Finally! I managed to get some differing opinions from the group on how to proceed. Does that mean it will be easy to stump them going forward? No way. I’m realizing it’s actually quite difficult to balance the choices enough to get people to choose different ways to proceed. Sure, you could create a totally generic story fork like Character walks to the end of a hall. There are three doors. Which door should Character choose? That’s easy to balance because there is nothing at stake with each of the options. There’s nothing to care about in choosing one option over the other.
But real story forks, with real stakes involved? Those are like balancing a seesaw over a razor blade with a pile of marbles on each end. I doubt I’ll be able to get it right every time, but that won’t stop me from trying!
Want to help make the choices? Come join us in the FB group…
Last week’s story fork…
The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…
A jolt of pain stabbed into my head as my hand grazed the drain tube attached to my scalp. I groaned and promised myself to not do that again if I could help it.
Martinez looked up from unlacing the soldier’s boots. “Hurts, huh?”
“Well, if we don’t get you changed fast, we’ll both end up with holes in our heads. And not the kind that help.”
“I have three.”
“Three holes in my head. Skull, to be precise. The drain is attached to one of them.”
She grimaced before turning back to removing the boots. “Man, they really went caveman on you.”
I reached to the side to untie the strings of my hospital gown. My ribs ached in protest. So, I grabbed the cloth covering my chest and gave it a sharp yank.
It ripped free and I tossed it aside. I picked up the gray camouflage shirt from the hospital bed and held it up by the shoulders. Looked small.
“Whoa!” Martinez said as she turned back around holding a pair of boots.
I stood there holding the shirt while the cool air prickled my bare skin.
“You could’ve warned me!” she said as her eyes drifted down. They widened and she spun away. “Why are you naked?”
“Because I’m changing. Does a man’s body always affect you like this?” I slipped into one sleeve and then the other.
She turned back around with her hand on her hip. “Affect me? I’m not affected. It just caught me by surprise. That’s all.”
I finished buttoning up the shirt. “Easy now. I’m not the one that made a big deal of it.”
“I didn’t make a big deal of it! It’s not a big deal. Pffft.” She shook her head. “I’ve seen men naked before. Plenty of times.”
I slipped a foot through the second pant leg and pulled them up, having to tuck myself in to keep from getting caught on the zipper.
“Oh my God,” she said as she spun away.
“You’re just going to grab yourself in front of me?”
“Yeah, like grab it with your hand while I’m watching!”
I pulled up the zipper and clasped the top button. “One, I wasn’t grabbing myself. I was avoiding getting nicked by the zipper. And two, I didn’t ask you to watch me get dressed.”
“I wasn’t watching!”
“You just said that you were watching.”
“I can’t believe this is happening. Can we move on already?”
“Are you dressed yet?”
“Can I turn around and not see your junk?”
“Your man parts. Frank and beans. Coconuts and banana.”
“Yes. You’re a strange person, Corporal Martinez.”
She turned around and grinned “I get that a lot.” She glanced down as I slipped on a boot. “How are they?”
My big toe hit the end and crumpled over as I shoved my foot down until the heel sunk into the boot. “They’ll work.”
“Good.” She grabbed a sheet off a nearby shelf and started cutting it into ribbons with the knife that I was happy to see hadn’t ended up buried in my chest.
I finished getting dressed and took a breath. The shirt buttons stretched tight and stopped my lungs at about half full. The boots would work, but my toes were going to cramp up in minutes. Probably take a pair of pliers to bend them straight by the time I got the boots off.
“Help me get him up on the bed.”
The unconscious soldier lay in a heap on the floor wearing only underwear. The bleached white fabric stood out against his skin.
I slipped my arms under his while Martinez got between his legs and lifted under his knees.
I pushed up and his limp body almost wriggled out of my grasp. I locked my hands together around his chest and heaved him up and over the side railing of the bed.
Martinez did the same with his lower half.
Something caught halfway over.
I shoved his upper half all way onto the bed and something ripped.
The white underwear tore free, revealing what it had previously concealed.
“Oh my God! Why is everyone showing me their man bits today?” She tossed his lower half over the rail and the solder settled on the bed. She grabbed my gown off the floor and covered his body. She was careful to spread it over him while giving a wide berth to the aforementioned bits.
I pulled the wadded up covers over him while Martinez wrapped the ribbons of sheet around his head like bandages. By the time she was finished, only his eyes remained visible.
“I don’t have that many bandages,” I said.
“Sue me. I’m not a doctor.” She frowned. “You’re going to have to take off the lower few rows of yours and wear this.” She handed me the soldier’s cap.
I gritted my teeth as she tore off the bottom rows and winced as I lowered the cap on my head and the fabric touched the drain.
Martinez looked me up and down and nodded.
That was a good sign. I looked enough like the other soldier to pass a superficial inspection. Enough to get by without immediately giving away our identities.
She kept nodding. “Yep, we are for sure going to get caught. Let’s get him to your cell. Hopefully, it’ll be a while before they realize it’s not you.” She straightened her uniform and took a deep breath. “Ready?”
She opened the door and we rolled the bed out into the hall. “After we get him secured in the cell, where do we go?”
I took up a position next to the bed, the rifle in my hands. “Why are you asking me? I thought you had a plan.”
“Me? You just saw my plan. It worked. Now it’s your turn to get us out of here. You’re the guy that knows all the secrets.”
We were literally seconds into the escape plan and it had already failed because she was missing some key information. My condition. That I didn’t remember things.
I glanced over my shoulder as we headed toward the brig. “There’s one problem with that.”
Martinez wheeled the bed into the cell and closed the door. It clicked shut and she turned, shaking her head. “So, we’re screwed is what you’re saying?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying I don’t remember much of anything. They did a brain scan while I was out after surgery, but I don’t know what the results are. Doctor Tanaka suspected some kind of damage.”
“Duh! Of course, there’s damage. You can’t remember squat!”
“I meant damage of a permanent nature. If it’s temporary, then I should start to remember things at some point.”
“Well, what are we going to do in the mean time?”
I had an idea. A bad one. But I didn’t care. “I’d like to check out my hab.”
“You want to go your quarters? Sir, that sounds like a terrible idea. That’s the first place they’ll look the instant they discover that’s not you in there.”
“Call me Scout. And you’re right.”
“Okay, Scout. Do you have a death wish? Because that sounds like a great way to die.”
Like I said, I knew it was a bad idea.
“I want to see it. Maybe being in familiar surroundings will spark something in my brain.”
Martinez stared at the floor, her head nodding and then shaking and then nodding again. She looked up. “Okay, fine. I’ll die with you if that’s what you want.”
“That’s not what I want. I want to figure out what’s happening to me. What’s happening around here.”
“Around here is easy. You just came out on the wrong end of a power struggle. General Curtis installed his puppet president. As soon as he erases you, everything will be nice and tidy.”
“I don’t intend on being erased easily.”
She chuckled. “No one does. Especially not the heroes.”
“I may not remember much about myself, but I can tell you I’m no hero.”
“We’ll see,” she said as she brushed passed. She glanced over her shoulder. “What are you waiting for? Our glorious deaths await us.”
I hurried to catch up and fell in beside her. “I’m not big on glorious deaths.”
“What’s not to like?”
“The death part, for starters. And the glory part doesn’t much interest me.”
“You’re not like most politicians. On the glory part, I mean.”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”
She laughed and slapped my shoulder. “Good one.”
“You made a joke,” she said as she checked to see if I was messing with her. “You know, because you don’t know anything.”
“I never said I don’t know anything. I said I don’t remember a lot of things.”
We passed the clerks on the way out and Martinez flashed a middle finger at the portly soldier who’d confronted her earlier. He didn’t so much as acknowledge her existence, which was a big help in us avoiding detection. We arrived at the main elevators and she punched the button. “Did you remember that you’ve got thin skin?”
“Martinez, why am I starting to wish you’d left me on that gurney and let me rot in jail?”
The doors slid open.
“Because you wouldn’t have rotted long before they came for you. Thanks to me, you’ve got a chance now.”
We stepped inside and she spoke over the now-familiar elevator instructions. “You have to say it.”
“What? Thank you?”
“No, what floor we want to go to. My voiceprint doesn’t have access to that floor.”
The doors slid shut.
“And you’re right. I do deserve a thank you.”
“I didn’t say you deserved it.”
Her expression changed. Got prickly all of a sudden.
“I mean, thank you. Thanks.”
She smiled again and pointed at the display.
“Right. Residence One.”
“Good evening, Mr. Vice-President,” the pleasant voice replied. “Going down to Residence One.”
If the elevator was keyed to my voice, then somewhere there was a computer log of me accessing the elevator right now. And that meant there was every likelihood that someone got alerted that I wasn’t in the brig where I was supposed to be.
“The system knows I just did that. My voice. That means they could be alerted and waiting for us.”
Martinez stared ahead, nodding slowly.
The car slowed as we approached our destination.
She lifted her rifle as I did mine. Trigger finger along the side, ready to fire if needed. “I guess we’re about to find out.”
The elevator stopped and dinged. “Second floor. Residence One.”
The doors slid open and a thick woman with a helmet of hair perched on her head shrieked. The half-finished eclair in her fingers fell to the polished marble floor. The same as on the admin level.
It hit with a plop and slumped to the side, like a hot pile of excrement. Presumably tasted better.
We both lowered our rifles.
Martinez smiled awkwardly. “Sorry, ma’am.”
To her credit, the woman overcame her terror in record time. “Well, I never! Sorry, indeed! You should be sorry. Perhaps you didn’t realize you just aimed your gun at the wife of the new President.”
“You’re Mrs. General Curtis?” Martinez asked with more than a little bite.
The woman looked scandalized. “No! I’m talking about President Tuckerman! It will be official any minute now.”
“Congratulations, Mrs. Tuckerman,” Martinez said as she knelt and picked up the eclair. She held it out as the yellow filling oozed onto her fingers. “Want this?”
Mrs. Tuckerman again looked scandalized. It appeared to be one of her go-to looks. “Well, I never.”
She shook her head and the hair-helmet wobbled.
Martinez shrugged and tossed the whole thing into her mouth in one bite. She chewed, swallowed, and then licked her fingers with wet slopping sounds. She grinned. “You missed out.” Her eyes took in the woman’s expansive middle section. “For the first time, from the looks of it.”
Mrs. Tuckerman did her thing again and I did my best not to laugh because that would’ve been a dumb move and it would’ve hurt too much anyway. She turned sideways, which didn’t narrow her profile, and squeezed between us. “I won’t forget this,” she said, and added “Martinez” when she spotted the tag on her shirt. “Administration! Now!”
The ever-congenial voice replied and the doors shut as the woman glared at Martinez.
The laugh I’d been holding back spilled out. And it hurt, as expected. “Why did you do that? Are you insane?”
“Crazy like a fox. You may have noticed she didn’t take one look at you.”
I realized she hadn’t. And then realized why that would’ve been a bad thing.
Until a short time ago, I was the president and presumably had interaction with her husband and probably her on a regular basis. Even in disguise with a face full of bruises, she would’ve had to be utterly clueless to not recognize me standing two feet in front of her.
Which wasn’t impossible, but did seem unlikely.
“You’re welcome,” Martinez said with a grin. “Now, where to?” She pointed at a brass sign across from the elevators. A range of room numbers was engraved on each side with an arrow pointing in the direction of each group.
I stared at the numbers and got no sense which contained my hab. I looked left down a long hall and then right down a mirror image.
Nothing. It was like I’d never been here before.
“I don’t know.”
Martinez sighed. “So the plan is to wander the halls until someone realizes we shouldn’t be here?”
“This way,” I said pointing to the right.
I started walking. “No, but standing around like clueless idiots isn’t helping.”
It became obvious in the first couple of minutes that we were in trouble. The initial corridor quickly branched into new paths which again branched into others. It was like a never-ending fractal with more detail emerging the further we went. Each intersection was marked by a numbering system of discreet signs that matched the numbered plates on the front of the widely spaced doors.
Fifteen minutes of wandering had revealed nothing new, nothing that might make one anonymous hab different from the others.
Martinez snorted as we passed yet another door.
“Sorry,” I said, figuring she was getting angry for dragging her into this.
“It’s not you. It’s these people. How far between doors?”
“Ninety feet.” I’d paced a few off as we passed. Not sure why it would be useful information, but there it was.
“My family lives in one of the poorer sections of Residence Two. Our doors are ten feet apart. How do I know? I measured. Our unit is a one bedroom, one bath for a family of six. Five, now, after my brother died.”
A man in a dark suit turned the corner at the end of the hall and walked toward us. Not good. I recognized him. Not from my life before. From the last fifteen minutes. We’d passed him once already.
“Turn around,” Martinez whispered.
We both wheeled around and headed back the other way.
Hopefully it was random chance that our paths crossed again.
“You two! Stop!” the man said.
“Here we go. Keep your hat and eyes down,” Martinez said. “I’ll handle it.”
We turned around as the man arrived. “I saw you a few minutes ago. What are you doing?”
“Patrol, sir,” Martinez said. “Top secret mission. I can’t say more.”
The man puffed out his chest. “Soldier, I’m Senator Burton.” He waited, apparently expecting that to be all the information we needed.
“Okay,” Martinez said. “Good to meet you, senator.”
The man’s face twisted into a scowl. “I wouldn’t expect someone of your lowly stature to know, but I am the chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee. I would know about any covert operations happening inside the bunker. And especially any that were occurring on the level where I and my family reside.”
“Sorry, Senator Burden—”
“It’s Burton, with a t.”
“Yeah, well, this came directly from General Curtis himself. And I have a court-martial waiting the instant I say one word about it.”
“One in the same.”
The man’s face went pale. Paler. It was pretty pale to begin with.
Martinez shook her head “And he’s going to be spitting mad when he finds out we’ve been cooling our heels having to explain ourselves to you.”
His eyes went wide, and if possible, his face turned a little whiter. “Never mind. Continue with your mission.”
“Nah, it’s fine, senator. We’ll go down to his office together and get this all sorted out.”
Burton’s mouth hung open before snapping shut. “No, no. That’s not necessary. As you were, I think is what you people say. Continue on your mission.” He tried to step passed, but Martinez grabbed his arm.
“Senator Burden, one question… to help the mission. We’re supposed to be post a guard at the ex-president’s personal quarters. Only I’ve never pulled patrol on this level and, I have to tell you, am embarrassed to say that I’m completely lost. Could you help us, help the general really, by showing us where it is?”
The senator beamed, thinking about how pleased the general would be when he found out what a help he’d been. “Yes, of course. Anything I can do. Come. Follow me.”
A few minutes of walking in awkward silence and we stopped at yet another anonymous door.
“Here it is,” he said with a smarmy smile.
“Great,” Martinez said. “Thanks.”
“Happy to be of service to those, uh, in the service.” He chuckled and it came out like it had been canned a hundred years ago.
“Yes, of course,” he said as he got the hint. “Top secret mission and all. I hope you’ll let the general know that I support him.”
Martinez slapped his shoulder hard enough for the man to wince. “Sure thing.”
The senator hurried away, practically prancing he was so pleased with himself.
That wasn’t going to last long. Not one second after the general found out Senator Burton had assisted two fugitives.
“Open the door,” Martinez said.
I glanced down and didn’t see a handle, a scan port, anything really. And the stolen security badge on my chest wasn’t going to work anyway. “How?”
“Our habs are different. We have actual, ancient technology metal keys. But seeing as there is nothing obvious here, I’m guessing with your voiceprint. ”
“Open the door.”
Something thunked inside the wall and door slid open.
“Welcome home, Scout,” the elevator woman’s voice said.
“Are you kidding me?” Martinez said for the fifth time. Fifth because it was the fifth room we’d entered. All of them tastefully appointed with modern furniture, sparse decor and a limited color palette.
An abundance of white with carefully designed splashes of color like the crimson throw pillows on the white leather couch. Like the painting hanging above it. A vibrant yellow cornfield with blue sky above and a flock of crows flying into the distance. The stalks seemed to sway and the sky seemed to swirl before my eyes.
I blinked to confirm they weren’t actually moving.
They still kind of were.
Maybe another symptom of my brain injury.
A single picture in a silver frame stood on the clear glass coffee table next to the couch.
I picked it up and studied it.
A girl with black hair that fell in waves down her shoulders, wearing a black cap and gown. Cheeks that weren’t as round as I remembered. Eyes sparkling as she held a diploma in hand.
The girl I remembered had been four or five years old. The girl in the picture looked nine or ten years old.
But the eyes were the same. The dark shade that reflected equal parts sparkling mirth and burning curiosity.
“She was a genius,” Martinez said. “And not in the ‘Oh, your egg sandwich with cornflakes is so breakfast genius’ kind of way. She was the real kind. I read she got her doctorate in AI Algorithms at age ten.” She pointed at the picture. “That’s probably it.”
Ten years old.
What had happened during the five or six years after the face I remembered?
My chest ached and the frame felt numb between my fingers.
“Scout, are you okay?”
The room shifted under my feet and I keeled over.
Martinez grabbed my shoulders and guided me down to the couch. “Sit down a second. You don’t look well.”
A wailing alarm pierced the air. The pitch sliding up and down and back again. So loud it sent a painful echo into the center of my head.
“Get up! We have to go!” Martinez yelled. She yanked me back to my feet.
The floor still swayed like the deck of a ship on a stormy sea. “Come on! We have to go! Now!”
A voice spoke over the alarm. “Citizens of the bunker, this is General Curtis speaking. We have a red alert situation under way. Two fugitives are on the loose. One is Corporal Elena Martinez. The other is a mental patient assigned to her care. The patient may be impersonating a soldier. Both should be considered armed and extremely dangerous. The elevators are on lock-down and only available to security personnel for the duration of this emergency. If you believe you may have information concerning the whereabouts of these individuals, report it immediately. The faster we capture them, the sooner we’ll be all be safe again. Thank you for your cooperation. General Curtis, out.”
The alarm returned to its previously ear-shattering volume.
Martinez dragged me to the front door. She tapped it open and poked her head out. “They’re coming! We gotta run!”
The thunder of stomping boots echoed down the hall.
We exited my hab and headed in the opposite direction. Martinez carried most of my weight as I fought to stay on my feet.
We made it to the next intersection of hallways.
The sound of the approaching soldiers grew louder. Any second, they would turn onto our hallway and spot us.
I was in no shape to fight. I could barely stand up, much less effectively use the rifle hanging over my shoulder.
Martinez could’ve done better but keeping me upright and moving had her fully occupied.
They’d shoot us down in no time.
“There!” Martinez as she nodded to the left.
A sanitation sled waited by an open door. Ten feet long and half again as wide and tall. Essentially a big self-driving box, all a worker had to do was collect garbage from inside each hab and throw it into the side hatch. Whoever was using it was inside the hab gathering up the last week’s worth of garbage.
“Let’s go!” Martinez said as she guided me forward.
We got to the cart and peeked through the open door.
A woman’s soulful voice drifted out into the hallway. She sang a ballad of heartache and lost love and the end of all good things. The tenderness in her lilting tone suggested a personal history with the topics.
Martinez looked between the sled and the open door. “Not sure how to proceed here. I can take her clothes and badge while you climb into the containment module. Then we figure out how to escape. Could work. Most people ignore sanitation workers.”
“What’s the other option?”
“We both jump into the trash and hope for the best.”
“Is there an option where I don’t end up in the trash?”
She shook her head.
“Okay. What are the down sides?”
“For the former, my subterfuge doesn’t work and I get shot. They discover you soon after and shoot you too.”
“And option two?”
“We suffocate inside the module. If we don’t suffocate, maybe we get thrown into the incinerator before we figure out an escape.”
“Is there a third option?”
“Sure, stand here talking about it a few more minutes and then get shot.”
“One and two sound marginally better.”
“Then pick one and let’s do it.”
1. Martinez takes on the identity of the blues-singing sanitation worker while I jump into the trash module.
2. Martinez and I both jump into the trash module.
3. Try to get the sanitation worker to help us. (Added from the group!)
And #3 won the day! But it was no landslide victory. And I’ll take my own small victory from that. Which option do you prefer? Was arriving at the choice a little harder this time around? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!