Regular drill here. I wrote this story in response to a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge. It’s a little longer than usual because this time our word limit was raised to 1500. And I’m glad it was because the first draft, which I just wrote over the last couple hours all in one go, came in at 2000! I took my editors scalpel to it though and pared it down to just under the limit. As usual I’ll give you the details on the random elements I got after the story.
Our family’d had the box forever. As a kid I’d felt unreasonably proud about it. No other family in Bunker Complex 10 had one like it.
Looking back I realize it was a stupid thing to be proud of. It wasn’t even useful. It didn’t open, so you couldn’t put anything inside it. It was practically sacred to us, so you couldn’t use it for a table or desk. No, it just sat there taking up space. I was proud all the same. Who wouldn’t be proud to own something that could save the world.
That was what Grandma always told me. “This world could be better Jake, but it does OK. If it ever doesn’t, if the world ever seems hopeless, that box might be able to fix everything.”
I had another reason to feel proud growing up, but this one wasn’t based on a family thing. It was generational. I, my sister, and all our friends, we were THE generation. We were the first generation born in Bunk 10 who’d be able to leave it. The first back to the surface.
I remember it was a strange day when the January kids, now newly recognized adults, gathered to crack open the vault. It was a celebration. This was the day the community had been waiting for generations to see, but there was sadness in our elders eyes. I could see it hiding there. Sure, I think they were really happy, but there was something else going on too.
We learned soon enough what it was. Turns out we were the first generation of Bunker people kept in the dark about the dangers of rejoining the world, because we were the first generation who wouldn’t suffer the consequences. Wouldn’t suffer the physical ones that is.
Bunk 10, probably all the bunkers, had engaged in a slow program of genetic modification. Each generation had been nudged closer to capable of handling the environment outside while at the same time the environment slowly healed. Two lines on a graph. Our increasing resilience, the worlds decreasing inhospitably. When those lines met? That was my cohort.
In a perfect world it would’ve made sense to wait a couple more generations to ascend. Let our grandchildren go and everyone would be OK. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a machine made yet that could last forever and Bunk 10 was getting well past its use by date.
So up they went.
And soon people started to die.
Grandma was one of the first, and our parents came clean about it all. They hadn’t wanted us to know until it was too late. Figured it’d be easier on us that way. It wasn’t, but I understand what they were trying to do. Best of the bad choices they had.
Too many variables, not enough facts. That’s my best guess about what happened. Maybe the damage was worse than they’d known. Maybe we weren’t as prepared as they’d believed. The why doesn’t really matter when it’s too late to fix something you’ll never get another shot at. By the time my best friend went the same way Grandmother had it was obvious the plan had failed. Not completely — not everyone was getting sick — but too many who weren’t supposed to, were.
That was the day my sister and I found ourselves sitting in our central room, staring at the box.
“Would you say it’s hopeless?” she said.
“I would,” I said.
“What’s it do though?”
“I don’t know. I begged Grandma to tell me, but she said she didn’t know.”
“Do you think she lied?”
“Not that time.”
The box was a beautiful thing. Gorgeous wood and brass with fine detail work all over it. We studied it for hours before Helen gave a cry of surprise when she pushed too hard on one end.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I think I broke it, this piece just pushed in!” she said.
Instead of breaking it she’d just discovered its first secret. The box was a puzzle. It took a lot of pushing, prodding and experimenting, but we eventually found the right combination to open it. Inside, like a bad joke, was another box. Also inside: a map, a compass and coordinates.
I picked up the smaller box and shook it in frustration. Helen started checking out the map and coordinates.
“Do you have any idea what Washington means?” she asked.
No one in Bunk 10 had any clue what Washington meant, but we had a map, a compass and nothing else to try.
We stocked up for a long journey. We could see how far away our destination was on the map — about 50 miles — but we had no way to really understand what that meant.
I won’t recount the trip except to say it was both amazing and terrifying, not to mention agonizing. This was really not the sort of thing we were used to. Things got easier after we found an ancient roadway.
We had decided that Washington must have been an ancient city, but we had no idea why we should take the second box there. Still, trying it seemed better than sitting around waiting to see how many would die.
The city had been mostly reduced to rubble and the rubble seemed to only recently have begun to be reclaimed by nature. Having no better idea we decided to make our way to the general centre of this ancient place. There we would try to figure out the box.
Soon after entering the city proper, the box began to hum and glow. A little experimentation showed that the hum and glow grew stronger depending on where we walked so we chose the path it reacted to the most. After perhaps an hour of walking the glow hurt our eyes. I put the box down and it pulsed a single brilliant flash that forced us to look away. After, the box disappeared. In its place sat a strange red object and a piece of paper.
The thing had two main parts connected by a spiralling, stretchy cord. The base had a series of buttons with numbers on them. The smaller piece had two connected circular ends. The words on the paper read ‘Trust in hope’.
Eventually Helen shrugged and said, “Well…we’ve got to do something with it. Pick up the small piece.”
I did and I could hear a faint sound coming from one end while the button with a ‘1’ on it began blinking. Putting the sound making end to my ear I heard voices arguing. It sounded like a room of them. Startled, I slammed the thing back on its cradle.
“What was it?” Helen asked.
“People. I heard people arguing.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well try again. And listen this time!”
So I did.
“They’re talking about something that’s got them all scared. Something call Cuba and the Soviets. They’re trying to decide what to do. Someone called Krushchev has them confused.”
“Why?” Helen asked.
“He’s given them mixed messages. One they like, they other they don’t. I think one of them is in charge. The others are telling him what to do.”
“What do they say?”
“I think some of them want to believe the good message. The others think it’s too risky. They want to ‘strike’ their enemies.”
“What do you think that blinking button does?”
I licked my lips and shrugged. In my ear the men continued arguing. It sounded like the strikers were winning.
Helen held up the little paper. “Trust in hope. I think you’re supposed to tell them.”
I nodded and Helen gingerly pushed the blinking ‘1’.
I could hear something ringing in the room. It startled the men. They went quiet. I heard a click and a single gruff voice, one of the ones from room, spoke clearly in my ear.
“Yes? Who is this?”
I opened my mouth to tell him. I wanted to say the words from the paper, but suddenly I heard another voice, risen from my memory.
“This world could be better Jake, but it does OK. If it ever doesn’t, if the world ever seems hopeless, that box might be able to fix everything.” Grandma’s words.
I looked at Helen, and I thought about our friends in Bunk 10 who weren’t getting sick. I thought about the other bunkers out there. I thought about Grandma’s words, and I put the red thing back on its rest.
“Jake,” Helen began.
“Wait,” I cut her off. “I think we should trust in hope. This world could be better, but I’d rather a world with you and our friends in it. I’d rather a world Grandma and our family had lived in, than one they hadn’t.”
I don’t know how long we sat there not saying anything, it was probably just the longest minute of my life, but then she nodded.
“Let’s go home Jake.”
My random elements were: a Parallel Universe, The Capital City of a Lost Civilization
, and a Puzzle Box.
Find more of my fiction here.
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