Dirth and Barb felt their way through the darkness. It was hard to know what they were looking for. Dirth felt, for the first time, that he was no longer the sure leader of a band of intrepid heroes. There was no band. Just Barb, a skinny teenager who had walked into his tent one day. He had no idea what he was doing. Barb’s hands, small and fragile in his own, gave him surprising comfort. As he stepped over lumps that were surely bodies and ran his hand over rocks that had once been walls, he couldn’t help but feel ashamed by the excitement that had pulsed through him when the story first broke, when Sandy and Barb walked through the door, bearing news of this then-distant mine.
What news was here? What news but tragedy?
Barb’s voice came through the darkness. “Dirth, I think I found something.”
“I think it’s a card swipe. Do you have the thing?”
Dirth fumbled for the card until he felt the cold metal of it on his fingers. Using Barb’s arm as a guide, he swiped the card.
A loud hissing sound came from in front of them, and suddenly they were shrouded in a bright white light. “FREEZE WHERE YOU ARE!” sounded a woman's voice from above. “FREEZE!”
“What do we do?” Barb asked, terrified.
“Well it wants us to freeze,” Dirth replied. “I say we go. Now.”
Pulling closer together, the two shot forward into the light. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust. Ahead of them stretched a long and sterile tunnel with an infinity of numbered doors on each side. The tunnel extended for what seemed like miles.
“Holy shit,” Barb breathed.
Suddenly boots and a new chorus of robotic voices rang out close behind them. "YOU! STOP!"
“Run!” Dirth cried, pulling her quickly down the hall.
“FREEZE WHERE YOU ARE!” The speakers continued to blare overhead. “FREEZE!”
“Don’t look back. Just keep moving,” Dirth urged as they ran. The tunnel stretched endlessly on in front of them. There was no way they could outrun their pursuers.
"Where are we going?" Barb shouted.
“We've got to get through one of these doors!” Dirth answered back.
"What? How?" Barb screamed. She watched as Dirth waved Connor's card uselessly in front of them.
“Read out the numbers!” Dirth shouted. Barb looked; the numbers on the doors had no pattern. 16, 12, 4, 72. "They're all random!" she cried. Her eyes swam.
“Just read them!” The speakers overhead continued to sound. She heard the boots behind them striking the floor of the tunnel.
“6! 49!" Barb rattled off.
“Open 49!” Dirth cried. With Barb’s hand firmly in his, he lunged for the door as it slid open in front of them.
Jimmy stared blinkingly at his screen. The feeds that had been coming off the IDA units had suddenly cut out once they'd entered the tunnel. Jimmy slammed his fist on the table. What happened? For a second Jimmy had seen the girl again, hand in hand with the man. Moments later, she was gone, disappearing into the light. What was that tunnel? How did it disrupt their signal? It was strange to think that any remnant technology in Pureside could counteract over a century of technological advances on the Outside.
"Saguto, report!" barked MB Davis.
"Lost signal, MB."
"Well get it back!"
"They seem to have gone into a signal disruption zone, MB."
"What the –" MB Davis strode quickly to Jimmy’s desk. "They don't have SDZ's on the Inside. Play back the feed."
Jimmy played it back.
"That can’t be..." MB Davis sat back on her heels. "They’ve got Outsiders working for them."
Dirth and Barb tumbled into the darkness behind door 49. The door hissed shut, and they suddenly found themselves in an uncanny silence. They listened for the parade of boots that had been following them. Nothing.
"Are they gone?" Barb whispered finally.
"I don't know," Dirth answered, reluctant. "Are you okay?" His voice somehow made it through Barb's pulsating, blocky vision.
"Yeah," Barb managed. It was impossibly dark. "Where are we?"
"I don't know."
"Who were those people?"
"I don't know."
"You think it was Klammath? Before we left, Kaemi was saying they might attack out of defense or something -"
"No." Of that he was certain. "No, they don't have that kind of technology. Klammath is rural. Those guys were..."
"Expensive looking. And young, did you see them inside their suits? They all kind of looked -"
"Right." Something had been strange about their faces. And their suits too.
"Could it be Portsby? I've never been, but I hear they're full of new technology. I hear there are streets with trees."
Dirth struggled to think what was wrong. Their faces, all so similar. Their suits, the way they all… and then it struck him. "I've seen those suits before. In the Herald." It all made sense now. He said the words in wonder. "They're Outsiders."
"Outsiders?" Barb's temperature began to rise. "Like fucking outside of Pureside, Outsiders?" She scrambled to her feet. "Wait, we've gotta get out of here right? Those people are fucking aliens!" Shrilly, "They're gonna kill us! We've gotta get the fuck out of here!"
Dirth's hand shot up and pulled her to the ground. "Keep! Quiet!” Barb obeyed. “Stay calm," he continued. "We don't know who they are or what they’re here for, but it’s our job to find out. Right? That's why we came here."
"No, that’s not what we came here!” Barb quaked. “We came here for a scoop, and I think we got a pretty damn good one, don't you? Fucking Outsiders invading Pureside! Why the fuck do we need to know why?" She gasped loudly as a new idea broke through. "Do you think they caused the collapse?"
Dirth’s free hand lunged to cover her mouth. "Keep. Quiet. We came for the truth, not for half-baked guesses. Now let's get moving." He moved to a squat, one of his hands still wrapped around her arm. While Dirth blindly began moving forward, Barb stayed in her crouch, terror turning to fury. All she could think about was that the Outsiders had killed him, they were the ones who had killed Connor.
Dirth's outstretched fingers found a cold, metal counter. "Come on," he whispered to Barb. "I found something." His pull on her arm broke her trance.
"I’m staying," she found herself saying.
Dirth looked back towards her in the darkness. "Well we’re both staying, actually, since neither of us know how to leave, but –"
"I'm going to find out what happened here," Barb went on. "I’m going to find out what this place is. And I'm going to find out who those people are, and why they killed my brother."
"Alright, detective," Dirth replied, lifting to her feet, "why don’t we start by finding our way out."
Suddenly a more troubling thought occurred to her. "How did you know this door would open?"
"You just randomly decided to say 'Open 49' and then jump?"
"You had a better idea?" Dirth traced the edge of the counter.
Barb stood still, her mind racing. "But you did know. You knew how to open it! How could you have known? Have you been here before?"
Dirth turned around and took her by both arms. "Keep. Quiet. Don't get hysterical."
She winced at the accusation and then demanded, "Tell me how you knew."
Dirth took a deep breath. "It's voice-activated. You say a command, it opens. It's one of the basic things they were working on before the Divide. I always thought it died out before they developed it; I thought they found a better design."
Barb scoffed. "Before the Divide? You expect me to believe that? What, are you like 200 years old? You better start making sense before I start freaking out again."
"Barb, it's a long story. And I can tell you all of it when we get out of here. Can you just trust me?" Her silence in the darkness answered "No." He took another deep breath. "It was in my mother's journals. She was a scientist. She was fanatical about the stuff they were researching pre-Divide."
"And she disappeared one day." Dirth exhaled slowly. "When I was six. People think she tried to cross sides."
"Oh." All Barb's paranoid thoughts vanished. Here was Dirth, her fearless leader, searching for ways to get them out, and all she could find were reasons to doubt him. There wasn't a dishonest hair on his body. "Sorry," was all she could manage.
Then, "Wait,” she realized aloud, “then can't all those guys outside just say ‘Open 49’ and open it too?"
"Maybe. But if they could, they would have by now. They might just... not know how to open it." His hand finally met a wall, and he began feeling for a panel or light switch.
"But how is that possible?" Barb went on, "Aren't they like uber more advanced than us as a civilization? Don't they have hovercraft and pills as meals and stuff?"
"Don't believe everything you read in the Herald," Dirth muttered.
"I mean, couldn't they just read up about it like you did?" Barb pressed, "And like your mom?"
"They're not interested." Dirth flicked a switch and bright light filled the room.
"Thanks for the warning," Barb winced. She tugged her skirt down.
"To them, we live in the stone ages. Do you care how a caveman stalked his prey? No. Why should you? You can just buy your meat at the store."
"What's your point?"
"The point is, just because their technology has advanced doesn't mean ours hasn't too. Ours is just... different."
Barb let out a snort. "Yeah, different worse. Somehow I can't take tech talk seriously from – wait for it – a caveman."
"Fair," Dirth replied, unveiling another switch. "But caveman's finding our way out of here."