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Nov 18

He: Crew

He watched dispassionately as the skinny adolescent vomited forth a great quantity of light amber fluid. The young man — almost a boy, really — convulsed violently as he retched, almost to the point where the man watching him thought he might snap his spine with his seizing.

Was that a thing? Was that something that happened? He didn’t know. Couldn’t remember, if he ever had known.

He hadn’t intended to open the boy’s tube. It had been an accident.

His exploration of the concentric hallways had lead to a large central room containing dozens and dozens of tubes filled with people. In the center of the room was a thick cylinder running from floor to ceiling, and at the far side was a series of empty metal trays. There were words on the walls, near the doors leading off into the spokes of the concentric halls, but his addled mind still couldn’t make out their meaning.

It was frustrating. He could almost puzzle them out, but understanding ultimately eluded him.

The central cylinder was perhaps a dozen paces around, with a large set of double-doors along one side. They didn’t open when he approached them, and the buttons on the panel next to it were unresponsive when he pressed them. He’d made a brief attempt to pry the doors apart with his fingers, giving up when his atrophied muscles started to tremble and burn from the effort. That didn’t feel right, being weak.

He’d gone to rest, unzipping the top of his jumpsuit and letting the upper part hang loose from his waist, when his hip bumped into one of the tubes’ control panel. The sound of its faint electrical humming changed slightly, rising and then diving in pitch, and the steady pattern of its blinking lights intensified.

He backed away warily, watching as the lights shifted from their normal pale yellow-white to an almost orange. There was too much frost on the glass to get a good look at the tube’s inhabitant, and he didn’t feel especially keen to get close to it until it was finished doing whatever it was doing.

The tube gave a sudden chime and its lights turned green. There was a hiss of escaping air and a seam widened its midsection before the front panel folded up and away to reveal the young man that lay within. He was pale and thin, emaciated even next to the older man’s own skinniness, with a wispy beard and long shaggy straw-colored hair.

For a moment he thought the boy might be dead, but then he noticed that he was struggling weakly against the tubes in his body. He stepped forward to help, pulling the feeding and waste tubes free as carefully as he could, then helping the boy from the confines of his tube to the cold tile floor.

Relief filled him as he watched the boy retch and gag, paroxysms of hoarse coughing wracking him. He’d been so preoccupied with the strangeness of his situation and trying to get his bearing, but the stillness and isolation of these empty rooms and corridors had started to wear on him with a sort of desperate loneliness. A small smile crossed his face as the boy trembled and gasped.

He wasn’t alone.

 ***

In time, the boy looked up from his fetal position, head unsteady. He tried to speak, hoarse noises emanating from his mouth.

He handed the boy the towel he still carried. “Don’t.”

It felt odd, to talk. Like his words shattered a sacred peace. His lined face set itself, and he cleared his throat. “Talk later. Can you get up?”

The boy stared at him, through him, his eyes trying to focus on his face.

He sighed, shaking his head. “Easy. We wait.”

***

Later, when the boy was steadier, the older man took him to the nearest washroom to shower the crusting fluid from his hair and beard. The boy awkwardly shaved the slight beard from his chin, and the man reflected that he looked a bit older without it, the sallow cheekbones adding definition and age to his gaunt face. With the patchy beard he’d looked like a teen. Without it he had to be in his twenties.

While the boy cleansed himself the old man searched through the nearby rooms for a smaller jumpsuit, one that might fit his thin frame. What he brought back still hung off of spindly limbs, and the boy had to roll up the cuffs to avoid treading on them.

They returned to the large room. The boy leaned against the large central cylinder, then slid to the floor.

“Where…” the boy managed, his voice hoarse.

“Don’t know,” the old man answered. “Woke up. Like you. Don’t remember.”

“What’s… who am I?”

“Don’t know.”

“Who are you?”

“Don’t know. Sorry, boy.”

The boy lowered his chin to his knees, staring at his feet. “How long?”

“Long?”

“You. Awake?”

The older man thought about it. “Hours. Maybe.”

“Who woke you?”

The old man shook his head, lips drawn tight. “Nobody. Computer error, maybe. Malfunction. Woke up, had to break out. Haven’t seen anyone else. No caretakers or guards or anything. Other than the showers and drawers, no sign of anybody.”

The boy simply nodded, and they stayed in silence like that for some time.

***

“You find food?”

The old man’s eyes snapped open. He hadn’t even realized he’d drifted off, waiting for the Boy’s strength to return. The boy hadn’t moved from his spot, but his eyes were clearer, his gaze more focused.

“Food?” he repeated.

“No.” The older man hadn’t realized it in all the excitement, but he was hungry. “Water from the bathroom sinks, but no food.”

The boy struggled to his feet. The older man rose to help, but he seemed to accomplish it well enough on his own.

He watched as the boy half-staggered to the tube he’d been suspended in and reached inside. His shaking fingers curled around the clear hose coming from its top.

“What are you doing?”

The boy put the end into his mouth, sucking on it sharply for a second, then pointing it towards his hand. A thick brownish slurry poured out, some splattering onto the floor. “Food.”

The older man approached cautiously, taking the tube in hand, sniffing the end of it. It was mild. Medicinal. Yeasty. He looked at the boy again.

The boy nodded.

The old man sighed.

***

“How did you know that trick, boy?” he asked, later.

“I don’t know.”

“It was a good trick.”

“Yeah.” The younger man hesitated. “Why did you wake me up?”

“Accident,” he said. “Bumped into your tube. Decided to help you, because there was no one to help me.”

“Thank you.”

Unotendei? Zvakanaka.

His companion’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“What?”

“What did you just say?”

“What did I say?”

The boy shook his head.

“How did you know to do that?” the older man asked. “With the food?”

“I don’t know. It just… made sense.”

“Come with me,” the older man said. “I want to show you something.”

***

The pair returned to the central cylinder.

“Now that you are feeling stronger,” the old man said. “I want you to help me open this.”

“What’s inside?”

“I don’t know. Food. Answers. An elevator. Maybe we get out of here.”

The boy nodded. “How do we–“

The older man stood to one side, fingers on the seam between the doors. “We pull.”

The younger got onto the other side, and the pair began pulling at the doors. Weak muscles strained and unsteady fingers maintained their grip. Still, the doors remained closed, and after a few minutes the older man called for a halt.

“I felt it move,” the boy said.

“It is not enough,” the older man said. “We need a third man to help us pry this open.”

“Okay. Who?”

The older man moved to the nearest tube, breathing on it and using his sleeve to clear the frost away. “Just look for someone strong. Someone big. Not like the two of us, yes?”

The younger nodded, heading for the nearest tubes.

***

The man they chose had a broad bone structure, though he was as emaciated as everyone else, and almost a head taller than the older man. The man and the boy gave him time to rest, time to recover, before explaining the situation as they knew it to him.

The big man simply nodded. “Okay, Chief.”

The older man cocked his head. “Why you call me that?”

“Gotta call you something. Chief.”

“Chief.” He nodded, then pointed to the boy. “Kid.”

Kid nodded, then pointed at the big man’s shock of hair. Unlike the other two men, he hadn’t cut it much, leaving a mane of curls atop his head. “Red.”

“Red.” He smiled. “I like.”

“Good,” Chief said. The big man seemed friendly enough. Capable. He felt like he could rely on him, if it came down to it.

“Should we wake anyone else up?” Kid asked.

“Not if we can get the doors open,” the older man said. “No need to wake them up to… to whatever this is. Kid, stand there. Pull that way. I pull this way. Red, you try and get fingers in when you can.”

Red nodded, and the three took up their positions.

“On three,” Chief said, making a brief eye contact with his companions. “Ready? One, two, three!”

He pulled again, harder than before, clenching his eyes shut with the effort. He could hear Kid’s bare feet squeaking against the floor’s tiles, but the younger man did not fall. There was a small give, and then a sudden shift as Red slipped his fingers into the crack and pulled with the leverage his longer arms provided.

The doors gave a loud protesting squeal as they were wrenched open, revealing a dark abyss beyond. On the other side of the doors was… nothing.

At first Chief thought it was merely dark, but as Red stepped out of the light he saw that the cylinder held a long shaft extending well above and below into pitch shadow.

“No,” Kid said softly.

Red turned his head towards Chief. “Now what?”

They wanted answers, but Chief didn’t have any for them. He’d only been awake for a few hours longer than these men, but already they looked up to him, and he felt a responsibility towards them. He’d awakened them to this strange nightmare, taken them from blissful oblivion to a land of questions and isolation. They hadn’t asked for it. Hell, if someone had asked Chief, he’d have been happy to let someone else wake up in his place, let someone else solve this puzzle.

But no one had asked, and it was his problem to handle.

“We wait. Rest. I saw a ladder inside. We climb up, maybe find a hatch to the surface.”

“You think we’re underground?” Kid asked.

“No windows,” Chief reasoned. He crouched alongside the wall.

Red sat on the end of the tube he’d been awakened from.

Kid paced slowly around the perimeter of the cylinder, disappearing behind it, and stopping when he reached the control panel on the other side.”Maybe one of these is lights?”

“Try and see,” Chief said.

Kid examined the control panel, his fingers tracing across its chrome surface between the buttons. “I can’t read.”

“Me neither,” Chief said. “Almost. Not yet.”

Kid pressed a few buttons, but the lights didn’t turn on. At first, not much seemed to happen, but when he pressed the button in the bottom right corner, a warbling squawk emitted from a concealed speaker.

Red made sharp eye contact with Chief.

“Press it again,” the older man told Kid.

Kid did, and the echoing tone emitted once more.

“Do you think it’s a–” Kid began.

“Aaahh?” The voice, small and feminine, was clear.

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