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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6. Chapter 5

The tool shook within her fingers, tension proportionate to the situation. Their bodies were glued in position and the light from the hallway fell on them like a spotlight - almost. Their audience, the little girl's father, the heavily-accented prison guard and Spencer, didn't seem to be enjoying the show.

"Step away from there, or we'll remove you by force," the father commanded. Vic and Shade separated but spared little more than a foot between the two of them. "Good, good. Anyway, down to business."

"Let me guess, 'time to face your death'?" Vic watched them through lidded eyes and so remained unaware when Shade sent a glare in her direction. Shoulders broad, she stared on at them with impassive eyes. Only half visible, with curled his lip up, Spencer snarled at her. And Shade was frozen, like an amateur watching professionals play table tennis, as the older male responded with a chuckle.

"No, actually. You see, with everyone being so desperate, we just can't accept pushovers or murderers. The two of you don't seem to be either, at least not yet, so... Welcome to the clan!" A grin broke out on his face, discoloured lips shifting upwards. "I'm the liaison...leader... It doesn't really matter. Follow me."

 

The trio started to turn and head off, leaving the two of them alone in the open cell. Their gazes met. Moved to the door. Met again. Then down to the floor, Shade's feet shuffling around to the whine of his soles. Across from him, Vic blinked and inched closer to him. Her mouth opened and the beginning of a profound 'what the...' formed on her tongue. Until the footsteps halted. For a handful of seconds, the only sound was the clicking in their speech. Then the steps grew louder again - the guard had propped himself in the doorway. "Are you coming or what?"

Vic stepped forward, arms by her side with the tool clenched in her gloved fist. "How do we know your not trying to trick us?"

A sigh escaped him and he ran a hand down his face. Sweat gleamed on his hand when he drew it away, the thin coating barely reminiscent of what the shadows hid on his face. "And what would we want to do that for? We could just grab you."

"He's got a point, Vic. If they wanted us dead, it probably wouldn't be like this." Such a sentence fuelled the nervous energy in his muscles - the need to move, the sensation of all that open space around them. None of it was the kind of energy that came from a good meal and full night's rest. Nor did he feel like he was walking on eggshells.

 

If we had been, Vic would've smashed them to pieces already, he commented. If anything, he was walking in an eggshell.

"What if they're sadistic and just want to see us walk ourselves happily to our death?" 'Death' left her mouth with a bitterness.

A thud drew their attention again - the prison guard returned his arm to his side, the weapon in it speckled with dirt. "'Scuse me, I am 'ere."

"Right," she returned, dry. "Can we have our weapons back?"

He took in a rasp, pushed off the structure and took a few steps forward. "You can 'ave your weapons back for all I care. But don't pull anything - I got mine too.

 

When they stepped out of the cell, weapons pushed into their hands, they were ferried forwards. Not that Shade's numbed muscles could've attacked from behind anyway. He glanced over at Vic. Her jaw jutted out but her hand quivered as she tucked the tool away in her suit pocket. Both of them drew in a breath, the better purity of the air seeping through the proper channels of the suit.

"No originality in the decor," Vic remarked, eyes anywhere but ahead.

Despite himself, he grinned. "Somehow, I don't think decoration was the priority. And how different is it from home?"

The eighteen-year-old raised an eyebrow and glanced over her shoulder. Behind them, the guard whistled out the tune of tone deaf man. "Besides the violent men with bad accents?"

 

Two of the aforementioned men walked ahead of them and stopped at the end of the corridor. Guards, one either side of the exit, had struck up conversation with them. Only one was female.

"I'm guessing you're curious..." They emerged from the prison area - or that corridor, at least - and walked through a narrow, unoccupied strip of tunnel.

"Oh, yeah, I'm curious. About why the sky is blue and why cats don't have thumbs like we do." Her tone was like a razor but the liaison didn't flinch - in fact, his only move was to look back at her and laugh.

After that, he shook his head and told her, "Good questions, but you know that's not what I meant. You must wonder who we are and why we took you prisoner and you're suddenly our guests."

 

"That's a good question too," Shade spoke up, drawing the attention of the leader.

Clearing his throat, he clasped his hands over his abdomen. "Everything we told you was the truth, excluding the obvious. We call ourselves a clan but anything goes. We provide food, living space and almost anything you'll need in return for work in any given area. You are still guilty of trespassing on our land but, with the current population, we need to see what we can glean from our enemy's people."

"So you give someone a choice of escape method and the one they choose decides their fate..." Shade muttered.

Spencer came around to stand in front of them. "Well done, you passed."

"These are your rooms. Inside, we added a map." The liason gestured to a room (with a fully opaque door) and flashed them a thin-lipped smile. "Make sure to visit the...arrivals center as soon as you can. Have fun..."

 

When the door closed, Vic flopped down on one of the two 'beds' that she'd commandeered. A yawn escaped her lips. Yet she still sat there, twiddling her thumbs. Shade sat down too, the mattress letting out a complaint, and tapped his foot on the ground. It was bigger than their room at the bunker but the sheets were far too cold to shield life.

 

 

"I miss home." The words pulled him out of his train of thought as a welcome distraction from staring at the ceiling on his back. Across from him, Vic sat on the floor and rested one arm atop a bent leg.

He turned onto his side, which the springs beneath didn't seem to like. "Which one?"

"All of them," she replied in hollow fashion.

"Me too. But let's keep going, check out their version of a visitor's centre." The only answer she gave was a grunt, so he turned towards the map. It had been secured to the wall just above his bed. Shade found their destination was seemed like a short walk away - based on their journey from the prison to the room - and picked himself up off the bed.

 

Just as he'd reached the door, Vic grumbled, "I thought we were sticking together?"

Hand on the doorknob, he paused. "We are, hurry up or I'll be way ahead of you." He inched the door open, all in an attempt to give her time, until she shuffled over to him. As she slipped past him, eyes dead, he declared, "It's amazing how desertion can motivate someone."

"You weren't going to leave me there and you know it." Mirth danced in her voice and her arms were crossed over her chest - the way the suit wrinkled underneath her touch made her look a little inflated.

Shade's lips quirked. "Then why did you follow me?"

Vic opened her mouth, a brief 'a' sound leaving her throat, but then she snapped it shut. After that, her arms flopped down at her sides and she fell silent.

 

Beyond their room, they were alone for most of the way to their destination. Only when they reached the surrounding area did they finally run into human presence. And it was almost as twisted as the prison staff, except these people had smaller mutations. If he didn't know better (and he did), Shade would've called some of them excellent make up jobs.

They stopped outside the room and looked around. One man stopped halfway through crossing the corridor, wrinkling his nose at them. When he was gone, the two swapped glances before Shade pushed the door open.

"Hello?" Vic peered over his shoulder. "That's funny. Place is empty."

 

With the door shut behind them, she strode further into the space: piles of boxes along one wall, the other three covered by haphazard shelves full of clutter. Far to the right, there was an office desk with a stain across the front of it and scratch marks on one of its legs. Shade followed after her, watching where his feet landed just in case he crushed something that'd make them want to crush him.

Apparently, that wasn't where he should've been looking.

 

The second he looked up, a new face smacked into his vision. "The new people, yes?" Wrinkles. Glassy eyes and wrinkles.

"How did you find out about us so quick?" Vic gave the man a quick once-over, as if she didn't believe he could do anything quick.

"How do you know about me?" he returned. With hands planted on hips and body drawn up to full height, which didn't mean much when his elbows were only just above the desk, he hobbled over to her. "People talk. Anyway, what can I help you with?"

"Sorry, you said people talk - where?"

 

He took out a sheet of paper, words inked into the pages with slanted cursive - half were crossed out and all but a few were the names of people. "Our cafeteria, the bar, work... Speaking of which, you both need to assign yourself to a job vacancy!" Then he plucked the sheet from the desk and held it out in their direction.

"What's that? The handwriting sucks, I can't read it..." Vic murmured. Her finger pointed to a mesh of letters with one loop up at the start and one down somewhere closer to the end.

The desk clerk tapped his hands on the desk and stared down at the digits. "I... That would be me. It says 'hangar'. All the mechanics go on there but they're missing two people got dragged off to work in the prisons, they did. Nasty business."

"What do you mean?" Shade leaned closer, brow creased.

"They're all barbarian, aren't they? And they don't ever leave that place. I even heard that the prisoners sleep more than they do," he told them, with his voice reduced to a whisper. Then he glanced up to catch their expressions and his mouth grew wide. "But, err, I wouldn't worry if I were you. They've got enough guards and they'll probably not take from the same place."

A shrug from Vic. "Guess we could work there, then? Sorry, but I hate math and I can't clean to savey my life."

"Well, names?" the clerk chirped.

"Shade Ashton and Victoria A-" Before he could form the second word, eighteen-year-old anger assaulted his senses. "Maine." But, as the clerk launched into explaining their duties, he could see she was ready to yawn.

 

They finished up, took directions to the hangar and the cafeteria then left for the latter. "There wasn't anything all that weird about it. Notice that?"

"Maybe we're the weird ones. I mean, you saw the look we got earlier," Shade mused. When Vic didn't answer him, he followed her eyes to the sight that held his attention. They weren't alone on the corridor. Squinted features. Glancing back as much as possible.

Weird ones indeed.

 

 

They arrived at the bottom of a slope, met with a dead end, and turned into a long room. The space had no door, just an open archway of iron that lead into a room supported by corrugated iron sheets. At the centre of the room, a lamp hung - a repurposed oil lamp like the ones out in the regular corridors. Except, they were embedded in a wall. This lone lamp hung from a bicycle chain in the gap between two work tables.

"Awesome," Vic mused, breaking step with Shade. And he stopped, glanced backwards and caught her leaning over a trinket. He was about to drag her away when he took one look over at her, then to whoever lingered inside the cloud of sawdust at the far end of the room.

His gaze switched back and forth a few more times before ceasing its yoyo match at last. "Watch you just don't break anything, okay?" To which he received a stoked glare.

 

Ahead, a man worked on designs. He was seated on a high stool, jotting away next to a mass of tarpaulin. "Hello?" The pen stopped.

He spun to look at Shade, the corners of his eyes crinkling below grey eyebrows as a smile spread on his lips. "Ah... I don't think we've met," he observed, with his hands settled in his lap, and continued to look at Shade like a mathematician would look at a good puzzle.

"We haven't. I'm Shade, my friend Victoria is..." The twenty-one-year-old gestured over his shoulder and turned to find nothing where he'd left her. They'd have to have a word about teleporting out of conversations. "Well, she's around. We're supposed to be working here."

Clapping his hands together, he sat up straighter. "Excellent. I trust you know what happened to your predecessors."

"They took them to work in the prison area. And it's ugly down there on the outside of a cell too." Shade's time in prison wanted to slip from his tongue but his brain stopped it before it had the chance. There'd only ever been one job in his (somewhat short) life. That was at a small newsagent's in London and his mum had helped him get the interview, bought the suit and coached him on just how to respond.

Swallowing hard, his new boss nodded. "That's right. Best not to mention it to the others; they feel like they've lost a brother."

 

But he chose to slap more words over the topic and pave over the emotion he knew and the ghosts he didn't. "What should we do first, then? Vic doesn't know that much. I learned a few things when I was younger, so I should be able to get around."

"Spend some time familiarising yourself with the workshop - explain things to your friend or, if she'd prefer it, I can teach her later on." The older man paused before he laid a hand on Shade's shoulder. "And my name's Charlie."

A few seconds passed, Charlie's hand still on his shoulder, before the contact broke - Shade turned away, navigating his way around a heap of scrap metal. A patchwork of copper, grey and silver against brown.

 

Vic had settled herself by one of the walls, twirling an allen key between her fingers and jumping forward from the corrugated iron when she drew too close. So he settled beside her and muttered, "He says to take a look around."

"In other words, what I've just been doing."

It was then that Charlie cleared his throat and their focus shifted to him. Two of the boys working at the other end of the room halted in their actions, peeked over at them and buried their heads in work once again. "Not exactly...Victoria. There's more of a scientific method to it like this."

"Hey, mister-"

"Charlie," he corrected.

Sighing, she waved him down and continued, "Yeah, Charlie - why am I the only girl here?"

He came to a stop at this, biting his lip, and ran a hand through thin locks of hair. His gaze met theirs. Open, or so it seemed. "Nobody wants to work here. Might be something to do with the boys..."

 

Vic's mouth opened to question him but he'd already gone back to his work. So she rounded on her companion. "So... The tools are Stone Age and everything's manual. In other words, like home but more metal."

"I saw him going over plans - not so Stone Age there. In fact, I'd say it's pretty good," Shade relayed, watching the subject of their conversations. Where was his deformity? Their new friend was old but he didn't sound old. Whether he saw like an old man or heard like an old man was another matter.

"And you'd know how?" Her hands slipped up to rest on her hips - her elbow grazed against the corrugated iron sheet behind her, sending audible shudders through the piece. And Shade peered past her to follow the vibrations upwards and rake his eyes along the structure.

"My dad was a mechanic before he joined the army. I liked planes and micro stuff. Didn't like much after Dad died." His innards twisted when Vic didn't answer and, instead, avoided meeting his eye. So he looked down and dragged his foot back and forward through the dirt. Flecks of brown blew up, only to drift back down to the ground. Time halted itself, the way a rollercoaster paused at its peak.

 

Until it ripped downwards. "Oi, wench, pass me the wrench!"

Shade raised his head - past Vic, one of the boys from the other end had broken away from the group and stood a few feet away with his a hand on his hip. A response boiled up in his chest but Vic had other ideas.

"Come and get it yourself. I don't work for you," she spat.

A grin slithered onto his lips. Together with his eyes, they stole the attention he received. There wasn't much to look at on his head - a sheet of hairs and a pattern shaved into them. "Does she have the same temper in the sack?"

Shade stepped away from the wall, arms crossed, towards the edge of the central workstation. "You must think that's attractive, huh?"

Laughter peeled. "Yeah, it is. And, if you know so much about what is and isn't hot, why don't you have a girlfriend? Because I'm guessing it's not her, you're not protective enough."

"And if I told you I don't want a girlfriend?" the other man probed, his tone level and calculating all the while.

 

The pattern-shaved man considered him. He leaned back, as if to make it clear that he was examining the younger of the two from head to toe and back again. "I'd say 'just like you'd don't want to mess with us'. Be good little kiddies and we might reward you. Until then, leave me alone."

With that, he turned on his heel and sauntered back over to rejoin the group. One of his friends just shrugged. Shrugged, managed a meager smile and turned away. But curiosity already had him pinned to them like a magnet.

 

 

Over an hour later, Shade held his pencil just above the paper, keeping his senses in sync with the conversation across the room.

"We need that wrench back," Vic demanded. The man from earlier flexed his back and straightened up, folding the skin beneath around the shaved pattern on his head (which looked a little off-kilter when examined close up).

Shade sat some way away; she'd insisted on the distance. After that, she'd left him to make a decision on his own. To that, he just hunched over his work a bit more. Plans were scratched into the sheet of paper in front of him, angled badly from the lack of lines and filling the page.

 

But the introduction of their new (potential) rival made him freeze. He stopped applying layers of graphite to the paper and tried to balance the quality of his view and how obvious it was that he was observing them.

"We're nearly done. Wait your turn," he grumbled. The wrench was in his grasp and he swung it about, tapping it against the worktop from time to time. His smile took a crooked angle.

Dark skin tightened around her jaw in accordance to the muscles underneath. Her hand extended and she folded the fingers in twice, a grabbing motion that made a light 'thwack' every time it hit her hands. "I've been waiting my turn for over an hour now, nearly two. Nice try... But think again."

Instead of following her instructions, he huffed. That smirk stuck. "Watch out. Some of us mutated to be a bit stronger - not that you guys would know much about mutation and everything because of those wonderful suits."

"You don't scared me... Now, wrench please?"

The man with the shaved pattern held up his hands, leaning back towards the other two young men behind him, and then held one hand out. The tool swung from his fingers as it glinted in the artificial light. "Here, take it. Some of us mutated brawn but Charlie..? He got the opposite stuff: brains, everything..."

Eyes narrowed, she snatched the wrench from him and held it down by her side. "How does that go? Remind me. Why aren't you dead? Not I think you should be six feet under or anything, just wondering how you're not all corpses by now."

"It's like working with stupid people. After a while, you just kind of get immune to being...exposed." His hands fluttered through the air in an arch, like he was leaving an invisible rainbow behind. Except he wasn't. The same dull air still existed where his hands had been.

 

"So that's why we've been getting weird looks, huh?" Shade appeared behind Vic, dodging out of the way as she jumped and stepped backwards.

Across from him, their 'companion' didn't even flinch. "For those suits? Definitely. You know you can take them off, right?" He finished the sentence like he was talking about the weather while he fixed them with steady stares.

Something itched inside Shade. Once more, he became aware of the space around them. Much of it was taken up by this and that. But the semi-shaved worker seemed to have grown in size, his presence large enough to beat Shade at six feet and three inches - even if the real thing didn't.

At the same time, Vic's arms folded and she retreated to his side. "I'd prefer to keep mine on, if that's okay with you."

A slow nod. They were frozen for a few moments. Any concept of 'awkward silence', that would've crept in if they'd lived in their old worlds, was gone. No, they were daring each other to move. At last, he spoke, "Nah, I'm just saying... They're look nice. Be a shame if they got ripped or something."

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