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Entry #5

Discussion in 'Q3 Competition Before Christmas' started by Xiph0, Nov 3, 2021.

  1. Xiph0

    Xiph0 Yoda Admin

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    Aftermath

    I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards: "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

    “Oh, here you are,” Annie said, poking her head through the open flap of his tent. “I was looking for you.”

    The boy ignored her, flicking the next page of the book. He had read it a hundred times already, but at that moment, reading it a hundred and one was a far more appealing prospect than acknowledging her presence.

    “Hello-o,” she said, waving her hands. “Are you deaf, Rob? Did last night’s fire drill damage your eardrums?”

    She attempted to grab hold of his ear, but Rob leaned out of reach with a scowl, looking up at the mousy haired girl, with her large nose and uneven teeth.

    I’m not deaf, I just don’t want to talk to you.

    “I’m not deaf, I’m just reading.” He shook his book for emphasis.

    She snatched it away from his hands before he could react, closing it with a thunk to look at the tattered and yellowed cover.

    Treasure Island,” she read. She dropped it onto the mattress, making Rob wince. The book was old, far older than he. “You can read it later, the expedition is supposed to come back today. Let's go see.”

    She offered him her hand, but he slapped it away. “I can get up on my own,” he muttered. His irritation was not helped by the fact Annie knew perfectly well that, no matter how upset he was, he would never turn down the opportunity to go.

    She looked at him with her head cocked sideways. “You’ve gotten very weird lately, Rob.”

    Rob gritted his teeth, but followed her out of the tent without comment.

    A long time ago, before Rob had even been born, the bunker system of the Dome had been manually expanded, new tunnels sprouting from the center in every direction like spilt water on a smooth surface, all to fulfill the habitation needs of a slowly growing population. Station Thirteen, where he lived, was just at the point where smooth stone met jagged rock and the glow of the red lights gave way to darkness, or whatever light one happened to bring with him. As a child, Rob had always been scared to go into that darkness, those narrow and stale tunnels, before learning that the people who inhabited them were just as he was, if considerably less lucky. There was a long way from the farthest part of those tunnels to the center of the Dome.

    “Where are you two going?”

    “We’re going to get our rations,” Annie said confidently.

    The soldier at the checkpoint, who Rob recognised but did not remember the name of, threw his rifle behind his back with a smile.

    “That right? Where are your ration cards, then?”

    Annie stumbled slightly. “I - well, I mean…”

    “No card, no entry, you know the rules…. although, tell you something,” he said, wide smile growing wider. “You give me a kiss, sweetheart, and I’ll let you by.”

    “We want to see the expedition’s return,” Rob said, taking a step forward. “Can you let us through?”

    The man peered down at him. “You’re Cathy’s kid, right? Ben?”

    “Robert.”

    The soldier laughed. “Well, Robert, I guess I can make an exception for you. But better be back before my shift ends. I don’t want to go looking for you two. And say hi to your mother for me.”

    Rob nodded, ignoring the soldier's tone, and dragged Annie along the way.

    “You really have a big mouth sometimes, you know,” he said, as soon as they were out of earshot.

    She looked abashed, which was a rarity for her, but Rob didn’t have time to ponder on it, as they soon came upon the grey halls of the Dome, bathed by white light, instead of red.

    If Rob had been frightened by the dark tunnels when he was a small child, it had been the exact opposite when it had come to the heart of the underground complex they called home. It wasn’t the large greenhouses it hosted, which kept everyone fed, nor the water or air processors, which kept them alive, nor the hospital, or the school, or even the library, from which Rob’s favourite books had all come from. No, what truly had caught his imagination, the very moment he had first caught a glimpse of it, was the long elevator shaft, which stood so high from its platform it seemed to go on forever. A gate to another world. A way to the outside.

    They stood now at the foot of the platform – he, Annie, some who were clearly Military, some who were family to those who had gone, and the few children, who like themselves, had not been able to resist their curiosity, all waiting patiently for the lift to ascend, and then come back down, powered by some old-world engineering Rob could not hope to understand.

    Even if the expedition was to be delayed, even if it never returned, both of which he knew had happened before, Rob would have been content to stare at that lift forever, and the rectangular shadow it cast on the tiled floors, his imagination spurred by the possibilities contained by the small, dimly lit compartment.

    “Look, there it goes,” Annie whispered excitedly. Rob’s heart was beating so widely, he did not mind it when she slipped her hand into his palm.

    The lift rose, slowly, pondering and out of view. Rob waited with bated breath. A minute passed, maybe two.

    Then, it descended.

    He knew something was wrong as soon as the occupants came into view. Two masked men, where there should have been five. The soldiers amidst them began to grow restless, ushering them out of the way and cocking back their guns. The lift came to a halt, and the occupants were met with the muzzles of a dozen rifles.

    “Who goes?” a soldier barked.

    “Who dares wins!” a voice shouted back. “Quick, Mo needs help!”

    “Where are the others?”

    “We were caught by a storm. Beakers took us in, but it was too late for the others.”

    Someone screamed then, a woman, and an officer ordered the crowd to disperse. When they did not do so immediately, he instructed the soldiers to clear them out by force.

    Annie was tugging Rob back, dragging him away amidst the confusion, and the wailing of the woman, who would never see her son, or husband, ever again.

    And in that moment Rob realised, in a way he had not before, that the world of his books was gone, never to return.

    — Ten years later —
    “Ration card,” Will said, with no small amount of boredom.

    “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. See, I don’t have it.”

    “You know the rules, old man, no card, no entry.”

    “But it’s been stolen, must have been. I had it in my coat pocket and now it's not there anymore. Some thieves from fifteen... must have been.”

    Rob rolled his shoulder, trying to work the numbness from his back, thankful that it was not him who the bald man had engaged, but his partner.

    “What do you want us to do about it?” Will asked. Though he kept his voice level, Rob could hear his irritation. They had been standing watch for several hours now. Or at least it felt like hours. Without a way to tell time, neither of them could really know for sure.

    “Well, surely, surely…” The bald man, Bon, paused, looking briefly over his shoulder. He lowered his voice. “Surely you could let me by? Just this once?”

    Will snorted. “Of course we can. We can bend over while we’re at it, really make it worth your time.”

    “I can pay,” Bon said stubbornly. “I have butter.” He dug his hands into his coat’s
    pockets. “Two day’s worth.”

    “You know smuggling is illegal, right?” Rob chimed in. “We should bring you up to Military for this.”

    “Three days worth,” Bon rejoined. “Come on, you both must have families…. wives at least.” He grew bold, when neither man disputed his words. “Young, pretty, wives,” he insisted. “It would make their day, I’m sure, if you brought them something extra tonight.”

    Rob had to shake his head. “Quit while you’re ahead, old man. You’re not getting through tonight.”

    “Fine,” Bon huffed. “Fine. I can always wait for the next shift.”

    Both men watched him limp away, until the darkness of the tunnels swallowed him whole.

    “He’s right, you know, ” Will said.

    “About what?”

    “Waiting for the next shift.”

    Rob groaned. “Not you too.”

    Will shrugged his shoulders. “Not everyone is as straight as you are.”

    “It’s just butter.”

    “Affie loves butter.”

    Rob threw up his hands. "Fine, I'm sorry for butting in your business. Next time I'll let you handle it."

    "No deal," Will said with half a smile. "It's your turn next time." He sat on the floor next to him with a sigh, and Rob had to groan.

    "My arse is killing me, but I still don't want to get up."

    "Had a bit too much fun last night, did you?"

    "Bastard, I meant the floor. I would kill for a chair."

    "I'd kill for some butter."

    Rob’s reply was cut off by the sound of footsteps. He got to his feet and pointed his flashlight down the corridor.

    “Who comes?”

    “The cavalry's here boys, no need to thank us.”

    It was a familiar voice, and a familiar two silhouettes, the points of their rifles poking from their backs and all. Rob sighed with relief, and Will scrambled to his feet.

    “Frank, you twat, you had us waiting here for ages.”

    “Don’t worry, I kept your wife well entertained in your absence.”

    Will aimed a punch but Frank dodged it easily enough, laughing all the while.

    “Your uncle wants to speak to you,” John said quietly. He was a man in his mid forties, though he tolerated Frank and Will’s antics well enough for his age. “As soon as possible.”

    Rob felt his mood drop. ‘As soon as possible’ meant now, and he very much did not want to speak with his uncle now, not after such a long shift.

    “Tough luck,” Will said sympathetically. He slapped Rob’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll apologise to Affie on your behalf.”

    “What for?” John asked.

    “Depriving her of three days worth of butter.”

    Frank perked up. “What’s this about some butter?”

    Rob rolled his eyes. “You’ll find out soon enough, I think. Anyways, see you later.”

    A chorus of goodbyes echoed around him, as he walked briskly to his uncle’s quarters. As high-ranking Military, he merited a room inside the Dome. A small one, yes, but with a table, a bed, and, most importantly, a shower to his own. Small comforts perhaps, but comforts nonetheless.

    Rob did not give the long lift a second glance as he passed it on his way, coming up on his uncle’s door and knocking on it three times. A brisk ‘come in’, and he was through.

    The man (for his ‘uncle’ did not share a particular blood relationship to Rob, despite his insistence to be referred to as such) was sitting on his chair, staring at a map in the shape of a rough triangle. He was a man in his fifties, coarsely shaved, like all of them, with grey eyes and greyer hair, and a severe demeanour. He was called Samuel, or at least that was how Rob called him. Most others referred to him as ‘sir.’ Only Rob’s mother, as far as he knew, had ever called him Sam.

    “Uncle Samuel,” he said. “You wanted to speak to me?”

    The man grunted, motioning at the bunk with his free hand. Rob sat on the bed, waiting for him to collect his thoughts.

    “It’s your mother’s forty-fifth birthday, today,” he said at last. “Did you know that?”

    “No,” Rob said.

    “It’s so damned hard to keep track of time these days.” He cleared his throat, and pulled two glasses from the table’s drawer, as well as a small, dark, bottle. “But not impossible.”

    Rob watched him pour until the brown liquid reached the brim of both glasses, and accepted one with a nod.

    “To your mother,” he toasted. “Bah,” he spat, after downing it in a single gulp. “Not their best batch.”

    Rob nodded, although it always tasted the same to him, like boiled disinfectant.

    “She always said you were special, you know.” He poured himself another glass, shaking the bottle until the last drop ran free. “The stories she told me about you… well, I sometimes thought she’d gone mad.” He chuckled, and gulped it down in one go once more. “She never did of course, she was an exceptionally clear-minded woman, may she rest in peace.”

    Rob waited patiently, until the man recollected himself once more.

    “But I haven’t brought you in to reminiscence.” He leaned back into his chair. “We have a problem Robert, a problem that can become an opportunity… if you’re up for it.”

    “I’m listening,” Rob said, putting down his glass.

    Uncle Samuel leaned forward slightly. “We think we’ve found another bunker,” he said in a lower voice. “Out there, I mean. Outside.”

    Rob’s eyebrows shot up. “A bunker? Like another Dome?”

    “Potentially. We’ve kept it quiet, of course. No point getting people’s hopes up. We might have gotten it wrong. Or the thing might just be a hole in the ground, or abandoned, or a thousand other bad things. We still wanted to look for ourselves, of course.”

    Rob nodded, his heart beating strangely. “Of course.”

    There was another pause, which seemed to stretch for a minute.

    “It didn’t go so well,” he said at last. “Our last expedition. It’s far, at least five days away, even with good pace. Five days there, and five days back. And ten days on the surface… does things to a man. Turns him crazy.”

    “What happened?” Rob asked.

    The man squinted an eye, which was his version of a grimace.

    “Three men went out, only one returned, talking about ghosts and floating shadows and who knows what else. Frostbitten to hell and back. Didn’t make it.”

    “And you want...” Rob licked his lips. “You want to try again?”

    “No,” he said, and Rob let out a quiet breath. “No. It’s not what you’re thinking. You’d never make it. Not in one go.” He paused to chew on thin air. “Much though we’d wish it were otherwise, we need the Beakers for this. We need guides, and use the Nest as a place on the way to rest, and resupply. But as you can imagine, those bastards want something in return.”

    He stood up, but his pacing was limited by the narrow space, and so he sat on the table instead, one foot on the chair.

    “They want one of our underground crops,” he explained. “Which isn’t too bad, until you realise the crop itself is not enough, someone needs to go and set it up. And that someone needs to be an engineer.”

    “Ah.”

    Uncle Samuel squinted once more. “Ah, indeed. We’ve managed to convince one, but he wants to take his assistant along with him, and we’d need two men alone just to carry his equipment, plus two more for protection, plus the officer, the damned assistant, the engineer himself...” He stood up again. “Basically a full on army parade, at a time when many of our men are reticent to even step a foot outside.”

    “And you want me to go,” Rob said. “Be one of those men. Help set up the crops at the Nest, and a supply base for the future expedition to this faraway Dome.”

    “It’s a good opportunity. It’s a two-day trip, through familiar territory. Low-risk, as far as these things can be, but vital if we ever want to make it to that damned bunker. You’d make yourself look good to Military. Dependable.”

    Rob didn’t hesitate. “When do we leave?”

    Uncle Samuel grunted, which was his way of showing approval.

    ***​

    “Have you ever been outside, Rob?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “How many times?”

    “Only twice, sir.”

    The ranger grunted. “That’s something, at least. You take charge of the assistant then. Brace, you take the engineer, make sure he gets there in one piece. Ed and Flin, you two get to carry the pots and plants or whatever else he’s bringing. I’ll take point, and make sure we don’t get lost. Everyone clear?”

    There was a chorus of nods and ‘yes, sirs.’ The briefing room doubled over as a supply deposit, with one of its walls chalked with a map of the surroundings, and as such the four men were seated on ammunition boxes, with the ranger doing likewise on an empty barrel, which gave him just the height advantage befitting of his rank.

    Ed, Brace, Flin and Rob, sat in order, with Rob farthest from the door. He knew them all by sight, of course, although not enough to consider them friends. Rob had shared a few shifts with Brace before, but the older, dark-haired man was too private, and too serious, for anything other than a quiet companionship to have developed between them. Ed he knew because his age and disposition should have placed him squarely in Rob's group of friends, though circumstances had conspired to keep him out of it. He even looked like Rob, hair colour and all, save for his thick moustache and pointy ears. Of Flin, he knew almost nothing, though he recognised him for the smallpox scars marring his face.

    “I do have one question, sir," Ed said. "Where’s the engineer? Shouldn't he be here for the briefing?"

    The ranger crossed his arms. He wasn't a particularly old man, though his cracked reddened skin and thin white hair suggested otherwise. A product of too many days spent on the surface, if Rob had to guess.

    “He’s a busy man, Ed. We can afford to wait. We’ll go over things again once he arrives. Unless, of course, you have something better to do?”

    There were a few chuckles.

    “No, sir.”

    Fortunately, they did not have to wait for long. The door opened after a few minutes of easy companionship, and a handsome man in a white coat stepped through, trailed by a short woman. He was tall, with sharp blue eyes and high cheeks, and the manner of his stride left little doubt as to who he was.

    “Apologies for the delay, gentlemen,” he said. “I’m Richard, the botanist, and this– ” he stepped aside, revealing the woman by his side “– is my assistant, Anne.”

    “Annie?!”

    Rob regretted his outburst almost immediately, at once the center of all stares, but no amount of willpower could have kept his surprise from manifesting. It was unmistakable her, his Annie, the Annie of his youth, with her dull brown hair, greenish eyes, and that nose still a touch too large for her face. Only those features no longer belonged to the face of a girl, but a woman.

    “I see you two know each other,” Richard said with a small frown. “Anything I should be aware of?”

    Annie’s tone was casual, though she kept her wide eyes fixed on Rob. “We grew up together,” she said. “In station thirteen. A long time ago.”

    “Thirteen? Isn’t that the one that burnt down?”

    Ed was elbowed to keep quiet, and the ranger took control of the situation, giving Rob a look.

    “Pleasure to meet you, sir,” the ranger said, extending his hand, which the engineer took. “This is my team, we will be escorting you to the Nest and back. With your permission, I’d like to go over the mission parameters. We’ll do our best to keep you safe, but –”

    “I’m well aware of the conditions on the surface, ranger. It’s not my first walk. Still, for Anne’s sake it might be best we go over it. Make it quick, though, I’m already losing a week to this, and I can’t afford to waste another evening on top of it.”

    The ranger dutifully went over their itinerary again, quicker this time, outlining their plan, the gear they we’re taking with them, and the necessity of certain precautions. Rob was far too preoccupied with the back of Annie’s head, however, to pay much attention. How had she become an engineer’s assistant? Why had she chosen to participate in this expedition? Why had Military allowed her to come in the first place? A woman, and not any woman, but Annie. Annie, who had shared his childhood with him, and who he had lost track of as the years went by, seeing her less and less, and then not at all. It made sense, if she had been living in the engineers’ quarters all these years, an area completely off-limits for him, for everyone, really, save for a precious few...

    “You need to grab a hold of yourself Rob,” Brace said, in his matter-of-fact way.

    Rob came to, and found the occupants of the clearing out. He tried to catch Annie’s eye once more before she left, but to no avail.

    “I was just surprised,” he said. “It won't be a problem.”

    But it was a problem, because he could not think of anything but, even when the team was given extra rations, with a helping of butter, even when they packed their gear, and collected the engineer’s equipment and then went to sleep early for the morning’s departure. Rob stared at the ceiling, thinking of her, and did not sleep.

    ***
    “Weapons check.”

    Rob cocked his rifle, and stared at the chamber. “Check,” he said, along with the others.

    “Gear check.”

    He patted his backpack, although he had made sure everything he had to carry was there three times already, before stepping inside the lift. He also checked his uniform, making sure his gloves left no skin uncovered, and that his coat was properly fastened, hood drawn over his head.

    “Rob?”

    “Check,” he grunted.

    The ranger nodded. “Mask check,” he said, finally, after checking his own.

    It was a full face plastic mask, tinted dark, to ward off the worst of the sun's unmerciful glare, and with twin filters to protect their lungs against the venomous air.

    “Check,” Rob said, after making sure it was well-adjusted

    A crowd had formed to see them off, consisting of the friends and family of the departing. William and Affie were there, as well as John. Rob also spied his uncle, standing at the back. He did not wave at him and neither did the man wave at him back.

    “All check.”

    “All check,” Rob echoed, though his voice broke slightly.

    The ranger made a sign to the operator outside. “We’re ready.”

    “God be with you,” was the reply. The door closed. The lift rose.

    The feeling of his stomach falling underneath him, which he intellectually knew to be vertigo, was as strange as it was familiar. Underground, the lift was the only place where someone might be expected to feel it, and Rob had always felt it, in each and every trip. The crowd beneath his feet became little, and then rusted lead walls surrounded the cabin entirely, cutting off their sight. Only a few meters separated them from the surface, now.

    Anticipation gnawed at him, and he tried to keep calm. He was not the only one charged with apprehension. Rob cast a look around the tight space of the lift. Brace stood unnaturally straight, Ed was chanting something underneath his tongue and Annie’s hands were shaking. Rob wanted to say something to her, to put out his arm to comfort her even, but all he could do was clench his teeth and focus on breathing. In and out, in and out. His mask fogged slightly, and he wiped it with the hand not clutching his rifle.

    The lift came to a janky stop. The ranger pulled the door open.

    No words had ever done it justice, no picture ever could. Not even Rob’s memories, the experience of having lived this very moment in the past, could fully prepare him for what he faced, as he stepped a foot outside the lift.

    It wasn’t the cold, which had been creeping up on them as they had risen towards the surface, but was now almost biting in its ferocity, nor the faint smell of something rotting, which permeated through his mask to leave the taste of sulphur on his tongue, and made his eyes water. It was not even the sudden and unnatural quiet, so foreign to one used to the bustling of the Dome. It was the sky, the enormity of it, its brightness – its awful colour.

    Rob blinked a few times, losing focus on his breathing, which came out in ragged gasps. The wrongness of it overwhelmed him. He forced himself to look at the ground, cracked, and dry, and covered by dust, and yet a far better sight than that sickly green sky. It was wrong in a fundamental way, in a way he could not explain but he could not help but feel, and feel so strongly it almost brought him to his knees, even though he had never known it to be any different.

    This was the surface now. A wasteland of cracked rock, without grass, without trees, without life, tinted green only by the colour of the sky, which was all around them, concealing the sight of their surroundings, suffocating them with its presence.

    “Easy son,” the ranger said. “Deep breaths.”

    Rob followed his advice, although it was not meant for him, but for Ed, who had both hands on his knees and looked about to puke. Bad idea, inside their masks.

    Rob composed himself somewhat, finding it useful to look at the rolling dark clouds, high up upon the sky, so high they never made a sound, despite their clear ferocity. The rolling dark clouds which always threatened to break into a storm, and yet, thankfully, almost never did.

    “We have to move,” the ranger said gruffly. Rob could barely see his face, through his tinted mask. “Brace, Rob, pick it up.”

    Rob understood his meaning, and looked for Annie, realising that he had all but forgotten about his charge. She stood a few feet from him, deadly still, looking upwards with wide eyes and a slightly parted mouth.

    At first he thought her transfixed with horror, but as he approached, he realised it wasn’t fear in her expression, but wonder.

    “Annie?”

    “Look Rob,” she said, almost giddily. “The sky.”

    He stepped in front of her and checked that her mask was in place, the filters free of dust. This broke her out of her reverie, and she stepped back from him, shoving his hands away.

    “What are you doing?”

    Rob ignored her. “We need to go. I'll be right behind you. Follow Flin, and make sure to stay close to him at all times.”

    Annie shuddered, as if suddenly assaulted by the cold, or the realisation of where she stood, but complied.

    They set out in a single line, the unnerving silence only broken by the sounds of their footsteps. The ranger led the charge, as the man with both a map and the compass, with the rest following closely behind. Rob closed the rear. He couldn’t help but look back one final time at the lift entrance, and those nondescript grey doors, the only way back home.

    They walked for hours, hardly exchanging a word, towards that green horizon that looked far away, but was actually devilishly close, hence the need for the single file. The sky, though clear of dust or fog, still played with one’s mind, making one think he could see further than he did. To not be careful, was to get lost, and to get lost was to die. Maps and compasses were far too valuable to be handed to every single member of the expedition, after all.

    Hardly anything broke their monotony, or provided any distraction from the unrelenting cold. Their surroundings always looked the same, cracked rock underneath their feet as far as the eye could see. The occasional barren hill would go by, twisted by the elements into strange shapes, and once they had to cross over the husk of what may have once been a river, but was now little more than hollow lines upon the earth. Throughout, Rob was assaulted by the sensation of being watched. To be expected, for someone who had spent his life underground, surrounded by walls, and was now faced with the eternity of the outside.

    And though his rational mind told him this, he could not help but look back, once, twice, a handful of times, shivering slightly, until his own shame at his actions had him firmly staring at Annie’s back, and Flin’s just ahead.

    “We can stop here,” the ranger said. Though his voice was tired, it still carried easily enough. “Rest for a moment.”

    It was a hill, not unlike those they had passed, but hollowed out, looking like a half-eaten apple. Had the sun been out and shining, it would have offered the group some shade as they took refuge under it, but the sun was nowhere to be seen, perpetually covered by those rolling dark clouds. Little seemed to indicate that several hours had gone by, in either the brightness or the sky, or the nature of the surroundings. How would things look at night? Rob did not know – the longest he had spent on the surface before was on acclimatization missions, the small tests Military performed to see who was capable of handling the surface’s conditions, and who was not.

    “Rob... Rob,” Annie insisted, her voice little more than a whisper. “Could you help me with this?”

    She was trying to uncork her canteen, but either her fingers were stiffened by the cold, or her gloves were too big for her, because she was failing miserably.

    “It's best if you wait until we make camp,” Rob said. “It should not be long. Can you wait?”

    Annie shook her head.

    “Here,” Rob acquiesced. “Don’t take your mask off.” He pulled his cantine from his bag, as well as a plastic straw. He fixed it to the mouth of the bottle, and uncorked one of the two filters on Annie’s mask, replacing it with the straw, and pushing it towards her mouth. She gulped it down, and he had to remind her to take it easy.

    “Are you thirsty?” she asked, after she had finished.

    “A bit,” Rob confessed.

    She helped him to drink, with the same procedure, and then lied against the rocks, catching her breath.

    “How are you doing?” Rob said.

    “I have a bit of a headache, and I’m also very tired. I’m better now,” she added, pre-empting his concern.

    He offered it regardless, “I could carry your bag for you,” he said.

    Her smile was wan. “You’re carrying a lot of stuff yourself. More than me.”

    “I’m ok. I’m not tired.”

    It was a lie, of course.

    “Liar,” she accused. “Besides, I carry a lot of Andrew’s stuff, he wouldn’t like it if I just handed it over to you.”

    But Rob wasn’t listening. He pushed her slightly so that she lay on one side, to have access to her bag, and began pulling the heaviest objects he could find. A black case which read ‘delicate’, a few tins of food, and her sleeping bag.

    “You really should learn the meaning of the word ‘no’.”

    It was a testament to how tired she truly was that she did not say more than that.

    “Stay here,” Rob said, after he had added her belongings to his own. “I’m going to find out how long till camp.”

    He half walked, half crawled, towards their ranger. Past Ed, who was dozing off, past Brace, looking intently at a point in the distance, and past the engineer, who Rob tried not to look at all.

    “Sir?”

    The man looked up from his map.

    “How much more until we break camp?” Rob asked. “Anni– um, the engineer’s assistant is struggling a bit.”

    “Not much longer, I don’t want to risk getting caught by nightfall. There’s a cave not too far from here; we should be there long before it happens, in an hour or two.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    The man nodded, and Rob went back to break out the news to her, only to find her asleep.


    ***​


    The two hours felt like an eternity to Rob, and, he suspected, not only to him. Annie seemed to drag herself only through sheer willpower, and Flin in front of her lagged so much Rob was forced to remind him to keep up the pace, lest they lose the front of the pack.

    They reached the mouth of the cave without any issue however, which Rob was thankful for. The cave itself was just tall enough for their tents to fit, though it required Rob to bend his head forwards, and the engineer to crouch. Having been used before as a waypoint in previous expeditions to the Nest, it held evidence of previous habitation, including a few cases stored with emergency supplies, which they nevertheless did not touch, as for all their hardships everything so far had been according to plan.

    Rob chose a spot a few feet from the opening of the cave, deep enough so he was comfortable, and set up the tent. As he finished, he caught the tail-end of the conversation between the engineer and his ranger.

    “I thought me and Anne…”

    “No offense, sir, but I’d sleep easier tonight knowing there’s a capable soldier by your side.”

    Clearly too tired to argue, the man acquiesced, disappearing inside his tent.

    “Get some rest,” the ranger said to the rest of them, rather redundantly. “God willing, I will call on you in the morning.”

    He entered his own tent, and Rob followed suit, making sure to properly seal the entrance.

    Anne was already lying on her bag, looking about to fall asleep again, but Rob shook her awake.

    “You have to eat something,” he said.

    “What about the masks?”

    Rob took his off. His eyes itched as a consequence, but that might have been due to his tiredness as well.

    “Nothing to be done. It’s not immediately fatal, though the longer you breathe it in, the worse off you are. It’s mostly about minimizing exposure. Did you take the pill before leaving?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Take another one now, and eat as quickly as you can. You should be just fine.” He started to follow his own advice, when he saw her hesitant face. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you can hardly smell it anymore.”

    They ate their dinner cold, and quietly. In normal circumstances, Rob would have been hard pressed to finish the two cans as quickly as he did, but he was starved, and he could barely taste what he was eating anyways. He put his mask back on once he was done, and helped her put on her own. She muttered something underneath her tone, which sounded suspiciously like ‘I’m not a child’, and so he left her alone, slipping his boots off and slipping inside his sleeping bag.

    He sighed with something approaching contentment, and closed his eyes.

    “How have you been, Rob?”

    He turned to face Annie, and noticed that the light shining in from outside was beginning to dim. He could only see her green eyes now, through her mask.

    “I know it's not the best time for this, but… it’s been a long time.”

    Rob mulled over his reply.

    “What are you doing here, Annie?” he finally said. “Are you really an engineer’s assistant?”

    She sat up slightly, and although he could no longer see her face, he could sense her agitation.

    “What do you mean?”

    Rob shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come. You shouldn’t be here. What are you doing here?”

    “I’m here because I was asked to,” she said, a slight tremor in her voice. “Why else would I be here?”

    “It doesn't make any sense,” Rob insisted. “There’s no reason why someone else couldn’t have come instead of you.” His hands were trembling. Why were his hands trembling?

    “Doesn’t that also apply to you?” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you either, you know.”

    He knew it was folly, she was upset now, and so was he, stomach churning with an emotion he found hard to identify, but he still tried.

    “It's different,” he explained. “I'm a soldier, you're a woman. I've never heard of a woman stepping outside the Dome before. I don’t know why one would.”

    "Well I dealt with it better than you did,” she said, almost vindictively. “I saw your face when we first came out, you almost puked your guts out.”

    “What? I'm not…”

    I didn't mean to insult you.

    “I don't know what youre talking about,” he said.

    “Whatever.” She turned around, putting the conversation to an end. “I’m tired, I’m going to sleep. Thanks for carrying my stuff.”

    Rob stared at her back for a while, before attempting to make himself comfortable and closing his eyes. Sleep took time to come, and when it did, it was far from peaceful. Rob slept fitfully, his dreams confused but anguished, full of green light, and Annie and…

    Footsteps.

    Rob woke with a start, heart beating madly. He sat up, one hand on the ground, the other clutching his rifle, straining his hearing, but hearing nothing. He remained in that position for what felt like hours, breathing quietly through his nose.

    He was just beginning to relax back down when he heard it again. More footsteps. It was unmistakable, this time.

    Something was out there.

    He picked up his rifle with shaking hands, and rose to his feet, exiting the tent as quietly as he could, though the hammering of his heart was so loud he feared it to be audible.

    The cave had been pitched into absolute darkness by nightfall, an icy darkness that made his breath mist, even inside his mask. Through the fogged mask, through the darkness, still Rob tried to see, too afraid to turn on his torchlight, lest it attract whatever was out there.

    He sensed something moving to his left, and almost screamed with fright, as he saw the shadows ripple, coalescing into something that looked like a hooded man. He scrambled backwards, banging his head on the roof of the cave and falling to his knees, and groped about for his fallen torchlight.

    He found it, just as he was about to give in to despair, and switched it on, only to see… nothing.

    Where the moving shadows had lied, there was only a dark jagged wall, illuminated by the powerful beam of his torchlight. He pointed the torch to his right, then to his left. Nothing at all.

    Rob let out a shaky breath. His eyes were playing tricks on him.

    Something shuffled behind him, and he swivelled, finger on the trigger.

    “Brace!” Rob lowered the rifle slightly, breathing hard. Cold sweat ran freely down his temple. “What are you doing out here? You scared me half to death.”

    The dark-haired man held an arm in front of his eyes, warding against the light of Rob’s torchlight.

    “I thought I heard something,” he said.

    Rob tried to get his breathing under control. “There’s nothing here… Fuck! It's cold as balls. ” Rob pointed his torch to the ground, so as to not blind the man. He realised with a start that he could see Brace’s face clearly. “Why are you not wearing your mask?” he asked.

    Brace ignored him. “Did you not hear it? Like the shuffling of feet, or the rustling of leaves.”

    “Leaves? What? What are you talking about?” Rob swallowed, tasting the bitter aftertaste of adrenaline. “Go back to sleep, Brace, and put on your mask, for God’s sake.”

    Brace did not answer, but he did turn around towards his tent. Rob retreated to his own soon after, not wanting to be out there on his own.

    “Rob?”

    “Yeah?”

    “What was it?”

    Rob sighed, feeling cold, and miserable, and knowing he wouldn’t find any more rest, not after that.

    “Nothing Annie, go back to sleep.”

    ***​

    He kept an eye on Brace, as they set out the next morning, but aside from his bloodshot eyes, nothing in his inexpression seemed different from normal.

    Rob had briefly considered telling the ranger, but he had not known what to tell. That Brace was acting strangely? That he had caught him prowling at night without a mask? Neither of those would be fair to the man, and they’d only serve to place him under suspicion. Increasing distrust amongst them was the last thing Rob wished to do, particularly out here.

    Rob had not yet been born when the Dome had first been opened, and expeditions sent forth out to the world. He knew some who had been, however, and even some who had claimed to have taken part in those first missions. It wasn’t a pretty story they told.

    The first expedition hadn't spent more than a few hours on the surface before it returned, with news none wanted to hear; of a frozen desert, a sickly green sky, and the pervasive smell of something rotten. After a few hours debriefing, one of the rangers began to puke blood, and they learnt that the world wasn’t only a frozen wasteland, but a toxic one as well. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how one looked at it, the creators of the Dome had foreseen the possibility, leaving behind a host of equipment for the occasion, including the gas masks they now wore, as well surface vehicles, though those had been scrapped for parts long ago, and were now little more than hollowed husks. From that initial expedition onwards, the focus had changed from establishing the viability of life on the surface, to finding any sort of life at all. Human, animal, plant-based; anything at all, anything that might signal that there was a future for humanity in what had once been its home.

    “Water?”

    Rob nodded, almost too tired to speak. They hadn’t shared a word all morning, though he still had carried most of her things. He was starting to doubt the wisdom of it, however feeling so exhausted he was even afraid to stop when they did, unsure whether he would be able to get back up to his feet.

    “So,” Annie said, after he had drunk. “When are you going to start talking to me?”

    Rob sighed, closing his eyes. “I thought you were the one who was upset with me.”

    “Well, maybe I am, a bit. But I don't have much choice but to get over it, do I?”

    “I don't know, your engineer is over there. I bet he is much nicer than me.”

    Annie looked in his direction. “I would, but I doubt he is in any condition to chat. He's not all that used to this.”

    Rob stared at her with one eye. “And you are?”

    “No, but fortunately, I have you to carry most of my weight.”

    Rob snorted. "You're welcome."

    Annie bit her lip. She looked well-rested, eyes expressive, face alert. He was glad she had managed to recover some of her strength during the night.

    “You look terrible, Rob,” she said.

    “Thank you.”

    “No, I mean, you look dead tired, and it must be barely afternoon.”

    “How can you tell?”

    She seemed surprised by his question.

    “The colour of the sky. It’s more yellowish in the morning, but it gets progressively darker as the day goes on.”

    Rob looked around. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

    “Maybe you’re colourblind.”

    “I wish, then I could pretend I wasn’t really living this nightmare.”

    She looked at him with curious eyes.

    “There are worse things than a green sky, Rob.”

    “Like what? This desert? Those dark clouds?”

    Annie chewed on her lip, looking up.

    “Maybe those clouds,” she admitted with a small smile.

    Rob had to grin.

    "I'm glad you're here with me Rob,” she said suddenly. “Odd as it sounds."

    I’m glad you’re here with me too.
    But he couldn’t quite force himself to admit it, despite her expecting eyes, and the moment passed.

    “On we go, lads. We’re making good progress, but there’s still some way to go. Let’s carry on while we can.”

    Rob could have shot the ranger right then and there, but he chose to push himself to his feet instead with a grunt.

    “Do you want some help?”

    “I’m fine,” he said.

    “Rob…”

    He looked at her. “Fine, you can carry your sleeping bag.”

    He pretended not to notice when she took hers and his both, and some tins of food for good measure.

    “I don’t agree with you, you know?”

    Rob was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to look at her. He didn’t know how much time they had spent walking quietly side-by-side, nor how much time they had left until they reached their destination. He just knew he wanted to lie down, preferably for a while.

    “It’s not a nightmare,'' she insisted, “the surface. It’s our home. Man wasn’t born to live underground.” She paused. “Man and woman.”

    Rob took time to reply, mostly because he found it hard to conjure up the breath.

    “Man shouldn’t have killed the world then. Man and woman.”

    “You don’t know that they did,” she said.

    “Who else could have?”

    Annie shook her head.

    “You used to love the idea of the outside, before, when we were young.”

    “I was a child.”

    “It’s harsh,” she admitted, “and it’s wild. But it’s our home. We will return here someday Rob, even if you and I aren’t here to see it. I’m sure of it.”

    “The Dome is my home,” Rob said bluntly. “I’m only out here out of duty.”

    She looked at him with some sadness.

    “I think I liked you better before you became a soldier.”

    Rob bit his tongue and focused on walking. If nothing else, Annie could still get a rise out of him, even after all these years.

    ***
    Annie shook him awake.

    “Rob,” she said. “It’s Brace, there’s something wrong with him.”

    Not needing to be prompted a second time, Rob rose to his feet and exited the tent, noticing the ranger was already out there.

    The group had been forced to make camp in the open, at the bottom of a small gorge, having been unable to find a spot to camp underground. Rob had fallen asleep right away, though the others had stayed up to discuss their meeting with the Beakers the next morning. He did not know what time it was, only that it was dark; not yet pitch black, yet dark enough that the tents stood amidst shadows.

    “There's something out here! I can feel it!” Brace shouted. He seemed beside himself, standing beside his tent without a mask, his coat open and his rifle in his hands.

    “Calm yourself, man,” the ranger ordered. “And put on your mask, for God’s sake. Do you want to drown in your own blood?”

    But Brace ignored him, clutching his rifle, finger on the trigger. He looked everywhere around him, as if looking for something, yet failing to find it, face pale, pupils dilated.

    “It’s been following us! I’m sure of it.” It didn’t seem as if he was talking to anyone in particular. “I heard it last night and I’ve seen it just now, looking at us, stalking us, ready to pounce!” He swivelled on his toes, and pointed his rifle towards a pair of rocks. Only shadows answered him.

    The ranger changed his approach, extending both hands in an unthreatening manner,

    “Brace, son, there’s nothing out here.” He took a step forward. “Take a deep breath, try to use your head. How could this creature of yours survive this long without food, or water? How could it have lived alone on the surface all this time? There’s nothing out here, Brace, nothing at all.”

    It seemed to break through to him, and Brace floundered slightly, shuffling his feet, and lowering the muzzle of his gun.

    “Maybe… maybe… it doesn’t feed like we do. Maybe it doesn’t need food. I don’t… I don’t know...”

    “Come now, Brace,” the ranger said. He took another step. “You’re being foolish now. Have you taken your pill?”

    “I’m not mad!” Brace shouted suddenly, waving his rifle, causing Annie to flinch. His eyes caught her movement, and he spied Rob standing by her side. “Ask him!” he said. “Ask him, if you don’t believe me!”

    “Brace,” the ranger said seriously. “Give me your gun.”

    "You've seen it! Don't lie to me!"

    He looked absolutely crazed now, striding towards the pair of them, gun aloft. Annie instinctively stepped behind him, but Rob held his ground, trying his best not to lift his own rifle in return.

    "I saw a shadow, nothing more,” he said calmly.

    Even this was enough for Brace, who staggered backwards as if struck. He put a hand to his face and moaned with pure fear.

    "You see? You see?” He turned back towards the ranger. “We need to go back to the Dome,” he said. “It’s stalking us… it's haunting us…. it will murder us all in our sleep!"

    Everyone was out of their tent now, including the engineer, whose head poked from an open flap, eyes wide.

    “I won’t repeat myself,” the ranger said. “Hand over your gun. Now.”

    But all the ranger’s words did was to remind Brace of the fact that he was carrying a rifle, and that he could use it for leverage.

    “Take us back!” he said, aiming the rifle at the man.

    “Brace, no!” Ed shouted.

    The ranger raised a hand, preventing further outbursts. His other hand was now at his hip, where a pistol holster lay.

    “Lower your weapon, soldier,” he said, eyes grim.

    “I said, take us back!”

    “Lower your weapon. Now!”

    Two shots ran out, in quick succession.

    Perhaps Brace had meant it as a warning shot, perhaps he had missed, but the ranger had done neither. Even as dust rose around the ranger’s feet, Brace staggered, a hand to his chest. His coat darkened with blood and, with a short gasp, he thudded to his back.

    Rob remained rooted to his spot. Everyone else did as well, shocked still, save for the ranger, who knelt by Brace’s body. The man was still warbling something, blood filling his mouth, but at last he shuddered, and moved no more.

    Annie covered her face, and looked away, but Rob’s eyes were fixed on those dark soulless eyes, staring right through him and towards the distance, towards that darkness that had driven him mad.

    “The Beakers will have heard that,” the ranger finally said, closing Brace’s eyes. “If they didn’t know we were here already, they do now. We’ll set up a watch, just in case they try anything funny. Ed, you take the first one. Flin, help me carry Brace’s body out of sight.” He turned to Rob. “You. Stay behind for a moment.”

    Rob watched them drag the body away, as Ed found himself a comfortable spot to keep watch, or as comfortable as he could make it. Fires weren’t allowed on the surface; some component in the atmosphere made flames unpredictable, and every nightfire risked the possibility of singing your eyebrows at best, or setting the whole camp on fire at worst. Rob did not look forward to his shift.

    “So, what’s this about seeing shadows?” the ranger asked, once he had finished with his task.

    Annie stood loyally by his side, though she still looked shaken by what had happened. Rob appreciated the gesture, although at that moment he would have preferred if she had gone back inside the tent.

    “I woke up to a sound last night,” he confessed. “It was Brace, he was out and about, talking about hearing things.He didn’t have his mask on, but I didn’t... I didn’t consider that...”

    “It’s surface fever, son,” the ranger said. “No point beating yourself over about it. Could have happened to anyone.”

    Rob nodded, finding it hard to swallow.

    The ranger patted his shoulder. “Get some rest, Rob. You’ll need it.”

    Rob nodded again, and turned to his tent, ignoring Annie’s sympathetic look.

    “Oh, and next time you see something strange, you come straight to me. Understand?”

    “Yes, sir,” Rob said.

    The ranger walked away from him and towards Brace’s tent. The engineer was still looking through its flap, face slightly green.

    “Richard, I think it's best if you sleep in my tent tonight,” Rob heard him say, before he entered his own tent.

    Despite it all, Rob slept through the night.

    ***​

    Rob had been a small child, barely more than a baby, when the habitants of the Dome had first come across the Beakers, though at that time they had been called something different. And yet, despite his young age, he remembered it perfectly. How the news had spread all around, how no one could talk of anything else for days, adult or children, and how, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, all restrictions and obligations had been lifted, and for the first time in Rob’s life, the Dome had celebrated a holiday. Rob remembered it as if it was yesterday; the joyous mood, the extra rations (and his first taste of sugar), the spontaneous parade around the lift, and how, for a few days at least, the rangers of the Dome became heroes, loved and admired by all.

    Rob shuffled on his feet, observing the interaction between the ranger and what must have been a Beaker chieftain. The Beakers did not speak English, not in any sort of recognisable manner anyways. They might have, upon a time, but their garbled and monosyllabic speech did not resemble any language Rob could understand. Still, either the man did, or he made do with signs and gestures.

    They stood at the top of a ridge, overlooking the Beaker’s Nest. Far closer to the surface than the Dome, the top of the structure, which in the past might have been some sort of shelter, or perhaps the underbelly of one of the steel cities of old, could be seen from the surface. A concave roof made of rusted metal, half covered by dust and sand, and looking about to collapse at any moment.

    “No,” the ranger said. “Inside.” He gestured to the Nest. “We need a place inside. Not out here.”

    The Beaker stomped his feet rather petulantly and Rob sighed.

    For a time, the discovery of the Beakers had set a fire underneath everyone’s toes; everyone wanted to help, everyone wanted to volunteer, for whatever needed to be done, inside or out. It was as if the gates of the future had been flung wide open, and there was hope of life on the surface once more. That hope however, like all others, began to flounder as more and more details poured through. The Beakers led a sorry existence, and not one anyone would wish for themselves.

    Hardly taller than children, with reddened and postulated skin, broken fingernails and too-large feet, the Beakers were clothed in their traditional gear, a ragged and tattered robe, dyed red, as well as their elongated gas mask, by far their most recognisable feature. It was a crude thing, made of something which resembled leather, with large eyecups, which hideously distorted the eyes underneath, and a large steel filter, in the shape of a snout.

    There were five of them in total, four of which held themselves at a respectable distance, pointed sticks held menacingly above their heads. The fifth, the chieftain, however, seemed happy with the negotiations, for he made a strange noise, and set off down the hill, motioning the group to follow them.

    “On we go, lads,” the ranger said, and then, more quietly, “stay on your toes.”

    Many in the Dome no longer considered the Beakers to be human, and, as he followed them, Rob could not find it in himself to disagree.

    The entrance of the Nest itself was little more than a hole in the ground, the mouth of a tunnel which twisted and wavered until delivering them into a large structure, a cathedral of decaying stone and steel, and from which one could still see the outside. There were more Beakers there, looking at them curiously, as well as some strange red vines crawling up the walls.

    “It's huge,” Annie breathed. “It’s much different from what I had thought.”

    Her words seemed to rouse particular interest from the Beakers, and Rob moved slightly closer to her, just in case.

    “Perhaps save it for when we’re alone,” he whispered, although Annie didn’t seem to hear him.

    Their guide led them ever deeper, through a dug-up mine lit up by red lanterns, small enough most had to duck, and delivered them into a small room, little more than a hole in the wall, where he motioned them to sit and promptly left them on their own.

    “What now?” Ed asked.

    “Now we unpack," the ranger said. "Unless I'm mistaken, this is the room they have given us to use. We'll rest here tonight and head back in the morning. In the meanwhile, we’ll make sure everything's stocked up for when the next expedition arrives."

    "What guarantees do we have that they won't steal our supplies the moment we leave?" Flin asked.

    Rob thought it a valid concern, but the ranger waved it off.

    “There’s little guarantee out here of anything, if it helps however, I’m confident they’ll keep to their word.”

    They unpacked, lining up the spare supplies against the uneven wall, and even began to set up their tents, for they doubted the Beakers were planning on offering them beds for the night. Rob was just finishing setting up his, when another Beaker entered the room, maybe a different one, maybe the same from before, and motioned to the ranger and then to the earth, mimicking digging it up.

    “What? Do they want us to dig up a tunnel?”

    “Shut up Ed,” the ranger said. “They want us to set up the crops. Richard?”

    “Yeah,” the engineer said. “I’ll go.”

    “I’ll come with,” Annie offered.

    “No need,” the engineer said. “Besides, I don’t like the way they were looking at you.”

    If Rob was surprised at his reasoning, he was even more surprised at the meekness with which Annie accepted it.

    “Take Rob with you instead,” the ranger said. “We'll be waiting here.”

    Rob picked up the boxes as he was told, and then trailed the engineer, himself following the unnamed Beaker.

    “Can we take off our masks down here?” he heard Ed ask, as they were leaving.

    “Do you see the Beakers taking off theirs?”

    “No.”

    “Then I suggest you do likewise.”

    ***​

    “It looks more like a chapel than a greenhouse,” Rob commented, as they entered the small, rectangular room, carved out of stone.

    “I don’t imagine our hosts see any difference between the two.”

    Rob supposed the engineer was right, and yet he could not shake off the feeling that the space they had entered was one of worship. Two long rectangular pots filled with dirt lined at opposite sides of the room, illuminated by a series of flickering lanterns, clearly intended for gardening, or what passed for such down here. At the center of it, however, three steps led to a raised aisle, where a delicately carved altar stood. There were a few objects scattered on top of it, including a few wax candles, a Beaker’s gas mask, a large black needle, and a scattering of rings lined with glinting stones. What really caught Rob’s attention, however, was a small golden ball, with twin faded silver wings etched on each side. It looked ancient, and yet there was little dust or damage to it.

    Rob took two steps towards the aisle. It almost seemed, beneath the flickering light of the candles, as if the two silver wings were moving, ever so slightly. Fascinated, Rob inched forward, extending his hand towards it, almost despite himself...

    “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you. It’s a relic from their Gods. They wouldn't take too kindly to you touching it.”

    The engineer’s words broke the spell. Rob turned towards him.

    “Gods? As in plural?”

    “Quite,” the man said, as he began to retrieve his materials from the twin black boxes. “They call them the ‘wise ones’, or the ‘powerful ones’, or ‘those-who-dwell-under the sun’, in their tongue. According to their myth, these wise people came to them during the apocalypse and led them to safety, leaving behind the relic so they could be found again should the need arise.” He looked up at Rob with a sardonic smile. “They mistook us for those ‘wise ones’, the first time they came across one of our expeditions, you know. I doubt the meeting would have gone so well otherwise.”

    He frowned suddenly, realising he was on his knees, hands deep in fertiliser, whilst Rob merely looked on. “Are you just going to stand here?”

    Rob apologised, kneeling down to help him. “You’ve been here before, then?” Rob asked. “Uh, sir.”

    “No, I’ve studied them quite extensively, however. Their home, their language, their customs. It’s part of the reason why I decided to come. The Beakers are quite interesting in their own right.”

    “Why's that?”

    The engineer looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “Well, for one, it should be almost impossible for anyone to live here, so close to the surface, even with their mutations.” He snorted. “Who knows. Perhaps there’s something to their legends, after all. So much was lost during the blackout, who can even tell what’s true or not nowadays.”

    They worked in silence after that. Rob mulled over his words, as he helped as best he could, and tried his best not to steal a look at the little golden ball.

    “That should be that, then,” the engineer said, wiping his gloves on his trousers.

    It didn’t look any different to Rob, except for the fact that the soil looked darker, and less dusty.

    “Will something really grow there?” he asked.

    “Yes,” the engineer said with some irritation. “It won’t last, not without a sophisticated hydroponics system, but it will do the job.”

    They turned towards their quarters, but a Beaker interrupted them mid-way, motioning at them to follow. He led them to the large space they had crossed when they had first entered the Nest, and to what could only be described as a party. A small bonfire had been lit, and some Beakers played at who could get closest without being burnt, which, given the unpredictability of the flames, was not all that close at all. Others preferred to sit on their toes, passing around some strange yellow meat, which did not look all that appetizing. None had removed their masks though, and Rob had to wonder how they even fed themselves.

    He saw Annie sitting next to Flin and the ranger, at a healthy distance from the fire, and made to join them. Ed was standing off to one side, hood down and coat open, trying to hold five bullets in the air at the same time, although the Beakers around him seemed far more fascinated with his red hair, than with his juggling prowess.

    “Ed seems to be having fun,” Rob said to Annie, as a greeting.

    She laughed, and Rob noticed the slight colouring of her cheeks.

    “Have you been drinking?”

    “The ranger is passing a bottle around,” she said. “To commemorate the success of our mission. Here.”

    She took the flask from the ranger’s hands without asking and handed it to Rob. He pulled off his mask, quickly, and took a swig. It tasted foul.

    He said as much, and Annie laughed again. Her laughter drew the Beaker’s interest once more, this time in a far more pronounced manner. A tall Beaker, tall for its kind anyway, went so far as to dance in front of her, his intentions quite clear. Annie smiled in amusement, though her hand found Rob’s, and squeezed it.

    “I’m going to sleep,” Flin said suddenly. “I don’t feel so well.”

    Rob felt similarly. His mind was swimming, and he regretted the drink.

    “Maybe we should all go,” Annie suggested.

    “It’s some sort of celebration,” the engineer said. “Likely in our honor. To leave now risks offending them.”

    “Rob, go with Flin,” the ranger ordered. “We’ll stay behind for a while, rejoin you when we can.”

    Rob wanted to argue, but truth be told he wasn’t really doing all that well. Not all that well at all.

    “Keep an eye on her, sir,” he slurred. He motioned towards Annie rather redundantly, and turned to follow Flin.

    He lost track of him almost at once, finding it hard to even walk straight. He had to sit down briefly against one of the tunnel walls, and, before he was even aware of it, he was puking his guts out, mask in hand. He looked at it, disoriented. Where was he? Why was he holding a mask?

    “You ok, son?”

    It was the ranger, walking down the tunnels.

    “What are you doing out here?” the man asked, helping Rob to his feet. “I thought you had gone with Flin.”

    “I… I thought so too…”

    The ranger chuckled. “Here, let me help you.”

    He half dragged, half carried Rob towards their room, depositing him against one of the tents, while Rob tried desperately to remember the details of his situation.

    “Well, at least Flin’s in his tent,” the ranger said. He crouched down in front of Rob. “Feel better?”

    “A bit,” Rob said. He shuddered. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what happened.”

    “It’s quite alright. Your gun?”

    “With me,” Rob said, patting the rifle by his side.

    “Good lad,” the ranger said. “You have nothing to worry about, then. You just had too much to drink. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

    Rob nodded. Then he heard it, a faint scream.

    “What was that?”

    The ranger looked him in the eye. “What was what?”

    Rob pushed himself to his feet with the butt of his rifle. “That scream… There it is again! Didn’t you hear it?”

    But the ranger did not answer. He just stared at him, face grim.

    Rob’s eyes widened with horror. “Annie!” he breathed.

    A pair of hands on his shoulders prevented him from leaving.

    “Easy son,” the ranger said. “Take it easy.”

    Rob shook himself free with the strength of a wounded animal.

    “Get off me!”

    But the ranger would not budge, standing resolutely in front of him .

    "Let it go, son."

    Rob exhaled, incredulous. "What do you mean let it go? What’s wrong with you?"

    "The Beakers wanted something more than crops. It had to be done. For the good of the Dome."

    It shook Rob still. He stared at the man with a dumb incomprehension. Then he heard Annie scream again.

    “Get out of my fucking way,” he said, pointing the muzzle of his rifle at the man’s chest.

    The ranger narrowed his eyes. “Lower your weapon, soldier. Now.”

    “Get out of the way,” Rob warned. “I won't ask again.”

    The ranger’s hand went to his hip. Rob shot him dead.

    He ran towards the chapel, ears ringing, and still slightly dazed from whatever the ranger had put in his drink. Instinct told him that’s where he would find her though, and his instinct proved right. She knelt at the foot of the altar, held there by a handful of Beakers. Another Beaker stood in front of her, holding one of their crude gas masks in one hand, and the large black needle in the other, both raised above his head. Rob realised with a start why the Beakers never took their mask off; the damned thing was sewn into their faces.

    He fired his rifle into the air. His bullets ricocheted against the stone ceiling, but it did the trick. The Beakers dispersed, and Rob made use of the butt of his rifle to shove his way through the fleeing crowd.

    “Annie! Are you alright?”

    “Rob?”

    She seemed fine, if stunned. He helped her to her feet, but a Beaker used the chance to sneak behind him and strike the back of his knees.

    It was a paltry blow, but it made him lose his footing. Rob stumbled and fell backwards, hitting the back of his head on the edge of the altar. His vision exploded into white and black spots, and he was suddenly on his back. A bright spot seemed to flutter bothersomely above his eyes, and he stretched out his arm to swat it away. Something fell into his hand, and he looked down to see the little golden ball click open, revealing a small compass.

    “Wha –”

    “Hurry, Rob,” Annie dragged him to his feet. The room spun underneath his feet and he held onto her for dear life. “Come on, Rob. We have to leave,” she insisted.

    It broke through to him, somewhat, and he lurched forwards, using her shoulders as support as they fled towards their quarters.

    The ranger’s body was lying in a pool of blood when they arrived, though the room held a new occupant now.

    “What have you done, you fool,” the engineer said. His face was white with fear. “You’ve killed us all.”

    Rob grabbed him by the cuff of his coat and slammed him against the wall.

    “Did you know?” he growled. “Did you know?”

    Annie tugged on his sleeve. “Rob, don’t!” But her pleas only made him angrier. “Please… we don’t have time for this, we have to go.”

    Rob breathed through his nose and shoved the engineer away. “Pack your things, Annie,” he said, “and enough supplies for at least three days.”

    “They’ll hunt you down.” The engineer slumped down against the wall, defeated. “They know the surroundings much better than us.”

    “That’s why we're not going home,” Rob said. “We’re going north. To this new Dome.”

    “You’re a fool.” The engineer shook his head. “There’s no guarantee there’s anyone alive anymore, if it's even there to begin with.”

    “Come with us,” Annie said. “They’ll kill you if you stay here.”

    “I speak some of their language. I will stay here and plead my case.”

    “Whatever,” Rob said. “Let him do what he wants.”

    He took his bag and rummaged through the ranger’s clothes for his map and his compass.

    “Here,” he said to Annie. “Take this pistol. If any Beaker tries to stop us, shoot him.”

    But no Beakers met their escape, and they fled the Nest, making towards the hills as nightfall chased their heels.

    ***
    “Rob, I can’t go on any further.”

    “Just a little bit longer,” he insisted.

    They were far too close to the Nest still, though night had come and swept their vision along with the day, and they could no longer spot the hills surrounding it. Only the beams of their torchlights showed their way now, though even these were swallowed a few steps ahed of them, turning their journey dark and perilous.

    “I’m freezing,” Annie said. She had trouble forming the words due to her shivers. “ I don’t think I can walk another step.”

    “Alright,” Rob said, “alright. But we need to find a spot, a cave or a tunnel, or something like that. We can’t stay on the surface.”

    Annie merely stumbled on her feet, and Rob cursed, catching her before she fell. She had drunk from the flask too, he recalled.

    Rob looked towards the sky. He couldn’t hear a thing, but he knew very well that those dark rolling clouds would be up there still. He shuddered, but he was under no delusions that he could carry her. They would have to make camp in the open.

    “Annie,” he said, shaking her slightly. “Annie, stay with me. Don’t fall asleep, not yet.”

    He forced her to eat something, as he set up the tent, and then did his best to rub some warmth back into her arms and shoulders.

    “You have to be ready,” he warned. “In case they come. You have to be ready to run.”

    He tried to stay awake, as she slept, and vigilant, not only for the Beakers, but in case of a storm. They came without warning. That’s what made them so dangerous. The rain in an otherwise dry wasteland, the forked green lighting, the wind that blew with such howling fury it remade the world.

    Morning came, with Rob having fallen asleep despite his best efforts, but the new light brought with it a clarity of their situation the two had lacked the previous night.

    “How far is it?” Annie asked.

    “Three days, at best. More if we get lost.”

    “And will we?”

    “I know how to read a map.”

    But Rob could not convince even himself. He knew how to read a map well enough, true and with a compass it wouldn’t prove too hard to triangulate, given their position and the direction they were going. The only issue was, they could not know what would await them at their destination. If the new Dome was empty, if it didn’t exist at all… they wouldn’t have enough water to make it back home.

    Annie was thinking the same thing, but couldn’t bring herself to say it, given her expression. He couldn’t either.

    “We’ll make it,” she finally said. “I know we will.”

    The first day tested their endurance, if not their conviction, but their good pace throughout and the lack of pursuers instilled in Rob a slight optimism. If nothing else, their gamble had paid off, and if any Beakers had bothered to give chase, they had gone the opposite way. Rob thought briefly of Flin, and Ed, and a part of him was glad he hadn’t known them well. Another part confronted him with the thought that he had left them both there to die. Annie, no doubt assaulted by her own considerations, stayed quiet throughout the night.

    The second day, they came upon some ruins, little more than a graveyard of dust and metal. Still, that anything remained at all was quite impressive. No one in the Dome had been alive when the world had gone to hell. Rob doubted any truly knew what had happened. What they did know, however, was that what little remained on it– ground up by the elements, rotted by time – held no value to them now. The sight shook Annie out of her quiet stupor, and some part of her curious nature resurfaced, but still she kept her words sparse, and her thoughts quiet. That night, they made camp in the open.

    By the fourth day, they realised they were lost. Or, more likely, they were in the right spot, but the bunker was not there. Annie would not countenance the possibility however, and she forced him into a search of the surroundings, despite his words about rationing their efforts. Water was running scarce, and they could ill afford to waste it in pointless searches.

    On the fifth day, the storm came.

    It rolled in without warning, as Rob knew it would. They had spent all day searching for the bunker, until they’d given up and made camp at the bottom of a hill. Rob hadn’t bothered to search a spot underground to hide during the night. There seemed little point to it, given their situation.

    He was chewing on his food slowly, trying to extract as much moisture as he could from it before spitting it back out, when a green flash from outside blinded him. His warning was drowned out by a deafening sound, like a thousand landslides all at once. By the time he poked his head out of the tent, the wind was already molding it to its will.

    “Annie! We have to get out!”

    But she couldn’t hear him, and so he dragged her out instead. Without their weight to support it, the wind picked the tent up and threw it up in the air, as if a toddler petulantly chucking a toy he was not pleased by. They ran towards the hill and threw themselves against it, hoping it might prove some sort of shelter to the storm that was bearing down on them.

    Once outside the lighting was almost blinding in its intensity and it sbrightness, and the thunder came so quickly and so loudly after that for a moment Rob thought they were dead, and the drums of hell had been roused to welcome them into the afterlife.

    But they were alive, and he realised it when the skies opened, and it began to pour, the rain worming though his coat to soak at his underclothes.

    “It’s… it’s raining,” Annie said, with a horrified fascination.

    “Don’t let it… don’t let it touch your skin,” Rob breathed. He was sure he had not been heard.

    What could they do? Trying to hold on against that ferocious wind which threatened at any moment to pick them up and throw them around like their tent, they witnessed the world unravel and the storm devolve into increasing ferocity. Lighting fell around them, as if a capricious God was testing his aim with their soaked and cowering bodies.

    Rob dug into the rock now, scratching with torn gloves and bloodied fingers, desperately trying to find a grip to hold onto as dust and pebbles struck at him, dislodged from the hill by the force of the wind and the acid rain.

    Was Annie by his side anymore? Had she been taken by the storm, and away from him? Rob couldn’t tell. He couldn’t make himself heard either.

    “Annie! Annie!”

    But his shouts were drowned by the wind’s roar, and he couldn’t see anything, half blinded by the flashes of the storm and the heavy rain.

    “Oh, please God, Annie!”

    Then he heard it, a clear Ding! to his left, ringing out above the roar of the storm. He turned incredulous eyes to the twin grey doors of the lift.

    “Rob!” Annie shook him. She was by his side, she had always been by his side.

    They ran towards the lift, as the storm renewed once more, trying to pull them back into its jaws, and managed to clear those doors, throwing themselves at them to close them again. They heard the storm roar, just outside, as if angered by the escape of its victims.

    “Rob…” Annie whispered.

    Rob let out a shaky breath. “I know.”

    “Rob,” she said once more. She slumped against the floor. Only her uneven breathing told her she was still conscious.

    Rob pushed on the lever, and the lift descended.

    ***​

    The minute it took them to descend all the way down was possibly the strangest of Rob’s life. He couldn’t bring himself to think much about anything, to come up with a story, or an excuse, or any reason the people of this new Dome should take them in. He didn’t have to, in any case, for no guns met them at the bottom, only darkness.

    “Do you have your torch?” Rob asked. “I lost mine in the storm.”
    Annie was still slightly out of it, but she produced one out of her coat pocket.

    Rob took it, and switched it on.

    It was empty, of people, of bodies, of rats. It was simply empty.

    Rob pointed the light to his feet, and then to the ceiling. They stood on a familiar looking platform, underneath a familiar looking dome of concrete and steel. But the familiarity was superficial. The Dome back home had never been this quiet.

    “It’s empty,” he said, rather redundantly. “There’s nobody here.”

    Annie’s pale face shone underneath the torchlight. Her clothes were wet, and so was her hair, but she seemed otherwise unharmed.

    “What do you think happened?” she asked.

    “Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe they all left at the same time… or maybe no one made it down here to begin with.”

    Annie looked at him. “What do we do now?”

    The light from the torch flickered, and Rob gave it a smack to keep it from dying out.

    “You tell me,” he said. “You’re the engineer’s assistant. Is there some way to get the power on? The water filters running?”

    “There must be… maybe an emergency function…” Her tone was worried. “But Rob, if it's never been operational, if no one’s ever lived here before, there’s no guarantee that it will –”

    “Then we can start worrying about it,” he cut in gently. “Here, you take it.” He handed her the torchlight back. “Just try your best. If it doesn’t work, we can always light up a fire, or wait for the Dome’s engineers to arrive. Although I doubt they would be happy to meet us here.”

    His levity did not achieve its intended effect, but at least it got Annie going. She took his hand and led him deeper into the bunker complex, to parts he had never seen before, and past rooms whose contents looked almost fantastical. Rob kept his curiosity under wraps however, realising that the moment did not call for it.

    “This is the control room,” she said. The room was large, and dominated by a circular table surrounded by a bevy of something that resembled mirrors. “OhmyGod,” she breathed.

    “What?”

    “Computers,” she said. “Maybe these still work.”

    Rob scratched his head. “What’s a computer?”

    Annie ignored him. “We shouldn’t touch anything,” she said.

    “What?”

    “You don’t understand, Rob.” Her eyes were strange, her breathing rushed. “If we can get them working again, if they haven’t been wiped… all of humanity’s knowledge, all that we lost...”

    Rob shook his head.

    “Forget about humanity, Annie, you’re drenched and so am I. Even if we don’t consider the fact that it's acid rain in your hair and clothes, or minor inconveniences like food, or water, we still need to find a way to warm ourselves up, or we’re both going to freeze to death. Look at you, your lips are turning blue.”

    She battled with his words for a moment.

    “You’re right,” she said. “You’re right. Let me just…”

    She fiddled with things for quite some time, even set him chasing through the drawers for some sort of instruction manuals. Something she eventually did turned out to be right, for a dull thrum started to pick up, and the room was suddenly inundated by red emergency lights, as well as a set of beeping sounds.

    “Well, would you look at that,” Rob said with a small laugh. “We might make it, after all.”

    Annie suddenly threw her arms around him, driving the breath from his lungs.

    “Thank you Rob,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

    Rob gingerly returned the hug. “It's alright,” he said, somewhat awkwardly. “We’re ok, we’re fine.”

    “You were right,” Annie said, voice muffled by his chest. “I should have never left the Dome. I should have never agreed to go to the surface. It’s been worse than a nightmare.”

    “Well,” Rob said lamely. “Not everything, we still found this bunker, and if those comprooters work as you said... ”

    She looked up at him, laughing softly, and Rob’s words died in his mouth.

    “What?” he forced himself to say. “What’s so funny?”

    She shook her head, wiping her tears with the back of her hands.

    “Nothing. We need to find some food, and then wash our clothes. Can you check the canteen? I’m going to find a room to rest and shower in. Meet me over at the engineer’s quarters.”

    Rob did so, finding a few jars of honey and some broth cubes which he considered safe enough to eat, and guided himself back with the sound of running water. He was led into a small room, much like his uncle’s back at home, to find a bunk bed and the door to the bathroom wide open.

    He paused at the sight, quietly observing the little billows of steam escape the room. His mind raced, though it could not rival the sudden quickening of his heart. Did Annie want him to join her? Is that why she had left the door open? He stared at the pile of clothes bunched up at the foot of the door and swallowed.

    The shower cut off, before he could come to a decision, and Rob hurriedly stepped outside the room, making it look as if he had just arrived.

    “Hey,” he said. “I found something to eat.”

    She stepped out of the bathroom, covered only by some blankets she must have found. Rob tried not to look at her figure.

    “Great! You should take a shower too. The water is warm. And you stink,” she added playfully.

    He took a moment too long to answer.

    “Here?”

    She cocked her head. “Where else?”

    “I thought I might give you some privacy.”

    Annie shivered slightly, bringing her blanket closer around her body. “I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t want to sleep on my own either,” she said.

    Rob’s mouth went dry.

    “You can take the top bunk,” she added.

    Annie must have seen something on his expression, because she smiled, and then kissed his cheek.

    “Take a shower, Rob. I’ll wait for you here.”

    On the flipside, Rob reflected, as hot water ran down his back, Annie had returned to her normal self.

    ***​

    “We need to figure out what to do,” Annie said. They sat across each other, on the canteen table, eating what passed for as breakfast.

    “What is there to figure out? We can’t hold out here forever. We need to go back to the Dome; our Dome, I mean. Home.”

    Annie set her jaw. “I’m not going back. You can’t force me to.”

    “I don’t mean the Beakers, Annie, Christ. I mean to the Dome. Our only chance is to make our case to my uncle Samuel. We should be able to find enough supplies for a single trip back.”

    But Annie would not see to reason. “Your uncle Samuel is not God,” she said. “You’ll be shot, and I’ll be taken straight to the Beakers again. I’m not going back.”

    Rob tried to keep his cool, though he could not keep his tone from rising.

    “Fine then, what’s your alternative? Hole up here forever? Wait until the Dome’s expedition arrives? The same thing will happen, only my uncle won’t be there to stop it.”

    Annie looked at him with incredulity. “Are you serious? Did you hit your head on the shower last night?”

    Colour rose up Rob’s cheeks.

    “Annie,” he warned.

    She ignored him, removing a little golden ball from her pockets, to place it on the table. It was the relic from the Nest; which Rob had retrieved all those days ago. Half open, the little golden compass still persisted in pointing somewhere up north.

    “Have you forgotten about this already?”.

    He had, but he did not want to admit it. “Where did you get that?”

    “I went through your clothes as you slept this morning.”

    Rob put his face between his hands, and silently counted to ten. “And why would you do that,” he said, in between gritted teeth.

    “To wash them, of course. Why else?”

    Rob looked up with surprise. “You did?”

    “You didn’t notice?”

    “I - er, well…”

    “Unbelievable,” she huffed. Then she ran her fingers through her hair.

    “Listen, Rob. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s something up there, something this compass is pointing at, I’m sure of it.”

    “You’re right, it does sound crazy,” he replied.

    “I saw what I saw,” she said stubbornly. “And I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was almost like…” She bit her lip. “It wasn’t old world science Rob, that’s for sure. I know it’s hard to believe, but maybe... maybe the stories were true. Maybe the compass can lead us to where these ‘wise ones’ live, or used to live, anyways. Maybe it can lead us to safety.”

    Rob shook his head. “You said so, last night. There’s no safety out here, our only hope is the Dome. How did you know about the Beakers’ legends anyways?”

    Annie leaned back slightly. “Edward told me about it.”

    “Edward, who’s Edward?”

    “My – um, engineer,” she corrected lamely.

    Rob felt his rather sour mood plummet even further.

    “The engineer who sold you to the Beakers?” he said with some bite. “That one?”

    He regretted it almost immediately, as soon as he saw the hurt in her eyes.

    “I’m sorry, but it’s insane,” he said after a slightly awkward pause. “This plan of yours. It’s just a compass, Annie. A pretty, golden compass, but that’s it. It points north, just like any other.”

    Annie retrieved something else from her pocket. “Here’s your ‘any other’,” she snapped, pointing at the ranger’s compass they had used to get here. “See any difference between the two?”

    And indeed there was, for while both should have been pointing north, they were actually pointed in different directions.

    Rob swallowed quietly. “It must be broken then,” he said. “That must be it.”

    Annie almost threw up her hands in exasperation. “Why are you so opposed to this? Can you not see that there’s something clearly going on here, something more than meets the eye?”

    “You’re asking me why I’m opposed to setting off to an unknown destination, an unknown number of days away, and guided only by a broken compass,” he enumerated with three fingers. “And you’re wondering why I refuse?”

    “I love you, Rob,” she said seriously. “But if you make me go back, I will never forgive you.”

    It disarmed him completely. They spent a few moments then, just sitting there in silence as Rob tried desperately to find the right words, underneath her careful eyes.

    “I didn’t know...” he began. “Well, I hadn’t imagined… after all this time...” He trailed off, unsure.

    “Always,” Annie said simply. “Ever since we were kids.”

    He tried to say it then. I love you too. He’d just realised it, but it was true. He’d go to the end of the world and back for her as well, if she asked him to, compass or no. He had only to say it.

    But he couldn’t, much as he tried, his mouth opened and closed, but no sounds would come out.

    “Oh, Rob,” she said. “You don’t have to say anything. Besides, it’s written all over your face.”

    She made to stand, maybe even to leave, but it just wouldn’t do.

    “I love you,” Rob said, it came out in an explosive breath, and he had to say it again. “I love you. I’m sorry it took me such a long time.” He grabbed hold of her hands. “And I’m not letting you go off alone. We’ll go together, on this mad adventure of yours. ” He thought about something, and had to laugh. “And yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.”

    Annie laughed, Annie cried, and then they kissed, and Rob knew everything would be alright.

    — Epilogue —

    “It looks like a crater,” Annie said.

    “No, it’s not a crater. It’s a dried up lake,” Rob replied. He wiped his mask with the back of his glove. “You can see the marks.”

    Annie turned around. “Is this it, then?”

    The golden compass spun madly in Rob’s hand, pointing in every direction, and nowhere at all.

    “Seems like it,” he said.

    Annie sighed. “Doesn’t seem like much.”

    They stood below what once might have been some grand old structure, but was little more than a memory now. Only a few stone foundations remained, amidst the barren ground and the frozen wasteland.

    “No,” he said. “I don’t suppose it does.”

    They stood there, quietly taking in the sight.

    “We should head back,” Rob said, finally. “Come, Annie.” He took her hand. “There’s no point sticking around.”

    There was a sharp intake of breath.

    “Rob,” she said. “Turn around.”

    He did, and the golden compass fell from his hands.
     
  2. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter ⭐⭐

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  3. haphnepls

    haphnepls Seventh Year

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    I'll begin with: I've no idea what's going on and in the light of that take all my comments with a narrowed eye. Still, I'll work with what I do know. I've never read Treasure Island.

    This is quite ambitious one.

    Now, I've no idea if you have read the same Harry Potter as I did, but besides the low possibility that they've arrived at Hogwarts at the end I'm not familiar with anything else. The post-whateverhappened-world is surprisingly well fleshed-out and exposition is as well done as it can be in this scope.

    My main problem is that this sounds more like the beginning of the story than the one on its own. The ambiguity leads nowhere really, except the new newfound - actually oldfound - love. I saw it coming, heh, and it made my romantic heart cheer for them. The point, though, is that this epilogue of yours isn't really a conclusion as journey for the sake of the journey don't have all the parts to actually be a story. As I said, a part of one at the very best.

    Then, the compass I know only from the Pirates from the Caribbean. That made me even more confused - especially since I was looking for HP themes all the way through this. That, in turn, made me less observant to the actual details of the story of the unknown world. Aftermath as the topic is pretty clear in its existence but aftermath of what, is unknown. And as the characters introduced and world built are also unknown, it all reeks of blind writing. I don't have problems with it, but I have problem with reading something I don't know what it is.

    So I feel a bit skammed. I guess that isn't your fault. (Although I still blame you for it.)

    The writing was good, the dialogue engaging for the most part, with some redundancies with rando soldier and rando engineer I didn't care any about. The protagonist himself is a bit of douche, and you tried to make him more likeable as this went on, but I don't dig it. Subjective, I know, but it is what it is.

    You can't have everyone like your writing.

    I just kept waiting for something that never came, so, as far as the satisfaction goes, as far as I'm concerned, it wasn't achieved.
     
  4. BTT

    BTT Viol̀e͜n̛t͝ D̶e͡li͡g҉h̛t҉s̀ ~ Prestige ~

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    In all honesty I don't think I can rate this as it deserves.

    You've genuinely spun a really good tale of post-apocalyptic wasteland/underground living, made it feel thought-out and given it a good pace, excellent technical writing and even a largely satisfying conclusion. It's long but doesn't feel too long and I can't understate how hard that is to achieve.

    But. It's barely a HP fic.

    There are two elements - extremely understated elements at that - which feature in this story that originate from HP. First is the Snitch; second is what we can only assume is Hogwarts, the state of which we're unaware. If we were, for instance, to replace the Snitch with a Pokeball or Hogwarts with Camelot it'd have achieved the exact same effect.

    This should be its own story. I genuinely think you could get it published with minor rewrites in some short story collection - about the only thing I can think of that you'd need is finding some other reason why the Beakers survived and something different for the conclusion and you'd have a perfectly serviceable original story. That's praise, but that's also this story's downfall: it's just not HP, and this is a HP contest. You hit a homerun while everyone else is playing basketball.

    So yeah. On its own merits, a very much earned 4.5/5, but considering the context I genuinely don't think I can rate this.
     
  5. Mr. Mixed Bag

    Mr. Mixed Bag Sixth Year

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    First off, I really liked this one. The world is well developed, the characters are solid (though maybe not always the most interesting I’ve seen), and the real selling point, the dystopian setting, thrives. The fact that the mechanical aspects of the writing are nearly unanimously excellent is only a cherry on top.

    The main criticism, really, is that it isn’t much of a Harry Potter fanfiction. But I’m going to be completely honest here, I don’t care.

    There are scattered references to the wizarding world (only two or three, but they’re still present), and for me that’s enough. You have a captivating story that grasps interest while being about as aftermath-y as it gets. What’s important is having some sort of connection, which you do, and telling a good story, which damn do you do.

    One nitpick. There are some areas around the center that could do with some more proofreading, a few simple grammatical errors and badly designed sentences. I really wanted to be more specific about this, cite the spots, but for the life of me I can’t seem to find them right now. They’re minor though, and only really stand out because there are so few grammatical errors in the story as a whole.

    The other issue, which I assume traces back to this being a short story competition, is that the ending isn’t really an ending. What’s set up as the final destination, the other Dome, ends up relegated to a brief pitstop, taking what’s been built up as a massive moment for the story and relegating to relative inconsequence out of left field. It feels like you tack on a quest extension last second that hasn’t really been built up before. Something about it just leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.


    Needs to be said though, I’m a fan of the ambiguity of the epilogue. I assume their being unable to see the castle implies the wards are still active around Hogwarts, hinting something is still there, before confirming it with their reactions, but all without actually shading in the details. I can never get enough of ‘up in the air’ endings, so I loved that.
     
  6. WierdFoodStuff

    WierdFoodStuff Sixth Year

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    This story is amazing, I can actually think of only one bad thing to say about it, I will get to that in a second.
    I was on board when it didn't have any hint of HP. It's just a great post apocalyptic story, mixing together some usual tropes of the genre in a masterful blend.
    The dialogue is good, the pacing is great, the foreshadowing beautiful.
    5/5
    I will nitpick a little and say that you should have played either the Hogwarts or the snitch aspect of the story more, maybe have the snitch react to Rob's presence, have it flutter and fly a bit.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2021
  7. cucio

    cucio Groundskeeper

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    I may be mistaken here, but this looks like a repurposed story, or perhaps a fragment of one, with a couple of HP bumper stickers awkwardly slapped on afterwards to suit the competition's theme. Besides snitch and Hogwarts, there's uncle Sam hinting of Rob displaying accidental magic as a child (which somehow (?) qualifies him for a mission to meet the Morlocks Beakers). Perhaps the Beakers' fascination with Ed's red hair points at some of the wise ones being Weasleys?

    I mostly enjoyed it, nice description of a post-apoc situation. Characters are not developed enough, the romance stuff comes out of nowhere and is probably unnecessary. I don't get the connection with Treasure Island, not sure why the quote is there, if there isn't going to be some similarity in themes, or at least some non-trivial echoes of the quoted work.

    There's a good, definitely-not-HP story in there, and one thumpin' good writer behind it, but I feel it needs better planning to achieve clarity of purpose.

    Not rated, since I don't think it qualifies for a HP competition.

    Typo: postulated > pustulated
     
  8. LucyInTheSkye

    LucyInTheSkye Sixth Year

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    Absolutely enamoured by your way of writing, thank you for submitting it! I would likely read anything written in the style you have, and it takes a lot of time and effort for me to even realize if there are things I feel are lacking, things that would be obvious if this story was dubbed into another author’s style of writing.


    First of, you’ve tricked me into reading something akin to sci fi, which is a genre I usually steer clear of. Well done, I didn’t even mind!


    Second, and less subjectively, your characters. I get the feeling that you do know them all extremely well, that you have backstories and stuff in your head for them all, and yet they have come out somewhat bland here, like there’s a barrier and you’re not quite letting readers in to experience them with you. I feel like you get away with the main character being like this, but not the others. Annie in particular suffers from this, she would have needed more meat on her bones, even (maybe especially so) if that was meat Rob didn’t quite understand. But the reader would still want to see it and want to try and relate to her a bit. At least this reader would. Computer thing is a nod in this direction, but for me it comes too late. I also would have liked to find out why gender equality has regressed to the point it’s at in their world.


    There are a lot of men as side characters, and except for the uncle I can’t really keep them apart. Maybe this is me being misandrist but you know… They all sort of float into this vague manly blob. More quirks or speech impediments or odd hobbies or always scratching noses after they talk or anything to latch onto, please.


    As for Rob, am I right to think you’re mirroring Harry in him? Like the uncle thing, and dreaming of green light, catching the snitch? If that’s on purpose, more of it wouldn’t have gone amiss! He isn’t nearly as likeable as Harry is, so it would have been a bonus to add more, especially so considering this is an HP themed competition. His and Annie’s relation to magic would have been nice to find out more about, too, like I’m assuming at the very least he is a wizard? Are the beakers goblins or house-elves? Their feet and heads and worship of wizards make me think the latter, but the unintelligible language and rings with gemstones make me think goblins.


    I loved the mentions of butter throughout. I would have liked to see more magic. It’s an excellent piece regardless, and it was an absolute treat to read, so thanks again!!
     
  9. Shinysavage

    Shinysavage Madman With A Box ~ Prestige ~

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    Hmm.

    By basically any standard, this is a very good story. It's well written, the setting is intriguing, you sell the tone and atmosphere well, it's thrilling when it needs to be, unsettling at other points...I'm not going to say that it's perfect, but it's very good, definitely a piece of writing to be proud of.

    But if you altered the details of the snitch, you could submit this as a piece of original fiction, and this is a Harry Potter contest. Obviously, the dried up lake suggests the location in the epilogue is Hogwarts, helped by the fact that the compass contained in the snitch points them there, but equally, that's still an assumption on the part of the reader. If this had been posted on another site, you'd just think "Oh, there used to be a lake there. Interesting environmental detail."

    The snitch connection and the red robes did make me think about beaker being a corruption of beater, maybe? But that's a bit of a reach, I freely admit.

    It feels a bit churlish for me to penalise this story for its vague at best relationship to HP when I'm not marking down entry 4 for its loose interpretation of the prompt, but at least that was recognisbaly HP, you know? Going to have to think about this, but for now, great story.
     
  10. Niez

    Niez Competition Winner CHAMPION ⭐⭐

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    I mean, a post-apocalyptic story set in the HP universe from a muggle (or muggleborn) perspective. It’s a different take on the prompt, but it may defeat the point of entering a fanfiction contest in the first place tbh. If you really couldn’t think of an engaging aftermath story with wizards as protagonists (after all they have magic, they should be able to fix most problems without too much trouble) then maybe it wasn’t the prompt for you.

    But let’s assume it is an HP story, I still have a few issues with it. Errare humanum est.

    One. Treasure island. The connection is tenuous and you might have been better served with a different adventure story. Perhaps Robinson Crusoe, although that would also be #problematic in its own way.

    Two. There’s a lot of ambiguity present that doesn’t need to be there. Granted, Rob wouldn’t know about the wizarding world even if he was a muggleborn, but why bother muddling the few magic elements they are? We have a) the dementor, which could be equally interpreted as simple ‘surface sickness’, b) the snitch fluttering around at the same time Rob’s just hit the back of his head so he can’t see it (convenient) c) random accidental magic to save them from the storm which could have also been coincidence and d) arriving at Hogwarts without being able to tell whether it still stands, or is just conceal by its muggle repelling charms. I just don’t understand the need to keep the reader guessing about these things.

    Three. The ending, which feels rather rushed. I sense that you finished the story one night before the original ending and then had a whole month of extensions to work on it but didn’t because you had started a new project. Terribly lazy of you.

    Jokes.

    This is how you get a redhead MC past the censors everyone.
     
  11. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter ⭐⭐

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    Well, this is a cool start! Very WTF but I like it.

    Annie and Rob? The Dome? I’m definitely guessing post-disaster vibes here, good for the prompt, but curious how we’re related to HP.

    Oh good job on creepy guard – this feels like it might be an interesting story.

    The world of his books? I didn’t quite follow him here. I haven’t been skimming either. Clarify? Or maybe I did miss it. I get what I think you’re going for here – this was a kid who liked reading and believing in heroes etc. and it’s not true, but he wasn’t really portrayed as bookish/idealistic so far. And he’s clearly aware that guards are willing to trade kisses with little girls (?!) for things?

    But we do see a bit of that shining through in him when he’s a guard – the butter scene shows us that he’s more a straight and narrow type, which isn’t the feeling I got from him previously. Slight whiplash on his characterization, might want to tweak it later.

    Wow, fuck off with the misogyny. A WOMAN going outside on an expedition? The horror! I don’t know if you intended it that way, but it clearly comes off as such. Why would the military let a WOMAN do anything, etc. Now, that said, this could be standard intentional world building. Nothing at all wrong with that. Just make sure it’s intentional world building and not accidental. You double down on it later, so this isn’t a one time thing.

    You spelled canteen as cantine at one point I think. Also “lied” instead of lay?

    I do like that Annie is following her mysterious compass – the only reason I suspect magic is because this is probably HP fic, though that’s not super clear just yet. But it does give her some personality, etc. Would be better if we could have seen her love of knowledge/mysteries more in the past.

    And then it’s over? And still not clearly anything to do with HP.

    Story feels very misogynistic and I didn't like that, though otherwise it's well written. Clearly meets the prompt but feels nothing like HP - could just as easily be an original fic.
     
  12. FitzDizzyspells

    FitzDizzyspells Sixth Year DLP Supporter ⭐⭐

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    I do think this might be what the world of HP magic would look like after an apocalypse — a vague memory. A distant relic. Something people would have to rediscover all over again.

    Top-notch worldbuilding, characterization and dialogue in this story. I think a few more HP references would’ve really grounded it in the world of HP, particularly more foreshadowing that Rob and Annie are a wizard and a witch (who presumably can see Hogwarts, or some other aspect of magic).

    So many lovely, eerie moments in this post-apocalyptic world. When Rob makes it to the surface, the author really pulls off the overwhelming emotions a person would feel, faced with the sudden expanse:
    Which makes this contrast all the more perfect:
    A few thoughts I had:
    • I feel like Rob would feel a lot more guilt over not reporting Brace’s initial actions, and as a result I don't think he would be quick to volunteer that he'd seen him without his mask earlier in the expedition. I feel like this guilt would hang over him for a while (even if it's unwarranted).
    • I feel like more could be done with the conflict between Annie and Rob. She's annoyed with him becoming more of a Military guy and straying from his childhood wonder. I'm curious if there would be a way for Rob to actually enjoy/appreciate something about the surface. Easier said than done, it's a literal wasteland, but I'd like Rob to prove himself to her in a more subtle way before he rescues her.

    Very well done overall, it was fun to be introduced to this world.
     
  13. H_A_Greene

    H_A_Greene Auror –§ Prestigious §– DLP Supporter

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    Rob’s heart was beating so widely, he did not mind it when she slipped her hand into his palm.
    wildly.

    and then lied against the rocks, catching her breath.
    laid.

    and Rob went back to break out the news to her, only to find her asleep.
    Eliminate this.

    So the Beakers are the first sense of wizards I am getting in this story. And to be fair, it is a strong story thus far, but I am not remotely feeling a connection to the Potterverse beyond the aforementioned maybe sense from the Beakers. Okay so they have a dead golden snitch.

    And... of course the girl is sacrificed for the cause. Yup. Should have seen that coming. At least Rob intervened in time. And sewing the masks directly to the skin, how quaint.

    Once outside the lighting was almost blinding in its intensity and it sbrightness
    its brightness

    Alright so this one is a headscratcher for me. Its clearly a phenomenal story, but aside from a couple of references(the golden snitch, finding Hogwarts at the end) this is almost 100% full original and honestly I would be very intrigued to delve into this world more just for its own sake than for the sake of the prompt. Reading about two (almost certainly full muggle) OCs in a very very muggle post-apocalyptic world that only barely teases any descriptor of magic kind of rubs me the wrong way.

    And the ending isn't really an ending at all. Just comparing this one to the rest, I want to say you ran out of words to write any more? Or maybe just time at the end. But all that build up, phenomenal as it may be, outside of the 'primatives abuse intelligent woman' trope you decided to shove in there, has to have a pay off and you really didn't give us one IMO. So I guess I hope you have expanded on this since submitting and we can finally find out where all the wizards went to.
     
  14. Niez

    Niez Competition Winner CHAMPION ⭐⭐

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    ackward monkey face.jpg

    Jokes aside, I guess I should try to explan myself a bit because some people felt scammed out of an HP story and cucio even thought I had repurposed an original work into an HP fic to fit the prompt (very much not the case old bean, I can assure you of that). Essentially I tried to tell a post-apocalyptic/aftermath fic where the main weakness of the premise in my humblest of opinion (why couldn't you prevent/mitigate the disaster via magic in the first place) becomes instead something for the reader to puzzle over. We know whatever has happened has forced humankind underground, but where the wizards at? This was essentially my intention by choosing a narrative from a muggle/muggleborn perspective; for the reader both to wonder at and anticipate the magical elements in the story, culminating with Rob and Annie's arrival at Hogwarts (where mostly everyone guessed that it was indeed Hogwarts and not just some rando lake in the middle of nowhere).

    Of course, and as Shiny pointed out, if you didn't know this story was set in the HP universe, you might be forgiven for thinking that there's no actual magic in the story at all. But this is where I thought that reader's expectations would play in my favour, because a story written for a HP competition obviously does take place in the HP universe, and not say, in the Pokemon universe. Therefore I was satisfied with letting the magic in my story be quite subtle, and let the reader pick up on it as he or she went along. Unfortunately I was probably far too subtle because most people only picked up on the snitch and Hogwarts, and therefore rightfully considered that the story wasn't anywhere near magical enough. I list all the intended magical elements below, if anyone is interested and I freely admit that I should have added more/made them clearer.

    1. Rob's accidental magic as a child.

    2. The Dementor. (This one is actually my bad, I meant to write a second scene with it, but I ran out of time and then was too lazy during the extension period).

    3. The impossibility of the Nest (basically held together by charms much like the Burrow).

    4. The snitch opens when Rob touches it (which also further hints at the fact that he is a wizard).

    5. Accidental magic to summon the lift to take them to safety.

    6. The green sky, the fact that the storm is almost aware - all hint to the disaster being magical in nature.

    7. The compass contained by the snitch doesn't point North like the other but rather at a specific direction (this is physically impossible so I'm considering it a magical element and you can't stop me.)

    8. And last at not least, Hogwarts itself, and the fact that the charms are active enough to prevent them from seeing it inmediatly. Hogwarts its also the culmination of all the other magical elements present in the story. In my head, at some point in the past a bunch of nice wizards guided a group of muggles into an air shelter, and set up a couple of charms to keep them safe. They also left behind a compass leading to Hogwarts inside a snitch which would only open if a wizard touched it, ensuring that only muggleborns would ever make the journey. Of course so much time has passed that this has been completely forgotten and the Beakers are barely human anymore anyways, but it doesn't keep the snitch from actually fulfilling its purpose and leading Rob and Annie there.

    The only other major complaint was that the ending was a bit rushed, and though it indeed was (I actually made the deadline for once), reaching Hogwarts was never meant to be the culmination of the story, but rather, and as indicated, just an Epilogue to it. The culmination of the story is when Rob admits to Annie that he's in love with her, which completes his character journey of rediscovering/reconnecting with his past self, and rekindling his lost relationship with her. I actually borrowed from the Chernobyl tv show, which despite nominally being about the aftermath of a Nuclear disaster, it's actually a story about the importance of the truth, and the danger of systems which prioritise ideology over reality. In a similar vein, while the fic is nominally about this expedition to the new Dome and yaddi yadda, the actual narrative is about Rob's personal journey of re-discovery. Or that was the intention at least.

    A big thanks to everyone for their feedback and comments, and of course, a big congratulations to the other authors. A very close competition and deservedly so.
     
  15. Mr. Mixed Bag

    Mr. Mixed Bag Sixth Year

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    And then it was extended, lol.

    I'm man enough to admit that the majority of the references to magic slid right over my head, but even still this was my favorite entry by quite a distance. Congratulations on the win, well deserved.
     
  16. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter ⭐⭐

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    For what it's worth, both first and second place were on time.
     
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