In this week’s story segment, we get to explore further into the underground bunker and also get a unique proposition. Scout is still on the run and trying to stay alive long enough to get his bearings.
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Happy New Years to you and yours!
Last week’s story fork…
1. Accept Kat’s offer and follow through with the date.
2. Accept Kat’s offer and ditch her as soon as we get to Residence Two.
The group chose #1 and here is how that played out…
Kat walked into the hallway and checked in both directions. She waved us over as she opened the loading hatch to the sanitation sled. A fan kicked on somewhere inside the dim interior.
“In, in. Hurry!”
Martinez stood next to the hatch and sniffed the air. “Not as bad as I thought it would be.”
“Suction fan keeps all odors inside. Rich people don’t like bad smells.”
“Nobody likes bad smells,” Martinez replied.
“Yes, but rich people have suction fans. Inside, toothpick waist!”
Martinez was about to reply, but I cut her off. “Get in. You can argue later.”
She mumbled something loud enough to discern that it was insulting but not loud enough to make clear who it was directed at. She climbed through the hatch like those drivers used to do back when racing cars was a thing. Legs first. Hands gripping the upper frame. And then a swing inside and she was gone.
“Oh, no. No.” Her voice echoed out in a hollow tone.
“Hurry, Mr. Scout,” Kat said. “I don’t want first date in forever to cancel because grays shoot you.”
It was thoughtful, in a way.
I inhaled a deep breath of fresh air, knowing it was going to be the last good one for a while, and climbed inside.
Martinez sat against the back wall with her arms around her knees. “No, no, no,” she said as she held her cupped hand over her nose. “This is foul!”
I crawled over unidentified debris and chose to ignore it when my hand squished into something I couldn’t see, and took a seat next to her.
The sled must’ve been emptied recently because it was only a quarter full. At least we didn’t have to dig through a full shift’s worth of refuse.
Not looking forward to it but needing to anyway, I inhaled a breath.
Martinez was right.
Foul, rotten, rancid and putrid were a few words that came to mind. The stench of decomposed food like meat gone moldy.
I took a few shallow breaths. It didn’t help.
“I think I’d rather get shot,” Martinez said.
Kat poked her head in. “No talking. Passing grays might hear. I have to finish shift and then I sneak you to Residence Two.”
“Finish your shift?” Martinez asked with an incredulous tone.
“Yes, toothpick waist. Some of us have to work for living. Don’t worry, not too long left.”
“How long?” I said. Seconds felt like too long. Minutes would feel like forever.
“Only five hours,” she said as she swung the lid over and it clicked shut. The dim light dropped to complete darkness and the suction fan cut off.
“Five hours?” Martinez said. “Was that a joke?”
“Quiet,” Kat’s muffled voice said. “Any more talking and I send you to incinerator.”
Martinez inhaled to reply, but I elbowed her to keep her quiet.
Kat started singing another blues song. Her voice fell away as she returned to her work.
“Five hours?” Martinez whispered.
I elbowed her again.
“Oww. Stop doing—”
I elbowed her again, harder this time.
She finally got the message.
I rested my head against the wall. With no visual clues to help, I raised my hand to my head and found the shaved scalp and stitches covering two of the burr holes in my skull. As slowly as I could, I shifted to find the drain tube.
Other than banging it more times than were comfortable, I hadn’t paid much attention to it. It wasn’t as big as I’d imagined. Maybe because Kat called it a pipe. I had visions of a water pipe sticking out of my head. Something that was as thick as my wrist and a foot long.
No. It was similar to the diameter of a straw and half an inch long. Not big, but definitely big enough to get painfully caught on anything and everything that came near it, as I’d already discovered numerous times.
A while later, Kat’s sultry singing returned and the hatch opened. Another batch of trash tumbled in. This one added a raw sewage note to the already repulsive bouquet. The hatch clicked shut.
A short time passed, and Kat’s voice returned. This time, the sled rolled a distance and stopped. Her voice faded as she entered the next hab.
The cycle repeated itself ten times. I counted. Why, I don’t know, but it was something to focus on other than the stench and my aching back and neck.
I would’ve loved to get some sleep. It felt like I hadn’t ever slept. Not just in a long time or in ages or in forever.
Of courese, I knew it wasn’t true. But the mind takes liberties with the truth, especially when it’s complaining.
But I couldn’t sleep. It required active focus and effort to keep from gagging. Besides, my back and neck were shouting over each other to get my attention.
I hurt worse!
No, I do!
Shut up! You’re wrong! I hurt like you’ve never hurt before.
You’re such a whiner! I hurt worse than you by far!
It was scary what the mind could do when all it had for a distraction was talking with itself.
I told them both to shut up and got back to doing what I’d been doing for hours. I bit down, kept quiet, and kept going.
The hatch opened and another load of garbage tumbled in. It was now piled up to near the ceiling in the rest of the sled. Martinez and I had to shove it back from time to time to keep from getting buried.
“Shift done. We go to Residence Two now.” A bag flew in and smacked Martinez in the face. “Put on clothes in bag. Wearing grays uniform there is no better than riding in sanitation sled.”
The lid closed, dropping us into inky black.
The plastic bag crinkled as Martinez opened it. “You may not have to do the date with her,” she whispered.
“Because I may end up having to kill her.”
“Wipe yourself off, girl,” Kat said. “You have no pride?”
Martinez did her best fake-as-shit smile and then flicked at the bits of wobbly goo stuck to her pant leg.
We stood outside the sled elevator as Kat looked us over.
Her eyes lingered on my head. Or more precisely, the shaved spots, stitches, and drain tube. She shook her head. “This will not do. Let Kat think a moment.” She dug into the garbage bag in her hands and pulled out a bed sheet.
“What’s that for?” I said.
“To cover big sign on your head that says ‘Look at me!’”
Martinez snorted. “So you’re a swindler and a thief, huh?”
Kat tutted at her with disapproval. “Lucky to be pretty because not so smart. No, Ekaterina Popov is no thief.” She held up a part of the blanket to reveal a tear along the hem. “Rich people throw away good things all the time. I recycle for them, free of charge.” She smiled broadly.
“Sounds shady,” Martinez replied.
“Fringe benefit of cleaning rich poop from rich toilets. Maybe judge and executioner already forgot who saved her from grays?”
“Sounds smart,” I said, doing my best to defuse the situation.
Kat smiled. “Listen to Mr. Scout, toothpick waist. You live longer.” She started wrapping the sheet around my head until all the cloth was used. She stared at her work, tapping her lips. “Okay, okay.”
“Okay what?” I said.
“Okay, you look like a man wearing a sheet on his head.”
“That’s not good, right?”
“Better than scaring children with pipe sticking out of your head. People just think you’re crazy. That’s all.”
“Great. That’s reassuring.” I already felt plenty crazy from everything that had happened since I woke up. Add to that not being able to remember anything and maybe I was the perfect candidate to wear a sheet on my head.”
Martinez picked up our rifles and handed mine over.
Kat shook her head. “No way. You can’t carry those through here!”
“Why,” I said.
“Because people will either run away in terror or attack you to take them.”
“We’re not leaving them,” I said. I wall all for making this as easy as possible, but I wasn’t about to agree to leaving a valuable weapon behind.
“No, Mr. Scout. It’s dangerous.”
“No rifles means no date. This isn’t negotiable.”
Kat scowled and shook her head. “You drive a hard bargain, but it will make date all the sweeter. Fine.” She reached into her bag and dug out another bed sheet. “Wrap them together and put in bag.”
Martinez eyeballed the cloth. “Another ripped sheet?”
They finished preparations and Kat led them out the door and into Residence Two.
It took less than a minute to discover just how different this level was to Residence One.
The smell was the first clue.
Not that it was bad.
Although some of it was.
But there was also the scent of a spicy meal cooking. The sweet smell of floral perfume. A little too sweet and too strong, like an overripe fruit, but nice nonetheless.
It smelled like a lot of people living close together, which was accurate.
I hadn’t thought it before, but it struck me now. Residence One didn’t smell like anything. It was like they purposefully tried to scrub the life out of it. Rather, had others scrub the life out of it.
We followed Kat through endless hallways and another difference captured my attention.
An ever-present low humming coming from the power generators on the level below. More than hearing it, I felt it in my chest. It was the kind of thing that was annoying at first but then quickly faded into the background. The hallways of Residence One had been almost silent. The distant echo of someone walking. No wonder Kat had a habit of filling the void with song. Anything to get rid of the featureless, antiseptic feel.
Even beyond the smell and sound, the contrast between the levels couldn’t have been greater.
The corridors themselves were half the width. And then less than that due the number of people filling them. Residents lounged outside in narrow tables and chairs. Packs of seemingly feral children ran through the corridors.
A little boy in a blue shirt skidded to a stop in front of me. His wide eyes stared up at the sheet wrapped around my head. “Are you a mystic?”
“A mystic?” Not the last time I checked.
“Yeah, one of those people that can see the future and stuff.”
See the future? I was still trying to see the past.
I shook my head. “No. I’m not.”
He laughed and pointed at my head. “You look crazy, then!”
Kat hissed and swiped a clawed hand at him.
He dashing by to catch up with the group of kids that waited a little further on. He joined them and they all started laughing and pointing.
“Little brats,” Kat said. “No respect.”
An elderly man sitting nearby spoke up. “Oh, leave them alone Ekaterina. You would do the same thing if you weren’t so wrinkled and withered.”
Kat marched over to him like she was going to knock his head off. And judging by how thin and frail he was, that looked like a possibility. “Shouldn’t you already be dead, Mr. Flanagan?”
He stared up with eyes that didn’t quite focus. He laughed. “It is my fondest wish, but this broken body won’t give up.”
Kat patted his shoulder. “I’ll bring some food by later.”
His mouth opened into a toothless grin. “Why? Do you want me dead, too?”
“Oh, my,” she said as she glanced down at his feet. “You’ve peed your pants again!”
The grin melted off his face and he looked down. He pulled his loose-fitting pants this way and that, looking for the darker stain. He didn’t find any. “No, I haven’t!”
Kat strode away with us in tow. “The day isn’t over yet!”
The people were another one of the differences between the residence levels. As Martinez had mentioned earlier, the distance between the doors was another. It started at twenty feet nearest to the main elevators, but was steadily getting smaller the further we went.
She’d said her family lived in a poorer section of the level and the doors there were ten feet apart. We were now in a hallway with the doors half that far apart.
“Does your family live around here?” I said.
She shook her head. “Nope. Never been to this section.”
“Of course, you haven’t,” Kat said. “Daddy is a gray, I assume?”
“Yes, he is. Was. Retired now.”
“We aren’t all born with careers waiting for us.” She stopped at a door and dug into her pocket. She found the key and opened the door.
The hab was barely wider than the door, maybe eight feet across and extended back through several doorways. The entrance opened into a small room that contained the kitchen, dining room and a tiny sofa facing the nearby wall. Through an open door was the bedroom. And that looked to be it as there were no other doors.
“Come in, come in. Welcome to my summer dacha. I live here while renovating third floor in main hab. The marble floors are taking forever to install.”
Martinez rolled her eyes as she followed Kat inside. I brought up the rear and closed and locked the door behind us.
Martinez looked around. “Where’s the john?”
“Community bathrooms are at the end of hall.”
“You don’t have your own?”
Kat laughed. “You look like someone who used to think they had it hard growing up.”
I wondered how I had it growing up, not out of any desire to compare to this place. Simply to know how it happened. What I was like. Anything, really.
Someone pounded on the door.
I yanked our rifles out of the bag and tossed Martinez’s to her. We checked that they were ready to fire. Martinez dropped behind the side of the sofa for cover while I sidled up next to the door. I glanced at her to verify she was good to go.
I motioned for Kat to answer it.
She looked through the peephole, and then stepped back.
“Open the door! I saw your shadow in the peephole.”
Kat clenched her fist, apparently angry with herself. “Who is it?”
“You know who it is. Open the door.”
“I’m just back from shower.”
“Open it now or I come back with a few friends and we bust it down. And then we make a mess of your place for the trouble.”
Kat sighed and reached for the door.
I grabbed her wrist to stop her.
“Who is it?” I whispered.
“He’s harmless. Thoughtless and rude, but harmless.”
I didn’t let go.
“Trust me. It’s better we let him in now.”
I nodded and let go.
She opened the door and stepped back to allow the man to enter.
I grabbed him by the collar, yanked him inside, and kicked the door shut. “Lock it.” I kept him off balance by dragging him forward, inserted my foot into his path, and guided him to the floor as he fell. My knee was between his shoulder blades and applying a painful amount of pressure before he’d even thought of resisting.
“Oww, man! Don’t kill the message dude!”
“What’s your name?” I said, not letting up on the pressure.
“Why are you here, Caleb?”
“Get your knee out of my back and I’ll tell you! I can barely breathe!”
I removed my knee from his spine and flipped him over. The muzzle of the rifle floated inches above his face. “Start talking, Caleb.”
He tried to wiggle away but I pinned him down with a boot on the crotch.
“Oww, dude! You’re crushing the family jewels!”
Kat grunted. “Family curse is more like it. What do you want?”
He tried to push my boot off, which resulted in me leaning more weight onto it. He groaned. “I have a message from Crypto. He wants to meet your sadist friend, here.”
“Not possible,” Kat said. “We have plans. Too busy.”
The kid grimaced as he struggled to keep my boot from smashing his crotch into paste. “You know how he takes rejection.”
“When?” she asked.
“When does he want anything that he wants? Now. Immediately. Ten minutes ago.”
Kat turned to me. “Don’t do it. You won’t be safe there.”
1. Decline the meeting.
2. Accept the meeting.
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!