Orange light streaks across the sky, pink and yellow sunlight illuminating the uppermost branches of the trees yawning up towards the clouds. The sun peaks out from below the horizon, creeping and unsure from beneath the cover of the land until it decides to start a new dawn. Earth slowly awakens, the air filling with the sound of birds chirping and tweeting in the trees and the rustling of animals stirring in the undergrowth.
The boy sits with his back pressed against the wall, his pale, naked skin caked in crumbling plaster dust. His hands are rust-red with blood and glittering with shards of glass wedged in his flesh, his face sallow and his eyes dark with fatigue. As the sun creeps higher into the sky, the room begins to flood with dull yellow light, illuminating the rows of empty tanks stretching down the middle of the room. One of the walls is lined with half-empty shelves, pillaged by the other survivors whilst he slept on. The others are simply crumbling plaster giving way to bare brick, broken only by the few dirt-dulled high windows and a single battered and rusted metal door.
He stirs, snapping awake as his head rolls from his knee and drops to his chest. The brightness of the light stings at his eyes and he blinks, taking more than a moment to take it all in: the walls, the windows and the door, the shelves and the machines. His eyes run past the vines creeping in through the brickwork, the tree roots poking their way through holes near the floor to snake across the ground towards him. He staggers to his feet, swallowing past the dry ache in his throat and stumbling forwards, his sore hands gripping at the edges of the tanks for support, following the trail of rust-red bloody handprints from the night before.
Panic wells within him as he reaches his tank, looking down at the bloodied glass spread out around his feet. Remembering.
He reaches into the tank, his body pressing against the cool metal exterior as his hands slip over the cushioning inside, searching until they find what he is looking for. He extracts the paper, as white and as fresh as the day it was written, the black ink smudged by his own fingerprints from too many hundreds of years before.
Providing everything has gone to plan, I welcome you to the year 2518. It’s a new world, and probably a scary one. I have no idea what you’re going to see or find, or who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to do, but I hope it’s wonderful. You’ve been asleep a while, and I have a sneaking suspicion you may be naked- let’s face it, people usually are in this kind of thing- so just in case you’ve forgotten, here’s your reminder that there’s clothes and food and stuff on the shelves. Sort yourself out, but don’t forget that you don’t know what sort of world awaits you out there and how long you’ll have to survive off this stuff for so… well… don’t go too crazy with it. I don’t know what else to say to you, other than to be careful I guess. It’d suck if you waited 500 years to wake up then died on your first day in the future, you know? Oh, and I know you'll be busy exploring this new world and everything but, well, don't forget why you're here.
The paper crinkles in his fingers as he folds it, dropping it back amongst the tangle of wires and tubes and wandering over to the shelves. Sure enough they’re stocked with clothes in his size, and bottles of water and packets of food stocked in ancient, partly oxidised metal crates. There are more supplies still, and empty bottles and wrappers scattered on the floor, but nobody appears to have stayed very long or taken very much with them. Instead, they seem to have taken their chances with the world beyond and faced it head on with nothing but a set of clothes on their back, shoes on their feet and a bottle of water or two in hand.
The boy takes one of his boxes down from the shelf and flips back the lid, withdrawing a bottle of water and flipping open the cap. It tastes stale, as he expected, and it’s warmer than he would have liked, but it’s wet. He finishes the bottle and lets it fall to the floor, grabbing some clothes and pulling them over his body. They’re warm too, but in a nice and comforting way after the bitter, naked cold of the night before. Lastly he forages through the packets of food, looking for anything that might satisfy the hollow rumbling of his stomach. He settles for a plastic bag of dried meat, slipping a thin strip of pork between his lips and letting the sweet saltiness melt on his tongue.
His hands still sting, so he reaches for one of the first aid kits stacked on the shelf and drops to the floor, the little green bag falling down next to him. He uses a pair of tweezers to pull the last of the glass from his hands and drops them into the dust, wiping the blood from his hands with a t-shirt from one of the shelves folded in his lap. When he’s done, he slathers his hands with cream and wraps them with bandages, then sits there with them folded in his lap as they sting and bleed through, thinking about what to do next. He runs through his list in his head: food, water, warmth, shelter. Check, check, check, and check.
The only thing left to do is discover is what kind of world he’s woken up to, but he suddenly finds that he doesn’t want to know. For as long as he remains inside, he can kid himself that he never left the past, that at any moment he could open that door and fall straight into his family’s arms.
He stays where he is for a while longer, his head woozy and light as whatever drugs were pumping through him slowly wear off. By the time he’s finished sipping at another stale bottle of water, the light has turned from yellow to a dull, flickering white. He looks up at the windows, past the thick dirt caking the panes and at the trees beyond.
More slowly than he would like, he heaves himself to his feet and creeps towards the door. He glances into the tanks as he goes, each one of them dustier than the last. Wires and tubes tangle in the bottom of each of them and pour out of the sides, shattered glass lying in piles on the floor between them. In some, the white interior is stained with the brown and rust-red of old blood. In one, lying abandoned at the bottom of the tank, lies a curled and yellow photograph, a picture of a family long dead and gone.
It hits him like a punch to his chest as he looks down into the pale, faded faces of two parents and their kids. His lungs feel deflated and tight, his head pounding with grief as he remembers what he sacrificed to be here, remembers everything he left behind and what became of them in the hundreds of years since he left. It strikes at something deep within him, pulling at feelings he wasn’t even sure he still had. His wipes at the stinging wetness on his cheeks and moves to the door, his eyes falling on the last tank despite his best efforts to ignore it.
The glass is caked in an inch-thick layer of grey dust, thinner in some places where it’s been wiped away but still thick enough to hide the person lying below. None of the machines running alongside are turned on, and the few wires running between the screens and the tank are tangled and worn.
He shivers, suddenly burning hot and cold all at the same time. Fear spikes through him, the knowledge that something isn’t right sliding down his spine like a drop of ice water. He knows what he’ll find in there, and yet he can’t stop himself. He grabs another shirt from the shelves and wipes away the dust, coughing as the grey clouds of dirt rise up and consume him. With watery, stinging eyes he looks down into the tank, past the white lining at the body lying within.
They’ve been dead a while.
He coughs again, peering into the box with a mixture of horror and morbid interest. The body is barely more than a pile of bones, draped here and there with strips of dry, leathery grey skin. The wires and tubes curled within have nothing to hold onto anymore, but poke through what’s left of the skin and wind through the ribs like brightly coloured worms. He tries to guess who it could possibly be, how long they’ve been there, but finds he can’t. He can’t think of this mess of bones and skin and wires and dried-up sludge as ever being human, let alone someone that he once knew, no matter how briefly.
He knows this could have been him.
Finally, after far too much time spent gazing blankly, numbly at the human remains filling the tank before him, he turns away. Maybe this is why everyone else ran.
He leans his forehead against the door, taking deep breaths against the rust and trying not to think about the body lying in the tank behind him. The metal is cold and rough under his skin, but the handle is smooth and loose beneath his touch. He grips onto it, twisting it and pushing until it swung open, the hinges smooth and loose despite decades of dis-use.
There are two steps down to the earth and a semi-circle of mossy stone spreading out from them towards the forest floor. The earth beyond is brown, the distant sky blue behind fluttering green leaves and swaying black branches. The silence of the room is suddenly drowned out by the influx of life: the twittering of birds and scurrying of animals in the undergrowth, the flapping of wings and distant predatory howls rushing into his ears all at once.
He stands on the concrete, bare toes curling against the cold as fallen leaves blow into the room. The air is fresh and earthy and cool as he inhales properly for what feels like the first time in his life, the tiny clearing feeling open and exposed in the most freeing sort of way. He steps down, feeling the damp moss against his skin. The ground is mottled brown and gold as stripes of sunlight stab through the gaps between the leaves, the breeze creating undulating patterns of light dancing across fallen twigs and sticks and stones. It catches at his clothes, pulling at his trousers and whipping his shirt around his stomach.
He turns, looking back at the bunker. Thin and rickety metal stairs climb up the side of tall, thick concrete walls, grey and alien amongst the leafy green of the woodland surrounding him. The doorway is a dark hole in the middle of it, the narrow windows set out of reach. A huge oak stands to one side, its roots snaking across the earthy ground and hugging the cracks in the walls while vines and weeds cling to the grey stone. He finds he doesn’t want to go back inside: he feels safe out here, with the wind blowing around him and the leaves whispering and rustling high above. The new world calls to him, the possibility of discovery pulling his heart towards the virgin darkness waiting for him, and yet he finds he cannot leave the moss. Instead he steps back towards the bunker and sits on the steps, half inside and half out, watching as the blue sky slowly turns back to pink and red, plunging the clearing and the bunker gradually back into the night.