Into the Outside

By Lynda Engler & Henry Dixon

Sci-Fi, Young adult

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12 mins

Chapter 1

Part One: Out of Ewr

May 2101

Malcolm’s machete swiped and hacked at the most tangled growth of forest he had ever encountered. Mopping his brow, he chopped away at the brush that blocked his way to the water. He paused a moment to allow the youngest children to catch up, while the rest of the tribe brought up the rear. There were a dozen of them all together and they had been traveling for ten days. He had marked the days with notches on his machete, which he shifted from his four-fingered left hand to his more powerful six-fingered right as they progressed through the dense undergrowth. Now he smelled water, so perhaps they would be able to rest soon.
As the thick forest of twisted vines and trees began to thin out, Malcolm saw a large clearing ahead. Another twenty minutes of travel through the thinning trees revealed tall grass swaying in the late afternoon breeze. Under the trees, he saw the crumbling remains of a house, like so many others he had seen during their journey. At the farthest edge of the grassy land was a small pond. Its water was light green and smelled clean and crisp, even from a distance. It was probably fit to bathe in, although it didn’t look drinkable. As tribal leader, it was the 17-year-old’s duty to keep his people safe.
When Malcolm reached the pond he bent and cupped some water in his hand and smelled it. Not bad, even if it is green, he thought. It smelled better than most of the chemical infested waters they had come upon. The trek from Ewr had been long and their sweat-soaked clothes were musky and rank. Everyone was exhausted, especially the youngest members of the tribe.
Malcolm tentatively licked one finger. “It tastes good. I think it’s safe to drink. Join in,” he called to his tribe. He entered the pond fully clothed, his clothes needing a bath as much as his body. The rest of the tribal members waded into the deeper section of the refreshing pond; all but three-year old Shia who sat at the side, apprehensively dangling her dirty feet in the water.
Malcolm swam to her. “Come on Shia. Your swimming has gotten much better lately! It’s not too deep at this end. You can stand.”
“Okay Papa, but stay with me please,” Shia pleaded.
Malcolm nodded and the little girl eased herself down into the water.
“Oh! It’s nice and cool,” she said. Soon she was swimming circles around her father while playfully splashing handfuls of water at him. It wasn’t long before Shia was confidently dog-paddling across the pond to play with the other children.
Malcolm pulled himself out of the water for a long overdue rest. The hard ground surrounding the pond was overgrown with bushes and huge elephant ear plants. He peered into the tall grass on the other side of the pond searching for any signs of wildlife that might pose a danger to his people. Malcolm had a good feeling about this place. Even the hair on the back of his neck that tended to stand up when they were in danger was lying down. And all he could hear was the wind in the trees. “We’ll make camp here tonight.”
Malcolm had been leader for six years, since his own father had died at the ripe old age of twenty-one; Malcolm hoped he would live as long, but wouldn’t delude himself that he might survive much longer than that. Each generation’s lifespan stretched slightly beyond the previous ones. He might hope to hit twenty-two or twenty-three. He had been alone since Shia’s mother died last spring. The toxins and poisonous environment had taken its toll on her body. She had struggled to walk and to breathe and finally died one night in her sleep. Shia was two then and smart for her age. Although saddened, she knew it was the way of the world. When you got old, the poison killed you. That’s all there was to it, no matter how much you wished or hoped or begged for the world to be different. She was the only one of her mother’s children who had survived birth and Malcolm was proud of her strength. Perhaps someday she would grow up to lead their tribe.
The group set up nylon tents they had salvaged from an abandoned store in Ewr. Malcolm had grown up in the ruins of the city of Ewr but felt it might be cleaner out in the ’burbs. He had always wanted to leave the rusting steel and crumbling concrete jungle for the lush green one outside the city. Although he was old, he was healthy enough and didn’t have too many genetic mutations for someone his age. He also had a manageably small tribe under his protection. When some of his tribe members found the abandoned store in Ewr, it all came together. They had made a plan, collected food, hunting gear and clothing, and the tribe followed Malcolm into the unknown, trusting him to guide them to a less poisonous place to live.
Since their world had been devastated, his people had survived by hiding in the shattered remains of cities. But Malcolm knew there had to be more to life, more for his tribe and more for his daughter, so they had headed off to see if the stories they heard were true. The age-old desire to journey into the unknown in hopes of finding a better life had survived and flourished in his people, the new version of humanity.

* * *

Isabella was lying in a lawn chair looking up at the diffuse sunshine that filtered through the glass-bottomed pool above her. Twice a year her grandfather put on his NBC suit and went outside to clean it – once at the beginning of summer and once toward the end of fall. He would clean out all the growing things, check the water filtration system and pull out dead leaves and other debris. If the pool got choked with vegetation, it wouldn’t let in the sunlight they needed so badly in their underground shelter. The water above her was now a much lighter shade of green and appeared clearer than it had in months.
Isabella’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the voice of Abigail, her older cousin-sister, calling from outside the solarium. “Izzy! Come to lunch.”
Abby had turned seventeen the day before yesterday. She was the oldest, by three months, of the four teens living in the subterranean compound and acted like she was in charge. She certainly was bossy enough.
Isabella had never experienced a single breath of fresh air or the warmth of sunlight on her skin. She had been stuck in this hole in the ground since the day she was born. Isabella longed to venture Outside and travel the world, seeing and experiencing all of its wonders. Of course, that was silly. That world was no more, and the toxins out there would sicken and kill her.
* * *

Malcolm set up his yellow tent farthest from the overgrown pond just in case Shia got up in the middle of the night. He didn’t want her sleep-walking into the water. Then he set off in search of dinner.
Malcolm wandered into the thick growth and before too long his sensitive nose picked up a musky animal scent, something like wet leather. From the prints in the dried mud he could tell that the beast was immense, most likely one of the three-horned deer he had seen lately. Like so many animals since the Final War, woodland deer had mutated. They were one of the few species that had somehow adapted to survive the chemicals in the soil and water. Deer now had three or four antlers and grew to almost twice the size of their predecessors. Malcolm’s father had told him that deer used to have only two antlers. Only two! The more antlers, the better. Antlers could be carved into knives and pot handles or traded with other tribes. As often as he had heard his father curse their contaminated world, Malcolm thought some mutations were an improvement.
Malcolm stalked the deer for hours. Hungry and tired, he finally snuck up on it where it was hiding in the underbrush. Drawing on his last reserve of energy, he loosed three arrows in quick succession, loading each into his bow and drawing the string tight to his face before reaching into his quiver for the next arrow. THWACK, THWACK, THWACK! One embedded itself ineffectively into the animal’s leg, but the second hit the deer’s throat and the third landed squarely in the animal’s side, piercing its heart. The big animal ran only a few yards before collapsing. Malcolm waited for the buck to stop kicking before approaching it to examine his kill. He removed his arrows and prepared to take it back to camp. He grunted as he hoisted the large deer to his powerful shoulders. It was heavier than twice his own weight!
Two of the tribes’ people cleaned the deer and prepared it for cooking. They would eat fresh venison tonight, but most of the meat would be dried and smoked to save for later. The gray and yellow fur they removed would be tanned and used to make cold-weather clothing. They had brought some warm clothing from the abandoned store but it wouldn’t be enough when winter hit. Though it was only July, the harsh winter was but a few short months away so they would need to be prepared. Winter temperatures could get low enough to freeze them solid.

* * *

Isabella ate her lunch of mixed greens, peas and cauliflower quickly. It was her turn to work in the hydroponics garden this afternoon so she had to hurry. Survival in their subterranean shelter meant that all ten of them had to work hard to keep their environment running smoothly. She had a way with plants and seemed to instinctively know when the nutrients were off or the temperature was too high or low. Plus, it beat cleaning up the lunch dishes.
On her way to hydroponics, Isabella strolled past the solarium under the deep end of the pool. The water above her head looked cool and inviting. I wish I could swim in it, she thought. Someday, someday.
Isabella’s grandfather was in the garden when she got there. “Ah! Hello my Bella! I saw you enjoying the sun under my nice, clean pool earlier today. Make sure you tell your sibs to go take their turns as well. You need the daylight, all of you.” Isabella and her family got most of the vitamin D their bodies required from the biologically enhanced, green leafy vegetables they grew in their shelter’s hydroponics garden, but they still needed the weak sunlight that came through the specially treated glass as a catalyst to make it all work. Maintaining the delicate balance of human physiology while living underground was quite a challenge.
“Yes, Granpapa. I’ll remind them to get their light time.” Her grandfather had possessed amazing foresight when he built this shelter fifty years ago. The glass-bottomed swimming pool that provided their sunlight was designed to look like a pond. It had no ladder in the deep end, nor did it have in-laid steps in the shallow end; instead it sloped up to meet the Earth like a natural body of water. Not even their nearest neighbors had known back then about the underground fortress Grandfather had constructed to keep his wife and himself safe, just in case the worst should happen. But her grandfather had felt it was only a matter of time before the ever more frequent and ongoing wars came to them. He was a survivalist who knew how to keep his family safe. Fifty years later he was still doing exactly that.
No one but their grandfather was allowed to go outside, even in the NBC suit. The kids called it a ‘chem-rad’ suit, since it provided protection against the chemicals and radiation outside. But Grandfather referred to it by its proper name: a Nuclear-Biological-Chemical protective suit. The white suit was made of a non-permeable protective fabric and included a helmet-like hood fitted with a clear faceplate and an air filtration system. It made the wearer look like a space explorer from the 20th century.
Isabella worked beside her grandfather for five hours, until her Aunt Mari called them for dinner. Mari made the tastiest vegetarian meals, using more spices than Isabella’s mother or either of her other aunts. Mari had cookbooks from all over the world and made recipes from far away countries that fascinated Isabella. She liked the Italian flavors best but had always dreamed of visiting places like India and China at the height of their cultural prominence. Isabella was awestruck by the idea of cities with millions of inhabitants.
After the meal, Isabella’s cousin-brothers Luke and Mark washed dishes while Isabella helped her grandmother arrange all the chairs into a circle in the great room. The stark white walls and utilitarian furnishings of her underground home were a sharp contrast to the warmth and caring Isabella felt for her family. Apparently, back when paint and carpeting were readily available, neither of her grandparents thought much about decorating their luxury fallout shelter. The white walls, hardwood floors, and only a few pictures on the walls, were all very indicative of their minimalist tastes. Or lack thereof.
Every night the children were entertained with stories from history – their grandmother’s way of keeping the past alive. Tonight was Isabella’s turn to choose the topic.
“Please, Granmama, tell us about the old technology again,” she asked. Isabella was fascinated by the stories of things they no longer had, like televisions. She wanted to see one of the DVD players her grandparents always talked about, even if it didn’t work anymore. Concepts like millions of people viewing the same sporting event or live news broadcast on satellite television, or instant video or voice communication over hundreds or even thousands of miles were almost beyond her imagination.
Her sibs never asked for those stories and Isabella knew why. Bringing up those memories always disturbed her grandfather. He wanted the old technology back so badly he could taste it. It wasn’t that Isabella wanted to bring up a sore subject, but her siblings were terrified of upsetting him and she wasn’t. While the old man had a temper, Isabella wasn’t bothered by it. She knew she could do nothing wrong in his eyes, ever.
“Of course, dear,” said their grandmother with a sweet smile and began her tale. “Once upon a time…”
“Oh, Granmama! Please don’t!” the children said in unison and with a groan. Grandmother always began her stories with that cliché, making them sound like the beginning of a child’s fairy tale.
“Okay, okay,” Her grandmother giggled and began again. “Long before any of you were born, even before your mothers were born, back when Granpapa and I were growing up, the world was full of marvelous technology. We had jet airplanes that flew through the sky and computers to help us work. You could hold a phone in your hand and talk to anyone, anywhere. Machines did our laundry and our dishes. Cars and trucks traveled the roads, taking people and goods across the country at speeds that would amaze you. It was a marvelous world. We traded with other nations across the oceans. Even the oldest countries of the world, the ones with the most bitter of religious and racial hatred of each other, stopped their centuries of warfare and unified. Jobs and food were plentiful; economic trade was conducted in one currency and the people of the world lived with almost no barriers between them. There was peaceful happiness and coexistence between most peoples of the world. In short, life was good.” She paused and took a deep breath.
“Go on, Granmama,” said Luke, the youngest of the four kids and as far as Isabella was concerned, definitely the most irritating. Luke knew what came next; it was his favorite part of the story. He seemed to find delight in tales of violence and misery.
Their grandmother continued. “There were still some cultures who were not as advanced and were manipulated into believing that the world’s progress was somehow wrong. The technology created an imbalance and somehow they would be taken advantage of and exploited by the country’s leading the advances. They didn’t see that the advanced nations only wanted to eliminate poverty and bring peace and prosperity to everyone worldwide. Even reaching out directly to the last of these Third World countries was pointless.
“They were given misinformation by a handful of powerful leaders who twisted everything and force fed them false ideologies, as has happened all through history. For three decades, they used suicide attacks on us. It was their response to what they considered an imbalance in technology and ideology. We had tech; they didn’t. Conventional military methods made us unbeatable and their governments convinced them that we caused their poverty.” The story was told in her usual factual manner. As she had said countless times, there was no point getting emotional about the unchangeable past.
“Then what happened?” asked Abigail, though she too knew what came next.
Isabella was surprised when their grandfather broke in to tell the next part of the story. He didn’t usually take part in storytelling. “Extremists within that group of people made what they considered an understandable military sacrifice. Their chemical and biological weapons made sure half the Earth’s population was dead or dying, and within a year 99% of humanity was wiped out. With so many dead, there were too few left to repair or rebuild anything that had made civilization what it was. In that way, the extremists corrected the technological imbalance and now in their eyes no one group would have an overwhelming advantage. That’s why when my father’s early death left me with a large life insurance policy I hadn’t expected, I knew I had to use the money to transform the ground under my parent’s house into this fallout shelter. I knew it was only a matter of time before something like that day would happen.”
The subterranean fortress consisted of five bedrooms around a central great room, a kitchen, laundry, bathroom, library and a huge hydroponics garden. The well that brought their fresh water dove over a thousand feet into the earth, four times deeper than the average water supply for a suburban home. The shelter had also been stocked with at least a ten year supply of dried goods and toiletries.
Grandfather stopped and took a deep breath, then continued. “With the Earth poisoned, even finding food was difficult. Very few babies were born and most of those that were had terrible mutations. Within one year, life as we knew it was over.”
Their grandmother sighed and closed her eyes, holding back tears. She usually tried to put on a brave face for the kids, but every once in a while her resolve broke and the children got a glimpse of the emotional pain their grandparents lived with.
Isabella’s mind was filled with images from her grandmother’s tale: streets clogged with cars that had gone out of control as their drivers died; survivors searching the dead for their friends; people in their houses waiting for family members who never came home. She pictured houses suddenly without power, and the people cut off from the rest of the world. With their technology ripped from them, they had no way of knowing what was going on. She imagined the panic they must have felt and a cold fist squeezed her own heart with such force it was all she could do to retreat to her bedroom when the storytelling was done.

* * *

Malcolm tucked his daughter into her sleeping bag and kissed her on the forehead. He pushed her red hair away from her eyes and said, “Goodnight Sweet Pea. Papa loves you very much.” Shia smiled and closed her eyes.
Malcolm crawled out of the tent and sat on the ground outside alone. It was a warm night, but summer would soon end and the long winter would arrive. He would need to lead his people to shelter before then. Malcolm thought back to the city they had just left. In Ewr they had walls to keep the cold out and wood stoves to keep warm. But out here in the ’burbs, it was a jungle. Without people to hunt animals and cut down trees, wildlife and greenery had flourished since the wars ended.
Malcolm absentmindedly whittled at a stick with his knife blade. Almost nine billion people had died at the end of the Final War – 999 out of every 1000 all over the world. The enemy had hidden trucks with small nuclear bombs in over 30 cities and when they set them off, they disabled all the communications technology for a few horrifying days. Small bombs destroyed power plants in nations all over the world, taking out power grids on a global level. During that time, several major cities, including Washington DC, were hit with thermonuclear bombs, leaving nothing but a gigantic crater where the seat of their government had been. They also destroyed Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle, taking out many of the largest cities across the country. How they coordinated such a massive assault and carried it out with such precision was still unknown.
Some of the bombs used in other cities, including New York City, were “dirty” bombs, which meant they were conventional but carried in them radioactive material. Destruction was minimal but they left those regions completely uninhabitable by humans.
The horrific attacks were completed when the terrorists unleashed wide-reaching chemical and biological weapons on what was left of the world. Over the years the poisons seeped into the water and soil causing illness and creating mutations in children born of contaminated parents.
Malcolm recalled sitting around the stove in the ruins of the high-rise apartment building in Ewr where he and his family lived. He was just a few years older than Shia was now, when his father began teaching him this story, recanting the history that was passed down from one tribal leader to the next. As leader he was expected to know things that would help them survive. The handed-down teachings of tribal leaders included knowledge of genetics and mutations and how to match people to breed the least mutated children.
In the almost five generations of his people since the Final War, the alterations in the human body were getting much less severe. In another fifty years his people would have a relatively clean world again. He wouldn’t live to see it, nor would Shia, but her children’s children might. The government, when it still existed, had said that in only a hundred years the world would be free of the poisons. Malcolm wasn’t sure how the government had known that, or if it was even true. Perhaps they had projected a hundred years because it was more hopeful than a thousand.
A hundred years was such a long time! For now Malcolm’s main concern was to find a permanent shelter for his tribe. He tossed the stick he had been idly whittling into the trees and walked to the camp fire to join the rest of his people.



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