A tired breath escaped the gas mask worn. Before him was the job he had been working on for three years: the remains of a city once called Baltimore. Of course, that was before the war. And the bombs. But that was nearly 200 years ago. Aaron walked down the paved streets, a forced smile coming to him as he waved to some coworkers that were about to enter a building.
Aaron, to be frank, hated his job. As a member of the Recovery Corp., they had the pleasure of a job that gave them a unique experience every day. Go into a city and recover items spared from the grand destruction of the bombs. He had seen so many unique cities that were once booming and filled to the brim with people. New York City was the most dangerous because of all the high rise buildings that were structurally unsound thanks to the bombs. San Francisco was a wonderful contrast of the gorgeous blues of the ocean with the dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
To many people, this would be a fantastic job. But nobody told him that he would be away for years at a time from his home. Most of the items he found had already been catalogued and been preserved too. Over the three years he had been in Baltimore he hadn’t found anything of interest and he had a strong feeling that the he wouldn’t over the next month.
Aaron’s job today was an apartment building in mid-town. It was thanks to his experiencethat he got it to himself. No help and more importantly no one to ask questions or bother him. He reveled in these opportunities because of the silence and stopped in front of the four storycomplex to take in the building.
It was a holdover from the time before the war. Brick on the outside. A majority of the windows were broken from either the bombs or looting. A chunk of the building was missing from where he was facing it. He looked to his right at a small sign: Taurus Apartments.
He entered the lobby of the apartment, looking around, no emotion coming to him. The white paint was peeling and a small sitting area had been overturned. In front of him was a hallway with what he assumed were non-operational elevators. To his right was an office that was probably modern back then but in today’s society would’ve be seen as out of place and tacky. To his left was another hallway, which he followed down. He walked by vending machines that he had seen in numerous buildings and found stairs at the end of the hallway.
One slow ascension later and he found himself on the second floor. The first door was on his left and as he approached it he fished out his key-all. One wave in front of the digital card and Aaron was inside. A thick layer of dust covered a majority of the items in the room that he assumed was the living room. A small coffee table, a sofa, couple of chairs and an old physical TV. A sigh came from him, the only sound in the room as he started his work.
He looked around and spotted a few toys laying around and what looked like a video game console long forgotten. He held his left arm up to the objects, tapped two buttons on the metal plate resting on his arm and it came to life. A display popped up, it’s holographic interface waiting for an input. After a few presses a bright, neon blue light shot out and moved over the toys and the console. Aaron’s shoulders slumped when he saw that they had already been catalogued.
This was the process for the entirety of the second floor. Apartment to apartment, room to room, scanning items and if one came up as new it was his job to tag and bag it to be brought totheir headquarters. Sadly there were no such items and with a roll of his eyes he left the last room on the second floor.
As he made his way to the third floor the sun was shining brightly through the windowsand made his white hazmat suit gleam. It also illuminated the hallways, dark green walls clashing horribly with light brown tiling that had seen much better days. It seemed as though people long ago really didn’t care about how things looked.
He did his job, checking the apartments until he came to a room that had the giant hole he spotted earlier. Aaron noted that it seemed as though nature was trying to reclaim this apartment. Vines were spreading out from the hole, trailing along the ground and spreading to other items as the rest of the vine disappeared at the edge.
He moved about the rooms until he got to the bedroom. Nature hadn’t gotten this far into the building, leaving the room nearly pristine minus the dust. He moved around cautiously, opening drawers and moving clothing to the side. Every item needed to be documented so he made sure to set each piece to the side. Amongst the clothing was old newspaper clippings. Peace Talks Fall Apart! read one. Is the End Nigh? was another. Aaron felt his heart drop at the titles. What was it like to see these and think about the end days?
Aaron counted himself lucky to be born when he was. His parents never revealed much about life before and how their relatives survived. It never bothered Aaron, he always assumed it would be too hard to talk about surviving such an event. He had heard stories in school about what some survivors went through. The thought sent a chill down his spine as he returned to his work. As he moved more newspaper clippings he stopped. He slowly and tenderly scooped up an item and rotated it slowly. It was eight inches in width and ten inches in height. The edges were a brilliant dark wood from what he could see through his visor. The frame held a picture of a smiling family, two sons, a mom and a dad. His breathing slowed as he took a step back and sat on the bed.
Aaron turned and could see the room coming to life. He could hear the laughter that these walls heard, the clanging of dishes as dinner was getting ready, the drawers closing as clothes were put away. Aaron looked at himself in the mirror, seeing his reflection as more thing than man. All of this made him miss home. Three years away had taken a toll that no one knew and that his co-workers seemingly refused to understand.
He took the picture out of the frame and dragged his gloved thumb over the family. He hit the same buttons on his arm mounted scanner, ready to catalogue a unique find. He turned the frame over in his hand and undid the latches. He peeled the back off but stopped when he saw the back of the photo.
He stared, his jaw slightly going slack at what he had read. He looked one more time before doing something that could possibly kill him. As quick as he could he unzipped his hazmat suit and shoved the picture into his shirt that was under the suit before zipping it back up. He patted the spot over his suit and closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer before getting up. Now, he just wanted to get home.
Thankfully the rest of the day passed by without a hitch and Aaron was able to turn in his hazmat suit without being picked for a random scan. It was part of the standard procedure by the new government: they wanted to make sure that no one brought in any illegal items that could harm others. He made his way to the safe area and up to one of his managers who was looking at all the new items catalogued.
“Hey Henry,” Aaron spoke. Henry greeted him with a smile. Aaron was seen by many as one of the best at this job even though he was relatively young compared to the other workers.
“Aaron, how’s it going? Everything go okay in the complex?”
“Yeah, it did, shame I only got a few new items. I know there isn’t much left to do in the city, like only a few big buildings left. I was wondering if maybe I could take an early leave?”
“Really?” Henry asked, cocking his eyebrow, “What’s going on?”
“Uh…” Aaron said before it dawned on him, “I’m just really homesick. Three years away from home hangs on you. One year here, one in New York and another in San Francisco. I was hoping I could just get a little bit of extra time off by going home early. Think that’s possible?”
Henry looked down at his tablet, pressing on it a few times and swiping in different directions. Aaron waited patiently as others filed in to the residence for the evening. With only a few workers left Henry looked up at Aaron with a smile.
“Go ahead and take off, transport will be here in 30. Have everything ready by the front. Good job here, you outdid yourself.”
Aaron raced upstairs. Ten minutes later he was in front of the makeshift residence, bags on the ground, nervously waiting. Aaron was now on a mission and knew it was an easy one to complete.
An hour later and he was on a magna-train heading home to Central. The new magna lines had been created just 30 years ago thanks to scientists collaborating together after the creation of Central.
That was what everyone called the city nowadays. It was at one point just a simple colony of survivors they called Haven. But as it grew the name was discarded in favor of Central because everything sprung from it. New colonies, the rail line, new sources of power, green technology. Everything sprung from Central and everyone was working to spread it as far as they could.
Large magnets near the rails stopped the train as it pulled into the station. Eight at night was always a dead time and the lack of crowds would make it easier to get home. Aaron disembarked with a sigh of relief as he made his way up the tanned marble stairs and into the main station. The roof above him was a beautiful glass mosaic showing the progress of the city and during the day the colors shined beautifully. He entered the main hub and walked past the circular reception desk made of old mahogany. He pushed through the wooden doors into Central and after being away for three years the city took his breath away.
He walked on the stone pathway to the gold color railing and leaned on it, looking out. Buildings easily reached up to 30 to 40 floors in height. The buildings had large square windows, curved around the corners to allow as much light as possible and every inch of space had an intricate design. Looking up, Aaron could see small wind turbines that were catching every bit of wind to help power the lights. He looked behind him and on either side of the door leading into the train station was a beautiful flower garden, trees and grass that practically glowed in the lightfrom the street lamps. It was home.
Aaron peeled his eyes from the wonderful scenery and made his way to an elevator, getting down from the second floor to the ground level of the city. From there he walked slowly, allowing the air to caress his face as he walked past others. It was a bit harder than usual because of the luggage he was carrying around but he didn’t care. For the first time in three years he was back home. He wanted to go complete his mission but suddenly he was hit with fatigue. A small smile came to his face as he crossed the street and instead of going right he instead went left. A few minutes later he was at an ornate apartment building, which he dragged himself. A familiar face at the reception desk was there to greet him.
“Sir Aaron! A pleasure to see your beaming face again!” K-LPM9 said, rising from its station at the desk and moving to Aaron to assist. All mechanical with solar panels sleekly placed along its arms, it’s official designation was Kinetic-Life Protection Machine, but everyonesimply called him Kelp.
“Hey Kelp, how ya been?” Aaron said, the fatigue hitting him harder.
“Oh perfectly fine sir! New tenants moving in, others sadly leaving and Central continues to grow every day! I thought you weren’t coming back from Baltimore for at least another few weeks?” it asked, head tilted to the side. It’s eyes were black with a small white light that moved around like a human iris. And even though it didn’t have a moving mouth it had a small slot where it would be. It had at this point hoisted all of Aaron’s luggage with ease.
“Yeah I was but work started to catch up on me, you know?” Aaron said as the two moved to the elevator.
“Oh I wish I knew sir but work has never caught up to me.”
“Wait, Kelp, is it okay for you to move away from the desk?”
“Oh it’s fine! I’ve been given a new upgrade while you’ve been gone. If anyone else comes in, I can trigger a hologram of myself to work. It’s brilliant sir!” it said and Aaron was sure if the robot could smile it would. The two continued idle chat until the elevator stopped at the sixth floor. Aaron opened the door to his room and it was a sight for his sore eyes. Aaron went to the kitchen while Kelp laid down his stuff in the small living room. After a tip, which Kelp used to spruce up the lobby, Aaron was laying in his bed, fast asleep in his work clothes, happy to be home again.
Morning came quicker than he would’ve wanted. He groaned at the sunlight that peaked into his room, his automatic curtains closing as programmed. But Aaron forced himself to get up, pulling the curtains open so he could look out at Central. The buildings seemed golden to him and contrasted wonderfully with the planted greenery around the city. All of it was part of a green initiative within the city, with all buildings have wind turbines and solar panels throughout the exteriors. Aaron saw his reflection in the window and gave himself a tired smile. One thing to do then he could crash for a few days. He patted his chest and felt the picture was still tucked inside. With a nod he changed clothes, making sure to take the picture from his shirt and put it inside a vest he now wore.
Soon he was out of the apartment and onto the street. He looked up through the trees that covered the sidewalk. He couldn’t help but take everything in. After three years, he missed everything about this city.
And a smile came to his face when he saw his favorite spot in the city was still open. La Rouge Café, simple design inside and out with the best food that he always swore by to his friends. After going in and grabbing some breakfast food for the people he was seeing today he was back on the sidewalk and striding with confidence to an elevator. One trip to the fourth floor of the city later and he found himself in front of a small building.
Unlike the ground floor of the city the fourth floor was home to houses and mansions for those that could afford them. The one in front of him was more traditional than any other building in Central and was a reflection of the times before the war.
Around the edge was a picket fence that contrasted the look of the city. Grass stood at attention and two trees, one near the fence and one near the house, stood guard with their green leaves. The house itself was a small brick house, two floors total with seven rooms that Aaron knew like the back of his hand. He opened the wooden gate and walked down the small concrete path to the dark brown front door. Aaron knocked and waited, checking his vest again until the door opened.
“Aaron!” his friend Sarah said, quickly wrapping her arms around him in a hug that he returned immediately.
“Hi Sarah. How have you been?” Aaron said with a smile as they separated from each other.
“Great! I’ve been taking care of my mom. What are you doing back? I thought you were going to be gone for a little longer.”
“No, I asked for an early release. Can I come in?”
It was just as he remembered from when he said goodbye. Wooden stairs going upstairs, to the left a living room and to the right a dining room and kitchen in the back. In the kitchen were a couple of large patio doors that lead to the back yard. Nothing had changed: same paint, pictures, furniture, everything was where he had remembered it was.
“Been enjoying the work?” Sarah asked as they walked to the kitchen.
“It’s been… well, fine is the word,” he said with a tired smile as he laid the food down on the table in the dining room.
“Why do you say that?”
“Long hours, everything I find already being found and collected. Feels pointless at times,” he said with a shrug as he took a glass of water from her.
“That’s a shame, but I’m sure you’ll find something cool!” Sarah said with the same optimism that she had when they met as freshman in college.
“Well, that’s actually why I came by. Is your mom around?” he asked. Sarah looked at him with confusion until walking to the patio doors and opening them to the deck. It was a wooden deck that looked recently stained. A few steps down led to a wonderful back yard that anyone would want to run around in, ending at a railing that gave a wonderful view of the city.
“Mom, look who’s here to visit,” Sarah said, her mom turning to them, her features lighting up when she laid eyes on him.
“Oh Aaron, hello sweetie,” she said, getting up slowly, Aaron walking over to her quickly so she wouldn’t have to walk.
“How’re you Ms. Higgins?”
“Fine dear, I can’t complain with a view like this. What brings you back so early?”
“I, uh, was in Baltimore doing the usual recovery work at an apartment complex. I smuggled something out,” he said, the two looking at him with uncertainty. Aaron reached into his vest and pulled out the photo, handing it to Ms. Higgins. Ms. Higgins looked at the photo, confused at first but her face started to change.
“That’s…” her eyes started to water as she turned the picture over in her hand. She put her other hand over her mouth before she let out a small gasp. A smile came to Aaron as Sarah looked at the picture herself.
“Who are they mom?”
“My grandfather and his parents,” she responded as tears started trailing down her face, “My great grandparents didn’t survive the initial blast. He and his brother barely survived out in the wild. They were picked up by a caravan. They found a small home and grew up in it with complete strangers… I’ve never seen grandfather so young.”
The tears continued to fall as Ms. Higgins started to cry out loud. Sarah held her, a single tear going down her face. She looked at the picture herself and saw a phrase written on the back, ‘Higgins Family 2025’.
“I guess you were right Sarah,” Aaron spoke up as he scooted closer and placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder, “I did find something cool.”