Primordial Soup

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Chapter 23

The three-thousand-eight-hundred men women and children that had taken refuge in the bunker just outside Nottingham, having decided to stay put until things got back to normal outside, sat in near darkness. The emergency lighting had come on when the power had failed two days ago. The water had frozen in the pipes and the air was becoming foul. Major Barnes was helpless to do anything. The blast doors had been sealed shut for months by mountains of snow and ice.

The emergency batteries were already beginning to fail and people were beginning to panic; he had issued side arms to his soldiers to try to keep order but he wasn’t sure how much longer they would follow the chain of command. They were trapped in a tomb with no way out.

Luke was standing in the doorway, watching the Major deep in thought sitting behind his desk.

‘Can I speak with you sir?’

Yes Luke, what is it?’

‘It’s the air. People are finding it hard to breathe and it smells foul. If we don’t do something soon it’s going to be unbearable.’

‘There isn’t anything we can do Luke. This place was built to be impregnable.’

‘But there must be shafts that go to the surface or how would air get drawn down into the facility. Perhaps if we climbed them we could clear the snow to let the air in.’

‘It’s not possible Luke, they’re fifty feet up and filled with fans and filters, then covered in maybe another fifty foot of snow.’

‘Anything is better than sitting here waiting to suffocate. Do you have any plans for the bunker? Perhaps there’s an easier way to get air in.’

The major got up from his chair and put the half empty brandy bottle back in his drawer. ‘Let’s have a look.’

He unlocked a wide filing cabinet and pulled open a drawer containing schematics.

‘Help me with these.’

Together they pulled a thick wad of blueprints over to the desk.

‘Go and get Malloy for me. He was in the engineers before he joined my unit, he’ll understand these more than we will.’

Luke raced from the room and was back in minutes with Malloy.

‘Luke’s told me what he’s thinking of doing sir. It could work.’

They went through the drawings, discarding those of no use, until Malloy found the ones dealing with ventilation.

‘It’s this one sir. It shows all the vents that serve the bunker.’ He studied the drawing for a moment. ‘There.’ He pointed to a shaft near the end of the drawing. ’This one runs near vertical, it’s a spare shaft, no motors, fans or filters, it looks like a steel cage at the top and a blast door halfway up. It’s quite narrow, only room for one person. It may be possible as there are ladder rungs above and below the door.

~

Malloy led the way by torchlight to a room at the end of a disused corridor. He unlocked the heavy metal door and the three of them pulled it open. The room was pitch dark. Luke shone his torch around, stopping on a two foot square hole in the ceiling.

He walked underneath it and shone his torch up into it.

‘Help me up to the first rung,’ he said, shoving his torch into his coat with the lens pointing up.

Malloy and Barnes hoisted him up by the legs. Luke grabbed the rung and pulled himself up. He climbed into the shaft until he had a foot on the first rung, then climbed quickly up, the torch lighting his way.

A thick metal door with two handles barred his way. Luke wedged himself against the wall and grabbed a handle. He pulled it toward the centre; it wouldn’t move. He shifted position to get better leverage and pushed with both hands.

The handle shrieked loudly as it slowly moved to the centre. Luke grabbed the other handle and pulled, this one gave in easier, coming to a stop in the centre. As he pushed on the blast door with both hands it moved upwards an inch then stopped. He climbed another rung and got his head and shoulders under it and pushed with all his strength.

The door gave suddenly and flew upwards, hitting the concrete wall behind; the clanging sound nearly deafening him in the confined space. The air that rushed in was freezing but smelt infinitely better than the air below.

He looked up into the shaft; it was pitch black. He climbed to the top and came to the grill Malloy had said would be there. Luke took the torch from his pocket and played the light over the grill, he poked his finger through, feeling solid ice.

We could cut through this easy, he thought.

He climbed back down and dropped to the floor.

‘I got to the top. The grill is just where you said it would be Sarge, but it’s not snow, it’s ice, plenty of fresh drinking water when we melt it.’

‘Then let’s get started,’ said Malloy.

The Major called a meeting to discuss proposals for survival. The largest room in the compound was the map room. It was standing room only. The emergency power had been routed to the internal speaker system so that those unable to find room to attend could hear the meeting. Barnes was standing on the small podium waiting for Malloy to finish connecting the power.

‘It should be on now sir.’

As Barnes tapped the mike it echoed around the room and throughout the shelter. ‘Can we have quiet please?’

The room fell silent.

‘Thank you. As you all know, conditions down here have not been very good for the past few weeks. The loss of power has meant that the systems for cleaning the air have not been working. As for the food supply we have only enough left for maybe one or two weeks at the most.’

A murmur swept through the room.

Malloy stood up and raised his arms. ‘Can we have quiet please? Let the Major finish.’

‘As I was saying. We have food for maybe two weeks, a month if we severely ration it. However, we’re no longer trapped down here. At the far end of the shelter is a shaft that leads to the surface. It’s covered by pack ice but we should be able to cut through it easily enough and it will provide us with a plentiful supply of clean air and drinking water. We will need people to work at cutting a shaft through the ice to the surface...’

Bill put his hand up. ‘Yes Bill. You have something you wish to say.’

‘How wide is this shaft sir?’

‘Not wide enough for you I’m afraid Bill.’

Laughter echoed around the shelter. Most people had got to know Bill, and his sense of humour boosted morale.

‘Don’t worry Bill you might be on a strict diet soon anyway,’ laughed Mike.

Bill pretended to be offended.

Barnes cut in. ‘If we could move on. Once we cut a shaft to the surface we can go out at night and using maps and compasses locate food warehouses and replenish our stocks. We will need to dig through a lot of snow and ice to gain entrance, but we have enough able-bodied people to form plenty of work parties. We can also clear away the surface of the shelter and get the power back on. If the conditions above are as we suspect, there could be over fifty feet of ice and snow above us. We know this because one of the main ventilation shafts that supply air to the shelter is that tall and has become blocked. Levels of that amount of ice mean we’re in the grip of an ice age. It’s very unlikely that any people outside could have survived. I don’t need to spell it out to you, but conditions like that would mean long term survival would be very difficult, if not impossible. I propose to disband the chain of command as I don’t feel that we are in need of an armed force any longer. Instead I propose to form a committee to oversee the task of work parties and replenishing our stocks of food. If we are to survive, we must all work together on an equal footing, everybody will get the chance to vote for the committee.’

Bill put his hand up again.

Barnes smiled. ‘Yes Bill.’

‘I vote that the Major and Sergeant Malloy be voted in as first and second committee members. Who’ll second that?’

The whole room put their hands up and shouts of ‘Yes’ could be heard all over the shelter.

‘I think that’s unanimous Mr Barnes...Sir,’ shouted Bill. Laughter echoed throughout the shelter.

When the laughter had died down enough for Barnes to be heard, he leaned forward to the mike. ‘I accept. And as Bill won’t fit through the shaft I think we had better nominate him for a place on the committee, to keep him out of trouble.’

The room was in uproar as everyone laughed and shouted ‘Yes’ at the same time.

When order had been restored, Barnes spoke again. ‘We need another nine members, so if you could all vote for your candidate. I call this meeting closed.’

~

The survivors worked tirelessly in digging the shaft to the surface. The ice was collected and stored in tanks and drums.

Luke refused to come down even when his shift was over. It was sub-zero temperature inside the shaft and his fingers were beginning to go numb, even though he wore thick woollen gloves.

The shaft, normally lit by a meagre light bulb seemed to be growing brighter from above. Luke twisted the bulb and the light went out. The top of the shaft became illuminated with a soft white glow.

Quickening his pace he kicked his boots into holes that had been cut into the ice wall and furiously hacked away at the ice above his head. Ice was falling past him and down the shaft like a snow blizzard.

As Luke broke through the crust above his head, he thought he’d been blinded. The light flooding in saturated his retinas with a blinding white light.

After all the months of semi-darkness it took a while for his eyes to acclimatise. He kicked footholds in the icy wall then climbed further up the shaft until his head and shoulders were above the opening.

What he saw was beyond his wildest imagination. The whole landscape was pure white and the sky the bluest blue he’d ever seen, the creatures had gone. The skies were clear.

He nearly lost his footing, such was his eagerness to tell the news. He dropped from the hatch into the arms of a group of men that had gathered under the hatch, thinking the worst because of Luke’s screams.

‘They’re gone,’ he shouted. ‘The creatures. They’re gone. The sky is empty. The sun is shining.’

Luke ran from the room like a demented inmate, running past rooms and people in the corridors, shouting the same thing over and over as he ran.

Julia, now four months pregnant was in the canteen, helping prepare dinners with the meagre rations they had left. Luke rushed in and lifted her off her feet. They all thought he’d gone mad until they made sense of what he was shouting. She kissed him all over his frozen face.

The news spread through the shelter like a wildfire. Barnes came hurrying along the corridor to the canteen. Luke met him in the doorway.

‘They’ve gone Major. The creatures. They’re all gone.’

Barnes turned and quickly headed back the way he had come. Followed by a corridor full of people he made his way to the shaft. Easing his way through the crowd that had gathered in the corridor and under the shaft, he looked up at the tiny square of bright blue sky.

Everyone was smiling and laughing and hugging the person next to them.

When all the excitement had calmed down a pitch, work details were formed to clear the entrance to the shelter. It took weeks to shift the hundreds of tons of snow and ice, before the huge metal door was finally uncovered.

As the doors were opened, people lining the corridor had to shield their eyes as the bright light flooded in, then, dressed in warm clothing, the remnants of the human race walked out of the shelter and stood basking in the sweet fresh air and glorious sunshine.

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