Waste Management

Posted: June 10, 2013 in Fiction, Short Stories

Waste Management by Chad M. Hemmert

I have to get off this rock. One way or another, I’m leavin’ tonight. Where am I gonna go? Sometimes I can see it out of the skylights at night, when the clouds break. No, I guess they’re not clouds; not really. Clouds are something made by nature. These are ugly, shit brown dust storms, human-made by-products of our own festering exhaust. They clog the air filters, leaving a layer of muck on the skylights. And then some bastard—like me, has to go topside and clear it off.

I have seen clouds before—real clouds. I’ve seen them up there, at that place I’m heading to. They look like something out of a dream; fluffy and white, swirling around deep blue of what can only be oceans. And on the borders of the water are strange, unexplored lands. There is a blue planet up there, and this is where I’m gonna go.

I haven’t been topside—yet; my name didn’t get called until recently. I guess I should be happy that there have been plenty of others to go ahead of me. But that’s part of the problem; there’s just too many of us! There’s always a generous lot for the government to draw from. It’s called, “civic tax.” This is what the government charges each of its citizens for the so-called privilege to live in the Underground.

There isn’t much to this life. Every taxpayer gets their own pod at least—which is nothing more than a compartment for sleeping—and with it, a privacy door allowing for the ability to barricade yourself from the rest of the hive, even if it’s just behind a thin piece of plastic. Without these individual pods, I’m certain we would all kill each other. At least the government had the foresight to enact this small measure of privacy. It’s crowded, beat-down, and smelly from all of the garbage built up, but it’s all we’ve ever known.

Everyone’s taxed on their air, food rations, recycled water. We all pitch in, working on the farms, cleaning the sewers, collecting trash, or worse; topside duty. If you don’t suffocate from the mucky air, or get a chemical burn from the acid rain, you’re bound to get snatched up by one of the Dactyls, which are little more than flying wrangles of leather and teeth. The Dactyls are practically the only living things able to survive the harsh surface environment. Every other living thing’s been harvested, mined, or destroyed.

The Dactyls like to hunt the taxpayers sent to clear the skylights of muck. They first stalk them, then snatch them up, one-by-one. The upshot, I suppose, is that the Dactyls are so fast you probably don’t feel it when it finally happens. It’s practically a statistic that once you go topside, you won’t come back. The government knows this, and I’m sure that this is part of their population control. This is why I have to leave tonight, and I have a plan.

***

It all started about a week ago when my number was pulled for topside tax. So far, I had been lucky enough to get assigned to “waste management,” which is a fancy way of saying that I was a trash collector. I know, I know—roosting in other people’s putrefied food, crumpled cartons, and bloody tampons doesn’t sound very fortunate, but trust me; it’s one of the better taxes to pay. It’s easy enough work. You just go around your assigned area and collect the trash in large bins and bring it to the compactors. The nastiest part is the sorting. Paper goes with paper, metal with metal, plastic with plastic, each sent to their various processing centers to be recycled. All food and human waste gets bundled and shipped back to the farms to be used as fertilizer. Still, with all of these systems in place, a lot of trash gets thrown in the main compactor to be sent away.

I was in the middle of a relatively good dream of swimming in a particularly bountiful ocean of plastic cups, used toilet paper, and unspeakable organic waste. I was making my laps and rounds, paddling my arms and legs to stay buoyant above the surface of trash. My somewhat surreal dream turned into a nightmare, as my lucid ears heard the ominous sound of paper being slid under the door of my pod. My eyelids split open, unable to close, or return me to the protective world of dreaming.

I rolled over and looked across the pod—a distance no greater than the length of my cot—to see what had been pushed under my door. It was an envelope, made from the same recycled pulp that all of the paper products in the Underground are made of. I could tell that it was official government mail; most likely a new tax assignment. I felt the same lurch in my stomach that I had every time I got one of these new envelopes, dreading the inevitable moment when my number would be called. So far, I’ve dodged the bullet, but down here in the Underground, everyone’s luck eventually runs out.

I shuffled over to the door and snatched up the envelope. It was plain except for my name, typed in bold letters. Yep, definitely “official government correspondence.” I loathed opening it, not just because I would have to leave my current cushy tax assignment, but because somehow, I knew. Even before I slid my finger beneath the sealed flap, inheriting a rough paper cut; before I opened the single tri-fold page inside; before I read the words typed on the page, something which felt like a death warrant; I knew that my time had come.

The letter wasn’t eloquent or wordy, but was composed of the bland rhetoric that government documents are composed of:

 

GIBSON, S. TAX ID# 44728-17

SECTOR 88, NEIGHBORHOOD 57, POD D7

 

MR. GIBSON: YOUR CURRENT CIVIC WORK ASSIGNMENT OF:

*WASTE MANAGEMENT* IS ABOUT TO EXPIRE.

YOU ARE HEREBY REASSIGNED TO CIVIL TAX CODE #567:

*EXTERIOR SKYLIGHT CLEANING*

YOUR NEW ASSIGNMENT WILL BEGIN IN 3 DAYS. YOU ARE TO REPORT TO HATCH TERMINAL #90, NO LATER THAN 0500. UNIFORM AND PROTECTIVE GEAR WILL BE PROVIDED.

 

And that was it. No sincerity. No words of “Thank you Mr. Gibson for becoming the latest Dactyl-fodder, and—YES! We’re glad you’re going away; we could always use the space down here.” Hell, the government didn’t even have the decency of telling me to my face that they had just condemned me to death. Only an impersonal note slipped under my door. No, nothing even resembling the slightest inkling of human compassion—just do your civic duty, pay your taxes, and get on with dying. In a society that has found a way to cram all of humanity below ground into these hives, what did I expect?

Reading the words had been somewhat anticlimactic. I knew that my number would eventually come up. And hadn’t I secretly celebrated each time that someone else’s number had been pulled? How long did I really think my streak would last? And why did I think that my life, my dreams, or my imagination were worth salvaging above someone else’s? I’m sure that everybody feels this way about themselves at some point; that their life holds the utmost value, and should be preserved by society. But here in the Underground, self-preservation has become nearly extinct, in place of serving the needs of society-at-large. Yes, I will do my duty, even in death. I will serve greater humanity by making space for another hungry mouth; another tired soul.

***

I went to go visit Smitty almost as soon as I found out I’d be going topside. He’s been the closest thing I’ve had to a friend. We worked together in Waste Management, although his tax assignment was permanent. Getting a permanent tax position was almost unheard of. I guess the government felt sorry for him because he was so old. How old was he? It’s hard to tell. Life in the Underground takes its toll on you; makes you age faster. In fact, no one’s been able to tell me just how long we’ve all been canned up down here like so much ration meat. People either don’t know or don’t care anymore. All I know is that I was born here, but I don’t plan on dying here.

I would visit Smitty every so often for a good laugh. The old crackerbarrel was always full of stories; some so fantastical that they must be bullshit. A lot of his stories come from when he was a kid. He told me stories of what life used to be like before humans went underground. He claimed that the surface wasn’t always the poisonous dustbowl that it is now. He talked about green places and things growing out of the ground without machines or artificial light. I never believed him, but would always listen anyway. Now I was visiting for a more somber reason; and I had nobody else to talk to about going topside.

I tapped on his pod door, not sure if he was out collecting trash, but I was relieved to hear his raspy, weathered voice spurt his usual greeting of, “Whaddya want?!”

“It’s Shane—I’m comin’ in, o.k?”

“Oh, all right,” he growled. He always acted put off by my visits, but deep down, I thought it was just an act.

I opened the door to find him sitting back in his cot, aiming a taut, homemade slingshot right at my head. Smitty had many such devices; it was one of the perks of working in Waste Management. His ability to craft useable inventions out of other people’s trash is what had drawn me to him. That, and of course, his crazy stories.

He was deceptively frail; his years of hauling trash had kept him strong, but watching his arms quiver, made me think that he wouldn’t be able to stay the slingshot for long.

“Hey, why don’t you put that thing down? It’s only me—you know, Shane.”

“I know who y’are,” he replied, continuing to draw back on the elastic cord of his weapon, giving no sign of recognition.

“What did you make that from? An old innertube?”

“Fanbelt,” he grunted, not able to hide his inventor’s pride. He grinned, revealing his old man’s maw. Three or four visible teeth poked out from his gumline. As old as Smitty was, it was a wonder that he had any remaining teeth to chew with. Down here, even for us younger guys, the teeth are one of the first things to go. Then it’s the eyes, then skin ailments, which all lead to a drawn out, degrading death. The government says that it’s from all of the topside toxins seeping through the ventilation system. It seems that the government, in all of its protective consolidation of humanity below ground, wasn’t able to dig deep enough. Even if dangerous tax assignments didn’t kill you, life in the Underground eventually would.

Smitty finally lowered the slingshot and said, “Well? You gonna come in or just stand there like an idiot?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, actually feeling like an idiot.

“And shut the door behind you!” I did what he said, nearly tripping over one of his pieces of scrap. “D’you know what that is?” I looked down at the object I had almost tripped over. It was a long, shiny piece of metal that looked like it came from some machine or another, but I couldn’t place where I had seen it before. “G’head, pick it up.”

I bent over and lifted it off of the ground. It was heavier than I thought it would be. It was almost as long as Smitty’s cot, slightly curved and polished to a near mirror shine.

“What is this thing Smitty?”

“Ha! You young punks think you know it all. Well Smitty says: feast your eyes on a true marvel! What you are holdin’ is a genuine bumper.”

“Wait, what—? A bumper?” I couldn’t hide my disappointment. “Looks pretty worthless to me, except that you’re holding out on the government. A piece of scrap metal like that has got to be worth a whole lot to them. You could get into a lot of trouble for not recycling it.”

Smitty waved a dismissive hand in my direction. “The government doesn’t pay much mind to ol’ Smitty anymore. And besides, this bumper is worth more to me as it is; whole and intact.”

“This—bumper? Where did it come from?”

“Smitty laughs his hardy, gruff laughter. “Where indeed? Now, put that down! Come over here.”

As usual, I did as I was instructed. Smitty’s living space was unlike any other pod I had encountered. Sure, it was the same size as the others in the hive—everyone gets the same thing—but he transformed his pod into a type of living workshop.

The walls, floor, and even ceiling were completely occupied with his contraptions. Walking into Smitty’s place was like entering a mechanical jungle. There was no telling what new and interesting inventions I would encounter. There wasn’t a spare place to sit, save a small corner of his government issued cot. I took my seat next to him, and he pulled out a roughly-bound assortment of pages and notes he had salvaged from the garbage.

“Look here,” he pointed his permanently muck-stained finger at a picture on one of the pages.

“Yeah, I know. You told me about these before.” I was getting bored fast. “This is a car, right?”

“Well, what d’you think was attached to the ass end of a car?”

“What—this bumper thing?” I looked more closely at the picture, which was nothing more than a scrap of magazine paper that Smitty had found during one of his trash runs. He had told me stories of the old times, before humans went underground. One of his more ludicrous stories spoke of vast webworks of roadways and turnpikes that covered the land. He talked about how humans used to roam freely on these hard-paved streets in their personal vehicles, which they called cars. I didn’t believe him of course. It was too absurd to think that there could be such extravagant space available for people to travel.

Smitty’s stories were always like that, painting an impossible picture of decadent surface life. But standing there in his pod, having felt the actual weight; the substance of this relic, I couldn’t help but wonder if his tall tales had some truth to them.

“What function did these bumpers serve?”

Smitty looked thoughtful, then replied, “Well, most of the time, people put stickers on ‘em.”

“So they were used for decoration? I don’t see any stickers on this bumper—“

“No, no, you dolt,” he cut me off with his usual impatience. “They weren’t supposed to be for decoration; people just slapped the stickers on ‘em for—well, for entertainment, I suppose. Somethin’ to look at while drivin.’”

I frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t; not to you. But then again, most of what people did before they were driven underground never made much sense to me either. I guess if they had been sensible, none of us would be in the mess we’re in.”

“I don’t know…” I was reluctant to contradict the oldtimer, but spoke up just the same. “At least we’re alive, aren’t we? That’s got to count for something, right?”

Smitty waves his hand again. “Nah. Alive doesn’t mean your livin.’ I wish you could’ve seen how things used to be—before we went underground.” Instead of his typical cantankerous expression, his eyes became misty. “We weren’t all packed in like a bunch of animals, that’s for sure. There wasn’t much space, but there was a hell of a lot more than there is in these hives; at least enough to stretch your bones out.” He swept his arms wide to illustrate his point.

I shook my head slowly. “I just can’t imagine that. I mean—you’ve told me before about how great surface life used to be, but what you’re talkin’ about sounds like some kind of fantasy land.”

“Well boy, Smitty was there. And even though things weren’t perfect—far from it, in fact—life back then had this beat by a longshot.”

“What happened? How did we end up like this anyway—underground, I mean?”

Smitty worked his way to his feet, moving on the ramshackle hinges that served as his joints. They were so old, I could almost hear them creaking as he stepped over to one of his gadgets. This one was mounted to the wall above his sink, and it was fashioned from a series of pipes, valves, and levers. He turned a number of these in precise succession, then wheeled a large crank round and round again. The machine began chugging to life. Steam shot out from different places where the pipe connections weren’t so tight, and Smitty kept tinkering with his contraption, hand tightening pipe fixtures, working to close the gap in the seams.

Eventually he produced a rusty tin cup, to which he held beneath a makeshift spigot. Thick brown fluid—just enough to fill his cup halfway—emptied from his machine and into the cup. When Smitty had milked all he could for the moment, he turned to face me again, wearing his mostly toothless grin.

“What is that? Machine oil?”

“Nawp. Swill. Smitty’s own house blend. D’you want some?”

“No thanks.” I tried to hide my disgust, not wanting to know what the “swill” had been rendered from. Don’t get me wrong—I like alcohol as much as anyone else, but something about Smitty’s homebrew unsettled my stomach.

“Suit yourself,” he said, looking a bit offended. He took a swig of the beverage, nearly gagging. “That’ll clean out the pipes for sure! Whew!” He mopped his brow with a greasy handkerchief.

“So come on! Tell me already!” I prompted him, wanting any excuse to delay relaying the troublesome information I had come to bring him about my tax change.

He looked dead serious for an instant, sizing me up. “If you really wanna know, Smitty’ll tell ya. But I’m only gonna tell the story once, so you better not interrupt me.” He took another healthy swig from his cup, making his cheeks flush.

“Whatever you say, Smitty.”

“All right. It all started with the trash, believe it or not. For instance, do you know where the trash goes once we’re done with it?”

***

“The world was bigger back then; noisier, busier, and if you can believe it; dirtier. Even with all that land and open air topside, we humans were running out of room. Smitty was only a kid back in those days, but he remembers topside life like it was yesterday.”

“We all lived in gigantic cities, which were nothing more than buildings stacked up on more buildings. And the people were packed in, kinda how we are now. Nothin’ but people; swarms of ‘em, all goin’ about their business, wantin’ to always do the same thing at the same time. Kinda like a herd of animals.” Smitty paused for a moment, and took another swig. “The cities were run by big businesses. They controlled everything. If they could get the herd to buy their usually useless crap, drink their sodas, wear their shoes…well, then these businesses would get rich. And the herd kept buyin’ and consumin’ and wastin; feedin’ the bastards at the top. But one thing that no one thought of, was all the garbage that was created as a result of the herd’s appetite. And boy, was that appetite big!

One thing that sticks out to me from my memories of being a boy, is just how much it stank. There was trash everywhere; inside the cities, outside the cities, great mountains of it, rising almost as high as the buildings themselves. They used to bury it underground; Landfills they called ‘em. Ha! Now look what’s fillin’ up the underground; us! By that time, there was nothin’ natural left on the planet. All of the ore was mined from the rocks; all of the trees scrapped and used for lumber; which led to the damned muck in the air. There wasn’t even any fresh water left; it was all bottled up, recycled, and sold by the businesses. Can you imagine that? Something the planet used to make plenty of for free; eventually, all of it was owned and sold by companies.

Well, these businesses were left with one hell of a garbage problem. So what do ya think they did? They shipped it off world, of course! There were great rocket ships the size of skyscrapers, all filled to the brim with the smelly, stinky, rotten heaps of trash that had built up over hundreds of years.

They sent these contraptions out into space, where they crash landed on what the big businesses considered prime real estate.

No one, not even the scientists, thought much of the rock that orbits our planet. It had no life, no water, no useable minerals; only craters and dust. So they decided to move the pollution from one planet to the next.

Things topside did get better for a while – at least the trash was disappearing- but they weren’t prepared for what happened next.

That small moon above; Pa used to tell Smitty that it would glow pale yellow, kinda like that government cheese we get in our rations. He said that when he was a boy, he could see a face in it, made from the scratches and craters. He would tell me that it was God lookin’ down at us all. But ever since we started sendin’ our trash up there, the face changed; even disappeared.

On nights when the muck cleared a little, you could stand outside and watch it change. I know it sounds crazy, but when Smitty was a boy, he could see things happenin’ up there. You see, Smitty’s Pa had a piece of glass called a telescope. See the place we were sending our trash. It wasn’t a sterile and empty rock anymore; it was covered in clouds; real clouds. Smitty never got to see what was under those clouds, but whatever it was, Smitty was sure it had to be alive. People said that all of the trash we were sendin’ up there made things grow; and that new lifeforms were livin’ there. I never did believe ‘em though.

Meanwhile, things back here were getting’ worse. The muck got thicker, makin’ it nearly impossible to live up top. Like Smitty said, the big businesses pillaged anything worth anything from the planet. This only left us with the recycles, which, as you know, don’t last long. The businesses were losin’ profits, so they came up with a way to keep things goin.’ They dug us deep into this underground and built these hives, hopin’ that one day we’d all be able to get back to the surface. But the only thing that’s able to live topside are those damned Dactyls.”

“Yeah Smitty, that’s actually why I came to visit.” I spoke up, the reason why I came to Smitty’s pod finally reaching my lips.

“Your number got pulled then.” It wasn’t a question. Smitty’s face became serious and a little sentimental. He walked over to his homemade swill machine, and cranked it up again, refilling his mug. “Here, drink this.”

This time I didn’t refuse.

***

I left Smitty’s pod feeling somehow worse that when I had arrived. I don’t know what I had expected; sympathy; empathy; grandfatherly advice? The following days flew by in a blur of sleep-deprived panic, each bringing me closer to my inevitable moment of truth. The only relief came from emptying the garbage, where at least half of my mind could focus on something besides what it would feel like to have my flesh torn apart by a Dactyl. The other half of my mind formulated desperate, ill-conceived plans to try and escape. But I knew that the penalty for tax evasion was death. And my feeble, half-baked notions of escaping were my way of dealing with the end; whether it came by beast or bullet.

I was like that up until the last day. I thought I would’ve been the most scared then, but instead I felt numb. I went through the motions of washing my face and combing my hair as if I were going to any other tax assignment…one that I would surely live through. This attitude was not due to optimism or any renewed vigor on my part, but the sheer routine of preparing for another day; it was the only thing that made me feel human.

I decided to leave at 0400, so I could swing by Smitty’s for one last chat before I was thrown to the Dactyls. When I knocked, I was surprised to encounter a stranger, groggy-eyed, and very pissed off to be disturbed so early in the morning.

“Whatdya want?!”

“I-I was looking for Smitty.”

“Look like you got the wrong pod.”

My eyes darted to the number plate on the door. Yep, it was pod C-5, the same one I had visited just days ago.

“He was here.”

”I moved in yesterday.”

My heart sank. “Smitty. What happened—?“

“How the hell should I know? Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got some sleep I need to get back to.” He slammed the plastic door in my face. Smitty was old, but the far more likely explanation was that he had run into gov’t trouble. Poor Smitty. Just thinking of the old timer, one remnant of a time when we lived on the surface as we were meant to, nearly brought a tear to my eye. I thought of how he had taken other people’s trash and made something out if it. Part of that surface, like that other time, had seeped into everything Smitty put his hands to, allowing him to build, create, and hope. There was something about his life that was dedicated to more than just mere survival; that he wouldn’t have been satisfied simply existing. Smitty was one in a million. Now that he was gone, I felt more alone and confused that I ever had before.

I turned away from Smitty’s pod, resolved to make my long walk to what would most likely be a horrific and painful death. But as I took my first few steps, I heard Smitty’s pod door open again.

“Hey!” The new tenant of pod C-5 called after me. He was holding Smitty’s make shift scrapbook- the one with the picture of a car in it- out to me.

“Wha-?”

“I found this under the cot. It must’ve belonged to this ‘Smithy’ of yours. I don’t know…”

“Smitty. His name was Smitty.”

“Whatever. Do you want it or not? [I don’t know why he had it. It’s just a bunch of old pictures. Kinda smells like garbage.”

“Yeah, yeah I’ll take it.” Although I didn’t have much use for the book where I was going, I still liked having this memento of the old timer. I grabbed it before the grouchy tenant could slam the door shut on my hand.

I stood in the corridor, taking what might have been my only chance to look through Smitty’s collected scraps of evidence. That we had once lived on the surface. I opened to a picture of a giant tree. I had never seen so much green before. The color seemed to jump out at me from every picture with trees and plants. I had only seen the stunted specimens that the gov’t raised for food or oxygen. The flora in these pictures called to my imagination. I wanted to feel the rough bark, smell the sap, and get lost in its branches and leaves, so vivid, so alive.

As I turned to the next page, a peculiar piece of paper, folded neatly into fourths fell to the floor. I picked it up, and unfolded it. The note was written in Smitty’s scratchy, wayward writing, some of the words misspelled:

Remember that bumper I showd you? Well, there’s more where that came from. Go find the rest of it. It’ll be wurth yer wile! It’s at the shop.

P.S. Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’!

I wondered what the hell this meant. Obviously the note had been intended for me, unless Smitty was in the habit of showing off his contraband to other interested parties. What did he have up his sleeve?

I pulled up my sleeve to look at my gov’t issued watch. 04:30. If I timed it right, I could drop by the garbage shop where Smitty worked, to see what he was talking about, if anything. Then I should have just enough time to report to my next tax assignment. And if I was a couple of minutes late, what were they gonna do, kill me? I laughed to myself as I set out for the garbage dump.

When I arrived, the place was deserted. The morning shift was already out on their rounds, collecting the population’s collected waste.

I easily found Smitty’s old workstation. The gov’t hadn’t bothered to clear it out yet. It was filled with more of the wonderous contraptions he had made from piecing together his various findings in the trash.

It was sad to look over the remains of a dead man; what had amounted to his life’s work. All of the toil; the spark of creativity; the magic that had arisen from Smitty’s unique vision of a world lost; it was all here, forgotten and misunderstood.

I opened the drawers to his tool box caressing the implements Smitty had used to build his defiant monuments. Just by feeling them, I could tell they were well loved and worn. How many things had he built with these tools? How many half-formed thoughts had made their way into this world, intruding into their purposeless and segmented lives? And who else but Smitty could’ve joined hands, tools, and mind together with such clarity? The more I snooped around Smitty’s old stomping ground, the more I realized just how little I knew about him. Even in death, the old cracker barrel was able to surprise me.

Just when I was about to leave, I noticed something extra peculiar about Smitty’s workspace.

Tucked away in a far off cubby hole was that bumper-thing that Smitty had been so excited about. I barely noticed it among the other scrapes of a junk pilled in his area. I ran my hand along its cold, smooth surface; feeling a little nostalgic over Smitty and his fondness for these strange artifacts. I traced the bumper to the place where it was apparently bolted to a larger object; round and also metallic.

I stood up, stepping back to take a better look. If I trained my eyes right, I could almost make out the shape of this larger object.

“Smitty, you old bastard! How did you-?”

I couldn’t trust my disbelieving eyes; I had to feel this for myself. To the bottom right of the bumper was a small opening, a vent sized crawlspace that would give me access to the object. I got down on my hands and knees and squeezed my way through the crawl space to emerge into a secret room. Actually, it was more like a make shift garage assembled from Smitty’s garbage findings. At the center of this shed-sized room was exactly the object I thought I had seen, attached to the bumper, staring at me in plain sight from its hiding spot. This was one of Smitty’s cars he had fawned over so lovingly. I had only seen them in his picture book, but I was sure that this was it; the real thing.

There wasn’t much room to move around in the small hidden space that Smitty had created for his car. I looked over the vehicle as much as I could, admiring something that had been created in a more luxurious time; something not borne strictly out of necessity. It really was like a work of art, and I could tell that this car had been Smitty’s pride and joy. How he had kept it a secret for so long is a mystery that brought a smile to my face.

I opened the door and sat in the seat. It wasn’t very comfortable. I couldn’t imagine people traveling over great distances in such a cramped vehicle, but there was something compelling about it just the same. It was the idea of roaming, exploring; even if every square inch of surface land had already been navigated by others, there was still the exciting prospect of seeing these places for yourself, walking the land, or in this case, driving.

There was a small mirror hanging from the ceiling. I supposed that this was a way to see what was going on behind you as you were driving. It was really quite ingenious. A pair of red fuzzy dice was tethered to the mirror, adding a playful edge to the car.

I put my hands on the wheel in front of me. It looked similar to what you’d find on one of the hatch doors that separated us from topside. At the center of the wheel was a strange symbol containing a jagged series of lines that almost looked like letters:

vw

VW? I turned the wheel to the left, thinking that it would keep turning, unscrewing like the round handles of the hatch doors, but it only turned so far before catching on something. I turned the wheel back to the right and the same thing happened. There were so many knobs and levers, I wasn’t sure of which devices did what, but after some experimenting, I was able to start the engine. It sounded old and grumpy—kind of like Smitty—but it kept running.

I could smell smoke filling the room—well, it wasn’t entirely like smoke, and it wasn’t entirely unpleasant; it was apparently some sort of invisible by-product made by the car; a type of exhaust. There was something about the smell of it that transported me to the time when people drove these cars on open, sprawling roads. I could feel the pull of those roads, zooming the car in the open air. I could feel—

The dim, secret alcove of Smitty’s workstation suddenly flared in bright lights and caterwauling sirens. A voice boomed from every loudspeaker in the Underground and all of its hives.

“TAX I.D. 44728-17! GIBSON, SHANE! YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF TAX CONDUCT CODE 14-D, MANDATORY COMPLIANCE! YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO REPORT TO YOUR ASSIGNED AREA OR FACE TAX PENALTY!”

I was late for my tax assignment. The thought of facing Dactyls and armed tax police seemed more unappealing than ever. If I was to die, perhaps I could go out with style. Maybe it was the car—this crazy time machine from a different era—enticing me with its smells and road mysteries. Maybe it was the fact that I was more than five minutes out from Hatch Terminal 90, the place where I was supposed to be. Whatever the case, all I could think to do was get the car movin.’

I tried more levers and switches until the car lurched forward, bursting through the wall of junk where it had been sequestered.

“So that’s what a bumper is for!” I shouted, feeling the excitement of driving for the first time. My feet found a couple of pedals near the floor, and I was happy to discover that one of them was the throttle.

As I stepped on the pedal, I was shoved back in my seat by the sudden forward force. I was heading straight for a wall. I didn’t realize how powerful and fast a car could be. I grabbed onto the “VW” wheel, which was the only thing I could grab onto, and braced myself to crash. By some miracle however, I turned the wheel at the right time, making a hard right. So this wheel was meant to help the vehicle maneuver. The rubber wheels screeched in protest as I swerved, clipping the side mirror.

“Yee haw, Smitty!” I whooped. But my celebration was short-lived. The sharp turn had saved me from crashing into the wall, but ended up steering me dead on towards the trash compactor. “Oh shit!” My foot was still on the throttle, and I drove straight off of the metal cliff-edge and into the compactor.

The car plopped to a rest, halfway buried in a mound of garbage. As soon as I landed, the automatic sensor detected what it thought was another load of trash, triggering the massive compactor walls to compress in on me. I tried to open the car doors, but the vehicle was stuck too deep in the trash, trapping me inside.

I watched in horror as the walls pressed closer, threatening to mash me in with the garbage. At that moment, the thought of being eaten alive by a Dactyl seemed rather pleasant compared to this gruesome end.

Just as the car became completely engulfed by the refuse of the masses, the compactor’s hefty machinery stopped. I couldn’t see anything out of the windows; the compressed garbage blocked out all light. I could only hear and feel the mound of garbage, now neatly cubed, being carried down a conveyor belt.

***

I’ve been like this for what I can only assume have been days now, trapped in the dark, with nothing to breathe except rancid air. I say that I’ve been like this for days, but I really have no sense of time. I’ve had to rely on my other senses to figure out what I think is happening.

After the conveyor belt, there was no sound or motion; only creepy, smelly darkness. I fell asleep on-and-off, wondering how long it would take for me to die here, alone in this steel and glass coffin.

During one of my naps, I was jarred awake by a deep rumbling that was so loud I thought it would make me deaf. Then, without warning, I was squashed back into my seat. This force was much more powerful than the force I had experienced when I stepped on the car’s throttle. But I was in motion.

The rumbling seemed to go on forever; I never thought the shaking would end, but it eventually did. And when it did, I felt the most peculiar of sensations. All was quiet, and I was no longer pressed into my seat, but floating inside the cabin of the car. I had heard about rocket travel, and the bizarre effects of leaving the planet’s gravity. Was I really in outer space?

The abrupt change in gravitation was too much for me and I felt like throwing up. There was a thick, buckled strap below be on the seat. I pulled myself down and strapped in, clicking the buckle in place. I closed my eyes, gripping the turning wheel tight.

When my nausea went away, I opened my eyes. The pair of red fuzzy dice were floating in front of me, bouncing from ceiling to window in lazy traces. Something about their nonchalant gliding made me smile in spite of my predicament.

What if Smitty had been right? What if I’m on a one way trip to that other place; the one I could see every so often from the skylights? What is waiting for me there?

I reach around to the left seat cushion, finding another lever. I pull it and my seat tilts back. I put my hands behind my head, stretching out a little, imagining what lies ahead. When I close my eyes, I see myself racing along open stretches of alien road, flying through the landscape in my very own car.

 

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