By Jennifer Pelland

When you voluntarily walked underground, you had no idea how long you’d be there.

People said you were crazy for doing it, but you’d been called crazy, and worse, for years.

Besides, the government said they were doing it for a good reason. When the aliens intercepted our Voyager 1 probe and told us they were on their way to Earth to evaluate us for membership in their confederation, the planet collectively decided to put its best foot forward. If the aliens knew just how many humans were poor, or homeless, or uneducated, or just flat-out broken, Earth’s membership application might be denied.

And that meant sweeping people like you under the rug, at least for a little while.

So you got in the very short voluntary line to drive out to live in a massive warren of old underground bunkers left over from Cold War days. It had to beat living on the street, begging for change and leftovers, and scrounging cigarette butts from the trash to get whatever nicotine buzz was left in them. All the voices in your head were in agreement—they wanted a bed, and three square meals a day, and a roof over that head of yours that they lived in.

It wasn’t bad underground. Sure, you didn’t get to see the sun, and they wouldn’t bring you any alcohol or cigarettes, but it was clean, and dry, and warm, and your clothes weren’t stiff and itchy. And a doctor brought you pills every day that made the voices in your head quiet down enough that your voice was now always the one in charge.

The rest of the planet commended you for your sacrifice. Told you the aliens were sure to share all sorts of marvelous technology with us, and that you’d get to see it soon enough. That Earth would finally eliminate poverty, disease, pollution, illiteracy, and all sorts of ills, so long as you stayed down there and didn’t queer the deal.

You carved out a little corner for yourself, near one of the Plexiglas-covered televisions, and invited two aging hookers and a toothless junkie to share it with you. It was more of a home and a family than you’d ever had. It was almost nice.

And then the people who didn’t come willingly joined you underground.

Then it wasn’t so nice anymore.

The new people rioted from the moment they were forced off of the busses. They mobbed the food delivery trucks, taking their share and yours, and threw it at the cameras, the televisions, the doors, the trucks, each other. They ran through the bunkers, tearing up mattresses and screaming that they’d burn the place down if they could only start a fire.

You scraped as much food from the walls as you could and ran to your little corner to ride it out. But you found a group of people in it, praying to a god that they claimed had deserted them, and you screamed at them to leave. They only prayed louder, and you ran, looking for some new place to hide.

No more food trucks came that day. Or the next.

On the televisions, bland faces lectured people to remain calm, told you that they really wanted to feed you, but it was too dangerous to send anyone in when you were all acting so badly. You were exhorted to stop fighting the inevitable, told you were only hurting yourselves and your fellow shut-ins.

Without your pills, the voices in your head got louder, and you and all those voices begged everyone to please just calm down, please just let things go back to how they were, please let the food and medicine come back. As the hours passed, you weren’t the only one begging.

As the days passed, the begging got louder than the rioting.

Soon, the begging won out.

On the fourth day, the food trucks came back, bringing the doctors with them. The televisions told you to form orderly lines and behave like civilized people or they would go away again.

It worked. Four days without food had broken them. Apparently, few of them had the experience with hunger that you had. You queued up, took your daily ration of food and pills, and were deliriously happy to have both.

You reclaimed your little corner from the Jesus freaks, who believed the aliens were the anti-Christ and bemoaned the fact that they’d missed the rapture, and you waited.

You all waited.

And whenever anyone got impatient with the wait, the food went away again.

It was a perfect system for keeping you quiet.

No children waited with you, though. They’d all been left above-ground. And every baby born down here was taken away the moment it was born. It was for the best, you were told. Children needed sunlight, and schools, and families who were doing well for themselves. If you were only better about using the free condoms, you wouldn’t have to worry about giving up your babies, so really, you had no one to blame but yourselves. They promised to reunite families when everyone was aboveground, provided, of course, that it wouldn’t be too traumatic for the children. You listened to the wails of a new mother lamenting the loss of her baby and wondered why they didn’t worry about how traumatic it was for you.

Every so often, you’d get news about how well the aliens’ visits were going, along with vague news on the television screens of the incredible changes going on aboveground. And sometimes, you’d even get to see some of this miraculous new technology with your own eyes, like the day that doctor held a device up to your head that took the voices away. You were so grateful, until night came, and you realized that you were lonely without them. And there was the night that the blue glow spread throughout the bunker that restored everyone’s health. Your limp was gone, the junkie’s teeth grew back, and the prostitutes no longer looked twenty years older than they actually were. And as best as everyone could tell, the process sterilized everyone at the same time, because there were no more new pregnancies after that night.

And after that night, no one came down to visit from aboveground again. The food trucks were replaced by delivery machines that drove themselves. Mechanical doctors tended to you on the few occasions where anyone needed tending anymore. Little robots started carting away the trash and fixing the plumbing. You were completely cut off.

Any day now, they kept telling you. They just needed to keep you out of sight a little longer. You understood, didn’t you?

You didn’t understand, so you began to ask questions of the faces on the televisions. Sometimes, they even answered.

When you asked how bunkers could possibly hide you from species clever enough to travel across the stars, they pointed out just how deep below ground you were. When you asked how they’d managed to hide all the starving people in Africa, they said the aliens were only bothered by starvation in wealthy nations. When you asked what the aliens thought about all the petty wars that had been raging at the time they arrived, they said the aliens valued differences of opinion. When you asked what they were waiting for before bringing you up to join them, they said they were just erring on the side of caution.

Above your heads, humanity luxuriated in their shiny new world without being troubled by the sight of those like you.

Only those like you weren’t exactly “like you” anymore.

They’d made you all healthy, all sane. They’d taken care of the mental and physical shortcomings that had slowed so many of you down. They’d fed you well. They’d even expanded your lifespan. You couldn’t remember the last time someone had died down here.

You were placid on the outside. You had to be if you wanted to be fed. Even a simple fistfight between two people resulted in days without food for everyone and bland reassurances from the televisions that this was being done for your own safety. But on the inside, you roiled. You all roiled. And you were careful not to let it show. You were acutely aware of just how easy it would be for the people aboveground to stop sending food trucks down and let you rot down here. You would not give them that satisfaction.

It took nearly fifteen years, but surprisingly, they really did letting you all out. They said they’d been waiting until they had places in their new society for you. Nobody believed them. You very nearly didn’t come out at all, afraid this would be some sort of trap, but the prostitutes dragged you out, and you blinked in the sunlight, wondering if your eyes would ever adjust.

The hoverbusses took you to cities you couldn’t begin to recognize. New Ion. Friendship Pass. Osmium City. You stared at the gleaming towers, wandering streets that were perfectly clean and ordered, straining to find a glimmer of humanity in the form of a piece of garbage or an unpleasant smell.

There was none.

They gave you an apartment, stocked with clothes and food and furniture. They gave you a case worker, who signed you up for classes to orient you to this miraculous future. She had the same bland smile as the faces on the televisions underground had. She had the same bland smile that everyone aboveground seemed to have.

You didn’t understand why everyone was so happy.

Earth was perfect now, they told you. We had clean, renewable fuels. We had enough food for everyone. All diseases and deformities could be cured. We had a real space program, with colonies on the Moon, Mars, and Ganymede. Everyone who wanted a job could have one, and anyone who didn’t want one didn’t need one. There were no more wars. We had flying cars, for Pete’s sake! What was there to be unhappy about?

There was everything to be unhappy about. You missed the rough edges. You missed the stench, the disease, you even missed the hunger. How were you supposed to know you were alive unless you had to struggle for it? You tried throwing trash around the apartment, but little robots cleaned it up. You took a shit in the corner and pissed all over the walls, but the apartment absorbed it, odors and all. You tried to find a dark alley to skulk in somewhere, but there were none. You even took a flying car out of the city and tried sleeping in the cold woods for a night, but you woke up to find that a heated tent had been erected around you in your sleep.

You weren’t even free to get hypothermia in this new world.

You weren’t free, period.

Only no one but you seemed to care.

Scratch that—only those of you who’d been underground cared.

And the people aboveground knew this. They had to. Why else would they work so hard to keep the undergrounders apart? They made it easy for you to contact anyone but them, and when you complained, they’d tell you’d never successfully integrate into this new society if you spent too much time socializing with your friends from the bunkers. But whenever you managed a chance encounter with one of your old co-captives, you noticed that none of them were smiling, either.

Your case worker said this was a golden age. That humanity had been saved from its baser instincts. That everyone on the planet would be taken care of. That you, of all people, deserved to revel in the luxury this new world provided. She booked you spa treatments and massages, set up appointments with the brightest experts so you could learn how this new world worked, arranged invitations to extravagant dinner parties with stars from both before your captivity and after. You ignored all of them, except for one—the party where one of your new alien “friends” would be present.

Maybe they’d give you some answers.

You cornered the creature as soon as it arrived. It was hard to look at—the light seemed to bend around it in ways that made your eyes hurt—but its voice was crystal clear. You asked it what the hell its plans for Earth were, why it was making humans so damned complacent, and how it hadn’t realized how many of you had been locked away for so long just to make things look prettier.

“Not all tests are obvious,” it said. “And as such, it’s not always obvious when one has failed. Everything comes with a price. You have already paid yours. They shall soon pay theirs.”

You stood there, stunned, as it slid away.

And then you smiled.

The very next day, you booked a massage. You bought a fancy outfit and went to see what this atmospheric ballet craze was all about. And you started taking those orientation classes your case worker had set up for you. At one, you saw one of your old prostitute friends, and you and she shared a secret smile.

So, you weren’t the only one who knew.

Your case worker was thrilled with your progress. She asked what had changed your mind, and you shrugged and smiled and said nothing. The alien’s message hadn’t been for her, it had been for you and the others like you.

Those classes had never been more important.

Because if this was all going to be yours soon, then you’d better know how it all worked.


More from Jennifer Pelland:

Jennifer Pelland lives in the Boston area with an Andy, three cats, and an impractical number of books. Her short story collection Unwelcome Bodies was released by Apex in 2008, and contains her Nebula-nominated story “Captive Girl.” Most recently, she’s been published in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Three, and she has a story coming out in the debut issue of Shock Totem later this summer. In her so-called copious spare time, she studies belly dance in a futile attempt to be graceful before she completely loses her knees. Her web site, which includes a link to her blog, is at jenniferpelland.com.

1 Comment

  1. This is such an interesting story!

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