“The Bunker” is an original short story by Andy Wisniewski, an English teacher in Japan.
“So she ended up getting pregnant with some guy from high school, and she dropped out that same year. Never saw her again.” There was a slosh of water as Peter raised the canteen to his lips. “And how about you Dave? Any stories about dames—I mean good, bad, whatever…You listening?”
David watched the red flashing screen in a dead stare. Peter snapped his fingers in front of David’s face, and this brought him out of the trance long enough to talk.
“Yeah man I heard you… so you never saw her again after that, not even to visit her and the Wendy manager’s baby?”
Peter cracked a smile of relief. “Jesus, I was afraid you forgot to talk again! But yeah, can you believe that?”
David turned his eyes back to the screen. Peter prepared himself for another few hours of silence when David spoke again.
“You already told that story two days ago Peter. I guess she’s on your mind, but I can guarantee you don’t need to wonder what she’s doin’ now.”
Peter bowed his head. “Yeah, you’re right.” He let out a small chuckle. “No need to worry about much of anything anymore….”
They sat in darkness with the red glare of the screen brightening, increasing every minute. The overhead display showed midday outside. The sun should have risen already, even as far north as they were, but the artificial solar cycle lighting remained irregular ever since they passed twelve-zero hour. They did not mind the technical error. Even when the lights did come on, one of the men would hastily rise and shut them down manually. They lived in the dark now, and preferred it to the light.
They also preferred silence, but when the sirens went off at twelve-zero hour— quiet first, then to a head-piercing decibel—the men learned there was no manual shut down. They smashed the speakers in the walls with wooden chairs. Now the sirens hung silent and broken from their anchors, and the men sat on the floor with their pillows among the splinters. They did not prefer the floor, but since they used all four chairs to restore silence to their little dwelling, they could recline nowhere else.
“Did we reach twelve-zero hour yet?” David asked.
Peter sighed. “We’ve been over this, Dave; it’s been nearly twice that, but I’m forgetting something….oh yeah! You were gonna tell me a story. I know you got one Dave; and remember, anything you want. Happy, sad, whatever.” Peter stood up, crouched, and messaged his sore bottom. “Give me just one, man. You went to college right? Then tell me about that. Just one. I heard that’s the place to meet the best women, is it true?”
“Do you believe in mental telegraphy?” David asked quickly; so quickly, in fact, that it startled his comrade.
“What the hell is that?” Peter asked. “Like reading minds or something?” Though it was dark, his voice seemed to contain a smile and a wink. “So you read some girls’ minds in college, did you?”
David continued as though Peter had not spoken. “It’s kinda like telepathy, but not as active. It’s like getting information mentally from other people, but without anyone trying to send or receive anything. Someone thinks something, and somehow, someone else just knows what it is, without ever being told. Did you ever have that happen to you?”
“David, what the hell are you talking about?” asked Peter.
“Jesus Christ, you’ve been buggin’ me for a story for five days, and finally I feel like telling one and you’re not even listening!” David picked up the remnants of a chair leg and threw it at the wall. The silence swallowed the woody clatter.
Peter’s voice rippled through the darkness with a soft patience. “You didn’t tell me this was a story Dave,” Peter cooed. “In that case, go right ahead, and there better be some college girls in it to keep me interested.”
David let out a deep breath. “Sure man, there are; just listen. So I went to college in a small town—real folksy sort of place. I was seventeen right out of high school, and I figured if I could just go somewhere small, I’d meet a nice girl, fall in love, and the American setup would follow.
“Jesus, was I wrong! I went out there to cow country, where all the girls were rubes! Even if there was a good looker, she was taken by some bastard whose dad owned the county garbage dump or car garage or pig farm, which was the closest thing to big money a girl could marry into. Anyway, two years into studying in that place, I meet this great number. She seems nice, we talk through the year, call over Christmas and everything, and when I get back to ask her out, she literally apologizes right in front of me. She says she’s with some guy—some bucktoothed dandy whose dad is the family doctor for three surrounding counties! Funny thing was, afterwards, instead of getting over her, it just hit me harder how much I was into this girl.”
David’s voice carried a lilt of admiration delicately laced with distaste as he outlined her. “She was beautiful. She had chocolate hair that fell down in waves and curls just below her shoulders. Her nose was small and shaped like a Swedish model’s, and she was a runner, so her body was trim with small curves. But it was her eyes. She had blue blue blue eyes that I could see from a mile away…they were a classic blue, and I still see them when I sleep sometimes.”
Peter shrugged. “Baby’s got blue eyes, huh? Did you ever get with her?”
“Shut up Peter; I hate Elton John,” David snapped. “And no, I didn’t.”
“Then why the hell are we talkin’ about her?” Peter sighed and rested his chin on his knee.
A new flash of red lights sparkled on the dark spot of the screen. The activity drew their attention for just a moment before David continued.
“We’re talking about her because I loved her, and as far as mental telegraphy goes, what with futuristic projection or whatever, considering what happened, us talking about girls we loved—”
“Girls we had,” Peter interrupted.
“I don’t give a damn about girls I had! Now I’m talking about girls we loved. And with the dream I’m about to tell you, the one I had the night she rejected me, you’ll want to know about the girl with blue eyes; you’ll want to know because unconsciously I saw this coming. Not having her, I felt what I feel now; what I’ve felt since signing up, since walking into this place.”
“And what’ve you felt?” Peter asked.
David buried his head in his hands. “The same thing you’re feeling. Devastation within, and —”
David looked up.
“How’s that for mental telegraphy?” Peter said, a wide grin ironed on his face.
David smirked for a moment, and then his solemn eyes glazed over the red flashing screen. “The feeling nothing matters anymore; everyone you’ve known—gone. Everything you remember exists only in memory—and you know you won’t get out of here.”
Peter took the pillow he was sitting on, flipped it over, and rested his head against the absorbent foam. He raised his eyebrows in consideration. “So, a girl made you feel like this? How? She must’ve been something.”
David let out a hoarse laugh. He got up and went to the kitchen. A synthetic aperitif stood in a clay bottle in the upper cabinet. He grabbed two glasses, took out a few cubes of ice from the freezer, poured the smooth drink, and returned to the broadcast room. David set the drink by his friend’s head, and returned to his spot by the corner.
“So what exactly happened with blue eyes?” Peter asked, grabbing the drink.
“Burned up,” David said, wafting the glass under his nose.
“I had this dream of her around the mark,” David said.
Peter was still coughing from the sour aperitif. “What kind of dream?”
“I was at my university—in my dream I mean—and I was in front of my university library lying on the ground. I was looking right into the clear blue sky. It was beautiful; like the perfect summer day you’ve never had, but better. And I got up eventually, and I kid you not, Morgan Freeman’s voice comes on over a loudspeaker. He says, “In the after shock of a nuclear attack, the first effect of the flash causes visual disorientation.” And right when he finished saying that, as I was looking out over my campus far away where the horizon should have been, there came a huge flash. It was miles and miles away, but I was facing it, and on came the visual disorientation. I could barely walk straight due to the shifting vision—just like those damn simulations at boot, remember? So I decided to stand still.
“Then again, on came Freeman’s voice. “The second effect is the delayed heat wave. The intense heat from the blast may cause combustion of certain objects such as trees, car tires, and clothing.” And when I look down, what do I see? I saw my shirt catch fire spontaneously, and melt onto my skin. I felt hot pain where I could see the fire burn into my flesh, but I hardly seemed to notice. At that moment, I looked up and saw the sky had turned dark, with red dust thrown up from the blast. Birds filled the sky flying with singed feathers, and though obviously most of them should have been killed by the blast, it seemed the sky was packed with birds.
“And then Morgan’s voice came again, clear as a bell above the birds and the wind and the fires. “The third effect is mental confusion, and often complete lack of understanding time and impulse.” Just then I became confused as hell, but I was still conscious of my thoughts. I felt drunk and sick and dizzy, and in the middle of the whirling, I saw my friend Phil. He was standing on the walkway by the library, but he stood like you sometimes see a bum standing on a subway; no point or purpose, just standing. Phil’s clothes were already melted onto him, and little fires were starting on the thighs of his jeans. He probably didn’t feel it enough to do anything about it. I walked over to him, and when he caught sight of me, he called me John and said he was late for class. He said he would talk to me later, but to call him for lunch, and let him know what the plans were for Friday. He walked off in the direction of the flash then, and I tried to follow him, but I got lost.
“I was confused too, and everything had the red dust all over it, and the buildings looked red hot, and that’s when I felt it; the desperation within and without. I remember thinking how I couldn’t call my mom or anybody, knowing I was already dead, and so were they. And then things brightened for a second when I approached this older building on our campus. Sunshine pierced through the red dust and fell singularly on this structure, the world burning around it; and then blue eyes walked out. She was perfect. She was dressed in a white dress, and she reminded me of a nurse. I walked to her, and she hugged me with a warmness I never felt before. She didn’t mind my hot skin or my burning clothes. She told me she loved me, and I asked her why she couldn’t say it before. She said she just didn’t know how to say it.
From there, I remember walking out of the sunshine, past charred buildings, through the forest—the trees black and burnt—until I reached the lake. The lake was covered with the red dust, and when I dipped my hands into the water to wash the clothes off my skin, the dust clung to my palms and fingers, and I couldn’t cup enough water; I could only cup the filth. Then, I lay down with the dust, and died. That’s when I woke up.”
Both men had been so absorbed in the dream, neither realized the entire screen was flashing red. Every pixel radiated, and the room was bathed in the blood-light. Peter’s eyes shined pink against the screen. “It’s over,” he said. “That sounds like a hell of a dream, Dave. You’re not psychic are you?”
David shook his head. “No more than you. It was just mental telegraphy. Same thing as thinking of someone to call, and then when your cell phone rings, it’s the person you were thinking about. Same thing; except it took longer for me to realize it.”
“Yeah, I get it. And is that what you’ve been holding in ever since we hit the one hundred twenty checkpoint?”
“You know it. I was hesitant up to the mark. I knew the procedure, but I still couldn’t think clearly. Then we hit twelve-zero, and I had the dream and that feeling; all I could think of was what a waste it’s been; a waste that it came to this, and if I could change it, I would have never signed up for this job, with these people. I would have changed everything on the outset, I would have lived differently, questioned differently, thought and believed in something real, something that creates; but now, all I have is this feeling, and I wish I could have told you Peter, and the whole world. Maybe if I could, things would’ve turned out differently.”
David took a drink. “And as it is, now I know there is only one thing we can do.”
They sat in the silence. After a while, Peter ran a hand over the scruff of his chin. He spoke with half a chuckle, “Well, let me finish my drink, alright?”
They sat for another hour, and then they picked up the table and smashed the red display screen. The last ice cubes melted in their glasses as Peter poured evenly into each glass what was left in the bottle. David, in meantime, opened the master safe with his code and voice pattern. Peter uncovered the launching port with his own password and retinal scan. David gave Peter his designated key, and they opened the launching port doors with synchronized key rotations. The launch was approved, and the master ignition obelisk emerged from the floor in the center of the room. They inserted the keys into the obelisk.
Peter spoke facing David. “Ya know, it was around the mark I had a dream of my own and I started feeling the same way. But I never was one to put much thought into dreams, and I just forgot about it, thinking it was stress. I guess I’ve just always been a die-hard optimist!” He raised his glass. “To desolation within, and desolation without. It was a hell of a time knowin’ ya!”
David smiled with the clink of the glasses. “To the last two people alive on earth,” he said, and they turned the keys.
The power in the bunker was cut, and the two men heard the air vents open with a hissing noise. “What the hell—” they coughed and the glasses smashed on the floor. “Something’s wrong…it was supposed—” and they fell against the obelisk onto the broken shards of glass; and one man saw the other but forgot his name, and then the form of the other man became an outline, then a shape, and the shape disappeared, and the bunker disappeared, and finally the haze and heaviness they each called being changed into light.
The Project Head turned away from the monitor and addressed the team. “And that concludes test 14NRB-10. Clean up the bunker, and I expect all psychoanalytic reports submitted by the end of next shift. Dr. Leniwan, you’re the boss until I get back.”
She walked out of the Observers’ Station down the hall to a door with a single guard. He ushered her in after she provided the necessary papers. She took her seat at the table across three figures she knew only as government representatives. The one with the uniform spoke first, as usual.
“Unusual,” she answered.
The three officials shifted in their metal chairs. An anxious silence followed.
“Report,” commanded the woman with the digital recorder.
The Project Head began:
“The first five days were normal, even identical to the other situational NRB tests. This time however one of the operators began acting strangely. We believed it was depression, so we responded over the next three days with heightened speaker alarms of imminent ICBM launches across our borders. They destroyed the speaker system shortly after, and for the remaining two days, we sent visual enemy strike confirmations to the national and global screen display. We began with every major city, and finally ended with all significant sectors suffering a strike. Though the Launch Port Operator was willing to begin launch and self-detonation sequences at the one-hundred-and-twenty hour communication silence checkpoint, the Master Safe Operator refused outright, until today around the two-hundred-and-forty-sixth hour.”
“Why?” asked the uniform.
“He said it was a feeling.”
“A feeling from a memory?” asked the woman.
“A feeling from a dream, constructed partially from memory. He narrated the experience, and when he finished, there was a phrase he used to explain the feeling, it was—”
“Desolation within, and desolation without?” interrupted the man on the left of the uniform.
She was startled. The Project Head had never seen that man before today’s debriefing. “Yes… uh, how did you know? I was under the impression we worked without prior monitors. I thought that was the whole point of these debriefings.”
The uniform’s voice became stern. “What happened after the Master Safe Operator finished the dream narrative?”
“The Master Safe Operator consented to self-detonation procedure.”
“Thank you, that is all, Project Head,” said the uniform.
She sat dumbstruck. “If you have a bug in our operation, you should at least tell me…”
The woman by the uniform spoke. “Follow regulations, Project Head. We expect your detailed report by the end of next shift.”
When the project head walked out the door, the man in the suit (Rittner, the executive supervisor of all the Nuclear Responsibility Behavioral tests) turned to the uniform (Admiral Panlaw, head of the Military Committee of Nuclear Defense). “That’s the third NRB test chapter reporting abnormal dream sequences… and that phrase.”
“About that phrase, do we know where it comes from? Popular proverb? Religious phrase? Cult motto?” asked the Admiral.
“None of those,” said the woman (Dr. Rabins, Head Psychoanalyst for all the NRB programs). “We’ve researched it, and obtained only one lead from a work of poetry dated to the late twenty-first century. We found it on the blacklist.” She opened a heavy brown folder with a fingerprint scan and took out a small electronic tablet. A single stanza appeared in digital print. Rabins read in a cold pulse:
Oh, forlorn, solitary creature!
Do you yet doubt—
The potency of this you feel,
Bereft of your beloved,
Desolation within, and desolation without?
“What is it referring to?” asked the Admiral.
“Who cares?!” shouted Rittner. “How is it approved reading for Operators?”
Rabins sighed. “There was no evidence any of the Operators in any of the affected NRB tests read it prior to their enlistment.”
“This is a problem,” said the Admiral. “We need to know the operators will follow instructions at twelve-zero hour….I suggest we collect the reports on the effected branches, question the workers at each chapter, and terminate the involved project heads.”
The others agreed, and after the reports were handed in, several project heads from 3NRB-9, 57NRB-4, and 14NRB-10 died of respiratory failure in their sleep. Then, the remaining workers in each chapter were questioned, and after debriefing, also died in their sleep of respiratory failure. Four months later, seventy-seven percent of NRB operators keyed in the codes after an unacceptable delay of three hundred hours— the dread phrase on their lips before self-detonation.
Not long after, Panlaw stood before the Central Committee, and suggested the liquidation of the NRB programs. He stressed all future nuclear launch responsibilities be allocated to the computerized Nuclear Strategic Systems. Rittner, Rabins, and other significant advocates of the NRB programs disappeared. The full transition to NSS took approximately seven months. The operating systems delivered successful simulations at a rate of one hundred percent, and every country with a nuclear weapons program adopted the computerized model.
Panlaw lay sleeping and dreaming. He dreamt of his first house in Montana, his father’s farm. He was eighteen again, driving a combine through the field. He drove to the end of the row, cut the engine, and jumped down to the broken soil. It was a beautiful summer day. His wife, eighteen again, stood by the edge of the furrows with iced-tea on a tray. He grabbed a glass and felt the condensation, the cool of the ice against the hot dryness of his palm. His wife was smiling. “I missed you,” she said.
“Why did you go without me?” he asked.
Then a flash from miles beyond the house blinded him, and a wave of heat came over him, and the disorientation swept over his mind as he saw the farmhouse explode and his wife burst into flames. The glass melted to his hand, and he fell to the ground beside his wife’s ashes. As he lay on his burning back, he saw the small specks of red dust falling. They landed on his face, and his vision was covered with the red particles, and a feeling he had never felt until that moment articulated itself on his lips, in a phrase he had heard once before.
Panlaw woke up alone in his bed. The phone was ringing.
“Full frontal attack, sir. All our NSS calculated launch, and theirs responded. Everything’s coming down in every sector, sir.”
“Every sector? How long before impact, Captain?”
“Estimated fifteen seconds to impact in every significant sector. Your orders, sir?”
“You have a wife, Captain?”
“Then call her while you can.”
He hung up and unplugged the handset. His legs shook as he stood out of bed and walked to the window. The view over the river glowed in the early morning dusk. The hazy fog lay in ghost-wisps over the water and tinted everything a sleepy gray.
“Desolation within, and desolation without,” the old man said, before shielding his eyes from the flash.