By Cait Gordon
“Understand so far, you?”
I didn’t, but Neffrey’s theories about the nefarious conspiracies of the BeforeTime often boggled my mind.
“Yes,” I nodded and signed in reply. Crap, my hands are trembling again.
“You feel cold?” she signed.
I shook my head.
I made a face when I saw she couldn’t hide that little smirk of hers. She knew fully well I crushed on her, which made my fingers twitch every time we were alone together. Every friggin’ time. She also did that silent giggle I adored. That does it; she must be punished. I pushed her onto the grass as part of warrior-play, which we often engaged in to keep sharp. The finger she elevated in my direction needed no interpretation whatsoever. When I laughed, she whipped her body around and kicked the legs right out from under me.
Thank goodness for the safety jets on my braces. I hovered in mid-air until I could land on my feet again.
“I’m sorry,” she signed, and totally didn’t mean it.
Gosh, she was wicked. I wanted her so bad. Okay, Shan, get it together. We’re on duty. Must continue searching for the Bunker Norms.
Her hands responded to a violent vibration from her scanner, and she motioned me to follow. I removed my own scanner from the deep pocket on the side of my right leg brace, wondering why I hadn’t picked anything up.
She glanced at my device and then up at me as if I’d lost all sense before plucking it out of my hands and switching it on.
Why am I such a pre-pubescent dork around this woman? I cleared my throat and looked down at the screen as she handed it back. Affirmative.
“We got BNs,” I muttered.
Neffrey nodded. She’d been watching my face.
I found it annoying that we were still assigned to perform seek-and-rescues. It had been forty years since the Onesies — what they used to call the richest one percent of the BeforeTime — had vanished underground, leaving the rest of humanity to rot. Apparently, witnesses could almost make out the “too bad, so sad” written on the BNs faces just before they’d sealed themselves in their posh subterranean dwellings.
The death toll back then had been catastrophic because of all the Deniers, those pawns who hadn’t the means to save themselves but voted for those who did. Most of them perished in the famine. Others in the fires. Still others in the turf wars, led by the corporations who thought they could outlast the EndTimes. And all the while, we’d been forgotten, discounted. Anyone who identified as disabled, d/Deaf, neurodivergent, mentally ill or “mad” — we were the expendable, non-productive ones. Who cared about saving us?
Jerks. As if we didn’t know exactly how your minds worked. The Olderfolk had been fully aware of our pending annihilation some thirty years before EndTimes even happened. It had been a tight, scarily tight time frame, but we were plenty: twenty to twenty five percent of the population. That’s nothing to sneeze at if you’re organized. And our people had skills (the Mad folks quipped that they had “mad” skills). We weren’t going to leave anyone behind. Well, except maybe the Normals who weren’t willing to adapt.. But they weren’t on our side anyway, especially the self-identified “allies.” They were the first to turn on us.
I’ve often wondered if they’d even noticed we’d all disappeared when the EndTimes disaster had gone global. Probably not. Heck, even before those days, people like me had to request assistance just to open a damn door. It sounded far-fetched, but the Olderfolk insisted it had been their reality. I was only a toddler when rescued, abandoned by my parents and siblings when the anarchy had begun, but I’d been snatched up by a passing Revollie who heard me crying from the upstairs window.
That’s all I remember of those dark days. After I’d been brought to this sector of The Verdancy, everything had been great. Good food, cheerful faces, lots of fun gadgets to help me get around, tons to learn. School had been pretty interesting. Languages were my favorite, whether spoken or signed. My plan was to be a professor, but my tour had to come first. We all took turns making sure the community was secure from “Bunker Norms Gone Wild” and preferred to spot them first. If they were to climb to the surface without us as guides, they (1) either didn’t last the week from their lack of survival skills or (2) managed to make it to an outpost only to think they could tell us how to run things. Yeah … no. They would adapt, or else we would toss them back underground. To rot. No hard feelings, but you created this mess in the first place.
Twenty years after my first tour, I was still at it. I figured I was a lifetime Revollie — that is, a supporter of the “Nothing Without Us” revolution — even though we’d been at peace for decades. I couldn’t help how I felt. This was a world I wanted to keep.
Neffrey had stood up while I’d been lost in thought. She would often check on me as my brain brained on a tangent or two. Then, realizing I was only musing, she’d go about her business.
The tremors grew louder, so we ran back and braced for impact. Neffrey crouched while I hovered a half-meter off the ground. With my camera in hand, I set to video the entire thing. We had to do this for official reasons, of course, but I couldn’t help but take a sick pleasure in knowing what the BNs were in for once they’d surface.
A jagged ellipse of sod rose like a hatch, revealing the dull grey metal of the bunker lid. I could hear voices and gasps of awe, even at this distance. My security partner and I waited patiently. Well, I did anyway. Neffrey had stood up with arms folded, then gestured for the below-ground BNs to move their asses.
Eventually, one head emerged: chestnut brown hair with silver at the temples, relatively youngish face as pale as bleached linen. Handsome, for a man. Must be forty-something like me, so he’d entered as a kid. The man’s torso and upper legs were visible along with a hand reaching down to help someone else. A woman: blonde—wait, perfectly blonde—did these people also pack a hundred years of hair dye? She appeared to be his age as well. They smiled at each other and kissed like lovers once they climbed out fully.
That’s … Is that okay? Please tell me she was the neighbor’s kid or something.
Neffrey poked my leg. I looked down.
“We are invisible to them … still,” she signed, rolling her eyes.
I snickered, remembering the Olderfolk’s anecdotes. That had been another thing I had trouble comprehending. How could 25% of the population be invisible to the other seventy-five percent? Apparently we were discounted, irrelevant, couldn’t get decent diagnoses. Did anyone even know how to science back in the day?
Two little ghostly children—a ginger girl and a brunette boy—climbed out of the bunker. I just assumed everyone was cisgender because of the exclusiveness of BN culture. So far, we’d not seen any trans or non-binary folk nor anyone whose orientation wasn’t allo-cishet come up from underground. The “Evil Me” quivered with anticipation at how these BN noobs would react upon witnessing the intersectionality found above ground, on land where the Onesies no longer had any claims of ownership or sovereignty.
My mind wandered a little again, this time to growing up with my adoptive parents. A romantic at heart — who would vehemently deny being a sap — as a little kid, I’d make my folks tell me their love story over and over. How they’d met as friends, dated as teens, broke up when one of them moved away, then met again years later after each of them had transitioned. When they’d reunited, they’d fallen face-first in love, the kind that might cause cavities because of the sweetness, and got married. They had so much in common, including a debilitating neuropathic condition. Being married meant they couldn’t receive financial supports, and they almost died from starvation. They refused to divorce. Thank goodness the Revollies arrived before it was too late. Now, my folks are happily retired, and every kid in our sector has nabbed them as their surrogate grandparents—even the ones who already have grandparents.
I floated there with my memories, a big silly grin pasted on my face, and sighed happily. In no time, I found myself shaking. Neffrey, jarring me awake again. I returned my focus to our surroundings.
Six people stood motionless, gawking at us. An older couple had joined the children and parents. Again, I felt taken aback at their pallor and instinctively looked at my hand, its usually faint pinkish-beige skin now sun-kissed by all the outdoor duty. Then I glanced at Neffrey’s russet, reddish-brown complexion, which would have had me adrift in a swoon if the glare in those fathomless brown eyes hadn’t stabbed me in the face.
I stared at the family again. “No, no, not a wraith, I swear,” I blurted, remembering a phrase my kindergarten teacher said about himself on the first day of school while cheerfully referring to his translucent, porcelain-like features.
Neffrey wasn’t watching me this time, so she hadn’t made out what I’d said.
The Bunker Norms had heard me perfectly.
“How dare you mock us!” barked the chestnut-haired “head of the family.”
Alpha males. Isn’t that what they used to call them? Or was it “toxic”? I jumped. Toxic … with what? I signed to Neffrey to make sure the men and boy were slated for a tox screen, just in case.
She appeared confused. “I don’t understand. Why men only?” she signed.
“Men are poison … maybe,” I signed back. This was new for us. Most of the men who had survived these bunkers had been rather docile. Perhaps their seclusion from others had given them cause for self-reflection?
Her lips parted in surprise. I quickly turned back to the family so as not to focus on her lips, setting my feet on the ground as my jets hummed. Neffrey took the camera from me and continued filming everything.
“How does the lady float up and down like that, Daddy?” asked the little girl.
“Nevermind, Cassie. You!” the potentially venomous man snapped at me. “Get us local police. Now!”
Neffrey and I naturally glanced at each other, each of us trying not to laugh at the Onesie issuing commands. She removed one hand from the camera and touched her nose while her fingers formed the letter D.
Yup, he totally seems like a dick to me, too. A grunt escaped my throat before I could stop it. I never enjoyed having to be the one to address the BNs.
“Sir, we’re the security patrol. We’re here for your safety and to help you get the supports you’ll need for a smooth assimilation —”
His partner gasped, putting her hand over her mouth. Were her nails painted, too? Hair dye and nail polish had been oh-so-essential supplies for the normals? I shook my head before continuing with:
“You and your family have descended for … we presume close to forty years?”
Ah, so you were among the first to go, before EndTimes had reached its climax. “We’ll bring you all to a base for health inspection—physical and mental—then get you enrolled in cultural reorientation classes. Our society has changed greatly, and you’ll be expected to learn how to communicate and contribute to its upkeep.”
“What is this, some sort of socialist regime?”
I checked on Neffrey. She had that “toss him back into the bunker” expression.
“This is a restructured society where diversity is our reality. In fact, we only use the word ‘diversity’ when communicating with BNs —” My heart nearly stopped. That was a slip.
The man’s brows furrowed. “BNs? What does that mean?”
Neffrey handed me the camera and signed something. I was so grateful, I wanted to kiss her for days.
“Back to Nature folks,” I said. “You are the ones returning to the surface.”
“Oh, that sounds like a dream, George,” said his partner. “I would so love to try freshly-harvested organic food.” She turned to me. “Do you have that here?”
“Yes, indeed! Organic, hydroponic … Our agricultural specialists do that and more. They’re particularly proud of their soil restoration program.” I paused. “You know, if that’s your interest, we can have you train as a food-grower’s apprentice.”
“Trained?!” shouted George the SuperNorm. “My wife does not work. Neither do I. We’ll pay you to—”
“Money doesn’t exist here,” I said. “That’s what messed up everything in the BeforeTime.”
One of their Olderfolk stepped forward. “Yes, that’s probably true,” she said. “I never wanted to hide underground from the disaster. In fact, my best friend told me to come away with her and build something new. I didn’t understand at the time. She was wheelchair-bound —”
“A wheelchair user, please.” I hadn’t meant to interrupt, but she’d uttered a term we’d been taught was harmful and didn’t reflect the freedom that mobility devices bring.
“Oh, yes, right, thank you,” said the woman. “I couldn’t imagine what she thought we could build while everything around us seemed so chaotic. But after a few days, I decided to go with her. When I went to her home, she was gone. I just presumed she’d died.”
Neffrey signed, “What is her name?”
I interpreted the question aloud.
I dropped the camera. Neffrey’s mouth gaped.
The older woman blinked. “Whatever is the matter?”
Picking up the camera turned out to be a bit of a trial. The left knee joint on my brace was acting up. Neffrey patted my arm and told me to stop. She bent down and handed the recording device to me so I could continue filming.
“Maven Blake,” I finally said, “is head of the Olderfolk. Her initial designs are what saved us. She organized marginalized scientists, engineers, zoologists, agricultural specialists and beekeepers, and creatives in every field to build a community that would thrive while the current one destroyed itself. She called it the Criptopia Project — apparently that nickname had always made her smile — and through the application of holographic shielding, our world would remain invisible to the, erm, ‘richies,’ but accessible to all those who’d been left behind or disregarded.”
“Well, I must say,” said the younger man, “I am personally offended that everyone is prejudiced against us simply because we’re rich.”
“Oh, shut up, George. You’ve always been an insolent brat.”
The woman took the hand of the elderly gentleman beside her and walked up to Neffrey, smiling kindly.
“I’m Heddy. This is my long-time friend Terry, my daughter-in-law’s father. Over the years, he lost his hearing. Can we learn to converse like you do?”
Neffrey nodded and replied enthusiastically. When the couple seemed puzzled, she turned her head and noticed me grinning at her. Then she gave me “the look.” I didn’t understand, so she gave me the “even more look” — the one she’d use whenever I’d been particularly clueless.
“Oh, crap!” I signed to her to repeat herself while I interpreted her response.
“Absolutely!” said Neffrey to the couple, again. “We have many languages for you to learn, but I suggest you begin with one that is closer to your spoken dialect. There is also accommodation for those who are not able to sign. Anyway, wherever you go, you will have interpretation or live captioning of spoken conversation. There’s no being shut out like in the BeforeTime. Oh! You will also get a kick out of the new android interpreters that have just been released. Their fluidity of motion has really come a long way. And there are tons of things to do in the city proper. Personally, my favorite pastimes are the comedy clubs, especially the ones with a naughty edge. I also love live theater and have been in a few plays. You really must take in the Entertainment District. The variety of activities and talent is off the page!”
My heart glowed a little. Neffrey was typically a person of few words, but whenever she got stoked, her hands danced with delight.
“That sounds wonderful,” said Heddy. “I’m excited to experience this new way of life, which frankly, already seems a thousand times better than the world we left behind.”
“Now Mom —” said George.
She whipped round. “You can stay here if you like, son, but Terry and I are going to be grateful to these nice people for welcoming us into their community, even though none of us really deserves it.”
He huffed. His partner and children moved beside the family’s matriarch.
“I’m Jessica. These are Cassie and Rafe. May we come, too? I think I would be interested in the agricultural studies program. I’d also like to enroll the children in school.”
I had to admit it. Her earnest cornflower blue eyes actually tugged on my heartstrings. In all my years in the field, I’d never been moved by a Bunker Norm family before. I peered over at Sulking George and sneered. Well, almost everyone in the family. Perhaps that’s not fair. He might be able to adapt.
“Fine,” he grumped, “I’m staying right here, since my entire family has obviously lost their minds.”
Then again, maybe some people are destined to be stubborn as mules.
“Suit yourself, George. Enjoy foraging for food and drink,” said his mother. “Please help our family,” Heddy addressed Neffrey and me. “We would so love to thrive again under the sky.”
“Of course,” I replied, switching off the camera. “This way. It’s not a far walk to our craft. But if walking is an issue, I can jet ahead and fly back to you all.”
Heddy pulled out a wipeable pad from her cardigan. She wrote: “Okay to walk?”
Terry nodded with a tender gaze.
“We’re ready to follow you,” she said to us.
The lot of us headed north over the field covered with swaying tall grasses in the spring wind. Wildflowers had sprung up, filling the area with vivid colors scattered in random patterns. My legs ached, so I hummed along but not so far off the ground. Neffrey, in the lead, had spotted me lagging behind. She smiled, came back for me, and took my hand, pulling me as I floated on—physically and emotionally.
We’d just about reached our craft when I heard a panting voice cry:
“Wait! Wait for me!”
I inwardly groaned. Oh, Georgie Boy, when you get to The Verdancy, you’ll never know what hit you. I almost feel sorry for you.
Except I didn’t. Not in the slightest.
Neffrey squeezed my hand and let go.
We helped everyone board the ship.
Mission completed. For today at least.
Cait Gordon is an autistic, disabled, and queer Canadian writer of speculative fiction that celebrates diversity. She is the author of Life in the ’Cosm, The Stealth Lovers, and Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space (2023). Her short stories appear in Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland, We Shall Be Monsters, Space Opera Libretti, and Stargazers: Microtales from the Cosmos. Cait also founded The Spoonie Authors Network and joined Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the Nothing Without Us and Nothing Without Us Too anthologies, whose authors and protagonists are disabled, d/Deaf, Blind or visually impaired, neurodivergent, Spoonie, and/or they manage mental illness.
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