By: Andrew Hines
Gabe Howe had always wondered what lay beyond the city limits of Mercy. He and the majority of residents had never ventured outside into the rest of the world. Their existence was limited to the rather bleak townscape and the two-kilometer radius between town and the border wall. Theyd never even been on a vacation to speak of, though hed grown up hearing of his father, uncles and grandfathers tales in the wars. The older men of Mercy were the only ones he knew of that had ever left for an extended time. Sure, hed read about and seen pictures in old textbooks of other places throughout the world, but that was in his history classes. His father had shown him some images from before the last Great War, but all of those photos were taken years before he was born.
Finally, around his 15th birthday, he got up the courage to ask his father about life outside of Mercy and why they never left the city. His father simply answered, Why would we?
Gabe replied, Because it would be interesting to see what the rest of the world is like. He wondered if there were other towns like Mercy or if they had fell to ruin like the area near the Great Mound.
Let me tell you, son. From what I saw as a young man, theres not that much left to see of particular interest. He went on to mention the devastation and the ghost town near the Great Mound.
But Im certain we cant be the only ones left, can we? As he said the words, a chill ran down his spine, telling him he may not be too far off the mark.
With a sad look in his eye, his father replied, The only ones youd ever want to meet.
Seven years had come and gone since that conversation and it still weighed heavy on his mind. Hed even attempted to go out into the world once or twice. The farthest hed ever gotten was about a mile and a half before he had to turn back toward Mercy. It may have been the heat and unbearable dust storm hed encountered. On the other hand it could have been fear and that nagging comment his father had made several years prior. He honestly couldnt say for sure. He just knew that the shapes on the horizon that hed been able to make out gave him an uneasy feeling. He knew he had to go out and the time was just around the corner.
He made preparations and the day after his 22nd birthday, he said his goodbyes and quit his job at the salt mine. He then began his journey into the Outer Dark, as the people of Mercy called the rest of the world. Apparently, if he recalled his historical literature correctly, the phrasing came from a classic poem written by a man named Frost. He had little time to think on it as he was abruptly hit by a sand storm less than 10 minutes after the walls of Mercy closed behind him. Thankfully, Gabe had remembered to wear an extra layer of clothing and a scarf, which he wrapped around his head to protect against the oncoming storm of dust and sand. He had forgotten the ferocity with which the winds blew out here and he was more a little happy that hed packed the thick scarf. The storm lasted for several hours, during which time it was difficult to move forward at any sort of high speed. He managed to find shelter for an hour or two inside a building that long since yielded to the forces of the natural world.
There was little time between the moment the sand storm ceased and the cool night crept in. The temperature seemed far cooler than anything he had felt in years. As he discovered a cave, he immediately noticed a breeze that was substantially warmer than the air outside. He wondered who or what could be responsible for this warmth. Following the heat to the source, he soon found his answer in the form of machinery unlike any hed ever seen or could have possibly dreamt. Before him was a vast machine that ran almost silently and produced volumes of what appeared to be a new metal alloy and an incredible amount of heat. There were hundreds of men and women that lugged large bags to open vats. They poured in everything from corn to dried grains and a few types of oils and clear liquids.
He could see the people being treated as slaves had a horrid standard of living. It was quite less than anyone in Mercy. He could see men being abused and working in abhorrent conditions. The salt mines had been less than an ideal hard labor environment, but this was just cruel. As he tried to wrap his mind around this, he heard an oddly familiar voice come over the loudspeaker.
The food rations will be given only to those who have met their quota for the evening. That is all.
He knew hed heard the voice many times before, but was it really possible that anyone from Mercy would be in charge of anything like this? Gabe could only come up with one name on his list of men capable of this and the voice matched his theory. It had to be Mr. Gates, the owner of the mines at which hed worked. The man was all about business and getting the job done as quickly as possible. Slave labor was definitely his style, though it would never have flown in Mercy. He wondered what he could do about it and then he recalled the Great Mound hed heard stories of, which lay at the base of the hill outside the cave. Now that there was light at the other end of the cave, he knew it would be safe to get supplies and gear to combat the security Mr. Gates was likely to have here. Hed already seen and felt what Gates more polite security forces had done when his friends in Mercy tried to fix the conditions in the mine. He knew now that he wouldnt stand for more needless brutality.
Walking toward the Great Mound, he saw a sign that seemed to be the name of a town, Pripyat. He wondered why things were so quiet, though, he figured the folks that lived there might be the ones now working in the caves. Once he got to the Great Mound, he realized just what it was, an old nuclear facility. He recalled something from his history books about this, it was called something like Cherry Noble, but that sounded slightly off. The closer he got to the facility, the fewer animals he had seen. It was as if the animals knew something he didnt. It might have explained why he had a new and unexplained pain in his stomach. He powered through it to find what he needed. It was only nerves after all and the fear that he might not be able to really help the laborers in the cave. Suddenly, he recalled why the citys sign had sounded familiar. Pripyat was the ghost town his father had mentioned all of those years before. He began searching for anything he could find in the partially collapsed buildings.
In one building, he found a length of twine and some old flares. He also picked up some spray cans, old newspaper and fertilizer. He also saw some engine starter fluid, some sections of metal piping and foam backing from old chairs that might come in handy as padding or for first aid purposes. Armed with these and old film reels of an inventive man named Angus, he proceeded back to the cave. Somehow, he had gotten slightly sicker during his time among the old buildings. It took a bit more strength than he expected to get back up the hill and to the larger cavern. He might have to sneak around to the back, if he could find a connecting tunnel. Luckily, after about 20 minutes of searching, he found a honeycomb of tunnels that ran throughout the mountain. Taking one of them, he reached the back end of the big room, right up next to one of the great machines.
Taking the tools from his pack that hed picked up near the Great Mound, he fashioned what he believed would be some sort of explosive device from the starter fluid, fertilizer, newspaper and twine. He figured a delayed explosion would be better than a random boom. After assembling the small explosives in spots that seemed would do the greatest damage, he set the twine and collected the ends in one spot in the middle of the machines.
The next thing he knew he had been seen by several of the guards and was being brought just outside the shadow of the machines. He quickly pocketed two flares just before he began being questioned for why he was there. It started out calmly, until the head guard and Mr. Gates realized that he was not one of the laborers living there. He heard several veiled threats in Russian and decided that it was the time to act. Taking a cue from old films, he used the guards weight and gear against them, causing them to knock each other out as they collided. Making sure he had Mr. Gates attention, he quickly yelled for all to leave the cave before lighting a flare and tossing it into the collected twine.
Gabe saw the dj vu look from his former employer as he yelled, Mr. Gates, you should have learned your lesson before! Dont ever give me time to make a plan!
The flame moved faster than hed expected it to and quickly reached its destination. In a series of moderate explosions, the machines were rendered useless. Gabe and the laborers quickly exited the cave system, following the light and the morning heat. After reaching the Outer Dark, he began to calm them down, which was easier than he believed it would be. He invited them back to Mercy, which he could still see in the distance.
You can all come with me to Mercy if you feel like you can make the trip. After offering his town as refuge, he wondered whether others would really welcome them.
After a couple of hours, the journey was starting to take its toll, as he began to vomit and his muscles started to lock up at times. If he could only lead them the rest of the way, he knew he could get help in Mercy. After one of the women acted as a crutch for him, he led them to the edge of the city. It took them 15 minutes to open the doors, but after the day hed had, it seemed like hours. Getting inside and to the medical center, his only thought was, So much for seeing the world