One / Above
Kirin was born an orphan, during the bleakest June any of them could remember. Long, dark hours stretched the days into nights and the pale disc of sun which rose and fell provided no comforting warmth.
That day, they had gathered in the small anteroom of the shelter, freezing air dragging the breath from their lungs as they stood. Amara was impatient to get going. Even after all these months, she still could not get used to the cold. She pulled her hood tighter around her frost-pinked face, hands clumsy in big mittens. Beside her, Martha paced back and forth, her head torch illuminating a bright halo on the floor as she tried to stamp warmth into her feet. Arran, tall and silent, had taken up his usual position beside the outer door, a rifle resting easily on his shoulder. His brother was, as usual, the last to join.
“Once again, can I just highlight the blatant discrimination against me?” Dan said, announcing his arrival with one of his most frequent complaints.
“Discrimination against your white male privilege - what has the world come to?” replied Martha, dark eyes narrowing.
“Look, I’ve said it before. We don’t know what we might come up against out there. I should have a weapon too.” He unholstered an imaginary gun and held both arms straight out, two fingers pointing like a pantomime pistol. “And Martha, if I may say so, that crossbow looks a little too heavy for you.”
“Well, it isn’t as heavy as that sense of entitlement you carry around,” Martha snapped back.
Arran walked over to his brother and dropped an empty rucksack at his feet.
“You’d accidentally shoot yourself,” he said quietly. “Or worse, one of us.”
Amara gave Arran a small, reproachful smile, causing his heart to trip over a beat. In place of a reply, he lifted a heavy black rubber mask from the shelf beside him and handed it to her. Martha and Dan followed suit. Pulling his own mask down over his face, Arran felt the familiar sucking resistance as each breath filtered through the respirator. He hated the wearing it, but it knew was necessary. Outside, dust clouds continued to roll across the sky in great waves. Most of those who were unprepared did not last long, choking and coughing tar black spit, their lungs turned inside out.
Arran checked everyone was ready before gesturing at Dan to help open the outer door, knees and arms bracing against the heavy frame. Slowly, the frozen landscape yawned into view. Snow-quilted pines hemmed the horizon in all directions and a dark shadow gave the impression of mountains beyond. Looking out across the unforgiving terrain, Dan said a prayer to a god he no longer believed in. Reluctantly, he shouldered the rucksack and they set off, single file, into the permanent twilight.
Thick snow blanketed the open ground and progress was slow. When they reached the edge of the forest they stopped to rest, eyes straining against the gloom. In the flat light, the rigid rows of trees formed a formidable wall which appeared to extend for miles in either direction. Diamond frost tipped each needle and outlined the delicate armor of the pinecones guarding the lower branches. Arran brushed these aside as he led the group along a narrow ridge which cut through the forest. They climbed steadily for almost half an hour before the trees began to thin, revealing glimpses of the village below.
At the top of the wind-whipped ridge, Arran stopped and lifted a pair of binoculars, scanning for any sign of movement below. From up there, the rooftops appeared like barren islands marooned in a great white ocean. Even through his thick gloves, he could feel the cold bite at his fingers and knew they could not linger for long. The others huddled together behind an outcrop of rock, sheltering from the bitter gusts. Arran watched intently for several minutes but the scene remained still as a picture. No smoke curled from the white capped chimneys and the many unshuttered windows were dark. But the stillness could be deceptive and he had been caught out before.
As they cautiously descended the short, steep path to the village, Amara tried to ignore the sickening heat of hunger that suddenly gripped and twisted her stomach. Cold sweat prickled her skin, each breath weighted by the respirator. She stopped and stood still for a moment, listening to her heartbeat echo in her ears. Just beyond the gauntlet of dark branches, she could see a stone-built cottage nestled in the drifted snow. The ribs of a thin fence wrapped protectively around what had once been the front lawn. She imagined a garden full of blushing roses, delicate sweet peas and full-skirted peonies entombed under the ice. Another unmarked memorial to all that had been lost.
Martha led the way as they emerged onto the flatter ground, while Arran took up position as rearguard. Although armed, they were a small group and could be easily outnumbered. Amara concentrated on each step, fighting to maintain momentum against the oppressive resistance of the snow. The dizzying weakness came again in waves, blurring the edges of her vision. She felt as if she was suffocating in the heavy mask, each labored breath cut short by the next. Overhead, the weak sun struggled in vain to penetrate the thick, black clouds, cloaking everything in grey half-light. Without warning, the edge of her snowshoe caught on a partly submerged rock, sending her stumbling onto her knees. Arran was instantly at her side, a steadying hand on her shoulder. Looking up, she could read the concern in his eyes as he motioned to the others to wait. Dan shook his head. On principle he resented being commanded by his brother, but especially when his soft heart left them exposed on a stretch of open ground, knee deep in snow.
Martha retraced her steps and while Dan pressed on towards the cottage. He looked up at the clouds, which seemed to be thickening with the threat of further snow and cursed his brother. It had been his idea to scout the village for supplies. Dan had been dismissive of the suggestion, but Amara and Martha had sided with Arvin, leaving him to choose between joining them or remaining alone in the shelter without any means to defend it. Dan felt it spoke to their own lack of judgement that they placed so much trust in his brother. He would not make the same mistake.
The savaging cold burrowed deep into his bones as Dan reached the small wooden awning which jutted out over the front door of the cottage. Snow was piled so high that he almost had to duck to step underneath. As he turned to watch the others help Amara to her feet, the clouds exhaled a flurry of soft snowflakes. Suddenly, another movement caught his eye as a dark figure staggered out from the far side of the cottage and stood, silhouetted, against the snow. It was the first living person they had seen in weeks. Dan pressed his whole body into the shadow of the doorway, his quickening breath amplified by the respirator. Fear pricked the inside of his ribs and reached up to grab at his throat. He could see that the others had stopped and formed a tight huddle, but the falling snow eddied around them, distorting his view and making it difficult to estimate the distance between them.
The stranger took a few broken steps away from the cottage and collapsed onto the snow. For a moment, no one moved. Slowly, Arran held up his rifle, tracking the beam along the ground until it came on the body of a woman. Even from when he stood, it was clear she was badly injured. Her blue coat was ripped in several places, from which dark plumes of blood silently unfurled across the snow. Amara lurched forward, ignoring the fatigue knotted in her muscles. Arran and Martha followed, flanking her on either side, weapons raised. Dan stayed in the doorway, fighting to control his breathing as his heart pounded his chest. He did not want to meet the same fate.
Casting her gloves aside, Amara knelt beside the woman, oblivious to any danger. She felt for a pulse, which fluttered briefly against her fingers and then was still. Already the cold made her skin feel like marble. Arran marveled at her capacity to bear witness to death, with a resilience that had not yet harden into indifference. He watched as she gently closed unknown woman’s eyes and bowed her head, for a moment, in silent reverence.
Then, without warning, Amara ripped open the woman’s heavy coat to expose the pale naked dome of her rounded belly and the frail hope curled within. She pulled out a small knife from her boot and with swift, practiced movements cut through the layers of darkening muscle until steaming fluid gushed out onto the snow. Reaching in with both hands, she grasped the tiny baby boy and delivered him into the twilight. Martha bent down and took the knife to divide the pale, sinuous cord that still anchored him to his mother. As she helped Amara swaddle him inside her jacket, his first, faint cries made her heart beat cruelly. She remembered a time when the visceral longing to have a child had seemed more important than anything else. She had endured hours of hospital visits and uncomfortable scans and injections which made her sick. She could still picture the way the doctor had looked at their last appointment, before he had delivered the bad news. But worst of all, the gut-punch disappointment when Allison had quietly suggested that they stop trying for a while and the things she had said which she could now never take back.
Emerging from the relative safety of the doorway, Dan reasoned that whatever threat still lingered, it was foolish to remain in hiding, unarmed and isolated from the group. The snow was falling in thick, wet flakes as he approached, settling like white petals on the body of the woman. Dan glanced at her, cut open and laid out on the snow and wretched his mask off to vomit, hands bracing against his upper thighs. As he recovered himself, Arran crouched down to pick up Amara’s mittens, which were stiff with ice. Gently, he took each of her bloodied hands and placed them in his own warm gloves, glad to make this one small sacrifice.
The gathering night sky stole the horizon as they returned to the shelter. Amara and Martha took the baby straight through to the fire-warmed inner room, not bothering to remove their snowy outer clothes. Dan sat down heavily on the bench, a puddle of melt water forming at his feet.
“She can’t keep doing this,” he muttered. “She can’t save everyone.” The cold seemed to disarticulate his joints, rendering his fingers useless as he tried to unlace his heavy boots.
“She saved you.”
Dan said nothing. Gratitude for this act had long been overtaken by irritation at being stuck with a debt he could never seem to repay.
“I’m just saying…a baby. I mean, that’s different. We can barely keep ourselves alive. It doesn't seem…worth it.” Arran did not want to give his brother the satisfaction of agreeing with him. He did not have much hope that the child would survive. Perhaps it would have been easier to leave him there, cocooned in oblivion.
“And what makes you think your life was worth saving?” he asked, slowly untying his own ice-encrusted boots.
“How can you say that?” Dan replied, unaccustomed to justifying his existence. “I’m your brother.”
“You seem to remember that only when it’s convenient.”
There was a long silence. Lately, each new disagreement seemed to stoke the embers of old resentments, like fuel to a flame.
“Look, I would have helped you out. You know…with Dad. If you had asked.”
Arvin stared down at the meltwater pooling on the floor. It was typical of his brother to try and make it out as a failing on his part.
“All I’m saying is, we need to be smart about things if we are going to survive,’ Dan continued, standing to unzip his jacket.
“Well, at least your ability to state the obvious will be invaluable.”
Dan frowned, a spark of indignation igniting in his eyes.
“I managed a stock portfolio worth millions. I know about making the right call when the stakes are high,” Dan replied. “Plus, I’m in peak physical shape.”
“And yet totally unable to defend yourself.”
Dan threw his jacket on the floor and rounded on his brother.
“Why don’t you stop pretending you are some kind of goddamn hero?” Dan snarled, jabbing two fingers into Arran’s chest to punctuate his anger. “Before this, you were going nowhere. Your wife left you. You moved back home and got a security job where the biggest threat you ever faced was boredom.”
Dan took a step back, arms now spread wide as if this victory was too easy. “Why can’t you just admit it? You have always been jealous of me. Of my life.”
Silently, Arran bent to retrieve the jacket from floor and hung it on a nail to dry. He knew his brother would never see things the way he did, but it still hurt to hear the truth so distorted. An unremarkable childhood had not marked either of them out for greatness. But they had been close, once, before Dan had left to make his fortune in the city’s financial district, seduced by the illusion of a happiness only money can buy. Arran grew to despise his calculated generosity, which only seemed to attract those who made Dan forget he had ever been anything other than a success.
At the same time, their father had got so lost in his own mind, he could no longer recognise himself or anyone around him. Dan felt he had done his duty by securing a place in one of the most expensive nursing homes in the area. But when it came to moving day, Arran could not bear the look on his father’s face as he stood clinging onto the front door of the house that he had lived in all his life. Gently, he had taken his father’s arm and ushered him back inside.
That summer, their father had died quietly. Dan had been late to the funeral. He had been in a meeting, he said, as if that was a valid excuse. Arran had hated him that day. The expensive suit. The expression of dignified grief he affected when relatives from out of town offered their condolences. The fact it had been more than a year since he had last visited. They didn’t speak again for months. While Dan drank champagne and bought things he didn’t need, Arran quietly sold the house and most of his possessions. In the end, he had been one of the few who had been prepared for what had come.
“Anyway, why do you always take her side? Are you in love with her or something?” Dan asked mockingly, as Arran opened the door into the inner room. Arran paused but did not turn around.
“Because despite everything,” he said quietly, “she would save your life again tomorrow.”
Two / Below
A loud noise pulled Alpha from sleep. She opened her eyes, but the electricity had yet to come on and the darkness was absolute. Unfurling her legs from the thin quilt, Alpha lay still, listening. The only sound was a gentle hum from heating pipes which snaked beneath the concrete floor. She was accustomed to being woken at all hours when her father needed assistance in the Infirmary, but this had not been the sound of an inpatient knock. Alpha felt her heart slowly settle back into her chest, but the shock lingered as sweat on her skin.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, Alpha stood up and took a few shuffling steps forward, hands blindly interrogating the space in front of her. Her new room was tucked away on a little-used corridor behind the Infirmary, with half-empty store cupboards on one side and the mortuary on the other. As the population of the Upper Circle expanded over the years, the Lower Circle was forced to contract in size, its residents squeezed even more tightly together. Noise was a frequent complaint at Council meetings. Alpha supposed should feel grateful that her next-door neighbors were unlikely to cause any such disturbance. She took another half-step and her outstretched palms gently collided with the rough wooden door. Tracing the contour of the frame, she found the handle and held her breath as she quietly opened the door into the corridor. Safety lights punctuated the concrete wall at regular intervals, emitting a dull glow which left the floor striped in shadow. Alpha peered out, hugging her thin nightdress around her. The corridor appeared silent and empty. In the gloom, she did not see the two faint parallel lines running along the floor or the scattered droplets of dark blood congealing beside them.
Tentatively, Alpha retraced her steps, hands searching for the clock on her small bedside table. She felt the winding handle first, like a tiny arm thrust out to greet her. Cradling it in her palm, she briskly turned the handle until the numbers illuminated. It would not be long until her alarm signaled the beginning of another day. Alpha stood still for a moment, embraced by the darkness. She tried to recreate the soft thud of the unknown noise in her head but instead, heard a cleaning trolley rattling along the adjacent corridor. Such familiar morning sounds were comforting and helped to corral uneasy thoughts in the back of her mind. Perhaps it had been nothing more than a dream.
Guiding herself around the perimeter of her mattress, Alpha reached down to retrieve her clothes from a large wooden blanket box at the end of her bed. The lid was scarred from use, hinting at a life before this that she had never known. Fumbling inside, Alpha felt the fine wool of her old baby blanket nestled beneath her clothes, the letter ‘A’ delicately embroidered in one corner. Ota had told her she had been wrapped in it when she had first arrived in Daroway. Shortly after, the doors above ground had been permanently sealed against the unfolding catastrophe. Alpha often thought, at that moment, her father had also closed his heart to everything left behind on the outside. In the years since, he had parried all her enquiries about their life before with bitter silence. He resented sentimental reminders of the past and had insisted she give the blanket away. But Alpha had kept it hidden, unwilling to give up this small piece of her history - the one thing that was truly her own. It was the only time she had ever defied her father.
As Alpha was dressing the light flickered on, revealing a small room furnished with things no one else had wanted. The only adornment on the bare grey walls was a circular mirror, a delicate network of cracks distorting the surface. Standing in front of it, she pinned a length of plain cloth across her head before beginning a slow twisting motion, curling her black hair around and back on itself to sit atop her head in a fabric crown. As she was fixing it in place, there was a sharp knock on the door.
“I’m coming,” Alpha called. She stood for a moment in front of her jagged reflection, noting with dissatisfaction the appearance of her round, freckled cheeks and broad nose.
“Alpha,’ her father said, opening the door. He stood on the threshold but did not enter, his thin frame dividing the space. “You are taking longer to get ready than my patience will allow. Get out here at once and stop fawning over yourself. We have work to do that will not be aided by any effort to satisfy your own vanity.”
She sighed and bit back a reply, knowing that he was right.
“Good morning Fath—” she started but he had already turned away, abandoning a large, black medical bag by the door. Alpha picked it up, the sturdy leather handle cracked with age. She remembered carrying the same bag when she was much younger, wrist over arm to support the weight. Even now, it was heavy against her thigh as she hurried to match her father’s longer stride.