The Beautiful Ones
“We’re in Hell! It has to be!” Fran cried as Hugh tried to console her. She and Hugh were first to awaken, but her wailing roused the rest in short order. “Not likely” Mark muttered. “Or I wouldn’t be here.” He fingered a small silver crucifix pendant dangling from his neck. “Some sort of Satanic deception though, certainly.”
Andrew was still busy exploring the place, measuring the perimeter in footsteps. Melissa sat in a heap of her discarded layers, twiddling strands of her blue-green hair while trying to get a signal on her phone. Jeffrey took a break from playing his handheld game system now and then to peer at her, swiftly averting his gaze whenever she noticed.
“I’ve returned.” Andrew stood at the edge of the group, white button down shirt moist with sweat under his arms. “Based on the lengths of the walls, were it empty, this PriceCo would have an uninterrupted floor space of approximately 205,000 square feet. That’s on the high end for this chain.”
“Great. So how’s that help us?” Melissa inquired with a weary inflection. “Well now, don’t let’s start pickin’ at each other already you kids” Hugh urged. “Or we’ll go nowhere quick”. Melissa let out a disgusted sigh and went back to browsing her phone’s network options menu.
Sarah, who’d gone with Andrew but split off in search of vegan foods, now appeared with an armload of frozen organic quiches. “Anybody seen a microwave yet?” All shook their heads. “When we find some way of cooking, I can make us all pizza!” Fran offered, wiping the tears from her eyes. “I make a wicked pizza.”
Row after row of identical steel shelving towers surrounded them. Breaking up only as you approached the frozen goods. The ceiling simply bare metal sheeting held up by periodic support columns and horizontal beams with cris-crossing struts within, tube lighting suspended from there.
“We’ve got more important things to take care of first.” It sounded promising and authoritative, but trailed off without resolution. Mark seemed keen to lead but as yet had no better idea of where to go than the rest. First order of business, once they were all awake and had accepted the apparent reality that they were inside of an abandoned PriceCo, was to try every door.
Worse than locked, they opened to reveal solid concrete. That’s what set Fran off. Second order of business was to attempt a phone call. No service on anyone’s phone. After that, introductions were made and the seven strangers began trying to piece together how they’d arrived here.
“Last thing I remember, I was at my practice doing paperwork. We’d recently admitted a bulldog with a bladder infection. It gets hazy after that.” Sarah brushed strands of her long, red hair out of her face and asked if Fran could remember anything unusual.
“I was in my pizzeria, closing. I’m not to where I can afford to hire as many people as I really need, so a lot of it falls to me. I’d finished stacking the chairs when…” She stared into the distance, struggling to recall. “When what?” She remained silent, cogitating.
“I guess I’ll go” Mark volunteered. “I was in the middle of turkey hunting. Had my A-liner set up out there, was hookin’ up the gas for heating. Dunno about after that.” He joined the circle, watching intently as each member searched their most recent memories for clues.
“So whoever put us here didn’t just nab us in our sleep. That much is apparent. I also don’t see any commonalities that would explain why we were selected.” Andrew set about making a map of the PriceCo from memory on some graphing paper he’d found. Melissa chose this point to interrupt.
“I just wanna say I noticed it’s mostly men talking. White ones, and I bet you’re both cisgendered too. I hope that’s not gonna be a pattern. Why don’t we hear what Hugh has to say? He’s a person of color, their voices are too often marginalized.” Hugh looked at her like she had two heads.
“Kiddo if I have somethin’ to say I’ll damn well say it. I’m too old to give a rat’s ass, don’t you worry about me.” Melissa appeared irritated and murmured something about ungrateful this, internalized that. “If this is really all the vegan stuff they have, we’ve got a problem” Sarah broke in.
Mark laughed. “You mean you have a problem. Who said it’s all for you anyway? Maybe I want a quiche.” She offered him one, but he waved her off. “We should start figuring out what to eat first, though. Supposing we can’t get out of here soon, some of this stuff is gonna start going bad.”
“This is why I was making the map” Andrew explained, although Melissa seemed as unimpressed as before. They’d broken up into teams of two with the intention of identifying perishable foods. “God this is so much walking”, she whined. Meanwhile Jeffrey and Mark piled deli meats into a basket, soon relocating them to one of the many freezers.
“How long’s the power gonna hold out, I wonder.” Jeffrey shrugged, false raccoon tail clipped to the back of his belt swaying as he walked. “Somebody put us here. They must be watching. Maybe this is how they get their kicks? I don’t think they’d let the lights go dark, at least.” Truly a meager comfort.
Pausing at a drinking fountain, Mark pressed the bumper. Crystal clear water issued forth which he first cautiously smelled, then drank. “Alright. We’ve got water. That’s good, the bottled and canned drinks won’t last long.” Hugh had already found himself a six pack of Dr. Pepper, and the two spotted Fran pushing a shopping cart she’d piled full of wine.
“We’re gonna need rules. For how much people can eat per day, to make it last”, Jeffrey said. “Fuck that noise” Mark protested. “I’ll eat whatever I want. Love to see you try and stop me with that fake ass katana.” Jeffrey grimaced, running a hand over the plastic scabbard dangling from his side. “It’s a wakizashi, baka.”
Soon they’d all once again congregated. “Everything that was in the open coolers is now in a freezer. A lot of this shit is dried goods, that should last a good long while. I hope you like fruits and veggies because if we don’t eat that in the next day or two, it’ll all be mush.” Only Sarah looked pleased.
“There’s fresh water. Dunno if it’ll run out, I don’t think so. It wouldn’t if this was a regular PriceCo but I think we agree it isn’t. Gotta be somewhere remote, too, or they’d never get away with lockin’ us up here.” Andrew nodded thoughtfully. Map now bearing a legend, and variety of small symbols indicating the locations of specific foods.
“You know, if power and water are coming in from the outside, we should be able to find where the utilities enter the building. Maybe there’s a service tunnel or something we could get out through.” Fran looked suddenly hopeful. “That’s good! We should make a list and put that at the top.” Andrew volunteered. “I like making lists anyway.”
It was the work of an hour to locate the utilidor. One foot by one foot, receding into featureless darkness, plainly no way that anyone would fit. “Why even build this? If it’s a service tunnel, I mean. Nobody can get in to service it.” A constant gentle whoosh suggested another possibility. “Supposing this is also where fresh air comes in? Like we’re underground or something.”
Satisfied that it was of no use just then, Mark replaced the grating, then he and Andrew returned to the group. “I’m thirsty” Melissa complained when they arrived. “That sounds like a personal problem.” Melissa glared at Mark, then returned her attention to a game on her phone. “So did you find it or what?”
“It looks like water, electricity, and air come in through the same channel.” Sarah interjected. “I’m sorry, did you say air?” Jeffrey suggested that the whole structure could be in space. “Get real. Like somebody would drop trillions of dollars building a PriceCo on Mars just to stick a bunch of randos in it.”
“I still say we’re in Hell” Fran muttered. Mark stroked his stubble thoughtfully. “Improbable” Andrew opined. “That assumes the existence of the supernatural and life after death. What is known of neurology precludes the persistence of consciousness apart from the brain.” Both Mark and Fran looked at him as though he’d just smeared shit in their faces.
“Talking out of your ass about stuff you know nothing about won’t help us get out of here.” Andrew looked wounded. “I just mean that the problem of interaction prevents an immaterial spirit from controlling or receiving stimuli from a material body, as the two substances are held to be non-interactive, hence why we cannot see, hear, touch or otherwise-”
Mark cut him off. “Hush, nerd. What about you, ponytail?” Jeffrey looked up from his game. “I pray to my ancestral spirits in accordance with Shinto.” Mark snickered. “Well, that’s something at least.” A lengthy argument followed. Initially about metaphysics but somehow transitioning seamlessly into a discussion of what items everyone needed.
“I won’t make it long without hearing aid batteries” Hugh suggested. “Won’t be able y’hear y’all kids bickerin’. Maybe that’s a good thing? But I like to be included.” So, hearing aids went on the list. “Oh, I’ll need some...products.” Fran blushed. Andrew puzzled over that until Melissa clarified that she meant tampons.
“There’s a microwave in the employee lounge we can cook with. It’ll be mostly fruits and veggies tonight but I think it’s reasonable for everyone to pick one thing they want to eat hot.” Mark scoffed. “You all eat what you like. I’m gonna eat what I like.” Andrew reiterated the reasons for eating the most perishable foods first, but Mark proved intractable.
“Listen, the silver lining to all this is that there’s no government in here. I moved out into the country to get away from mindless statist sheeple and their government god.” Andrew broke in. “Doesn’t scripture characterize Christians as sheep in need of a shepherd?” Again, Mark scowled. For a moment he eyeballed Andrew, as if deciding something.
“...That’s different. God is a perfect authority without the flaws of human politicians. Better by far to be dominated by God than by any man, however well meaning.” Andrew seemed satisfied by this, and invited Mark to help him collect items on the list. “With you? Fuck no. Besides, I don’t need any of the shit on there. I’ve got my own list. You do you, I’ll do me.”
There was some grumbling. But as food appeared plentiful, Mark was left to his own devices while the rest feasted on tomatoes, avocados, grapes and cantaloupe. There was no sense of day or night, but many hours had passed and most were exhausted. “Want me to turn out the lights?” Sarah offered. The rest declined.
“It’s not clear to me whether we’re being watched, or what else could be in here with us. I’d like the lights on for now if it’s all the same to you.” Fran glanced about nervously. Agreement was unanimous. Some of the shelving units at the ground level were cleared. Bath curtains were hung in lieu of walls, for privacy.
With the addition of bed rolls, pillows and blankets, the modest shelters were complete. At Melissa’s request, an extension cord was run to her little room so she could charge her phone. Likewise for Jeffrey and his handheld game. With everything as sorted as it could be for the first day, one by one, they fell asleep.
The next day, more goods were unloaded from the shelves to create living space up off the ground. “Don’t think this makes us safe” Mark warned, carefully easing a stack of toilet paper off the shelf above him. Sarah shrugged. “I’ll feel safer, which means I’ll sleep better.” Extension cords were strung up to everyone’s miniature apartments, and lamps were gathered for interior lighting.
“Everybody, save your seeds! Maybe we can get a farm going” Sarah urged. Breakfast was bananas and strawberries. “Cavendish bananas don’t have seeds. They’re infertile clones” Andrew said with a mouth full of banana. Melissa was still holed up in her shelving unit with a 24 pack of soda and a bag of donut holes.
“Where’s Jeffrey?” Neither he nor Melissa had joined the rest for breakfast. “I saw him climb up to the third level with one of those big family sized bags of Doritos, Mountain Dew and some sushi. That’s his place on the third level, you can see the raccoon tail poking out from under the curtain.” A muffled voice came back in reply: “It’s a tanuki tail, you filthy gaijins.”
They didn’t get away with loafing for long. When asked to make the rounds, checking to see if any of the doors were now unobstructed, Jeffrey immediately sought out the “amigo” electric shopping scooters. Melissa complained, but ultimately followed suit. With a shopping cart tied to the rear of each, they made serviceable trucks, such that the two were able to restock on the way.
While they did so, the others congregated and got to speculating. “Supposing it’s not Hell. Or whatever. I mean, we’ve got plenty of everything we could possibly need.” Mark rubbed his chin. “Maybe Hell is having everything you want, the instant you want it.” Which seemed meaningful to everyone but Sarah. “I don’t want to live in a PriceCo. Do you? Is that your dream?”
“Alright. So what’s your idea?” Sarah mulled that over before speaking. “I think it’s some kind of experiment.” Fran’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, you mean to take people from different walks of life and see how they deal with a situation like this?” This time, Mark was the one to object. “What useful data could possibly be gained from that?” Initially, no answers were forthcoming.
After some silence, Hugh started in. “Back in my day, when they were still sending men to the Moon, they would coop ‘em up first in all kinds of cramped places. For days, weeks, even months. Just to see if anybody would snap.” The only problem, evident to everyone, was that they weren’t the least bit cooped up. Rather the PriceCo seemed a wastefully large, well apportioned living space for just seven people.
“It...moved”. Nobody turned to look until he grew louder. “IT MOVED!” Andrew stood before one of the shelving units near the end of the row. Sure enough, there were skid marks on the floor. It had been turned 90 degrees. “Who did this?” Nobody spoke. “WHO DID THIS? Do you realize what you’ve done? My map is ruined!”
Fran blinked. “It wasn’t me.” The rest said the same, one at a time. “Wait, you’re worried about your map?” Andrew unfolded it and pointed to the rectangle representing the now turned shelving tower. “It’s no longer one hundred percent accurate! One of them moved! Now it’s ninety six percent at best! AT BEST! Even if I move it back I’ll know! I’ll know it was moved! The map is ruined, I’ll know it was moved!”
Sarah stepped in to comfort him. “My brother’s like this. He’ll be alright, just needs some time to settle down. Andrew, what if I help you make a new map?” The rest were nonetheless plainly put off by the outburst. “He’s got a point though. Who moved it?” Everyone present denied doing so. Just then, Melissa and Jeffrey returned with their odd little electric trucks piled high with loot.
“Hey, did either of you move a shelving tower?” The two stopped the carts and shook their heads. “One of ‘em moved?” Soon they were off their carts and studying the rotated shelving tower with the others. “Nobody’s owned up to it? But we’re the only ones in here.” Mark narrowed his eyes. “That spastic probably moved it himself for the attention.”
Nobody else agreed. Melissa suggested it was a ploy by the two cisgendered hetero white men to create apparent danger as a pretext for seizing control. This, too, went over like a lead balloon. “That’s really creepy though. Somebody should stand watch tonight.” Mark assumed Sarah meant him. “What’s in it for me?”
She looked wary. “...Pick whatever you want from the shelves.” He pointed out that he could already do that. “What do you want, then?” A lecherous grin slowly spread across his face. “Ugh, no. I’ll do it myself.” Andrew eagerly volunteered to take first watch. He clenched his fist, fire in his eyes and muttered “They ruined my map.”
The rest of the day was spent interconnecting the shelving towers with walkways made from wooden planks. Ladders were affixed to the exterior with zip ties for easy movement between levels, and Andrew had the idea to supply water to every abode by a gravity feed system.
He’d busted one of the drinking fountains off the wall with a sledgehammer, then run a hose from the gardening section over to the ever growing apartment towers. It now snaked up around one of the supports, terminating in a buoyancy valve inside a plastic barrel being used as a water tower.
Once full, the water level would pull the buoyancy valve shut so the barrel didn’t overflow. When anyone on the levels below wanted water, they had only to turn the spigot on their level. “This is amazing!” Sarah gushed. Andrew surveyed his work, then offered his own appraisal. “No it isn’t. Very basic plumbing. The hard part would’ve been obtaining a pressurized source of fresh water, but we already had one.”
She didn’t let up until he took some amount of credit, although her persistence confused him. “Hey, where’d you get that?” Mark gestured to the discarded sledgehammer. “Tools section, where else?” Mark lifted it and examined the head. “How many were there?” Andrew looked contemplative, then estimated perhaps fifteen to twenty. “Can you show me where?”
Soon the two returned with a truckload of sledgehammers. Mark hopped off, grabbed one, and headed for the front doors. Swinging them aside, he swung the hammer aside himself in an arc such that it impacted the concrete. A fist sized chip fell off, as well as some dust and pea sized bits of rubble.
Everyone stood in stunned silence. Mark started laughing. “Don’t you see? This is our ticket out! It may take a long time, but what else is there to do?” So, after collective deliberation, work shifts were assigned. Sarah, Mark, Andrew, Fran and Jeffrey would take shifts throughout the day, hammering at the concrete for ten minutes apiece. Any more proved too strenuous.
Melissa was also enlisted at first. But after a few half-hearted attempts, she could not so much as lift the hammer. “I can’t”, she insisted. “Come on. We need every able bodied person to help.” She refused. “Literally, I can’t.”
Hugh, on the other hand, had to be argued out of contributing. “I’m still a strong man! Not young, but I’ve got muscle on me!” But with some prodding, he admitted to high blood pressure. That was that, nobody would let him.
“This hammer...is a clumsy tool. Not like Thousand Year Dragon.” Jeffrey clarified that he meant his little sword. “It is folded over a hundred times from the finest Hanzo steel. There is nothing in this world or the next which it cannot cut.” Mark invited him to demonstrate on the concrete. “The spirit which inhabits it demands it be drawn only against a worthy adversary, in honorable battle.”
Soon, large patches of sweat stained his flame print shirt. His pony tail glistening with grease as it flipped to and fro with each swing. But to his credit he continued for the full ten minutes, dislodging about a bucket worth of concrete rubble. There was no place to shower, and no apparent means of draining water should they build one.
The temporary solution was to bathe with about a gallon of water each, and some towels. Then to wring said towels out into one of the toilets and flush it. But in the process of doing so, it was noticed that each bathroom had a drain in the floor. This opened up the possibility of building a proper shower there.
When Andrew returned from running a hose to the bathroom, Sarah was busy pouring soil from immense bags into a series of carefully aligned wooden pallets she’d upturned and removed some of the boards from. “There’s a gardening section! PriceCo really has everything I guess.” A hose passthrough with a digital scheduler intended to control a sprinkler was instead used to automate watering.
“We can probably do better than this” Andrew opined, studying the setup. “If there’s PVC piping anywhere, and if the pet section has aquarium gravel, I could set up some hydroponics.” Sarah laughed. “This is fine for now. Not everything has to be high tech you know.” Andrew looked almost offended. “Yes it does.” Mark watched the two from a distance, brow furrowed.
According to the clocks, were the sun visible, it would be low on the horizon. Melissa’s phone seemed to corroborate their accuracy. So, as promised, Andrew took first watch. Because several complained the light made it difficult to sleep the night before, with some trepidation, the lights in their section were for the first time turned off. Andrew fetched a hefty 12 volt flashlight so as to watch for intruders without waking anybody.
Hours passed. His eyelids heavy, Andrew might’ve drifted off...had it not been for the shadow. At first he assumed it was a trick of the light. But moving the makeshift spotlight around, the shadow just shifted with the light, trailing always from the same spot. It was the shadow of a man, but without a man to cast it.
Andrew whispered down to Jeffrey until he awoke. “Who dares rouse me from my thousand year slumber.” He peered up at Andrew, rubbing crust from his eyes. Andrew just pointed at the shadow, shifting the light subtly as he did so. It took Jeffrey a moment to realize what was wrong. When he did, he gasped. The figure seemed to notice. It turned abruptly and walked off towards the lit parts of the store.
“What the fuck was that? What was that?” Jeffrey wide eyed and sweating. Andrew still puzzling over what, to him, seemed an impossible contradiction of materialism. How could something transparent cast a shadow? He continued to agonize over the impossibility of it as Jeffrey roused the others. Most grumpy to have been woken up, not especially inclined to believe what sounded like a prank.
“I swear I saw it. The shadow of a man, as if he were standing right there” Andrew gestured to the appropriate spot. “Only, he wasn’t. There was a shadow, but nothing to cast it. Then it simply walked off.” Jeffrey vouched for the account. But Mark was skeptical. “We have the word of a retarded robot and a manchild. I guess that settles it, this place is haunted.” He seemed pleased with himself, but issued half-hearted apologies when Sarah scolded him.
“I believe you boys” Fran said. “World’s full of crazy stuff. Alien abductions, bat babies, sasquatches.” Hugh chimed in. “Bat boy is legit, I seen pictures.” None of this comforted Andrew. A shadow without a man posed an insurmountable problem for his understanding of reality. Jeffrey mostly seemed pleased to receive some attention that wasn’t entirely mockery.
“Whatever it was, by the sounds of it turning the lights on wouldn’t help. And I’m fuckin’ tired. So was Andrew for that matter, probably imagined it.” Andrew conceded that was certainly a possibility.
“Anyway I dunno about the rest of you” Mark continued, “But I’m going back to bed. Don’t wake me unless it’s the rapture or the cops.” With that, he returned to his unit. As did the rest after him, whispering to one another about what the shadow might’ve actually been.
Andrew did not sleep, even when relieved. The feeling of being watched will do that. Presumably by whatever had put them here. It changed the equation somewhat. Would it allow continued efforts to break through the concrete? Did it move the shelving tower, and if so, why? Experiments were in order.
The next week went by without incident. Sarah cultivated her garden. Jeffrey and Melissa stayed holed up in their rooms, playing on their gadgets. Every night, Andrew swept the area with the flashlight hoping to spot their unseen observer again, but without result. Fran finally got to make pizza for everyone, and it was every bit as wicked as she’d promised.
“Now, a pizza’s only as good as the freshness of the ingredients. If I’d done this while we still had fresh veggies it’d be much better.” Everyone assured her it was fantastic, although given the circumstances any such luxury was welcome. “You know what they say. Pizza is like sex. Even mediocre pizza is still pizza.” A few smiled, but then grew tense. Somehow that topic hadn’t come up yet.
“Hey, umm. I went looking for birth control the other day. I found the shelf it was supposed to be on, but it was empty.” Everyone but Mark assured Sarah that they hadn’t done anything to it. Mark’s silence caught her attention.
“Do you know something about that, Mark?” He looked uncomfortable. “What do you need that for anyway? We’ll be out of here in no time.” That all but confirmed it so far as Sarah was concerned. “What did you do!?” She pestered Mark over and over until he caved.
“I flushed it all on the first day. I don’t have to abide your sin.” This ignited a shouting match between the two as the rest looked on, unsure of whether to intervene. Jeffrey turned to Andrew and said “I never have that problem with mai waifu. 2D girls can’t get pregnant.”
He proudly opened his little clamshell game system to reveal a cartoon woman rendered in cel shaded polygons across the dual screens. “It is just one of the many ways in which they are superior to 3D pig disgusting sluts.” Andrew winced. “I don’t think Sarah is a slut. She’s kind to me. I enjoy working on the garden with her.”
Jeffrey narrowed his eyes. “She’ll only friend zone you man. I’m calling it now.” Andrew disputed the validity of that concept briefly before stepping in to break up the fight. “Mark, it was unreasonable of you to make that decision for everyone without any sort of vote. It is arguably also not our decision whether one or more of us should have access to birth control.”
Sarah beamed at Andrew with undisguised delight. “That’s right. Listen to him!” Mark flew into a rage. “Did anyone ask you, fuckboy? I’ll decide what goes. Because none of you can stop me. What are you gonna do, call the cops?”
The rest suddenly looked afraid. He’d been an implicit member of the group, but that now seemed in question. Mark postured menacingly, but Andrew remained calm, seemingly oblivious to the danger he was in.
“If necessary I will build a prison from one of the shelving towers and confine you in it. I’d rather not as there’s already very few of us and a lot of work that needs to be done in order to breach the concrete. But further offenses will not be tolerated.” Mark sneered. “Who made you king shit? I didn’t vote for you.” Sarah pointed out that neither had any of them voted for Mark.
He scanned their faces, seeing only irritation and fear. “I see how it is. Fuck all of you. I knew this would happen.” He then set about piling his belongings into one of the trucks, and drove it off for some other part of the store.
Fran called out after him, but Hugh urged her to give up. “Let the boy huff and puff. He’ll come back to the group when he gets lonesome, you’ll see. I was like that when I was his age, had to come around on my own every time.”
Only he didn’t. Not the next day, nor the day after. Another week went by before the smoke plume became impossible to ignore. It stood to reason he would start a fire, as the microwave was much closer to the group than it was to him. But the smell of smoke was soon everywhere, and periodically sprinklers would go off in unexpected parts of the store.
“Somebody’s got to go talk to him.” Sarah was first to call ‘not it’, followed by Melissa and Jeffrey. “Leave it to me” Hugh boasted, heaving himself to his feet. Andrew wouldn’t allow it. Nor was he initially receptive when Fran volunteered. But, some reasoned pleading changed his mind. “You don’t understand him. He walks by faith like I do. I can reach him.”
Even so, Andrew followed at a distance. On the way, a mild stench wafted into his nose with no apparent source. It came as a shock when, as he cautiously approached Mark’s encampment, he heard not one but many voices. The stench was much stronger here. Andrew perched at the very edge of a shelving tower, peering around it just long enough to steal a glance at the new group.
Four women, three men. All circled around Mark, eagerly listening to him speak. “They’ll be here any minute, wait and see. Don’t believe their lies. They cast me out simply for spreading the gospel! Had it in for me from the start.” One of the women, wearing a sequinned purple hijab, briefly spoke up.
“I have known what it is to be singled out for my faith. But I also don’t believe a whole group can be bad. Perhaps there is one among them who turns them against you? We could surely reconcile if we were to sit down and talk it out. I volunteer to-” Mark cut her off, waving dismissively.
“Khayrah, you’re as confused as ever. About a great many things. It’s as I said, they will not listen. You’re right that there’s one prick in particular who’s to blame for all of this. Keep an eye out, he’s the one in black pants and a white button down shirt.
I think if we took him out, the rest would become cooperative.” A man with black hair wearing blue mechanic’s jumpsuit objected. “Buddy, I just got here. I’m not about to kill anybody, much less someone I don’t know.”
“Find out I’m telling the truth the hard way if you have to Ernesto. When they come for us in our sleep, it’ll be too late to reverse yourself. All this time cooped up in this God forsaken place has warped their minds. There’s no reasoning with them, we have to strike before they do.” The others rubbed their chins contemplatively.
“Mark, what happened to you?” Fran approached, worry written on her face. Mark stiffened up, then scanned for anybody else. “You were such a good boy. Strong in faith, maybe a little paranoid but-” Mark gestured for the circle to part so he could approach her. “Spread your arms out”. She complied, and he proceeded to frisk her. “Oh for gosh sakes kiddo, I came unarmed!”
Once satisfied of that, he searched the nearest shelving towers. Andrew slid back, wedging himself between pallets of cereal boxes in a bid to escape notice. It worked. “So they sent you by your lonesome. As expected from cowards. What do you want? Here to spy on me, in preparation for your assault?”
Fran stared, then began chuckling. “Do you listen to yourself? There was a misunderstanding, that’s all. I’m just here to smooth it over! Come back and talk with us, I’ll make a pizza. Pizza solves everything.”
“I’ll come back if you exile Andrew. That’s the only way. You have to, there’s no way you’ll keep shit running without me.” Fran stopped short of pointing out they’d been just fine while he was gone, instead pulling the cross pendant from within her blouse so he could see it.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. When Peter asked how many times he was to forgive a brother who wronged him, do you know what Jesus said? Not just seven times, but seventy seven!”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Be not unequally yoked with a nonbeliever. Only fools say in their hearts, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their actions are evil, not one of them does good.”
Behind him, Khayrah nodded approvingly. Fran let out an exasperated sigh. “So what’s your plan? Draw a line down the middle of the store? Stop being ridiculous and come rejoin the group.”
His eyes narrowed. “No. Your group will join ours. Once some judicious removals have been made. You won’t be hurt, you’re one of the good ones Fran. He’s just confused you. Before all this, I spent all my time trying to escape a doomed society. Doomed by degenerates like Andrew. Now there’s a clean slate, room to build something new. If it’s going to turn out any better, people like that cannot have any place in it.”
With that, he sent her away. Once she was out of sight, Andrew joined her and the two compared notes. “I don’t see why you boys can’t get along.” Andrew insisted he’d never had any problem with Mark until the day he left and was as baffled by all of this as Fran.
“It looks like we may have to start thinking about how to defend ourselves though.” It troubled both of them, but there was no escaping it given what they’d just heard. “If we could just get to the others while he’s not there…”
Andrew’s ears perked up. “Maybe even bring the whole group. I don’t think he’d attack us in front of them. And I don’t think he’s convinced them to fight us just yet.” Once back to the shelters, the rest were informed. “Figures that a cishet white boy would do this” Melissa grumbled.
When Jeffrey pointed out she was also white and straight, she looked at him like he’d run over her dog. “Just so you know shitlord, I’m 1/32 Native American, demisexual, and a horse otherkin.” Jeffrey asked if perhaps she really meant hippo and received a kick in the shins for his trouble.
“Settle down. We can’t be at each others’ throats at a time like this. Mark’s been working on those people for who knows how long. Give it another week and they might be ready to come after us. There’s a window of time in which to act that’s fast running out.” Hugh suggested taking the axes from various “in case of fire” glass cases around the store.
“Are we really willing to take axes to people we don’t know? I’d rather not consider anything so drastic.” But it seemed like a necessary precaution, so Andrew sent Sarah and Jeffrey to collect axes, using sledgehammers to break the glass. While they did that, Andrew pleaded with Melissa to help him build discreet lookouts into the top level of the shelving towers.
“I’ll do it if you check your privilege.” Andrew scratched his head and asked for clarification. Melissa seemed appalled that he didn’t already understand the concept. “It’s not my job to educate you.” Andrew conceded that but asked how he was meant to comply if he didn’t know how to do it. So, grudgingly, she explained it to him.
“...So what you’re saying is that parents strive to give their children a better life than they had? And that when this happens generation after generation, achievement gaps develop between different populations. What’s unjust about that? And do you really propose that parents neglect their kids somewhat so they won’t have privileges others lack?” Melissa informed him once more that even asking such a question was problematic behavior, that he should simply ‘listen and believe’.
“You’re saying some people compete less effectively. That’s fucking problematic and gross as shit. Everybody performs identically if the playing field is level, so if there’s a difference in outcome, it can only be due to white men interfering somewhere. You racist motherfuckers are sneaky as shit. Don’t come at me saying anybody can be racist either, guys like you invented the practice.”
There was so much wrong with it that untangling the mess seemed Sisyphean to Andrew. So he just quietly nodded, then asked what words he was meant to say. Something about how he was born guilty due to ancestral transgressions, but could be redeemed by acknowledging his fallen state. Aspects of it felt eerily familiar.
But as their numbers were few and every pair of hands was sorely needed, he went along with it in the interest of securing Melissa’s cooperation. In the process, he realized he should’ve done the same with Mark earlier. Avoiding his “trigger”, as Melissa put it. The ordeal proved educational at least, leaving Andrew with fresh ideas for how to achieve a bloodless resolution.
Sarah and Jeffrey arrived as the lookout posts were just being completed. Andrew and Melissa met them at ground level. “We found some weird shit while collecting the axes.” Sarah produced a ring of keys. “These were in what I think was a janitorial closet. One of them says office. This place has offices in it?” It seems to have damn near everything else, Andrew thought.
He asked Jeffrey to go looking for the office with him, but was rebuffed. “I’ve done enough today. My ass is sore from the scooter seat. I’m gonna go up to my bunk and spent some quality time with mai waifu if you don’t mind. You’re a normalfag so I don’t expect you to understand”. Andrew raised his eyebrows. Normality was not a familiar accusation for him.
Hugh was eager to help and hadn’t found the chance yet, so Andrew brought him. He was loathe to place any burden on the old man but also saw that he was desperate to be useful. So he had Hugh drive the cart while he piled lamps into it. Questions about what they were meant for met with no response.
Finally they arrived at a utilitarian looking stairwell bearing a sign above the doorway which read “Employees only”. High above, a row of one-way mirrored windows punctuated the wall at two foot intervals.
After a short climb, Andrew found himself before a locked door and set about working the rusty key carefully into the lock. “Would’ve been helpful if they’d taken better care of these” Andrew muttered, before wondering who “they” were in the first place.
The door swung open with a metallic creak, dust blown up from the floor now swirling about. The only light came from the windows. Flipping the switch by the door was no help, the bulbs were apparently burnt out. Rummaging around, he found only paperwork. All of it exactly as you’d expect from a bulk food store. Almost didn’t seem worth it to check the filing cabinets.
When he did, it took several readings to convince himself of what he’d found. Nothing about invoices, stocking schedules or employee benefits. Nothing remotely related to business. Instead, research records of some sort. Hidden in plain sight! What could it mean? He carried an armload of the manilla folders into the stairwell with him where there was more light to read by.
Log for attempt 4,093:
Provisions at 100%. Initial group of seven introduced to the habitat without incident. Socialization occurs, followed by frantic but fruitless searching for an exit. Group then organizes to procure survival necessities. Hierarchy begins to manifest.
One month in, provisions at 99%. Second group introduced. Now eight females and six males in total. Groups merge but later self-segregate by age, race, gender and ideology. Consistent enough with past attempts, the abundance removes most cause for conflict and thus smooths over their disputes. First childbirth occurs one year, three months in.
Two years in, the population is now 23. Provisions at 97%. Group cooperates to rear the children. Provisions are still ample. Group has given up on penetrating the barrier. Clear leadership established following a number of unsuccessful attempts to topple it.
Five years in, population is now 40. Provisions at 89%. Older children assist in tending to the younger ones. Section of the habitat now set aside for education, all available reading materials concentrated there. Another section set aside for medical treatment.
Ten years in, population is now 71. Provisions at 76%, mostly canned goods. Agriculture has begun as a means of replenishing the food supply but cannot support even the existing group.
Fifteen years in, population is now 126. Provisions at 54%. Baby boom resulted from second generation undergoing puberty. Some degree of social instability resulted. Nonetheless, provisions are still ample at 58%.
Twenty years in, population is 284. Provisions at 23%. In-fighting increasing as awareness of the accelerating rate of resource depletion grows. Only dried goods remain edible, along with agricultural products. Social aberrations such as increased general irritability, uncooperative behavior, sexual infidelity and crime have manifested.
Twenty five years in, population is 590, provisions at 8%. Aberrations have sharply increased. Females have become dominant, exhibiting remarkable aggression. Many have been observed terminating their own pregnancies in a bid to slow population growth. The males not able to successfully compete for females or defend territory have grown reclusive, focusing their energy on solitary pursuits such as hobbies, exercise and sexual self-gratification.
Thirty years in, population is now 44 having collapsed to only what agriculture will support. Provisions at 0%. Mass starvation and in-fighting has killed the rest. Population peak occurred at 612. Remaining specimens are psychologically and sexually maladjusted, indulging in elaborate delusions as a probable coping mechanism. Malnourishment has largely been remedied by the population decrease, but there have been no new births since then.
Thirty five years in, population is now 12. Provisions at 0%. Most common cause of death at this stage is suicide. Efforts to understand why this outcome always occurs are ongoing. Most simply stop eating, sleep most of the time and show no interest whatsoever in the opposite sex. Several have self-mutilated or tried to mutilate others. A non-trivial number of deaths were due to infection following the consumption of feces or sex with the deceased.
Forty years in, population is now 0. Provisions at 0%. Final two survivors leapt together from a shelving tower, fracturing their necks on impact. Speculation as to why a stable microcosm eludes us continues, this latest failure reinforcing the popular view that success is impossible. My own opinion is that this conclusion is premature. Work on resetting and restocking the habitat has begun.
Andrew flipped through the rest of the pages, but there was nothing more revealing. Just detailed accounts of individual behavior, descriptions of the process for resupplying the “habitat” with “provisions” and so on. He stared at the pages, mind racing, trying to make sense of it all. Who would do this to people?
The other group should know about it. Soon after that realization struck him, he heard Hugh cry out. Andrew descended the stairs in a flash, finding only the mobility scooter loaded up with lamps. No. No, no no no. FUCK! Had to be Mark. Who else? Rather than go alone, he first returned to the shelters to alert the others.
“They took Hugh? We have to go after them!” Sarah’s impassioned directive was met with agreement from Andrew, but caution and anxiety from the rest. “If we just charge in there, they might kill him. They took a hostage, so they must want something from us.”
After an informal vote, it was decided they’d go as a group after all. Mark’s group had already turned away Fran, everyone agreed Andrew would only piss off Mark if he went alone, and nobody else wanted to go unaccompanied. When they arrived, only Mark looked happy about it. Hugh sat before him bound and gagged.
“Let him go, Mark.” Sarah advanced on him resolutely. He blocked her way, brandishing a spear he’d fashioned by sharpening a mop handle. The second group cowered behind him, looking unsure of what to do. Andrew’s thoughts about all of this, having percolated until now, finally coalesced into a plan.
“Mark. Your beef isn’t with Hugh. It’s with me, isn’t it?” Mark flinched, but said nothing. “Look, I don’t know anything. I was just running my mouth. But you already knew that, right? There’s so much beauty and wisdom in the scriptures, I’m sure there’s got to be something to it all.” He looked confused, then suddenly angry. “Do you really think that’s going to cut it? That you could come here, sweet talk me and I’d join your herd of obedient statist drones?”
It was unclear what he meant by that. Andrew realized Mark hadn’t yet seen them vote, and in his mind there was no other possible structure than the one he’d forced on the second group. Anything seemingly different was, to him, some sort of ruse. “Look, we’re scared. You’ve got us where you want. Just tell me what you’re after.”
He subtly straightened his posture and puffed out his chest, then began listing demands. “You’ve built some nice shelters. We’ll be moving into those. Your people can even stay if they build their own additional shelters, but not you. You’ll be banished like I was.” Of course he’d actually banished himself, but it was hardly the time to say so. “Why not let us help you build your own?”
This didn’t satisfy him. “Yours are next to the only bathrooms.” For the first time Andrew noticed the various buckets lined up along one of the shelving units and surmised what they were for. That made sense of the stench, at least. Andrew sighed. “We can’t just give you our homes. Isn’t there something else I could do to make things right with you?”
Mark mulled it over. Then narrowed his eyes and smiled. “Kneel before me, and confess.” Andrew puzzled over that until he clarified his meaning. “Confess what you already know to be true, deep down. That Christ is Lord, and all man made governments are corrupt.”
With a new avenue now open to him, Andrew didn’t hesitate, falling to his knees and saying what he desperately hoped would do the trick. “Truly, I renounce my allegiance to Earthly government, and affirm from the bottom of my heart that Jesus died for our sins and was the son of God.” Mark appeared profoundly satisfied.
Then, the woman in the hijab called out from behind: “...And Muhammad was his final prophet!” Mark abruptly pivoted and shouted at her. “NO! We've been over this. Muhammad was a fraud and a pervert, misled by demons!” Khayrah steeled herself and set to arguing. “If you mean because he married Aisha when she was young, where in the Bible are such unions forbidden? Did not God come unto Mary and make her heavy with child when she was but fifteen?”
Mark sputtered indignantly, creating an opening for Khayrah to press on. “And it is written in the holy Qur’an that when Muhammad pointed to the Moon, it split in half! How can you explain that unless he was a true prophet of God?”
Mark now found room to get a word in. “Of course it says that in a book written by followers of Muhammad for the purpose of convincing people to become Muslims! None of that ever actually happened!”
Khayrah looked wounded and increasingly angry. “Oh, but Jesus walked on water? And multiplied bread and fishes, and healed the sick?” Mark snapped back that of course he did those things, as it says so right in the Bible.
“What, then, of the fulfilled prophecies?” Mark laughed. “Simple tricks! Most were recorded long after the fact as having been fulfilled. I can do that too! Say I were to tell you that ten years ago I predicted we’d wind up in this PriceCo. Am I a prophet? The rest are all stuff that’s vague enough to be true in any era.” Khayrah asked if that was not also true of the prophecies in the Bible. Mark scowled, then insisted that was completely different.
While they were distracted, Andrew snuck up to Hugh and untied his bonds, gesturing to the second group not to alert Mark of it. He soon noticed they were all staring at something and turned to see a freed Hugh standing among Andrew and the rest. “As ever!” he cried, rage boiling over. “The God hater and the raghead conspire against me! How fucking surprising!”
There’d been no such collusion, but again, it wasn’t the time to say so. Mark seemed ready to throw himself at Andrew for a moment, but after sizing up the first group he instead ran off into the vast maze of shelving towers leaving the second group frightened and bewildered. “We had nothing to do with it! He took your man on his own!”
Khayrah pleaded for forgiveness but was quickly assured by Sarah that they knew full well who was to blame. “He must’ve told you all sorts of terrible things about us.” She nodded, relating that he’d claimed they were cannibals. Sarah joked that veganism precludes cannibalism. Andrew then chimed in. “If it ever comes down to that, I know who I’m eating first.”
With the ice broken, the second group rapidly integrated with the first. Aside from Khayrah, there was Ernesto, Wanda, Natasha, Jordyn, Ralph and Domingo. With tensions now defused, they were all welcomed to come join the settlement and begin constructing their own shelters. “What about Mark?” Khayrah inquired. “Fuck him, let him go stew on his own” Sarah said. “We have more than enough people now, it’s no great loss.”
With everyone assembled, Andrew presented the folders he’d found. Stunned silence followed his recitation of the research log. “So it wasn’t demons after all. Some kind of twisted science experiment.” Fran objected that it could still be demons, just ones who perform experiments on people. “No, not demons I think” offered Khayrah. “Perhaps Jinn. They are known tricksters.”
Fran laughed. “Jinn? Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing. It was obviously demons.” Just as the two seemed on the verge of fighting, Andrew stepped in. “Could be both. Demons and Jinn! Betting on what happens to us. Or neither! Is that really important? We just barely avoided being pit against each other. Let’s not do it to ourselves.”
It proved effective. Andrew felt pleased with himself. Ever since the stairwell he’d been trying to work out how things went sour with Mark, and how to prevent reoccurrence. It seemed like everybody’s got some sort of personal indulgence that they want validated. Something they know is a trespass, either against rationality, social norms, or some other establishment. Some aspect of the world intimidates, injures or humiliates them, so they seek refuge in denial of it.
If you submit to their desire for validation, you become a wonderful person in their eyes. One of the good ones. Somebody who “gets it”. If you don’t, you’re just another one of the "sheeple". Monsters, kuffar, muggles, heretics, statists, shitlords or whatever else.
That small concession, to step into their fantasy and live it with them if only for a moment, is how you signal to them that you’re on their side. That you mean them no harm and unreservedly accept them, idiosyncracies included. A principle Andrew suspected must be intuitively obvious to everyone else, but which he was only now discovering.
“The way I see it”, he continued, “We could give up and try to make a go of it in here. But now we know how that turns out. I dunno about you but that’s not how I want to spend the rest of my life. Gorging on processed foods, living in a shelving tower, growing fat and disaffected. They’ve given us too much, knowing it will destroy us. That we’ll destroy ourselves.”
The rest nodded in silent agreement. “Or, we could focus all our resources on breaking through the barrier. There’s enough of us now that if we really got serious about it, we could be through in a year, maybe less. That’s what I vote for. I’m not a rat in a maze for some sicko playing God to gawk at. Alone or with help, I’m getting the fuck out of here!”
Ernesto, Hugh, Ralph and Domingo shouted excitedly, some thumping their chests. Jordyn, Khayrah and the rest cheered. There was a vote anyway, as many in the original group had grown accustomed to it. At first, it was proposed that everyone take a shift hammering at the wall. “That’s problematic” Melissa griped. “The men are more muscular and can keep at it longer without tiring out.”
Andrew asked if this meant that some people perform more or less effectively at certain tasks than others. She scowled and said something about socially constructed expectations causing men to exercise more. “I don’t want more work just because I stay in shape” Ernesto complained. “How can you call that fair? Fairness is when everybody gets treated the same.”
Melissa disagreed, defining fairness as everyone being assigned as much work as they can handle, and receiving as much as they need. Domingo pointed out that there’s a difference between fairness and justice.
“It doesn’t sound just to me either though. That would be everybody doing as much as they can, and receiving a proportional reward. If we all get the same reward but some of us have to work much harder, why should we?”
“Because it’ll get us out of here”, Andrew reminded them. “I might be willing to work harder” Ernesto began. “...If some of the finer ladies here cut me off a piece in exchange.” He wiggled his bushy eyebrows and laughed as the women lambasted him for suggesting such a thing.
Khayrah in particular found the notion repulsive. “Absolutely Haram!” she cried, face turning red despite her complexion. She pulled the opening of her hijab tight until only her worried eyes peered through. “Don’t worry Khayrah, we’re not doing that” Andrew affirmed. “Women are equals here.”
Melissa frowned, then spoke up. “What, because you say so? We need a cishet white male to declare us equal?” Andrew heaved out an exasperated sigh. “Fine then, you’re in charge. What’s your first decree?” Everyone turned to Melissa, who looked at the ground and fiddled with her fingers for a bit before muttering “Women are equals here.”
“What about money?” Ernesto suggested. It was swiftly pointed out that with no access to the outside world and an abundance of free goods around them, money was worthless. “Not if we lock up the really nice shit. Top shelf booze, smokes, porn mags, that sort of thing. Then we save up money from working and buy what we want.”
Melissa described the existence of such magazines as gross and problematic, and worried aloud that the whole scheme sounded distressingly Capitalistic, but everyone else voted for Ernesto’s idea. So it was that Ernesto and Andrew collected every scarce luxury and locked it away in the office.
There wasn’t enough cash on them, collectively, for the plan to work. Nor would anybody assent to using some other object as currency since there was just too much of everything and too many places to find it. But upon busting open the cashiers, there was ample money inside.
Based on the total amount, prices for various items were determined, and the makeshift economy was born. As the goods were finite, it was agreed money would be burned, locked away or otherwise taken out of circulation once spent. It was not a comprehensive, sustainable system but didn’t need to be.
It served a singular purpose, to motivate hammering. Which it did. The rate of progress steeply increased with the introduction of an incentive which rewarded everyone proportionally to the amount of work they put in.
Everything seemed to be moving along like oiled clockwork until the first theft occurred. Domingo erupted from his shelter one night, shouting angrily. When the rest gathered around him he claimed that fifteen dollars had been taken from his stash. His outrage rapidly spread as the prospect of the fruits of their labor being stolen frightened everyone, most of all those who’d put in the most work.
Tensions increased when Ernesto began following Jordyn around all day, performing what he seemed to believe was an infallible seduction routine. When it didn’t work on her, he moved on to Sarah. Then to Khayrah, who was least receptive by far. As the days wore on he grew more and more aggressive in his advances, and when Andrew confronted him he threatened violence.
“If you want to go find Mark and join him, you’re welcome.” Ernesto walked right up to Andrew, chest to chest, face inches from his and asked who would make him leave. Within a few minutes Andrew had gathered the rest of the men save for Hugh and the most abled bodied women. “Oh you’re real tough like that. Can’t take me man to man so you gotta team up, right?”
Andrew shrugged. “I’m uninterested in simian posturing. You’re making some of the women feel uncomfortable, and I have to take the whole group’s needs into account. I know it’s been some time since you got laid. That’s true for everybody. This place doesn’t exactly set the mood for that. We’re all scared, just banding together so we can get out. Don’t be the guy who makes it worse.”
Ernesto wiped his forehead, mulled it over, then began muttering apologies. He was, at least, not so stubborn as Mark. Even put in double shifts on the barrier over the next few days in an apparent bid to make good with everyone. During that time, many meetings were held to discuss what should be done about theft, stalking and whatever else.
It was decided that three teams consisting of one man and woman each would patrol the shelter area day and night. Their numbers were determined so that each pair could sleep for eight hours before their next 16 hour shift came up. It gave many of those not physically suited to hammering something productive to do, and a way to earn money.
Jeffrey seemed to take to it immediately. “This is just like Tokyo Private Police!” he gushed. Melissa, his partner, muttered that she’d never heard of it. “As an uncultured gaijin, of course you haven’t. Tokyo Private Police is among the finest examples of a superior art form called Japanimation by some, or “Anime”. Melissa went on about how he was culturally appropriating this or that, but he was too busy ranting to listen.
“In the future of Tokyo Private Police, the famous Ginza district has become a hotbed of crime. Noriko and Kayoko, partners with very different backgrounds, join the titular private police force inspired by traumatic encounters with crime in their youths.
To stand a chance against the criminals of Ginza, they must pilot police mechas! Which of course Yasuo has much more interest in than women, even though Noriko’s body is highly erotic.” He snorted.
“The scooters are like our mecha units, you see. We could encounter criminals at any time. Practice constant mental readiness like Noriko, and we may yet prevail.” Melissa looked horrified and did her best to bury herself in her hoodie, though Jeffrey took no notice of it.
Occasional friction between partners aside, the patrol system did the trick. There were no more thefts, and women reported feeling safer. Particularly after dark. “But there is more in the dark to fear than men” Andrew thought as he set up the lamps he’d gathered along the top edges of various shelving towers.
Of course, a whole new map had to be drawn up to reflect the changes. In particular estimations of how much floor space would be lit up. But drawing up new revisions was a matter of course by now. He took a moment to marvel at how much that used to upset him, and how little it bothered him now.
When everyone turned in to sleep and the lights were shut off, Andrew took his place in the lookout. An hour passed. He could hear somebody fucking in a shelter below but couldn’t discern who. Surprising it took this long, really. Once the noise died down and he was satisfied everybody had gone to sleep, he waited another hour, then sprung his trap.
Flipping a switch on a power strip, he activated the banks of lamps. They bathed the entire settlement in light. Except for the shadowed spots where unseen figures stood, just as hoped. The shadows turned in place to identify the source, seemingly startled by the light, then began to flee. All in the same direction. Andrew furiously drew lines on his map indicating where each of them ran, then flipped the next switch.
The next bank of lights came on, revealing their continued escape. They followed the wall for a ways, Andrew activating one bank of lights after the next to monitor their path until they entered a region of the store he’d not set up lights in. “Fuck”, he whispered. Even so, it was a lead. Somehow they were getting into and out of the place. Now he had some idea where to look for their point of entry.
“Shut those fuckin’ lights off man! People are tryna sleep!” Domingo shouted from below. Andrew obliged. Satisfied that, having been exposed en masse, the shadows would not soon return. Not that it made their apparent interest any less unsettling. On the way down the ladder, he locked eyes with Hugh. Evidently the only other person to witness the experiment. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. “Maybe he has”, Andrew thought.
The next day he enlisted the help of Jeffrey and Hugh to investigate the utilidor. They were the only ones who’d also seen the shadows, and so the only ones inclined to go along with it. All lines on Andrew’s map from the prior night appeared to head straight for it, though he’d not illuminated that much of the store.
Swinging by the modest toy section, Andrew picked out a remote controlled car, some batteries, and a length of kite string. “Can your game record video?” Jeffrey clutched it to his chest. “What are you planning? Nothing risky I hope. Mai waifu lives in there.” Andrew assured him the game would be recoverable no matter what.
Jeffrey’s game system was affixed with duct tape to the radio controlled car, string tied about the hinge between the two halves. After climbing a ladder to reach the top of the shelving tower adjacent to the opening, Andrew carefully placed the toy just inside, then turned it on along with the controller.
He teased the throttle, and the little car inched forward. A little more juice and it began crawling down the dark concrete channel as fast as Andrew deemed prudent. The string just continued unrolling from the spool as it went. Finally, as the spool was nearly depleted, it stopped. Had the batteries run out? Andrew fiddled with the controls, seeing the string jerk subtly.
“What’s the matter? Can you see anything?” Hugh bellowed up from the ground floor. Jeffrey reminded him it wasn’t transmitting video to anything, just recording it. “I think it’s stuck on something” Andrew called back. Jeffrey balked. “You said nothing would go wrong! You said Chisato-chan would be fine!” Andrew reassured him, then tugged on the string.
Another solid tug and the game system came loose. Rolling up the string as he went, Andrew reeled it back to the utilidor opening. “Oh Chisato-chan, I thought I’d lost you” Jeffrey blubbered as he tenderly held the game system to his chest. “When I swore on the honor of the Jade Dragon temple that I would cherish you always, I never-” Hugh cut in, urging him to play back the video already.
The three crowded around the device’s screen, watching anxiously as the car carrying it advanced down the utilidor. Light from the game’s top screen illuminated a couple feet of the utilidor ahead of it, providing some sense of how fast it was moving and how far it’d gone. Until finally, the obstruction appeared. Hugh covered his mouth with one hand. The other two just stared.
Little skeletons. Femurs. Spines. Dusty Little skulls. Hugh had to look away. “They...must have sent some of their kids through. The ones before us. Hoping there was a way out at the end of it.” Jeffrey took his game back, and closed out of the video. Silence followed as the three processed what they’d seen.
“We can’t show the others.” Hugh and Jeffrey gaped at Andrew, then began arguing about it. “No! Nothing that would discourage them. Just because the utilidor was a bust doesn’t mean we can’t make our own way out. Whatever happens, we can’t stop hammering. That shared hope is what’s keeping it all together.”
Sarah was the first to notice their somber demeanor when they returned. “What’s wrong guys?” She pried for a bit, but none would answer. “Whatever. Andrew, your turn on the hammer.” He looked at his watch, then headed for the barrier. When he got there, Wanda and Domingo were waiting. With Mark.
“We were on patrol and found him snooping around near the shelters. What should we do with him?” Mark laughed hysterically. “I still can’t believe you have cops now.” Domingo told him to shut the fuck up. Then asked if he and Wanda would be paid extra for catching him.
“Money too!?” Mark cried incredulously. “You idiots! Don’t you see what you’ve done? Missed your old cage so much that you built a new one around yourselves!” Andrew pondered that, but concluded that every step along the way had been a necessity. Things the whole group wanted for one reason or another.
Behind them, Ernesto was just finishing up his shift on the hammer. When he stopped and began trying to get their attention, at first nobody noticed. “Guys…” They only continued to bicker and interrogate Mark. “Guys?” More shouting and gesticulation. “GUYS!” Finally, they turned to see what he was making such a fuss about.
“There’s a hole…” They all brought their eyes to rest on the two inch by one inch breach at the very back of the excavation. Then a sudden stampede, all trying to be the first to peer through.
“Ey! Fuck alla you, I was the one that broke through! I should look!” It rang true. So they cleared away from the hole, and let him be the first. He pulled a penlight from his jumpsuit’s chest pocket and shone it through the little opening.
“Oh God. Oh God. It isn’t just blackness, is it? An endless black expanse we’re floating in? I had that nightmare recently.” Andrew reassured Fran such a thing was impossible. “It’s not just another store, is it? Or the bottom of the ocean? Or...Hell?” Ernesto took his sweet time looking, then finally spoke up.
“There’s a tunnel. Not a hallway or anything. Walls look like rock, not concrete. Maybe the ones before us dug this, but they sealed it back up before bringing us in. I dunno.” He cleared away and let everybody else take turns looking through. “Waste of time. Just a fuckin’ tunnel. No way to tell more until the hole’s big enough to get in there.”
A jail cell was fashioned for Mark from one of the units in the shelving tower. The next few days were a blur of frenzied hammering. Money was hardly necessary to keep them going at this point. All anyone could talk about was the tunnel. “If it’s rock, we must be underground” Wanda suggested. “But on which planet!” Jeffrey said, eliciting groans from the rest.
Jordyn was the first through on account of being the thinnest. Most of a day passed before she returned. Exhausted, dehydrated and troubled. “It just keeps going, I had to turn back. Slight upward grade, maybe it really does lead to the surface.” That was all the rest needed to hear. Another few days of hammering, and the hole was finally big enough for everyone.
“I’m gonna let you out of here. Don’t make me regret it.” Mark sneered as Andrew unlocked the makeshift prison. “Heard you finally broke through the barrier. Is that why you’re letting me go?” Andrew nodded. “Didn’t seem right to leave you locked up. Besides, the more people that come, the more food and water we can carry.”
“I’m not coming.” Andrew did a double take. “Pardon? We’re getting out! Look, all’s forgiven. I’m sincerely inviting you to-” Mark reiterated that he had no interest in escape. “I won’t go back. This is as far from the feds as I’ve ever gotten. And it’s got everything I need for the rest of my life. There’s no way I could buy my own bunker even close to as well stocked as this. The only problem with it was other people.”
Andrew considered all of it, then shrugged. “If that’s what you want”. He returned to helping the others prepare for the trek to the surface, leaving a disturbingly pleased Mark sitting just inside of his cell. Staring at Andrew through the bars, though the door now hung open.
After passing all of the gear through to Domingo and Fran on the other side, the rest crawled through the narrow opening one at a time. “Will they really let us leave?” Hugh raised a troubling point. “Maybe this was the goal. To see which groups accept their fate and which ones escape.” Of course Andrew had no idea, but it was appropriately encouraging.
Andrew powered on the hefty flashlight and, fighting back any sign of anxiety, led the rest into the unknown. Footsteps echoing through the rocky tunnel, mixing with the sound of condensation dripping from the ceiling. The pounding started less than five minutes later, reverberating back from the entrance.
Racing back in a panic, they found it barricaded. Someone, the only one it could be, nailing the last piece of lumber across the opening. Even as they pleaded, they could hear him sliding something heavy as an added obstruction. Then another. “Should’ve known. All the better I guess. Now there’s only one way left to go.”
So they walked. For hours. When enough were too tired to continue, they set up camp for the night, Andrew turning off his flashlight to conserve battery. Sleeping in a darkened PriceCo was one thing. This was something else entirely, but no other choice presented itself. The packs afforded some cushioning but it was nonetheless difficult to get to sleep.
By the second day, Jeremy’s game was out of juice. Melissa’s phone died soon after, so the two passed the time by bickering. The flashlight kept going, mercifully, as Andrew had thought to bring a number of replacement batteries.
Jordyn yelped once or twice, Ernesto calling out that his hand had accidentally touched her butt on account of the darkness. “Ahaha, my bad! Might keep happening, it’s dark yanno.” A good hard slap put an end to that, the impact echoing up and down the tunnel as they trudged onward.
By day three, the water was out and the food supply dwindling. There was serious talk about recycling urine. Melissa began crying, which only intensified with their hardships. Morale seemed on the verge of implosion when they finally arrived at a cavern of some sort. Andrew shined his light about.
The cavern was littered with skeletons. Some adult, some children. In one corner, a throne made from tied together bones with a skeleton sitting atop it, wearing a bone crown. Above it in chalk was written “Empire of the dead”. Its arms clutched a faded tome, seemingly made from aging spiral notebooks bound together with twist ties.
The beginning looked to be an account of their own first days in the PriceCo. Nothing Andrew didn’t already know, so he skipped to the end. “This is it. Our ‘Great Reward’. All my dreams of emerging onto sun kissed green hills now seem so foolish, so bittersweet. Our great faith, founded to preserve the hope of escape, is now revealed for what it is.
The Great Reward. Tears confound my efforts to write this, falling on the page and smearing the ink. We’ve eaten the children. The one thing that, even in our final days, we swore that we’d never do. I can still taste Kimberly. There can be no forgiveness for me, I’m resigned to that. Not that the others could restrain themselves either. That damnable hunger.
We might still go back. Those few of us left alive, bellies full of meat. Full of our sins. But what is there to return to? We left in the first place because we’d exhausted the food. A madman burnt the crops. Perhaps knowing something then about how things would turn out that we weren’t ready to accept.
Henry keeps at it with the hammer. The fool. There’s only a tunnel because the countless groups before us carved it out, bit by bit. It never actually led anywhere. The illusion of hope, tantalizing carrot dangled in front of a pack of jackasses. Desperate to believe it wasn’t all in vain.
So now it ends. We’ve made our own reward here, a cathedral of corpses. The next group will find nothing left of us but bones, just as we found the last. Maria keeps marking the passage of days, as though time has any meaning to the dead. Even now, I hold fast to the hope that little Jessica made it out through that vent. If all I could do was to save her, it will be enough for my spirit to rest.”
Andrew shone the light around the walls and ceiling, revealing endless rows of vertical lines meant to indicate the passage of days. At the end of it, a collapsed skeleton clothed in dusty rags, still holding the chalk. The rest passed the journal around, eyes widening as they came to understand the meaning of their surroundings.
“No” whispered Ernesto. Andrew sought to calm him down, but it was futile. “NO! NOOOOOO!!!” He found the skeleton holding the sledgehammer, wrenched it from the bony claws, then set to hammering at the furthest point of the cavern. “Ernesto, it’s no use.” Deaf to the pleas, tears of rage in his eyes, he kept hammering.
“Put it down, Ernesto. They tried. Hundreds before us. Maybe thousands. There’s nothing. There’s...nothing.” He slowed his swinging, then finally collapsed to his knees and wept openly.
The rest were coping no better, holding one another as the grim reality sunk in. Ernesto cried out in anguish, stood up again, then gave one last swing against the far wall as his final gesture of defiance.
Dust and some debris fell from the ceiling, and a thin ray of light shone through a crack in the wall. Everyone fell silent. It couldn’t be. Could it? Ernesto wiped the tears from his eyes, grinned, then erupted into joyous laughter as he resumed hammering. Sure enough the hole widened, sorely needed light pouring through the growing aperture. Andrew looked around one last time at the piles of skeletons. They’d been so close. If only…
Ernesto finished widening the hole enough to climb through. One by one the weary travelers, who’d until now believed their lives were at an end, pulled themselves through the opening. Into what, when their eyes adjusted, was revealed to be another PriceCo.