It isn't safe...
The Outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. Not that it was his room any longer… the dead forfeited all possessions, including bedrooms. But she still thought of it as his room. Except now she wouldn’t have to worry he’d catch her snooping through his stuff… she had full reign of the space and could do as she pleased. Any time she tinkered at his—no, her workbench—the ghost of him lingered in the air: motor oil, sweat, and sometimes, after he came back from a mission, she smelled the Outside on him. Alien odors, some smelling of spices used in faraway worlds while others were vaguely medicinal, like ammonia with burnt undertones. Alex kept the room dark, just like he had. Part of her enjoyed the dim aesthetic but really, it was a sort of camouflage and survival tactic. Strips of cardboard covered all the windows on the inside, barring the Outside from looking in, from discovering…
Alex’s right temple throbbed, heralding a hell of a headache. A cold icepick bloomed behind her eye, and she let out a hiss between gritted teeth. She couldn’t remember not having migraines, most of her worst bouts occurred during her younger years after they removed the device, and she remembered lying in bed in a semi-doze after her father gave her a pain pill. As she grew older, she needed the white oblong pill he’d tucked in her palm, “for your head” less and less. Keeping her eyes trained on the glass and the world Outside, Alex reached up, caressing puckered scar tissue. Luckily her brown hair—which she kept shoulder length, but usually wore in a ponytail—covered most of the damage. Ragged, chewed fingernails rasped over the ugly edges, dipping into the small pockets where the ports had been implanted, mainlining hormones and neurotransmitters directly into her newborn body, already molding her into an agreeable baby and future citizen. Only days after a doctor in standard issue khaki scrubs had inserted the thin black tubes through Alex’s skull, another doctor, her father—fallen like Lucifer, but from The White Coat Elite, rather than Heaven—violently ripped them away.
Sometimes at night the old wounds itched, making the inside of her skull feel as if insects with massive pincers nipped at her tender tissue, driving Alex insane but the alternative…
was worse than death.
Not that anyone Outside cared… they were happier than lambs fattened for slaughter, waiting in the pen, unaware of the murder of brethren taking place in the next building.
Squinting (unfortunately, genetics passed her over in the eyesight pool, unlike her brother who could spot gray mice wiggling through the dead grass in front of the building) Alex watched the amorphous blobs walking on the sidewalks in front of her building sharpen into human beings. Some wore khaki—the color of government employment and law enforcement—while others wore trim, tailored suits, and the more blue-collar types wore jeans. There were no bright colors, or clothing splashed with logos or brands (one of Alex’s favorite sleeping shirts was a ratty thing with a check and Just Do It on the front, not she had the faintest clue what that meant), or any displays of individuality. They were worker ants going about their business—mindlessly—pumped full of feel-good chemicals that kept them strictly in line.
Happy citizens were good citizens, always voting Yes on the party-line that kept supplying them with legal dope, keeping them evenly keeled. No one was the lone wolf amongst the sheep, protesting the loss of their liberty and freedom.
No one cared.
Why should they?
Chemical dependency was much better than dealing with the shitty parts of life—anyone could deal with the painful death of a spouse maintained on Dopamine and heaping helpings of Lorazepam. Suicide became unheard of; mental illness was declared eradicated. Psychiatrists had to go back to school since theirs was a dying field. No one needed them anymore… not when Dr. Feel-Good was in house writing prescriptions that dripped slowly into their veins.
Sometimes Alex wondered what it felt like to not care about all the hurt and pain, to handle it as if it were no more concerning than a stubbed toe or a late package.
What did it feel like to walk around in a happy haze while a family member slowly rotted in an unmarked grave?
Inside the abandoned, condemned building she called home, everyone felt all the punches real life lobbed at them: sons and daughters not coming back from missions Outside; suffering from conditions that her father could treat but couldn’t since he didn’t have access to the appropriate instruments or medicine ; and all the general bad luck that went with being alive.
She knew plenty about that.
Alex sighed and picked at her tattered cuticles, thinking of the times her brother spirited her away to endless grass prairies, completely devoid of humans, and taught her how to take care of herself: how to clean, load, and fire a gun… they’d worked on kill shots specifically and after enough practice, she could knock old tin cans off a fence nearly a quarter of a mile away. He taught her how to grip a knife and where to stab, and if she didn’t have any weapons other than her own two fists, her brother showed her what to do, how to break a man’s nose, shoving the bone fragments into his vulnerable brain. While those forays weren’t technically the Outside, it was out of the building her father refused to let her leave.
She knew she’d been out there once… Outside… but did it really count since she was only a month-old, unable to see more than a few inches away from her face?
Not that her eyesight mattered.
There was no way she saw shit that night.
Her parents made damned sure of that.
A dank gym duffle bag was her chariot, tightly zipped and secure in her father’s arms. A blanket papoose tightly bound Alex’s infant body—a fact she would have screamed bloody murder about as a tried-and-true claustrophobic, but they’d thought of that.
To cry, to be heard, to be caught…
They couldn’t risk it.
Just a small injection, a sharp needle puncturing through her soft baby fat, and Alex drifted off, pleasantly drugged.
Her father, until shortly before her birth, had been a brilliant scientist: an Md-PhD with access to a smorgasbord of pharmaceuticals. Not only that… he worked in gleaming laboratories packed with the best, most up-to-date equipment, and received unfettered funds to pursue his life’s passion while bringing bucko bucks home to his growing family.
His overarching goal—one of which he had a personal stake in since he’d discovered his mother hanging in her bedroom closet at age five, her swinging cherry-red high heels obscene against her dusky skin?
Curing mental illness.
As far as her father was concerned, her own grandfather—a brutish alcoholic with a thin, volatile temper and itchy fists—helped tie his wife’s noose, in a manner of speaking.
And with no suitable adult to beat the shit out of…
Bingo… daddio was on deck.
And as if home life wasn’t bad enough…
The world at large had also become a dangerous wasteland filled with abject violence. People toting AR-15s walked into elementary schools with astonishing regularity and murder ran rampant. The death toll in major cities far exceeded that of active military zones.
Law and order wasn’t exactly… well… the law.
And there definitely wasn’t any order, oh no.
Add in a significant portion of the population suffering from debilitating mental health issues… not surprising in the least given how the world evolved. Sitting in cubicles under fluorescent lights, no exercise, no interacting with nature, only concrete and asphalt. Shit access to health care. Unable to afford prescriptions of medications that might help, if they didn’t make the user more suicidal, people self-medicated with drugs, alcohol, whatever made them feel good for the briefest of highs…
The pharmaceutical industry ponied up mass sums of money to whoever could synthesize the best anti-depressant, mood stabilizer, or whatever made people feel wonderful. Make all the worries go away… all in the name of PROFIT. Not that her dad sneezed at the money—far from it—but he truly wanted to make the world a better place.
Her dad did it, fixed, no cured, EVERYTHING—going a completely different direction, eschewing injections and pills, instead inventing implants that fixed hormone imbalances and faulty neurotransmitters at the source.
A long time ago, she’d found a copy of TIME magazine that showed her dad on the cover, holding both of his Nobel Prizes, one in Medicine, the other a coveted Peace Prize.
But when he realized the implications of all he’d done…
It was too late.
“ALEX!” came her mom’s shrill tone from the next room, causing her to jump back, brushing against a cardboard flap sticking out and nearly pulled it away from the window. Blood rushed to her cheeks.
That could have been disastrous… all it took was one person staring at the crumbling building while waiting for the traffic light to change and even thinking they saw movement.
The med squads had been called for less. And she didn’t want their rough hands crawling all over her body before the injected a sedative into her veins. If she were lucky, she might die, but if she were unlucky—
She’d wake up with hardware installed into her skull, a mindless drone like the rest of them.
“What?” Alex yelled back, feeling a thin shred of annoyance worm its way into her stomach. Right after her parents snuck into the building, fleeing the Outside—dripping wet, rainwater plinking off the tips of the noses, fingertips frozen solid—they’d soundproofed the place. Shouting was okay, they wouldn’t hear a thing… being seen…
“Don’t ‘what’ me, young lady! Did you finish your project?”
Alex rolled her eyes. “I’m working on it, okay? Just chill.”
Her mom let out a heaving sigh, clearly audible from the next room as if she lamented producing such a lazy progeny. “Listen, Alex. You know how important it is that you finish that in time. Your father is going to the Outside and needs all the help he can get.”
Well… when she put it that way… Alex let out a huff and sidled to her brother’s workbench—no, her workbench—covered with random wires, battered tools, and even still, years after her brother’s murder, it reminded her of him. Invisible hands wrapped around her heart and squeezed.
She missed him… more than she ever could have imagined.
It had only been his third time Outside and he’d gained a cockiness because he knew what the “real” world was like. That morning he’d dressed in a pilfered med squad uniform. Mint green clung to his arms, revealing bulging biceps, and he’d zipped the silver hood over his head, hiding the fact that he didn’t have a medicine port affixed to the side of his skull. Unlike other people on the med squad, her brother’s emotions were his own: fear, courage, worry, pleasure. Anger… he had plenty of that and that was what got him killed by the man in a khaki special forces uniform who’d taken a special interest in their rebel cell.
Well… Alex had plenty of anger too.
And knew exactly what she was going to do about it ever since she overheard her parents talking.
She turned her attention to the workbench where a small nuclear-powered battery sat in the center. Last month, her father had tasked her with making a powerful yet portable magnet, a godsend when one was Outside. Something about the magnetic poles messed with medicine ports, causing them to malfunction, leaving their owner baffled, unable to manage raw emotions appropriately without the cocktail of drugs that was pumped directly into their bloodstream, influencing every single aspect of their life.
Sometimes people couldn’t handle it, seeing what life was like before all the mood-altering medical ports, and they lost their minds, plucking their eyeballs directly from their sockets, screaming hard enough to bring blood up from their vocal cords. Not that Alex had ever seen it firsthand, but she overheard people whispering when they came back from missions. A few times, her father brought someone from the Outside back, delicately managing their mental states with scheduled injections of Oxytocin, Serotonin, Dopamine, and whatever else he had on hand, nursing them out of their sheer shock. And once they detoxed from the constant onslaught of hormones and neurotransmitters that fooled them into being happy with their lot in life, they saw the true horror of the world as it was. They were nothing but placid sheep, manipulated into obedience, kept carefully fattened and content.
The Outsiders, The Perfect became like them, The Imperfect, once they their folly and joined the cause, supplying helpful intel about the world beyond Alex’s building.
Sometime later—hours if Alex went by the dim light filtering through the thin cardboard flap, her father’s magnet completed—Alex turned from the completed project to her special project. Red wires hung from its base, but she only need manipulate them a bit more for her purposes.
A few days ago, she heard her parents whispering about the mission when they thought she’d was long asleep. Alex had shifted on her mattress, wincing when the wooden frame creaked. She held her breath, hoping her parents didn’t suspect she was awake.
“He’ll be there, Laney,” her father said. She could tell by how he said it, who he meant. Fire bloomed in her chest and tears sprung to her eyes and she fought to keep her breath steady even though all she wanted to do was scream.
“What are you going to do?” Worry flavored her mother’s words although for what, Alex couldn’t quite tell.
Was her mother afraid that her father would do something to the man that killed her brother?
Or was she afraid that he would do nothing?
“What can I do, Lane? I can’t kill him and draw attention to our cell. We’ve made a lot of progress and I can’t risk compromising us, not now.”
Her mother murmured something low that Alex didn’t catch.
It was hard to hear over teeth gritted hard enough to squeak, filling her head with noise.
If her father was going to stand by and do nothing…
She would avenge her brother’s death.
As a child, she regularly followed the group to the last exit (or first entrance, depending on one’s point of view) when they went on their missions, and she knew the route intimately. She wouldn’t need a map. Under her mattress was a stolen khaki uniform that fit a little loosely, but it would serve its purpose. The uniform had a big pouch attached to the leg and she’d nestle the bomb within. Not that she was completely counting on the bomb to do her dirty work, but Alex firmly believed in having a plan A, B, and C.
Alex attached the last wire to the payload and as 0:00 crossed the screen, she smiled. All she had to do was get close enough to that khaki-wearing son-of-a-bitch…
And plant the damn thing on him if she so wished.
If she could get clear of him before triggering it, that was the best-case scenario. But if she had to blow herself away to kill that motherfucker, so be it. Although she would prefer the feeling of her blade punching through the evil man's sinew and bone, the knife's tip burying itself deep in his beating heart.
It didn't matter how she killed him...
She would do it with a smile.
About the Creator
Howdy! I’m an ER doc who loves horror, especially with a medical bent. Voted most witty in high school so I’m like, super funny. First novel coming out in Fall 2023! Follow me on Twitter @DrSpooky_ER.
Another great look into the makings of your very inquisitive mind! This could be the first chapter of a very intriguing book, someday maybe 🤔 even a movie!
You always approach your stories from a direction I wouldn’t think of. What a horrific world. I love this.