Living in Color
Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian Short with a Heart-Shaped Locket
Her eyes traced every line for the thousandth time as her finger moved across the silky, smooth back of the locket. The deeper etchings remained constant while the finer details appeared and disappeared depending on the angle of the light.
Even though the tarnished metal was as monochromatic as the world around her, Thalia still had vague memories that flowers like the three carved here had borne beautiful, vibrant colors. She used to be able to recall colors like that, but they mostly had faded along with many of their names. Over time, she’d begun to question the truth of those dwindling memories.
Tilting the locket again to catch the harsh artificial light above her, the leaves and container around the blossoms seemed to pop out and beg her to reach for them. As always, she wished she could, thinking that if she could reach in and rescue them, she would be able to remember what green looked like or what the words “purple,” “red,” and “blue” really meant. But sadly, the etched lines were bound to the heart-shaped locket and destined to be colorless.
Slipping her dirty, ragged fingernail between the delicate heart halves, Thalia gently pried it open. Just like every time, she momentarily imagined she’d find some treasure within only to be disappointed at remembering that anything that might have once been there had long since gone missing.
Gingerly snapping the locket shut, she looked up as alarms went off throughout the complex and the lights dropped to half power. She hastily stuffed the tiny heart in her pocket and hurried to dress and make her way to the gathering hall.
Upon entering the corridor, she was quickly swept up in the current of drably dressed survivors. Looking around her as they moved as one, she was reminded that as crowded as this felt, there used to be more. After this new alert, that number was sure to dwindle again. It always did.
Thalia had not yet been called up to service. For years, she been considered too young, but now that she’d turned 16, it was possible that this time she would be. As each alarm blast came in its predictable cadence, that possibility evoked both excitement and dread.
It had been 10 years since the world had changed, so it had been that long since she’d seen anything beyond the same gray concrete walls that surrounded them day and night. She was curious to see the world above with her own eyes—not just in photographs and scans she’d seen during her training that showed nothing but desolation and crumbling remnants of what once had been “civilization.”
Because of that training, she knew going up to the surface was her survivor’s duty, but it was also a risk. Not everyone came back. The leaders weren’t forthcoming with why some surfacers didn’t return and why some did. The ones that returned didn’t share much about their experiences either.
As she and her corridor companions spilled into the large, open room, Thalia glanced up at the raised platform from which the leaders would announce the group going to the surface. It was the same every time the alarms sounded. A dust storm was rolling through on the surface. Once it settled, a team would be sent up to explore and scavenge what the winds had uncovered.
It had been on one such exploration that her mother had found the locket and brought it back for her. It had been one such exploration from which her mother had never returned. By her account, that had been more than two years ago. Thalia’s father hadn’t even made it underground at the beginning.
Leader Antonia’s clear voice rang out above the assembled survivors and brought her focus back to the present. “Thank you for your willing attendance this evening. As you know by the alert, another great wind has come, and with the great wind comes change, and with change comes new discoveries. When the great wind subsides, we ask you who are called to honor your community by voyaging to the surface for the benefit of all the survivors. Your training has prepared you, and we are blessed by your commitment to humanity.”
Thalia looked around at those gathered, but everyone remained silent and listening. She vaguely remembered the beginning when there had been dissent, arguments, talk of rights, and unwillingness to be forced onto the surfacing team. But now those who remained had grown to accept these events and expectations as part of basic survival.
Leader Martin began reading off a list of names. Some Thalia recalled having heard before, including a boy she knew from Block C; some she was hearing for the first time. When she heard, “Renastere, Thalia, Block B,” her heart and eyelids fluttered, but she remained still and silent, trying to control her reaction while mentally preparing herself for what would come.
When the list ended and the leaders retired, the population began to disperse. Some milled about with others while some retreated immediately back to their quarters to await the call to duty.
Thalia had no desire to talk with anyone and turned to go. As she reached the corridor for Block B, she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned. Simeon, the boy from Block C, had come to find her.
“You were called… I heard,” he opened haltingly. “First time?”
She looked up into his face. It was a handsome face, she guessed. Pale like the rest of them from lack of sunlight, but handsome. “Yes. I just turned 16 last month.”
“You scared?” he asked, his eyes more empathetic than teasing or challenging.
She thought about that for a moment. Was she scared? Going into the unknown was potentially frightening, especially considering she’d been nowhere else but here for 10 years. But as she considered his question, she decided that she mostly felt glad for a change in routine.
Meeting his eyes, she answered honestly, “No, not really.”
He smiled brightly at that, perhaps impressed by her resolve. “Glad to hear it. I’ve been up once before. As long as you keep to the rules, you’ll come back just fine.”
The rules, her mind echoed. She knew those rules by heart from her years of training:
1. Don’t wander off from your squad.
2. Call for assistance if you find something.
3. Don’t remove any part of your suit.
As the commandments finished resounding in her memory, Thalia smiled at Simeon and thanked him for his reassurance. Bidding him goodnight, she made her way to her quarters and began waiting for the storm to subside.
It was two days later when the surfacers were brought up to the antechamber and given equipment and instructions, reminded of the rules yet again, and sorted into squads.
Simeon smiled at her when they were placed in the same squad of five, and she tried to smile back, but it was weak. She’d learned that making strong connections led to heartbreak when that someone didn’t come back. As such, she turned her attention back to the leaders as they wished the squads well, then the doors opened with a loud alarm.
Thalia’s eyes went wide as she took her first steps out of the safety that had been her world for so long. The landscape was like the pictures she’d been shown—barren, dusty, dirty, rocky with no hint of color beyond browns and tans and grays. The sky above was even a whitish gray that felt cold and distant. All exterior sounds were muffled, and her world seemed limited to the helmet she wore.
Her squad leader’s voice came over a comm link, drawing her attention back to their purpose. Obediently, she moved with them to their assigned quadrant. Gripping the tools she had in her gloved hands, she selected an area near a ridge of boulders and began dutifully digging and scraping at the ground, in search of what she wasn’t entirely sure.
After about an hour of uncovering nothing out of the ordinary, the feel of her trowel against the ground changed. It was subtle. The sandy dirt had had a particular feel, but this was harder, more solid and reverberated like of metal against metal.
Looking down, she saw what her sense of touch had detected. Just beneath the surface of the dirt was part of a rounded metal object. Brushing more dirt away with her gloves, she assessed it as possibly a tube or conduit.
Although her first thought was to alert her squad leader, for some reason Thalia hesitated, telling herself she wanted to make sure it was actually important first. Lifting her gaze in the direction the tube might run if it were as she suspected, she realized that it led into the boulders ahead of her.
Standing, she slowly moved toward the large rocks then crouched to dig a little near one’s base. Sure enough, the same metal tube resurfaced here as well. She casually wondered if it ran behind the boulders, too.
Simeon’s voice sounded over the comm. He had found something. She turned to look in his direction, and the rest of the squad was dutifully moving toward his location. Thalia knew she should go as well, but the thought of having discovered something of her own kept her in place.
With the squad’s focus diverted, she climbed up onto the boulder and peered over to its other side. She gasped. She looked back toward the group and wondered if they had heard her, but they were still focused on Simeon’s find.
Turning back, she blinked a few times and narrowed her eyes, not believing what her eyes were seeing. There was color. Not only was there color, it was a small cluster of three flowers growing from the damp earth on a ledge perhaps four feet below her.
Green, she recalled happily as her eyes took in the hue of the leaves, and “purple” was perhaps the shade next to white on the delicate petals.
As her eyes welled up with tears, she climbed over the boulder and lowered herself onto the ledge. Crouching down next to the delicate little life, Thalia reached out her bulky gloved hand, but immediately pulled it back. The glove looked so ugly and clumsy and incongruous with the beauty of the little plant.
Even as she felt the urge to remove her glove, the third rule echoed in her brain: Don’t remove any part of your suit.
But why? she wondered for the first time since the rules had been instated. Why couldn’t she? The presence of this beautiful delicate flower meant that the air was no longer toxic. Hadn’t she been taught exactly that? How could it survive otherwise?
The logic of her thinking battled fiercely against the rule. Which one was right? She desperately wanted to reach out and feel the petals and leaves, but rules were in place for a reason.
Buzzing with the dissonance of her thoughts, she closed her eyes tightly and pictured the locket in her mind. Gently laying her hand on her other wrist, she twisted and felt the coupling cuff give way. She immediately felt a rush of air fill her suit and heard the delicate sound of trickling water.
She waited several moments for radiation effects. Nothing came.
Opening her eyes, she reached her bare hand toward the flower and laughed when she felt delicate softness of the leaves and petals against her fingertips. Joy washed over her as a tear escaped her eye.
“Thalia,” she heard suddenly and snapped her eyes to her left.
Crouched in a large conduit, with one arm extended toward her, was her mother—not as she remembered her, but vibrant and healthy and smiling.
“Mom?” she managed through a choked sob.
“Yes, my love. Come with me. Everything here is lies. Come and live, really live.”
Thalia reached forward and met her mother’s hand.