Peter nodded. “That’s right. I’m quitting.”
His manager rubbed his chin, and his eyes narrowed. Peter expected the worst, but his manager’s voice was level and calm when he spoke. “You do know what that means, don’t you? We’ll have to find somebody else to replace you. We’d need to grab some other poor sucker off of the surface. And as for you… well, everybody thinks that you’re dead!”
Peter shook his head, glancing around the office to avoid eye contact. His manager had one of the nicest rooms in the entire facility. It was wide, well decorated, and had the comfiest chairs in the whole place. There was a blank wall behind his desk where a window should have been. But of course, there were no windows. Windows weren’t allowed in the facility. When you worked in a building that went as deep as this place, it was hard to tell if even the top floor was peeking its head out of the Earth.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “I simply don’t want this job anymore. It’s tedious, and it’s tiring. I wake up every morning and just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Pushing levers, making calculations… Sometimes it feels like a waste of time.”
“A waste of time!” his manager cackled. “Without your work, the world would cease to function! You’re absolutely essential to this facility!”
“But I can be replaced,” Peter reasoned. “Why is it that I have to spend my life down here? Why not somebody else? I could be doing so much up on the surface!”
“The government gave you an aptitude test, didn’t they? And a personality test, and all sorts of other examinations. You were chosen for a reason.”
“I suppose I’ve changed since then,” Peter said. “I don’t want this anymore.”
His manager studied him, choosing his next words carefully. “We’ve never had a situation like this. Nobody that comes down here has ever gone back to the surface. I can’t emphasize enough that every person you knew has believed you to be dead for over three and a half years. And of course, there’s the confidentiality issue. If you tell anybody about your work in this facility, we’d have a serious problem!”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Maybe I don’t care if the world stops turning. So what if I leave here? So what if I don’t do my job?”
His manager straightened his posture. “You don’t care if the world stops turning? Why, it would be mayhem! Half of the planet would freeze in an endless night while the other half gets scalded by overexposure to the sun! The world must keep turning! And we need you to do it, for everybody’s sake! What exactly is it on the surface that’s so much more important to you than that?”
“I was married, you know,” Peter said coldly. “I loved someone. Maybe I still do. How could I stay down here knowing that she’s somewhere out there still, thinking that I’m long dead?”
“She may have moved on,” his managed said. “And how cruel would it be for the poor woman to have mourned the loss of her husband for so long only to have him come back from the dead? Would it do her any good?”
“It’ll do me some good,” Peter scoffed.
His manager smiled. “Excuse me if I’m being rude, but you sound rather selfish. You don’t want to keep the Earth turning, and you want to see your wife again no matter what circumstances she may be in now.”
“Is it selfish to want to leave this prison of a place?”
“You’re here voluntarily. Everybody is.”
Peter shook his head. “They’re afraid to leave. That’s all.”
His manager smirked. “If they are here voluntarily, then they wouldn’t—”
“You threaten them! You tell them that the world will stop turning, that everybody will die, and it will be their fault! But it’s all a lie! You’ll replace me as soon as I’m out the door!”
“Nobody else feels this way.”
“That’s because I’m the only one who’s figured out what’s going on. I’m the only one thinking straight,” Peter spat. He got out of his seat. “I quit. I’m leaving. Take me to the surface.”
His manager also stood, his face stiff and his movements rigid. “Take the elevator up to the top floor. From there, the exit is the third door on the left, down the hall.”
Peter stared at him. “That’s it? No security? Nothing?”
“Nothing,” his manager said. “As I just said, you’re all here voluntarily. Volunteers can leave as they please.”
Peter shouted, “I haven’t seen real sunlight in years! And you’re telling me that people can leave whenever they want!?”
“If you leave, you cannot come back,” his manager told him. “That is the one condition. The door will lock behind you.”
Peter’s mind was racing, somehow angry and elated at the same time. He was finally leaving this place. His thoughts all came at once, and he couldn’t make clear sense of any of them. “This is goodbye then,” he told his manager. “I suggest that you find a replacement quickly.”
“We will,” his manager said inattentively, returning to his seat behind his desk. “Please refrain from discussing your work here with anybody in the outside world, or we’ll have to do something about it. It wouldn’t be wise for the people to know how the world really turns.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Peter lied, and he left the office.
He went to the elevator and rode it to the top floor. He walked down the hall and stopped at the third door on the left. It was a door like any other, but when he opened it, he was greeted by a blinding light.
It had been three years and two hundred and twelve days since he had last felt the light of the sun. It had been three years and two hundred and twelve days since he had breathed in fresh air that wasn’t processed and filtered through a thousand vents. It had been three years and two hundred and twelve days since he had last smelled the grass, the dirt, the world. All that he had known was the artificial lights, the cold hallways, the drab offices, and the smell of machinery.
Peter took three steps forward, the door closing behind him. He was in a big parking lot, mostly empty. Beyond that, he appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. There was only grass and scattered trees.
He looked back, and the facility appeared surprisingly small. Being almost entirely subterranean, the facility seemed to only be one story high.
He looked at that simple door, a door like any other in the facility. Peter didn’t bother trying the knob. It was surely locked, just as his manager had promised.
He walked away and didn’t look back.
It took only a couple of days for him to locate his wife. Shannon was still living alone, in the apartment that he had left her in all those years ago. She hadn’t remarried. As far as Peter could tell from his research on her social media accounts, she hadn’t even been dating.
When he reached the door of his old apartment, he didn’t hesitate when he knocked.
As Shannon opened the door, her eyes grew wide and afraid. But she looked just as beautiful as she did three and a half years ago.
“Hey,” Peter said. He didn’t know what to say, so he left it at that for now.
“Who are you?” she stared. “You’re dead! But… but you look just like—”
“It’s me,” Peter assured her. “It’s really me.” He stepped into the apartment. It looked entirely different, with every trace of his old possessions removed.
Shannon covered her face with her hands. “This can’t be happening. This can’t be real!”
“It is real,” Peter said, putting on a smile. Something about this didn’t feel right. She was supposed to be happy to see him, wasn’t she? “Here, let’s have a seat in the kitchen,” he said, pointing.
Without a word, Shannon led him to the table. She was trembling, and she might’ve been crying, though Peter couldn’t get a good look at her face when she kept turning away.
When they sat, she was covering her face with her hands. It was frustrating. Peter began, “The government faked my death.” It was horrifically illegal for him to disclose this information, but he saw no other way to explain himself.
“You were in a car crash,” Shannon said. “A terrible one. When I saw you body, your face was so twisted and broken, I couldn’t even be sure that it was you.”
“It wasn’t. I was never in a car crash. The government did it so everybody would think that I was dead.”
“But why!?” Shannon asked desperately. Tears were streaking her cheeks. “Why would they pretend that you were dead!?”
“I was selected to work in a facility,” Peter said. “Not far from here, there is an underground building. There are hundreds of people there, running calculations and pulling levers. They’re doing all of it to keep the world spinning.”
She looked at him blankly. “To keep the world spinning?”
“Earth doesn’t rotate on its own,” Peter told her. “It’s all manpower. It’s the world’s best kept secret.”
“Why did they send you there?”
“I was selected. They thought that I was a person who would best be able to handle the isolation, the working conditions, and the ethical strain.”
Shannon raised her eyebrows. “Ethical strain?”
“Imagine if somebody messed up,” Peter tried to explain. “If anything goes wrong, the Earth might stop moving for a moment. It might even spin backwards if a mistake is bad enough. The physics of it all is quite complicated, but any severe error would be disastrous! And if the workers like me weren’t there to keep the Earth turning, then everybody would soon die! The Earth has to spin!”
She crossed her arms. “Then why did you leave?”
Peter crossed his arms too. “I didn’t want to be the one who did it. I didn’t want to waste my whole life down there. I wanted it to be somebody else. And of course, the government is prepared to replace me in an instant. I left only two days ago, and I’m sure that my position has already been filled. Somebody supposedly killed in another car accident, probably, leaving a new batch of mourning family and friends, all for the supposed greater good.”
“Do many people leave?” Shannon asked.
“No. Not that I’ve ever seen.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why not? Why are you the only one?”
Peter stared at the table in front of him, feeling a twinge of annoyance. “The workers all feel guilty. The government says that everybody is working voluntarily, but the workers are afraid to stop! They want somebody else to take their job! They don’t want to be the necessary sacrifices that keep the rest of the world alive!”
“You were wrong to leave,” Shannon said suddenly. “Every person on Earth was depending on you to stay down there and do your job. But you left.”
“It doesn’t have to be me,” Peter said impatiently.
“But it has to be somebody! So why not you?”
“There are people who want to be down there! And I’m not one of them! Somebody must be better suited for the task! There are workers who don’t have a family. But I left my wife. I left you. And I want you back. I was wrong to leave you in the first place.”
But she shook her head. “I spent years mourning your death. I can’t have you back after that.”
“You shouldn’t have left that place!” Shannon insisted. “Imagine what would’ve happened if they hadn’t been able to find a replacement for you?”
“But there are billions of people who could—”
“Somebody is dead because of you!” Shannon exclaimed. “Or at least, his loved ones believe him to be dead! By leaving your job, your replacement had to be killed! You killed somebody!”
“But he’s not actually dead, just like I’m not!”
She was crying again. “You’ve hurt so many people! You need to go back to that facility! You have to get your job back before it’s too late for somebody else!”
“It’s not too late for me!” Peter disagreed. “It’s not too late for us!”
“Go back to that place!” Shannon yelled. “You shouldn’t have left!”
“But I… I can’t go back,” Peter said quietly. “And I left for you.”
“You’re already dead, Peter. You’re dead to me, and to everybody else. Now get out of here before I say something that I regret.”
“But the entire reason that I left was—”
“Get out!” she shrieked.
Without another word, Peter stood and went to the door. What could he do? Where could he go? He went out to the sidewalk and looked around, but he didn’t know what to do next.
Below his feet, the world kept turning, and he wished that it would stop.