Lilith looked up at the sky for the first time in her life and realised that none of her mother’s descriptions had ever done it justice.
She moved her head from side to side, shading her eyes against the light as she examined the emptiness above her. The sky was a pale blue, an endless blue that stretched out in all directions, streaked with cotton-white wisps of clouds. The sun hung directly above, fiercely bright. Even the air was different, dry against her skin, as if someone had left the dehumidifier on all night—but up here there were no dehumidifiers. Above ground there were only monsters.
Lilith shivered. Not even the largest of caves in the Lower Halls could compare to the infinity of the sky. But she resisted the impulse to shuffle sideways, towards the centre of the slow-moving queue. While the other theatre-goers huddled together in fear of the unknown, Lilith contemplated daring herself to step even further away from the crowd. But just then Emma latched on to her arm and pulled her close.
“Can you believe it?” Emma’s voice was hushed, as if they were in a church. Her head was craned back, staring upwards at the sky. She wasn’t the only one: many in the queue were equally awed, shuffling forwards with eyes fixed on the sky as if it would disappear the moment they looked away. Even those feigning nonchalance like Lilith kept glancing upwards. “I don’t know how people live out here.”
“Easy.” Lilith shrugged. “People don’t. The infected do.”
“Lilith,” Emma sighed, but there was little force in her rebuke. “Just because they’re infected, doesn’t mean they aren’t people.”
“Yeah. Infected people.” She nudged Emma on the upper arm. “Imagine if the vaccine didn’t work and we became infected. The vaccine only lasts what, seventy-two hours? After that, without a booster shot—”
“Can we not talk about becoming monsters? What if they hear us?”
“We’re not even at the theatre yet,” Lilith protested, but she dropped the subject.
The theatre loomed ahead, a large grey building that was square and unfriendly, rather unlike the rounded architecture underground. It looked odd, rising out of the sandy ground to stand alone in the emptiness, as if someone had found a perfectly sized rock and carved the theatre out of it. But it had been built, not carved, brick placed upon brick, if rumour was to be believed.
An orderly queue stretched out across the open space, from the underground border control to the theatre doors, where it branched into several smaller lines. When Lilith and Emma had first stepped outside, passports and tickets in hand, surrounded by police, the queue had been subdued. But now, further away from the uniforms, the disbelief was wearing off. Everyone was talking, and a few people had their arms half-raised, hesitantly pointing at the sky.
Several meters ahead of them, a boy with short blond hair let out a loud whoop. He stared up at the sky for several seconds before turning smugly to his friends, hand outstretched. “Pay up! Told ya it wouldn’t echo!” The friends grumbled but dug into their pockets.
When they finally reached the theatre doors, the cool darkness inside was a welcome relief. They stepped into a sparsely decorated but clean foyer, old-fashioned light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The walls were painted the rich, dark red of an expensive wine.
An usher in a matching red uniform took their tickets and ripped off a corner. “Row G, box 8.” He pointed. “Through those double doors, keep walking until the end of the row.”
Emma took the lead, Lilith trailing behind. Once past the double doors the auditorium looked much like any other, with one difference: every set of seats was enclosed by a glass dome. In the Middle Ring, where they were, the number of seats per box ranged between two to six. The Top Ring boxes had only two.
The Bottom Ring, by contrast, had no box separations or even seats. Instead the whole area was enclosed in glass, one giant aquarium. People—poor Upper Hallers, no doubt—were entering the enclosure from two doors on either side. Many headed for the front, where, despite the lack of seats, they settled down on the ground to wait.
“This is us,” Emma announced, pausing by the last box to open the door. There were only two seats inside. An ornate 8 was etched into the glass, and Lilith paused to run her fingers against its surface. Rumour had it the glass was bullet-proof, imported from the coasts.
The door swung shut behind her as Lilith took her seat. The glass of the box was sparklingly clear, offering an unobstructed view of the curtained stage and the streams of attendees shuffling towards their seats. The Bottom Ring was already crowded, a mass of bodies pressed together.
“All this excitement for what is ultimately a freak show,” Lilith muttered. Maybe that was why her parents had forbidden her from coming.
It was too late for her parents to stop her now; the lights were already dimming. There was a faint crackling from the speakers on their chairs, and the soft murmurs of the last few attendees to be seated trickled in. When all the box doors were shut, the sound faded entirely.
A man stepped out in front of the curtains to instant applause. Lilith joined in automatically, then realised it wasn’t the audience she was hearing; the clapping coming out of the speakers had to be a recording.
The man waited for the applause to die out, bowing several times. His face was rugged, his skin dark. The slight paunch of his belly indicated a life of leisure; trading with the infected was a lucrative business. Yet few were tempted by the promise of riches, for all the gold in the Lower Hall was not worth risking infection and permanent exile from civilisation.
The man threw his arms out to either side of him. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Affected Parade.” His voice came through the speakers as if he were standing right beside them. “Tonight, you will have the pleasure—and the privilege—to witness first hand the little known secrets of life above ground. You will witness creatures both magical and frightening in equal measures.”
He paused, looked around the audience. The spotlight on him intensified. “For the first act, your boxes will be locked. This is for your protection.” A faint click accompanied his words. He held up a small metal square. “I have here the button to release the locks, and will personally do so as soon as the act is over. There is an alarm button on the right-hand side of the door. Please ring the alarm only in case of an emergency.”
A step back, towards the edge of the curtains. “Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves. The show begins.”
Then the screaming started.