Help (science fiction)
**Originally published in Semaphore Magazine**
The hatch door clanged shut.
“Everything all right?” Susan's voice was difficult to hear through the heavy static of the intercom. Ted pulled off the head piece of his bright yellow contaminant suit. He hit the intercom switch.
“No petrol,” he said. There was no reply; he hadn't expected one. The suit was stiff and he had difficulty working his way out of it. He checked the hatch fastenings and hit the large red button. Instantly he was misted with decontaminate and his skin began to burn. It flooded over the pockmarks and rippled scarring on his arms.
5...4...3...2...1... he hit the blue button and a spray of cold water doused him. The burning slowly faded and after 30 seconds, the water shut off.
The main door swung open. Susan was waiting. Her cotton tank-top had dark sweat stains at the neck and armpits. A wave of hot air rolled over Ted and he stepped forward into the hallway and Susan shut the door behind him. The loud clang of the heavy metal door echoed down the two narrow hallways to the right and left of the little small space they stood in.
“Where are the kids?” He did not want to talk about the surface. He did not want to know how much petrol they had left. The generator that kept them cool during the day and warm at night was vital. The most important heartbeat in the bunker. He could hear it thrumming overhead, the faint whisper of warm air ruffling his sweaty hair.
“They're in the pod. They’re sleeping.” She picked at a scab on her elbow. It was bleeding.
“I'm surprised they can sleep in this heat,” he said, turning right down the narrow hallway. As he walked, the motion sensors responded, flicking on and then flicking off as they passed. Ted ran his hand along the steel wall, its rough surface vibrating faintly.
“There's another crack.” Susan followed him.
“Don't say that.” They reached a heavy bulkhead door and he swung it open. The small room was a sparse living area with a small table and one chair. There was even a threadbare couch, its middle sagging like a smile. The only smile Ted had seen in a long time.
“Don't say what? Thank you, God?” Ted said and he lifted his hands toward the rusted ceiling. “I'm sure we managed to kill him too. But don't worry, we'll be de—” He stopped.
“You always act like this when you get back,” Susan said. Her voice was filled with calm resignation. The fact that they had survived this long was a miracle, nothing short of it.
“Well it's not like it's a pleasure cruise. Going up there,” he said and sat down heavily on the couch. He could hear the wood frame creak. Any day now it would break. But maybe the couch would outlive them.
“I wish you'd let me go,” Susan said and she came over and knelt on the hard metal floor. She rested her hands on his knee and gazed up at him. Her big brown eyes were ringed with red. She had been crying. Not long ago she had been a cheerleader. Ted could remember the smell of popcorn, the gentle swell of vanilla ice cream on his tongue. Watching her cheer in a blue and silver uniform. So pretty.
“You don't have to be the only one, I can go,” she said but already Ted was shaking his head.
“No. What if we both were contaminated? One of us must remain completely separate.” They had talked about this before. Ted was tired and he leaned back, closing his eyes.
“It may not matter much longer. We only have a few days,” she said. He snapped his head forward and felt a muscle jerk painfully in his neck. He stared into her tired face. In her hair streaks of gray were becoming evident, slowly turning it from dark blonde to silver. There were still smudges of petrol on her arms. He imagined her peering fearfully into the giant drum of fuel, squinting in the darkness. How much hope does the drum hold today?
“Then we have to shut down.” He could not look Susan in the eyes. Their only hope was the radio, their one signal of life, bleeping through the silent and decimated world. But it probably didn't matter. Ted doubted anyone else was alive and even if they were holed beneath the ground, there had been problems. Many close calls.
“Even if we do, that might give us an extra day but barely that,” she said. He sighed. She was being very unhelpful. But their life had been reduced to facts. Unhelpful facts. Perhaps that’s why they were so tired all the time.
“Then I'll go back up. Today. I'll go farther and search wider,” he said. Susan's eyes were pooling with tears.
“Let me go. You look completely exhausted. Your skin…” she traced a pale fingertip over his pockmarked arm. He pulled away.
“I'll go. Don't worry, if I don't come back, you'll have your chance.”
“Don't talk like that,” she said. The tears rolled down her dirty face, but she did not sob. The tears were involuntary; they overflowed from a deep reservoir of desperation and fear. The same desperation and fear Ted felt. But his eyes didn't seem to work. There were no tears.
“I have to go.” He stood and Susan struggled to her feet. She seemed to be in pain and Ted could see the shadows in her face. So thin.
He moved to the door and as the dark hallway loomed before him, he was struck with a twinge of claustrophobia. But he stepped forward and the lights began to snap on as he walked. He could hear Susan's footsteps behind him.
“Go check on the kids.” He didn't want to see her face as he left. It always felt final. Susan brushed her lips against his. It couldn't be qualified as a kiss, their chapped lips merely brushing each other. A gesture. A reminder. She walked down the left hallway, the lights guiding her steps.
Ted swung open the door and for a moment his heart leaped into his throat. He was always prepared for the top hatch to be open, somehow, for the seep of radiation to flood their small home. But no, the top hatch was secured. The dark hollow of the room became even darker as he shut the door behind him. He struggled into his suit and clumsily snapped his helmet shut. His breath immediately fogged the small window in front of his face. He turned the valve at the back of his suit and he could feel the oxygen begin to flow.
He unfastened the latch and with a hard push, the top fell open, a yawning square of yellow light. It was blinding. It was always blinding. He climbed the small step ladder and pulled himself up and over the metal lip onto the dirt of the outside world. Immediately heat began to press in around him. The familiar haze blanketed the bleak landscape. He closed the hatch, the sound muffled inside his suit, and began to walk.
Susan did not need to know. His mind was flooded with thoughts of her hopeful, straining face. Her skeletal face had become ghostly, her skin paler and paler with each passing year.
The dirt kicked up beneath his feet and he watched it swirl and get sucked into the whistling wind. The world was dead. There was no petrol. There had not been for a long time. They had been lucky in the first two years. The gas station on the corner had proved an important reservoir, but in the third year there was a fire. Ted had watched it burn for hours. He turned away from the crumbling building in the distance. He would not go there again.
But Susan did not need to know, though she always asked him about what it looked like. It had become easier to just lie. He had even told her he could see sprouts here and there. He wanted so badly for it to be true. He wanted so badly for something, anything, to be alive. But there was nothing.
His neighbors had laughed at him when he built the bunker. They had laughed, but Ted had a feeling. He didn’t have many feelings in his life but this one told him that the sand was starting to stick, that the water was starting to boil.
It was Jay Leno’s fault really. The jokes were no longer funny. Epidemics of disease, desertification of farm lands, and the growing callousness of those who ruled the world littered television screens and clotted front page news. Yes, Ted had a feeling that things were not going to be okay. He was a simple man, not taken to fantasy, much less imagination, just a welder in the real world. But he couldn’t shake the feeling and so he bought the rubber yellow suit from a local armory.
“It'll keep you alive until help comes,” the cashier in the camo had told him. Grinning.
Ted bought it, bought two. Just in case.
Ted realized he had walked a mile. A surge of panic filled his lungs and they contracted painfully. How much longer would his suit last? How long would the oxygen go without a recharge?
Until help comes.
His pounding heart began to settle as he saw the familiar bump of the hatch. Not too far. He turned away and kept walking. In the far distance the hazy line of the horizon puckered and waved. He always had strange thoughts when he looked at the horizon. What would it be like to cross that line? Would he fall off the earth? His brain was becoming muddy. He hadn't even noticed his breathing had become so shallow. Yes, the air was definitely running out. He groped at the valve on his back but then stopped. There was no point really. The kids were dead, Susan was a ghost, and Ted was the last man on Earth.
A vision, the one he always pushed away, but now could not, surfaced. The pale emaciated bodies of his children, curled up in their sleeping pod. Susan still tucked them in every night, kissing the slow sagging decay of their faces. He had stopped going to see them and she refused to let him remove their bodies. Every day she still walked down that hallway to check on their kids.
Their very dead kids.
A flush of giddiness bloomed in his chest and Ted quickened his steps. The horizon. Maybe there was help just over the horizon. But it was harder to breathe and Ted was seeing blackness and stars flickering in the dead wasteland around him. It was the first time he had seen the stars in three years. He stumbled and fell to his knees. He decided to stay there. The wheeze of his lungs disturbed him. They wanted to breathe. They needed air.
Two figures appeared, shadows on that wavering, deceiving fold of sky. He unfastened the latch of his helmet, relishing the hiss of heat against his neck, the hot dead air inflating his lungs with poison. With death.
The shadows were running. Were they coming?
Ted pulled off his helmet. Waved. Breathed.