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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7. Chapter 6

At some point during the day, a knot had settled in Shade's back. He winced, letting out a sigh through gritted teeth, and reached over to rub the spot.

"What's up?" Vic appeared at the edge of his vision, eyebrow raised. The pair of them were in the last few minutes of their shift; Charlie had done them the favour of putting them together, punctuated by a solemn nod and smile. One of their 'coworkers' had stressed a 'what' under his breath. But it didn't really matter. The shifts at the hangar were very similar in length. It was just a question of who started early in the morning and who started an hour after they did. Everyone had an optional hour for lunch and was allowed bathroom breaks. Within reason.

 

His hand moved away from his back and gripped a tool (much larger than the one they'd been given to 'escape'). The back of each finger turned pale but he reiterated, "Just my back, I think. I'm not used to working this long."

"I know what you mean; I had a Saturday job but it was just a handful of hours. I didn't have to get up and work until dinner time." She let out a groan and slumped forward, grunting her complaint at the equipment in the way and pushing her section of the workbench clear.

And Shade went around after her, organised them into piles far from Vic and warned, "Be careful. They've been pointing and gossiping over there, don't give the vultures fresh meat." He nodded over to boys.

 

Vic didn't lift her head from the desk or turn to look where he was nodding; it was already quite obvious what was in that corner. "Don't worry, I'm not screwing up in front of them. I'd never head the end of it." Glancing down at her suit, she added, "They'd probably set this thing on fire and dance around it. But they're not, because I'm not ripping it."

And then she settled back down, heads in her arms, with the rest of her body stuck out where she stood. Shade let out a sigh, eyes flitting between her and the wall until a hand planted on his shoulder. The muscles tensed and he was about to spin round, when he noticed the web of wrinkles in the skin.

 

"Charlie..." he began, each sound spaced. "Something wrong?"

"Oh, no. I just came to ask you how you're find this first day at work." Charlie smiled up at him and met his gaze - his features were relaxed. Warm.

As the hand disappeared from his shoulder, Shade shrugged and mumbled, "I guess it's okay. Where I came from, I didn't really have a job. After the 'end of the world', I went to join a bunker. We only do small jobs. Did. I mean, we only did small jobs." He glanced down at the ground, swallowing, and then back up at Charlie.

The older man narrowed his eyes with his head cocked to one side. "I see. Well, if you ever need anything, please let me know. I'd be more than happy to help," he declared, giving him a tight nod and a smile with a frown hidden behind it. "It's the end of your shift in a few minutes. You've done a good job today. Why don't you go now?"

"Okay..." Then, when Charlie turned to leave, he added, "Thank you. Means a lot." Gazes locked and they knew he wasn't talking about the few minutes shaved off of today's shift.

 

So he put a hand on Vic's arm, peering sideways into the little cave she'd created with her helmet and arms, before he gestured to the exit. She got up from the table in a similar fashion to how she went down. Grace was to her movements as clean was to their surroundings. But they left the workbench, glancing over their shoulder to check on the others in the corner. Boys wouldn't have been an accurate way to describe them yet 'men' was far too mature.

 

"Well, that was interesting," Vic announced, as soon as they'd cleared the area. Nobody was around and her voice carried down the tunnel in each way. "They're not like back in the bunker. We're a small group and everyone knows everyone. But here, it's like they've got a mini-society going on you have to do your part or they'll kick your ass."

Shade made a breathy noise that sounded a bit like a laugh. "No, I expected that. They have people with set duties, they have a leader and they have a prison. There's something else I'm curious about."

"Like...?"

"Like why hasn't the radiation killed them all by now; I wasn't bad at science, you don't just develop immunity to radiation like you do to chickenpox. And what's with all the mutated faces? Mutations caused by radiation aren't...that kind."

 

Before Vic could open her mouth, Shade called out and smacked into the ground next to her. Dirt crept its way up his face - he squeezed his eyes closed to stop tiny pieces of earth from falling past his eyelashes. Pushing himself up to a sitting position, he propelled specks and clumps of brown away from his pursed lips and glanced around.

"Watch it!" His gaze fell on who Vic was yelling at. A group of children: boys, girls, different ages but still young enough to be 'just kids'. She glared at them with arms crossed. "You tripped him over. Where the hell are your parents?"

But Shade was shaking his head, standing up and brushing off his clothes all at the same time. "Vic, it's oka-"

"The surface," the tallest girl replied. Her chin jutted out and her bottom lip was steady. "They're with another clan. We ran away. And we're sorry we ran into you. But we're also hungry and it's time for food. Can we go now?"

"Wait a second..." Vic began, inching forward.

But Shade laid a hand on her shoulder. "I'm fine." He turned his attention to the children and nodded. "Go on, get your food. Just don't do it again."

 

 

"Where the hell are your parents?" An old lady had shrieked at Shade, waving her handbag, as he darted into the lobby of their apartment complex. He just stopped, glanced back to make sure he hadn't sent her flying into the road and then carried on. Nothing could've touched him - not the broken lift, the slow bus or the old lady. Why?

He'd perched a box in his arms. Even still, it wasn't any ordinary box; he'd spent hours working on it and several more bargaining with his teacher to let him bring it home to show his mum.

Not that he was naive enough to think that it'd wash all her troubles away. Maybe, he thought, hands trembling where they held on to the front. Maybe it'll make her a little bit happier.

 

So he carried on up the stairs and reached the door of their apartment. No one poked their head out to look at him. Just as well. The age year old placed the creation on the ground, fished out his key and unlocked the door. And, scooping it back up again, he shuffled inside. Only to have the door slam shut after him. With the key still in the other side.

"Not again." So the box was abandoned a second time and he pulled the door open and tugged the key from the lock. When the door was locked - and bolted, this time - with the key tucked away in his pocket, he reloaded his cargo and carried on his journey.

 

First stop, his room. I have to put everything down, including this. If I drop it, not only will sir kill me, Mum won't have anything to be happy about again. Like she's always saying when she thinks I can't hear her. Shade took one last glimpse of the room and then headed for his mother's.

But, when he pushed the door open, the only presence was the ticking of the clock and the obnoxious-coloured photo frame than had been placed face-down on the dresser. Through the translucent part of the frame at the top, he read the word 'love' backwards. His father. It had been like that for weeks yet he'd resisted the gut instinct to move it or stand it up.

 

This wasn't like other kids' dads. Their mothers would tell them to hate the 'lying scumbags' (they wouldn't always listen). All Shade's mother told him was that the K was an M, and that the Ministry of Defense had everything so wrong.

Today, he sat the photo the right side up. He told himself it was only so he could see the green of his father's eyes.

His feet pressed into dirty magnolia fibers as he brought the box out and sat it on the floor of the hallway. At the end of the hallway, where it had always been, the door to the living room was closed. Shade sucked in a breath and held it, before opening the door ajar and pressing his eyes to the crack. His mother was sat in an armchair. The upholstery deflated beneath her light frame and her face was hidden by lank hair.

 

As he took note of the papers in her lap and the pen in her hand, the doorbell went off. She let out a sigh and put the documents on the coffee table.

Shade shuffled back from the door, standing just inside his room, and watched her pace up to the door. The handle rattled when she turned it.

They had a deep voice, the person at the door, and the words all jumbled up by the time they reached him. All he could feel were the vibrations of the visitor's voice.

And his mother's response. "No, go away."

More rumbling, velvet with a shake to it.

"I don't have time for this. Go! Before I call the police."

The velvet voice took a deep breath, muttered one last word and disappeared to the tune of a slamming door. Now that echoed through to him. This time, the rumblings turned his stomach. A draft ruffled the hair on his head as a blur of drab clothing and red skin swept past him, giving the living room door the same treatment as their front door.

 

When he emerged back onto the corridor, specks of pale dust were scattered in front of the living room door. There was still a chance, right?

But he reached over to pick up his school project and saw that the latch on the front had been torn from its spot. It's not her fault. I...should've secured it better or something.

Even still, he leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor. His knees tucked up into his chest. He'd been an idiot. The only thing that could've made her happy was the letter 'M'. There was no 'M' in Shade Ashton.

 

 

"Looks like we're the first here." They'd arrived at the garage the next day, half-shut eyes on the empty hangar - there was an array of tools lined up on one of the work tables. More cluttered than their own, a maze of thin and thick. One of the three stools around it was on its side and the whole scene reminded Shade a little of the student accommodation he'd seen on TV comedies.

 

Vic yawned, planted herself on one of the stools around their table and slumped onto the clear work space. "One word - mattress springs."

"That's two words. And you'll get an actual bench mark if you keep your head like that for too long." The corner of his mouth tugged upwards as he came to stand behind her. Hands in his pockets, he peered down at her.

"Semantics..." she groaned, waving an arm in his direction. The portion of the suit that stretched across her back and down her arm had creased in it that were several days old. "At least it's not bad. I mean, at least it's quiet at night."

Shade nodded, brow creased. "This place is full of zombies."

Vic smirked, voice higher as she restrained laughter. "Yeah, because they're dead silent. Get it? Dead silent. Dead. Zombies are dead."

"That's not what I mean - it's like we're walking in a crowd of zombies; they're just trailing everywhere, and their hands are always only just touching our suits and some of them are glaring like they want to drag us down into hell with them. And the deformities are-"

 

"A word." Charlie appeared in the archway to another room. So Shade swallowed and made his way over - it was almost like an office but the cups and empty meal packages on the table suggested it was more of a break room than anything else. The old world's scent of coffee or tea was a hollow space in the plethora of scents. They had more important things to do than grow that kind of thing.

The older man watched him and let him stew. "You're not in trouble. But there are some things you should know before you go about suggesting a double apocalypse down here."

 

Blinking, Shade held up a finger and said, "Wait a second, Vic needs to hear this."

"You trust her?" The phrase was accompanied by a pointed look, as if to say that he better tell the truth. He better mean it.

The younger of the two nodded, features set firm, and straightened so he drew up to full height. His tone was solid when he spoke - like stone or wood, but not earth. They all knew that the ground beneath them (and above them) wasn't as solid as they'd once thought. "With my life. My death too."

Charlie looked him over, frowned and then conceded, "Call her over."

 

Shade peeked his head outside the door of the office and beckoned Vic over with a wave of his hand, eyes flitting to their colleagues. Somewhere in between when they'd been interrupted and that moment, they'd made their appearance and were chatting in slurred voices around one of the tables. Vic rested a hand on her hip, cocking her head, but dropped what she was doing and headed over to him.

And she entered the room, rolling her sleeves down over grimy forearms. "You've got something to tell me?"

"First of all, not everyone was made perfect and that doesn't make them any less human." A trace of Charlie's warmth laid in waiting beneath his features, but there was a sort of dead conviction blocking it. He pointed to the quietest of their workmates. "You see that one? He has Epilepsy. But we don't have any medicine or anything down here so he's always having fits. And one of the assistant cooks has OCD - poor thing hasn't had the help she used to in the four years she's been here."

 

He looked between them and gathered a shuddering breath. "I'll cut to the chase - we get sick, we can't cure ourselves the way we used to. And, for everything we might have done wrong, we don't take kindly to anything trying to break us up. Not so long after we set up shop here, most people still stayed underground. They were terrified of the whole radiation situation - it's not like we had any physicists to explain it," he rambled, holding a hand to his forehead.

"Okay... What changed?" Shade probed.

"Well, some brave souls went up to the surface to do what had to be done and... They brought some kind of disease back. Of course, they died of the irradiation before the disease really got them. It started burning people, doing strange things to their skin and their faces. Those of us that beat it ended up with these...deformities, like you said, and a resistance to radiation."

He inclined his head in the direction of the boys in the main bay but they didn't need to look to know what he was trying to point out about them. "After a while, we got ourselves together and managed to figured all this out."

 

Despite the light note on the end of his speech, Vic narrowed her eyes. "If you guys know so much about this virus and radiation, and all that, why the hell are people asking us to take off the suits when we're not immune?"

Shade looked between the two - her scrutinising, him trying to drag himself out of a pit of memories - as Charlie sighed. "Between you and me - and I'm not supposed to tell you this, so be careful who you talk to about it - that's where something happened against your permission. The prison food was a dead form of the virus, like a vaccine in all your meals."

"No wonder it looked so bad," she remarked, face scrunching up.

"Actually, that's the prison cook's fault. He's not exactly in the right place to be making all these gourmet things."

 

Their gazes met for a few more moments before Vic asked, "Are we done?"

Charlie nodded to both of them, smile wrinkling his lips. "For now." Then he turned away to one of the shelves and the pair took that chance to leave. When they got back to the work table, Vic took a seat and rolled her sleeves up again. Shade stood, leaning against the table, with his lip between his teeth.

 

"You think it's something to do with the other clan, don't you?" She glanced up at him, picking up the equipment she'd been holding before. When he nodded, she continued, "I wouldn't be surprised. I mean, it's not like it's savagery or anything - it's just like two gangs fighting. I used to see it all the time back home. Just...not as creepy."

He raked a hand through his hair and cradling his forehead in his palm. "Whatever it is, they've managed to survive for this long. Be wary but don't give up what chance we have of fitting in."

"So we're staying?"

There was a pause. "Yeah. I want to know what's it like around here before we move on."

 

 

"Look, you're doing it the wrong way. We always do it like this so it stays in place for the time we're used to before we have to replace it again." The 'nicest' of the boys that worked with them had his hand clasped over Victoria's, and the pair of them were covering a joint in a piece of kitchen equipment. It was in two halves on top of the larger work bench but the two of them still met burning gazes over the top of the structure.

Unlike the other type of burning gaze, this had nothing to do with hopeless romance and the turning point in a cheesy romantic comedy.

 

She used one hand to slap his off and her forehead creased with a glare. "Ever considered that's why you're so used to replacing it again? Because you're joining them together like a five-year-old with superglue and a toy tool kit." The fingers that had pushed him away gestured to the picked-apart joining.

"Let's just do it this way, yeah? I mean, well, did you study this kind of thing?" He flung his arms wide, missing the metal by a fraction.

"No." She hadn't even gotten past high school.

 

At that, his chest swelled like someone had filled him up with pride using an air pump. "Well, I did-" And his gesturing hands chose that moment to slam into the metal. His mouth fell into an 'o' and he clutched the damaged limb to his chest, as his next words came out with a slight wheeze. Satisfaction leaked through her expression in a smirk. "I do - I was, until it got interrupted."

"Just give it a rest, Layton." His polar opposite - the 'least nice' of the group - piped up from the other side of the room. A subtle evil was in his eyes.

Vic laughed and, even thought it was more of a 'ha' than fully-fledged laughter, it shook her shoulders. The smirk on her lips stretched further. "Your name's Layton."

"Yep. Classy, isn't it?" Again, the reply came from the other side of the room and Shade glanced at them from over there; he'd moved over to work on one of their smaller, older tasks while the kitchen equipment took up the entirety of his own table. Since he'd parked himself across the table from Layton's 'friend', with his back to the pair, he hadn't spoken a word.

 

"Your name's Layton. There was some professor dude in a Nintendo DS game named Layton." She leaned forward, head bobbling a little, with her elbows resting on the steel that seemed so intent on betraying him. And she'd have been lying if she said a smug sense of victory.

Layton glared over at his colleague. "I hate you, Bret."

Grinning, Bret waltzed his way out from behind his table and over to the duo. Then, with one hand on his hip, he leaned in and murmured, "What're you going to do about it?"

Layton's nostrils flared. "We share a room, I can kill you in your..." But he trailed off when Bret began to straighten up, shaking his head and making jerking movements with his neck. So he followed his roommate's gaze and caught sight of two dirty prison officers as the last word fell from his lips. "Sleep."

 

Vic watched the exchange, narrowed her eyes and called out, "Charlie?"

"What is it?" He came out of the office while brushing something off his hands - the motion stopped when he spotted who their guests were. "Oh."

Squaring up to full height, they didn't waste any time by introducing themselves and didn't whip out any pieces of paper. Though one of them did match Vic's squinty-eyed look through the grime on their face (old and new layers alike). "We're here to assign two of you to surface duty. It's your group's turn this week, Charlie, and we can't take bribes; the team needs to be full."

Bret stepped clear of the table and declared, "Sorry, dude, we've both done it at least once." With a face that made him almost look like he actually was sorry, they grunted at their gaze landed on Charlie.

 

"I can't at the minute. Priority project and everything..." Charlie cast a glance in Shade's direction. "I won't be able to help you much."

"Fair enough. Ashton, Maine, you're on surface duty. Instead of your normal work time, get up one hour earlier and report to the prison entrance. You should wait until the rest of your team arrive and then you'll be lead to your exit from there."

Vic huffed out hot air. "We'll see you there, I guess." And so they departed, leaving a sprinkling of dirt behind them.

 

As soon as they were out of earshot, Charlie turned to face them. "I'm sorry about that - I wasn't lying when I said I had a more important project, I'd be put to better use down here than way up there. They don't need withering tree stumps like me. That's for sure..."

"You're not that withering, really," Shade assured him. Vic's head whipped around and she looked in her friend's direction, a displeased twist to her lips.

The older man didn't seem to notice; he just chuckled. "And you're Superman. Besides, I think it'd help you find out more of what you'd like to know." Then he gave them a nod and turned back towards his office. Behind his back, Vic frowned. She doubted he meant why there were so few women she'd seen.

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