As I approached the Welcome Center, Jace was struggling to get out the door with a brown paper bag and an armful of papers in tow. He made it out the door, but the bag fell to the ground, and a fork, bowl, and metal thermos all spilled out onto the sidewalk. He glared accusingly at the bag for a moment, then at the door, before he started to stoop to pick up his belongings. Halfway down, we made eye contact and he stopped and smiled at me.

"Hey there, Dahlia! Did you get your results yet?" He seemed to have forgotten all about his dishes in the interest of having a conversation with me.
"Yeah," I answered as I approached and crouched to help him pick up his belongings. He quickly remembered what he was doing and bent down to help.
"So, what's the plan then?" He looked eager and hopeful. I guess he figured that I would be happy with my options. They were custom built for me, after all.
"Not really sure," I sighed, "There's only one thing I've ever done, only one job I've ever loved, but apparently I can't do it anymore. So I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do." We both stood and I felt him trying to make eye contact.
When he found himself failing that, he offered, "Well, what's the closest thing that they gave you?"
"Nursing, but I'm just not... I don't want to. That's not me."
"What did you do before?"
"I was a biologist at the CDC. I studied PTA and infected humans."
"Nursing would be pretty similar."
"It could be, could being the operative word. There could be an outbreak. There could be an infection. But down here? There won't be. It'll never be the same thing. Nursing and studying are two totally different things."
"We need more nurses. We always need more nurses. We'd be in some deep shit without nurses." I found that we were wandering off away from the Welcome Center. I let Jace lead.
"Oh, I know. I'm not saying it's not important. I'm not saying that it's not a good thing to be, or that I'm not glad it came up, or that under different circumstances I wouldn't do it, but that's just not what I'm trained to do. That's not where I feel like I'm useful. I know, I'd be helping people, but not in the way I came here to do. It's all just temporary fixes until they get sick or hurt again. If I help to find the cause or cure to PTA, that could mean a permanent fix."
"Well, maybe there's some route that you can go to get yourself to the point where you qualify to do your type of work again?"
"Maybe, but I doubt it. I'm not disqualified for lack of knowledge, or ability, or experience. I'm disqualified because Sylvan thinks I'm traumatized." I couldn't help but spit Sylvan's name a little. I know he has my best intentions at heart. I know he's just trying to look out for everyone here, but still. Ass.
"Well then, I think that the best route of action for you, at this point, if you don't mind my advice, would be to find something you can bear to do, at least for a little while, to prove that you're just as stable as the next PTA survivor, and win back his trust. I know, you probably didn't do anything to lose his trust in the first place, I know what Sylvan can be like, but them's the breaks sometimes, you know?"

I thought about that plan for a moment before realizing we were standing in the middle of the street, in front of my house.
"Well, this is where I'm headed. Where are you going? Crap, that's a dumb question, you were headed toward the Welcome Center, weren't you?" He smiled warmly -- not pityingly -- at me.
"I'm staying... right here," I pointed at my front door.
"That's crazy!" He put his arms up and some pages fell out of his bundle and scattered across the pavement between us. I live right across the street from you! How long have you been here?"
"Oh, I think a week or two I guess. I slept for a while after I got here."
"Hm. That explains why Denise kept creeping up here all the time. I guess she was looking after you?"
"You mean Sylvan's Drone?" Jace got a little chuckle out of that one. "Yeah, she's been a real treat..." The last line dripped with a little more sarcasm than intended.
"She can be a little... bitchy sometimes," he answered as he picked up his papers.
"That's not very nice," I laughed, "But ohhh so true!"
"Well, Miss Linz, I'm sorry that I led you of on the wrong track today. Where were you headed, when I intercepted you?"
"Oh, actually I was coming up to talk to you. I mean, to anyone. I mean, someone at the Welcome Center. About my results." Smooth, Dahlia, smooth. "Sorry I bothered you off the clock. I owe you one."
"No worries," he waved me off with his hand full of mangled paperwork, "Actually, if you owe me one, I can tell you how you can pay me back." He suddenly went thoughtful and looked me in the eyes with the most serious, pensive expression I think I've ever seen on a man's face.
"If you owe me one, we can have dinner sometime. You cook. Then we can call it even. Unless it's really horrihble, but then I'll just have to figure out another way you can pay me back. Sound like a plan?"
"I guess. I haven't gotten any real, cookable food yet, though, so it might be a while."
"All the more reason for you to decide what crappy job you're going to take. More work means more food, you know." He grinned before turning and calling over his shoulder, "See ya later."
"Bye," I called after him.

Who knew it could be so easy to make a friend? And dinner plans?



After I finished my assessment, it took about a day before there was a knock on my door and Sylvan's assistant stood, arms crossed, foot tapping, outside. It was midmorning, and I had been reading a novel I had found under my bed. It was a bout a kid in a space academy, training to fight off aliens.

"Your scores are in. Gotta go see Sylvan now." She turned sharply on her heel, and stalked off in the direction of Sylvan's building. I quickly threw on my shoes and hustled to catch up.

"Hi, Lydia," Sylvan greeted me as I walked in through the door to his office and sat down on the chair opposite him. His office has kind of become a familiar, soothing place. I feel calm there, and I have started getting more and more relaxed, more and more open with Sylvan. Maybe that's why it was so easy to answer the questions on that survey so openly. I gave information that I really rarely ever give anyone. But, even knowing that it was Sylvan, instead of some automated system, asking for the information, I felt just the slightest urge to omit everything, but I was able to fight that urge off and answer openly anyways.

"Hey," I responded, "So, how's it look?"

"Well, there was a lot of stuff on that survey that you hadn't told me," he let the slightest sigh escape, "And I'd really like to talk to you about some of it, as your friend. But, as your supervisor, I'm going to have to warn you, there's a lot of stuff in there that's going to make getting a high enough rating in your field very difficult."

"What do you mean?" I asked slowly, aware that some tenseness from my body was oozing out through the words. I had suddenly gone a little rigid, as a reflex. "I thought you said that no matter what I tested, I could still change my field later?"

"Of course, Dahlia, but that's only if you qualify for the work. I mean, it wouldn't do us much good if we allowed, say, someone who's only been trained as a cook their entire life to start performing complicated surgeries, just because that's what they wanted to do. I'm not trying to compare your situation to that, but it's the same principle. That's the sort of situation we're trying to protect ourselves from,and people in situations like yours unfortunately tend to get caught somewhere in the middle. You're technically qualified to do the work, but you may or may not be of sound enough mind to perform the job. Does that make sense?" He was smiling this piteous smile at me, his brow creased with concern. I was pretty pissed, though, even though he seemed sincere.

"So, what your telling me is that even though I am extremely qualified for the work that I do, even though I'm good at it, even though the entire reason I'm here is because of it, even though I brought you what very well may be a new lead to the treatment of the most evasive, aggressive disease in history, you're going to block me off from my work on the basis of shit that happened before I even got this training? Because of the shit that drove me into this field in the first place?"

"Not exactly--" He started before I cut him off."

"What then?! What possible reasoning could you have for this decision?" I could feel my voice rising in pitch and volume, and made a conscious effort to keep myself under control.

"It's not one event or another that causes the system to flag you, or to rate you higher or lower in any given field. It's the combination of all the events, as well as the personality traits that you expose when you complete the "this or that" kind of questions. I haven't read your file yet, I haven't read the suggestions. The only part of the assessment that I have access to before this point in the process is the free entry portion. Based on the information that I saw, what I was required to rate... All I'm saying is that your cognitive and personality traits are going to have to rate fairly high, to balance out the potential risks."

I thought for a moment, collecting myself. I was pretty certain that my abilities are strong. Based on my history, I never really cracked during my career. Sure, I had trouble sometimes, it was hard to sleep at night, but I'm pretty sure that's standard in my line of work. We're killing, rekilling, and poking with sticks people who once had families and friends and lives. It's not pleasant.

"Fine," I said, sourly, "What are my scores, then? What are my options?"

Sylvan gingerly untied the manila envelope that had been under his resting hands. I hadn't noticed it before. He glanced at me briefly before opening the envelope, assessing me, I think. I tried to remain as neutral as possible.

"All right, so," he started, eyes sweeping across the page, left to right and back again. "You have four high scores, those are the suggested fields. Then there are four low scores, those are the fields you are completely not qualified for, and you will not be allowed to apply for them without a full education, training, and assessment. In the middle are all other areas, which are ranked in order of your aptitude. Depending on the scores for the lower few of the mid range fields, you may be required to take specialized assessments before entering the field, or you may be required to do complete or partial training. So, where should we start?"

"Tell me the top four first," I crossed my arms across my chest, hoping to both appear nonchalant and keep myself calm at the same time. I'm not really sure that either worked.

"All right, so your number one was teaching, specifically teaching biology, medicine, or any other form of science. That's not surprising. It's very similar to your field of choice, but is far less stressful on your body and mind.
"Number two, pharmacist. That one's interesting, since you don't technically have training in pharmacology. I suppose your background in biology, human testing, medicine, and chemistry had a lot to do with that one. You'd have to take a certification test, but I doubt you'd have any trouble with it if you studied a little.
"Number three, engineering and maintenance. Those are the ones who make sure our equipment and habitats are still running and will continue to work. They also work on new, innovative ways to improve our standard of living and the quality of our equipment. Your math score were phenomenal, as well as your reasoning and physics scores. I imagine you'd also have a lot of knowledge to add to our defense systems, since you are very familiar with the physiology of Z's.
"Finally, number four, we have nurse. Obviously, that's very close to what you wanted to do, you're just working with live people with minor ailments. It was probably rated the lowest of these four for the same reasons as your low rating in xenobiology: the stress levels."

He paused, looking at me, trying to read my response. Granted,those suggestions weren't that bad. I could see myself doing any of the four, had my history played out any differently. They weren't as bad as cleaning houses, or working a cash register or something. But they weren't what I was looking for. I didn't really want to, but I asked anyways, "What are the bottom four, then?"

"Well, from the bottom up, we've got carpentry, you're obviously not inclined or trained for that, so that makes sense.
"Then, there's IT, which are the ones who make sure that we can stay connected to the outside world, make sure the programs controlling the atmosphere down here works correctly. Again, you've never had any training, and you have no real desire for that kind of work, so it's another obvious exclusion.
"Next up was childcare, and the reason for that one was a combination of your lack of parenthood, along with your volatile, traumatic history, as well as the slight possibility of mental illnesses.
"Finally, number four, you won't be able to be a trader or recruiter. There is a team of people who go above ground every so often to trade, buy supplies, or check on information regarding any new outbreaks that may not have been reported. They also are the ones sent out to lead in new members, like Denise, when we find new people who need our help. Your desire not to be found right now, along with your unpredictable emotional health, keeps you from being eligible for that job. I think, overall, your non-eligible set is pretty spot-on for you, what do you think?"

I couldn't help but agree, and I couldn't help the corner of my mouth rising as I asked, "So that means that I can continue my work, right?"

"Let me see here..." He trailed off as his eyes scanned the page. "Well," he laid the paper down on his desk, then slowly raised his eyes to meet mine. I knew his answer before he could say it, "Not exactly. You're going to have to be specifically assessed for that program. It was sixth from the bottom of your midrange. Honestly, if it hadn't been for your strong desire for it, and your previous experience, there's no way you would have qualified to even train for that job."

Why is it that this is the only field so strongly affected by my emotional history? I mean, being a nurse is a high stress job, but I qualify. What's going on?" I demanded.

"There's a difference. Working with Z's puts you and everyone else here at risk. IT's the most strictly regulated field that we have. You have to understand, if we have an outbreak here, no one lives. The fact that we even bring infected tissue in here just barely got approved when we were drafting city laws. I had to fight tooth and nail to get the citizens and leaders to agree that this should be a research facility, and it was only under the agreement thta we could insure with the smallest amount of doubt that it would also be a safe haven for the people required to make the economy work, the 'nonskilled' workers who support and care for the researchers. The vast majority of the population here.
"So we have to take every precaution possible to protect them and their families. That means no one with any shadow of a doubt to their performance abilities can enter those chambers, unless they have enough to offer that it makes them worth the risk.
"That's where your assessments and retraining will come in. If you prove that you are both stable enough and worth enough to make the risk worth taking, we will take it.
"Today, though, you're going to have to choose another path. You will have until tomorrow morning to make your decision. I want to see you back here before noon so we can get you coded and prepared to begin. After your first cycle in your position, we'll reassess, and you can start on your training if you want. Deal?"

"Do I have a choice?" I couldn't hide the rage in my voice very well.
"Not really."

So I went home with my paper and started reading my options. At the bottom of the page, there was a little disclaimer that read, 'If you have any inquiries about job descriptions or requirements, please see the recruiting and assessment team in the Welcome Center between sunup and sundown, seven days a week.

I guess I just didn't really want to be alone anymore, after all this time in my apartment. And I figured I could use some information about some of the jobs I wasn't entirely familiar with. I suppose, deep down, I just didn't want to make a decision by myself and be stuck with it and with no one else to blame, so I made my way back to the Welcome Center after about an hour or so of trying to find some way to make a decision.


Welcome to the Coober Aptitude Assessment System

I pushed the icon for the aptitude test, and the screen went black. A woman's voice filled the room, calm and neutral, speaking as the text rolled white across the screen.

Welcome to the Coober Aptitude Assessment System. Please answer all questions fully, honestly, and as candidly as possible.

All answers are assessed by a team of five differently programmed artificial intelligence systems, and double checked by Dr. Sylvan Watts. All answers are 100% confidential beyond those points. 

Please note that while this assessment is in session, you may not leave the room for any non-emergency purposes. The assessment is not graded, but it is timed. Your time is neither a positive or negative indicator to your assessment, but rather helps to identify your processing and learning types, therefore affecting your overall results. Rushing will not improve your results, but may result in misaligned results.

Average amount of time taken to complete the assessment is between three and four hours. Total number of completed assessments to date: two thousand one hundred forty-three.
If you have any further questions, please type them into the terminal now. 

If you have no further questions, please click the start button at the top of this screen.

A large, shiny red icon appeared at the top of the screen, with the word start in the center. I clicked it. Each question scrolled across the screen in large print, and as I typed my answers, the questions shrank and moved to the top of the screen to make room for my answers.

Introduction Questions

  1. Give a two or three word description of yourself. 
Introverted, practical, emotional
  1. Do you have any nicknames, street names, titles, nom de plume?
  1. What is your full birth name?
Dahlia Poppy Linz
  1. Why did you come to Coober?
I had an invitation from Sylvan, the details are confidential. Short description: Self-preservation.
  1. What is your citizenship status?
Citizen from birth.
  1. What is your most obvious blessing or strength?
Intellect and intuition
  1. What is your most obvious flaw or weakness?
  1. Was there any event or cause of these weaknesses?
Sure, plenty. Zombies, death, potential assassination, possibility of inherited insanity...

Physical Traits

  1. How old are you?
  1. What is your gender?
  1. What is your race?
Mixed races. My mother was Caucasian, my father was Brazilian. He was adopted at birth.
  1. How tall are you?
I haven't checked in a while. Probably around 5'9"
  1. How much do you weigh?
Again, haven't checked in a while. Last time I checked was about a year ago, I was at about 165. I've lost a little weight since then.
  1. What is your hair colour?
  1. What is your eye colour?
Usually green or brown, depending on how tired I am or the lighting
  1. Do you have any scars, tattoos, or birthmarks?
I have some scars on my knees and elbows, and one on right arm. I do not have any tattoos, but I have a birthmark on my left wrist. It's a slightly darkened ring, it gets more pronounced when I'm exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.
  1. If you have scars, how did you acquire them?
My knees and elbows, I fell a lot as a kid, so they've just always been there. My right arm, when I was a kid my mom accidentally cut my arm with a knife.
  1. What is your handedness (left/right)?
  1. Do you wear glasses/contacts?
I wear glasses


  1. Where were you born?
In West Virginia
  1. Are you aware of it’s history?
  1. When and why did you leave?
I left when I went to work for the CDC, because I had nothing left for me there and I needed to find more information about the disease that took my brother.
  1. Do you have any secrets that you fear becoming public knowledge?
  1. What do you fear would occur if the truth became known?
Either my incarceration or assassination.
  1. Were there any traumatic experiences in your early years (death of a family member, abandonment, orphaned at an early age, etc.)?
Yes. My mother was a diagnosed, but untreated manic bipolar woman, and she eventually killed herself. I found her. I witnessed a lot of her episodes. My brother died from PTA in the room next to me shortly thereafter. 
  1. Briefly describe a defining moment in your childhood and how it influenced your life.
My brother's death was the most defining moment of my childhood. It's what drove me into my profession. I've missed him every day since.
  1. What was childhood like for you?
It started out pretty normal, other than my mother. But then PTA hit, schools closed, life became generally terrifying, sort of like it did for everyone my age. I got to be in that awful generation that straddles pre-PTA and post-PTA, so sometimes it's weird to think about what life could have been like.
  1. Did you have any childhood friends?
Just my brother. We kind of avoided other kids because of Mom. I had friends, but none worth noting.
  1. If so, who where are they now?
  1. Did you keep anything from your childhood?
I have a shoebox of stuff. Some photos, an address book of my mom's, her diary, stuff like that.
  1. Why? What do they mean to you?
They're all I have left of my family. They're how I remember why I do what I do.
  1. Do you have any sort of criminal record?
Not exactly. Well, sort of.


  1. Who were your parents?
Anais Linz and Jeremy Linz
  1. Were you raised by them?
Mom raised us til she died, then it was our aunt.
  1. What do you think of your parents?
We took care of mom a lot. She was sick. I don't really remember dad.
  1. Do you have any siblings?
An older brother, Drake.
  1. Are any or all of your family still alive?
Gramma Missy (mom's mom) is the only one I know of still alive.
  1. Have you begun your own family?
Not exactly
  1. If not, do you ever want to have a family of your own someday?
Probably not. This is not exactly the world I want to raise a kid in.


  1. Do you have any close friends?
Just Nora
  1. What is the history of their relationship(s) with you?
I found her in a garbage dump, on the verge of death, nursed her back to a semblance of health, and found her to have a PTA infection and a parasite that was somehow keeping her alive. So, patient/test subject/friend I guess?
  1. Do you have any enemies?
John Smith. He's the one who made me leave the CDC
  1. List any past serious relationships that you have had, and give a brief overview of the relationship(s).
John and I were a couple for a while, before things went bad. Professional bad, not personal bad. Although I guess putting in a hit for you would be personal bad. Other than him, no.
  1. How do you think others generally perceive you?
I think I'm easy to get along with, but I don't really socialize much.
  1. Who do you turn to when you’re in trouble?
Myself, anymore. I used to go to my supervisor, but I can't put her in danger like that now.
  1. What is the worst thing someone has done to you?
People don't really have a history of doing bad things to me. Really, even the stuff with John I don't know if it was something he did TO me, or something that just happened between us that we were on opposite sides of.


  1. Do you, or did you, have any role models? 
When I was a kid, I looked up to Drake. Not now, though.
  1. Why did you choose your career?
I wanted to find the answers to PTA, to understand why and how Drake died.
  1. What do you expect to get out of this?
I won't be the top of my field, I know that. I just want to help push progress as much as humanly possible so that I can see the answers before I die. I'm okay with doing gruntwork, if that's what it takes, because someone has to do it.
  1. Do you have any dreams or ambitions?
Just to see the end of PTA before I die.
  1. Do you have any great rational or irrational fears or phobias? If so, what are the origins of or reasons behind them?
My greatest phobia is that I'll wake up one day and realize that I'm crazy like my mother.
  1. What, if anything, would it take for you to be able to overcome this?
It's just something I have to check myself on daily. It's a kind of obsession in some ways, because there's no way to be completely sure I'm not. I always doubt everything I see, feel, think, hear, because I don't know if it's all real or not.
  1. How do you react when this fear manifests itself?
I make definite statements of things I know to be true. I verify what I'm seeing or hearing through other people. If it's about feelings or thoughts, I weigh them against the situation and try to determine if they're rational or not.
  1. Are you willing to discuss, or even admit to, the situation?
I don't talk about my nightmares. It makes them too real.
  1. What are your attitudes regarding material wealth?
Do we even have that anymore? I think the wealthy people are just the ones who let the system take care of and protect them, so that they can have some semblance of a normal life.
  1. Do you trust easily (perhaps too easily) or not?
  1. What is your favourite food?
Manicotti with cheese and marinara, though I haven't had it since I was a kid.
  1. What is your favourite drink?
whiskey. rarely ever get any, though.
  1. What is your favourite treat (dessert)?
When I was a kid, the best thing ever were these little chocolate candies with colorful coating on them. I liked the miniature ones.
  1. What are your favourite colour(s)?
  1. Is there any colour that you dislike?
Dark red.
  1. What is your favourite type of animal?
  1. Do you believe in the gods or not?
I haven't decided yet. If any exist, they are certainly not kind.
  1. Can you kill?
If it means saving more people, I think I could. I've killed Z's before, out of necessity.
  1. What happened and how did you handle it?
A couple of times during my research, I've had live subjects that got out of control and had to be put down.
  1. What would you do if someone shot at (attacked) you?
Do whatever it takes to make them stop. First choice would be flight, but at some point there has to be fight, as well, if you intend to survive.
  1. What would you do if something were stolen from you?
depends on what it was.
  1. How do you feel about government (rulers) in general?
We need them. They're never going to be perfect. They're never going to be good at what they do, but we can't just not have rules, and we can't have rules without some form of government. The general population is not going to be able to protect themselves. We have to hope that the people we put in office are above average.
  1. What form of government do you believe is the best (democracy, monarchy, anarchy, aristocratic rule, oligarchy, matriarchy) and why?
I think that the general public needs to be able to choose who leads them. We need to be able to look at the options and say "this person is above average, and can lead us and make decisions on our behalf." There needs to be a consensus to some point, but there also needs to be someone there to make tough decisions and take the responsibility for us when decisions are wrong. Average people can't handle the responsibility and guilt of the consequences of making hard decisions when there is no right answer. It's not about what's best, but rather what's necessary.
  1. If your life were to end in 24 hours, what 5 things would you do in those remaining hours?
I would make sure that the right people know about what I've found with Nora. I would eat a lot of food, and drink a lot of alcohol, I would read my mom's diary one more time, and fifthly and finally, I would arrange to have someone take my body for research when I went.
  1. Do you remember your dreams?
No but I remember my nightmares.
  1. Describe a typical dream you might have.
They're usually about mom.
  1. Describe your worst nightmares.
Sometimes I dream that I am my mother.


  1. Where and how were you educated?
I started in a traditional school, then moved on to mail-order school, then mail-ordered secondary education through the CDC
  1. Have you ever done anything else for a living?
I worked on a farm while I lived with my grandmother for a few months.


  1. What is your normal daily routine?
What is normal?
  1. How do you feel and react when this routine is interrupted for some reason?
That's normal.
  1. What are your hobbies when you're not working?
I used to have an adopted daughter. Mostly I just liked to spend time with her.
  1. What would you do if you had insomnia and had to find something to do to amuse yourself?
Work, read, something productive
  1. What do you do for relaxation?
  1. Do you keep your house clean?
  1. Is it dusty?
  1. Is the bathtub moldy or coated in rust?
  1. Do you clean it herself?
  1. Do you have any pets?
  1. Do you keep a calendar or address book?
just the one my mom had
  1. Where do you keep it?
in my shoebox
  1. Do you have a written Will and Testament?
  1. What does it say?
Maybe I'll share that one day. It's in my shoebox, too.


  1. What would you like to be remembered for after your death?
I don't really want to be remembered. That's not why I'm here.

Then, there were about two hundred questions of simple and complex math, physics, biology, chemistry, history, and reading comprehension. Finally, when I had finished, the sweet little canned voice came across again, saying, "Thank you, Dahlia, You have completed your assessment. Your results will be prepared within the next 48 hours. You will be notified upon their arrival. Thank you for your cooperation with the Coober Aptitude Assessment System. You may leave by the same door you entered through if you have no further questions"

I didn't, so I left. I went home and waited to be notified.  I did notice, on my way out, that, even though the computer said the average time to finish the test was three or four hours, mine only took about two. 


What are you good for?

Sylvan's complex is quite massive for an underground city. Inside Sylvan's building is an office full of information, schematics, maps, and more, all about the history and logistics of the town, which I learned is called Coober (named after a pre-PTA underground city in Australia, Coober Pedy). Coober is a perfect square, 6.2 miles long and 6.2 miles wide. The production of Coober was begun two years before PTA began its spread, and was sealed off for about five years. Seven years ago, work resumed, slowly, under Sylvan's direction and funding. 
The floor of the town is cut at the same curvature as that of the surface of the Earth, so that, unless you're standing within half a mile of the center of the space, you cannot see more than one wall. The walls are made from a mostly reflective, curved surface, so at those distances you can't even tell they're there. The ceiling is one mile below the surface, and one and one half miles above the floor. It's covered with UV lamps, set on a timer to simulate the natural sky. It's also equipped with misters, which every morning before "sunrise", water the vegetation that grows between the buildings.
There are around 700 people living here, give or take. Most of them are refugees, helping the town operate just like any other. They do work like retail, labor, childcare, cleaning, and even some farmwork on the small fields on the outskirts. There is a ring of 64 acres (0.1 mile) on all four sides of town, where all the food is grown and packaged. There are several shops around town that sell the food, there are seamstresses and carpenters and all sorts of different tradesmen throughout town, as well. Most of those shops have apartments on their top floors, and living spaces in their basements as well. Coober is very much like an old village, except with high-tech security, sleek futuristic architecture, and the fact that it's all underground.
Coober is really amazing. It's beautiful and unreal. There's only one thing that really freaks me the hell out: There's only one exit.
 I took a day-long visit to the Welcome Center, where I learned all about Coober and the people here. Jace, a loud, friendly guy with spikey black hair, led me on a tour of the three rooms dedicated to records, history, and statistics. He explained, very enthusiastically, how all the infrastructure works, how the community functions, and the various rules and laws of Coober. After he'd answered all my questions (and more), he led me to the fourth and final room on the top floor. There was a bank of six computer terminals, with six comfy looking desk chairs. He led me to the first one and gestured for me to sit, as he pulled up a second chair and sat beside me.

"All right, so I need you to take the aptitude test," He wiggled the mouse to wake up the terminal, then pointed to the only icon on the desktop. "Just click here, and you're going to answer a bunch of questions. The first few are just demographics, we like to keep a census of who all's here, just for records purposes. Other than name, age, and gender, any other demographics questions are totally optional.

"After that, you'll answer some questions about your physical health, your experiences, where you're from originally, that sort of thing. That's to narrow down the fields that you're qualified for.

"Finally, you've got some questions about your personality and decision making style. Those questions will help the system make a better suggestion for what field you should be in here. Try to answer them as honestly as possible, there are no wrong answers except for lies.

"After you're done, it'll give you two lists. One is a list of all the different jobs that are available here, whether you're qualified or not. We give you those so that you can choose a career path and training if you have aspirations to work in one of those fields. The second list is full of suggestions for what you will be working on right now. It's listed in order of your highest aptitude to things that you're probably not going to like, but that you're qualified for.

"After the test, you'll have three days to decide what you want to do, and if you don't choose before that, you'll be assigned to your highest match. You can change your choice later on if you want. Every ten weeks, we give everyone the opportunity to take the test again if they want. And, like I said, you can always train for another career that's outside of your aptitude if you want. You have to work on your current job for at least ten weeks before you can begin training, though. That's the only catch. Any questions?"

"That seems pretty fair," I replied, "But I have one question. What happens to people who choose not to work? Not that I intend to be one of those people, I just don't want to end up working with one."

"Good question!" Jace grinned a big goofy smile at me and replied, "If they're sick or unable to work, that's understandable. But if you just wake up one day and decide you don't feel like working anymore, and you spend more than three days out of service, one of two things happens to you. Either you are evicted, meaning you leave Coober and get to fend for yourself against the wild Z's that lurk in the woods up top, you go back to work, or you volunteer to be a test subject for our clinics. Excessive tardiness or absenteeism are treated the same way. Everyone's measured on an individual basis, based on a complex matrix of mental, physical, and emotional health, along with their type of work. Anything else?"

I thought for a moment, "What are the hours like? How many days and for how long are we expected to work?"

"Most jobs are five days a week, eight hours a day, with one meal break in the middle. There are some exceptions, like farming and other heavy labor. Those jobs are in six hour shifts four days a week, with the option to do more for various rewards."

"Okay," I looked at my hands while I made my mental progress through a hypothetical day in this world, "One last thing, does Coober operate on a monetary system? Barter? Communist?"

"Sort of a mix of barter system and a commune. We make sure that everyone has what they need to survive. Food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare. It doesn't help anyone in the community if someone up and dies on us. But, based on your performance and attendance and your supervisor, you can earn extra incentives, and lots of people trade those. Sometimes it's food, or clothing, or vouchers for service. There is a free market, it's just a sort of... black market."

"All right. Sounds pretty good. And I'm guessing you're so perky about telling me all this because the system works well?"

"There are always people who are dissatisfied with their surroundings. They'd be just as unhappy to be on the surface, fighting off hordes of Z's, as they would be down here, safely running a barbershop. But on the whole, I feel like it's pretty fair. Sylvan designed the whole system himself, and he's a pretty good guy. He's great at empathy, and he tries to make sure everything is as just as possible. We have almost no crime, and everyone is as healthy as possible. So yeah, I think it's working."

"Great," I turned toward the terminal and used the mouse to click the icon. "I guess I'll get started, then."


A Long Time Doing Nothing Will Eventually Wear Your Nerves Down

Quiet time, alone time, is not all it's cracked up to be. I thought that the only thing I needed was solitude, rest, silence. I was wrong. In the silence, in the hours lying in your dark room in your too-warm bed, wishing for death or sleep, the ghosts in your head are too loud to hear the silence. When I try to sleep, I wake up exhausted. I toss and turn and rise and fall all night when I try to sleep, there is no rest for me. When I lie awake, still, resting my body, I hear a scream and a gunshot, over and over. I hear my mother's voice, I see Nora's emaciated body. There's nothing but death in my head, and it's enough to drive me mad.
 I spent six days in and out of hazy consciousness. Denise came in the first day to see me, and found me asleep. I slept, fitfully, for the first thirty-six hours. She came in after I woke and asked if I could see Sylvan. I said no. So he started visiting every evening around dinner time to check on me. We didn't really talk. The second day, I spent feeling comatose, like a walking corpse. I sometimes fantasized that I had died, that all the trouble and stress and nightmares were done, and I could just wander and decompose and be done with it already. No such luck has found me yet.

The third day I found the energy to get up and explore my small apartment, beyond the bedroom and connected bathroom. The decor was simple whites and blues, just like the center we entered through. The furniture was sparse, gleaming white, and all with rounded corners. That day, I paced and tried to forget.

The fourth day, I cried. I couldn't break the cycle, mom, brother, Belle, Nora, mom, brother, Bell, Nora, over and over with grandparents, aunts, and uncles mixed in. I cried for the life that I almost had before the whole world started to die. I cried for the world that died, and I cried for the sad, broken, decaying one that replaced it. I cried until I threw up, and then I cried again. I couldn't control it, I felt scared and frustrated and angry, and so very very lonely.

The fifth day, I slept. I dreamed about my mother and my brother. I don't remember this one, so I don't know if it was a memory or just a dream. We were sitting at the table at our home. Drake was playing a handheld game, and the sound was turned on. The music was this tinny, high pitched, repetitive melody that reminded me of a fragmented, pixelated image. It was upbeat, though, and not really that loud. Mom was behind me in the kitchen doing something. I couldn't turn to look at her, but she was just moving things around and humming this really down song.

The two sounds competed and contrasted enough to be annoying, but I was coloring, and I was happy to be with the two of them and to be having some peace. I was happy. I was at peace. Happy.

All of a sudden, Mom's running toward us, and this growl roar kind of weird shriek comes from her, and before I know what's happening, she's thrown Drake's game at the wall, shattering the screen, and causing the song to skip and loop and make the sounds that cause migraines. I stand, involuntarily, and I watch her hold him by his hair and scream in his face about 'that god damn noise, Drake! MAKE IT STOP! It's KILLING ME!" and she just keeps screaming and shaking and crying, and Drake's got his hands over his face, trying to defend himself from her balled up fist. She's got it raised, but she never does hit him, she just screams and screams about the monsters Drake's called up with that noise. That's when I wake up.

On the sixth day, when I woke up I put on clothes and shoes and I stepped outside. Even though the artificial light outside was identical to the artificial light inside my apartment, the feeling of open space, even open space within a manmade cave, gave me vertigo. It's a really weird feeling, coming out of a small space after that long. I've had the feeling before, but you never really get used to it. It's like your body gets used to calling that confined space 'the world' and when you expand that all of a sudden, you get a shock.

When I got my bearings, I walked out to Sylvan's building. The cluster of lights serving as a surrogate sun were low in the "sky", so I figured it must be early morning or late evening. I assumed early morning, since I had just woken up.

Sylvan was alone in his office when I arrived, so I just walked in and sat down in front of him. The look on his face was a mixture of relief and excitement.

"Am I glad to see you up and about! Do you feel any better now?" His voice was uncomfortably chipper, as it had been all week. Outside of my safe little bed, his voice felt bigger somehow, like something I needed to hide from. I took a deep breath and pushed the need to hide deep down.

"I am feeling better than I have been. I'm not great, but I don't think I will be," I responded as clinically as I could. Don't think about Belle. Don't think about death. I kept chanting in my head. I tried to focus. I tried to push the memories out.

Sylvan's brow furrowed with concern, "Well, that's not what I was hoping to hear. After all this time resting, I had figured you'd be raring to go. What's troubling you, Dahlia?"

I glanced away, tried to lie, but the truth came out instead, "Belle's dead. My baby girl, Belle, my little sis, she's gone and she's dead, and she's never going to come back to me. I'm alone, and she's gone." I could hear my voice tapering off. I didn't cry, there were no more tears, no more liquid in my body to cry with. I had been dry, thirsty even, for days now. So my voice just shrank away, my body refusing to be part of this concept for one moment longer.

"Belle was the girl you adopted several years ago, isn't that right?" I nodded, studying the curve of my right shoe on the ground. "I'm so, so very sorry. Did you see it happen?"

I nodded again, this time closing my eyes. There she was, as she always was when I closed my eyes lately. All my regrets. My mistakes. They all culminated in her being gone now. If I had just done things differently... "It's all my fault, Sylvan."

"Now, I really, really doubt that. Did you kill her yourself?" He asked matter-of-factly. He thought he knew the answer to that question.

"I didn't pull the trigger, if that's what you're asking," where did that vitriol come from? "But my actions led to her death. Directly. I led her to it, because of my pride, and my fear. I didn't pull the trigger, but I may as well have loaded the gun."

"Tell me, then. Tell me what you did to aid in Belle's demise," he requested as he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back to watch me.

"I learned something and I was told I couldn't share it, so I got angry and fought back. That was pride. I was threatened, I still don't understand why, but I was afraid, and so I ran, and I took Belle with me. We ran to my grandmother's home, and fate stole her away from me. My grandmother dropped her gun and it misfired. If I had left Belle at home, I would have been the one to die. If we had both stayed home, neither of us would have died. But I didn't choose either of the more right choices. I chose to let her slip out of my life." Who knew it? There were tears left in me after all.

"I see. Well, this may seem insensitive, but may I ask what information you ran for?" I couldn't read his motive.

"You can ask, but I'm not saying. I don't know why I'm not supposed to talk about it, but I'd rather not give anybody any reason to think I'm doing something wrong. What I will be happy to do, is to continue my research in that direction, without assistance unless absolutely necessary."

"And what would make me think you're ready for that? You've spent the last three weeks locked in your apartment. I wouldn't want you doing anything silly and causing an outbreak here in this safe place. I'm sure you understand that," he offered.

"I need to do something to get my mind off these things," I told him, suddenly able to be sharp and clinical once more.

"We'll find you a civilian job for now. Come back tomorrow and talk with Denise and she'll have an assignment for you. I promise it will be something relatively fulfilling so you can get your mind off things." He stood and stepped away from his desk.

I stood as well and turned toward the door, while offering, "Fine. I'll do that for a little bit, but you brought me here to work, don't forget that."

"Of course, I won't. I really want you to work again, too, I just have a responsibility to protect these people from anything I see as a potential risk. Until I know you're stable, I'm sorry but you qualify as a risk."

"Yeah, I know," and I headed for the door.

Outside, the light seemed brighter than it had in Sylvan's building, even though I knew for a fact it wasn't. All the lights were the same, my eyes were just playing tricks on me. I went home and ate the food that had been left on my table for me, then waited for the next day to bring me something to do.