Runner-up 2018

Norah's Arc

by Julie Harris

Heather decided to wait five minutes before removing the bio helmet.  She wasn’t scared.  No-one who knew her would accuse her of being afraid.  It was the most important event in her seventeen year lifetime.  Why rush?
Behind the perspex visor Heather’s pale, translucent blue eyes surveyed the scene before her.  The air, filled with nothing, settled with silent stillness.
In the distance other bio suited bodies were busy collecting soil samples from designated areas around Norah’s Arc.  An endless stream of white suits entered or left one of the seven entrances to the triangular glass pod.  It was like watching moving mushrooms in Hydroponics. 
She gazed down on the middle of the pod where the raised glass circle touching three inner points of the triangle could be seen clearly from where she stood.  At its centre the ten storey glass tower reached up towards the grey sky.  Raising her head as high as she could, Heather could just make out the neighbouring glass tower, six miles away.  She pictured the earnest Semaphores signalling to each other with updates on the latest news.
In a few hours’ time she would join her other colleagues on the top floor of the Norah’s Arc glass tower.  They’d all share today’s experiences with each other and their leader Panther, the eldest of the Seventeens. 
Heather’s gloved right hand instinctively brushed the soft leather of the bio helmet.  ‘Come on,’ she decided, ‘time to find out what this outside is really like.’
But not here, standing on the sloping hillside.  She’d planned this moment for months, ever since the reports of small sprouting vegetation covering some parts of the ground had raised hopes of a new life.

Even wearing the bio suit, Heather’s athletic figure strode easily across the grey earth to a familiar spot behind a small pile of unwanted bricks.  She sat on a large rock at the edge of the mobile phone lake.
A hundred years before, the quarry had been filled with water and wildlife, surrounded by trees and plants, admired by visitors and studied by professionals with job titles ending in –IST.  The area, filled now by millions of useless mobile phones covered a radius of a mile and a half and down to a depth of half a mile.  At least, that’s what she’d been told.
Despite trying to stay calm as she tried unclipping the helmet, Heather’s heart beat fast and the pulse throbbed in her head.  This was why she’d wanted to be alone when she began the experiment.  How embarrassing for someone to see her hands shaking and record it in some damn report for Panther to read.
Taking a deep breath, she tried the clips again, remembering Hummingbird’s instructions.
‘It won’t be easy with your latex gloves so don’t try to rush things,’ the Bio Suit Dresser had explained.  They each held a helmet and Heather practised opening and closing the clips until she grasped the procedure.  Usually Hummingbird helped her into and out of the suit but she wouldn’t be with her on the outside.
‘What’s it like out there? ’
Hummingbird looked away shyly.  They’d gradually become friends since Heather had started to collect soil samples outside the Arc, increasing the area she covered to a couple of miles distance.  The small girl was a pale brown colour with deep brown eyes and long black lashes that Heather envied. 
She hesitated before answering, thinking of the atrium.  It was her favourite place in the Arc, filled with different varieties of trees with small birds flying around, chattering and shrieking at the start and end of the day.  She usually headed there after her missions and loved the frenetic activity.
‘It’s quiet.  Silent.  No noise at all.’
‘Nothing?’   Hummingbird sounded sceptical.
Heather thought again.  ‘Well there aren’t any trees.  There aren’t any animals running around like we have in Section Eight.  And no birds sing, because there aren’t any left outside.’
Hummingbird nodded, trying to understand.  ‘They all died – except the ones your mother saved and brought into the pod.’ 
‘Thank David for her vision.’  Heather said.

Success.  All clips were in the OPEN position and all she had to do was pull the helmet upwards and she’d be free from it.
The thumping inside her chest slowed as she held her breath and she screwed her eyes tight.
What was the point of not breathing and not looking around her?  All the reports for over a year, she’d been assured, confirmed that the outside air was finally free from plastic pollutants. 
‘Breathe you stupid woman.’  Her brain screamed at her and she panted short breaths as though lifting medium weights.  Her taut shoulders relaxed and she opened her eyes before breathing in deeply.
What was that smell? 
The shock of the outside air, filling her small, fine nose for the first time caused her to gasp with nauseous dry heaves.  Heather clamped her lips together to stop herself from tasting the foul air.  Her tongue played around her teeth until she was satisfied the flavour wasn’t unpleasant.
She’d smelt something like it once before.  There’d been an emergency incident during her first week working in the Agronomist lab.  With her soil and water studies completed the year before she was finally ready to test samples brought in by her colleagues.  The air filter system, controlled by the generator, broke down and she’d thought she’d suffocate from the dead air before she realised what was happening.
This was the same smell.  Stale air mixed with dusty soil.  She’d need to learn to live with it.
 As planned, Heather sat back and distracted her thoughts by scrutinising the mobile phone lake, inch by inch, yard by yard.  By the time her eyes reached its centre, her chest rose and fell with a steady rhythm.  Still wearing the latex gloves, she scratched the side of her head and brushed her fingers through her short chestnut hair.
 ‘Don’t overdo it.’
Heather knocked the helmet on its side and just managed to save it from sliding off the rock.
‘Turby! You scared the life out of me.  For Great David’s sake, what are you doing here?’ Her usual confident voice rose to a high pitched squeak. 
‘I thought I’d join you.  I know you like coming here.’  Turbot, one of the Security Patrol, had befriended her back in the Threes when they first began serious schooling by parents determined to educate the unpolluted ones.  Heather couldn’t pronounce Turbot, so Turby had stuck.
Despite their lifetime friendship, Heather was irritated by his interruption.  He was nine months older than her, handsome, six foot one and treated her with a proprietorial manner in front of others.  She resented him when he behaved that way.
He’d had also been given permission to remove his helmet and she noticed his red cheeks and tousled blond hair.  Had he also struggled with the first breaths outside?
‘I like to come here on my own.’  Heather’s tone was gentle but unfriendly.  Turby ignored her hint and sat down next to her, squeezing close to her hip.
He breathed deeply and smiled at his friend.  ‘Funny smell.  I suppose we’ll get used to it.’
‘We will.’
She’d never noticed until now, sitting so close to him, how Turby’s chin was covered with short stubby tufts of hair.  It was tempting to reach out and touch the bristles. 
Pleased to see her watching him, Turby stroked his chin.
‘Yeah, I need to shave.’
Turby mimed running his fist over his chin.  ‘It’s what men used to do.  They had sharp razors and in the Technological Age,’ he nodded towards the lake, ‘there were electric ones.  Before the electricity ran out of course.’
Heather was puzzled but didn’t feel like pursuing the subject. 
Turby grinned, showing even white teeth.  ‘It’s a good word isn’t it ‘TechNoLogic’.  Why were our parents and grandparents so stupid?’  Again he gestured towards the lake.
‘Why do you come here?’
‘My granddad drove one of the trucks that dumped all the mobile phones back in the 2030s – before the fuel supplies dried up.  There were so many of them and they couldn’t be recycled or destroyed without causing more earth pollution.’  Heather dropped her head to her right shoulder and squinted at the phones, dulled with exposure to the air.  ‘I like to pick one and pretend he owned it – touched it.  Like that pink one about three feet away.’
Turby accepted his friend was in the Superior Intelligence Group and knew so much more than he did. 
‘Do you really think we’ll all survive out here?’
Heather patted a slim test tube clipped to her belt.  It contained brown earth particles.
‘This proves there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.  The nano plastic pieces have finally degraded and washed away.  We’ve waited long enough to re-plant some of the trees growing in the atrium.’
There was something else to be proved too.  Turby knew that, even though Heather wasn’t going to mention her mother. 
‘What if the trees die?’
‘They won’t die, Turby.  They won’t die.’  Heather’s voice was sharp and impatient.  Sometimes she forgot Turby wasn’t included in the daily SIG sessions where the endless reports were examined.
Good natured as always, Turby held his hands up as though surrendering, not wanting to look and sound even more stupid.
‘Your mum did a good thing.’ 
Heather always brightened whenever anyone mentioned Norah.  ‘If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t have the atrium or the birds.’
‘Don’t forget all the animals she was determined to rescue.’
Another Turby grin and Heather finally relaxed; her smile encouraged him to feel better. 
‘We know the New Life won’t be easy, but now green shoots and plants have begun sprouting we can grow food that won’t slowly poison our bodies.’ 
Heather thought of her parents, their lungs and blood infected by the plastic traces still lingering in the food chain.
Turby watched Heather, guessing she was thinking of her parents.  They’d both been the last adults to die in the Herts area, leaving the teenage community to lead the new life. 
‘What was it like?’  He almost echoed Hummingbird’s question. 
Heather knew what he meant.  He’d asked the question before.  Turby’s parents had died when he was in the Fives.
‘I wish I’d realised how important they were to our survival.  I was fifteen and studying hard to pass the Soil Acidity exams when dad died and then mum a year later.  All I understood was they belonged to the Knowledge Leaders, educating all of us to accomplish roles usually fulfilled by adults three times our age.’
 ‘We’re the last.’ Turby announced unnecessarily.  ‘At least we are until the Twenty-Ones when it’ll be okay to have sex and babies.’  He shifted his position away from his friend.  ‘It’s a long time to wait.’
He watched Heather’s attractive profile and tried to ignore the reaction thundering through his body.  There were almost a thousand seventeen year olds living in the pod, self-governing, using guidelines set down by the now departed Adults.
‘How will it work?’ he wondered.
Heather leapt to her feet, picked up the helmet and tucked it under her arm.  The air didn’t seem to smell so bad now.  She strolled over to where small rocks and stones littered the ground and knelt reverently, bringing her face as close as she dared to the soft green carpet of clover. 
Turby breathed heavily behind her and she held her arm out.
‘Not too close.  Don’t frighten it.’
She tried to smell the small plants, eager to check if they resembled the species grown in the Hydroponics.  She stood up and joined him. 
‘It’s a miracle.’
‘A Great David miracle?’
‘No, a real miracle.  We should go back – make our reports.’
As they walked away, the fragile vegetation shuddered.  Something had disturbed the air.  Something bad. 
The trifoliate leaves shrivelled from it, unwilling to be tainted.

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