The boy doesn’t have a name, but Father calls him Progeny. He was born underground, and grew up in near darkness. In the tunnels. Walking the spaces between compact earthen walls, buttressed intermittently with wooden beams, glow worms the only luminescence.
His eyes are good. He sees shapes where Father sees shadows. He sees shadows where Father sees nothing.
He walks now, very quietly. Now is the quiet time. It is a rule. He hunches to keep his head from grazing the ceiling, striding confidently along the well-worn trail, one hand held out, fingers skimming the gritty walls, now a beam, now earth, now a beam.
Abruptly, he emerges into an expansive cavern of dark rock. At the back of the cave is a deep, rock crevice—the pit, as Father calls it—where Progeny dumps the dirt from his excavations. Before the pit though, are pools. The pad of Progeny’s footsteps on the hard surface echoes as he moves toward them. Water leaks from somewhere up high, running in rivulets down the far wall covered in yellow moss and white fungal protrusions, ending with a caress of the surface of the pond. The water gurgles and gulps—wet whispers floating around the cavern.
Progeny approaches the water. It smells fresh and sweet. He falls to his knees by the edge, staring into the depths, where he sees white lines criss-crossing beneath the dark surface. Eels. With a violent splash, Progeny snatches a large one from the pond with strong, practiced hands.
He grins as he bites into the writhing flesh, enjoying the saltiness of the blood.
When he is sated, he will retrace his steps through the tunnels to meet Father at the shelter. There, on hard wooden boards, he will receive his lessons.
Lessons after the mid-meal. Another rule.
Father stands in the middle of the shelter, watching Progeny approach. He is a short man, with white hair, and a back as straight as the wooden beams in the tunnels. Around his neck hangs a large key on a chain. Progeny knows it unlocks the storeroom, which houses towers of canned goods, jars of preserved fruits, drums of powdered milk and eggs.
Progeny stops at the edge of the shelter, and waits for Father’s invitation to join him. It is a rule.
The shelter is a simple construction. A raised wooden platform, three walls and an earthen ceiling. The front of the shelter is open to the tunnels. The rear wall has a small hatch, through which Progeny must crawl when instructed. Father’s bedroll is packed away neatly in a corner.
Father squints down at Progeny through the gloom. He removes a crank-powered flashlight from his ragged trousers, winds it, and points the flickering beam at Progeny’s face. Progeny squeezes his eyes shut against the pain, then turns away until Father directs the light elsewhere. Hesitantly, Progeny opens his smarting eyes and sees that Father has placed the torch, bulb down, on the floor of the shelter, a small wavering circle of light surrounding the device. Instead of the torch, Father now holds a strand of wire, three feet long. It is his teaching aid.
“Come. The lesson begins,” Father says.
Progeny steps into the shelter, then kneels before Father. Progeny lowers his head, and his eyes, but opens his ears and mind as previously instructed. Father begins his oration.
Progeny has heard much of Father’s speech before. There is little new these days. Father talks of the before, and the wickedness of the world. He talks of the righteous end. He mocks the unprepared. He talks of the remainder, the lesions, and the living rot. He talks of sinners receiving what was owed, and the joy of being saved.
As he talks, Father flicks the wire through the air to emphasise his points.
Father talks of Mother. Father remains confused about her. She was taken unfairly, he says with less vigour. He sounds perplexed, and sad. But he moves on. He talks about Progeny. He talks about burdens and disappointment.
Finally, when Progeny’s knees ache, and his legs and feet tingle with numbness, Father finishes, places a hand on Progeny’s head, and entwines his fingers in Progeny’s fine hair.
“Time for your question, Progeny.”
Progeny swallows, lets the silence build while he frames the question in his mind. He places both of his hands on top of Father’s hand on his head.
“If the surface sickness has indeed cleansed the earth of sin,” Progeny says, “why do we still need to hide in the tunnels?”
Progeny feels Father’s hand twitch. Progeny swallows again, waiting. Just as he thinks Father will not answer, Father speaks.
“We do not hide in the tunnels, we live. The sinners are vanquished, but the remainder roam the surface still.”
“But you have also said that the saved inherit the earth, and the fallen—”
Father delivers a powerful blow to the soft flesh of Progeny’s armpit with the wire switch. Progeny feels the familiar pain—a sharp bite, then a burning. He stifles a yelp. Warm blood trickles down his side, but he resists the urge to let go of Father’s hand. That would only bring more punishment.
“You’ve had your question,” Father says coldly. Progeny sucks in air, but says nothing.
“Blessed are those left in the dark,” Father says, and he slides his hand out from under Progeny’s, allowing Progeny to lower his arms to his sides, careful not to agitate the fresh cut.
“You are permitted to leave and work on the new tunnel,” Father says.
Blessed indeed, thinks Progeny.
Progeny’s tunnel is at the opposite end to Father’s shelter, closer to the pools, and the pit where dirt can be discarded. His work progresses slowly, but he has made progress. He is not as experienced as Father in tunnel construction, and it has taken time to learn how and where to buttress them. Learning is slow when Father refuses to demonstrate his techniques, and Progeny is only permitted one question at a time.
His tunnel is narrower than any of Father’s. He digs it out slowly so it does not collapse. But he is proud of his work, and proud he is adding to the structure of their home.
It is only recently that Father allowed Progeny to engage in excavation. Perhaps Father thinks it is busy work. Another way to encourage Progeny to reflect on the soul and mind, where naturally thoughts go when hands are occupied. Or perhaps Father realises that with Progeny occupied, he can enjoy that much more solitude.
This might be closest to the truth, as Father has never visited Progeny’s site, for which Progeny is grateful. Because what Father doesn’t know is that Progeny is digging up.
The entrance to Progeny’s tunnel is about a metre and a half square. The tunnel continues straight on into the earth for ten metres, and is buttressed with wooden beams that Father provides from the storeroom. Wooden beams are also piled up outside the entrance of the tunnel, waiting to be used. And there is a cone-shaped pile of dirt that Progeny has yet to relocate, along with an empty tin of peaches that smells syrupy.
After ten metres, Progeny’s tunnel turns up at a forty five degree angle, then continues for nearly thirty more metres. Progeny has also buttressed that part of the tunnel with wooden beams. He has done this in six places.
To work in his tunnel, Progeny must duck. It is too small to stand erect. He’s working now on his knees.
He uses a short pickaxe to worry free a large stone, which pops out and falls to the floor with a thud. Progeny drops the pick and grabs at the rock before it bumps into his legs. He eases the stone behind him, sliding it next to a large bucket half filled with dirt.
The tunnel smells of damp, loamy earth, freshly turned. Progeny likes the smell. It is the scent of progress. So much nicer than the acrid smell of old sweat that Father exudes.
Progeny takes hold of his pickaxe once more and raises it, poised to strike at the tunnel wall again. But that is when he hears a murmur, and he hesitates, arm tensed, muscles coiled, ready to unwind.
He frowns. It is quiet again now and he questions whether he did, indeed, hear anything at all. But he waits, just to be sure.
It comes again. A soft murmuring that resonates through and from the tunnel walls. A sound familiar and yet strange. It reminds Progeny of times when he has caught Father mumbling to himself. But the wall cannot mumble, or murmur. And yet…
Progeny lowers the pick to the ground, then presses his ear against the cool earth, feeling the grittiness of the dirt against the side of his face. The noise is gone. Perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good. Progeny waits. And waits. And just as he is about to give up, it comes again.
Quiet rolling eddies of sound. First they are high pitched, soft. Then a pause. After, the mumbling is a little louder, and deeper.
He pulls back as realisation dawns. Two voices. The ground is transmitting the soft sounds of a conversation between two people. Close enough to hear, but not close enough to understand.
Progeny swallows. And swallows again. He doesn’t know what this means. Father has said many times that he and Progeny were saved, no one else. Only the remainder continue above. But the remainder are sick, barely human. They don’t converse.
So if not the remainder, then who?
Progeny kneels on the wooden floor of the shelter, his aching legs complaining. Father’s lecture is longer than usual. He’s saying a lot without saying much. Progeny is tired of listening, and hurting, so he takes the risk, breaks the rule, and speaks out of turn.
“There are people living above us,” Progeny says.
Father’s rant ends mid-stream, his mouth gaping, his eyes wide with shock, and anger.
Progeny hurries on. “I’ve heard them talking. Who are they?”
Father stares at him for a long time, long enough for Progeny to wonder if Father has died on his feet. But then he blinks, speaks.
“Only the remainder live above. You must have mistaken their moans of pain for communication.”
“They were talking,” Progeny fires back. “You know, don’t you? You haven’t—”
But his accusation is interrupted by a blow from the wire. Progeny moans. Father swings again, hard. Progeny sucks in the pain, like inhaling foul air.
“The remainder are tricky, evil. They would tempt us to the surface to infect us. But we are strong, Progeny, we are strong. Have faith.”
Father’s face blooms with blood, his eyes narrow. And then he swings the switch—once, twice, three times. On the fourth, Progeny catches the wire in his hand and yanks it from Father’s grip. He rises to his feet and raises the switch menacingly.
“You’ve made an error. There are people up there,” he yells. “People like us, and yet we are down here. Why? What are you afraid of?”
Father puffs his chest out, stands more erect. “Progeny,” he says, “you speak out of turn and you will submit to re-education.”
Progeny narrows his eyes, maintaining the anger. The hand holding the wire quivers. He tenses, ready to punish Father, but then he hesitates, and in hesitation he is done. He sees the aged man before him. Progeny falters, and his hand lowers, his shoulders slump, his eyes turn downward, and he drops the switch to the floor with a clatter.
“Yes, Father,” he says. He moves toward the small door at the back of the shelter, drops to his knees and crawls through.
The hatch leads out into another tunnel, but the floor of this one has iron rails that snake into the blackness like a forked tongue. On them sits an old, rusted hand car. Progeny knows that this part of his home was a mine, once. A mine for what, he doesn’t know, and Father has never said.
Progeny sighs, steps up onto the car, and releases the brake. He takes hold of the heavy walking beam, and begins to pump it up and down, the hand car squealing loudly as it edges forward. A deeper darkness is soon the reward for his exertions.
Progeny knows this trip. He trusts the rails, and yet careering along the track has him on edge. The hand car moves fast, then faster. He feels air on his face, cooling the sweat that has beaded on his forehead. The squeaking wheels provide the soundtrack.
Eventually, a faint green glow appears ahead, then grows larger as the car races on. It is bright enough to make Progeny squint, but not so bright as to hurt his eyes like Father’s torch.
Progeny engages the brake and slows the car, which screams in protest, before stopping below the circle of light. Above him, in a crevice in the ceiling, a colony of glow worms writhe. They cast just enough light to illuminate the walls of the tunnel on which Father has hung photographs.
The first is black and white, a wedding photo of Mother and Father. In it, they both look happy, young, and carefree.
Next is a photograph of Progeny’s grandparents, also black and white. They were dead when Progeny was born, but Father has put the photo on the wall to remind Progeny of where he came from.
Next is the front page of a twenty year old newspaper, framed. “Mystery virus strikes down 1 in 4.” The subheading says that medical researchers are working around the clock to develop a vaccine.
Next are photos of the blockades, police in riot gear, officials in hazmat suits, panicked citizens pushing up hard against them.
There are more newspaper articles. “Quarantine zones established across the country.” “Armed forces enforce the quarantine.” “No progress with a cure.” Each is accompanied by grainy black and white photos, in which the people look more and more wretched, and frightened, and helpless.
There are also photographs of the tunnels, newer, but unmistakeably them. There is the store room, filled with goods, the cavern and pools, and one photograph of a narrow shaft going up, and up, and up toward the surface. That shaft doesn’t exist now. Progeny has searched, and he is certain that Father collapsed it many years before.
Last, there is a photograph of Father standing alongside Mother, who is heavily pregnant. They look as wretched and lost as the people in the newspaper articles. They stand near the storage room in the underground shelter. Mother has a wound near her lip. Something that could be mistaken for a cold sore, except it is not. Progeny knows that.
Progeny releases the brake and pumps the walking beam once more. The car rolls away from the shrine of history. Darkness descends again, the air whistling around him.
Progeny’s heart beats harder, and he can feel the steady pulse of blood pumping in his chest, up his neck, in his temples. His breathing comes fast, hard, ragged. He doesn’t want to finish the re-education. He wants to turn back, but he doesn’t. He is convinced Father would know, so he pushes on. Cutting through the darkness. Metal wheels on rails screaming.
Finally, the darkness morphs into gloom, and he swallows down the lump in his throat. He engages the brake again, and the car slows, then stops just before the end of the tunnel.
There, illuminated by light from another colony of glow worms, is a withered corpse tied to the wooden beams. Its head hangs limp against its chest, thin dirty hair covering the left side of its face. Of the right side, most of the flesh is gone. Instead, leathered skin hangs loose, a flash of white bone beneath a tear in the cheek. The clothes are tattered, and swim on the decayed remains. The corpse has been there so long it no longer reeks, but smells earthy, and of dust.
Progeny steps down from the car, approaches, then kneels before the corpse.
“Forgive me, Mother,” he says quietly. “I lost my patience with Father again.”
When Progeny arrives back at the shelter, he’s tired and sore. His arms ache from pumping the walking beam. His mind is a darting eel, swirling from one side to the other. He desperately wants to return to his tunnel, and sleep.
He engages the brake, and stumbles down from the car onto bare earth. He drops to hands and knees, and crawls back through the hatch of the shelter hoping desperately that the final admonishment is short.
The shelter is empty.
He shifts onto his haunches, surveys the room. Empty.
“Father?” he calls out. Nothing.
He is assaulted by a brief surge of nausea.
He knows exactly where Father has gone.
At the entrance of his tunnel, Progeny crouches and peers inside. It is quiet. Most of his tools remain outside, although the pickaxe is missing.
“Hello,” Progeny calls, the sound disappearing, then echoing back. “Father?”
He hears grunting, and in the distance sees wavering light. Progeny hunches low and moves along the flat part of the tunnel until he reaches the incline. Up ahead, he spies Father. He’s holding the pickaxe in one hand, and shining the beam of his flashlight toward the end of the tunnel with the other.
Father turns abruptly, and directs the torch at Progeny who winces in pain and shields his eyes with his hands.
“You,” Father snaps. Through narrow slits, Progeny sees Father marching toward him, head bent to avoid the low tunnel ceiling. “You would create a gateway for the damned into our sanctuary.”
Father is close now, and still he keeps the painful light on Progeny’s face. It feels like needles in his brain. Even after he shuts his eyes tight, the light gets in.
“I wanted to get closer, to listen,” Progeny says.
“You were tempted. You are tempted, you ignorant child. I let you dig and you toss that dirt casually over your shoulder and into my face. Up is damned.”
“But how do you know?”
“Because I lived it,” Father hisses. “Because I saw the people struck down. So many evil people. And good people, like your mother. But I saved you, and yet you show no faith in me. You want proof? You want to tunnel out, become infected and as you lay dying, say, ‘Yes, Father was right’?”
The light sputters, dies. Progeny doesn’t hear Father cranking the torch again, so he opens his eyes slowly. Father’s eyes sparkle with fury.
“It’s been so long, Father. They might have stopped the—”
Father cuts him off by cracking him hard across the cheek with his flashlight. Progeny sees lights again, his ears ring, and he tastes copper in his mouth where he has bitten his tongue.
“I should never have left you on your own for so long.” Father turns and moves awkwardly back up the tunnel. “You will cease tunnelling, and submit to further re-education.”
The words are a punch to the guts. Progeny stumbles after Father, banging his head painfully on a beam before ducking lower and pushing on.
“You will meditate on faith,” Father says as he reaches the last buttress and halts. Progeny stops too, just behind him. Father turns to address Progeny.
“You will once again come to recognise that hell waits in the open air, while sanctuary is provided by me, below.”
Father turns and swings the pickaxe at the wall, lodging it behind the support beam.
“No,” Progeny yells. Father levers hard, and the beam comes loose and clatters to the floor. It’s followed by a burst of soil. Father swings again, and the point of the pickaxe wedges behind the ceiling support. More dirt falls as he jerks the handle. The ceiling bulges, dirt trickles, but the beam holds.
Father yanks the pickaxe out and pulls it back over his shoulder, coiled and ready to swing. But before he does, Progeny lunges. He takes hold of Father’s arm, surprising himself. He fights for control, but Father’s grip is tight. Father grunts, twists, pulls.
“You will release me, boy,” he screams into Progeny’s face, spittle hitting him between the eyes.
“No,” Progeny says from between clenched teeth. “This is not your decision.”
Father wrenches, then pushes hard. Progeny loses his balance. Father seizes on his momentary advantage and shoves Progeny again, slamming him into the broken wall of the tunnel. The wind rushes from Progeny, but he refuses to let go. Dirt streams from the ceiling into his eyes, but he blinks it away. Father is close, leaning into him. His face is red, veins pulsing across his forehead.
“You’re just like her,” he screams. “Just like your mother. She wouldn’t listen. Just a few days more, she kept saying. A few days more. She had too much faith in the goodness of people. In their cleverness. Now look at her.”
Progeny notices tears in Father’s eyes. Shocked, he lets go, and Father stumbles backward, nearly trips, but manages to maintain his balance. He holds the pickaxe across his chest, breathing heavily. He eyes Progeny warily.
“I’m sorry, Father. But this is different.”
Father sighs, and Progeny watches the anger leave him. He suddenly looks very old, very frail. He clears his throat. “You’re all that I have left of her.”
Father says nothing more, and Progeny doesn’t know what to say. The silence builds as they watch each other. An uncomfortable, painful silence.
“I can’t,” Progeny eventually says. He speaks softly, slowly. “I can’t be your memory of her. I need to see for myself.”
Progeny watches his Father’s eyes harden, his mouth tighten into a thin line. Father roars, turns, and swings the pickaxe hard at the ceiling. And before Progeny can issue a warning, Father is lost under an avalanche of dirt, wood, dust, and debris.
Progeny dives away from the implosion, down the incline, slamming hard onto the sloped floor. He covers his head with his arms. The din of destruction fills his ears. Dirt and rocks strike at his back and legs, fast at first, but then slower. And then the noise dies away to a whisper as dirt continues to trickle from the damaged ceiling.
Progeny opens his eyes, squints to see through the dust. He pushes himself up off the floor, and turns to find Father half buried. His eyes are closed, and he has a large gash across his forehead. Dark blood runs past his ear and drips onto the dirt floor, which sucks it up greedily.
Progeny feels weak. He’s breathing hard, trying to still the panic. He moves closer, drops to his knees, a hand hovering over his Father, but he can’t bring himself to touch him. “Father,” he says.
The old man’s eyes spring open. He coughs, and sprays a fine red mist into the air. His breath gurgles in his chest. His eyes find Progeny. They’re wide, pained, scared. They move toward the broken ceiling.
It’s then that Progeny notices the breeze. A zephyr of cool air that is foreign, and confusing. And on it is a sweet scent that Progeny has never smelled before.
Progeny follows Father’s gaze up, and sees it. There’s a hole in the tunnel. And it leads outside. He looks back at Father, wide-eyed.
“Close the tunnel,” Father says. “Save us. Save yourself.”
“Promise me,” he wheezes. Blood bubbles from his lips. “Promise me you will heed your Father. This is how you protect yourself.”
But Progeny doesn’t believe that. He hasn’t for a long time. He can’t close himself off like Father has. But he doesn’t say that to Father.
“Yes, Father,” he says instead. He finally allows his hand to rest on Father’s chest, and then he waits. He waits until Father’s harsh breathing slows, then stops. He waits until Father simply stares up at the hole in the ceiling, unmoving.
Progeny feels numb, but also a little lighter. Father was the only person he ever knew. And in his way, Progeny thinks Father did care for him. But it’s also a relief to know that Father won’t demand anything from Progeny ever again.
Progeny closes Father’s eyes, rises to his feet, and climbs up the mound toward the opening.
The sky is unfathomable—black-grey, dotted with billions of lights that sting Progeny’s eyes, but he can’t stop staring. He feels like he is floating upward. He feels free.
There are strange sounds everywhere. Trills, whistles, a dull roar from far away. The world smells like a thousand cans of opened peaches, but better.
Progeny stands on soft, damp grass, trees surrounding him, the broken entrance to the tunnels at his feet. Nearby is a bench, and a colourful construction that confuses Progeny. It has a ladder, a small bridge, a pole, a slide. There is a long snaking pathway. It runs away toward a hard line of blackness that he understands from Father’s lessons to be a road. And past the road are houses. Real, honest to God, houses.
As he surveys his surrounds in wonder, the dull roar grows louder. Suddenly, through the trees he sees bright lights followed by a car. For a moment, he stands rooted to the spot, not thinking to protect his eyes, or hide. But then fear intrudes upon his stupor. He averts his pained gaze, collapses to the ground, spreadeagled, ready to crawl into the tunnels. But the car doesn’t stop. When he glances up, he sees that it is disappearing from view, the noise fading.
He berates himself for his cowardice. He rises slowly, and in a daze follows the path to the road.
Nothing is as Father said it would be. There are houses, all still standing. They have yards, full of greenery and bright flowers.
Progeny can’t reconcile the reality with the picture Father painted of the end of the world. Perhaps the remainder live on in the homes of the damned, keeping them neat. But Progeny doesn’t believe this. He thinks people live here. He thinks they found another way to survive.
He should find out for sure. He should approach a house, harden his resolve, and knock on the door.
But he doesn’t. Not just yet.
His attention is drawn by a strange, hairy creature, about knee high, that runs on all fours along the road toward him. It stops abruptly when it sees him, growls, turns, and disappears into one of the yards.
He hears more rumbling in the distance, more cars.
He moves farther down the road, looking from side to side, trying to decide which house looks the friendliest. But he’s squinting now. His eyes have begun to sting. It occurs to him that the world is changing. It’s getting brighter. He stops, peers up at the sky, and is shocked to see the colour has altered. What was black-grey is now grey-blue. And it hurts. He squeezes his eyes closed, tears beading in the corners. This isn’t right.
He opens his eyes a crack, turns, and sees the first hint of a shivering orange ball of fire rising up over the horizon. He screams as it imprints itself on his retinas. He jams his eyes shut again, but still the fire burns through his lids. That light is like a blow to the head.
He buries his fists into his eye sockets, rubbing furiously. He moves blindly now, stumbling in what he hopes is back toward the entrance to the tunnels, back to darkness. But he trips, falls painfully. He skins his knees and hands on the hard surface of the road. His eyes spring open involuntarily, and he’s blinded by that fire on the horizon. He screams again, clenches his eyes shut.
A door creaks open. He hears the soft pad of footsteps. And then from close behind, “Are you ok?”
He’s so shocked that he swings around wildly, and his arm hits something solid, jarring. Someone grunts and curses. Pain courses through his wrist, and still the light burns. But he realises he’s found a person. A real person. Because the remainder don’t speak.
“I can’t see,” he says in a rush. “I can’t see. Help me.”
But the person doesn’t respond.
Progeny hears more voices. He feels shadowy presences surround him, talking amongst themselves. He hears phrases like: “He might be sick,” and “Don’t touch him,” and “The police are on their way.”
The voices converge, and cover him with meaningless sounds. He no longer understands them. He’s confused, and in pain, and lost in the light.
Progeny waits in a small, white room. It’s been some time since his needle, but his arm still throbs. There’s a burning sensation snaking out from the puncture wound, up into his shoulder, down to his wrist.
The lights are on, and even though the needle lady gave him dark goggles, his eyes hurt. They feel gritty, and water constantly.
The door to the room creaks, drawing Progeny’s attention. It opens, and in walks a tall woman, greying hair, weathered face. A not unkind face.
“Hello, Progeny. My name is Doctor Gillian Reynolds. But please, call me Gillian,” she says. Her voice is husky, controlled.
Progeny regards her silently. He sits stiffly on the edge of his neat, white bed. The sheets crackle when he shifts his weight.
She walks past Progeny, and eases into the single armchair in the room. She looks relaxed, as if this is her room. It’s certainly not Progeny’s room. It feels like a prison. From one, into the next, he thinks.
“I understand this must be very confusing for you. It’s very confusing for us, so it must be confusing for you,” Gillian says. She offers a hint of a sad smile.
Progeny stays silent.
Gillian crosses one leg over the other. She’s holding a pen, which she begins to tap against her leg.
“We found your Father’s body. I’m very sorry for your loss,” she says.
“Why?” Progeny asks. He doesn’t look at her, he looks past her, toward the door. The door can’t be opened from the inside. He’s checked.
“I understand he mistreated you. That he kept you locked up down there. But he was still your Father.”
He doesn’t want to think about Father. He glances at her instead. Then he looks around the locked room. At the two-way glass. The camera in the ceiling. “When will you release me from here?”
Gillian smiles sadly. It is a knowing smile. A maternal smile.
“Five weeks at the earliest. But most likely longer than that.”
“Most likely longer,” Progeny repeats.
“Yes. You’ve never been vaccinated against the X23 virus, so you need to finish your course of injections. Your photophobia is extreme. You’ll need time and treatment to help you adjust to living with sunlight. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure you’re mentally fit for integration. For your safety, and ours.”
“So you’re protecting me?” Just like Father, he thinks.
Gillian hesitates, ceases tapping her pen. “You’ve been away a long time, Progeny.”
Gillian leans forward. “We found another body in the tunnels.”
Progeny tenses. The words sting as he sees his mother’s desiccated corpse. “That was my mother.”
Gillian doesn’t say any words, but her face says more than words could. Her eyes widen, her mouth forms a little o. She covers with a cough, then eases back into the chair. She begins tapping her leg again.
In that moment, Progeny knows he’s not leaving anytime soon. He doesn’t understand exactly why, but he knows. These people are not the mindless remainder that Father spoke of, but they’re not like him. He alarms them. And what Father did alarms them. He feels lost. Defeated.
He realises Gillian is speaking again.
“—meet once a day to discuss your upbringing and your life below ground. And your… parents,” she pauses, watching Progeny. He says nothing. “At the end of each session, you’ll be able to ask some questions about what has happened since you’ve been gone.”
Progeny remembers being on his knees in the shelter, hands on his head, waiting for his question. He shakes his head.
Gillian rises lithely out of the armchair. “It’s going to be okay, Progeny. This all feels strange now, I know. But I’m here to help. Engage with me fully, and we’ll have you ready to face the rest of the world in no time.”
He doesn’t look up as Gillian leaves. He can’t. Because he doesn’t believe her.
The next day, Gillian enters Progeny’s room brandishing a writing pad, a pencil, a sympathetic smile. Progeny lies in the bed with the crisp sheets. When he sees Gillian, he rolls away from her, stares at the wall. The sheets crackle as he moves.
“How are we today, Progeny?” Gillian asks.
He grunts, signifying nothing. His arm hurts. His eyes hurt. His chest feels tight and achy.
He hears Gillian moving. She walks around the end of his bed, and eases into the armchair. She exudes the faint scent of soap.
“I’m looking forward to finding out about you. About your life underground,” she says. “But before we start, do you have any queries for me?”
Progeny doesn’t say anything for a while. He’s caught between wanting to snap at Gillian, and wanting to ignore her. Finally, he says, “Do you enjoy this?”
“Enjoy what, Progeny?”
“Keeping me locked up. Torturing me.”
“I don’t believe that is what we’re doing. I’m here to assess your mental state of mind. And then to help you adjust, and to integrate into our society.”
Progeny huffs, but says nothing. Gillian waits. When she realises that Progeny will say nothing further, she adds, “How we progress is up to you, Progeny. Now, tell me something about you. What do you first remember? Were you born above, or underground?”
Progeny closes his eyes. His mouth tightens into a thin line. He refuses to respond.
Gillian waits. She lets the silence build. But Progeny doesn’t mind. He’s lived in silence. He’s comfortable there.
After what seems a long time, Gillian pushes up out of her chair, a knee clicking as she moves. Progeny hears her walk back to the door, knock. After a moment, it opens. She hesitates, then says, “Let’s try again tomorrow.”
Then she’s gone.
Progeny ignores Gillian the next day, and the day after that. He takes joy in the tone of annoyance that creeps into her inquiries. It is a small win, he thinks. Petty, but something.
He takes further joy in her absence the following day. And the day after that.
But his joy doesn’t last. Left by himself, he realises that with Gillian’s company, or without, he’s still stuck in this room. At least underground, he had space to move, to fish, to dig. But in here, all he has is questions, and needles, and lights that sting.
There’s something dark forming inside him. Something cavernous. He’s worrying at it, giving it form. A tunnel of his own making.
“What do you remember of your mother?” Gillian asks. She sits in the armchair again, watching Progeny watch her. He’s hunched over, perched on the end of the bed. It’s late evening. His dinner remains untouched on a tray on the bedside table. The once earthy scent of the soup is morphing into something rancid as it cools.
Progeny stares blankly for a long time through his dark goggles. He shifts his gaze beyond Gillian, to focus on a stain on the wall. He licks his lips. Reluctantly, he speaks. Slowly. Petulantly. “I remember her corpse. Her bones. She smelt like dust.”
Gillian nods, her pencil makes scratching noises as she moves it across her writing pad. “What about before she died?”
Progeny snorts a mirthless laugh. “Nothing.”
“I see. What about your father then? What was he like?”
Progeny flinches. He feels the sting of the switch under his arm. He hears Father’s yells. He watches him disappear under the collapse of the tunnel.
“He was like you.”
“You and your kind. He also locked me up and told me it was for my benefit.”
Gillian frowns. “What else did he do? What did you talk about with him? What did he teach you?”
He sneers, opens his mouth to answer. But then he sees Gillian watching him, waiting, her pen poised above the pad. And he suddenly imagines her sitting in that chair for many years to come. Repeating this performance. Day after day. His bravado falters. Tears well, his lips quiver. He feels like he is falling.
“Please,” he croaks, “Let me go. I won’t tell anyone. Please. I can’t cope in here anymore.”
Gillian sighs, cocks her head. Progeny thinks she intends to look sympathetic. She looks condescending. “I’m sorry. I am, but—”
“Let me go, god damnit,” Progeny yells suddenly, jumping down from the bed, fists clenched with impotent rage.
At first, Gillian’s face shows shock. But then it becomes something else. A cold expression. A hard expression.
She rises from the armchair, turns and carefully places her pencil and pad on the seat of the chair. She moves to the door, knocks, and after a moment it opens. At first, Progeny thinks she is leaving him. But then she holds the door ajar, looks back at Progeny, and says, “Come with me.”
His eyes widen. But his legs quickly move.
Progeny follows Gillian out into a sterile, white corridor. The sound of her shoes on the linoleum seems loud to Progeny. He licks his lips, and watches her walk away. The corridor is dimly lit. It smells of disinfectant. He waits for the men to grab him, to shove him back into his room. He waits, but they don’t appear. And so he hurries after Gillian.
At the end of the hall is an elevator. Gillian swipes a key card, waits.
“Where are we going?” Progeny asks, his fury left back in his room. He’s certain she’s not releasing him, and yet he hopes.
“Up,” Gillian says.
The elevator doors open with a ding, and Gillian steps inside. Progeny follows. The scent is human, stale. What is this? he wonders.
A short ride, and the doors open. Gillian steps out of the lift and makes a hard right. When Progeny follows, he finds her already climbing a metal staircase, her footfall clanging.
Gillian waits for him at the top, in front of a door. When he catches up to her, she says, “Are you ready?”
But she doesn’t allow him time to respond. She wrenches the door open and Progeny is assaulted by light. Not the sun, it’s not that bright, but it still hurts, even with the goggles. He clamps his eyes shut, turns his head away, but Gillian grabs him by the wrist and, with gentle force, guides him through the door.
He instantly notices eddies of air around him, and knows he is outside. The air smells acrid and oily, not like before. And then there is the soundtrack. A strange, loud chorus of roaring, and honking.
“Look,” she demands. “This is what you wanted, so look.”
Slowly, hesitantly, he allows his eyes to open a crack. The artificial light comes from monolithic structures that reach up into the sky like the roots of an upside down tree. They’re mostly glass. And they glow with checkerboard patterns of light and dark.
When his eyes follow the tallest tower up to its highest point, he sees the black of the night sky beyond. But there is barely a star to be seen here. When he looks back down below, he sees strips of neon. And in between, parallel lines of white lights, and red, moving slowly like two giant eels swimming in opposite directions. That is where the honking and roars come from. It’s all unpleasant. Overwhelming. He doesn’t know where to look. Or how to block out the noise.
Gillian releases his arm. His legs wobble, but he keeps his balance. He turns his back on the city. Thankfully, looking the other way, he finds less light. And what lights there are, are diffused, mainly located at ground level, but spreading outward for miles, and miles.
“This is the world, Progeny,” Gillian says, drawing his attention. “You really think you’re ready for this?”
“If we let you go, where would you go?” she asks. She’s speaking with a firm tone, enunciating each word. He opens his mouth, closes it. He glances back uncertainly at the city. It retains its chaotic splendour.
“Do you have family? Or friends here? We haven’t found any, but perhaps you know better?”
He swallows, shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“Where would you live?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“People need to work to survive in the city. If you work, you make money so you can pay for a home, and food. Did your father explain this to you?”
“Then what would you do? What skills do you have?”
He shakes his head again. He feels tears stabbing at his eyes. He blinks hard to hold them back. “I can dig,” he offers quietly.
She exhales for a long time, like all of the air in her lungs is tainted and she wants to be done with it. “Progeny, you are a ward of the State. We are responsible for you both here and out there. I don’t gain from keeping you here forever. But I would be failing my duty if I released you to become homeless and to starve. My job is to prepare you for life outside. But this,” she says, with a sweeping arm gesture toward the city, “is beyond you right now. Jesus,” she hisses, “let me help. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not your father.”
All Progeny can think about are stars, or the lack of them. He glances up again and wonders where they have gone. He remembers the millions of pinpricks of light he saw when he first rose from the tunnels. A promise of something infinite. It’s there, he thinks. It must be. Out there. Somewhere. He regards Gillian again, and finds that her expression has softened.
“How we go from here is up to you, Progeny. You can ignore me, demand to be released before you are ready, and stay with us. Perhaps forever. Or, you can accept that this will take time, and then get to work.”
Progeny takes a breath, and takes one last lingering look up at the darkness. When he looks back at Gillian, he nods.