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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5. Chapter 4

19th July 2017

Something in Shade was spinning, replaying events that had already passed. It liked doing that but it usually stuck to his childhood. Which was why his eyes widened.

 

Grubby features fixed themselves on him. They looked like they could once have been plump yet they had, over time, acquired a lesser stuffing. It wasn't the weight that scared him - that would've been hypocritical with a mother who had been skinny and an uncle who had sworn he had a beer belly. No, there was something wrong with it. Something so drastically wrong that he heard Vic gag behind him as she rose to her feet.

 

He gasped for air, his neck arching and his head making contact with a cold surface beneath him. As his chest heaved, the rest of his body was paralysed. The brief moments he left the state of spinning over and over were like the snippets of time a drowning man had with his mouth above the water.

 

The man with the grubby face let out a low sound and pressed his mottled skin up close. "Thought we told you and your little friend to get off our land," he grumbled, to the tune of a rather vocal unrest in his companions (who surrounded them, all with damaged appearances).

"Take a chill pill, we just want to pass through." Vic held both hands up.

Chapped lips stretched into a 'smile'. "Can't prove it, though, can you? If I let every piece of scum like you through 'ere, who knows what they could do?"

Shade swallowed and glanced back at his friend. The Indian American was rooted to the spot. In the hands of their enemies were pointed weapons. Granted, they still had their own but an inept 21-year-old and 18-year-old paled in comparison to the leader and his four-person back-up team. Not to mention how fragile the suits seemed when confronted with the array of sharps. Running was out of the question; they were stuck in a part of the road where there were no turn-offs and the main road have been sliced in two by something similar to the earlier pile of rubble (only not quite as tall).

 

With an abrupt intake of breath, he made an attempt to wrench open his eyes. A tiny gap appeared between the two lead weights through which air gave his eyes frostbite. They snapped shut once more without the energy to keep them open. His lips seemed fused together and he was blind to the outside world. For all intents and purposes, he felt like he was pinned to the only surface for miles around while its temperature drilled into him and the wider world of stale air closed forced on him the sensation of exposure.

 

So there was no chance of escape. Their four other 'enemies' had assumed a semi circle opposite them. Shade's shoulder was still held firm, the suit dipping where the fingers were and inflating in between. "What do you want?" The man of filth narrowed his eyes, tilted his head and tightened his grip - to which the seemingly younger man cried out. "I mean, what do you want us to give you so we can pass?"

"A bribe? Well, you're not the coward I thought you were. That's for sure..." His opponent smirked (his mood correlated with the tightness of his hold, soon to be discovered by Shade when the hand on him relaxed). Then he turned his head to face his teammates and asked, "Well, what do you say? Do we take the kid's bribe or not?"

Shade tried to refrain from biting his lip and sprouted the first idea he could think of. "We have food." 

"And so do we. Otherwise we'd 'ave eaten you by now," he remarked, drawing laughter out of his companions. "Try again, something better this time." 

Eyes narrowed, he raked them over their bodies. "Look, you might have food but it doesn't look like you have that much." Shade patted his pockets and watched them with his head held high. The grip on his shoulder lessened once more. "You wouldn't even have to show it to your leaders, you could keep it for yourselves."

It was then that the stomach of one of the back up team groaned - its owner placed a hand on their stomach and swallowed. "I'm starving, you know..." she confessed.

Her leader scowled at her and turned back to Shade. "Shut up, you're jus' greedy. I'll tell you one thing you can trade: those suits, then we can get all the extra food in the world..." A smirk wormed its way on his lips.

Two coughs came from behind them and all turned to see  "They're not for sale, buster," Vic announced, cocking a hip.

This time, the woman whose stomach had made itself know took a step forward. "Come on, just hand them over and I promise we'll let you keep walking." Her hands clasped together and her eyes were wide.

Sighing, Vic also moved closer so that she was level with Shade. Then she lowered her voice and told her, "For the last time, they're ours. Not yours."

 

Where was Vic? There was a shaking in Shade's limbs. Something he could feel but not see, much to his chagrin, and he stirred. Trying to lift his back off of the floor - at least, he presumed that was what was underneath him - sent an ache that ripped through his spine, leaving him stuck. Back arched, he laid there until the sensation passed. When his body finally flopped back down onto the ground, soreness had already start to build just below the nape of his neck.

 

"What's to stop us just taking 'em right from you?" Seconds passed before muttering disturbed the quiet. The leader's dirty jaw tightened and he probed, "Eh? What was that?"

"That was me." Shade glanced to the side of him, where Vic stood with her mouth twisted into a smirk. "And I said that you're too stupid, that's what'll stop you. You're just like the thugs where I grew. Half-wit or half-my-height. Or both."

A thunder storm took over the leader's face. Menace flooded his voice. "Spencer. Club them." Confusion flooded Shade's system. However, it only lasted a few moments as the one called Spencer approached them and swung his weapon.

And they were out, descending into blackness.

 

He was out like a light on the cold floor.

 

-

 

When he finally came around again, his legs felt as though they would leave his body and fly off somewhere else. At least the sensation of the invading cold had disappeared. So, when he tried again to open his eyes, the eyelids parted bit by bit and stayed open until he had a full view of what was in front of him. They snapped shut right afterwards but he recognized that to be just blinking - after all, there was a fair amount of gunk in his eyes. He moved one hand to sweep at it. Or, rather, he would've if it hadn't been pulled back by some other force. Looking down, he glimpsed his hands bound by individual ropes and then attached by another length of it. His gloves sunk down in rings around his wrists.

Clever, he mused. Not so tight that I realise they're there right away but tight enough to hold me. And I still have my suit, so there's no chance of me wriggling out of them.

 

Then Shade started to take in where he was. Before something else interrupted. "Ugh... Woah, he must have hit harder than I thoug-" Vic's head, which had lolled in a limp fashion, shot up. She looked from left to right, swallowed and winced as a jolt of pain whipped through her. "Where the hell are we?"

He raised an eyebrow at her but, nevertheless, finished his survey of the 'room'. "We're underground again, that much is obvious. I'm leaning against the wall and it just doesn't feel like it could be anything else, unless you know of somewhere above ground where the floors curve into the walls and said walls crumble when you rub against them."

"Nope." Her voice was stretched thin and her eyes were screwed up. When she opened them again, he took that as his cue to glare at her. "It's just the blood, silly. Not a head injury, or anything. Can you get out of the ropes or not?"

The twenty-one-year-old shook his head. "If I could, I would've done it already. Maybe I could've managed it without the suit on but... You get the idea," he muttered, rolling his shoulders back. Then, as Vic was sizing up her own wrists, a question popped into his mind. "Vic, who were they?"

She stopped and looked up at him, biting her lip. "I was looking for a way around and they ran into me, saying it was their land and everything. Thought I was doing a pretty good job at hiding from them until you showed up." The moment her mouth was closed, she focused attention on squashing her hands into the right shapes without damaging the gloves.

"If you were doing a good job, where'd that scratch come from?" For a second, she blinked at him. Then, following his gaze, she found the tiny incision across her palm and shrugged.

"They threw something at me and I caught. Don't worry, it doesn't go all the way through. I'll just have to more careful, or something, okay?" He let out a faint grumble. It seemed like she was trying to stare him down but Shade had already moved on.

 

Upon straining his eyes, he picked out the shapes at the other end of the room. A lack of light made it difficult to see much else beyond a certain point but, as it happened, seeing in all shadows meant that some were darker than others. In there, there were no other ropes or pieces of equipment and the door was constructed of metal. Similar to the doors back at the bunker, it had been embedded into the dirt walls. However, to him, the construction was a thousand times sloppier. It was more of a fish bowl made out of dirty with a hole poked in it.

"The door," he uttered. Vic's efforts came to a halt and he nodded to the object in question. "The door's not fitted properly. There are gaps between the bars around the edge and the doorway itself."

"Huh... You're right but that's not much use with our hands tied behind our back-" Just then, a snap reverberated through the room and drew a wince from Shade - until Vic lifted her wrists up for him to see. A grin spread across her face and she shuffled over to him. "Come on, let me help you up and then we can leave through the door. Might not be able to get the ties undone but you'll live."

"Not a good idea..." he insisted, angling his body away from her reaching hands and receiving a sigh that reeked of 'this better be good'. "We don't even know what's out there, or who. And maybe that's the way they'd want us to escape? If the rooms are this insecure, no idiot's going to leave them unguarded. They might not have someone directly outside but they'll at least be watching the corridor."

Gritting her teeth, she asked, "How else are we getting out then, genius? Being butchered sounds kind of unappealing right now."

"Well, it's a fish bowl. And every fish bowl has a way to get in through the top."

"So we go up... Got you," Vic replied, nodding. Her hands stretched up to reach for the ceiling, if it could be called that, and an unease had taken up residence on her face. A few fingers came into contact with what she thought (hoped) was a weak spot, when footsteps echoed towards them and a fist closed around one of the rungs in the cell door.

Shade reached out and yanked on her leg, whispering a hurried 'shh' as she cried out. His companion hit the floor, her hands returning to her sides to partly break her fall, just in time. In stepped one of their captors. The pair had seen him before, out on the street, but his clothes had changed for sure. Somehow, his appearance didn't turn Shade's stomach anymore.

 

"Bit noisy, aren't you?" He rolled his eyes and then, to the slightly-less-deformed's surprise, turned on Shade. "Alright, spin around. Might as well take yours off too. It's not like you can do anything." Once he'd turned around, he didn't wait for a 'go ahead'. The bonds were cut from his wrists and he was spun back around by the shoulder.

"Who are you?" Vic interjected, causing him to turn his head her way.

"Me? I'm a nobody. Us? We're a clan, damn powerful too. And you were trespassing on our land so you're here for punishment. Got that?" Again, he didn't wait for a response. Instead, he reached behind his back and threw a water bottle each at them. "Drink up, you'll need it."

Then he was gone.

 

-

 

It was hours before the door opened again - well, Shade wasn't sure of the exact time frame but a good amount of bodies had passed in front of the door... Anyway, adult-sized hands pulled the door open at first. What ventured through the opening hadn't breached puberty. A small girl stepped inside: her hair was cropped close and the true colour was hidden by the poor lighting. The clothes she wore were too large and the shoes on her feet dug into the skin at the back of her ankle. 

Her head spun when the door closed behind her, then back again when she heard a loud shift and she locked gazes with Shade. As she set the tray in her hands down on the floor, she said, "Stay w-where you are until...I leave. O-okay?"

But, even as Shade felt the deep-set sockets and hard lines of his face being examined, he also felt the cold seeping up into his lower back. He hadn't moved. And there was that shuffle again. This time, the girl had been concentrating on the tray. With her facing him all of a sudden, he remained still and watched his companion.

All three years between them didn't seem that much, on one hand, but he was the one who handed out quiet reminders about the difference between him and his roommate. They weren't 'mature versus immature'. She was fourteen, Shade thought, the concept running errant in his mind. This whole thing kicked off four years ago and she was fourteen. It's not like I know how she was raised, or anything, but I don't tell anyone how I grew up. And I was seventeen... Big difference. 

 

Shade was pulled back to reality by a groan. "I can't tell you. Sorry..."

"Look, kid, I doubt there are cameras down here and there's nobody with their ear against the door. Come on, tell me, where are we? How are you guys alive? Are there other people in cells like this? Do you guys kill trespasser-"

"Vic," he interrupted, tone like iron. In a whirl of black hair, with a moment's delay, she looked at him with imploring eyes. "Think. She's a kid, she probably doesn't even know half of what you're asking. When it happened, she was probably only about five at most."

Another whip of dark strands and she was facing away again. The gears within him ground, as if someone had purposefully grabbed the one that always seemed to work and wrenched at it until it was useless. He gritted his teeth. Both women were staring at each other (the girl's eyes were like saucers). Instead of moving, of course, she stuck where she was while Vic inched closer. Up on her knees, Vic was no longer 'just as tall' as the other girl. She took a step back, straining her neck.

"Come on, kid. Tell me!" The noise, more powerful than intended, left her throat and rebounded off the walls. Water began to collect in the child's eyes. But Vic wasn't looking at the glassy orbs. Instead, she had flopped back onto her haunches and was glaring up at the ceiling.

"But Daddy says not to talk to people who don't look the same as us... Please, I don't know."

 

Then the realisation washed over Shade. If the 'clan' look different, then they've all probably been deformed. Meaning she's not used to life without deformity. Brilliant. So now we're the freaks...

But his hands were tied - though figuratively - as Vic repeated the same questions. There was no cunning in his friend's expression. Instead, he caught sight of an emotion that seemed entirely alien on her. Desperation. And, as Vic repeated the questions over and over, the young one's eyes filled to the brim bit by bit. Her hands had wormed free of the tray and she'd left it in the middle of the room because those extremities had started to tremble with such vigour.

"Maybe you should give it a-" Shade never got chance to finish his sentence; she sprinted from the room, throwing her whole body weight against the door. It swung back shut and freed kernels of dirt from the wall. They rolled part of the way over to them, for Vic to glare at the inanimate pieces of earth and flop forward so that her head rested on her knees. A shriek worthy of a banshee pushed out between her lips. Steam trying to escape a tight space.

When she looked up again, Shade's glare bore into her. "Brilliantly handled..."

"I'd like to see you try, genius," Vic replied, through gritted teeth. Her back was still as hunched as it had been when her head was hung low. 

"You'd be disappointed, then. I wouldn't. Try, I mean - I ask questions but I don't interrogate seven-year-olds."

With a sigh, she ran a hand through her hair, sat up straight and turned to face him. "Look, kids are cute and everything but I value my life too. And she was at least nine. Or eight, a mature eight."

"They don't look like they're going to kill us. That...was unnecessary. Got it?" He raised both eyebrows and, for a second, his roommate took him in with red-and-grey ringed eyes. The body in front of him had a slight quiver to it. Like maintaining that position took tremendous effort to accomplish. Like the 'floor' below them wasn't just sucking warmth out of them but it was feeding on their energy too. After what seemed like an eternity, she gave a sluggish nod.

"I do hope you're referring to what just happened, boy." Both heads turned. By the door stood another deformed adult, this time bearing a likeness to the girl that had fled. He regarded them with narrowed eyes (at least, that could just have been his eye shape) and trailed the toe cap of his boots only a hair breadth away from their food tray. Smirking, he pulled it away from the untouched food only to zero in on them.

 

This time, Vic let out a fake cough and their visitor's attention switched to her. "Yes?"

"Look, I'm sorry about that. Just answer my questions and I won't have to bug anymore of your kids. Didn't mean to make her cry anyway..." The volume of her speech waned as the sentence went on, which only seemed to put the father's nose more out of joint.

An eerie silence descended on them. Then a crack split the air and a cry of pain soon followed.

"Keep your hands off me, creep..." Vic ground the words out, glaring up at him and clutching her cheek. But he didn't heed her words - no, he crouched down and poked his face as close to hers as he could.

"I'll do a lot worse if you don't behave. Or didn't your mummy tell you not to be mean to strangers?"

 

-

 

He thought it was the next morning when the hand rattled his shoulder but, in reality, he wasn't all that sure. There was a lull that lasted a few seconds where he stirred and let out a yawn. Then his eyes shot open and he found himself confronted with the father from the previous night.

It struck him how he looked nothing like his own paternal figure, deformities aside. "Up," he grumbled. Vic received an entirely different treatment: a half-hearted slap to the side of the face and the previous word repeated in the fashion of a bark. A voice that boasted of education and discipline.

When both pairs of eyes were open, he stretched back up to full height and paced out of the cell. Shade noticed the leer on his lips - he might not have been much like his own father but he wasn't stupid either. Before the pair of them had managed to drag themselves out of the land of sleep, he'd made sure he was out of the room and away from any possible questions they could throw at him.

 

Muscles in his back cried out to be stretched, so he arched his back and drew up onto his knees. Another tray (or perhaps the same one with replaced contents) was laid on the floor in front of them. 

"What's that?" Vic's speech came out slurred from her propped up position on the floor. The sound, as usual, was muffled by the barriers of the suit. He took a glance back and looked at the state she was in. Not that he could see much beyond the yellow of her outfit, but individual strands of hair were starting to creep around at odd angles in her helmet and slightly-reddened eyelids stuck out like a sore thumb. Pun intended. 

"Breakfast." At that, he received a look sliced by the top of her eye sockets. "Okay, we're not eating, then... There's a note. He'll be back in about ten minutes."

Mirthless laughter trickled from her lips. "It's a good job we're not eating, then; the last thing I need is indigestion from this whole thing." Shade, however, rakes through his mind for a reply but said nothing. Found nothing. Which was why a sense of joy, accompanied by the tiniest bit of guilt for feeling it in the first place, overwhelmed him when three men graced their presence again.

No women, just girls who haven't even touched puberty yet, he mused.

 

The first of the three men greeted, "'Ello again." With a smirk for a finishing touch, he closed his hands back around his weapon (a sheathed knife) and took up a spot by the door. He was the one who'd called them noisy the first day they'd been brought in. Was he some kind of prison guard? Number two held a club, bringing it down on his own hand in gentle smacks - Spencer.

And the last was the girl's father, the closest to the pair of them. "We've come to read your sentence. Anything you'd like to say before we start."

"This is so Law and Order... Write that down, it'll look good in your history books," Vic groused. Spencer cleared his throat and clapped his hand over the club with a resounding thwack. Rolling her eyes, the eighteen-year-old looked over at Shade as if mocking them but he shook his head. Didn't she know better? Didn't she know that, to get by, they had to stay alive and that included keeping their mouths in check?

Disturbed by a margin, the one closest to them tapped his foot on the floor. "As I was saying... We're currently sentencing you to one or two days imprisonment until we can decide how to best end your lives. Any-"

"One or two?" She interjected once again, jaw hanging half-open.

His lip curled as a noise of displeasure bubbled up from his throat. Fingers pulled the edges of his sleeves, aggressive and knife-like, to cover more of his arms. When he spoke again, the intended sentence came out with much more force. "Any last words before we leave you alone?"

"I do." Shade had a sudden impulse to cross his fingers - then he discarded the notion because it felt just as childish as the way Vic mimicked an excited child in class.

 

The prison guard, it appeared, was the most irritable teacher in the 'school'; he sighed, pushed off the wall and whined, "I think we've 'ad enough from you, don't you?"

"Nope - I need to pee." Another long series of groans, while the furthest forward of the three turned and made towards the door. Voice strung higher, she continued, "Look, I'm not kidding. Is there a bathroom or something?"

Before she could get another word in edgeways, the guard turned his nose up at them and disappeared through the doorway to the tune of a clanking door. Vic was about to sink back into a sulk when Shade tapped her leg. "Hey, look over there..."

She followed his finger to a glint right next to the door. Lying there, part unsheathed, was the knife that the guard had treasured so. A substantial patch of the blade between the top of the sheath and the hilt was revealed. While there was no light source in the cell itself, the corridor that it connected to was lit well.

 

So, when their last meal of the day came (and the distinct sound of a snore from one of the other prisoners came floating through to their 'enclosure'), the pair exchanged glances. "Feet or knees?" the younger of the two asked, to which Shade mouth the latter and received a quick nod in reply. Breath hitched, Vic got onto her knees and crawled her way over to the weapon. 

Watching her make slow yet steady progress, Shade was glad of his decision - the knees of her suit seemed to be much quieter than whatever noise her boots would've produced. After what seemed like an eternity, her fingers grabbed hold of the hilt and forced the sheath back on. She crawled back over, stood up to full height and offered her free hand to Shade.

"Let's get out of here." A grin spread across his lips and he was about to extend a hand to her.

Until a creak froze them in place. "I think not." 

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