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It's what you can't see.

By Conor MarkoPublished 2 years ago 21 min read
Photo by Mick on Unsplash

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. It was a closely guarded secret – something Red Monica could never tell her family, or Red Alex – and she had only seen it once, when she was twelve. It was purely by chance. She was with her father, walking through the back halls of the habitat. They were picking up Monica’s mother from Yellow Block, where she worked. Passing The Director’s offices was the fastest way there, and her father wanted to hurry so they could get a good spot in the ration line. They were passing a bland, gray door when it suddenly swung open and a man emerged from the room inside.

“Red Stephen, I was going to send for you,” The Director said. Tall, pale-skinned, with hair to match. A few patches of brown still coloured the ends, but life in charge of the habitat had taken its toll. Like everyone else, his clothes were gray, faded from years of recycling. To Monica, he looked like a pillar of graphite, like the ones she heard the Bots turned people into.

“Director,” Monica’s father replied. He was the same age as The Director, but looked decidedly different. Squat and broad-shouldered, with a full head of jet-black hair and a tan complexion. But it was his eyes, green like chiseled emeralds, that set him apart. They had shone brightly during his time in the mines, illuminating his superiors to his talents. An eye for detail, and a penchant for problem solving – they quickly transferred him from mine surveyance to inspecting the magnetic products produced from it. Soon, he was monitoring their operation, too. And that was why The Director addressed him now.

“Come with me,” The Director said. “There’s a situation with the magnetic fields. We need your talents.”

“The fields? What’s wrong?”

“It’s the solenoids. Their fields are fluctuating wildly.”

“How much?”

“Enough that we can’t detect them for minutes at a time. Mostly on the West Wall.”

“Can’t detect them?” The Bots –”

“I know,” The Director said gravely. “And when the fields come back, they’re overcharged. It could set off an EMP. We don’t have time to waste.”

Stephen drew a breath, then turned to Monica. “Can you get to Yellow Block yourself?”

Monica hadn’t been paying attention. Her focus had been on the door The Director had exited through. For as it swung shut, she noticed a colour she had never seen before. It was blue – she knew that – but it was a shade that she could not describe. Unlike the fading paint in Blue Block. Unlike the shirts that block wore, more closely resembling brown than the colour it was meant to. She had seen it before in her tattered, reused school books, and instantly, Monica knew she had seen something no one else – save The Director – had laid eyes upon in their entire lives.


The window was high, nearly eight feet from the floor, so she could only see the open atmosphere above. She imagined that a million microscopic Bots swirled around that window, searching for a way through the silicon, only warded off by the magnetic field that fried them when they got too close.


She looked back at her father. The door clicked closed.


Red Monica was in her twenties now, and she hadn’t forgotten. Memory was a funny thing, though. Like mixing paint colours, the memories gradually faded into gray and brown, and the sharp edges of the window softened in her mind’s eye. Thinking about it now, she could only visualize the stark sapphire quality of the real sky for a fleeting second. Then it was gray like the habitat, the one every remaining human called home. As the colours faded, so did the significance, and she found herself thinking of it less and less.

Presently, she walked the familiar path from Red Block to the main hall. Despite the name, little in the block still resembled that colour. A hundred years had passed since the habitat was built, but some could still remember. Supposedly every door in their block was a rich but subtle red, with clothes that matched. Some of their elders had passed down stories about life before the habitat. There was natural red all over Earth. Red soil, red animals. Even the sky turned red when the conditions were just right. Monica suspected they didn’t truly remember what ‘true’ red looked like, but simply imagined it from their faded memories.

But a century underground had choked those colours from existence. Chipped paint was too costly to replace. Ripped and torn clothes were recycled, blending mismatched hues together. Almost anything that came from the mines was already black or brown. The halls Monica walked through were dimly lit, with blank walls and spotless floors. She remembered a time when the lights had been brighter.

The main hall was bustling but hushed. People hurried to their day jobs, rarely stopping to make conversation. Even eye contact – chance to share a scrap of colour with someone else – was avoided. People moved quickly, heads down.

But today, things were different. Hearing a commotion, Monica craned her neck to see. Near the entrance to the mines, people were gathered in a line. Most looked like miners. Monica saw one carrying a large sign made of virgin paper – uncommon, but obvious because it was still white. MINES ARE NOT MASS GRAVES, it read.

Curious, Monica broke from her path and headed towards the protestors, who were shouting and jeering. One protester noticed her – a second of eye contact, brown and green wavelengths interweaving – and called her over.

“Blue Raphael, what are you doing here?” Monica said to the man. Raphael was a former teacher of hers. Since then, his once-blonde hair had completely disappeared but for a few wisps, and light brown skin tags speckled his visible skin.

“How could I be anywhere else, Red Monica? Have you come to join us?” Raphael smiled at her.

“I wanted to see what was happening,” Monica said. “I was worried.”

“Worried? Why?”

“It’s just…unusual to see.”

“And that’s why we’re here.” Raphael straightened. Monica realized that several people were regarding the protest with interest, though most were still hurrying along. Red fire ants. Blue butterflies. Yellow worker bees.

“We’re doing this to be unusual,” Raphael told her, gesturing to the other dozen protesters, “Because the status quo is killing us.”

“The status quo is killing us!” A protester echoed. People continued to walk by. Miners passed by them on their way to the mines, nodding or giving a thumbs-up.

“I don’t understand,” Monica said.

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Raphael replied. “The last protests were when you were a child. Things have been quiet since then. Indifferent, like the people that walk past. But conditions in the mines are such that we cannot stay silent any longer. People are dying. We demand a complete halt to mining until conditions are improved.”

“A halt? We can’t do that. How will we make solenoids to keep the Bots out? Where else can we find organics to supplement our food?”

“Did I teach you too well?” Raphael laughed. His teeth were a cruel shade of yellow. “When The Director arrives, he will say the same thing. And he’ll be right. But maybe, he’ll recognize that demands like this are to be taken seriously.”

“It’s…risky, Blue Raphael. I don’t know if I agree with you. Our safety is all we have.”

“Hmph. It’s in the name of safety that no one has ventured outside since before I was born. In the name of safety that we sacrifice what’s left of our population in the mines to hang on a little longer. For our safety, no ways in or out of the habitat. When is the last time anyone saw a Bot? The last time someone was converted? I cannot recall. The bots may not even exist anymore. The outside world could be flourishing, green as before.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” Monica said, but her mind was already drifting to that drab, familiar memory. Just a few hundred steps away. She could prove Blue Raphael wrong and stop this in a matter of minutes.

“What’s going on?” Turning suddenly, Monica came face to face with The Director. He was wearing his typical gray attire, but what struck Monica was the long chain around his neck, holding a large compass whose needle spun slowly. It was the compass’s face underneath, mostly. An especially rare colour in the habitat, it was a resplendent, fiery yellow. It had not faded in the slightest. Monica felt drawn towards the compass instinctually, could not avert her eyes.

The Director looked past her. “Blue Raphael. Really?”

“Really, Yellow Edward,” Raphael mocked.

“Disband this protest at once. You are endangering everyone in this habitat.”

“We will, once our demands are met. Until then, we will remain.”

The Director sighed. “. Blue Raphael, send these miners to work today. I will meet you tonight, and we will negotiate. Anywhere you choose.”

“Your office?” Monica blurted.

The Director turned to face Monica, whose face was rapidly turning peachy. His stare was cold, like graphite. “Red Monica, you should know better than to be here, with these people. Your father would have been ashamed to see you joining their ranks.”

Monica felt a torrent of violet shame washing over her, but Raphael stepped in. “Enough. Come to my home tonight, Edward. Bring your cadre, I will bring mine. But Monica comes, too.”

“What?” She said, surprised.

“As an impartial third party. A witness, if you will.”

The Director gritted his teeth. “Fine. Red Stephen was nothing, if not measured. Let’s hope his daughter is the same.”


Flatten. Trace. Cut. Align. Thread. Repeat.

Red Monica was a seamstress like her mother before her. Back then, they still had sewing machines. That was before the motors failed, and they ran out of parts to fix them. Now, everything was done by hand. The fabrics were usually hard, discoloured, and uneven from years of constant recycling, and good clothes were kept in the family as long as possible. Still, people were always in need of new garments, so there were a dozen people working out of the seamster’s offices, six days a week.

Flatten. Trace. Cut. Align. Re-align. Thread. Repeat.

From where she sat, Monica sensed movement in her periphery. Another long roll of drab fabric – this one with a decidedly orange tint – was dropped onto her pile.

She sighed. “More?”

“There’s always more,” Red Alex replied. He collapsed into another chair, face flushed and cherry-like. The only man in the seamster’s offices, he transported the fabric rolls as they came off the recycler in Red Block. Monica had worked with him for three years now, and either the fabrics were getting heavier, or he was getting older.

“I’m never getting out of here. I’ll need to come in on my day off to finish these.”

“Can I help you?” Alex offered.

“I’d rather have Bots helping me.”

“I could sew curse words into the seams.”

Monica laughed. Alex held a fresh piece of fabric flat while Monica traced the pattern. There was a languid green streak stretching across the top piece. “I’m meeting The Director and Blue Raphael tonight.”

“Really?” Alex asked. “What do they want from you?”

“They said they want me there as a mediator.”

“That’s funny. I didn’t think those two had much to disagree on.”

Monica took a rusting pair of scissors from the desk and started cutting the shape of a long-sleeved shirt. “Didn’t you hear about the protest earlier?”

“No, what happened?”

Monica told him about her morning, continuing to cut while Alex looked around in the lacking light for another spool of thread. The green streak in the fabric fell to the floor.

“Here I was thinking Blue Raphael toed the line,” Alex said when she finished, handing her the spool. “But I’ll bet my rations that nothing changes.”

“That’s pessimistic.” With a needle, Monica began to manually sew the two pieces of fabric together. “It’s an important matter.”

“It’s a distraction from the real issue.” Alex started gathering up the fabric that had fallen to the floor around them.

“Dying workers aren’t a real issue to you? You know my father died at his job, right?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Alex sighed. “I’m sorry, that was crass. People dying down here is always an issue. But we need to change our focus.”

“What do you mean?”

“Blue Raphael. The Director. The director before him. Always so concerned about the internal issues. What about the external ones? Why don’t we try to get out of this place?”

“Do you have a death wish?”

“The Bots got out of control over a century ago. Since then, we could have invented a portable magnetic field. Found a way to grow plants outside the walls, where they could get real sunlight. Instead, we just build more solenoids than we’ll ever need and eat reprocessed carbon that’s gone through a thousand people before us. Why?”

“Better than being processed into graphite by Bots,” Monica countered.

“Who says Bots even exist anymore?”

Monica almost missed a stitch. “And I thought what you were saying before was crazy.”

“Think about it, Monica. They converted all the people, all the animals, all the plants. All the microbes, into a sea of graphite. And then say say that the remaining Bots have been swirling around us since then – without fresh organics to replicate themselves – just waiting for a way in. I don’t believe it.” Alex shook his head, gathering up the last of the fabrics. “And the habitat has no way in or out. Can’t even see outside. For all we know, the Bots rusted and the world is recovering. And we’re just sitting here, dying out.”

Alex left the room with the fabrics. Monica continued sewing, but her work was sloppy. Her mind was far away.


Blue Raphael’s home was typical of others in the habitat. A washed-out, cramped dwelling with low white ceilings and a sorry attempt by the owner to bring a little colour into it. Drawings from past students adorned the walls, and a faded blue linen lay on the circular dining table. Blue Raphael sat at one end. The Director had also elected to come alone, sitting on the opposite side. Monica sat between them.

The discussions had been ongoing for some time now, and Monica was not making sense of it. The Director and Raphael were going into explicit details. While they argued about power loads and rock compositions, she kept losing herself in her thoughts, unable to focus. She was drawn back to The Director’s compass, hanging around his neck. The needle spun periodically as the solenoids around the habitat fluctuated. At times, it would turn sharply due West. Odd. She tried to remember how compasses worked from her school days. There was a magnet in them, right? Must be a strong magnet to overcome the fields permeating through the habitat. Why would he have something like that?

Then she understood.

“There’s a way out.”

The Director froze midsentence. “What?” Blue Raphael said.

“The Director has a window in his office. I’ve seen it.”

His gaze was black with fury, but The Director stayed composed. “We have you here to arbitrate, not to send us off-topic.”

“Wait. Please go on, Red Monica,” Blue Raphael encouraged.

“When I was younger, I saw inside. My father probably saw it, too. I saw a blue sky,” she said, gaining confidence as she spoke. “That’s why The Director wears his compass. It has a solenoid attached. If the habitat crumbles, it’ll protect him from the Bots. He might be using it to go outside already. Watch the needle!”

The Director instinctively closed a whitening hand around the compass. It was akin to admitting guilt.

Blue Raphael was already on his feet. “I couldn’t see through you, but I knew Red Monica would,” Raphael said. “Mark my words, Yellow Edward. The entire habitat will know of this by tomorrow.”

“Wait,” The Director said. “Please. The world outside is still dead. Let me show you. We cannot tell them.”

“How can I believe a word you say?” Raphael spat. “Leave my home.”

Gritting his teeth, The Director stood. “To think a man like you could be so foolish.” He turned to Red Monica. “And you, as well. If Red Stephen knew –”

“He did, but he kept quiet,” Monica interrupted. “I won’t do the same.”


The next day, the protesters were back in the main hall, but the energy was different. Palpable, hanging in the air like thick black smoke. Now there were thirty protesters, from all blocks and occupations, blocking the entrance to the mines. Protesters shouted, snarled, blue in the face. More people stopped to regard them. Some even joined in. The protesters carried new signs, all on virgin paper, that read the same thing: THERE IS A WAY OUT. Security and administrative staff were assaulted when they tried to intervene.

The Director did not show his face for days. As the protesters grew in number, some posited that he had already escaped through the window, and was living free on the outside. The Director, who was still within the habitat walls, sent security guards to break up the protests. They disbanded the protesters, but they only came back in increased numbers the next day.

Red Monica did not participate. She simply went to work, sewed until her hands ached, and went home. She took side routes whenever she could. Eventually, protesters spilled out of the main hall and began protesting anywhere they could. The Director tried to implement rolling curfews in the habitat, but was met with strong opposition. Red Alex started showing up to work late, bags under his eyes and bruises on his arms. No one asked, but Monica knew where he’d been.

Two weeks after the meeting between The Director and Blue Raphael, the head seamstress approached Monica’s workspace. “Go home, both of you,” the seamstress said.

Monica paused. “What? Why?”

“The Director ordered a general lockdown. Someone died in the main hall today. It’s getting worse and worse.” The seamstress looked distressed. “If you see Yellow Adriana, tell her to come home. I fear she’s at the protests, too.”

Monica and Alex left together, but Alex suddenly took her arm. “Come with me. Let’s go to the main hall.”

“Are you crazy?”

“They might need our help.” He pulled her along.

It seemed the entire habitat was packed into the main hall. On one side, protesters raged in crimson fury, churning as they came up against the stone-faced security, who had formed a defensive line in front of the administrative halls. It was a powder keg, and all it needed was a tiny, orange spark.

It was just as Alex and Monica were arriving that the fuse was lit. A protester near the security line lost her balance. As she stumbled, a security guard pushed back mightily. She fell hard, back into the crowd. It set off a chain reaction, and suddenly several people were falling, being trampled, and those that kept their footing were moved to respond. Quickly, the protesters closed the gap between the security line and crashed down upon them, beating them with feet and fists. After a moment of confusion, the guards rallied and hit back, clubs and tasers swinging wildly. The first gunshot sounded, though it was unclear who instigated it. The entire hall plunged into a bloodthirsty frenzy, and more shots soon followed.

“They’re going to kill everyone!” Alex snarled. “If I’m going to die in this place, I want it to be here.”

“You don’t have to,” Monica urged him. “I can get us out of here.”

Alex looked back at her. “You know where the window is?”

It dawned on Monica that, shrewdly, Blue Raphael had left that detail out when rallying his protesters. “Of course. I’m the one who found it. Follow me.” She took him by the hand, pulling him through the back halls to The Director’s office.

When they finally came upon it, they discovered that they were not alone. A small group of rioters had broken through the lines and were in front of his door, melee weapons in hand. Monica recognized one.

“Blue Raphael!” she shouted. Monica saw recognition in his eyes, interlaced with fervent bloodlust.

“Monica,” he replied. “You’re just in time.”

“What are you doing?”

“This coward has been hiding in his office – assuming he’s even still in there. Once we break in, we’ll drag him out to the main hall, show him what he’s done to the people of the habitat. And then we’ll end his sorry life. Hmph. Yellow Edward. A fitting name.”

“Raphael, what happened to you?” She cried. “Please. This isn’t the way. You can stop this violence.”

Raphael shook his head. “Yellow Edward has to pay. All of these deaths are on his shoulders.”

Before Monica she could respond, there was a screech as The Director’s door swung open. Raphael turned, but several loud cracks rang out, and he crumpled. More cracks resounded, and two rioters fell down, one screaming. From all three, sickly crimson liquid poured out of them, slicking the metal floors with blood.

The remaining rioters lost their nerve and ran for their lives. Still in shock, Monica and Alex only stared. From the room, The Director emerged, rifle in hand. Pausing over the three bodies, she shot each one again. He locked eyes with Monica, then lowered his weapon and sighed.

“Director, I…”

“Don’t,” he replied. “This is it. We’re lost.” He looked back at the bodies. “The habitat will not survive this riot. And while I blame you for it, distracting Blue Raphael saved my life. It might save more, too.”

“What do you mean?” Alex asked.

The Director’s face was cold. “Rioters have reached the control room, and they damaged a solenoid. Any overload there could shut down the magnetic field. Or worse, set off an EMP.” He took a breath. “And that’s what I intend to do.”

“You’ll fry every electronic in the habitat doing that!”

“And every Bot outside, too. If you can trust me on anything, it’s this: the Bots are still out there. We don’t stand a chance against them. But you were right, Red Monica. There is a place.” He removed the compass from around his neck and draped it over her. As he did, she saw a small switch on the back of it.

“Go through the window. Run. Once you’re far enough from the habitat’s fields, turn it off. The compass will align with the Earth’s magnetic fields. Go West, due West, and you’ll find it.”

“Find what?”

“You’ll know when you see it.” He said it in a way that made Monica think he’d been there before.

“If I survive, I’ll meet you there.” There was a volley of gunfire from further down the hall. “Now go!”

Wasting no time, Alex and Monica ran through the door. They froze as the door clicked shut behind them. It was really there. The blue expanse that Monica remembered from so long ago. It beckoned, reaching for them, just beyond the window. It was shattered. The Director must have shot it, too.

They pushed the desk back, grunting with effort, until it was flush with the wall. Alex went first, bounding through the window quickly. Then Monica jumped, reaching the bottom of the window. Pulling herself up, she edged her way through the opening, avoiding the remaining shards. Then she was pitching forward, falling to the ground.

Thankfully, it was a short fall, and she landed unhurt. Getting to her feet, she saw her friend staring straight ahead. “Alex?”

Monica followed his gaze, eyes widening. A vast azure, larger than anything Monica had ever seen, sprawling endlessly before them. The blue sky above her was sharp, electric, a richer shade of blue than she ever thought possible. Below, the ground stretched to infinity. Brown, hardened soil, dotted with graphite specks as far as the eye could see. No trees in sight.

“It’s still dead,” he said finally.

“We need to go,” she urged him. “The Bots are probably all around us right now.” Monica looked at the compass, spinning out of control as the solenoids fluctuated. Abruptly, it stopped, and pointed directly West.

Monica gasped. “The field. It’s gone!”

Alex looked at her, but his face was already changing. Holes appeared in his exposed skin as the Bots surrounded and swarmed him. They descended, eating into his skin like starved dogs. Replicating themselves into tiny, carbon-silicon piranhas. He barely had time to scream. Before Monica’s eyes, he turned brown, then dark gray as the organics in his body were stripped of everything but carbon and rearranged into graphite lattices. In a few seconds, he was little more than a haphazard, semi-solid heap.

Monica spun and ran, unsure of her direction. As fast as she could move her undernourished legs, she sprinted away from her erstwhile home. She felt a stinging pain in her hand, gradually intensifying. She kept going, but could see the flesh on her hand slowly disappearing.

It was in her ankle, too. She bled this time, quickly losing her footing and tumbling to the ground. She came to rest on her back as the Bots continued to tear into her. Monica looked up towards the sky, the sapphire expanse that had failed her. She imagined the Bots now pouring into the habitat. Everyone she knew, quickly turning from living flesh into dead mineral obelisks. For all she knew, she was already the last human still alive. She closed her eyes, turning off the magnetic field on the compass to speed up the process. Let them take her eyelids first. It wouldn’t matter soon enough.

And then there was a rumbling, shaking the ground. She reopened her eyes instinctively, and saw the sky had turned into a shimmering, effervescent glow of colours, like oil on the surface of water. It disappeared instantly, and all was still. Slowly, she turned her head to the side, and saw that her arm, limbs, though mangled, had stopped disintegrating. Small piles of graphite had coalesced below them. Some still remained on the openings in her skin, clotting her exposed veins. She struggled to her feet, wincing at the white-hot pain in her limbs. The Director must have set off the EMP.

Turning, Monica could still see the habitat from where she was. Large sections of the walls were caved in or missing entirely. She didn’t know where the main hall was, but she hoped it had survived. Switching the compass field back on again, it pointed Westward. Orienting herself, she began to walk.

Monica had never experienced day or night. The sun that seared her pale skin receded into a hazy orange, and the sky turned purple and eventually black, dotted with white stars and a shining moon. Her ankle and arm continued to close and reopen, spilling precious crimson blood, but she walked on.

Through skeletal towns and broken roads. Past crumbling gas stations and dry riverbeds. All along, pillars of granite that had once been alive. The world was lifeless. She feared that Bots would swarm her at any moment, break through the field and complete the conversion, but none came.

Sometime in the early morning, as the golden sun was just poking above the horizon behind her, Monica found her compass pointing Northwest. Something more powerful was pulling at it. Monica switched off the compass, and it pointed a little more Westward. She followed the new field.

She came upon a circle of large pillars, a few dozen metres apart from each other. As she approached, she heard a low but distinct hum. This was the place. She recognized the material the pillars were made of. Magnetite. They mined it in the habitat. Her father managed their final products. Always more than they needed. Now Monica understood why.

Near the circle, a river flowed by, slow but clear. The soil beneath seemed soft, devoid of graphite. In the middle of the circle, Monica felt weak, and eventually collapsed on all fours. Her wounds reopening from the impact.

As she gazed around, vision swimming, Monica focused on something peculiar. By her bleeding hand, there was a small variation in the brown soil. A nearly imperceptible cluster of verdant, roughly rectangular objects, glowing brilliantly as the sun shone upon them. Monica almost laughed. So insignificant, but yet, unforgettable. Grass.

Monica thought about her father. She had a sneaking suspicion she had passed him on the way here, one of the graphite pillars coloured with tan manganese and other minerals left over from conversion. Maybe he had seen this grass before, years ago. He could have planted it.

Looking back up at the sky, Monica imagined the blood leaking out of her, leaching into the soil, providing it with the precious organics it yearned for. A gentle breeze rolled in, cooling her sweating face. Her decomposing body would provide enough for an entire grove of grass. If the field stayed on, the grass would see seasons come and go, years pass by. But they would not die.

For a final time, she closed her eyes. In the habitat, she usually saw black. But the immaculate sun, the light reflecting off the palette of colours she could see, painted a rainbow of colour in her mind’s eye. Colours she had never seen before, had never known existed. She bit her lip, quivering, desperately willing the colours to stay. But gradually, her eyes adjusted, and the world was again dark and colourless.

Sci Fi

About the Creator

Conor Marko

Conor Emerson Marko is a writer and musician based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He won the Vocal+ Fiction Award for his first publication, "Pareidolia".

More work forthcoming.

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