Nobody hung out in the break room of the tech shop on Level 3, mostly because it smelled like plastic. More accurately, it smelled like plastic after it had passed through the digestive system of an orange fungus for which the Biology books had no name but the other works had taken to calling the Stuff. The Stuff loved the break room because that’s where all the old equipment was stashed—routers and switches that were considered ancient even in the EQ. It wasn’t actually the machines that the Stuff ate, it was all the connective cables, miles of rubber tubers encasing smaller rubber tubers over copper wire. Sometimes, it would look as if orange wires were hanging out of the equipment, but when touched, the Stuff would slough off and leave just the bare copper.
When that happened and it got into the air, most people scattered.
Cole Varis wasn’t most people.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
For one, he didn’t mind the smell of the Stuff. For two, he didn’t mind when it got airborne and swirled in the light, mostly because he was always wearing a bandana over his nose and mouth. He’d worn the bandana—red now faded to light pink—for as long as he could remember. He’d heard his mother talking to a friend about it once. She’d asked why Cole was running around like an old timey bank robber and she’d said it was because of the scars on his cheeks. They reminded her of the Day of Judgement and of the two brothers whose bones still lay on the street far above her head.
She might not have mentioned the bones.
Cole hadn’t really given much thought as to whether he was self-conscious about the scars. They gave him a slightly maniacal appearance, as if he’d tried too hard to smile and torn the skin around his mouth. And they certainly didn’t remind him of the brothers he couldn’t even remember. Wearing the mask did give him a certain sense of comfort though; there was no denying that. When he took it off, even just to eat or shower, he felt exposed, out in the open for all the world to see, despite being buried beneath the Utah dirt.
Most days, Cole had the break room to himself, and he made the most of it by stretching out on the beaten leather couch that likely hadn’t been moved since the day it was installed some twenty years prior. There, he would read a book and eat whatever lunch his mom had packed for him. He never knew what he would get when he opened his lunchbox; he just knew that it would always be waiting for him in the refrigerator just to the left of the break room door.
Today, his lunch was some kind of salami and cheese inside a pretzel bun. In the two smaller compartments, he found a handful of carrots and baked chips.
Not his favorite.
Sometimes he wished he didn’t work at the same place as his mom so she wouldn’t have an excuse to pack his lunch. He always ended up with whatever she felt like eating that day. Once, he’d asked for something different, and she’d suggested he start fixing his own meal. After that, he ate whatever she made for him—with a smile.
He was crunching on a nubby carrot penis when the break room door opened and his mom walked in. She seemed at first not to notice him, but then she always seemed distracted by something. As one of the chief engineers for Temple’s tech infrastructure, she was always fighting fires, as she called it. Pretzel bread and cured meats were easily sourced even in the limited biosphere of Temple, but the gear that ran The Holy Network was too specialized to rebuild it. There were no tools in Temple that could fabricate a microchip. If a router’s control board needed a new capacitor, it had better already exist on this side of the Door, or else that router would be left to be eaten by the Stuff.
The door slammed shut and his mom spun around with a lunchbox in her hand. A piece of duct tape with neatly printed lettering said Rose Varis. She cleared her throat.
“Did you tell those kids who came through here this morning that robots were going to flay the skin from their bones if they went outside?”
Cole fished another carrot from his lunchbox. “Well, that’s paraphrasing, but maybe.”
“Why would you say that to a bunch of children on a field trip? Those are nine and ten year olds, Coleson.”
“We were looking at the external monitors and they asked me why they couldn’t go outside. So I told them. What else was I supposed to do?”
“You lie.” She spread one plaintive hand to the side. “Adults have been lying to children since children were invented. Who the hell do you think you are to change that?”
“I was just having some fun.” He sat up as Rose approached the couch. “I thought it was a better story than saying the nuclear fallout would slowly poison their DNA and that one day their children’s children might have a third thumb.”
Rose sat down and placed her lunchbox on the coffee table. “Yes, see, that’s what I mean. You lie to them. Tell them the radiation will make them sick. That’s enough to keep them inside until they can get a little older and learn the truth.”
“I guess.” He took a bite of his sandwich, chewed thoughtfully. “Wait, what? Radiation is a lie?”
She ignored his question while she unpacked her lunchbox onto a bandana—the same faded red as his—on the coffee table. Only when the contents were neatly arranged did she speak.
“Radiation is not a lie. It’s a real thing. It’s just wouldn’t be a concern of ours if we went outside.”
This was news to Cole. He’d read the new histories about the bombing of Provo and beyond. Nuclear warheads—nobody knew for sure how many—had detonated over every major city in the country. At least, that was the going theory. Aside from the radio silence, there was no real way to tell without venturing out into the world, an activity that Cole had previously thought too hazardous to consider.
“Did…” A puzzle piece snapped into view. “Did you tell me the radiation would make me sick when I was that young?”
“I’ve told you a lot of things, Coleson. I can’t remember them all. And so what if I did? Radiation will make you sick if you’re exposed to enough of it.”
“Right, which in addition the robotic bone flayers, is why we don’t go outside. Right?”
Rose chewed her bite of a sandwich for a long time—much longer than humanly necessary. After an exaggerated swallow, she popped the lid on her water bottle and drank half.
“There are a lot of reasons the Door stays closed. But no, fear of radiation isn’t chief among them. Most of it has to do with the Patriarchs and politics, the—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Cole waved the incoming diatribe away. “I want to know about the radiation. I thought it was like… that place… the one in Russia.”
“Chernobyl, right. I thought it was like that. Humans were never able to live there again, and that was like a hundred years ago. How can we go back outside when it’s only been twenty years since the bombs fell?”
Rose smoothed out the small wrinkles on her pants and smiled. “So many times, you remind me of your father. He was tall and handsome like you, and a little eccentric too.” She touched her neck in the same place Cole’s bandana was wrapped around his. “But then sometimes, you’re like me. You’re inquisitive. You ask questions people don’t want to answer, which is why you’re twenty-one and don’t know the difference between a nuclear bomb going off and a nuclear reactor melting down. But then, I didn’t know the difference either when I asked.”
“What was the answer?”
She patted his knee. “They told me not to ask.”
“So that was it?”
“Lord, no. I just asked someone else. And you know what? It turns out there are exactly zero nuclear physicists locked in here with us. There were books though, and a few people knew some things about Chernobyl. Americans were fascinated by it, probably because it didn’t happen to us. There were books and movies about it.”
Cole waited for her to take another bite.
“Here’s the short answer because I really have to get back to my terminal. The difference between the bombs and the reactor comes down to how much and where. The bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nuclear material measured in pounds. I think the bigger one had just 140 or 150 pounds of uranium. Chernobyl was measured in tons. Secondly, most people think nukes smash into the ground and detonate, but they actually explode well before impact, so whatever they’re carrying, all that radioactive material, gets pushed into the atmosphere or up in that big cloud you see in all the books. Some of it falls to the ground, yes, but that can dissipate in time.”
“So then Chernobyl was more radiation and on the ground? And that’s why people couldn’t live there, right?”
Rose nodded. “Correct. The land was saturated. Animals eventually came back, but not like before.”
Cole sat forward and folded his hands. “I feel like a nuclear bomb has just gone off in my head. All this time, we could have been venturing outside, looking for gear to replace all that junk.” He gestured to the orange-tinged boxes across from the couch. “All this time…”
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Visions of the Door danced in Cole’s head. He’d never actually seen it—very few in Temple had—but he could see himself stepping through it into a world lit by a sun instead of LEDs, a world where warmth literally poured down from the sky. He saw himself walking the cracked streets of Provo, flanked by buildings whose faces had been reclaimed by nature, whose very walls blossomed with pink and purple flowers.
He took a deep breath and tried to imagine what it might smell like.
The Stuff filled his nostrils instead.
“You’re thinking about going outside, aren’t you?”
Cole became aware that his eyes were closed. “Maybe.”
“You’re forgetting about the robotic skin flayers or whatever you called them. There are far more dangerous things on the surface than a little radiation. Thanks to the door Heavenly Father has placed between the sheep and the wolves, we’ll never have to encounter them. That is a good thing, Cole.”
“If you say so.” He felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes.
“You’re wistful for what might be.” Her voice had softened, had become his mom’s again. “That’s okay. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break. But breaks end, and when they do, it’s time to get back to work again. Temple relies on the network, as much as it relies on the water works, or the electric grid, or the hydroponics. Even the people working in the depths need to share information with the rest of the city. And that’s where you and I come in.”
“Nice speech, Mom. You could just tell me to get back to work.”
“A good boss inspires his underlings to want to do their job.”
Cole let out a groan, dipped his shoulder away from her hand. They both packed their lunchboxes up, and Cole handed his to his mom to put back in the fridge. He opened the break room door for her and followed her into the hall after putting up his bandana. The slightly citrusy smell of the Stuff faded, replaced by breath that reeked of carrots.
He tried to summon the energy to keep up with his mom and she walked hurriedly back to the control room.
“Where’s the fire?”
She responded without looking back. “Who says there’s a fire?”
“It’s Temple, Mom. There’s always a fire.”
She laughed. “I guess you’re right. Well, this is hardly a fire. Just a little glitch on a remote camera. A smudge on the lense or something.”
“Why do you think that?”
They arrived at the double doors to the control room and paused. Rose cocked her head as if he was still a ten year old child in her eyes.
“Because, Coleson. It’s either a smudge, or there’s someone standing under an overpass on I-XX.”
He felt his eyes go wide.
Rose straightened up. “Shit. I should have lied to you.”