Buckle up, folks, next few chapters are going to focus pretty heavily on Caroline.
I suppose it’s time for me to admit something. I haven’t been fully honest with you, the reader. I do not think I have ever lied, exactly, but I have withheld some information that is fairly pertinent in this situation.
Four people – well, more technically, but they didn’t last long afterwards – knew about the bombings before they happened. Christopher Penn, Rick Foley, and myself.
Actually no, that isn’t true, now that I think of it. None of us came up with the idea initially. That came from Clyde Edison, who was somewhat in the role of “mentor” for me at the time.
The three of us had an immediate reaction against it, but slowly became accustomed to the plan.
In a world filled to overflowing with death, sickness, crime, violence, and stagnation of growth, they would have no choice but to join us.
Having it planned out beforehand, we were able to make available a safe haven before the bombings for a certain few people, mostly those deemed important or wealthy enough that they would serve some later purpose to us.
I suppose this does place a bit more of the blame for the world’s current state upon Introspect’s shoulders. If that fact were publicly known, I’m certain that the numbers in the Anti-Introspect group would skyrocket. It is primarily for that reason that it has remained a secret for so long.
The thing is, it was necessary. Both for our company’s success and for the world as a whole. We certainly would’ve had plenty of customers even without the bombings, but the virtual world would be much more empty as a result. Above that, we would have had far less control over both our customers and the citizens of the real world. The government, too, would’ve been more bothersome had we not taken action before fully releasing our services to the public.
The world and population it held was getting too useless anyway. With so many people, each one only needed to do so much, you see, and a pattern of laziness and complacency appeared. The bombings created a need for work and, since there were far less people, each one needed to do more.
So it was necessary in several aspects as you can see. It didn’t bother me that much anyway; it was only business.
I should probably apologize for revealing this information to you. I have been… instructed to tell you the full truth, give you the full story. As such, I needed to disclose this information. I do realize that that information may somewhat skew your perception of me as a character and your narrator. It may turn you against me to some degree, in fact. Let me assure you, though, I don’t give two shits about what you think about me.
I will also assure you that I did choose, objectively speaking, the best possible option in that situation. If you disagree, well, I will also assure you that you are incorrect. Only I know the full picture here, and can judge accurately.
All that being said, I think it’s time we turn back to Caroline.
Caroline woke up on an uncomfortable, lumpy cot. Her hunger and thirst was gone. She didn’t remember eating, but was sure she must have at some point before she fell asleep.
She opened her eyes and looked around, and for a moment thought she was back in her bunker at the information farm.
The room she was in was filled with cots, all stacked three or four high. A woman, sometimes two, filled each cot. The room as a whole was filled with an inhuman amount of occupants. Caroline estimated it to be about ten feet by twelve feet and housing thirty or so women. There was one window, and the area outside it was pitch black. Caroline guessed from this that it was still in the middle of the night, but found that her sense of time was otherwise warped.
She wanted to get up and walk around for a bit, but was still tired and drawn back to sleep. As she lay contemplating that, she realized she was sharing a bed with someone. She recognized the woman as a small brunette who had supported her on one side as they walked through the streets.
The woman looked haggard, more worn and tired than mere sleep could amend. Caroline watched her, thinking, for a moment. She recalled the scene in the street but couldn’t remember anything past that, and still was unsure of where she was.
Her eyelids sank and she tried to resist, but the tiredness overwhelmed her and she laid back down and fell asleep again.
When she awoke next, about half of the room had been emptied. She sat up, the space next to her now vacant. The woman who had been laying there before was now sitting on a cot across from her, looking at her.
“You’re awake,” the woman stated.
“Took a while.”
Caroline nodded absentmindedly until the woman spoke again.
“Alright, let’s go. Breakfast has already finished, in case you were wondering.”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Caroline responded. “I’m not really hungry anyway.”
She said this despite a hunger she already felt growing in her stomach.
The woman stood up and walked towards the door. Once she was at it, she turned back to Caroline. “You coming?”
Caroline stood up and followed her hesitantly. She had an unease about this place. She wasn’t sure why she did, but had a vague sense that it originated from a portion of the previous night that she couldn’t remember.
They walked down a staircase towards a room in which about a dozen women sat, lounged, stood, and talked in. As she was coming down, she heard some of one of the conversations.
“Hey, have any of you heard from Diane recently?”
“Nah, she’s been gone for a while.”
“All I heard was some bigwig wanted her over for a while.”
“Any idea when she’ll be back?”
Another voice broke in sharply. “Dumbass, do you think Triss is psychic? Of course we don’t.”
A pause, then the first woman spoke again. “Whatever, I just miss her I guess.”
Caroline had paused midway down the stairway unconsciously while listening, but continued down once she noticed. One woman by the doorway reached out and brushed Caroline’s arm with her fingers. “Hey cutie,” she said, and Caroline kept walking, facing forward and trying to conceal her internal recoiling.
“Don’t mind her,” the woman who was leading her whispered. “She’s just trying to rile you up.”
They took seats at the table. A woman to Caroline’s left, who had been laying her head and upper chest on the table with her eyes shut, opened her eyes and grinned. “You want some?” she asked, opening her hand in front of Caroline and revealing a couple pills within.
“Uh, no, I don’t think…” she looked helplessly to the woman who had brought her downstairs.
“You might want some,” the woman said with a smile Caroline wasn’t sure was completely friendly. “We’re going to be having a little chat about what your place here will be.”
“Uh…” Caroline said uncertainly, then took one of the pills from the woman. She didn’t swallow it yet, not sure what she should do or what they were talking about.
A few minutes later the redheaded woman from the previous night came into the room and took a seat across from Caroline.
“I think it’s time we introduce ourselves,” she said. “My name is Irene, the brunette next to you is Orphelia, and the one passed out on your other side is Veronica.”
“Hi,” Caroline said to them all.
“Alright, enough with introductions, now I’d like to ask how experienced you are.”
Caroline frowned. “In what?”
Irene spread her hands, gesturing around the room. “What do you think?”
At that moment Caroline understood where she was and who the women were. She pushed back from the table a bit. “No, no, no. Not experienced. This isn’t what I… do.”
Irene smirked at her. “Well, it’s what you do now.”
“This is… a mistake,” Caroline said, standing up. “Thank you all very much for the food and rest, but I need to go.”
“Nothing’s free in this world, hun,” said Orphelia, who had stood up and put a hand on Caroline’s shoulder.
Caroline pushed the hand off. “I don’t…”
A wave of nausea hit her and she realized she hadn’t taken an radiation pill yet that day. She plunged her hand into the pocket she had kept the bottle, but it wasn’t there. She went through every one of her pockets, but the bottle was nowhere to be found.
“Your radiation pills? Don’t worry, I have them. I figured you may need some encouragement,” said Irene.
Caroline collapsed into her chair. “Okay, we can talk, just… give me the bottle.”
Irene pulled the bottle out of her pocket, held it in the air for a moment, then popped off the lid and shook out a pill. She tossed it to Caroline, who put it in her mouth and looked around for a glass of water. She couldn’t find one, so she dry-swallowed it.
She looked at Irene with a steely glare. “Is this how you always treat guests?”
“Female ones like yourself, anyway,” Irene said with a smile. “I’m afraid the ‘friendly guest’ doesn’t exist much anymore. So you’ll have to work for what we’ve already given you.”
A bell rang and Irene stood up. “Speaking of guests, looks like we have one right now. A good chance for you to start paying off your dues.”
Irene stood up and walked out of the room. Veronica, to Caroline’ s left, mumbled something. Caroline ignored it the first time, but then Veronica did it again and she realized she was talking to her. She leaned over to where Veronica’s head lay facing her on the table.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Caroline. “I’m so sorry. Take the pill I gave you, though. A little tripencorquine will help you out right now.”
When Caroline sat up straight again, she saw Orphelia looking at her with a mix of compassion and regret. A moment later, Orphelia turned away from her.
Irene returned to the room, pointed at Caroline, then curled her pointer finger back towards herself, indicating for Caroline to come over to her.
Caroline stood up slowly and began walking towards Irene. Irene turned away for a moment, and Caroline took that chance to swallow the tripencorquine pill Veronica had given her. Her jaw was clenched and her gaze was steely as she walked behind Irene.
A man stood, stance wide enough to show confidence that edged on arrogance, on one side of the room they went into. “You asked for room four, right, Trenton?” Irene asked.
“Yeah, but who’s this little freshling? I haven’t seen her around before.”
“Oh no,” Irene said, giving a cruel smile to Caroline, “This is actually her first time.”
A gleam came into the man’s eye. “Is it, now? Well, I’ll start her training off right.”
The three of them walked down a hallway until stopping at a doorway, Caroline only realizing then how large the building must be. Irene opened the door and gestured inside.
“Half an hour, right?” she asked.
“Yep. And, uh,” he said, eyeing Caroline and winking at Irene, “don’t interrupt me, no matter how loud it gets.”
Irene winked back. “Sure thing. Have fun.”
Caroline and the man walked into the room and Irene shut the door behind them. A moment later, Caroline heard footsteps as Irene walked away.
“Well, well,” the man said, “let’s see what you’ve got.”
Not fully knowing what she was doing, she gave a coy smile. “You show me yours first,” she said with a suave tone, and gave a quick glance to the window behind her, the shades down.
The man grinned and began taking off his clothes. At the precise moment he was pulling his shirt over his head and partially incapacitated, without even thinking of what to do, she grabbed a pillow off the nearby bed and threw her body into the man, pushing him against the wall. She held the pillow in front of his face with all the strength she could summon until he began to go limp. She eased him to the floor as best she could – he being about twice her weight – and slapped him a few times to make sure that he was out.
She looked at the pillow in her hands and tossed it to the bed. A sudden concern filled her and she went back over to the man and touched a finger to the side of his neck. She waited a horrifying few moments before she finally felt a pulse.
She hopped up and walked over to the window. The window was able to open a few inches, but it wouldn’t go any further due to locks holding it in place.
She grabbed the pillow again, thinking to smash the glass, but knew that wouldn’t muffle the sound enough. She swallowed. She didn’t have much choice at this point. She grabbed part of the pillow into her fist and smashed it against the glass, using the main portion to shield her hand. Two, three times she hit it before it finally shattered.
Despite the man’s orders to Irene not to disturb them, she was pretty sure the sound would draw attention. She tossed the pillow back onto the bed and hopped out the window. Remains of glass on the window sliced a line through her calf and hand, but she didn’t let it stop her. She landed on the ground a few feet below and began running.
When she was a few dozen yards away, the front door of the building opened and Irene stepped out. “Get her!” she barked to others inside, and a few women came running out after Caroline.
She was suddenly glad she had taken the tripencorquine pill. She would’ve tired easily, especially after not having eaten anything that morning, but the drug began to take effect and gave her a sudden boost of energy, along with relieving her muscles that began to ache.
She ran, kept running for longer than she ever had before, until only one woman remained behind her. She recognized the woman as Orphelia.
The two of them were running along an abandoned stretch of worn-out pavement, and Orphelia began waving her arms. Caroline stopped, unsure of what the woman meant. She walked up to Caroline.
“Damn, you can run,” she said, gripping her knees and panting. “Listen. I’m not going to bring you back. Irene is a tyrannical bitch, honestly. You never asked for it all. You were helpless.
“Here,” she said, and handed Caroline the bottle of radiation pills. “I got them from Irene. I don’t know who the hell you are, or what you’re doing, but I wish you the best.”
“Thank you so much,” Caroline said, and put the bottle in her pocket. “But what will you tell Irene when you return?”
“I’ll just tell her what a good runner you are, hun,” Orphelia said with a laugh, and began walking away.