The dull, shuddering hum of the air conditioning overhead lulled him out of sleep; the irritating, if familiar, noise was seemingly intent on ruining another night of rest for him. His eyes cracked open, glaring up into the wide vent mounted into the concrete ceiling and the shadowy depths within it.
He threw his blanket off himself with an annoyed kick of his feet, swinging into a seated position on his wide, unpleasantly firm cot.
He rubbed at one of his eyes as he scanned the darkened room, though truthfully there was not much at which to look. The room sat empty save for the layer of scattered clothing he and his friends had left from the night before, a testament to the smashed-together examples of his friend’s tastes.
An annoyed groan sounded from behind him on the bed and he turned to pull the blanket over his still-sleeping companion, Avi. He paused to watch as Avi scratched at his face in his sleep before issuing a contented yawn and settling again underneath the blanket.
Ethan gently slipped out of the cot, slinking across the room and into the tiny shower area through the doorway nestled in the back of his room. He gently closed the door before flicking on the incandescent lighting rods set into the walls around the ceiling’s edge, catching a look at himself in the dirty, makeup-stained mirror.
He wore a pair of skintight leggings in a ridiculous leopard print pattern that made him feel like retching as he looked at them. Over an uncomfortably tight black crop top that clung to his body as if determined to squeeze the life out of him. His short, burgundy-colored hair was slicked back and his face was covered in a travesty of smeared mascara and foundation, leaving him looking like a monster from one of Avi’s awful horror movies he always made them watch.
The previous night came back to him in flashes, Avi’s birthday party, the band, the drinks, the half-dozen revelers playing drunken dress-up as the night wound on.
He peeled the top off with a chuckle, casting it aside and turning on the sink. The pipes groaned dully for a moment before the water began flowing from the faucet, rapidly warming as he dipped his hands into the sink and scrubbed at his tired face.
Looking up into the mirror he discovered he seemed to have made it somehow worse, smearing the coloring together into garish streaks across his face.
The door opened behind him and he spotted Avi in the mirror, the lithe young man dressed only in a disconcertingly tiny pair of underwear and grinning at him like a schoolboy from under his bushy mass of curly black hair.
“Yikes, Ethan, what are you doing? Sit down, you look like a lunatic,” Avi laughed, shooing the man away from the sink and shutting the water off as he snatched a small bag off the counter and leaned over Ethan who sat on the toilet, “Still can’t sleep?” Avi asked softly, spraying makeup remover onto a cloth and gently wiping at Ethan’s face.
Ethan shrugged unhelpfully, “It’s the damn air conditioning.”
“Oh honey,” Avi said with a disapproving frown, “We both know it isn’t the air conditioning. Tell me what’s wrong.”
He sighed as Avi finished wiping the makeup away and slipped onto the counter beside the sink, crossing his legs and looking down at his friend expectantly.
“Fine,” Ethan conceded, standing and entering the shower, stripping off the hated leggings and tossing them out onto the floor as he turned on the water, raising his voice to speak over the rushing spray, “Tomorrow we go out into the tubes. You know I can’t sleep the night before something important.”
Avi rifled through the makeup bag, his eyes widening in triumph as he pulled out a narrow, half-smoked joint and he immediately set himself to finding something to light it with as he spoke.
“You sure that’s all it is?” he asked, dumping the bag out onto the counter beside himself and snagging the metallic lighter that came tumbling out alongside the remnants of his makeup.
“It is,” Ethan insisted, adding an edge to his tone that he hoped would cue Avi to drop the matter.
“Right,” Avi said from the shower door, causing Ethan to jump and cover himself, “Whatever you say.”
“Fucks sake, Avi!” Ethan half-shouted, “Do you mind?”
Avi flicked the lighter on, puffing the joint to life and waving his hand through the smoke as he regarded his bashful friend.
“Oh please. We used to take baths together and we just woke up in the same bed. I think we’re past that, don’t you?”
“That’s not the point! Get out!”
“Yeesh, you big baby,” Avi said, walking back and leaning against the counter, “We’ll only be gone for a couple of weeks. Just think of the parties when we get back. We’re gonna get you into another dress, bud. Mark my words.”
Ethan chuckled despite himself, rinsing the product out of his hair under the stream of hot water as he spoke, “Why do you always try to get me into women’s clothing?”
“Because it’s fun, and men’s clothing is so boring,” Avi whined before smiling at himself in the mirror, inspecting his body from different angles as he watched himself speak, “Besides, what else are we supposed to do?”
Ethan shut the water off, reaching out of the shower and pulling a towel off the nearby rack, wrapping it around his waist as he exited the little stall, “What time is it?”
Avi shrugged, tossing the smoking roach into the sink and gesturing at his nearly-nude self incredulously, “You see a fucking watch?”
Ethan cocked his head, “Really?” he asked, giving his friend an incredulous look of his own as Avi slipped past him into the shower with a mischievous grin and a blown kiss.
Avi laughed as he turned the shower back on, lavishing in the still-warm recycled water, “Sorry, E,” he said half-sincerely.
“Ass,” Ethan muttered as he walked into the bedroom, pulling a panel mounted onto the wall open and fishing out one of his jumpsuits and a fresh pair of underwear.
He threw the padded combat suit onto the cot before kicking his way through the mess of clothing on the floor until he found his lost boots and a suitably clean pair of socks.
The shower shut back off as Ethan dressed and Avi came strolling out into the bedroom, wrinkling his nose unhappily as he saw the combat suit his friend was pulling on.
“See? This is what I’m talking about,” he said, fetching his own suit and holding it in front of himself, “Do I look remotely fuckable in this? Does anyone?”
“I don’t think the purpose of our uniforms is to enhance our fuckability, Avi,” Ethan chuckled, zipping himself fully into his suit and sitting on the edge of the cot to lace his boots.
“Clearly not,” Avi pouted, pulling on the hated suit and searching for his own boots, “I’m just saying, look good, feel good, right? I’m trying to feel like a badass and they have us out here looking like the diaper patrol.”
Ethan shook his head as he laughed at his ridiculous friend, “You’re going to be wearing full body armor over it, no one can see your butt.”
“Exactly,” Avi said, pulling on his boots and winking at Ethan, “So you see my point?”
“What’s the matter with you?” Ethan asked as they stepped out into the hallway outside his quarters.
Avi belted his jumpsuit tightly about his waist, posing hopefully in front of his companion, “Any better?”
“Who are you going to be fucking, Avi?” Ethan asked impatiently, rolling his eyes, “The muties?”
Avi frowned at him, “You’re no help at all, Ethan.”
Ethan laughed at his annoyed friend as he led them down the steel and concrete corridor out of the residence wing. Avi chattered away the entire time, oblivious to the lack of attention his friend paid to his ramblings.
The Hive’s residential blocks were built in spiraling stacks around the atrium that housed the facility’s thousands of citizens and workers. Each block was separated by a double set of three-foot thick blast doors, each set with a small, reinforced sally port through which the pair passed as they made their way through the sprawling structure.
The atrium expanded out in front of them as they passed through the last of the blast doors leading out of the residential wing. Twenty-four levels of markets, auxiliary power and water systems, medical facilities, and ad hoc homes overflowing from the residential sectors built into the belly of a mountain like an inverted tear, its peripheral structures branching out around it like the stretching roots of a tree.
This early in the morning few were up save the soldiers stationed at the checkpoints throughout the atrium, controlling access to the more critical sections of the Hive.
Ethan and Avi flashed their badges at the guards to pass, and as they were waved into more and more restricted parts of their city, they could not help but carry themselves with a certain undeserved air of importance. They had only just recently managed to be placed on the external patrols, no thanks to the flighty, ever-discordant and unpredictable behaviors of his partner. Ethan had not been lying when he said he was nervous about their patrol into the lava tubes beneath their home. It was, after all, the first time either of them had ever set foot outside the Hive.
Most people spent their entire lives in the Hive, growing up, marrying, and having children of their own who also would never leave the confines of the giant bunker. Many by choice, of course, but many more simply accepted that the only way to leave was to join the guard, and even then the opportunities for external work were few and far between.
The lava tubes that crisscrossed their way deep beneath the hive were long dormant, and though the tunnels that remained might not offer much in the way of scenery, Avi had insisted that any change from the constant presence of steel and concrete would be worth it. And so, Ethan had set himself to getting them placed on a patrol as a birthday gift to his erratic friend.
“So what’s the plan?” Avi asked as they made their way into the lower-level security division, each signing their names into the logbook at the watch commander’s desk, “We aren’t supposed to leave for another twelve hours.”
Ethan gave Avi a disappointed frown, “Eight hours. And if Lieutenant Horowitz is on duty maybe you can sweet talk them into letting us leave early.”
“Lieutenant Horowitz hates me,” Avi whined, his handsome face marred by confusion.
“Exactly,” Ethan replied as the watch commander signed their log entries and waved them on into the armory, “We’ll just convince him that you might die out there and he’ll be sure to let us leave early.”
“Or we could have stayed in bed, you weirdo,” Avi muttered unhappily as the quartermaster began passing their equipment to them through the wide slot in the chain-link fence separating the armory supply from the rest of the room.
Ethan chuckled to himself as he shouldered his war bag, waiting for Avi to do the same before leading them into the ready room and the sturdy racks holding their armor that one of the quartermaster’s assistants had wheeled in for them.
The pair stepped up to the racks, slipping into the chest pieces as they hung from their heavy steel frames, standing perfectly still as the suits issued a series of warning tones before sealing themselves around their torsos with a whirring hiss. The leg and arm guards came next, attaching themselves to the chest piece and sealing the men into the armor.
Both waited, one more patiently than the other, as the assistant slid a thin, gently pulsing rod into the back of each of their suits. Soon their armor began humming with power and the men both winced lightly as the suits pricked their skin at multiple points to monitor their vitals and inject any necessary stimulants or pain meds.
Ethan flexed his fingers inside the heavy gauntlets as they compressed themselves to fit his forearms, feeling the still unfamiliar tightness of the armor as it squeezed him firmly before finally relaxing into a more acceptable fit.
Soon after, his legs felt suddenly lighter as the armor began supporting itself, leaving him feeling as if he were floating a few inches off the ground. He gave himself a moment to become used to the sensation as he looked over at Avi, who struggled to fit the heavy pauldron over one of his shoulders.
“Sonofabitch,” Avi hissed with frustration, clawing at the straps awkwardly with his free hand.
Ethan swatted his interfering hand away, tightening the shoulder plates into place and sealing his friend completely into his suit.
“Thanks, dear,” Avi said with a wink, scooping up his helmet and holding it in the crook of his arm.
Ethan chuckled, shoving his partner away before scurrying out of the room like a child, his war bag slung over his shoulder as he pulled his helmet onto his head, laughing at Avi’s excited voice shouting out from behind him.
They ran throughout the armory, drawing a chorus of disapproving shouts from the quartermaster and the guards as their metal-shod feet thundered over the floors.
“Think we’ll see any muties while we’re out there?” Avi’s voice crackled into his helmet as they slowed their pace outside the fortified security point at the Hive’s lowest point, deep inside the base of the mountain.
“No one has seen one since we were kids,” Ethan answered uncertainly, “You remember. The patrols found it dead and dragged it back here. Mr. Fitz showed us some of the pictures they took.”
“Well, yea,” Avi agreed, stopping beside his friend outside the checkpoint, “But could you imagine what it would be like?”
“I imagine it would be violent and terrifying. Just like in the holo-reels.”
Avi scoffed, shoving past Ethan and tossing a lazy salute at the guards’ station just within, “If no one has seen one alive in more than twenty years, who’s to say what they are like? Maybe they don’t even exist.”
“Oh yes,” Ethan called back sarcastically, following his partner to a small holding area near the imposing external bulwark, “They all just crawled into caves somewhere and died. That’s why we haven’t had contact with any other colony beyond Arkadia for decades now. And they send reports of sightings all the time.”
“Unconfirmed sightings,” Avi argued, dropping his war bag at his feet, "People say Arkadia even patrols the surface."
“Still,” Ethan continued, unbothered by his partner’s imagined conspiracies, “I doubt we’ll see anything. We won’t even be leaving the tubes.”
“Yer goddamn right you won’t,” an angry voice boomed at them, startling them both to attention as an older man in the armored jumpsuit of a lieutenant of the guard approached, the half-smoked, half-chewed remnant of a cigar wedged into the corner of his mouth as his gravelly voice slipped out of him in a wall of intractable annoyance, “If you two morons leave the tubes, don’t bother coming back. What are you doing here anyway? I’m not supposed to be seeing you for another eight hours. Why are you geared up?”
Ethan snapped a well-practiced salute, “Sir, we figured we would get a head start on our patrol!”
“Do you understand how patrols work, Corporal?” the officer growled at him, “You leave here early and there’s a hole in our line. Someone clever could slip through.”
“And do what?” Avi asked as Ethan tried to telepathically will him to silence, “Knock on the ten-foot-thick blast doors with a sharpened stick?”
The officer leveled his murderous gaze at Avi, reaching up and yanking him down to his level by the flared collar of his armor.
“I’m sure the lost colonies thought the same thing before their doors were battered down and their hallways filled with blood. If you want to find a mutie so bad, go ahead, have fun. I’ll be glad to be rid of you.”
Avi straightened himself up, pulling himself from the man’s grasp and stepping back.
“Yikes, Lieutenant, I get it. No need to get personal.”
“So are we supposed to just wait here or…” Ethan said tilting his head towards the nearby bulwark.
The Lieutenant swept his gaze back to Ethan, “Yer already here and geared up,” he said unhappily, clasping his hands behind his back as he spoke, “I don’t want to send another patrol out to patch the hole yer leaving, but I don’t want to have to look at you all day either. Just get out there and next time you had better report on time. Am I understood?”
Both men snapped out salutes, “Yes, sir!”
The officer stared at them a moment longer as he chewed on his cigar before turning on his heel and walking away, waving a dismissive hand at them as he went, “Then get the fuck out of my checkpoint!”