What follows is a revised "first chapter", though more accurately for my FictionPress readers, a revised first five or so chapters. I'm giving it a test run and am interested in how it compares to the previous version. I'd appreciate any feedback on which is better.
Oblivious. It was certainly an apt description, one that had been applied to Rose by nearly every person who'd cared to comment on her. Focused entirely on the subject of her microscope's eye, she hadn't even noticed her wristwatch beeping for the past two minutes, growing louder every second. It was only when the lab's synthetic lights began to flicker that she looked up and heard the alarm.
Homo umbra. Rose had been running tests on countless samples of the 'benign, odd little parasite'-as her father called it-all night. She'd irradiated it, exposed it to toxic air, boiled it, and applied every chemical the laboratory kept large stocks of. Most of the results would take all week to be ready, and would likely be useless. But nevertheless, she kept swabbing her the insides of her cheek and scraping her arms, collecting more and more samples.
The discovery of its existence had stumped the entire scientific team, something she was only too happy for. Not only did studying it take her mind away from more serious matters, it gave her a chance to prove her worth to the rest of the bunker's scientific team. She leaned over and pulled the subject log closer, making the old and unsteady table wobble. It was a long list of dates and corresponding notes, beginning with her father's October 19 2043 entry of "I've found something odd"-which had been crudely pasted into the first page of the book. She flipped through to the last used page, stapled the readout to it, and made a note at the first available line. June 1 2046: New samples responded to irradiation surprisingly well. Exposed to a concentrated form of the toxins in our air, homo umbra showed surprising resistance and minimal harm occurred. See attached readout.
The lab was empty-it was half past ten. Half past fucking ten!, she thought, cursing herself inwardly. All the lights but the one above her had been dimmed or shut off completely, the other assistants and scientists long since packed their bags. She'd missed dinner by three hours. Rose snatched up her lumpy, overstuffed duffel bag, swung it over her shoulder and bolted out of the laboratory a little unbalanced by the weight. Her stomach was growling with a sudden fierceness after being repressed all day. She pushed past the double doors and into the bunker's sole cafeteria, where a few unlucky insomniacs were chatting and poking at their synthetic 'food'. It wasn't her first time arriving to dinner late, although this was her record, and she reminded herself to thank the poor bastards for keeping the food service open. If it weren't for them, she'd be going to bed hungry most nights.
Rose set her duffel bag down carefully on one of the old tables and jogged towards the empty counter. There were only three choices, always the same. The "cooks" as they liked to call themselves-they were more technicians than cooks-enjoyed changing the names to try and fool some of the more hopeful types. Sadly, it worked a little too often. Placebo effect. Tell someone anything and there's a good chance they'll believe you and make it happen. Not fooled herself, Rose deliberated a moment before pressing the button for mashed potatoes and corn. A moment later, the usual TV-dinner style package popped out, unlabeled, and she returned to her table. Tearing the thin lid open, she peeked inside. Damn. It's original designation had been "Inspired By Cabbage", as if that were to make it seem somehow lovely, and it had been her least favorite meal all of her eleven years here.
Slurping down the slightly gooey green substance, Rose glanced towards the east door and the MEDICAL BAY sign above it, briefly considering visiting Lee. Going into the medical rooms was risky, of course, she never knew what sort of diseases were floating around. Besides, she reasoned, Lee seems upset with me. Better let her get over whatever it is. She nodded, pleased with her reasoning on the matter as if there had ever been any real desire to go through that door to begin with, and slurped down the rest of her "mashed potatoes and corn".
Next, Rose popped open her daily pill dispenser and a standard canister of rather murky looking water. With a sort of quiet urgency she swallowed each of her twelve pills one by one, reciting their names and beneficial purposes in her head. Calcium. Strengthens my bones. Only seven were required of bunker residents, but she wasn't the kind to take any chances with her health. Others might throw themselves into the hostile environment and hope for eventual adaptation, and that was fine and dandy for them, but Rose preferred to live. Though, looking around, anyone might have guessed she was the one with no interest in it. Looking death squarely in the face seemed to have a liberating effect on the bunker's residents: even the insomniacs were smiling. They lived in a life support system that was falling apart, encrusted with dirt and fading fast, and all they could do was smile. It baffled her.
She tugged out some disinfectant wipes from the bag, wiping her hands slowly as she eyed one of the Overseer's brutes watching her. She'd made the mistake of urging him to reintroduce mandatory reproduction. Apparently it was a bit of a soft spot for the refugees, but she hadn't expected such a reasonable man to react with such anger to her suggestion. Nobody looked forward to watching their newborns die minutes after birth, she knew that more than the Overseer would think. But continuing to bear children was the only possible way to even have a chance at adapting to their new, hostile environment.
One of the insomniacs walked by her, his feet scraping on the dirty cement floor and an inhaler held to his lips. She winced reflectively, remembering how only nine years ago that same dead-faced man-then a boy-had shoved her. She'd asked him for a kiss, and he'd been disgusted. Rose felt her insides twisting and her cheeks flaring with embarassment at her childhood antics. She had a sudden urge to stand and grab him, yank him by the shirt and pull him in to show him what he'd missed. She planned it out in her head as he entered his choice into the food machine, fingers twisting her lab coat and breath caught up in excitement. Maybe he'd even bed her, or the men of the bunker would finally notice her, and then she'd have a-
Beep, beep, beep!
Ten forty-five. Her test subject would be waking soon, and she needed to get to the outer layer. She sighed, pressed snooze, and caught him snickering at her out of the corner of her eyes. I don't want you either, sweat-stain.
"I've dyed the homo umbra cells blue, so you can tell them apart more easily from the human cells. You can see how the shadow cells are clear, and much smaller and simpler. They're an early life form, not very different from the bacteria we once evolved from."
Roswell clasped his hands behind him, respectfully standing back as the Overseer's wife peered into the microscope. She'd approached him in the halls-interrupting an intimate conversation with Dr. Romero, who now stood behind them impatiently. With the utmost politeness she'd asked to see the 'demon people' she'd been hearing rumors about. It had taken both of the scientists nearly ten minutes to assure her the rumors had gotten out of control, and the name simply came from the way the cells "shadowed" the DNA of their human hosts.
She had aged immensely since he'd last seen her, and with her back turned he saw how hunched over she was, how weathered her hands had become. Her hair had become salt-and-peppered, just like her husband's. It was only a week-long sickness. How bad could it have been?
She adjusted the microscope carefully, lips pressed tightly together. "Where did this sample come from?"
He frowned and checked the tag on the vial he'd taken the samples from. "Rose Thomas. That's my daughter."
Roswell nodded, then realized she wouldn't have seen the motion. "Yes. She was one of our first samples. We aren't sure how they spread, except that it takes a great deal of contact and time. We noticed it when we were testing air purifiers, and as you know she has asthma, so she was a test subj-"
"Why do they move so much?"
He froze a little, then excitedly stepped forward, pressing her carefully to the side. More than likely it was an error of inexperience, people tended to let their hands shake when they were viewing through the lens and that always made things jiggle. But…nevertheless, he snatched his thick old glasses off and pressed one eye to the microscope, careful to keep his hands and eye steady.
Only yesterday the same sample had consisted of the tiniest dark blue cells, so small even their microscope couldn't look closely enough. There hadn't been many, either, only a handful and quite a few dead. Now he had to zoom the microscope out-they still weren't as large as his daughter's skin cells, not by a longshot and would probably not be visible to the eye, but they had definitely changed. Blindly he groped along the lab table, pulling open a drawer and fishing around for a spare notebook. He pulled it out, and began scribbling away his observations with one hand.
They had stretched, so much so that the blue dye had spread thin and faded in certain areas. Adjusting the zoom slightly, he noted thin, almost imperceptible but still faintly blue lines crossing from the homo umbra cells to the homo sapiens. More on that later. The most notable change was the way they moved. Their lack of movement had stumped his team, as one of the simplest signs of life was movement. "What's changed, you little bastards?" he whispered,.
"Roswell…my husband wanted to speak to you about your daughter…"
Annoyed at her interruption, he snapped at her. "Not now! Can't you see how important this is?" Good god, he was always receiving useless apologies for Emilia's condition but now was the worst of times. He turned back to the microscope, scribbling away blindly and not noticing her silent departure.
Dr. Romero leaned over and put her hand on his shoulder. "Love, that can wait. We've other things to do, remember?"
Roswell didn't have a chance-how could he say no? He was a man. Science instantly forgotten in the name of pleasure, he turned and slid his hand around her waist. She wasn't sexy by any account. Hell, she wasn't even really easy on the eyes. But he was old and weary and full of pain, and she was lonely. They were a perfect match. She grinned wickedly and reached into his lab pocket, stroking his side through the starchy cloth. "You've seen Rose's latest little passive-aggressive notes?" she asked, kissing him along his stubbly neck. There had been a time when she would worry if her lover's daughter would become competition, but Rose had proved to be self-defeating. Now she took every chance she had to gloat.
Roswell's lip twitched at the mention, as it always did when she brought up his daughter. He nodded silently, stroking her cheek and pressing close for a kiss, but she avoided it. She had other interests.
"You don't think she'll ever come around and appreciate your air filters, will she? And she's been giving the Overseer trouble."
The scientist wasn't stupid, despite the way his thoughts had easily been muddled by her touch. Women, he'd decided long ago, were more interested in keeping a tight leash on their man than actually doing anything with them. So he nodded, resigned, and made a vague remark to settle her down before taking her roughly on the barely standing table.
When all was done, the two of them lay side by side and panted quietly. Goosebumps covered each of them-not from the sex, which had been unsatisfactory for both of them-but the icy steel they lay on. Out of politeness, neither moved. After a minute she pushed herself up onto her side and looked at him with her lonely eyes. "We never thought it would be like this, did we? I mean, I remember how everyone thought we'd go out with a bang. Nuclear holocaust, asteroid, pandemic, you know. We've always thought it would be sudden."
Roswell looked at her out of the corner of his eyes, fingers woven together over his stomach. "My wife..." he paused. "She was a journalist. She said the same thing." He reached up and scratched at his salt-and-pepper beard. "We knew, a lot of the scientists knew, that the pollution was getting out of control, resources were running out, the world was getting warmer..." He copied her, and pushed himself up, propping his head up to look at her carefully. She might not be Venus, but he was one of the few refugees he truly enjoyed talking to. "I found a report in my dissertation research, I forget where from, some prestigious research group? They told us we had until 2050." He chuckled at the naivete and optimism of that era. "I don't think they ever expected the air to turn against us so quickly."
Dr. Romero eyed him quietly, that intelligent mind of hers ticking away. "Would you have preffered it? The quick death?"
The old scientist frowned, scratching his beard, unsure what to answer. If his daughter was to believed, they could survive after all. Suddenly and without warning he sprung up, buckling his pants and sliding his arms through his lab coat. "I'd like to see my daughter."
"Rose?" she asked accusatorily.
Roswell shook his head. "Emilia." Suspicion clouded her eyes, but she reluctantly dressed and followed him out the laboratory doors, through the cafeteria doors and finally into the medical bay.
The clinic's fluorescent lights had a nasty little habit of flickering just enough to drive most patients mad, but not enough to really interfere with most medical work. It was a fluke, a glitch in the power system, though not necessarily a bad one. A little power was diverted from the lights and into the medical equipment instead of from the power grid, meaning…nothing at all, really. But it gave the eerie impression that the medical equipment could fail at any moment.
Emilia Lee Thomas never worried about such things. She had asked a nurse once as a child, when she'd first come to the medical center, but the answer had been clear and satisfactory. She felt no need to continue asking as the other patients did. Though, she had to admit as she lifted a silvery-blonde hair strand from her sketchbook, it got rather annoying when one had work to do. And indeed she did. She glanced over the paper at the older man in the bed across from her, his face contorted in silent pain and his body arched and stiff. Tetanus. She'd noticed an increase in cases in the last week, it had resulted in quite a few names crossed off in her list of names. Thirty-three refugees left. She felt the words appear in her mind, unbidden, and whispered them as they appeared.
All things considered, they were actually doing pretty well: eleven years spent in a bunker that had been rushed and half-made. They'd only lost sixty-seven, and most of that had been to uncontrollable factors, like the illness that had taken her mother. Emilia closed her sketchbook as the man was pushed away on his medical bed, his heart monitor wailing in monotone. She glanced over to the bed next to her, where a somewhat attractive man was sleeping. She leaned over, a dangerous act for someone like herself, and gently brushed his hair from his eyes-just before her father's hand reached out and pushed her back into bed.
Emilia looked up to see his usual stern, aging face. Brightening up considerably, she gave the old man an ear-to-ear grin and pulled away her inhaler to speak.
Roswell winced at his daughter's reaction to him, and reluctantly conceded her attempt at a hug. She was his oldest daughter, mid-twenties, tall and lanky, though most would be fooled since she never got out of bed or acted her age. He glanced down at the sketchbook in her lap. What her fascination was with drawing the dead, he'd never understand. Though he supposed it was an easy way to practice when stuck in the hospital. He smiled a little and placed his hand on the top of her hand, picking the book up and feigning interest. Dr. Romero leaned over, pretending to fascinated with the drawing, and he set it down gently in her lap again.
She was beaming, delighted by even the tiniest of gestures. "Nobody's visited me in months, I was starting to think you'd all forgotten about me. But you're all very busy, I know." She smiled and looked at Dr. Romero, shyly extending a pale, thin hand to shake.
"Good evening Miss Romero."
"Doctor Romero," came the sharp reply. Roswell gave the woman a reproachful look, noticing the slightly wounded expression on his eldest daughter's face.
Biomasks. They're about the most useful things in the world, and Rose was proud to say they had been developed by none other than her own father. Well, not quite, she admitted to herself, swinging a duffel bag over her shoulder which contained just the object of her musings. He'd assisted. But there certainly wasn't anyone more vital to its development than the man who'd said they'd need one in the first place, right? He may as well have made it all himself.
They were funny looking things, similar for the most part in design to those antique gas masks you'd see in retro art and movies. Rose wasn't sure what sort of gas might be more dangerous than the air itself, but she supposed people had just been paranoid in the 20th century.
She gave a soft laugh and rose from her seat, sweeping up her tray and depositing it in a recycling bin. They might have been paranoid back then, but if she'd learned anything by watching her parents' futile attempts to warn the world, it was that people no longer really cared about anything. Global warming? Meh. Rocket fuel in the water? Meh. Serious possibility of asteroids hitting the earth? Double meh. It was something she could never understand. She spent her entire childhood terrified of every threat there was, and no one else ever cared. Humanity had doomed itself.
Still, despite their suicide behavior, Rose was one of them, and that meant this had to be done.
There was a sort of "outer layer" around the bunker, a hall stretching around the refuge which had been temporarily sealed off. It wasn't forbidden, exactly, but the air there wasn't filtered and was nearly as dangerous as the air outside. No one wanted to go there, besides girls on suicidal missions.
Rose stopped just outside the doors and dropped her bag gently on the ground, tugging the zipper open and pulling it open. She pushed an inhaler out of the way and gripped the biomask with two hands, lifting it out slowly and letting out a slow breath. Damn, these things are heavy. Careful not to tilt her head back lest she break her neck, she lowered it over her head and tightened the straps through her hair.
Almost done. She'd been setting the experiment for months: it had taken two just to acquire the biomask, and three more to acquire the sedatives, and one to acquire the test subject. The poor thing was just a few months old, one of the other assistants' litter of pups. She'd had to go through a great deal to get it, including a little breaking and entering. She'd have used swine if any were available, but the only animals that had been allowed into the bunker had been dogs. Specifically, a sweet little family of Labradors. Sedating the dear thing had been hard on her, she'd almost abandoned her experiment then and there. After all, if she couldn't even sedate it, how could she do what she was now about to do? But then like a godsend, or perhaps an angel on her shoulder, her conscious gently nudged her on, reminding her of her solemn duty to mankind.
Almost as if she'd summoned it, Rose felt that same presence now tugging at her, bidding her to continue. She smiled, encouraged, and slowly opened the large, ventilated metal box. Inside lay the little specimen, fast asleep, his paws kicking and eyes closed. Dreaming. She had already carefully noted it's weight, gender, breed, dimensions, all the usual measurements. All that was left was to see if her technique had paid off.
She set the pup on the ground, glanced at her watch-should be waking up any minute now -and fished around in her pocket for the prize of two years' worth of work. She blinked, realizing she hadn't named it. Ah well, plenty of time once they're thanking me for it.
It had been inspired by the common inhaler, something she was all two familiar with, but the point of this modded device was not to make breathing easier, but more difficult. Excursions into the outer layer were only good for one thing: poisoning yourself. Or, more specific to her task, gathering that toxic aerosol mix of pollution, radiation and dust. Such a prize! Once she'd managed to dilute the poisons and with quite a bit of effort, make them useable through inhalers. By slowly releasing small quantities of the poisonous air, she was hoping to build up the pup's resistance, which theoretically could work on humans-problem was, the dogs built up more resistance than the humans, otherwise she wouldn't have a puppy in the first place.
Rose sighed, scratching at her hair, and waited for the dog to finish making a mess in the corner before she scooped him up. If her theory worked on dogs, it might not work on humans-she'd have to test it, first, and convince someone to let her introduce it in a human.
She smiled, noticing its tail was wagging, then readjusted the straps on her biomask.
"Don't get your hopes up, pup."
She took a deep breath, then dialed her father's passcode into the lock. There was a click, then a green light peeked at her before fading out-a good thing, too, since even the tiniest extra use of energy might alert the technicians. With one motion, she pushed the double doors open and stepped into the strange light, the doors closing with a soft thud. Time to prove I'm right.
Synthetic light is nothing next to the brilliance and crispness of true sunlight, and when you've spent eleven years of your life under the former, you never seize to be surprised by the brilliance of the latter. The outer layer had not been sealed, and so years of acidic rain had taken a toll on the metal shell. Light bled through in bits and pieces, and an entire corner had collapsed a few yards down.
Within moments of his being carried into the outer layer, the pup began to let loose a god-awful, ear-piercing whine that nearly made her turn back there and then. She kneeled on the metal floor, her motion sending up a cloud of dust, and set him down as gently as she could before readying her notebook.
She scribbled fast, not looking down at the paper, eyes and ears attentive to the pup.
Eyes watering. Spots of red appearing at-she checked her watch -two minutes and three seconds in. Still breathing, but wheezing and whining. Has not collapsed yet-she glanced down to correct her pen's position-usual signs not yet present. Two minutes and thirty-four seconds in. No collapse.
She couldn't help a grin from spreading across her lips, despite the seriousness of the task. Even if the pup didn't survive, he'd done so longer than she would have thought possible. The polluted air had taken down grown men within thirty seconds, and here a puppy was surviving several times that. Rose reached out and gave him a little reassuring scratch under the ears, her lips tight. Three minutes and twenty-nine seconds. Beginning to wobble, collapse imminent. Four minutes and seventeen seconds, collapsed. Wheezing louder. Death an eventuality.
Five minutes and nine seconds, test subject one is deceased. Has surpassed all estimates. Her eyes watered, and she very gently lifted the limp thing from the ground, running her finger along its soft fur. If sedating and killing the poor thing had been hard, dissecting it and going through its lungs and veins and heart would kill her. She gently tugged a white cloth from her duffel bag, wrapping it around the corpse before easing it into the metal container-now turned coffin.