The room was cold. Paul could see his breath billow out and fade away. He hadn’t been so close to the surface since the evacuation. With the sun dimming the surface was a cold inhospitable expanse. He couldn’t tell how close to the surface he actually was but the chill in the air along with the level of security in the halls told him he was closer than he would have liked.
He was in a sparse room. The walls were bare and Paul sat at one of the two simple metal chairs that were on either side of a metal table. There was nothing else in the room but the intermittent cloud of Paul’s breath. He sat quietly and wondered why he had been sent for. It had been nearly an hour, in Paul’s best guess, since he had been at his post in the filtration plant. He felt his bracelet buzz and went to the guard station. They directed him to the elevator and he was ushered into the room. Paul hoped his time was being counted but doubted it. Everyone had to take a rotating shift at the plants that provided the refugees with water, food, and air. Paul was debating asking someone if this counted towards his time when the door opened to a man dressed in a military uniform.
The man was looking at a file. He sat down and continued to read ignoring Paul sitting on the other side of the table. Paul was stunned by the man. He looked well fed and very healthy, which was an odd enough sight, but what shocked Paul the most was the uniform. Paul hadn’t seen anyone wearing anything other than the standard coveralls they were all given when they descended. Even the guards wore them.
“Mr. Shaw,” the man said still looking at the file.
“Yes,” Paul said.
The man looked up. “You are probably wondering why you’ve been asked here.”
“Yes,” Paul said. He looked down at the table when he answered.
“You were a bus driver?” The man half asked.
“For the prison,” Paul said.
“Yes. You have fire arm training, correct?”
“Yeah, never shot anything though.”
“That’s good,” then man said. A smile formed on his face then vanished. “We have a job for you to do.”
“Yes. Our resources are limited and are currently tied up with another matter I’m afraid.” Amiability oozed from the words but Paul felt the man was as cold as the room. “We need you to deliver something for us; something of great importance. It just so happens that the location for the delivery is on your old bus route. You need to be there within forty-eight hours so no stopping to reminisce Mr. Shaw.”
Paul was silent. He didn’t want to go outside or deliver anything, but he didn’t think he could say no.
“You will of course be given the supplies you need as well as a fire arm. There should be no problem making your deadline,” the man continued to reference the file he held as he spoke. “I must make it clear that under no circumstances are you to miss your deadline Mr. Shaw.” The cold demeanour the man showed was clear in his words. Paul understood that he couldn’t fail and that terrible things would happen if he did.
“What am I delivering?” Paul said doing his best to accept the situation.
“You’ll be briefed on the way,” the man said. He closed the file and turned to leave.
“On my way where?”
“Up Mr. Shaw.”
The next few minutes were filled with frantic activity. Another man in a similar suit led Paul to a room with a small window over a counter. Paul could see shelves stuffed full of various equipment stacked behind the window and a door leading to another room. A man shuffled through the door and looked completely uninterested in Paul or his escort. He wore a wrinkled short sleeved shirt the same colour as the other men Paul met, except for a large stain over the man’s ample stomach. He took the file from Paul’s escort and half-heartedly collected items from the shelves. He issued Paul a pistol with one magazine, food rations for two days and what looked like well worn cold weather gear.
The coat was faded with thick stitching in odd places which showed how many times it had been repaired. The matching pants were equally as patched and the heavy boots were comfortably broken in, but didn’t fit well. The toque, gloves, and scarf that accompanied the clothing looked warm, but were faded and carried the smell of the last person who wore them. The gun fit in a holster at Paul’s waist and the rations, along with basic survival gear, fit in a backpack.
Paul dressed and handed his coveralls to the sullen man behind the window. His escort took him to another small room with a door on the far wall then left him to wait. Paul used the time to check his cold weather clothing and to look through the meagre equipment he had been issued. The coat and pants had a quality that Paul thought of as often appreciated. They were clearly heavily used, but someone was likely thankful to have them at one time. He hoped that they would stand up to the kind of cold that gave people in the shelter nightmares – Paul included. In the backpack he had a knife, a flint and tinder, and a compass. Paul didn’t consider himself and outdoorsman but he felt he could manage the tools for the short trip.
Next Paul took out the gun and inspected it. He was thankful that it was similar to the one he used as a prison bus driver. He had never been a good shot and didn’t think he could manage to shoot at all while wearing the thick gloves. There were stories that spread through the refuge of dangerous wanders who roamed the dead surface. They were either said to be those who refused to move beneath the surface when the Sun began to wan or criminals who were cast out from the shelters for the horrible things they did. Paul knew they were just stories made up by scared and bored survivors. No one could survive on the surface for long. He believed the gun was likely to stay in its holster, and he was fine with that.
As he holstered the weapon the far door opened. A man walked in and Paul wasn’t sure if it was one of the men he had met earlier or not. He was ushering in a short white puff ball with stubby arms and legs that turned out to be a bundled up little girl. Her outer wear was extensive and looked brand new. It was hard to tell under the clothing but Paul thought she couldn’t be older than five or six. Even in the expansive coat she looked well fed and healthy. Strapped to the back of the coat was a small white bag like the one Paul was given. He figured she had been given her own supplies which would thankfully take the burden off of his own.
“This girl is very important Mr. Shaw. You must do whatever it takes to get her to her destination on time.” The man handed Paul a field map folded up in a plastic sleeve. It showed the route leading away from the shelter. “There is an airfield on the way to the prison,” the man said pointing to the spot marked on the map. “You should know the way but make sure to use the compass. You have forty-eight hours starting now.” The man nudged the girl towards Paul and walked back though the door.
Guards lead Paul and the girl through more corridors. Paul kept next to the girl and tried to figure out how he would keep her safe for two days of walking on the surface. He thought she looked scared, not that he would blame her knowing where they were headed, but he considered that he may be projecting his own feelings onto the stolid girl. They eventually came to another man in a uniform who stood by a set of solid looking doors. The guards handed the man a file and he punched in a code on a wall mounted keypad. The doors slid open revealing a short hallway and an elevator. Beyond the doorway was a wall of freezing air. Paul shivered thinking about how much worse it as going to get.
They approached the elevator and the doors slid closed behind them. The girl hesitated at the open elevator. Paul forced himself forward and she reluctantly went in after him. He closed a stiff gate and pressed the button that indicated that they were secure. A buzz grew into a hum and then a loud bellow. The elevator car rocked slightly then shot upward. Paul braced himself and reached out to steady the girl.
The temperature dropped steadily as they climbed. Several times Paul thought it couldn’t get any colder, but it continued to plummet. He kept himself and the girl moving to keep warm and let the elevator take them to its destination.
They stopped as suddenly as they started. Again Paul had to prevent himself and the girl from ending up on the floor. The gate opened and doors that mirrored the ones they exited down at the shelter separated them from the open surface. As they approached the doors whirred to life and struggled to open. With a loud crack the doors split and revealed a pile of ice and snow built up on the other side. They fought against the mound but froze where they were. Wind howled its way through the opening as Paul pulled at the door trying to force them apart. He only managed to move them an inch or so but it was enough for him to get at the debris. After a few minutes of pushing at the stuff, prying at the doors and eventually kicking at the pile, Paul had made a gap wide enough to lift the girl over the built up ice and crawl out himself.