"Back World" is a serial thriller about a young couple facing an apocalyptic future.
A new episode will be published each week.
1 - Arrival
July 14, 2012
"Yeah, well I wish someone would slap me in the face and wake my ass up, because I've been having a bad dream since quarter-past Egg McMuffin," Celia's brassy voice said from just beyond Devin's intact right shoulder.
Dina closed her eyes. Unlike the hundreds of times in her life that she had closed them after being suddenly awakened, hoping to catch one more snippet of some dissipating but still alluring interrupted dream, she wanted no part of returning to the vivid nightmare she had just experienced. Instead, she was trying to allow her synapses one more moment to realign with reality.
"Where are we?" Dina asked before reopening her eyes again.
"E.T.'s outhouse," Celia replied, now on the move.
"We're not sure," Devin said.
At first Dina thought the buzzing noise came from within her own head, but as consciousness continued to pour into her field of senses, she realized that the sound was very real. She sat up from her place on the polished wooden floor and looked around.
The enormous room was bracketed on two sides by what looked like long brown stairs climbing nearly to the white ceiling more than 30 feet above. Sporadically embedded in the ceiling were translucent panels that allowed light into the room. Spaced between were caged light fixtures that stared down in darkness, as if the wire screens were trapping the light inside that should have been shining. Pipes and ductwork, also painted the same shade of neutral white, formed uneven grids around the unlit fixtures. At various locations around the massive ceiling, more dark pipes clutched glass rectangles, from which metal circles protruded. Each of the circles was adorned with what appeared to be lace doilies made of thin rope.
"We're in a gym?" Dina asked.
"Judging by the size, I'd say a middle school gym," Devin answered.
"Prison for pre-teens," Celia added, slowly circling Dina and Devin while never looking in their direction. Her hands occasionally squeezed into fists, as if she were missing her bat. Beyond her, Dina discovered the source of the buzzing noise.
The room was filled with hundreds of people talking in low tones while clustered in groups of varying size. Some of the people looked like scared and bandaged refugees regularly featured on TV by international charity groups, except these people were Americans. As she looked around at the frightened faces, she became aware of an almost palpable sense of fear and confusion. These people were afraid for whatever was coming next.
Seeing all the people before returning her attention to Devin and Celia, Dina realized that her own group was short by one.
"Where's...you know, we still don't know his name," Dina said.
"Stinky? Not here," Celia replied. "They probably have a special room for the psychos. Or maybe they're still scrubbing him down in the shower room."
Dina considered this.
"How long was I out?"
"Who the hell knows, in here. Damn clocks probably died with the first bomb," Celia said, nodding toward a caged electric clock on the far wall over a set of double doors at the end of the gym. The hands of the analog timepiece were stopped at 10:10, the same configuration that Dina remembered as the proper positioning of hands on a steering wheel: one hand at the 10 position, one at the two. "I've only been awake about a half hour, but my rumbly tumbly tells me somebody's turned the page on a Dilbert calendar. If I had to guess, we're into the next morning."
Dina noticed that Devin wasn't saying anything. She saw the familiar look she had seen on his face a thousand times during their courtship and marriage; the lineless, stone-faced look of her husband trying to figure something out.
"How about you?" Dina asked, breaking Devin out of his thoughts. "How long have you been up?"
"About an hour," Devin answered, now looking around the room as if in search of a familiar face.
"So why didn't you wake me?" Dina asked, coming to her feet.
"You know I like to let you sleep in on Sundays," he answered with a smile, finally meeting her gaze.
Dina looked around, trying to find who or what her husband was looking for.
"Find somebody you know?" she asked.
"The opposite," Devin said. "We're not from here, so we won't know a single person."
Dina wasn't sure he was giving her a straight answer.
"A-hem," Celia interrupted with a fake throat-clearing. "I'm still here."
"Okay," Devin answered. "We know one person. How about you, Celia? See any allies in the crowd? Someone we might be able to talk to, find out the lay of the land?"
Celia took a fresh look around the large room.
"I don't know," she said. "Let me wander around. I'm sure I'll bump into somebody I recognize. I'll be right back."
After Celia was out of earshot, Dina turned to her husband.
"Let me try again. Who are you looking for?"
Devin's eyes began scanning the crowd again.
"Something's missing," Devin said. "Or rather, a lot of someone's. Take a second to see for yourself."
Without knowing what she was looking for, Dina once again did a slow 360, her eyes jumping from huddle to huddle. She saw people of varying skin color and condition, often gathering with others of similar tones. None of the women were carrying purses or bags, and there weren't any backpacks in sight. As she completed her sweep, she realized that she didn't see a relaxed face in the place.
"Everyone's afraid," she said. "But that's to be expected. Also, it looks like this airline doesn't allow any carry-on luggage."
"Good catch," Devin replied. "No bags is a clue. These people aren't here voluntarily. It's a gym, a natural place for an emergency shelter. But that's not the case. Which means this is a holding pen."
"You mean, like we're cattle?" Dina said.
"Chilling thought, right?" he answered. "Couple of other things are missing. A city this size, with military bases nearby, you're sure to find somebody walking around in fatigues. But there isn't a single uniform in the building. No soldiers, no cops, not even a stray milkman. I've been looking around hoping to at least eyeball somebody with the stink."
"Oh, you're making fun of the homeless guy, now?" Dina answered with a smile, although her heart was beginning to sense there was less and less to smile about.
Devin smiled back, but it was less of a grin than she cared to see.
"Sorry, a term from my 'Gan days," Devin said. "My buddies and I used to joke that we didn't need uniforms to recognize our kind. You could just look at a guy and tell, almost as if they smelled like military. Called it 'the stink.' An instinct that came in handy when fighting a war where the other guy doesn't dress up in matching outfits."
"So you're the only former soldier in here," Dina replied. "Feeling lonely?"
"It's not a soldier thing," Devin explained. "It's an authority thing. Uniforms are rallying points for organization, order. When you're a kid and you get lost in a crowd, you're supposed to look for a policeman. When you're a grown-up looking for a particular item in a store, you look for the lady in the blue vest. No uniforms means nobody's in charge among the cattle. We're just a headless herd, which makes us easier to control."
"I think we all know who's in control here," Dina said. "The shock troops."
"Another thing that's missing," Devin pointed out. "Have you noticed any of the roly-polys since you've been up?"
Almost as if she had discarded the possibility of the aliens' existence when she threw off the shroud of her nightmare, she now recalled the visage of the electrified amorphous beings she and her husband had been running from before the unexpected nap.
"So if none of them are in here guarding us, what's to stop us from just heading through those double doors?" Dina asked, although she knew the answer before her own voice was finished echoing in her ears.
"You've seen the faces of the people in here," he answered. "Our guardians don't have to be in here."
Devin spotted Celia along the far wall next to the brown bleachers, talking with a burly looking brute with a beard. Next to him was a rail-thin guy sporting almost as many tattoos as Celia herself.
"One other thing that's missing," Devin added, as he saw Celia turning and heading in his direction with the other two men in tow. "I grid-counted more than 700 people. You know what I didn't find?"
"I know," Dina said, a terrible light coming on in her head as she suddenly realized what her husband was about to say. She turned to him, her face now looking like so many of the others in the room. "Devin, where are the children?"