In Ann Aguirre’s award-winning novel, Enclave, humans have taken refuge in colonies below ground. “Foundation” is the story of what drove them there, told through the eyes of a teen who would later have vast influence over the fate of many, and who gave his heart to the one person who needed him most.
This short story was edited and acquired for Tor.com by Fiewel & Friends editor Elizabeth Szabla.
I don’t remember how the sun feels.
It’s an abstract concept for me, something I know exists, but doesn’t have the meaning it once did. When we first came down, my mom and dad said it was just for a few weeks, just a precaution. The outbreaks in the city came from some biological agent released in Times Square, I guess, and the news was full of conflicting reports on whether it came from North Korea or Iran. Other sites had other theories, but it was a coordinated strike, targeting cities all over the world.
At the time, I didn’t know why—or even what—was happening. I was thirteen when my parents quietly bought a unit in the bunkers. By that point, the city was bad enough that my mother no longer went out to do the marketing. Instead, she called a service that brought our food, and she didn’t let the courier come into the apartment, either. He left our groceries in the foyer with the doorman, who then scanned to make sure there were no foreign objects in the boxes or suspicious contaminants present.
By this point, I had stopped attending school. I was nine when they declared a state of national emergency and the country went to martial law, trying to contain the damage. Whole sectors of the city were designated hazardous and quarantined accordingly. My dad said the heavily armed soldiers in the streets patrolled to protect me, so I wasn’t to worry about them. They would soon restore order and things would get back to normal. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he was totally wrong.
For us, normal ended on May 5 when the chemicals exploded in Times Square.
The world never recovered.
It’s funny, but when I look back over my childhood, I see a progression of my world getting smaller. At five, I went on a plane with my parents and the whole universe lay open before me. There was a white beach with sand soft as powder and an endless blue ocean; the air was balmy, and it was an island, covered in mountains. I remember asking if this was heaven, and my mother laughed. She said, “It’s not heaven, Robin, but it is paradise.”
There were other wonders on that trip, but I was so young that they’ve begun to fade, colors running together like a painting left out in the rain. I mind this fiercely because it feels like time is stealing what little I have left. After we came home, I went to school, and my world was my teacher and twenty-four other students. Then it narrowed further to my parents and the walls of the apartment with the occasional supervised trip outdoors.
And when I was thirteen, they took away the sun. I argued. I sulked. I tried to convince my parents they were overreacting—we didn’t need to go live underground like rabbits, but they were afraid. The streets teemed with people who had been infected with the Metanoia Virus, and public services couldn’t cope with them all. My parents told me these unfortunates were unable to hold a job; their health and mental abilities had been permanently compromised. In time, they promised, the government would help the sick. I wasn’t sure shooting them or rounding them up in trucks counted as help, but I got used to hearing automatic-weapons fire and the rumble of large engines as I fell asleep.
That morning, the bunker company sent an armed escort to take us from our apartment. We put on special clothing and masks that would allegedly protect us. I rode in an armored vehicle for the first time—and the last—that day. We went into a tall building, down some stairs, and through a heavy, heavy door. My parents signed some documents, and then we took possession of our new home.
“It’s so small,” my mother said.
My father put an arm around her. “We’ll get used to it. We’ll make do. This is just a precaution, just for a little while, until they get things back in order.”
Now, I wonder if he knew, if he suspected.
For the first year, we maintained contact with the outside world. The air we breathed was regulated and filtered, our food was expensive and packaged “like the astronauts eat,” according to my mother. That was supposed to make it more exciting, but I had to force my mine down. Sometimes I wondered what the point of survival was, if this was what we had to do; it seemed there was nothing in the world worth saving.
Then silence fell. Reports stopped coming. I was fourteen years old. My mother spent all day weeping when the news sites went quiet. Another day, she pressed random keys on the terminal, trying to get anyone to respond. And that was when we found the local intercom.
Oh, we had known there were others in units nearby. We had seen the doors when we took possession of our unit, but the manager said it was best we didn’t mingle because opening the hermetic seal on our doors increased the risk of contagion. The company did its best to guarantee a 100 percent contaminant-free atmosphere, but that warranty existed only in our bunker, not in the public areas like the hallway. Which should be safe, but there was no guarantee.
The terminal beeped, and then a voice said, “Hello?”
He sounded young.
My mother lost interest when she realized she hadn’t contacted the authorities for a status update. Someone who sounded like that couldn’t know any more than we did. So she stepped away and I took her place. A few more keystrokes and I had an image on-screen. I had spent most of my time sleeping, drawing, or reading, as I hadn’t been a tech person even before we came down here. In the bunker, I sketched furiously, as if I could keep the world alive by capturing my memories of it.
“Are you inside too?” the boy asked.
I nodded and told him our unit number. “You?”
“I’m in three F. Austin Shelley,” he added, as if I had asked.
“Robin Schiller.” I couldn’t think of a good way to ask this, so I just came out with it. “Have you talked to anyone or heard anything—”
“No. This is the first contact I’ve had with anyone outside our flat in almost a year.”
He had dark brown hair, green eyes, and a thin face with the concentrated pallor of one who hasn’t been outdoors in a while. I’d probably be showing the same lack, if I didn’t have my father’s dark skin. From my mother, I’d gotten hazel eyes and my interest in drawing. I’d never been outdoorsy or sporty, and I was lucky my dad didn’t care about such things too much. Before, he had some idea I might be a doctor like him, but with the way things had changed, I didn’t think much about the future.
Even then, I suspected I might not have one.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Almost a year, since I was fourteen.”
That made him a year older than me. Surprising, how much I liked knowing I wasn’t the only one my age down here. He might understand how alone I felt and how impossible everything seemed. I wanted to chat more, but there was no chance, that day.
“Robin,” my mother said. “Come away. Your father wants to talk to you.”
“Will you call me again?” Austin asked.
“Yes,” I said quickly. I memorized the colors currently lit on the terminal. “Soon, I promise.”
My parents sat me down and explained that it was likely we wouldn’t be going back up. If the world was in such bad shape that the infrastructure had collapsed, they didn’t see us returning. Which meant I had to adjust to the small life we currently knew. Two years ago, I would’ve protested. But I had grown up a bit since then. I understood the limitations, and I only nodded.
Early the next morning while my mom and dad were still asleep, I used the terminal to call Austin. It wasn’t so much that I thought they would mind as the fact that I wanted something of my own. Since we lived in one room, it had gotten harder to remember when I had hours to myself, no one looking at my drawings over my shoulder.
He answered on the first ring, his voice a sleepy whisper. “Robin?”
“You asked me to—”
“I know. Not about anything specific. I’m just tired of talking to my parents. My mother’s trying to pretend this will be over shortly.”
“It might be,” I said. “But probably not in the way she hopes.”
The video aspect of the call stayed dark, as lights and moving images would wake our parents in a way that whispers might not. So his sigh came across with poignant clarity. I imagined his fear echoed my own, but I didn’t mention it. We didn’t know each other well enough to share such things.
“What did you do, before?” It was an open question.
“I was at a charter school, studying art. I’m fourteen,” I added, because he might not have been able to tell from the quick glimpse yesterday.
“My parents called me home from military academy just before they dropped the bomb about the bunker.”
“I don’t know anything about boarding school. Did you like it?”
His hesitation told me the answer was no. “I got used to it.”
At that point, my parents stirred, so I whispered, “Tomorrow?”
“Yes. Please.” It was the tacked-on “please” that made me determined not to miss a day.
I suspected Austin Shelley was lonely like me.
After that, the days fell in to a routine. Austin would have been a year ahead of me in school, for what little such things mattered these days. He had wanted to become an architect—though that seemed unlikely now—and he was fascinated by how things worked. I ticked off the days in my journal, each one bringing a fresh conversation with my new friend.
Thirty-four days after I first called Austin Shelley, my father sat me down. At first, I thought it meant they’d learned my secret and I was about to get a lecture, but instead, my parents wanted to discuss our current living conditions. Apparently, they thought it wasn’t healthy for us to be cooped up like animals in an exhibit.
“We’ve discussed the risks at length,” my father said, “and your mother and I agree that we should get to know the other families down here.”
“Yes. If we’re stuck, we might as well make the best of it,” my mother added with a determinedly cheerful expression.
I’d seen that look many times, just before she offered me the lesser of two evils, but I was tired of our four walls, however expensive they had been. Safety at the cost of new experiences tasted like stale, unleavened bread. So later that day, my father unsealed the door and we stepped into the hallway beyond. Inside our bunker it was easier to pretend, but here, it was definitely grim and institutional, constructed quickly in answer to the growing unease. Other doors opened around us, and in their shhh sounds I heard a tacit acceptance that this was our new reality.
Six families. Six bunkers.
Four of them had children, but most were younger. I might end up watching them to give their parents a break, but they’d never be my friends. Not like Austin. He came toward me with a shy half-smile, like he felt odd about meeting someone with whom he’d been talking in whispers for over a month. I knew exactly how he felt. This was possibly the worst party ever; since we all had the same rations, there was nothing to offer but our company.
I offered my hand, and he shook it, solemn-faced. As far as our parents were concerned, we were strangers, but he had been a lifeline across days that seemed so alike as to have no end. And sometimes I had dark thoughts, like, is survival at this cost even worth it?Most days, the answer was yes, but occasionally it was just because I knew he was waiting to hear from me.
Austin was taller than me by at least four inches. At military school, they probably made him participate in team sports too. I beckoned for him to come into our unit, away from the kids chasing one another up and down the hall. There were five of them, not including us, which meant some families had more than one. I couldn’t imagine how they were coping with the reduced space. Probably, their mothers put them on the exercise machine and made them use it until they exhausted all their energy.
“So this is you,” he said, and then his pale cheeks colored.
I pretended I thought he meant our apartment instead of acknowledging it as a lame version of so we meet at last. “Is it like your place?”
“This is the sketch book I was telling you about. I’m almost out of pages. But I like this one—” I broke off, conscious that he was studying me, not the book. “Do I look . . . different than you expected?”
It was an issue for some people that my father was a different color than my mother. Fervently I hoped that wouldn’t be the case for Austin; he shook his head quickly, eyes dropping to the floor and then back to mine again.
“It’s just . . . odd,” he managed finally.
He’s shy, I guessed.
Ordinarily, I could be too, but we’d talked enough in the mornings that he felt like an old friend. So maybe if I treated him that way, he would relax. I hoped so. For me, he offered the bright spot at the start of each day.
“I don’t draw people,” he said then. “But I have some designs. Buildings. Would you like to see?” Again, the touch of color.
I couldn’t figure out why he was so awkward with me, unless it was the weight of knowing the private things we’d whispered to each other without ever expecting the doors would open. Maybe I had played a priestly role in his mind, that of confessor, but now that I was standing here, it felt different. I followed Austin next door to find that his unit was a precise mirror of ours, every amenity, each feature.
Carefully, I paged through his sketches, then tapped one. “This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Where did you see it?”
“That’s one I wanted to build. After I became an architect.”
His green eyes swam with desperation and sorrow because now, that was an impossible dream. And there was nothing I could say to turn the world right side up again. My goals had always been smaller—to draw or paint. Maybe I could still do that on a reduced scale, but Austin couldn’t. Everything he wanted had been stolen from him.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but it wasn’t enough.
For a few seconds, I covered his hand with mine. I’d seen my dad do it countless times with patients, but this felt . . . different. A little spark went through me. I’d always known I was odd—not in the sense that I preferred boys over girls, but in the sense that it didn’t matter. Most times, I’d rather keep company with a beautiful painting, lost in my own head. But on the two occasions when my interest had been roused, it was by what went on in their hearts and minds, not the physical trappings. In my admittedly light romantic past, there had been a couple of crushes and one kiss.
His chin dipped so he wasn’t looking at me anymore. “It’s probably for the best. I’d only have fought with my dad about it.”
But he didn’t pull his hand away. In fact, he shifted until it lay palm up beneath mine. I had never been so conscious of the heat of my skin against someone else’s. The touch gave me a fluttery feeling in my stomach, and I didn’t know if I should lace our fingers together, but I think he was waiting for some kind of cue he didn’t receive because a few seconds later, he drew back.
“You don’t get along?”
That opened the door to a flood of confidences he imparted in his morning voice, soft enough that it created a familiar bond. We had been talking for an hour when our families decided we should return to isolation with promises to repeat the meeting soon. I wished I could stay with Austin, but things would change soon enough—and in ways I couldn’t have predicted then. If I’ve learned anything since those days, it’s not to wish too hard for a shift in circumstances since it never happens as you imagine.
A month later, the Markowitz parents fell ill. The oldest child called our unit, sobbing, as she begged my father to come and save them. He was the only doctor in the bunkers; my mother implored him not to go. I understood her caution, but I also knew why he would ultimately refuse her.
“I have to try, Mel. You know that.”
“Don’t go,” she pleaded, as if she knew. “Call the administrator.”
Ostensibly, there was a corporate representative here to make sure nothing went wrong. He did periodic checks, but he didn’t socialize with us, didn’t communicate more than necessary. Likely he had orders to that effect as it would be impossible to hand down unpopular edicts if he got too close.
Before my father could reply, the comm sounded, an official tone. “I regret to inform you that there was a fault in the ventilation systems. All units may have been exposed to outside toxins. Naturally, a full refund will be issued.”
“A refund,” my mother repeated, looking numb. “What good will that do us? Jeremy, I can’t watch you and Robby die.”
I ached because she hadn’t called me that in so long, not since I was a little kid. My dad wore a tight, brave expression, but I saw terror in his dark eyes. His hands curled in to fists, as my calm, unflappable father fought the urge to take out his rage on the furnishings. I had never been so frightened in my life.
“I have to check on the Markowitz family,” he said softly.
“Stop it. If we’re already been exposed, then it doesn’t matter. You know that.”
Exposed. Such a small word to contain so much horror and vulnerability. My mother took to her bed after my father left; first she cried until she had no voice, then she took a pair of pills that let her sleep. Looking back, I can say she was a sweet woman, but she wasn’t strong. That day, Austin called me for the first time while our parents were awake. Time seemed too precious for secrets now.
“I guess you heard,” he said.
“Yeah. My dad is making rounds, trying to help.”
“Mine is—” The audio cut in and out, revealing the fury his dad didn’t bother to contain.
“Come over. You shouldn’t be around him when he’s so mad.” I could hear bits of the rant about how Mr. Shelley would sue the company, but it was all sound and fury. Even the colonel knew there would be no legal recourse in the new world rising from the ashes of the old. That was part of why he was so angry.
Austin didn’t ask permission from his parents; if we were all dying anyway, what did obedience matter? He slipped into our unit with minimum fuss. Here, it was quiet at least.
“I don’t want to die,” he whispered in our morning voice.
A lump comprised of equal parts fear and sympathy rose in my throat. “Me either.”
“I’m not ready. I mean, I always knew it might come to this, but part of me believed my old man. He could buy his way out of anything. Even this.” His voice broke. “Turns out, not so much.”
“I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. Live in my own head.”
Somehow he went into my arms or I went into his and we tangled, hard. He was shaking, or I was. So hard, knowing the air you breathed might be what killed you. Austin smelled exactly like me; he used the same company-provided soap and toiletries, but it was a little better on him, deeper and richer, or it might’ve been the alchemy of his skin. If it hadn’t been for my mother asleep behind us—or the fact that my father could come back at any moment—I might’ve done more than hold him, if I’d been that brave, then. In truth, I wasn’t; and it might’ve felt like taking advantage anyway when he was so obviously upset.
He didn’t go back to his unit that night. Austin slept in my bed, curled against my back. My mother didn’t wake. In the morning, I roused to a comforting arm over my waist; it was the first time I’d slept the night through with another person. I wondered if he would regret the need and vulnerability, but he didn’t seem to. Nor did he appear in any hurry to go back next door.
By the time my father returned, he looked exhausted, dark rings about his eyes. The slump of his shoulders told me it hadn’t gone well at the Markowitz place.
“Bad?” I guessed.
“The parents died in the night.”
I bit out a word I wasn’t supposed to use, and my father didn’t even chide me. “That was fast.”
“The oldest girl has it, and there’s nothing I can do for her, but the younger two seem to be all right. The administrator collected the bodies.”
“So we just wait to die?” Austin demanded.
My father shook his head. “I don’t know, son. The girls will be over here shortly, once they finish packing. I hope you don’t mind looking after them. I need to get some sleep. Is your mother—”
“She’s not handling it well.”
But she was suffering from more than self-medication. Illness followed, so she grew weaker and weaker. My mother never said my name again. Never called me Robby. As she lingered near death, I held in the tears through sheer force of will. Even Austin’s hand on my shoulder didn’t help, though it felt nice. She died just before midnight.
The oldest Markowitz girl also died that night—or maybe the administrator hurried her along. He was a cold-faced man and quick with a needle; I resolved never to be alone with him. Soon, we had two little orphaned girls underfoot, and Austin stayed with us until his mother came for him, wearing a look unlike any I’ve ever seen.
“I know you and the colonel have had your differences, but you need to say good-bye.”
He shot me a panicked glance and I stood reflexively. “Do you mind if I come?”
Mrs. Shelley shook her head. “He’s sick, you know.”
I shrugged. “My father’s been tending people. Both these girls lost their families to the plague. If I haven’t gotten it by now, maybe I’m immune.”
I shouldn’t have said that.
Austin’s father passed that night, and by morning, I was burning with fever. I gloss over this part of the story because I can’t remember much about it. Some things are crystal clear, even at a remove of years, but not this. There were broken mirrors in my head, sweat and pain, a glimpse of my father’s heartbroken face and green eyes luminous with tears.
I’m told I lay near death for seven days, and on the seventh, I came out of it. I recovered. In our small cross section of the populace, I’m the only one who did. A few simply never got sick. By the time the dying stopped, our small community had been decimated.
Of the original twenty-five, six of us lived. Me, Austin, my father, his mother, and the two Markowitz girls. After overhearing some cryptic comments from the administrator, we talked it over and decided to abandon the bunkers. There was apparently a vaccine, but it hadn’t been thoroughly tested, and in some cases, it was making things worse. Instead of merely dying, some people were. . . . changing. It sounded alarming—and I didn’t want the company using us as test subjects for their faulty medicine or cleaning us up as a failed experiment.
We had to get away. To hide. So the next morning, we packed up everything we could carry—and it wasn’t much. The walk was . . . harrowing. I’d never realized there was a whole world beneath the city, but there clearly was. People lived down here in warrens and tunnels—pale folk with shining eyes and suspicious stares. Most didn’t look kindly on strangers and moved us along.
But after endless turns, endless twists through a dark world, we found a place that welcomed us. They were a fairly new settlement, calling themselves the College enclave, because of a nearby subway stop, I guess. And when they found out we had a doctor among us, they drew back the barricades and welcomed us. On the surface, most had been homeless, drug addicts or alcoholics, those that society threw away. Down here, they had the power.
In a heartbeat, everything changes.
“They’re evacuating the city,” one of the settlers told us. “Apparently it’s uninhabitable up there right now.”
Another shrugged. “We wouldn’t have qualified for evac anyway. They’re shortlisting those who can contribute to society.”
A dusky-skinned man with dreadlocks said, “Down here, we all can. We do. Doctor, do you mind checking out my little girl?”
Because he always did, my father said yes—and the rest of us found a little piece of ground to call our own. It was dark, cramped, and smelled a bit, of smoke and other, less pleasant things. I felt sure I’d get used to it. Life had already shifted so much.
Austin laced his fingers through mine and drew me away from the others. “It’s better than the bunkers,” he said softly, his tone more hopeful than certain.
“I hope so. At least we’re not at the company’s mercy. Let them try to find us here.”
His expression became exultant, defiant, even. He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me against the wall, then kissed me with such surety and promise. No more waiting for cues, apparently. Since he had been for me, almost from the moment I heard his voice in the dark, I curled my hand into his hair. There had been one touch of lips to mine before this, but this was the kiss I would cherish and remember, a kiss to obliterate all others. I was breathless when he stopped.
“I wasn’t sure if you . . .” he started, then he shifted to, “I was afraid.”
“Don’t ever be. Not with me.”
That night, the original settlers decided we needed some rules to follow; each of us should serve a purpose. Austin was confident that night, possibly because of us. And so he said, “You should divide up jobs like an old-school tribe. Some people hunt, others build.”
Most people laughed, but the chief said, “What about the rest?”
“They breed to keep numbers up, naturally. But not too much. We want to survive, not overpopulate.”
To my surprise, they ratified his idea. And it worked well for a long time. My father lasted ten years down there; Mrs. Shelley passed on shortly thereafter. The Markowitz girls had sons and daughters. And Austin? He was a builder, even down here; oh, he crafted the most marvelous things. I helped him in that. Austin Shelley was also the love of my life.
I lost him two years ago.
And I am so very tired now. My name is Robin Schiller, and I have come to the end of my life. In this final recounting, I entrust my tale to you, my pupil; you are the first Wordkeeper. In this world, words matter. Sometimes they’re all we have. So I entrust mine to you. Let them be remembered.
Let it be so.
“Foundation” copyright © 2012 by Ann Aguirre
Art copyright © 2012 by Victo Ngai