Jake sighed with relief. There it was, Zeta-Mu, the only human settlement in this part of the desert. He wished it wasn’t only the three of them, but it was, thanks to Kat’s stupid cousin Lily. It wasn’t easy surviving this long without “Company’s help” but they took more than they gave and it wasn’t worth it; he had argued and his expression was so furious that Kat hadn’t retorted. Slowly Jake, Kat and Lily made their way between the sand dunes towards what seemed like a stadium from this distance.
It was the year 2090, the nuke war had gone on for a year, leaving the planet in shambles and half of its surviving occupants in a state of mutation; more than sixty percent of Earth’s population had died because of the wars and their aftereffects. The plantation was scarce and nonexistent on the surface. The trees and crops had to be moved to underground orchids, which took a good part of the following decade after the wars.
“Why did the wars stop dad?” he had asked when he was five years old.
“The wars started because nations started to value resources more than human life. Not much of it was left after the war. And then the mutations started so it was either survive together or die fighting each other.”
“Survive.” Such a simple word. He followed his father’s advice and made friends with everyone, soon coming to realize that this group was his family. Over the time of ten years, only two of his old friends remained; Kat and her cousin Lily. They had stuck together for so long now it was impossible not to feel affection towards each other, but that was secondary, for they were always on the move, constantly looking over their shoulders, constantly on the lookout for food and the attackers, the former being rarer of the two.
Both Jake’s and Kat’s parents were nomads, wandering through the desert in a small group of families, looking out for each other, dying for each other. Lily’s parents had died when she was just a baby and had lived with Kat ever since. Jake’s mother had died when he was two; she had caught the mutant virus. Anyone with the virus had to be killed.
The virus passed from one host to another, anyone who wouldn’t show the symptoms of mutations were known as immune. Contact was necessary for mutation; the more contact, the better the chance of becoming a mutant. The mutants were brutes. Big, ugly and deformed. They were smart enough to obey their leader, but that was the extent of their intelligence. Dull brains and heavy muscle were not a good combination. They lived in colonies or hives. They had a leader who gave orders and was the heaviest of the lot. Losing a leader meant chaos. Want to destroy a hive? Kill the leader. But the problem was it was well protected and was hard to kill. Even if killing wasn’t that hard, there weren’t many weapons left to kill a ten foot giant. Unaffected by sleep deprivation; the hunters of the colony would track humans, and when the order was given, every brute in the hive would attack. They were strong, but highly unintelligent, which meant they could be fooled into traps and ambushes. Well, that was the “Company’s” job, but Jake had a funny feeling that wasn’t the end of it. The “Company” was rarely asked for help by the small settlements and his father never appreciated them which made Jake wonder.
When they were two, Kat’s group was attacked in which she lost her father and brother. Her mother, she and her cousin made to Jake’s group which took them in and they had been with them since. Another attack took place when Jake was fifteen. Jake’s father died along with Kat’s mother and most of the group’s members. The remaining were distressed. What could three elderly and five kids do alone? So the “Company” was asked for help by the white flare they kept with them. It came. A helicopter. Big and menacing, loaded with weapons. The elderly had a little chat with the officer in charge and he gave some light weapons to the kids, some rations and a map, directing them towards the nearest permanent human settlement, Zeta-Mu. They took the elderly with them and when a boy asked where they were taking his Grandfather, the officer gave a twisted smile and told: the elderly had offered to be the subjects for the cure of mutation in return for some weapons and food and direction to the nearest settlement. And then Jake understood; that was the price for “Company’s” help.
They were on their way to Zeta-Mu when Lily decided she needed some food in the middle of the night and started a fire. Before Jake could extinguish the fire, he heard the growl, long and hollow which told him there were mutants nearby. They ran, daring not to look back, but eventually they saw them; three mutants closing in on them from different directions. Gasping for breath, they stood in a circle, aiming their small pistols and machetes at the ugly creatures. The mutants knew how to kill; it was the only thing they were good at. It took great courage, from the two remaining boys from their group to distract the mutants so that Jake, Kat and Lily could kill them off with pistols and repeated strikes of machetes. The two boys however were heavily injured and probably infected, so they told Jake to kill them, which Jake refused. Instead, he gave them a pistol and told them to do it themselves. The party of three left them and heard loud bangs soon after and knew the boys lived no more. Within two days they were out of food and by the end of day three, out of water. After walking for one more day, they finally saw Zeta-Mu.
They quietly made their way to the building, too exhausted and hoarse to talk. By midday they were able to get a good look at the structure. It was magnificent; huge and fortified, with smoke coming from the top which easily blended within the air. They reached the gate by nightfall. A light suddenly turned on which blinded them as they looked up to the watch tower. Jake tried to speak, but no sound came from his dry mouth. Lily collapsed on the ground and Kat sat next to her. Jake pointed at them and then started to plead; on his knees, he put his hands together bowing his head. Someone spoke, but he was already falling to the ground. The last image he saw was that of Kat lying on the ground, with Lily, her eyes closed.
He opened his eyes, slowly and realized he was in a room with no windows and low ceiling. He sat up. He was on a bed with soft base and clean sheets, cleaner than he had ever seen in his life. The room was small but gave an impression of coziness. The ceiling had pipes going under it and the walls seemed to be made from some kind of metal. The door was also made from metal, but had hinges and a lock. He suddenly remembered Kat and Lily were missing. He opened the door and what he was outside made his jaw drop. He was in an alleyway. Rows of similar doors on both sides and in front of him were what seemed to be a market. People were walking briskly, with a sense of purpose. They gave him half a glance and carried on. He looked to his right and saw a man in his fifties looking intently at him.
“Ah! You have woken up.” He said. “Excellent. How are you feeling?”
“F-fine” Jake stammered.
“We nearly lost you. Those goons over at the security won’t let me take a look before they had done all their mutation tests, could’ve died, but no: Has to be done. Now, you want anything to eat?”
“Where are my friends?” Jake asked more bravely than he felt.
“Oh the girls are fine. Over here.” He pointed to the door on the left.
Jake made his way to the door and opened it. Kat was sitting on the bed cross-legged and looking at the ceiling but Lily was asleep. Kat looked at the door as it opened and smiled at Jake jumping off the bed and hugged him.
“How is she?” He inquired.
“They say she is okay. Just tired, sleeping.” She replied. “What happened at the gate?”
“I don’t know, I passed out just like you.”
Lily stirred and looked at both of them. She smiled at both of them and they reciprocated. They left the room and found the old man waiting for them.
“Who are you?” asked Lily, her brown eyes narrowed.
“I’m the doctor, Schuler’s the name but you can call me Doc. I was instructed to take care of you and bring you to the Chief when you recovered. Now, DO YOU WANT SOMETHING TO EAT?”
“Good, over here”. He led them through the alley. The people had same hurried looks on their faces. He went up the stairs which were narrow but made of metal like everything else. They followed him up and found themselves in front of a dining area. The room contained lots of tables with chairs around them. The far end of the dining area hosted a big table on which some metal plates and baked potatoes were carelessly placed. A lot of people were sitting there, a few quietly, others in small groups, everyone eating quickly. The doctor told them he’ll wait while they eat, so they took the plates and filled their plates with food and returned to the table on which Doc sat. They ate with their hands while everyone around them used strange metal rods flat on one end. The doctor looked curiously at them, asking them where they had come from and how did they reach the settlement. They told him all they knew about their past, how they had been attacked and how Company had “saved” them and in return took their elderly, on which Doc said, “You need to be careful around here. This is not a place to criticize the Company. We depend on the Company protection and resources and many here have family members working in the Company. The Chief is close to the Company’s officials. Be warned, there might be no rules in the desert, but in here the Chief is the law. So make sure you don’t go where you are not supposed to and don’t do what you aren’t supposed to. Got it?”
“Yes-yes, we get it. You said this Chief wanted to see us?” Jake asked dryly.
“Right then, over here.”
Once Doc had gone a little ahead, Jake pulled Kat back and said “Keep your eyes peeled. I don’t like this place.”
“Me neither.” She replied.
The nomads’ appearances misled many. They looked like savages, but were very observant of their surroundings, for the desert was a savage place to live in and contained many hidden perils. They looked cautiously around, trying to remember the streets and the map of the city. They reached a grim looking, heavy metal door with guards stationed outside equipped with swords and rifles, wearing blue clothes. They nodded at the doctor and opened the door. The inside of the door was a striking contrast to the outside. The outside was dark, dirty and busy while the inside was clean, illuminated and carpeted. Along the corridor there were doors, clean but still metallic. Doc took them straight to the end of the corridor where it splits into a fork, with left and right sub-corridors. He took them right to the end of the left corridor where there were stairs. He took them up several levels and at the top level, he paused, trying to catch his breath. He looked behind him to see the three kids showed no sign of fatigue. Maybe the life in the desert had physically strengthened them. He looked a little disgruntled and said defensively, “Well, I am an old man.”
They continued to this level’s most extravagant corridor, room after room with closed doors could be seen. Towards the end, sat a fat little man behind a desk. He looked like he had been smacked on the head to make him short and fat as his body had no shape whatsoever. He had a leer for a smile and cold black eyes, unlike Doc who had warm gray eyes. While speaking, Doc had an encouraging tone while the short man had a high-pitched voice as if that of a woman.
He looked at them and said “What?”
“The kids who came yesterday night.” Doc replied.
“You can go Schuler, I’ll take it from here” the short man replied and slid off his chair.
He is REALLY short, thought Jake. The short man knocked at a door, opened it and went inside, gesturing them to follow. They walked in and their mouths fell open. It was a magnificent room with brightly polished wooden furniture, thick wooly carpet and pictures of men they didn’t know. There were multiple chairs which, unlike the dining area’s chairs, had soft cloth covering the seats and curved backs. Then there was the desk. A magnificent piece made of dark wood highly polished with beautiful textures carved on the legs and sides. A large window showed the alleys and buildings underneath it. And then there was the Chief. He was a tall handsome guy with blonde hair and green eyes. He smiled at them and Jake noticed he had very yellow teeth. The chief looked friendly, but his smile seemed mechanical and didn’t reach his eyes which remained cold.
He gestured them to sit and nodded towards the fat man who bowed and left. The Chief looked at them carefully, as if sizing them up and then finally said “So what are ye names?”
A little taken aback by the accent, Jake took a moment to compose himself and then said “I’m Jake, this is Kat and that’s Lily.”
“Where ye from?”
“We are children of nomads. We come from the desert.”
“Why did ye come ‘ere? Where’s ye tribe?”
“We were attacked. The tribe is dead.”
“’Ow did ye live?”
Jake stared at the man. He was acting like they had stolen something from him by not dying. Perhaps the Chief sensed that and smiled again with his yellow teeth.
“Just curious, is all.”
“We were lucky. Two of our friends died.” Jake replied shortly.
The Chief looked at Kat and Lily. “Ye ‘aven’t said a word, girls. What’s the matter, cat got yer tongue?” he cackled spewing spittle from between his yellow teeth.
“You haven’t given us a chance to speak.” Kat replied sharply and the Chief’s smile was bigger than ever.
“Oh we got a fiery one ‘ere eh? ‘Ow nice”
They just stared at him. He was looking at a picture on his left. When they looked at it, he said “The firs’ chief.” Suddenly he got up and started to walk around, apparently deep in thought. They sat there, waiting for him to say something.
“You’ll ‘aveta work.” He finally said. “Can’t ‘ave freeloaders ‘ere, can we?”
“You will live with the boys.” He pointed at Jake. “You two with the other girls.”
“Can’t we stay together?”
“’Fraid not, we ‘ave strict rules ‘ere. No one’s above the law. Well, ‘cept me, of course.”
The chief cackled one last time.
Kat and Lily looked at Jake who looked back. Finally, Jake jerked his head and said “Fine.”
“Excellent.” The chief remarked and then called his assistant “Oi, Tommy”
The fat man appeared. “You called chief?”
“Yeah. Show them to their dorms.”
They got up but before they could leave, the chief called “Be careful lads. I’ll be wacthin’”.
Once out of the office, the short man, Tommy, took them to the bottom level. There he walked them to one of the guards outside and said “Jay, take this boy to the Boy’s Keep, and the girls to the orphanage.”
The guard told them to follow and started walking. They hurried along, still keeping an eye out. The orphanage was closer to the Chief’s office so they went there first. It was a shabby building with a very old wooden door and damp paint. Wooden windows could be spotted from the first level to the top of the building as the alley was wider here than the dining area. The guard knocked the door and a frail looking woman stepped out.
“New girls. Nomads.” The guard spoke like a machine.
“Just in time” Mumbled the woman. “Come with me you two.”
Kat and Lily looked at Jake who nodded encouragingly. They went inside; Kat looked back as the door closed.
“Come.” the guard beckoned Jake, who followed. He kept track where his girls were, as they were the only family he had now. One left turn till the knife shop, a right and straight to the end. Left and down the second street on the right. There it was. Boys’ Keep, with its Iron door and barred windows, it looked more like a prison than living quarters but Jake kept his mouth shut. The guard oblivious to Jake knocked on the door and a man who looked like a butcher came out. His fat belly and bald head gave him a frightening look.
“New boy. Nomad.” The guard grunted.
“Good. I’ve been running out of them.” He spoke as if Jake were salt. With surprising strength, the bald man pulled him in.
The hall was dimly lit. A desk and a chair slightly to the left of the stairs were the only furniture present. Rows of doors were along the corridors to the right and left. He bald man spoke, “I’m the warden here. You will heed the schedule while you are here. You will maintain yourself and those around you. You will refer to me as Sir. You will not fight with other boys. Do I make myself clear?”
“What did I just tell you? You will refer to me as Sir.”
“Good, now come on.”
He took Jake upstairs and pointed at a door. “You’ll live here. There are two more boys other than you.”
The warden knocked and opened the door. There was one boy sitting on one of the three beds. The room otherwise seemed empty.
“Sully this is your new roommate. Fill him in.” and the warden left.
“Hi there chap. I’m Sully. What’s your name?”
They shook hands.
“Listen, this might seem like a bad place to live but once you are eighteen, you can have your own room near the dining area and a girl. I can’t wait. Where are you from?”
The new boy had a keen face, which was lit with having a new roommate. He talks a lot, thought Jake.
“I’m a nomad.”
“Oh.” The boy’s face fell. “You need to be careful. The last nomad who came here disappeared a few days after coming. I’ve never seen a nomad getting a job here. Maybe they move the nomads to the orchids.” He added hastily as Jake looked alarmed. But Jake wasn’t satisfied. Something was definitely wrong here. He decided to talk with Kat and Lily. He got up.
“What are you doing?” Sully asked.
“I’m going to talk to my friends.”
“MY FRIENDS. THE FRIENDS I CAME HERE WITH?”
“Where are they?”
“You mean they are GIRLS? You have girl-friends?”
Sully looked awed, which annoyed Jake. He made to leave the room, but Sully stopped him.
“Listen, you can’t come and go in here as you please. The warden is very strict. You don’t want to displease him.”
“We’ve got rules.”
Jake was convinced he, Kat and Lily were in danger. He had to talk to them.
“When can I go outside?”
“In the morning.”
Jake looked outside the window. It was almost evening. Cat and Lily were his responsibility, but he decided it was dangerous to show himself as a delinquent on the first day. Instead, he asked Sully about the settlement, its traditions, its security, its schedule, its shortcuts. Sully was pleased to have kept Jake from leaving the room and answered his questions. Jake, who was still exhausted from his tiring journey, decided to skip dinner and slept early before the other boy came back, who worked in the kitchens. Kat and Lily wouldn’t be there; the orphanage had their own kitchen.
“Which bed is mine?”
“The last one, by the window.”
Jake rolled over, yanked the sheets on top of him and was asleep in no time. After what seemed like a moment to Jake, he was woken up by the sound of Sully and another boy, who seemed to be arguing.
“He doesn’t need to know. Not yet. He just got here. We can tell him later this week” Sully was saying.
“We-don’t-have-time.” The other boy spoke through gritted teeth. “We are already behind schedule.”
“We can wait a few days. Doc said they might not need him till next week.” Sully whined.
Jake had heard enough. He said loudly “What are you two talking about?”
Sully looked startled, but the other boy merely looked interestedly at Jake and said “You are not safe here. Nomads disappear as soon as they come. Not enough food to feed all those mouths. We think the nomads are given to the Company in return for protection when need.”
“That’s enough Dean.” Sully said sharply, but the other boy carried on “Sully told me you came here with two girls. They might be in danger. Doc is a friend. He told me the Company’s officials might come next week. That means you have two days to gather what you need and get out of here.”
“How can I get out of here? This place is locked tighter than a mutant’s grip.” Jake answered miserably; well aware he had made a huge mistake coming here and had to get out of the city, taking Kat and Lily with him.
“There is a way; we can help you, me and Sully and the Doc. We have smuggled people out before who were in danger.” Dean replied calmly.
Jake said nothing. He could hardly believe what was happening. He knew the Chief was an unlikable man when he saw him, but had no idea the Chief was this evil. He had to get out of here, and take Lily and Kat with him.
“I’m not going unless my friends are coming with me.”
“The Orphanage, Hmmm” Dean said to himself. “Go with Sully in the morning. You can talk to them and Doc and explain the plan. Now get some sleep, you will need all the rest you can get.”
Jake didn’t argue. Good thing Sully and Dean and Doc were here to help them or they would be guinea pigs by next week for the Company. He tried to sleep, but his mind was racing with thoughts. After what seemed to be six hours of lying on the bed, he saw the light break from his window and got up. A couple of the boys in the adjacent rooms were coming out, dragging their feet, throwing half understandable insults at each other. Jake walked out of the doors of the Boy’s Keep which was already open and walked into the dining area. He sat there, observing other people. After some time, Sully and Doc came to the dining area deep in conversation. Jake waved at them and Sully noticed him sitting alone. Sully quickly said something to Doc and they came to his table. Doc said in a low voice, “Sully tells me you have been filled in. Good. We’ll go and tell the girls after breakfast.”
After eating, Jake and the other two got up and made their way to the orphanage. Once outside, Doc knocked the door and the same old, frail looking woman stepped out.
“What do you want!?” She demanded.
“This young man wants to talk to his friends who came yesterday,” Doc replied smiling.
“They are working.” She said shortly.
“Please! Just for five minutes.” Jake pleaded.
The old woman looked at him in surprise. After a moment her expression softened and she said “Fine! I’ll send them out. Doc they are not to leave the orphanage you know this.”
“They won’t leave, I assure you,” Doc smiled.
The old woman left. A few minutes later, there was a sound of running feet and Kat and Lily came running towards Jake. They hugged him and clutched tightly.
“W-w-what’s wrong?” Jake stammered. “Are you okay?”
“We are fine, just worried.” Lily replied. Kat was drying her eyes on the corner of her shirt.
“What were you working on?” Jake questioned, still thoroughly unconvinced the girls were fine.
Kat’s questioning look toward Sully caught Jake’s attention. Sully was partially hiding behind Doc trying not to make eye contact with the girls as he took them in. He had never been so close to real live human girls before.
“Oh, this is Sully. He is my roommate.” Jake responded.
“Listen, we have a problem.” Jake said in a low voice. He repeated what Dean had told him last night and Doc nodded his approval when he said they had to get out by the next day.
“I’ve already gathered the equipment and paid a guard. You’ll be out by this time the day after tomorrow, but it is then the difficulties of your journey begin. The settlement is not kind on runaways, and even less so on their perpetrators. YOU MUST NOT BE CAUGHT. Do you understand?”
“We understand.” Kat replied quickly before Lily could ask a question. Lily seemed to be having difficulty understanding all the details, but Kat knew they didn’t have time to explain everything to her.
“Good. We’ll come tomorrow night, then. Which window is yours?” Doc asked.
“That one I think.” Lily replied, pointing at a window on the first floor.
“We’ll bring a hook and rope. You’ll have to climb down.” Doc said, turning to leave.
Sully looked at Kat and found her gaze fixed on him. He blushed and turned.
“Take care. I’ll see you soon.” Jake said.
“I’ll wait.” Kat said longingly.
The night to leave was here. Jake, Dean and Sully, wearing black clothes, slipped out of the back door to the Boy’s Keep. Dean had swiped a spare key months ago. They walked cautiously around the alleys, twice having to walk around a building because there was a guard stationed. They reached the orphanage where Doc had managed to hook the grill successfully and was now in the process of helping Kat and Lily down. Once down, they walked quickly and quietly towards a place Jake thought must be sewers as the terrible odor was getting stronger and stronger.
Once by the entrance of a big manhole, Doc made a strange sound like an animal. A man stepped into the light. He was Jay, the guard who had stood in front of the door when they went to meet the Chief and showed them their living quarters. He pointed at the sewers and they followed him inside.
Once inside the sewers, the guard told them to wait and went ahead with Dean. Doc took what seemed to be a pistol from his jacket and pointed directly at Jake’s head. Jake, who was too busy looking ahead took a moment to notice this. He froze, his heart beating madly. What was going on?
“Is this for me?” He said in an obvious attempt to confirm his fears.
“Afraid not. You see, it is us who has been making the nomads disappear.”
The girls were transfixed, unable to move or speak. Sully was still sulking behind Doc. The guard was still nowhere to be seen.
“I have an understanding with the Company. I provide them with subjects for testing and they give me medicine. The people of Zeta-Mu come first,” Doc said his eyes popping slightly. He looked quiet deranged. “Sully and Dean here, they understand. I give them good cuts for their work.”
Strange noises were now coming from the sewer. The doctor, however was too busy talking to himself.
“My wife died because there weren’t enough antibiotics. Won’t let that happen again. I saved Dean’s mother five years ago and it is then he and Sully joined me. Now look; everyone is healthy!”
Just then a stone rolled towards them. Doc yelped like a dog and started shouting. A loud bang and everything was chaos. Jake couldn’t hear a thing. He felt dizzy and saw the Doctor shooting his pistol before the guard took him down. Jake tried to look where Kat was but everything went black.
He was lying on the same bed, same low ceiling, same pipes, the same walls, same door. He got up suddenly which made his head spin. He clutched the bedside. After a moment the spinning stopped. He looked at the sheets; they were clean. He crawled towards the door and opened it with great effort. Same alley, he looked to his right and saw the Doctor standing there, looking intently at him.
“Ah! You have woken up.” He said. “Excellent. How are you feeling?”
“Y-you!” Jake stammered.
“Take it easy. We nearly lost you. Those goons over at the security won’t let me take a look before they had done all their mutation tests, could’ve died, but no. Has to be done. Now, do you want anything to eat?”
Jake had no idea what was going on. “What happened?”
“You were carrying a poison from a bile-plant which makes people hallucinate. Some say it shows the future, but most chalk that up as just nomad-talk. Oh the girls are fine. Over here,” he said and pointed to the door on the left and everything went black again.