by Liz Bennefeld
Susan Greene glanced at her watch, then looked back down the tunnel. Almost time. Finally a light marked the train’s approach. Grabbing her backpack, she moved to join the other passengers. Mostly commuters on their way to offices in the city’s center, judging by the suits. The hour-long ride was enough time to check e-mail and read the online business news.
For a moment, Susan wished she were still one of them, on her way to a routine day with nothing more to think about than getting through the lab work and telephone calls and staff meetings that had occupied her for so long. That life had come to an end when she’d responded to a newspaper ad over a year ago. An intriguing invitation in these days of high-rise buildings covering both coasts and higher rising population numbers with correspondingly smaller living spaces.
The ad, tucked away in the “Technical” section, had read: “Seeking adaptable problem-solvers to develop new fields of opportunity. Room for expansion and career growth.” Calling the number on a whim—Who didn’t want “room for expansion”?—she’d found herself in a telephone interview that had ended with a request for her resume and an appointment for a battery of aptitude tests.
Susan looked down at her new “dress for success” outfit. Soft leather boots and snug, brown slacks, topped by a bright blue tunic trimmed in red. Not a conservative suit. No sensible black pumps. Never again!
Besides, her job hadn’t been all that great since the head of the lab, Dr. Howard Oliver, had announced he was leaving the university to take a position out of the country. Chuckling to herself, she snuggled down in her seat and closed her eyes for a short nap. If she were lucky, maybe she could manage a dream about Howard.
Susan woke with a start. Not sure how long she’d been asleep, she looked at her watch, but the hands had barely moved from where they were when she’d boarded the train. She tapped it, but the second hand wouldn’t move. She looked up and asked another passenger for the time, but he barely glanced at her before turning back to his newspaper. Then, over his head, she spotted the guide for the next leg of the journey. David was waving, trying to get her attention.
Apologizing to the man across from her, who was still engrossed in his reading and trying to pretend she didn’t exist, Susan gathered up her backpack and moved to join David.
“I fell asleep and my watch died. Today, of all days!”
Grinning back at her, David grabbed her elbow and guided her down the aisle and through the door. “We’re gathering in the last car, this time.” David’s voice, a pleasant baritone, projected a warmth and security that always put her at ease.
Three cars back, a small group of men and women were visiting quietly together, while one fellow played softly on a wooden flute.
“Here she is!” David called, as they walked to the back of the car. Some people she knew, and other faces looked familiar from orientation and training classes. Settling in next to Dianne, a woman about her own age, Susan pulled the Institute’s handbook out of her backpack and started leafing through it.
“Will we really get to see a forest?” Dianne sighed. “Not just a few trees in a park, but a real, honest-to-god forest?”
“There’s got to be a forest,” David reassured her, taking a seat across from the two women. “Otherwise, why would I need to learn how to build a sawmill?”
“I’ve met the fellow who took the pictures.” Peter set down his flute and started to clean it. “We roomed together for a couple weeks when we took that class on making musical instruments. He’s already gone over.”
“It’s real, all right,” Susan chimed in; “in ag orientation, they had plants I’d never even heard of before, and I have a master’s in botany.”
As the commuter train continued through the city on its way to the access port, the last few members of their company found their way to the last car.
“David, how long do we have? My watch must have stopped right after I got on the train.”
“Just a few more minutes to the last stop on the line.”
“Get your things together, everybody. We’ll only have a couple of minutes.”
As the train came to a halt, David and Peter opened the emergency door at the side of the car, and everyone filed out. Susan, the first out of the train, hurried to the doorway and keyed in her code.
Stepping aside, she counted each person to go through, then entered herself. As she turned to make sure the door was locked, she heard the now faint sound of the train pulling away. If all went well, she’d never hear that sound again.
Turning, she went through the second door that David was holding open only six feet away. A door that would lead, not into a basement hallway at the Institute, this time, but into a new world. A world where people had never evolved. Another chance.
Susan and David walked through the door, which opened into the interior of a cave. Just beyond, she could hear the sound of water rushing down the mountain, just far enough away that she could hear the others talking and laughing outside. Sunlight filtered down through broad-leafed trees.
To the left, there was a tunnel downward with wooden railings fastened to the stone walls. “Cold storage,” said a familiar voice in back of her; turning, Susan saw Howard Oliver. “There’s a cold, underground river, down there.
We’re putting the milk and butter down there to keep it cool.”
Susan walked to the mouth of the cave and looked down the hill to the settlement.
“That’s just temporary, you know.” Howard moved to join her. “Using the caves for cooking and storing food makes sense for the time being. But we’re close to a river. Before you know it, we’ll have lumber for better houses and electricity for lights and grinding grain.”
“I didn’t know you’d be here, but I should have guessed,” Susan said. “You’re the one who left that newspaper on my desk.”
“What newspaper was that?” He turned red and looked out over the houses.
“You know . . . the one with the Institute’s ad circled?”
“Oh, that. I knew I would be moving here, soon. I hoped you’d want to, too, once you learned about it.”
Howard turned to face her.
“I knew you could contribute a lot to the project.”
She didn’t say a word.
“And . . . and I wanted to get to know you better?”
Susan shook her head, and then grinned at him. “I wanted to get to know you better, too, Howard. With you gone, there was no reason for me not to leave the university.”
Taking her hand, Howard walked with her towards the settlement. “Let me show you around your new home.”
* * *
Copyright © January 2001, by Elizabeth Bennefeld.