A hipster bumps into me, he's too busy on his phone. I glare, he does not stray from his call and continues up the busy pavement. I feel the presence of the sun depart. I look up expecting clouds. Hundreds of birds are flying above, not a singular flock, but at least four different species. A smiling father kneels next to his daughter, pointing out the different breeds of birds. Some people's attention hasn't left their screens. Those people begin to look disgruntled. They desperately tap their screen and holler 'Hello?' into their phones.
An abrupt rumble shifts the land, people gasp. One woman even calls it an earthquake. A flash bursts from behind me, projecting shadows onto the pavement. We turn and all share the same vision. An orange mushroom cloud billows on the horizon, but it continues to rise into the sky. All I can think is, they did it, they actually did it. People begin to run and all of a sudden, my legs feel heavy, too heavy for me to move. The rumble builds. The screams are drowned out. A wall of fire hurtles towards me. I can see the fear in everyone around me. The wall consumes them. I close my eyes as it hits me.
I open my eyes to a desolate land. I'm stood on dirt, black sand almost. The sun is hardly visible through a grey curtain, it casts a dim light. At my feet, a green stem pops out from the black sand. A bulb forms and is growing. What was natural, is now alienlike and fast. Soon, a single daffodil stands at my feet. I look to my right and a door stands upright facing me. The door creaks open revealing nothing but a black abyss. I walk to it and look into the darkness. An ungodly force snatches me into it, I am falling through nothing.
I'm in a bed, not mine though. It's bright and I can only make out shapes. As my focus returns to my eyes, I can make out that I am in the infirmary. A glass of water waits for me on the bedside table, next to a plastic plant.
"You're awake." Says the Doctor writing on his clipboard.
"Yes... What happened?"
He points a flashlight in my eyes, examining them.
"You were injured in the explosion at the Energy Branch. You sustained second-degree burns to your right arm and back, which are healing quite nicely. You also sustained a head injury which caused you to fall into a coma." He says.
Silence fills the space between us. The man flips to the next page on his clipboard.
"For how long?"
"Three days." He says. The Doctor sighs through his nose.
"Try to stay awake and one of our nurses will sort you out with something to eat soon." He leaves, just as fast as he appeared. I roll to my side and guzzle some stale water, then stare at the lifeless plant.
After an hour and a half, a nurse finally steps into the dull room with a tentative disposition. She's wearing scrubs with the Facility insignia on the chest. She's holding a tray with a sad-looking faux tuna sandwich and a big bowl of strawberries. The bite-sized fruit almost seems to glow. She drops the tray the final inch, "Oh, I'm sorry. You'll be allowed to leave after you've eaten something." She says, making a beeline for the door.
"Excuse me," I say, she turns.
"Can you please tell me what happened on sub-level five?"
"There was a bombing, those people who think we should go into the wasteland. They made it too big. It killed three people. You're very lucky." She says, she can't quite look me in the eye.
"Is that everything?" She squeaks. I'd better spare her the anxiety.
"Yes, Thank you." She leaves before I can finish.
That's someone who's heard the stories of what my father has done. A sullen tone grips any conversation when spoken of. I reach for the glowing strawberries, to take my mind away from this shameful truth. As for the sandwich, I won't be eating it.
I sit on the edge of my bed waiting for my things to be given back to me. They had sent a nurse to my room to collect one of my jumpsuits. I hold it up by the shoulders so that it unfurls. Of course, they've managed to find one with a stain on it. Gravy by the looks. After I put on my jumpsuit, the tentative nurse enters. She places a creased, discoloured plastic bag by my side. "These were the things on your person at the time of the explosion. There's also a box of dexyceflin in that bag for you. Take two, every four hours. You're all set, oh and the monorails won't be back online until tomorrow." She says in a monotonous tone. As I leave the Infirmary, I step into a Facility in twilight.
The laborious walk back up to sub-level two begins, through low-light looming corridors, and arrays of stairwells. It's even more depressing with the lights at forty-five percent. I run my hand along the cold wall, I can feel the skin on my back get tender with the poly-cotton jumpsuit rubbing it. The wall drops out. A new corridor in construction. Three pathetic strings of tape separating me from the darkness. I guess the extensions are on hold because of the attack. The Facility always seems to be expanding these days. We were overpopulated, that's what led us to our first extension. Now they're happening every few years. The Overseer feels that we shouldn't live in dorms as other Facilities do. He puts us first.
I turn the key and the door creaks as I enter. I step into darkness, half expecting to fall into a different realm. I flip the switch and it's my room draped in power-saving low light. The solitary poster for the facility greets me, as usual. 'Our Open Eyes Can't Deny. See Suspicion. Call 0101.' There are piercing eyes on the poster that are almost alive. They look right back at me. There's a flyer on the floor.
The Facility is now on DEFCON 1 after a terrorist attack on the Energy Branch which claimed the lives of three workers. Our generator has been damaged but will be fixed by 23/05/36. Until then we remain on a power-saving agenda. Certain amenities will be unavailable for the foreseeable future. All dwellers are to remain on their sub-levels, essential workers are the only dwellers to cross levels. Rest assured that the people who organised this attack will be found. They will be made to pay for their actions. They are reading this letter. Vigilance is now of the utmost importance. Our open eyes can't deny. See suspicion. Call 0101 as soon as possible.
The sheer thought of having to endure this low-level light for another two weeks makes my chest sink. I toss the flyer aside. I pack away my things. Just a pair of my work boots, my ID card, a burnt jumpsuit, and a fresh box of dexys. I've overheard dwellers say you can sell them, but god help you if a sentry catches you. If dexyceflin reaches sub-level eight it's cut with a synthetic tranquilizer. They're called shiners down there. Father struggled so I could never. I admire burns on my jumpsuit, before flinging it into the bin. I place my ID in the drawer to my right, where I always do. I cast my eyes to my mothers' copy of Catcher in the Rye. She always loved this book, but Holden didn't make sense to me. I find comfort in just holding it and admiring the cover. At times, this book was the only thing she could take solace in. The last time I saw her smile, she had her head in it. She's the only reason I kept it. I place it back into the drawer. I leave my Fathers gold watch, in the darkness of the back corner. Father was taking shiners, he thought the surface god was asking him for sacrifices. My father gave him three women. They let us see him before he was expelled. When it was time, he fought like hell with the sentries in hazmat suits. He was a slight man, and he never stood a chance. To be expelled is the highest punishment. You are cast out into the wasteland with enough food and water. That it's a coin toss between dying of thirst or radiation exposure.
I sigh through my nose, shut the drawer, and head to my four-by-eight bathroom. In my reflection, I see a mess of hair that's stuck up at the back like an antenna. I thought the bags under my eyes couldn't get any bigger. I also need to shave. I contemplate what to start with. Instead, I stare back at myself in the mirror until my eyes fall out of focus.
Eight o'clock, I take two more dexys when the pain returns. I'm already tired, my eyelids can't stand the weight of these painkillers. I'm in the familiar position of staring at the ceiling from my bed. My scab is taut and uncomfortable. It's sensitive until the drugs start working. Then everything fades away.
There's crashing and slamming in my old bedroom. I get out of bed and walk to the door. It opens before my hand can reach the doorknob. There are a woman's legs kicking, underneath the weight of my father sat on top of her. She's gasping for breath. I pull him off of her. We fall and what looks back at me is a twisted version of myself. Wide-eyed, it gives me a sickening smile.
"I'm sorry Vault Killer, maybe you'd like to finish her off." He says.
I shuffle back, slam the door and hide inside my bedsheets. There's someone else in the room. My mother is humming a tune to herself. The blankets paralyse me. The door opens, I cannot speak, only listen.
"You're home late darling." My mother says.
Father shuts the door. He drops his suitcase by the desk.
"Yes, I'm sorry about that." He's being short.
"Well, where have you been?"
"Overtime. Can you please fix me a drink?" he snipes.
"Stressed Glenn?" she says.
"You wouldn't believe."
As mother sorts out his drink, his footsteps approach me.
"Maybe we'll do overtime together one day son." He whispers to me.
I awake with a gasp and a dead arm underneath me. I pull it out and crack the scab, the sting cuts through me. I swallow two more dexys with stale water. Nine, I've slept in. I don't rush. I make some toast and pour myself a coffee. Fresh jumpsuit when I finish. The burnt jumpsuit hangs from the rubbish bin. Then I think about the three dead workers. Why did I get to live? The Overseer would want me to help. I step out of the door, into the corridor of sub-level two.
I walk through the corridor to the pen. In the low light, a handful of dwellers mulling around. I don't get looks or spoken about too much, especially on sub-level two. After Father was expelled, dark days followed. We had no-one to reach out to. We sat in darkness eating anything that cooks in fifteen minutes or less. A grieving family stared at, murmured about. For long after we were the subject of travelling whispers. That's the Vault Killer's family. Poor kid, he looks just like him. We kept our heads down. What could we say? It was all true. On the ninth day, she told me she knew he was gone. She then whispered in my ear "I wish that he took me, only me. Why didn't he?" How can a sixteen-year-old answer that?
I get to the Central line. Dwellers are waiting for the monorail to arrive. They're only running every other train to sub-levels two, four, and six. I'll have to get off at four and take the service stairwell. The ten o'clock the monorail rolls in. It's sleek, metallic, and whirs to a halt. Dwellers returning from the night shift step off the train in dribs and drabs. I step on and occupy a seat. The ride down to four is quick. The train whirs to a stop, I step off and join a queue. Those in front are allowed through. The queue melts away and I find myself before a facial recognition scanner. I allow it to scan my face. After I short walk I arrive at the sub-level four. This level shares the Infirmary, it runs off to the left whilst the community quarters have the right. I walk straight across the pen to the service stairwell. I descend many staircases and enter the pen of sub-level five. Sentries patrol the floor. Three men on the gate, one man on the door, and two patrolling the pen. No dwellers are to be seen. I walk to the door of the Energy Branch and scan my card.
The door slides open, the team is working hard, with no power restrictions. It takes a few blinks for my eyes to adjust. I follow the handrail and corner to where the generator is, or where it was. The damage I imagined I'd see is nothing but a thought. The damaged generator has been removed and fresh concrete has been laid.
"Lookman." Mr.Holvey slaps me on the back. I wince and try not to swear. Some people here might snigger at the sight of this, like a little inside joke. Mr.Holvey wouldn't. I doubt he considers me to be a friend but, he is someone who's never judged me because of my family history. He even stuck up for me once, after I became a stuttering mess at the butt of a joke.
"I'm sorry Lookman, they did say you got nipped by the fire. I thought you must be alright if you're in." He says.
"I see you fixed the damage quickly."
"Yes, well seeing as the generator won't be ready for four weeks the Overseer thought it best to clean things up quickly." He says. Four weeks, did he mean that?
"The Overseers flyer said two."
"It also said the generator was damaged. The generator is being rebuilt from scratch. The main components were unsalvageable. Telling the dwellers two weeks is just to keep them calm for now." He says.
"But look, I'll tell Gayle that you're in some pain still. Why don't you head home and take a few days? That way you can come back at one hundred percent." He says.
"You're right. I haven't been sleeping well recently."
"Exactly, take some time for yourself. Don't come back until you feel better, we can handle this. I gotta go make a call." He steps off and he's quickly lost amongst the Energy Branch workers. I have a sudden urge to go and be useless in my apartment. I'm silly for coming out. At the exit, I check to see if anyone is looking, clear. I gather my spit and swallow two dexys that go down dry. I return to the twilight of the pen, it feels bleaker, knowing it will be for four weeks.
The stairs provide a challenging ascent, I'm just about half-way to sub-level four. Pipes varying in diameter and wires line the outer wall of the service stairwell and the central shaft. My foot thuds against the fourteenth step. There's a step that's out of beat. I turn, there's a woman behind me. Who's holding something behind her back. She is wide-eyed and jittery as her hand ascends the handrail. Her hair is unkempt and her jumpsuit is filthy.
"We need that Branch card off you." From her back, she draws a crude knife. Footsteps approach from behind but I can't take my eyes off the knife. Large hands pin me against the central shaft. He is a hulking man, a vacancy possesses his eyes. I'm gripped by fear itself.
"We'd rather not have to deal with the mess you'll make, so why don't you give it?" She says. She becomes animate. Using her knife as an aeroplane waving it around and varying how hard she trills her lips. She walks closer.
"five, four, three..." My heartbeat is fast and thick.
She is in front of me. I have no other option, I reach into my pocket and hold it out.
"Please no, just take it. Take it! Don't kill me."
She outstretches her bony hand. As soon as her fingers are on the card, she snatches it away. She admires it. She allows her hand to feel the weight of it.
"Phase two, the Re-Emergence is coming." She says.
She points the knife back at me.
"We know where you are Oscar, you tell anyone, bad things will come for you… That'll do Hector."
He pulls his massive hands from me. My feet return to the floor and the dexy's in my pocket rattle. Hector rams his hand into my pocket freeing the blister pack of Dexyceflin. His eyes alight at the dim reflection in the foil. In quick succession he pops six tablets, the woman watches with intent. He swallows three, and hands three to her.
"Shiners for the rest." He says.
"Come on you fool we've got what we needed." She waves the card in the air.
"We are not alone, don't get smart." She says. They run down the stairwell, to eight I imagine. I empty my lungs and fill them again in an effort to calm down.
I need to get back to my room, is the only thing on my mind as I step into the sub-level four pen. The central line is dead. The facial recognition scanner is now out of order. The next monorail isn't for an hour, I sit on one of the benches. A sickening wave of dread washes over me. Those gutter rats on the stairwell would probably say I'm involved with the bombing. Those gutter rats know I have more Dexy's. Will they come for me at home? An older train pulls into the station. It subdues light rather than reflecting it. I take an aisle seat. A young girl jumps on just before the doors close. I'm looking around at the graffiti around my seat. I pull the tray table down and there is a sun carved into it. As we enter the dark tunnel, she jumps up and walks with haste to take up the seat opposite. Her hair is tied back, she's small enough that her jumpsuit could be that of a teenage boy.
"I'm sorry about how we got your card from you, but it's vital we have it." She says.
"You bombed the Energy Branch," I say.
"Please, we don't have much time. Life will be very different soon. This might be hard to understand but the surface is no longer toxic. It hasn't been toxic for twenty years."
"How can you be so sure?"
"That information has taken us years to gather, of course, the surface will be tested. There is a role for you after the Re-Emergence. We can stop living just to die at work. Be warned, if you turn us in, we will find you." She holds me in a deathly stare. Her watch beeps.
"This facility has taken so much from you. Your father, who couldn't adapt to vault life so turned to shiners. Your mother, who needed treatment from the machines they only keep on sub-level one. Don't let them have you too." She stands. She zips her mouth, locks it, and throws away the key. She returns to the exact seat she chose.
My shoulder is tender again, the dexy's will wear off soon. I open the door to a creak. My thoughts are relentless. I draw a stout from the fridge, twist the cap off and take a few big gulps. I take a strip of dexy's and pop four out on the table in a line. I pop one in my mouth along with a swill of stout. Another pill, another swill. Another pill, another swill. I contemplate taking twice the recommended dose. I snap the final pill, dust falls onto the table. The half goes down easy with the rest of the stout. Can the girl from the train be right? Did we seal our fate in here by gaining salvation from the bombs? Had things been different, Mother and Father might still be here. I wouldn't be a recluse. The tenderness is leaving my arm, but my head still feels too full. I get another stout that goes down in one. The realisation of my potential future is grim. If these people overthrow the Overseer and the Facility, the victim's families will be able to get a hold of me.
"There's a role for you. The surface isn't toxic." I say aloud, mocking them.
"That is such bullshit."
You can't trust them, they've killed people. If they fail. My pass falls into evidence. They say I'm involved because why wouldn't they. I get expelled… I grab another stout. Could I tell a sentry? I could point the girl out on CCTV. How many are there? Will I be able to live knowing that someone, anyone could be waiting in my room after work to… I feel sweat running down my head, I feel off-kilter. I twist the cap and fall to the floor. The dark liquid splashes onto my jumpsuit. The walls begin to ripple. I fixate on the eyes of the static Facility poster. The eyes examine the room before staring at me.
"Oscar." It's distant but familiar. It's her.
"You can't stay here. The Facility is a bad place." She says as the room feels like it's beginning to spin.
"I know, but where do I run?" my chest feels heavy.
"The surface. Your father may be out there somewhere."
"I can't, I'm scared," I admit through heavy eyelids and tired lungs.
"Being scared is what reminds us that we're living."
Consciousness slides away.
I awake to a blaring alarm. What was once a dimly lit room is now pitch black. I scramble off of the floor and open the cupboard by the door. I pull my flashlight out and click it on. I shine the light on the clock. Five a.m. I can smell the stale stout on my jumpsuit. I turn and illuminate the poster.
"It's time," I say.
I take the bag the infirmary gave me and begin scouring the cupboards for food that lasts. The fridge is lukewarm, but I manage to squeeze some juice in there. I take an empty bottle from the recycling and fill it with water. My hand is on the doorknob, but I can't leave, I'm forgetting something… Holden! With care I place Catcher in the Rye in the bag. The watch stares at me, as its face shines. My lips tighten. I take a deep breath and shut the drawer. I open my door, orange flashes of LED ignite the corridor. I can see a sentry squad a few doors up. I pull my head back in and shut the door. From the other side, a sentry bangs.
"Stay in your room!"
After the boots pass. I check to my left, clear. Right, Jesus. Down the corridor the squad is being brutalised by navy jumpsuits, they're outnumbered. I see one of their crude knives fall and rise, fall and rise, into the neck of a sentry. I go left to the end of the corridor. The alarms cut off and I hear boots approaching. I try two doors, the third is open. My back is against the door. Inside I shine the torch across the room. Empty. A piece of paper is on the floor, a sun is on it. It's only in pencil. Could this be the room of just one of those fighters from my corridor? The boots march past. Is this the Re-Emergence? I get to the corridor and traverse two quiet corridors to the service stairwell.
The plastic bag dangles from my fist. Breathless I take the last step, Zero. Somehow, the lights are bright. Zero must be dual powered by an unregistered power source. The PA rings out,
"Rioters on sub-level four, west community wing. Sentries respond." It clips off.
The Sentry Officer makes his fifth announcement. The vault door is massive, large enough to get trucks and supplies in. Now it's deserted, everything is draped, large crates and old cars stripped of their organs. After drinking some water. I set off across the pen. I move across the boneyard. The PA scrambles. There are heavy breathing and loud shouting off in the background.
"Our Overseer has something to say." Christ, they're in the Overseer's office.
"What we have told you about the sur- I won't read this. My sentries will get in here." He says. I can see the vault console and some footlockers.
"We can let them make their own minds up about the surface… Open the vault." The PA cuts out.
The vault hisses and begins to creak. In a scramble I run to the footlockers, they have dusty PPE logos. Emergency hazmat suits. I lift the latch and pull the lid up, empty. The vault slides back, is ten feet thick. The second footlocker, empty. The vault begins to roll away, moonlight drips in, it's enchanting. Until I remember the potential radiation. I pull the latch. It's empty apart from just one dust mask. I put it on. It's better than nothing. I'm ready for what may happen. The PA scrambles.
"The surface is ours. This is not our time, but we will one day, Re-Emerge." The voice says the shouting becomes more intense. Several gunshots ring off and the PA cuts out.
My body is draped in the moonlight with the surface just a step away. I open my creased plastic bag, I take the Catcher in the Rye and just hold it. There is something magical about the guise of the moonlight across the cover. I step out and tense up, expecting to feel the radiation effects. With heavy legs, I try to run across the grass that runs to the treeline. I hear the doors hiss and creak again. In the cover of the treeline, I watch the doors roll to a close. I turn to thick forestry. My truth is waiting. It isn't something they can force down my neck anymore.