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?”
“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.