𝘣𝘺 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘬 𝘗𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘤𝘦
Steve was alone in the underground bomb shelter. Through the open hatchway, he could hear the piercing whine of the disaster alert siren. He paced nervously, checking his watch from time to time. The others should have been here by now.
The shelter itself was a small, cramped room, piled high with crates and boxes. Against one wall stood a bookcase containing multiple volumes of history, philosophy, science, literature. A short bench with no back rested in the center of the room. A radiation gauge hung on the wall, and a sophisticated radio sat on one of the crates.
Ed appeared at the top of the ladder and began to descend, followed closely by Janet. He was forty-five, stocky, but trim for his age. Janet was closer to Steve’s age, about twenty-four, and had light brown hair, the color of winter leaves.
Ed looked around the room. “Where is everybody?”
“You’re the first.”
“They’ll have to hurry.”
Wendy entered through the hatch and descended the ladder. She was an attractive girl of twenty-three with honey blond hair. She stumbled slightly at the bottom and was assisted by Ed.
“You okay?” he said.
She smiled and nodded, then sat on the bench. Steve and Ed waited by the ladder, looking up towards the opening. Janet leaned against the wall, hands in her pockets.
Adam came through the hatch. He was in his early thirties, but possessed a vivacity one would expect in a younger man. Rather than descend the ladder one rung at a time, he wrapped his arms and legs around it and slid down.
“Time is almost up,” said Steve.
Ed looked at his watch. “Better go ahead and bolt it.”
“What about James?”
“You know the rule.”
Steve nodded. He climbed up and closed the hatch, then bolted the inner door and descended.
Adam jumped up on the bench. “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you here today.”
He was rewarded with a few grins.
“Anyone want to play gin?” said Ed. “I remembered to bring a deck this time.”
No one answered. He pulled out the cards and began to play solitaire on the bench.
What I want to know is, where do they get off throwing an unscheduled alert at us like this?” he said. “It’s really a hassle having to come all the way over here.”
Wendy smiled. “It’s only a couple of blocks.” She poked him in the stomach. “The exercise is good for you.”
Ed laughed. “I guess you’re right. And it’s probably a good idea to keep us on our toes.”
Adam walked over to the bookcase. “At least we don’t have to sit around doing nothing,” he said. “I see Steve has brought those books down here. Aristotle . . . Darwin . . . Shakespeare . . . This is quite a collection.”
“Each one a classic,” said Steve proudly. “I hope to bring a lot more down here before I’m finished.”
Adam pulled out a volume and thumbed through it. “Must be pretty expensive.”
Don’t worry. I’m paying for it out of my own pocket. None of the money came from our fund.”
Wendy squirmed on the bench. “Why don’t we use some of the money to get some comfortable chairs? This bench is murder.”
“There are other things we need first,” said Steve. “We haven’t even bought any cots yet.”
“We ought to make the shelter bigger,” said Wendy.
“We can’t afford it.”
“We can’t afford anything.” She looked at Steve. “Sometimes I wish we had never let you talk us into building this shelter.”
Janet looked at her. “I’d rather be in here than pressed into some Junior High School basement with fifty strangers.”
“They never should have made it a law,” said Wendy. “People shouldn’t have to go to shelters if they don’t want to.”
“I know it seems hard now,” said Steve, “but believe me, it’s worth it. We’re a lot safer in here than in one of those public shelters. It’ll really pay off if we’re actually attacked.”
“Then I sure hope we get attacked,” said Adam, brightly. “I’d hate to think we were wasting our money.”
Ed looked up from his solitaire. “There’s not a nation in the world with enough guts to attack us. I sleep peacefully at night knowing we’ve got enough nuclear warheads to blast the rest of the world into oblivion.”
“I wish I had your outlook,” said Adam.
“I just wish I had a pillow,” said Wendy, squirming. “Steve,” she said sweetly, “would you get me something to sit on?”
“Sure. There must be something around here.”
He dug through one of the crates.
“They always make us wait so long,” said Wendy. She pulled a compact from her purse and began touching up her makeup. “Don’t they know how boring it gets down here?”
“It won’t be much longer,” said Ed.
Steve pulled out a blanket. “I’m afraid this is the best I can do, Wendy. We don’t have any cushions.”
“This is fine. Thank you.” She settled herself like a hen over an egg. “James was smart. Next time I think I’ll stay home, too.”
“And pay a nice fat fine if you get caught,” said Ed. “These aren’t just games we’re playing here. The government has us do these alerts to prepare us for the real thing.”
“That’s awfully nice of them,” said Adam.
Wendy grumbled, “Just because troops invaded Belarain. Whoever heard of Belarain before? Did you? Now one nation invades it with ground troops, another sends air strikes to defend it, and suddenly it’s the most important nation in the world.”
“It’s important because of what it represents,” said Ed.
“What it represents?” said Adam. “Belarain is a desolate wasteland. What could we or anyone else possibly want with it? I’ll bet even the Belarainians don’t want it.”
“It’s importance is strategic,” said Ed. “Belarain is a militaristically vital crossroads.”
“I know,” said Adam. “I read the same editorial you did.”
Ed fumed. “It’s also important as a signal that we’re ready to stand and fight.”
“You mean ‘kill’,” said Janet.
“You said ‘fight’. I was correcting your verb choice.”
“Fight, kill, it’s the same thing. The point is, we’ve got to show that we’re ready to go all the way with this thing. That’s why my plant got those government contracts. That’s why we’re gearing up for the production of war materials. We can’t afford to show any weakness.”
“Because our enemies would walk all over us. Haven’t you got any patriotism?”
“None at all,” said Adam, evenly.
Ed was contemptuous. “You were never in the service, were you, Adam?”
“Nope. Never was.”
“That explains it,” said Ed. “If you had helped defend this country, you would feel more of the pride. My family has always done our part. I served in the marines, and my boy . . .” he choked up for a moment, “. . . my boy laid down his life fighting for the supremacy of his country.”
Adams spoke quietly, his voice distant. “I’ll bet you were proud.”
“Damn right I was. He died like a man. It burns me to see people sitting back smugly in the safety of their homes, belittling what our soldiers have done. If it weren’t for the soldiers, they wouldn’t have any homes to be sitting back smugly in. Freedom doesn’t come easy. You have to fight for it. That’s one thing the Founding Fathers understood when they set up this system. Sometimes a war is necessary for the good of the country.”
“Not all the Founding Fathers believed that,” said Steve.
“Name one who didn’t.”
“Benjamin Franklin. He said there never was a good war or a bad peace.”
“He did not.”
“Yes, he did,” said Steve; he moved to the bookcase. “I think the quote is in Bartlett’s.”
Steve pulled out a book and turned to the index. “Walls . . . Wants . . . War . . .” He turned to somewhere toward the end of the book and glanced over the page. “Here it is.” He pointed at the passage as he handed the book to Ed.
Ed grumbled. He suddenly brightened. “Listen to what George Washington said. Quote: ‘To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace’ . . . Hey, look, Plato is on my side, too.”
“I’ll see your Plato, and raise you a Balzac,” said Adam.
Ed slammed the book shut. “Isn’t there anything you take seriously?”
Ed returned the book to the shelf. “I wonder what your parents must have been like.”
“You would have liked them, Ed. They were two of the most God fearing, patriotic, war supporting people you could ever hope to meet.”
“It’s amazing how different you are from my boy,” said Ed. “He was a fine Christian and a brave soldier.”
Adam spoke with heavy irony: “Onward Christian Soldiers . . . marching off to war.”
“Let’s find something else to talk about,” said Steve.
“That’s fine with me,” said Ed. “I was just trying to make Adam realize that—”
The lights flickered, then went out.
“What is this?” said Ed.
Steve looked around in the darkness. “Somebody got a match?”
“I do,” said Wendy. “Here.”
Steve lit the match. “There should be some candles in this crate.” He found them. “Here we go.” He lit a candle and stepped behind some of the crates. “It should only take a minute to get the generator working.” They could hear him tinkering for a few moments, then the lights flickered and came on full; everyone clapped. “That’s better.”
“I wonder what made them go out?” said Adam.
“It could be a failure at the plant,” said Steve. “Let’s check the radio.”
“If the power is out,” said Janet, “they’re going to have a hard time controlling the looting, with most of us down in these shelters.”
Steve turned on the radio and moved the dial. The only sound was static as the dial slowly moved across the numbers. “I can’t seem to get anything.”
“Maybe there’s a radio silence because of the alert,” said Ed.
“Try the Hadley station,” said Adam. “It should be about 1180.”
Steve tried. “Nothing.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Janet. “Hadley never has alerts on the same days we do.”
Steve continued to turn the knob. The static suddenly became louder, then a voice came over the radio. “. . . tuned to this Emergency Broadcast Station for further updates.”
A popping noise was heard, then complete silence.
“What was that all about?” said Ed.
“I don’t know,” said Steve.
“See if you can get it again.”
Steve twisted the dials. “I can’t. It’s dead.”
“Radio silence . . . Blackout . . .” said Adam to himself.
“This must be what they meant by an ‘accelerated program of readiness,’” said Ed.
“They shouldn’t just spring it on us like this,” said Steve.
“They’re trying to simulate the real thing.”
“But a power outage of the whole area can be dangerous.”
Wendy looked at the others. “What do we do now?”
“Wait for instructions,” said Ed.
Adam spoke: “Like any well trained animal.”
“What if they don’t . . .”
“Just a minute,” said Steve.
The radio was emitting a low-pitched whistle. The whistle stopped, and the announcer came on the air: “Attention . . . attention . . . All civilian vehicles must be kept off the streets. Repeat: all civilian vehicles must be kept off the streets. Military and civil defense units must have the streets clear. Stay tuned to this Emergency Broadcast Station for further instructions.”
Again, there was a popping noise, followed by silence.
Janet spoke, a slight quake in her voice, “This is too real.”
“It has to be,” said Ed, trying to sound upbeat, but obviously nervous. “Don’t worry. They’ll signal ‘all clear’ any time now. Come on, Steve, let’s play some cards to pass the time.”
Steve didn’t answer. Everyone stared at the radio.
“It does make you think, though,” said Adam, his voice cold with tension. “They could really do it. These alerts could become real.”
“Never,” said Steve.
“Steve’s right,” said Ed. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Again, there was a low whistle from the radio, followed by the announcer’s voice. “Attention... Attention... This is repeating an earlier statement. The President of the United States has announced that at 6:54, EST, United States airspace was violated by enemy war planes. This is not an alert. Repeat—his is not an alert.”
“Nooo . . .” Steve cried.
The announcer continued: “Retaliatory measures are being taken. There is no need for panic. Everyone must remain in their shelters. It is crucial that the streets be kept clear for military and civil defense vehicles. Stay tuned to this Emergency Broadcast Station for further instructions.”
There was the popping noise, then silence. Ed sat frozen, staring at the radio. He seemed to be in panic. Adam and Steve also stared at the radio; Steve with fear and disbelief, Adam with fear and sadness. Janet stared tragically at Adam. Wendy kept looking back and forth at the others.
“What’s going to happen?” she said. “What does it mean?”
Janet spoke bitterly, close to tears: “It means we’re at war! First hand!”
The announcer’s voice suddenly came shouting out of the radio without the prior warning tone. “Attention! Attention! If this station discontinues broadcasting, tune to 1640 or—”
He was cut off by deafening static, followed by silence.
“What happened?” said Steve.
Adam jumped to the radio and turned the dial. “1640 is dead, too.” He turned the knob back and forth. “There’s nothing anywhere.”
“They were hit,” said Janet quietly, tremulously.
“What?” said Wendy.
Still quietly, almost in awe, Janet said, “They’re dead.”
“They can’t be,” said Ed. “Those announcements were coming from the military. The military shelters are the best there are.”
“They won’t withstand a direct hit,” said Adam. “The military targets—”
The sound of an explosion cut him off. Everyone looked up. Even underground, they could feel the room shake. There was another blast, followed by a low rumbling, like thunder. It continued for several moments.
“Nooo!” Wendy shrieked.
She lunged for the ladder. Adam grabbed her.
“It’s too late,” he said.
“They can’t!” shouted Wendy.
There was another blast, followed by rumbling.
“They did,” said Janet, bitterly.
Three more blasts, followed by rumbling. Everyone moved closer together.
“We’re safe down here, aren’t we?” said Ed.
No one answered. They stood listening to the rolling thunder.
“James,” said Steve. “He didn’t make it.”
“We don’t know that,” said Wendy. “He might have gone to another shelter somewhere.”
“No,” said Steve. “We all knew to meet here. He wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.”
“Maybe he was out of town,” said Wendy. “You can’t know for sure.”
Janet spoke, “ If he had come late . . .”
“What?” said Steve.
“Would we have heard him knocking on the hatch?”
“I don’t know.”
“We should have left the door open longer,” said Adam.
“Then we’d all be dead,” said Ed.
Wendy was almost hysterical. “He’s not dead! He got safely to another shelter somewhere! I know he did!”
Steve held her. “Okay, okay. Calm down. We can’t afford to lose control. We’ve got to keep organized. Ed, check the radiation gauge.”
“It’s clear,” said Ed. “No radiation at all.” He turned his eyes up toward the hatch. “I wonder what it looks like up there?”
“Wasteland,” said Janet. “Flat and barren.”
Wendy’s sobs magnified.
“Keep it down,” said Steve to Janet; then to Wendy, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.”
“Why tell her that?” said Janet.
“Because it’s true. They used conventional weapons. That means rescue teams can start flying in as soon as they get organized.”
“Terrific,” said Janet, bitterly. “The Red Cross will fly in and return us home. Each to our own separate crater.”
“It’s not as black as you’re making out,” said Ed. “They’re prepared for this sort of thing.”
Steve began to pace. “Exactly. If we keep our heads and don’t panic, we’ll come out of this all right.” As Steve talked, Wendy began to calm down, and eventually stopped crying altogether. “The people who survive this will be the ones who stay calm. The ones who plan everything out. We’ll have to stay underground for a while until we’re sure the bombing is over. That means we had better set up a system of rationing.”
“How much food have we got?” said Adam.
“Enough to last about two weeks,” said Steve. “More if we’re careful. Our water should last that long, too.”
“Is that figuring with or without James?” said Ed. There was a long, awkward pause. Ed began to feel uneasy. “Look, so we survived, and he didn’t. That means there’s more for us . . . Come on, that’s just a fact of nature . . . Some survive, some don’t. It’s not our fault James is dead.”
“Why don’t you shut up?” said Janet.
“That’s a good idea about rationing, Steve,” said Adam, quietly. “You want to handle it?”
“What other provisions do we have?”
“Bedrolls, blankets, some rope, various tools . . .”
“Do we have a stove?” said Janet.
“No,” Steve answered, “but we really don’t need one. Most of our food doesn’t require cooking.”
“Like what?” Wendy asked.
“Beans . . . dehydrated beef . . .”
“Haven’t we got anything decent?” said Ed.
“Where’s your spirit of adventure, Ed?” said Adam, lightly. “Pretend you’re camping out.” He suddenly turned serious. “Better yet, pretend you’re a Christian Soldier, roughing it in the trenches.”
Ed gave Adam a hard look, but decided to let the statement pass.
Suddenly a high pitched beeping noise was heard. Steve froze; his head jerked in the direction of the radiation gauge. Everyone else looked around confused, except Adam, who looked at Steve, then followed his gaze to the gauge.
“What is it?” said Ed.
“The gauge!” Steve shouted.
“What’s wrong?” said Wendy.
“It’s into the danger zone,” shouted Steve. “They used nuclear weapons! They bombed us with nuclear bombs!!”
Steve could no longer stand. He slumped to a sitting position on one of the crates.
“That’s impossible!” said Ed. “There was no radiation before!”
“Of course not,” said Janet, bitterly, savagely. “You think they would waste nuclear weapons on us? We’re getting the fallout from the big cities.”
Steve spoke in awe: “What are we going to do? What is there to do? It’s over. It’s all over.”
“Noooo!” shouted Wendy; she began to cry.
Adam crouched by the radio, trying the dial, first one way, then the other. Steve sat on one of the crates, gazing ahead in a stupor. Janet was quiet, contemplative. Wendy was jittery and tense. Ed paced, obviously frightened, but trying to quell the fear through nervous activity. Suddenly, he stopped and turned to Adam.
“When are you going to give it up?” he said. “You’ve been trying that thing for hours.” Adam continued to work in silence. Ed resumed his pacing. “Just because they used nuclear weapons, that doesn’t mean everybody’s dead, does it? Maybe there are whole parts of the world untouched.”
Janet spoke to Adam as though she already knew the answer. “Did you try the shortwave frequencies?” Adam nodded. “Did you get a response? From anywhere in the world?”
Adam did not answer. He just lowered his head until his forehead rested on the radio. After a moment, he raised his head. He spoke to Ed, his voice somber. “You were right about the wisdom of our government, though. They finally found the solution to war.”
“You just annihilate everybody,” said Janet.
“I can’t believe God would let this happen,” said Steve. “All our accomplishments, everything we built; it’s all gone now.”
“Maybe God doesn’t care about the accomplishments,” said Janet.
“Then what was it all for?”
“Beats the hell out of me.”
Ed dropped to his knees next to the crate where Steve sat. “Think, Steve! There must be something we can do. We can’t just sit down here and die! What can we do, Steve?”
“I don’t know . . .” said Steve in a stupor. “Nothing . . . We’ve got a couple of weeks to live. A couple of weeks.”
“Then our food will run out.”
“We’ve got to do something!”
Adam pulled a can of beans from one of the crates and tossed it to Ed. “Plant this,” he said, bitterly. “Maybe we can grow some canned goods.”
“Wait!” shouted Steve. “That’s it! Why didn’t I think of it before?” He jumped up and grabbed Adam by both sides of the head. “Adam, you’ve done it! You’ve saved us!” He pulled Adam close and kissed him on the cheek.
“Pin him down!” said Ed, frightened. “He’s gone mad!”
Steve let go of Adam and turned to Ed, who cringed back.
“No, Ed, I haven’t gone mad. Listen, we do have a chance. We’re just getting fallout from other cities. It’ll clear soon, and we can go out and plant crops.”
“What’ll we use for seeds?” said Janet.
“We can find a store somewhere. Dig through rubble if we have to.”
“It’ll work,” said Ed as the idea sunk in. “We can do it. We can do it.”
He hugged Steve. Wendy, who had been in shock up till now, joined them. Janet, somewhat reluctantly, did also. Only Adam remained apart.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Ed.
“Nothing,” said Adam, as though thinking of something else. “It sounds like a great idea.”
Everyone released each other as Steve spoke. “We’ll have to find some undamaged ground to plant in, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. We can go out into the country somewhere.”
“What if other people get the same idea we did?” said Ed. “What if they try to take our food? It can get pretty nasty.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Steve. “We’ll have to arm ourselves.”
“If we find the right materials, I can construct a crossbow,” said Ed.
“That may not be enough,” said Steve. “I wish we had a gun.”
“You people are sick,” said Janet amazed. “‘I wish we had a gun.’ Darwin had the right idea, only in reverse. The Descent of Man. We started as apes, and descended to this. Any justification God needed for all this, you just supplied.”
“Calm down, Janet,” said Adam quietly.
“But you heard them,” said Janet. “The whole world is destroyed, we have one small hope of survival, and their first thought is ‘I wish we had a gun’.”
“Calm down,” Adam soothed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“They’re going to get what they deserve.”
“What do you mean?”
“Something they didn’t think of.”
He looked at her. “You can’t grow crops in just two weeks.”
There was a silence while everyone stared at Adam. Then he continued slowly: “Even if the fallout were to clear up enough so that we could go out safely, and even if the radiation were to wash out of the soil so that crops could grow, we would all be dead of starvation before we had enough grown to feed us. This hole we dug is our grave.”
“Our grave?” said Wendy.
“Yes,” said Adam. “We’re down here for the duration. We’ll sit around hungry for a while, then we’ll start to consider each other as possible meals.”
“Adam!” said Steve.
“It’s inevitable,” said Adam. “We’re going to start eating each other. In fact—” his voice was suddenly cheerful, “—we will probably begin with Ed here.”
Ed jumped up. “This is intolerable!”
“Calm down,” said Steve quickly.
“He’s going too far!” said Ed. “He’s sick! Let’s throw him out of here!”
“We can’t do that,” said Wendy.
“Don’t be stupid, Ed,” said Steve. “He doesn’t mean what he’s saying.”
“I don’t?” said Adam. “I naturally assumed Ed would be our choice. Who do you think we should eat first?”
“Shut up!” said Steve.
Adam bowed grandly. “I beg your pardon.”
He went to one of the crates and sat down. Everyone sat in dismal silence for a few minutes.
“Is he right?” said Wendy. “Is there really not enough time to grow crops before our food runs out?”
Steve’s voice was tired, unconvincing, “Sure there is. There’s plenty of time.”
“Our food will last two weeks?”
“And how long does it take for crops to grow?”
Her question echoed hollowly in a dead silence. Then Adam stood up and addressed the group with enthusiasm.
“Where’s your sense of humor?” he said. “We’re sitting right in the middle of the grandest practical joke the human race has ever played on itself—its own extinction.”
Ed stood up and moved menacingly toward Adam. “If you don’t shut up, I’ll lay you out.”
Adam puffed out his chest with false bravado. “Would you care to step outside?”
“In the name of god” said Steve, “why can’t you shut up? The world has been blown to bits. There were billions of people alive just a short time ago. Now they’re all piles of ash.”
“Which means they’ve been put out of their misery,” said Adam. “We should be celebrating. There’s an idea! Let’s have a party!”
“Adam!” said Wendy, disgusted.
“No, seriously,” said Adam. “An ‘End of the World Party’. The first annual ‘End of the World Party.’”
He started filling cups with water from a barrel and passing them out.
“You’ll see,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of fun. There’s no reason not to now. We have no responsibilities and nothing to do.” He held his glass high in the air. “I propose a toast: to the generals and scientists, without whom none of this would have been possible.”
Adam was the only one to drink. The others poured their water back into the barrel or set their cups aside. Adam moved to the radio and began turning the dial.
“What are you doing now?” said Steve.
“Trying to find a dance station.”
“Don’t you have any decency at all?” said Ed.
“Apparently not,” said Adam. “How about it, Wendy? Care to dance?”
She turned away, repulsed.
“I swear if you don’t stop,” said Ed, “I’ll pound you. This is hard enough without your sick humor.”
“I don’t see why,” said Adam. “We’re going to be living through the same things, having the same things happen to us. You choose to be dismal. I choose to enjoy myself. We should learn a lesson from the swan. There’s an animal that knows how to die. It goes out singing. Surely you would not begrudge me my swan song.”
“But I don’t want to die!” said Wendy.
“Neither do I,” said Adam. “But we’ve got no choice. What’s the matter with you people? You’re sitting around like a bunch of gargoyles. Ah, I know what the trouble is. You’re dreading the canned beans. Not to worry. Old Adam has a solution to everything. We can go around to the stores that are left and gather up steaks, ribs, lobster; we can live like kings.”
“Won’t the food have radiation poisoning?” said Ed.
“The world has been burned to a crisp, the only humans alive are living underground like moles, we’ll all die of starvation in a matter of weeks because our government could not afford to show any weakness, and you call me insane? Well, I’m going, whether anybody joins me or not.”
Janet looked at him. “If you go out there now, you’ll be burned alive.”
Adam checked the radiation gauge. “The radiation levels are down. I’ll be poisoned but not burned.”
“When you open the door, the radiation will get down here,” said Wendy.
“Not with the safety hatch.”
“The radiation poisoning will kill you eventually,” said Janet.
“Starvation will kill you,” said Adam. “Maybe we can get together later and compare notes. Steve, you figure out my share of the rations, and I’ll be going.”
“If you use up your rations and come back here, we won’t help you,” said Ed.
“I know,” said Adam, solemnly. “Steve, put my share in this bag.”
He tossed Steve a burlap sack. While Steve filled it with cans of food, Adam took a duffle bag and stuffed it with a bedroll, eating utensils, matches.
Janet went over to him. “Will you be alright?”
“The radiation poisoning is going to hurt.”
“If the pain gets to be too bad, I’ll just go up on a tall building and have a diving party. What will you do when the hunger gets to be too much?”
She turned and looked significantly at Ed.
“Right,” Adam laughed. There was an awkward pause, then Adam said, “Hey, I’ll be fine. While everyone else is eating canned beans and dehydrated protein, I’ll be dining on duck and pheasant. While they crouch in darkness, I’ll walk tall in the sunlight.”
Janet held back tears with a smile. “King of the Dead World?”
“No. Not a king, exactly. A jester more like it.” He put a burlap bag on his head in a comical way and began to burlesque. “I shall be—” he bowed “—Court Jester of the Dead World, spreading his Philosophy of Happy Doom from shelter to shelter. Can’t you see it? There they’ll be, sitting around in dismal little groups, waiting quietly for the end, and suddenly they will be confronted by—” he bowed again “—me! I dare say I’ll shake them up a bit.”
Janet laughed through the tears which now streamed down her face. “And the lunatics shall inherit the Earth.”
“No,” said Adam, seriously. “They’ve owned it from the beginning.” He smiled and spread his arms grandly. “Now it’s my turn.”
“I’m going to miss you, Adam.”
“Come with me, Janet. You don’t want to sit around here. There’s nothing to do but watch everyone grow thin. Come to my party.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just don’t feel up to it.”
“Understood,” he said, sadly. He kissed her hand, not in burlesque, but with sincere respect. He looked at her for a second, then turned to the rest of the group. “It’s time for me to bid you all a fond adieu. Steve, have you got my food and water together?”
“Thank you. Mind if I take some books along?”
“Take any you want.”
Adam chose several and put them into his duffle bag. “Never know when you may need some kindling. And now, au revoir.” He gave a loose salute and started up the ladder, then began to sing with great sentimentality: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air . . .” He turned to the others. “Patriotic songs always make me feel warm all over.”
He ascended the ladder. He continued to whistle the Star Spangled Banner as he disappeared from sight, then they heard the metallic sound of the slamming of the hatch.
Janet sat on the floor at one side of the shelter, leaning back against a crate. Wendy sat in a similar position at the other end of the shelter, her forearm wrapped in a piece of cloth. Ed and Steve lay between them, asleep on the floor. The bench was turned over on its side. Empty cans and other garbage littered the floor. The whole group appeared shabbier, fatigued. Wendy fiddled with a wound under her bandage. She occasionally winced in pain.
“Need some help?” said Janet.
“You really should let someone take a look at that.”
“I don’t need your help!”
Janet closed her eyes and leaned her head back. “Suit yourself.”
Wendy started to cry silently. Ed stirred. Wendy, with extreme effort, held back the tears.
“I’m hungry,” said Ed; he kicked Steve’s feet. “Steve, wake up.”
“What is it?” said Steve without moving.
“You’ll have to wait for ration.”
“No, it’s not.”
There was a silence.
“What gives you the right to hoard food?” said Ed.
“We agreed to ration.”
Ed leaned back against the bench, crossed his arms, and sulked.
Steve sat up and grumbled. “Now I can’t sleep.”
“You’ll get plenty of sleep real soon,” said Ed.
“You make me sick,” said Steve, lethargically.
Ed pulled some cards out of his pocket and played solitaire on the floor. Steve picked up two empty cans and began stacking them and knocking them over. Wendy touched her wound. She cried quietly.
“There she goes again,” said Steve, harshly.
“Always making a racket,” Ed agreed.
Wendy’s sobs increased in spite of her effort to stop.
“Can’t you be quiet?” said Steve. “We’re tired of hearing you all the time. We can’t sleep, we can’t think.”
She now cried uncontrollably. “My arm . . .”
“We don’t give a damn about your arm,” said Ed.
“You should have been more careful in the first place,” said Steve.
Janet went over to her. Wendy pulled her arm away at first, then held it out to her. Janet unwrapped it, and Wendy slowly stopped crying.
“What have you been putting on it?” said Janet.
“The stuff that was in the first aid kit. It’s all gone now.”
“This needs to be cleaned.”
Janet went toward the water barrel. Steve stood up and blocked her path.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“She’s badly infected.”
“I don’t care if her arm rots off. You’re not using any of our water.”
Janet pushed past him. He grabbed her. She struggled, and he slapped her face. Everyone froze. Steve’s grip slowly loosened.
“Janet, I . . .”
She went to the water barrel and filled a cup.
Steve’s body went limp as he sat. “What’s happening to us? Janet, I’m so sorry. I don’t know how . . .”
Janet returned to Wendy with the water, knelt, and cleaned the wound.
“That’s coming out of your ration,” said Ed.
Janet worked on in silence, then said, “Where are the bandages?”
“That was the last one,” said Wendy.
Janet tore a strip from the bottom of her own shirt.
“Steve, give me a match,” she said.
He handed her one. Janet lit a candle and held the cloth by its ends so that the middle of it was over the flame.
Wendy watched her. “What are you doing?”
“Sterilizing it.” She started to apply the bandage.
“Let it cool off some,” said Wendy.
Janet waited a few seconds. “Here we go.” She wrapped the cloth around the wound. “That didn’t hurt, did it?”
Wendy shook her head. Then her face twisted in sorrow. She spoke quietly, but with great emotion. “I wish it was all over. I can’t stand it anymore.” Janet pulled her close and stroked her hair as Wendy quietly spoke. “I don’t mean to cause so much trouble. Really I don’t.”
“It’s just that I’m so scared. Why did they do it? Why did they have to go and do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Everything was so good before.”
“Try and sleep. You’ll feel better.”
Wendy closed her eyes. Janet rocked her slowly from side to side.
“I’m through waiting,” said Ed. “If you don’t give me my ration, I’ll take it myself. And don’t tell me it’s not time yet, because it is.”
“I was just about to get it when you started your yapping,” said Steve.
He pulled a bag of dry beans out of a crate.
“Hurry up,” said Ed.
Steve opened the bag, poured small amounts of beans onto tin plates, and passed them along. He then filled several mugs with water.
“Janet already had hers,” said Ed.
Steve gave a mug to everyone but Janet. Wendy shared with her.
“Wait a minute!” said Ed to Steve. “You have more food than anyone else!”
“You always say that. If you don’t like the way I dish out the rations, do it yourself.”
Ed reached for Steve’s plate. A scuffle ensued, and the beans were spilled onto the floor.
“Stop!” said Wendy.
Ed and Steve started picking up beans and putting them back onto their plates. They then moved to separate parts of the shelter to eat. Steve cast furtive glances at Ed. Ed kept looking at the others.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “You’re thinking about how low on food we’re getting. You’re thinking about who to eat first. Well, I’m keeping my eyes on you.”
“Ed,” said Janet, “you’re just being—” she turned and pointed her fork at Ed as she spoke.
Ed, high with tension, cringed backward and held up his own fork in a convulsive defense action. When he realized he was in no danger, he began to pick up the beans he had spilled when he jumped.
“I think we should divide up the rest of the food now,” said Ed. “Make each person responsible for their own.”
“That’s fine with me,” said Steve. “Janet?”
“I don’t care.”
Steve passed out a few packets of dehydrated food to each of them. Ed huddled possessively over his.
“What about the water?” said Ed.
“We don’t have any extra containers,” said Steve. “You’ll just have to trust me.”
“If you think—”
A metallic banging caused everyone to freeze. They looked up at the hatch. The banging was repeated. Through the metal door, they heard a voice.
“It’s Adam!” said Wendy.
“Don’t let him in,” said Ed.
Janet went to open the hatch. Ed stepped in her way.
She stared at him evenly. “Touch me, and I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
He stepped aside. Janet opened the hatch. Adam was shabbier than when they had last seen him, but still very lively. He carried his duffle bag down the ladder.
“Greetings,” he said. “The prodigal son has returned.”
“You’re not getting any of my food,” said Ed.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Ed. We have to get you fattened up.”
A strange man descended the ladder after Adam. His clothes were disheveled and torn, and his skin looked leprous, but his movements were quick and agile, like a spider.
“Who’s that?” asked Wendy.
“This is Thomas, a friend I picked up on the outside.”
Thomas looked at the others. His smile was twisted and odd. “He came to visit my shelter with his Message of Happy Doom. We were right at that stage where hunger circumvents morality. My companions took him a little too seriously when he suggested they eat me first. Adam and I had to exit hastily.”
“That reminds me,” said Adam. “Thomas, I’d like you to meet Ed. He’s the first one they’re going to eat in this shelter.”
“Of course,” said Thomas. “I’ve heard all about Ed.”
Thomas eyed Ed up and down, smacking his lips.
“I’ll kill you!” Ed shouted. He slugged Adam in the eye, knocking him to the floor. Steve grabbed Ed.
Adam lay there, rubbing his eye. He smiled. “Careful, Ed. It was that kind of thinking got us into this mess in the first place. Besides...” he climbed up, “ ...I come in peace. I bring gifts and good news. First, let me say how sorry I am that all of you missed our party. It was a grand affair.”
“You actually had the party?” said Steve.
“Certainly. I don’t mean to brag, but it will probably be known as the social event of the season.”
“People really came?” said Wendy.
“Absolutely. Quite interesting people, too.”
“Quite,” said Thomas, ironically. “Walking around in radiation tends to bring out the most unique character traits.”
“Thomas here is a scientist,” said Adam.
“One of the ‘Guests of Honor’,” said Thomas.
“All of the Guests of Honor were scientists,” said Adam. “It’s a funny thing, but we just couldn’t get any generals to come to our party. We went to the military shelter and shouted down our invitation, but they refused to come out. Nothing could induce them, so we finally just plugged up their air vents and proceeded on our way.”
“Maybe they wouldn’t come out because they didn’t feel as guilty as we did,” said Thomas. “The generals didn’t know what they were doing. We scientists should have known better.” He gazed off into the distance. “I actually considered suicide for a while, until Adam showed me a better way to atone for my guilt.”
“Which brings us to the matter of gifts mentioned earlier. I have here in my little bag of tricks: an air purifier. Handy gadget for these enclosed shelters.” He pulled a small machine out of his bag.
“Air purifier?” said Janet.
“Yes,” said Adam. “Thomas made it himself. Tom, why don’t you set it up, while I tell everyone about our travels?”
Thomas placed the air purifier up against the bench. He got down on one knee and began making adjustments with a wrench.
“Gather around,” said Adam, “and I’ll tell you of our adventures. After the party broke up, Thomas and I began a trek across the dead planet. It was a glorious sight. Miles and miles of shattered buildings, fitting monuments to the accomplishments of man.” Ed rose. “Don’t go, Ed. You’ll miss the good news.”
“What good news?”
“Just be patient,” said Adam. “I’ll come to it. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Thomas and I traveled from shelter to shelter, spreading my Message of Happy Doom. Usually we were met with distrust and disgust, and more than once we were threatened with bodily injury, but every now and then we would gain a convert who would start out on a trek of their own. Anyway, one day Thomas and I were walking along, minding everybody’s business, when Thomas noticed a strange aroma. After a moment, I noticed it, too. It seemed to be coming from just over the next hill. When we reached the summit and looked over, we couldn’t believe our eyes.”
“What did you see?” said Wendy.
“There was this long, thin valley, wedged in between two cliffs. It had obviously been formed by erosion.”
“You saw a valley,” said Ed. “Big deal.”
“This valley was filled with plant life,” said Adam.
“Plant life!” Steve exclaimed.
“Yes,” said Adam. “Tom figures that with the way it’s wedged in between those cliffs, it must have escaped the radiation that swept across. We went down to investigate, and Tom assures me that many of the plants are edible.”
“Edible!” said Steve.
“That’s great!” said Wendy.
“Furthermore,” said Adam, “they must be getting water from an uncontaminated, underground spring.”
Wendy grabbed Steve by the shoulder. “We’re saved!”
“I knew something had to happen,” said Steve. “I just knew it. There had to be some reason why we were saved from the blast.”
“What are we waiting for?” said Ed. “Let’s go.”
“It’s a really long way,” said Adam, “and Thomas and I are tired. I think it would be better if we start out fresh in the morning.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Steve. “We’ll start first thing tomorrow. Let’s pack anything we want to keep. I don’t want to have to come back here.”
Steve, Ed, and Wendy started filling duffle bags with items from the crates. Janet sat on a wooden box and watched them.
“I can’t believe it,” said Wendy. “Plants and water.”
Thomas turned a crank and the machine began working. It made a slight whirring noise. Thomas leaned up to a nozzle which was sticking out of the top of the machine, took a deep breath, and slumped to the floor in back of the bench. No one noticed him. They continued to talk excitedly.
“This is a big responsibility we have now,” said Steve. “We’ve been given a second chance. It’s up to us to rebuild the world. We’ve got to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes that were made the first time. Out of the rubble of the dead world, we’ll build a better one.”
“Are we going to bring anyone from the other shelters?” Wendy asked.
“We’ll have to,” said Steve. “We can’t repopulate by ourselves.”
“We will have to do that—repopulate—won’t we?” said Ed. He cast a quick glance at Wendy. “I mean, it’s sort of a duty, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Steve. “We have to replenish the Earth.”
Steve sat against the edge of the bench. He yawned.
“Will we still have marriages and all like that?” said Wendy.
“We’ll have to have some kind of laws,” said Steve. “We can decide all that when we get to the valley.” He yawned again. “I’m getting kind of sleepy.”
Wendy and Ed also showed signs of sleepiness, blinking and yawning. Steve continued to talk, his speech growing more slurred and incoherent as he went.
“I just can’t get over our good fortune,” he said. “It’s like a second Garden of Eden. And we were chosen. It will be from our loins that the new race will spring.”
Ed sat down and closed his eyes. Wendy did likewise.
“Hundreds of years from now,” said Steve, “they’ll write histories about us. About the valley. About how . . . about how the world was reborn.” He slid down to the floor. “Reborn. Like a phoenix out of its ashes. They’ll make legends. They’ll tell about how . . . about how . . .” He slumped over.
Janet spoke quietly to Adam. “There is no valley, is there?”
Janet closed her eyes. “Thank you.”
He watched her seriously for a moment, then closed his own eyes.
The only sound in the cold, dead world was that of the machine. It choked, sputtered, then died in a whimper. ✦