August 8, 2018
US Population: ~17 million
An overcast sky greeted the lens of the periscope as it poked through a thatch of evergreen bushes. The endless sea of gray above collided with a floor of dirt, pebbles, fallen leaves and an abandoned log cabin. Angela sighed as she lowered her view of the outside, all was as it was yesterday, and likely the same tomorrow. A small comfort, with excitement so often paired with danger these days, but incredibly dull. She returned to her workbench, snipping and twisting wires absentmindedly, forming a large coil at the foot of the table.
Her fingers started to get sore, and she made the rounds at the bunker. Opening the door to the farm, she rubbed her eyes as they adjusted to the bright lights. One section pink, one white and one purple for each brand of crop, separated by thick tarps. The cords from the lamps still thoroughly secured to their respective, jury-rigged car batteries. She sighed at the pile of TVs and game consoles collecting dust in the corner, the one thing they had to look forward to, they couldn’t afford to power in well over a year. At least there were some fresh strawberries to munch on for her trouble.
The fridge and freezer readings were fine, and the propane tank under the stove was mostly full. The generator room was a getting too smoggy for her taste, they’d have to remember to release the exhaust hatch tonight, hopefully no one was walking on the hill to smell it.
A groan emanated from David’s room, and with a creak from the door he emerged, scratching the hip of his pajama pants festooned with drawings of comic book sound effects and a gray T-shirt to match his eyes. He’d been getting worse for the past month or so, his ribs protruding further from his gut and the bags under his eyes growing heavier. Angela followed him as he lurched to the purifier to rehydrate, passing walls covered with posters announcing movies and video games, some old, some recently pillaged. She offered a plate of corn beside her, but he waved it away. She hadn’t seen him eat in a couple of days.
“Same dream again?” She asked.
“Yeah, didn’t get any further this time, woke up just as the door closed.” He gave a groggy reply.
“Might be a good thing, if they’re strapping you in to a mind control machine or whatever.” She didn’t know if it was actually mind control, but David always described being dragged along a cold, sterile floor then seated in some type of futuristic dentist chair, a colander cap covered in wires and LEDs placed over his head.
“I wish I knew what it was for, I always see these TV screens but they never show anything, they’re always off. I thought I saw a bunch of static one time, but I don’t know if I’m remembering right.” He rubbed his forehead and tossed a net of dirty blond hair back over his scalp. He sat down on a couch across the work bench, the contours of his face shaded by the candles.
“Maybe its not bad a thing, like you could be piloting that giant robot you always wanted, or the dream is way off, like that 7-11 you thought was abandoned.” Angela bit her lip after the second part, she was never the best person to cheer people up, and Jon got a nasty scar from following David’s intuition.
“Eh, I’m not counting that first part out, but I don’t think this one was bogus. I dunno if the 7-11 was either, all I saw was people loading up their packs and leaving, didn’t mean they couldn’t come back.” He gave a wan smile to try and reassure her, but between his emaciation and the candles it appeared cracked.
“That was some day, huh?”
“Yeah, I’ve never felt worse for going with my gut.”
“I just can’t get over how useless I felt. Lawrence got the steady hands, and Stace has the bedside manner on lockdown. All I did was fetch things, or try to sterilize with a lighter.”
“Don’t feel too bad, Jon never got infected. As I was holding him still I couldn’t shake feeling like I’m the guy that shot him.” David tried to force down a few bites of corn in the moment of silence.
“I dunno about that DD, our luck just ran out that time. Two years and no one finding us is looking solid on the other end.” Angela took a bite off the same plate.
“Still, its like I’m just going on a gut feel on every decision. I always hated people that did that, and now I’m always saying ‘this way’ or ‘we took that way last time, got a bad hunch’ and there’s no reasoning behind it. I dunno why you guys keep going along with it.”
“Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard, we’re probably just going crazy being cooped up for so long.”
“Hah. If its like that, then maybe embrace the crazy, Ang, it got us down here, sight better than a lot of other places.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, but trading in town every couple months ain’t enough fresh air for me, I got a wanderlust somethin’ fierce.” She snapped her fingers after the last word, trying to elicit a chuckle, but David could only return a weak grin.
“Heh. Sorry, I get it, but we can’t risk walking around out there too much, somebody could follow and then our cozy little underground farm is done.”
“Oh hell, there aren’t enough people up here to keep worrying about that. Seriously, Dave, I’m goin’ nuts. Look at this pile, I just started it last week and now its more than forty feet of cable! By the way, we’re out of headphones.” She gave an exasperated glance, holding up the pile of wire over a mess of stripped ear buds and headsets.
“I know, I know, just…not today. Lawrence, Jon and Stace are all on a meat run and I have a real bad feeling about walking out right now.”
“I have a bad feeling about staying cooped up here, I’m goin’ for a walk. Maybe you’ll get hungry if you come with.”
David opened his mouth to object, then closed it, shook his head, and went to the bedroom to change. He emerged in jeans and hiking boots, his leather belt pulled a notch tighter than the well-worn hole. Angela was already at the steps, tapping her foot impatiently, while David rummaged trying to find the walkie talkie she held in her hand. She waved him over with that hand, turned the hatch and emerged from their bunker into a humid and hazy August day.
Angela froze, dropping the ‘talkie as she came face to face with three dusty, dirt-tinged, people standing outside the door. One man had a large part of his cheek cut away, with a shock of blond hair and wild, blue eyes. Another had a saggy face, not like the wrinkles of the elderly, but like his countenance was sewn on and didn’t quite fit. The first man took one look at David, then fired a dart from a plastic gun. He had a moment to register the shock, before the needle did its work and he collapsed in a heap in front of the false boulder. Instinctively, Angela reached behind her back for a gun, but her hand only brushed an empty holster. The third, a dark-haired woman with sleepless eyes whipped out her pistol and, with a deafening crack, Angela’s belly was set ablaze in pain as the bullet bore in.
“Seriously? I had another dart for her.” The cheekless man chastised.
“She was reaching for a gun!” The sleepless woman protested.
“That she didn’t have, dunno if you were a cop before the Big Choke, but that ain’t how we do things. Guess you get the pleasure of carrying him back.” He spat, walked over to a writhing Angela.
“Fine, whatever, but I just as easily coulda saved your ass.”
“My ass don’t need saving against a coupla kids. Y’all clear out, I’ll catch up in a sec.”
The sleepless woman went to haul up the limp figure of David in a fireman’s carry, she looked to the saggy man for help, but he only smirked, shrugged his shoulders and walked down the driveway. The cheekless man picked up Angela and carried her down the steps and set her on the concrete floor of the bunker, picking a bundled shirt off a nearby pile to press into the wound.
“Sorry about that, nothin’ personal. ‘Course, its always personal to the victim. Just keep that pressed down and your friends oughta be back before you bleed out. Word of advice: don’t follow us. Even if you don’t think we’re out of your league, the people we’re doin’ jobs for sure as hell won’t carry you back to shelter. Enjoy the bunker, most didn’t have that and we don’t snitch’,” He turned and walked up the steps without another glance, leaving the hatch door open. Angela fought to stay awake, and swore she heard a far off clopping sound fading into the distance while her consciousness waned.
With a start, her eyes shot open and her breath pulsed at a frenetic pace. She didn’t know how long she was out, but a small pool of blood formed to the side of her wound. Her hand with the stained shirt had slipped off the puncture, and her stomach seared as she jammed it back down.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! She thought, sliding herself along the floor to a metal filing cabinet by the steps. Always bring a gun on a walk. With each lurch, the pain in her gut intensified. She bit her under lip so hard a new trickle began to flow down her chin. After an interminable two-minute spell, she reached the cabinet and started fumbling through the bottom drawer. At last, her hands gripped an orange plastic case and she dragged it out, laying it on top of her chest.
“What’s the point? They’re not coming back.” Her doubting voice returned, unwelcomed.
Shut up, you don’t know that. Hunting doesn’t take days with this many deer around.
“Oh, it’s not the hunting that’ll hold them up. They’ll see the open hatch and assume the worst, or they’ll run into those mercs. Maybe they’ll just see David gone and think you’re not worth the effort.”
Go to hell, Lawrence and I have been friends for years, he’ll help. Stacey and Jon wouldn’t pull that either.
“Didn’t you say the same thing about your parents? Nineteen years and they kicked you out over one lousy squeeze that didn’t have a dick.”
Angela had no response except to bite her lip harder. She opened the case, inside was an orange plastic pistol in the shape of a revolver, and three orange shells. She gripped the barrel with her teeth and popped the chamber open. Her hand shook, fumbling the first flare and it rolled underneath the couch.
“Clumsy, clumsy. Can’t save yourself with butter fingers.”
I won’t have to. She grunted to herself.
With the second flare, she pinched the bottom of the shell with her lips, and slid the gun over it. Popping it in place with her forehead, she took a long, heavy exhale and fought off a wave of faintness. Her head felt like it was floating away from the rest of her body, so she dug the bloodstained shirt into her wound again, waking herself up with a shrill cry. Angela could feel the concrete scraping her back as she pushed herself to the center of the threshold, taking aim at the perpetually gray sky. Her flare arm flailed and shook, when she took her other hand off the wound a trickle resumed. Still, she could brace, let out her breath and fire.
An orb of red shot into the sky, muted against what little sun poked through. Angela laid her hand back over the wound and tried to rest. They’ll come back, right? I didn’t go through all this just to die on the floor. Just an hour or two, I can make it.
Featured image credit to Lori Nix.