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E.O.T.M 1.1 – Part 1, ‘A Red Sky’
I lowered my boot and walked through the threshold of the rusted entryway - It was dark. While my headlamp was usually plenty bright enough to cut through most darkened areas, it did nothing for me in this situation. There was just too much dust and mold in the air for me to see correctly. I mean, I could see the flickering lights of the computer hardware lining the walls, but for all intents and purposes, I might as well have been blind.
Stepping over the debris that littered the concrete floor, I blindly felt across the wall for my salvation… and found it. A light switch. I flicked it up and waited for a few seconds as the room filled with the dim glow of amber light. I was finally able to survey the situation. I shifted my gaze from one side of the room to the other, devastation slowly sweeping over me. This was going to be a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would.
“They are trying to kill me. I knew it. I fucking knew it. They sent me all the way to this godforsaken place to die like a dog.” My words came out muffled from behind the mask of my breathing apparatus.
Hearing footsteps and the ruffling of a protective suit from behind me, I whipped around.
“Easy, Haku. You know it’s just me…”
The muffled voice belonged to my companion, Alex. After a few moments of making her way around the debris, she put a thumb in her bullet-proof vest and approached me with the swagger that the title of ‘Guard Captain’ offered her.
“…Also, did you have to kick in the door?”
Ignoring her presence, I turned my attention back to the hardware and gave a half-assed answer.
“It needed some persuasion.” – A simple way of me saying that the door was rusted, the lock was clogged up with soot, and a size 10 utility boot was the only answer.
“Ugh… fine. So, what do you think?”
“The reason why we’re here, obviously.”
At this, I remained silent. I wanted to be as calm as humanly possible, and I knew that if I opened my mouth for even a split second, I’d fly into a rage. It was apparent however that Alex wouldn’t let this fly. She could see exactly what I thought about the situation just from looking at my eyes.
“Come on, Haku. Don’t be like that. It’s not that bad is it?”
I shook my head.
“Can you not see this, Alex?” I waved my arm past all the equipment. “I expected something an eighth of this size. There’s no way in hell I can figure out what’s wrong with it in time. The administration should have sent a team down here, not just me!”
Amused by my anger, she teasingly cocked her head to the side.
“Oh~? Are you telling me that the skills of the great ‘Chief of Technical Services’ have been trumped by a mere weather station?”
Hearing this, I realized that she lacked a critical piece of information. I took in a deep breath, unbuckled the oxygen meter that led to my tank from my shoulder strap and pointed it toward her.
Slowly walking over Alex took it from my hand and studied it. Suddenly, she gasped.
“Jesus, Haku! Your tank is bleeding out! Why didn’t you speak up before leaving Hira!?”
I grabbed the meter back out of her hand and reattached it to my shoulder strap.
“Relax, I’ve got at least an hour and a half on it. They just gave me the shitty equipment since I’m a tech… more specifically since I’m the tech. If it were anyone else in my division, this shit wouldn’t fly. The problem is, it’s going to take at least an hour to diagnose the station. And god forbid a howler finds us all the way up here in the mountains… You’d be on your own since they only armed you. It’s not like they’d loan me a gun… or anything else for that matter.”
I glanced over the light body armor she wore over her suit. Rolling her eyes in response, she threw her pump-action shotgun over her shoulder.
“I wouldn’t mind lending you my sidearm if it comes to that. Were you always this pessimistic? I swear to god that you were different back when-“
Waving my hand dismissively, I began to walk towards a smoking box I spotted in the corner of the room.
“I prefer to call myself a realist. This is tech and a job on top of that. I don’t have the luxury of pretending everything is all sunshine and rainbows when there are credits and someone’s life on the line. It has nothing to do with what you are talking about.” Slightly looking over my shoulder, I shot Alex a glare. “Though I bet that’s the reason you came instead of another guard, right? You couldn’t have possibly been the only one available. I know you better than that.”
I could hear Alex’s rubber gloves squeak as she began to ball up her fists. I turned my attention back to the box, eager for this conversation to be over with.
“I came because no one else would, Haku. Even if I did come because of that, is that so bad? Is it a crime that I miss you?”
I paused for a moment as I tried to think of a good response.
“No… it isn’t a crime. But it might as well be - it’s cruel to both you and me. You bringing it up all the time doesn’t change matters either. Stop acting like you’re the only victim here. You’re always making me feel bad about taking care of Kira… it’s not fair. I’m trying to do the right thing.”
“Acting like I’m the only victim?! I’m thinking about you too! I know you better than anyone else! What about breeding season? What about the alternatives I gave you? Why can’t you just-“
“Just shut up, Alex. I’m working. Either do your job and be my guard or close the damn door and be quiet. I don’t have time for this.”
At this, Alex fell silent. I could feel her eyes burrowing into the back of my skull. Finally, after a short amount of time, I could hear her shoulder her shotgun.
“Fine. Whatever.” As she began to turn around and walk out the door, I could hear her mutter under her breath, “When did you turn into such an asshole?”
Returning to my work, I felt a pang of guilt. As I fiddled with the electronics inside the smoking box, I wondered to myself how things got so bad between us. At one time we were inseparable. We would always request to work together knowing we could trust each other with our very lives… we were a team plus so much more. But now? Everything was just… broken. Sometimes I felt that maybe I should have-
Pausing for a moment, I realized that I overlooked something about the box I was working on.
I turned off my headlamp and pulled a small penlight out of my shoulder pocket. Narrowing my eyes, I peered deeper into the box.
With a couple of quick clicks, I removed a small fan covered in thick black goop. Putting it in my shoulder bag, I walked over to one of the main terminals in the room and began searching through a few settings.
“Okay… Let’s see… How about… This?”
Pressing a few keys on the keyboard, my eyes were met with a dialogue box on the screen - ‘Connection Successful’. Hoping for the best, I unhooked the patinaed radio from my other shoulder strap and held it to my face.
“Hotel Tango Nine, Hotel Tango Nine, this is Tango Uniform Alpha, Come in, Over.”
After a few seconds of crackling static, I heard a familiar voice come over the radio. It was a junior from my division.
“Tango Uniform Alpha, this is Hotel Tango Nine. Go ahead, over.”
“Are you guys reading the data from the station? Over.”
Holding the radio in silence, I felt immediate relief as the voice came back on the other end.
“Affirmative, Hotel Tango Nine. The station is coming in strong. Over.”
“Copy that. Prep a repair team, I’ll give you more details on my arrival. Over.”
“Ten-Four, Wilco. Over and out.”
The voice cut off and I was left with static. Chuckling in relief, I reattached my radio to my strap and stretched. All of the worry and doubt threaded in my mind faded into oblivion. I wasn’t going to die.
What I really wanted to do was have a smoke to celebrate my success. However, I knew it wasn’t the time. My tank was still bleeding out, and it would be a dick move to keep Alex waiting. Resolute in this mentality, I made my way towards the door leading outside and opened it.
As the gravel of outside crunched under my boots, my Geiger counter and air purity meter went haywire. Over the sound of the howling wind tearing at my suit, I could hear the machines beeping at me violently.
“Pretty nice out now that the storm passed, right, Haku?”
Alex was leaning against the wall of the weather station, giving me a sour look through the side of her mask as she readjusted her oversized orange suit.
I glanced up, taking in the view. The shattered ozone layer was nothing more than a blood-red lake now. Wisps of dark clouds hung high in the sunless sky, like scabs over a gaping wound. Alex was right, it was beautiful outside. The malicious radioactive smog that strangled the atmosphere not even an hour ago was gone now.
“Yeah. I’d say so. At least we can actually see now. Lightning is gone too.”
Satisfied with her adjustment, Alex shouldered the shotgun that she had leaning next to her.
“So… Did you come out to apologize?”
“No. We’re done here.” I took my thumb and pointed it to the door behind me, “The station is transmitting again.”
“Nice job. With all your doom and gloom, I thought I’d have to peel your corpse off the concrete floor. Here I was, trying to think of what I’d say to Kira.”
Letting out a scoff, I began to walk away from the building and down the rough path that led down the mountain.
“…You’d never let it come to that.”
I could hear Alex tapping the side of her gun as she followed behind me.
“You’re right. I put on a timer as soon as you told me about your tank. I fully intended to drag your ass out, kicking and screaming, the second you were low on oxygen.” She let out a half-hearted chuckle and grimaced. “Even if it meant me going to lockup for getting in the way of your job.”
“Like you’d know about lockup.”
“You’re right… I don’t. But I’ve seen and heard enough about it from you to know that I wouldn’t care if it meant saving your life.”
“No. You are. Anyone else would just let you run off into an anomaly and get eaten by howlers. Unlike them, I actually care what happens to you.”
Hearing her say that, I began to shake my head.
“You make me sound like a blundering idiot. Do I look like Abey from I-X?”
Alex suddenly gasped. I could tell that I touched a nerve.
“Don’t talk about Abey like that! She was one of the best on the team! She-“
“She ran off into a firestorm after the CO2 scrubber on her breathing apparatus failed. She was an idiot. ZJ told me all about it – he was on that convoy. She was issued a SCBA that was clearly marked to go back to engineering. They didn’t even make it to the truck before one of her team members pointed it out to her. Instead of going back and swapping it out, she decided to go onward anyway. Halfway to Sten Square, she started mumbling something about ‘Nutri-bars’, jumped out of the truck, and ran into the anomaly…” Looking back at Alex, I pointed at my head. “…Class A stupidity.”
“Yeah. Says the one with the leaky tank.”
“As I said before, I’m almost positive the guy from supplies did it on purpose. The quartermaster hates my guts, and they always refuse to change out my gear. ‘The equipment is good enough’, ‘It’s all we have’, ‘It just came back from engineering’ – That’s all they say, and it’s a crock of bullshit. One time they tried giving me a suit full of holes, telling me ‘It just came back from engineering’ and the thing still had dust on it from storage!”
Giggling from behind me, Alex put a hand on her side and gave me an amused look.
“Oh~? And what did you say, Haku~?”
“I said, ‘Engineering?! I could drain noodles with the damn thing, it has so many holes!’. Then the guy looked at me like an idiot and said that the suit was fine. So, I grabbed his hand, shoved his pinky through a hole in the sleeve and asked, ‘Would you let your grandmother walk outside in this piece of shit!?’. After an hour of going back and forth, he calls over the quartermaster and tells him that I’m giving him a tough time. So, the quartermaster picks up the suit, sticks his finger through the hole and just as he’s about to chew the guy out and tell him to give me a new one, he sees that it’s me standing there. The guy started looking between me and the suit and said that he thought it was perfect for me. And what did I do? I picked up my radio and-“
Just as I was getting to the good part of my story, I heard Alex burst out laughing.
“What? What’s so funny? My life was on the line you know! If I had gone out in that, I would have-!”
Waving her hand, Alex cut me off, struggling to contain her laughter.
“No no no! It’s not that! It’s just… I don’t know… It’s really refreshing to see this side of you again. You used to tell me your stories all the time. It used to piss me off so much because you’d never stop… but I don’t know… I never realized how much I’d miss it.”
I stood still for a moment in silence as I tried to think of the last time I spoke like this with someone… but couldn’t. Naturally, I still had the odd conversation from time to time, but unlike before, I never had the burning passion to express myself. The few moments of quiet that I occasionally found myself in possession of, I spent relaxing in solace. I no longer had the willpower to run around and get in trouble like I used to. I no longer felt the want or need to tell people my stories. All I wanted to do and looked forward to was the moment where I could lie in bed and rest.
Had I really change that much since I started taking care of Kira? I was aware of the fact that it didn’t seem like I had as much fun as I used to, but had I really become the type of person Alex made me out to be?
I decided to put these thoughts out of my head for the time being. Even though I finished my job early, it still didn’t stop the fact that I was on a time frame. The way I figured it, I could have an existential crisis any time I wanted, and this certainly wasn’t the best time to do so.
“Yeah… I don’t really have too many stories anymore. I’m too busy for that. Everyone heard all the ones I had to tell anyway.”
Not wanting to give Alex the time to respond, I quickened my pace as I made my way down the hill.
“That just seems… wait! Hey! Slow down, you’ll trip!”
Pulling up the legs of her suit, Alex quickly repositioned her shotgun over her shoulder and tried to keep pace with me. I glanced over at her and tried my best not to show my amusement as she walked – she looked like an agitated toddler trying to catch up with her mother.
I smiled to myself, wondering how quick she could actually move fully geared up. As I noticed a sharp slope downward up ahead, I decided to find out for myself.
“Hey, Haku, where do you think you’re going!? Stick to the path!”
I ran towards the slope, quickly slipping on the pair of leather gloves I had tucked into my SCBA harness and jumped.
I twisted my body mid-air, threw a hand off to my side and began to slide down the slope at an ungodly speed. Using my feet to steer, I swiftly dodged any incoming boulders and hit the ground boots-first with a thud.
“Okay, Alex! Your turn!”
Looking up with a fiendish grin, I watched as Alex edged towards the side of the hill and tried to analyze the situation.
“W-what do you mean ‘my turn’?! I’m not going down there!”
I cocked my head to the side teasingly and put my hands on my hips.
“Oh, come on, Alex! It’s faster this way! What am I going to do if a howler finds me all alone down here!?”
Taking this into consideration, Alex shouted “FINE!” and gingerly lowered herself across the ledge. As she made her way down, I felt satisfied. She looked just as ridiculous as I thought she would. Instead of sliding down, Alex clung to the sheer slope for dear life, desperately searching for footholds with the tip of her boot. After finally finding a ledge rock-solid enough to stand on, she’d look around in a panic, searching for something else to cling to. It was a strange shuffle and indeed a remarkable sight.
“Haha! You’re doing great!”
Watching her slowly descend, inch-by-inch, I suddenly grew anxious as I saw her shotgun bounce violently around, nearly catching itself on a rock. Unable to contain my fears, I intervened.
“Alex! Throw me your gun!”
Alex froze. She whirled around in a panic, trying to check my vicinity for an immediate threat. After making sure that the coast was clear, she shot me a frightened, confused glare
“My gun!? Why!?”
“Why!? Because you’re going to blow your head off if you leave it like that!”
Hesitating for a moment, Alex began to realize the gravity of the situation and nodded.
“O-okay! Hold on!”
Shifting her weight on the ledge she was on, Alex reached over her shoulder and tried to remove her shotgun. Suddenly, the ground beneath her cracked. With a scream, Alex plummeted downward.
My eyes widening in horror, I dashed forward, desperate to reach Alex before she hit the ground. As her flailing body and screams drew closer, I clenched my teeth and prepared for impact.
I grunted in pain as Alex hurtled into me, the force of the impact sending me crashing to the ground, hitting my head and cracking my mask on a nearby rock in the process.
I felt the world blur around me as a sharp ringing filled my ears. After what seemed to be a long time, I heard a distorted voice calling out to me.
“Haku! Haku! Open your eyes! HAKU!”
I peeled open my eyelids and saw Alex crouching over me with tears in her eyes, shaking my shoulders. I tried to speak out to her but couldn’t seem to form any words. Alex lowered her face to mine and began checking over my mask.
“Oh no… Your mask!”
Alex forcefully pulled me to my feet, threw my arm over her shoulder and wrapped her arm around my waist.
“Come on, Haku. The truck isn’t that far away, but I need you to try your best to walk with me, okay?”
With Alex's help, I stumbled towards the truck, fighting off the nausea and vertigo rocking me. With each step, I tried to fight off the overwhelming feeling of dizziness and confusion building up inside my head. After only walking what seemed to be a few yards, the meter on my shoulder began to chime as my lungs felt like they were filling with fire.
Alex ripped the gauge off my shoulder strap and gasped in horror.
“Oh no no no… What do I do? What do I do!?”
Clenching the gauge in her fist, she exhaled sharply and spoke with a tremble in her voice.
“Haku, take in a deep breath and don’t let it out until I say so, okay?”
I took in as deep a breath as my burning lungs would allow.
“Okay… good… just hold on a second.”
Stopping for a moment, Alex wrestled her fingers underneath my mask and sharply pulled upward, exposing my face to the elements. Alex clutched her mask to her face, taking in a deep breath before shoving it downwards onto mine.
“Okay. Once more. Breathe.”
I let out the air in my lungs with a violent cough and took a deep breath from Alex’s mask.
“Now my turn…”
I closed my eyes and waited before feeling the mask against my face again.
We continued like this, sharing what little air remained in her tank as we slowly made our way to the white truck that hung off in the distance.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. After what seemed to be an eternity, we reached the wind-beaten door of the vehicle.
“Okay… last time and then you can breathe freely, alright? Just hold it in until I say so.”
Drawing in one last gulp of precious air, I waited as Alex ripped open the door to the truck and threw me in. After only a few moments, I heard the door on her side open and the engine roar to life.
“Come on… come on…”
Hearing the sterile air rush through the vents, Alex let out a sigh of relief.
"Okay ... you can breathe now ..."
I let out the air in my lungs with a wheeze and began to cough, A worried look clouded Alex's face as she rubbed my back.
“Are you okay, Haku?”
Nodding slightly, I set my head on the dash and waited for my vertigo to disappear.
“…I’m sorry, Alex. I’m sorry I put us through that… If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead.”
Alex let out a dry chuckle.
“…No. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have broken your mask.”
“But I’m the one that went off the path…”
“And you’re the one that caught me. So we’re even. We’re a team. We’re supposed to help each other when we’re in trouble. Just because you did something stupid doesn’t mean it’s all your fault.”
-All my fault…
Closing my eyes, I let her words swirl around in my head. A dark scowl crossed my face as memories began to surface
-Yeah… Sometimes that’s true… but only sometimes.
“You sure you’re okay…? You hit your head pretty hard…”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bump, that’s all. Nothing to be worried about.”
Shaking her head, Alex removed her SCBA and put the truck in drive.
“Like I’d believe that…”