First published in Terror House Magazine
Bill, Mark, and Elon sat down in the control room, preparing to argue again. Their families and the others sheltered deep below. Only the Steering Committee were allowed to come up here. Only they could be trusted to remain calm when scrutinizing data, and to make the right, critical decisions.
After all, they’d paid more than their fair share for a place in the bunker.
Elon had helped to design it. Mark had led the programming team for the internal information system. And the whole setup had been Bill’s idea.
Each had his own duties. Elon’s current job was to check system reports, and he said they were fine. Bill asked if the air filtration system was fine. Elon said that it was. Mark asked if he was sure, and he replied that he was.
The air filter had gone out three weeks ago when Elon’s patented lithium battery had exploded in an inextinguishable fireball so bright it could not be looked upon, sending a thick plume of black smoke into the clear, South Island air that advertised their exact location to any survivors in the region. When it finally burned itself out, they had managed to repair it. There was a nervous fortnight wait to see whether any of the unfiltered air that seeped in during the disaster would infect anyone, but the entire population of 72 had tested negative to COVID-19.
Mark’s duty, as Chief Information Officer, was to check the news and report back to the others. No one else was allowed, in order to control panic. Once again, he relayed the same thing: major news outlets all said the crisis was over. After a sharp peak in infections, there had been an equally sharp fall. Almost everybody was back at work. The economy was recovering. There were occasional second-wave or third-wave outbreaks, but each was smaller than the last, and more easily contained. It hadn’t turned out to be so deadly after all.
And then the usual debate began.
“Why should we trust anything from your site?” demanded Bill. “It’s the world’s main conduit for fake news.” Bill was the oldest and wealthiest of the three, and the Chair of the Committee. His appearance, dorky and disheveled no matter what he wore, acted as its own form of authority. Such a geek could only be a genius.
“Not only my site,” said Mark. He looked like a tall and particularly inanimate Lego character in his unchanging grey T-shirt and short, helmet hair. “All the sites are saying the same thing. It’s over, guys. Been over for months. Time to go home.”
“Deep fakes are easy these days,” said Elon. He was the only one of the three who was handsome and stylish, in a Bond-villain kind of way. His intense eyes peered suspiciously at the others. “A few scattered bands of survivors, with a power source, would have no trouble whipping up that rubbish. Presidents announcing an end to stimulus spending, fake Tokyo Olympics; it’s a piece of cake.”
“I’m still inclined to agree with Elon,” said Bill. “It’s only been two years. Would it hurt to stay another year, just to make absolutely sure? We’re comfortable enough. There’s still plenty of Evian. Yes, we’re all sick of frozen lobster, but we’re not on vacation. The kids aren’t bored of indoor skiing yet.”
Mark sighed. “After three years, the same logic would suggest we stay yet another year. And then another, and another. One day, we have to leave. I ask you again, Bill: what would it take to convince you it was safe to get out of this hole?”
Bill considered. “Something over and above online news. One more piece of data to back it up. When that comes, I’ll be convinced.”
“But what?” said Mark. “The Internet is the only connection we have to the outside world. Maybe maintaining radio silence was a bad idea. Sure, no one knows we’re here, but we have no other way of getting information.”
“My satellite”, said Elon. “We can get an independent picture of what’s happening.”
“Can you access it from here?” asked Bill.
“Yes. But I’ll have to use the computer.”
“It’s against the rules,” said Mark. “The Committee agreed; only I’m allowed to have an outside connection.”
“It will take too long to give you the codes and explain how to operate it. Just let me jump on there for ten minutes and I’ll have it up and running.”
Bill said, “We need to vote on it. I say let Elon have a look.”
“Me too,” said Elon. He gently pushed the reluctant Mark out of the swiveling chair and began banging away at the keyboard. “Let’s zoom in on Mumbai,” he said after fiddling for a few minutes. Breaking protocol, both of the other men looked over his shoulder at the screen. An immense, dark cloud hung over the megapolis.
“Good news!” said Mark. “Just as polluted as usual. Vehicles and factories must be running.”
“It’s only one city,” said Elon. “Maybe India escaped the worst of it. Let’s check two more.”
They checked five more: Beijing, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and Addis Ababa. Each showed its characteristic, dirty pollution.
“Well, what do you say, Bill?” asked Mark. “Convinced now?”
“Looks pretty compelling…” he said thoughtfully.
“Are you kidding?” said Elon. “Think about it. What else could make all that smoke?” They looked at him expectantly. “Burning bodies! Maybe the disaster’s reaching its peak now.”
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” said Mark. “If it were truly terrible, there’d be nobody to dispose of the dead. Anyway, it just looks like industrial smog.”
“Or fake images!” Elon screamed. “Someone could have hacked the connection and is trying to deceive us just to get in here! The same ones who made those fake news stories!”
“Elon, calm down,” said Bill. “That seems a little hysterical. In any case, we chose New Zealand because it’s so sparsely populated. Even if what you say is true, it’s unlikely there’s anyone up here in the mountains. Time to check, I suppose.”
Bill was the only one permitted to look outside, using a different monitor reserved for his use. 700 meters above the control room, outside the camouflaged gate, were two hidden cameras. One pointed down the bumpy, unsealed road that led here. Another aimed straight ahead, to see what was in front of the gate. Mark and Elon awaited his usual announcement of “NBS,” which stood for “nothing but snow.” Sometimes he mixed it up by saying “NB effing S,” and once there had been a pair of keas, but normally he just said “NBS.”
“What?” Elon demanded.
“People. Right outside the gate.”
There was a moment of silence.
It took Bill a moment to answer. “Five. They don’t look too sick; maybe a bit cold. Hard to see; we should have got a better camera.” Elon frowned. The cameras, like the battery, had been his responsibility. “They’re wearing hiking gear.” Bill peered closer at the screen. “They know we’re here.”
“How can you be sure?” asked Mark.
“Because they’re looking at the camera and waving.” Elon’s frown deepened. “And they’re speaking. They think we can hear them. And they’re holding a sign. It says…” He leaned even closer, his nose almost touching the glass. “It says, ‘Hello. Everything’s fine. You can come out.’”
With that, all rules were instantly forgotten. Mark and Elon rushed to the monitor, jostling for a view. Sure enough, a handful of perfectly ordinary people stood outside, calling something silently, holding their sign, smiling, and stamping their feet to keep warm.
“Bill,” said Mark. “Come on, man. This is it! It’s over.” He held the older man by the shoulders, looking him in the face. “We survived. We’re safe. It’s time to go home.” Bill gazed at Mark for some time through his ridiculous glasses, then nodded gently. Mark hugged him. “We made it, man. We made it.”
“It’s a trap.” They both looked at Elon, who was standing ramrod straight with his arms crossed. “There could be more of them behind the gate, up the mountainside where we can’t see them. They saw the smoke, got a gang together, and this is their plot to get us to open the gates so they can storm us and take whatever it is they want. Food. Medicine. Whatever they’ve run out of. Or maybe they just want to get at us.”
Mark laughed. “Well, I agree with you on the smoke. Thank goodness your stupid battery blew up, otherwise no one would ever find us and we’d cower here forever. Dude, it’s three women and two men. They look middle-aged. They realized there’s a doomsday bunker here and they’ve come to let us know it’s all okay. Do you want to end up like those Japanese soldiers still hiding on a remote Pacific island up ‘til the eighties, not realizing the war’s been won and lost decades ago? You’ve been cooped up in here too long, and you were a bit of a nut to begin with. Now you’ve gone completely mad. Elon, it’s time to go home.”
Elon glared at Mark. Bill stepped forward, his palms out. “Elon, what more do you want? Online news, your satellite data, and the people outside all agree. What else would convince you?”
“I made my career by going with my gut. This doesn’t feel right. Until it does, I say no.”
“Your gut?” said Mark. “You’re basically insolvent. Your cars keep crashing or spontaneously combusting. You’ve narrowly escaped being sued for defamation, God knows how. And you want us to trust your gut?”
Bill nodded. “In any case, you don’t have veto power. It’s two against one. We’re going to open the gates and say hello.”
In one swift movement, Elon moved to the back of the room, broke a glass cabinet with its attached hammer, and withdrew the contents. He aimed the pistol at Bill.
“Elon, put it back!” squealed Mark, his arms raised. “We’re only supposed to take that out if we vote unanimously.”
“This is my veto power. Return to the living quarters. I am the committee now.”
“Elon, please!” Mark begged again. “You’ve completely lost it. What are you going to do, keep us all prisoner forever, just in case? Let us go!”
Bill remained calm. “I’m staying here,” he announced serenely. “Shoot me if you like. If you want me to go back down, you can drag my remains into the elevator yourself.”
“I will shoot you!” Elon bellowed. “Both of you, in the elevator, now!” Mark stumbled to the elevator as quickly as he could, pressing the down button again and again. Bill remained seated. “Last chance, you decrepit nerd! Three…two…one…” A shot rang out, then another, then four more, echoing deafeningly in the small, metallic room. Mark dove to the ground, covering his head, sobbing. A few seconds later, his hearing returned and he noticed a clicking sound. He looked up.
Elon was still pointing the pistol at Bill, still pulling the trigger, but each time it did nothing. He looked quizzically at his weapon. Bill was sitting in the same position, his expression unchanged. He glanced at Mark for a moment, making a slight grimace of disgust, then returned his attention to Mark.
“It seems I was right not to trust you,” said the old man calmly.
Elon opened the chamber and looked inside. “Blanks,” he said simply.
“Why did you insist on a gun, anyway? Those things are dangerous, especially if you’re trapped in a hole with a lunatic. Now you can see why I insisted on being the armorer.”
Elon placed the pistol back in its chamber and bent down. He picked up the largest of the shards of glass scattered across the floor, and in three strides was in front of the elevator door, facing the other men. Mark scampered away next to Bill. His senior patted him on the shoulder, then indicated he should stand up. Mark obeyed.
“Very clever,” said Elon. “But you’re still going to have to fight your way to the top. While I draw breath, no one leaves.”
“Then,” said Bill, “it seems we are at an impasse.”
For some minutes, the three men remained motionless, waiting for something to happen. Finally, Mark coughed, and the others looked at him sharply.
“Don’t worry, not corona,” he said. He had rapidly regained his composure. He walked to the gun cabinet, examined the weapon with interest, replaced it, and picked up his own shard of glass. He tested its sharpness on his finger, drawing a drop of blood.
“Is this how humanity ends?” Mark pondered. “From apes hitting each other with rocks, to billionaire genius apes slashing each other with broken glass…” He gazed at the monitor. The people outside were apparently having a picnic. He thought he could make out sandwiches and bottles of beer, which must have been heavy to lug so far if they had come on foot. He dropped his piece of glass to the floor, letting it break. “I thought, by this point, we might expect a little more of ourselves.”
“We are still animals,” said Elon. “We have a self-preservation instinct, and we want to protect our families. At least, I do. And I will.”
Mark spent some time looking at the monitor, gathering his thoughts. Then he spoke again.
“Look at us. We thought we were Übermenschen, so superior to everyone else, just because we had more money, more fame, greater achievements. We thought that we and our families ought to survive, no matter what happened to everyone else. But what have we really done to deserve it?”
He pointed to Bill. “You’re a good programmer and a savvy businessman. Your software helped billions. But what could we do when it crashed? You had a monopoly.” Bill looked as though he was going to argue, then said nothing. “You and your wife claimed you were going to use your incredible wealth to make the world better, but what has it achieved? Very little. And when things got really bad, you fled underground instead of staying and supporting that human race you claimed to love so much.” Bill remained silent and expressionless.
Mark continued. “Look at me. I invented a website that makes people anxious all the time, and I was so arrogant I ignored everyone’s right to privacy. I thought I’d outgrown the worst aspects of my personality, but when it came down to it, what did I do? I ran away and hid, the same as you.”
Next he turned to Elon. “You imagined that you’d pioneer spacefaring technology, mine asteroids, take us to Mars. The hero of mankind. But when disaster struck, you crawled away into this hole, just like we did.”
Elon said nothing.
“It doesn’t really matter if we leave or not. The world will go on without us. But if I ever get out of here alive, I’m going to change my attitude. No more bunkers, no more private jets, no more hiding away from the world like a mob boss. It’s time to start acting like a responsible adult.”
There was no sound except for the whirring computer fans.
Elon stared at the ground in front of him. After a long time, he looked up. “We might still go to Mars,” he said at last, so softly they could barely hear him. “We might mine asteroids. Maybe we’ll master cold fusion. But what’s the point? Unless we can benefit the whole of humanity, it’s nothing.” He tossed the shard of glass back onto the pile on the floor, rubbed his eyes, and took a breath. “We’re keeping our visitors waiting. Let’s go and offer them a cup of tea.”
Mark walked to Elon and embraced him. Bill rose and moved towards them, but satisfied himself with awkwardly patting them on the back. The three Supermen entered the elevator and began the ascent.
“I’m sorry,” said Elon. “Sometimes I forget that I’m just a human being.”
“We know how you feel,” said Bill.
In a moment, they were facing the inside of the reinforced steel gate. Mark turned to Elon. “Are you sure about this? There’s been too much fighting. Forever. I’ll respect your veto if you still want to wait.” Elon looked at Bill, who nodded his agreement. Elon grinned. “I think we’re unanimous. Three votes for humanity.”
They pulled the bolts, and warm, dense air from inside escaped, hissing into the cold. They smelled leaves and soil. It smelled good. Together, they turned the hatch to open the gate. Slowly, the heavy mass of metal swung open.
For a moment, the three stood squinting, unaccustomed to natural light. Then they heard the sound. At first, it was a vague rumble, then as it grew louder, they realized that it was the sound of many, many people running towards them.
“Shut the gate!” screamed Bill. It swung inwards with glacial inertia, and the huge number of sprinting silhouettes grew closer, clearer, and they could make out gaunt faces, hungry eyes, sick, gaping mouths, and brandished garden implements.
“Faster!” shouted Mark. “Elon, hold them off!” Elon stepped into the opening, had half a second to recall the shard of glass and unloaded gun that lay 700 meters below, then the ravenous tsunami of humans crashed through the narrow gap, and they were overcome.
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