By Dewi Hargreaves
Quintus woke to the hiss of pneumatics.
His sight returned. It was grainy, full of static, and it flickered several times. He panicked, until he remembered he was looking through a camera lens on the front of his exosuit, plugged into his brain.
Code rolled by in his peripheral vision as the suit’s support computers flexed their muscles. His on-board AI was running diagnostics – working out its location on Earth, cross-referencing inputs and databases and performing scans.
“ERROR/OR. LOCATION: SURFACE. EXTREME DANGER.”
“Confirmed,” he said.
“QUINTUS VANE OF HOUSE VANE.”
“RECOMMENDATION: ABORT/ORT/ORT.” Its vocal system seemed to be broken. That was his fault; he shouldn’t have stolen a suit bound for the scrapheap. There was nothing he could do about it now, though.
A display appeared to his top left: his vital signs traced onto the outline of a body. All green. There was a database on the right, a collection of articles chosen by the AI. He browsed it for a second with his thoughts, watching them fly by at his whim. Not reading, but checking that they were all there, that nothing was corrupted, in case he needed them later.
The suit’s joints groaned as he hauled himself up. Before he’d climbed into it, it had probably been stationary for years.
He looked around.
The pod door was two metres away, hanging slightly open. A green, hazy light shone through, lighting up a mural on the wall.
Frozen figures stared at him. Grinning workers, waving children, Indonauts working deep in the Earth’s mantle and Exonauts exploring the surface, all eerily quiet. The One and Twelve sat in the centre, issuing commands.
Quintus cursed their names.
He studied his onboard maps, flicking through images from before the disaster. City names littered his vision. He knew only one of them.
“Direction: Castine City.”
“CASTINE CITY CO-ORDINATES: 39.826549, -83.412970.”
“TIME TO CASTINE CITY: 49 HOURS/URS.”
He entered the co-ordinates.
“WARNING: TRAVEL NOT ADVISED. ENVIRONMENT: HOSTILE.”
“Understood,” he said.
“HAIL THE ONE AND TWELVE.”
The pod door was stuck; the release catch wouldn’t budge. He forced it open, his exosuit creaking.
He stepped out, a foot falling into the coarse dust. Earth.
Nothing could have prepared him for the sight.
The world was shrouded in a dense, gangrenous fog. Perhaps his camera’s lens was faulty?
He cycled through the other lenses, his vision zooming in to various degrees as he did so. This was what the surface looked like.
For once, the propaganda murals were telling the truth.
Despite himself, he felt a surge of excitement. A freedom he’d never experienced before. It tasted sweeter than he could ever have imagined.
Ahead, dusty plains, dunes and valleys rolled on for what seemed like forever. Black, spiny obelisks jutted above the horizon, the skeletal remains of an old city. According to the AI, that was his destination.
In a cramped marketplace, a young boy trailed his father. Scrap metal structures were piled high either side of them. Neon lights lit the dingy stalls as traders with dirty faces shoved things into people’s hands, shouting loudly.
They scattered as the boy and his father approached.
The peoples’ clothes were scruffy and faded – dull shades of yellow, brown and black. His father’s robe was a bright, ruby red, embroidered with swirling gold patterns. Its hem trailed the ground, picking up soot and mud.
A couple of people fell to their knees.
“Why do they do that, father?” the boy asked.
“They respect me, Quintus. One day, they will respect you too.”
The boy looked at one of the kneeling men. His eyes were firmly shut, his lower lip trembling. Head down, face tight, he waited for them to walk by.
It did not look like respect.
They passed through quickly – his father always walked fast.
When the boy looked back, he saw a man who stood slightly taller than the others. He wore an elegant metal suit, covered in armour plates that reminded him of eggshells. In the middle of its faceplate was a glass lens.
The market-goers gathered around the armoured man, draping him in cloth and handing him gifts. He rejected them with a friendly wave and walked on.
That night, the boy went to the library and read about the Exonauts.
“CAUTION: LOW LIGHT. VISION IMPAIRED.”
“Find us some shelter,” Quintus said.
The AI scanned the area, clocking a nearby cave.
Despite the layer of metal covering him, and the suit’s ample thermal padding, he felt a chill. Once again, he found himself getting excited. Soon he’d be able to feel wind on his skin for the first time.
Soon, but not yet.
If he was right, the surface could be a dangerous place. Not all Surfacers were friendly: some were hunters, and they’d think nothing of picking off a lone straggler in the wastes.
Still more would kill him to get their hands on the exosuit.
He reached the cave and entered slowly, activating his headlamp.
The cave was empty.
When he closed his eyes, he saw them again.
They were grubby, even by the standards of the City. With patchy clothes and creased, sun-darkened skin, they came forward slowly, glancing around with fear.
What had struck him most was that there was no hierarchy. Nobody led them. They’d spoken and laughed amongst each other, and they huddled to discuss when told they had to pick a single representative to speak for them.
She’d looked weary, but had bright eyes and a quick smile that spoke of a kind of confidence he’d never felt. A freedom of conscience that was utterly alien to everything he knew.
“EXONAUT DETECTED,” the AI blurted, disturbing his thoughts.
He stood, his heart rate quickening. “Where?”
“ERROR/OR. LOCATION: UNKNOWN.”
“What do you mean, unknown?”
“SCAN DISRUPTED. LOCATION: UNKNOWN.”
He cursed the old suit. No wonder it had been in the scrap line .
Honestly, he’d expected more time. It should have taken them at least a day.
But his father was a cunning man.
There was nothing else for it. No rest tonight.
“WARNING: SLEEP DEPRIVATION SLOWS REACTION TIME.”
“Castine City co-ordinates.”
The blip appeared on his map.
“HAIL THE ONE AND TWELVE.”
Quintus stood on the balcony, looking at the City far below. He remembered the words of the One: “We are the cells, the City is the body.” from up here, it was easy to believe. People jostled in the streets, the crowds moving between the buildings like streams of water. Temple priests fought their way through, calling out prayers to the One and Twelve, their golden lanterns swaying on the ends of long poles. He watched one of the Twelve bob above the throngs, carried on a glittering palanquin by bare-backed slaves. Normally such people wouldn’t be caught dead mingling with the common crowd – but today was different. Today was special.
The City lay within a massive cavern, kilometres across. Slums and favelas spanned the cavern floor, piled up against each other. Above those, along the cavern walls, were comfortable terraces. At the top, and level with Quintus’s gaze, were the great mansions of the Twelve Families, carved into the giant stalactites that dripped from the roof and linked by ornate bridges. These stalactites were the homes of the City’s elite, forever looming over the heads of the common people, unreachable.
The cavern was filled with twenty huge pillars, towers of metal anchored in the ground and reaching to the cavern ceiling. The largest one stood in the centre, a thousand cables linking it to the smaller pillars around it. These pillars had withstood hundreds of high magnitude earthquakes. They were the only things that stood between the City’s half a million inhabitants and annihilation.
Miles beneath the cavern floor, Indonauts cleaved through rock and magma to lay the foundations of more pillars, while others worked to expand the cavern itself, trying to keep ahead of the City’s growing population and its demand for space.
He hated them all.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” his friend Hame spoke, stirring him from his thoughts.
Quintus turned away from the balcony. “If you say so.”
“You disagree?” Hame gasped. “But look at all the people! When was the last time the One ordained such a thing?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Exactly. This is the City at its most glorious!”
Quintus sighed. “If this is its best, you may as well push me off.” He looked at the roof of the cavern. “Don’t you ever wonder what’s outside?”
Hame frowned. “No. Why would I? There’s nothing there.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, because the One and Twelve say so.”
“Ah,” said Quintus, raising a finger. “But if there’s nothing up there, why do they send Exonauts up every week? And why are we inviting the Surfacers down to trade? We’d have no need to, unless they have something we don’t.”
Hame’s face darkened. “Are you accusing the One and Twelve of lying?”
“No, no, never. But if people live up there, there must be something. Don’t you think?”
Hame was quiet for a while. He leaned on the balcony, hand in his beard. “I have sometimes thought… what it would be like to meet a Surfacer.”
“Imagine,” Quintus replied, unable to hide his passion. “To actually meet one! The things they’ve seen.”
“I wonder if it’s true, that they smell like dirt and don’t know how to build houses.”
Quintus looked his friend in the eye and saw a twinkle there. A twinkle he’d often seen in the mirror. His heart raced. Would he?
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I found some old exosuits. Down in the scrapyard, unguarded.”
Hame’s eyes were wide. “Do they… work?”
“They do! I tested them. The other night, when father thought I was with the Indonauts.”
Hame looked as though Quintus had just stabbed him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am serious. This may be our only chance.”
Hame was silent for a long time. “It’s not our place, Quin.”
Quintus frowned. “My father, hail him, gets to meet Surfacers all the time. So does my brother. Why not me, why not you?”
“Because your father is Three, and your brother is his heir. So is the way. We eat well, live well, sleep well. Much better than they do down there. You should be more grateful for what you have.” He looked away. “Sorry, Quin. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Quintus said nothing.
“Why can’t you be happy being an Indonaut?” Hame continued. “It’s an honourable job.”
Quintus spat. “Digging holes in the ground until you die. Honourable.”
“We’re helping people. Expanding the cavern, building new homes, digging mines for more pillars. That’s what we do. Mud in every mouth. ‘New’ is not on the table.”
“Maybe you’re happy with that, but I’m not.” He watched the fat Twelve bob along on his golden throne, far below. “I want to know more. I must know more.”
Hame turned away. “Go and find out, then. But don’t expect me to go with you. I know my place. Hail the One and Twelve.” He went inside. Some time later, Quin heard a door slam, and saw Hame hurrying off across the bridge.
Quintus reached the ruined city after several hours of travel. The sun was disappearing behind the dunes and the bones of the skyscrapers cast long shadows on the streets. It began to rain, a thick, sludgy rain that left marks on his lens. The only sound was the patter of rain on metal and the thudding of his heavy suit’s feet on the old asphalt. Many of the buildings had been buried in the dust but the streets were mostly clear, probably cleared by Surfacer tribes that used them as trade routes. He stopped when he reached an old service station, mostly buried.
Ignoring the AI, he flicked his headlamp on and approached. He was running low on supplies. And he knew that his father and his men were shooting up through the Earth’s mantle right now, hot on his tail. They might even have reached the surface. Unlike him, they were trained Exonauts, faster and in better suits too. He looked back at the dunes, zooming in with his lenses, but saw nothing.
“AI, keep an eye on our rear,” he said.
“HAIL THE ONE AND TWELVE,” it said in response.
The station’s door was buried so he entered through a window, his heavy suit pulling some of the crumbling concrete wall with him. He found himself in a room containing an old firepit. Two corpses lay either side of it, picked clean of flesh.
Something snarled from a dark corner.
He aimed his headlamp and saw a creature he must have awakened. The AI flicked up a database article for him. It identified the animal as a bear, but there was hardly any resemblance between the image and the creature he saw in front of him. This had longer teeth, a smaller cranium and thinner fur along its flanks. Its tail was pink and bald.
It stalked forward, pale tongue lolling.
“DEFENCE SYSTEMS/EMS ACTIVE.”
The taste of electricity filled the air, followed by the scent of scorched flesh.
“HAIL THE ONE AND TWELVE.”
Quintus went from room to room, performing scans. The shelves were empty, the building had been stripped. Holes in the walls marked where people had pulled out the wiring. It was a concrete shell, nothing more. There was no time to move on, though. The sun was setting and he needed to rest. He found a suitable corner, settled down and closed his eyes.
“Time to Jane Clancy?” he asked.
“TIME TO JANE CLANCY: 8 HOURS.”
He still had so far to go. And there was no way of knowing how close behind his father was. But he had to keep going.
Quintus moved quickly. He’d thrown a baggy red robe over himself to hide the winding tattoos that covered his arms and hands, the tattoos that betrayed him as the second son of Three. He let himself be carried by the flow of the crowd, knowing they would drift towards the Surfacers. As he drew closer, he found himself having to fight harder to keep his place. He pushed down the panic. He had little experience of crowds, but that wasn’t going to stop him.
He made his way to the front to get a better view. People buzzed with whispered excitement. The central highway of the City had been cleared for the parade. Exonauts lined the electrified barriers, their enamel exosuits gleaming, their lenses glaring red. Each still as a statue. Crowds pressed up near them nonetheless, but kept their distance.
Behind them, a block of Exonauts marched in perfect formation. But they did not interest him. His eye was drawn to the people they were escorting.
There were perhaps a dozen people, leading pack-bearing animals behind them. Quintus felt something when he looked at them. It wasn’t pity, or fear; simply an awareness of how different they were to any other people he’d ever seen before. They were thin, their skin wrinkled and brown, but they didn’t look old. It was as though they had been cooked and dried. They clustered together and stared wide-eyed at the City around them, wonder and fear etched into their faces.
Another troop of Exonauts was coming the other way. An imposing figure strode at their head, his steps crisp, his red and gold robes and wide hat cut perfectly to his form. His father. Quintus ducked by instinct when he saw him, tugging the robe hood further over his face.
His brother, a miniature of his father, shadowed his steps. Silence fell over the cavern as the two groups drew closer.
His father, Three, moved forward and allowed each of them to kiss his hands. One of the Exonauts brought forward a small, sealed white box. An elderly Surfacer, his face more beard than skin, gestured for one of their animals to be brought forward. Three refused to take the reins himself, and the animal was passed on to one of his bodyguards.
The Surfacers huddled, and a slim woman, hair wild around her shoulders, moved forward.
Then the talking began.
They spoke for a long while, though about what, Quintus couldn’t hear. A murmur of frustration bubbled up from the crowd, but it dissipated in an instant when one of the Exonauts stunned someone who got too close.
After a while, the parade started moving again. Three and his bodyguards turned back the way they’d come. Musicians played.
As Quintus watched, his heart sank. That was it. They would now retreat to the mansions of the Twelve for their meetings, then head back to the surface. And while it was surreal to see a Surfacer in the flesh, he wanted more.
Before he knew it, he was ducking under the arm of an Exonaut. The crowd roared behind him and suits immediately jumped into action. He bolted straight towards the Surfacers, who all turned to look at him, mildly confused. His father span around.
Quintus sprinted straight to the Surfacers’ leader. She was a brown-haired woman, a little older than him, swathed in a faded blue poncho.
“Just tell me something,” he said. “I want to know what it’s like up there.”
She smiled. “My name’s Jane Clancy. Why don’t you go and see for yourself?”
“Where should I look for you?”
Cold metal hands dragged him backwards and he hit his head hard on the ground. His hood fell back as he did, and as the world began to swim around him, he heard his father shout. “Leave him! That’s my son!”
“Castine City,” he heard her say.
His father paced like an animal.
“What am I to do with you, Quintus?”
Quintus said nothing.
“The whole City saw what you did.”
Let them see, he wanted to say, but he held his tongue.
His silence clearly enraged his father, because he only turned redder. He slammed his fist on the desk. “We have to behave a certain way, Quintus! You’re a member of the Twelve Families. The people look to us for guidance.”
“How does this change anything?”
“They just saw one of the most powerful people in the world risk his life for a couple of words with a Surfacer. How do you think it looks? You have no idea, do you?”
Quintus did not answer.
“The Surfacers are savages. They live without laws, killing to get their own way. You can’t imagine what life is like up there. This system works for the benefit of all of us.”
“If they’re so savage, why trade with them?”
“Because the One, hail him, likes to keep an eye on what they’re doing. And letting our people see the filth and squalor of the Surfacers shows them the truth of surface life.”
“He cares what those supposed savages do up there?”
“It’s useful. We can watch them, make predictions. Learn. Understand what might happen down here if there was a revolt or if the government – hail it – collapsed. It’s like a game.”
“I don’t understand.”
His father stopped pacing. He leaned on the desk. His grey, narrow head leered, his ice eyes wide and desperate. “Why did you do it?”
“I wanted to know what their lives are like,” he said. “What it means to live free.”
“Free?” his father spat, which caught Quintus by surprise. His father stomped on it. “Watching your back every second, afraid someone will put a bullet in it? Spending your whole life hungry because you can’t find enough food? Forever moving from place to place, in case some raiding gang has noticed you? Does that sound like freedom?”
“I saw them. They were happy. Leaderless. They get to walk beneath the sun and feel the wind on their skin.”
His father sighed. “Damn you, Quintus. I wish you could see. You have a noble and pure heart, you do. But there must be sacrifice. You must remember your loyalty to the One. Freedom, that was possible once, in another age. The Earth is different now.” He paused for a long time, looking at the lines on the surface of his desk. “There’s only me, you and your brother. What if he has no children? What if we were to die? You would be Three, then. You should think about that.”
Quintus said nothing.
His father’s anger returned. “You need to learn your place, son. Fulfil your role as the One – hail him – has decided. I will let this one slide, but you aren’t to go out in public for a month. Don’t argue with me, I have decided.”
Quintus stood to leave.
“Oh, one more thing,” his father said, taking a seat at his desk and shuffling some papers. “Don’t you dare think of running. I’ve warned the Exonautic Institute, they’re keeping an eye out for you. You’re being watched.”
“ANOMALOUS WEATHER PATTERNS/ERNS DETECTED.”
The AI threw up a map in front of him. A big black stain marked the location of a radiation storm. It was moving in from the west, and would soon engulf the whole city.
“How far?” he asked.
“TIME TO JANE CLANCY: 2 HOURS.”
So close, but not close enough. He couldn’t reach them before the storm hit, but he considered carrying on nonetheless.
His father would. That was what he was like. If Quintus stopped now, and his father was closer behind than he thought, he’d be caught. But he doubted that his old suit would be able to weather the full force of a radiation storm without protection. Besides, Jane’s tribe would move out of the way of the storm, he was sure, and they were too far away for him to catch up.
There was only one option.
“Find us some suitable shelter. A bunker, or a lined cellar.”
The AI beeped and his co-ordinates changed. “FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS/ONS?”
“None right now.”
“HAIL THE ONE AND TWELVE.”
“Nothing behind us?” he asked.
“ZERO LIFE FORMS.”
He set off towards the new co-ordinates. In the distance he heard the storm rumbling over the dunes. It would reach them in the next hour or so, his HUD said, but the shelter was close and he would get there on time.
The shell of a house loomed above him. He passed the threshold, gently opening what was left of the door. For some reason, he felt the need to treat it with respect, though it had probably been centuries since it was last inhabited.
He followed some concrete steps down into the cellar, which was kitted out to survive a disaster.
Judging by the ample supplies left behind, whoever had built it hadn’t reached it in time.
Still, it would keep him safe from the storm.
It was his father that worried him the most.
“I want you to stop scanning,” he said to the AI, figuring he’d be harder to track if the computer wasn’t active.
“INVALID. SAFETY COMPROMISE. NEED TO MONITOR/TOR THE STORM.”
“I’ve memorised the storm’s parameters, you’re no longer needed.”
“IN/INVALID. NEED/NEED TO MONITOR/TOR THE STORM.”
Something was wrong. Paranoia set in. “You cannot refuse a direct command. Shut down your sensors.”
“INVALID. QUINTUS VANE IS NOT AUTHORISED.”
“I am a member of House Vane, one of the Twelve Families. There is no higher authority.”
“IN/INVALID. COMMAND SET BY HOUSE VANE.”
He thought back to the night he crept out. How his father hadn’t looked at him when Quintus said he was going to some late night Indonaut training. He’d just nodded and carried on signing papers. Something had felt wrong, even then. Had he discovered the suits? Had he hired someone to follow him?
The details didn’t matter. He just knew he had to move fast.
He killed the suit and climbed out. His father had planned the whole thing. He’d probably been tracking him this whole time.
Quintus climbed the concrete steps, heading onto the surface bare, unprotected. The roiling of the storm reverberated in his ears, louder than an Indonautic drill. The sludgy rain picked up again, this time falling softly on his skin.
A gust of wind made his skin prickle.
Stopping half way up the steps, he glanced at the sky and smiled. He would enjoy this freedom, however fleeting.
His survival now depended on how close his father was. If he was already in the city, he was doomed. The AI had most likely broadcast his destination, too, so he had to put as much distance between himself and the suit as he could. He made a split second decision and headed in the direction of Jane Clancy and her tribe.
That plan changed when he heard the familiar whirring and crunching of exosuits. He scrambled across the street, entering another crippled house. The walls were mostly intact, and some of the second floor still stood. He climbed the rotting wooden stairs, made his way to a gap, and watched.
One of the suits was bigger than the others. Bulky, ruby red, covered in golden swirls.
“DEFENCE SYSTEMS ACTIVE.”
The taste of electricity filled the air. The house over the road evaporated, replaced by a charred, flaming wreck. The shelter beneath was blown to pieces, Quintus’s exosuit nowhere to be seen.
The red exosuit turned and looked directly at Quintus, his father’s gaze burning through its emotionless lens.
Quintus ducked, but he knew he was too slow.
“That’s it,” a muffled voice came.
“Indeed.” His father.
“Shall we do a routine area scan, just to be sure?”
The silence hanged for eternity.
“No,” his father said. “My son is dead. He’ll never again threaten the stability of the City.”
“All in a day’s work,” the other pilot said.
They left, the sound of their suits being absorbed by the rolling storm. Before long, Quintus could no longer hear them.
He set off down the road, in the direction of Jane Clancy, as the sky darkened and the rain grew heavier.
About the Author:
Dewi Hargreaves is an author and freelance illustrator who lives in the cold, wet heart of middle England.
His short story ‘Macccabeus’ came 2nd in Grindstone Literary’s ‘Open Prose Competition 2017’ and his fiction has been published by Lost Boys Press and Noctivagant Press.