Quarantine

By Benjamin Sonnek

 

Yesterday: July the 10th, 2025. The first recorded fatality was tagged in a suburb outside of Kiev. The victim was a technician at a research facility soon to be disavowed by every proximate authority. In the months to follow, no cases of survival were ever reported.

#

Today: July 9th, 2301. She rose every morning at 7:10 a.m., grudgingly allowing her snooze button some purpose and herself a little more rest.

#

Yesterday: according to data model estimates, the disease thoroughly permeated the entire Asian and European landmass in twenty-eight days, a domain that included Africa, Oceana, and Australia only four days later due to the movements of refugees.

#

Today: the approximate measurements of the trousers were 32 long with a 28 waist, solid black slim fit to accentuate her unbreakable stature. They were fairly standard trousers, the versatile type promoted throughout the community after the prohibition of skirts.

#

Yesterday: despite all travel sanctions, it did not take long for the illness to stretch its poisoned progeny into the Western Hemisphere. By then, though, the swiftest had already begun a quarantine of their own—that is, a quarantine of themselves. The westward-running population encountered whole buildings sealed up and armored, connected by passages and ducts that kept the filtered air flowing and pure.

#

Today: both her feet and her upper body were more or less dressed the same way—a layer of yielding recycled cotton under a stiffer, more protective layer of synthetics. The shirt was much different from the socks, of course, and the shoes were pointier and of a more solid build than the jacket. The latter item fit her well enough to neither sag nor wrinkle when she pinned on her hierarchical ID badge—the only Level Three in the community. It never got tangled in her hair, which only came down to her jawline anyway.

#

Yesterday: confinement did not stop innovation; even after the last airlock closed, the cities kept building on, discovering and implementing ways to construct chambers and pods free of the contagion. Town structures became taller and more complex, interconnecting multi-level conglomerates of chambers connected by tube-like passages. Some towns could self-rearrange, shifting the chambers and passages into different configurations. Internal greenhouses thrived on excess carbon dioxide. Ministerial governing bodies were established. Personal devices moved from people’s hands into implants directly in the arms. Sub-cranial tags could ensure the health and safety of each individual citizen. Trade was made possible by specialized vehicles. And, through purifying procedures, water could be taken in and minerals mined from the earth. Only living things could not be permitted, especially humans. Every human outside was infected. But soon after that, the outside humans ceased to be a problem. The towns were all that remained—base camps for the arrivals on a new, hostile world.

#

Today: breakfast comes first, but business can happen at the same time. Activating the tabletop, she opened a window next to her plate of cereal, checking on the town’s minor events that warranted her attention. Everything in San Maria was privy to her inspection: trade manifests, scout reports, court rulings—if a corridor could take her there, it was her business. And it looked like the usual business today.

San Maria: approximately 5000 citizens by the cranial-tag count. One of the most advanced cities on the western coast. A veritable jungle gym of hundreds of units connected by the web-strands of modular passages, stacking upon each other into a squat tangle, a human tube farm. Every piece could move, rearranging at but the command, and all of it was under her control.

Five minutes until eight. Plenty of time to reach the head offices. The town relied on efficiency and punctuality, and she was the town.

#

There were always a few minutes that could be spared for the view, not that there was much of a view to be spared. Morning; the sky was an old yellowy eye with a sharp iris of blue. San Maria wasn’t tall enough to peek over the valley walls—except for its communications tower placed up on the ridge, of course—so the view was limited to rusty rocks carved up by a trickling river, an ancient dam nervously hiding behind a faraway bend. Over there on the ground, that was probably a fat rodent scuttling from the bush to the burnt grove. Not much had changed, especially not—

Her wrist lit up and tickled with a buzzy voice. “Chairman Quall! I’m on my way, ma’am!”

—especially not the timing of her secretary.

Donald Venici, a Level One citizen with a much loftier level of height, fell through the door in a whirl of skinny clothes. Nothing new with the view; Wanda turned away from the window’s panorama and descended into her desk chair. Time for the morning ritual of reassuring this fellow that he wasn’t fired yet.

Jerking himself up into a fuzzy-topped rod, Donald dusted off his jacket. “Good morning, Chairman—ready for this morning’s council, I pray—is there anything you need, coffee, a snack, a few minutes, an amusing recording from the Youtube archive?”

Wanda bobbed her head with a light smile. Years ago she’d decided the title “chairman” was less patriarchal institutionalism and more delectable irony. “I had my breakfast before coming to work, Mr. Venici, thank you,” she replied with the normal ominous softness. “And I see you’re still in the middle of yours.”

The secretary flicked an errant strand of shredded wheat from his jacket to the floor. “Uh—yes. Sorry, ma’am, busy night and all, I—”

“Don’t worry, I do not require the details. But I do need to know my schedule for today, Mr. Venici; when is the council supposed to arrive?”

With a mouth-twitch that threatened a smile, Donald gestured towards the double doors to his right. “But Chairman Quall, they’re already here.”

Wanda opened her eyes again—without their careless glow.

“Apparently there’s some pretty urgent goings-on, ma’am. Some of those bosses look pretty peaked. So…do you need a few minutes?”

She rose, wafting around the desk. “No,” she said, half to the secretary. “Of course not. If it’s that urgent, I can deal with it all the sooner. Make sure the rest of my morning stays open, Mr. Venici—just in case some work comes up that the council can’t do themselves.”

“You’ve got it, Miss Chairman!” Still not fired, Donald spun about-face and swept out towards his desk. Wanda, instead, pushed the council chamber’s double doors open with both hands.

Like any typical council, it was mostly made up of white guys in black suits. Not much to show here in San Maria for earth’s once terrifying ethnical diversity. A bunch of well-to-do Level Two citizens. All of them had some rather oblong feature about them, be it a paunch or a nose or drooping eye-bags, as though something in their bodies just had to mimic the shape of the meeting room’s table. Every eye looked like it had just been woken from a pleasant nap, blinking from the light filtering in from the lengthwise window. The only standing gentleman, Mr. Wharton, hovered over them all as he pointedly looked up from the time on his wrist. Wanda didn’t have to look; five minutes past eight. Former Chairman Quall, her father, had never really liked Wharton.

“Miss Quall. Good morning; glad you could make it.” No Chairman or ma’am.

“And I’m glad you could all make it earlier for a change,” she replied while seating herself at the head of the table. “Start of a new trend, I hope.”

The councilmen rumbled a little as Wharton’s face twisted. “Perhaps,” he politely conceded, “but today we something a little more urgent on our hands. There’s been a su—”

Wanda waved her hand, slicing his words off in midair. “No no, sir. Reports first. If we got caught up in every town emergency, when would we ever get around to actually running this place?”

What? They’d obviously waited until the morning to get the news up here, and then done some more waiting in this room to try to pressure her. If they wanted to wait that much, they could wait some more.

“Mr. Wharton.” Wanda gestured to his vacant seat. “Please. First, our population reports.”

Wharton finally reclined on his cushion as willingly as he would have upon a barbeque grill. The Minister of the People, after making sure that everyone in the room was still alive, checked his arm’s panel and transferred its data to the tabletop display. He was an average man, reporting the average of the population.

“Erm, Miss Chairman…as we can all see here, San Maria’s numbers are holding more-or-less steady. Three new citizens were born, one on Level Two layer and two on Level One. According to their cranial implants, they’re all healthy and in good condition.”

Wanda folded her hands. “Any births in Level Zero?”

“The Basement, ma’am? No, no births down there.”

“I don’t recall there being any new citizens being recorded down there for some time.”

The Minister checked his arm data. “No, it’s…actually been a rather long time. Months.”

“Interesting. Right, I say we give it a week before sending detachments from the Ministries of Law and Future down there to check. Anything else?”

“Hm. One new citizen came of age for his forearm display implant,” the Minister of the People recited from the report, “name of Gideon. And…two Level One citizens have expired. Their implants were salvaged, and the usual ten percent of the organic remains were sent off for cremation while the rest proceeded to fuel rod processing. That is all.” He sat back while the rest of the council nodded in respect for the deceased.

“Next?” Wanda looked towards the Minister of the Law.

The councilman shrugged, flicking an empty report to the table. “Nothing new to report, Miss Chairman. No lawbreakers captured on any levels, and no prisoners condemned to terrestrial exile or otherwise.”

“Maybe it’s ‘cause the Basement-dwellers aren’t making any more lawbreakers to send off.”

Nobody owned up to that comment, and Wanda chose to ignore it. “Thank you, Minister,” she nodded. “And next?”

The Minister of Engineering’s file was much more convoluted—it was, after all, the structure of the town. “No hull breaches, power and utilities all flowing stable, no interior contamination detected,” he droned. “We did recently recycle a redundant Level Two corridor that was falling out of use—all components were purified and stored. The expansion to our greenhouse pods has gone without complication, and the new vegetation is coming in nicely. And in regards to the city’s reinforcement project; Miss Chairman, if I may…”

That sentence was waxing interrogative. “Yes?” Wanda asked.

“Why shore up the unit connections in Level Zero and its passages to Level One? Yes, they’re getting corroded and the servos can’t effectively slide the halls around anymore, but they’re sturdy enough and we haven’t needed to restructure the Basement in ages. It will be fine if we don’t rearrange it, and the man-hours would be better spent working on an inspection of San Maria’s foundations.”

The woman Chairman straightened in her seat. “Call it a difference in priorities, Minister; I don’t want the upper levels to crush the Basement, and corroded corridors won’t hold us up here for long. Double the speed of your repairs if you must, then we can attend to the foundations. How long until you estimate that will happen?”

“About…one month.” The Minister slumped back.

“Thank you.” With that little burst of excitement over, Wanda retrieved a pen from her jacket and twiddled it with her fingers. “Next?”

It was the Minister of the Exterior, whose business lay outside the city. “Nothing new to report in the valley ma’am,” he commented, “no new plants or migratory paths or anything.”

“And how about our inter-city relations?” Wanda placed the pen on the table and kept spinning it there.

“The situation with Batterhahn just got a little more intense, ma’am. We might’ve pushed them over the edge this time, expanding our greenhouses and animal breeding pods, cutting down our trade reliance. They’ve let us know—multiple times—that this violates our commercial agreement, and they might make good on their threats of violence this time. Now they’ve cut off communications.”

“No contact. Preparing for attack, no doubt,” the Minister of the Law grumbled. The pen kept spinning.

“That’s what I believe,” the Minister of the Exterior agreed, “but this time it’s a little…stranger. None of our messages seem to be getting received, either.”

Wanda gripped her pen with her thumb, quickly making eye contact with the Minister. “No reception?”

“Nothing, ma’am. Not even a bounce-back. It’s as though their communications tower was destroyed or…moved a couple hundred miles or something. It’s not just Batterhahn, either. Haverty, Vathrornstoe—there’s less and less contact down towards the southeast. Batterhahn is the most recent; if something is taking the towns, it’s moving towards us. We’re next.”

The sounds of breathing got shakier; each unspoken theory was filling minds with darkness. Both the Ministers of Engineering and Law shared a glance; even in an ordinary inter-town coup, they’d leave the signal array standing. Those were expensive and nigh-vital to life itself. Whatever this could be, it wasn’t…reasonable.

Carefully laying down the pen again, Wanda began a slower, deliberate spin. Not only Batterhahn…“That is ominous. Could be careless attacks, or perhaps natural causes and malfunctions; Earth has always had her surprising moments. Send a message through the relay outposts, double-check and see if we can’t establish contact with town further south and east than Batterhahn is—or was. Also send another burst to the town’s location, and see if that doesn’t pick up anything, like a military transmitter.” She slowly exhaled. There was no more news—she knew there was no more news. But one more report just had to be made; another pointless ceremony. “Minister of the Future,” she mechanically acknowledged.

The height of the man in question barely changed as he stood. “Still no cure for the virus, ma’am,” he flatly delivered. “And, as the Minister of the Law said, no criminals. So no new test subjects, either.” Of course.

Another expected disappointment; Wanda’s breathing was slow. “I think…we’re finished with business. Mr. Wharton; what did you wish to bring before the council?”

The skipped Minister of Entertainment looked offended for a moment, but remembering he had no news of his own, he subsided his glare; Wharton had stood up again.

“It’s not exactly for the council, Miss Quall.” Instead of activating his wrist panel, he tossed a dirty envelope across the table. It slid to a stop right before it could fall into Wanda’s lap.

“It’s for you.”

Wanda flipped it over. Yes, it was the pair of hands, one open and one curled into a fist, both framed by two nesting rectangles. The Undercouncil’s request; Hades calling on Olympus. Sur Dromman had a business report of his own to make.

Sliding the envelope flap open, she removed a crinkly wad of dusty paper. “It was passed through the vent into Level One,” Wharton explained as he prowled around the room’s perimeter. “Took the liberty of reading it, just to be sure—”

“Naturally you had to,” Wanda muttered dismissively, flattening out the paper to read.

Wharton saw her eyebrow arch. “And that’s why this meeting is so urgent, Miss Quall,” he said more for the council’s benefit. “Sur Dromman isn’t coming up here. He wants you to come to him. He says he knows why the towns are silent.”

Everybody in the room shifted. Except Wanda.

Studying the note for a few moments, she re-folded it in roughly the same shape. She put it away again, got up from her chair, and opened her wrist panel’s intercom. “Mr. Venici.”

“Ma’am?”

“Get my coat—the long grey one with the sun-hood. Bring it to my office immediately; I’ve got something to attend to in town today.”

“Right away, ma’am!”

Wanda lowered her arm, and the whole council began twittering in concern. Wharton spoke the loudest; “You’re leaving right now?”

Wanda shrugged sideways. “You were right, sir, about that item being urgent. We’ve spent enough time on business, so I think this needs to be handled at once, don’t you?”

“Well…perhaps a small guard detachment is in order, then.”

“The envelope has always been protection enough, both for Dromman and Chairman. This may be a rather sensitive issue if he wishes to meet in his domain, in private.” Without looking, she snagged her coat from Venici’s hand. “I’m going to rearrange some of the level passages so it’s a straight path down there, that should cut out some distance. Don’t look so upset, now; if I’m not back by three pm, you have my personal permission to storm the Basement until you find me or my remains. There, see? I believe you’ve cheered up already.”

#

San Maria stirs—heh, ready the way of her master. Make straight her paths. Go kick some arses out of bed, the message has already arrived…get them to their stations, quietly as you can now. You know the signal, now move.

Rightaway, Maxo!

From above the darkened ceilings, a thunderstorm of groaning creaks reverberated in the gloom. Two heads leaned back into the canyon of stacked storage crates as disturbed dust motes came raining down.

#

With a final crunch, the passages completed the re-orienting process; the town had locked into its new configuration. Wanda deactivated the holographic display of San Maria, shrouded herself in the grey coat, and left the office. She didn’t even nod at Venici as she passed his desk and went down the first flight of stairs.

There wasn’t much difference between Levels Two and Three, considering Level Three was but a small annex for the incumbent Chairman. Both levels were smooth and white, but a white of such polish and sheen that passing colors melted into the curved panels, glowing with the light strips’ reflected radiance; a faint glassy aura seemed to float off every surface. Doors, curved to fit the walls, were only discernable by their access panels and carved seams. The transitions between hall passages and main chamber hubs were smooth, tight, and solid. The major difference between Levels Two and Three, then, was a difference in size, a distinction made more obvious when one entered the Central Park Annex.

Wanda walked quickly through the garden’s path, arcing her path only to go around the statue of her father, the previous Chairman. Someday it would have to be melted down so that her successor could look upon Wanda’s image when he made his rounds. Hopefully that melting process would not have to happen, say, tomorrow…

Mental images of the white dome splitting and cracking, joining Batterhahn’s debris spread across the land…

The still living Chairman checked her ID with the guard, who opened the hatch leading to a downward staircase.

Level One reminded Wanda of archival images showing the interiors of former townhouses—basic paint with a trim of some kind. The wooden doors were far more obvious; at times you could see the locking bolts between the door and the frame. She had to swerve quietly, unnoticed, around some of the people going about their Level One business, mostly moving towards the market in the Core Tower. The place had a well-earned name, for one could see that Level One was actually composed of three levels. Stacked on top of each other, merchants sold their crafted wares, repair services, and foodstuffs; the latter business was booming since the new greenhouses and animal breed-pods had been established. Food and steam and imperfectly washed people. The Chairman breathed it in deep—Level One was the place where all the smells began, and that wasn’t such a bad thing. Taking the spiral stairs gave a descending, 360-degree view of the lived on this level. So many people trading and bargaining. Worn but colorful—these people matched their clothes.

South-eastern villages vanishing, silent forever…Wanda shook her head, avoiding looking at the milling citizens. She couldn’t afford to meet their eyes. At the bottom layer, down another passage, she reached the next guard. He rolled up a metal shutter and ushered his superior onto a skeletal lift.

Descending into Level Zero, the contrast became incalculable. There was a smell, but it was the dingy old-metal scent that shrank the nostrils. In the shadows, the mind could not estimate the size of the chambers, so it involuntarily settled on a mythical proportion. The colors revealed by working lightbulbs were dull and earthy. The lift settled down with a clatter; Wanda gingerly took one step, and then another. Lightly scuffing her shoe on the floor, she caught a glimpse of the old whiteness, but its harshness was that of an old reawakened spirit—she looked up and moved along. The Central Annex down here was a labyrinth of stacked storage crates, storing things that needed forgetting. In the middle, isolated by a beam of light, was etched the double hands inside double rectangles. The meeting point. Wanda slowly wandered onto the symbol, taking a deep breath to call out for—

*wheet!*

At the whistle, a thousand cries rang out at once—hundreds of bodies came spilling out of the shady cracks, somersaulting onto the floor and running, flailing around the oasis of light. Sharp-edged objects waved over the chaos of dirty, ragged cloth; Wanda flipped a pistol out of her sleeve, pointing it randomly towards whichever shriek was loudest.

“Kee-yaa!” “Aaaiooooo!” “Wheehee!” “Whosay ‘whee’? Harr, Aaiiyaaaa!” “Haa ha haaaii!” “Gotcha, gotcha!”

“ENOUGH.”

The command boomed out from above; automatically the frenzy shuddered to a stop. Waving makeshift weapons lowered and pointed towards the middle of the ring. Aside from a few shifting legs under waist-cloths, the Chairman was hemmed in by a solid wall. Then the strangely articulate voice spoke again.

“Miss Quall. How prompt.”

A section of the ring folded away, allowing a taller figure to step into the glow. He could have been carrying weapons under his long robe. Long bangs cast a shadow over his face. His tunic was fresh and he had no beard. Wanda didn’t lower the pistol; this wasn’t the man she was here to see.

“I’m here to see Sur Dromman.”

The stacks of containers hollowly repeated her request.

Putting his hands together, the robed figure spoke again. “Maybe you should listen to your population reports more carefully, Miss Chairman. My father has passed. I oversee the Basement now. I—”

“Maxo Dromman!” the mob chanted in unison.

The figure blew a sigh out his nose. “Yes. Like I was about to say, I am Maxo Dromman—”

“Maxo Dromman!”

Maxo glared into the ring, directly at his Aide Bitty, who bit his lip and sank behind the wall of straggly people. Wanda raised an eyebrow and lowered the gun.

“New leader?”

“Of course.”

“My condolences. So…what is the meaning of this display?” she inquired, indicating the ring around them. “Your father only ever called me down here once, and even then he maintained some…decorum in the meeting.”

“That’s exactly why you’re here, Miss Chairman,” Maxo Dromman beckoned her to follow. “I want you to know that my father is no longer in command. You are here to find out what that means.”

#

Tittering and whooping, the surrounding Basement-dwellers filtered away between the stacks of containers, dismissed by the nod of their leader. With Bitty the aide following her close behind—with her confiscated pistol, naturally—Wanda was forced to keep up with Maxo’s rapid pace through the Stygian maze. Apart from the starved amount of elbow-room, not much of sight or scent changed during the trip away from the Central Annex.

But after a double-duck through a narrow hatchway (Bitty was short—no ducking for him), Wanda had to blink from the light. It wasn’t that bright a light, mind; just a pasty glow flowing in through films of dirty plastic. But, after the aisles of shadows and metallic smells, she was punched back a pace by the glow and the vegetable aroma, plants both living and feeding the living. A greenhouse. The Basement-Level greenhouses were the primary sources of green food not too long ago. Gave the people down here a job. Now there were more of these facilities up around Level One.

A jab in the back—either Bitty or his new toy. Wanda could sense some frustration in the atmosphere alongside the stench of decomposing matter.

It would probably take Wharton’s men about three minutes to get down here.

Ignoring the urge to access her wrist panel, Wanda kept right behind Maxo as they trekked deeper into the tangle of older and older vegetation. Branches got intrusive and hostile, poking and scraping the processional trio. Maxo was aiming for the densest knot of trees…and the leaves suddenly receded into a clearing. An entire room had been woven out of live branches, nooks and crannies holding up papers, pictures, many books, and old-generation screens and devices. The little blinks of blue reminded Wanda that she hadn’t seen these kinds of lights since this morning; for expense reasons approved by a bygone council (and supported by current membership), there wasn’t a single panel implanted into any of the Basement-dwellers. Not even into their bosses, including the one who’d just settled into a woven seat and was gesturing for his guest to find one of her own. She did so, keeping at an angle from the host. Bitty stayed in the “doorway” and watched.

Wanda took advantage of the brief silence, speaking first. “Sur Dromman never took me to this little dwelling before. A sign of favor?”

Maxo flicked a leaf off his armrest. “A statement of confidence. I do not hide in this forgotten level like my father; that is the first change I bring.”

Something chirruped and rattled in Bitty’s garments—his bony hands swarmed through the pockets until he retrieved the antique walkie-talkie. Holding down its button, the aide talked back to it in a less electric but just as garbled voice.

“Bitty’ere. Ya? Nonononowho? Whospear? Nomakkamarkonnaspear? Iknow, Isee. Holdem!” The radio disappeared as Bitty turned to his master, holding out his new gun apologetically.

“Fightovaspeartwopeeplesayitthersannomakkamarknostoppagottatakkareyoutakkagunnafinishere?”

Without even blinking, Maxo held out his hand. “Yes, go and take care of it. Gonow. Gimmegun.”

“Rightaway, Maxo!” Slapping the weapon into the open hand and scuttling away. Maxo resumed guard duty over Wanda, who’d chosen to mentally celebrate the lackey’s departure and ignore whatever it was he’d said.

“So…I’ve noticed that there have been no births down here for a while.” She sat straighter, like a schoolteacher. “Deaths, but no births.”

Maxo’s brow got solid. “Glad you noticed. And glad you brought it up. We’ll get to that soon enough, but here is the first thing that you need to see.”

Reaching into a harder-to-spot hollow, he retrieved an old handheld panel-device. A phone or something. But considering the walkie-talkie toting minion, old tech couldn’t have been that big a deal here. Using his free hand, Maxo swiped the phone’s surface until he found what he was looking for.

“One of my men tried to smuggle himself on an All-Terrain Cargo Transport towards Haverty, a settlement east of Batterhahn, one week ago,” he explained darkly. “Two days later, and he came back on a returning ATCT, since on the way to Haverty—he’d glanced out the window.”

He extended the phone beyond the muzzle of the gun. Wanda took it for herself and looked.

Dust flecks inside the vehicle’s starboard windowpane. Miles and miles of barren dirt and rock. And one big smudge, human-shaped, thin, grasping, and bent into a hungry angle.

“And this is?” Wanda replied without emotion. “A ghost?”

“A human,” Maxo replied, “but not a human. My man Jogor swears it was so. He said it looked…harder. Leaner. Had bones or claws extending beyond its fingertips. And it moved with a mind somewhere between a man and an animal. Jogor said it tried to chase down his transport, but the vehicle got to Haverty first. But that wasn’t the last he saw of that thing…swipe over.”

Wanda swiped over. The phone’s other picture looked nearly the same as the last one, except the town of Haverty was partially in the way. Behind it, on the horizon, was a larger, longer, yet more indistinct smudge.

“That’s why Jogor came back,” Maxo declared. “There were more of them. An army. He said they were moving towards the town. Quickly. Easily hundreds of them. Jogor is of a sober mind and disposition; there’s no reason to doubt his evidence or testimony.”

Not much to see from the pictures—Wanda handed back the phone. “And so, after the story of a single excited individual, what’s your conclusion?” she inquired. “A zombie apocalypse?”

Maxo was neither swayed nor amused. “Glad you’re entertained, Miss Chairman. So why don’t we talk about Batterhahn itself? Heard any good jokes from them lately?”

Wanda didn’t say anything.

“Tried talking to any other towns in the area? Can’t wait to see the communications report on your desk when you’re done here, I’ll bet. Got to be sure those towns are still there.”

She started to frown as well. “What are you getting at? You think a bunch of those supposed almost-humans can tear whole towns to shreds? We both know that no human is able to survive out there.”

“I know,” her captor replied. “Not without help, anyway. Which is why I also want to talk about the prisoners that the town releases—that you release.”

He saw her stiffen; that made his mouth ruefully prick up. “You have a Ministry of Law with prisoners, and a Ministry of the Future that needs test subjects. One doesn’t need a calculator to do the math. And don’t even try denying it—my father knew it was happening. Sounds like some test subjects survived, Miss Chairman. Quite a lot of subjects. And in spite of whatever adaptations they may have acquired, they still know enough about being a human, and being rejected by humans, to hate us and every one of our towns. Maybe their mutations allow them to tear down town chambers, rip up foundations…destroy radio towers.”

Not meeting his eyes, Wanda played with her fingers. “Is this meeting a warning, then? A threat?” She glanced at the gun. “Revenge?”

“An ultimatum.”

Maxo rose up in front of her. “You and your upper class have had their chance, and all we’ve gotten is failure. Miserable failure. If we just straight-up told the upper levels about those creatures out there, you’d all abandon San Maria like it was a radioactive garbage dump! Down here, in the town’s heart, we have grown strong; you’ve seen what a surprise we can be…” His voice stretched into a strangled scream; “Tomorrow we rise to the top, and we’ll run San Maria. We’ll be the ones to fix up this town for attack!”

“And what will you do?” Wanda leaped to her feet as well. “You think you know the first thing about running a whole town? All its people? You think your half-baked daydreams will stand a chance if—”

Her world stung and spun—Maxo towered over her again, fist clenched, while his screams cracked through her aching head. “YOU TELL ME ABOUT RUNNING A TOWN? We have no future down here with your kind in charge, you’re killing us all! What happens if a newborn has an implant sewn into his head, just to get tossed back into this filth, no aid, no medical assistance? I know! I’ve seen! The suture becomes infected; I’ve watched countless infants melt away, oozing pus and blood into their mothers’ laps! But what if we don’t install cranial implants? The whole family is taken prisoner—to be experimented on, and released out there to become…animals! You accuse me of not being able to run a city, when YOU are slaughtering my people without so much as a glance!”

He stuck the gun in his belt, kneeling to shake Wanda by the shoulders. “Do you know what the mothers do to their babies here? Whether or not we have them implanted at birth, the babies will die, and there’s only one thing they can do to keep them out of your hands. They throw them out of the town themselves, out with the garbage, so that their children, for a few moments, are theirs and not YOURS! YOU! DON’T! TELL! ME! HOW! TO! RUN! A! TOWN!”

Bitty came rushing through the grove, several armed Basement-dwellers right behind him. Maxo released the Chairman and got up; his aide gave him a look of concern. Wanda got herself to her feet as well, her bruised face still…blank.

The master of the Basement drew himself together with a deep breath. “Go. Get back to your level and surrender quietly. Whether you like it or not, I’ll be sitting in your office tomorrow.” He yanked out the gun, smacked out the clip, and handed over the empty weapon. “You might want this back, Miss Chairman. Our next meeting might not be so civil.”

#

The trip back up to Level Three didn’t really seem to happen; everything just bounced off of the Chairman’s blank, quietly throbbing face. The guards automatically got a glance of her ID, the people barely saw a grey cloak pass through their midst, Venici only had five faraway words directed at him—“Cancel my schedule for today”—before his boss was gone again.

Behind the doors of her office, Wanda’s face remained blank. Blank as she wandered over to sit at her desk. Blank as she checked the report displaying the lack of contact with any of the southeastern towns. Blank as she drifted open a narrow drawer, bringing out an old puzzle toy: a clear plastic box, into which a variety of cubic shapes could only fit if arranged a certain way. Blank as she dumped it out, watched the parts scatter out over the desk like—

A cataclysmic shudder rattled every bone in her frame, squeezing a tear from each eye. The Infants. Of course it was. Impossible, but it had to be.

Pushing the scattered puzzle pieces to the side, she accessed the desk’s interface again. User: Chairman Wanda Valerie Quall. Password: t1Y@LbRnh. The office doors locked, the lights dimmed, and shutters ratcheted shut outside the window. That alone wrapped Wanda back into herself somewhat; nothing feels strong when it’s completely transparent.

The view changed. Instead of the glowing midafternoon landscape, the window lit up with a projection of a topographic map. Icons of the surrounding towns blinked into their places; activating her wrist panel, Wanda made a few adjustments to the display’s parameters.

San Maria lit up in green. To the southeast, a crowd of little green dots. A little over a hundred dots—her dots; not enough to be an army, but enough to be in an army. The map refreshed—the dots all moved a pixel closer to the town. The subjects…they hadn’t stopped at Batterhahn. The dots were obeying their own mass directive, not hers, following the transport paths and destroying the radio towers on the way. It was only supposed to be Batterhahn…

Leaving the display online, Wanda swept up the pieces of the cube-puzzle. The pieces were stiff, solid while she turned them over with her fingers, fitting with measured precision as they were stacked and rearranged in an attempt to form a perfect shape. The control over the pieces was reassuring; Wanda basked in the plastic clicks as she tried to reassemble her own mind.

If you can’t think straight, the city is lost, grumbled the memory of her father.

The puzzle always helped her think, and she needed the help—the puzzle outside was falling apart. The army was coming. The reinforcements for the Basement weren’t ready. There wasn’t any more time.

The iris of the sky dimmed; hours later, and the outside world was as dark as the inside.

Up until this point, it had always seemed like the levels of this town directly corresponded to how much their respective citizens truly knew. Wanda closed her eyes, trying to breathe; today, it was not the case. Level Zero did know more than Levels One or Two. But still not enough.

#

July 10th, 2301.

#

ATTENTION, ALL CITIZENS OF SAN MARIA.

THE TOWN IS BEING RECONFIGURED IN RESPONSE TO AN UNANTICIPATED NATURAL EVENT.

PLEASE IMMEDIATELY RETURN TO YOUR LIVING CHAMBERS; THE HATCHES AND WINDOWS ARE SOON TO BE SEALED.

ASSUME YOUR NATURAL DISASTER SAFETY POSITIONS, AND REMAIN CALM; THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL.

REPEAT.

ATTENTION, ALL CITIZENS OF SAN MARIA…

#

Heavy forms smashed the tangled brush—Maxo’s dream flushed away to a whirlpool of blurry reality. He couldn’t bring his hands to wipe the sleep from his eyes…his shoulders ached where the heavy gloves gripped. Pulling. They ripped him out through a fresh hole in the clearing, not bothering to let him get his feet under him.

Soldiers!

Maxo tried to find leverage to struggle, but had no time. The soldiers’ powerful headlamps lit up a rapidly moving, rusty, unfamiliar world—his world, thought Maxo—it was only temporarily illuminated before the kidnapping passed by. His head cleared some more, becoming cognizant of the noise. Creaks, groans, resonating rumbles, but a thousand more than he’d ever heard before, as though San Maria was revealing its true nature as an ancient Talos—about to stand up. And a voice, repeating a message over and over. Attention. Reconfigured. Immediately. Disaster. Attention.

He was shoved into an elevator; Maxo lunged to get back out, back into his Basement, but he bounced off the soldiers as the platform shot upwards. The announcement and the noises were more distinct now—it was definitely a town restructuring on an unprecedented scale. The elevator clattered to a stop; Maxo and the soldiers stumbled into a small crowd, led by a frizzed skinny fellow who was waving his arms.

“Get moving! Five minutes until the bulkheads seal—need more Basement-ers up, quick!”

“Mr. Venici, sir!”

Acknowledging the man, the abduction squad rushed onward. The stairs didn’t stop as they rose through the Level One tiers—and still onward, into the glowing whiteness of Level Two. Managing to at least stumble along with his guards, Maxo wasn’t sure if the shuddering was him or the town; they were moving towards a set of doors.

“Level Three” embossed across them. Only his father had ever—

WHAM

The support stopped—the Leader of the Basement collapsed onto his hands and knees, slipping on the brushed steel floor. Voices rang out over his head…

“Extraction complete, Miss Chairman!”

“As you ordered, Miss Chairman, no complications!”

“Well done. As you were—contact Mr. Venici, let him know he’s got two minutes before we seal.” Something clanged on the floor, making a crabby hiss as it slid right under Maxo’s nose. An empty gun.

That voice. He looked up.

Besides the guards that he knew were still behind him, only two other people stood in the office chamber. One was a short yet oblong man in suit pants and shirtsleeves, clearly neither ready nor willing to be there. The other person was behind a desk that definitely belonged to her. Her attention was divided at the moment; half manipulating a holographic pattern floating over the desk’s projectors—the town’s structure, Maxo realized—and half attending a large datapad while glancing sharply out of the giant window. Short of the gun that just she’d tossed, Wanda no longer seemed to be paying Maxo any attention. He picked up the weapon shell.

Something was scattered on one edge of the desk.

“Maxo Dromman. Glad you could make it.” She still wasn’t looking at him. “You brought the bullets for that gun?”

Rising, Maxo stowed the weapon in his belt. “What if I had?” he counter-questioned. “You broke into my home, and heaven knows what you’re doing to the town now. You want me to shoot you?”

Turning to the window, the Chairman spoke over her shoulder. “You’re here for the view, Maxo. I’m here to tell you why I’m saving the town.” She beckoned him over with a wave.

He didn’t move—until a guard knocked him between the shoulderblades. That propelled him across the room; he regretted hiding the gun’s clip in his home’s foliage last night. At any rate, in a few strides Maxo found himself next to the Chairman.

“Look!” she gripped his bruising shoulder, directing his eyes.

Maxo saw…the ridge. Moving. The ridge was boiling. No…something was coming down. Many things. An army of sand-colored beings were spilling over the edge of the valley, rolling and tumbling down towards the level ground. A scrambled mess of steel was already lying broken at the bottom.

“What…”

“Take a look at your rejected children, Maxo Dromman,” Wanda spoke close to his ear. “Your man wasn’t dreaming. They took Haverty, Batterhahn, and now our own radio tower has fallen; Look at the race of monsters coming back to destroy us!”

Pressing closer to the window, Maxo shook his head. “No, no…it’s not them, the virus—”

“—has moved on!” Wanda released his shoulder with a firm push—it turned him towards her. “It has evolved. Instead of gutting and killing its hosts, the virus is strengthening it. You’ve been feeding the virus with infants, the most moldable humans possible, and look what it has done to them. Look!”

“Have you gone mad?” he took a step away from the raving woman. “This, is, not, possible! The virus kills, it always has!”

The datapad beeped—Wanda attended it with a staccato of taps. “Minister of the Future!” she commanded the man in shirtsleeves. “Go on. Tell him what you know.”

The Minister could not take two bosses staring him down, no matter if they were confused or angry. He cleared his throat. “Well…ah…Mister Dromman, sir…what our Chairman suggests is actually…most likely.”

He carried on, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It’s not much of a secret, our experiments on the prisoners we release. It was started about the same time as the punishment, about the last seventy years, and we used a process…” Wanda shot him an impatient glance. “Right. We planned to test out potential anti-viral formulae to see if we could develop a serum. Um, the first prisoner released was the control—no serum, only a radio and an advanced state-of-the-art receptor plate attached to his cranial implant to more accurately monitor his condition.”

The Minister’s feet started faintly shuffling. “That subject…didn’t die. According to his implant, his vitals were operational—but morphing. He was suffering trauma, but becoming stronger from it. His communications got less understandable. Before a week had passed, he’d, well…eaten his radio.”

Outside, the forms had reached the ground—those not interested in the smashed radio tower began a charge. They were definitely something humanoid…

“He was still being monitored; his higher functions had…critically deteriorated. That was when we found out we could use signals directed to his implant to steer the subject. We could influence his path, control his movements. So we—the Chairman, I mean—not Miss Quall—oh, I mean—”

There was no need for him to finish the thought. “You found out you could control them,” Maxo growled. “And with their advanced implants, you made them into an army.”

The Chairman swiped something on the pad. “I do not condone my predecessor’s actions, but I understand them, and I do not reject their results.”

“Your predecessor? Your father! You! The virus was twisting people, and you never told us?”

The Minister of the Future took the opportunity to slink back into his corner.

“And what would you have done?” Wanda barked back at him. “You think your people wouldn’t have leapt to take even the slightest chance at survival out there, no matter what the cost?”

But something else had struck Maxo—“You attacked Batterhahn! And Haverty! Those were both your doing!”

“No!” she yelled louder. “Batterhahn threatened us first. It wasn’t supposed to be that way!”

“And now,” Maxo was livid, “you’ve lost control; they’re attacking us!” The most strident cries of the oncoming mob were audible. The town’s shifting structure locked into place, the tightest cube possible.

“I never lost control, Dromman. Those are your people coming for San Maria—no advanced implants, no control! Your infanticide is becoming genocide. My army, my test subjects—” Wanda pointed out the window, farther up the valley—“are doing their work up there.”

Up the river. The dam. A gentle roll of faded blue was starting to come through the cracking stone wall already…

Swiveling over to her desk, Wanda definitively flicked some controls; lights went from green to red. Then she pressed an intercom. “All citizens of San Maria—the bulkheads are closing. Assume your—”

Maxo tackled her from the side, pummeling her on the ground. “You demon!” he screamed. “You soulless, gutless, stinking bitch! My people, my home! It’ll crumble when the wave hits! The connections between the levels are weak and failing—the Basement will be torn away! All my people will die! You’ve killed us all you damned, conniving, worthless sack of—”

The soldiers tried to pull him off, but his grip was too hard; Wanda took the breathing space to scream at her attacker—her eyes streaming.

I ran out of time, can’t you see?” she wailed. “There’s nothing I can do! I RAN OUT OF TIME!

On the desk, the puzzle was scattered. Unfinished.

The monsters, baying, sprinting, flexing their claws, were within fifty yards of San Maria’s foundations—and the deluge slammed everything aside. The roaring floodtide crushed the horde and threw its embrace at the town, claiming it and tearing it apart in a thousand groans. Some of the lowest-level reinforcements held, but much of the Basement was pulled asunder like a sick, gutted carcass. The shrieks of metal, people, and attacking mutants drowned in a blur of rumbling bubbles; a churning avalanche ripped the seam of the land. The entire valley filled with water, mud, silt, and debris, a violent wind to sweep away everything that was.

#

Chairman Wharton sat uneasily. All the remaining council members sat uneasily nowadays; after these harsh few months, the rounded edges had been filed off the members’ bodies, and the eyes had gotten sharpened as well. Also, the council chamber’s former window now served as their floor—the scenery had changed to a view of San Maria’s shadow as it fell down, down through miles of water and shifting, swimming shapes. Nothing feels strong when it’s completely transparent.

“Minister of the People,” Wharton ordered solemnly.

The Minister stood. “Population levels rising again, sir,” he reported. “Five new births within the past twenty-four hours, and one death. The intermixing of the former level classes has reached full saturation; it shouldn’t be long before we re-attain the town’s full population.”

Wharton dismissed him with a wave. “Good to hear. Minister of the Law?”

“Like the Minister of the People said, sir, full saturation of the classes. The decline in status-related violence has been steady. Heh, it’s getting difficult even for me to tell which ones were upper crust and which were recovered Basement-dwellers.” He shrugged—at least he found that amusing.

The Chairman rubbed his eyes. “Also good. Minister of Engineering?”

Rubbing his hands together, the called man took his turn. “We righted a few more organic units in Greenhouse Seven this morning,” he announced, “So at least the plants will be growing the right way up again. The animal pods are experiencing a rise in population too; just in time for our growing numbers.”

“How are the Chunks holding up?”

The Minister glanced at the wall that used to be the floor. “We had to detach one of them today—the seawater was making its damages too much to maintain, so we got everyone out and let it go. Only used to be a Basement storage wing, so not much of a loss, thank goodness. That’s all I’ve got.” He sat down again.

“Right. Minister of the Exterior.”

This councilman had waited too long for his report; with a faint flutter in his voice, he announced, “There’s an island. Good size, well vegetated, appears uninhabited. The current is taking us up right towards it. My crew and I estimate that we should run aground about twenty-one hundred hours tonight!”

A ripple of energy flowed through the room, a few people glancing down as though the floor-window as though a beach were already visible. Mr. Wharton leaned forward. “And is our test subject ready to go?”

“Yes she is, sir. She hasn’t changed her mind.”

The excitement turned to nods of approval. At his end of the table, Mr. Venici sighed.

“Good to hear. But…Minister of the Future?”

“Time and saltwater have done their job, sir—exterior contaminant levels are practically nonexistent. It looks like we might have a very strong chance out there.” He inhaled deeply, as though he could burst the chamber open with his little chest.

“Excellent, thank you,” Wharton nodded his way. “And finally, Minister of Entertainment?”

“After centuries in a desert, sir, we’re surrounded by fish. I haven’t done a thing in months.”

#

Maxo found Wanda Quall crouched by the ventilator shaft in the Central Annex Chunk. She barely turned to acknowledge his presence.

“So this was how you and your father listened in on all the council meetings.”

“Not here.” Maxo crouched on a disused crate. “The VIP section was nearer to the greenhouse—handier location and better acoustics. The water does muffle things a little, though.”

They rested in the silence for a while. A passageway warped and chirred under the water pressure.

“An island,” Wanda murmured.

“When?”

“Twenty-one hundred. I figure they’ll send me out in the morning with a radio.”

“You’ll have to swim for it. This tangle won’t get close to shore before hitting the slope.”

“I think they’ll provide me with some kind of makeshift boat and oars. Hopefully.”

“Hm.”

Quiet again for a minute.

“The monsters, Batterhahn, the dam, the saltwater bath…did you plan it all like this?” Maxo finally looked directly at her.

Wanda shrugged a little. “Almost. The monsters were a tool. Batterhahn was a threat. The whole town was to be strengthened before the dam’s destruction. So yes. But not like this. Wasn’t supposed to be…quite this way.”

“Who else knew?”

“My father. The Minister of the Future, to some extent. But the rest of the council was comfortable in the desert. Would you have told them a plan like mine, before it looked possible?”

Silence.

“You may have saved this town and some of my people, Wanda. But many I knew died. You have neither my hatred nor my respect. Whether you live or die out there doesn’t bother me.”

“I understand.”

Maxo straightened up and walked away—Bitty detached himself from a nearby crate’s shadow to fall in behind. Wanda remained at the ventilation shaft, staring at the gate that led to nearly every chamber of San Maria. A loud shout would definitely carry up to the council chamber, maybe everywhere in the town. Would they hear an explanation, an excuse? Would they shout back, and if so, what? Who would understand?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But it is.

Inside one of the few remaining fragments of the former Basement, far away from her former station, Wanda breathed in the air and accepted its dust in her lungs. Weights hung upon her shoulders as they always had: the responsibility for her miscalculated plan, the expectations for her exile onto the island. But the one weight she’d shed on July 10th outweighed them all; she was no longer the town. No longer bound in silence. Most of San Maria would probably be glad to kill her on sight—but then again, she’d always been cloaked in their midst. Maybe she could drop the rest of her weights on the shore of the island. A new, uncontaminated, limitless world.

#

October 26th, 2301. The first human foot stepped onto the Island of San Maria.

END