Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapter Ten

Chapter 10

Things have run from boring to miserable and back to boring back to … whatever you want to call it. How’s this different from my life in Level 5?

We woke in Bumpus Mills, TN to find ourselves blocked into our hidey hole. The hole we had driven through into the “cave” of debris wasn’t small, it had given plenty of clearance to the half-track on all sides, but snow drifts had piled one over the top of another to completely close our exit off. And the wall it created was as hard as concrete.

Donovan had a few choice words to say and I don’t hold it against him. I was thinking versions of them but I was just too cold to get as angry as he was.

“Emma?”

It felt like I was moving in slow motion. I was curling over on myself and holding my middle trying to get control of what I was feeling.

“Emma! Look at me. Come on; let’s get back in the cab. We’ll figure this out, don’t be so scared.”

My teeth had started to clack together so hard I could barely make myself understood, “Nnnnot … sssscared … Cccccoooolllllddddddd.” I hated the whimpering sounds that came out of my mouth after that.

I don’t know how Donovan managed it but he put me in the cab and then got in by himself. I was shaking so bad I couldn’t even seem to focus my eyes. I couldn’t stop and it was freaking me out.

“Don’t fight the shaking; it’s you body trying to warm up. Scoot over here … stop it, you’re not going to hurt me … coffee’s almost warm. I’m going to double load it with cream and sugar and - don’t give me that face - you’re gonna drink it.”

He was forced to use a coffee stirrer to get the first little bit into me; I seemed to have lost command of my body. After that I must have slept a little bit because I came to in Donovan’s lap with my weight on his good leg and his good arm holding me close. We were covered head to toe in a cocoon of blankets and sleeping bags.

“Wha …?”

“Easy. Take a swallow and then I want you to eat this.”

“This” turned out to be a chunk off of one of those nasty survival ration bars we found in the bus. It tasted a bit like a stale and crumbly short bread cookie. I’m not real fond of short bread cookies even when they aren’t stale and crumbly.

“Gag. That’s nasty. What happened? My head is pounding.”

“We need to get more fat on you. Your body is having a hard time with the cold. It’s going into starvation mode and starting to break down muscle instead of the little bit of body fat you can lay claim to. You too @#$% scrawny.”

“Kiss my left big toe. I’m eating the same as you for pity sake,” I groaned. “Four thousand plus calories a day. Why aren’t you reacting this way?”

“Two reasons. I’ve been trained to work and live in extreme conditions and my body is used to the routine. I’ve also got more reserves than you … nor have I been carrying the load of work you have,” he said in a way that made him sound angry. “Eventually if this continues I’ll have the same problems. You just had them first. Here, eat another bite. And keep drinking. Your kidneys are likely taking a pounding too with all the extra protein and us getting borderline dehydrated.”

As I was choking down the nasty bit he shoved at me he said, “I would have turned the heater on but until we can be sure that we aren’t going to kill ourselves with the exhaust …”

“Sure. I understand. We don’t want to waste fuel either.”

He pulled me closer and said, “Fuel won’t do us any good if we freeze to death Emma. I would have if I thought we could get away with it.”

I was still groggy and my brain wasn’t firing on all pistons. It took me a while to fight through the fog of feeling warmer than I had in a couple of days. Finally a few hazy thoughts started stringing together coherently. Me. Donovan. His lap.

“Oh! Oh!!”

“What? Hold still Emma. This coffee might not be scalding but it ain’t cold either.” Then he started laughing, “Well at least I know you’re fully awake now. Stop wiggling or we will have trouble. Here, eat another bite.”

He shoved another piece of pseudo-cookie in my mouth when I opened it to object to my location.

“Emma, survival makes strange partnerships … and sometimes strange bedfellows,” he sighed. “You said you consider me a friend, a good enough friend that you wouldn’t let me die alone. Well, I am your friend and I’m not going to let your modesty get in the way of me helping you to survive. Just relax. We both need the rest and the warmth. It looks like we are going to be here a while.”

He laughed again when I grumbled about the fact that I doubt that he would have willingly crawled up in Charlie Braintree’s lap to get warm. My head was really banging and it went against the grain but between the very real fatigue I was feeling and the food he kept shoveling into me I got drowsy again and eventually went back to sleep. Hours later we both woke to this really weird noise. It was the wind whistling through the debris above our heads. We ate self-heats – how I managed to eat more I can’t imagine – and took bathroom breaks (a hideous experience in that cold) since we doubled our fluid intake. While I was straightening my clothes I heard the sound of metal ripping somewhere above my head and then it was like being in a wind tunnel. I was knocked to the ground and landed hard.

“Emma! Emma!!”

I crawled toward the direction his voice had come from and it was really dark. I couldn’t hear anything anymore over the freight train sound the wind was making. I found the bumper, then the tire. The wind fought my every inch forward. I could literally feel myself sliding away every time I tried to let go long enough to grab for the door. The blowing snow felt like it was shredding my exposed skin. Then a light flashed briefly in my eyes.

Something grabbed my hair and held me so I could pull myself under the open door. I held onto the running board trying to get some purchase to climb up. I felt Donovan grab me under the arm and pull me up. I climbed over him and into the cab with him right after me. He’d used his crutch to keep the door open; he barely had time to pull his foot all the way in before the crutch snapped and the door slammed shut.

We were both breathing hard; he was pulling me over again into his lap and putting our cocoon back in place. I was gasping as I asked, “Shouldn’t I start the motor in case we need to make a break for it?”

“And go where? It’s as dark as the inside of a whale’s belly out there. It’s night and we can’t see which way to go or what else is being blown around. We’re somewhat protected here. If this goes … Emma all we can do at this point is wait this out and I want to do it warm.”

I was kind of stuck. I wanted to be warm too and my high ideals weren’t helping me out with that. On the other hand I worried that Donovan’s recent low opinion of me would develop into something permanent if I just went along without a fight. If I’d had a third hand I could have said it didn’t feel wrong to warm up with Donovan but it did feel dangerous.

“Emma I can hear the wheels spinning and smell the smoke. Stop thinking it to death. We’re just sharing body heat. Don’t make it into some kind of big drama.” So I climbed into his lap and we both finally warmed back up and got some sleep despite the hurricane-like snowstorm that was swirling around us.

The next morning I awoke to a rude poke in the ribs and, “Emma. Hey girl, wake up.”

Talk about shock. The storm was gone and as black night turned to gray and gloomy day we could see so was our shelter. Or at least most of it was gone; there was still a short “wall” that kept the wind and snow from burying the half-track. I got out and looked things over. Thank goodness I’m extra cautious about stuff though on occasion it has been called something ruder. The stuff in the half-track’s trailer bed was double tarped and double netted; tarp over the supplies first, then net, then tarp, and finally the outer net. A few of the “squares” of the outer net had frayed apart and the outer tarp was torn all to pieces but the inner net and tarp held fast with little damage.

Without a crutch and after all of the hullabaloo the day before Donovan was having a really bad time of it. I didn’t stop him from trying but I kept an eye on him just like he would have done if our places were switched. Donovan finally just shook his head and told me to mind my p’s and q’s. I ignored him while he went around a corner of the wall but when he yelled “@#$%,” at the top of his voice I grabbed the pick ax I had been using to dig my own hole and ran his direction.

There were cars, at least a dozen, buried in the debris pile. We drove right passed them in the night. Inside the cars … they were occupied, but not with the living. The cars all had chains on their tires so they were more than likely survivors that had been moving to try and find someplace warmer or at least safer. What had upset Donovan was a car with two car seats in the back. The people had been gone for … a long time. They were all in their seat belts so I’m thinking maybe they were caught in a snow storm and just passed away from hypothermia. They didn’t appear to have died violently. I don’t know that for sure but for the kids’ sake I hope they just went to sleep. And frankly I don't care if it makes sense or not, that's where I'm leaving it.

Donovan had left while I was looking at the gruesome spectacle and was leaning against the half-track when I walked back and pulled up the tarp to get to the tool box. I grabbed a large, flat-head screwdriver and a sledge hammer. I started walking back around to the cars when Donovan acted the snot and said, “Don’t seem like the right tools to use to give them a Christian burial.”

I turned around and looked him right in the eye. “No. Where ever they were going they are already there and the bodies are nothing but husks. Burials are for the living, not the dead and the cars are as good as tombs at this point. I’m going to pop the trunks and see if there is anything useable.”

“Why you heartless little huzzy,” but I ignored him and kept going. It’s not that I didn’t feel bad but I knew without a doubt the people didn’t need the stuff anymore and wouldn’t care one way or the other. I really do believe that they are already at their ultimate destination so to speak. I’m not heartless; I’m just not all ancient Egyptian about stuff and just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to do what I was doing. It hurt more for Donovan to be nasty again than any grief I was feeling for the poor people that died that way.

I stepped up to the first vehicle and stuck the screwdriver into the key slot and then tapped it in with the hammer. Then I gave it a good whack to drive it in, turned it the screwdriver’s handle and broke the lock barrel out which let me pop the trunk lid.

I heard crunching footsteps behind me. “Do I want to know where you learned to do that?” Donovan asked sounding tired.

“Probably not but I’ll tell you anyway. A … a friend named Moshe thought it was funny to teach his little sister and her best friend how to do it as part of some highschool science project he was working on. My Dad had a fit when he found out.”

“Highschool science project? Sounds like one heck of a highschool,” he said sardonically.

“Yeah, we had some whacked out teachers in the IB program. If I remember correctly it was Mr. Emerson’s physics class. Sarah and I had him too and when we had him the theme was roller coasters that year instead of automobiles. We took a fieldtrip to Busch Gardens and got to talk to some of the head engineers about Kumba, SheiKra, and Gwazi.” I looked over and saw Donovan’s face and said, “Sorry. TMI.”

The first trunk that I opened was empty and so was the second one. The third trunk was crushed but the fourth one had stuff in it. It was mostly cans that had bulged due to freezing but there was some dry stuff in there too; raisins, granola bars, little packages of Kool Aide, crackers. I found some diaper wipes (frozen stiff) and some feminine hygiene stuff in one of the trunks along with some type of energy booster pills for athletes and a woman’s gym bag with some work out gear in it. In the last one I was able to get to there was a couple boxes of kids’ cereal, some oatmeal, and a couple of giant canisters of powdered drink mixes like Tang and strawberry milk. What I didn’t see confused me.

“What are you looking at? Finally getting queasy pawing through dead people’s stuff?”

“Hey buddy boy, I may not be a trained security dude but even I can see some weird gaps here. There aren’t any staples like sugar, flour, beans, or rice. Heck, I don’t even see Ramen Noodles or pasta. I don’t see any pots and pans either or even camping gear, not even a bottle of water.”

Donovan looked at me. “Maybe you won’t be half useless after all.”

I decided to ignore him if he was going to act like that and looked again at what I was seeing and what I wasn’t. I mumbled to myself, “I wonder if the tanks are dry.”

Donovan was looking at every car but the one with the car seats. “Tanks are empty. All the caps are off or missing so someone checked before we did; it’s impossible to say when. The missing pieces could have been taken then, but why leave the food?”

Another question with no answer so after standing there for a moment of silence to put our memories of this place to rest we turned and headed back. The engine was ready to go by the time the little we had salvaged was stowed away and I had replaced the destroyed tarp with another one. As I went to climb into the cab Donovan put his hand on my shoulder. “About … about what I said … I …”

“Forget about it. Living like this is sick. Looks like I might just be sicker than you is all.”

No way was I going to get into another discussion of death with him so we got in and continued as northerly as the landscape would let us. We’d been driving along silently when he said, “So, were you born under a cabbage leaf or hatched?”

I had absolutely no idea what he meant so I turned my head and just looked at him. “Look, you said that I never asked about where you came from. So … I’m asking.”

“I was born in San Antonio, Texas but I don’t remember it. Before I was old enough to remember any different my Dad was stationed at MacDill and we stayed in Tampa while he did remote TDYs. He was home from a three month TDY out near Sacramento when a drunk …” I stretched my neck and skipped the details. “I was sixteen, got my emancipation thanks to the help of my best friend’s family and here I am.”

He shook his head. “Short and to the point.”

“It answered your question.”

He growled, “I swear you are contrary. Every other woman I’ve ever met would have used the excuse to give the novel of her life story. You … you on the other hand don’t even give out enough for an obituary.”

“What do you want to know? It’s no big deal.”

I expected him to ask a stupid question about my childhood or something but instead he asked, “OK, so how did you wind up in Level 5?”

That I hadn’t expected and it took me a while to put my head together and get a distance from the sudden burst of anger I surprised myself with. “Probably like some of the other women. I had a good friend. He lied to me. I fell for it.”

Donovan cleared his throat. “Are you trying to make me angry?”

“Look, I just … oh brother. Remember the guy I said helped me learn to break into trunks?”

He grunted what passed for a yes in his cave man vocabulary.

“My best friend was Sarah Epstein. Her parents helped me get my emancipation but they still asked me to live with them. They were … are … were good people.”

“Which is it? Were or are?”

“I don’t know. I’ll get to that. Anyway, Moshe is Sarah’s older brother. We were … close; more than friends but less than romantic. I got sick and missed going on a … a trip with Sarah and was in my dorm room recuperating over spring break. Moshe went to MIT and worked with a Dr. Rushton that had something to do with the bunker program. Moshe had gotten his family in … but … geez, is this really important?”

“If it is important enough for this to be the first time I’ve seen you uncomfortable about talking about anything then yeah … yeah I think it is important.”

“No psychobabble Donovan or you’re walking.” He grunted again and I continued. “It all happened so fast. Moshe shows up, gives good face and says all the right things just the right way. I fall for it hook, line, and sinker; no arguments, no questions, just because he asked me to and because … they were supposed to be a day behind me. Looking back I was an idiot and don’t have any excuse for it. I never would have known anything about Moshe’s secret life and would have died right along with billions of other people during the tsunamis but I guess I was the only warm female body that Moshe could come up with on such short notice for the Level 5 candidate requirement. I drew the sucker’s card and here I am.”

Donovan was blessedly quiet on the subject for a while and a good thing too because it let me concentrate on the road … only suddenly the road wasn’t there anymore, it was all air and if not for the tracks I don’t know if we would have gotten back on terra firma.

“You OK?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, don’t mind me. I just shake like this when I’m having a bloody good time. Next rest stop however I’m going to need a little privacy to deal with some personal issues.”

“That’s my Emma, heart of gold and tongue of fire. Hand me the binoculars.”

While I put my golden heart back in my chest, Macho Man took a look at the terrain. “Head due west and then when we get to a good place we’ll turn north again.”

“What’s with the weirdness? I looked at the map and I don’t remember it saying we were approaching the Here-Be-Monsters edge of the world place.”

My turn of phrase didn’t even phase Donovan. “Not the edge of the world, but looks like something that might have been caused by the New Madrid fault. I’m pretty sure we are over into Kentucky now, near where the Land Between the Lakes should be. Turning west we should run us into Ft. Campbell which ought to be interesting.”

Or not. We saw a few destroyed buildings and other debris but nothing that would indicate that the base was worth stopping at, assuming that’s where we actually were. “Ft. Campbell, MacDill, and a couple of the other biggies were put on lock down two days before the news was leaked about The Beast. Everyone was told it was maneuvers or reaction to a verifiable threat. It took less time than you would think to empty the base of everything important and they got the personnel off the same day The Beast was acknowledged. The bases were overrun after that. Anything worth taking is long gone.”

I said, “I wonder where the stuff stopped.”

“What stuff?”

“The buildings, cars, trees … the stuff that got blown away by the blasts of the different impacts. Has it all gotten compacted under the snow or is it still rolling around like some weird tumble weed? Take that storm for instance. …”

Donovan curled his lip indicating a decided lack of respect for my curiousity. “You take that storm. And you ask the strangest questions. Does it really matter where all of that stuff went?”

“It could. So far we’ve used road signs to tell us where we are. What if we are just totally off because signs have been blown miles … hundreds of miles from where they were originally hung. You said you are from around here, does anything look familiar?”

“Emma, don’t go borrowing trouble.”

That ended that conversation. We went westerly and drove into what was left of a small Stop-n-Shop. The roof had been sheered off and the inside had seen a fire but three of the walls were still standing and it afforded some protection from the wind. After an uneventful night we tried to turn north but debris was everywhere. I think I found where a lot of the flying junk wound up. There was also a lot of earth disturbances. We came to what Donovan said had to be I24 and were forced to back track a little south to get passed it. Eventually we headed west again and stopped for the night in a dot on the map called Pembroke.

Next morning Donovan was cranky. I don’t think he is sleeping very well. Who could sleep with someone piled up in your lap like he has me doing? I’m beginning to think he is just being a softy and trying to keep me warm at the expense of his own rest. If it isn’t easy for me to sleep sitting up it’s bound to be worse for him. After telling me to try and go north by following the road barely discernable under the snow drifts the monotonous rumbling of the half-track’s engine put him to sleep.

The day was as clear as it had ever been. There was no sun to be seen but the brightness from the unblemished and unending snow still got to me. Not even my Ray-bans kept my eyes from watering after a while. I thought I was seeing a mirage at first. I was tempted to wake Donovan up but was worried that he’d just think I was crazy on top of everything else.

I could tell it was big whatever it was. Looked like a broke off pencil. I kept driving and it just kept getting bigger. Then I saw the rest of it lying in the snow. It was like the twin of the Washington Monument in DC.

“What in the heck?” I asked not realizing I had said it out loud.

“Not heck ... home.”

Chapter Nine

Chapter 9

It’s official. Donovan is demented. As much trouble as we are in he seems to be enjoying himself way too much.

First off, while I may refuse to let Mr. Insanity see how uncomfortable I am that doesn’t mean I’m going to lie about it here. I’m cold. No. Actually what I am is freaking cold. As in the kind of cold that should never have been allowed into Creation, if you'll pardon my opinion on the subject. I hate this.

Wisdom dictates that layering your clothing is warmer than a single thick garment. The space between the layers, though miniscule, acts like added insulation. Well let me tell you if I was any more layered I couldn’t bend my arms or legs to drive. It’s a good thing that Chandler had made sure to check out my personal gear before she left as I was so clueless. She even made me bring a pair of bigger boots so that I could wear multiple pairs of socks and still get my shoes on without cutting the circulation off to my toes.

My base layer is a polartec set of long johns. They are warm but the best thing is that they funnel moisture away from my body. The purpose of sweating is to create evaporation to cool your body; therefore evaporation is a bad thing when you are trying to stay warm. The polartec wicks the sweat away before it can evaporate.

The mid layer is for insulation. What I wear traps my body heat and keeps it close (therefore the need for the polytec base layer against my skin) but is half the bulk of the old fashioned stuff they used to have on the market. If I had to wear the old-fashioned stuff I really would look like a short, fat polar bear.

My outer layer is the waterproof layer. By this layer I have on my underclothes, three pairs of pants, three long sleeved shirt like pieces, a fleece pullover, a down vest looking thing and a waterproof and windproof winter coat with a well-insulated hood. My accessories include a hat with a brim and ear muffs … and after I nearly lost it twice last night it now has a nice chin strap to hold it on my head … sunglasses, a thin pair of inner gloves, and outer pair of wind and water proof gloves and a pair of fingerless mittens on a string around my neck in case I need them. Then comes my foot gear; a thin pair of inner socks and a couple pair of warm socks on top of that and my boots are waterproof muck boots that come to just below my knees and has these open treads that really grip on slick stuff.

All of that and I’m still freezing which is ridiculous. Wearing all of these clothes is taking some getting used to as well. I feel smothered. Shorts, tank tops and flip flops was practically the school uniform year round at USF except for maybe two weeks in the spring semester when you actually had to wear a coat (not necessarily long pants however). I wore jeans and a jacket or sweater in the bunker but even then I still felt free to wiggle around a bit in my clothes. Not with this stuff. It is really just irritating. But I guess I better get used to it because Mr. Gloom and Doom … when he deigns to talk to me in more than grunts and two word phrases … says that we are looking at years of this kind of weather.

Part of my shivers are nerves I’m sure. The morning of our departure Donovan made me run through everything one more time. I did it while I was taking down and stowing the tent and he was eating what passed for breakfast. I couldn’t eat and didn’t want to waste the food pretending. We hadn’t even left the bunk and we had our first argument.

“Donovan, the more you try and force me to eat the less I’m going to want to eat or even be able to.”

Donovan, out of what little patience he’d been trying to act like he had said, “In the cold our bodies are going to use the same kind of energy as if we were doing hard labor. As a matter of fact our body is doing hard labor, it’s burning energy to keep us …”

“I … know … already,” I huffed as I shoved the tent poles and stakes into their proper place. “The Major worked me over with a couple of those lectures before she left. I’ve got a bag of granola in my pocket for when my stomach settles.”

“Aaawwwww, is the wittle girl scared of the big bad snow?”

I’d had all of his attitude I could handle. “Yes. Yes I’m scared. I’ve never experienced anything like this. What’s making this worse is that I thought that I was going into this with a friend and I thought there was going to be some mutual support.”

“Well, teach you to think won’t it. If you’re waiting on me to thank you you’ll be waiting a long @#$% time,” he said in a nasty voice.

I was starting to feel nasty mean myself. “I don’t want your thanks you hard headed Neanderthal, I never did! I didn’t do it for that.”

“Oh, that’s right. You did it because your religion told you to.”

I just grabbed hold of my temper before I really blew up. “You know Donovan, I’m still the same person I was before you got hurt. I’ve had these same convictions about things all along. I haven’t changed one single bit. You can cuss me, push me, ignore me, insult me to your heart’s content but I will never regret what I did even if you are turning mean as an old warthog. I really don't know what your problem is but I was not going to drive away and know that you died alone and sick and that this God awful prison was your blasted mausoleum! Jerk!!”

I tied and cinched the tarp in place and then slammed my hat on my head and stomped over to crank the warehouse door open just enough to get the half-track out. I walked back a little calmer, opened the passenger door and waited for Donovan to hobble over. Regardless of whatever his brain damage was I wasn’t leaving him and he needed a boost to get in the cab.

Donovan had lost the false face he’d had in place in the middle of our bickering and was as close to being the man I remembered as he’d been in days. “You really hate this place.”

“Hate isn’t strong enough. I despise this place. But it was sort of home and relatively safe as you could get at the end of the world.”

He looked at me, really looked at me and said, “But you are glad to leave it behind.”

“Glad to leave the life I was leading behind. It was a gilded cage that was becoming too comfortable. I was starting to get complacent. The routine was … I was losing myself to everything. There was nowhere for me to go, no way for me to get ahead. The warehouse could practically run itself after a while and there was no challenge for me. I was stuck. All of the other women were … moving, growing, finding a new life even if we were stuck inside these walls. I was being punished for rocking the boat, I never had a chance and I came to understand that. And don’t deny it because we both know it’s true; that’s why I was never allowed on any of the work details outside of Level 5. But now, outside that door is freedom, but it comes with a kind of price and it is a high one and I’m scared. So don’t give me any crap. You haven’t had to walk in my boots, I doubt you are even capable of understanding what it felt like to have to live this dumbed down life I’ve been stuck in. Now come on, it’s getting cold and we’re burning fuel.”

I leaned over to give him a wider place to step up on than the running board. He got in without comment but it cost him. I could tell he was hurting.

“Your pills are in the …”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s get on the road and I’ll pop one.”

It took twenty minutes for me to maneuver the half-track out, shut down the last circuit breaker and then manhandle the door closed. I heard the manual safety locks click and then I pulled the plug on the main power from inside the bunker. Then I went out the much smaller service entrance door and closed it behind me. In a culvert beside the door I pull the disconnect breaker for the service entrance. No one was getting back in the bunker now unless they had a matching disconnect switch. I got in the cab, threw the breaker behind the seat and shivered my way back to a semblance of warmth. When I could feel my hands I gripped the wheel and we were off.

Because of the weather conditions we aren’t going to be able to navigate celestially; everything is going to be compass and maps. Unfortunately we already know that the maps are going to be next to useless. One of the things that Donovan is doing as we go along is to re-map the areas we go through in case we ever have to backtrack.

There was no conversation for the first couple of hours. It had more to do with mutual tenseness than it did the argument. It took all of my concentration to learn the ins and outs of the half-track and to follow the landmarks that the salvage teams had left behind. I had a raging headache from the white gloom and started to shiver again. Donovan noticed and said, “Eat the granola Emma. We’ll share the thermos today but I think I have an idea for tomorrow. We are going to need the warmth more than I suspected. The salvage teams were out here in what passed for the summer months, we are just now heading into winter and we are already below zero.”

I was hungry and it was something to pass the time so I didn’t argue. Neither did he when I offered him the bag. The silence was filled by crunching.

That first day was nerve wracking and so was the next but today is when things really started getting hairy. The first night we stayed in a dilapidated autobody shop. I just drove right in one of the bays. You could tell where the salvage teams had used the place before. It had been mostly gutted but they’d built a mini-bunker that we crawled into and set up our sleeping quarters for the night after securing what was left of the bay door. It was so cold I couldn’t really sleep for very long at a time and the next morning I inhaled my breakfast allotment of caffeine. What I wouldn’t have given for a No-Doze.

The weather was so cold that even though we had self-heating meals, and those things get pretty hot, in the cold they don’t stay warm for long. Breakfast the second day was beef stew, a toaster pastry, an oatmeal cookie, lemonade (powdered mix plus filtered water in our canteen), crackers, raisins, and a squeeze packet of peanut butter. I ate it all and could have kept going. I’ve never been a huge eater and being that hungry was a novel experience but one that I have a feeling will be repeated on a regular basis from here on out. I saved the salt and pepper packets in a bag in the glove compartment as I didn’t need them. I nearly freaked when I looked at the packaging and saw that I had just eaten 1310 calories, 520 of them from fat. I choked on a swallow of coffee which when Donovan found out why started him to laughing until he bumped his leg. So glad I provided him with some amusement … not.

We flatten out all of our trash and save it for “kindling” in case we need it later. Then we were off again, leaving the little town of Indian Mound, TN behind us. We haven’t seen a single living thing though the salvage teams reported hearing dogs … or maybe it was wolves; they could never catch the sounds to record them. It was eerie and depressing. Last night we reached the edge of the area the salvagers had mapped. This time we drove down into an underground parking garage. I was so tired, even after eating nearly 4000 energy-filled calories for the day, and I knew that I had another rough night ahead of me. I got up from where I had been sitting moping to secure the half-track and found Donovan messing around under the hood.

“What are you doing?”

“If you are finished with your pouting you can come here and give me a hand. I had to rework my plan but I think I’ve got it figured now. When I lived out in Arizona a friend loaned me this book called Manifold Destiny; it’s about cooking food on your car engine. Well, the self-heats will work for that but we need water to run through the filter to drink. I took this metal ammo box and loaded it with snow and I mounted it … see there? Now … yeah, run that clip through there. It shouldn’t go anyplace even on a bad road. The engine will melt the snow and all we’ll have to do is run it through the filter instead of having to wait to have something decent to drink when we make camp. When I’ve got more mobility I’ll see if there is a way to run a hose through the firewall and into the glove compartment so that we don’t have to keep taking the ammo box out and putting it back in. We’ll just fill it up when we stop and we’ll have a fairly constant source of warm water.” I just stood there slack jawed. Now that is what I call creativity.

After securing our vehicle it was time to crawl into what passed for a bed. We both lay there almost too tired to sleep. I tried not to but I was shivering before I could get comfortable and let sleep take me.

“This is getting ridiculous kid.” Then he pulled my coverings off.

“What the?! Do you mind?!!”

“Yeah, actually I do but I’m tired of being cold too.” He was twisting and grimacing and then said, “Crawl in kid. It will be warmer this way.”

I was so tired and just wanted to get warm so I crawled in and found that we were laying a whole lot closer than we had before. “Relax kid, I’m not going to bite. I’m too tired.”

“I’m not a kid and you aren’t an old man so knock it off.”

“This isn’t the time to be reminding me …” he sighed. “It was a joke Emma. I’m serious, we’ll be warmer this way. I promise I won’t …”

“I said knock it off. I know you aren’t that kind of man. I’m just getting tired of you treating me like I’m a know nothing squirt, OK?”

I guess I’d surprised him somehow because he did stop and I felt him staring at the back of my head. Then he was snoring and I was warm and that is the only thing I really cared about at that moment so I went to sleep too.

The next day was a little embarrassing. We both woke up about the same time and jumped because we found out we’d gotten pretty doggone close during the night trying to stay warm. But you are only going to get so close when you are fully dressed including your coat. The only thing we weren’t wearing were our boots.

I flew out of the covers and headed to our designated latrine area to take care of things while he got out and limbered up, not an easy task for him right now. We need more padding beneath us but I’m not sure what to use for it.

This morning we left all the salvaging landmarks behind. It meant moving even slower which was pretty hard to do. We were heading northeast, and with pretty good reason. The bunker had been built near a granite quarry deep in rural in Tennessee. Donovan and I talked it over at length for a while.

Appropos of nothing Donovan asks, “You ever heard of the Kentucky Cave Wars?”

Not minding a distraction, or the fact that Donovan was finally talking to me in full sentences I said, “No. Were they important for Bunker Gamma?”

“Uh uh. But they might be important for where we are heading. Assuming we can get there and assuming … well, look. My aunt married a Mennonite.”

Wondering if this was why he was so sensitive about religion I asked, “You were Mennonite?”

“No. Neither was my aunt. The man she married left the sect when he was in his late teens. He still kept to a lot of the traditions but just not enough of them not to get excommunicated. Anyway, they settled on a farm in Kentucky and I was sent to live with them a few years at a time.”

My confusion must have showed on my face. “Girl, not everyone has happy childhoods. My mom left when I was a baby and Dad couldn’t always hold it together. Sometimes he’d just drop me off at my Aunt and Uncle’s for a while.”

When I didn’t say anything he said, “What? No comment? No ‘so that’s why you are the way you are’?”

“Uh, Donovan … it’s kinda none of my business. And knowing a possible reason still doesn’t mean I’m going to cut you any slack when you are being a pain in my backside. I don’t hold you responsible for the drunk that killed my parents so don’t hold me responsible for your less than stellar childhood.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’re … oh forget it. Let’s just say that there are reasons why I feel the way I do about you Bible thumpers but they don’t have anything to do with my Dad. And my Aunt and Uncle were good people. They kept me out of foster care and on the straight and narrow and Uncle Shem taught me a lot of practical skills that have come in handy over the years. One of the things he was a bear about was education and a big part of that was local history. We tramped over thousands of acres with him telling me stories like you wouldn’t believe or going to talk to some Old-Timer that would tell me more stories.”

“Did you have a lot of cousins?”

“No. Uncle Shem had measles when he was a teenager and couldn't have kids. Aunt Rachel said I was the answer to their prayers and was more than enough to … geez, that was a long time ago and not what I meant to talk about.”

“So don’t talk about it.”

“You really don’t care do you?”

I thought for a second, “It’s not that I don’t care Donovan, at least not the way you are making it sound. If you want to share then I’ll listen. I just don’t know where this is coming from or where it is going. You haven’t shown much interest in my past. You never asked me how I wound up tricked into Level 5. You never showed any interest in my personal data period. I just figured it was never part of the equation for you so I figured wondering about your personal data was a waste of time for me. You would either tell me or not. Either way we were already the people we were and friends of a sort.”

He looked at me and gave me a disbelieving look. “If that’s true then you have to be the only female that I’ve ever met with that attitude.”

“I thank you on behalf of my gender Mr. Neanderthal.”

“How did we get off on this topic?”

“Don’t ask me, you are the one that … “

“Fine. So you haven’t heard of the Kentucky Cave Wars.”

“No professor, I have not. Lecture on.”

That won me a look that could have peeled bark but he kept going. “Back in the early part of the 1900’s cave tourism was big business in places like Barren County, KY where Mammoth Cave is located. Farming was hard and the tourism money was relatively easy. Competing tourist traps played all sorts of dirty tricks to get unsuspecting marks to visit their cave rather than the other ones. But that’s not what is important.”

“So what is important ‘cause I’m getting confused with your roundaboutation.”

“Smart aleck. It’s the caves. The first area I want to investigate isn’t too far from where my Uncle’s farm used to be. Some of those caves are deep and long with average constant temperatures in the caves running between 48 and 60 degrees F depending on how long and how deep the cave is and whether it is a dry or wet cave.”

“I take it cave study was something your Uncle encouraged,” I muttered.

Donovan grinned, “Oh yeah, you could say that. His house was built over a small cave and he used the air from the cave to cool the house in the summer and warm the house in the winter.”

“The bunker life never bothered you then.”

“I didn’t say that. Living in a cave is a lot different than living over one. Aunt Rachel died of ovarian cancer when I was in highschool and Uncle Shem of a heart attack a couple of years later while I was working at a local mill, putting myself through school. The farm went into probate and nothing was left after that. I joined … never mind, I worked with a private security contractor but went back to the area to go spelunking once or twice a year. I know that area and I know there are caves that should still be usable for our purposes.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in there.”

“Like I said, if I know they are there then others will know they are there. You heard about those people that have Mammoth Cave pretty much locked down and living there. That’s a big group as things go. My guess is that well known places like Wind Cave, Cumberland Caverns, Ruby Falls, and all the commercial tourist locations have people trying to survive in them too. If that is true then the smaller ones may have the same thing going on in them, only we won’t know until we stumble on one because they don’t have a radio to say ‘here we are.’”

“Jolly. So do we get shot before or after we knock on the door?”

Kentucky is within our fuel circle that we drew on the map. Even better is that the area that Donovan wants to check out first is within the optimal cone we colored within the fuel circle. Every night he tries to figure our exact location on the map. The only reason we know tonight is because of the bus.

While it has been cold enough to freeze a polar bear’s tail we hadn’t run into any storms or snow yet. The bus was just off to the side of the road leaning really funny. It wasn't too bad but it stood out from everything around it; no, what made it bad was that we knew it was one of our buses. From Convoy 3 to be precise.

Donovan didn’t have any business out in the weather and hobbling in the snow but he was determined, especially after we saw the two graves off to the side. The ground was too frozen to dig graves, they had just piled stuff on top of the bodies. Donovan had me move stuff until we got down to the bodies; animals hadn’t even gotten to them, nor decay. It was almost like looking at someone who had simply fallen asleep in a bad place.

“Donovan, I recognize them. I think they worked for Charlie.”

“Yeah. They had clearance for three but mostly worked in the family area in four. You see any obvious COD?”

“Cause of death you mean? Not on the guy next to you but this one had something wrong with his … oh, ew.”

“What?”

“This guy must have bled out. His sleeve … and what was in it … aren’t … aren’t attached anymore.”

Donovan hobbled around to double check what I had reported and I started looking around the bus.

“Donovan!”

He turned at my call and saw me pointing at the ground where the bus looked like it was sunk into the snow. He came over and then had me help him to lean down and clear out some space around where the wheel should have been.

“OK, see how this sounds. The convoy is rolling along. Bus gets a flat for whatever reason. These guys get out to change it and everything is going SOP but then the jack snaps. Bus comes down on one or both of them and then … move that snow … yeah, when the jack snaps and the heavy bus comes down it bends the axle. Everyone is in shock but they have to keep moving. They bury their dead the best they can, split the personnel between the two remaining vehicles – and that’s a tight fit – and take what supplies they can leaving the rest behind.”

I looked around and said, “Blood on the ground is probably from the amputation. Maybe the other guy was crushed but not squished enough to bleed? Either way it makes about as much sense as we can make without a firsthand account.”

Suddenly I couldn’t remain clinical any longer. I walked off a few yards bent over and lost my lunch. I was dry heaving, trying to not throw up anymore than I already had when there is a napkin in my face. “Breathe in your nose and out through your mouth. It’ll help.”

After I pulled myself back together I straightened up and Donovan was standing right there. “You might see more of this, you might not. You OK with that?”

“What choice do I have? It is what it is. I won’t be sick again.”

“You can tell yourself that if it helps.”

“Donovan, I don’t need any grief right now. Just drop it.”

“I’m not giving you any. Emma, I puked my first three rough assignments. It happens. You eventually get used to it whether you want to or not. But puking right now isn’t a good thing because you are losing calories and fluids that your body is going to need. If you think you are going to puke, stay in the half-track. It’ll be better.” I never know how to take Donovan; he’s a snarling monster one minute and is kind and thoughtful the next.

I didn’t know what to say to him so I said nothing, just nodded my head, scuffed some snow over the already frozen vomit and went back to the bus to check out the supplies that had been left behind.

I brought it all out for Donovan to look over. “I don’t know who was going through these supplies but they need to assign it to someone new. This is a whole case of mixed calorie bars! And @#$%&! you sure don’t leave rope or tarps behind ever!”

We spent an hour picking over what got left behind and then finding places to stick it. Right after I helped a very cold and in pain Donovan climb back into the cab I walked behind the bus for a little privacy to take care of some girl stuff. Coming back I tripped over something and went face first into the snow. I was so irritated and Donovan’s grinning face behind the windshield didn’t help. I brought my fist down on the ground … and heard a dull metal clang. I brushed the snow away and it was a sign for Dover, TN.

I brushed the snow off of me before I got in the cab; it was so cold that we could stay dry so long as we didn’t bring in snow into the cab. I told him what I had found.

“Well we’ve got a problem then.”

“Why?”

“Because Dover is supposed to be on the other side of the Cumberland River. We came straight from Indian Mound and we haven’t crossed a river yet. That means that either we are all turned around, or the river has moved as a result of the New Madrid fault activity, or best case would be that the wind blew the sign onto this side of the river. Drive slow. With this amount of snow we could be on top of the river and not even know it until it is too late.”

“But if it is so cold that the river is frozen over hard shouldn’t we be OK?”

“Maybe, maybe not. The Cumberland has a pretty decent current. If it is frozen completely over that still could mean that the ice is thin in the deeper parts that have a heavy current.”

“Great. Lovely. Just tell me if death is imminent so I can get my affairs in order.”

“You have affairs?” I just gave him a look to express my opinion of his humor as I cranked the engine to life.

From that location we headed due north, him hoping and me praying that we wouldn’t wind up in the water. It was well after dark before we found this place to hole up in for what remained of the night. We don’t even know what this was originally supposed to be. It’s mostly just a big pile of debris that has been pushed up tight against an outcrop of dirt and rock. We couldn’t even set the tent up so we are sleeping here in the half-track. The temperature is really dropping and the wind has picked up. Donovan thinks we are going to wake to a storm which may mean that we are going to be stuck here for a while. Not the best place for this to happen.

Donovan has the irritated look on his face again so I’m going to put this notebook away and then recite a few quick verses in my head. No sense in setting Mr. Cranky off; and besides, it won’t hurt to practice my recall skills for one night.

Chapter Eight

Chapter 8

The Plan. It wasn’t all that complicated because the options weren’t all that varied. We had the half-track, a limited supply of fuel and a limited supply of food. The goal was to travel until we reached some place we could call home and try and salvage until could adapt our way of life to the new weather patterns.

With a rather blank face Donovan looked at me and asked, “That’s the plan?”

“That’s the plan,” I told him.

“You’re kidding me.”

“No. Why?”

That’s when I noticed the tick in his left eye. “Why? Why?! That’s …”

I’d had months of practice heading one of his blow ups off. “If you’ve got a better one I’d like to hear it. The Major left all of the fuel she could, and a little more besides, while still leaving them a cushion to reach their assigned bunker. No matter which way you cut it we don’t have enough to reach even the nearest bunker. If it isn’t the fuel, it’s our food supply; we have enough for nine months if we are careful and ration it out … and if we find a way to cook it. We’ll use all of the self-heats before we get some place. We …”

“All right … all right, that’s enough. I get it. Have you got a direction picked out?”

“As I see it we’ve got some things that limit our choices. I was going to lay it out and then get your input since you were in on the original planning.”

He rolled his eyes and asked, “Were you now?”

I ignored his sarcasm and just continued, “Yes I was. Even if we had the fuel we know that there was an impact in the Gulf so the far south is probably out. The big Atlantic impact has taken out the entire East Coast. All of the seismic activity makes the far west so not the direction I want to go either.”

I’d finally tickled Donovan’s natural born adventurer gene and he came on board with The Plan. “Recent data suggests the New Madrid fault let go. Anything around the Mississippi River is going to be suspect. Something you may not know … I don’t know how much Chandler was allowed to tell you but I wasn’t informed until about a month ago … areas around nuclear plants, missile silos, ammo dumps aren’t too healthy to be around either.”

“I heard the rumors but no one ever confirmed them. How many of our convoys have to travel through areas like that?” I asked since I hadn’t been privy to any of the routes as each was considered “top secret.”

“Only the first convoy was sure to have to go through rather than around one of those areas. They also were going to run into the Yellowstone basin.”

“But … why, what … are they crazy?! The seismic activity? Didn’t it set Yellowstone off?”

“Doesn’t look like it. Not that I understood all of the scientific gobbledygook but they said when the West Coast went it somehow drained the tension off of Yellowstone, possibly even draining the magma chambers. No one is even sure if there is any geyser and hot spring activity right now.”

“But … Colonel Mackey, the others …”

“Let it go, they had other options and they made their choice.”

“Other …? OK, OK, whatever, I guess I can’t do anything about it now. But where does that leave us?”

“It depends. Where’s my gear?” I pointed to his packs. “In the top there is a plastic covered map in a bag with some other stuff.”

I opened his pack and then brought him what he’d asked for. We estimated the distance our fuel would take us. Using our location as an approximate center point we drew a circle. Then we began to block out areas that were undesirable for one reason or another.

There wasn’t much room to head south or southwest because of the fuel and impact that had happened two hundred miles away. Southeast wasn’t good either. That left a narrow cone encompassing northwest to northeast, but not really far in any of those directions. The stark reality tempted to overwhelm me. It tested my faith. But when faith is all that you have to hold onto your grasp it stronger than if you have a lot of stuff pulling you in other directions.

“Emma …” Donovan stopped, shook his head then turned away. I was almost afraid to leave him. He’d spoken of making a choice. I couldn’t take his weapons out of the tent without insulting him further than my laugh already had so I just sat and waited.

He finally turned and looked at me, “I want an inventory of the food.” I handed it to him. “I want one for the equip …” I handed that one before he could finish. “Dang brat,” he muttered … but loud enough so that he was sure that I heard. “Now I want out of this tent to see what kind of mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Even ignoring his crankiness his demand was easier said than accomplished. I was in good shape – hard work will do that – but I’m short and Donovan is not; he also outweighs me by quite a bit. We just managed it with the only injury a knot on the top of my head where he cracked his chin before I could catch one of his stumbling falls. Outside the tent I propped him up with a crutch. He barely managed a hobble but he was under his own steam.

He looked at the half-track and then at me. “You loaded this by yourself?”

“Yeah.”

He snorted and then said rather grudgingly, “Wouldn’t think a squirt like you could have pulled it off. Looks good. The cab should already be sealed since this is one of the salvage vehicles. Is this one of the ones that the heaters was souped up in?”

“That’s what Chandler said. I figure we could add some cushion for you leg and … “

“Don’t.”

“What? What did I said now?!” I finally burst out getting frustrated.

He sighed again, a sound I was beginning to hate, and then scrubbed his hand across his face. “That the john over there?”

“Yeah, I’ll give you a hand and …”

This time he growled and then stomped … well, hobbled … off to take care of things. I’d been trying to give him as much privacy as I could while he’s been recuperating but sometimes that was impossible. I can’t believe they call women the more sensitive gender. He can act more irritable and contrary that I do at my most hormonal and that’s saying something.

I determinedly ignored him, even when I heard him slowing stumping back. Then he slowed. “Emma …”

I turned, took in his gray face, and just managed to run and catch him before he did a full body slam face plant. I’m not completely heartless, I kept my mouth shut until we got him back in the tent and down on the cot. His breath slowed down and the color came back in his face before he said another word.

“You see this? You see? I’m going to be nothing but a burden. But I’ll be @#$%&! before I let you go wondering off on your own. We’ve got forty-eight hours and then we are heading out, that’s it, no more than that. Understand me? And I’m going to make your life a misery to pay you back for this.” And then he went to sleep.

Quite a way to announce his choice but if that is what it took for him to find his fight then so be it. I can put up with his “making me miserable.” Actually I think he should have said make me crazy because that is what he has done for a fact. I’ve been ordered this way and that so much that I was beginning to question which way was up. But we are all packed and as prepared as we can be. Actually we were packed yesterday but we both needed another day to prepare for whatever lies ahead of us mentally. I dug out this spiral notebook from the supplies and I’ve been writing all day. When I finally put this away all I’ll have left to do is read my Bible. It can’t be coincidence that I’m in Isaiah 41; if ever there was a day when I read the words “Fear not for I am with you” this would be it.

Donovan hasn’t made any more nasty comments about me reading my Bible. I usually go off to do it so it doesn’t upset him. It does for some reason though he hasn’t explained why. When we’re completely square again I intend on asking him, but not now; something tells me this isn’t the time.

First thing after waking I’ll pack the tent and we’ll be on our way. I hope it isn’t hypocritical of me to be scared. I wish I could ask Donovan if he is scared but our friendship never went that direction.

Chapter Seven

Chapter 7

There was quite a shouting match but they couldn’t shake my resolve. This felt right to the same depth that the Level 5 program had felt wrong. It was right there with my core beliefs. In the Bible it talks of being a good slave; of making no excuses based on situational ethics and of continuing to try to be a better person regardless of where you find yourself. I think I learned to accept that God put you in situations to learn. I explored the boundaries of what it meant to be a slave. I may have been a slave in my situation but I wasn't a slave to my situation; physically I was bound but my spirit was free.

But now I was free in almost every sense and with that freedom came additional responsibilities. My friend, a man who had risked a great deal to help me secure that freedom, was in a sense a slave. He was a slave to the injuries he sustained, to the reality of being human. I had faith that he just needed time, time to heal and be free. But I also knew Donovan well enough to be certain, like me, he wasn’t willing to put the lives of others at risk to get that time.

The Major asked, “Chapman, do you have a death wish?!”

Others added their objections. It took too long to convince them. I was losing my patience. “Look, it’s my life and my choice. I’m of sound mind and body. I’m not asking you to understand why, I’m just telling you to accept it. My choice has already been made.”

I suppose they could have knocked me out and loaded me into one of the vehicles but they didn’t. I hope it was a form of respect. Major Harper pulled me aside and asked, “Chapman are you and Donovan romantically attached?”

I was stunned and gave her a very big negative to that but at least it prepared me because Chandler and Marshall asked me the same thing and that time I had to laugh. “I don’t even know why anyone would think that much less you two. The best I can say is that Donovan is a friend … a buddy … but it’s not friendship that drove my decision.”

“Then what? You may tell the others that they don’t need to understand but don’t tell us that.”

Trying to find the words I fell back on the tried and true, “Because it’s right.”

In the end they had no more choice than I did if they were going to do what was right. The Major ordered some rearranging of supplies. She left the portion of the food originally assigned for Donovan and I, as well as a few other things. Chandler pulled me aside and showed me a two seater half-track. It wasn’t in the greatest shape, it had been one of the original vehicles used by the salvagers, but it moved and it had a few modifications like a heavy duty wench and a trailer bed rather than a personnel hauler. Laine showed me how to take care of Donovan’s wounds to avoid infection and how to watch for other potential problems.

Donovan’s supervisor showed me how to load and care for Donovan’s personal weapons and made sure I had a supply of ammunition, one of the few things that had remained in abundance within the bunker. “Pray that you don’t have to fire one of these but maintain them and be prepared as if you will.”

And then they were gone. They day was still, cold, and gray; we hadn’t seen the sun since Impact Day. Day was a kind of bright and night was black as a bottomless pit. I couldn’t watch them drive off towards the horizon unless I wanted to freeze. I’m from Florida and until the asteroid had hit I’d never been anywhere near snow. I really only experienced it when the convoys started to leave. As Convoy eight drove off that was the first time I had actually stepped outside in nearly two years and stood in the nasty stuff.

One of the last things the Major told me was, “Chapman, cold is the enemy. Hunger and thirst you can hold at bay for a while but cold will kill you real quick. Tattoo that on your forehead if you have to but never forget it.”

You didn’t have to tell me that; standing outside for just those few moments before manually closing the bunker doors was enough to generate an instinctive reaction to the danger. The enormity of my choice, despite feeling its rightness, added to my shivers as I returned to the tent that had been set up beside the half track.

Donovan was inside on a cot and the tent was only moderately warmer than the frosty warehouse, but at least it was warmer. I thawed out a little bit then climbed back out and started loading the half-track. First I made sure that the extra fuel tank and hose were just right. Then I started loading stuff around the tank as a kind of insulation. I lined the inside of the half-track’s cab with blankets and sleeping bags as another layer of insulation.

When I wasn’t doing that I was sleeping or taking care of Donovan. The afternoon of the third day he regained consciousness long enough for me to explain things to him. He lost consciousness in the middle of several comments on my sanity. It didn’t have quite the impact he meant it to have since it ended on a yawn and then a snore. Four days after that he was finally able to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time, primarily because he stopped letting anger eat up his energy.

“Emma, why? Why would you do this insane thing?! It would have been so much easier if you had simply let the Major do what had to be done.”

“Because what’s easy isn’t always what's right.”

“What’s right?! How right is it for me to take you down with me? You want me to live what little bit of my life I have left dealing with that kind of guilt?”

“Get it through you thick skull man, you aren’t taking me anywhere. I made this choice and I made it because it was, it is, right.”

“You idiot girl; you have your whole life ahead of you. Now you’re throwing it away. You’re going to die.”

“How do you know that? How can you say that with absolute certainty? And stop calling me girl. You're what? Maybe ten years older than me?”

“Are you kidding?! Stop avoiding reality. Look at me! How am I supposed to protect you?”

I couldn’t help it, I laughed; but when I saw the look on his face I felt bad. “Donovan … Donovan … come on, I’m sorry, I really am. I’m not laughing at you I’m just …” I stopped at a loss for words.

“Just what?”

“Donovan, I never asked or expected you to protect me when I made my choice.”

Donovan’s answer was to chuckle cynically as ask, “So you think you’re going to protect me?”

“No. That never even entered my mind, not really.”

He looked at me and when he realized I was serious he shouted in an exasperated voice, “Then what?!”

“I believe that if you do your best to do what’s right things will turn out all right. That isn’t to say all candy colored rainbows and unicorn farts but … just right; the way things are supposed to turn out.”

“Karma? What goes around comes around? Is that the bag you’re into?”

“No.”

“Emma …” Then he saw my Bible sticking up out of my backpack. I was sure that I had put it away but there it was in plain sight. “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. You can’t be. You’re a Bible thumper?! No way. I would have seen it before now.”

For the first time I became uncomfortable. It didn’t reflect on me all that well that it was such a surprise to Donovan that I am a Christian, still sometimes you just have to be public about your beliefs. “Where do you think my core beliefs, my absolutes, come from?”

He shut me out and went back to sleep, in that order and rather abruptly. I went off to do some heavy thinking.

Several hours later I brought him a mug of soup. I could have stayed away longer but that would have been cowardly and I’d already decided that maybe I had been a lot more cowardly than I had ever meant to be. He was awake but his face was pretty forbidding so I set the mug down and turned to leave the tent.

“So what’s the plan?”

“Huh?”

“Are you just going to sit back and let the angels save you?” he asked snidely.

I sighed and turned to leave again and he reached for me with his good arm, “Emma … stay. We need a real plan.”

“We’ve got one.”

He snorted. “If ‘we’ do, when were you going to filll me in on what it is?”

“When you felt up to it.”

It was his turn to sigh, “Feeling up to it is irrelevant. I need to know what the plan is. Then it is my turn to make a choice.”

Chapter Six

Chapter 6

Eight other bunkers had been identified over the preceding year. Many of them had lost significantly more people than we had. One had a large surplus of female personnel. I overheard Braintree and Donovan commenting at one point, “They are so desperate for our single men to show up it sounds like every woman over there is on the verge of her biological clock exploding.” Pigs. Unfortunately I had become fond of those particular two pigs. Even though I rarely left Level 5 they kept me in touch with what was going on, often telling me things that never came up in the committee meetings which helped me understand some of the undercurrents I often felt. It didn’t stop me from wanting to brain them on occasion however and that was one of them.

Another bunker had lost their entire contingent of medical staff in an explosion when an oxygen tank ignited. Each bunker had their own set of stories and were eager for the possibility of filling the gaps in their personnel and supplies so they tallied up their needs and capacities. Arrangements were made to divide up the personnel and supplies of Bunker Gamma.

The very idea of the division caused a very emotional reaction in the population. Our bunker was like a small town and had developed a small town mentality. Change was going to be difficult and fears was rampant. Families were kept together but the departments, who had become like families, were ripped apart. However it was the only choice left if we were to maximize not only our personnel’s’ survival rate but survival of all the bunkers as a larger survival group.

Repairs on the bunker were no longer attempted; we rerouted all time and resources into what had to be done. What should have taken months was condensed into weeks. We shut down and mothballed the bunker, our home of nearly 18 months. We also spent many sleepless nights outfitting transportation vehicles to cross the inhospitable landscape. Routes had to be evaluated and the remaining supplies equitably divided. Salvage items finally went into personal luggage. It should have taken months to accomplish but we didn’t have it; the lowest levels of the bunker were already flooded.

The first convoy to head out included a lot of the invisible Level 1’s. Their destination was the furthest bunker which rumor had located in the Rockies. It was all very hush-hush; the world may have changed but the basic nature of the politician apparently never does.

The next three convoys all left the same day, all heading different directions, the fifth convoy and the largest left the next day and a good thing too as we lost one of the biggest generators and we were forced to shut down most of the power to all the levels. It’s amazing how much heat 770 some odd bodies generate. It was getting cold in the bunker and we couldn’t even afford to run an extra electric blanket at that point.

The sixth and seventh convoys advanced their departure dates and after they left it was like living in a mausoleum. As an irony, the remaining personnel moved into Level 5 as the rest of the bunker was closed down and for the first time in almost two years I was free to walk where ever I pleased. Chandler … now Capt. Chandler … gave me the full tour; it wasn’t near as impressive as I had built it up to be in my imagination.

We were laughing over the whole ridiculousness of the situation as we investigated the men’s bathroom in Level 1 quarters. Suddenly her radio crackled, “Chandler! I need you up in the labs now! Greeley’s fli … BANG! BANG! BANG!!!” The radio went silent and we were already running, forced to use the stairs as the elevators had no power.

It was restrained chaos when we got there with nearly everyone left crowding the space. Donovan was laid out and being worked on by the two medics we had remaining, one of them Laine Marshall. The Major was as emotional as I had ever seen her as she stood over Dr. Greeley’s quickly cooling corpse. She looked like she wanted to kick it. Two security personnel, one of them Donovan’s superior whom I’d only ever seen from a distance, explained to Chandler that Dr. Greeley had begun to act odd the day before, arguing – for the umpteenth time – that leaving the bunker was foolhardy if not suicidal.

Then word came that he was refusing to leave and was barricading himself in his lab and Donovan and Major Harper had been called to calm him down and then talk some sense into him. Greeley must have taken the gun recently because none had ever come up missing during the frequent inventories that were still habit from when suicides had been such a problem. He aimed for the Major but Donovan took the bullets and then fired once hitting Greeley in the chest.

Donovan was messed up. One bullet skimmed his ribs, one went through the meaty part of his left bicep, but the worst was the one that lodged against his left thigh bone. They nearly lost him twice operating to remove that one. The bullet had hit nothing vital, the problem is all shock and blood loss.

Is. He’s not dead, not yet. The day before set to be the absolute last day that the final convoy was to evacuate the bunker the Major brought together the remaining personnel, only twenty-one of us if you counted an unconscious Donovan, and explained things.

We couldn’t wait any longer. We were already way behind schedule. We had no choice but to leave if we were to take advantage of the relatively clear weather patterns while they were there to take advantage of. The problem was that Donovan was in no shape to travel. He had miraculously improved from critical to serious but even with that there was no way to accommodate him; no room, no supplies, no way. The choices were to leave him here where he would surely parish painfully with no one to take care of him, try to take him and watch him die just as painfully and jeopardize twenty other lives, or help him to fall on a metaphorical sword and shoot him full of tranquilizers to the point his heart and lungs would cease to function and be able to put him to rest before we left.

No one wanted to decide. No matter which choice was made it was tantamount to murder. And after so much death had visited the Earth to willingly cause it was untenable.

For me the decision turned out to be simple; it took more effort to convince them than it took for me to choose it.

“Major, there’s a fourth option.”

Chapter Five

Chapter 5

An hour later Donovan and Lt. Chandler started firing questions at me asking who had done it. I told them both to shut up.

“You will teach me a move or two that we haven’t been taught in our self defense training. I mean I don’t want anyone else to have seen it at all if possible. And no, it wasn’t Marshall or Cameron. I’ll deal with who it was, you keep your big fat noses out of this.”

“On the contrary Miss Chapman, as the CSC rep … “

“Oh, so we’re back to Miss Chapman are we? What happened to Emma?”

“You know girl, you are one of the most prickly little … “

“Yeah, I am. I warned you people. I warned you right up front that your stupid little game plan wasn’t going to work. We aren’t little Barbie dolls. You can’t force us to be different than any other human being you have running around in this bunker just because you find it convenient.”

“That was not the intent at all … Emma. It was to keep you women safe. What is so impossibly hard for you to understand about that?!”

I wasn’t getting my point across so I came up with another way. “What happens when you go on a diet? Or an even better example, try and quit smoking?”

They both looked at me like I had lost my mind but the nurse that was checking my vitals said, “Your cravings get worse.”

“A million dollars for the lady in white … Ouch! I’m not a flaming pin cushion you know and I’ve lost enough blood, let me keep what I have … Not only that, the cravings get out of proportion to reality. When you can’t have that cigarette you start feeling denied, cranky, foul, you name it. Eventually you fill the vacuum created with something else, but not necessarily something healthy.”

Lt. Chandler was getting the message, “Yes Miss Chapman, I understand but those aren’t the rules in place.”

“Then change the doggone rules! You are creating vacuums that … “ I was suddenly woozy and laid my head back. “Look, what you people are doing is wrong. It might have been with the best of intentions in the beginning but some of the most horrific things on earth have been done with the best of intentions.”

Knuckle-dragger extraordinaire that he was, even Donovan got it but he was still trying to put a good face on it. “Emma, I’m well aware that this takes male/female relationships back several centuries and that it will take time for everyone to get over the modern concept of dating and being able to pick your mate from a large pool of people.”

I felt bad for the poor guy. The grapevine had confirmed that his wife had left him for someone else in the bunker … his best friend to be precise … but he did have some pretty bad misconceptions that I was about to have to re-educate him on.

“Donovan …” I started, a little exasperated even though I wasn’t trying to be mean about it. “Oh look, let’s just say upfront, I know about your wife and what she did. I’m sure whether you want it to be or not, that’s coloring your view here and I don’t blame you for it but I really think we need to clear up some stuff here. First, they didn’t do things this way centuries ago. There’s the story of the Sabine women as told by Plutarch but even that is mostly just legend and had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the founding of Rome … and in the end the women were given free choice of whether to stay or go … and with that freedom most were willing to stay. In the ‘centuries past’ that you seem to think we are going, fathers thought long and hard about what families they would give their daughter in marriage to. It was an important decision often done to cement relations, exchange land and money or something similar, provide grandchildren to carry on the family business, but more often than not the girls still had some exposure to society beforehand so that they would know what they were getting into. It was understood that they should have a measure of freedom before taking on the responsibilities of marriage and family. It is only in very closed societies, some of the Muslim countries come to mind as a good example of this, that women are kept completed sequestered but even with those cultures women have managed over the centuries to create their own society. But you are asking us to see that a portion of our society, our population, is free and you are denying us our share of that allowed freedom. Instead we 5’s are either slaves or prisoners … or both.”

Donovan isn’t as dumb as he plays at, underneath that skull of steel is a perfectly good brain and he knows how to use it. “Emma, of course I understand what you are saying. Many of us do. But I don’t get to write the rules I’m only charged with enforcing them.”

“That’s a copout. You may not write the rules but you have the capacity to influence them. Both of you do.”

Lt. Chandler said, “I’ll do what I can Chapman but I have to live on my side of the aisle.”

The way she said it made me look at her. “You’re afraid that they’ll do this to you aren’t you?”

Donovan looked at Chandler, really looked, and then said, “You’ve got to be kidding?! You can’t think … ”

“Ask any single and unattached female in the Bunker. We all know that if you’ll do that to them you are capable of doing the same thing to us.”

“What’s this us/you crap?” Donovan demanded completely stunned.

“Donovan … Chandler gets it, don’t you see? This whole thing is getting turned into a battle of the genders. It’s bad mojo on so many different levels and the dissonance has only just begun. The longer it goes on the worse it is going to get and it’ll start bleeding over into everything else. Has anyone thought what the 5’s actually mean to the free daughters over in the family units? I bet some of the women have, if not consciously then unconsciously, and that is one reason they dislike us so much; they see their future, their daughters’ futures.”

I started coughing and ripped something so bad it hurt. The nurse called the doctor over and he shooed Donovan and Chandler out. Two days later I was cleared to return to my duties in Level 5 and even managed to get their under my own steam; all be it escorted by a couple of burley security dudes, at least as far as the main hallway to home sweet home. I hadn’t seen Donovan or Chandler so I figured my words had been ignored again.

Everyone on 5 gave me the cold shoulder, either because they agreed with my “punishment” or because they didn’t want (or were too afraid) to get involved. There had been a temporary replacement for Mrs. Valdez in my absence … Lou … and I don’t know who was happier for her to go, Lou herself or the 5’s. Not that anyone sat down and told me the details but my understanding was that Lou was a hard task master and could have cared less about what the women wanted. It was her way, period.

Climbing to my bunk was asking the impossible and I simply didn’t trust anyone in the dorm anymore so I learned to sleep leaning back in my chair with my feet on my desk. The door locked and that was all I cared about. I got clean coveralls out of the warehouse until I could climb the ladder to get to my stuff. As I expected someone had tried to break into it but I’d lived in dorms too long not to know how to lock something so it would stay locked. I hauled all of my gear to my cubicle and went about turning the tiny space into my permanent living quarters. The new security cameras that had been installed in my absence would have shown what I was doing but no one ever came to stop me. The space I ended up with was little more than a cubby hole but it was comfortable and provided a measure of security I hadn’t had before so I was more than content to deal with its short comings.

Either the women that had beat me up were satisfied with their pound of flesh or rethought their strategy; either way they never approached me again. I was uninvited to the next two committee meetings so I figured it was payback for being such a pain in the backside. I kept doing my job, it was the only thing I had left, I didn’t even bother trying to learn the piano any longer. I admit I was sliding into a blue funk but since there wasn’t anything I could do to change things … I’d given it all I had left … I just kept putting one foot in front of the other just to prove to myself I could.

Then one morning about a month after the beat down we had some visitors. I was sitting at the far end of the cafeteria away from everyone going over paperwork as was my habit to avoid having to realize I was being ignored as much as possible when none other than Col. Mackey, Maj. Harper, and Lt. Chandler filed in. I nearly choked on my powdered egg omelet.

Col. Mackey came to the podium and without preamble began, “You recognize me. You know who I am. And let me say that I’m none too happy to be here. It does not behoove you to displease me further. Be that as it may beginning tomorrow you will receive a new work rotation schedule. Your cooperation is mandatory; your behavior will be exemplary. This is a test, fail it and there will be no more chances. Pass and additional opportunities may be presented to you.”

And with that she and the Major left the room and left behind a bunch of stunned faces. Lt. Chandler came over to where I sat pretending to read some report or other and trying hard not to reveal my shaking hands.

“You know, I nearly lost a pay grade over this.” I looked up at her. “Donovan too. The Major and Colonel came back from a couple of those hush-hush Level 1 meetings smelling a little singed around the edges. I hope your 5’s appreciate it.”

“When did they suddenly become my 5’s?” I asked irritated that she was dumping that load of guilt on me.

“When you decided to turn into Don Quixote and go on a crusade for their rights … and then made at least a few people understand that if it could happen to the 5’s it couldn’t happen to any of us. If the powers that be would have listened to you in the beginning we might have been able to avoid the Valdez incident all together.” She left and as I slowly got up to head to my work station I saw nearly every eye in the room on me. I beat feet fast after that.

I stayed in the warehouse through lunch. I hadn’t been particularly hungry anyway. I was having a mild heart attack over how fast the TP was being used up when Laine Marshall came in with a tray. “You missed self defense practice again.”

“I’m still sore.”

“Best time to work out the kinks in those muscles. Look, everyone wants to know what Chandler meant.”

“And you got the short straw?”

She laughed, “Yeah, something like that.”

“What’s to tell? I’m in the same boat as everyone else. I don’t like being caged up. I can’t fight for my own freedom without hauling everyone else along with me. End of story.”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that,” she said with a small, sad smile. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you that they were making threats. The only excuse I have … I thought it was just all talk.”

I could have made an issue of it, made her and some of the others feel guilty but what was the use. I could hear Mr. Epstein in my ear as I said, “Forget about it. It’s not where your heels have been, it’s where your toes are pointed. It’s already ancient history. Let’s focus on passing this stupid test Mackey threatened us with.”

Things didn’t suddenly turn to all sunshine and light. The women got to experience firsthand just how prejudiced some of the bunker population was … mostly Level 2’s and mostly that stupid passive aggressive junk but we did have to take some of the crap that certain men like to dish out. Even with that it was still a form of freedom and that was a heck of a lot more than we’d had before. In the beginning only small work crews were allowed out at a time. I don’t know if it was retribution or if they thought I had enough work to begin with but I never got assigned to the crews that went into Man’s Land.

Truthfully I had about all the contact I cared to have with the Outside in those committee meetings that I got re-invited to. People acted like it was the same old-same old but I bet if those walls could have talked I would have gotten an earful from what must have gone on while the new work rotations for the 5’s were discussed. The only member that seemed unreservedly happy about it was Charlie Braintree. Having the extra hands – and experienced from where we had been doing our own maintenance – helped his department out dramatically. Everyone else avoided the subject when at all possible. Donovan made a few sarcastic remarks on occasion but since a little birdie had told me that he’d gone to bat for us I didn’t really hold it against him … but I didn’t exactly turn down the opportunity to needle him every once in a while, watching him try and not squirm was too much like fun.

I haven’t written about the real outside world since Impact Day. I’m not sure how to adequately describe what has happened. It’s hard to get the big picture from just a few words. In the committee meetings I learned we still had intermittent satellite contact. It was intermittent because the impact destroyed some of the satellites, disabled others, and the debris that remains in the atmosphere interferes with the transmissions from the rest. The computers devoted to weather prediction went bonkers because the data from the weather satellites was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

You start with all the blow down that occurred during the seismic and blast events. Two-thirds of the forest around our bunker was toppled, the remaining trees stripped of their leaves and damaged. And that is pretty light damage compared to forests closer to impact areas. It reminds me of what the forests around Mount St. Helen looked like after the eruption back in 1980. Imagine all the forests of the world looking like that … ok, not all of them but most of them. The human dwellings around the world suffered the same fate. Add that the heated atmosphere caused wildfires to burst to life globally, a sharp increase in evaporation took place and it was like a multi- year drought had been condensed into a much shorter timeframe of days and weeks.

The tsunamis took their toll as well leaving completely altered coastlines scraped as smooth as a baby’s bottom … metaphorically speaking anyway. Waves bounced back and forth across all waters that received impacts for days like huge ripples causing further coastal erosion and depositing huge debris piles that were revealed as the water gradually receded.

The craters from the impacts themselves were often miles in diameter, the larger ones in excess of fifty miles in diameter. All of that debris had to go someplace. The low energy ejecta is what came down on top of all of the other damage that was suffered. The debris around our area ranged in size from large gravel to little more than sandpaper grit. They estimated it to be a foot thick in some areas. Good views from the satellites indicated that the ejecta had completely obscured recognizable land features in other areas and had clogged most water ways making it undrinkable without a great deal of filtering. Even the great ice sheets at the poles were covered with it and looked incredibly dirty from space.

But not all of the ejecta came down. The high energy ejecta was boosted as far as the stratosphere and then settled into the atmosphere, blanketing the planet in what amounts to clouds of dirty ash completely altering the global weather patterns. Think the Krakatau effect only on a much, much larger scale. The dust continues to block the sun … and block photosynthesis in most of the world. Some locations it is worse off than others. In the beginning the rain, when it fell, was very acidic.

That isn’t to say though that the scientists were not surprised by things. As bad as Impact Day was, it could have been worse. The Earth’s mantle was not cracked. Our axis has not moved. Our orbit has not changed. The moon still rises and sets, tidal action continues to drive the oceans and seas. Not every forest has been laid to waste. There are still habitable areas of the world though none of them appear to be in former population centers.

In short order the ash in the atmosphere made it impossible to get more than rudimentary pictures of the Earth’s surface so we were back to using basic science to figure things out and that bugged the heck out of the Level 2 Ph.D.’s and their staffs.

Even in the bunker we felt the effects of the changes. Keeping the air filtration system clean was a real challenge. You could tell when the filters were getting dirty or when something had failed. There would be a fine layer of grit over all the flat surfaces when you woke up in the morning. Washing all of that grit down the drains caused the occasional plumbing back up that had physical plant scrambling to find the problem along the miles of pipes that serviced the bunker. Even the filters for our drinking water were compromised and we received ration notices several times as the weeks advanced to months.

We had just finished listening to another lecture from Mr. Braintree about the need to be careful since the bunker was the only home we were likely to have for the near term … and possibly long term … when Ms. Helms gave some of us a real kick in the pants.

Apparently she had been leading her own campaign and I guess Level 1 had finally caved just to get her off their backs. We were going to have a … gag … a party. I didn’t think that the 5’s were invited and was tuning her out when she said, “And of course, we can provide some rudimentary dance lessons to the 5’s. We need more partners for the single men to make up numbers.” I never did learn to trust her crocodile smile. All I could do at the time was sit there and look at her like she had lost her mind. Unfortunately everyone else seemed to think it was a fine idea and a great opportunity to have a little fun after what everyone had been through.

Donovan managed to keep a straight face until after the meeting had broken up and I was in the normal follow up meeting with Major Harper. He actually laughed at me. “What’s wrong Emma? Don’t you have a date for the prom?”

I wanted to kick him in the shin so bad but the Major did something even better. “You mean you already have your date picked out Donovan?”

“What?!”

“As the CSC rep, if we have to suffer through one of Mrs. Helms’ social events so do you.” Then it was my turn to laugh at the horrified look on his face.

The party actually didn’t turn out too bad. They became twice-monthly events that everyone seemed to look forward to and I danced the mandatory dance with a different partner every time just to keep people off my back. And life went on.

The first holidays after Impact Day were difficult for everyone but we lived. Most everyone did anyway, there were a couple of suicides amongst the more fragile members of our population. After that though we seemed to get beyond that stage in our collective grief.

That first year had no spring much less a summer or fall. Winter, once it came, never ended. Everyone got used to wearing coats and sweaters all the time; you just can’t heat a hole in the ground to match a summer’s day unless you turn off the air circulators and then breathing gets difficult and the air rank.

There was a brief spell where the weather stayed above zero for more than an hour or two at a time and exploration teams were sent to the nearest towns. That was around the 9-months-post-impact period. Not a living soul was found. The next teams that went out were salvage teams. All of the food was spoiled but there was stuff that had potential use. It all went into the main warehouse for “just in case.” No one was ready for artifacts that reminded them of their previous lives, not yet.

The first few times that contact was made with other survivor groups via the radio it was kept quiet by the Level 1’s. Eventually the information was released and there was general celebrating; we weren’t the only ones left alive. And bunker locations weren’t the only ones that survived, there were sparsely populated human habitations in several different places, but most of them lived very primitively with their only real technology the radio that kept them connected to the larger web of survivor groups.

Just like we made connections with other survivor groups, the 5’s were making connections of their own. Pairs formed and some of the women moved out of the Level 5 dorm … and then more paired off and moved out. Eventually there were less than a dozen of us left and of those, most had plans to pair off. Laine Marshall and I were really the only ones that hadn’t felt the pull of any particular partner yet. Not that we hadn’t thought about it but over what passed for coffee one afternoon we both just realized that, for us, we just needed something that we hadn’t found. What “it” was neither of us knew, we just knew that we hadn’t found “it” yet.

The days had developed a routine to them; a comfortable routine. We were inside were it was warm and safe. Outside was cold and dangerous. Some people worked on the salvage teams but not many; too few wanted to go Outside where unknown dangers lurked and you never knew that if you went Outside whether you would be coming back, we did lose salvagers on occasion.

We worked hard to keep the bunker, our world, in the best condition possible because it sheltered us and kept us safe. But sometimes God intervenes in our safe world. He has His reasons and I certainly don’t always understand them.

If I understand all of the reports and explanations correctly the increased seismic activity, pressure from water freezing in newly formed crevices, and the weight of records amount of snowfall caused cracks in the deep areas of the bunker that housed the power plant. Through these cracks seeped ground water; sometimes the water did more than just seep. They tried filling the cracks but water pressure or additional seismic activity reopened the cracks. Moving the equipment wasn’t an option; it was too massive. They tried pumping the water but the only place they had to pump it to was the Outside and the pipes were constantly freezing up causing the pumps to back up. Eventually the reality had to be faced, there was no way to fix it and the problem was rapidly getting worse.

It had been hushed up as long as it could be; people who worked in the plant area were forbidden to speak of it. To say we were all shocked to learn the extent of the problem was an understatement. When we learned what their solution was shock didn’t even scratch the surface.

Chapter Four

Chapter 4

None of my memories of that first week are very coherent. I was in a kind of shock, we all were. I worked, that much I do remember. I worked hard, most of us did; it was the only way to hang onto your sanity. Especially after they carried that one woman out of the shower where she’d been found when a couple of people tried to beat the rush before breakfast. The sad thing is I can't even remember her name if I ever knew it in the first place.

We spent the first twenty-four hours simply righting everything that had fallen over or been tossed around and split open. We set broken stuff aside to be repaired; if it couldn’t be repaired we dismantled it as much as possible and then stored it in the warehouse for parts. The warehouse itself had been packed so tightly that we had much less damage in there than I had honestly expected to find. The clearest memory of that week for me was when I was summoned to report to Major Harper five days out from Impact Day.

No waiting this time, I had a bonafide escort that jerked me out of bed in the middle of my sleep period and wouldn’t even give me any time to change out of my pj bottoms emblazoned with the USF logo and my mascot shaped bedroom slippers with the words “bull boots” written on the sole; the shoes were a gag gift from Laura our first year at school. I still have those things. It always strikes me that God must be making some type of statement if those silly slippers shaped like a bull, horns and all, survived when we lost so many priceless pieces of art during the time of the Great Destruction. Either that or God has a really strange sense of humor, I haven’t decided which but I do plan on asking in the sweet by and by.

I was a little on the cranky side and didn’t appreciate being dragged across the hall that way. It wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done but I’d reached my limit, especially when I was all but tossed into a conference room full of people whom had obviously been given time to get fully dressed, only a few of whom I’d ever seen before in my life.

I snapped a rigid attention pose and said a little more loudly than strictly necessary given the size of the room, “Sir! Reporting for duty, Sir!”

The room went dead silent. Major Harper looked at me, incredulous. Then she took in the way I was dressed and the smirks on my escorts’ faces. By the time she reached my foot ware her lips were twitching.

“Ah Chapman, I see they had to wake you up.”

I relaxed my stance and lifted an eyebrow and asked, “Oh, you noticed. Strange how it looks like I’m the only one that received that particular treatment. Try getting pushed out of a third tier bunk and learning that humans really can land on their feet like cats when survival is at stake. Not the best way I can think of to start the day.” I was later told that I had the most outraged look on my face and it contrasted so dramatically with the way I was dressed that it added a badly needed and nearly cartoonish ridiculousness to the atmosphere of the room that broke the tension.

“Hmm,” and then the Major lost the battle and had to cover her mouth with her hand. Other people in the room didn’t even bother trying to be polite about it. I was the butt end of the joke and I didn’t like it.

That’s when I saw Col. Mackey. "Rot roh Shaggy," I thought I was toast but she merely cocked an eyebrow and said in a mild voice, “I cannot be alone is saying that I’d give a whole lot to have the flexibility of a nineteen year old body again.”

The Colonel took her seat at the head of a conference table and the rest of us played musical chairs. There was only one seat left and there was me and another guy. I recognized him as the coverall dude that had been on the plane and who had told Lou to cut me some slack. He jerked his head at me telling me without words to take the chair – I wasn’t going to argue – and he stood relaxed against the wall.

The Colonel directed Maj. Harper to open the meeting. “For those of you who didn’t get the memo an asteroid has hit Earth.” There were a few tired snickers at that but there were also a few disapproving looks from some around the table. I came to learn that the those folks tended to disapproved of just about everything that they didn’t think of themselves and were in general huge stick-in-the-muds; in other words they were from scientific teams in Level 2 or in the case of a particular woman, the wife of one of the upper muckety-mucks.

“The people gathered in this room represent …”

One of the biggest pinched faced biddies interrupted the Major by asking, “What … is … SHE … doing among us?” If her nostrils had flared any more she could have used them as wings and flown around the room.

“Ms. Helms, Miss Chapman represents Level 5 personnel and performs the same function for that level as you do for the family groups in Level 4.” Ms. Helms opened her mouth on an additional comment but the Major continued, “And if you ever interrupt me again not only will I eject you from this room I’ll remove you from this committee and find another more suited to your position. This is not one of your socials, nor are we operating as a democracy.”

Credit where credit is due, Major Harper did know how to make her point; I’d like to believe that she is still making it wherever she is. Ms. Helms was left with her jaw banging open and shut like a broken screen door.

“As I was saying, the people gathered in this room are representatives of the various groups that comprise the population of Bunker Gamma. Together you are a Committee that Level 1 will utilize as a clearinghouse for information to be passed along to the groups you represent. Individually you will act as a funnel of information from your group to Level 1 as we request status reports, inventories, and other types of data necessary to maintaining efficient use of our limited resources. This meeting will now come to order.”

Basically we were asked to confirm information that had been previously gathered on fatalities and injuries reported up to that point. I confirmed the suicide in our area as well as the unexpected death of one of the women who had only appeared to suffer a mild bump on the head during the seismic activity. Ms. Helms emotionally confirmed the death of four people in the family units, three of them children. One boy had suffered an anxiety attack that triggered a severe asthma episode that couldn’t be brought under control. The other three were a murder/suicide by a mother against her children. That shocked the heck out of all of us and Col. Mackey stepped in to say that the bunker’s mental health personnel were working their way through all of the populations and scheduling preventative counseling sessions.

I knew for a fact that Mrs. Valdez, our supposed mental health rep, had refused to do this because I had overheard her refusing help to someone that had come to her about a panic attack. Something must have shown on my face because Maj. Harper asked, “Miss Chapman? You have a comment or question?”

“Not precisely ma’am but I was wondering if, when possible, Mrs. Valdez could receive some assistance for the 5’s. She may be … overwhelmed … by the number under her care.” Not bad for a hastily prepared excuse.

All the Major did was look at Lt. Chandler who made a note on a pad in front of her. Her next question was about my damage report.

“You provided a damage report rather quickly Miss Chapman. I expect a full report on my desk tomorrow.”

“That is a full report. It contains all of the physical damage in our sector and what has been repaired up to the time the report was written. The attachment was the inventory of damaged items in the warehouse and how we are … ”

“Miss Chapman,” apparently Maj. Harper had less trouble with interrupting than she did being interrupted. “Would you please explain how you have a full report?”

“Excuse me?” I asked confused, wondering if she thought I was some kind of half-wit. “You asked for a full report. You set a deadline. It wasn’t exactly rocket science to give you a list of what broke. You even gave me the template to use. Take A, plug into form B, print out resulting report C. No biggie.” No, I was not at my most respectful that day. I certainly could have made a better first impression on the others but even today I’m not sure that it would have made a difference in our dealings in the long run. They had a certain idea of what we 5’s were and about the only way to get some of them to change their minds was to use a crowbar and two by four … and not necessarily as a fulcrum and lever.

Major Harper looked at Colonel Mackey and Colonel Mackey steepled her fingers, thought for a moment then looked at me, turned back to the Major and nodded. That was it and then the Major went on to the next person she was questioning.

In addition to listening to the other reports with half an ear I really looked at the people sitting around the table for the first time. No one in there looked like they were having a good time. Looking at them was like looking in a mirror; dark circles under the eyes with pale skin making things stand out even more, some had nervous ticks or couldn’t sit still, some looked ready to collapse if one more thing happened. I was the only one in my jammies; however contrary to my initial inspection all but a few looked about half way put together. Ms. Helms was immaculate from her expensive hair extensions to her Manolo pumps and that irked the heck out of me for obvious reasons. In contrast she sat beside a guy from the science sector that I initially felt sorry for that first meeting … until I realized he always dressed like that and was really a creep … as he was dressed in polyester pants two sizes too small in the waist, a clip on tie whose points were stuck on the outside of his collar, and a horrible sweater vest that clashed with everything he wore. He is such a jerk. It seems that he believed that since there are so few men left in the world he had suddenly been boosted to studliness personified. Ew. Really, really ew. I know it’s wrong to measure a person by their physical appearance but the guy’s personality was as oily as his thinning hair.

Then there was this ginormous guy, I mean truly a walking wall, representing the physical plant folks. After the Major finished asking for clarification on some issues he was introduced as Charles “Charlie” Braintree. He then asked questions about specific damage mentioned in various reports. I was last and I think he meant to make an example of me regarding doing the repairs. The problem is that he couldn’t get in there with any men and was in a Catch-22. His people couldn’t do them but he didn’t think we could do them right either.

“That one is easy peasey Mr. Braintree. Teach us to do the repairs. I’m the only one of the eighty some odd women that has left that sector since we were all stuffed into it. You do not want to experience the mess that is going to occur if you have that many people with nothing to do but fight with each other.” I saw him getting a skeptical look on his face and said, “Wait, hear me out please. It’s not as impossible as it sounds. Lou … I’m not sure what her full name is … took less than half a day to teach me to operate a forklift and it has made my job easier than I even want to know. It also meant that you didn’t have to send someone down to do the work for us which is a win-win for all concerned. The cracks in the walls that are only cosmetic we can fix if given the materials and shown how to use them, we have a couple of artists and one is a sculptor so I’m sure she may even already know the basics. The lights … one girl is the daughter of an electrician and she helped out often enough that she recognizes what needs to be done, she just has never done it by herself. Send Lou in or someone like her to go over the damaged areas. We’ll patch things up and then wait our turn for the major items like the structural crack in the back of the warehouse … just don’t dump us at the bottom of the list because it is the most convenient for you.”

Mr. Braintree pursed his lips and managed to look thoughtful and irritated at the same time but did say he would take it under consideration. The last two people we heard from were the rep from the civilian security contractors and the mental health rep.

The CSC rep was none other than coverall dude. His name was Donovan and I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that since we were all being addressed by our last names that Donovan was the guy’s surname. He reported on a few of the internal security issues such as code keys being lost, doors being propped open rather than locked between uses, people trying to enter areas they were restricted from, and that sort of thing. He also mentioned that there had been some domestic issues.

Greeley, Mr. Studly from the science department, said, “Surely you are overstating things to call it domestic violence. They were only minor incidences for Heaven’s sake. We that were saved here in the bunker are of the highest caliber … well, most of us.” The snot was looking right at me when he got that last dig in.

Donovan got steel-eyed and said, “Dr. Greeley, two dead kids and a dead woman are not overstating things. A guy sent to the infirmary because his SO cracked his head open is not minor. A kid with a broken arm and a wife with a black eye and busted lip are not minor. Of all the levels, we’ve had the fewest problems … and the fewest suicides … from 5, so I’d watch your assumption of who is of the highest caliber. We all need to watch that elitist attitude or reintegrating into the outside world is going to be extremely uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with other survivor groups who were not offered our advantages.”

That’s when Dr. Henry “call me Dutch” Duncan stepped in. “Mr. Donovan’s assessment is accurate. As head of the mental health department I would also like to add that even when there is not outright violence there has been a noticeable increase in interpersonal difficulties and we’ve had a few marital separations already.” Dr. Duncan – I never was real comfortable calling him Dutch – nodded in understanding at Donovan and Donovan acknowledged the sympathy in such a way that led me to believe that it was more personal than work related.

“My own staff is in the same boat as everyone else. There is simply no way to truly prepare for the catastrophe we now find ourselves living with on a daily basis. You can attempt to be mentally prepared but the truth is that everyone’s flexibility is being tested. Our physical needs are being met but the mental, emotional, and spiritual components of our population are under a great deal of strain. We are dealing with the worst situations … the deaths of the children as an example … as a priority and are being forced to stick bandaids on everything else. Miss Chapman I will do what I can for Mrs. Valdez but if you have any specific concerns I would appreciate it if you would relay them to me through Lt. Chandler. Like many of my staff, Mrs. Valdez is serving in more than one capacity at the moment so you mustn’t be too harsh on her.”

I thought I was being gentle by not saying outright that Mrs. Valdez would rather prescribe a pill than deal with the problem and that she was a lazy pig and sat around at her desk ordering about whatever work group was under her supervision at the time while never doing any work herself. And I sure didn’t mention that she spent a great deal of time acting like a matchmaker, going over our files and assigning us to certain men that she thought we would be most compatible with, and that she didn’t bother to make any effort to hide what she was doing.

Dr. Duncan’s report was the last and the meeting broke up. I was standing at the door waiting to be escorted back across the hall when Lt. Chandler told me that the Major wanted to see me in her office … now. I was prepared to take some heat for the way I had acted … don’t do the crime if you aren’t willing to do the time … but was surprised to walk in and find that it wasn’t just Major Harper there but Dr. Duncan and coverall dude Donovan as well.

“Sit down Miss Chapman. We need to talk.” Four of the most dangerous words in the human language when strung together.

Dr. Duncan said, “Miss Chapman, first let me say that I was not in favor of Level 5’s creation. I find it … distasteful on a personal level. My opinion however carried no weight in the matter. Now I’m stuck trying to oversee a group of people that I feel shouldn’t even be here. That said I do want you to know that I’m aware of Mrs. Valdez’s … activities. If I could I would reassign her but we are short staffed and of those remaining none want the job.”

I was so thunderstruck that it took me a moment to realize my mouth was hanging open, but once I rehinged it I let him have it. “Well gee Doc, thanks for your honesty. I can promise you of the women that I’ve spoken with on the subject we aren’t real impressed with those we’ve met either. While a few of us knowingly signed up to be an Eve to all of you Adams of the brave new world you seem to be envisioning, most of us 5’s walked into this situation after being lied to and were unaware of what the job description actually was.”

The Major intervened before we ended up in a cat fight. “Level 5 has created some unique challenges for us but we are all part of the same team now and Colonel Mackey is adamant that they will receive the same consideration as the rest of our population.”

Dr. Duncan stopped real quick after figuring out he’d made a tactical error. I stopped simply because I was too tired and realized my snarkiness only made me look like a brat. I decided to beat him to the punch so I said, “My apologies Major … and Doctor. I realize this is difficult on everyone. We just watched the world as we knew it end. We are going to need to be adaptable and make some adjustments.”

Then it was Dr. Duncan’s turn to sit there with his mouth hanging open. The Major coughed and took a drink of water. I like to think that she was hiding an incipient smile but what came next pretty much wiped such satisfaction from my mind.

“Mr. Donovan has asked to speak with you both and I’d like you to hear him out before commenting.”

Donovan leaned forward in the chair he was sitting in and started. “I touched briefly on some of the security issues in the committee meeting. Specific concerns have been raised with each sector rep and now I’m down to you two. As was brought up Level 5 presents some unique challenges, not the least of which is security issues. I’ve been reviewing the personnel files on each 5 and frankly it’s like having a bunch of orphan kittens to deal with.” Yeah, tell me he isn’t a chauvinist.

“There are a few women that have stated on their orientation forms that they have some self defense training, but of those it is little more than how to avoid getting mugged and what to do if you are. The exception to this is that there is one woman with a black belt in karate and another with a green belt in judo. There are two women with the CSC who are qualified instructors for mixed martial arts. In one week they will be evaluating these two women to see if their qualifications are current. If that proves to be true what we would like to do is arrange for our instructors to go in once a week, conduct a class in self defense, and then have …,” he consulted his clip board “… Marshall and Cameron to handle the between time training.”

They all turned to me, “Don’t look at me, I think an exercise program would be great. I’m just wondering why you think we need to learn self defense if we are supposed to be so safe inside this bunker. Do you know something we don’t?”

“Miss Chapman, you aren’t stupid so use your head. If you think Dr. Greeley is bad you should hear some of the other stuff that is being said. Colonel Mackey has made it plain that 5’s aren’t to be exploited but that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with her. Both the best and the worst in people becomes obvious in catastrophic circumstances. In addition to the … disturbances … that might occur while we are all confined to the bunker, there is going to come a time when we will have no choice but to leave this facility. Most scenarios are predicting an extremely inhospitable environment and a potentially unwelcoming reception by other survivors. Given the new numbers based on our resources two years is an optimistic time frame. Consider the training as part of the preparation to return to living on the outside.”

Not the answer I wanted but close to the one I expected. Then I turned to Dr. Duncan and asked, “And your concerns are?”

The man was definitely uncomfortable. “Miss Chapman, frankly I’m not certain how many 5’s are mentally fit for what we have in front of us. Not only that, the addition of Level 5 completely disturbs the plans that were in place for appropriate social interactions.”

“OK, ignoring the inference that you consider us inappropriate, in what way do we disturb these plans you mentioned?”

Dr. Dunan sighed and pinched his nose like he had an incipient head ache coming on. “There are a lot of men in this complex Miss Chapman, single and otherwise. By and large people behave in a way that conforms to the mores and values they were raised with or operated in as an adult. Remove the boundaries and prohibitions that enforced those behaviors and you can wind up with chaos.”

“Yes Doctor, I understand what you are saying and the reasons why you are saying it. I have a full complement of psychology and human resource course work under my belt. What I don’t understand is why you should be specifically concerned about us. After looking at all of the Level 5 personnel files do you see anyone that stands out? Someone in particular that I should be keeping an eye on?”

I could see Dr. Duncan struggling to say something that wasn’t offensive. I wasn’t going to make it easy on him. That’s when Donovan snorted and took the reins back. “Look Miss Chapman … Emma?” I nodded to let him know he had permission to address me by my first name. “Emma, I don’t know how much … experience … you’ve had but we simply cannot have a bunch of unattached females running around looking helpless and flirty. Even with the eighty-three women in Level 5 there is still a serious ratio imbalance of unattached males to unattached females. We’ve already had a few problems, not unexpected but it’s happening quicker than we thought. The male is driven to continue the species and some men will do it any way they can. The stress we are under will make some men behave in ways they would have never considered acting before. We also don’t need any females taking advantage of guys who are so messed up in the head and just wanting something warm and fuzzy to hold onto.”

I was simply incredulous at that point that any man could manage to be that much of a knuckle dragger in this day and age so I turned to Major Harper for help. She didn’t alleviate my shock when she said, “Men … and women for that matter … behave very hormonally and instinctually in certain high pressure situations. You’re familiar with the term Baby Boomer when all of the men came home from serving in WW2. After every war the same phenomena occurred, it is the instinct to survive. During war people cross boundaries they would have never considered before in reaction to stressors like hunger, cold, fear, anger, all of the adrenaline rushes.”

Then Donovan took back over. “Emma, despite all the careful planning and winnowing of personnel appointments that were made we still wound up with a microcosm of all of the ills of the world before Impact Day. Plans were in place early on to deal with that. Having Level 5 thrown in at what amounts to the last moment has forced a lot of those plans out the window and added a lot of unexpected complications.”

“Look, I don’t deny that we’re a … a complication or whatever you want to call it. This isn’t exactly how I had envisioned my life was going to turn out. And don’t assume that all of the women in 5 are simply going to fall in line with this Tarzan/Jane plan you have, especially those that never signed up for the gig. However, whether it was planned or not, most of the women in 5 have a lot to offer as far as talents and capabilities go. There are artists of many different flavors, we have computer geeks, medical students, teachers and nannies, farmer’s daughters, even an exotic animal vet for criminey sake. Segregating us is not the answer.”

Donovan opened his mouth but I said, “Let me finish please. Nearly every person at that committee table mentioned staffing shortages or more work than even their full complement of staff could handle. You’ve got 86 people sitting over there that need something to fill their time with. Ask Dr. Duncan here how bad it is for morale and mental health to sit around feeling useless or not having anything constructive to burn your energy off with. And getting back to this ‘plan’ that someone devised in an effort to balance the male:female ratios … what do you expect to do? Wait two years and then spring us on the male population? We’ll get torn to bits in the rush. What kind of acceptance do you think those men are going to find when they do finally get to rush in from women that have been segregated off like we are the dirty little secret no one wants to acknowledge? Gratitude?! Think again buddy boy. How are we supposed to work together with the existing family units when we’ve been put at odds with each other until that point? Are Ms. Helms and Dr. Greeley examples of the majority or do they represent a smaller but vocal number? It will be a lot better to integrate in a controlled environment like the bunker than it will out in the wild so to speak.”

Both men were surprised and silent but Major Harper said, “It sounds like you’ve been giving this quite some thought.”

“Maybe, but not really consciously; however now that I’ve said it, it feels right. This isn’t just an academic exercise for me. I’m living this mess day in and day out just like the rest of the 5’s, it’s my future we’re talking about. Personally I know I’m happiest working. Not everyone gets a charge out of inventories and planning and stuff like that however. Some of the other women prefer to be creative in different ways, I know one wants to get a hold of some paints so bad she can taste it to give our living area more warmth instead of the minimalist Stonehenge feel we’ve got going on right now. Just imagine how much trouble 86 men would have being confined to a relatively small space for two years … intentionally confined, not because it was a choice they knowingly made. They would consider it prison and all because of their gender. With women that scenario may be complicated with our personal stuff we go through … you know those nasty little monthly hormonal swings. And just like men want to leave something of themselves behind, women have biological clocks because they want to assist in that goal.”

I stopped long enough to draw breath and to see that while they weren’t listening to me with baited breath they were at least listening. “No situation is going to be problem free. There will have to be rules and have to be consequences if those rules are broken. I’m not blind to the fact that I’m creating new problems just to get rid of existing ones. But anything has to be better than the gilded cage we are in right now. And if, along the way, we find out that some of the women will never be strong enough to fly then it is better to know that now than assume that you can count on them when the time comes that we are forced to leave the nest.”

I returned to Level 5 and got back to work. Days went by and I heard nothing of a change in how we were to interact with the rest of the population. Eventually I realized that I had been a little too impressed with my powers of persuasion … or underestimated the pedantic (and archaic) approach used by the Level 1 bigwigs, those unseen powers that be that superseded even Col. Mackey’s authority. Either way we all came to learn that the way it was, was just the way it was. Some dealt with it well and some did not, and some like me had both their good days and their bad.

Days went by, then weeks, spent on whatever we could find to fill our days. After the first committee meeting Mr. Braintree, the only one there that seemed to change his mind about us 5’s, taught classes on maintenance and fixing things. We also got copies of manuals and .pdfs of books on how to build things. I was glad we’d saved all that broken stuff as some of the women were very creative when it came to turning trash into treasure. And we got more junk as the days passed. If it was broken and no one else wanted it it was stored in Level 5’s warehouse. Since no one forbade it, any 5 that wanted to could requisition parts from the “broken junk” and build, carve, or otherwise create to their heart’s content. The dorms and rec room developed a certain unique style that reminded me some of the New York apartment living spaces I had seen in architectural magazines where everything is multi-purpose and full of storage space.

As for me I must have organized and reorganized that warehouse a dozen times, packing and re-packing the shelves as items were found or used up. I uncovered an upright piano and a few other instruments, originally meant according to their invoice for the family quarters, and hastily moved them to our rec room. No one ever asked where they went and I wasn’t volunteering the information. We turned a few small closets into “practice booths” so people could get away by themselves and have at it without driving everyone else crazy. The booths were especially appreciated by those of us who wanted to learn to play but were too embarrassed to inflict our earliest attempts on our fellow inmates. I learned to play a passable Fur Elise by ear rather quickly and then had to unlearn it and learn it again as I finally figured out how to read music.

We kept physically fit more easily than I expected. Maintenance and our normal work rotations demanded fitness; so did the weekly self defense classes, not to mention all the practices that came in between. We had a couple of women that knew how to dance and they practiced during their free time and even taught others. You have never seen anything quite like women swing dancing with each other.

The food Mrs. Valdez planned out in the cafeteria was Spartan, aiding in our bodies using up the fat and replacing it with muscle. We got enough to eat but just barely, and it was bland, uninteresting and often repetitious all be it nutritious.

I know some of the women were starved in a different way. They wanted the kind of male attention they were used to getting before. It wasn’t all about sex, I mean just male attention in general … fathers, brothers, uncles, male coworkers, strangers on the bus, etc. About six weeks along I caught one girl, she was eighteen to my nineteen and was one of the youngest of us, hiding in my cubicle.

“Chelle? What’s wrong?” She occasionally had trouble with a woman named Tonya but I thought they’d worked out their issues after Chelle learned to respect Tonya’s personal space better.

“Emma, I … I just wanted … “

Chelle was a bit of a drama queen and there was simply no rushing her until she was ready to spit out whatever the problem was.

“Chelle, I have got to finish this report for Major Harper or my rear is in a sling. If it isn’t anything …”

“Oh Emma, it’s all so horrible! I thought it was what I wanted. I really miss … you know … the fun times like dating and stuff, where you are the focus of the other person’s attention. And I’m so tired of all the gloom and doom and … well, Mrs. Valdez totally understood and you know she can hook you up with some fun and … “

As soon as Valdez’s name came up I knew I wasn’t going to like whatever was going on with Chelle.

“Chelle, what do you mean ‘hook you up?’”

“Emma you really are blind. You just take the crumbs they give us and are satisfied. I thought I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this but what they’ve turned this into is ridiculous. We were supposed to be special. Guys were supposed to be vying for our attention.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “What?!”

“Don’t you get it? We could have had our pick. How else was it going to be? A hundred single women to nearly five hundred single men?”

“Uh, a shark feeding frenzy comes to mind.”

“Gee Emma, I thought you went to college. Did you live under a rock or something?”

“No. I was going to school to get an education not learn how to marry a millionaire.”

“Who’s talking about marriage?! At least, you know, not right away. I figured I’d try a few guys out and then pick the best of the lot.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh at her naiveté or slap her upside her head for her stupidity. I didn't have much experience in the dating game, well none to be honest, but even I knew you don't bait a dog unless you want him to turn mean. But that still didn’t explain what Valdez had to do with anything. Of us all she is the only one that had to turn in her uniforms because they were getting too small and that I suspected was because she was breaking into the warehouse food stores. She threw a fit when Lt. Chandler changed the access codes and stated that I was the only one allowed into that particular section of the warehouse.

“All right, so the end of the world isn’t the hunk fest you expected it to be. What does Valdez have to do with making it better?”

“Like I said, she can hook a girl up. It was fun for a while but … this new guy, he’s making such a huge deal out of it. He keeps asking me if I’m meeting any other guy besides him, he wants to meet more and more often, and he acts like he owns me and stuff. Last night … last night he scared me Emma, he threatened to kill me and himself if I didn’t agree to get married like right away. He keeps talking about having kids and all this other stuff that I’m just not ready for. It was only supposed to be a little fun. And Valdez won’t listen; she says I’m over reacting and couldn’t have heard what he said. I did Emma, I really did. And I really did see that knife!”

I got her calmed down and then grabbed my laptop and told her she could stay safe in my office for a while if she was that bothered by it and that I’d even lock her in so no one would bother her. She was pathetically grateful and I felt terrible for lying but on the other hand I suddenly didn’t trust Valdez at all.

I headed out looking all frustrated and then someone stopped me and asked what was wrong. I knew I couldn’t trust anyone yet.

“Wrong? Well my goodness, why ever would you think that? What ever could be wrong? I only have a freaking twelve page busy work report due on Harper’s desk by the end of the day and the ever loving template is corrupted and I lost all the work I’ve been inputting for the last two days. So no, nothing’s wrong, I’m living in happy land.”

The woman said, “Geez Emma, tone down the attitude a little. I was only asking a simple question for Pete sake.”

I put the stupid clip on my shirt and went to the end of the hallway to the get clearance to walk through Man’s Land. Lt. Chandler wasn’t happy to see me. I was in no mood to care; I wasn’t exactly happy to be there. When I told her I needed to speak with Major Harper immediately whether she like it or not she gave me this stupidly outraged look that nearly sent me over the edge.

Just then the Major’s office door opened and Donovan exited. I caught him halfway out the door and said, “Good, you’re here too, it’ll mean I only have to say this once.” We had a momentary battle of wills as our eyes locked but he eventually backed up when Major Harper asked, “Is there a problem?”

Walking in I saw that Dutch Duncan was there as well and said, “Beautiful. You’ll at least be able to certify me crazy after you’ve heard the story.”

Major Harper was not a happy camper. “Chapman, I’m busy. If there is a problem take it up with Chandler.”

“Problem? I’d say so. Mrs. Valdez is playing pimp and somehow or other is running a bordello under your nose.”

That got everyone’s attention real fast. Donovan shut the office door in the face of a stunned Lt. Chandler. “Chapman, I hope you have proof to back up these very serious allegations.”

“Physical evidence? Probably nothing admissible in court. But I just locked Chelle Costello in my office because she was afraid.” I went on to repeat what she had told me. “Look, I’ve tried really hard to do my job and stay out of people’s business but I never signed up for this … this … crock of cow poo. I knew that Valdez was giving some of the girls things but since they never came out of our warehouse I figured it was none of my business what she did with stuff she got from other places. But this is taking things too far. I just … “

“Calm down Emma.” Donovan and I were nowhere near friends despite him using my first name. In fact I don’t even think we liked each other, but we were both rule followers and he was the civilian security rep; I made it a policy not to antagonize him any more than strictly necessary. “Once more from the top.”

So I explained things again and slowed down enough that he and Major Harper could get a question in now and then. “Are you sure that you’ve accounted for all of the ‘gifts’ you’ve seen Valdez give the girls?”

“Yes … actually no. Those are the ones that I’ve seen but I couldn’t swear that there is stuff that I haven’t seen. It’s kind of an open secret in the dorms. Everyone just turns a blind eye. How was I supposed to know some of the girls were hooking on the side?”

Dr. Duncan broke in, “Now Emma dear, saying that we have a prostitution ring operating in the bunker is quite an exaggeration.”

“Well, what do you call having sex in exchange for presents?”

Donovan snorted and shook his head but the Major was not amused in the least. “Miss Chapman, I want you to use the same excuse you fabricated to get over here and I want you to go back to work. Stay in the warehouse and kick a few buckets around and in general throw a hissy if you have to. Make sure that your behavior comes to the notice of Mrs. Valdez. When she asks you what the problem is tell her that you came over here and got reamed out for disturbing me, apparently I was in a meeting with Mr. Donovan here discussing something rather heated. You only overheard it had to do with inventories but pretend you are taking it personally and you are in the midst of CYA, making sure your physical inventory matches your paper inventory. Mr. Donovan, do you have anything to add?”

He nodded and said, “Stay out of it Emma. Keep your nose clean. Don’t try and help. Let the young woman out of the office and tell her you have to clean things up because Lt. Chandler is coming by and you don’t want her to find this … Chelle? … in your office since she doesn’t belong there. This will be investigated and may take a couple of days; until that time keep playing dumb. Do you understand me?”

“Yeah, yeah … just pretend I never heard a word Chelle said and act like Chandler is riding my case in retribution for running my mouth and interrupting your meeting with Major Harper.” Which is precisely what I did.

Three days later Mrs. Valdez disappeared and we never heard a word about her again and no replacement for her position ever showed up. The one time I brought it up to Donovan after a committee meeting he said, “Don’t ask and I won’t have to lie to you. The problem was taken care of, let it go.” That was easier said than done, especially when Chelle had a “medical emergency” a couple of weeks later and went off to the infirmary never to return either and again with no explanation.

A week after that a couple of the women from 5 caught me in the shower and beat me up pretty bad. I remember defending myself but going down and then nothing after that until I woke up in the infirmary … a real one with hospital equipment and everything … a couple of days later.