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The Wanderer

The Window to a Dead World

By Matthew PerrinoPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 23 min read
7

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.

Adriana lied on her back, her long, dark hair sprawling across the cold, steel floor. Like all 246 people in B302, she was dressed in a navy jumpsuit. The seventeen-year-old gazed out the window. She'd been coming to this room for a decade now, and yet the sights beyond it still enchanted her. She gave a smirk, recalling the days before she'd learned the truth--when she had known this place as only the Forbidden Room.

When she was a young child, Adriana would watch her father's large, bulky shape approach the Forbidden Room inside their dormitory. Like everything else in their world, the door was made of steel. Her father, Logan, would punch in a code and the door would slide open, offering Adriana a glimpse of what was inside. The tiny room held only a steel ladder. It was bolted to the ground and rose up to the ceiling, out of Adriana's sight. What lied beyond this ladder, at the time, was a mystery to her.

"Father, what's up there?" the young girl had asked numerous times.

And each time, her father's response was the same. He would stand in the doorway--his back to his daughter, the fluorescent ceiling lights catching on his bald scalp--and give a despairing sigh. Although she couldn't see his face, Adriana knew that the lips under his bushy mustache were curved into a frown. "When you're old enough to understand, I'll show you. But for now, this room is forbidden." Then Logan would vanish inside, and the door would slide shut behind him.

The mystery of the Forbidden Room tugged at Adriana's curiosity. The door was always there, at the center of their home, taunting her, beckoning her. Most times, her father went up there alone. Other times, he was joined by friends or colleagues, mostly Committee members. A few times over the years, Adriana had disobeyed her father's orders and had tried entering the Forbidden Room when he wasn't around. But she was never able to crack her father's code.

On her seventh birthday, Adriana watched Logan open the Forbidden Room as usual. But this time, he paused, glanced at her from over his muscular shoulder, and said in his gruff voice, "It's time to show you the truth. Come."

Adriana was so stunned by this invitation that it took a few seconds for her to move. Once she had snapped out of her trance, she rushed to her father's side and joined him inside the Forbidden Room. Adriana hurried to the steel ladder, to that object of mystery and wonder, and peered up. The ladder extended about thirty feet through a narrow tunnel and then--nothing. It simply ended at the ceiling. The only other thing to see was a faint light, which illuminated the tunnel above.

"You climb first," Logan instructed her. "Don't be afraid. I'll be right behind you."

Fear was the last thing on Adriana's mind. All that time she'd spent wondering what secrets lied at the end of her father's ladder, and the answer turned out to be a disappointing nothing.

Frowning, Adriana climbed through the narrow tunnel and up the ladder, one steel rung at a time. The ceiling crept closer and closer, that faint light glowing brighter and brighter. And as Adriana neared the end, she saw that the light was coming from a large, square opening in the tunnel wall. Her father's ladder didn't just end at the ceiling (which was actually further away than it had appeared from the ground). It led up to this opening.

Adriana hurried to the top of the ladder. Panting from both exhaustion and excitement, she peered over the very last steel rung and into the square opening. It led into a spacious room with a low ceiling. As usual, the room was made of steel--except for one part. It was a rectangular, glass window, shimmering with that faint light. And beyond it was a sight unlike any that Adriana had ever seen.

The two of them climbed off the ladder and into the room. Adriana was short enough to avoid the low ceiling. Logan, however, had to walk bent over. The pair sat side by side on the cold, steel floor and gazed out the window, its faint light shining upon their faces. Adriana's eyes bulged with wonder. "What's out there?" she muttered.

"That," Logan began softly, "is the world we come from. Where all of humanity comes from. As you know, many years ago--nobody knows when exactly--humanity lived on the surface of the planet. It was an infinite world back then, much larger than the one we know now."

"Yes, our teacher told us all about the Old World," said Adriana. "She said there were green lands and blue bodies of water that stretched as far as the eye could see. She said there was so much life: millions of people, and animals, and plants, all living together across the world."

Her father nodded. "The people of the Old World breathed fresh air and bathed in natural light. That's what's shining upon your skin right now: not artificial light, like what you're used to down here, but natural light. But the people of the Old World were foolish and selfish. Rather than protect the planet and its future, they wasted its resources and killed it with technology. The result of their mistakes is what you now see before you." Logan motioned to the world outside his window. "Deadly toxins filled the air, casting that light fog permanently upon the surface. The green lands withered away and became barren, turning them all into this desert wasteland. Many living things perished, as you can see from those dead, black trees. But not humanity. What remained of us hid in steel, subterranean bunkers like this one."

Adriana's jaw dropped. "You mean there are other underground bunkers out there, filled with other people?"

"That's right. Our bunker, B302, is likely one of many. Nobody knows how many bunkers exist or if their people are still alive. Unfortunately, communication with the other bunkers was lost a long, long time ago. As far as we know, the 246 people in our bunker are all that's left of humanity. And this window--this is our last glimpse to what's left of the Old World."

"Don't people in other dormitories have windows?"

Logan shook his head. "This is the only one. And only the President of B302 is allowed to live in this particular dormitory. I suppose B302's builders felt that its president should have some kind of access to the outside world, even though it no longer exists."

Adriana set her palm against the glass. "Can it break?"

"Of course, though it would take a bit of effort. But don't worry--if the window were to break, which would never happen, there's an emergency system in place to protect us. The doors below would shut automatically, sealing off the tunnel and containing the toxic air inside it."

From that day on, the Forbidden Room was no longer forbidden. The Observatory, they called it now. Logan shared its code with Adriana, which allowed her to visit the window as often as she liked.

Ten years had passed since that conversation. Adriana visited the Observatory frequently (and was still short enough to avoid the room's low ceiling). She would lie on the floor, just like she was doing now, and stare longingly at the Old World. There was something beautiful about those sandy dunes and black, skeletal trees. Something peaceful about the silence of its vast emptiness and--

Adriana suddenly bolted upright, her eyes wide with shock.

She had just seen something move beyond the window.

Adriana crawled closer to the glass and pressed her face against it. She stared hard at the fog, searching, waiting for another hint of movement. Perhaps she had imagined it? She must've. The Old World's air was tainted with lethal toxins. Nothing alive was out there.

But then Adriana saw it again: a dark shape, moving in the light fog. It seemed to be heading this way. And as the dark shape approached, its features became more refined. Adriana could make out two legs, two arms, a body, a head. It was a person. Nothing more than a silhouette, a shadow, but most definitely a person.

Adriana was frozen with disbelief. For ten years, she'd been staring out this window and had seen only sand dunes and fog. Now there was a human out there, where no life was supposed to be, wandering the Old World. She gaped at the silhouette, her mouth open.

And then the shadow turned in her direction.

A chill went down Adriana's spine. It was hard to tell with the fog, but this person seemed to be looking at her window, looking at Adriana.

Heart racing, she scurried to the ladder and called out for her father. Her panicked voice carried down the narrow tunnel and through the dormitory. Her father immediately came running. "What is it?" he called from below. "Are you OK?"

"You have to see this! Hurry!"

Adriana watched her father's large body hustle up the ladder. Panting, he entered the Observatory. Adriana grabbed one of his oversized hands and led him to the window. He followed behind her, keeping his bald, sweaty head low to avoid the ceiling. "Look!" she cried, pointing frantically with her free hand. "Look out there!" Together, she and Logan gazed out the window--and saw nothing. Nothing but sand dunes, skeletal trees, and fog. Confused, he turned to his daughter for answers.

"I saw someone," Adriana explained through heavy breaths. "Through the window. There was a person out there. In the Old World."

"The Old World is abandoned, Adriana. You know that. No one has been out there for centuries."

"But I saw them!" she cried. "They were walking around, and then they looked right over here! Right at the window!"

"The outside atmosphere is toxic, uninhabitable. A human being wouldn't last more than a few seconds out there." Her father gave a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry, Adriana, but what you saw is impossible. You must've imagined it, and I don't blame you. You know how many times I've gazed out this window and imagined seeing life out there? More times than I can--"

An unexpected sound from the outside world, where no sound was supposed to be, cut off Logan's words. Startled, Adriana and her father turned toward the window--and there, on the other side of the glass, was the person that Adriana had glimpsed in the fog.

Adriana screamed. Logan gasped. They stared wordlessly at the person outside their window--except it wasn't a person at all. It was a robot, a metallic creature with the form of a human. The robot didn't have a face; only a single red eye, blinking at the center of its forehead. Its body was discolored and covered with rust and sand. Its three-fingered hand, which was what had made that unexpected sound, was resting against the glass.

"I told you," muttered Adriana, her lips trembling. "I told you, I saw someone out there."

Her father shook his head, his eyes round with disbelief. "Impossible..."

The robot moved its outstretched hand from the window to its midsection. Logan wrapped his burly arms around Adriana and brought her body close to his, as if protecting her. He must've thought the robot was initiating some kind of attack. But it was simply clearing the sand away from its midsection, which revealed a large screen. Three words flashed across it:

"Where am I?"

Curiosity pulled Adriana out of her father's embrace. She reached into her pocket and withdrew a Screen of her own, a vintage, handheld device that the people of B302 used to communicate. Adriana tapped her fingers against the Screen, typing rapidly.

"What're you doing?" Logan asked.

"Communicating."

"Communicating?!" he choked. "Do you think that's wise? We don't know what this thing is, where it comes from, why it's out there..."

"Exactly. Don't you want to find out?" When she finished typing, Adriana held her Screen up to the window.

"This is B302," it read. "Where are you from?"

Three words appeared on the robot's screen: "From the past."

Adriana and Logan looked at each other, then back at the robot's screen, where more words were beginning to surface: "I was created five centuries ago. Before the Earth's natural disasters drove humanity underground."

"What're you doing in the Old World?" asked Adriana.

"My creators placed me out here for a mission."

"What mission?"

"To return humanity to the planet's surface."

Another exchange of confounded looks.

"I have been in hibernation for the last 500 years," the robot explained. "I was programmed to awaken only when the toxicity levels in the Earth's atmosphere reached a certain threshold. I have been trying to relay this news to nearby bunkers, but communications seem to be down. I have been traveling to the bunkers individually, hoping to establish contact. Your bunker, B302, is the first one where I've been successful."

"What threshold?" asked Adriana. "Have the toxin levels increased?"

"The opposite. Toxicity levels have fallen dramatically over the last 500 years. The atmosphere is no longer hazardous. Earth's air is now breathable, inhabitable. I'm pleased to announce that it's finally safe to emerge from your bunker and re-establish civilization on the planet's surface."

For a while, no one moved, no one spoke. A bomb had just been dropped, destroying everything that Adriana thought she knew about the Old World. She furiously began typing--until her father grabbed her hand, stilling her fingers. "I think that's enough," he said quietly.

Adriana glanced up at Logan's face and was surprised to find concern. "Why not? Didn't you hear what it said?" she asked, flabbergasted. "The toxicity levels are down. The surface is livable again!"

"Yeah, I heard it. But this is an unusual situation, Adriana, unprecedented in our bunker's history." Her father shook his head. "I need to bring this to the Committee for further investigation. You stay here. Make sure the robot stays put, but don't give it any more information about you or our bunker. Understood?"

It was only after Adriana nodded that Logan released her hand. He went to the steel ladder and descended it hurriedly, vanishing down the narrow tunnel.

Adriana turned back to the window. "Dad said I couldn't talk to you about myself or the bunker," she said aloud, more to herself than to the robot, "but he didn't say that I couldn't talk to you at all."

As she waited for her father's return, Adriana continued to exchange messages with the robot. They spoke largely about the Old World, about its landscapes, and people, and history. Adriana was in the midst of reading a romantic description on the robot's screen--something about icy mountains, piercing a starry, night sky--when she heard a chorus of voices, climbing up the narrow tunnel.

Logan's bald head popped up over the top of the ladder. "Is it still there?" he asked anxiously. "Is the robot still there?"

Adriana nodded.

Her father breathed a sigh of relief and climbed into the Observatory. Three people followed him, one at a time. Adriana recognized them all immediately. They were the three members of the Committee, the elected government body of B302. There was Annetta, an elderly but fit woman who always looked as though she had just bitten into something sour; Harrison, an overweight, middle-aged man with a mane of gray hair; and Constance, a young woman with a raspy voice. They were her father's closest colleagues, political officials who aided him in governing the 246 lives that resided in B302. They were of different races, ages, and genders. But in that moment, as they gaped at the robot beyond the window, they all looked exactly the same: amazed.

With Adriana's help, Logan recounted the robot's appearance. The Committee listened quietly, tensely (they were also still catching their breaths from climbing the ladder). The robot stared at them all the while, the screen on its midsection blank, the red light on its forehead blinking on and off. When the story finished, the Committee used their personal Screens to engage with the robot, asking questions about its mission, the other bunkers, and the outside world. Adriana watched this unfold from the back of the Observatory, biting her fingernails, wondering how this was going to end.

When the interrogation was finished, the Committee asked the robot to stay put while they went elsewhere to deliberate. They all descended the ladder--Logan, the Committee, and Adriana--and congregated in the dining area of the President's home.

"I think it's best for us to talk down here," said Annetta, her lips pursed. "I don't feel comfortable discussing this while that creature stands there, gawking at us." She gave a shudder.

"Perhaps we should discuss this more...privately." Constance's eyes went to Adriana, who suddenly felt as alien and unwelcome as the robot.

"My daughter is the one who found the robot. If it wasn't for her, we might never have made contact. She deserves to hear this."

Adriana beamed. She had never felt more proud to call Logan her father. The Committee didn't look pleased with his decision but didn't push the matter further. Out of respect for them, Adriana parked herself in the far right corner of the room, out of sight but not out of earshot.

Logan sat back in his chair, his arms crossed, the lips under his bushy mustache twisted into a frown. "So? What do you make of all it?"

"Four bunkers that robot visited before coming to ours." Constance rubbed her palms anxiously against the thighs of her jumpsuit. "What does that mean? That the bunkers are empty? That all their people are dead?"

"Let's not jump to conclusions," panted Harrison, who was still out of breath from descending the ladder. "Maybe the windows in those bunkers are unmonitored or unaccessible. Or maybe the people don't even know they exist. There could be many reasons why the robot was unable to make contact...assuming, of course, it was telling us the truth."

"Frankly, those other bunkers are the last thing on my mind,” said Logan. "What about the rest of it? About it being safe to go outside?"

"Easy for a machine to say," Annetta grumbled. "It can't even breathe."

"It's unbelievable," said Harrison in response to Logan's question. "And therein lies the problem. How do we know we can trust it?" He dabbed at his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. "We have no way of safely testing the toxin levels in the Old World and confirming this robot's claims."

"Also, this creature claims to be built by the same fools who destroyed our civilization," Constance pointed out. "Can we really trust their technology, or their judgment for that matter?"

"Agreed," said Annetta. "Five hundred years is more ancient than I am. The robot's technology may not work properly anymore. Or the planet's atmosphere may have filled with new toxins that it can't detect. Hell, for all we know, its entire story is a lie. That thing might have been wandering the Earth aimlessly for the last five hundred years."

"I think we all know what needs to be done," said Harrison. "And the answer is nothing. The situation is too risky. We're certain to be safer in here than we are out there."

"But what if the robot's telling the truth?"

Everyone turned and stared at Adriana, sitting alone in the far corner of the room. They all looked shocked to hear her voice, particularly Logan. Adriana felt bad, speaking out of turn like that that after he had defended her earlier, but it felt necessary.

"I'm just saying, maybe you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the possibility," she added in a small voice. "I mean, what if the surface really is livable again? Why stay down here when we can be out there?" She stared longingly at the ceiling, imagining the window and the world beyond it.

"That's enough," her father snapped.

"You're the one who wanted her here for this, Logan." Constance scowled at Adriana. "What do you propose we do? March our people out into the Old World and hope for the best, all on the word of some strange robot?"

"You don't have to send everyone out there," said Adriana meekly. "Maybe only one person, just to see if it's safe. I mean, a human shouldn't be able to last more than a few seconds out there, right? We would know pretty quickly if the robot was telling the truth."

Harrison scoffed. "Oh, so we don't sentence 246 people to death, only one. And what poor soul do we potentially sacrifice? Bit of a selfish request, no? I suppose we could ask for volunteers, but who would ever take such a risk?"

"Do you know, young lady, what happens to a human who breathes in the Old World's air?" Annetta moved forward in her seat, her lips pursed unpleasantly. "It's said that first, the body becomes paralyzed. After that, the skin boils like it's being cooked and then melts off the bones. These symptoms develop quickly, yes. But it supposedly takes a full day for the relief of death. Twenty-four long, excruciating hours. You can't even open your mouth to scream because of the paralysis." Annetta leaned back, shaking her head. "I'm an old woman, near the end of my life. And not even I would sacrifice what little time I have left to endure such agony and suffering. No one in their right mind would."

Adriana opened her mouth to reply but was hastily cut off by her father.

"Forgive me everyone. You were right--my daughter should have been excluded from this conversation." He shot her a seething look that could've burnt a hole through a steel door. "Nevertheless, it seems like we've reached a verdict. We will ignore the robot's message and ensure the safety of our people."

Adriana was at a loss for words. She felt as though she'd been made into a villain. And according to her father, that's just what she was. He punished her by taking away her Screen and restricting her to the dormitory. Fortunately, she could still visit the window, solely because Logan couldn't figure out how to change its code.

The day after the verdict, while her father was out attending business, Adriana went into the Observatory. She half-expected the robot to be gone. But it was still there, standing outside her father's window, its red light blinking on and off.

As soon as the robot saw her, a message materialized on its screen: "Have you decided to evacuate the bunker?"

Adriana shook her head, No.

"Why not?" it asked.

"Because they're afraid," she said aloud, even though the robot couldn't hear her. Adriana didn't fault her government for that; of course, they were afraid. The situation was terrifying. "Unprecedented", as her father kept saying. And yet, where was their backbone? Where was their optimism? They had all been so quick to dismiss the robot's message, crushing any semblance of hope with their preconceived notions and beliefs. They hadn't even bothered discussing alternative solutions. It was like they had already succumbed to defeat, conceding to an eternity inside a steel, underground box. Too stuck in their old ways to attempt something new, something different, something frightening.

With clenched fists, Adriana stared at the world beyond the robot--at the faint light reflecting off the fog, at those sandy dunes and black, skeletal trees. She longed to be out there, to be free. Someone had to take the risk, she decided. Someone had to learn the truth. But the Committee was right: it was selfish to ask someone else to make that sacrifice.

Adriana's heart was suddenly racing. But she had to be brave--for her people, for their future. Her fists tightened at her sides, her nails digging into her palms. Adriana lifted her leg into the air and thrust the sole of her boot against the glass. Unsurprisingly, it did nothing. So Adriana did it again and again, over and over, kicking the window as hard as she possibly could.

The words "What are you doing?" appeared on the robot's screen.

"Breaking free!" she shouted.

Though for a while, nothing happened.

Adriana was just about to give up when she heard it: the soft crack of glass. She lowered her foot to the ground. Yes, there was the crack, a small one. Almost like a spider, with long, thin legs extending from its body.

There was no quitting now.

Adriana kicked and kicked. As she did, the crack grew wider, its legs longer. Her foot was already aching, and her leg muscles were screaming in protest. Strands of her long, black hair were matted to her forehead with sweat. But still, Adriana pushed herself to keep going. What if the robot was telling the truth? What if this was her people's chance for freedom? She had to do this. And if she was wrong...well, then she had a very painful twenty-four hours ahead of her. But what upset her even more than that was that she wouldn't get to say goodbye to her father. The poor man would return to the dormitory after a long day of work and find his daughter missing, the Observatory sealed off and filled with toxic air. He would never be able to understand her actions.

No, Adriana mustn't think about that. The robot was telling the truth, she was sure of it. She would see her father again. They would talk in the Old World among sand dunes and fog, and he would tell her how proud he was, how brave she had been.

And then, she heard it: her father's voice. It called to her through the narrow tunnel, echoing off the Observatory walls.

"Adriana? What are you doing up there?"

Adriana bit her lip. She had to keep going, she had to break through. She thrust her foot forcefully against the glass. The cracks stretched toward the Observatory walls, reaching, reaching. She was so close now, so very close.

"Adriana, what's that noise?"

Adriana's heart was pounding, pounding like her boot against the glass. No more window, she told herself. No more being on the inside, looking out.

"ADRIANA, STOP IT!" Her father, it seemed, had connected the dots. Adriana heard the door below her open. Heard the sound of her father's panting as he hustled up thirty feet of steel.

Finally, Adriana's foot went shooting through the glass and out the other side. The window shattered completely. Bits of glass fell to the floor, leaving only a rectangular hole. Adriana stared at it in astonishment. Her eyes went to the robot, its red light blinking on and off.

"ADRIANA, STOP!"

Without a second thought, Adriana stepped through the open window and into the Old World. Into that dead and abandoned place, where no life was supposed to be.

And then she breathed a gulp of fresh air.

Fantasy
7

About the Creator

Matthew Perrino

A dreamer and wannabe-author, who flops back and forth between loving and hating his work. Imagination extraordinaire, who spends far too much time thinking about words.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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Comments (5)

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  • Stephanie Buchmanabout a year ago

    What a great story!

  • J Babout a year ago

    Excellent story, enjoyed the read.

  • Paul Forshtayabout a year ago

    I very much enjoyed reading this! Well done! Kept my attention start to finish and deeply engaging!

  • Christiane Winterabout a year ago

    I have only known the robot for 5 minutes, but if anything happened to it I would be destroyed. Excellent work!

  • JBazabout a year ago

    I very much enjoyed this tale, very well told.

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