Author’s Note: Hello, readers! Here is the next chapter in my science fiction work-in-progress. Thank you so much for sharing this journey with me. I have only written 11 chapters as of today. That means I have to get to work as you are almost caught up with me.
Please keep in mind, I am sharing this first draft with you as it is being written. That means that this has not been properly edited and may have some inconsistencies. I am doing my best to keep it correct, but the demands of life lately mean I have not gotten to write as much as I would like. That, in turn, means that I can’t always remember everything as I write it. If you notice any glaring mistakes, feel free to email me through the contact link.
I hope you enjoy!
The room was rumbling again. I knew I was back in the bunker before I opened my eyes. Dank cold surrounded me and this time I was moving. I was lying on a med table being pushed along a dark corridor.
“What’s going on?” I asked. It was too dark to see who was with me.
“Hush,” Sam whispered from behind me. “We need to be quiet.”
We were no longer in the bunker. There were no lights other than a small headlamp on whomever was leading us.
“Can you walk?” It was Max’s voice this time.
“I think so,” I replied. Nothing felt broken and there was no severe pain this time.
“Good. We may need the med table for others. Walk carefully and do not touch the walls.”
I slid down from the table onto uneven ground. I struggled to gain my balance.
“How are you pushing this thing?” I questioned.
“Not easily,” was Max’s dry reply.
Sam gently grabbed my arm. “Are you sure you can walk. You have been out for some time.”
I had not returned to the same moment this time.
I took a step. My legs were weak but stable.
“Put your hand on my shoulder and walk directly behind me,” Sam instructed. “The walls are very wet, and we are not sure what has been poisoned.
I maneuvered my way around Sam and we started forward.
“What happened?” I asked after several minutes.
“We had to abandon the bunker,” Sam whispered. “At least for now. The Plax were hiding in the darkness. Scouts were able to find another bunker.”
“Another bunker?” Sam had told me it was a miracle that they found the first one.
“Yes. Everyone is surprised. Even the scientists that survived did not know there was another one. It doesn’t have much for supplies, but it is sound and it doesn’t appear the Plax have found it yet.”
We walked on in silence for some time before we came to a large cavern. There were a few lanterns scattered around and about forty or fifty people.
“This spot seems secure,” Sam told me in almost her normal volume. “We’ve got guards posted at every entrance and a good distance up in every cave. We will have to rest here.”
In the light I could see that Sam was carrying two packs on her back. She slid one off and handed it to me. “This one is yours.”
“You should have given it to me sooner.”
“I needed to see how stable you were first. Last time you seemed fine until you collapsed. You have been unconscious again for days.”
“How come? What happened?” I asked.
“We don’t know. We thought first maybe it was an illness but no one else has had similar symptoms.”
I thought back over the last few days from my perspective. “Sam, there is nothing I need to tell you.”
We found a spot relatively isolated and I started to tell her about my experience in the compound. She stopped me after a few minutes and went and got Max and a few others and had me start over. I told them the whole story from waking up with no memories to what had happened with Peadar and the weird room with the girl named Jasmine.
“It is very disorienting,” I told them. “This feels so real but then I wake up there and that feels so real.”
“This is real.” Max reached out and touched my arm and her voice was gentle for the first time. “Roman, try to cling to this world with all your might.” Then turning to one of the men near her she went on, “It must be a probe. It is amazing he survived it. Does the new bunker have the equipment?”
“Not entirely,” the man told her. “With what we have brought we should be able to set up what we need in a few days.”
“Good,” she replied. “Sam, I want you to stay close to Roman. It would be good if we could keep him awake as much as possible until we can get it out.”
“Get it out?” I did not like the sound of that.
“It’s a type of bot,” Max told me. “We checked at the lab but I must have missed it. Sometimes they are in the water. The Plax will inject us if we they get close enough. It must have happened while you were unconscious and before we found you.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“These bots have on purpose. They all head to your brain and set about reproducing. They build a sort of neural link. With it the Plax can take over your mind and make you see whatever they want you to see.”
“But the work and the food. And Paul. I mean Peadar. Peadar is there.”
“If it really is Peadar then he is somewhere with a link himself. No one has seen him since the explosion that we thought killed him. More likely it is projection they created to test you and their virtual world.”
It did not seem possible. I had lived weeks if not months in the compound. I had participated in mudane tasks like showering and cleaning my shoes. How could it not be real?
“Their technology is very advanced,” Max went on. “We are still just scratching the surface of what they can do. Trust me, though, Roman. This is the real world. You have to try to hang on to it until we can get them out.”
Hours later, most in our party were quietly slumbering. Sam had been peacefully sleeping for a while when someone rustling nearby caused her to open her eyes. She noticed that my eyes were wide open.
“You need to rest,” she whispered. “We have a ways to go. It would be best if we did not have to carry you.”
“I know,” I whispered back without looking at her. “I just can’t seem to close my eyes.”
Irrational fear had wrapped its cold hands around my brain and squeezed any hint of sleepiness from my grasp. If this cave was the real world, then how did I live such a normal life in the compound? If the compound was the real world, why did my back hurt so much lying on the cold ground with my head propped awkwardly on my pack? There was no way to reconcile the two worlds.
Sam reached out and held my hand. “I am right here,” she tried to console me. “We will fix this. I will be with you the whole time.”
“Sam, you don’t understand. The other world, it is just as real as this one. I eat food and it is delicious. I sleep in a comfortable bed and dream. I run barefoot through plush grassy knolls.”
“You barefoot?” she couldn’t help but laugh. “I am your wife and I have rarely seen you without your boots on.”
I could not remember if what she was saying was true. My boots did feel oddly comfortable. Others had taken their boots off before nestling in to get some rest. The idea to remove mine had never occurred to me.
“I am trying to be serious.” I was frustrated but not because Sam was laughing at me.
“I know you are, dear.”
I opened my mouth to speak again, but one of the larger men near us loudly cleared his throat, giving us a not so subtle hint. Sam giggled quietly and squeezed my hand tighter.
“You need to sleep,” she ordered me.
Sleep never did come. I heard every breath, every movement, every drop of water. If I was in reality, I did not want to slip away again.
Traversing the caves was much harder the next day. We had mostly been on level or gently sloping terrain up to that point. Now we had very narrow passages, low ceilings at waist level and steep and windy paths. Every one kept reminding each other not to touch the walls. It was nearly impossible to keep that command. In many places we were touching both walls, the cave ceiling and crawling on ours knees. We were all wet through and through but none of us showed any signs of illness. Each time we reached an opening big enough for four or five people to stand together, Max would set up a check point to take a look at everyone’s vitals. Sam and I were in one of the last groups.
“How is everyone?” I asked Max when she came to check me out.
“Exhausted, understandably,” she said dryly. “How are you feeling?”
Every muscle in my body hurt and I had cut both knees and my arm on sharp rocks protruding from the walls and floor. “Just fine,” I lied to her.
“Ever the good soldier.” It was clearly an insult and not a complement.
“He is fine,” Sam came to my defense.
“Has he slept?” Max was not to be discouraged.
“Not that I know of.”
“That’s probably for the best. The more time he spends away the more ingrained the bots will become.”
“Away? You make it sound like I’ve been going on vacation.”
Max ignored me and went on to checking the next person.
“Can we rest for a moment?” I asked. Twice I had slid on some of the steeper sections and had bashed my right thigh in the same place both times. Watching the headlamps disappear in front of us we could see that the next section had ever lower ceilings and narrower openings.
“Gladly,” Sam agreed.
One of the walls looked relatively dry so we sat against it out of the way of the remaining travelers.
I closed my eyes for a moment. It did not really change things to close my eyes. The passageways had become so narrow that only a little light shown from nearby lanterns. Some had even turned theirs off to conserve battery. Still, closing my eyes brought my eyes a little relief from the straining in the dark.
“Tell me about us,” I said, my eyes still closed.
“Us?” Sam asked.
“Yes, us. I do not have any memories before a few days ago.”
“Oh, it is not a very exciting story.” She tried to be light but I could hear the catch in her voice.
“I don’t need exciting,” I told her. “I just need something.”
She did not have a chance to say anything else. Out of no where the cave shook violently. Max fell to the ground where she had been stooped examining one of the group. Instinctively everyone turned their lanterns up to the highest setting.
A few rocks fell from the ceiling and walls but then all was quiet again.
No one spoke for several minutes, all on high alert. Finally I could no longer help myself.
“Plax bombs?” I asked, barely audibly. Sam was close enough she heard.
“That was different,” she told me. “Not sure what. Unlikely to be Plax. We have come through some pretty tight places. They may scurry like bugs, but they can’t seem to go through small openings.”
“That’s one relief.”
“Don’t get too relaxed,” she continued. “If it wasn’t a bomb, and it definitely wasn’t an earthquake with the suddenness, then we have some new phenomena to contend with.”
That did not sound good.