The Pod

The world's financial situation has declined rapidly. Entire countries have descended into chaos. And the only thing anyone's thinking about is when their pay check's coming through. Except the adolescent boy and his war-widowed mother living in a shabby London flat. Shade and Coral Ashton know what's coming, more than the wealth-robbed people of the upper class. They're expecting the nuclear events. The screams. The bodies. The unrecognisable ruins of your own home. Because, when it's World War Three and you've never had a penny to think about, thoughts can be both dangerous and useful.

Unfortunately, foresight isn't the perfect assistant in a world polluted to the brim. Soon, life without some disgusting mutation is scarce. Until Shade finds the fabled pod. A reinforced dome that houses a community of survivors. Is it the haven it seems to be? Or will an escape from the outside prove to have its own dangers?

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3. Chapter 2

18th July 2017

He'd slept in some rather uncomfortable places but none of them included wearing a hazard suit. And it definitely hadn't accounted for the type of hazard suit that carried its own food supply. His hands fumbled for buttons, as he stared at the contraption encaging him.

 

Upon inspection, he found there were six internal pockets (all above the waist) and loose sleeves that seemed to make sense all of a sudden. Shade popped his arms in and out of their holes with a slight chuckle.

"Something funny?" Vic appeared in the doorway, blinking sleep from her eyes.

"Arms," he said, and held his out in front of him.

"Yeah, we have them. Genius..." She flopped down into a plastic chair.

"That's not what I meant, Vic." The young man rolled his eyes then fixed her with a 'look'. "The suit. You can move your arms around. The front's big enough. And pockets. There are pockets."

"You know, 'arms' doesn't really cover the subject. If you know what I mean..." After a moment, she yawned and launched herself back into standing position. All the time, he watched her with a raised eyebrow. "Talking of pockets..."

 

Perhaps her stomach had developed a direct link to her speech. Or maybe it was just impatient. But it chose that time to let out a grumble and stop the conversation.

"Top left pocket, if yours is the same as mine," he told her. "I've already eaten."

 

Relieved, Vic fished a morsel out and demolished it. She paused afterwards then turned to Shade and mumbled her thanks through a few stray crumbs. Meanwhile, he began to scan the rest of the suit. There were two layers to the helmet, like a computer that asked for final confirmation. The yellow material was baggy against his body and the over-sized boots were bound to it by rubber.

 

Then laughter erupted from his companion. As he shot her a look, she elaborated, "It has a filter system. As in, for 'business'." She gasped for breath and added, "You have to pee on the ground."

"I'm glad you find it so funny," he replied, watching her clutch her stomach. With that, he approached the door and stopped to glance over his shoulder. "Come on. We've got to get moving."

 

It took a few more seconds for her to sit up straight, stand and trail after him. When they stepped outside, the suits prevented them truly feeling the weather - all they knew was that it wasn't stifling nor was it in a state of freeze.

 

"I wonder if this area got raided," Vic mused.

"Well..." Shade's arms swung by his sides. His tone was light, yet with an undertone of darkness which always came with that topic. "Considering what we've seen so far - that briefcase full of money - I think it was. Or, at least, it started but wasn't finished."

"Nobody starts raiding a house then doesn't finish it."

"I meant the town, not a single raid. I seriously doubt anyone would've left those stores we passed alone without a reason. And the cafe looked like it was cleaned out," he said, staring ahead. "So, I'd say they were interrupted."

"Or maybe they stole big-time and were on the run?" Vic's eyes sparkled.

 

She snorted and suggested, "Want to raid these pockets?"

"Hoping you'll find something?" He wiggled his eyebrows and the smile returned to his face. In response, she gave him a light poke with her glove. "Is that all you've got?"

"No." She rolled her eyes. "But it might be all the suits got."

"He's been living down there and making 'trips' for years, Vic. If they were easily breakable, I think we'd be able to see the evidence. Don't you?"

"You're honestly no fun," she chastised him, pulling her arms from their holes and digging into the first pocket to her left.

 

As they walked along, the items she 'unearthed' varied in both size and shape. Each one passed through her fingers once - she paused on the photographs to smooth the creases and didn't bother to trawl through the practical packing. Shade was eyeing her with semi-curiosity; she'd finished her investigation and slipped the little soft toy she'd been carrying into the outside pouch. Then she caught his eye.

 

"What?" She flashed a smile.

"You're quiet."

"That's a sin now? And, if it is, can I please have some time to decide which one of my seven time-out roommates I prefer the most?"

"Really? Seven sins?" Laughter escaped him.

"Lust would be fun but tiring, Envy and Wrath would be lonely..." Vic grinned, dark eyes dancing.

 

Silence descended on them and Shade shifted in his outfit. The plastic slipped over his knees, the rubber was designed for fingers much more bony. His skin prickled at the filtered air. The tip of each toe ached from hitting the front of the shoe every step he took. Shade wasn't watching where he was going, until his chest blundered into an outstretched arm.

 

His companion pointed at the mixture of plants and rubble that blocked their way. Shade grabbed Vic's arm, sure enough of the material's strength not to treat the suits like china, and dragged her round the corner. Her shoes screeched as she stumbled along behind him. Cool shadows descended on them from the makeshift canopy above. Her shoes piped down but Shade was already ahead of her,. grinning. A kaleidoscope of secondhand light filtered through the debris mesh.

 

"The gardens..." The word slipped from his lips. At that, a pair of grey eyes narrowed.

"You okay, Sooty?" Her suit crinkled as she tilted her head to the side.

"Nothing. Just...nothing," he reassured her, smiling. But he could see his reflection in her visor. His eyes were like tunnels. They travelled back too far.

 

-

 

Shade knew they'd been walking for a while when his friend stopped, leaned against a car and pulled her foot up to rest against her thigh. While she kneaded the ache out through the rubber, he stopped and ran a hand over the (kind of) blue paint.

 

"Nice car, huh?" he said, glancing up at her.

"I prefer motorbikes, to be honest. And pizza." A dreamy look came to her face, as if she could imagine the taste even then.

"As opposed to?"

"Coffee. Or donuts. Or whatever it is car people eat." At that, he burst out laughing. Vic paused mid-massage and raised an eyebrow. "What? It's like cat people and dog people. Car people and motorbike people."

"What about people who like buses?" he teased. Vic returned to two feet and stretched to full height in front of him (which still wasn't taller).

"Now they're just special. Like you." For a moment, Victoria seemed to think he wasn't reacting. That was, until she heard a scrape to her left and turned her head. "Sha-"

 

What she wasn't prepared for was her view to be blocked by something floppy and black. She blinked, the projectile bouncing off her foot and onto the ground. "A tyre. You threw a tyre at me."

"Don't blame me. It was asking to be thrown." Then a grin spread across her face and she bent slowly towards the rubber circle. It had 'parked' halfway onto the pavement but she hooked a foot through the centre with ease. Shade's face fell. His heart skipped a beat - he squeezed his eyes closed.

 

Wait a minute... he thought. Nothing's happening.

He chanced one eye open to catch Vic with one hand clutching her foot. She caught his eye and told him, "Laugh and I'll crush you."

Two hands raised in surrender. "Must be why you're a motorbike person. Less to contend with. Come on, we need to... Did you hear that?"

 

The noise was quiet, yet sharp against the silence. Both froze. Shade surveyed his surroundings: a muddle of worn buildings, unused cars, spiders, dropped bags and shattered glass. Decaying plant life was strewn across shop fronts, rotting over their plant pots. Ivy clambered up pipes.

 

"Must be nothing," Vic insisted. Swallowing, she stood on two feet again. Like clockwork, the squelching kicked in. A droning noise. Flesh being demolished, sliced apart in the same way raw chicken would be, accompanied by feral mutterings. Shade caught the shiver before it reached his spine. His companion, however, wasn't as lucky - she murmured, "I take it back. That's...creepy."

 

He followed her gaze to the shadow cast against the wall of an alleyway. It was a cat but nowhere ear common. Whiskers stretched at all angles, attached to a bulging jaw. Two rows of fangs protruded and a slick tongue darted out, claiming a glob of meat speared on the tips.

"Nasty too..." Vic whispered. As he nodded in agreement, Shade didn't expect the creature to pause mid-bite and 'look' up. It emitted a low growl. The rest thing he knew, Vic yanked on his arm and hissed, "Run!"

 

So he ran, pulse racing, the world inside the suit heating. The ragged breaths (that weren't his) were the only reassurance that another yellow blur was beside him.

"I can still hear it," she panted out, slowing. He followed suit, so he could stick to her side, in time for another wail to slither through the air. A fleeting glimpse revealed that it was a mere three streets away. Before long, Shade was traipsing over rubble and his strained air filter narrowed the path. His mouth ran dry.

 

"Over here." Vic was stood over an upturned limousine. Skidding, he went to her aid and climbed atop the vehicle. Together, they pried the door open just as it began to indent his gloves and the noise got louder and their pursuer gained on them.

"Ladies first," he offered. The last thing he saw before the universe became a dim confinement, was a swirl of black strands and a paw emerging from the closest alleyway.

 

The air inside was stuffy and there were pieces of a shattered Coco Chanel bottle beneath their feet. Yet Vic found it in her to say, "It's just like hide and seek... Eh, Sooty?"

"Really, I never noticed that thing chasing us..." He shook his head as his rapid breathing slowed.

Of all things, she had to pick hide and seek, he mused.

"Come on, don't tell me you didn't play it when you were a kid."

Shade stared at his friend, taking on her slouch and her half-smile. So, he propped one knee up, rested an arm on it and replied, "Yeah, sure I did. We played board games more, though."

Vic seemed convinced and started to tell him a little tale - something to do with Monopoly and her cousin. But his mind was far away from her 11-year-old life and inching closer to his.

 

He pushed open the flat door, mind soaring, a great grin plastered to his face. Pain seemed months in the past as the grade report blew against his fingers, following the orders of the wind that drifted in through the open windows. He held his breath and controlled his footsteps.

 

With minute struggle, he forced a laugh back down his throat. Hands extracted from their fidgeting, he reached for the door handle. Yet his hand halted when the raised voices seeped through the crack beneath the door.

"I'm tired of it, --. I want to drink coffee and do the dishes and teach Shade to drive. I don't want to spend every waking moment thinking about war." It was his mother's voice - high-strung to say the least.

 

Shade pressed an ear to the cold birch wood. He ignored the shivers that ran into his body, instead he listened while (punctuated by a sigh) his father replied, "Someone has to do it. Cade-"

"Cade tried it and died in the process. What makes you think it'll be any better for you?"

"Is this about Monica?"

 

Silence fell and neither parent made any attempt to break it. On his side of the door, Shade was frozen in place. The two adults let the quiet prosper until it had almost crushed them.

"Too. Far. Shade will be home soon, let's not argue in front of him."

 

The young boy took that as his cue to back away from the door. When it opened, there was a wild quality to his mother's eyes. Even while he was hugged and pulled into the living room, and his father took the paper from his hand, something seemed off. His bones tingled with it.

 

"What's this?" his father inquired, his mother heading towards the kitchen.

"My grades. The report's coming later." Coral handed him a glass of apple juice, accompanied by a lingering pat on the shoulder.

As he gulped it down, he thought, Monica and Cade lived across from us. Then Cade died 'defending our country' and Monica went crazy... Mum's not crazy, so is Dad taking Cade's job?

 

Glancing at the decent groceries in the kitchen, the cake tin on the counter and the well-kept sofa, anyone could've figured out that Joe had a job. All Shade could do was stare at them (he would've done the same to himself if the mirror wasn't so far away), wondering when they'd all started keeping secrets.

 

-

 

"What do you think then, Sooty?" He blinked. Vic continued, "You weren't listening, were you?"

"Nope." That drew a chuckle from his absent body. "Repeat it."

"Do you think the coast's clear now?" There was an aspect of discomfort in the way she sat, so he pulled his sleeve over his hand and rubbed at one of the windows. He rose onto his knees and looked through it.

 

"I think we should be good."

Joining him up near the door, Vic pushed it open. The first few rays of daylight caught them blinking. Multi-coloured patches overlayed their vision but Shade heard his friend let out a breath - and took one in at the same time to compensate for the lack of fresh air - and he knew there was no sign of their pursuer.

 

They made quick work of the street they'd been on. Shade waved the whole area off when they'd cleared it (Vic's farewell, he saw, was more vulgar).

He raised an eyebrow. "Was that really necessary?"

"Well, it's not like it'll turn around and bite me in the ass, is it?" Her hands flew out in front of her, the corner of her mouth tugged upwards.

"No, but the cats will," he replied.

 

After a moment, he felt her tap his shoulder and followed a gloved finger to a sheltered building. "Tourist centre. That works. And, err, Vic?"

The young woman stopped in her tracks, about to open and the door, and said, "Yeah?"

"It's arse. Not ass." With that, he pushed past her and made his way into the building.

 

Just like every other place, the suit prevented them from picking up any sort of outside temperature. The carpet that squashed beneath his feet gave off dust and little fibres.

I guess the cleaners weren't really concerned about that. Leaflets were scattered across the floor but there were upholstered seats that rivalled the ones outside. Vic reached out to brush a glove over them. The fabric rippled beneath her fingers. Shade, however, wasn't paying much attention after that. He'd turned to a tourist guide and opened it at the first of its many pages.

 

"We're in...Canada." He thumbed through the sheets, skimming walls of text and pictures of the local church in its initial glory and busy Christmas markets.

We never reached Christmas that year, he thought. Shaking the thoughts from his mind, he only just heard his friend ask him where in Canada they were.

"Some foundling town called Blacking. Near Edmonton, it says. And it's known for its harsh winters, pet lovers and eccentrics." As he relayed the information, it crossed his mind how he wouldn't feel the paper beneath his fingers or the crinkles in the sheets at the back of the guide. After years of the little paper he had being unrefined, the wall between him and the clean-cut version in his hands made irritation rise in his throat.

 

"Good to know." Vic snorted and he was back in the real world. "This pole - how much good do you think it'd do as a weapon?"

Shade eyed the metal bar (and its one jagged, one blunt ends). The solid had retained some of its sheen and there wasn't a huge amount of damage to it. The pole's width fit his companion's grasp with ease.

"In your hands, none." When she opened her mouth to protest, he then added, "I'm joking. Just don't bring it anywhere near me."

 

Vic shrugged, and Shade's gaze travelled to a dusty plaque on the desk.

"Dianne Kennedy. Huh. Same surname as Elliott."

"What?" Vic's attention fell on him.

"It's the receptionist. Looks like she's related to Elliott - you know, cake-baking Elliott. Not the one that goes around commenting on your decorating skills," he explained, at which Vic nodded.

 

As Shade stared at the blue chair behind the desk - it probably spun wonderfully once upon a time - he reached for the plaque. A moment later, he felt a tap at his shoulder; Vic held up a map and a dark eyebrow. "I'm taking it back with us."

"If you're doing that, check behind the desk too... I'll help if you need," she mumbled, but he shook his head.

"I should be fine, but stay in here. You don't want that cat-thing attacking you alone."

 

He crossed to the other side of the desk. It curved round a column, hollowed out to stuff paperwork in. His hands skimmed each shelf, darting away to avoid puncture. One compartment was full of elegant coffee cups with warm colours and bold designs. In the column and the desk, he discovered, the desk her personal items were gone. It made him wonder just where she'd got to. Sitting down, he thought to himself, Why him and not her? Or both?

 

One hand gripped the underside of the desk, intent on shuffling closer, when his fingers brushing across a hanging rectangle. The distant familiarity of keys graced his ears.

Fingers hooked around it, he dragged it out into the open. A keyring was pinned between two gloved fingers, which covered parts of the picture beneath the glass. The casing was robust and rectangular, preserving the photo well. A scratched ring was attached to the case. His mind darted back to keyrings he'd owned yet he yanked it away and straightened up, pushing keys back onto the hook from which he'd pulled the memory.

 

"I think...that's it." Shade tucked it into his outside pocket with the plaque.

Vic lead the way and they both traipsed outside. After a moment of stillness, she said, "You know, I think our Crazy Dave back home had arm candy."

"Crazy Dave?" His brow furrowed and a note of confusion entering his voice.

Vic blinked. "Don't tell me you haven't played PVZ... Geez..."

"Never mind that, how did you..?" he trailed off, head tilted towards her.

"He brought a spare suit down with him. Why not just take a good repair kit?"

With a chuckle, Shade shook his head and continued onwards.

 

-

 

When he thought of it, and the length of the walk made sure he had, he wasn't too sure what they were doing. Of course, their ultimate goal was discovering if the pod was real. What are we actually doing, though? Now. What are we doing now?

 

The abrupt halt of his friend's footsteps interrupted his thoughts. He turned to her, taking in her narrowed eyes fixated somewhere to their right. Hair stood on end, he cast his sight around them.

"What is it?" he asked in a low voice. Nothing left her lips. Not a word. "Vic. I said-"

Vic held up a hand. "I heard you. It's just something I thought I saw." Her eyes narrowed even further, so much so that he was starting to lose the brown of her irises. After she took a few muffled footsteps forward, then continued to stare, he began to tap on the ground with his foot.

 

"What kind of 'something'?"

"Creepy stuff, fresh footprints where we haven't even been yet." It only seemed to take her a heartbeat or two to finish her assessment. She returned to 'roughly upright', brushing it from her mind like the hair in her eyes. "It's probably just my imagination."

"Yeah... Probably," he agreed, albeit a little lacking in speed. Both carried on walking, yet Shade glimpsed the area she'd been scrutinizing. And he didn't like the imprint that it left.

 

Several minutes later, their was breathing calm, the outside world, their heartbeats...were calm. Everything except their minds fell into that category - and his mind almost fell into the train of thought that had previously occupied it.

 

"Hey, look! It's a revolving door." Shade tensed, then realised the jest in her voice.

There was a supermarket ahead of them and she'd almost skipped her way over to the door. "Damn you. I thought you'd spotted a serious problem, then. Like a hole in one of our suits, or a dog-thing." He groaned, swiping a hand down his mask.

"We're calling them cat-things and dog-things now?"

No answer.

 

"Anyway, it's a supermarket, I'm starving. Isn't this as better place as any to eat lunch?" Vic suggested, with her arms spread wide - although, she snatched one hand in at short notice because some part of her still thought the door would revolve that too.

"In case you forgot, the food's probably inedible." For that, he received an eye-roll.

"Yes. But supermarkets mean somewhere to sit. Like a little break room," she reasoned.

 

After a few moments, he relented and gestured for her to head inside. It took a few pushes, but the door gave and they managed to push it in small bursts. Inside, the darkness made Shade blink. Vic, however, walked straight on.

"We could sit at the customer service desks - you'd like to return your hideous mutation, would you?" They were able to laugh properly about that, even if it was muffled now. It was arguable about whether or not the conditions on the surface (with hazard suits) were any better than subterranean life.

Fortunately for him, Shade didn't want to argue.

 

So the two found the 'staff lounge'. Someone couldn't be bothered to spell employee, maybe, he mused. As Vic started for the door, Shade spoke.

"You sure we don't need to get any of this stock. It's in good shape and it's...well, it's free now..."

Vic shook her head. "Nah. Get them later, I can't think on an empty stomach anyway."

 

They shuffled into the room, with its grubby paint and peeling blue carpet (adorned with a shoe-shaped depression, hiding beneath one sofa). One small window provided dim illumination. Vic strolled in and plopped down onto one of the sofas.

 

"Wow, creaky," she commented. "And scratched. Do you think it was the staff or their pets?"

As he joined her in ransacking the suit for the most favourable meal (which, in her case, was quite literally), he muttered, "Of course, those are the most accurate human nails I've ever seen."

"What? I mean, it's likely. It happens in the movies."

"In the movies, there are no people but the main characters. And there are people out there. Hence, movies lie to you."

"But, in the weird folk tales we have back home, there are loads of people and no amazing nails. Folk tales are just tales, made up. Hence, there's no one out there and amazing nails do exist." To prove her point, she waved her hand in front of his face. "Ladies and gentlemen, the lesson is: everyone, even storytellers and producers, wants what they don't have."

"I don't have one of those cats and I'm pretty sure I don't want one..."

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