Martha hadn’t even wanted to go to the club. It was strange, looking back, how a small decision could completely change the course of one’s life. Constance had insisted she attend, but despite herself, she was nervous. Even if the Guard rarely enforced it, this club was against regulation.
“You could do with a little loosening up,” Constance had said in answer to Martha’s worries, and well, that made it a challenge.
The room was crowded and smoky, the band ever-so-slightly out of tune. Martha hugged the wall, watching Constance spin out across the dance floor and envying her carefree joy. She was still following her when the flash of a green skirt caught her eye.
Martha loved the woman in the green dress from the moment she saw her. A broad smile split her face, and Constance’s happiness was a candle’s flame to the sun of this woman’s unbridled joy. She laughed, and spun on her toes, and somehow, miraculously, met Martha’s gaze and beckoned to her.
She followed the woman onto the dance floor. How could she resist?
“What’s a girl like you doing standing on the sidelines?” She had to shout to be heard over the music.
“I’ve never been to a place like this before.”
“Well, I’ll show you how it’s done.” The woman (Anne, as Martha would learn later that night) lived up to her promise. They danced until just before curfew, when Constance tried to drag Martha home, and then later, after Martha had assured her that she’d be staying with Anne that night. It wasn’t until the band stopped playing that they came to a stop, and the enormity of what she’d done hit Martha. It was past curfew, and not by a gap of minutes that could be explained away by a slow watch. They were out hours too late, and being caught by the Guard would mean a citation at least, and maybe even detainment.
“I live just down the block,” Anne said, apparently not concerned in the slightest.
“What if we’re stopped?”
Anne grinned, and slid something gleaming and silver from her sleeve. “Don’t worry about the Guard; I can handle them.”
It was a knife, Martha realized. A perfectly polished, incredibly non-regulation knife. “They could detain you just for that!”
“Not if I stab them first.” Anne laughed. “I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve never been stopped on my way home. They’ve got bigger fish to fry than a couple of curfew-dodgers.”
Just as she’d said, they didn’t meet another soul on their walk home. Once they’d reached her apartment, Anne stowed her knife behind a loose wall tile, stripped to her shift, and signaled for Martha to do the same.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. I’ve only got the one bed—I hope you don’t mind.”
Martha didn’t. She fell asleep easily that night, feet sore but happier than she’d ever been.
When Martha arrived at the apartment the next morning, Constance was fretting like a mother hen.
“You made it back before curfew?”
“She lived close to the dance hall. And as you can see, I haven’t been detained.” There was something thrilling about having a secret to keep, a sweet rush that surfaced as a too-wide smile. “I never got the chance to thank you last night; I had the time of my life.”
Constance fidgeted, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Will you be putting in paperwork to move closer to her, then? You’ve been a lovely flatmate, but of course I wouldn’t want to keep you from greater happiness elsewhere.”
“Constance!” Martha giggled. “I only met her last night! We’ll see how things work out.”
It seemed presumptuous to assume, especially since she and Anne had never discussed the matter, but Martha often found herself daydreaming about putting in a request for a new address. As it was, she’d stayed past curfew enough times that she’d moved a few of her work clothes to Anne’s closet, and the mornings they spent together were wonderful. Anne had the most delicious tea, a far cry from the bland rations Martha and Constance received at their local grocery, although she’d only grin when Martha asked where she got it. A month ago, the implication of black-market trading would have terrified her, but now Martha found herself excited. Truthfully, everything about Anne was exciting, not just the illicit flavor of black market food, but the way she smiled, the familiar twist of her hand through her hair, the way she hummed when she was working.
Anne often sang to herself, always the same song. Martha grew used to hearing the melody drift in from another room: Oh, I’ve got beginner’s luck, for the first time I’m in love, I’m in love with you…
“My grandmother taught it to me,” she told Martha when asked.
“You knew your grandmother?” Martha had barely known her parents. There was no regulation forbidding one from keeping in contact with one’s family, but typically, when people entered the workforce, they would move to a different city. The last time Martha had spoken to her mother was when she left for the city at fifteen, and a relationship with her grandmother was simply inconceivable.
“My family was very close.” Anne looked uncomfortable, and Martha turned the topic of conversation to the work party Constance had brought her to last week.
Anne had this way of smiling that Martha grew to recognize, a small upturn of the left side of her mouth. It meant she had a surprise: a new record, an unexpected leave to be spent with Martha, or—today—chocolate-covered strawberries.
“Where did you get them?”
The smile widened to a grin. “I have a friend.”
Martha sighed. “They’re non-regulation, then.” Truly, she’d known from the minute she saw them (it was difficult enough to get fresh fruit out of season, much less chocolate), but she shouldn’t have asked. Now she couldn’t pretend that they were a result of a stroke of luck at the grocery.
Anne picked one up, taking an exaggerated bite and moaning in pleasure. “But they’re good.”
The crime had already been committed, Martha supposed. Surely it would be wrong to let them go to waste. And they did look delicious, the rich brown of the chocolate splattered across the bright red fruit. She took a strawberry and bit into it, sweetness spreading across her tongue. “Oh, they are!” She didn’t think she’d ever tasted anything this delicious.
“See?” Anne’s smirk was infuriating, and Martha felt compelled to wipe it off her face with a kiss.
The night flew by, and all too soon it was time for Martha to return home.
Anne caught her arm before she left. “Could I ask a favor?”
“I have a letter I need delivered.” Something in Anne’s voice told Martha she shouldn’t ask what the letter contained. She pressed two envelopes into Martha’s hand. “This one goes to the apartment on the corner of Broad and Charleston—third floor, room 39. Slide it under the door. The other is for you.”
Martha made her way to the building, heart in her throat. It felt as if she were stepping off a precipice, into a black world that she could see nothing of. Knives and strawberries were one thing, but this could get her detained, maybe permanently. This was so far beyond regulation that she would have no way to explain it away. But Anne had asked her to. Anne trusted her. She wouldn’t endanger Martha without good reason. So Martha made her way up the stairs, found the tarnished brass 39 tacked to an olive green door, and slid the letter into the room.
It was all she could do not to run home. She didn’t feel safe until she’d been shut in her bedroom for a quarter-hour, and it wasn’t until then that she opened the second letter.
Written in the center, in Anne’s beautiful curled letters, was I love you, with a small strawberry drawn in the corner. Martha fell asleep smiling, and remembering the sweetness of chocolate on her lips.
A month after their first meeting, Martha decided she would ask Anne how she felt about putting in for a transfer. They hadn’t known each other for long, but Martha loved her. She was sure of it.
When Martha arrived on the day she’d planned to ask, however, she knew they wouldn’t be having the conversation. Anne had an all-too-familiar expression on her face, one that Martha had first seen when she’d asked about her grandmother.
“Is something the matter?”
“There’s something wrong.” Anne’s eyes were hard as steel. “Can’t you feel it? They didn’t have eggs at the grocery today.”
“I’m sure it’s just a temporary shortage. The spring has been unseasonably cold; perhaps it’s affecting the farms.”
“Has there ever been a shortage before?”
It made Martha sick to think it, but no, she couldn’t remember a single time when food hadn’t been readily available. It was unthinkable that they could run out of something, that the carefully-engineered agricultural sectors would fall short of their goal harvests. “The president would tell us if something was wrong.”
Anne was quiet for a while, so long that Martha wondered if she should leave. Then she began to speak again, although perhaps not to Martha—she was staring at the wall, deep in thought. “You know, when my grandmother was young, they let people in to see the core. Every afternoon, people would line up outside the doors of the capital to visit it. She said it sang.”
“It’s…” It’s dangerous to come close to it, Martha had been about to say, but now that she thought about it, she hadn’t any proof to back that up. They’d never been told the core was dangerous, but it stood to reason. How could an object with enough energy to run the planet be safe to approach? But unlike Anne, she’d never talked to anyone who had more than ten years on her, and besides that, Anne had no reason to lie.
“They’re hiding something from us, Martha. We have to find out what.” She tugged at her hair, frowning. “I thought you’d understand.”
Martha knew that Anne had no particular attachment to regulations, and she knew that she’d helped with activities that were certainly illegal. But outright questioning the government…“I have to go.”
Anne didn’t mention that she’d just gotten there. “Please, think about it.”
She left without answering.
Martha was nearly in tears when she got home. The moment she walked in the door, Constance cried out, “Oh, Martha! I’m so glad you’re back.”
Constance was in tears, sitting in the dark on their sofa. Martha turned on a lamp and sat down beside her. “What’s happened?”
“There was an accident at the factory.” She took a shuddering breath, leaning into Martha’s shoulder. “Frederick—you know Fred, you met him at the picnic last month—he was fixing the engine when he was caught in the gears. I didn’t see, hardly anyone saw, but we all heard him scream. Lucia was helping him, and she saw the entire thing, and oh, Martha, she’s put in to be cleaned!”
“But that’s everything, gone. Doesn’t she have a husband?” If Lucia had chosen to be cleaned, she’d lose everything.
“She said she couldn’t live with it.”
“I’m so sorry.”
They slept together on the couch that night, Martha staying up long past when Constance had sobbed herself to sleep. She sat there in the dark, thinking about a lack of eggs and the power that was humming away beneath their feet, deep in the center of their planet. She thought of her parents, traced out the vaguest memory of their faces against the black. She thought of Anne, dancing with her until three in the morning, a grin lighting up her face.
The next morning, as soon as sunlight began peeking through the window, Martha crept free from Constance’s arms and slipped out the door. Her feet followed the path to Anne’s apartment without thinking, and she didn’t notice the guard following her until he stopped her.
“Is something the matter, sir?”
“You’re going to need to come with me.”
“I’m sure there must be some mistake.” She smiled tightly. “Is this about my absence from work? There was an accident at my flatmate’s workplace, and I was going to put in for retroactive leave as soon as the office opened.”
He didn’t answer, just tightened his grip on her arm and led her down the street. The buildings grew taller, and Martha realized where they were headed. The arch of the capital peeked through the gaps, glimmering gold under the rising sun. She should be struggling, Martha realized, but what was the point? There was nowhere to run. She let him lead her through the door, and didn’t even gasp when the prick in her arm came, wooziness taking over. She slumped back into his arms, remembering Anne’s grin under the dim dance hall lights.
Martha woke up in a well-furnished, warmly lit room, much nicer than she would have expected a detainment cell to be. She’d barely had time to take in her surroundings when the knock at the door came.
She knew the woman standing outside from posters and official announcements. “Madame President!” The bow was automatic, although she felt silly afterwards—was it really necessary to bow to the woman who’d had you imprisoned?
“I trust you’ve been comfortable?” When Martha nodded hesitantly, she went on. “I’d like you to come for a walk with me.”
“Do I have a choice?”
Martha expected anger, possibly even a blow, but the president only smiled. “I won’t force you, but I think you’ll be interested in what I have to say, and what I have to show you.”
They walked out the door and through a maze of corridors, down and down, long past the natural light. The president stopped outside a heavy metal door, which swung open after she swiped her hand across it. They stepped inside the small room—an elevator, Martha realized.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Anne,” Martha whispered.
“We don’t arrest people for who they associate with, Martha. You’ve been distributing treasonous, inflammatory documents.”
She’d thought that she would regret it, if she were caught, but now that the time came to face her punishment Martha felt only a sense of peace. “You’ve been hiding something from us. It’s only right that the people are informed. I assume you have her too?”
“Oh, she was a difficult one to track down. Stabbed a guard with that knife of hers; he’s had to take medical leave.”
Martha smiled tightly. “Perhaps he deserved it.”
The president said nothing in reply, only steadied herself as the elevator ground to a halt and offered Martha her arm. “Come with me.”
They stepped through the doors to a room lit dimly by flickering fluorescent lights. At its center was a glowing tower, stretching from far below the floor to tendrils stretching across the ceiling. Martha gasped. “Is that the core?”
The president nodded. “Tell me, what do you hear?”
Like that, it hit her. A shrill noise filled the room, growing louder as they drew closer to the core. Martha clapped her hands over her ears, trying in vain to block out the horrible sound. “It’s screaming!”
“It’s dying. Now you see why we can’t let people in.” The president paused, seemingly unaffected by the scream. “The most conservative estimates give us a few years. Others say we’re already living on borrowed time. In any case, the core won’t last the generation. And when it dies…” She didn’t need to finish the statement. The core drove their world.
“Why doesn’t anyone know?”
“Why should we tell them? It would only cause panic. In our estimation, it’s better to let the general populace live out their days happy.”
“I think they deserve to know their fate.”
“So you’ll understand why I’ll have to clean you before I let you go.”
The idea of the government stealing her memories sickened her, but she put on a wobbly smile and asked, “Anne as well, I suppose?”
Her pause was terrifying. “She’s been cleaned before. Several times. After the first few runs, it begins to lose its efficacy. We’ll have to deal with her in other ways.”
It hit Martha like a sledgehammer, what she was facing—a life alone, not even knowing what she’d lost, while Anne rotted away in a prison somewhere. “Please, just let me keep some of her.”
“I’m afraid the machine doesn’t work like that.” There was true sorrow in her voice, which made it all the more difficult to hate her. “I’m sorry, Martha. It has to be done.”
Martha let them lead her to the machine, lay limp as they attached the wires to her. There was nothing to be done, after all. This was the law, and if she ran, she surely wouldn’t make it far. It could have been her imagination, but she could swear she saw the president’s hand hesitate before throwing the switch.
The sun was just barely up when Martha awoke. The feeding process was automated, but the machine had broken down last week and her repair ticket was still processing, meaning she had to hand-feed the livestock at the crack of dawn. She didn’t mind getting up early, though; this early in the day, it was pleasantly cool, and it gave her time to dwell on her dreams.
She’d dreamt of the woman again, with beautiful brown hair and a stunning smile. Martha could swear she’d met her, although the only memories she had came from dreams. They were more impressions than memories: the gleam of a knife, a wide smile under dim lights, the faint strains of a melody she’d never heard anyone else sing.
Martha sang to herself as she grabbed the chicken feed and headed out the door, smiling at the way her voice echoed across the cornfields. “Oh, I’ve got beginner’s luck, for the first time I’m in love, I’m in love with you!”