he thought. It shouldn’t be like this . . . the idea grew huge in his mind. Giant. Big as the glowing subway banners he saw on the trains every day and night, big as the tiredness in his wife’s eyes, big as the sky he would never see. Somewhere inside his internal stream a seed implanted, a birth sprouted — bursting into fruition in obscurity.

In the darkness before him, lit by the green luminescent of his hair, a bicycle teetered, balancing incongruously on a tiny front wheel and a mammoth back one. He swung his leg over it, feeling the wind on his face, feeling the breeze caressing his hair. He laughed, raising his arms high above him, pedaling air toward the welcoming train.