The weathered metal door slid open, hissing with released pressure after so many years of being sealed. Aiden Fielding stepped back from the exposed wiring in the control panel beside the door, shielding his face with his arm as the dry air rushed past him and out into the daylight.

He pulled down the cotton bandana covering his mouth, moist from his breath, and sniffed the last of the escaping air. It was stale, but seemed breathable enough. He clicked on his flashlight, pointing the shaft of light down into the darkness. Only a spiral metal staircase was visible, descending into the inky blackness of the facility.

‘What do you reckon?’ Aiden said, kneeling by his border collie, Hitch, and patting his black and white fur. ‘There could be something good down there.’

The dog crouched low and prowled towards the open doorway, his brown eyes wide as he stared into the darkness. He quickly backed away from the doorway a few steps and sat on his haunches.

‘Well it took me long enough to get the damn door open, so one of us has to go down there.’ Aiden looked at the foreboding darkness, then back to the dog. ‘I vote you,’ he said.

Hitch dropped his muzzle to his paws and whined softly.

‘Fine,’ Aiden said, rising as he removed his thick sunglasses and ran a hand through his slack brown hair, ‘but you’re staying here to keep a lookout then.’

Feeling a tingling in his limbs, he jostled his backpack higher on his shoulder and pulled the collar of his green field jacket closer around his neck. He took one last look around the haunting area surrounding the facility: the hush of falling leaves, the muted colours, the desiccated corpse by the entrance still grasping a rusted revolver. Even once-familiar sounds seemed warped out here, as if echoing from a great distance.

He rested his hand on the pistol at his belt for reassurance as he stared into the gloom of the facility. In truth, he had no idea what could be down there. Was it the source of the strangeness in this place?

There was only one way to find out.

He griped his flashlight and stepped through the doorway, starting his descent. Each footstep caused the metal steps to reverberate, and he tried not to think about the floor collapsing beneath him. Reaching out with his fingers, he brushed the concrete walls. Cool and smooth to the touch. Light bulbs were set into alcoves behind wire mesh every few metres, but there was no sign of any way to turn them on.

Eventually he stepped off the staircase deep underground, finding himself in a corridor which stretched out ahead of him into darkness. His flashlight flickered uncertainly. He cursed and hit it against his palm until the beam was strong again. He’d put off trading for new batteries for far too long now, and he was regretting it.

Aiden advanced along the corridor cautiously, his steps throwing up motes of dust which drifted through his flashlight’s yellow beam. There were square metal doors leading off the corridor, but they were all sealed tight. He examined a few of them closely but found no visible opening mechanism.

Continuing on, he came across a door that was jammed open by a fallen briefcase, its paper contents spilled to the floor. He squeezed himself into the crack and heaved all of his weight against the sliding door until it budged enough for him to fit through.

A set of lockers were lined up neatly against one of the walls of the room, while a plain metal table stood in the centre with loose sheets of paper scattered across it. Taking a quick glance at them, Aiden saw a lot of print-outs covered in indecipherable text. One of the documents contained a rough map of the continent with a series of scattered dots. At the top of the page was a broken shield icon alongside the heading ‘Protocol 62: Project Solace.’ Unable to interpret the documents, he folded them and slipped them into his pocket anyway. Maybe he could make more sense of them in daylight.

He moved to the lockers and searched through them, forcing open the handful that were locked with the knife sheathed at his belt. He collected his findings on the table, holding his torch between his teeth as he picked through the equipment: a pair of old Colt 1911 pistols, probably military, both in good condition from what he could make out in the low light. There was also a sheathed knife with a green plastic handle, an old softshell jacket with an ID badge in one of the pockets, and a handful of other assorted items including a first aid kid, a small notepad, and some pens. Kendal, his fence in Kiln Commons, would be interested in the firearms, and he could probably trade the other bits at the town’s market for a few extra tokens. He stashed everything inside his pack and moved on.

Squeezing back through the gap, Aiden returned to the empty corridor and continued forward. He passed more sealed doors until he finally came to a dead end and a set of hulking double doors. He knocked on the metal surface, a deep resonating sound. Set into the concrete wall beside them was some sort of black box. Examining it, he noticed an LED inside, faintly glowing red. He poked at it, but there was no response. There must still be power down here. Maybe the facility had its own generators somewhere.

A violent thumping noise echoed along the corridor.

Aiden spun around, frantically shining his light back into the darkness. The noise grew more intense, the thumping coming faster and faster. Then his flashlight flickered and died completely, leaving him totally blind.

He dropped into a crouch and scrambled in his pack for a glow stick as the source of the noise approached. His fingers closed around one of the tubes and he cracked it, shaking it to life. He knelt motionless, one hand resting on his pistol as he strained to see in the dim green bloom. The noise was all around him now, but he still couldn’t see the source.

Then it ended, just as suddenly as it had started.

In the quiet that followed, the only sound was Aiden’s fast breathing. Standing, he checked around and caught sight of one of the pipes which ran along the low ceiling vibrating in its fixings. He rubbed his forehead and blew out his cheeks in relief. It seemed the plumbing refused to quit, even after being forgotten for so many years.

He took a second to compose himself, taking a deep breath of the musty air. When his heart rate subsided a little, he turned his attention back to the box beside the doors. It was doubtful the electronics had deteriorated in this sealed environment. He peered at the box again, and this time without the beam of his flashlight he could just detect a faint digital display below the red LED.

‘SECURITY CLEARANCE REQUIRED.’

Aiden swung his pack down and rooted through it until he found the softshell jacket from the lockers. He searched the pockets again and removed the ID card. Holding the glow stick to it, he saw a photo of a smiling acne-faced man wearing a white lab coat. The name read Ian Fletcher, and a faded barcode ran across the bottom. Aiden replaced the jacket, shouldered his pack, and held the keycard up to the black box.

His hunch was right and the red LED flicked to green. There was a low-pitched grinding sound, and the double doors scraped open with a dramatic hiss causing him to jump back in surprise. He had no idea why there would be such a heavy-duty door inside a sealed bunker, but whatever was being protected must be worth the effort it took to get inside.

The doors slid apart to reveal some kind of control room. A couple of fluorescent tubes flickered to life overhead while a third only managed to strobe half-heartedly. Rows of unpowered control panels were lined up to face a giant, black screen which dominated the far wall. Under the screen was a station with a monitor, small and unobtrusive, but the only one in the room that looked to be powered.

Aiden walked up and down the rows, keeping an eye out for anything of value. More print-outs covered with meaningless graphs and figures littered the panels. A few coffee mugs lay overturned on the floor leaving stains where the contents had spilled before evaporating. Whoever was here before the place had been locked down must have left in a hurry. Finding nothing of interest, Aiden approached the working terminal under the large screen. It showed a simple command line interface, with a flashing cursor.

‘AUTHORISATION GRANTED. PLEASE CONFIRM PROTOCOL ACTIVATION. Y/N.’

Beside the terminal was a bank of switches, and protruding from the centre was a square plastic lid covering a socket. He flipped the lid open and saw a black object inserted into the machine. Underneath was a button labelled EJECT in red and yellow lettering. Aiden pushed the button, and the object slid out of the machine with a whirr.

A new message flashed up on the screen.

‘ERROR. DECODER MISSING. PLEASE SELECT MENU COMMAND OR REINSERT TO CONTINUE.’

Aiden picked up the ejected artefact, turning it over in his hand. It was a cylinder roughly the size of his thumb, with one end metal, notched like a key, and the other flaring into a black plastic handle. Printed along the handle was a string of characters that could have been a serial number, and above it the same broken shield symbol as he had seen on the documents.

He slipped the artefact into his pocket, then returned his attention to the monitor. Using the keyboard, he flicked through some of the options in the menu but all the technical jargon went way above his head.

He tried typing a message. ‘Hello? Anybody there?’

The text printed on the screen and moved up as he hit the enter key. The cursor blinked at him accusingly as he waited for a response.

After a few seconds, the error message repeated. ‘ERROR. DECODER MISSING. PLEASE SELECT MENU COMMAND OR REINSERT TO CONTINUE.’

Aiden kept typing. ‘The world ended. People suffer alone now. Is there any civilisation left out there?’

There was still no response, just the same error message.

Aiden rubbed his stubbled face, a sudden wave of fatigue washing over him. The glow stick was fading now and he wasn’t sure how much longer it would last. He decided he had seen enough and turned back, walking past the dark monitors and out into the corridor.

He pulled out the ID card and held it over the sensor again, causing the double doors to grind closed as he had found them, then hurried along the passage. He made his way back up the metal staircase to the surface and emerged into the daylight.

He tossed the spent glow stick aside and took a deep lungful of fresh air, if the sepia-tinted sky and smell of decaying vegetation could be called fresh air. Still, it was an improvement over the stale, enclosed space of the facility below. Hitch was still sat by the entrance, tail wagging as he spotted Aiden stepping out.

‘No trouble then?’ Aiden said as he bent down to scratch behind the dog’s ear. Hitch barked in response and sniffed curiously around Aiden’s boots.

Moving to the exposed panel he had used to short the door mechanism, Aiden slotted the panel casing back into place, then he wedged the heavy door shut. The door wasn’t sealed anymore, but it should fool anyone who wasn’t looking too closely. For now though, he just wanted to get away from this eerie place that set his hair on end.

He pulled his bandana up over his face and slipped on his sunglasses as the daylight burned his night vision away. Whistling for Hitch, Aiden left the facility behind and headed towards the small wood in the distance where they had set up camp the previous night.

* * *

 

The wind swelled, scattering the carpet of leaf litter underfoot as Aiden walked. The atmosphere surrounding the underground bunker was suffocating, oppressive even, and he hurried on eager to leave the peculiar area behind. As he gained distance, he started to feel more at ease and the metallic taste on his tongue gradually faded.

He followed the stone markers he had left to guide himself back to the camp he had pitched the previous night. As he neared the familiar cluster of trees, he caught sight of fresh tracks and slowed his pace. Kneeling down to examine them, he saw two, maybe three sets of footprints leading into the trees. He drew his pistol and whistled softly to Hitch who pricked his ears up and moved to heel.

The thick limbs of the trees above swayed in the wind, their rustling leaves and creaking branches the only audible sounds as Aiden crept towards the small clearing. He scanned the area but found no one there. The tarpaulin he had rigged as a shelter lay fluttering on the ground, slashed to ribbons. Picking through the camp, Aiden found none of the gear he had left behind to lighten his load during the scavenging trip into the bunker. His old blanket, maps, notebook, whetstone, gun cleaning kit, plus all of his food and water. All of it gone.

He had put effort in to concealing the camp, even digging a fire-pit to hide the light and smoke from his fire, yet thieves had still found it. They must have discovered his tracks and followed them back there. He cursed himself for being so complacent. Being almost a day out from Kiln Commons he had assumed the chances of running into anyone were slim.

He thrust his pistol back into its nylon holster on his belt and stared at the tracks leading out of camp. The thought of thieves handling his gear made him seethe with anger and he took a deep breath to calm himself. Getting frustrated wasn’t going to help the situation, it was just a waste of energy.

He set about cleaning the camp, removing any evidence of his time spent there. Hitch sat nearby, watching with tilted head as Aiden filled the fire-pit with earth, scattered leaf litter, and salvaged the cord he had used to tie the now ruined tarpaulin. It was an old habit, leaving no trace, but it served to do more than just take care of what little nature was left. It also hid his movements from any opportunistic raiders who might be interested in tracking his whereabouts.

When he was finished, Aiden took a seat on a nearby stump and checked the condition of his weapons, as he made a habit of doing. He carried a Glock 17, a pre-Dawn semi-automatic pistol constructed from corrosion resistant black polymer and anodised steel. Attached to the end of the barrel was the silencer he had crafted himself from oversized PVC pipe, painted black to match the gun. He had purchased the firearm a few years ago from an old world goods trader in The Rim. It had cost him six hundred tokens, a small fortune that could have fed a family for an entire year, but Aiden considered it a worthy investment to own such a reliable weapon. Most people these days defended themselves with firearms built from scrap, unreliable and just as likely to injure the shooter as the target they were fired at.

Next he unsheathed the large utility knife on his hip and tested the blade. Following a previous incident when he had drawn a dull knife, snagging it on his sleeve as a bandit charged at him shrieking murder, he now carried a long scar across his left forearm. He had learned to look after his knives properly since that day.

Around his neck on a string, he carried the small folding knife that he once gave to his wife, Kate, before her passing. He rarely used it these days, instead keeping it as a reminder that his life wasn’t always a struggle to survive. Though it seemed like a different lifetime now, he had been happy once.

With everything packed, Aiden hefted his pack onto his right shoulder and set off. He was unable to use both straps these days due to the pain he still suffered from a gunshot wound years ago. The injury had almost killed him, but he had survived thanks to the good will of Fenton and his Kinship.

Aiden again studied the tracks the thieves had left. They had made no effort to hide their steps through the soft mud, which meant they were either confident or clueless. Both could be equally deadly. So when the tracks led to a mud-churned trail, Aiden followed it cautiously as Hitch loped around in the undergrowth nearby.

Within an hour, Aiden came to a large clearing. A hill rose out of the centre, and at the top of the slope stood a large three-storied house. The building looked to be in disrepair: weeds grew up the wooden walls, and the white paint was faded and peeling in places. Beside the main door, a large coiled snake with oversized fangs was spray painted onto the wall in dark red.

Aiden recognised the symbol. This was Red Hill Vipers territory. A band of raiders led by an infamously sadistic woman with a disfiguring birth mark on her face. The group terrorised and snatched people from the outskirts of Kiln Commons. If the stories were to be believed, and they didn’t seem too far fetched, it was usually to serve them up for dinner.

Aiden took a seat on a fallen birch just inside the tree line. Hitch sat beside him, grass-stained and panting happily as Aiden studied the house. Most of the windows had sheets across them, but watching the few that didn’t, he saw no movement. It told him nothing of what waited inside though, and he knew walking away would be the smart choice. The risk was just too great. Just as he was convincing himself to leave, the image of the thieves disrespecting his gear came to him again and he cursed softly, knowing he couldn’t let it go.

‘Come on, it’s time to go get our stuff back,’ Aiden said, standing and drawing his pistol. He racked the slide back to cock the weapon, stretched his neck to each side, then began striding up the hill with Hitch following close behind.


Solace Within is available on Amazon: bit.ly/solace within