The night sky was full of stars, but no moon. It was the ideal time for Pike to remove her goggles, improving her vision in general and allowing her peripheral vision to make a comeback. She tore them off her face with an exaggerated sigh. Like stretching after a long nap, the act left her feeling content in a way she hadn’t felt since before leaving home for the contest. It’s so nice to not have these pressing against my face.
She’d been watching the Dome for a while from relative cover, searching for security patrols. In that time she’d seen and heard nothing. Not a trace of drones to mar the unbroken sky. Their absence was infuriatingly suspicious. She grit her teeth at it, but she’d have to risk it.
Pike moved with incredibly clumsy stealth across the intervening ground between her hiding spot and the wall. She reached it alive and so counted it as good fortune.
She sidled along the wall until she found the exhaust vent she’d watched all day. Well, tried to. Boring work, watching a vent. Now moving close to it revealed the sound of a lazy fan inside. If she could open it and disable or remove the fan, Pike could use it to gain entrance to the Dome. She wasn’t sure of her plan, ‘find-tech-and-take-it.’ She didn’t know what she’d find, much less what it was for when she did.
Before her imagination distracted her, she focused on removing the last rusted screws holding the vent’s plate in place. With that struggle finally over she gave the cover a mighty tug.
She fell to her rump from all the nothing that had occurred. The urge to growl and attack the resistant vent with her hammer was squashed at the memory of possible patrols. Instead, Pike looked around for anything she might use to pry the covering off. When she found nothing, she appraised her tool belt.
“This thing is great and all, but not nearly large enough to hold the crowbar I’m wishing I had right now. So what else can I use?”
Pike became so fixated on wedging two screwdrivers into the seam she didn’t hear the heavy footfalls behind her. Only when she’d gotten the tools well and stuck and equally resistant to her leverage did she take a step back to consider. She let out a shout at the polite cough from the warm body she’d just backed into.
Turning around she found she had to look up for the first time since childhood to meet this man’s eyes. Not only was he tall, he was broad in the shoulders and seemed to have a great club instead of a right arm. Dark hair was pulled back to reveal a disfigured face, though not an unkind one, covered in warts and growths. Pike was momentarily intimidated into stillness until she realized she’d be asked a question in a rather pleasant voice. She swallowed her spit and asked him to repeat himself ever so eloquently.
“I asked what you were doing here and if you might need some help.” Pike knit her eyebrows together in confusion at the request, but answered anyway.
“Um, I’m trying to break into the Dome, but this covering seems to be fused together. I can’t get enough leverage with the strength I’ve got. Are…are you another competitor?” He answered as he lightly pushed Pike aside to take a closer look at the vent.
“I am. Or was. Not sure where I stand now that I’ve decided to smash this Dome open. I’m
Billy, by the way.”
“Pike. Nice to meetcha. So what do you think? Do you have any suggestions for getting that hatch open?”
“There’s a fan just on the other side of this, and probably more along the duct. You’re not going to get very far even if you do get the cover off.”
“Yeah, but it’s spinning drowsily, and I can handle a measly fan without issue. It won’t get in our way.” He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m assuming you’d like to get in too, right? To do whatever smashing you have in mind? If you can help me get that cover off, that vent is big enough for even you to get through.”
“Well, if you’re offering.” Billy placed his thick appendage against Pike’s screwdrivers and used his other arm to push them back. With a protracted screech of grinding metal the covering gave way, revealing the large spinning fan blades as the metal dropped to the ground and the screwdrivers bounced away without restraint.
“Wow, you make that look easy.” Pike complimented as she retrieved her wayward tools, one of which had bent under Billy’s strength.
“I’ve had some practice. Your turn.”
“Let me get in here a bit. Yeah, this’ll be easy.”
The fan was indeed spinning slowly, but a current was keeping it moving. She wouldn’t be able to do much without stopping it and so decided on a brute force method. She placed her newly bent screwdriver against a bottom corner and lodged it between fan blades, jamming it to a halt. Without the threat of amputation she quickly went to work with a pair of wire cutters to kill the power behind the fan. Now it was a simple matter of unscrewing the fan from its housing. Pike was glad she had multiple screwdrivers.
“Heigh-ho. Heigh-ho. It’s off to work we go. Hmm hm hm hm…” Billy peered in at her.
“Are you humming?
“Yeah. I hum when I work sometimes. I figure if they’re not going to catch us after that racket earlier, me humming isn’t going to hurt anything.”
“But why that song?”
“It’s a classic working song! Or so I’ve been told.”
Within just another moment she had the fan down and outside the vent. There was definitely enough room for them to crawl through, but they’d have to go single file and it’d still be tight for the larger Billy. She put her tools away and beckoned for him to follow her in. She was able to twist around fairly easily within the tight confines, but she’d be right about his difficulty. He nearly scraped the sides with his large frame. But this was likely the best way into the Dome and so he’d have to endure it, despite his mumbling about tight spaces.
She led the way for the better part of ten minutes before they found their first obstacle. A sharp drop appeared before her with no branching paths for her to choose from. She motioned for him to stay put while she slipped down to test how far it fell. Another ‘heigh-ho’ escaped her lips as she went over the edge to slide down about ten meters.
She landed more or less gracefully but found their path was further blocked by a second fan, this one spinning much faster. The air it blew on her was cool and smelled musty. Pike attempted the same trick she’d used before to wedge the blades to a stop, but they were moving much too quickly and she couldn’t get the screwdriver to stick. She’d need a little more time to get this one, even if it meant ultimately bashing it with her hammer.
She called up to Billy telling him this, but his response was not reassuring.
“Uh, I got my upper half over the edge, trying to see down after you and now I’m…holding
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m sliding forward, I can’t get my weight back into the vent with my arms at the angles they’re at. I’m, uh, coming down whether we like it or not. And probably not slowly.” Pike could hear squealing from above her and looked around frantically for somewhere to go. She cried out in growing panic.
“No, wait! Just…just give me a second. I’ll…”
With a rumbling and a yelp Billy came hurtling down on top of the frantic woman below. The vent’s floor couldn’t take the impact of the sudden weight and burst open, spewing its living contents out onto a solid landing below.
After a moment of groans, Billy’s head shot up.
“Oh no! Is she okay?” Pike lifted her head up from the ground and tried to get her elbows under her without much success. Billy’s shifting weight was still on her.
“Yeah, I’m fine, just get off me and let me get to my goggles, this sudden light is killing me and I can’t see. I…you’re not talking about me, are you?”
Indeed, Billy was too busy pulling his satchel around to pay her any mind. In went his hand and when it came out a white ball of fluff stood on it. It shook itself vigorously and let out an unhappy grumble.
“Is that a cat? Why do you have a cat with you?” The cat was lifted to Billy’s shoulder as the man stood. Pike managed to pull herself to her feet and retrieve her goggles from her tool belt. She hurriedly fit them to her face and immediately knew something was wrong. There, on opposite sides of her right lens, tiny cracks had appeared.
When did that happen? Crawling through the vents? Or maybe…no, it must have been during the fall. His weight…ugh, this is just great.
She realized he’d been explaining the cat’s presence and she’d tuned it all out. Only its name had gained footing in her distracted brain. Pike couldn’t help the utterance that slipped out.
“Wish we could have had some of her luck with that fall.”
“What was that?” She was too upset to lie.
“I wish we were as lucky in the fall as her namesake. That sucked.” Billy rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue. Instead he pondered where they were.
“Did we make it inside?” The room they stood in was filled with vents and gauges and pipes shooting off in all direction. Under their feet was a grate floor through which they could see to a level below through several more pipes and machinery. Steps of the same grate pattern climbed up and down in locations, but there were no signs pointing out doors or exits. Looking around, Pike asked a question that paled the visible skin of Billy’s face.
“How’s life been since you left with the Nyckers? That jewelry you’ve got there suggests you’re not doing terrible.” The large man looked at her almost in fear.
“You know about that?” She responded without looking back at him, continuing her search.
“I’ve been a Socratic for thirteen years, and your profile is hard to miss. I’d seen you around as you grew up. There are very few adults in the clan who don’t know about the scandal that was your father basically selling you into servitude to pay for his own debts. I don’t know you, but I know of you.” He responds after a moment, sounding resigned.
“Yeah, I guess it’s difficult to forget someone who looks like me.”
“Oh, whatever. Nearly everyone has some deformity or another, even if yours is more pronounced than others. So you’re intimidating until people get to know you. People who won’t even try to learn more than skin deep aren’t worth your time.” Pike was still angry from the fall, but it was quickly evaporating.
“You don’t know me. How do you know there’s anything more under my appearance than the Ogre they called me?” He’d turned to face her, his eyes as angry as they could express, glaring daggers. “This jewelry means I earned my place with the Nyckers. Maybe I’m exactly what that implies, nothing but a thug.”
Pike met his glare. This was a man scorned by people, and regularly treated only as muscle. But even their short time together had led Pike to believe differently. She considered briefly before answering.
“For nearly the first 20 years of my life, I was a Nomad. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the preconceptions about Nomads, you probably carry a few yourself. When people have found out, I’ve been threatened, ridiculed, mocked, and lost credibility as a person. I know what it’s like to be dismissed based on an incorrect preconception.
But I know where I belong. I never would have been completely happy with the Nomads, unable to pursue my curiosity like I have with the Socratics. I told you I’d seen you around as you grew, and often that was in the library, hulking form with his nose in a book. I can tell just from the way you speak and what I remember, your appearance is no indication of who you are as a person.”
Billy was silent, his gaze redirected to the cat that had crawled into his arms and was purring loudly. He answered while keeping his attention on the amputee fur ball.
“You can tell all that just by listening to me?” Pike snorted.
“That and the way you fawn over that thing just screams that you’re a big softie. Now, help me look for an exit from this mess of a room.”
Billy smiled gently and encouraged the cat back to his shoulders and followed after Pike. Before either could begin locating anything, loud banging steps erupted into the room, echoed by three people a moment later.
Pike has to blink a moment, their similar appearances to each other making her think there are more of them than are actually present. Their skin tone is the same, what hair is visible is the same color, they’re even the same height! All three wear sturdy looking work pants, thick jackets and gloves. A backpack is strapped to each, full of equipment if the larger tools attached to the outside are any indication. A well-fitted helmet covers their heads and everything they wear is covered in reflective strips.
The Domers freeze as they finally see the two Outers, a very large woman and the enormous man immediately behind her. One of them starts shaking at the presence of Pike and Billy’s stunned stillness. Unable to take it any longer she points and shrieks.
“Outers! Outers have gotten in!” Her scream jolted the two men with her to action, and all three screamed their way out of the room, leaving in the opposite direction they’d entered.
It was another moment before either of the Outers moved. Pike looked back over her shoulder to the larger man.
“Were they…scared of us?”
“I think so?”
“…This place is weird. Let’s see if we can find where they came from and go that way so they don’t think we’re chasing them.”
With a direction to look in, they found the exit easily. The corridor was nearly the same as the room they’d just left, only narrower and with no real boundaries save for those created by the path. They followed the metal walkway for a time, looking into rooms they came across, but not finding much.
“Billy, do you know what any of this stuff does? It’s all fascinating, but I don’t want to try taking something apart if it might blow me up in the process.” Billy shook his head.
“I’ve seen my share of technology, but I don’t recognize anything here. Well, not as a cohesive whole, anyway. I recognize smaller bits, like what looks like an air conditioner over there. But it’s connected to a larger machine, so I’m certain that’s not all it does.”
“Me either. We’ve been walking for an hour now, and I was hoping we’d find something I could grab and take with me back home. But I haven’t seen anything I wouldn’t need a truck to move, let alone what it would take just to get it out of the Dome. We haven’t seen anything that might suggest it could get us further into the Dome.” Pike stopped short and placed her hands on her hips, looking around in frustration. “What do you think?”
Billy stroked his cat as he thought. He too was looking around, but frustration seemed to be far from his mind.
“I think this place is much larger than I initially gave it credit for. I think this is all in the wall of the Dome, and we’ve covered only a small area of it. This place is huge.” Pike scowled at his wonder.
“That is not what I meant. Do you think we should head back and get out or keep going?”
“Do you think you could even get back to where we fell in? I haven’t been keeping track of our turns.”
“Keep going it is.” Pike sighed dramatically, hunching over.
“Fine, but I’m tired. Next room we come across let’s stop to rest for a bit.”
The next room turned out to be just around the corner and Pike let out a sigh of relief, immediately interrupted by the group of four engineers at the far end of the room. They didn’t notice immediately the newcomers to the room. They seemed to be focused on a large machine, murmuring about what needed maintaining. A bulbous droid hovered near them, occasionally beeping.
Pike whispered over her shoulder to Billy.
“You’d think we were making enough noise they’d have heard us come in.” Billy nodded, smirking in amusement at the unaware workers. It was replaced with a look of horror as Lucky decided to speak up, filling the cramped room with an echoing, “Mrrrow!”
The startled engineers jumped hard, spinning to look at the intruders. Just like the others they’d encountered, they seemed to be frightened of Pike and Billy. There was more pointing and shaking.
“The radio chatter was true! Outers have come to sabotage our home and kill us all! Let’s get out of here!” Before either of them could argue otherwise, the workers all fled, leaving them once again alone.
Except not all of them.
One of the workers had started to follow his coworkers, but stopped suddenly. He seemed to steel himself and stood protectively in front of the machine he had been working on. He even pulled a large wrench from his backpack to hold in front of him.
“I won’t, I won’t let you harm this machine! You’ll have to go through me!” Pike put her empty hands up in a placating gesture.
“Will you calm down? You’re breathing so hard you look like your chest is going to burst open. We’re not going to destroy anything. I don’t even know what that is, except that it’s apparently important. Nice job keeping that from us, by the way.” His face falls and with it the wrench drops a little.
“You didn’t? You aren’t? Then I…I could have…left with the others. Why didn’t I just go? Now you’re going to have that big thing squish me.”
Billy took a step forward, anger on his face.
“Excuse me? Big thing? You–“
“You mean this guy? The guy who checks on his kitten before the woman he landed on top of? You don’t have anything to worry about from him.” The man lowered his makeshift weapon even further, looking hesitant.
“You’re really not here to hurt us?” Billy looks sheepish.
“Well, not anymore, at least. Not since you all seem so scared of us.”
“Oh.” He finally lowers the wrench fully before just dropping it to the ground and leaning back against the machine with a weary sigh. Pike points behind him.
“What are you guarding? I was telling the truth earlier, I have no idea what any of this is.” He looks back at the mess of machinery and technology.
“This is one of eight climate regulators. If you’d damaged this, a huge portion of the Dome would have been subject to wild temperature and weather changes.” Pike’s eyebrows shot into her hair.
“Are you telling me the inside of the Dome has its own weather? How is that even possible?”
He shrugs and turns to take in the vast device.
“These make it possible. But it’s been so long since they were made, I have no idea exactly how it’s accomplished, just how to maintain the machines that do it. Heh, a historian would probably know better than I would. Not that there are many of those left, most of our history is stored in the database.” When he turns around Billy looms over him, causing him to jump violently. Billy merely holds out his left hand.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot, and I’d know about wrong feet. My name is Billy Vargha. Are you saying there is a store of information available for anyone to access?” Warily, the engineer clasped Billy’s hand and shook it absently.
“I’m Avidan. And…yes?”
“That’s incredible. Is it true that the Dome’s structure was built over the course of two months? I also heard it was accomplished by using construction drones that previously had never been used in a project as ambitious as this one? What about the designers? I heard that scientists from around the world collaborated to design the Domes in the year before it was built.”
“Uh, well…I’ve seen the droids that were used for the construction. They’re enormous. They’re buried under the Dome, but they haven’t moved in well over a century. But I’m not really great at history stuff, most of my classes were aimed to get me ready to do this job.”
Billy huffed, clearly dissatisfied by that response. Pike was poking at the floating droid that had remained in the room with Avidan. She got the next question.
“Why are you engineers even doing this work? Wouldn’t autonomous droids be much better at it and less a waste of manpower?”
“That I can answer. Here, let me show you.” He walked over to the droid and pressed lightly on a protrusion. With a whirr and a click a smaller droid peeled itself from the bulk and crawled into Avidan’s hand.
“They’re great for small places, and they can act as portable tools we couldn’t normally carry with us. When they come with us we can bring welding kits and vises and other equipment we might need. Watch this.”
He placed the small droid on the machine and moved to the far end. With a whistle the droid scuttled off, climbing between pipes and tight-knit machinery to reach the engineer. It was scooped up and brought back to Pike to examine closer. Her desire to dissect it grew.
“They’re great for things like that, but in general a human engineer is going to know what needs fixing better than an AI ever could.” Pike looked up in confusion.
“Uh, artificial intelligence. It means their brains were designed to be able to solve problems without needing direct input from us. The droids can ‘think’ for themselves.”
“Why not have human controllers then? Watching screens and directing the droids?”
“Eh, there’s so much ground to cover it’s better for us to be out and fixing things we’re more likely to see, hear, feel, or smell than a droid could.”
“I met a droid in a hospital set up by you Domers that seemed rather human like. It mocked me and was actually rather mean, trying to discourage me from my course.”
“Droids in hospitals tend to have personalities encoded into them to set people at ease, to make them feel like a person is watching over them, but they’re not actually alive.” Pike looked skeptical. “Believe me, if the tech-heads had figured out how to create people, we’d have heard about it by now.”
Having been silent for a while, Billy decided to speak up.
“That’s quite the peculiarity you have there, an engineer calling other people ‘tech-heads.’” Avidan shrugged and placed the small droid back onto the larger whole, connecting with a snap.
“Eh, I’m not that brainy. I can take a machine apart and put it back together with no problem, y’know, put one together from scratch, but I couldn’t tell you for a moment why they do what they do or how exactly. I’m great with machinery, but that theoretical stuff is beyond me.” Pike cut in with a raised finger.
“Wait, wait, wait. You’re an engineer and you don’t consider yourself terribly intelligent? What are your smart people like?”
“Our brightest brains are busy. There aren’t that many on their level, so they’ve got a lot to do. And all of it goes right over my head.”
“Are they trying to fix the broken world? That seems pretty important. Some of the older people in the Socratics say the world was vastly different half a millennia ago.”
“I think they’re a little more focused on our decreasing population.”
Pike opens her mouth to say something, but closes it soon after.
Just how much does the general public of the Dome know about the competition? Avidan hasn’t mentioned it at all. You’d think that would be what he’d think we’re here about. What’s going on?
Avidan relaxed against the big machine, and seemed to come to a conclusion.
“You know, everything I’ve ever learned says I should be terrified of you two, but I’ve gotten so caught up in talking with you I’d forgotten. And it’s just like talking to any of my friends on the inside, even if they’re not as curious as you are. Let me take you to a place where we can sit down and have a real conversation.” He waves for them to follow him, and after a shared glance, the two Outers do so.
He leads them back into the hallway and sets out on a path easily. The maintenance droid follows behind the group. Billy starts humming and Pike realizes it’s familiar. Billy doesn’t notice Pike’s glances until a ‘off to work we go’ mumbles out of his mouth. His eyes widen as he realizes.
“Damn it, Pike! You got your stupid ‘working song’ stuck in my head! I’m never going to get it out now.” Pike laughed as she dodged a harmlessly slow punch. Instead of apologizing she began humming along with the frustrated Billy. Avidan wonders at their oddity, but goes back to leading the way.
Pike can’t see how anyone can know where they’re going in this convoluted construction. She asks him how he knows where he’s going.
“Oh yeah, this place would be confusing to anyone not used to it. See these colored bands around the pipes? Each band can be solid color or banded. Depending on the organization of the colors you can know where you’re going. There’s a band around this pipe with a purple and green pattern. If you follow them, they’ll lead you to the nearest break room. That’s where we’re headed now.” Billy runs his fingers along the bands around one pipe.
“I was wondering what those were for. I saw them all over, but couldn’t make sense from them.” Pike just shrugged.
“I didn’t even see them. My goggles make it hard to differentiate colors if I don’t focus on them. Also, why is this thing following us? It’s creepy just hovering silently behind us.” Avidan chuckled.
“You’ll get used to it. I’m the one holding a beacon for it, so it’s actually following me. If you broke off and went another direction it’d still be chasing me.”
The small group began walking again, but it wasn’t long before Pike’s stomach grumbled and she translated.
“How far is this break room? If we’re going to be walking miles to get there…”
“No, no. There are tons of them around the walls. Maintenance crews could be sent anywhere and need to take a rest, so break rooms are scattered so workers don’t need to back track forever to find a place to sit down.” He pointed to the overstuffed bag on his back. “It’s also why we carry these with us. They carry water and food and tools so that it doesn’t matter where we end up, we won’t end up starving because we stored our food in a cupboard halfway around the Dome. Ah, here we are.”
Avidan opened a panel on a wall they would have otherwise walked by and led them into a small room. Instead of the grated floor everywhere else, this room is linoleum, giving it a clean look. Cupboards lined the walls and a table with five chairs sat in the middle. He sits down after removing his pack and gestures for them to sit down as well. Billy’s chair creaked under his weight. Avidan looks apologetically at the chair.
“Sorry, not many people in the Dome with your bulk.” Billy shrugs with a sigh.
“I’m used to it.”
The three pull out food and water and eat in silence for a time. Billy is eyeing Avidan’s meal with distaste. His water bottle is disposable, and the rest of his packaging looks to be just as ready to be discarded rather than reused. Pike and he have simple food wrapped in cloth and canteens of water. He leans over to whisper to Pike.
“I would have thought the Domers would have learned from the past about disposable products. Looks like they haven’t progressed as far as I thought.” Pike merely shrugged, not entirely sure what the problem is.
Billy’s eyes widen as Avidan finishes his drink it into a bin, eliciting an audible buzz. Pike stands up only slightly faster than Billy, chairs scooting loudly against the floor. They both dash over to it, each with their own motive. Billy looks worried, but Pike is eager. She starts to reach her hand in the opening when Avidan warns her.
“I wouldn’t put anything you don’t want to lose in there. That’s an atomic recycler. It pulls material apart at the atomic level and recycles it into their composite elements. It’s meant to make reusing material easy, but it’ll take your hand and turn it into a block of carbon just as easily.”
Pike jerks her hand back, but only for a moment, this time picking the whole unit up with surprising strength to look at it. She fires off questions rapidly, without giving Avidan time to respond. She begins taking her tools out to dismantle it as she lists the things that could be done with such a device.
“…could clear out the wrecked city and its ruins and build new things with ease, it could be used for –“
“Strip mining.” Pike spins at Billy’s interruption. He was scowling at the bin.
“When these atomic recyclers were first constructed, all the greedy leaders of the world powers could see was a way to efficiently strip and stretch of land into materials. Gold, silver, copper, iron, it didn’t matter. They could be used to produce it all. They didn’t bother with emptying out landfills or introducing recycling programs. They didn’t care.
It actually started some of the wars that led to the world being the way it is. Powerful countries used them to mine the resources from less influential ones sparked at least one nuclear terrorist attack.” Avidan stumbles over his words, desperate to explain.
“But that’s not what we’re using them for. Our founders were scientists; they saw their use as recyclers and have never used them for anything else!” Billy turned his scowl on the engineer, though it was losing intensity.
“That’s great and all, but it doesn’t change what their use was before all of this. And just because your founders were scientists doesn’t mean that career was entirely benevolent. After all, weapons of all sorts were made by scientists. Nuclear weapons, bio-weapons, nerve gas. Military leaders didn’t just stumble upon these, they were created.”
A sober quiet fills the room as Pike sits back down, interest drowned in horror at the thing’s potential. She still wants to take it apart, but the feeling isn’t nearly as overwhelming anymore. She asks quietly, “How do you know all that?”
Billy sighs and sits back down heavily as well.
“I’ve studied a lot. You know I was a Socratic. I learned a lot and was passing it on to my little cousins when…that happened. It’s why I ultimately decided to enter the competition.” Avidan raised a pointed finger to get their attention.
“I got so caught up on our conversation about technology I completely forgot to ask. Why are you here? What’s this competition?” Pike and Billy exchange a glance. She gestures to him.
“Go for it, you’re better at explaining things.”
“Well, about three months ago a rumor started going around the clans that the Domers were up to something. A competition some whispered, but others felt it was a trap to kill Outers. It wasn’t until droids filled the sky over known clan locations projecting tournament details did anyone truly believe the rumors. But it still felt like a trap, so I’m guessing that’s why only a handful showed up.” Pike nodded in agreement.
“But the offer was there. Win their tournament and be let into the Dome, you and your family. There was to only be one winner, and they and their entire family would be let into the Dome. It was mentioned that it would be to add some genetic diversity to your population, that you were becoming too genetically similar to keep going.
“I entered because I was in indentured servitude as an enforcer, club arm and all. I thought if I won, I could take my cousins into the Dome where I could go back to teaching them. The rest of my family would be grateful just for the safety and comfort the Dome offered, so it seemed an easy decision. What about you Pike?” She coughed at the sudden attention, but answered after swallowing heavily.
“Um, well, I entered because my family is sort of in a bad way right now. My son, Toby, was born with only one leg, and my daughter, Jessica, gets ill really easily. We have to be very careful in cold weather with her or she could be sick for weeks. And…my husband had an accident at work a while back that crippled the limbs on the left side of his body. They’ll never move again. I thought if I could enter I could get them the medical help they need, stuff much more advanced than anything we have among the Socratics. I consider my close friends as family, but I’m not sure the Domers would have accepted that anyway.”
She dropped her eyes to her lap, embarrassed that she’d shared so much. She felt like she was complaining, and the last thing she wanted was to be seen as not willing to work for better things. Billy was watching her, a small smile on his face. Avidan interrupted.
“You’re a mother? I’ve got three kids of my own. How old are they?” Pike rubbed her eye as she answered.
“Heh, they’re twins, and they’re just over a year old. Nick will be teaching them to talk, and Jessica might be up and walking around by now. Sometimes I wish I could have never left, and I could just be with them right now. I miss them so much.” Billy nodded.
“I know the feeling. I haven’t even seen my cousins in three years, or any of my family, really. My cousins love learning, and I was happy to teach them, especially Melissa. Whether or not this competition thing even pans out, I need to go see them after this is done.” Pike nodded at Avidan.
“You said you’ve got kids. What are they like?”
“Well, Anton, he’s my oldest, he really into math right now. I don’t know what he’ll do with it, but it’s great to see him excited about it. Virgie is my youngest, and she’s just figuring out how to hold things and walk at the same time. She extremely curious, so she ends up in all sorts of mischief. And then there’s Hanne. They…are frustrating sometimes. They have been really grumpy lately and no idea what they want. Won’t even join us for dinner sometimes. I don’t know, they’ll probably figure things out, but it’s difficult getting along with them right now. Still, I love all of them.”
The three lapsed into silence, each content to think on their families waiting for them at home. It was a comfortable silence, and only ended when the Domer remembered his original question. He sniffed and rubbed his nose.
“Anyway, this is the first time I’ve heard about this competition. No one I know has either or I would be more familiar with it. Our government heads must have just done it without asking us what we thought.”
“What do you think?” asked Billy. Avidan shrugged.
“I didn’t know things had gotten bad. I mean, I knew the birth rate had declined, but I figured that was because we were living longer and people didn’t want to have children immediately. And I guess every time I walked by an empty block I just shut it out. Are we really doing that poorly?”
Pike’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“Empty blocks? What’s a block, and why is it being empty weird?”
“A block is a row of homes along a street. If there are entirely empty ones, their population must be low enough they have more homes than people.” Lucky chirruped on his shoulder to give her opinion on the matter. Billy smiled and scratched the white cat under the chin.
The engineer nodded.
“He’s got the right of it. The Dome has been feeling more desolate every decade. I don’t see as many young people around as I remember. I don’t know why they wouldn’t just let you Outers in if we’re running out of time.”
Pike jabs her thumb over her shoulder out the break room door.
“You’ll notice you’re the only one of your little group that didn’t run for the hills when they came across us. That probably has something to do with it. We’re nothing like you Domers inside your pristine walls safe from the outside world. They were terrified just by the looks of us. There are more like us out there.
You think your enclosed little world could handle us?”