Always Greener by Richard Dickson

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SUMMARY: Entry for the July 2009 Flash Fiction Contest

RL-1472 couldn't remember if it was two knocks or three. He'd been about to tap the door a third time when it whooshed open. "You here about the coolant leak?"

"Yes, Control sent me," RL-1472 said, carefully repeating the response phrase he'd been given.

"Come on in," the voice replied.

Once his eyes adjusted to the low light in the room, RL-1472 could make out a couple of dozen figures, all in grey jumpsuits like his. Some had the tell-tale hip-high dark line from working in the algae vats, others the crisply-pressed jumpsuits of the administrative corps. Mechanics, medics, analysts, instructors – nearly ever possible role in the Complex was represented. He even noticed a few Security guards, their bright armbands muted in the dimness.

"Don't worry," said a voice behind him, "they're with us." RL-1472 turned towards the face attached to that voice. Bald like everyone else, but with a fire in his eyes that RL-1472 had never seen before. "Those who must enforce servitude are most often those who most chafe against it. I'm KP-9643." RL-1472 could only nod dumbly as the man gave his hand a firm shake and moved towards a podium that had been set up at one end of the room.

"Your attention please," came a pleasant female voice that RL-1472 recognized as the one that sounded out the time during the day cycle. He felt a twinge of disappointment – she didn't look at all like he'd imagined her all these years. Of course she was bald and in a jumpsuit, he'd expected that. But her eyes were just the wrong shade of blue, her nose just a touch more turned up, and her smile not nearly as dazzling. He closed his eyes as she continued, "The minimal power we're employing in this sector should go unnoticed, but we'd rather not take any chances, so let's get started." No, the illusion was gone for good.

Everyone moved towards rows of folding chairs arrayed before the podium. KP-9643 waited patiently. A small cone of light shone down from the ceiling to where he stood, his sharp features casting his face in stark shadows. Even standing still he bristled with purpose, and RL-1472 could feel waves of inspiration coursing through the assembly. This was clearly a man to be listened to. KP-9643 waited until everyone had taken a seat, then raised his arms to cease the remaining murmurs of conversation.

"Too long have we been kept in the dark," he said simply, yet forcefully. "Too long have we been subject to the whims of this dark, cramped steel world. Have none of you ever looked up at the uncaring metal above your heads and wondered whether a better sky might exist above it?"

"Metal cares?" asked one of the analysts.

"Excuse me?"

"Well," the analyst continued, standing, "It's an inanimate object. It can't not care any more than it can care. Neither can the sky."

KP-9643's eyes widened, but he blinked and continued smoothly. "But shouldn't you have the choice as to which you'd rather look at?" The analyst considered this, shrugged, and sat down.

"You see, it's all about choice! They tell you it's dangerous outside! They tell you you have to stay inside! They –"

"Who are they?" The analyst rose from his seat again.

"Actually, I was wondering that too," said a mechanic next to RL-1472.

"The ones who run everything!" KP-9643 stated grandly.

"I run the incinerators," another man said, "am I one of them?"

"No, not ‘run' in the literal sense, the ones who are in charge!"

A woman spoke up.

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