I might as well be lying in a coffin. I’ve seen them on TV before. The dead always looked so comfortable with their arms folded across their chest in those silky interiors. Peaceful, even though they’re alone.
Unless it was a show where the dead happened to be vampires. Then they’d probably be smothered in women. Hot, vampire chicks and metrosexual Nosferatus, getting busy while luring mere mortals into their blood-sucking orgies of doom.
I don’t need more of that kind of frustration. Smacking my head against the hatch doesn’t clear the image. My thoughts drift to the half-naked diva who pops up on my iPod whenever her song starts to play. I don’t even know how that crap got on there, but I listen to it. On repeat.
The escape pod I’m lying in isn’t a coffin. The smooth metal interior is studded with switches and blinking lights. The hatch above has a tiny window, now smudged by the impact of my head. There’s no ruffled silk to cushion the blow.
On my right glows the little red button.
Normally, the way the hatch seals out the charged air and incessant groans of splitting ice is comforting. The pod is the only place in this prison where I can focus. Where I can hear voices I don’t hear anymore, and even some which I might never hear again. Today, though, the space feels exactly how it is—cramped, restrictive.
When we first arrived, hearing the details from Dad about the escape pod was pretty cool. Essentially a hollow bullet, the pod employs a type of rail-gun technology. Blast off on the electromagnetically charged rails and leave an EMP in your wake. An escape, for when this frozen ass-crack of the world isn’t safe enough.
That’s what this is all about, safety; sanity is optional.
One push could end this.
I rest the tip of my index finger on the edge of the button.
But for how long? Only he knows where the pod lands. Operational details like that are deemed stuff I’m too young or too weak or too immature to understand. As soon as the capsule left the launch tube, he’d come flying to the rescue and I’d be right back here.
Of course, rewiring the emergency beacon so it doesn’t alert him of a launch would take no time. But then what? I’ve got a running start? Like that matters against him.
Switching around a few wires won’t save me. If it could, I’d be free already.
Tinkering has been the only thing keeping me sane. But I’ve picked through the guts of the bunker a hundred times over and imagined a whole series of escape plans, and they all end up with me either back here or in the clutches of a psychopathic super-villain. So none of that tinkering makes up for the fact that I’m a powerless runt.
Finally, those voices begin to stir. “It’s an adventure,” I hear her say. “The Swiss Family Robinson made it. Even Ernest, that little lazy know-it-all, did. Surely, you can too?”
But was he alone?
I’d kill for three brothers, a zoo full of animals and a treehouse right now. William, that self-righteous douchebag of a father, I could live without. But Elizabeth. Mother.
My hand falls from the button.
Forcing open the hatch, I breathe in the rush of cool air. Cold, always cold. And barren.
I sit up, eye level with the safe room floor. The escape pod rests on a sunken platform, with three small steps ascending to the grated metal plates that make up the floor. Shimmying out of the pod takes no effort because it was built for people three times my size.
Status lights blink on a control panel under the security monitors. Let’s see—what’s the forecast on my deserted island today? Wintry mix. Chance of snow a million percent. Temperature, ball-numbing cold. Perfect time for a hike.
First thing Dad had said two years ago was to never go outside. I was seventeen, with over a dozen places I’d called home, and none of them had this much snow. One week into this jail sentence and I’d gotten the urge to toss a snowball—an opening pitch for my new life in the Icehole.
I tried to hide the blisters, but they were still raw and painful when he got back. I was mainly glad I still had fingers. Dad was pissed, as usual.
Whatever. He’s gone, again. He leaves any damn time he wants.
I exit the safe room and make my way through a spare parts room I like to call the library. Along the way, I grab my secret weapon off the shelf. It’s only a TV, but most people don’t have to make theirs out of a satellite phone and an old-school CRT monitor. They don’t have to hide it from their dad, either. For months now, this baby has been my intermittent link to the outside world.
Intermittent is putting it mildly. My arctic life hack has more downtime than Windows ME. Not a design flaw though but more of a side effect of living where even penguins fear to tread. Atmospheric conditions here tend to wreck signals.
A single hallway connects each section of the bunker. The lights above click on and off, synchronized with my motion, as I walk into darkness with more vast nothingness behind. Dad says it saves energy because we’ve only got so much juice and we need all reserves on standby for the escape pod. But this is “home” and I have a constant urge to turn on every light in the place.
Between the library and my destination lies the living quarters, a bathroom, and Danger Bay. Danger Bay was cool on day one, and stayed cool for exactly one day. This only entrance to the bunker resembles the docking bay on a space station, designed to separate our living quarters from certain death. Of course, outer space is probably more hospitable—there’s much less suffering before you die.
I continue past Danger Bay and drop off the monitor in what used to be an armory, rechristening that space “the living room”. Whatever this place was before, people needed weapons; at least that’s what the empty racks seem to say. Dad doesn’t need them. If I had one… Whatever, the armory is the closest room to the exterior door.
Heading back to Danger Bay with the sat dish in hand, I punch in the code, then wade into the frozen air. Winter gear hangs on pegs along the wall of the narrow chamber. All the gear goes on: gloves, hood, liner, bib, shell, big chunky moon boots. The mask—I almost skip that.
He stopped giving me the code for the exterior door after the pitching incident. No problem. Disconnecting the security pad takes a few tries because my fat, gloved fingers won’t cooperate. Eventually though, I get the job done.
A blast of cold pierces the marshmallow suit as the heavy door grinds open. Gripping the satellite dish, I trudge into the howling, snow-stirred landscape. Not for the first time, I wonder how far I could walk. Would anything ever rise up on the flat horizon?
Climbing to the top of our snow-covered pimple, I can see everything. A vast plain of snow and ice stretches into a veil of white. I don’t think it’s actually snowing right now, it’s only the wind kicking up the tons of the stuff already there. On a calm day months ago, I thought I caught a glimpse of the ocean.
Even wrapped in the high-tech polar gear, my fingers start to get numb. And in spite of the mask, a snotcicle forms on my nose. I drop the antenna in what I hope is a decent place and head inside, reeling out cable as I go. Stripping off the gear, I shiver out of Danger Bay and partially close the door, bringing the heavy barrier down to rest on the cable without crushing it. I feed the rest of the cable into the living room where my homemade television awaits.
The results aren’t great. They never are. Today there’s only one station in range, and it isn’t English speaking. At least there’s a signal.
Bad enough that I don’t know Russian, but the Cyrillic characters make even guessing at the text a lost cause. I’ve seen some of those characters around the bunker, printed on circuit boards or pasted on control panels. If I ever need to write technobabble in Russian, I might stand a chance. It’s not a big deal. Like every other news station on the planet, they’ll eventually show what I’m looking for.
No sports. At least not by my definition. Baseball hasn’t caught on in Russia. They’ve got hockey and full-blown features on chess, though. That helps pass the time.
I used to enjoy chess. Owen Ridley, the Grandmaster of the Terra Nova High School Chess Club, would go down in flames if we played now. I can practically hear “Eye of the Tiger” blaring as I sit in the Icehole, playing match after match on that lousy library computer. Apparently, whoever programmed the game didn’t think to add difficulty levels, and I’ve been squaring off against the flawless logic every time. I’d give up if it wasn’t the only game here.
Maybe I could live in Russia. Be some kind of chess master. Wonder if they get hot Russian chicks.
The news saves me from a trip to my iPod. Eyewitness video, probably from a cellphone camera, pops up behind the news anchor. Black, antique lampposts rise from a stone railing between a cobblestone walk and a river. Crowds mill about, and I hear the cameraman rambling in the background. He sounds American.
A giant Ferris wheel turns lazily beside the boardwalk. I’m pretty sure it’s the London Eye. I recognize it from a documentary I watched years ago, back when we lived somewhere with cable.
The image jerks before tilting to the cobblestone. Terrified screams become background noise to the rending of metal. Shoes clip by and the walkway blurs. The cameraman shouts, “Oh my god! Oh my god! Hurry!” A fleeting glimpse of a massive figure beside the wheel slips by, then the camera focus goes to a clawed arm snapping the spokes. High-tension wires strike into the fleeing tourists.
With a tortured whine, the giant Ferris wheel tears off its moorings. It teeters and crashes into the boardwalk, sending cobblestones and a lamppost hurtling through the crowd, before finally pitching into the Thames. The cameraman hunches behind a wall. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” It’s all he says.
Then, I catch a glimpse of him—a red streak in the sky leaving a wake of swirling clouds.
The news slow-mos the video, and a yellow circle highlights that crimson blur. It impacts the black mass with a crack of thunder. All the while, the giant wheel sinks, while Russian voices jabber in the news studio.
Dad says, you neutralize the threat before you save anyone. That’s how it’s done. He talks in this “wax on wax off” sort of way. He’s so sure he’s got to teach me. Prepare me to fill his shoes. The Augment process doesn’t even work that way, he knows that.
But I can only wonder how many people are sealed up in their glass tourist tombs, while they sink to the river bottom.
The cameraman cheers and the video pixelates as he tries to track the action. Dad, a crimson blob, dances in the sky. Blurry or not, the black robotic shape needs no explanation either. It’s another of the Black Beetle’s battle drones.
I’ve never seen one this big. It must be five stories tall. They’re usually man-sized, with the features of both a human and a bug. Pincers. Segmented armor plating. Eyes that reflect your helpless face in a thousand different facets.
Chunks of brick explode from a nearby building and the video ends.
News anchors with serious expressions mumble in their monotone voices over a live shot of the aftermath. Banks of spotlights sweep the river. Debris bobs in the water, and blue emergency lights ripple across the waves. Barges raise the wheel’s remains.
The anchorman touches an ear, grumbles more Slavic gibberish and faces the screen behind him. A dark room replaces the earlier scenes of destruction. Visible only because of the sleek, sharp reflections cast from a hidden light, an insectoid face emerges. Multifaceted eyes break the feeble light into coarse shards: the Black Beetle.
A Russian translation drowns out his hissing English. I crank up the volume.
“… will rain destruction …”
“… Crimson Mask cannot …”
“… Earth shall bow to the Black Beetle!”
A strange heat floods my insides. My limbs shake, and my heart hammers out of a dead stop. I yank the power cable free, but the light tracing the helmet lingers on the dying screen. Even long after the monitor turns a lifeless gray, that outline remains.
The cold draft from the crack under the door in Danger Bay seeps into the living room. I ball up, huddled with knees to my chest and let the cold envelop me. I’m never getting out of here.
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