The Struggle for Life, by David Lamb
The following extract is the beginning of the first chapter of my novel The Struggle for Life. It is a science-fiction work set in a post-apocalyptic world. The story follows a number of characters in their journeys through this world, exploring the lengths at which they will go to survive, and humanities status as an endangered species.
This prologue, and the following chapter, are from the perspective of Liam Morgan, a traveller of the wasteland searching for his lost wife. An extract set before the majority of this action, and from the perspective of scientist Kate Winters, can be found in the Articulus book.
Prologue: The Wastelander
A red glow spread across the landscape, the warning of dawn approaching. Amongst burnt and wasted trees a figure moved quickly, stumbling over the dry ground. The man’s head could not be seen, covered under a heavy, crumpled hood. A revolver swung out as the figure moved. Taking a knee on the ground, he checked a frayed and crumpled piece of paper. Up ahead of him, a steep hill of gravel reached into the sky. As it rose the hill gave way to a formation of rocks, at its peak a pile of them formed a triangle pointing into the sky. This had to be it. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter anyway. As the sun stalked its way around the planet, the man broke into a run, pocketing his gun. He scrambled upwards, slipping in the loose dirt and falling forwards on to his hands. The ground already felt warm. He pulled himself upward on all fours in a panic, his arms and feet flailing in an attempt to get his body up the hill faster. If it was true, this was his only chance. If he was wrong he would burn on this hillside. His hands damp with sweat, the man pulled himself up on to level ground and saw what he had been searching for: A small cave with an iron door. Before he could even make his way towards it, the bolt slid open and four men rushed out, encircling and pointing their rifles at him.
“Hands on your head!” shouted the leader of the pack. They all wore long brown coats, with hoods that came up and behind steel wielding masks. The visors were completely black.
“Put your head to the ground!” The man complied. He felt his skin beginning to burn against the hot soil.
“Please, I heard about this place!” the man yelled through the pain, “I’m searching for my wife. You’ve got to let me in; we’ll all die out here!”
“You’ll burn before us mate,” laughed one of the men to the right of him, tapping their mask with thick gloves, “Nasty way to go. Slow.”
“Please!” the man screamed, his vision blurred. The leader of the masks lowered his rifle.
“Bring him inside.”
Chapter Two: Liam
The man was bundled inside and thrown onto the floor. The door slammed shut and there was only darkness and the shuffling of feet. A light flickered on, revealing a small room with dirty walls. In the corner sat another guard, staring at a screen which showed the empty wasteland surrounding the hill.
“What is your name?”
“Liam. Liam Morgan,” said the man, his hands still on his head. He had pulled his hood back showing long sweaty black hair that melded into a large scraggy beard. What of his skin could be seen was red raw, except for bright, wide blue eyes.
“Give us any weapons you have.” Liam moved his arms slowly and took the revolver out of his pocket by the handle. With his other hand he carefully took out a rusty knife. Looking directly at the visor that stared at him he gently put them on the floor.
“There’s no bullets in the gun,” he reassured them, trying to keep his voice steady, “Haven’t had any for a while. It’s just for show.”
“Smart. Search him.” One of the men came forward and took Liam’s jacket off, then patted down his grimy vest.
“So Liam Morgan, how did you find us?” The men had lowered their weapons.
“I was with a caravan pack when I heard rumours about this place. It’s said you take people in. I thought my wife might be here.” If she had found out about this place, she surely would have searched it out.
“What happened to the caravans?”
“They got attacked by raiders. I ran.” Liam stared at the floor.
“Another smart choice,” the man took off the mask and brought back the hood, revealing thick orange hair. “Why shouldn’t I throw you out to the sun Mr. Morgan?”
“Because I mean no harm. I’m just searching for my wife.” There was a long silence. The man with orange hair stared Liam down.
“I have your word?”
“My word.” There was a long silence. The man’s face was granite, and Liam found himself almost flinching at his unbroken gaze. Eventually, the man took a small breath, and seemed to relax slightly. He offered a hand to help Liam up.
“I’m taking you to the doctor, Mr. Morgan. She can decide what to do with you.”
Liam was taken to a large lift that went down for at least five minutes. The leader of the guards had introduced himself as Captain Stewart, and he took him through the facility. People walking by stared at him with unapologetic curiosity. Liam couldn’t remember the last time he had seen people so clean. There were children here, with soft pale skin that looked positively alien to him. He suddenly felt self-conscious of his appearance, how savage he must look to them. But the worst thing, he found, was the brightness. Going outside in daylight had been suicide, and Liam had become used to darkness. Down here, the strong lights that ran along the ceilings lit up everything. Liam found himself blinking uncontrollably against the clarity. The Captain explained them to him, gigantic lights that ran across every public area, simulating the turn from day to night. Even though at the moment they were still dim for the early morning, the feeling was extremely strange to Liam’s eyes. The simulation may have been accurate, but not to what existed outside this place.
“My son, I see the Lord has delivered you into the halls of Paradise!” Liam jumped at the sudden address coming from the old man striding across the floor towards him, “Outside burn the fires of hell itself, but here he offers you a chance at redemption!” The man was wearing a black cloak, adjourned only with a small silver cross. Priests were commonplace, but compared to some of the believers Liam had met outside, this man seemed only mildly enthusiastic.
“Leave him be Father,” Stewart said as they walked past, “That’s Father Rowden. He can be a bit eager. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised he’d happen to be around to bump into you.” Behind them, Father Rowden called out again, advising Liam of when he could come to speak to him, or to pray and offer confession.
“He seems harmless,” said Liam. The Captain muttered something to himself, then sighed.
“Well he’s got a lot of followers. Some people need it I suppose, the ways things are. Faith.”
“So you’re not a believer?”
“Mr. Morgan if there was an almighty and he wanted rid of us, I don’t think he would do such a sloppy job.”
“Yes.” Even if Liam had the energy to argue, he felt it would have been pointless to with this man. He stared up at the ceiling instead, the gigantic lights glared back at him.
“What do you believe Mr. Morgan?” Stewart stopped ahead of Liam, waiting for him.
“I don’t really know.” Liam caught up and they carried on in silence. Eventually they came to an old wooden door, a box of files sitting outside it.
“Here you go,” said Stewart, standing behind him, “Just one thing: This place is our home. I’ve got nothing against taking people in, but if you cause any trouble... I will deal with you. Clear?” Liam remembered the burning ground on his face, and the reminder brought a sore burst of pain to him.
“Good. Dr. Winters is waiting just in there. I’ll see you around.” He offered his hand and Liam shook it. His grip was unsurprisingly firm.
Inside the office a short woman sat at a desk, surrounded by files, papers, pens and boxes. It was a little space of mess that seemed out of place compared to the stark cleanliness of everything else Liam had seen in the facility. Her messy hair was tied up as best it could in a bun with a piece of string, and she wore small glasses that magnified her dark green eyes.
“So you’re the one that found us! I’m Doctor Winters,” she thrust her hand towards him excitedly, Liam took it slowly. He was beginning to get fed up with people looking at him like an especially exotic scientific specimen.
“I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions Mr. Morgan, but first things first.” She led Liam through some rooms eventually reaching one which contained shelves of medicine and bandages. There was a bed in the corner with a curtain. Winters handed Liam a sponge and an electric razor. Liam hadn’t seen one of them since he was a child.
“Do you know what these are?” Liam nodded. “Good. Go through that door, you’ll find a shower and some new clothes. Make sure to be very gentle on any burnt skin, it’s going to be very sensitive and it’ll need time to heal. And no matter how much you want to, only trim that beard. Trust me, attempting a proper shave won’t be worth the mess.”
At first, Liam couldn’t stand to be under the shower for more than a second, the feeling was so overpowering. The tingling sensation of the warm water made him jump, but he got used to it. The water around his feet ran murky brown. As he gently washed his face, wincing at his stinging skin, he thought about Laura. The Doctor’s eyes had reminded him of her, a dark caring green. He knew deep down that she wasn’t here. He would’ve known by now, would’ve been told. As he carefully dabbed his body with the sponge he tried to remember her face. Yet again, it didn’t quite come to him. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep her face in his mind. It lacked clarity, was slightly off. He walked over naked to his pile of clothes and looked through his jacket, found a small tattered photograph. It had faded to the point of it just being a silhouette. The discoloured shadow did nothing to refresh his memory. Her eyes had been the same colour as the doctor’s, he was sure. The feel of her hair he remembered, it had been thick against his face as they slept. Thick, frizzy, with a sweet smell to it. And that hair went down, and met the forehead, and the further down his mind imagined, the more it all became a blur. Liam let the photo drop onto the pile of dirty materials and sat back down under the shower. He considered what his next move was to be. He guessed he would have to search for the next caravan pack, ask around there. Some of them could be fairly friendly, and they were easy to find. He began to remember the group he had been with before, lovely people, most of whom were almost definitely dead. The night of the attack he had heard the shouted warnings; the call to arms. He had seen one of the caravans explode in flames, seen someone he could no longer recognise run past alight. He saw people marshalling themselves, getting into groups. One had even waved, beckoning him to come over. He had gathered his things and turned to the night, run and not looked back. And because of that, he was alive.
Laura could have found another caravan. Liam promised himself he would leave that night. As he looked at himself in the mirror he was surprised how torn and leathery his face looked. He took the razor that Winters had given him and flicked out the trimmer on the end. Turning it on, he carefully ran it over his beard. Dark wet clumps of hair landed by his feet with loud splats. In the mirror, Liam looked at a face he didn’t recognise; gaunt cheekbones, cracked lips. The skin underneath his new stubble looked ridiculously pale compared to the rest of his face. He wondered if he would ever be as clean as the people in this place.
Back in the office, Winters applied ointment to his rough face and bandaged the dozens of cuts and scrapes that covered his body.
“We’ve got no records of a Laura Morgan,” she said, concentrating on the wound in front of her. Liam didn’t reply. “Besides, you’re the first person to find us in over six months. You’ve done very well to survive.” It had been four months since Laura and Liam had been separated. She wasn’t here. Liam sat in silence for the rest of the examination; Winters didn’t bother to ask him any questions until a while afterwards, after convincing him to drink some water. His body felt strange, clear of dirt and wounds covered. It tingled; the feeling was not painful but disconcerting.
“You’re welcome to stay here you know.” She smiled at him.
“I think I’ll be moving on.”
“Because I promised her I’d keep looking.” Liam looked up from his glass to Winters. She sighed, stood up, and walked over to the door.
“Follow me,” she said, “There’s something I want to show you.”
Liam and Winters took the elevator further down into the facility, coming out into a massive corridor with dozens of large rooms branching off from it. Liam realised just how far underground they must be, and wondered just how many people were walking above them without realising it.
“From what’s left of our records we can tell this place was meant to be a research facility,” Winters said as they walked down the passage, “but once everything started to go wrong it was made into a sort of scientific safe-house.”
“What did go wrong?” asked Liam, trying to see through the windows of the doors. All he could make out was green.
“There are records that say it was a solar flare... I don’t understand how it happened, but I doubt there was anything that could have been done. Some say it was Judgement day.”
“What do you think?”
“I think there’s a scientific reason for everything.” She took a small key out of her pocket and opened a door, leading Liam into a room covered in flowers, an explosion of colours. Red, white purple - shades and tones that Liam had never even seen. Textures and shapes all blended together. It was a living picture.
“These are my orchids.” Winters turned around, smiling at him, “What do you think?” Liam didn’t reply for a while. He just walked around, touching the delicate petals and taking in the strong, sweet smell. It was as if he had walked into another world, or a dream.
“Thank you.” Winter’s walked over to join him, with a small bucket of water. She gently poured small amounts into different areas of the soil.
“I can’t remember a time that the world wasn’t like this,” Liam said, “All my life... the planet’s been the enemy. Don’t go out in the daytime, find shelter. I didn’t realise there could be beauty. Or anything like...” He ran out of words. Liam looked at Winters instead, unable to read her expression. Suddenly, he realised she was blushing.
“From what I know, it happened very fast,” she said quickly, “Everyone realised it was going to happen, but nobody could do anything about it. It got warmer and warmer... then over a few days the Earth scorched. By that point everyone had been advised to seek shelter. A large group of people had been moved in here, my mother and father for instance. I have no idea how many on the outside survived.”
“A lot of us are still surviving.” There are plenty of people out there, Liam thought. Hopefully Laura will still be out there.
“Evidently so. We’ve had trouble with bandits... tribes of criminals. They’re generally easily dealt with. We haven’t had much contact with anyone civilized.”
“You have no idea.” Liam turned away and concentrated on the flowers.
“Probably not. They’ve learnt that coming for us is pretty futile. But obviously not everyone outside is like that. Not you, or your wife.” Liam didn’t respond. The petal of the orchid in front of him was incredibly soft. It broke off in his hand.
“Tell me about her.” Winters said as she sat down next to one of the larger allotments of flowers.
“I’m not sure I can.” Liam suddenly felt very tired.
“Try.” The Doctor looked at him and patted the ground next to her gently with her hand.
Hours later, the two sat on the floor surrounded by leaves and soil. They had been silent for a while, both holding small cups with a strong homemade alcohol from Winters’ own still. She had sworn Liam to secrecy about it, although apparently she wasn’t the only one. The way things were, Liam felt that alcohol was positively a necessity. It was a somewhat disparaging view of the human race. Eventually Winters spoke.
“I brought you down here because you should stay.” She said, stroking one of her plants.
“And I’ll stay because of some flowers?” Winters gave him a sharp look. “Sorry. They’re very nice flowers.” His attempt to derail her argument didn’t seem to work. She simply shook her head and carried on.
“No, you’ll stay because our species is on the verge of extinction. I understand you want to find your wife. It’s very noble, very romantic. But it isn’t realistic. The world above won’t be suitable for us in our lifetimes, probably not in our children’s lifetimes, but someday it will. All along this corridor are warehouses full of plants, vegetables, medicines... anything we can grow. We devote a huge amount of our power to their growth, because they need to survive. One day my little garden might be the spark that brings back nature up there. And it’s the same for us, you see. You need to stay here and just live. Survive. Have babies. The only hope for life is in the long run now.”
“I can’t.” Liam said.
After another hour, Liam left the garden feeling slightly light-headed. The drink that Winters had given him had evidently been as potent as it had tasted. He found himself enjoying the feeling, the muddiness that filled his brain. He had asked winters for directions to the chapel. She had given them to him, but he had noted the look of amusement and curiosity on her face. He had wandered around the facility slowly, trying to ignore the looks that people gave him. Although he looked slightly less dishevelled now, he still had a healthy amount of stubble, and his skin made him stand out. Everyone he saw had smooth, pale skin, almost as white as the lights above them. His was red, torn and tough. I look savage.
Eventually he found the chapel. It's large wooden doors set it apart from the flimsy metal handles that Liam had seen everywhere else in the facility. Once inside Liam was confronted by another area the likes of which he had never been in; rows upon rows of uncomfortable looking benches, bright red blankets hanging from the walls, candlelight. Liam stared above at the gigantic quilt. To call it a quilt seemed silly, but Liam had never seen anything like it before. Outside he'd met many people who would knit together beautiful blankets and rugs, with patterns and pictures on them. Above him was one so large it spread across the entire hall. It was detailed, perfect to the tiniest thread. Liam wondered how long it would have taken to make.
“Beautiful, isn't it?” The old priest that had called out to him before stood at the front of the hall, under a wooden cross that reached to the ceiling. It had been so large Liam had mistaken it for part of the wall, now he could see the weight and power of the thing, held in place by large iron chains.
“Yes.” Liam answered and went back to admiring what was above him. He wondered how many other rooms existed in this place that would feel so utterly alien. He had read about churches of course, but in his life outside the most he had ever found would be a group of people sat round a fire of some sort, even a small one in a caravan. People of all ages would gather, holding their children and trying to keep them quiet, or grasping their partners’ hands. Then someone would bring out a Bible and read from it. Most of them weren't even priests, although Liam had met many self-proclaimed men of God out there. He remembered one, a shaggy-haired man with twitchy eyes, who had recited without even need to look at the words. His battered Bible had hung from his neck, frayed and falling apart. He had been alright, and harmless in the end. Any children of the caravans had always been extremely silent whenever he had taken a session, fearful that his eyes may fall upon them and call them out. This man was a very different picture. Like the all the others, he was clean and pale. His bald head shone, and a neatly trimmed grey beard covered the lower half of his face. His smile was warm and welcoming, and his dark eyes sparkled under bushy eyebrows. Unlike a battered Bible, a small silver cross hung from his neck, lying against clean back cloth as opposed to a crust jacket.
“So you're the wanderer who found us then? May I ask your name?”
“A pleasure to meet you. Enjoying our tapestry I see?" So that's what it is called.
“Those who built this place put it up. I believe it is our story, a people escaping from horrors and finding salvation in paradise itself.” Liam couldn't think of anything to say in response. This place was man built, that was clear enough. It was not another realm, it was a refuge hidden away under the burning soil. But compared to everything he had seen outside the word paradise had an amount of truth to it.
“Are you a religious man Liam?”
“I try to be.”
“Would you like to confess, my son?”
“Not really.” The alcohol helped Liam find the bluntness to answer the question. Looking at the priest he was surprised to find the man still smiling back at him. Liam decided to ride the confidence he had found.
“How should I address you? Holy Man? Father?” The priest nodded at him. Believers like him had gone by all sorts of names on the wasteland, insisting on their titles. “Ok Father. Tell me about marriage.”
“What would you like to know? I assume by the ring on your finger that you are married yourself.” That or I'm a thief.
“I am. Or I was, I’m not sure yet. I have been for six years.” Liam realised this was probably the first time he had accepted the possibility of failure out loud.
“Congratulations. Well, I believe marriage is more important now than ever. In times like these it is too easy for man to fall to baser instincts, to lose all morals. Outside people sin freely, for why shouldn't they? In a merciless world full of fire and danger, people must do things simply to survive. I am not a fool, I understand this. If I was in their place would I hold true to my faith? I cannot answer that; perhaps someday I will have to. But that is why marriage is important. Because of the few of us left on this world, some of us must hold to the values that define us. I believe that is God's true test in all of this.” The entire time he spoke, the priest had held Liam's gaze. He found himself unable to look away from the man, long after the question had been answered. That drink really had been strong, Liam thought. He realised the priest must be able to smell it on his breath. He felt ashamed of himself and sat down one of the benches. Looking down in front of him he saw a bible, one in much better condition than he had ever seen.
Laura and he had been married in a small caravan town called Ford. Enough people had gathered to simply stop moving. He and her had lived there a while, before the area became too dangerous, and again the foundations were lifted; like nomads the town had simply left. The ceremony itself had been small, the party afterwards large and raucous. The entire town had turned out for it, including many who didn’t even really know the bride and groom. A wedding was a good excuse for celebrations, and the celebrations had gone on long into the night. An old man called Thompson had performed the rites, as he had known his Bible better than anyone else. Liam and Laura had said their vows, and had put on rings that had belonged to her mother. Hers was gold incrusted with a small green jewel; his was a simple iron ring. It had become rusted in time, but Liam still wore it, and still felt it was beautiful. Liam was shaken from his silence by the preacher’s voice. It bounced around the chapel now, a booming echo.
“People like you and me, my son. We will be tested, and we will have to cast away the sinners and those who would drag us down. Do you understand me?” the voice had lost its warmth, and Liam felt himself hanging on every word. “We must be ready to enact God’s will, no matter the circumstances, no matter who or what stands against us. Hold on to your morals. Hold on to your faith.” Liam squirmed in the seat. He suddenly felt very sober.
“Could I take this?” He asked quietly, holding up the bible. The priest nodded, and again the warm smile was upon his face.
“I hope I have been of some help.” And with that he turned away. Liam pocketed the bible and walked slowly out of the chapel. He thought of Winters and her garden, and the tapestry that hung above him. The skin around and under the ring on his finger itched.
When Liam told Winters his final decision, she was not exactly supportive. She pointed out that statistically he was choosing suicide, that there was a need of people with knowledge of the outside world in the facility. Liam wondered why this was the case. As far as he could tell, he was probably the only one to ever leave voluntarily. Winters wouldn't tell him however. Instead she had sighed, and taken him to another room, this one of full of cupboards. She had spoken on her small device, she called it a communicator and Liam had been fascinated with it. It was like a radio, he had realised, but so small and so advanced. Winters had been fairly amused by his curiosity, and shown him how it worked, how the dial flipped through contacts, and how it could be powered forever by inserting a small metal monkey-wrench, and winding it up. Liam had played with it like a child would play with a toy.
“I'm glad you like it Liam. You're getting one.” She smiled at him, and positively beamed at his stunned expression of response.
“Yep. Although I'm afraid yours is going to be a little bigger. And heavier. Not quite as shiny.” She reached into a cupboard and pulled out a small box. It had the same screen as the communicator, but was much larger. A wrench for winding up the battery was on the side, and as well as the selector dial there were some larger knobs on its top. What caught Liam's eye however, was a rod of metal. Winters pulled, and it extended into a long antennae. Lastly, she showed him how a small speaking piece could be pulled out of the box on a cord. She called it a microphone.
“The council really aren't happy I'm giving you this,” She said as she showed Liam how to operate the machine, “but I didn't really give them a choice. This means we can communicate. I'm pretty sure it'll be fairly useless when the sun is up, and even then geographically... well we'll have to see. But if you use the frequency one-oh-three-point-two, we'll pick you up. Every time you communicate, you’ll need to use a different password. At the end of each call, we'll decide a new password, ok?” Liam nodded.
“I get it, but why are you giving me this?” Liam had long given up on the idea of charity. Besides, the people here in the facility had already given him enough.
“Because we need information. You're probably the only person who wants to go back out there, so if you're going to go, then you perhaps you can help me. Be my eyes and ears, tell me what you find.”
“What are you looking for?” Liam gave the radio back to Winters. He tried the rucksack on that he had been given. It was heavy, but full of items that for long time he had been without. Food, water, tools, even a small canvas with which Liam was to figure out how to improvise shelter. It was going to be even heavier once the radio got put in. It would slow him down for sure. He slipped the Bible he had taken into one of the side pockets. He thought about asking Winters about the what the preacher had said, but on seeing the way she had looked at the Bible he decided against it. She probably wouldn’t have understood, or even cared. The preacher was just slightly overzealous, Liam thought, although he couldn’t shake the booming voice of the man from his head. He watched Winters tinker with the radio.
“I'm looking for anything for now. But that's what this is for,” she tapped the top of the radio happily, “I can tell you what we need. And perhaps we can help you. If you get into trouble there’s a chance we might be able to send help.” She sounded slightly apologetic, but out there Liam knew the chance of help was a lot better than none at all.
“How far out will it work?”
“We'll find out. I think you'll be ok for a good while. One more thing though: You may have noticed we like our privacy here.” Winters handed the radio to Liam, and he started reorganising the rucksack.
“I did pick up on it a little.”
“That's what the passwords will be for. But try not to let this fall into the wrong hands. If you get the chance, destroy it before it happens. If we think it's been taken, or you've been compromised, we'll break contact. You understand?”
Liam whistled. “Perfectly. I'll make sure to remember the passwords.”
“Make sure you do. If you're ever in danger, if you are under threat, say 'orchid'. Got it?” Winters smiled at him, and Liam pulled his now full rucksack onto his back. It was going to take some getting used to. He found himself with little left to say.
“Well. Thank you Dr. Winters.”
“Hopefully it won't be the last time we see you Mr. Morgan.” To his surprise, she gave him a hug. Outside the room, Captain Stewart was waiting for him. He gave him a curt nod, and started to lead the way. As they walked, Liam heard Winters voice behind him:
“You can call me Kate, by the way. Good luck.”
That night, the door in the hill opened again. Liam walked out cleaner and calmer, still testing the heaviness against his back. Stewart followed him outside and handed him the gun that had been taken from him hours before.
“We’ve given you some bullets for it,” he said, studying Liam up and down. “Don't waste them.” He gave Liam another forceful handshake. Soon Liam was slowly making his way down the hill. Once he reached the bottom he gave the bag one last heft, and looked at the emptiness out in front of him. Seeing a bundle of what used to be trees on top of a hill in the distance, he decided on his direction. He began to walk.