Chapter Nine: The Meeting Place
Sara’s footsteps kicked up small puffs of dust and crackled on the occasional patch of vegetation. The single file line crawled silently along the dirt path in the dim light of the modified lamps.
She studied the back of the person in front of her, Joran, she heard someone call him. He was taller than she was, blocking her view of the path ahead. His brown hair had been shaved close and it bristled above the collar of his faded red shirt. His pants were dust repellent, the creased blue uniform of the park maintenance officers.
The line stopped.
Sara tried craning her neck as far right as she could to see what was going on, but she almost lost her balance in the darkness. She leaned against the wet, rocky wall that bordered the left side of the path. On the right side was a deep crevice. The grim looking woman behind her had assured her the crevice was bottomless, and even if it wasn’t, no one had ever crawled back out to set the record straight.
The line began to move again.
The Inhabitants walked for another three or four minutes until they came to a brown rock wall, smooth except for the crack extending from the path and continuing out of sight. The crack made a natural entrance into the meeting place.
Sarah filed through the narrow archway sideways into the room, and put a hand in front of her eyes against the unexpected brightness. The room was round, almost aggressively so, and domed upward for more than 200 feet with a large, brilliantly glowing orb at the apex. The walls were smooth, brown stone with an arched recess carved every two or three feet at eye level, all of them stuffed full of books. Cushions and pillows littered the floor, and several people began to take a seat.
What bewildered Sara the most was not the strange orb, or that she was in a giant underground cavern surrounded by rebels in the middle of the night, or even the hundreds (thousands?) of books, it was the silence. No commercials assaulted her vision, no jingles chirped in her ear, no facts or logistics flitted across her lenses when she looked at the faces around her. For the first time she could remember, everything was silent. Her fingers felt thick and heavy. Smells – earthy, cold, metallic, sweat – bombarded her nose. She had experienced a small fraction by not taking her vitamins, but this, this was different.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Ro, slapping her on the back, “the stone is a natural inhibitor. None of your implants will work. Keeps spies from recording what they see here.”
She plopped down on a worn blue pillow with a smirk.
Before Sara had a chance to retort, a tall man whom Sara didn’t recognize announced in a loud, deep voice that the meeting was about to begin and would everyone please grab a seat.
Sara chose a round silver cushion and sat with her back against the wall, her nerves jangling. She noticed Eli laughing with a group of other young Inhabitants and wondered how he came here, and what he was up to.
“If everyone is settled, let’s begin. The situation is growing steadily worse, so meetings might not be as frequent. Food, real food, is in short supply, so we’ll need to ration unless anyone wants to go back to eating the sludge,” here there were groans and some chuckles, “and Guy was caught stealing parts for the Weapon.” A collective murmur rippled through the room, and the man held his hands up for silence. “We’ll need another volunteer. Anyone who is interested should see myself or Jack after the meeting. Okay then,” he clapped his hands and rubbed them together, “grab your book and a partner.”
Sara stood and stared at the stacks of books, confused, but excited. The books in her recess were in various states of disrepair, with only two or three in decent shape, and the rest missing pages, moldy, or burnt around the edges. She chose a hardcover book with light burn marks and missing most of its spine, then sat down, again with her back to the wall. She sniffed at the book. Its smell was smoky, but pleasant, pulling to the surface memories of Love’s book. She wondered briefly if Love and her parent’s had ever attended one of these meetings before she was interrupted by a chirpy voice.
“Hey there, hiya, how ya doin’, my name’s Margie,” the petite middle aged woman announced. She had long black hair and was dressed head to toe in flamboyant green. Even the pillow she held was green. “Wanna be my partner?”
Without waiting for a reply, Margie dropped her giant green pillow in front of Sara, releasing a cloud of dust that made Sara cough and Margie sneeze seven times.
“Sorry about that doll,” Margie shook her head and sneezed an eighth time, “are ya ready?”
“This is actually my first time. Do we read the books, or…” she trailed off, looking at Margie expectantly.
“Oh honey, we memorize the books,” Margie grinned, “we restore them and memorize them until we know them by heart so even if they are taken away, we’ll always have them with us. It’s important work.” She gently slapped the book she was holding, releasing another, smaller cloud of dust that sent her into another fit of sneezes.
“This is the Iliad, and I’ve been memorizing it for four weeks now,” she continued after taking a deep breath, cradling the book like a sleeping child. “What did you pick honey?”
Sara flipped the book open. “Wuthering Heights,” she said.
“Sounds good to me,” Margie chuckled. “Let’s get started. I like to read a paragraph three or four times to get the gist, then work on memorization, then have my partner test me, but you do you honey.” She settled into her mammoth pillow and began to read.
The room filled with muttering and whispers, each Inhabitant intent on their task. Margie told her later that a handful of Inhabitants, only she used the word “people,” had memorized three or even four books. Sara realized that no one used the word “Inhabitant” to address each other down here and thought it was strange, but nice.
At the end of the meeting, the tall man assigned them into groups of four or five and gave them each an exit number.
“And remember, if you get caught,” he took a deep breath, “well, just don’t get caught.”
Tomas, Sara, another girl, and Eli had the same group. She followed them along one of the side trails that wound in dizzy circles and was full of creeping insects she frantically swatted out of her face and hair.
“Hey, so this trapdoor leads to the basement of the hovboard shop,” Eli told her as they paused beneath a smooth gray stone. “We leave one by one in intervals of five to seven minutes.”
The group crawled out of the tunnel and into the basement. Tomas bade them goodnight and walked upstairs to his apartment over the shop. The girl left out the shop’s back door, leaving Eli and Sara to wait.
Sara was still thinking of her book when Eli broke the silence.
“Good Founder’s Day to you, Inhabitant Sara Todd,” he smiled.
“Good Founder’s Day to you as well, Eli,” she replied. She had almost forgotten the High Holiday.
Eli waved his hand to indicate it was her turn to depart.
“Be safe,” he said.
Sara made her way home without incident and fell into bed. Her dreams were full of books and windy moors and brightly colored gum commercials.
Her mother woke her a few hours later with a cup of hot tea, a slice of buttered toast, and a vitamin.
“Good Founder’s Day, Sara,” she sang, “time to take your vitamin!”
Sara sighed. Back to reality.