Proximity, Part 1 of 3

Krane Decleric was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Her junior commander and trainer—the bug-eyed, golden-haired, always-on-the-edge-of-smirking Clark—had ditched her, maybe as some sort of trainee initiation prank, and left her in one of the chambers near the entrance to the locks. She had warily gone through a door, which led her into a hallway, which took her to another door. Forgetting she was supposed to be scared, she opened it, knowing she probably shouldn’t but feeling as though she had no other choice. She was lost and it had seemed like it could be a way out. Instead, it had been a way in.

Krane found herself in a concrete room with areas sectioned off by concrete walls. These doorless rooms, whose exposed entryways allowed her to see inside, contained boxes. Cardboard boxes, clear plastic boxes, crates—they filled these small rooms, each area labeled above its entrance with numbers growing chronologically up the left side of the room toward Krane—to number twenty—and back down the right side—ending with number forty—toward another door, huge and wooden, on the opposing wall.

A dull, heavy noise resounded behind her, and a slurping, like the sealing of a vacuum, was the coda to the sound. Krane lurched and spun to face the door through which she had just entered, only to see the light, in the shape of a thin rectangle tracing the top border of the door, flip from amber to deep red. She gulped down the beating of her heart in her throat and flicked her eyes to her right, then to her left, but there was no guard or code panel in sight.

With all the effort the government had put into protecting the Susceptible, Krane found it awfully disconcerting that there was only one coded door—never mind the labyrinth of the chambers and the locks—separating them from the Immune. Of course, only the fortress guards were privy to the codes, which meant no one could get in or out without one letting them through the door. But a code and one guard, even with his sturdy body and stern expression, his bulletproof vest and hefty firearm, seemed less of a barrier to this sensitive world than all the propaganda claimed they needed. Yes, there was the gargantuan electrical fence surrounding the fortress on the outside, barricading civilians from entering, but it seemed that the military could come and go as they pleased, as long as they surpassed the guards and the code. Krane had always assumed that inside the chambers were men with stronger artillery, and on either side of the locks were ID scanners, disinfectant rooms, and cameras taping from every angle. Maybe the guard on the inside of the locks was off duty at the moment, or maybe he was taking a bathroom break and had no one else to step in—but, more likely, the Susceptible, craving their near royal treatment, were not subjected to staring at a beefy, rifle-bearing monster standing at their doorstep every moment of the day like the Immune were. Krane entertained the thought for moment, then froze in place. No guards meant possible surveillance. Cameras could be anywhere. Alarms could go off any minute. And Krane would more than likely be shot dead with no chance to explain herself.

Even in the chambers, where her only fear had been failure to impress Clark, who would report about her to his senior commander, she had not been much concerned with the possibility of surveillance. Hell, even on the streets of the city, where she knew there were cameras aimed at every storefront, every window, every corner, she’d known she didn’t have anything to be afraid of—as long as she followed orders. But now, the threat of arrest was real.

Arrest, while not uncommon in New York, was something reserved for people who disobeyed. Misbehaving men, women, and children, regardless of their age, were snatched away shrieking by police doing their rounds, often returning starving and bruised a few days later, or weeks, depending on their crime. Krane had witnessed from her own bedroom window rebellious teenagers dragged away shouting into the night several times over the course of her childhood. Their dirt-smeared trousers and wild eyes told her that these deviants needed to be kept in line. So Krane had always followed the rules: she’d never stayed out past the ten o’clock curfew; she’d attended every day of her eight years of classes, unless she was ill; she’d joined the military academy upon her graduation at sixteen; and she’d even had her first kiss from a boy, Bobby Durkheimer, when she was twelve, even though his lips were pink and sticky from the raspberries they’d been picking in the fields and she could smell the dull stench of old sweat emanating from his armpits, barely covered by his government-provided t-shirt.

She’d done what the law, her parents, and her peers had told her to do, and now she was stuck somewhere she wasn’t meant to be, unsure of how she’d managed to get there, and likely to be killed the moment she was found. As a trainee guard, she had only been allowed to look at the map of the chambers briefly before this first tour, and it had not shown the inside of the fortress. There were the chambers, like a cell wall, lining the miles-wide holding area, and there were the locks, four small hallway-like structures on the center of each of the square-shaped fortress’ sides. But beyond the areas she was permitted to enter, there was a big blank space. Not even senior commander’s had the privilege of seeing the maps of the inside of the fortress.

Having studied the limited map for only a few minutes before being escorted by Clark through the North guard-and-code-locked entrance, Krane could not discern whether she had gone through the locks or not. Was she still in the chambers? Or had she passed into the fortress? There was nothing to indicate either possibility. The smooth concrete walls had an industrial presence, but the dozens of boxes in the unenclosed rooms appeared fairly domestic. In some of them, Krane could make out items peeking up over the tops: tennis rackets, tattered books, dishes, stuffed animals. She squinted as she surveyed them from her place in front of the door, contemplating, analyzing, rationalizing why they were there. Then she realized, even though her confusion and mild worry about the surveillance clouded her minded, there was a soft rushing noise serving as background music to the room. She followed her ears to search for the source of the sound. Still standing in place in front of the door, unsure yet if she should move, she saw a vent in the upper corner of the room to her right. Quietly humming, the vent seemed to be sucking in air, and when he turned to her left, she saw an identical vent giving off a similar sound. This was further evidence, she thought, that she was inside. These vents had to be cycling and purifying the air, making it safe for the Susceptible to breathe. She thought harder, pondering each step she had taken to get to this room, in case there was a chance she could manage to open the sealed door behind her and to get out. Obviously there had to be a way. Under no circumstances could she possibly be trapped inside the fortress. She couldn’t let that happen to herself. She couldn’t imagine the guards—or Clark—letting that happen to her.

Then, beyond the barely audible hum of the vents, Krane heard another sound, like footsteps, echoing toward the room from the other side of the huge wooden door fifty feet in front of her. They were quiet, so quiet that she could hardly discern that they were in fact footsteps. She could tell by their volume and the fact that they resonated marginally that the door was thin, that the dim light she could see around the edges of it was shining through from whatever was on the other side. It wasn’t Clark, that was for sure. His gait was crooked, even after his five years of military training. His boots were heavy, not gentle, like these steps. Whoever it was, though—despite their delicacy—would likely not be happy to see her.

As the wooden door shifted, scraping against the concrete floor, Krane slid into the room closest to her on her right, number twenty-one. The wall hid her from the view of the person entering the room—just one, thankfully. But that also meant that Krane could not see the person either, and therefore, she couldn’t know if they were armed. The footsteps edged closer, and Krane’s abdomen tensed. But then the person halted, probably too close for Krane to be able to make even one peep. There was shuffling, the sound of plastic items knocking against each other, as if the person was searching for something.

She moved her head slowly and peered around the edge of wall. What she saw, in the section labeled eighteen, not ten feet away across the hallway from her, was a long, white-blonde head of hair, hanging loosely and bouncily and nearly grazing a pair of narrow, feminine hips. This wasn’t a guard, that was for sure. This wasn’t even someone from the military. This was the final clue that Krane needed to tell her that she had indeed passed through the locks and into the fortress. She gulped. It was the kind of gulp she dreaded, the kind that happened after drinking an abnormally large swallow of water, the kind that made her choke on her own saliva like a child just learning how the throat works. She felt it go down her windpipe, felt her chest attempt to push it back up, and tried with all her might to force it to stay, to let her drown for only a minute, until the girl had found what she was looking for in room eighteen and left. But then she coughed. She coughed and knew there was no chance now she wouldn’t be caught.