Chapter 5

Chapter 5

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But I hadn’t, and so the return trip wasn’t as easy as it could have been.

Timothy the darned preparer had exercised because deep down, he’d foreseen a future in which he might need the not-pretty, not-toned, not-sculpted muscles for the heaviest lifting and longest mile-running. But alas, he couldn’t prepare for a heart attack, and I didn’t prepare for a life without him.

Yet I had to live. We all had to live. The water was in there, not out here.

That was what I told myself after I climbed back into the duct with my most dignified expression. The sideway air kept pushing me out, but it was nothing that I couldn’t struggle against. The downward trip wasn’t bad either. At the bottom, the air caught me just as it’d caught me on the way out.

The real problem was the vertical climb up. This time, nothing pushed me up. I dreaded it…

…until the walls reacted to my touch. Little handles, which doubled as footholds, sprouted from the steel.

Well I’ll be damned. My fingerprints. The duct had reacted to that. And I had a feeling that Timothy had installed defenses against those whose fingerprints weren’t registered in the dome’s system. He wasn’t one to rely on one strategy alone. Sure, the ritual was effective. But who knew when people might get tired of waiting around for the gift from the dome, and decide to attack it?

Nobody. So I had to know other things that could be known.

As soon as I returned to the incinerator in a sweating and panting heap (the presence of the handle-footholds didn’t mean the upward climb was a walk in the park), I crawled out. I landed on the cool tiled floor. From there, I crawled to the living room.

By the black wall, Timothy’s desk with the many screens stood as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The two cups of coffee still lay on the desk, having reached that beautiful middle state, room temperature.

The screens showed the not-mad people burying Timothy.

That afternoon, I watched as much old footage as I could. When had Timothy moved the pincer arms on the duct? How had he moved them?

The not-mad people tossed the empty bottle into the duct at midnight when I performed the dance with the keyboard, tippaty tap. When I did the dance again, they returned the canister.

I put it on the night table on Timothy’s side of the bed. It was empty, but symbolic enough.

Over the next few days, I attached a camera to the cleaningbot, connected it to a rope, and made the most of its unshakable dedication to its profession: its desire to pick up any and all trash and make things clean. With its pincer arms, it retrieved little pieces of burned paper, waste matter, and mushrooms from the depths of the incinerator.

Mushrooms. That was what grew at the true bottom, which was to be found when no air pushed you up and sideways out of the duct, into the desert. The bottom was where the waste went, when you pressed “Empty” instead of “Begin.”

Timothy had never incinerated anything. The ever-suffering prophet had figured out a different way to remove waste from the dome. Why he’d picked the shape of an incinerator to house the fungal cleaners, I’d never know. All I knew was that he’d done his damnedest.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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