One by one, flashlights popped on like stars in a velvet sky. Blue tinged the white as laptops and tablets added to the illumination. Draping from the ceiling, silver emergency blankets amplified the light, kept the heat in the cave and channeled the ever present dripping water to the canals on the side of the room.
“Is anyone hurt?” Doctor Mavis Spanner rested her tablet computer on the table in front of her. She scanned the dimness, searching the faces. Fear bracketed mouths. Anger knotted the brows of others. No face relayed pain, just irritation at the constant downtime from the overtaxed electrolysis machines. “Anyone?”
Most of the two dozen people shrugged. A few crossed their arms and thrust their jaws forward.
Her stomach burbled. Acid shot into her esophagus. Not now, she wouldn’t be sick now. Mavis straightened her spine. Any weakness in front of this lot would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. God knew some were just looking for an opportunity to skewer her.
“Good.” She pinned former Marine Corps General Lister with a glare.
A scowl enhanced the bull-dog qualities of his face as he hung up the phone. “Electrolysis machines one and two are online. Three is off, and the others haven’t heard from the operator of EM-3.”
Mavis recorded the incidents on her tablet. Eddie Buchanan had started his new duties today. Maybe he and his coworker, Charles Forrest, had taken the machine down for training purposes.
“Oh look.” A red-hair man checked the freckle on his right arm. “It’s a day of the week. Must be time for one of the atom splitters to blow.”
Chuckles alleviated some of the tension of the blackout.
Too bad the joker was Kevin Harriman. Mavis’s attention drifted to the man on Kevin’s right, Dirk Benedict. Those two were up to something. She just had to wait for her new peacekeeping force to prove it.
“Let’s get on with the meeting.” Scraping the marker off her desk, she trudged across the hard rock floor, in front of the dark monitors linking them to other survivors around the globe, toward the white board on an easel. Her footsteps echoed around the bowl shaped room despite her loafer’s soft soles.
“No.” Kevin pounded his fist on the table in front of him. “I sick of this business as usual bullshit.”
The overhead lights flickered on and the camera mounted on a tripod in front of her cabinet members blinked on.
She swallowed the bits of sausage breakfast that remained in her stomach after her morning vomitfest. “We have an agenda, so the most pressing needs of the community will get addressed, Mr. Harriman. If you have something–”
“When is something going to change for the better?” Kevin pushed out of his chair.
“Things already have changed for the better.” Surgeon General, Colonel John Jay adjusted the wire rim glasses on his nose. He smoothed his blue jacket with its stylized Air Force wings, cleared his throat and glanced down at the tablet computer on the folding table in front of him. “Our population is holding steady at one-thousand twenty-two. No one died last night.”
“Son of a bitch.” Metal screeched as Secretary of Homeland Security Lister scooted a folding chair near the phone and sat down.
Mavis’s knees threatened to buckle. She locked them to remain upright. That meant… Fluttering filled her stomach. Could it be over? Could the dying really be over?
Whoops bounced off the ceiling, rippling off the silvery fabric draped over the meeting room. Pale limbs swayed as high fives passed around the cavern.
“Thank God.” Mavis carefully set the eraser back on its ledge. Bile rose in her throat. “And we have no strange new outbreaks? Rocky Mountain Fever? Plague? Typhoid?”
“Sweet Mother of God, woman. Stop poking the rabid badger.” Lister shoved out of his seat and stalked around his folding table. “I say we burn that damn eraser. From now on the only way to go it up.”
Up. Mavis nodded. “Up would be good.”
Unless it was her breakfast. That needed to stay put. Ditto with her lunch this afternoon.
Kevin snorted. “How are going to increase our population when nothing you’ve done so far has made us safer?”
“We’re safe from the radiation.” Colonel Jay polished his lenses on his shirt hem.
Lister cleared his throat. “And we have MREs for five years.”
“That the military controls.” Kevin snorted. Two of the twenty civilians filling the tables in front of her cabinet nodded. Dirk Benedict and Nancy Adler.
All three were from Section Seven–an area that had forced out foreign-born refugees, threatened the new peacekeepers and had the highest ratio of sick-days per person.
They were the rotten apples in the barrel–an air-tight barrel with few ways to mitigate their poisonous influence. Mavis scrubbed her palms over her face. She hadn’t survived the end of the world to allow freedom to be subsumed by a caste system. “The supplies that we have are distributed fairly.”
“This is communism.” Kevin braced himself on his knuckles and leaned over the table. “Everyone get the same treatment regardless of how hard they work and how important their jobs are to our survival.”
“You benefit from that system, Mr. Harriman.”
Kevin snorted. “By constant blackouts. Having our oxygen cut off. And now you can’t even keep our vegetables safe. So much for your utopia.”
Mavis forced her curled fingers to relax. She was sure the man knew more than she did about the stolen food.
“This isn’t utopia by any means.” Otherwise some folks wouldn’t have been invited inside. “Working together, people here and around the planet had found solutions to our problems and ways to implement them with our supplies on hand. We can’t go to the grocery store and pick up food, nor can we go the Home Depot and get supplies. We have a finite amount of supplies. We have to make the best use of them given our priorities.”
Unfortunately not everyone wanted to help.
She glanced at Kevin’s neighbor. Dirk Benedict had the physique and smile of Santa Claus, but the temperament of a Pit Bull with a spike in its paw. She would rather deal with the Pit Bull.
Wounded animals would be more predictable.
“When are we going to stop surviving and start living?” Spittle foamed in the corners of Kevin’s mouth.
“Most of us already have, Mr. Harriman. If you are having difficulties adjusting, perhaps you should speak to our counselors. We wouldn’t want you to walk outside and acquire an unfortunate tan.” As appealing as that would be, every person counted. Unfortunately, she already had a surplus of bad examples.
“No way. You already have spy cameras everywhere.” Kevin gestured to the modems that help connect the tunnels, caves and mine shafts. “I’m not letting you inside my head.”
Asshole. She shook off her thoughts. Time to get the meeting back on track. “What is the prognosis of the irradiated survivors Brother Bob rescued?”
Colonel Jay worked his earpieces back into place before dropping to his seat. “Two are hours away from slipping into shock, but the other three will recover.”
To get leukemia and cancer later. Mavis dusted her hand on her jeans. But they would have a few more years living in a dark, wet and cold cave.
Never to feel the sunlight on their face.
God, she missed the sunlight. Mavis sauntered across the man-made cavern and dropped into her seat. Fatigue pulled at her. Maybe one day, she’d see it again. She tapped the tablet and the screen blinked to life. Maybe she wouldn’t have to live to be a hundred-thirty-two to do it. “Are they safe enough to move?”
“The three survivors are no longer emitting any radiation.” Colonel Jay pinched the bridge of his nose. “The other two will have to be interred in the vault.”
The vault. A partially collapsed mine several miles from them that served as their crypt. Mavis sighed. The poor souls must have been exposed to high levels of radiation if they’d be emitting rads long after death. She shoved her bangs out of her eyes. She should have told people about the melt down in her evacuation orders. Should have but hadn’t. Doubting herself wouldn’t change anything but her faith in her leadership abilities.
That could prove fatal.
Kevin’s chair screeched as he sat down. “I suppose those dead are taking up our limited medical supplies too.”
Ignoring him, she pulled up the agenda on her tablet. Using the stylus, she penned in the population. One thousand twenty-two and holding. Such good news. Not even a mishap in the electrolysis systems could diminish that victory. She eyed the ribbons near the vents. Especially since the oxygen kept flowing. “What’s the status of the spent nuclear fuel rods?”
“According to satellite infrared, Kansas seems to be the only repository still burning.” Lister tapped his screen.
Pings sounded around the room as his message was dispersed to the gathered crowd.
An envelope popped up on her desktop. Mavis clicked on it. A global map oozed across her screen. Red striped mountain ranges bisected the yellows and oranges covering most of Europe. Not a cold blue spot on the continent.
“Europe is still burning, I see.” She scanned the display. The white spots indicating the burning fuel rods had vanished. Unfortunately, the conventional fires could have used up most of the oxygen and those rods could start burning once oxygen became available again. “Have we heard from anyone in the European Union lately?”
Lieutenant Sally Rogers shifted on the chair next to Colonel Jay. As their tech guru, she kept the caves wired and connected to the world. “Their populations are still dwindling, but they’re using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen so they have air to breathe.”
Mavis nodded. “Food is still in short supply I see.”
Suicide missions had raided America’s overseas bases for the last stores of MREs and still it hadn’t been enough to feed those hiding in the hills, mines and mountains of Europe. Reports of cannibalism ran rampant. There as well as in scattered areas around the globe.
No wonder some folks took their chances outside.
Including here, in the good ol’ US of A. She checked the population of the Japanese refugees in California. Still decreasing. What was going on over there? They should have had plenty of MREs and their last anthrax-related death had been a week ago.
Too bad the satellites couldn’t show her what was going inside pockets of humanity riddling the Sierra Nevadas or Cascade Mountains.
“You think they ate the puny ones first?” Dirk Benedict’s voice carried to the front of the room.
Lister stiffened and pinned Benedict with a glare. The man didn’t even have the decency to blush.
Mavis cleared her throat and studied her screen. With everyone that had been lost, why did cretins like him survive?
Lister picked at the scab on his freshly shaven cheek. “Why have we gone from the nuclear fuel rods burning for decades to being gone within weeks?”
“Maybe they never really burned at all.” Dirk whispered.
Mavis squared her shoulders. Bastard. He knew everyone heard him. She raised her chin and faced him. “If you don’t believe the radiation is real, Mr. Benedict, you’re welcome to stay in the isolation ward or live outside.”
Dirk crossed his arms over his distended belly and glared at her from under bushy eyebrows.
“After a couple of hours with our terminal patients, you’ll start to feel nauseous, then begin to vomit. Then you’ll have a headache, fever and diarrhea.” Mavis drummed her fingers on the table. Hmm, she had some of those symptoms. Had she been exposed? “If you’re still not a believer, you can stay until your central nervous system begins to degrade. By then, you’ll have no immune system and your body will start to rot from the inside out. I understand worms and maggots emerged from the mouths of the victims of Chernobyl at the end.”
Dirk Benedict was enough of a slime ball that she’d be hard pressed to tell the one from the other.
His fingers dug into the sleeves of his jacket but he didn’t budge from his seat. “I’m hardly the only one to express doubts. After all, no one’s actually seen the radiation.”
Kevin and Nancy Adler nodded like meat puppets.
“Did you see the Redaction virus that killed nearly one out of three people?”
Dirk studied his fingernails. “The government has told us so many lies, it’s hard to know when you’re telling the truth.”
She caught the word you. He liked to make this personal. She could play by his rules.
“Everything that we know, you have access to.” Mavis lifted her tablet computer and shook it like a tambourine. Allowing everyone access to the information had been a tactic she’d initiated to thwart the government conspiracy nut jobs. The four remaining military officers had protested. Of course, it had come right after she’d mustered out the armed forces, converting some to peacekeepers while others were integrated into the general population.
Lister grunted and shook his head.
Yeah, he could gloat. Judging from the nodding of the two men next to Dirk, her campaign hadn’t been completely successful.
The black Bakelight phone on the wall rang. The electrolysis techs in EM-3 would be reporting in. Lister lifted it from the cradle. “Report.”
“We have access to information only while at this meeting.” Dirk snorted. “Whose to say you haven’t edited it for these little sessions and are only telling us what you want us to know?”
Lister’s free hand formed a fist at his side. “You sure?”
Mavis kept her security head in her peripheral vision. Obviously, the electrolysis machine wasn’t off-line for training.
Colonel Jay shoved to his feet. His folding chair collapsed and crashed to the ground. “If it wasn’t for the Doc’s warning and planning, you would be dead by now. Killed by that radiation you think doesn’t exit.”
“No where in here does it say what foreign nation actually attacked us with anthrax.” Dirk made air quotes when he said foreign nation. “That smacks of cover-up to me. What was it really? Some military bioweapon that got out of hand?”
“Copy that.” After hanging up, Lister pivoted on his heel. A muscle throbbed in his jaw as he joined her at the table.
Oh God, it must be really bad. One thing at a time. Mavis calmly placed her hands on the table, the epitome of openness.
“I deleted all reference to those we believe responsible for the attack.” If the idiot remembered that the attack came in toys distributed by Burgers in a Basket, he would know China was at the bottom of it. Of course, the troglodyte might not be able to read but if he really wanted to know he’d surely bully someone into doing it for him. Just like he did with his other assigned tasks.
Dirk sucked air between his teeth. “And you ask us to trust you, when you’re deliberately keeping that from us.”
“I can’t think why you’d believe that.” She kept her expression calm. The bastard was incapable of trusting anyone. He believed everyone else to be a back-stabbing asshole like he was.
Her gaze skittered to Jake Turner. The slimeball lawyer and Dirk had once been friends of a murdering sociopath. The two of them went out of their way to avoid each other now, perhaps too much. The fact that neither looked at each other caused the hair at her nape to stand on end. Yet, Jake usually remained silent while Dirk had diarrhea of the mouth.
“We have folks from many nationalities and religions living in these cave networks, Mr. Benedict.” Although, Section Seven had only native-born Americans. “If word got out that tree worshipers from Timbuktu had spearheaded the attack, I have no doubt that some well meaning,” she added air quotes around the word, “Americans would beat the tree worshippers from Timbuktu to death. And in the process take a few others from Thailand and Japan with them.”
“Like that would be a loss.” Dirk’s upper lip curled.
“Someone from Timbuktu helped dig the drains that lead the water away from our living quarters. A woman from Thailand grew those fresh tomatoes we’ve all enjoyed at breakfast using hydroponics.” In her peripheral vision, Mavis watched a few men glare at Dirk. “And a professor from Japan streamlined the electrolysis machine splitting water into radiation-free oxygen to breath and hydrogen to power our fuel cells. So yes, every person who is working hard to make life under hundreds of tons of rock livable would be a very big loss.”
Unlike Dirk, who’d done nothing but bitch about how his back injury prevented him from working. Of course, he had plenty of time to spew his poison and create dissatisfaction. Kevin and Nancy weren’t his only acolytes.
“I wouldn’t be bragging about those atom splitters, especially since they keep exploding.” Dirk scratched his three chins. His beady gaze skittered to a young Japanese woman who’d arrived from her nation just hours before Mavis had reached Colorado. “Just tell us who attacked us. Was it the Japs?”
Fear flit over the woman’s features before she smoothed features.
Mavis sucked air through her teeth. Telling the truth would get innocent people killed. But lying… Lying might drive a wedge between the jerk and his half-hearted followers. Certainly, Timothy McVeigh had turned many Americans against the militias when he bombed Oklahoma City. “Mr. Benedict, do you believe the government was corrupt before the world ended?”
He snorted. “Then and now.”
She shrugged off the insult. He would believe what he wanted because of his agenda. Here was her opportunity to expose part of it. “Corruption must be fought, am I right?”
Colonel Jay slowly sat down in his seat. A question puckered his forehead and his blue eyes shifted from her to Dirk.
Dirk’s jowls wobbled as he nodded. “Absolutely.”
“With force, if necessary.” She led him deeper into the trap. “All for the people’s own good, of course.”
Gotcha. Mavis’s lips twitched. “Well then you believe exactly as those responsible for the anthrax attack did.”
Dirk blinked. Sweat glistened on his pasty skin. “What?”
Mavis glanced over at the camera. The blinking red light meant they were live. They wanted answers; she’d give them answers. One most would believe, and he, in particular, wouldn’t like. “This goes no further than our community.”
Dirk licked his bloated lips. “It won’t.”
Yeah, right. Every survivor in the world would know within an hour.
Lister hissed. “Doc, what are you doing?”
Her stomach cramped. Okay, she’d have to do a little damage control. Was it worth it to control the Dirk and his kind? She’d save maybe sixty people of Asian descent in Colorado. Thousands in California and thousands more in Australia. With so few people left, everyone mattered.
But people needed someone to blame.
Even if they had no face.
And if a face was found? What would happen to them? Damn, second guessing. They had to put these events behind them before they could start moving forward. She’d have to take the risk. God, please let it work. She took a deep breath then slowly exhaled.
“The evidence suggests this was done not to cause an extinction level event but more as a means to earn profits.” There. Everyone knew corporations were greedy. Too bad she couldn’t have blamed it on the big banks.
Now that people would have bought with no prompting.
This one would require a bit more finesse. Mavis glanced around the room. A few faces brightened as they made the connection. Others remained firmly confused.
Lister bit his lip to stop from laughing.
Dirk’s forehead wrinkled and his lips pursed. “I don’t get it.”
The Japanese woman’s eyebrows rose toward her black hairline. “Profits?”
“Money. Greed.” Mavis waved a hand. The lie stank, but it was for their own good. How many dictators had started on the same principal? She’d think about that later. “They’d developed an antibiotic more powerful than Cipro that had stalled getting FDA approval. Since they had also developed an anthrax vaccine, it was a win-win situation.”
Lister covered his laughter with a cough.
Kevin opened and closed his mouth several times before he managed to speak. “You mean this was done to us by a pharmaceutical company? For profits?”
Mavis flashed her palms. “I’ve said all I plan to say on the subject.” Because lies are best kept short and simple. Especially if anyone wanted to remember them. “I expect what I said today will go no further than this room, but if it does, I’ll deny everything.”
The idea rippled around the room on whispers. Disbelief gave way to slow nods as people filled in the blanks with swapped paranoia and their own beliefs. After two minutes nearly everyone was on board. A weight settled in her gut. What a world they’d left behind.
Dirk glanced around the room then latched onto Kevin’s arm and tugged. “I don’t believe it. It’s just another lie.”
Kevin’s forehead wrinkled and he scratched his chin.
Dirk shook his arm. “Where’s the proof?”
Mavis’s fingers danced over her tablet. Time to put an end to the little worm’s backstabbing. “You worked for Continental Trucking, didn’t you, Mr. Benedict?”
“I–” Dirk whipped his attention around. “What?”
“Your disability claim was against Continental Trucking, correct?”
The murmurs tapered off. Good, she wanted everyone’s attention.
“According to you, I’m not disabled.” Dirk rubbed his spine and groaned.
A little too late for the game playing. Mavis scanned the faces, paying attention to the lip curls of disgust. The man just might need protection when she finished with him. “They paid you a rather large lump sum of money just twenty-four hours prior to the Redaction hitting.”
“What of it?”
Mavis rose from her seat. “You didn’t notice anything during your last few days there? Nothing suspicious.”
“I noticed the rusted cables and pulleys.” Dirk flopped down in the chair. “They broke and took out my back with them.”
“It’s just…” She sighed. There was a reason why people said the road to hell was paved with good intentions. “Continental Trucking delivered the infected toys to the fast food chain, and they’re a subsidiary of Alliance Pharmaceuticals–the company we believe responsible for the outbreak.”
Kevin pushed out of Dirk’s hold. Chairs scraped the rock floor.
Dirk reached for the man and had his hands slapped away. He tucked them close to his body. “I didn’t know anything about it!”
“Of course not.” Mavis kept her voice neutral. “You were just the head of fleet maintenance before your accident. There’s no reason to suspect that you knew what was being shipped, any more than you could plan to receive your settlement so close to the original planned date of attack.”
“I didn’t know!” Tendons roped Dirk’s red skin.
Kevin stumbled backward before pointing at Dirk. “Then why were you prepared for such an event? Weren’t you bragging about your stockpiles of food and water? Everyone’s heard you say you knew something like this would happen.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
Mavis lowered herself to her seat. The bastard had better think twice before taking her on again. Dirk’s neighbors crowded him. Some shove him.
“Damn, Doc.” Lister whispered in her ear. “Remind me not to challenge you.”
Colonel Jay rose from his seat. “Should we intervene? They might just kill him.”
They might. Not that it would be that big of a loss. Still… Mavis pounded on the table with her fist. The banging echoed around the cavern. “That is enough. We must not turn on each other. If Mr. Benedict says he didn’t know about the impending attack, then we have to believe him. Everything else is circumstantial.”
“I didn’t know anything.” Dirk stepped toward Nancy.
Nancy planted a chair between them. “Stay away from me.”
Mavis nodded. A beautiful end to a dangerous relationship. “If you would all take your seats, I’d like to continue.”
Moments passed. Dirk kicked the chair. “I didn’t know!” Folding his arms, he threw himself into the closest chair.
One by one, the others rearranged themselves at the tables until Dirk sat alone.
He glared at her with a killer’s eyes.
So be it. She send David to watch him and… Cold air hissed through her teeth and her heart forgot a few beats. She couldn’t send David to do anything. Not anymore. He’d made that clear the morning when he’d moved out of their room. He took orders from Lister. She faced front. Perhaps the security head would clue her into just what was going on.
The general adjusted his reading glasses and peered at his computer. “Where were we? Ah, yes. Not that I’m complaining but why have the spent fuel rods stopped burning so quickly?”
Mavis shook herself. Later. She’d deal with David later. Straightening in her seat, she faced Sally Rogers.
Sally tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Doctor Spanner’s burn rate was accurate but it looked only at the whole tonnage of rods, not at the individual rods themselves.”
Mavis called up her formulas. She’d made a mistake? Where?
“The rods are more like individual birthday candles than one giant lump.” Sally sent a .wmv file of a cake. Tear-drop shaped flames danced above pink candles.
The information click inside Mavis’s head. “While they melted at different rates, each burned independently of its neighbor. So the meltdown will last only as long as the slowest burning fifty-ton rod, not the thousands of tons of radioactive material at a specific site.”
Sally beamed. “Exactly.”
Colonel Jay eyed his tablet. “So we won’t have to live inside these caves for the next hundred years? Things will return to normal.”
Mavis shook her head. Things will never return to normal. “Radiation isn’t that simple. It–”
“In that case, I propose we schedule elections right away.” Dirk pounded on his table. “No one elected Mavis Spanner to lead us. She just fell into the position because better men died while she didn’t.”
Fingernails cut into her palms. Did the slimeball think she wanted her best friend Surgeon General Miles Arnez to die and leave her to helm a destroyed country and floundering humanity? “I never asked–”
“Good.” Dirk rubbed his hands together. “Then I propose we hold elections in a week. Who seconds my motion?”
Water dripped in the silence. For a moment, everyone stood statue-still in the flickering light. A computer beeped breaking the spell.
“A week is too short–” Lister shouted.
“I second the motion but with the caveat that the vote be cast in a month, not a week.” Attorney General Jake Turner rose from his seat, clutching his laptop to his chest. “As legal counsel, I think it’s time the people make our voices heard.”