Ryan was shown into the Coordinator’s office, a small space that bore more in common with a closet than it did a room. The two chairs faced each other over a fold-down desk, the Coordinator already seated in his, tapping away at the computer in his hand.
Ryan slid in next to the Coordinator, waiting for the older man to speak. The Coordinator was a man who operated at his own leisure. Not that Ryan was all that excited to hear what he had to say once he was done. Nothing felt good about this meeting.
“We have a problem,” the Coordinator said as he tapped the screen on his computer one last time, setting the small device down on the table.
“I’m not surprised you’d think that,” Ryan said.
The Coordinator looked at him expectantly. It was hard to meet the Coordinator’s gaze. His one good eye was bright and piercing, intimidating enough, but the replacement for his other eye was the flat black lens of the video implant. It’d be easier if it was just an old fashioned glass eye, not this technological monstrosity.
“You don’t have an excuse to offer me for your poor performance?” The Coordinator spread his hands helplessly. “I’m running out of options here. You were brought on board for a very specific purpose. An obligation you’ve failed to fulfill for nearly five years, now. You understand how that’s unacceptable, given the circumstances.”
“You can’t rush this type of work,” Ryan said. “I’m doing the best I can. It’s not as if I haven’t tried. But sometimes these things just work and sometimes they just don’t. It’s not as if I haven’t provided years of good material previously.”
“That’s half the problem,” the Coordinator said. “There are certain expectations you set by how prolific you were, both before and after Gathering Day. The people here relied upon you to provide for them on a set schedule. And you exceeded their wildest dreams. We were all very impressed. But now … nothing.”
“I don’t have an answer for you,” Ryan said. “I’m doing the best I can.”
The Coordinator shifted uncomfortably, his eye lowering as a sign that he didn’t want to say what he was about to say. “There’s been a proposal from the archivist that she be given permission to produce a series of stories set in a pre-Gathering Day world. I spoke to the morale officer, and he seemed to think it would be a good idea to pursue that.”
“A … but .. the archivist?” Ryan sat up straighter in his chair. “She’s not capable of providing for all of us. She’s a librarian.”
“She’s already submitted a writing sample, some ideas for stories, the outlines of five novels.” The Coordinator pressed a few buttons on his computer and then slid it over to Ryan. He picked it up and quickly scanned the writing. It was amateurish, but it had promise. He perused the outlines. They were solid stories. Shit.
“She already has a role, though. One person, one job. Remember? That’s how the community is being run.”
“Ideally, yes,” the Coordinator said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t forsee that the archivist would have diminishing responsibilities as other communities went silent and our affairs settled into a routine. She notes the personal highlights of the community, helps people organize their private logs, but in reality there isn’t much left for her to do. We think expanding her role to envelop yours is an efficient use of resources.”
Ryan’s face went white. He felt bile rising in his throat. He couldn’t be suggesting… “So what happens to me?”
“The community doesn’t need two storytellers,” the Coordinator said. “Especially not when one of them hasn’t told a story in years.”
“So … what … you can’t just let me go! Let her go! I was one of the first choices for this community. I can learn her job.”
“She’s a mother of four. As hesitant as I am to bring it up, your partner did pass on some years ago. No children to worry about. And much like will happen with you, her job was assumed by the community over time without too much trouble.”
“So you’re just going to get rid of anyone who’s redundant? How is that any way to run a community? You’re supposed to be protecting us, not kicking us out when we don’t meet your standards!”
“I’m not in the position to be swayed by pleas to my emotions,” the Coordinator answered. “And unfortunately for you, there is no ‘we.’ Everyone else is fulfilling their assigned roles. You are the sole exception. And it’s come to the point where keeping you here is one more child I can’t authorize people to have. You do realize we’re about to become a third-generation community? I’m sorry, but my decision stands. You are hereby stripped of the title of this community’s Writer, and asked to leave.”
* * *
Ryan walked down the narrow corridor leading to the entrance to the community. This was a rarely-used part of the structure, sealed and forgotten for years. There were storage containers lined against one wall, so narrow that the small farewell party that accompanied him had to go single file past them.
“Please, I beg you to reconsider,” Ryan said to the Coordinator. “You know what it’s like out there. You know I’m not equipped for this.”
“You have been given plenty of tools with which to survive,” the Coordinator said. “I’m not heartless. But I have to make decisions for the good of the whole, not the individual.”
“We will not forget you,” the new Writer, Deborah, said. She seemed genuinely distressed by this turn of events, bless her. “I will write of you, and your sacrifices. The community will revere you by the time I’m done. I know it’s a small comfort, but it’s all I can do.”
The security director, a thick ex-military man, was the first to the door. “When you get out there, you need to find shelter before nightfall. We don’t know what’s out there, but the last thing you want is to be stuck in the dark, unprepared.”
“What time is it out there?” Ryan shouldered the heavy pack he wore. It was full of tools, each carefully explained to him, though he was sure that he had forgotten all of it already. It didn’t matter. They had provided him two other tools, the old but well-maintained pistol from the armory that was heavy and alien in its holster, and the single pill in the locket around his neck if he decided that he couldn’t take this new reality.
The door of the community opened for the first time in over a decade. This was the first door, leading to a small decontamination chamber that had been built in case there had actually been traffic from the outside. In all the years of the community’s existence, that had never happened.
Ryan stepped through the first door, which closed behind him. He could see the three of them, crowding at the window, watching him. The second door unsealed itself, dust blowing in from the outside, quickly sucked up by the vents in the room. The community was not to be contaminated.
Ryan stepped up to the door to the Outside. The community had been sunk into the side of a mountain, the path hewn into the rock. The tunnel was dark and cool, various debris from animals or travelers or god knows what littering the floor. Ryan stepped out into the cave, and the door shut behind him.
Slowly, carefully, Ryan made his way out to the mouth of the tunnel where it emerged into the open air. It was full daylight, but the sun only lit the sky a dull, tumultuous grey. He knew that there was no clear sky anymore, but he had hoped to see some of the great blue dome stretching up forever. After ten years with low ceilings and cramped spaces, though, even this low cloud that had been the doom of so many people looked impossibly high. It gave him a sense of vertigo to look up.
Instead he looked out. The land was blighted, an endless expanse of rocks and dust and hard-packed dirt that was slowly being eroded into desert. There were buildings, many of them still standing, but he saw nothing moving. That fit with the reports the community had. Whatever was left out here in the Outside, it was scarce.
As he adjusted his pack and began to climb down the slope of the mountain to the flat ground below, a thought crossed his mind. A thought so powerful that he felt his spirit break under the weight of it. He wanted to cry, but instead he grinned fiercely, laughing softly to himself. Of course, it was so obvious!
This, he thought to himself, would make for a great story!