Penny is one of about two hundred people sitting in an auditorium that looks like it could hold at least five times that many. The walls are a depressing shade of beige, like pretty much everything else she's seen in the last few hours. The carpet's an uninspired shade of bureaucratic gray and the seats creak whenever anyone shifts, which is about every two seconds.
Everyone in the audience is in freshly pressed suits, not a lick of hair out of place. Those who have hair, at least. Job Interview Best, her mom would call it, but this is no ordinary job interview.
Penny's still not entirely sure what this is, or why they've let her in. She almost expects to wake up any second now. Back in a narrow bed and listening to the rain drumming against a steel roof. Instead, when the latest briefing ends and they get a short break, she lets the buzz of conversation float around her and concentrates on keeping her half-digested breakfast where it belongs.
"Excuse me," says a thin, dark-haired man in the front row.
Without pausing for Deputy Administrator Gablehauser to acknowledge him, the man gets to his feet and turns to face the room. Whispers start to ripple as he clears his throat with one hand pressing against the hollow of his throat, and a wave of chuckling sweeps toward her from a cluster of guards standing near the stage.
"I fully expect that only a handful of you in this room will make it through to the final selection committee interviews. Not everyone can compete with candidates as experienced and desirable as myself."
There's a weird pause where it almost looks as if he's waiting for someone to agree. When no one does, his face twists into an expression somewhere between perplexed and irritated.
At the back of the room, someone coughs, "Jackass."
Penny lets herself join in the laughter that explodes from the crowd. It loosens some of the tension crouching in her chest.
"Be that as it may..." the man continues.
Gablehauser interrupts. "Yes, thank you, Dr Cooper. I'm sure they'll be hearing much more from you as we go through the selection process." He makes some sort of note on his tablet and the dark-haired man sits down with the slightest of huffs.
They move on, to page thirty-seven in their guides where a map of their home for the next however many months is printed on bright white paper. There's the administration building they're in, a soaring block of poured concrete and exposed girders that's somehow so ugly it swings back around to beauty. The dorms that lead the way to the medlabs where they'll be tested, poked, and prodded. The isolation wards, the parkland, the trails. The single road that snakes from the main gate to the huge unmarked area that spreads across the entire back half of the map in a half-moon of light gray dots.
And the double ring of security fences fifteen feet high that encircle the compound.
Penny traces her finger along the dotted line when everyone gets up to file out for lunch. A shadow falls on the booklet, a ghostly triple silhouette from the spotlights high overhead.
"There's an electrical grid embedded in the gravel between the fences," that nasal voice says. Dr Cooper, Gablehauser had called him.
When she doesn't respond, he says, irritated, "Didn't you see the exposed filament near the road when they brought you in?"
She doesn't look up. The shadows shift and he clears his throat. It sounds dry and painful, almost like a bark. The awkward silence stretches on until Penny can't take it anymore and gets up.
"How would I see anything? They brought us in under full dark, not even running lights."
Dr Cooper looks almost startled when she speaks. She wonders if it's because of what she said or that she said it at all. He doesn't strike her as the kind of guy who gets a lot of conversation going. His eyes flick from her hair to her lips to her shoes and back up again.
"It was nearly nine," he says. "I think so, at any rate. The horizon was almost pink."
Maybe it was nearly nine when they came, but there was no pink horizon. She knows that for damn sure. There was just the hum of the transport engine and the cold blue lights that indicated the exits. Almost everything else was lost in the inky blackness of the wastes outside. She'd drifted in and out of a doze until they bumped across the first of the security bridges.
Penny wants to ask where he was sitting. She doesn't remember seeing him on the transport, or on the platform later when they were divided into candidate groups. His skin is pale, dark circles under his eyes. He doesn't have any visible burns or chapping. No scars either. He's just thin and pale, a normal everyday face she might not even notice in a crowd.
Her skin starts to crawl.
With a polite smile, she decides that playing dumb is the best way to go. It's already been such a long day and she has no idea how many more are ahead of her.
"You must have good eyes. I couldn't see anything at all beyond the floodlights."
Dr Cooper falls in step beside her as she heads up the aisle toward the bank of doors that have been propped open. The smell of burnt coffee and greasy meat drifts down toward them, setting her stomach to churning. They're the only ones left in the auditorium, except for the helmeted guards trading cigarettes down by the stage.
"I know where to look," he says.
Penny shoots him a quick sideways glance. Is he what he seems? Another candidate? Or should she be on her best behavior now, in case this is a test? What if he's a part of it, whatever it is that really goes on here? She's heard the rumors about what happens to those who aren't chosen and she has no intention of being one of them. Remembering the earlier burst of laughter at his expense, the one she shared in, Penny feels the tension settle back into her chest.
She settles for making a noncommittal noise and tucking the booklet into the drawstring bag looped around her wrist.
As they pass through the doors, Dr Cooper catches a toe on the carpet and stumbles into her slightly. She puts a hand on his elbow to hold him away—you don't get out of a place like Omaha without learning all the tricks guys like to play, even the innocent-looking ones.
"Don't say anything about the fences," she thinks she hears him whisper before he apologizes and moves away.
She's only six paces behind him when her group leader steps in her path with a smile and a voucher for her meal. While she's trying to explain that she'd much rather get the vegetarian meal (if that's possible, she adds; she really doesn't eat much meat, except for fish, and steak; she loves steak) she sees Dr Cooper's dark head and thin shoulders get swallowed up by the crowd.
The vegetarian meal is somehow even more disgusting than whatever it is congealing at the regular buffet. There's something that might have been cabbage once, sitting limply in a puddle of oil. Grayish potatoes slip across the plate when she tries to spear them. In the end, she winds up scraping most of it into the cycler when the group leader isn't looking.
She doesn't see Dr Cooper again.
Three or four presentations later, Penny's one of the first people dismissed from the intake meeting, her and a dozen or so other candidates. They shuffle up the center aisle, every eye in the place glued to them. She squares her shoulders and keeps her chin up. Nobody's going to see the way her muscles tremble from fear and anticipation. It's been a long time since she was comfortable standing in front of a crowd.
Someone to her left snickers as she passes and it takes every ounce of her self-control not to quicken her pace.
I belong here, she tells herself. She'll repeat it in her head until it sinks in, like she has done every inch of the way here. Until it's as much a part of her as the ident code tattooed on the nape of her neck. She made it out of Omaha. She made it all the way to the edge of the wastes with nothing but a baseball bat and a half-remembered name. She's supposed to be here. She has to be here. There's nowhere else left to go.
The words carry her up the aisle and through the doors, head held high and hundreds of eyes clinging to her every move.
I belong here, I belong here, I belong here
The dorms are every bit as lifeless and gloomy as rumor had described them. Brutally ugly concrete blockhouses march along both sides of the path that leads from the administration building to the medlabs.
Penny's cheerless room has a tiny window set high enough in the wall that she has to stand on tiptoe to see anything more than a sliver of darkened sky. Floodlights pour down on the main pathways through the compound. Off in the distance she sometimes catches a glimpse of a dust cloud swirling through a puddle of light on its way into the blackness.
Most of her days are spent in the medlabs. Fully suited techs squeeze blood from her fingertips and snip hanks of hair from behind her ears for what seems like a never-ending list of tests with funny names she can't pronounce. She runs on tracks that don't go anywhere and breathes into sour-smelling masks. On good days, she sits with a pair of headphones on and tells someone where she sees the lights and hears the tones. On great days, she gets to sit in a lab, all by herself, with no one breathing heavily over the intercom or coming to take another part of her away.
The only time she sees someone else's unprotected face is at the daily meal, when she's allowed to walk by herself to the mess hall that squats in the shadow of the administration building.
It's a liberty that doesn't really mean anything, though. Penny never sees the same faces twice. There's a different crowd at her table every day. She doesn't bother to ask anyone's name after the first week, and no one bothers to ask for hers. They eat in silence, nervous glances sliding around the tables and never quite landing anywhere.
At first Penny tried to keep track of the time by marking the passage of each cycle with observations in her tablet, everything from the faint scent that the withered grass gave off when she stepped off the gravelled path to what she's noticed about the tech rotations. She has some vague idea of using it to demonstrate her abilities—to someone, somewhere—but it seems like the only thing they want her for is to supply an endless stream of biodata.
She tries not to acknowledge the bubble of disappointment that sometimes rises high enough in her chest to choke her.
Still, it's not the worst job she's ever had.
The alarm wakes her halfway through her regular sleep cycle. She's still pulling her hair back in a ponytail as she shuffles toward the door. The slippers they wear indoors shush on the tiled floor of her room and it isn't until Penny steps into the hallway that she realizes hers are the only sound she hears.
She freezes in place, heart suddenly pounding in her ears. Had she imagined the alarm? Maybe it was a dream... She thought she still dreamed, though she never remembered them when she woke.
The door handle is cold under her hand and the usual chill in the air bites through the thin material of her shirt.
All up and down the hallway she sees closed doors. When she returned from her last session in the medlabs—fourteen klicks on the treadmill, sensors wired to her pulse points and techs nodding over a monitor—fully half of the bunks on her floor had occupied lights winking on their panels.
Now, they're all dark.
"Hello?" Penny calls, regretting the word as soon as it slips out. Her voice sounds too tentative and tiny for the deserted hallway. She's so out of practice. Is that what her voice always sounded like? Was there a time when it was strong and forceful? She remembers talking just for the pleasure of hearing her voice out loud but that hardly seems possible now.
She looks up at the sensor cluster overhead. Somewhere on the other end of the signal, maybe there's someone watching to see what she'll do next.
Her first instinct is to close her door and go back to bed. It's too early and she's so exhausted that the brush of fabric against her skin is almost too much to bear. When she lets go of the door handle, she knows she's going to sway on her feet. Just two more turns of sleep and she'll be ready. That's all she needs.
They're not going to keep passing her forward through the selections if she can't adapt to anything they throw at her, though. It's been weeks, months. The group leader who'd seemed so helpful at the beginning hasn't shown up in so many cycles that Penny's convinced she was another test, one she failed. Whenever she asks how much longer it will be, the med techs act like she hasn't spoken.
Maybe I haven't, she suddenly thinks.
"Fine," she says to the empty hallway. She screws her eyes closed for a second, ignoring the seductive push of gravity on her head and arms, urging her to lie down where she stands and drift off.
It takes more effort than it should to start walking again, but walk she does. As she passes under another sensor cluster, she looks up. Looks it dead in the eyes and says, "Let's see what you've got for me, then."
The lift makes the same clunking noises as always as it whisks her downstairs. The indicator lights wink on and off as they pass each floor and almost before she realizes it, the doors open and she's stepping onto the thin, dark carpet in the lobby.
Except she isn't.
She looks down in shock to see a glossy cement floor under her slippers. Up again and she realizes she's standing in a vast room, ten times the size of her dorm building. Bright white lights dot the ceiling, so far above her head the farthest ones seem eaten up by the gloom. Rough rock walls curve away from the elevator bank she's standing in front of and meet again an impossible distance away. There are people moving around near doorways cut into the rock, so far away that they look like dolls, and everything seems to be vibrating with the same low hum.
There's a small overland cart parked a few meters away, and standing next to it....
"Sheldon Cooper," says the tall thin man. "Doctor Sheldon Cooper. Let's go."
Her feet start to move toward the cart before the rest of her catches up to tell them no.
"Go where? What is this?"
"It's the facility," he says, like Penny should have already known that what she's familiar with aboveground was only the beginning.
Which, when she thinks about it, maybe she should have. She's not going to tell him that, though.
"Come on," he orders, sliding behind the cart's control panel. "We have work to do."
The sky looks different. The first time they met, Sheldon mentioned a pink horizon, something she's never seen. But when they emerge from the isolation wards, there it is. It's just a smudge of pink, just the tiniest bit lighter than the sky above it. She wants to ask him about it, ask him how often it looks like that, but he's striding away beneath the floodlights like he's forgotten she's there.
"We have you set up in the conference room," a disembodied voice announces when they step into the administration building. Lights flash along the floor, making a path like a landing strip toward a pair of gunmetal doors flush with the wall on her left side.
There's no one else in the lobby.
"I thought..." She pulls at the suit jacket that hangs on her frame. She's lost at least a dozen pounds in the time she's been here, weight she didn't really need to lose in the first place.
"We're the only ones scheduled for the interview today," Sheldon says before she can finish. "Well, I am. But someone insisted you come along as well. Don't try to say anything. Leave that to me. Just nod along and try not to look confused."
Penny would argue but there isn't much point. She doubts Sheldon's heard more than a handful of the words she's spoken in the last dozen cycles.
Not that she blames him, really. His brain seems to spin along at least twice as fast as hers. She can barely keep up with the words that fall out of his mouth, let alone the concepts behind them.
But that's not her job, is it? No one wants her for her brains.
Sheldon wants her for her ability to follow directions and to stay out of his way, or so he says. Out of the almost two-hundred people who'd started the candidate program, Penny's the only one left. But sometimes she catches him watching her, watching as she bends over the desk to struggle through another of his reports. Before he realizes that she's noticed and turns away.
That has to mean something.
The conference room looks like every other room she's been in since she arrived: nondescript walls and carpet, utilitarian chairs, a table just slightly past its prime with scuff marks on the legs. A generic landscape hangs on one wall, dark and muted. A flat video screen fills another.
There's a neat packet of papers set out at each of their places, but Penny has already memorized the media guidelines—what she can say, what she can't, what she shouldn't even think. Her hair is neat and pulled back in a tight bun. She made do with the few cosmetics in her toiletries kit, enough so that hopefully she won't look washed out and half-dead over video. There isn't much she can do about the scars.
Sheldon doesn't open his packet either. For all she knows, he's the one who wrote the manual. It seems like he has a finger in every other pie around here.
There's a soft tone from a speaker overhead and then the room lights start to dim. The light bars brighten with a soft white glow as the screen between them comes to life, replacing their hazy reflections with the familiar OWI studio. The news desk sits empty.
"Transmission begins in five," someone announces from off-screen. "Set for the anchor."
Penny's stomach starts to dance and she swallows back a surge of bile. All of the soundbites and pre-authorized deflections she's managed to memorize fly right out of her head. She hopes the panic won't show on her face.
"Not now," she whispers, pinching the heel of her hand. The room feels too small and hot, the big blank eye of the video feed staring straight through her.
The most frustrating part is that she used to be able to do this. As easy as breathing.
Sheldon snaps his fingers under the table, a quick, dry pop of sound that makes her jump, even though she saw his hand moving.
"Don't lose it now," he warns, his voice barely loud enough to cross the few feet between them. "I won't have you ruin this."
His shoulders are tight with tension, his eyes red with exhaustion. The bright lights wash out his complexion even more, so that he looks waxy and unreal. The shadows under his eyes only add to it. Penny feels almost obscenely full of energy next to him. Like she's somehow draining away all of his and holding it deep within herself instead.
Under the table, she presses her fingertips to the bare skin of his wrist as the OWI fanfare builds.
By the time it ends, the anchor is in place. Dark suit and hair perfectly arranged, he smiles out at them like he already knows their deepest secrets. And he probably does. There isn't much the OWI doesn't know, even less that the anchor hasn't seen.
He wants to help, that smile says. He wants to help them spread the word.
All hail, Penny thinks, right as he says it. But those days are long past, now. No one is going to make her say it again. And she won't, not unless they make her.
There's a graphic across the bottom of the video screen that counts down to their segment. First, the anchor goes through the latest from beyond the wastes and over the water. Under her fingers, Sheldon relaxes, slowly. Neither of them look away from the unblinking eye of the camera. They both know better than that.
Penny's been working for this almost since that first cart ride. She spends most cycles locked away with Sheldon as they run through their routines and set up new ones when the old ones fail. They're going to be isolated for so long, so far away, that they need to know what's coming at every tick and turn.
But whenever she can, she's been in prep for the inevitable interviews, starting with this one. The anchor is going to be their debut—the anchor is the only choice. They can't get around him, not if they want to do what needs done. Sheldon has a timetable, down to the second. There's a window of about ten minutes in which they have to slip away. This is the very last hope for all of them, all of it resting on Sheldon and his calculations.
It won't happen without the anchor.
They're not the first at any of this, not by a long shot. First was the race to glory, to empty declarations of might and supremacy. The roar of massive engines and tireless propagandists washed across the water, west to east and back again. Each new triumph was someone else's fall, and the world rolled on and on.
Penny knows some of this. The rest is probably in books she didn't bother to read. She thinks Sheldon would have read them all. Memorized them, his fingers sticky with the heat, pages wrinkling.
It seems, sometimes, like he expects that whatever is in his head is in hers too, until reality catches up and reminds them both that they have so little in common. Penny made it out of Omaha, her skin still puckered and raw. There was a transport, its roof caved in from a blast she still can't remember. She watched the sky flash with red light. Heard the booms from so far away she thought she imagined them, until the waves hit. She wiped the blood from her eyes, pulled herself together, grabbed the first heavy thing she thought she could use. She went south. She crossed the dark plains under darker skies, until she reached the wastes.
But Sheldon was always here. Always waiting, getting ready. He's watched the skies since he first realized what they were and he's finally found a way to help them all escape.
A light blinks at the bottom of the video screen and the countdown dissolves. The anchor looks out at them, straight teeth and smooth skin.
He wants to help, Penny thinks. That's why he's there.
"Dr Cooper," the anchor says with that smile, "let me help you spread the word."