by Tala Bar
“Look, Dar, I’ve got this letter. What d’you think of it?” Rima handed her sister–in–law a short, official-looking missive. As Dar was perusing it, Bard, Rima’s brother and Dar’s husband, asked, “What is it?”
“A sort of invitation,” answered Dar automatically, in a reflective mode.
“Invitation to what?”
“Have you ever heard of that kind of shelter people were building some hundred years ago?” Asked Rima.
“What kind of shelter?” Asked Bard. “What is it all about?”
“Rima has been invited to take part in a sort of experiment,” explained Dar. “I did hear about those fortified shelters some rich people built against nuclear wars, before international peace was declared and World Government was founded.”
“There has not been a thought of nuclear war for two hundred years. What are you talking about?” protested Bard.
“You can never be sure, even now, and you know that,” said Dar, quietly. Rima’s face contorted as she recalled the murder of her husband a few years back, right in front of their house.
Indeed, though there were no longer separate governments to make wars against each other, the number of active criminal groups and terrorists working for their own cause had become even greater. The fear of those using leftover “unconventional” weapons was even stronger than before.
Although World Government had been the aspired goal of many people, its realization had been far from being the best government possible. Money saved from wars and war products was directed toward the advancement of industry, agriculture and medicine, providing enough food and basic commodities to the ever-growing population. This had a disastrous effect over the Earth as a whole. With the elimination of war, famine and disease, humanity thrived and multiplied, filling the Earth anywhere and everywhere possible, destroying in its path anything that was not human. Industrial, agricultural and personal waste filled every corner, polluting soil, air and water; even the most advanced medicine could not fight the widespread chemical poisoning. The complete destruction of most natural life and vegetation on earth had totally changed its face from anything humanity had ever known.
The world had become unbearably overcrowded, stress affecting most people in their everyday life. World Government itself had become polluted, corrupted by the money pouring into it from colossal companies, whose wealth controlled all life on earth. An unbridgeable split had been formed between the very rich and the very poor; desperation of ever getting anywhere beyond basic subsistence had encouraged crime as a way of life.
Intercultural conflicts had replaced international wars; gang skirmishes and individual psychotic murders had increased, forcing people to turn their homes into fortresses. The political authorities tried to run the world as a welfare state on not enough resources; the academic and scientific communities, however, catered mainly to the rich, who alone were able to pay their salaries, fulfilling their whims and answering their capricious curiosity.
“So, what is this experiment you are invited to take part in?” Asked Bard.
“I don’t really know,” replied his sister, folding the letter. “It’s only hinting at it, inviting me to a preliminary screening meeting.”
“Do you think you’ll take it if you’re chosen?” Asked Dar with a slight concern in her voice.
Rima shrugged. Since her husband’s death, she had been on her own, never having had children. She was a recognized artist, a good household name though she had never become fashionable enough to make big money. To supplement her income she taught art and art history at high schools and to adults who aspired to be able to produce a reasonable creation in painting or sculpture. These students, and her brother’s family of Dar and their two children, were all the relations she had. Dar realized that it would not be too difficult for Rima to elect to take part in that kind of enterprise.
* * *
Within a few months Rima met the organizers of the enterprise, was accepted and in the end went to meet the rest of the participants in order to be taken by air to the remote, isolated place where the Shelter was situated.
It was a vast underground edifice that had never been used, built to accommodate a few hundred people who should survive in it for a long stretch of time. The idea to use it now — for the purpose of experimenting with the ability of people to stay secluded for five years — had sprung one day into the mind of a newly rich young man. The idea was to gather a group of a few hundred scientists, who would try to survive in relative comfort in conditions of complete isolation from the outside world.
The young man — who had made his money from his invention of artificial wood, which he sold to rich people to panel their houses, thus making them feel as if they were living in nineteenth-century homes — had sold his Shelter idea to a conglomerate of rich companies. This conglomerate existed for the sole purpose of making money; with no way of spending it, the new Shelter idea gave them an opportunity that they did not hesitate to take. However, they made a small change: to the community of scientists they added artists of various kinds, to amuse them in their hours of leisure from any research they were supposed to do.
The Shelter was built like a fortress. Its walls were fortified with various metals and other materials in order to withstand earthquakes, magnetic shocks, or a meteorite hit. These walls were also impervious to water, gas, any kind of radiation, and biological or chemical pollution. Built on a remote site on earth, the Shelter was completely isolated from the world outside; its inhabitants depended for their lives on the continuous supply of recycled air, water and food.
One line of communication connected it to the outside world; its sole purpose was to supply the Conglomerate main office with computerized information from the Shelter. No human information from the outside was supplied to the people inside it. On the other hand, two lines allowed the inhabitants some incoming technical information. An astronomical dish antenna was posted on a high hill in the vicinity, directed at the stars; and seismographic data was collected by the geologists taking part in the experiment.
It took a whole day to fly the three hundred scientists, artists, engineers and technicians to the site of the Shelter, and another day for them to go down the stairs through the wide trap door and into the underground building. At the bottom of the stairs, in a vast lobby, a computer monitor checked the incomers according to their names and the number allotted to them for convenience; they then received directions on how to reach their accommodation, and a map to help familiarize them with their new habitation. Colored lights spread along the corridors and corresponding to colors on the map guided the inhabitants on their way. Rima went down a flight of stairs to the lower floor of accommodation. She discovered the corridors there were divided into one-person cubicles, each containing a bed and a wardrobe; bathrooms were scattered along the corridors, each assigned for four or five persons.
Having found the cubicle bearing her name, Rima found a wide screen with keys and buttons placed on one wall; by its side was a clock, presumably connected to the central computer, which denoted not only the hours but also the date. Only when she looked at that clock, she finally realized how cut off from the outside world she was going to be, not knowing these simple, basic items to guide her through life.
Tired of the crowded day she had gone through, she stretched on the bed without opening her luggage, which contained one suitcase and one large bag. The participants in the experiment were told they would find everything necessary at the Shelter and were warned not to take more than the minimum they would need for the first couple of weeks...
A loudspeaker’s voice roused her from her sleep. “A meal will be served in the dining hall in half an hour. Afterwards, the first meeting will take place, in which everyone must take part for the purpose of getting initial information and making the acquaintance of the other people.”
Rima rose and stretched, opened her suitcase and bag and started arranging her clothes and other articles in the closet. She found it sufficient, though not very big, and wondered if anyone had brought more than they could put in it. She then went to the bathroom, which did not contain a bath but only a shower, a couple of sinks and a couple of toilets. It was clean and in good order, and she wondered whether there were cleaning people who were in charge of it.
Having washed her face, she stared at the mirror, which spread all over one wall. In front of her there was a forty year old woman with dark hair reaching to her shoulders, which she gathered on the back of her neck; the hazel eyes were tired and sparkless, their color barely discernible from the tanned skin of her face. Her mouth was pinched, and she tried to release it with a forced smile. She had joined the experiment without knowing its purpose, and at this moment she was not sure why. It seemed she had done it only to escape her hopeless life but was not sure she had chosen the right way to do it. “Ah, well,” Rima shrugged and winked toward the sad figure in the mirror, “it can’t be changed now, so you’d better make the best of it.”
She left and followed the colored lights, correlating them with the map in her hand. Some notices on her way led her back to the stairs and the upper floor, where she turned into another corridor leading to the dining hall. It was half full, some people were walking around, some gathered in small groups, others were sitting in twos or threes, or even ones, at tables designated for six to eight people. There was no food on the tables, and Rima saw along two of the walls self-service sets of food containers. Some people had already served themselves with portions of food and were going to sit at the tables. Having looked around, Rima saw no one she knew in the Hall. She went up to the containers, chose hot stew and mixed salad for her meal, and came up to one of the tables. Three people were already sitting, eating, each by her or himself, obviously not knowing each other.
“My name is Rima and I am a painter,” she announced as she sat down, breaking the silence. Her years as a teacher had taught her how to get acquainted with strangers.
“Sable, historian,” said the man by her side.
“Caren, biologist,” said the woman opposite her.
A conversation developed among the three of them, while the fourth man kept his silence. After the meal, which took about an hour to accommodate people who were late, they were told where to put the remnants of their food for recycling, and where to put the dishes for cleaning; again, Rima wondered who was going to do that cleaning.
The people were then guided to the gathering hall, which was situated next to the dining hall. While walking around the Shelter, Rima had noticed that all the walls were virgin white, and she wondered about that as well; her fingers itching to pass a brush with pigments on it along them. She got answers to these wonders at the acquaintance lecture. She and four other painters had been selected for the experiment for the purpose of painting and decorating the walls with her best artistic talent; the Conglomerate itself had supplied all the materials necessary for that purpose.
Five professional managers were in charge of managing life at the Shelter, doing their job as a team, and professional engineers and skilled technicians would take care of the maintenance of the machines and recycling facilities. Cooking would be done by professional cooks, but the inhabitants themselves were to do all the cleaning jobs by rote. There would be no punishment for relinquishing such jobs, or for anyone breaking the rules fixed for life in the Shelter, but these people had been chosen very carefully, not only according to their professional skills but also according to their social ones.
Life in the Shelter assumed its routine, though varied, course. The Shelter was equipped with laboratories of all kinds, varied research materials and a wide library of academic and entertaining books. A central computer determined the hours of day and night, supplying the inhabitants with information of all kinds. Many terminals stood for service in the labs and study rooms, which were situated on the floor below the accommodation floor. The fourth floor contained the generators and recycling machines that preserved life in the tightly closed shelter. On the upper floor, beside the two big halls, smaller rooms were appointed for entertainment of all kinds, from music and storytelling to self-entertainment in singing and dancing. When all twenty musicians gathered for making a concert on a larger scale, it was conducted in the gathering hall. There were no professional musicians amongst the inhabitants, only good amateurs who were either scholars, painters, engineers or technicians.
In the morning following their arrival, Rima presented herself for the job, meeting her four colleagues. Their task of painting the white walls of the Shelter was to be fulfilled in any way they liked. After some discussion, three of them – a man and two women, including Rima – decided to work together; the other two, one woman and one man, preferred to work on their own. They then looked at the map, fixed the order of rooms to be painted, and set out to work.
Breaking for the next meal, Rima found they were directed to different tables, where their places were fixed; it seemed the purpose was for people to get to know others, outside the company of their colleagues at work. In time, her circle of acquaintances grew gradually, from whom she was able to choose two or three closer friends. One of them was a physicist called Kley, whose professional interest was the activity of light going through organic systems; in his leisure time he played the recorder, which he carried with him everywhere, and on which he created some marvelous trills. He and Rima organized music evenings, when Kley sometimes accompanied Rima’s singing; she had a low, warm, slightly hoarse voice, and when she carried her song, her audience would tend to forget her plain appearance, seeming to see her as if surrounded with a magic halo.
* * *
One evening, a few months after their settling in the Shelter, one astronomer arrived at the computer terminal attached to the antenna dish. When he switched it on, no picture appeared on the monitor, only “snow”. He punched the keys, turned the knobs, and nothing happened. He then called a computer technician whose function was to look after that particular branch of the computer. The technician checked here and there and pronounced there was nothing wrong with its working, it simply does not receive the message from outside. “Something must have happened to the antenna,” he shrugged.
The next morning the astronomer went to see the management, and while talking to two of the managers, one of them said, “Yesterday, I heard from one of the geologists that a strong tremor had appeared on the seismograph monitor.”
“Where was its center?” Asked her colleague; “was it near here?”
“I don’t think so. Don’t forget we felt nothing, it only appeared on the monitor. But since then the seismograph has gone silent...”
“And now we also have no astronomical reception, as if something is going on outside... What do you think?”
“Car,” she turned to the astronomer,” we’ll take it from here. But I suggest you don’t talk about it too much in the meantime, at least until we find out what is going on.”
The astronomer nodded and left. He was in some measure frustrated, since half of his occupation has been taken away from him. Still, he could do more research from books and videos, analyze his former findings or other astronomers’, so he was not completely out of a job. He shook his head and went to his office.
In the meantime, the team of five managers was invited to a special meeting. The only two connections they had had with the outside world for incoming information had been severed, but they were still able to send messages to the main office of the Conglomerate, which they did. They were, of course, unable to receive any answer.
The severance of these connections did not in any way change the course of life in the Shelter, and only few people were affected by it. The managers, who were in charge of the safety of the inhabitants, had yet no reason to worry about it, leaving that for future events.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar