The fusion reaction was over within a millisecond. It liberated vast quantities of radiation, heating the surrounding atmosphere to temperatures approaching the surface of the sun. This created a huge, incandescent fireball, visible a hundred kilometres away. As the fireball grew it emitted energy in the infra-red spectrum as a heat pulse, lasting over fifteen seconds. All structures in its path were vaporised up to a kilometre away. At five kilometres it charred wood and incinerated people; at ten kilometres it caused second-degree burns, igniting clothing, shrubs and trees. Its effects did not die until fifty kilometres away.
As the fireball continued to grow it touched the ground and seared out a crater thirty metres deep and three hundred metres across. Everything was turned to dust and vapour and thrown into the atmosphere in a huge mushroom cloud. After several more seconds the fireball reached its maximum diameter. The sudden heating of thousands of tonnes of air created a wall of high pressure, which travelled outward from the explosion at the speed of sound. Structures that had withstood the heat pulse, were blown apart by these over pressures and by winds which, near the centre of the blast, reached well in excess of a thousand kilometres an hour. As other blastwaves from other detonations met and collided with it, hurricane force winds ripped in one direction, only to be cancelled out within a few seconds by winds of equal strength blowing from another direction. Fires started by the heat pulse were fuelled into forest fires by the blastwave. In heavily bombed areas, cities disappeared under fire-storms. Smoke and dust quickly blotted out the sun. In the space of less than an hour, much of the greenery had been wiped from the face of Great Britain. In its place was a wasteland, ravaged by fearful winds and fires burning endlessly and out of control.
Alex had been conscious for several minutes, but had not moved from the thin, mouldy smelling mattress he had been lying on. He had drawn several deep breaths, moved his limbs around cautiously and found he was basically unhurt. His senses had cleared, too. He was acutely aware of a multitude of burned, broken bodies around him. They generated a rich, sickly smell, a combination of acrid burns, antiseptic, blood and sweat, which made him almost convulse whenever he took a deep breath. He could not believe this was happening. He found it impossible to collect his thoughts or focus on anything other than the pain and suffering that was going on around him. In one devastating blow he seemed to have been thrown into a pit of human agony. It was like waking up in hell.
He closed his eyes and concentrated hard on the events leading up to the car crash; the distraught voice of the broadcaster, the blinding flash, the heat and the thunderous roar. Then he remembered Jason’s face, white, blood soaked, and he began to panic. He dragged himself upright against a sandstone wall at the head of his mattress and began searching amongst the injured. From his new position, he could see right across the room. Only it wasn’t really a room, more like a large chamber, holding maybe two hundred people. And it seemed to be underground, or at least the windows were high up. In the centre a number of large columns sprang from a single base and arched towards the roof. Each column had several lanterns suspended from it, providing the only lighting. He could see at once that there was a rough approximation of order in the arrangement of the injured. Close to a large wooden door at the far end of the chamber sat a large number of people who appeared to be uninjured, except for the odd bandage or facial burn. On the far side, sitting in small groups, sometimes many to a mattress were the more serious cases, each patched up with wooden splints, slings or long jagged lengths of bandage. These people, unlike the crowd near the door, talked little; they stared dully at the boarded-up windows or appeared to be listening to the different tones of the wind, as violent gusts flung themselves against the side of the building. Finally, there were the worst cases, furthest from the door; very few of these poor souls moved at all, and if they did, they usually groaned softly to themselves. Alex searched this group carefully, looking for a figure with a heavily bandaged face, but the light was so bad he couldn’t make out any detail. He was contemplating trying to climb to his feet to start his search in earnest, when he noticed a woman watching him.
‘You’re awake!’ she exclaimed, and she began to clamber over the thick tangle of bodies separating them.
She was a very large woman in her mid-forties, with a round head and pink cheeks, which made her look as if she was permanently blushing. She reached the end of his mattress.
‘How do you feel?’
Alex felt terrible, but he merely shrugged. ‘A bit sore.’
She nodded. ‘My name is Katie Fletcher. I was there when they pulled your friend and yourself out of that car.’
‘My brother,’ Alex blurted. ‘What happened to him?’
‘He required further medical treatment, so they’ve taken him to the local hospital some distance from here.’
‘What kind of treatment?’
‘He had lost a lot of blood and his face needed stitching.’
Alex stared at the woman for a moment longer, then finally lowered his head.
Katie had not realised they were brothers. It always seemed more tragic when families were split up. ‘I’m very sorry,’ she went on softly, ‘but the hospital wasn’t far from the scene of the accident and I’m sure they made it there safely.’
Alex nodded doubtfully. ‘When do you think I can leave here?’
She lowered herself onto the mattress beside him and studied him carefully. ‘I can’t place your accent,’ she said after a pause.
‘Originally my family came from Southampton, but we left for Australia when I was young,’ Alex explained.
‘So your brother’s the only family you have in England?’
‘Yes, apart from a few cousins in Southampton.’
‘I see.’ She looked solemnly at him. ‘And your name?’
‘Well, Alex, I don’t think you quite realise what has been happening whilst you were unconscious. The explosion that caused your accident was the first bomb to land in this area. That’s why we were able to rescue you. Any later and the fallout would have made any rescue attempt suicidal. There have been many more detonations since, especially to the east around London.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘It’s only just past three in the afternoon, but already it’s dark. Fallout has been coming down for hours. Anyone who went outside now would receive a lethal dose of radiation within minutes.’
Alex looked closely at the boarded-up windows. The wind had splintered some of the boards, but there were no shafts of light filtering through the cracks.
The woman lifted one of her fleshy arms and pushed some hair out of her eyes, following his gaze. ‘Until the radiation level drops, we all have to be patient,’ she said sadly. She glanced over the other side of the shelter then pulled herself to her feet wearily. ‘Anything you want? Food? Drink?’
He shook his head. ‘No, thanks.’
‘Try and get some sleep,’ she advised. ‘Tomorrow things may be better. Just call if you need anything.’ And with a brief smile she turned and was gone.
Alex watched her heavy frame work its way slowly over the injured until he lost her among the background of bandaged forms near the door. His eyes returned to the barricaded windows and he attuned himself to the sound of the wind as it played amongst the ruins outside. ‘Tomorrow things may be better.’ Her words bounced mockingly around his head. Tomorrow things would be worse, he was sure of that. And the next day, and the next week, if help didn’t arrive, the situation would become horrific. As the food and water ran out there would be arguments, then fights and finally murders. He crawled back onto his mattress and pulled the blanket over his head. He thought of his parents and friends in Australia, but it was Jason who was in the forefront of his mind, and he was amazed to find himself praying for him. Not out of religious conviction, but from the sheer terror and hopelessness that comes from finding oneself in a situation over which one has no control. His prayers, however, did not ease his fears. He felt he was asking for a favour from a God he had cared little about before today. The last moments of the car crash came back and he tried hard to console himself that Jason was not seriously injured, but his body started to quiver and shake and he found he had no control over it. Only when he let his mind go blank could he wrestle the spasms into submission. Sleep when it came was total, dreamless, absolute.
Near the limits of the troposphere the millions of tonnes of soot and debris thrown up by the nuclear detonations had cooled and formed the nucleus of raindrops. As these raindrops condensed, they turned into black, billowing clouds. These clouds quickly climbed into the stratosphere and as the mushroom clouds of the holocaust dispersed, erupted in a deluge of black tarry rain. The rains fell all night, violently at first, as the winds drove them against the earth, but then with steadier insistence. The land grew cooler, but soon another wind, from the cooling land masses of Europe, was sweeping in and rising in intensity. By morning, the gentle breeze had freshened into a gale and had whipped up enormous seas in the Channel. These seas pounded the ocean retaining walls in the south east of England and flooded all the low-lying areas.
Alex, waking early, lay listening to the rain. He still felt sore, but his appetite had returned and his headache was gone. He also had a raging thirst, which the rain only made worse. He pulled off his blanket and sat up. Most people were still asleep, but the sound of coughing and someone being sick was audible across the shelter. The windows had been reinforced with plastic while he slept, but otherwise nothing had changed, except that maybe the air smelt more of sweat and antiseptic. Tucking his shirt in his trousers, he climbed to his feet and started picking his way in the direction of the door.
A short time later he found Katie in the corner of the shelter, talking with two other people.
‘Feeling better, I see?’ She greeted him with a warm smile.
Alex thought she looked terrible. There were deepening rings of exhaustion around her eyes and her cheeks, pinkish a day before, had drained to a pale grey.
‘Would you like something to eat or drink?’ she asked.
‘Some water, if you have it,’ he replied, still watching her closely.
She filled up a glass from a plastic water container. ‘I don’t blame you for not feeling much like eating,’ she said, flashing him a reassuring smile. ‘No one, including myself, has eaten much since this whole ghastly business started.’ The smile had vanished again almost before she completed the sentence. ‘I’m sorry I can’t offer you more water,’ she continued, watching Alex drain the glass greedily, ‘but until we are more aware of the situation outside, we have to be very careful with our supplies.’
Alex nodded, for the first time noticing the men Katie had been talking to.
‘Oh, I am rude,’ she said. ‘This is Kenneth Ward.’ She gestured towards a thin, sour looking man on her right, who nodded stiffly at Alex. ‘And this is Jim Harrison, our local doctor.’ A man, about Alex’s height, and wearing a pair of steel rimmed glasses with one of the lenses cracked, shook Alex’s hand.
‘Kenneth is this area’s civil defence organiser. He’s responsible for organising emergency help and food supplies in case of a disaster,’ Katie continued.
Alex detected a note of sarcasm in her voice, but Kenneth, it appeared, either didn’t care or couldn’t be bothered to react to the taunt. He fixed his cold gaze on Alex.
‘Katie has told me you want to leave for the hospital as soon as possible.’
‘As soon as the radiation count drops,’ Alex corrected.
‘Ah.’ Kenneth looked at him thoughtfully. ‘But the radiation count will not be dropping for some time, you understand?’
‘I cannot give you a precise answer to that question,’ came the reply. ‘But until I say you can leave; you are not to go out of that door. Is that clear?’
Alex nodded, frowning as he did so. This man had an arrogant, rasping voice and his manner would have been offensive, under normal circumstances, but Alex sensed he was near the end of his tether.
‘You see those people over there,’ Kenneth continued, pointing towards a group huddled in the corner opposite them. ‘Against my better judgement, we let them in late yesterday afternoon. I doubt if any of them will survive for more than a few days. They are already running high fevers and vomiting continuously.’
‘But some will live,’ the doctor interrupted. ‘People vary immensely in their abilities to tolerate radiation. We have no idea how much these people may have absorbed, or how much the people on the other side of the door have absorbed.’
He jabbed a finger toward a large wooden door a few metres away, and Alex felt the tension between the two men suddenly rise.
‘You have no right,’ the doctor continued in a raised voice. ‘No right at all to deny people this shelter. I have a duty…’
‘Don’t start talking about your duty again,’ Kenneth said acidly. ‘I’m not going to let people in who have absolutely no chance of survival. They’ll only deprive us of valuable food and water before they die.’
‘They had a chance for survival late yesterday when they first started knocking on the door. We should have let them in then. They may still have a chance now, if only you would unbolt the door.’
‘It’s too late!’ Kenneth growled. The finality in his voice seemed temporarily to silence the doctor.
Suddenly, as if to reinforce the doctor’s plea, the door shook under repeated blows as if boulders or wooden beams were being hurled against it.
Under the violence of the assault, it creaked and groaned, but the large metal latch and reinforcing sandbags showed no signs of weakening.
‘What happens when they start using axes?’ the doctor groaned.
‘If they had axes, they would have already used them,’ Kenneth replied harshly.
The group fell quiet, listening. Alex wondered how many times they had already reached this same impasse during the night. Finally, when the doctor could bear it no longer, he stormed off towards the other end of the shelter, shaking his head as he went. Soon after the pounding stopped, faint cries and sobbing could be heard next, until they too ceased and there were no more sounds.
‘Let them in,’ Alex pleaded with Kenneth. ‘At least they will die in the warmth and not alone.’
The sour faced man glared at him, but he seemed beyond arguing the point any further. He turned and walked away without comment.
Alex was left with Katie. When she looked up at him her eyes were moist. ‘Yesterday we should have let them in, that was wrong of us,’ she admitted. ‘But now it’s too late, unless you want to watch people die slowly in front of you without being able to do a thing to help them.’ Then she too, walked off abruptly.
Alex stared at the door for a long time. His conscience told him to cross the short distance towards it to draw back the bolt and fling it wide open. That would have been the humane and proper thing; but he, no more than Katie or the doctor, could do it. At length, shamefacedly, he shuffled back to his mattress and crawled in under his blanket again.
Robert Cole was born and grew up in Sydney, Australia. After achieving a Bachelor of Science (Honours) at the Australian National University he travelled extensively and returned to Sydney to complete a Doctor of Philosophy in Molecular Biology. Following a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Sydney University, he worked in a number of biotech companies and has numerous scientific publications.
Robert has always had an interest in writing speculative fiction, particularly with themes related to social and political issues. Recently he has published an Apocalyptic novel called “Nuclear Midnight,” that reached number one on Amazon UK. His other areas of interest lie in children and teenage fiction, generated while raising three children.
Visit Robert at his website at: http://www.robertcole.com.au
Categories: book excerpt