Sunday had proved uneventful. After a fitful night’s sleep, Amanda set to work putting her house together: hanging artwork, shelving books, organizing the kitchen and bathroom. By dinner time, she was weary and ready to put her feet up. She heated some soup and had just turned on the television when her phone rang. Nathan’s name came up on the ID. “Hello?” she answered nervously.
“Amanda, how are you settling in? The house to your liking?” he asked.
“Um, yeah. It’s great, just great.”
“Good. I called to give you instructions for coming to work tomorrow. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” As if there was an option, she thought.
“Excellent. We have a bus service dedicated to bringing our staff into the facility. That way we don’t have a lot of traffic or wasted space for parking cars. You need to walk out of your development to the main road where you will see an unmarked shelter. That is the pickup location. Be there by 8:00 sharp for your bus.”
“Alright. I’ll be there,” she replied.
“When you arrive at the facility, I will meet you and take you to Human Resources where you will be issued a photo ID badge…”
“What no retina scan?” she asked sarcastically.
He ignored the remark. “…and then I’ll take you to your department. After tomorrow you’ll be on your own. Any questions?”
She sighed. “Nathan, I have a million questions…”
“About tomorrow, Amanda,” he cut her off. “Anything else you need to ask me can wait, do you understand?”
Not safe to talk on the phone, then, she thought. “No, I guess not.”
“Good. I’ll see you in the morning,” he said and disconnected abruptly.
Amanda set the phone down and chewed her thumbnail. A bus. She wasn’t the only agency employee in town, then. It made sense. She had checked the area on the map and saw that besides Makepeace, there were no other towns within ten miles, just a few isolated farms and a truck stop out on the interstate. Wouldn’t a bus service attract attention, though? The rest of the people in town surely would wonder about it, wouldn’t they? There must be some sort of cover story… Just one more question to add to the list.
Despite her exhaustion, apprehension kept her tossing and turning all night. In the morning, she showered and dressed on autopilot. Then, after coffee and cereal, she made the short walk to the bus stop. Three other people were already waiting. She pasted on a smile and said hello. They all returned the greeting but when Amanda looked away, she immediately felt their eyes on her again. She stared at her phone and checked her email to avoid the stares. The bus arrived exactly on time and as the passengers all boarded, they quietly acknowledged the driver and found seats. Amanda sat next to a woman who appeared to be in her late forties or early fifties, reading a paperback novel. In fact, everyone on the bus seemed to be middle aged or older. I’m so much younger, she thought. Maybe that’s why they’re all staring.
The bus made its journey not out to the main road, but along a narrow, winding country road which eventually left all signs of civilization behind. Not long after leaving the town, a chain link fence perimeter, marked with warning signs for the hazards of the underground coal fire beyond, appeared along the right side of the road. When the bus stopped, there was no evidence whatsoever of the sprawling facility beneath their feet. Unsure what else to do, Amanda rose and followed the other passengers exiting the bus. They swiftly and wordlessly hurried toward a small, dilapidated building just outside the fence, which must have once been a storage shed or garage for the mine. Amanda followed at the end of the line. Once inside the building, she found Nathan waiting for her. Relieved, she squeezed through the crowd to his side.
“Amanda, good to see you,” he said. “All’s well so far?”
“I suppose. Except I feel like everyone is watching me,” she replied.
He gestured for her to walk with him. “Hm, well, considering we haven’t had a new employee join the team in over ten years…”
“You’re kidding. Isn’t there any turnover? People retiring? That kind of thing?”
“Not yet. The original staff and support personnel are aging, but this program is new enough that no one has retired yet.” They joined a queue of people at the back of the building. Amanda couldn’t tell what was happening at the front, but the line steadily moved forward.
“And no one just decides to leave? To find a new job elsewhere?” Amanda lowered her voice. “Or isn’t anyone allowed to leave?”
Nathan frowned. “It’s a situation we have yet to encounter. The doctor is the first person who demonstrated a desire to leave. Anyone else who may want to go has kept it to themselves,” he said quietly. Then looking at her out of the corner of his eye, he added, “So far.”
When the line of people had dwindled to just a few, Amanda was able to see that one by one, the employees were being retina scanned at a panel discreetly camouflaged as an intercom. As the employees were cleared, a hidden door opened and closed behind them. After everyone had passed through and she and Nathan were the last ones left, he stepped forward to be scanned and pulled Amanda close to his side. “We’ve got to go through together, Amanda. It might be a tight squeeze.”
As the door opened, Nathan stepped in and pulled Amanda into his arms. Amanda gasped as she was pressed up against his body and the floor seemed to drop beneath their feet.