Sunnie Wilson clutched the limestone column and panted. Wrapping her free arm around her belly, she cradled her ribs. In. Out. She breathed slow and deep. Two weeks after being ‘cured’ of anthrax, it still hurt to breathe, to stand, to live. Stop being such a whiney baby. You’re alive.
“You okay?” Former Private First Class Robertson rubbed her back.
The metal banding her ribs eased. “Sure.”
Robertson dipped the manure-caked shovels in a bucket of water and toweled it off. “You might have overdone it today.”
“Nah, I stuck to my fifteen minutes on/fifteen minutes off.” Okay, maybe she’d pushed it to sixteen minutes on but she needed to be useful. At nineteen, she should have something of value to contribute. Unfortunately, half a year of online Gen. Ed. classes and art didn’t mean much at the end of the world. Sunnie shook her head. Pity party of one in cavern number four. She had to snap out of it.
Otherwise, she was doomed to create gray matter spatter art.
She couldn’t do that to Aunt Mavis.
Or Robertson. Her personal watchdog had been at her side since she’d beaten back the worst of the infection.
He dipped the next spade. Bits of waste material floated in the water as he swirled the blade around. “Even so, you can’t push yourself too hard. Between the cold and damp, your lungs are still at risk.”
“It’s warm and dry in here.” Pushing away from the column, she grabbed another rag off its hook and took the wet shovel from him.
“Fifty-five degrees isn’t warm to anyone from Arizona.” He slopped the half the bucket of water into the wheelbarrow. “As for the damp…” He pointed to the ceiling.
Cobwebs of chains and fishing lines caught the water dripping from the ceiling and funneled it into plastic troughs to be carried it to parts unknown. She slouched in her maroon Arizona State tee and thermal shirt. “It’s warmer than the mines. High of forty-seven degrees with spotty showers and a low tonight of forty-five degrees with spotty showers.”
Of course, she hadn’t minded the temperature so much when her fever spiked. But that had been a while ago.
She hung the shovels on their marked pegs. The metal scoop knocked against the pickax. For a moment, both clattered against the chain wall.
“Can you carry the bucket?” Robertson cocked a black eyebrow and gripped the wheelbarrow’s handles.
“Of course.” She hooked the handle and heaved. Muscles trembled but she didn’t let go. One day, she’d remember how to breathe and have strong muscles. Following him through the ankle-high grass carpeting the cavern, she felt the dampness seep into her jeans.
“Won’t be long before the horses and goats are moved in here to graze.” Robertson paused by a small metal door. The word emergency exit painted the black surface. “They’re already eying the buffet.”
She glanced at the tunnel leading out of the bubble of stone. Red yarn knitted two children’s security gates together. While one Billy goat chewed at the fibers, another butted it to get to the strands on Sunnie’s side. The animals had traveled safely from Phoenix with them. “Even goats think the grass is always greener on the other side, huh.”
Chuckling, she switched the bucket to her left hand and opened the two-by-two-foot door. The pungent scent of manure wafted out of the sixteen-inch, plastic-lined reinforced concrete pipe. Bits of grass stuck out of the black smears.
Robertson lined up the wheelbarrow on a small ledge under the pipe and poured the watery sludge into the chute. “I always feel we should shout something when we do this. What if some farmer is taking a lunch break in front of the shit cannon? Wouldn’t you like to be warned?”
Shaking her head, she wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think anyone could eat near a pile of pooh.”
Beside the waste was supposed to go to a separate greenhouse. Not that she’d ever seen the greenhouses. The radiation was too high and she’d been too sick. Propping her hip against the open door, she rinsed the wheelbarrow with the bucket’s contents.
“You might have a point.” He tugged the rag out of his back pocket and swept the rest inside the chute.
A whinny echoed in the cavern.
The horses were close. Tossing the bucket into the barrow, she glanced at the gate. The goats stared back at her with their freaky square pupils.
“Come on.” He wheeled around and headed for the tool cage. “I’ll let you pet the horses before lunch.”
She grinned. “You like them, too.”
“I like that they pull the wagon full of manure so I don’t have to push wheelbarrows all day.” After securing it, he double-checked the tools then draped the damp towels over the bar.
Her stomach growled.
“Change of plans. Food first, then you can pet the animals.”
She sighed. There was no point in arguing. He wouldn’t give in. He’d been assigned to guard her health and welfare and, despite the dissolution of the military, he wouldn’t stop.
“Are you having the Chicken and Dumplings today or the Dumplings and Chicken?” Robertson lifted her jacket from its peg and brushed the grass and dirt off. After a quick inspection, he draped it around her shoulders. His fingers lingered for a moment before they skimmed her neck.
Tingles raced down her spine. Ignore it. They were friends. Ducking away from his touch, she rammed her hands into her sleeves. “Surprise me.”
Brown eyes sparkling, he set his blunt fingers over his heart. “Ahh, you’re feeling adventurous today.”
She snorted. The caverns and mines were safe, nothing adventurous here.
After grabbing a military-issue satchel, Robertson cupped her elbow and steered her toward the opposite tunnel, away from the goats and horses. “I think we’ll picnic in the South Forty today. The grass hasn’t yet gone to seed, yet so there won’t be any horse pies to step in.”
The drip and gurgle of water filled the silence as they wound through the connecting tunnels and caverns. Gradually, the passage widened then opened into a small cavern. On both sides, metal planks formed a picket fence. Behind the one on the right, pigs snorted and rooted through the plastic totes in front of them. The left side would remain empty until the swine were ready to deliver their piglets.
A fat brown pig snuffled when he spied her and head-butted a gray feeding tub. “Later, Cocoa. We get to eat now.”
“Cocoa,” Robertson snorted. “If you have to name them, call that one Christmas ham, and the big black one, Breakfast Bacon, and the little one over there, Sausage Links.”
She choked on a laugh and increased her speed out of the room. “They can hear you, you know.”
She followed away from the pigs and into the connecting tunnel. Shifting behind him, she watched his muscles tremble as the incline grew steeper. Firm, rounded buttocks moved under his camouflage pants. She grinned. Being a follower had its perks.
“You’re looking at my ass, aren’t you?”
Sunnie forced her attention higher. “No, of course not. Why would I look at your butt?”
“You know what they say about protesting too much?”
“No, what do they say?” Maybe she did sound a bit guilty. Still, as someone recently returned from death’s door, she could appreciate a little look now and then. Besides, he flirted with her constantly.
He grinned at her over his shoulder.
Heat flared in her cheeks. She dropped her attention to the ground. “One day, some poor girl is going to take your flirting seriously and then you’ll be sorry.”
He shrugged his muscular shoulders and faced front. “Not if it’s the right girl.”
Right! The man had acres full of oats he needed to sow before he’d ever consider settling down.
Robertson halted near the bend of the next cavern.
She plowed into his back. Her nose throbbed where it collided with his muscled back. She rubbed away the sting. “What is wrong with you?”
Pausing, Robertson sniffed the air. “Blood.”
Blood? She sniffed, filling her lungs with the pungent scent of urine and half-digested grass. “I don’t smell anything.”
He dipped down and pulled a knife from his book. “Stay here.”
Sunnie blinked. Stay here. Alone. When he smells blood? She latched onto his waistband. “I don’t think so.”
He glared at her.
She stared back. “I can’t even run away from the evil roosters, how do you expect me to defend myself against some blood-crazed maniac?”
“I never said–”
“You’re whispering. You never whisper.”
He rolled his eyes and crept closer to the cavern. The gap in his pants grew until she spied his briefs.
Wrapping a hand around her wrist, he yanked her forward. “Don’t pull my britches down unless you plan to do something with what you expose.”
“Geez.” She trotted after him. “I’m new to this sneaking stuff.”
He turned the corner. After a stutter-stop, he strode forward. “Shit.”
She stumbled a step then released him. “What? What is it?”
Arms flapping at his sides, he stopped in the center of the terraformed cavern. White blanketed the center of the grass and clover.
“It snowed.” Her heart stilled in her chest. Snow meant the outside was getting in. Radiation could be everywhere. She locked her knees to keep from collapsing. How could this have happened?
Not snow. Not snow. The words circled her fear but didn’t penetrate. That meant something. But what? She tried to connect the thoughts, it didn’t add up.
“Feathers.” Robertson crouched in the center of white. Using his knife, he searched the grass. “Chicken feathers.”
Relief knocked her legs out from under her. She collapsed, her knees sinking into the damp sod. “Oh, thank God.”
“I wouldn’t just yet.”
“Why not?” They had chickens, that explained the feathers. There was no radiation. No leaks. They were safe.
“Because someone killed a chicken.” He stabbed the ground before raising his blade. A chicken head curled around the tip.
She crawled forward. “That doesn’t make sense. Anyone caught with a dead farm animal is subject to immediate banishment. Aunt Mavis and the others made that rule after that fat guy killed a hen for his dinner.”
She’d thought it was harsh at first, but then she’d realized such behavior threatened everyone’s survival. She hoped whoever was stealing the vegetables got the same punishment, and that they enjoyed their radioactive tan before they died horribly.
He flicked the chicken head off his blade and pushed to his feet. Crossing the cavern, he stopped near a metal security door securing the tunnel. “These tunnels loop around and lead back to the living quarters, right?”
“Yeah.” She’d taken them before they’d been terraformed with sand and soil to grow alfalfa and oats for the animals. Hers and Aunt Mavis’s room was just on the other side, then the senior military officers and the… As quickly as she could, she joined Robertson and pressed her face against the black mesh. Feathers created a trail along the green grass.
An obvious trail.
The chicken-killer must want to get caught. Or… Her stomach cramped. Don’t even think it. The command didn’t banish the thoughts only connected them faster.
Kneeling, he glanced at the lock, traced the marks with his thumb. “Scratches. It’s been picked.”
Sunnie tugged on the door. Metal rattled. “We need to find where those feathers lead. Someone may be trying to kill Aunt Mavis the easy way.”
Banishment to the radioactive wasteland outside.