Jimmy and Barb had been crawling for what felt like hours.
“OK Space Boy, does this tunnel end any time soon, or what? My knees are starting to hurt.”
“Space Boy?” Jimmy replied.
“You can’t wear a suit like that and not expect to be called Space Boy. Is that made out of tinfoil or something?”
“You know, the shiny stuff you put under your food before you bake it…" Jimmy had never heard of baking before.
Barb pressed on, “It’s made of aluminum…”
“Oh,” Jimmy answered, glad to finally understand something she was saying. “Yes, it is made out of aluminum.”
“Cool,” Barb answered. This kid didn't understanding anything she was saying.
“It’s actually aluminum alloy,” he went on, “It’s stripped into fibers, woven into a suit. Really good for protecting against –
“OK it’s fine, it was a joke…” Barb said, a touch sharper than she intended. “You know what a joke is?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy laughed. “At least I think I do.”
“I’m just gonna go out on a limb here and guess you’re not from the bad part, are you? Are you from Portsby or something? You definitely don’t seem like you’re from Klammath – not enough dirt under your nails.”
"Oh, Portsby… that’s the town –"
"With trees on the streets, ya – "
"– that was evacuated, right?"
Barb felt a knot constrict in her throat. “Evacuated?”
“Yeah…” Jimmy went on slowly, sensing her sudden quiet, “Wasn’t it evacuated like twenty years ago? I thought it was supposed to be a ghost town now. That’s just what I heard.”
“Ghost town?” Barb couldn’t quite catch the words echoing off of him. What did that even mean?
“Yeah, like, completely empty.”
“I know what a fucking ghost town is,” Barb snapped. She kept getting the sense he was talking down to her or something. How old was he anyways? He looked like a fucking twelve year old.
They shuffled along in silence as she processed this new information.
“Well, if you’re not from Portsby, then where are you from?”
Jimmy paused, wondering how exactly to proceed. Had a girl from Pureside ever met a boy from the Outside before? Could this be the first time an encounter like this had ever happened? What if she tried to kill him or something? What if she tried to run away? What if she started trusting him less? He peeked under his arm at her demanding face. Not like he had much trust to lose anyways. She was calling him Space Boy.
He took a deep breath. “Well… I’m not from Portsby. Or Klammath.” He was glad he'd read up on the different Pure areas before coming here, “Or… the ‘bad part.” He heard her shuffling stop. He paused. For a second he thought about turning around to face her so they could make eye contact, but the quarters were too tight. Plus he was nervous. He decided to just go for it. “I’m…from…Outside.”
“Shut the front door.”
“Shut the FRONT DOOR!” Barb yelled. “You’re a fucking Outsider?! What do you mean you’re an Outsider? Why didn’t you say so from the beginning? How’d you even get here? Don’t we have defensive systems to keep you assholes out? And if you're an Outsider, then why are you helping us? Aren’t you one of the people trying to capture us? Were you the ones chasing us in the tunnel earlier? Is this like some sick twisted trap or experiment or something?!”
“No!” Jimmy cut in desperately. “No, I’m on my own. And it wasn’t me chasing you. Those were drones. I’m not with them. Well, not exactly.”
“Everything’s fucking complicated – how about you start by answering any one of my questions?”
“Have you heard of the EIU?
There was a long pause, and then, “Oh my God... the Emergency Invasion Unit?”
“Intervention unit," Jimmy corrected, "but yes.”
“Well yeah I’ve fucking heard of you guys! The Herald talks about you guys like you’re going to attack us any day now. Is that what you're doing?”
“We’re not attacking you,” Jimmy tried to explain, “We’re actually… here to help. With the factory collapse. We’re cleaning it up for you. In fact… you actually requested us.”
“Bullshit we requested you! Who requested you? The President? Yeah right! For what?! We’ve had worse shit go down over here than a factory collapse, and I didn’t see any Outsiders lending a helping hand then. Nobody seemed to give a single shit then!”
“Hey, you seceded from us, remember?" Jimmy fought back. "‘The Pures and their Principles?’ I mean… you’re the ones who came up with the Divide to begin with!”
“What? Are you kidding? You basically forced us to go. You shut the front door in the faces of millions of people who wanted to stay. You couldn't handle us poor, uneducated masses – you had to wash yourself clean of us so you could start fresh with your elitist, intellectualist society. It wasn’t a secession it was a purge, and –”
“The Divide was a mutual agreemen –"
“On paper, but not in practice –"
“Have you even read the Perot Treaty? –"
“YES, thank you very much!” Barb shouted.
They suddenly dropped into silence. Jimmy hadn’t realized they’d been yelling either.
"Neither of us were even there," Barb said finally.
“I was about to say the same thing.” Jimmy replied.
“Well I know you weren't there – aren't you like twelve?”
Jimmy stiffened. “I’m sixteen.”
“It was a joke, dumb ass.” Barb couldn’t help grinning. So he was sixteen, same as her.
“Funny,” Jimmy retorted. Then, “I'm not lying about our mission – it came directly from MAN, which means it had to have been requested by the Puritan House. Which makes sense because there were over six thousand bodies to clean –"
“For the record, I was just out there, and I didn’t see anybody 'cleaning.' And I didn’t see any bodies either. It was completely empty when Dirth and I were there.”
“That’s because we’d already finished excavating by the time you showed up."
“Cool, thanks, Mr. Know It All. And how exactly would you know what time I showed up?"
“Well… like I was saying, there’s an organization called the EIU, and as you've probably figured out, I'm a member there.” He paused, trying to think through the next part. “So about 24 hours ago, I was in the Atrium – our control room – helping operate the drones and cleaning up the bodies. And then I saw you.”
“Wait,” Barb interrupted, failing to notice the new sentiment in his voice. “Did you see my brother then? In the rubble? His name’s Connor. He’s 23, 6’3”, blonde.”
“6-3? So slightly lighter hair than you?"
"Yeah, if by slightly lighter you mean blonde," Barb replied.
“Yeah, blonde….like Dirth’s hair? Yellowish? Color of straw? Oh come on, you don't know blonde?"
“We describe hair color by number. 1 is the lightest - white basically - and 20 is the darkest, black.”
“Fancy. Like Paint-by-Number but worse. What number are you?”
“I’m ten color. We’re all ten color.”
“You’re all ten color? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What do you mean? It means what it sounds like it means. Everybody’s ten-ten – ten color hair, ten color skin… I thought Pures knew that. Don’t you see pictures of us in the news?”
“Yeah, but you guys look normal… if you all looked like fucking clones, I think we would have figured that out. We would’ve seen it in the Herald.”
“We don’t look like clones,” Jimmy replied defensively. “We just… look similar.”
“Right, like clones. Do they make you at the ‘Space Station’?” She broke into another wicked grin. For a second she felt like herself again; for a second she could almost forget she was trapped in a claustrophobic crawlspace in a factory far from home….with an Outsider. Boy Sandy was going to get a kick out of this.
“Ha Ha,” Jimmy responded, “So is this ‘Herald’ where you get all your news from then?”
“And the Diggers,” Barb added quickly. “They’re the group Dirth is a part of, er, leads, I guess. My best friend Sandy and I get most of our news from the Diggers – they get all the underground shit, they call it dirt. They don’t have an Outside Man like the Herald does, though. Oh my God, we’re totally like each other’s Outside Men right now.”
Jimmy laughed. “Yeah, we are. You say God a lot –”
“Do you know who your Inside Man is?” Barb interrupted before he could finish.
“No,” Jimmy answered. “I think the whole point is for them to be secret.”
“I know!” Barb laughed. “I just thought I’d check, since you seem to know everything…”
Jimmy smirked. “Well that is one thing I don’t know. I'm curious though. I bet they make themselves really hard to find.”
“Yeah, probably…” Barb remembered her brother again. “So, wait, you didn’t see Connor?”
“No… sorry," Jimmy added, "Everybody I saw was just a kid. Like ten, in Pure years. Maybe younger.”
“Ten? Working in the factory? That sounds against the law.”
“That's what we thought. It was really… horrible."
“Yeah, and you thought we were total savages, right? Making babies work for breast milk and shit. We have child labor laws.”
“What do the laws say?”
“That you can’t make a kid who’s younger than ten work.”
“Then it's about age, not the conditions?"
"Of course, what else?"
“That would never work on the Outside.”
“Kids start working when they’re around six.
“Six? What? Are you insane?”
“They want to work. It could never be abolished, they’d unionize.”
“What are you talking about? Abolished? What, are we back in the slave trading days again?”
"How can you say that when you –" He caught himself.
"When we what," Barb breathed.
"When you still have racial segregation and hate crimes." He swallowed. "Lynchings."
"It was just a joke." Barb swallowed. "A bad one, I guess. And you're right, it fucking sucks. But how bout you try having a bunch of uneducated people – hell, try having race – and not have bad things happen."
Jimmy took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair again. “It feels like we’re speaking a different language.”
“Yeah, no shit.” There was a long pause as they shuffled along in silence, using the time to gather their thoughts. “Do you think a girl from the Inside and a guy from the Outside have ever met before? I mean, this could be like history we’re making.”
Jimmy smiled. “Could be.”