The First Steps Beyond the Aftermath: a short story

It has finally my turn to take the stage. I Mark Moran twenty- seven years old and nearly beyond his prime, has finally been given the task of surveyor and has been given the duty to explore the uncharted wasteland after five hundred years of humanity being shut away from the dangers of radioactive debris.  As I pass through the blast doors, even as professionalism would need me to be collective, I am unable to control the fusillade of emotions flashing past me.  First there were feelings of fear, then a sense of being disowned and then of shock. However the sense of freedom converted my emotions to sensations of awe, wonder, and excitement. All of these feelings were coinciding and conflicting at the same time.

The second pair of blast doors sealed behind me, each bracket connecting in dovetail brown cobalt mandibles. The tinny clang as it closed pulled me out of my trance, and duty took over. I detached myself from my life behind me as procedure dictates. The comfort of life in the bunker becomes a faint memory like a past redundant routine learned in infancy. My UV protection goggles while effective, still feel like its holding lens of vellum paper as I felt the heat, like my retinas are seething with iodine.  Even while contained in this cave, the light at the end of the ovular tunnel was on the tip of vision, and was the first thing to attract the eye. Finally able to debouch from that cramped steel tomb and see the remaining artefacts of our civilisation as a physical entity, and not just an approximation on screen.

Proceeding forward was the hardest role of any surveyor, even with the outlining map as an estimate to where I was going. Some of these maps were cherry picked from records nearly a hundred years old.  And yet the shock of being in a natural atmosphere has yet to sink in. to be honest the first thing that sprung to mind was how I would navigate out of here should the tunnels a complex array,  like a warren;  but luckily it’s just one straight tunnel lead by light. All of this reminding me of the Greek mythology I read recently on the databanks. I am thankful I don’t have to be Theseus.

And that’s what it continued to feel like for a while, like this was all mythology, folklore a fable, a myth or a fictional story. I could picture myself weaving all these elements to create my own illusory fantasy, from all the Databank terminals of five centuries ago, all of it playing like a projector behind the lids, until a slumbering blearily delusion is met with the bareness of a steel ceiling.

I’ve never even seen such clear sediments of rock up-close, not even while underground.  It’s a nice change of scenery even if the enclosure is fundamentally ugly; I suppose there is no time to rubberneck. This kind of spatial field has this weird effect on me, I still don’t feel I belong, like I am an infection working its way through a
contracting artery. Not exactly claustrophobia, but this feeling that once I leave this cavern, this structure is going to close off behind me.  As I took my first steps through the cave, the momentum of my steps began to thrust me forward, like I was attempting to run through the light as if it was some obstructing wall; but as I reached the end of the tunnel, my ideas of reality began to betray me and was holding me back.

It’s like I have stumbled on some surrealist landscape.  A paved sea of sand being the only thing there to greet me, it went on for miles and miles and beyond. The sky an aquamarine blue that looked like it was ready to fall on top of me.  My senses overload. Although the sensation is not tactile on my boots, my feet can feel the unevenness of the ground.  The faulty shards of stone are a direct contrast to the flat substrates of steel.  Theses all novelties now, but maybe when I am stuck out here for the month I am drafted, their hindrance will begin to annoy me.

What took me by surprise also, were the readings of my built in Geiger counter in my hazard suit, which indicated the atmosphere was perfectly habitable. Yet I still wouldn’t dare take the suit off.

I suppose this was my only way out, all that spiel about us being the last bastion of a perfect model society with the perfect genetic integrity of our species, were just the pilings of sugar for the medicine on the spoon.  The meals, leisure activities and sense of camaraderie where packed and rationed in Tupperware.  Heck with the radiation I will probably be too exposed to return anyway, even with the reinforced hazmat suit.  I can feel the extra ducts and tubes from the suit, palpating like extra veins, wrapped around like organic gauze, a second layer of skin.

It’s unlikely I am going to be welcomed back with open arms, but I knew the risks, still to me this was a blessing in disguise, an area of civilisation, the offer of a lifetime. The task was to survey a rural town away from any major city or industrial complex, and also report if the wasteland is habitable to humans with evidence of any forms of life.

I didn’t really care about the last part, I was just excited that this place wasn’t ground zero in any explosion and was left alone as its destruction wouldn’t have been of any tactical advantage. A nice little town, one so quaint it stayed off the radar. Now one of the few possible remnants of civilisation (hopefully, if my deductions are accurate) nestled on the north-west edge of the continent. It’s Rural, and around forty kilometres away from any major city or areas with a high industrial influence.  Shame it isn’t near any port or by the sea, although if it was, it would probably be considered a key location for transporting provisions and what not.

Strangely visions of a post-apocalyptic wasteland never met my foresight into what to expect, not a priority to the imagination at least. I just followed my eyes to the movement of my purified water from back home, making eddies swirl with the motion of my hand.  To me this was like my small aquarium for a compacted ocean, a token for things to come.

Thoughts of the Bunker kept creeping back though, even though I was only in the bunker several minutes ago, and to be honest nothing, not even an arid expanse of nothing, could be worse. The administrator tried to keep things as orderly as possible, with promises of progress and Tanoy sessions of his motivational mantras.  He tend to misquote things a lot, things such as “a busy worker is a happy worker” and “a problem shared is a problem not worth having”, sometimes they made little sense but everyone knew that the point he was trying to make was to not doubt his authority. Though even the most devout followers of his rule, such as Martian Abbott or Elise Delacroix  couldn’t help but mutter “maybe he should peruse the databanks more thoroughly”  under their breathe.

Negative (realistic) opinions were not tolerated down in the Bunker, in case it stirred up seditious thoughts of trying to leave its safety. So we all had to do what we could to be positive. You could keep a smile attached to your face everywhere you go or perhaps loll your head back and forth to a catchy tune from one of the 20th century soundboards.  Though to be honest I would rather be miserable than hear Mike Fletcher’s high pitched vocals try to match Louis Armstrong’s low vocal register ever again.

I can’t explain the repressed and odious misery felt by every man, woman and child down that pit with just words. Sometimes it just lingered in the background, dormant and piled up like unfettered bubbles of air pushed downwards. It couldn’t be well expressed, but was well represented. I think of it as that low yet pronounced tinny buzzing noise of a cylindrical halogen light fixture, near diminished by the frustration of being deprived of argon.  No, everything and everyone was deprived and meaningless. It was just the strain had been passed down to the machines surviving on the lowest of functions.

We were told just to make due and that it could be a lot worse.  A lot worse?, what’s worse than watching your home slowly become your grave?. It wasn’t the possible cave in or tectonic disruption five hundred feet above ground that I had my thoughts on. I could just take a stroll through the living quarters, the recreation hall or even the hydroponics bay, and just list-tick things that kept falling apart. The leaks from the generator coolants is what continued to worry me, its short life on the screen of a nearby window pane, escaping as dribbling sacs of water marsupials eventually dispersing into nothing.   And something as dangerously bad as this could take more than a week to repair.   Not to mention the exposed conduit power lines with barely any insulation. Of course this was all covered over by the quick fix of gaffer tape (which we will run out of).  And don’t get me started on the distribution of central air.

Of course the engineering staff would respond to my observations with grandiose optimism. I mean how many times can Roger Gaff feel comfortable with saving “Chin up, its last this long, so it can probably last longer”.  Sometimes I wondered if the Administrator just replaced everyone in the Bunker with robots like that old 20th century film Westworld, because really when I was down there no one seemed to have a speck of humanity about them.

I am not an idiot, I know once I left that place I wouldn’t be coming back. Even if whatever mutation evolved in this wasteland doesn’t get me, the radiation in the air will, as the administrator would say, “taint the seeds of my future”. What am I a fucking plant?. I couldn’t stand all that metaphorical cheerleading he kept spouting out. He was like one of those Gnostic shamans in some Native American tribe which you could read about in one of the virtual databanks.  He’d like us to believe that all these words of wisdom came from his own musings. There is a thing on the databank interface called “The User History File”, stored on the public domain, that have even his use of the search engine stored on it. Storing it on public domain was something he even suggested for security reasons. He believed we were all soft in the head.

I assume once I collected all the data they need concerning the condition of the surface, I will probably be exiled. I bet that’s what happened to the other surveyors that went topside, and when they stopped banging on the front door, the administrator could make up any story he liked on their disappearance.

I volunteered to do this job as it the only legit way of leaving the bunker, short of starving yourself to death.   I figure, even if in reality leaving the bunker is nothing short of a death sentence, at least I have a chance to make something of myself and live my own life. Either that or be assigned a dumb job as a grease-monkey doing my part for the well being of the bunker. To be honest, all I wanted to was to work on the restoration and documentation of past centuries before the bombs fell, being that our past is the only thing that interesting anymore.  But the Administrator has that old crony Mr Brindley keep all the files in check, who just so happens to be as idyllic as he is.

I am probably the second of my family line to go topside, my father being the first. I was never acquainted with my old man; he was drafted as a surveyor within a month of my conception into the world. I don’t know the whole story revolving his departure, as my mother insured all the details were taken to the grave with her, as if it would change my outlook of the bunker. I have a vague idea though of what it involved, especially seeing how my mother never saw the administrator eye to eye. Perhaps that’s where I got my cynicism. The way she addressed and responded to him, pedantic and straight, you knew there was bad blood behind their words, something she kept telling me never to emulate. I think she really didn’t want me to adopt her abrasive attitude towards the administrator.

I hope I am not painting a bad picture though, she was a very good mother, but I also loved her because she was a very strong woman. She prioritised her contribution as a doctor before her personal feelings on how the Bunker was run. She was one of the best, until she was latter replaced by Dr Barrett.  (All of which was ad-hominem because Dr Barrett never asked questions). Even though everyone knew her contribution to the field even trumped his, no one could contend, unless they wanted to go missing. It was because Dr Barrett was just good enough to do the job and being cut from the same cloth as the administrator had that as better quality on his resume’.  That and he didn’t have foreknowledge in radiology and half-lives like my mother did, so no one could ask when, why, and why not, when asking about going topside. My mother truly was an amazing woman and while no one directly approached her about this, in every conversation where her name was included, every other word carried the nuance of respect.

While growing up she taught me to always keep open-minded to the perspective of others (something I never quite did get the hang off), as there is always another way to view a situation, as sometimes even a person’s naiveté can breed a different sense of clarity. She also always empathised that when down in the bunker, it never hurts to swallow your pride, as sometimes it insures that others won’t get hurt in the process also.

This was the sort of mentality she wanted to nail into me, a mentality of keeping my head down and getting through the most arduous aspects of the bunker, without provoking the suspicion of the administrator.  But I think in the back of her mind she knew I would always speak my mind, probably because it ran in the family. The Moran sense of realism, if there was ever an intangible hereditary element of our genetic makeup she could never explain, it would be that, the only thing even science eluded.

Growing up I could always tell that she tried to correct my overly honest acuity, but deep down she was proud.  Even when she had to correct me for show, there were always soft touches to her corrections, even poorly-masked smiles. That told me how she really felt, and that was enough to go by. You could never be too challenging in the bunker, otherwise you would “go missing”. The tannoy announcement would be the last memento of your memory, before everything attached to your being, would be cleaned out of the bunker for good.

Unfortunately this happened to my mother as well. It happened so fast, in the space of twenty minutes she was there then she was gone. She said it was an appointment for someone who requested a sudden check-up, and that was all she said. And the only way people could pay their respect was to pretend she never existed. This was when I realised I had to get out by any means necessary. People don’t just go missing, especially in a tightly secured and tiny community like the Bunker.

To be honest I never felt attached to the people of the bunker. We all kept our distance, only being allies to the family you grew up with.  I think this was because your family were the only people who wouldn’t be eager to sell you out in order to keep brownie points with the Administrator; we all had to look out for ourselves down there.  After a while though it all starts to feel unreal, even if death was imminent, I don’t think I would have lived a fulfilled life down there to feel any sense of fear.

I suppose I need to put all this behind me, It not like I was attached to anyone down there anyway, which in a way is good because I don’t have to feel any inch of concern for  the people who can only watch their lives waste away in that empty place.  The only people I ever felt close to are dead now, and I am not going to allow their efforts in rearing me into what I am now go to waste.  I don’t know what’s in store for me now I am free, but even if it’s dangerous I can rest easy knowing I went out with a bang.  The possibilities are endless and it is this strange sense of adventure and living for a cause that gives me a sense of joy in my little life.  I will probably never live beyond the first sunset, but it doesn’t matter because I can die knowing I was able to live on the planes above than die because of the whimsy of a senile old man.

Outsider of the Dark age: A thief’s Memoirs

1596, a turn point of our civilisation, most momentous being of course, is the schism of the church, which became calmly resolute under Elizabeth’s tactful eye, as well as the slacking of the leash of humanities so that  the arts may continue in explorative artistic fervour.   Our country has settled after repulsing the Spaniards, and there is even a discussion of unifying our nation with the extremities of the bordering countries of this proud land. Things seem to be maintaining a sense of overwhelming progression for the people.

Well above the undergrowth at least, but in essence key players outside the intentions of the great Tudor monarchy, have their own goals in mind, primarily with the interest of putting more than just a few hundred shillings in their pocket.

Some are formed as guilds, others individual Brokers looking to expanding their businesses, probably to fund for the more illicit of ventures, and don’t get me started by the small quorum of occult sects popping up recently.

So how do I know this? Well mainly because these are the people I work for. Indiscriminately of course unless they are able to fund me till the authorities kick their door down.  I never get close to any of my clients though, if it meant saving face for a something as trivial as convincing a royal emissary of their fealty to the country, they would get you stabbed even if you were closer to him than a brother. You want fellowship?, then a constant flow of money into their pocket is just enough for them to at least leave you alone.

So what am I getting at here? Simple; I happen to apart of a world where I am in contact with people who function in life without the powers that be, even without God. Hell if these people were asked for a affidavit, they would swear an empty oath straight in the face of the judge, while paying the right people to bury the bodies in the mean time.  And yet knowing this and how things are done does not deter me from working in these circles, I have a talent and they need me.

The only admirable thing about these people is how self-aware they are. They know their technically enemies of the country, they know their actions and transactions are vessels for something bigger than their own interests and a vessel to something sinister. They don’t lie to themselves with titular labels denoting their patriotism like some of the well known aristocrats; they want something, they get it without concern for prestige.

I suppose you could call me a mercenary of sorts, but don’t think I take jobs to give myself a sense of being valiant. I just do the job to make a living, so I can pay the rent and keep myself fed.  This, and it means I can life the quiet life, sleep in the day, steal and pillage by night, I don’t want to be found, so the money trailing in from clients pays more than enough for me to move abodes often. It also means I don’t have to be part of the apparent upholding and mundane society.

I don’t want to be a part of places like the main streets of the town, with that horrible cobbled road, one of places I avoid. Being that the surface of the road was practically invented for businessmen and aristocrats that wanted the attention. Their duck billed shoes crash the surface like a bodhran fanfare to mark status. What I would give to ruffle the feathers of a few phonies, and now think I have got my chance.

I received this a anonymous offer on some rather neatly posted piece of parchment quite recently, no name to go by but you could tell by the way the L’s and H’s were excessively looped in places, that this was from someone very prestigious. I never usually go for a job unless I personally meet my client first hand but the request was so enticing with the malefactor involved that I just picked it just for an excuse to be another thorn in Cromwell’s side.  The details of how the job would subsequently effect his business wasn’t exactly clear, but I know that the request for simple ransacking was just a red herring, and I probably would have declined the job had I didn’t know what it really involved.

Basically, all I had to do was steal a substantial amount of money from Cromwell’s estate. Sound simple right?, well, not quite… not when you realised what else the client wanted. The client didn’t want the money, instead made explicitly clear that the money stored away in the storage room was mine, and by that rationale the reward itself was amount of gold I ransacked. He also pointed out and made this strictly clear that I only acquire (I love how he downplayed plain old thievery) the money from behind the metal bars and at no circumstance ever take any other miscellaneous items I happened to stumble upon on the estate itself.  No questions asked, just do the task written on the parchment.  It’s funny that they take me for such a fool that they would think I don’t know the sly stratagem of the high and mighty.

A few days ago Cromwell made a deal with a well known broker that hopefully would open up further ventures in his own interest. However as this business had received other offers, the businessman Jacob Hobson was keeping the deal open until quills touched the respective contracts.  So if he didn’t get the money on time he could pull out at any time and join another suit. No premature bonds or supplements of good faith, just straight up payment, he didn’t want to feel he was in anyone’s pocket, I suppose he knows how sly some of the businessmen around here are.

This man was really calculating, really believing in the virtue of caveat emptor, (or the type of man not to suffer fools gladly) He had wealth in owning a reputable blacksmith trade with some of the country’s finest blacksmiths under his wing, and Cromwell knew it was worth a lot.

Its obvious Cromwell didn’t procure that amount of money for the deal from “healthy legal” commerce alone, someone had to lose something, maybe a life. If that money went missing Cromwell would be done for, and the business dealer could just pull out and wait for the next deal to take the stage. Yea you could argue he would tell who sabotaged his funding just by who took the next offer, but there would be no way to trace it back to the buyer, as everything would be done by an illicit proxy: basically me. I liked how my client thinks, but at the same time I feel little queasy, as some one that ambitious with a dash of cunning could be capable of anything, and it’s the ones who know this who are the most dangerous.

Not that I care about the business opportunities of my client but I must admit that if Cromwell begins to spread his influence on several merchants who I trust for my wares, he might become a thorn in my side. Especially with his so called “business ethic”. He knows certain patrons like me would bite from the hand that fed it. And once in a while it doesn’t hurt to outright refuse service in order to keep thieves like me at bay.

So this time I went against by usual way of picking clients and went with this job anyway, knowing it will probably benefit me as much as the anonymous client, which I find a bit disconcerting that he knew to directly contact me for this request. The client didn’t really offer any more information other than where the Manor was situated and where the funds were being kept. However it was mentioned that the Manor would probably be lightly guarded around about dusk. This was because Cromwell was holding a celebratory party in celebration of the business venture in an undisclosed location away from the manor.  What was even better was that the manor was just on the outskirts of town in an isolated glade surrounded by forestry which is perfect for a smooth get-away.

From lending my ear to the old thief’s cant (a secret language of sorts for thieves.) I was able to be directed to the right people who were willing to provide maps for the occasion; for the right price of course. I would approach my work with due caution though, since it’s obvious that this job requires a more needed touch than the old clock and dagger affair. I take the word of many of my beneficiaries in the name of maintaining good business, but caution seems the most trustworthy ally. Since the client gave no name to speak of, so I had to assume the worst, and maintaining that due caution was unfortunately a necessity.

The time now is just after Dusk, looking from the tree I was perched in, two guards were stationed in the forecourt of the manor, and the other two were doing rounds around the outside of the gate.  Timing my place of entry needed essential precision, yet more often or not scaling up a parapet was easy because for some reason not guarding a literal backdoor didn’t seem necessary for the typical guard.

Ok, so I have reached the base of the parapet, even though I nearly slipped from treading on a loose brick in the wall, the door seemed very standard, so using my tools to open it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Drat.., I am usually a lot more prudent than this; prying the door open with too much eagerness made a clear notch in the door frame, as much as I would like to fix this, they might catch on that the door has been tampered with if I stay here for too long.. oh well in for a penny..

The inside of the Manor was completely pitch black, and seemed almost untouched by any patrols on the inside, which is very strange. Using my luminous amulet I was able to make a clear patch of light, as if I had cut an open wound in the darkness. I am really glad I spent that little bit extra on my amulet, called magic if you’re a peasant, but any lucid mind will realise that this is merely a combination of luminous chemicals if you had enough savvy. It does cost a lot to buy the chemicals for the alchemy; however the alternative tinderbox of course is not a very good idea.

After locking the door behind me, I am met with absolute darkness; something’s wrong, even with the main patrol overseeing the party celebrating the merger, Cornwell wouldn’t leave the main pot unprotected like this, especially when the second party is asking for money straight up.

Anyway back to business, If the map provided to me is correct I should be in the annex of the west wing of the second floor. The abrupt angular lines on the map illustrate that the outer walls into the walkway have no nooks or concave alcoves for quick retreat should a sentry rear his ugly head. This of course is to be taken at face value, however this walkway is completely straight so I will try and use the luminous amulet sparingly, or try to limit its range of scintillation.

I can’t fathom how neglectfully quiet it is, More so on how pervasive the silence is, as if the night itself makes the light soluble, and untenable. The expanse of just this walkway makes my inner humanist squall under pressure like a turgid gasket, It’s sad how much money Cromwell spent for this estate and its opulence when several rooms, are barely even used for storage. I suppose just the location of the manor makes it stand out like a totemic symbol of power, all this and the peasants gets the message while tending to their  dishevelled grottos.

Ok, so following the layout of the rooms several paces this way should lead to the lobby area, though I need to memorize this pathway taken and the route of entry also. I don’t want to shake up the place and leave any marks. Though when you think about it, I wonder if that’s the point, maybe my client is secretly in cahoots with Cromwell, with plans to take advantage of my screwing up, with machinations of getting officials involved. Though when you think about it, with the illicit activates under his roof (quite literally), I doubt he would want to lampshade that a thief tried to steal all of his possessions that was obviously obtained by stealing. I always do this; this deconstructing and thinking of all scenarios. I need to get on to the task at hand.

The staircase is probably made of wood, accurate guess timber as it’s generally the sturdiest.  It is however notorious for creaking, especially when it’s dried out, from the heat of the fireplace that’s nearby.

So best bet is to climb over the banister (sounds more laborious than its worth but trust me I’ve done this a few times before ) and hanging off it leaves me with about six feet distance from the floor, small body forgive. I land on my extremities, palms and tips, and while I do so I notice that the fireplace is completely open, no stove or cover to prevent unwanted entry. This is an amateur thief’s false sense of security, with all that soot you might as well make a perfect soot angel on the floor of the lobby if you were stupid enough to enter through the chimney.

I just can’t shake the feeling that this is all a setup , no guards, nothing to bar entry, especially for an isolated building, absolutely nothing.  This place is at least beyond a casual jaunt away from any reams of society, and strangely it is not guarded accordingly because of this. Something definitely is not right…

On to the door leading to the showcase room (so far the map is accurate, why do I always feel like the world is conspiring against me) and I nearly slipped on the hearth rug just from as my knees become weak at being witness to the tacky gestalt of his armour collection. He has pieces of the Ottoman era, Roman armour, elaborately designed tapestries, imported goods of Visigoths, and other periods of old.  He even had his own set of armour made.  This piece used elements of obsidian rock for the chest plate and imported the regal blue colour for the Pauldrons. He obviously preferred style before substance, maybe as a way to show off to esteemed female guests. It seems he put all his efforts into appearing to be a cultured and refined man, what a poser.

I keep thinking about the easy entry into the estate and the obvious neglect of it all seems just so convenient. However it’s not as if I can find funds for my rent elsewhere… just hope I am not dancing to any ones tune…

Anyway I can still hide should anything undesirable happens, it’s what I like doing best, becoming part of my surroundings. Manors and estates of high value are great for large ornaments and object I can hide behind, especially objects that cast a large shadow at night.

And when trouble arrives I can just break shape until the homunculi of my essence slides and slithers exquisitely, taking the form of unsuspected shadows, like the blackened outline of a table and the outstretched sultry shape of its cabriole legs.

Well so far so good, and this might be my cheapest job to date, except for the tools I used for the door and the grappling equipment to get up to the parapet, I haven’t had to use anything else. No smokescreen dispensers, no knifes, no need to use any of my arrows if I was caught in a bit of a quagmire.  All I need to do now is to enter the last room in front of me and hopefully everything should be there for the taking.  If I believed in a God I would probably be thinking my good luck was of his making, perhaps kissing a rosary a thousand times to make sure I still maintain my position on his good side.

Come to think of it what was the estimated amount of money held away in this manor anyway?, two hundred pounds, maybe more than that even; quite a substantial amount just for a business deal.  Thinking about it to myself, if I was able to obtain all that money I could perhaps keep myself funded for a good three months or so, perhaps take a break from all this work. Alas, one of the easiest ways of losing your abilities is being out of practice, so I suppose I would still have to do the odd job here and there. I could move out to the country, maybe buy myself a horse and travel to Wales. Not sure where I would be able to find a stable though, and if I did it could bring me unduly attention, so maybe staying in the city would still be a safer option.

As I carefully control the door’s movement as it opens, I enter the last room in the Manor. And there it is, a collection of typical of burlap bags to store funds behind a small set of metal bars like it was being held prisoner; right there.

“Seize him now, surround him!!”

The sudden addition of light flooded the room, like being poured from a decanter. And washed in with the presence of light, comes the contours of ten guardsmen, all wearing the insignia of a Crow with a large blood-red C in the middle. And while I was aware of the presence of the guards, the first figure to come into focus, the first face that met mine was Arthur Cromwell himself.