For young Paul, age 13, life was good. He lived in a community of seven gleaming buildings, which was located at the top of a tower-like geological structure, with giant cliffs on all sides. Everyone Paul knew called this community the Refuge. The Refuge had everything its inhabitants needed: luxury apartments, abundant food, a swimming pool, a movie theater, a school, and a large library. Paul had never left the Refuge. He had always been told: never try to leave the Refuge, because you will fall to your death trying to climb down the steep cliffs on each side of the Refuge.
One day Paul asked his father Leon whether he had lived his whole life in the Refuge.
“No,” answered Leon, “When I was a young boy I actually lived in a city which had many thousands of buildings. And it wasn't like where we live. The land was all flat.”
“So why did you come over here?” asked Paul.
“Well, in order to explain that,” said Leon, “I have to tell you about the Great Collapse.”
“The Great Collapse?” said Paul. “I remember hearing about that in school, but I've forgot it.”
“The Great Collapse was when everything started falling apart,” explained Leon. “You see, for a while things on this planet were going well. The population kept getting bigger and bigger. But they had built this whole great civilization around cheap oil, and then they found out that there wasn't enough oil. Plus the weather started getting all freaky because of this thing called global warming. There were all these big problems with ocean acidification and soil depletion, and they were running out of fresh water. And for various reasons the economy started falling apart. People were starving by the millions in almost every country.”
“So what that does that have to do with why you came here?” asked Paul.
“I'm getting to that,” said Leon. “When things started falling apart, all the rich people asked themselves: how can we make ourselves a nice safe place where we can live real happy, just us rich folks? So they built all these gated communities designed to keep out all the hungry poor people, communities surrounded by steel fences. For a while it worked OK: if any poor person tried to climb over the fence, you could just call the police. But as the Great Collapse got worse, after a while the police stopped coming when you called them. So what could the rich folks do?”
“For a while, the rich folks tried surrounding their communities with electrified steel fences,” continued Leon. “That worked pretty good. If some poor person tried to climb over the fence, you could just zap him with some electricity. But after a while you had a whole bunch of dead people piled up on the fences, and that created a terrible smell. They tried to get some of the rich folks to bury the people who had been electrified on the fences, but what kind of refined genteel soul wants to scrape some scruffy zapped poor person off of a fence, and then spend four hours digging a grave for him? No one wanted to do it, so the smell of the unburied dead people got worse and worse.”
“So then they built places like this?” asked Paul.
“Precisely,” said Leon. “The rich folks finally figured out that the best way to create a nice safe refuge from the Great Collapse was to build special communities in places that were naturally inaccessible. So they built a whole bunch of places like the one we live in. We call ours the Refuge. We don't have to worry about poor people trying to come up here and take our food, because not even a damn fool would try to climb up one of those steep cliffs that surround our community.”
“So we have everything we need here?” asked Paul. “We don't need the rest of the world?”
“Exactly,” answered Leon. “We have our pie, and we're eating it too. The rest of the world is not our problem.”
They grew no food at the Refuge, which had no fertile soil. The people at the Refuge relied on a huge stockpile of food that had been moved into the community when it was constructed. No one was worried about running out any time soon. Everyone believed there was enough food to last for 30 years.
One day Leon returned to his apartment with a glum look on his face.
“We're screwed,” said Leon.
“What's wrong,” asked Paul.
“They did an inventory of our food supplies,” explained Leon. “It turns out a big fraction of our food boxes just contain bottles filled with sand.”
“Filled with sand?” said Paul. “How did that happen?”
“When they built this community, they were running out of food all over the world,” said Leon. “Maybe somebody took out the food in thousands of our food boxes, and gave it to someone else. Then they filled the boxes with bottled sand to fool us.”
“How long will our food last?” asked Paul.
“Only a few more months,” said Leon. No one in the Refuge had the slightest idea how to get food once the stockpile ran out.
Paul pondered what to do. He thought for three days, and then came up with a plan.
Paul found himself a sewing machine, and gathered some thin strong rope. For five days he hung around the laundromats in his building, stealing bedsheets from the washers and driers. He went to work sewing the bedsheets together into one giant sheet, which he cut into a circle. He attached cords to the circumference of this circle.
Paul found from the library a book about surviving in the wild. He filled a backpack with survival supplies such as a water bottle, some canned food, a small fishing rod, and a knife.
Paul's father Leon found him near the edge of one of the huge cliffs that surrounded the Refuge.
“What is that thing on your back?” asked Leon.
“I'm sorry, Dad,” said Paul. “I'd like to give this to you, but I figure this makeshift contraption will only work for someone as light as me. Goodbye.” Paul knew he would probably never see his father again.
Then Paul jumped off the cliff. The homemade parachute on his back deployed, and he gently descended to the ground far below the Refuge.