Outside there is only death. Wren had learned these words almost twenty years ago, as part of a nursery rhyme. Hunkered down in the passenger seat of the crawler, waiting to set out on his first assignment, it was all he could think. He felt small within the bulky white suit, each breath coming heavy through the mask’s filter. Reentry would mean a quarantine lasting more than a week. So far, that at least had worked; there was no record of contamination within Hub.
When the last set of doors slid open and the crawler passed through, Wren only stared without a word. He blinked at the sun until his eyes stung and began to water. Wren turned, then, to gape at the clouds. They billowed upward, dwarfing those in the museum exhibits, putting to shame the clouds in his head. Below, level with the crawler, there was just a vast, green expanse of thickets that rose and stretched about Hub. It was beautiful. Wren had to keep reminding himself that it was fatal, too.
The landscape moved along in silence for almost two hours, without a word between Wren and the driver. They passed abandoned cars and structures punctured by vines, as they navigated around dormant warheads, deep craters, and crippled, grinning signs. In the distance, a dark building loomed over the ruins, still intact, like the last bottle in a sea of glass. With each moment it seemed to grow, until the crawler pulled off the fractured highway and rumbled to a stop at the structure’s entrance.
The forward canopy snapped open and the two men climbed out, letting themselves down over the tall wheels. Wren held back as the driver approached the doors and keyed in the entry code, sending a signal to Hub. It was the only communication left outside their dome–just that request lighting up on a display panel somewhere back home.
As they waited for the Hub technicians to verify entry, Wren felt the terror all around him, creeping through the pale film of his suit. It was like knocking on a door two hundred miles away. What if the filtration on their masks broke down while they waited, as it had for the old man? Wren glanced at the driver. He stared placidly ahead, carrying only a latched tablet. Glass and fabric–that was all that protected them from the air outside. How could he be so calm?
Wren almost dropped his case when the steel doors unfastened themselves, peeling back to allow entry to the decontamination chamber. They stepped inside, and the driver tapped the lock, sealing the entrance behind them. Wren could see nothing through the mist as it pooled around their bodies, wiping them clean.
Once the second set of doors pulled back, and they entered the lobby, Wren stood silent, surveying the building’s floor. Piles of random objects clogged the hallway, nearly meeting his waist where he stood.
“Your contract,” the driver said, his voice distorted through the mask. He unlatched the imprint tablet and handed it over.
“Take off your gloves. Press here, and here, to verify that you’ve arrived and been let in,” the driver continued, gesturing as he spoke.
Wren managed only a nod in response, pushing his thumb against the lines that displayed his name and the words “Delivered.” The driver grunted and turned, pressing the lock once again. Wren watched the doors as they swallowed the man. He waited, and listened as the crawler sputtered to life outside the building and trundled away. After a moment, he turned and fell to his knees. For the first time in his life, Wren was completely alone.