‘So, what do you want me to say?’ Elaine stood, hands on hips, glaring at him. ‘Hope you have a nice trip? Hope you don’t die?’
Alex and Elaine were facing each other in their apartment. When he had told her about the committee meeting and his decision to lead the expedition to Kent she had said nothing. It was her typical response to disturbing news. She mulled it over, digesting the information carefully and brooding up a storm. Not until they had returned to their apartment had she erupted.
‘After everything that has happened, you still want to risk your life…our future?’
‘Well, you weren’t there. Everyone was at each other’s throats. Someone from the surface had to take the mission. I was the best choice,’ Alex said simply.
‘You were the most expendable you mean. The dumbest person in the room.’
‘I was the best choice,’ Alex repeated, deciding not to rise to the barb. ‘Both sides trust my judgement. I have been doing these missions for three years and I have more experience than anyone else.’
‘You have just volunteered yourself for a mission hunting down what sounds like the deadliest disease anyone has ever faced. It may be so infectious that you all die just collecting the samples.’
‘It’s dangerous, I admit, but we have full protective gear, and I won’t be collecting the samples myself. Anyway, I would prefer to be directing the operation than watching from the sidelines,’ he added as an afterthought.
She flung her hands in the air. ‘I thought we had an understanding after the last time you ran off by yourself and nearly died.’
‘We did…we do,’ Alex stammered, seeing the pleading in Elaine’s eyes. ‘But this is different. I’m not going off to fight a war. I don’t have any intention of killing anyone. This is just a quick trip. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.’
‘What rubbish,’ Elaine spat. ‘You have no idea how long it will take. You don’t know what’s out there or how infectious this disease is. Or if there even is a cure. Don’t make it sound like you are just going down the road to pick up some milk from the local shop.’
Alex tried to put his arm around her, but she pushed it away. ‘You weren’t there,’ Alex repeated lamely. ‘There was no other choice.’
‘You always have a choice,’ Elaine shot back. ‘Don’t try telling me that Peter ordered you to go. I know he wouldn’t do that. You chose to go because you can’t stop yourself. Even now after all that has happened, you are still hunting death.’
Alex saw her watching him carefully for his reaction. This was an old argument. She knew his history. The almost suicidal missions he had continually volunteered for while he was at the Welsh community.
‘It’s not true,’ he said in his most convincing voice. ‘I’m doing it for the people of the city and the survivors. I don’t have a death wish.’
‘So, you think that it will be a short trip and perfectly safe?’
‘Then I’m coming too.’
‘Why not, you said it was perfectly safe.’
‘Not that safe.’
‘So, it’s not safe?’
‘No trip on the surface is completely safe. You know that.’
‘But it’s not about travelling on the surface, is it? It’s about exposing yourself to a disease that appears to have wiped out most of the remaining survivors in Europe. That’s the real danger.’
Alex glared at her but couldn’t fault her logic. ‘Well, I don’t want you to go,’ he said stubbornly.
‘Well, I don’t want you to go, but you’re going anyway. You don’t have the final say on what I do either.’
‘You’re not qualified to go.’
‘I do have medical training and I’ve worked in a pathology lab in the microbiology department for three years before the holocaust and I know how to culture bacteria and viruses; that’s exactly the type of training they need. You are not in charge of selecting the medical staff to go. I’ll ask Adriana if I can go.’
‘I thought you were happy working in the hospital here.’
‘I am, but I think I would also like a trip on the surface,’ she said with a quick smile. ‘It will be nice to fill a breeze on my face and breathe the fresh air.’ She walked over and collected her cardigan. ‘Well, are you coming to see Star Wars?’
It took four days to outfit three buses with the necessary medical equipment to perform the microbiology tests. Alex used this time to plan the route to the Kent coast. Six armoured vehicles would also accompany the buses. Overall, 12 medical staff and 18 soldiers would be going. Alex had insisted that half the soldiers should be from the surface and the drivers of the buses would also be surface people – two per van. He would be one of the drivers.
The best route was to head north and link up with the M4. Travel along this motorway should be relatively quick since it had previously been cleared by the military as the major route to the east. At Newbury, they would turn off and head south to Basingstoke, then pass through the South Downs National Park to the coast at Brighton. From there the convoy would head out along the coast of Kent. The medical buses would travel in the middle of the convoy with the armoured vehicles front and back.
Hopefully many of the survivors would be found along the coastline of Kent as it provided a ready source of seafood. Aerial photos taken by drones showed that along this route much of the area was deserted but small walled communities still persisted, each with accompanying farmland and crops. These communities would be avoided – armoured vehicles could easily be misinterpreted as hostile.
Elaine’s assertion that Adriana needed her skills had proven correct. Her experience working as a pathology technician in microbiology was exactly what Adriana wanted. As there were few volunteers from the city who were willing to risk their lives on such a venture, Elaine was accepted immediately. Alex had contemplated trying to change Adriana’s mind, but decided that if Elaine ever found out she probably would never forgive him. That, he couldn’t live with. At first, he thought he would assign her to another bus, but then he would only be worried about her, and she about him. So, in the end, Elaine had her way. She would ride with him in the front of the bus, which was where she wanted to be from the beginning anyway. After that had been settled, Elaine set about trying to organise him. Something he was definitely not used to, but he didn’t mind. He knew, as always, she had his best interests at heart. He even began to look forward to the trip, telling himself that with the military escort and medical personnel there was minimal risk. With Elaine by his side, it might even be fun – an adventure they could share.
On the morning of the fifth day after the committee meeting, the convoy assembled at the main tunnel entrance. Alex flicked through an inventory list and carefully ticked off each item. He had estimated that the round trip would be over 1000 kilometres, so he had brought twice the fuel and food. This was the standard formulae he used whenever he embarked on one of these trips. He had also ordered extra supplies that might be useful to barter with. This included medical supplies, dehydrated food packages, blankets, clothes and even seed packs for growing vegetables. Elaine was busy checking the supplies of culture plates and nutrient blood agar for culturing TB bacteria. Alex ticked the last item off his list, then headed over to Peter and Adriana who were talking quietly together a short distance away.
‘How’s it looking?’ Peter asked when Alex approached.
‘We’re ready. Just waiting on the medical staff to finish checking their supplies.’
‘Good. We will do our best to monitor your progress every few days with drones,’ Peter said. ‘We may even be able to point you towards possible targets.’
‘I’ve instructed the staff to collect samples from at least 20 different patients,’ Adriana said. ‘This should give us a good selection of bacteriophages. When you reach this number, you can turn for home.’
Alex nodded. ‘Sounds easy.’
‘Let’s hope it is,’ Adriana said.
‘And make sure you take good care of Elaine,’ Peter added.
Alex knew full well what Peter was referring to. During their last mission, the military had captured Elaine and himself and savagely beaten Elaine. ‘I’ll take extra care of her this time.’
‘And don’t take any unnecessary risks.’ Peter came forward and gave Alex a warm embrace. ‘We need you back here on the committee as soon as possible.’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Adriana gave him a brief smile and offered her hand. ‘Hope all goes well.’
Her smile was genuine, Alex thought, but there was an air of superiority about her. A lack of empathy perhaps, he mused. In any case, he didn’t warm to her.
When they had disappeared back into the tunnel, he turned his attention back to the shimming red orb of the sun as it slowly climbed above the dust layers on the horizon. For the first few hours of every day the earth was bathed in rich colours of magentas and reds. It was beautiful. And it never failed to take his breath away. He realised that he had really missed the surface. The changing colours of the land as the sun rose through the dust clouds. The heat of the midday sun, the freezing cold of the nights. Even the brutal landscape had a certain appeal: the twisted dead trees, the parched land, the packs of wild dogs. After the ordered technological advances of Genesis, it was like walking onto a different world; an open wound – only slowly healing itself.
‘We’re almost ready.’ Elaine appeared beside him and put her arm around his waist. She was dressed in a grey tracksuit and top with a hood attached, and a leather utility belt pulled tight around her waist. Standard issue for travelling on the surface. The tracksuit offered protection against the UV laden sun while the utility belt contained all types of medicines and supplements, a knife, torch, compass and handgun. Everything that could be useful on such a mission.
‘Are all the buses ready?’ Alex asked.
Alex looked back at his bus. Two fresh-faced city people – a man and a woman – were watching him with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation on their faces. They looked younger than himself and Elaine, but he knew from their files that they were around the same age. Casey was the infectious diseases expert; a tall, ungainly looking man with grey eyes and a nervous smile who was always willing to drop some scientific fact or usually irrelevant statistic into the conversation whenever he felt nervous. In contrast, Susan, a medical doctor, was a short, stocky blonde with a plump face and infectious laugh. ‘What do you think of your fellow medical staff?’ he asked.
She glanced over her shoulder. ‘They’re excited to be on the surface.
‘And scared,’ Alex added.
Elaine nodded. ‘Yes, that too.’
Alex turned his attention back to watching the sunrise. There was low cloud on the horizon which had turned a deep crimson, which only added to the spectacle. One thing he had learned since being on the committee was the state of the rest of the world, particularly America. In the first committee meeting, Garrett had graphically described the situation when he briefed the surface people on the intelligence the military had gathered on the holocaust. Before all communications had been cut off from the outside world there had been some desperate broadcasts, largely from ham radio operators throughout America. Apparently, there had been several nuclear explosions directly on top of the caldera of the super volcano in Yellowstone National Park. These detonations had opened fissures to the magma chamber. The resulting eruption was horrendous. Volcanic ash, magma and pyroclastic clouds spread over most of northern America in a matter of days. This was why the nuclear winter had been so severe and why the blood-red sunrises and sunsets would persist for tens maybe even hundreds of years.
The San Andreas Fault had shifted too, sending large parts of California into the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric bursts had also destroyed all electronic equipment and it was assumed that as a consequence all the nuclear reactors had melted down. America was a basket case. No wonder there had been no communication with them since the holocaust. One thing was certain, Alex thought. The surface was still a frightening place. In the next few days, these city people would see and hear things that would quickly test their mettle.
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