In a cheap restaurant on the outskirts of the City, a boy and a girl sat waiting for their food to arrive. The boy, a dark-haired college student with high cheekbones and tired eyes, folded his arms and rolled his eyes as he talked about the history homework the two of them had to turn in tomorrow. The girl, whose bespectacled eyes crinkled with amusement apparently at the boy’s exasperation, would periodically attempt to smooth her disobedient hair, which had the rough features of a old reddish-brown mop. Her face was round and sprinkled with freckles, some some of the bigger ones covered up by makeup — but not covered well, as they would still show through, faded.
“It’s almost dawn,” said the boy, eyeing a computer screen he had placed on the table. Images and text floated — illuminated — in the screen.
The girl jumped a bit. She pulled the screen to her end of the table and breathed a sigh of relief. “Still an hour left,” she sighed. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“Sorry,” replied the boy. [more?]
The boy’s name was Skyler. “Skyler” because his mother and father imagined him in a lab coat, or in a tweed shirt and blue tie standing in front of a whiteboard or sitting in an office full of paper and books. “Skyler” because it meant “scholar.” He ended up missing his parents’ expectations, but, by that time, a decade and a half had passed since his birth, and they got used to their son being quite mediocre [extraneous?].
Across the table sat Wilkie, short for Wilkinson. She never liked her name. Just as she never liked her hair.
“Half an hour to eat,” said Wilkie, her eyes looking at the ceiling — a habit of hers when engaged in thought. “And the train ride home is fifteen minutes. Not so bad.”
“Well, if the train were to get stuck…”
“Aren’t you a basketful of happiness tonight! The homework making a grouch out of you again?”
“Sorry.” Skyler hated to be pessimistic, but the train had actually gotten stuck before, and the two of them had to spend the day in a nearby shelter.
Wilkie shook her head and leaned back in her chair. She tilted her head to the ceiling, let her mouth hang open, and clasped it shut. Then, she set her gaze on the window next to the table. Skyler followed suit.
The low hanging lights in the restaurant were lit dimly enough to allow Skyler to see the stars outside the window. Some of the stars were big like glowing spiders, while others were so small that he had to look twice to confirm that he had even seen them at all. They all floated in a dark blue soup. Feeling the need to talk about something other than his homework, Skyler remarked, “I wonder if we can see the satellite.”
“The one with the engine trouble or something.”
“Oh, that one!” Wilkie’s eyes widened with interest. “I read that they’re going to shoot it down.”
“Shoot it down? I thought they’d send something up to fix it.”
“They’re afraid it might fall on its own anytime now. But, yeah, they seem to be in a hurry to deal with it.” Wilkie frowned. “Some people think it has to do with whatever’s on the satellite.”
“Well, it’s a research satellite…so maybe it’s got dangerous chemicals on it,” theorized Skyler. As he looked out the window, he thought the sky seemed lighter in color than before. Perhaps the sun was nearing the horizon. In the distance, he could start to make out the silhouettes of the hills and mountains that sat beyond the City line. And among those silhouettes, the sharp edges of a few straggling buildings poked up. Those buildings, too, sat beyond the City line and were off-limits. As a child, Skyler often imagined the buildings to be haunted. He and Wilkie would talk of exploring them, and they would prepare gear for their proposed adventure — backpacks filled with canned soup but no can opener, binoculars that they thought could see through ghosts’ invisibility, flashlights strapped to their belts with duct tape.
“What sort of chemicals, you think?” asked Wilkie.
“Well, dangerous chemicals— Let’s see, how about a new experimental fuel? Could explode.”
“But I just don’t think that explains why they’re in such a hurry. The planet is huge; it’s unlikely to ever fall near the City. The satellite cost billions of dollars to make, so why would they shoot it down on the tiny chance of it striking us?”
“Good point,” agreed Skyler, nodding. He glanced at his computer screen. There was a news article in the screen with the headlines “Satellite to Be Shot Down for the Public’s Safety,” and Skyler suddenly felt suspicious of it.
“I think there’s something else on it,” said Wilkie, her eyes bright. “Something much bigger.”
Skyler grinned. “You sound like a conspiracy theorist.”
Wilkie returned the grin. “Damn right I do. And the conspiracy is happening right now, too.”
“Crab sticks in gravy and crab soup?” said a waiter. He carried a tray with the entrees he mentioned. Steam rose from the food-filled porcelain plate and bowl that sat on the tray. Skyler could smell the crab, and his mouth watered.
“Ooh, this is good.”
The steamed crab meat on the table beckoned to Skyler. With fork in hand, he pounced on the red-white meat[?]. Its consistency was like a sort of thick cotton candy, and it would melt as he chewed, its juices flowing down the back of his throat like honey [?].
The two of them ate for a while. Every few minutes, either of them would glance at the time displayed on the computer screen. Meanwhile, the sky slowly shifted to a mix between violet and indigo and seemed less and less populated with stars. Thoughts churned in Skyler’s mind, thoughts about the homework, about Wilkie’s words about the satellite and about his mother’s crab sticks recipe.
A curiosity rose inside Skyler, and he said, “Here’s another conspiracy theory for you, Wilkie: What if this crab actually tastes like chicken?”
“What if it does? No one knows what they taste like.”
“So when they make these clockworks, who controls the taste, the texture, and how long they live?”
“Maybe they have a really old guy or lady who remembers what crab tasted like, and they ask that person every time.” Wilkie winked jokingly.
“Maybe I’ll ask that person one day.”
“Me too. Though, for me, I’d rather find out if crabs really did walk sideways.”
They finished their dinner thirty-two minutes before dawn. They made their way through the chilly air outside the restaurant to the station where they boarded an inbound train. Skyler stole one last look at the off-limit buildings in the distance before stepping through the coach’s sliding doors.
The cityscape whipped past the train windows. The buildings and houses were all dark; people were turning off their lights. A weak light-blue glow spread across the sky. Skyler and Wilkie had gotten off the train when the siren sounded: A wail like a trombone’s recording played back at half speed blared through the sky. Instinctively, both Skyler and Wilkie retrieved a timer from their pockets. Fifteen minutes until dawn, stated the timers. Skyler’s walking pace quickened.
Skyler waved goodbye to Wilkie at her home, then proceeded down the block to a two-story apartment complex. With ten minutes to spare, he entered his apartment — quietly, to not disturb his family, all of whom were probably asleep by now. He stood in front of the living room window and watched the sky glow brighter and brighter.
Then, at the stroke of dawn, like ink being poured into a glass of water, the panes in the window turned black. For a minute, Skyler stood in front of that window, but there was nothing to see.
The next night, Skyler and Wilkie spent the hours before dawn, like before, laboring on their homework in that cheap restaurant. This time, they had finished early and fallen into a leisurely pace as they walked back to the train station.
“I don’t get why we have to write two thousand words on ‘romance on the middle ages,’” griped Skyler. “Why does—”
But he never got a chance to finish his complaint, because at that moment a faint “pop” reached his ears from above. It sounded like a stray firework. However, when Skyler looked up, he saw something completely different.
“What in the world—” uttered Wilkie. The look of shock that she wore mirrored what Skyler felt.
Streaks of fire rained down, illuminating the sky and the rooftops of nearby buildings. They all flew along a similar trajectory like bullets fired from a single rifle. Something about their trajectory unnerved Skyler, but he could not deduce why until—
“They’re heading this way!” he heard Wilkie yell. “Come on! We gotta take cover!”
Skyler started for the station. But, it was too far away. He frantically searched for some place — any place with a roof or a wall. His eyes focused on an enclosure, a series of steps leading down into the ground flanked by walls that seemed like a service entrance to a sewer system or a subway. Wilkie was also eyeing the enclosure; she nodded at him, and the two of them rushed to it.
A door stood at the bottom of the steps. Skyler tried turning the doorknob and, to his surprise, the door opened. It opened with a creak, hesitant and loud, but all of that noise soon paled in the face of the roar that came from above. Orange light shone on the outside of the door as Skyler and Wilkie pushed it closed. Breathing heavily, the two of the turned to see what sort of place they had gotten into.