Written for jorizo's prompt during the 2013 be_compromised Valentine's Day promptathon. I was lucky enough to find the best beta in all of creation, AlphaFlyer.
Honestly - thank you for your patience with my run-on sentences and my rambling and the multitude of spelling mistakes and just - everything. Your honesty and encouragement mean the world and make this story just about 200% better! So, I really wanted to contribute to the promptathon and on the day it opened, I was lazily scrolling through the prompts, re-read this one again and - BAM! This thing hit me like a brick-wall and wouldn't let me get up until I'd started typing.
This is the longest piece of writing I've ever done and I am quite proud of it. In total, there will be between 3-6 chapters. It's all been written already, I just don't know where to cut the story and I am still grooming the mess that is the remaining 25 pages of writing.
Connection Day - Chapter 1
"Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me."
William Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing
He's got his hat pushed deep into his face and his collar high as he makes his way through the tunnel that leads him from the factories to his next destination, Breakfast Hall IX. Somewhere far above and outside his reach, he knows the dark clouds are closing in and the wind is howling furiously, tearing at whatever is left on the tortured surface. He knows because they tell you it's the truth. Clint can nearly imagine the feeling of fresh air on his face, of clear rain splashing on his cheeks and if he wills himself to it, he might even imagine he remembers the feeling of sun-warmed skin. But he can't feel any of these things, not really. He hardly even remembers them. How could he when he has spent the last 30-odd years of his life so deep underground he sometimes thinks his memories must be dreams. So instead, he tries to hide deeper into his collar and walks on, not breaking the line, nearing his destination just in time.
They give you 10 minutes to walk from Factory Y to Breakfast Hall IX. If you walk briskly, you can make it in 9 minutes, 20 seconds. If you slack, you'll get a line lasered onto the skin of your forearm for two days. The lasering doesn't hurt, but the smaller food rations and the shorter curfew do. Also, it doesn't do well to get lasered more than once a month. They call you up to Directory then. No one likes going up to Directory.
Clint tends to make use of his one lasering once a month, always carefully dancing on the line of infraction. Not today, though. Today he tries to blend in, to go unnoticed, anything to escape the inevitable. He shuffles past the security detail, scans his fingertip – 9 minutes 48 seconds – and grabs himself a tray. He jokes with the on-duty kitchen girls, like he always does, giving them a smile and a wink, but he knows his heart isn't in it. Still, everything is fine until Betty at check-out raises her voice.
She practically squeals, making as if to launch herself from her assigned seat behind the register. But she stays put, because you don't do unassigned things. Clint closes his eyes for a moment, gripping his tray more forcefully, his left wrist burning.
"Oh don't look so gloomy, you old bachelor! This will be the day, Clint. Your life will turn itself upside down, it will be wonderful!"
Betty continues to coo, her eyes wide with excitement and Clint tries to give her a smile - for her sake.
It isn't that he doesn't like Betty. He does, otherwise he wouldn't even try to make her feel better. But she is like most of the others. Content with the repetition, happy with her lot in life and likes to think that happiness can be gained from giving up any pretense of autonomous decision.
Clint just doesn't agree with that, which is why he stands out. The older community members like Betty seem to like him well enough, in a let's-pat-his-cheek, oh-the-ideas-of-young-people kind of way. But most people his age and younger avoid him, which suits him just fine if he is honest.
Behind him, he can feel people taking notice, can hear the murmurs starting. 'It's his Connection Day!' 'About time if you ask me, he's nearly 40.' 'I'll pray for whoever ends up with that grumpy old fart …'
He ignores them, like he always does.
"How much time have you got left?" Betty practically beams at him and Clint nearly drops his tray, so desperate is he to hide his wrist, to stuff it into the pocket of his flimsy jacket.
"Couple of hours." He answers, voice scruffy for no reason. "Good day, Bets."
And before she can go on he walks away, wishing for shadows and dark corners where there is only pale light and stale squareness. He sits down at one of the empty tables, it doesn't matter which one, they're the same anyway. One mass of metal, formed into both bench and table. Everything is kept in the same tones of grey and blue, just like everyone's clothes. It's all for the purpose of a smooth routine, to make it easier for people. So they don't waste time and energy on unnecessary decisions, such as how to dress themselves, or how to decorate their rooms, or where to step next. This way there is more energy left to put into work, into finding a solution for the communal problem.
It's what runs their life, the one driving force behind every decision – finding a cure. When natural disasters started to take over the world some 100 years ago, there was still hope. But man is greedy and man is egotistical and so what used to be terrible disasters turned into everyday life. People moved on, people looked away. And technology advanced and science evolved and wars were fought and the world kept on spinning until one day technology and science went a step too far.
Clint is fuzzy on the details. He was five when the bright blue sky above him turned black and something akin to ash began raining from up high. All he knows for certain is that The Corporation, at that point, was already in everyone's mouths and heads, a kind of 'Utopia-Project', or so it was called, that was trying to prepare mankind for the inevitable. And so when the toxins spread, The Corporation stepped into the light and finally shared its story with the public. It opened the doors wide and everyone went.
Not everyone made it but no one, to Clint's knowledge, disobeyed the call of The Corporation.
The alternative, it had been made abundantly clear, was death.
And so it started, a new life, a new conviction. Clint does not know how people were assigned their stations, but he guesses it was a rather simple matter of picking the few ones that had technological and scientific knowledge while the rest would do the manual labor to keep the place running. It's how Clint ended up where he is now. His parents never even made it to The Corporation and he doesn't know what happened to them. He thinks his father died on the train into the Corporation, but he isn't sure. There were many deaths on that train.
Being an orphan wasn't uncommon for children in the Corporation, but it didn't mean bright things for your future either. But it's an okay life, Clint thinks, for the most part. And it makes sense, he knows it does. So many people herded together in such a small place, means order is important. The Corporation was their last chance of survival; they brought 'Utopia', so why question what they were selling?
What The Corporation says is gospel and it's what everyone believes. Efficiency and accuracy, believing and obeying. Still, it scares Clint sometimes, how no one seems to question anything. He understands the logic behind it from the view of the Corporation, but not from the view of the people. How around him everyone just falls into line, happily accepting the small scraps of pre-designed individuality that is sometimes thrown their way.
But it's not as if he is any better. He might not agree, but he is just as obedient - on the outside at least. He is too chicken shit to do something about his doubts and his thoughts, too scared to rebel against harmonization though he longs for individualism. And so he is the odd one out, the quiet one, the pitied one.
Clint looks up and grunts a response around his eggs and toast. He really shouldn't complain, because no one pities him as much as they pity Bruce. Everyone pities Bruce, everyone except Clint; maybe that is exactly why they are friends.
Clint swallows his bite and nods at Bruce.
Rarely are useless words spoken between the two of them, but the silence is never uncomfortable, so it's good. Today though, it seems like Bruce wants to talk, and the only reason he is twitching in his seat instead of spilling is that he knows how his friend feels about the one topic they've talked about until Clint was blue in the face. However this day will end, at least that conversation will be done for good, one way or another.
"Just say it," Clint grumbles into his coffee. A quick glance up lets him know he has another 6 minutes, 25 seconds left until his next rotation starts. Which makes it 1 hour, 23 minutes and 17 seconds of paralyzing freedom until …
"Nothing to say. Just … wondering if you're alright."
Bruce is shoveling down his own food as quickly as possible, but he still shares a long look with Clint, eyes on his only friend. Clint is the one that breaks the eye contact, looking back into his coffee, his thumb running over a little scratch on the metal mug.
"I'm fine." And if he keeps on saying it, he might just start believing it himself.
He can feel Bruce looking at him a while longer, until the five-minute warning rings and everyone starts scrambling to eat the last bits of food before they have to be on their way. Clint finds he has lost his appetite and so he gets up – earlier than expected, making heads turn because you don't do unusual things. But he is past caring. He squeezes his friend's shoulder, in understanding as much as in apology, and makes to get rid of his tray.
He always tries to be considerate of Bruce because he knows that Bruce is the only one who respects him, even if he might not understand him. But he respects the one thing no one else wants to even consider. That for Clint, the worst day of this rotten life is today.
The day everyone waits for with bated breath and prays to arrive early is the one day Clint wishes would never come.
Clint doesn't know the specifics of how it works, and he doesn't care to. What he knows is that today, in – he checks his wrist – 1 hour, 21 minutes and 3 seconds; he will meet the one person with whom he is meant to share the rest of his life. They will fall in love, they will get married, they will move in together, they will reproduce twice, they will die. His whole life is being laid out for him, a road ready to be taken at the speed of light, no bumps, no nooks and crannies, no road less travelled. There is only one road and everyone is rushing along it, heading for the same gloomy destination they are being sold as Utopia.
It isn't that he doesn't believe that love is real. No, he has met enough connected couples to know that they don't just play pretend; they do actually love each other. What he has trouble with is the choice, because they don't seem to have had one. He isn't allowed to choose what he can wear or what he can eat, which is bad enough. But even the person he is meant to be with is somehow pre-determined to the moment they meet. Everything is mapped out, prepared.
Clint never asked himself how it works, though maybe he should have. All he does know is, that he doesn't want another thing forced on him. He might not have it in him to really fight against the system (because – why would he? Where would he go?), but at least he has the memories of sun and wind and rain, faint as they are. He remembers sitting on a swing and aiming for the sky. Most people with these memories are gone now. Died on the way or too young to remember.
His children would never know that life. Already he works alongside Generation X, the uncontaminated ones, the ones that were born here, in this bubble of UV light and Vitamin B. Generation Z, his generation, is still pretending to work towards a cure, their one directive since coming to The Corporation so that one day, they can return to the surface. Generation X works because they know no other way - they were born into this life.
And no one dares to question a thing. Generation Z feels like they are not allowed. The Corporation saved their lives, how can a debt like that ever be repaid?
Clint can talk to Bruce about it, all the different things that irk him, that sometimes make his hands tremble, the reasons why he avoids communal events and "gets lost" once a month on his way to work. Bruce at least shares his views. So when they trade the small flask of burning liquor during the night, bought from an old soul down in Maintenance, they do their little bit of rebellion, keeping the memories of a former world alive and living life on their own terms as much as possible.
Connection Day had always been a distant future for Clint. The kind you are never going to reach anyway so why worry about it. When it says 23 years, 43 days, 22 hours, 56 minutes and 16 seconds on your wrist, imprinted when you turn 15, you start to believe the day will never come and you live your life accordingly.
And Bruce? His imprint read 120 years, 58 days, 2 hours, 43 minutes and 53 seconds when it got branded into his skin. Bruce was an anomaly. Of course they tried to find the mistake. But after the fifth branding and a number unchanged, it was decided that Bruce was not meant to find love. So Bruce was the odd one out, he was given a free ride. Bruce had what Clint wanted. The two of them had grown close back then, when Clint's number and Bruce's number both seemed abnormally far ahead. Hardly anyone was older than 30 for their Connection Day and so Clint and Bruce were avoided, because they were different. For the most part it suited them just fine.
Except that Bruce was lonely. He wasn't jealous of Clint, because he knew his friend was just as miserable with the fact that he did have a Connection Day, no matter how far ahead. But Clint knew that Bruce couldn't understand why he didn't want his number to run out. Bruce respected his opinion, shared a lot of his views, but he still wanted someone at his side. And Clint could sympathize with that, too. It wasn't that he didn't want to find … someone; it being love or something else. But he knew he did not want it here, not under these circumstances. Not under this type of corporate-brand freedom they were fed every day.
1 hour, 18 minutes, 10 seconds and Clint wants nothing more but to be back in the factory. The factories are safe; the same faces every day and the same spiel throughout. No one there could possibly be his match. And if he is in the factory, he won't meet anyone new. He knows it's stupid and that it probably won't make a difference. But he is the only one he knows of who doesn't embrace Connection Day, doesn't actively seek it out, so maybe – just maybe – it will work for him. He will be another anomaly, like Bruce. He could live with that.
When he gets to the check-out point and scans his fingertip again, he is being held back and for a second dread fills him. Is this how it works? Is this how you find your soul-mate? Because he has never seen a matching happening with his own eyes, has never seen two people, feverishly checking the pulse point of their wrists where the seconds are slowly ticking away until suddenly …
Well, he doesn't know what happens when the clock strikes zero.
He feels slightly clammy while he waits apart from the line, feels more eyes boring into the back of his head as he waits for the security detail to come back with whatever came up on screen when he scanned his finger. He tries to breathe through his nose, to stay calm but today of all days, he can't deal with the sudden changes. As much as he abhors the idea of a predetermined life, he cannot deny that it provides a sort of safety that he has gotten used to over the years. Sudden changes are usually thrilling, but today they make his stomach feel like lead.
"Barton, Clinton. Designation X5-494. You're being transferred to work in Factory X."
The detail looks at Clint with the smallest glimmer of interest. No, this kind of thing doesn't happen very often, especially not during a normal work day. Clint just looks back, hopes he doesn't appear too on edge. Factory X, that actually doesn't sound too bad. He has worked in Factory X before, he knows the foreman. Maybe it's only a normal change after all. He allows himself to breathe a little easier.
"Please follow the signs to Factory X, you've been given an additional 10 minutes."
And with that, he is free to leave. Quickly he steps back into the line and away from the prying eyes around him. And while he walks through another tunnel, the steady rhythm of worker-boots echoing away, he has a realization that grounds him very thoroughly.
He cannot lose this.
It might be the shittiest freedom in the history of the world but it's the only kind he has got. There is only so little time left until the Corporation decides again that his life needs a change and he doesn't want it. His life may be boring, but that would be his decision, to stick it out with Bruce. Their own bit of freedom that he chooses gladly, happily if only it gets him out of more pre-determined procedures. If only it means one less X5-generation to be added to the numbed worker bees. It may not have qualified as a rebellion in the good old days, but it's the only thing he has got and so he takes it. He stops walking, closes his eyes, breathes deep once, twice, steeling his resolve.
And decides to turn the other way.
Because he is on his extra time now, he is on his own. No one else is out in the corridors anymore, only the ever-present eyes up high can follow him now and it doesn't matter if the cameras and security find him in the end, if only they don't get to him in the next 75 minutes. He takes a wrong turn, down another few levels until he is deep in the maintenance shafts, where the lights are dim and the air is thick but he doesn't care.
The decision was his own, and the thought makes him giddy.
Quickly and on sure feet, Clint climbs in between thick pipes and air vents, up in the air so he is as high up as you can be when living several hundred meters underground. He feels good for the first time in weeks, months even. For a moment, he just breathes in the dirty air and feels so alive he doesn't even know how to put it into words. His heart is beating like crazy and his hands shake a little, but still he could laugh like he hasn't laughed in years. If this is what it felt like, back in the day, on the surface, when life was free and without inhibitions - why did people ever change? How could anything bad or horrible come from feeling like this?
Clint is so caught up in his own world, in the whirlpool of feeling suddenly rushing through his veins that he hears them too late. The footsteps of the security details are nearly on him and when he does notice them it is already too late. In a matter of seconds, they have him in an iron grip and in a steady rhythm of heavy duty boots, they march him up. Higher and higher – Clint can only hope, with every fiber of his being, that the stolen time has been enough. In the sudden panic and the struggle, he hasn't been able to glance at his wrist one more time, so all he has left is hope. The hope that the silent seconds have ticked by, that he has done the impossible and beat The Corporation at their own game.
That he broke free of their chains just once.