“What I don’t understand,” Leena complained, staring sullenly out the heavily tinted window, “is why we aren’t making this trip at night.”
One of the wheels hit a particularly wide crack in the road, and the vehicle bounced hard, causing several of them to hit their heads. None of them complained; it was a whole lot better than going off-road.
“The vault scientists have to keep very strict hours,” Lewis, the team leader, explained. “There’s a very specific window during which they can trade with us.”
All of them looked back to the silver case held firmly in the lap of Nolan, the team’s medic. Transactions with the vault scientists were universally obscenely one-sided. They were the only ones who could createvita folium, without which none of the subterranean super-cities would be able to support life.
“Assuming they’re even still there,” Kai pointed out. “We haven’t heard from them in over a fortnight.”
“They live in a sealed vault,” Nolan said. “What do you think could have happened to them?”
“Maybe they all went stir crazy,” Elwood suggested. “Can you imagine living in a colony of only a few dozen people?”
“Could have been an epidemic of some kind,” Nolan offered. “Terra knows it can happen.”
The six of them shared a moment of silence. An outbreak of disease in a sealed, isolated underground community could wipe out most or all of a population before anything could be done to stop it, whether that population was fifty or fifty-thousand. It was still the single leading cause of human death.
“You’re all being overdramatic,” Leena scolded. “More than likely, their communication equipment has just gone down. The sun’s been particularly fierce lately. Even our equipment’s been suffering.”
“You’re probably right, Leena,” Lewis said. “Of course, we should be prepared for anything. Terra help us if anything has happened to them; it’s a three day drive to the next closest vault.”
“Three days trapped in this metal sauna with you assholes?” Kai grimaced, shaking her head. “To Sol with that. I’d sooner get out and walk.”
“You’d die,” Leena said. “Your suit would only protect you for twelve hours. After the first day, you’d roast.”
“Let’s just hope nothing’s happened to the vault,” Nolan said.
“Agreed,” Lewis added, and that was the end of the conversation.
For several minutes they drove in silence, uncomfortably hot despite the internal cooling being turned all the way up. There was only so much they could do to counter the heat of the solar fields.
The engineer, Kai, was viewing vault schematics on a flexible screen on her lap. They didn’t have access to most of the data, but it was enough information that she’d be able to make repairs to damaged comm systems even if they didn’t provide her with anything more. Assuming that was even the problem, of course.
Nolan nursed the silver crate on his lap, guarding it like it was his own child. Even if they hadn’t needed it to trade with the vault scientists, it was far too valuable to risk letting anything happen to it.
Leena continued trying to reach the vault over the radio, but even their increased proximity wasn’t helping. They were well and truly out of contact, and she feared the worst.
Elwood sat quietly, nervous and excited. As a botanist himself, visiting the vaults was always an exciting opportunity. He could never bring himself to leave the city, especially not without being able to bring his husband, but a part of him always wished he could spend more time in the vaults. There were far too few scientists in the cities.
They hit another crack, and the vehicle nearly tipped sideways. The driver, Rivka, managed to keep them stable, but a loud bang let them all know they weren’t going any further just yet.
“Rivka? Everything alright?” Lewis asked, clearly concerned. It was his first time in command, and he wanted everything to go perfectly.
“Yeah, it’s fine, Lewis,” she yelled back. “Probably just a tire problem. I’ll pop out and have a look.”
“Sounded more serious than that,” Kai said. “Probably better if I go. I’d be the one fixing it anyone, might as well cut out the middle man.”
Rivka looked worried, turning back and fixing Kai with a concerned stare.
“Are you sure? It seems pretty bad out there, and I know you’re pretty sensitive.”
“I’ll be fine,” Kai grumbled. “A little bit of sun never killed anybody.”
Nobody said anything as Kai pulled on her helmet, making sure to check all the seals, just in case. A single mistake could be fatal.
Lewis went over and double checked every seal, even more diligently than she had. He was determined not to let a single thing go wrong.
“Alright, alright, I’m fine,” she said, batting him away. “It’ll just be for a few minutes. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Lewis flinched, but said nothing. All of them had put on their own helmets, so they would be protected when Kai opened the hatch. There was no such thing as too careful.
“Everyone ready? Okay, I’m going out now. Leena, is my mic working? Cool, I’ll keep talking to you while I’m out there, so you know I’m okay. Final check. Everyone ready?”
The hatch was heavy, and offered more than a little resistance. It took her nearly a minute, but eventually she got it open, and suddenly the cabin was full of blindingly bright sunlight.
The internal surfaces, not designed to withstand the heat of the sun, began to sizzle and complain. Kai moved quickly, hauling herself up and out of the vehicle, then slamming it shut behind her.
A few seconds later, her voice came through the speakers in their helmets.
“Sol take it, it is hot out here. I thought it was supposed to be winter. Fucking sun. Alright, lemme just get off this thing… ah, the fucking ground is hot! I can feel it through my boots? Is that supposed to happen?”
“It’s fine, Kai,” Lewis said calmly. “If the internal temperature gets too high, you’ll get a warning.”
“Great. Sounds very reassuring. Okay, so let’s have a look at things… minor tire damage, but nothing that’ll stop us getting where we need to be. Little bit of… ah. Oh. Yeah, that’s not good.”
“What’s the problem, Kai?”
“Looks like a pretty serious mechanical failure. Try driving any further and this thing might just explode.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Not really. I mean, I could, but not with the equipment I have here, and not during the day. We’re gonna need a rescue unit sent out.”
“Sol take it,” Lewis swore. “Leena, can you get on that? I don’t want to waste any more time here than we already have.”
Leena looked over at him, recognising the signs of stress. She wanted to believe he could do a good job, but it was too early for him to be put in charge. He wasn’t a natural leader.
Still, she nodded. He was in charge regardless, and she would respect that.
“Uh, wait. That’s not… hey, Kai? Can you check the comms equipment? I can’t get any kind of signal now.”
“Yeah, sure. Gimme a second… Oh wow. Yeah, nope. Looks like we got hit with a solar flare, everything here is fried.”
“A solar flare?” Lewis hesitated. “That seems unlikely, there haven’t been any other-”
“Ah, FUCK!” Kai shouted, cutting him off.
“Kai?” Rivka sounded concerned. “Are you okay?”
“Not… not really,” Kai responded. “I think I’m sunburnt.”
Nobody said anything to that. Sunburn was fatal in all but the most fortunate circumstances. The radiation would poison her long before they could give her the medical attention she needed.
“Nolan?” Lewis turned to the medic, a hopeful look in his eye, behind the helmet’s visor.
“I can’t tell,” Nolan said, his voice thick. “I’m not getting any readings from her suit at all.”
“What does that mean?” Rivka demanded.
“It means her suit is probably damaged,” Nolan explained. “Which means it’s probably not offering her the protection she needs. Which means she probably does have sunburn.”
Rivka made a sound like she’d just been punched in the gut. Lewis just looked down, staring at the floor.
“We need to get her inside,” Elwood said. “We should do what we can for her.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Kai protested. “Bringing me back in now is just going to make things bad for the rest of you.”
“She’s right,” Nolan said. “I hate to admit it, but she’s right. She can’t be in here with us.”
“I can’t just leave her out there,” Lewis said. “I just can’t.”
For several moments, nobody said anything. Nobody really knew what to say. None of them had been expecting this.
“You don’t have to,” Rivka said suddenly. “You can bring her in.”
“Rivka, we can’t-” Nolan began, but she cut him off.
“We’re stuck here. There’s no rescue coming, because we can’t even tell them we need a rescue. We can’t just sit here, right?”
“What are you suggesting?” Lewis asked, sounding reluctantly hopeful that someone, even if it wasn’t him, could come up with a solution.
“We walk,” Rivka said. “The vault isn’t that far from here. We could walk it in about six or seven hours, if we kept a decent pace. And Kai can stay here, inside. It’s not much, but it’s better than dying outside.”
Lewis sat in silence, contemplating the suggestion, staring intensely at the floor. He knew she was right; if they waited, they would die. If they walked, they might not. He just hated that those were the two options he had for his team.
Eventually, he raised his head, and looked at each of his team members in turn. Slowly, each of them returned his gaze with a nod.
“We walk,” he agreed. “Don’t bring anything we don’t need, and triple check your suits. I’m not having another casualty.”
Solemnly, each of them collected what they needed, checking their suits, checking each other’s suits, then checking their own suits again. Eventually, finally satisfied, Lewis opened the hatch, and they stepped out into the sun.
For six hours, they walked, more terrified which each step that their suits would fail, and they would be left to the sun’s mercy. Even fully protected, the heat was nearly unbearable, and they didn’t have enough water to stay properly hydrated.
After fifteen minutes, all of them were soaked in sweat, their mouths dry, but they knew they had to ration their water, so they pressed on.
After an hour, their joints ached, their muscles complained, and their feet began to sting. When they looked back, they could still see the car, and it felt like they hadn’t made any progress at all. Even still, they pressed on.
After three hours, they swapped around the equipment, trying to maintain an even load between them. Nolan, already exhausted, nearly slipped, and dropped the silver case. Rivka’s quick reflexes saved it, and they pressed on.
After five hours, they’d run out of water, despite their strict rationing. The outsides of their suits were sizzling in the direct sunlight, and the insides were hotter than a sauna. Exhausted, light-headed and dehydrated, they pushed on.
Finally reaching the vault was a happy surprise. Unlike the cities, the vaults were not flagged or marked from the outside at all. Without knowing their location, it was all but impossible to find them.
The vault entrance was hidden, tucked away beneath a rocky outcrop, protected from the sun. All of them breathed a sigh of relief to be out of the sun, even if it did little to help with the heat.
Nolan rested the silver case gently on the ground, then promptly collapsed onto it. Lewis resisted the urge to say anything; all of them felt the same way. It was a marvel any of them could even still stand.
Elwood and Leena approached the door, a huge metal disc that rolled to the side to allow access. From the outside, there was no visible way of opening it. You had to be allowed in from the inside. The vaults were notoriously paranoid about their security.
“How do we get in?” Leena asked, running a hand over the surprisingly cool metal. “I’ve never actually been to a vault before.”
“Normally, their proximity sensors would let them know we’re here, and they’d contact us via radio,” Rivka explained. “But since our equipment is all fried…”
“Try knocking,” Nolan suggested.
Rivka made a face, turning the other way so he wouldn’t see it. Leena just shrugged, reached out, and thumped her fist against the door.
The sound was loud, louder than they’d expected, and they could hear the echo inside the vault. For several minutes, they waited, but there was no response.
“Now what?” Rivka asked, looking nervously up at the sun.
“We’re definitely outside of their visiting hours now,” Elwood said. “Still, they aren’t without compassion. They can’t just let us burn out here. If I remember correctly, there’s usually a comm unit near the entrance. We should try to find it.”
Lewis, who had been staring at the door, looked over at Elwood. Beneath his helmet, it was impossible to tell, but his expression was one of sheer gratitude. It wasn’t time to give up just yet.
The five of them began to search the surrounding area, running their hands over the rocks and dirt, looking for any sign of technology. When they found nothing, the search became more desperate, as it became obvious they had nothing else to rest their hope on.
Panic was just beginning to set in when Leena brushed away a loose patch of dirt, and revealed a small metal hatch.
The other four crowded around her, holding their collective breaths as she struggled to open the hatch, digging out the dirt that had filled the empty space with her gloved hands. When she yanked it open, they all let out a sigh of relief, for the second time that day.
Inside the hatch was a small monitor and an external microphone, along with a red button labelled “EMERGENCY USE ONLY”. Leena didn’t even hesitate before hitting it.
The monitor lit up, briefly displaying the vault logo before moving onto a waiting screen. Text began to scroll across the screen.
Welcome to Vault 149. We appreciate your patience in this emergency. An operator will be with you momentarily. Please be patient. Welcome to Vault 149. We appreciate your patience in this emergency. An operator will be with you momentarily. Please be patient.
The message continued to repeat itself, scrolling across the screen. For several minutes, they waited patiently, but when nothing changed, they began to worry.
“How long do they usually take to respond to these?” Nolan asked, his voice wavering slightly. “You’d think in an emergency…”
“Something’s wrong,” Elwood said. “They wouldn’t ignore us like this, not if they had a choice.”
“So what do we do?” Leena asked. “We can’t just wait around here all day. We definitely can’t walk back.”
All of them looked at Lewis. Inside his helmet, his face fell, and his stomach knotted. He was loathe to admit it, but he didn’t have a single idea on how to proceed. He couldn’t imagine his first mission going any worse.
“I don’t…” he began, but trailed off. He couldn’t say it, not now.
“We don’t have a choice,” Rivka said, taking the attention off of him. “We need to get inside, one way or another. If they’re not answering…”
“What are you suggesting?” Leena asked, suddenly worried.
“We blow the door open,” Rivka said. “I could make a pretty decent improvised explosive out of the salvaged repair equipment we brought.”
“We can’t blow our way into a vault,” Lewis said. “It would destroy our relations with them forever.” Worse, he would be held personally responsible, and he couldn’t handle that.
“I’m not convinced there’s anyone left in there to destroy relations with,” Rivka said. “And in any case, when the alternative is staying out here in the sun, I don’t think it’s really much of a choice.”
Lewis could feel the knot in his stomach tightening as he looked around at his team. Why did it have to be his responsibility? Why did it have to be his fault? He hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t anything he did that had put them here.
He didn’t want to deal with that. He didn’t want to be the one to have to explain why everything went so wrong. More than that, though, he didn’t want to die.
“Fine,” he said. “Blow the door.”
The disapproval in his voice was obvious, but they didn’t care. All that mattered was staying alive, and he couldn’t deny them that.
In a matter of minutes, Rivka had pulled together all of the equipment she needed for the explosive. As she sat, focussing intensely, Lewis walked away, standing on the very edge of the shade line.
Elwood and Nolan exchanged a glance, concerned for their team leader. They knew he wasn’t a bad person, just not ready for the pressures of command. That’s why he’d been given what should have been a simple mission. It was supposed to be good experience for him, and build up his confidence.
Leena continued to play with the emergency comm system, still hoping to get a response, or find some way of contacting anyone inside. She didn’t really believe there was nobody left.
“Alright,” Rivka announced suddenly. “It’s ready. Everybody stand back; you’ll have to be in the sun for this one. Just in case.”
Without saying anything, everyone retreated from the door, moving back to a safe distance. Lewis was the last to move.
They all watched as Rivka carefully attached the device to the edge of the door, checking it multiple times, just to be sure. When she was satisfied, she moved to join them, pulling out her pistol as she did.
“Everyone ready?” she asked. Then, without waiting for a response, she aimed it at the device, and pulled the trigger.
The explosion was loud and intense, but very small. The force and heat of it radiating outwards, and all of them felt it, but they were safe inside their suits. The door itself was rent and twisted and forced inwards, creating just enough room for them to crawl in.
They didn’t waste any time. One by one, they crawled through the gap, immediately turning around and helping to carry the silver case and repair equipment through.
Inside, the only source of light was the broken door, but it was enough. The entry corridor was short and narrow, and most of it was empty.
Near the door, surrounding them, were several skeletons, corpses stripped down to the bone. The bones, and surrounding walls, were covered in floral growth, as if they’d been there for years.
“What in the name of Terra…” Lewis muttered, hoping the bulky suit he was wearing would hide how much he was shaking.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Rivka said, standing over one of the skeletons. “We spoke to them less than three weeks ago. These bodies look like they’ve been here for months, probably years.”
“Some kind of sick joke?” Nolan suggested hopefully, barely standing on his feet.
“No, it’s real,” Elwood said, leaning down. He turned one of the leaves over in his hand. “This kind of plant… I don’t recognise it, but it’s very similar to several that I do. It’s pretty safe to assume it’s carnivorous.”
“The plants ate them?” Rivka backed away from the skeleton she was near, not really believing it but not wanting to take the risk.
“Not in the way that you might be thinking,” Elwood reassured her. “The plants didn’t kill them. That would be impossible. They just grew over the corpses, using the flesh as food. I honestly have no idea what killed with.”
“With just a skeleton, it’s pretty hard to say,” Nolan said, still a little unsteady. “We should be careful.”
“Sol take it!” Elwood swore, attracting their attention. He looked back at them, shaking his finger. “Sorry,” he said. “Bloody thorn got me. Through my suit, too, so now it’s useless.”
“There’ll be spares here,” Lewis said, suddenly feeling like taking charge. “Come on, we can’t stay here. Let’s get all the way out of the sun and take these sweaty suits off.”
Out of their suits and back into far more comfortable clothing, they left the suits near the entrance and began to make their way deeper into the vault. None of them had any desire to be separated from the others, so they moved as a group.
Their first priority was to find people. They were all well aware they were intruding, and resolving that before it had a chance to escalate was vital.
Failing that, food and water was their next priority. They were still dehydrated, exhausted and starving, and if they didn’t do something about that, they’d end up dead too.
After the first corridor, the lights began to switch on, reacting to the team’s presence. Floral growth had spread across the walls, and covered some of the lights, giving the corridor a green tint.
“This is incredible,” Elwood said, awestruck by the sight. “They’ve grown everywhere, but how?”
“I’ve never seen so much green,” Leena said, eyes open wide. “I didn’t realise it was even possible for them to grow so much without sunlight.”
“It’s beautiful,” Elwood agreed. “They must have found some way to filter the sunlight, removed the radiation somehow. Natural sunlight would kill them, and with only artificial light they couldn’t grow this much.”
The further they walked, the more pervasive the overgrowth became, until it covered every surface, even the floor. The light became more and more green as the light struggled to get through the foliage.
“Elwood,” Lewis said, as they reached an intersecting corridor. “Which way would the living quarters be?”
“I never actually visited the living quarters,” Elwood admitted. “If I recall, though, they’d be to the left?”
“Better than nothing,” Rivka said, taking the lead. “Terra, I hope they have food. I feel like I haven’t eaten in days.”
They walked slowly, careful not to trip over any of the vines woven across the floor. Nolan especially was thankful they’d left the silver case near the entrance; carrying it through here would not have been easy.
Every so often, they came across another skeleton, covered in foliage and flowers and vines, grinning at them. Each one they encountered sapped them of a little more hope, as it became more and more obvious they weren’t going to encounter another living soul.
Nobody said anything, despite the morbid atmosphere. Even Elwood, despite his obvious fascination and excitement, was sullen and reserved. With so much evidence of death around them, it was difficult to feel any other way.
“It’s just through there,” Leena said, pointing to a doorway to their right. There was a sign above it, largely covered, but it was possible to make out the word DOMESTIC.
They all followed her finger, but cringed when they saw the door. It was half closed, stuck in place by plant life. A skeleton lay sprawled through it, evidently the reason the door hadn’t closed all the way.
Trying their best to ignore it, they stepped over it as they squeezed through the door, all of them sharing a growing sense of trepidation. Not knowing what had killed so many people was almost more distressing than knowing it could still be there.
The living quarters were small and relatively simple. They passed through a basic kitchen, completely empty, followed by an equally empty lounge room. The television on the wall was cracked and broken, taken over by the rampant growth.
The rest of the living quarters were just a series of corridors, with rooms on each side. It was obvious they were designed for sleeping and not much else.
Every room had a large window beside a single door. Most of the windows were covered, the blinds drawn from inside, and the doors were closed. Some of the windows weren’t covered, and looking inside, the team could see empty rooms.
Where the doors were closed, the plant growth hadn’t penetrated the rooms, and they looked out of place, almost sterile. Where the doors had been left open, the rooms were overrun by green.
“Oh, fuck,” Leena said, from around the corner. She’d wandered just a little further ahead.
“What is it?” Nolan asked, moving around to see what she was looking at. “Oh. Oh, Terra.”
The others came up behind them, morbidly curious. It was a shorter corridor than the others, with all of the windows open, revealing lighter, more brightly coloured rooms. The doors were all sealed, so they were unspoiled by the plant life.
Even without the bodies clearly visible inside the rooms, it would have been obvious that these were children’s rooms. The occupants were huddled in corners or pressed up against the doors, gaunt and frail.
“Who would do this?” Elwood asked, pressing a hand against a window. “They’re only children…”
“Nobody did this,” Leena said. “The doors are locked from the inside. They locked themselves in.”
“What? Why would they do that?” Nolan asked, gaping.
“Because whatever was out here, whatever killed all of these people, to the children, that was worse than starving to death, alone. Do you really want to know more than that?” Rivka said, turning away from the windows.
They all shared a moment of silence, sobered by the thought.
“We have to know,” Lewis said. “Elwood. The medical bays. Where would we find them?”
Elwood didn’t answer. He just stood, staring through the windows, making no effort to disguise his grief.
“Elwood,” Nolan prompted, putting his hand on Elwood’s shoulder. Slowly, he guided Elwood away from the window.
“I’m sorry,” Elwood said. “I’m sorry.”
“The medical bays,” Lewis reminded him.
“What? Oh, right. They won’t be far from here,” Elwood said. “I’ll… I’ll take you there.”
Mutely, Elwood began to walk, barely aware of his surroundings. The others waited a few moments before following, sharing a look of concern.
“You’re looking a little green, Elwood,” Rivka commented. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine,” he replied distantly.
“After what we just saw, we’re probably all feeling a little nauseous,” Nolan said.
“Everything looks green down here,” Leena agreed. “It’s the plants.”
“I’m fine,” Elwood repeated.
The medical bays were just down the next hallway, kept in close proximity to the living quarters. There were several rooms, all connected to a single hub room, one fitted out as a waiting room.
Like the rest of the vault, the overgrown plant life had forced its way inside, managing to cover most of the walls of the room. It seemed like the closed doors had stopped it spreading any further, though.
“Why do they need such extensive medical facilities?” Nolan asked. “Most vaults only have a population of a few dozen. These facilities would be enough for a population of thousands.”
“They have to be totally self-sufficient,” Elwood explained, still unfocussed. “The medical bays aren’t designed to sustain a high population. They cover every possible medical need. That’s why they’re so large.”
“Incredible,” Nolan murmured. “Their doctors must have some training in every specialty. How would they even achieve that?”
“There are usually two or three dedicated doctors,” Elwood said. “Plus most of the scientists have some medical knowledge or background.”
“I bet they get a lot of use,” Leena said. “All those scientists, experimenting all the time, things must go wrong.”
“I think you have a rather dramatic interpretation of what science is like,” Rivka said. “There isn’t a whole lot of danger with the vast majority of what they work on here.”
Lewis coughed loudly, drawing their attention. The conversation ended immediately as they turned to look at him.
“Can we focus?” he said, irritated. “The doors are locked. We need some way to get through them. Any ideas?”
“We should focus on the main treatment room,” Nolan said. “It’s unlikely the more specialised rooms will have been used recently.”
“I can probably override the door controls,” Leena offered. “It’s not strictly within the allowed parameters, but under the circumstances…”
“Do it,” Lewis said. “We’ve already come this far.”
“Sure,” she agreed.
There was a single desk in the room, with a monitor and keyboard somewhat hidden by the foliage. Leena began to claw at the plants, tearing them off the computer and desk, trying to clear a space for her to work.
While she did, Elwood collapsed into one of the couches, clearly exhausted. The vines that had covered it seemed to squirm in protest, but it could have just as easily been a trick of the light.
“You definitely don’t look good,” Nolan said, sitting beside him. “How are you feeling?”
“Terrible,” Elwood said. “All of this, it’s just… I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t really know how to handle it.”
“I know what you mean,” Nolan agreed. “It seems so surreal, doesn’t it? Like it can’t really be happening.”
“It is, though,” Elwood said. “It’s real, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing we can do to help any of them.”
“There might still be survivors,” Nolan said. “Until we know for sure, we shouldn’t give up. There might still be a chance to do some good here.”
“Yeah,” Elwood said, sounding unconvinced.
They sat in silence for a while, uncomfortable on the vine-covered couch. Nolan watched Leena work, focussed on the computer in front of her, tapping away at the keyboard.
“Ready to ask her out yet?” Elwood asked, following his gaze.
“It’s not that simple,” Nolan replied. “I mean, I like her, it’s just… weird, you know?”
“Because she used to be…?”
“No!” Nolan protested. “No, not because of that. It’s just… I don’t know what it is. I’m just not ready to date again.”
There was a soft beep, and the door slid open. Leena leaned back in her chair, stretching her arms over her head.
“Got it,” she announced nonchalantly.
“Good work, Leena,” Lewis praised her. “Now see if you can find any information from there. They must keep records. The rest of you, come with me. Who knows what we might find in there.”
Leena nodded, and went back to staring at the monitor, occasionally tapping something on they keyboard, largely ignoring the mouse. The others followed Lewis into the main treatment room.
As they entered, the lights flickered on, bathing the room in a harsh white light. None of the stark white walls had a trace of plant life on them, and the contrast from the green that had already begun to feel natural was startling.
There were three beds in the centre of the room, somewhat raised, that served as examination tables. All three of them were occupied, but like so many of the corpses they’d come across, they were nothing but skeletons.
“They’re all tied down,” Rivka observed, the first to take a step forward. “Why would they need to be tied down?”
“Could be any number of reasons,” Nolan said. “Probably to keep them from thrashing around. They might have been in a lot of pain, before they died.”
“Or someone was experimenting on them,” Lewis said darkly.
“Vault scientists don’t experiment on humans,” Elwood said defiantly.
“We had contact with this vault three weeks ago,” Rivka said, ignoring them both. “How could the bodies have decomposed this quickly?”
“Maybe they didn’t,” Nolan suggested. “We don’t know how long things have been like this. They could have been lying to us. There are any number of possibilities.”
“So what do we do?” Rivka said. “All we’ve seen so far is proof that some fucked up shit happened here.”
“We need more information,” Lewis said.
“Got you covered,” Leena called out. “I dug up some security footage. It’s, uh… you probably want to come see it.”
None of them wasted any time getting out of the room with the skeletons in it. In a matter of seconds, they were crowded around Leena’s computer.
Without waiting for approval, she hit the play button, and the monitor was filled with the image of the treatment room.
The three tables were still occupied, but the people tied to them weren’t yet dead. All three of them struggled against their bonds, their faces twisted into masks of pain and confusion. All three of them had a green tint to their skin.
As the video played, a fourth person entered, presumably a doctor. She approached the first tied-down patient, her expression regretful with just a hint of fear. The patient looked up at her, and for a brief moment, there was recognition in his eyes. Then it was gone, and he struggled even more fiercely, seemingly desperate to bite her.
Unfazed, she pulled out a small metal wand, holding it firmly in one hand. Slowly, she began to move it toward the patient, but she hesitated.
“What’s that?” Lewis asked.
“It’s a euthanasia wand,” Nolan said. “It delivers a specially designed pulse of electrical energy to the brain, overloading the neural centres and shutting them down painlessly.”
“She’s executing him,” Elwood said.
“Yes,” Nolan agreed.
As they watched, she pressed the tip of the wand against the side of the patient’s head. He spasmed briefly, his eyes rolling back into his head, and then stopped moving.
Solemnly, she moved on to the next patient, repeating the process. When they were also still, she did the same for the third. Then the footage ended.
“What the fuck was that?” Lewis asked, after a brief silence.
“That was a bit over two weeks ago,” Leena said. “It’s the only footage I can access from this terminal.”
“The whole station is monitored though, isn’t it?” Lewis asked.
“Yes,” Elwood confirmed. “Almost every area. The only place you’d be able to access that footage would be the security room, though.”
“Feel like playing tour guide again?” Rivka asked him. “Seems like we might get most of our answers there.”
“Assuming we actually want those answers,” Nolan said. “I’m not sure I do.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Lewis said.
Monitis Ex Praeterito
It wasn’t until they actually reached the security room that they realised something was wrong. There should have been five of them, but somebody wasn’t with them.
“Where’s Leena?” Nolan asked, suddenly worried. “I swear she was right behind me.”
“Are you sure?” Lewis asked. “Did anyone actually see her leave the medical bay?”
“We’ve all been a little distracted,” Rivka said. “None of us are really doing particularly well right now. We all need food, and sleep.”
“Someone should go back for her,” Nolan said. “Something could have happened to her-”
“We can’t split up now,” Rivka said harshly. “It’s too dangerous, and we have no way of communicating.”
“Then we should all go back,” Nolan insisted.
“That’s not an option,” Lewis said. “We’ll locate her once we know more about what happened here. Until then, you do your job, and nothing more, understand?”
For a moment, Nolan looked like he was going to say something. He met Lewis’s firm gaze, and the two of them stared at one another. Then Nolan looked away.
“Rivka, can you operate the computers?” Lewis asked, turning his back on Nolan.
“Probably,” she said. “Might take me a little longer, but I’m pretty sure I can do it.”
As Rivka sat down in front of a computer, this one thankfully free of any floral growth, Elwood slumped against a wall, breathing heavily. Nolan was immediately at his side.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Dizzy,” Elwood said. “My whole body aches and my head is throbbing. My fingers and toes are tingling. It’s hard to think.”
“Okay,” Nolan said, putting Elwood’s arm around his shoulder, holding him up. “Let’s get you lying down, and I’m going to start taking some readings and measurements, see if we can’t work out what’s wrong with you.”
As Nolan rested Elwood down on the ground, laying him out gently, Lewis turned to Rivka, wanting something else to focus on.
“Rivka, how are you going?” Lewis asked, trying not to think about what might be wrong with Elwood. He’d pushed his team hard, probably too hard, but there wasn’t a lot of choice. He wasn’t at fault. He knew he wasn’t at fault.
“Not so great,” Rivka admitted. “The computer system is actually pretty simple, getting in is no problem. Unfortunately, most of the recent footage is useless, because the overgrowth has covered the cameras.”
“It’s the older footage we want,” Lewis said. “Before the plants took over.”
“Well, I’m trying to find that for you,” Rivka said irritably. “Most of the Sol taken footage is corrupted, though. Most likely the servers have been damaged, probably by the bloody plants.”
“Fuck,” Lewis said loudly. “Is any of it salvageable?”
“Working on it,” Rivka said aggressively. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Go check on the botanist or something.”
Lewis clenched his fist, annoyed by her obvious lack of respect. As his second in command, he should have been able to rely on her to back him up and support him, but she was the least cooperative member of the team. It would definitely be reported, if and when they got back home.
Still, she had a point. Elwood was a concern, and he couldn’t ignore that for long. He turned back to Nolan, looking for an update.
Nolan looked up at him, his face more worried than before, and shook his head.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he admitted. “It’s more than just exhaustion, but it doesn’t match any of the symptoms of anything I’ve encountered before. It’s some kind of infection, I think, but his body isn’t doing much to fight it.”
“Is that why his skin looks a little green?” Lewis asked.
“Could be,” Nolan said. “It’s definitely not a natural shade, but it’s not quite as vivid as the patients in the video. Still, it makes me worried.”
“You think it might be the same thing?”
“There’s no way of knowing,” Nolan said. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. That’s all we can do.”
Elwood groaned, a thin sheen of sweat covering his face. Even his eyes were starting to look a little green.
“Oh, Sol take it,” Rivka swore. “Hey, guys? I found the footage. Well, sort of. You should probably see this.”
She hit a button on the keyboard, and another video started playing. Nolan and Lewis just started at it, immediately transfixed.
In the video, there was absolutely no plant growth visible anywhere. Several scientists were gathered together, calm and casual, and all but of of them looking completely healthy.
The one that didn’t was a sickly shade of green, not unlike Elwood. He leaned against the wall, sweating and looking extremely uncomfortable. The others largely ignored him.
Suddenly, he became very aggressive, his face distorted by inexplicable rage as he threw himself at the group of people. The ensuing panic was difficult to follow on the security footage, but it was obvious enough he was trying to attack them.
For some reason, he stepped back, holding his gut. The others back away, confused but also concerned. Then, without warning, he threw up, vomiting far more liquid than his stomach should have been able to hold.
The disgusting green liquid sprayed over the other scientists, and where it touched them, they reacted as it if burned, writhing and swatting and reeling. They all ran, leaving the green man alone.
He took a few steps after them, staggering, but that was as far as he got. Chunks of flesh began to fall off of him, but there was no blood. Unable to stand, he collapsed, flesh continuing to fall off of him.
As they watched, his flesh and even his clothing continued to rot away. After a few minutes, there was nothing left except bone.
Lewis stared at the screen in stunned silence. Rivka and Nolan looked at one another, then at Elwood. For his part, Elwood continued staring at the screen, terrified.
For what felt like an eternity, nobody said anything. Nobody moved; they scarcely breathed. Then Elwood sat up.
“Nolan,” he said softly.
“It’s okay,” Nolan said. “It’ll be okay. We can’t know for sure that that’s what’s going to happen.”
“Nolan,” he repeated.
“No,” Nolan said. “No. We have time. We can stop it. We can get you back to the medical bay, and we can-”
“It’s too late, Nolan,” Rivka said. “We don’t know how long he has left. There’s nothing you can do.”
“There is one thing,” Elwood said. “Maybe. Do you… do you have one of those wands?”
Nolan’s eyes grew wide, and he took a step back.
“No,” he repeated. “I won’t. I can’t.”
“Please,” Elwood begged.
“You’re my friend,” Nolan said. “I can’t do this. I just can’t.”
“I’ll do it, then,” Rivka said. “Grow a spine, Nolan.”
“You can’t,” Nolan said. “It won’t work. There are safeguards; I’m the only one that can use it. So nobody can use it as a weapon. I’m sorry, I-”
Elwood doubled over, gripping his stomach, sounding like he was being cut open from the inside. Nolan met his eye, recognising the pain there.
“Please,” Elwood said.
Nolan opened his medical satchel, digging around for the wand. He hand’t expected his hands to be shaking so much. Elwood fell onto his side, still holding his stomach.
Just as Nolan felt his hands close around it, Elwood looked up at him, a glint of insanity in his eye, and Nolan knew he was too late. Frozen in place, he could only watch as Elwood lurched, his torso shrinking as his innards were liquidized.
As Elwood began to throw up, Nolan felt Lewis crash into the side of him, hauling him out of the path of Elwood’s projectile vomit. A loud gunshot filled the room, and Elwood convulsed, and was still.
Rivka, gun still in hand, fired again, just to be sure. Nolan groaned, pulling himself up, his head aching. Lewis grunted loudly, holding his arm.
“Shit,” Rivka said, looking at the arm. “That looks bad.”
“Let me take a look at it,” Nolan said, still shaking. “It might not be that bad.”
“It’s fine,” Lewis insisted. “Just some acid burn. We need to get out of here. There’s nothing left for us here.”
“It’s not fine,” Nolan said harshly. “Terra, it’s burned all the way down to the bone. There’s some serious nerve damage here.” He looked up at Lewis. “You can’t even move it, can you?”
“I can move it at the elbow,” Lewis said. “That’s fine for now. There’s nothing you can do anyway.”
“Come on,” Rivka agreed. “I don’t want to hang around in this room.”
Reluctantly, Nolan began to follow them out of the room, but not before looking back at what was left of Elwood. His flesh continued to fall away, rotting away at a nearly visible pace. Disgusted, he turned away, and left the room.
“We can’t leave yet,” Rivka said, stopping them.
“What do you mean, we can’t leave yet?” Lewis demanded, barely able to stay on his feet. “It’s too dangerous to stay here.”
“Leena,” Nolan whispered, a glimmer of hope returning to him.
“Leena is gone,” Rivka said. “There’s nothing we can do for her. What we can do is recover the vita folium, and make sure this trip isn’t a complete waste.”
“Half of the team are already dead,” Lewis said. “This mission is a failure. I won’t risk further casualties, not now.”
“Leena might still be alive,” Nolan said, but the other two ignored him. It didn’t matter; he didn’t have the energy to fight with them.
Elwood was dead. Leena was missing, and if they left her behind, she would almost certainly die too, if she hadn’t already. Kai may or may not have actually passed on, but she was beyond salvation.
Three people. Three friends, all of them dead, and for what?
They should never have entered. They should have tried something else, anything else. Maybe they could have found a way to contact their city, or another city. They could have waited in the car; a rescue would have been sent out eventually.
Now, the best possible outcome of the mission, the very best they could hope for, was that nobody else would die.
That wasn’t good enough.
“We need that plant,” Nolan said suddenly. The other two looked at him, surprised.
“We can’t risk it,” Lewis said. “I can’t lose anyone else. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Then you’re relieved of command,” Rivka said. “For the rest of the mission, I’m in charge. Nolan?”
Nolan looked at Lewis, then back at Rivka. Lewis was scared, indecisive, weak. Rivka was fierce, forceful and strong. One of them was the obvious choice.
“I’m sorry, Lewis. It’s nothing personal, I just… she’s right.”
“Then you have a two-thirds majority,” Lewis said, resigned. “There’s nothing I can do. Rivka, you’re in command.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. Please don’t hate me.”
“It’s not you that I hate,” Lewis said. “It’s myself.”
Nolan and Rivka exchanged looks, but didn’t say anything. Too much damage had been done already. There was nothing either of them could do.
“Where would they even keep it?” Nolan asked. “Elwood was the expert on vault layouts. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“We passed a greenhouse on the way here,” Rivka said. “Seems like as good a place to start as any.”
Lewis and Nolan nodded their consent, and she began to walk, leading the way. They followed in silence, expressions sullen.
It didn’t take them long to find the greenhouse. The door was all the way open, and bright light flooded the hallway through it. Shielding their eyes, they entered.
Unlike the rest of the vault, the greenhouse was massive. Easily as big as every other room they’d seen combined, the ceiling towered above them, leaving room for trees to grow, tall and strong.
Giant lamps were spread out across the ceiling and walls, the sources of the bright light. They emanated an unfamiliar warmth, and almost immediately, the team began to sweat.
“Sweet Terra, it’s beautiful,” Nolan breathed.
“It’s intimidating,” Rivka countered.
“I feel sick,” Lewis said.
Nolan whipped around, staring intensely at Lewis. Behind him, he could tell Rivka had drawn her gun.
“He’s fine, Rivka,” Nolan said. “Look at his complexion. He’s damaged and exhausted, not infected. He just needs to lie down.”
“He’s not the only one,” Rivka muttered, as she lowered her gun and looked around the room. “Do you suppose she’s alive?”
In the centre of the room, hunched over a computer, was a single human corpse, dead but for some reason not rotten. In fact, she seemed completely unscathed.
“Definitely dead,” Nolan said. “Though why she looks like that, I couldn’t say.”
“Well, it’s not a priority,” Rivka said. “You look after Lewis, I’ll try to find that specimen.”
With that, she disappeared into the foliage, leaving him alone with Lewis. Lewis just looked at him with hollow eyes.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, his voice shaking. “Just let me sit down for a bit, and I’ll be fine. Go check that computer. It might have something new on it.”
“Can’t hurt,” he agreed, leaving Lewis to take care of himself. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said to the corpse, pushing her to the side.
The computer was still on, with three different windows programs running. The one in the forefront was showing a very complicated looking chemical compound formula, and from the annotations she’d made, it looked a lot like it could have been an antidote to the infection that had run through the vault. She must have found it too late.
Behind that, she had a document open with a new different notes in it. At the top of it was the vault override code, used for sealing or unsealing the vault in the event of an emergency. Beneath that, she’d written,
I’ll keep this short, because I don’t have much time. We’ve made an incredible discovery here, and I’m afraid it will be the end of all of us.
For decades, we’ve been trying to find ways to use the sun, to filter out the harmful radiation and allow plants to grow naturally, like they once did. For decades, we’ve had only minimal success. But no longer.
I do not know if I am the first to attempt this, but I know I am the first to succeed. I have successfully created a form of plant life that can not only survive direct sunlight – indeed! – but will in fact thrive upon it.
Alas, I fear that like Icharus, I have flown too close to the sun, and I mean that nearly literally. Just the smallest dose of raw sunlight seems to have given more life to this plant than even my wildest hypothesising had predicted.
Even as I type this, the plant continues to mutate. We tried to kill it, of course. Obviously, we failed, or I would not be writing this.
Its latest mutation is a venom that, when administered to the human bloodstream, triggers brief psychotic episodes as it breaks down the flesh, ready to be consumed. Why does a plant need to consume flesh? I wish I knew.
I have sealed Vault 149, and don’t mean for it to ever be unsealed. I don’t know what would happen if this plant found its way to the surface, if it were to grow beneath so much raw sunlight. Hopefully, we will never find out.
I am sending this message to every receiver I can reach. This message contains the highest level security access code. I beg of you, do not use it to open the Vault, but to destroy it. I cannot detonate the failsafe from within the Vault.
Please, do not let this monster escape into the world.
Nolan read through it once, blinked a few times, then read it again. Then he copied the entire message to his personal computer, including the override code.
There was one program left open, and his curiosity got the better of him. He brought it to the front; it was an email conversation. He read the last outgoing email, dated a bit over three weeks ago.
I regret to inform you that I am no longer comfortable with the terms of our arrangement. I understand that we Vault scientists have something of a reputation for being heartless, and that I did little to help that when I initially accepted your terms. However, I have had something of a change of heart, and, well, you’re a monster, Sol take you.
When you arrive with your team, you will find that the exchange goes exactly as it always has, and no mention will be made of the alternative arrangement we discussed earlier.
Please, do not attempt to go through with this. Your actions could result in millions of deaths. I cannot have that on my conscience. Can you?
There was one reply to that.
The choices I make are none of your business.
As you say, the exchange will go as it always has. After that, what happens is no longer any of your concern.
Don’t attempt to do anything to stop me. You know what will happen if you do.
Rivka? Nolan read the name in disbelief, certain it wasn’t what he thought it was. It couldn’t be Rivka. She wouldn’t.
Shaking his head, Nolan stepped away from the computer, turning around to find himself face to face with Rivka, a gun pointed at his face. He froze.
“I have to admit,” she said, completely devoid of emotion, “this whole mission ended up going a whole lot better than I expected. I was worried it was going to be difficult, killing you all.”
Nolan backed away slowly, holding his hands up in surrender.
“I don’t understand,” he said, his voice trembling. “What’s the point? What do you get out of this?”
“Money,” Rivka said. “Do you know how much most cities would pay for vita folium?”
“Why would they buy it from you?” Nolan asked, stalling.
“Because all I want is money,” she said. “Do you think cities like paying the blood price that the vaults demand?”
“Fine,” Nolan said. “I get it. Kill me, then. After all I’ve been through today, you’ll just be saving me the trouble of doing it myself.”
Rivka closed her eyes for a second. Not long enough for Nolan to do anything, but long enough for him to realise she didn’t actually want to kill him.
“I’m sorry, Nolan,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but…”
She might not have wanted to, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to. Rivka was nothing if not a woman of action.
Nolan closed his eyes, unable to keep watching. He tried to let his body relax, but even as exhausted as he was, he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t ready to die.
“The fuck?” he heard her say, her tone surprised and annoyed. He opened his eyes as a loud gunshot sounded, and saw Lewis struggling with her. Nolan very nearly cheered, until he realised Lewis’s skin was a sickly green sheen.
Lewis and Rivka struggled, but even with one arm, Lewis clearly had the upper hand. He attacked relentlessly, driving Rivka back, until she fell backwards, her head hitting the floor with a sickening crack. She didn’t move.
Then he turned to Nolan.
“Wait,” Lewis said, holding up a hand. “I’m not… I can feel it, in the back of my mind. I won’t last long, but…”
Nolan stared at him, his whole body shaking. Lewis wasn’t all the way gone, not just yet. There was still a chance to save him.
“It’s not too late,” he said.
“There’s nothing you can do, Nolan,” Lewis said. “It’s okay. I just wanted to apologise, before I go. It’s all my fault, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“You’re wrong,” Nolan said. “There’s an antidote. The head scientist worked it out. I think that’s why she isn’t infected.”
“We don’t have time,” Lewis protested. “I could lose control at any moment-”
“It’s worth the risk,” Nolan interrupted. “We’ve lost too many people here already. Please, Lewis. Don’t make me go home alone.”
For what felt like the longest time, Lewis just stared at him. Nolan stared back, defiant. He was determined not to lose this one.
“Please be fast,” Lewis said finally. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Nolan just nodded, already rummaging around in his medical kit. The chemical formula for the antidote was structurally complex, but it used commonly available components. He already had everything that he needed.
He worked quickly, his hands a blur of movement as he set up and took down all the different equipment he needed throughout the process. Without a proper lab set up, some items needed to be reused for different things, but it wasn’t his first time creating an emergency remedy to something. He knew what he was doing.
The scientist’s notes were very thorough, something for which he was infinitely grateful. It wasn’t that he couldn’t work it out without them, they just made the whole process a lot faster, and time was the most important, and limited, resource he had.
As he worked, he glanced up at Lewis, checking for signs of deterioration. Surprisingly, despite his weakened state, Lewis was resisting the infection impressively. Perhaps there was more strength there than Nolan gave him credit for.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, not taking his eyes off his work for more than a second.
“Still awful,” Lewis replied. “But in control. For- ugh. For now.”
“Great,” Nolan said. “Because I just finished. All I have to do is get it into this syringe, and… there we go. Get your arm over here, and I’ll OW!”
Nolan swore, pulling his hand back, shaking it from the pain. He looked down, and suddenly a sense of dread filled him.
“Nothing,” Nolan said quickly. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get this in you, now.”
“You pricked yourself, didn’t you?” Lewis accused. “I can see it. That- oh, Sol take it. That’s how Elwood got infected.”
“It’s fine,” Nolan insisted. “Don’t worry about me. We need to give you the antidote.”
“No. I refuse. You need it for yourself.”
“I made it for you,” Nolan said slowly, “and you’ll be the one to take it. You won’t last much longer without it.”
“Can you make another?” Lewis asked, but the question was loaded. He already knew the answer.
“No,” Nolan admitted. “I don’t have enough for another one.”
“So one of us is going to succumb to the infection, and die,” Lewis said.
“Then it should be me,” Lewis said. “Look at me. I’m half dead anyway. You’re fine. You’re young, and healthy, and you still have both your arms.”
“That’s disgusting,” Nolan snapped. “I’m no more deserving of life because I’m younger, or healthier, or more able-bodied. Don’t you ever try to convince me otherwise.”
Lewis shook his head, his every movement slowed by weariness. He wouldn’t last much longer, and they both knew it. Already, Nolan was thinking of some way he could get the antidote into him before it was too late.
“It’s not about elitism,” Lewis said. “Even with that antidote, I’ll never make it back to the city. One way or another, I’m going to die here. You don’t have to.”
“I hate to break it to you,” Nolan said, “but I don’t think either of us are ever going to see home again.”
“Then why are you fighting this so hard?”
“Because you deserve it,” Nolan said. “Because even though you weren’t ready for this, you deserved it, and you did the best that anyone could do. And… because I don’t want to die alone.”
“Please, Lewis. Take the antidote. And… and pass me the gun.”
Solemnly, Lewis looked beside him, and saw Rivka’s sidearm. He looked back at Nolan, the nodded, and reached down for it. He picked it up like delicately, barely willing to touch it.
By the time Nolan realised what he was doing, it was too late. Lewis pressed the gun against his own temple, and Nolan lunged.
The sound of the gunshot nearly deafened him, disorienting him for a few seconds. Lewis slumped on the ground in front of him, a pool of blood forming beneath him, his glassy eyes staring outwards at nothing in particular.
Nolan just sat there, staring at him. Tears began to well, but he couldn’t bring himself to cry. He just sat there, stunned and shaking.
Eventually, he picked up the antidote, glaring at it as if it were the cause of everything that had gone wrong. Then he pressed the needle into his skin, and cried.
By the time Nolan made it back to the entryway corridor, he’d decided. He was never going to leave the city again, if he ever made it back. He would stay there, and help people, and heal people, and if they died, he would know that he’d done everything he could.
He’d been on missions to the surface before. Occasionally, he’d seen people die, and every time, it had been tragic, but they all understood the risks of the excursions. He’d been able to deal with that.
This time, though, it was too much. Never in his life had he seen so much go wrong, and so quickly. It was a memory he was never going to forget, and experience he would never live down.
He climbed the steep staircase, his head full of questions, and no answers. All he wanted to do was to curl up and sleep, but he couldn’t do that. Not yet.
For some reason, he felt compelled to return to the surface, to see the sunlight again. He wanted to feel it on his face, though of course he knew he couldn’t. But he could put on a suit and step outside.
He froze when he reached the top of the stairs. There was somebody standing there, silhouetted by the evening sun behind them.
Even inside their sunsuit, they were obviously female. For a fleeting moment, he thought it might be Leena, and his heart fluttered. Then they stepped to the side, and without the light behind them, he realised who it was.
“You’re not who I was expecting,” Kai said, folding her arms disapprovingly.
“Ditto,” he replied, holding a hand up to shield his face against the indirect sunlight streaming in through the broken vault door.
She was dead, though. Or at least, she should have been. Sunburn wasn’t an instant death, but it never took more than four hours. She’d had at least seven by now.
“Where’s Rivka?” she demanded, stepping closer to him. Then she noticed the silver case, still on the floor, where they’d left it. “What happened?”
“Rivka’s dead,” Nolan said, a lump forming in his throat. “Everyone is. Everything’s gone to Sol.”
“Rivka’s dead?” Kai whimpered, looking like she’d just been punched in the gut. “How? Why her?”
“It’s a long story,” Nolan said. “She betrayed us. She was going to kill us, and take the vita folium to another city, and sell it. I found out, and Lewis killed her.”
“And who killed Lewis?” she asked, carefully.
“Lewis killed himself,” Nolan said. “Like I said, it’s a long story. I… how did you get here? Did you fix the car?”
“The car was never broken,” Kai said. “Not that it matters now. We were going to be rich, and happy. We were going to start over in a new city, away from everything. Now…”
“You knew?” Nolan asked, reeling backwards. “You were a part of it?”
“Oh, who fucking cares?” Kai said, her voice thick. “It’s all gone now. I can’t even…”
Trembling slightly, she pulled her helmet off, her face distorted by grief. Even out of the small amount of indirect sunlight that made it through the door, her face began to turn red. Nolan, for some reason, felt fine.
She slumped to the floor, her foot knocking over one of the flower-covered skeletons. She didn’t even seem to notice.
Despite everything, all he wanted to do was comfort her. He knew what it was like to lose a loved one, and at that moment, that was all he cared about.
Slowly, carefully, he sat beside her. He would sit there for as long as she needed. That was all he could do, right now.
“You always were kind of stupid,” she said, after a while. “Or maybe you’re just too nice.”
Almost too late, he noticed the knife in her hand. The blade glinted in the weak light as she swung it at him, and his body reacted on its own.
He held up his hands defensively, grabbed at the arm that held the knife. The blade nicked his skin, drawing blood, but didn’t cause any real harm. His hand closed around her wrist, surprised by her strength.
“Ah!” she cried out, dropping the knife. She pulled her arm back so suddenly he accidentally let go. “The fuck?”
She was holding her wrist, but as she moved it, he saw a tiny puncture in her suit, right where he’d been holding it. Confused, he looked down at his hand.
There was a thorn protruding from beneath his fingernail, as if it had grown from there. On closer inspection, he realised it was growing from there.
“What the fuck is that?” Kai exclaimed, shuffling backwards. “Sol, it stings. Fuck.”
A familiar sense of dread washed over Nolan. Instinctively, he knew she was infected.
“I’m sorry,” he said, unable to look her in the eye. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? What the fuck does that mean? What- oh, Terra, I feel dizzy…”
Nolan already had the euthanasia wand in his hand, no longer willing to delay. He’d make that mistake too many times already, and this time, he didn’t even feel so bad about it.
Kai was too far gone to even notice when he pressed it against her temple. Her body shuddered and convulsed, then she slumped to the floor, motionless.
Dropping the wand, he stood up, no longer able to ignore the sun. He wanted it- no, he needed it. More than anything, he needed that sun.
That would be a fitting end, he thought. A fair way to say goodbye to everything, to leave all the insanity behind. Nervous, terrified, he held his breath, closed his eyes and stepped out into the sun.
When he didn’t immediately combust, he opened his eyes, staring out at the barren wasteland in front of him. The sun was still out, and shining directly on him. He should be dead.
His clothes were beginning to smoulder, so obviously it wasn’t the sun that was different. He began to pull them off, feeling suddenly energised. Somehow, he realised, the antidote had done something to him. He wasn’t sure that was a good thing.
Around the corner, he could see the car. So Kai wasn’t lying, then. It really wasn’t broken. How fortunate.
Looking down at his finger, he realised something. He couldn’t go back to the city. He couldn’t go back to any city. It wasn’t safe. He wasn’t safe.
Letting his body guide him, he climbed into the car, closing the hatch behind him. Without the sun on him, he felt cold, but the car wouldn’t move unless it was sealed shut.
Blinking as he adjusted to the dimmer light, he began to drive. He didn’t know where he was going, or what he would do when he got there. Maybe he’d just keep driving until he ran out of fuel. Maybe he’d think of something on the way. It didn’t really matter. All he knew was that he needed to go.
* * *
As the car drove off into the distance, Leena watched from the shadows. She could have said something, could have called out, but didn’t. That wasn’t her path.
She stepped into the sunlight, enjoying the feel of it on her bare, green skin. She looked down at her body approvingly.
The plants had taken her body, her hated, disgusting body, and broken it down. That was okay, because they’d given her a knew one, a beautiful one, the body she’d always wanted. Sure, it was a little green, but what was wrong with that? Green was a lovely colour.
The sun was already going down. That was a pity, but she knew it would return. She only had to wait through the night. She could do that inside.
As she returned inside, she noticed the silver case that had been left by the door. She recognised it immediately: it was the blood price, demanded by the vault scientists as payment for the vita folium. It was exactly what she needed.
The case flipped open with minimal resistance, and she gazed lovingly at the dozen glass vials inside, all of them filled with beautiful red blood. Reaching down, she tenderly picked one up.
It was fortunate the sun was going down, or the blood would have boiled right then and there. Instead, it only bubbled slightly, and that didn’t bother her. Unscrewing the cap, she threw it aside, held the vial up to her lips, and drank.