Ilyana looked toward the sky as the loudspeaker called over her shoulder “Carousel begins.” A heavy sigh passed between her lips as she rose from the bench and walked back into the compound. Carousel had always been a time of new beginnings, a time when dreams could come true. Now, in the winter of her life, it all seemed a lie. Not one of her dreams had ever come to life before her eyes at Carousel, but every week, she went. She went and she watched as children rose from wheelchairs and ran across the cathedral screaming in delight. Every week since her youth, she’d prayed for her own special miracle. She’d prayed for her mother and father to be brought back from the grave, she’d prayed for a child before her husband had turned her away as the divorce decree had so succinctly declared that she was, “un-useable.”
Among the seven children her parents had been blessed with at Carousel, she had been the most beautiful, the one filled with potential and wit. Now, she sat here with a withered face and claw like hands trying with all her might to push the pen across her currency pad so she could balance her finances during the session. It was how she bided her time until it was over and her time was once again her own.
Tonight’s Carousel was the same as any other, miracles happened for other people, but never for her. The room would become dim and beams of light would trickle across the chamber until they found purchase on the face of some unsuspecting soul. That soul would rise from their seat with their eyes glazed over in awe as they stared into the light and gained what enlightenment was there to be had. Weather it was a simple solution to a problem within the complex, or a cure for blindness, miracles were there to be found for anyone who had the courage to meet the light with open eyes. And as suddenly as they came, the miracles would fade away, the lights would come up in the room slowly and the haunting woman’s voice would say, “Carousel ends. Carousel begins in 168 hours.” All it meant for Ilyana now was seven more days until she would balance her finances while avoiding dropping the tiny pen of her currency pad.
She would leave quietly without a word to anyone. Sometimes one of the Fathers would stop her. They were always kind. Perhaps they were bred to be that way. They would whisper a kind word of thanks for her attendance. She could always hear their smiles in their voices as they told her that she had waited for her miracle for so long that her turn was bound to be soon. Fathers always knew those who had never been touched by the light of the Carousel with only a glance. She never understood how they could tell, and when she asked, the response had been simple. “The light of the Carousel tells us all things Ilyana. Your time will come soon.”
Ilyana would smile at them, offering a faint nod, and then she would step away and wander down the hall toward her compartment. No Father stopped her tonight. She went back to her compartment unmolested, still somewhat bitter that she had never been chosen for a miracle. Soon, her life cycle would end and she would never know the joy that had touched every other person she’d ever known. She would never know what it was like to stare up into that awesome light and feel the elation that had been described to her time and again.
In her compartment, Ilyana looked up at the ceiling. The old hologram of a starry sky had worn out its welcome. She pressed a button on the door panel and it changed immediately to a picturesque field filled with flowers. Off in the distance there was a hill and the sky was clear and blue. She smiled at the new scene and walked over to her bed. Carousel always ran late and every week, she would find herself going to Carousel later and later. The cycle continued every 168 hours from the end of the last Carousel, so Carousel never began at the exact same time as the previous session. The cycle of 168 hours had been important long ago, but somehow, it had lost its meaning over time. All she knew now was that this was when Carousel happened and that she had to go. No one missed Carousel. There was no penalty for it, but the idea of missing a session was simply unheard of. She was certain that sooner or later, she would sleep through a session and be given horrible stares because everyone would notice that she had not attended, even though she really didn’t know anyone anymore except for her brother’s children.
The next six days passed, as they should have. She would go in for her weekly check-up with the medical and be cleared to continue her work in the laboratories. Her co-workers certainly gossiped about her behind her back. She was so advanced in age that she could have retired to a quiet colony in the country years ago, but she chose to remain at the compound to continue her work. Since her husband had divorced her, and had her deemed ineligible for re-marriage, her work was all she had.
She would study the consistency of soil samples brought back from a space of earth, not too far from where the compound stood, simply known as “The Dead Zone”. The samples always came back with high radiation content but no one had ever been able to determine the source of the radiation with probes. The Dead Zone was off-limits to all but the Fathers. The Fathers would go there to collect the samples in their white robes and come back in pristine condition. They would hand over the tubes and say nothing of what they had seen.
Ilyana knew somehow that there was a rite of passage involved in becoming a Father. The passage from boyhood to manhood was a critical point in the evolution of a Father. She’d been told this since she was a child. She’d also come to the conclusion over the years, that this rite of passage had something to do with the Dead Zone, but she’d never been able to figure out what they did out there. When she was a girl, she would often let her curiosity would get the better of her, she would sneak outside the compound the morning before Carousel to watch the Fathers emerge from the ground level of the compound. They would stand in a circle and kneel before a boy who would go out into the Dead Zone wearing nothing but a loincloth. He would return a few hours later with tubes of soil and garbed in the flowing white robes of a Father. She’d never been able to figure out where the robes or the tubes came from and as time marched on, she reminded herself that she was too old to worry about the myths surrounding the Fathers. They were there and more comfort than anything else she could think of. That was all she had ever needed to know and now it was all she wanted to know.
The morning of Carousel came and she walked down to the lab to check in the newest samples. The man that handed her the samples had had a smile in his voice as he passed them to her and wished her well in today’s session. She had smiled back at him and inserted the tube into the receptacle for the computer to analyze. Then she had gone off to have lunch.
When she returned, co-workers had gathered around her station. It was chiming that it had completed the test cycle. Her screen flashed words in brilliant green against a black background, “No Radiation Found.” The laboratory was already buzzing with the news that a soil sample from the Dead Zone had come back safe. She stared at her screen then waved people away. “Let me look at it before you get your hopes up children.”
Respectfully, the sea of young technicians parted to make room for her to take her seat at her station. She smiled at them pleasantly enough, then turned back to her screen and got down to business.
Radiation levels were indeed zero. The chemical balance in the soil was optimal for agriculture. In fact she’d never seen a soil so rich and black. She pulled the tube out of the receptacle and stared at it. The soil was moist, it had collected in the bottom of the tube and clumps of it fell toward the top when it was turned upside down. It was the most amazing dirt she had seen since her mother’s treasured flower pots when she was seven years old. She stared at the sample while her lab partners stared over her shoulder. Eventually she looked up at them and said “All right, make yourselves useful. One of you, get a rad suit on and take this into the specimen room. The rest of you get to your stations. Watch for any signs of radioactivity. I want that vial opened once it’s inside the specimen room. The detectors there are the most sensitive available. If there’s even a single atomic particle that’s radiated in that tube, it will detect it.”
A young man stepped up and took the vial from her hand carefully. His name was Daniel Ryson, he had been her counterpart since he’d arrived from Uni. His voice was soft and quiet as he said: “Yes ma’am.” The rest of the lab stared at her for a brief moment, and then the young man snapped his fingers. “Come on guys! This might be it. Finally after all these years of research and study, it might be safe to re-open the Dead Zone and reestablish trade with the rest of the country! This could save our lives. Get moving!”
At his words the people crowding around Ilyana’s desk rushed to their stations outside the specimen room. Ilyana smiled gratefully at Daniel who simply inclined his head and began suiting up. She watched him get into his suit then went to her station outside the specimen room.
The specimen room was their containment unit. Every sample that had ever been collected was contained in one specimen room or another. A fair majority of the complex was made up of laboratories just like the one she worked in. The purpose of the complex was to protect the people from the radiation outside the shield, which was gradually reducing as time went on, and to determine when it would finally be safe to leave the complex so that trade with the east could be re-opened. Ilyana had waited for that day her entire life, and now as she looked through the glass at the young man in his rad suit, she held her breath. If it came out safe, they might be able to walk outside the shield without heavy equipment or the magic of a Father.
Everyone in the room shared the moment of tense excitement with her. Chairs were forgotten, people stood at their stations as if it might bring them closer to what they were sure would be an historical event. Daniel gave the thumbs up sign and the specimen room was locked down, the detectors came to life and lit up the entire console. Each person glanced at their station to make sure all was running in perfect order, and then all eyes were back on Daniel. His hands were on the pressure cap of the tube. He had to take his time about it, the gloves of the rad suit were cumbersome and while it only took a minute or so, to those standing outside the room looking in, it seemed like an eternity.
The cap popped off with little noise and no ceremony. They stared at it, then immediately looked to their panels. Ilyana read off her panel first, “Atmospheric reads normal. No radiation detected in the air inside the specimen room.”
A young woman beside her cleared her throat, then read her panel, “Daniel’s suit is stable, no radiation particles on any portion of the material.”
“Floor reads clear as well.”
“All internal surfaces of the specimen room read clear Miss Ilyana. What do we do now?”
Ilyana looked up from her panel and smiled at her co-workers. “Now that we have determined the sample is safe, we can run the standard battery of tests that we run on baseline soil. We need to determine the acidity for certain. While I am certain the computer knows, it would be best to double-check those facts by running tests of our own. Get out the beakers and Bunsen burners. Let’s run every test we can think of on this soil.”
Daniel came out of the specimen room and got out of his suit. “Who is going to report this to Complex Manager Davis?” Everyone in the room turned to look at Ilyana. Being the eldest member of their particular team, she was also the Lab Manager.
She looked at the floor and shook her head slowly as she spoke, “I suppose, that would be my job. Wouldn’t it?”
Complex Manager Davis had had the most amazing day. Every lab was reporting returned soil samples from the last two days as being free of radiation. Not even the slightest trace of irradiated particles existed. The whole thing smelled of something rotten. Maybe the Fathers weren’t going into the Dead Zone to collect particles anymore. It was entirely possible that the dangers in the ‘zone had become too great, even for them. Now all that was left was for Lab 37 to report. He took a sip of his coffee and waited, knowing that they had received their newest sample that morning. It would take reports of the same findings from all the labs for him to even consider going to Forefather to discuss it. As it happened, just as he was about to get up from his desk and go to Lab 37 himself, his door buzzer rang. The haunting voice that announced all comings and goings in the complex said quietly, “Lab Manager Ilyana for Complex Manager Davis.”
He sighed and looked at the door thoughtfully, then said, “Door open.” The door panel slid open to reveal Ilyana standing on the other side. She looked almost fragile; he’d always thought that of her. She’d been old even when he was a child. Many times he’d tried to convince her to go to the retirement complexes in the country but she had refused. There was a certain fire in her eyes that had convinced him to allow her to remain at her post. She was not the sort of old person who got confused about where the breakfast button was in the morning.
“Please, come in. I’ve been expecting you.” Ilyana looked somewhat surprised about that, but made no comment. She simply stepped through the door and smiled at Complex Manager Davis. “Sit, can I offer you something to drink or eat?”
She shook her head and took the seat directly in front of him. “Do you also know why I am here?”
He smiled somewhat vaguely and nodded, “I hope so. You’ve received a soil sample that’s returned a negative radiation result. Is that correct?”
Ilyana nodded and pressed a button on his desk. His desk lit up with a complete report of the results of their experiments, including old-fashioned litmus tests. “You were very thorough.”
“I felt it necessary to be thorough in light of the stir this might cause within the complex. If the reaction of my Lab is any indication, we can expect the same awestruck response from the rest of the complex before the day is done.”
“I agree. We’ve had reports similar to yours from every lab in the complex over the last two days. I would like you to accompany me when I speak to Forefather to explain the technical details of what has been found, if you can spare the time.”
Ilyana looked up from the desk panel and nodded slowly, “Of course I have the time, but-”
“Excellent.” Complex Manager Davis cut her off and smiled. “We’ll go now before Carousel.” The young man got up from his desk and grabbed his jacket. “Better not keep Forefather waiting.”
Ilyana stared up at him and then she got up to follow. “You’ve already made arrangements to meet with Forefather?”
“I did. As soon as I’d heard that your lab had received its new samples this morning. I suspect that the Fathers are not going into the Dead Zone any longer because it has become too dangerous, even for them. Forefather will know that and can bring all of this to an end.”
“But what if this soil really is from the Dead Zone. Then what?”
Complex Manager Davis turned down a hallway and stopped in front of a large door with a Carousel horse painted on it in brilliant color. “Then, we can reunite with the Eastern Complex and save ourselves.”
“Just like that? Won’t you want to send out exploration parties or something?”
“That… will be discussed.” He reached out and pressed the button beside the door. “Be polite, speak only when spoken to, you know the drill.”
Ilyana nodded and looked through the doors as they slid open to reveal a sparse, but large room that was white from ceiling to floor. Behind a white desk, sat a man wearing a white robe. He rose from his white chair and seemed to smile at the Complex Manager and herself. “Come in. You have come about the soil samples, have you not?”
Complex Manager Davis stepped in first, Ilyana followed right behind. With a slight bow of his head, he informed Forefather of all the information they had gathered, pausing occasionally to ask Ilyana to clarify the finer points and when it was all through he posed his actual question, “Forefather… have the Fathers stopped collecting soil from the Dead Zone?”
Forefather retook his seat behind his desk and seemed to glance at Ilyana from behind his white hood. “The Fathers are collecting soil from the same place they have found it ever since the beginning of recorded history. This place is in the very heart of the Dead Zone. If these soil samples are showing no radiation, then the entire Dead Zone must be safe.” Forefather rose from his chair and walked around the other side to meet them more directly. Perhaps he wanted to see their eyes even though they could not see his, “Complex Manager Davis, I know that it is your custom to not participate in Carousel because you feel that you have been blessed enough in your life. And you Ilyana, Lab Manager 37, you come to Carousel because it gives you time to balance your finances. You have stopped believing.”
He paused then his voice took on that smiling quality, “You must both come to Carousel tonight and participate. I know that this is going to change our world and Carousel will take part in that change. You must both be there to see it.”
Complex Manager Davis glanced over at Ilyana who sighed and nodded her head faintly. “We’ll be there and we will participate.”
Ilyana looked over at Complex Manager Davis as they sat on the bench outside the Carousel chamber. He smiled at her, “You remember the words, right?”
She laughed, “Yes, I remember the words.” She giggled somewhat, an odd sound coming from such an old woman, then she began to sing, “The merry go round broke down, as we went ’round and ’round. Each time ‘twould miss we’d steal a kiss and the merry go round went Ooom-pah Ooom-pah Ooom-pah.” She stopped singing and laughed again. “I still wonder what significance this song had in our past. It must have been very important to be the song for Carousel, but it seems almost ridiculous.”
“Perhaps it is meant as a reminder of happier times for our people Ilyana.”
She nodded then looked up as the chimes sounded and the woman’s haunting voice filled the air, “Carousel begins.”
“Time to go.” Complex Manager Davis smiled and offered her his arm. “Let’s at least get into the spirit of things tonight Ilyana. Even if Forefather is wrong, we are doing this for his sake. He deserves our respect.” She couldn’t help but agree with him. No man became Forefather without going through a horrendous trial of faith inside Carousel itself.
They walked into the room, greeted by Fathers with smiling voices that thanked them for their attendance and went to a pair of seats near the bottom of the chamber. They waited for a few moments while the rest of the complex took their seats in the circular room. The lights began to dim and swirl around in soft shades of orange, pink and red. The music began. The entire room rose and put their hands over their hearts as they sang the song of Carousel, the song that had filled their lives with hope for as long as Ilyana could remember. Out of respect for forefather, Ilyana left her currency pad in her pocket when she retook her seat. The colors began to swirl faster and faster and the familiar feeling of being dizzy came back to her as she watched. The music began to crescendo as Carousel came down from the ceiling. Faster and faster the lights swirled round and round and the Gods of the Forefathers gleamed as though they had been freshly polished even in the muted light.
Ilyana smiled as vivid memories of how this sight used to make her feel like she was on top of the world flooded her mind. Complex Manager Davis was smiling too as he reached over for her hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. Shafts of light began reflecting all around the room. A young child rose from his seat and walked toward the Fathers who’d gathered in a circle at the bottom of the room. Another woman rose and screamed to her husband that they were being blessed with a child. Lights flashed all around the room and finally, one came to settle on Ilyana and Complex Manager Davis at the same time.
Ilyana was taken away as she looked up into the light that she had been waiting her whole, long life to meet. She felt as if she weighed nothing and she could feel the spirit of Complex Manager Davis right beside her in the light. The computer’s haunting voice entered her mind, speaking soft reassurances and projecting images of wonderful fields of flowers as far as the eye could see. “Ilyana… you and Aurie will begin our new world. We have a blessing for you. You will be made young again. We knew when you were born that you were special Ilyana. Special you are. The time is now right for the complex to fade and for the people to go out into the world again. The radiation from the bomb is gone, as we knew it would be before your time was over. This is our final blessing. When it is over, you must run. Take as many with you as will leave and begin a new world.”
The light poured around her and she felt her skin growing tighter around her frame. Her hair seemed to be flowing about her face like it hadn’t done since her divorce. Her eyes seemed to focus better. The objects floating around her in the light gave her little concern except that one of the Horse Gods was wearing a saddle. She could see it now as though she’d never noticed it before.
When she returned to her seat, she looked down at her hands, they were no longer arthritic claws. They felt strong and looked younger than she had ever remembered them being. When she looked back up Complex Manager Davis and all those in the room were staring at her as the lights from Carousel faded and the voice said quietly, “Carousel ends.” This time, there was no addition of when the next Carousel would be. She looked up at Davis and said in a voice that was not quite her own, “Are you Aurie?”
He nodded, “Aurie Davis.”
She smiled and rose from her seat… “We have to run Aurie Davis. Carousel said so. We must get as many as we can to run with us. Disengage the shields. It is safe to go out of the complex.”
“Why?” The question had barely passed his lips when the answer fell right in front of him. Carousel hit the floor and burst into flames. People screamed and began to run out of the chamber. Davis looked all around them and whispered, “Oh my God… it’s destroying the complex, isn’t it?”
Ilyana nodded and grabbed Davis’s hand. “Come on! We have to run! Outside! It will be safe outside!”
They ran up the stairs and to the Fathers exit gate. Davis looked all around him where people were crowding trying to get out the doors still screaming in terror. “Complex Manager Davis! Disengage shield and open exit gate.”
The computer voice said simply, “Comply.” The doors slid open and sunlight streamed into the complex. The people were momentarily blinded and stared outside in shock at the fields of green grass and tall trees that stood all around the complex. Off in the distance, they could see tall structures standing. One looked like a disc that had been placed atop a very fragile spire, another like a pyramid. Others still were so amazingly high that it took a moment for Ilyana to realize that the complex was still exploding behind her. She caught her breath and looked back at the people in the exit gate. “RUN! If we stay we’ll die! Run for those ruins!”
Davis and Ilyana broke into a sprint and moved as fast as they could away from the complex. They didn’t stop until they heard a massive explosion and looked back to see the domed complex falling in on itself. Bursts of flame shot up from the complex, then a huge cloud of dust filled the air around it. Another moment, and then there was nothing where the great building had once stood.
For days, they wandered around the complex in search of survivors, in search of those who had surely run with them into the outside. All they found was a small girl who sat under a tree crying. “My mother told me to run. She said she couldn’t leave Carousel alone.” It was the only thing she said through her tears.
In the end, it was concluded that the people were too afraid of the sun to go outside into it. They were afraid of leaving the known for the unknown and chose to stay and die rather than face the outside world and leave Carousel behind.