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Plinius Part 3: A Short Story
Toby Reveals The Ultimate Secret
It didn't take us long before we were on our way. Toby said it would only take four or five hours so we let the fields go. My grandfather agreed to start the rotation. We would finish the job when we would get back. I had lunch and then we left in the pickup truck. Toby drove. During the entire time there, we were both silent. I felt uneasy sitting next to him, especially after what happened earlier. We took the same road that went into town but instead we went in the opposite direction, and I could tell that it hadn't been traveled much. About ten miles down it went to a tight one lane strip barely wide enough to accommodate the truck. It was partially overgrown and rocky. I found it more comfortable wearing a seatbelt considering the ride was rather rough and most of the time I found myself clinging to the ceiling handle.
I couldn't believe what he wanted to show me was that important. Why not tell me? When he said it would take only a few hours to get there I couldn't believe that either. Were the mountains really that close? All this time they seemed so far. But the reason was I was always watched. If I went to church, if I went to school, if I went into town, or even if I were just working around the farm. Someone was always looking over my shoulder, keeping the reins tight. But I wasn't the only one. When I thought about it, it was most everyone. Cal was the only one that managed to slip through the cracks of the system and escape. But then again at the time he didn't have any living relatives. I happened to have a grandfather who had a seat on the town council.
Now as we drove on I knew now that it was Toby that was the one that was watching, listening. Was that the real reason for his people being here? Toby did everything we asked. Almost bowing in his usual way, showing compliance. Was it all a disguise? A front? It was frightening to think that all this time maybe he wasn't the servant, but maybe, it was the other way around.
It was just short of two hours when we arrived at the foot hills and started the gradual climb, weaving in and out between the think pines. The truck moaned, struggling up the incline and I wondered how far we were going to go but I didn't ask. Above, I was mesmerized by the height of the mountains. The tree line stopped abruptly not too far above us and it was replaced by a near smooth rocky surface that shot straight up to the summit. I found the sight breathtaking and I realized Cal probably never would have made it up the face of this range. It was too steep. Too smooth. Nothing to get a hold of.
Before I knew it everything went dark and I realized we had entered some kind of shaft or tunnel similar to the ones used for the power grid that crisscrossed under the town. We drove on for maybe another fifteen minutes, and I felt kind of scared knowing that we were deep inside the mountain. Very deep. The headlights of the truck didn't cast out much light making it hard to see, but Toby didn't seem to mind. Either he knew this route well or he had another ability. He could see in the dark.
Finally, we came to the end and stopped in front of what seemed to be a large cargo elevator. Without saying a word, Toby got out of the truck and I followed. Together we hooked the truck's batteries up to a power receptacle that hung from a steel beam near the ceiling. Next, we got into the elevator and locked the cage door behind us. Toby quickly went for the switch box at the back of the elevator and flipped open the hatch, revealing a few bright green lights and a half a dozen push buttons. He punched the top one and up we went.
When we stopped, Toby opened the door we walked out onto what appeared to be an observation platform considering there was nothing in the room. Just a solid steel floor and a network of large steel beams that covered the ceiling and the walls encasing large observation windows. Immediately I went for the row of windows opposite the elevator.
Below was the valley, the farms, the town, mount Plinius. It all looked so small, so perfect. With a blanket of haze, and a mist that shrouded the base of Mount Plinius, it made everything look so ghostly. But what caught my eye wasn't what was below. It was above.
It was the spider's web. Woven above so delicately. Fanning out in all directions from the summit of Mount Plinius. Arcing out high over the valley. Coming to a rest here, at its edge. I felt like crying. I put the palm of my hand against the window. This was the sky. Cal's sky. Vast and fragile.
"You shouldn't see this. But there was no other way," Toby's voice sounded from behind me. "You knew too much already."
I didn't say a word. I didn't turn around. I stayed there motionless. My hand was glued to the window. All I could do was stare.
"No one else is to know. For the record. You never came here. You never saw this. It never happened. For that matter, you are never to tell anyone as long as you live. Not even Barb."
"But why!" I demanded as I quickly turned around but what I suddenly saw caught me so much by surprise, so much off guard, I had forgotten what I had just said. It tore at my mind. Assaulted my senses in a way that I didn't know what reality was anymore. It wasn't Toby. It was, what was behind him. Located on the other side of the observation platform was another row of windows. I walked right past Toby as if he weren't even there.
Outside was a starkly different landscape. The sky was coal black. The soil a dull mixture of grey and brown. To my left and to my right I could see mountains and mountain ranges, one after another. They were so far away. Distances that were much farther than anywhere in the valley. But everything was so barren. No vegetation. No life. It was so desolate. It had the feel of death.
"I can still remember when they built this place," Toby reminisced as he slowly walked around the platform. "The architects, the geophysicists, the material engineers. They haggled and fought with each other for months. For years!"
"That was a hundred years ago!" I said. Everything seemed so absurd. I was so overwhelmed.
"No, over," he said as he threw me a glance. "The town came twenty years later." He smiled out across the valley through the window. "They sure did a good job." He walked along the windows dragging his fingers across the lower beam. "This roof or dome is the largest biosphere ever constructed." He stared off into empty space. He was off in a different time and he was proud. But suddenly there was sadness on his face. "At least I think it is. They never came back."
"Who?" I asked. He came toward me and pointed out the window high up, near the southern horizon.
"See it?" I got closer and scanned the sky above and then I saw it. "You can't see it from inside the valley. It's filtered out through the dome." It was a small blue and white sphere that hung there in the blackness among the stars. "That's where I came from. Me and your ancestors."
"We sailed across the blackness in a whole armada of ships carrying supplies and construction equipment and colonists. Most of them were larger in size than the whole town of Plinius." He still seemed way off with an eye deep in the past, so I didn't feel like now was the right time about asking him about these ships. But I could imagine they weren't anything like the ones with sails and rigging and a rudder that frequented Lake Tranquil.
"Why didn't they come back?"
"Oh, she was a dying world then. For all I know, no one may be left back there." He came out of his trance and assumed a serious look. "Jack, I saw the panic in your eyes when you looked out there. And that's why you are to tell no one. The panic that would set in. If everyone found out where they really were."
I understood. I felt like a fish in a fishbowl that looked out through the glass for the first time at an inhospitable world. It was frightening.
"I wouldn't survive a minute out there, would I?" I asked as I stared at the stark landscape.
"No. No air."
"What about you?"
"Maybe a few minutes longer, but not me either. Temperature extremes are too great." I turned around and caught him smiling and I smiled back. "We both would need protective gear. But that hasn't been used in so many years. I don't even know if it would work anymore."
"Who else knows?"
"Your father and the rest of the council. My people. You. And that's it." We stared at each other in silence for a few minutes.
"Toby," I said. "I'm sorry for what happened. For everything that I said earlier."
"No need to apologize. Don't feel guilty for being so perceptive. It's a good trait." Suddenly a mischievous look washed over his face. "Why not just say you owe me one."
"And what may that be?" I asked bracing myself for the answer.
"Just marry that girl. Settle down. And have those six kids." He burst out laughing and so did I.
The years passed. Many changes came with it. Plinius' centennial celebration came and went. I married. My grandfather passed away. I took over the farm and obtained a seat on the town council. I hadn't seen much of Toby anymore since he moved on to the other side of the valley. Oh, occasionally I would see him in town, usually passing him by on the street. Sometimes we would exchange a few words. But most of the time we would just say hello. Our power problem was cured. Thanks again to Toby. He always said to be patient. Not to panic. Things would work out in time, and they did. We never were able to fix the solar arrays. Instead, Toby managed to rig a solar steam generation system and couple it into the existing power grid. We built up the generating motors in Cal's shop. I can still vividly remember taking the lock off the door after all those years.
But despite all the changes. Despite all the years. I always came back to this place alone. Usually I would slip away when the kids and Barb were asleep. Or I would tell them I had to run some errands in town and then go the other way. I enjoyed the silence. The long looks out the observation windows. I imagined what it would be like on the small world above. Its endless sky. Its valley after valley green with life. Its 24 hour days. Its oceans of water, and the great ships that traveled across the gulf of space. Why did it happen? I could only imagine. Why a dying world, in its last gasp of breath, threw off a bubble of life that ended here. Landing in an impact crater, over a billion years old.
I wondered. What would my two sons be like when they got older? Would they be rebellious? Or, as Toby put it, perceptive. Or would they be like my father? Living his life and dying without ever knowing where he really was. I couldn't imagine it.
Maybe, it was because they were my sons and I already saw too much of myself in them. But one thing was clear. I never believed in the rebel or the maverick who went against authority and its laws just because it was there. That was just as blind as the one who followed without asking questions. And that was it. I believed in authority. I believed in rules and regulations. I always did. It's just that I only wanted to know, why? I wanted to know the reason behind the law. Simple as that.
I stood there alone. I remembered the time I confronted Toby in the fields during those early hours of light when the sun hung low over the mountains. Now, I stared at the same sunrise many years later. I watched as the valley lit up and the shadows crept across the fields. And I watched as the light, high up, reflected off of Cal's sky.