“Time to wake up my pretties.” A man's voice boomed out over a room filled with rows and rows of cots. Slowly the bodies occupying those beds started stirring. The man who spoke was dressed in a white lab coat, hair neatly trimmed short, streaked with gray. A chrome pair of bifocals was perched above a clean shaven face. As the people were waking up, the man began his instructions.
“There is a drug port taped to your arm. Don't touch or try to remove it. You will need it for your final inoculation before you get released. Next to your cot is a black duffle bag with a tag and a scan code. Do not, I repeat do not remove the tag. The majority of you will not remember your own names initially. The tag has your name printed on it.” Some were slowly sitting up, rubbing their eyes and faces, looking around for their bag. Each was barefoot, dressed in a pair of light blue boxers and a white tank top. Most appeared to be thirty years old or younger with healthy proportions and of mixed ethnicity.
“If you can't remember these instructions, don't worry there is a briefing sheet in your bag. You have been in a medically induced coma for the past three months. The world you will start to remember no longer exists. The reason for that will become clear in coming days and weeks.” A few assistants were milling about checking on everyone as their brain fog cleared. Some were checking pupils with pen lights, others were checking pulses and using stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs to monitor vital signs.
“In your bag you will find some basic clothing to dress. If you need a size other than what has been issued to you, please ask one of my assistants for an exchange in the proper size. You will also find your boots. These are meta boots, that is short for metatarsal boots. They are lined with protective plates to shield your tender phalanges from the environment you are going into when you leave this compound. You will also find a heavy hooded knee length coat, we affectionately refer to as a gamma coat. Gamma as in gamma radiation. You will need to wear it any time you are in direct exposure to the environment. There is a stocked shower room just down the hall. Your personal toiletries are also in your duffle. Clean and dress yourselves. We are available if you need something. Lunch is at 1300 hours.” The man left the room. Bewildered, the group looked around at each other. Some dug into their bags, others stood and stretched, trying to feel their bodies again after being under for so long.
“Where are we?” A puzzled look was on a young woman's face as she looked around, some were heading to the showers. A man with a boyish face turned to her and shrugged. Digging into her duffle she located the briefing sheet. At the top of the page was a greeting.
WELCOME TO TERRADORN RE-ALIGNMENT CAMP
The reborn as they were later referred to, showered and dressed. Flimsy toothbrushes they were given were not as bad as the toothpaste that tasted like chalk. Water as they rinsed had a dank, bitter aroma. Rooms had overpowering antiseptic smells that made some sneeze and cough.
“Have you read the sheet yet?” A man with hair slicked back from the shower shoved his sheet to another.
“Ya, I almost threw up. What are we going to do?” Worried looks were slowly spreading around the room as the others digested the briefing sheet. Hushed tones were met by some with tears, others broke down and sobbed. A few gentle souls were consoling those that were upset.
“I....Uh.... I don't think we have a choice. We have to do whatever that guy in the white coat tells us to do. I peeked through the window in the door that is locked down the hall from the bath house.” His voice lowered down to a quiver. “There was a guard in full tactical gear armed with an assault rifle.” They both looked around nervously. The man reappeared and introduced himself.
“I am Silas Shepard in case you were wondering. You can call me Mr. Shepard. The lunch room is just through the doors past the showers. Follow my assistants. After lunch you will receive your device, with instructions on how it is to be used. After that you will be free to leave the compound. You must return at 1700 hours for supper. In due time you will be reassigned to your temporary lodging. Any questions? Good. I'll see you back here at 1400 hours.” Silas pushed up his glasses and turned and left.
The group shuffled down the hall in flimsy rubber shower shoes towards the cafeteria. Some were muttering and complaining, others were plastered with a vacant stare, either devoid of emotion or in shock. The cafeteria was bathed in a viscous yellow light. A line formed in front of the mess trays and they started sifting down a buffet style serving table.
“What did you get?” A tender twenty something, stabbed the plate and lifted a fried glob to his nose and sniffed.
“They look like vegetables. It was the only organic looking thing I saw.” The young woman tasted the food and wrinkled her nose. “Oh wow. That was bad. They aren't veggies. They look like it, but they dissolve into a gritty paste when you chew.” A stainless canteen from the gear bag had been filled with water in the buffet line. It helped the stuff go down.
“I thought mine was chicken nuggets. Same. It just kind of dissolves when you try to bite into it.” Forks were tapping in frustration and the sounds in the room turned sour as they tried to eat. Many were taking seconds at the canteen refill station to try and wash down the food.
The grumbling was growing from the group as they filtered back to the room with the cots. Mr. Shepard reappeared with a device. Holding it above his shoulder so everyone could see it, he began his explanation.
“Everyone will be issued a third hand.” A few in the crowd snickered. “This device is to be carried at all times, unless you are working or in your quarters. It is your life line in Terradorn. It has a com screen for multi-mode communication. If you fold it into sub-reader format you can access any available networks. This mode is similar to what most of you will remember as the internet. That is the fun stuff. If it vibrates and you hear this alarm, a piercing whine stabbed our ears. Put on your mask as quickly as possible and seek shelter. It is informing you of a dust cloud in your vicinity. You will get your protective mask with your third hand. Do not swap masks with anyone. They are tuned to communicate with your device only. The mask will relay your vitals to the network. If you become compromised a medic will be alerted to your position. Forgetting this procedure can lead to your death. If the third hand vibrates and you hear this, a low beep repeated slowly. Rain is coming, tighten up your gamma coat and seek shelter. This is not your grandma's spring showers. What falls from the sky these days will blister your skin. If you are exposed you may be down for weeks and require hospitalization. There are other features you can access in the third hand. It will come with a protective bag and digital manual. Your mask and third hand must be charged nightly. A dead battery could leave you dead. Any questions?” Mr. Shepard walked around with the objects allowing those interested to hold and investigate them.
“What happens if you lose either of these things?” A timid slim red head raised his hand.
“You will soon be paid in bits. A months worth of bits will be deducted from the account you access with your third hand and you will have to quarantine for three days until you are cleared and receive a replacement.” The man's seriousness was settling in on the faces of the room.
“Why is the dust so dangerous?” A muscled tough with tattoos spoke up.
“It is what is left of the living things on the planet. The area outside the walls of Terradorn is called the wasteland. Miles upon miles of nothing but toxic gray dust. We don't have time to discuss it now. Just don't touch it, don't breath it and definitely don't swallow any of it. A memo came down this week from headquarters that confirmed what we had feared. Some of the dust is still alive and infectious.” The looks darting around were a mixture of fear and awe.
* * *
I suddenly realized what we were up against. Some how some of us were saved from the cleansing. We were being forced to live in a dead, harsh world. Memories had started coming back. The old world was an oasis of trees and lakes and mountains. Just staring at the grass, one could see hundreds of life forms, tied together, dependent on each other. The web of life had been turned into a toxic ash. If we were going to survive we would need to be more tough than any of our ancestors. As the assistant handed me my mask and third hand, it felt as if the survival of our species was suddenly in my hands. I walked over to my duffle and sorted my things. Pulling on the meta boots, they were heavy like lead, sealed meticulously with no seams and fitted all the way up to the knee. I folded the heavy gamma coat over my arm and headed for the exit of the compound. I had to see what the new world looked like.
“When you come back you have to disinfect before you are allowed reentry.” The guard's rifle was pinned to his body with a single point sling. His helmet, goggles and mask hid his face. He motioned over to a booth with a large red button. A visual instruction flow chart on the wall outlined a simple disinfection process.
“Thanks.” I had donned my protective coat and the guard hit the button for the automatic door. The brutal heated wind slammed into me and took my breath away. The door opened to a fenced area outside the building. There were more guards in blockhouses above the gates. Off in the distance a large quad jet ship was powering into the horizon. I had to get back to the compound in a few hours for supper, others had already filtered out into the skeleton of Terradorn. Our compound was on the edge of the city near the outer walls.
As I walked down the paths and streets, I noticed they were mostly clean. These rectangular machines were crawling on the exterior of the buildings, while larger versions brushed and vacuumed the pathways. It was late afternoon, but the stifling heat of the day had not gone away. The heavy coat was making me sweat profusely. I reached for the canteen on my belt. As I drew a few gulps from it, I watched in marvel as these robots crawled up and down the structures cleaning away the gray dust. Our ability to find solutions to insurmountable problems gave me a stirring of hope in my gut. Our species had skirted annihilation and was clinging to what was left of the dear planet we called home.