1. Welcome Back to Breathing
You didn't remember what it was like to be dead.
And because of death, you didn't remember anything at all. The first thing you knew was the shock.
The advertisements always said it was painless. They knew it wasn't, but with the miracle they were promising, they also knew it didn't really matter. What did a second of excruciating pain mean when you compared it to the blissful silence of the hereafter?
It meant you were alive, that's what.
There was bright flash of blue, and a jolt that travelled from the top of your head to your toes. Every nerve jumped ten feet, every square inch, every cell, needing to be woken up individually, brought back to life with a kick. All at once, the months of sleep and decay had been undone. Your blood flowed, your lungs expanded, the signals in your brain sparked. One blue flash, one burst of cool lightning, and the world was yours again.
The second thing you knew was that you were very tired. It was understandable and… unavoidable. You had been out for quite a while. And the suit was heavy. All at once, as soon as you had held it all back, all your strength drained out of you, leaving the empty tingling feeling in your bones, not too different the feeling that comes with forgetting to eat. You fell forward, unable to hold yourself up, and your helmet hit the curved glass doors of the Chamber with a loud thunk. Then, from a speaker somewhere in the low, round ceiling, there came a cracked and grating "ding," and the doors slid open. You flopped out of the tank like a weird armored cross between a fish and a log and nearly cracked your skull against the inside of your helmet. Still, you were bruised, but you were free.
You lay there for a while, waiting for the feeling to come back. You had landed face-first, and you couldn't see much. All you could really see through the circular window in your helmet was the carpet, and it wasn't much to look at. It was old and worn and the nastiest shade of red you could think of, somewhere between dark, dried blood, and old, bruised tomatoes. Close up, you could see the coarse and curled fibers, detaching and twisting as they festered. There was mold, and if you squinted hard enough, you thought you could actually see the fungus spreading, sprouting little green and brown spores. Something touched your mind briefly, a wisp of a thought, not really a memory. It spoke of age and disease and destruction, of things that festered. But things were still dreamlike, still soft and unthreatening, and the wisp went quickly away.
When I said earlier that you didn't remember anything, I really meant it. Once your strength had come back, it took you ten minutes to remember what walking was and another ten to remember how to do it. After a few failed attempts where you sort of scooted around the carpet with your legs, squishing the water out of the frayed and tattered fibers with your helmet, you recalled that you need to stand up first, before you walk. So, groaning a little, you pulled yourself to your knees, then shakily to your feet, wobbling and slamming sideways into things. The wall, when you hit it, made an odd organic crunching noise. You looked and saw it was made of wood. It was terribly rotted and moist, stained by dark patches where the water seeped in. Seeped in from where? It didn't occur to you to wonder.
You stood up. You took a step, pitching and swaying, but growing steadier. Your shoulder slammed into something else. It felt like glass, spreading its cracks in little spidered veins. You looked at the damage and nearly went blind. Your eyes were being stabbed by a bright blue glow, the very same that you had just stepped out of. You could even see the little bolt of lightning, dancing in the tank like a fish, the same type of lightning that had brought you back. You half-covered the round window to your helmet and looked up.
The glass tube with the light inside was only slightly taller than you, and the ceiling only a foot higher than that. On top of the tank were the all-capped letters "VITA CHAMBER." There were wings around the name. There were wings etched thinly on the glass doors, too. Absently, you rubbed your gloved hand over them. Angel wings. Resurrection.
You took a step back, trying to clear your head. Somehow, though, the blue light did not fade but grew. You looked around and gasped internally.
To the left and right, as far as you could see, were dozens of Vita-Chambers, all brightly lit, all standing in silent watch. You didn't bother counting; you knew there were too many for it to matter. The carpeted hall you were in stretched in either direction for what seemed like miles. You saw, after a moment, that there were gaps in the line, spaces between rows of Chambers. You peered around the corner into one of these gaps and saw that the Chambers were not all in a line but went back in rows as well. There were several different rows, several different hallways formed by the blue tubes all standing in line. The space you were in must have been huge.
What was this place? You didn't know. You moved on, continuing straight down the hall.
It seemed you were at the front of this building, whatever it was. There were Chambers on one side and only wall on the other. Were you looking for a door, a way out? Even you weren't sure.
Far away, at intervals, you swore you could hear something tinking, the sound of metal on metal. It was distant and echoed and sounded irregularly. It grated at first, but then you stopped noticing it.
You came to a sign hung on the front wall, framed in a simple tarnished gold border. The image was a stitched pattern, trying to mimic a seamstress's hand. It said, "WELCOME BACK TO BREATHING!" just like that, in all caps, with the most adorable little blue stitched font. Sewn in, with all the little knotted threads, was a picture of a man, a worker by the look of him, in blue overalls. He had a white hard hat and was grinning broadly, holding a thumbs up. His other arm was missing, and there was a scar across his exposed chest. He was standing in front of a Vita Chamber, its interior glowing a comfortable blue. There were rainbows in the background and a happy family, a boy and a girl and a mother, all waving and smiling in front of a cute brown little house, like the kind cookies are supposed to live in.
You wondered briefly, vaguely, what this picture had to do with the sickness you had felt. Or with the shock. Or with the room you were in, for that matter.
The Chamber, at least, was shown accurately. You could even see the thin little black stitches on the yarned glass, where the etched wings were supposed to be.
You moved on.
You came across a camera, bolted high up on the wall, at the place where the boards met the ceiling. A security camera, no doubt. You looked up into it, wondering if anyone was looking back at you. There was a tiny red light next to the lens, and it threw a spotlight of clear, tinged light on you. The round glass seemed like an eye, staring right through your helmet into your soul. You felt uncomfortable. You moved on, and you heard a mechanical whirring as the camera swiveled on its hinge, following you.
You came to a vent. It was taller than you were, covered in a pattern of gold, with sun-like rays coming from the round hole in the top. You stared at it, wondering what on earth it could be for. It didn't seem like any air was coming from it. You looked into the hole and jumped back, crashing into another Chamber. Out of the darkness shined a pair of small, bright eyes, staring right at you. Was there a figure that they belonged to? You thought that, maybe, you had seen one, but you weren't sure. The eyes blinked. You blinked. They vanished. You continued to stare, mesmerized.
A second later, the darkness changed. It was still dark, still impossible to see, but it was a different kind of darkness. It was as if there was a bulky mass there, blocking the light. You leaned closer, trying to see better. As you watched, the object moved closer to you, wriggling strangely as though it were being pushed clumsily, one side at a time. You leaned in farther as the thing, whatever it was, came closer to the border of the light. Your first, very confused, impression was of a coin. Small, silver, and round, with an odd point on the face. It waved around, weaving in and out of the light, and you could hear the sides of a large mass scraping against something. Gradually, little by little, it emerged. You saw a growing circle, with rings that emerged and expanded pleasantly, one at a time.
Suddenly, with one final heave, it dropped out with a heavy thunk. You jumped back again to avoid it and stared again, more bewildered than ever. It was a drill, a huge one. Bigger than your head, bigger maybe than your torso. It was a wonder it had even fit in that vent. You looked around, confused. What were you supposed to do with this?
You moved on.
Meanwhile, though you had grown accustomed to it, you noticed the tinking had gotten louder. And was something hissing? The sound pulled in and out of your consciousness, like waves or ripples. You didn't think much of it, and you once again reached the point where you blocked it out entirely.
You came across a fish. It was small and silver, and its scales shone, still covered with a thin film of water. It was still alive. It flopped wetly, helplessly, on the moist carpet. Again, you stared. Where had it come from? You looked around. There was no fish tank around you or anything else that could explain its presence. You looked back to the fish. Idly, you flipped it over with your foot. It flopped over, helplessly compliant, and you recoiled. Where on its pointed head you had expected there to be another eye, there was only smooth skin, flowing unmarked over a soft indent in the fish's skull. The fish only had one eye. You felt uneasy. You moved on.
No doubt about it, that sound was getting louder. And that hissing… You listened to it, hard, and realized with a chill that it wasn't hissing at all. It was whispering. Someone was whispering.
You weren't alone.
As soon as you realized that, it was no longer possible for you to ignore the sound. The tinking, which was growing more and more unbearable, and the whispering. No, you realized as you got closer. It wasn't whispering at all. The person, whoever it was, was actually talking quite loudly. But there were speaking so rapidly that from a distance it sounded like whispering. What were they saying? You listened hard, but you couldn't tell. The voice wavered up and down, its volume inconsistent. It would say something, sputtering and hissing softly, then it would abruptly grow into a shout, almost a scream, then it would fade down again. Occasionally, you heard it rise several pitches and laugh, as though it had just remembered something uproariously funny.
You grimaced and tried to explain your fear to yourself. After all, you didn't know who this person could be. It could be anyone. There was no reason, really, to be afraid. They could be friendly.
Somehow, though, you knew that they weren't.
Louder, it was still getting louder. Were you getting closer? You tried to listen for footsteps, but you couldn't hear them under the yammering and the clanging. Were you walking toward each other? You shuddered and hoped not. He (it sounded like a he, though you honestly couldn't tell) was clearly on another row. You prayed that he would walk right by you, that you two would pass and nothing would happen. It didn't occur to you to turn around. You had already been in the other direction. Every gap you reached made you jump.
And then, abruptly, the voice stopped. The scraping, banging, metal sound stopped. The room was silent, save for the quiet humming of the Chambers. The silence bothered you more than the voice had. You thought, for an instant, that you wanted the voice back. Then you realized, no you didn't, you didn't know what you wanted. You just wished you knew what was going on. You kept walking, faster and faster, running even though the threat was not behind you, it was in front…
And suddenly, quite before you were ready for it, there he was.
He was standing in one of the crossroads, under one of the plain, rectangular florescent lights. You were keeping your gaze to the side, seeing the Vita-Chambers sliding past your vision one at a time, and when you reached the gap he slid right into view, as still and rigid as they were. He had been staring at that spot for a while, as if he knew you'd walk right into it. When you saw him, you stopped in place, frozen, just like he was. You thought you felt your skin try to jump right off of you. You both just stood there like that, staring, two deer caught in each other's headlights. You felt as though you'd received a hideous shock. You felt bile rise up in your throat, empty and aching and bitter.
The man you were facing now was thin. He was wearing a white hard hat and a blue worker's shirt, just like the grinning man in the knitted sign. But there was no other similarity that you could see. The man on the sign had been muscular and happy. This man had pale, pasty skin covered in sores, many open and bleeding, many bigger than your fist. His skin looked like someone had tailored it and had done it all wrong; it had been stitched too tight here, hung baggily too much there. It billowed out from under his shirt on one side, like he was melting like a candle. His eyes were so bloodshot and crossed with so many veins the whites were no longer white. They were like two red marbles, shining hideously under their blue irises. The skin on one side of his face was sagging downward, and it dragged the whole expression down with it. You could see the red flesh under the socket, and the left side of his mouth was pulled into a permanent frown. His working clothes were tattered and dirty. In one hand, he was carrying a socket wrench, the source of the clanging noise you had heard earlier. You noticed, briefly, that the metal was smoking and was covered with odd, thin patches of tiny blue crystals. It was sparkling weirdly in the light and looked oddly misted, almost as if it was frozen. It was swinging down, the man's arm hanging down limply like a swollen, fleshy pendulum.
You felt sick. You were breaking out in a cold sweat. It occurred to you that his eyes seemed to be very wide. You shivered. You wished he would blink.
Finally, he spoke. "Who're you?" he asked slowly. His voice was rough but surprisingly quiet; you never would've guessed it was the same one that made those manic shrieks. "You someone new?" he asked, his expression not changing.
Your eyes flicked back and forth uncertainly, though, of course, he couldn't see it. You had no idea what he was talking about. You finally shrugged sheepishly.
He didn't seem to react. I'm not sure whether or not he could even really see you.
Then the lights flickered. The fluorescents faded slowly in and out, giving an impression like something breathing. You looked around, startled. The entire time you'd been here, the lights had never flickered once. They had glowed steadily, none of them out, all very well maintained. Now they were fading in and out as though staying on were causing them pain.
Then, before you were ready, the power for the whole building went out.
The Vita-Chambers came back on first, but they were no help. Hundreds of bolts of bright blue neon light jumped and seared into your eyes, blinding you more thoroughly then the darkness had. You winced and squeezed your eyes shut, holding your arms in front of your visor like they were shielding you from some deadly attack. You blinked your eyes, which now seemed think and heavy like they were swimming in mucus, slowly back open. At that moment, the ceiling lights came on. You blinked again and shook your head, trying to clear it. Huge colored shadows, pressed in by the garish lights, were floating in front of your eyes, blocking your vision. No matter how much you squinted, you simply could not see. It seemed to you, briefly, that the spot where he had been a second ago was now empty, but it was impossible to tell.
Somewhere near on the carpeted floor, you thought you heard footsteps. You turned, still squinting. You still couldn't see. You thought you saw a silhouette, but everything looked liked a silhouette of itself, faded and blurry. You held your hand up flat above your visor, as if that would help your vision.
Distantly, you heard a crashing sound.
What was that flying toward you?
Suddenly, you started and ducked. Not a second too soon. Immediately, it felt like an explosion of glass and lightning had slammed into you. You felt the glass fragments pattering against your suit like rainfall, against your helmet like hail. You looked out from under your arms, shocked. One of the Vita-Chambers was laying on its side in front of you, shattered and broken. A Vita-Chamber had come flying at you. But how?
You stood up on your knees and tried to peer past the flickering wreckage. You saw him, down the hall, his melted face twisted with inhuman fury, his hands held above him, the arms bent like the man holding up the sky. Another Vita-Chamber was above him, flickering as well, trailing its severed cords. You stared, astounded. This man had thrown the Vita-Chamber at you. You looked closely and saw that the second Chamber wasn't actually in his hands but, rather, floating above them. But how was it possible?
"No visitors!" he shrieked, and you could see bloody froth flying from his lips. "No more! GET OUT! GET OUT!"
Wide awake now, you scrambled to your feet and bolted down the hall. Not fast enough. You heard a whistling as the second Chamber came hurtling at you. It slammed into you with the force of a steel rhino, sending you sprawling to the floor. If it weren't for your suit, you would have been slashed to ribbons by the glass. You lay there for only a second, dazed, confused, and not a little distressed. Why was this man trying to kill you? What had you done wrong? And if he wanted you to leave, couldn't he just show you to the door?
Only a second was still too long. You heard footsteps, heavy and rapid as thunder, pounding closer and closer on the moldy carpet. You made the mistake of trying to scramble to your feet and look behind you at the same time and were unable to make use of either action. You only succeeded at crawling a small distance, as though you were trying to swim against a rapid and merciless current. You saw him vault himself over the broken chambers in one movement with the agility of a wild cat. You never would've guessed that he could move like that. The stunned, half-dreaming look he'd had earlier was gone. His red, veined eyes were focused squarely on you, now, and they were murderous.
He landed in front of you, over you, and, not wasting any time, whacked the side of your helmet with the wrench. You felt your head ringing; what a powerful blow! The wrench was frozen, you realized. The side of your head where the blow had struck suddenly grew cold as ice. A foggy mist blossomed over your visor on that side, crackling on the glass. You felt the cold stabbing into your skull like a sledgehammer. You winced, wishing this person would stop hitting you.
You saw, as if it were happening in slow motion, the melted man swinging his wrench up to hit you again. You really did not want to be hit again. You leaned up and swung your right hand instinctively. To your amazement, your arm actually successfully collided with his and you were able to knock it aside, so that it was stretched in front of him. He gasped, not expecting that either. As he was now, he was wide open. Still not really thinking about it, you balled your left hand into a fist and threw it up against his ribcage. You felt a rib crack under your glove. He howled and jumped back, away from you. Giving you room. In one motion, you brought your right leg up and kicked him, hard, in the stomach. The blow was so powerful that he actually flew back against the broken Vita-Chamber, slamming into it.
How had you done that? Where had you learned how? You couldn't remember, and at the moment, you didn't really care. You felt thrilled and awed. But you had learned much in the past few minutes. You gave no time to gawking but instead jumped to your feet, your hands in front of you, ready.
He wasn't dead. In fact, incredibly, he hardly seemed hurt at all. He was only dazed. He blinked heavily and looked up at you, uncomprehending. The lights from the Vita-Chambers were dancing around you, including the flickering and dying light of the broken one that he was elbows deep in. He stared at you, blinking and twitching, and you saw his eyes go even wider.
"Big Daddy?" he asked blankly. "Metal Daddy?"
You had no idea what he was talking about, but by now, you knew better than to try to find out. You took a step back and extended out your palm, flicking your fingers at him. Come at me.
He didn't need asking twice.
He shrieked and launched himself at you, but you were ready this time. You sparred, him swinging his icy wrench, you swinging your fists. Blocking, ducking, swinging, you found that you were in your element. You were no longer scared, quite the contrary. You felt adrenaline pumping in your blood, pounding in your veins. You felt exhilarated. This beat being dead by a long shot.
He was able to land a few blows on you, but you were able to give back some in return. Soon, though, you found yourself growing weary of this. You felt a pool of moisture forming on your shoulder, and you figured it was probably your blood. You wished you had a way to make this end faster. Maybe a weapon, or-
The drill! But where was it? It must be where you left it. Without waiting, you swung your fist one more time, trying to throw him off, before you turned around and sprinted down the hall, back the way you came. He uttered an exclamation of frustration and took off after you, but you discovered, to your delight, that you were faster than he was. But not by much. You felt your boots slapping wetly against the carpet as you ran. You could see the drill on the floor, in the distance, growing closer. Suddenly, you found that you could no longer hear the melted man behind you. You heard a crunching metallic rip, and a familiar whistling. You pumped your legs faster, trying to outrun what you knew was coming. Sure enough, just behind you, another Vita-Chamber exploded against the floor, sending tiny fragments of glass out to bounce against your back. You grinned a little, feeling truly alive for the first time in months.
You reached the drill, panting, your chest feeling like iron. It lay heavily, exactly where you'd left it, gleaming in the blue and white lights. You picked it up, using both your arms. It was incredibly heavy. You turned it over and over, looking for a handle, a way to grip it. There wasn't one. You began to panic. You could hear him getting closer, shrieking nonsense at you. You turned it so that the tip pointed down at your feet and saw, where you might have expected a flat base like that of a pyramid, a hole in the gray metal, dark and perfectly round. You hurriedly stuck your arm into it, as if you'd meant to all along. Inside, you discovered, as you fumbled around desperately, a large handle, crossed with lined indents to give it a grip. You curled your fingers around this handle and found you could hold it up with one hand this way. You moved your fingers around, feeling the handle, and found a button, small and a little sharp, on the side where your thumb was. All this took place in less than five seconds.
He was coming. His shrieks were growing louder. You could hear it. You could feel it. Shaking, desperate, not wanting to see or think, and certainly not wanting to die, you swung the drill in his direction and squeezed the button with your thumb. At the touch of the button, the drill spun, emitted a thick brown cloud of diesel smoke. You swung it blindly, squinting, gritting your teeth, and as the drill spun and the hapless man approached, the drill found its mark.
And burrowed right into his chest.
He threw up his arms as the drill dug deeper and deeper into him. He screamed and twitched as the metal twisted and spun, mixing up blood, organs, bone. He twitched, his whole body twitched, jerked every which way by the spinning drill. Your helmet, your suit, were sprayed with blood. You didn't let up on the button. You were no longer conscious of pushing it down. You could only stare.
At last the man's eyes rolled up into his head. You gave one last frightful gurgle from lungs that no longer existed and dropped, limp and loose as a bag of soggy bones. You finally let go of the button and shook him off the end of your drill (you'd found that he was stuck). He flopped onto the ground, his head to the side, his mouth agape. You stared at him, no longer thrilled, no longer feeling particularly alive. You felt blood dripping off the end of your drill, onto the carpet, blending into the ugly color.
You felt suddenly weak, but you didn't want to sit down. So you stood, leaning against the golden vent, clutching the soaked drill to your side.
Suddenly, you heard a sound like static crackling. You started and looked around, puzzled. Where…?
"Hello?" a voice was saying. "Can you hear me?"
The voice sounded distant and a little fuzzy, as though it were coming from a crappy radio. You looked around and, it seemed, found just that, a small old-fashioned radio on the dead man's belt. You stared at it, conflicted. Should you answer it? Pick it up? You didn't really want to pick it up…
"Hello," the voice said again. "Would you kindly pick up that short wave radio in front of you?"
You stared at the radio, trying to get a feel for the voice. It was a man's voice and sounded nice enough. And so polite! "Would you kindly." How charming! And what sort of accent was that, anyway? Irish?
"Um," the voice chimed up again. Quietly, as if to himself: "Maybe he didn't hear me… I'll try again. Um!" he said, a little louder. "Would you please pick up that short wave radio?"
You kept looking at the radio, still pleasantly affected by the mystery voice's manners. The speaker, meanwhile, was starting to sound exasperated. "Oh, come on! Please pick up the radio? Please? Pretty please?"
You didn't move.
"C'mon!" the voice intoned, sounding truly desperate. "Look, don't make me beg! I really don't want to have to beg! Come on, just - You're looking at it! You're looking right at it! I can see you looking at it! Come on!"
Finally, you reached down and scooped up the radio.
"Ah! There we go!" said the voice, sounding very relieved. "You were really starting to worry me. I was beginning to think you were deaf! Then I'd be in trouble!"
You held the radio, waiting. Now that he was sure you could hear him, the voice sounded hesitant. "Well…" he began uneasily. "I… Ooh…" He laughed nervously. "Boy, this is awkward. I don't really know where to start."
You waited. He took a breath and went on.
"Look," he said. "My name is Atlas. And I don't know you, and you don't me, but I need your help."
Are you ready? Oh, yes.
I understand at this point the connection to The Simpsons isn't visible. That's alright. Everything will be made clear soon.