July-August 2017

The Hopeful Planet By Dana Gurland

High School Short Story Honorable Mention Winner, Walt Whitman High School

A distant bell rang six times and Jim Arbor sat up groggily in the sand. He threw a frayed wool blanket off his lap and climbed reluctantly to his feet. Yawning, he strolled out the front opening of his hut and made his way up through East Village toward the Park, taking a scenic route along the edge of the vast, crystal clear bubble to watch the fish swimming around outside. The sun was just barely beginning to penetrate the bubble.  The deep ocean sand was still cool between his toes as he walked. Halfway through the village, he was joined by an energetic woman who fell into step beside him.

“Morning!” Sarah greeted him. “Are you on fishing duty today? You better try to find some tuna. I feel like we haven’t had any in months! I’m hoping to find out in the Center today whether there’s any left in stock; we’re working on inventory at the moment, you see—” She lowered her voice to a whisper and glanced around to see if anyone could hear, “Last week we found a whole stock of tuna in the back room…I think the scientists have been keeping it all for themselves.”

Jim shook his head with a sigh. It seemed like every week a different delicacy mysteriously disappeared from the kitchens. The conversation ended as quickly as it had begun, however, as they arrived at the Park and had to split off toward their respective teams for work. Jim met the Explorers at their usual picnic table where the commander was shouting out assignments for the day.

“June 11, 2068,” the commander mumbled, flipping through a thick pad of paper. “Hmm, here we go. Mark, Allison, Samuel, and Ruth—you’re on fish duty today. And we need a ton. More’n yesterday; you’re not coming back in till you’ve got it. Them kids are going through three fish a day during their exams and we’ve been told to just let ‘em have it.” He grunted angrily, clearly dissatisfied with the number of fish that were being wasted on simple schoolchildren. “Anyway, I’ll take seven more of you,” he said gesturing to seven others. “Down toward that abandoned ship we found last week. I think there’s some more useful junk we can get outta that thing. And the rest of you, work on bringing more of those rocks from outside West Village into town. The scientists want another whole storage room by the end of the month, and the Builders have been buggin’ me for days about how they don’t got the materials to complete the job!” He glared at the group.

Immune to his commander’s perpetual anger and quite pleased with his assignment, Jim wandered off to his usual picnic table for a quick breakfast. Across the Park, young children filed into seats at the picnic tables for breakfast before exams began. The teacher stood at the front, speaking loudly to get the chatty kids’ attention. Jim was able to hear her clearly from his table and, with nothing else to entertain him over his bland seaweed, listened to her lesson.

“Just a quick review this morning before we begin the first exam! There are a few key points to remember for the history test today. First and most important is that the bubble was created in 2019 by the great scientists”—she said the names very slowly and clearly to make sure nobody missed them—“Dr. Keen and Dr. Cassius. Additionally, they created it because the surface of the Hopeless Planet became so terribly polluted that everyone fell ill and it was no longer inhabitable. Although other scientists tried for years to heal the planet and make it safe again, there was truly no solution.”             

There was a pause as Jim watched the young students shut their eyes tightly, mouthing the facts inaudibly to themselves.

The teacher gave them a moment to think, then concluded, “These are the general points you should know, but also recall the great scientists’ full biographies that we’ve studied in depth as these will cover a large portion of the test. Good luck, everyone!”

Listening to the teacher reminded Jim of a conversation he had with his mother when he was young and had just finished his history lessons in school.

“But how do we know there’s no one else up there?” he had asked innocently. “Or maybe someone on the other side of the world created their own bubble, and we don’t even know they’re there!”

His mother had sighed. “Because that’s what the scientists say, and there isn’t anyone in the whole bubble that knows better than them. We’re the only humans left in the world, and that’s that,” she said with a tone of finality.            

Jim was smarter than to keep pressing the question, but he still was not convinced. The next day during school he took a risk and asked his teacher the same thing. 

“What if there are other people left on Earth? What if some of the people who didn’t come into the bubble survived? What if new pants—I mean plants—could have somehow grown since we’ve been down here, and made it better?” he pleaded, certain that there was a better explanation.

“Watch your tongue,” she had said sharply. “Those scientists are the best thing that ever happened to us and if you say another word to doubt them you’ll likely be thrown straight out of this bubble. Whatever’s happening outside won’t be as interesting when you’re stuck out there without an oxygen tank, eh?”

Jim had given up. No one in the bubble would believe that anything that the scientists told them was false; no one even wondered if there might be another explanation! There is no life above the bubble. The Hopeless Planet is damaged beyond repair. There is nothing to be done about the conditions above ground. Everyone would be ill or dead if not for the incredible scientists.

The people of the bubble lived by these facts and praised them as if they were the highest law of the land, without exception. Defeated, Jim had pushed the concept from his mind and did his best to believe what the others said.

Bringing his mind back to the present, Jim finished the last of his pitiful breakfast and retrieved his oxygen tank and flippers from the Explorer shack. He maneuvered awkwardly in his heavy gear toward the bubble’s exit. At the very edge of the giant bubble, he crawled through a concealed tunnel through the dense sand below ground, then climbed up the packed sand steps at the end until he reached a stone door. Jim pushed it open and immediately a rush of water poured into the tunnel, piercing his hands and arms with cold splashes of salty water as he shielded his face from the impact. He waited a moment for the rushing water to calm, then heaved himself up the last few steps into the water as the heavy door swung shut below him.

The sound of water rushing toward the door quieted in an instant and Jim found the silence of the ocean pounding peacefully in his ears. Soon he would have to help collect rocks on the ocean floor, but first he wanted to take advantage of his time alone in the water and investigate something strange he had once found floating above the bubble.

Jim swam upward until he was just 20 feet below the surface, close enough to see the phenomena that had been lingering in the back of his head for weeks. There were hundreds of small—he didn’t even know what to call them—small things floating on the surface, making oval-shaped shadows in the water. He had first seen them when he accidentally swam too far from the bubble a few weeks earlier. No one was allowed to venture that far without permission, but his curiosity had overtaken him. He had gotten within 50 feet of the mysterious things before the commander found him and angrily yanked him back to the bubble.

            His punishment had been a short interrogation by a Scientists’ Center worker, and after assuring the worker that the incident was a mistake, he was let off with a warning. The worker had warned him of the dangers of swimming too far off, which included illness from pollutants above the water and highly dangerous over-curiosity. For the next three weeks, Jim was put in the fishing group at work so the others could make sure he didn’t wander off again.

But now Jim was free once again and his curiosity was too tempting to ignore. He knew that the commander was off looking through the abandoned ship on the bubble’s south side and there were rarely any fish up here; none of the fishers would even consider coming this way. Knowing very well that he could be facing a death sentence if he was caught all the way at the surface, Jim kept swimming until he was just an arm’s length away from the abandoned world. The little things, which he could now see were a bright shade of green and about the size of his palm, danced gently on the surface above his head. His heart pounding, he inhaled deeply and reached out a shaking hand. He snatched one and pulled it quickly down into the water.

He couldn’t remember ever having seen something like it, yet a small, unreachable part of him thought it looked vaguely familiar. It was thin and flexible like a piece of paper, but had a texture and color similar to seaweed. It was almost oval-shaped, like its shadow, but at one end it came to a perfect point and at the other it had a little finger-like growth stemming off of it. He didn’t know what to make of it. He held it out in his open palm and watched it with deep fascination for a moment as a chill went down his spine; he had likely just done something very dangerous. However, as it rested peacefully in his hand, he decided that it was harmless and finally shoved it deep into his pocket to bring back and show Sarah. He turned away from the hypnotic mysteries of the surface and returned to the ocean floor, gathering several large rocks to please the commander before returning home.

That night in his hut, Jim could not sleep; his mind raced with thoughts of the secret green thing in his pocket and what it might mean. He tossed and turned for what felt like hours until he could not take it any longer. It was near dawn when he got up and left the hut to go find Sarah.

Just as the first weak rays of sunshine began to creep into the bubble, Jim arrived at Sarah’s hut. He stepped inside and squinted through the darkness as he knelt down on the ground to wake her, but all that he found was a crumpled wool blanket. His heart pounded when something rustled in the corner. He shivered with the inexplicable feeling that someone in the dark was watching him. “Sarah?” he whispered into the darkness. There was no response. He started to panic. If any guards had heard her complaint about the lack of fish she could be severely punished. As he groped blindly around the floor in the dark, his hand brushed against something slimy. He flinched, but picked it up. His heart sank as his worst suspicions were confirmed: it felt like a few messily wrapped pieces of—tuna.

Jim rubbed a sore bump on the side of his head as he regained his vision and sat up, silently cursing whichever guard had attacked and detained him. He was in a tiny room he had seen only once, when he was interrogated for venturing too far from the bubble. As it came into focus he discovered that he was not alone. Sarah was staring at him from the opposite wall, waiting for him to wake. And then he understood: Sarah stole the tuna from the Center while doing inventory. The scientists must have assumed that he was her ally, and they waited for him to enter her hut and retrieve the stolen goods.

Sarah was still staring at him. Jim glanced toward the doorway and saw that no one was standing guard outside.

“What in the world were you thinking?” Jim asked Sarah in exasperation.

Sarah shifted uncomfortably in the sand. “I was alone in the storage room,” she began, crossing her arms defensively over her chest, but still looking weakened and unsteady, “and this sudden temptation came over me. I couldn’t take the absurdity of it anymore. Jim, think about all that tuna just sitting in there not being shared with everyone! I couldn’t leave it all to rot when there are hungry, angry people all around the bubble craving a fish the scientists have been depriving us of for months!” Her voice shook angrily as she spoke. “And that’s not all. Someone got exiled at work today; they kicked him out of the bubble without an oxygen tank and just let him drown. Why? Because he asked the scientists a question. He said to them, ‘If the earth could repair itself, do you think we could ever move back out of the bubble? Has anyone ever gone to the surface to see what the world is like now?’ And just like that, they threw him in this room. I heard screaming and yelling coming from in here all day as I inventoried the fish. It was horrible. By the time my shift was over, they had thrown him out.” She shuddered.

Jim did not know how to respond. They sat in silence for several minutes, Sarah still thinking resentfully of the tuna and Jim thinking painfully of the exiled worker, remembering that he had once asked his teacher a very similar question.

Suddenly, something clicked in his head. He pulled the green thing—the leaf—out of his pocket. Sarah gasped.

“What…?” she asked in shock. Jim glanced at the door to ensure they were still alone. He told her about how he had seen it a few weeks ago and went back for it after his probation was over. By the time he finished his story, Sarah’s eyes were wide and blank with disbelief.

“What does it mean?” she whispered in awe.

Jim shrugged. His head was throbbing and his eyelids were beginning to grow heavy with exhaustion, but his mind was still racing. Outside, a distant bell rang six times.

“Arbor!” Jim was shaken from his thoughts by a guard barking at him from the doorway. The guard kept one eye on Sarah as he pulled Jim harshly from the room, slamming the door behind him.

“You listen to me right now and you listen well,” the guard growled, his grip tight on Jim’s upper arm. “Your friend has broken the law. She has taken what belongs to the scientists and she must be punished. Yesterday morning you engaged in a conversation with the criminal where she explicitly demonstrated the warning signs of treason and you failed to report it to authorities. This, in itself, is also a crime.” At these words a lump formed in his throat and various cruel punishments flashed through his mind. “You will be let off with a warning.”

Jim let out a sigh of relief. The guard continued, “But your friend will not be so lucky. She will be exiled from the bubble. We cannot have people blatantly revolt against the great leaders who have taken us here and helped us survive.” With a spiteful shove the guard knocked Jim against the corridor wall and returned to the room where Sarah still sat, unaware that she had just been sentenced to a cruel and painful end.

His heart still racing faster than ever, Jim watched the guard pull Sarah from the room, and drag her away without a backward glance. Jim darted after her, following her painful cries through the Park until they reached the hidden door. As the guard shoved her roughly out of the passage, Sarah looked back at Jim with terror in her eyes. Without thinking, without considering for even a second the risk he was about to take, he dove out the door after her.

The pounding of Jim’s heart in his head was sickening. As he watched the guard through the clear bubble walk away, smirking mercilessly, Jim assessed their options. The obvious but unlikely solution came first. He rattled the door to the bubble with all his strength. It stayed stubbornly shut. Jim looked around frantically for some miraculous solution, regretting his decision more and more with each pressing moment of diminishing oxygen. He looked left, right, every direction as far as he could see, a tense desperation rising in his chest.

And then he looked up.

The answer seemed clear; polluted or not, where in the world was there more precious oxygen than on the very surface of the planet?

Sarah followed his gaze and they shared a look of comprehension, pushing off the ground and kicking upward as hard as they could. After years of working as an Explorer, the 250-foot swim to the surface was almost laughable, but without an oxygen tank it felt impossible.

As they swam, his vision began to go fuzzy and his brain felt like it might shut down. His limbs felt like lead and the spike of adrenaline was fading hopelessly from his veins with the exhaustion. He longingly watched the shadows of the leaves dance along the surface as he started to fade into unconsciousness, Sarah lagging weakly behind. Twenty feet from the surface, 10 feet, just as he began to feel that death was inevitable, a leaf sank below the surface and caught on his outstretched arm. It reminded him of the mysteries that lay just four feet above him on the surface of the vast planet he had never truly known. The little leaf ignited a fire of burning desire inside him, a warmth that made his fingers tingle and his foggy mind become clear. Grabbing Sarah’s limp, exhausted hand from below him, he gave one final kick and felt the most incredible feeling in the world as crisp, precious oxygen filled his empty lungs. He and Sarah shouted and coughed with joy, the warm tingling spreading through his body until his legs felt powerful and strong, and his heart soared.

He spun around in the water as he caught his breath and took in his surroundings. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. The gentle water glowed bright blue with the reflection of the sun glistening off of it. And the sun itself! A massive ball of light and happiness that brought color and warmth to everything it touched. He drank up the sight for what felt like hours until he finally peeled his eyes away from the hypnotic water and saw the most unbelievable sight of all: a vast island covered in luscious greens. With newfound energy Jim and Sarah swam toward the island, looking hungrily ahead at the dreamlike place that grew closer and more astonishing with every stroke.

His lungs burned as they stepped out of the water onto the sand. The captivating smell of a campfire emanated from the woods and everywhere he looked the world was bursting with life. Huts scattered the shore and every inch of the island was home to brightly colored plants and exotic animals. Shouts of happy people echoed through the forest, and finally Jim realized that the brave people of the Hopeless Planet had never truly lost hope.