Cooped Up and Hostile
Dave dropped a jack of spades on top of the pile.
“God dammit!” Peter slapped his cards on the table. “I knew you had it.”
“I got a little nervous that time. I thought you might have the king.”
“That’s it right? I only got the high?”
Sonja glanced at the scrap of paper next to her. “Yep. Lost the bid.”
“Motherfucker.” Peter tossed out his cards and stood from his seat. “Dave, you’re a goddamn cheater.”
Dave threw up his hands. “The round isn’t over.”
“It is for me.”
“Aw, come on Pete.” Sonja gestured. “Just let us finish. I’m so close to the win.”
“Nope, fuck it.”
Dave gave Sonja a shake of the head to let it go.
Sonja set her cards down. “Alright, what do we have left for tonight.”
Dave gathered the deck from the table and leaned against the heavy metal chair to stretch his back “Umm, last thing for today is to pump out the tank and clean the air and water filters.”
“Dibs! Dibs on the filters!” Sonja threw up a hand.
Peter rolled his eyes and looked at Dave.
“No, no, no. I pumped it last time. It’s between you two.”
Sonja and Peter stared each other down and quickly put a hand behind their backs.
Peter called it. “Odd.”
They withdrew their hands both holding one finger out.
“Fuck.” Peter dropped his head. “God fucking damn it. I’m gonna puke again.”
“You’ll be alright. The respirator takes most of the smell.”
“That shit doesn’t fit me right.”
“Well, hold your breath then.”
The three of them split ways to their corners of the bunker. After three months underground, they knew the routine. Monday’s were for cleaning, Tuesdays were for disposing, Wednesdays, for inventory, and so on. To stay alive, and mildly comfortable, the chores needed to be consistent and routine—everything from monitoring rations to mopping the cold cement floor. It had been three months since the bombs went off and now, stuck within the short concrete walls of the twenty-by-forty foot, soviet-era living quarters, they tried to make a home.
Dave took a stroll by the far end, and checked the screen. A behemoth of a computer took up most of the wall, complete with an endless array of meters, knobs, and buttons. It was built for a war that never happened with the most advanced technology of its time, now a historic artifact. Large, grayish-green metal boxes held a minuscule amount of data, droning out a dull roar from the fans to keep the system cool. The tone punctuated every thought in the bunker. A series of small wires and pipes ran in clean lines up the back and breached the ceiling through industrial-grade seals to keep the radiation out. Somewhere up above, a collection of small antennas, anemometers, sensors, solar panels, and wind turbines, popped out of the dirt to measure conditions. Down below on the screen, texted scrolled through measurements of air pressure, weather, and fallout. Over the last month, Dave believed the radiation value had been on the decline, but with the ancient computer code came a lot of bugs. At the time he checked, the number was bouncing between what it had been yesterday and double the reading from the first day they had climbed down into the bunker. The learning curve was steep, and the instruction manual that Dave referred to covered very little troubleshooting. He was a smart man, though this system was far beyond his realm of knowledge. Studying the computer’s spiral bound bible became his only hobby.
Peter put on a pair of elbow long rubber gloves and poked a rake down into the waste pit. He held his breath as he stirred the concoction, opening a faucet to flood the tank and loosen everything up in preparation for the evacuation. The basin was a slushy mess of excrement and trash all compiled, ready to be flushed out a half-mile of piping into a nearby stream. At the end of the world, the EPA wasn’t keeping tabs. Peter gagged as an air bubble somewhere burst and sent a noxious plume up into his face, leaking around the poor seal of the mask. The overwhelming smell of ammonia and festering excrement turned the tiny room into a toxic gas chamber. Primed with the subtle splashing of fecal droplets on his gloves and the spectacular view of semi-serous sloshing shit, Peter’s stomach called it quits and sent him to his knees violently vomiting into his respirator. With nowhere left to go, the bile kicked back down his throat making him choke. He ripped off the mask, sending the full force of the aerosolized human waste into his nose. More puke spilled out, splashing into the pit, sending more splatters of defecation up to his face. He pulled in frantic gasps of rancid air in between his throat seizing. In a final act of desperation, Peter slammed open the door, wafting in the deliverance of mildew and feet.
When he was finally able to calm himself, he wiped his mouth with a wet towel and carried on. He sealed the tank and tossed the gloves and rake into a crusted bucket to be cleaned. The electronic pump broke early on and now the back up hand pump was the only way to clear everything out. Peter flipped open a hatch next to the toilet seat to reveal the handle of a lever that extended with a pull. He began pushing it back and forth, prisoner to the sounds of gurgling as the system created pressure.
With water boiling and freeze-dried vegetables rehydrating, the three roommates gathered around the table to break stale bread. There was little to talk about; if there was any news of the day, they all experienced it together. Peter broke the silence.
“This tastes like shit.”
“You probably still have some particles in your nose from the tank.”
Peter leaned over his bowl of reconstituted beef stroganoff and took in the fumes. “Nope, it’s the food. God damn I can’t wait to eat some real food again.” He stirred at the chunks of beef which gave him flashbacks. He shivered. “What does that piece-of-shit computer say?”
“Still lethal, but getting better.” Dave lifted his bowl as he ate. “I think the storms have been pushing a lot of the radiation away so hopefully only another few months.”
“Few months!?” Peter dropped his fork on the table sending an echoing ring around the walls.
The other twos heads’ shot up.
“Yeah.” Dave set down his bowl. “This stuff takes time. We have enough food for at least a year.”
“It’s not about the food. If I have to stir that shit pile one more time I’m gonna kill myself.”
“I can do it next week,” Sonja threw in.
Peter ignored her. “I mean how reliable are those numbers anyway? You said it glitches all the time. How do you know it hasn’t been clear for weeks and we’ve just been wasting away down here?”
Dave pushed his tongue around his mouth. “I’d rather be safe than sorry. I take the averages of the numbers that make sense and right now it’s still just too dangerous. If we open that hatch prematurely, we all die.”
“Do you even know what you are looking at?”
“Yeah, the manual…”
“Oh, the manual.” Peter pushed his bowl away. “Half that manual is in Chinese, and the other half was written for the technician who built it.”
“Well, I’ve been studying it for three months so I have a pretty good idea.”
“You don’t know shit.” Peter stood up and kicked his chair away. “That piece-of-trash screen spits out random numbers and you decided you’re the expert.”
“You’re welcome to try to learn it again. We’re doing the best we can.”
Sonja stepped in. “I know it’s hard. I’ve been feeling cooped up too. I would love to stretch out. How about tomorrow we take the day off. No cleaning, no maintenance, I’ll do all the cooking. Everyone can just chill, play some games. We can do a group work out in the morning.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Peter tossed his dish in the sink, and receded to bed. The rest remained quiet.
Once dinner was cleaned and clothes were changed, they wandered off to their nighttime routines, performing final checks, and organizing their bunks. Sonja took time to water the series of plants that sat stacked on a shelf under UV lights and provided some much needed fresh oxygen to the pod. And with that, the lights were powered down, and the crew fell asleep.
A piercing tone threw Dave from his bed. He stumbled to his feet trying to focus on the tiny green light that flickered every three seconds in time with the alarm. It dominated his fogged vision and guided him like a lighthouse to the computer.
The other two sat up in their bunks, rubbing at their eyes.
“What is that?”
Dave punched at some keys on the computer and the tone silenced. “It’s the low radiation alarm.”
“How low?” Peter tossed his blanket to the side and stood up.
“Well, I set it when we first came down here to alarm when the air reached a nontoxic level, but I don’t know how accurate it is.”
“What time is it?” Sonja flipped the light switch sending everyone’s hands over their eyes.
Peter approached the screen. “It’s never gone off before so that must mean something right?”
“Maybe.” Dave pulled up another menu. “That can’t be right.”
“Well, it looks like there was some crazy wind that blew through last night. Like hurricane force winds. Must have swept off a good amount of radiation.”
Peter’s eyes opened wider. “So that’s it then right? We’re in the clear?”
“Well, I don’t know. This thing is buggy.”
“But, has it ever given a false low reading before? I mean, I know it shoots up sometimes, but it’s never dropped suddenly right?”
“I don’t know. There’s no way for me to know that. Like I said last night, I take the averages. So, we can wait a couple weeks and see if this pushes the average down into the safe zone.”
“What!? Fuck that, man. It says it’s clear!” Peter started walking towards the hatch.
Dave spun around. “Wait, what are you doing?”
“I’m going for some fresh air.”
Dave chased him down and caught his arm. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous. It’s one number one time. We can’t take the risk.”
“The risk? The risk is I bash your head in for touching me.”
“Woah, woah, hold up everyone.” Sonja positioned herself between the hatch and Peter. “Dave has been the one running that system and if he says we should wait, then we should wait.”
Peter shook Dave off his arm and pushed him back. “Fuck all of you. If you’re so confident in your little machine than read the sign. Check that fucking manual if you want. Green light means good to go. I’m going up. If you want to put on those shitty respirators go ahead. One of them is covered in puke.”
Dave grabbed his shoulders. Peter spun around and swung a fist, cracking Dave in the jaw. He pushed on through to the hatch, shoving Sonja into the shelf of plants. At the top of a small ladder was a bulkhead. Peter spun the wheel, the mechanism inside clanking as metal struck metal. Dave sprinted to the side of the bunker and slammed open a locked to retrieve a face mask. With a subtle hiss, the door unsealed and Peter put his shoulder into it.
The sun was bright and hot. In the distance, a black sky rolled away over the mountains, the remnants of the storm sweeping over the land, disinfecting. The ground was littered with debris and puddles of mud. What was left of the surrounding town stood open and bare, the rest reduced to piles of stone and ash—how much from the bombs and how much from the hurricane, it was hard to tell. Peter smiled. The heat permeated his skin, warming his bones. He let out a light laugh and took a deep breath. Dave slowly crept up the ladder, respirator on his face and a Geiger counter in his hand. The device clicked slowly. He took a few cautious steps and spun around, eyes fixed on the numbers on the sensor. He looked up at Peter and slowly removed his mask, revealing the smile underneath. They took a deep breath, the fresh air filling their mildew-laden lungs.