Chapter One: The Blackout (1500 word version)
The short walk to paradise.
That was what survivors called the road. The old ones, who had managed to make it to their twenties. I would never turn twenty, wouldn’t even make fourteen. I preferred to think of the walk as an end to misery, better than a decade in the mines. I trundled through nearly a quarter-meter of snow, only a ragged sweater keeping me warm. It was thick, but fraying at the hems. Strings were always hanging off, catching on things. Like I was leaving bits of myself behind everywhere I went.
We call this place the orphan world. No one has any mother, father, brother or sister. I barely have a concept for grandparents because there are no elderly people here. Only the strongest, toughest and meanest can survive. It’s these that made it into their twenties. Sometimes the old ones helped you, taught you things, sometimes… most times, they didn't. Except for Penny, but she was different.
There's three things you need to know about the orphan world. First, when you turn fourteen you're going to work in the mines, or the factories. Second, you will die in the mines, or the factories. And third, when they call you to the building with the red elevators, you are never coming back.
I'd been summoned yesterday morning. A being in a gas mask had delivered a crinkled, burned-around-the-edges envelope. He hadn't said a word, just handed me the packet and walked away. Inside was a piece of paper with four words.
Your Day Has Come.
That was all that was needed. You knew what it meant. You can ignore the summons, yes, but someone's going to show up beside your bed when you're sleeping and pump you full of electricity till you can’t move. You’ll probably pee yourself when it happens. Then they carry you off anyway, twitching and senseless.
Being thirteen years old, I lived in the Lyran Commons with all the children. It wasn't a building meant for living in. The whole planet had been different once long ago, before the warts had taken over. There were ruins everywhere. I was walking in a canyon made by several toppled buildings, towards the one structure the warts had built, a massive building that towered over the land like a boxy mountain.
“Wart” was the name the survivors had given to the rulers of the orphan world. No one knew what was behind the gas masks they always wore, but the story was they looked like toads, with skin covered in warts. As to what the warts called themselves... they seemed to want us to think of them as "the master race". They'd never given a real name to call them, which only added to their mysteriousness.
I wanted to drag out the long walk from Lyran Commons to the headquarters, but it was so cold I couldn't. After half an hour in the cold, I was shivering. Soon I was standing in a massive, echo-y atrium dripping snow onto tiles checkered gold and white. The walls were all windows, but tinted, making the room oppressively dark.
There was nothing in the room except for two elevators set opposite the door. All else was glass, tile, and silence. With a startling "bing!" one of the elevators opened, spilling light into the dimly lit entryway.
True to rumor it was as red as blood.
Warmer now out of the cold, this was a walk I could make last. And I did. I took several minutes of pacing, hemming and hawing before I stepped inside the red elevator, feeling like I was entering a blood vessel. There was a massive array of buttons next to the doors, but touching them did nothing.
There was one at the very top, a funny looking sideways 8, it was the only one lit. I was going all the way to the top. I gripped the red railing with a shaking hand, trying to steady myself. Every strange rumor, every wild possibility ran through my head in that long ride into the sky.
A digital counter ticked off the levels in one corner. I stared, watching as the digit representing each floor was passed. I had to fight to stem off panic as my destination grew closer. I hummed the tune to a children's song. I couldn't remember the name or any of the words, just someone singing it to me while they swaddled me in a pale blue blanket. Maybe my mother, maybe not. Whenever I was scared, I had taken to humming it.
When the doors opened with another "bing!" I couldn't bring myself to move. There was nothing to see beyond the elevators. A mist prevented me from making out even shadows. Little tendrils of fog began to curl towards me. Heat followed, driving out the last of the cold that I'd brought with me from outside.
Some paradise, I thought.
“Disembark!” A harsh, synthetic voice commanded. The voice of a wart inside its suit. Trembling, I stepped forward. If this was my last moment alive, it wouldn’t do much good to spend it quivering against the wall like a coward.
The elevator closed, leaving me feeling vulnerable. "Remove your overshirt, subject 1-4-9-9 Jonah Griffin." a second, subtly deeper voice ordered. The request was odd, but I was roasting now anyways. I let the ragged thing drop, now wet with moisture.
Shapes emerged from the fog. Figures in bulky metal suits and insectoid masks. Beads of condensation clung to their shiny black goggles as they studied me. One of them had a syringe, the needle tiny in his padded glove.
"Stretch out your arm, subject 1-4-9-9,” he told me. Humming one last bit of my tune, I did so. My arm was still shaking. The wart gripped my elbow roughly in his free hand. I watched with dread as the syringe got close to my skin.
And then things got crazy.
The next I knew, I wasn't in that strange, misty room. I was in a hallway. Alarms were blaring, and my head was fuzzy, like when you wake up from a poor night's sleep, or an unrestful nap.
And in my left hand, I was holding tight to someone’s hand. A girl named Penny. Everyone loved Penny. She had acted as a mother of sorts for the orphans, looking after us and comforting us when no one else would. I'd had a crush on Penny for years, but never had the courage to tell her. She'd taken little notice of me regardless, being two years older and busy tending younger children.
Mere weeks from being sent to the mines, she'd been summoned a few days before me. Could it be we had escaped? I couldn't make sense of where my memories had gone. It felt like I should be able to remember what happened. Maybe Penny knew. She had an odd expression on her face, a senseless sort of bliss. She seemed content to stand there while I came to my senses.
"What's going on?" I asked.
Penny looked at me with unfocused eyes, then giggled. "Johnny," she said, stroking my cheek. "They hurt my brain." She tapped at her forehead awkwardly, as if her motor skills were off. Her dark hair, once thick and beautiful, clung to her skin in lank strands. There were bald spots where they'd shaved patches away.
She attempted to relay her story to me, but it was too vague for me to understand much. She kept going back to needles, in her skin, through her bone. She was terrified of needles.
They'd lobotomized her.
I looked around, trying to get a grip and figure out my surroundings. We had to escape, that was obvious. Even if we'd managed to evade the warts, I doubted we'd be free for much longer. My sweater was dangling from my right hand. The sweater was an anchor, helping me focus on reality.
I led Penny towards the first door I found, a supply closet. The second led into an immense hanger. Beyond open doors, a starlit night awaited. The light of worlds beyond our own twinkled invitingly.
Standing before us, in this building, on this planet and within reach, was the most gorgeous, elegant ship I’d ever seen. It was a broad, electric-blue arch with a row of powerful-looking engines slung in a line along the back. I saw my means of escape here, my freedom. I didn't know what had occurred in the minutes since my ride in the Red Elevators, but I knew I'd been given a chance at finding something better, perhaps a real life. The thought of living free of oppression and fear almost seemed impossible, like a bird who has never been let out of its cage. I had to seize this while I could.
We had to steal that starship.