by Gordon Sun
Day 20“What’s that?” Art Stone asked, scratching his bald, wrinkled head and staring at a screen labeled “Camera #1.” A dirty, ragged lump was heaped in the middle of a dusty, cratered field, what remained of Art’s once-lush green backyard. A couple of scraggly, barren trees dotted the field. No movement was visible on screen.
Inside the command station, Art’s elder son Tim scrunched his tall, skinny body into an armchair and pulled up the live security feed for nearby Camera #2, which was pointed in the direction of their nearest neighbor’s lawn, about a mile away. The view of the adjacent lot was previously blocked by tall hedgerows, but a powerful explosion around Day 3 or so had flattened the barrier. The monitor now showed the collapsed wreckage of their neighbor’s formerly impressive mansion. “I don’t know, Dad.”
A ponytailed woman in dark blue scrubs standing next to Tim shrugged. “I really don’t know either.”
“Helpful as always, Michele,” Art grumbled.
“Leave my girlfriend alone, Dad.”
“Quiet,” Art snapped. “Just rewind Camera One. How did that thing get there? When did it show up?”
Tim fiddled with the video controls, playing back earlier footage. “Someone died? In our backyard?” He sat back, exhaling, running a hand through his wavy black hair.
“Yeah,” Art said. “Looks that way.”
“But who? How? He got so close to the entrance.” Michele frowned. “That’s like a hundred feet away at most.”
“We had to decrease the sensitivity because the dust devils kept setting the sensors off,” Tim said. “But this is a pretty large thing to miss. I must have miscalibrated—”
“You think? That’s a goddamn big oversight!” Art exclaimed. “You set the parameters yourself.”
“Sorry, Dad. It’s just... I mean, losing the servers from the electrical storm yesterday was a disaster. We might be able to salvage some of them eventually. However, the AI is a total loss. That means all our robotic help is offline, too. Permanently.”
“How the hell could that have happened? This place was supposed to be EMP-shielded.”
“I don’t know. We have to look into it.” Tim sighed. “You know, we could’ve made room for Juanita and Claude. They were practically family—”
“There are already six of us here. That’s plenty.”
“This place is five stories deep. There’s tons of space for everyone. I mean, Mom’s closet alone can fit an entire bed—”
“And our supplies would’ve disappeared that much faster. Anyway, that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re going to have to make do.”
“Well, what about that guy out there?” Tim nodded at Screen #1. “We can’t just leave him there.”
“Actually,” Art said, looking at his son, “we can.”
“But we should bury him properly.”
“No, outside,” Michele interjected, frowning. “It’s just human dignity.”
“What’s the matter with you two?” Art said, annoyed. “You’re going to spend a couple of hours outside digging a hole? The radiation outside is probably off the charts. Those dust devils pop up with no warning. You might as well be digging your own graves.”
Tim paused, adjusting the collar of his blue button-down shirt. “I could wear a suit. We have a whole closet full of E38s.”
“We don’t know who else is out there, out of range of the sensor array.”
“Dad, we haven’t seen anyone in weeks, not since the nukes.”
“Just because all communications are down doesn’t mean no one’s out there. You want to take the risk of letting someone know we’re here?” Art slapped the back of his son’s head. “Don’t be stupid. The six of us are safe in this bunker. We made no contingencies on having any more than that. Now that the AI is non-functional, I’m not taking any chances.”
“All right, all right,” Tim said, raising his hands. Michele rubbed her boyfriend’s stinging scalp.
“It was a free country. They could’ve gotten their own damn shelters any time they wanted,” Art grumbled peevishly. “Now let’s go get dinner. Your mother made chicken and dumplings with vegetables. Best stuff there is.”
“How’s climate control holding up?” Art asked his younger son Zack, who was clicking on buttons and reading dials at the command center workstation.
“Okay.” Zack spoke rapidly. “The AI would’ve been helpful, but it’s not hard to track the basics. The air quality’s at 95, but otherwise everything’s nominal. Humidity, temp, oxygen, carbon dioxide, all okay.”
“What’s it usually run?”
“The air? Before that big storm, it was 98, 99. I wouldn’t worry about it. To be honest, I’m surprised it isn’t worse, since the storm had to have brought some of that toxic dust from the coast. Let’s just hope the dust devils don’t mess up the air filters. Replacing them would be difficult.”
“Fine.” Art turned to Tim. “You’ve been pretty busy today. Any news to share?”
“No, I’m rummaging through the spare parts in the storage area down the hall. I can probably rebuild the computers that got fried but, like I said before, the AI’s not coming back.”
Art shook his head. “We’ll live. Security, water filtration, life support... all our key systems are functioning.”
Art, Zack, Tim, and Michele peered at the monitor displaying the feed for Camera #1. A tornado had torn away most of the corpse’s protective suit and clothes and burned through its flesh. A rotting, hollowed-out husk was all that remained.
“He’s still there. You sure...” Tim trailed off.
“For Christ’s sake, Tim,” his father snarled.
“Well, you always say that no one knows we’re out here,” Tim replied. “It just seems... wrong.”
“Yeah, and I’m still not taking the risk anyway. Did you tell anyone about this place?”
“Did either of you?” Art asked Zack and Michele.
“No,” they replied in unison.
“Your mother said I was being paranoid.” Art snorted. “Janet wasn’t saying that anymore when the capital went up in a mushroom cloud. Be glad no one knows we’re here.”
There was a knock at the doorway. “Hey, what are you all doing?” a stooped-over, elderly man said, his voice hoarse. “Janet’s cooking up roast beef, carrots, and mashed potatoes with her special-recipe brown gravy. Eat up.”
“Bob, just because we live in a state-of-the-art bunker deep underground doesn’t mean everything is perfect,” Art retorted. “There’s always upkeep, you know.”
“Upkeep? Hah! Art, if you’d listened to me three months ago, we’d be on that self-sustaining space habitat rather than down here in this radioactive mess—”
“Space habitat? You kidding me?” Art scoffed. “Goddamn fake story. This here’s the real deal.”
“You mean like on your radio talk show, when you told everyone those E38s didn’t work—”
“Shut up, Bob!” Art slammed a hand on the workstation. Everyone else in the room looked away. “This top-of-the-line shelter, custom-built with everyone in mind, isn’t good enough for you, is that it? All this homegrown, healthy food? That warm bed you got?”
“Wait, Dad—” Tim began.
“Your grandfather’s an ingrate,” Art snarled. “Maybe he would prefer to try his luck outdoors?”
Michele spoke up. “Mr. Stone, I think—”
“Young lady, you’re a lucky guest because my son Tim happens to be infatuated with you and you’re a nurse. Just zip it.”
Michele sat back in her chair, her lips compressed and her arms crossed.
“Bob, if you have something to contribute, feel free to sit in this chair and help us with operations,” said Art. “Otherwise, you can join the rest of us at dinner and be grateful you don’t have to deal with the scorching heat, the radioactivity, or the tornadoes that melt through human flesh.”
As Art finished, an orange light began to blink. One of the monitors began beeping and spitting out a stream of text. He craned his neck to see what was being printed out. “Another security perimeter alert. By the ventilator system this time.”
“Is anything on camera?” Tim asked.
Art glanced at the monitor for Camera #5 and rewound the film back a few minutes. “No.”
“Then another false alarm.”
“Yeah. I thought you adjusted the sensor grid, Tim.”
“Then why’s it still going off?”
“Dad, the basic system doesn’t have much room for customization. It’s not dynamic. That was the AI’s job.”
“Well, dammit, you’ve got to do something about this!”
“What am I supposed to do? I’m rebuilding our computers from scratch!”
Art started to say something, but instead looked over at Bob. “As you can see, there’s a lot going on.” Art rolled his eyes. “Let’s go eat, and then we’ll talk about what you can do to help us all out.”
“What the hell’s going on now?” Art yelled, barging into the command station. “Why are the lights blinking?”
“The security lights?” Zack replied. “Probably another false alarm—”
“No, not the security lights, the actual lights, Zack!” Art gesticulated wildly. “They’re flickering like crazy out in the living and dining rooms. Everyone’s going nuts.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“Well, any sign of intrusion?”
“No, I haven’t found anything in the camera footage.”
“Then keep looking. And check for flux in the power output.” Art turned to Tim, who was hunched in his favorite chair, the heel of his sneaker on the edge of the seat. “What are you doing?”
“Something else is wrong,” he replied, his eyes fixed on another screen. “Diagnostics aren’t helping either.”
“What is it?”
Tim pointed to a blinking yellow alert: “AIR QUALITY RATING: 82%.”
“Eighty-two?” Art said. “Wasn’t it normal a couple of days ago?”
“Yeah. The question is why? Our bunker’s rated for CBRN contamination, and the weather situation hasn’t been any different from the usual.”
“The bunker’s rated for known quantities. Could be something new.” Art cursed loudly. “We have no idea what’s in those twisters. Maybe some brand-new blend of toxic waste. All because of that damn electrical storm.”
“Or maybe they’ve resumed fighting again out there. New weapons being deployed,” Zack said. “And we’re just now getting the fallout. It’s not like we would know, one way or another.”
The group brooded over the implications. After a moment, Tim spoke up. “The humidity’s gone up a bit also, but everything else is still okay.”
“What do you want to do?” Zack asked.
“You find anything on film?” Art glanced over at Zack.
“Forget it, we’re done for now. Let’s go tell everyone.”
A few minutes later, Art’s family was seated around the dinner table. Their meal — Caesar chicken salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and lemonade — sat untouched in bowls and pitchers. Art explained the situation to the group.
“Well, it has been a little more humid than I would like,” Bob said. “And maybe a little odor? But that could just be my imagination, I suppose.”
“You’re sure, Dad?” Janet asked. “I haven’t noticed anything.”
“The readouts don’t lie.” Art’s tone was flat. “Even without the AI. Something’s wrong.”
Bob shook his head and laughed mirthlessly. “Maybe you thought the space habitat thing was a joke, but I bet we wouldn’t have had this problem in one of those villas out in Kansas or Nebraska or wherever. Didn’t you say a couple of your old media buddies got themselves spots there?”
“Yeah, and they had no chance to use it.” Art waved a hand in dismissal. “Greene’s jet got blown out of the sky by a nuclear drone. Caruso’s last social media update before he went dark was that he got ditched by his private escort and left for dead in the Nevada desert. That’s why we had our personal bunker built right here on our own property.”
“I’m just surprised you managed to get this project done,” Bob muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Art demanded.
Bob sighed. “You’ve been nothing but unpleasant since I moved in with you all. Nothing’s ever good enough for you. I get it, you’re smarter than everyone else in this room. Happy? So, why can’t you be less cynical? For better or worse, we’ve all got to learn to live together now.”
“Dad, that’s enough,” Tim interrupted, reaching for the spaghetti and meatballs. “Can we just eat first? Whatever this is can wait half an hour.”
“Personally,” said Michele, “I’m impressed that you were able to keep this place a secret, with all the construction going on.”
Art allowed himself a smile as he filled his glass with lemonade. “NDA’s for the construction firm helped. But really, everyone in our gated community kept to themselves. We value our privacy. I wouldn’t be surprised if the neighbors built their own shelters. They could’ve afforded it.”
The family was silent as they ate dinner. As Janet rose to clear the dishes, the dining room lights buzzed and flickered.
“So now what?” Zack pointed at the ceiling. “That’s still happening.”
“It’s not a power issue?” Art asked.
“I mean, maybe, but this place was finished only two months ago. They said it would last twenty years with minimal maintenance. I didn’t think I’d need to read the manuals cover to cover.”
“Yeah, no kidding. Stupid builders. Guess those millions I shelled out weren’t enough. Programming bug?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“I mean, it’s possible,” Tim jumped in. “But we have no AI, just a pile of dumb algorithms.”
Art raised his eyebrows. “Meaning?”
“Power conservation protocols are on timers, centrally controlled. Same with the artificial sunroom.” Tim pursed his lips. “I guess it’s possible someone could’ve messed with the controls.”
“You mean like Bob screwing with the settings because he wants mood lighting? Or someone actually hacking the system?” As he finished his sentence, all the light in the adjacent lounge blinked out, plunging the room into darkness.
“Hey, Art, that’s not me,” Bob said in exasperation. “I’m not that good with computers.”
“That’s not my fault,” Art snapped.
“Seriously, Grandpa wouldn’t do that, Dad.” Tim sighed. “But I can’t see how hacking would work. It’s a dead zone outside.”
“We’ve checked all the cams?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’ve gone through maybe a day’s worth of footage so far. Why?”
“Just to be sure. In short, we have an air problem and a lighting problem.” Art looked around the table. “Tim, you go check out the filtration and detoxification system. It’s on level B-one. Zack, let’s go back to the command room to review more film and check the diagnostics.”
Art and Zack returned half an hour later. “Tim, you back yet?” Art called out.
“No, not yet,” Bob replied from the living room. He set down a worn paperback book. “Did you find anything?”
“Nothing. Air quality’s flattened out at 80. There were a couple of irregular blips in O2 and CO2 levels in the last 36 to 48 hours, but nothing else. Without the AI for more comprehensive analysis...” He grumbled in frustration.
“Art, is everything all right?” Janet asked, as she put cleaned plates into a cabinet.
“I don’t know. Where’s Michele? She can go find Tim.”
“I think she went back to her bedroom downstairs.”
“Really? I’m getting too old for this. Fine, I’ll go find Tim. Be back in a bit.”
Copyright © 2020 by Gordon Sun