by Chesney Parker
It was rather uncomfortable lying on the floor at the end of tunnel X13. The damp cold seemed to seep right through the blanket to chill their bones, but it was one of the few places in the crowded community where young couples could be alone for a while. The only trouble was that after today, they would never see this tunnel again.
Jane Simmons was completely relaxed. She was lying in the arms of her lover, Barry James, with her fiery red hair spread out across his chest. She was known to have a temper to match the colour of that hair and when she became angry her green eyes flashed with an inner vibrance that drove Barry wild. He would often tease her just to provoke that fascinating effect.
Jane and Barry had just finished eating a ‘picnic’ lunch and were now enjoying the few minutes left to them before they had to report back to work. He held her close and stared at the dim ceiling of the tunnel.
“I wonder what it would be like to have a real picnic,” he said. “One complete with fresh air, fresh food, ants, flies and sunshine.”
“I’m sure it would be absolutely marvellous.” she replied in a lazy voice.
He was 22 years old and she was 21, but neither of them had ever felt the sunshine on their faces, nor heard the rain fall on the leaves. They had been born and raised in an underground nuclear escape colony in the Barrington Tops; a mountainous region some 250 km north of Sydney. Neither of them, therefore, had any memory of life before the holocaust. They could only watch the video movies; and wonder.
After a few moments Jane said, “Have you talked to your father about our Family Allocation yet?”
“Uh, no, not yet,” he replied, looking away. “We’ve been very busy working on the new tunnel extensions and I haven’t had a chance to get to him.” He also knew that it would be fruitless to ask. His father, as Governor of the Colony, had the power to grant Family Allocations, but Barry knew he would not show him any favouritism.
Her eyes flashed as she sat up suddenly and folded her arms, “Well I wish you would talk to him! I’m fed up with your stalling. I’m sure you could do something if you really wanted to. I refuse to wait another five or six years. It’s ridiculous!” She was staring at the end of the tunnel where a large steel door stood ominously shut.
“Well, I suppose I could tell him that his future daughter in law just can’t wait to get pregnant. That might work…”
“Oh you!” said Jane, taking a swipe at him. “It’s more than that and you know it! And while you’re at it, you can tell him I don’t agree with the two baby limit either. I just might want to have twenty! So see if you can arrange that with your Dad too.” She twisted her head around and grinned at him.
“Now I’m not too sure how I should take that. I’m perfectly capable of fathering my own children, thank you very much.” He ducked as she took another swing at him, then they rolled on the floor in delighted struggle.
Food, water and waste material were all carefully recycled and rigidly controlled inside the hermetically sealed caverns. And the control of population growth was of paramount importance. The whole community was in a ‘holding pattern’, waiting for the time when they could venture out and start life over again. Extensions were going on all the time, but the work was slow because of the need to maintain the integrity of the radiation seals.
Jane sat up again and stared at the end of the tunnel, “Well, anyway, I think the whole thing is stupid! It can’t really be as bad as all that on the outside. Why don’t they let a few of us out and see how we go. You and I would volunteer, of course and that way we could start a real home and enjoy the world as it’s supposed to be.”
“Hey! Wait a minute. You’re pretty free with my life and liberty aren’t you? What makes you think I would volunteer for such hazardous duty?”
“Well,” she said, cuddling up against his body like a small ginger kitten, “you wouldn’t want me roaming around all alone out there would you? What if some terrible mutant got hold of me?” She batted her eyelids at him and cringed in mock fear.
“No, I guess I wouldn’t,” he said, grinning back, “And I have to admit this underground warren is no place to bring up children. I mean, look what happened to you!”
He pinned her arms so she could not hit him, but she managed to get her foot free and kicked him in the shins instead. Then she broke away laughing, stood up and walked over to the large steel door, idly fingering the locking mechanism. This was one of three exits from the Colony, to be opened only when it was safe for the occupants to emerge from their hideaway. The Governor kept the only set of keys under strict control in the Council safe.
“Of course,” said Barry, “the whole problem is that as long as we have a majority of oldies on the Council, we’re not likely to see any dramatic shift in policy. They’re too scared of the radiation levels to do anything as radical as letting people out.”
“It’s crazy”, said Jane, “they don’t really know for sure that it’s not safe.”
The nuclear attack had been so sudden and so thorough that none of the government officials and scientists who were supposed to benefit from the hideaway had actually made it to the haven in time. The Colony was made up of people who were not actually meant to be there. Firstly there were members of the original construction crew, who, at the time of the attack, had been in the process of completing the final fitting out. And secondly there were some people from a nearby timber cutting village who had been rescued by Barry’s father, then the Site Engineer, just before the first wave of serious radiation hit the area.
Jane’s parents came from the village, as did Barry’s mother. As a result, there were no scientists in the group and no one who really knew for sure how to tell when it was safe to leave, so it was a common debate amongst the inhabitants of the Colony.
Barry stood up and began to walk over to the door where Jane was standing, but she suddenly raised her hand, “Shh! Don’t move for a second.” She pressed her ear to the door and listened. “I can hear someone knocking!”
Barry bounded across the remaining distance and put his ear against the cold steel. She was right; there was a distinct knocking sound coming from the outside of the door.
Knock, knock…….knock…..knock, knock…
“But that’s impossible,” he said, “there can’t be anyone out there.”
“Maybe there were survivors after all,” she said.
“Not according to all the reports,” said Barry.
The radiation levels had been so high for the first few weeks after the attack that there had been no possibility of anything surviving. The bombs that blasted the military bases in the central and northern parts of the country had been massive. The fall out from those had been so extensive that it had destroyed all life not only in Australia, but in New Zealand, South America and Southern Africa as well. The radio active cloud had circled the globe several times under the influence of the prevailing winds. In addition to that there had been direct hits on all capital cities in the country. Not even Tasmania had escaped.
“So who’s knocking on our door, smarty pants?” she said, tossing a red curl of hair away from her eyes.
“Well, you’ve got me there.” He was staring at the door; his mind racing. What could it mean?
Barry picked up a rock and knocked several times against the door, hoping to give a reply to their mysterious messenger, but the pattern of sound carried on unbroken.
Jane said, “Come on, let’s go tell the others.”
They headed back down the passage, gathering their picnic things as they went.
The news caused a big disturbance in the Council and even greater excitement throughout the rest of the Colony. Within half an hour the entire population of 87 people had gathered at the end of the tunnel. One by one Council members pressed their ears to the steel door and listened to the unmistakable sound. Jane stood at the front of the crowd in excited expectation.
The Governor said, “Well, it definitely sounds like someone hitting the outer door alright. It almost sounds like a code of some sort; the single and double hits are quite regular at times.”
“That’s right,” said Barry, “that’s exactly what I thought too.”
“But who can it be?” continued the Governor. “I can’t believe that anyone is really alive out there. The last radiation readings were far too high for human life to survive.”
“Yes,” said Jane, “but that was nearly twelve years ago and the readings had been going down every year before that.”
When the external radiation counters had stopped working they had been unable to fix them because the problem appeared to be on the outside.
As the debate continued, Barry tried to support Jane’s position as best he could, but he was not totally convinced himself and it soon became clear that the older Council members were completely opposed to any idea of jeopardizing their safe underground haven by opening the door.
One old man said, “If there really is someone out there, he’s probably a mutant and we don’t want anything to do with people who aren’t human any more.”
The fear of radiation-caused mutation was quite common throughout the community. As well as being a very real threat, it was also used by some of the mothers to scare their children into obedience. ‘You get back here in time for dinner, or the mutants will get you’, was a common admonition to wayward youngsters.
“It’s not so much the chance of meeting a mutant that worries me,” said the Chief Engineer, “it’s the danger of exposing the Colony to excess radiation by merely opening the door, even to take a reading.”
“Oh, come on now!” said Barry, “The filtration systems are more than capable of handling that.”
“That may or may not be so,” said the Governor, “but we’ve never tested them, and I think I have to agree with the Chief Engineer on this one. It’s better to be safe.”
“But don’t you think,” said Jane, “that we should find out what’s going on? Maybe there were other survival shelters in other countries. I mean, if there is any possibility that it’s safe on the surface now, it would be terrible to miss the opportunity, wouldn’t it?”
“That may well be, but I’m afraid ‘possibility’ and ‘maybe’ are not good enough,” said the Governor. “For all we know, we’re dealing with the future of the human race here, and that’s not a subject to be taken lightly.”
They had monitored the radio frequencies for months after the attack. There had been a few scattered broadcasts from people in Australia and Asia (all tragic) but these had stopped after just a few days. The broadcasts from the rest of the world had ceased shortly after that and then there had been silence; an ominous and brooding silence.
“Our broadcasts have never received a response,” said the Chief Engineer, “As far as I’m concerned, we’re it!”
The Governor looked around at the rest of the Council members. “Any more views on this before we take a vote?”
Jane, by this time, was glaring at the Governor. Barry could practically see sparks flying from her hair; she was livid. She was about to say something, but instead, gave a disgusted grunt, spun on her heels and stormed off through the crowd.
The decision, by a unanimous vote, was to leave the door closed. The crowd broke up in disappointment and headed for home, but not before all of them had stopped to listen to the mysterious sound from the outside world.
Knock….knock, knock….knock, knock.
Barry found Jane sulking outside her quarters. She did not need to be told the outcome of the vote; she knew what the result would be before she left.
“They’re a bunch of stupid frightened old has-beens,” she said, impulsively clenching her fists in frustration. “They’re going to keep us locked up here forever, ‘just in case it’s dangerous on the outside’. It makes me sick!”
Barry looked at her and found himself loving her even more. There was an incredible liveliness about her that was extremely attractive. But the attraction was more on a spiritual level than a physical one, especially when she was angry.
“Well, we tried”, he said, “What more can we do?”
She looked up at him with smoldering eyes and said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “We can get out; that’s what we can do. Escape!”
He looked at her for a moment; was about to make a flippant remark, but stopped.
“You really mean that literally, don’t you?” he said.
“Yes. I’ve been thinking on it for some time now and after today, I’m convinced. There’s no future for us locked up in this underground prison. So the only answer is to get out of the Colony.”
“Oh, I know all the risks,” she rushed on, “but frankly, I’d rather die on the outside, than have to stay locked up in here forever; never seeing the world as it really is.”
“But honey, this is crazy talk. You have no idea what it’s like on the surface. You have nowhere to go. You don’t even know for sure that the knocking we heard today is being done by another human being. How the hell can you stand there and seriously suggest that we break the seal and leave the Colony?”
“Do you remember,” she said, “a few months ago we saw a video on the early construction work being done on this place?
“Don’t you remember the trees and the open spaces and blue sky. And there were all these lovely green spots with ferns and birds and small streams and everything. This was the place where my parents worked and lived. They used to tell me about it when I was just a kid. And after seeing it all on that film, I went home that night and I cried. It was all so incredibly beautiful. Well, I’ll tell you something Barry, my children are not going to grow up in this underground dungeon. It may very well be different on the outside now, but if it looks even a hundredth as good as it looked in that video, I want to see it. And I want my children to see it.” She looked deep into his eyes; holding him with her will.
Barry felt the challenge. It was very obvious and very powerful. Either he went along with her on this, or he would lose her for ever. During the next few seconds his whole life seemed to hang in the balance. He couldn’t bear to be without her, but the thought of venturing into the unknown territory on the outside scared the hell out of him.
The agonising decision was taking too long, so he took the cowards way out by deciding to sit on the fence for a while and see what she actually had in mind.
“Ok my love, suppose you’re right”, he said, “how would you plan to do it?”
She moved away from the wall, furtively glancing about to see if they were being watched or overheard. “Well, I know you sometimes have access to the Council Safe, so I figured you could take the key to X13’s door and we could slip out before anyone could stop us.”
“Just like that? Just nick the key and open the door? You’ve got to be joking! Had you figured on taking anything with you? Like food or clothing? Or a radiation counter maybe?”
“Of course I had! Don’t be so stupid! And don’t take me for an idiot either. As a matter of fact, I’ve got most of the things already gathered and packed away. I’ve been slowly collecting them over the last couple of months. They’re all in my personal locker in the dorm. All except the radiation counter, of course. That’s your department.”
“My God!”, he said, “You really are serious. How come you didn’t discuss this with me earlier?”
“I was just waiting for the right moment to bring it up, silly. Anyway, you wouldn’t have listened to me before today, would you?”
“No, I guess not,” he said.
“And I wasn’t planning to elope with anyone else, if that’s what you’re thinking. But my plan depends on you getting the key. Can you do it?”
He was silent for a moment because this was one of those times when he actually had the combination to the Council safe. He had needed it so he could get regular access to some archival documents relating to cave structure. Fate seemed to favour her plan. He was not sure, however, that he could go through with it as that would mean betraying his father’s trust. On the other hand, he did not want to lose Jane and she was obviously determined to go. If he didn’t help her, she would find another who would, and that he could not bear.
Her red hair was highlighted against the soft glow of the tunnel lights. The effect seemed to accentuate her features, adding weight to the determination that showed in her eyes. It was obvious he could not talk her out of it.
“Getting into the safe is not a problem”, he said. “As long as we move on it today; my access expires tomorrow. But I’m not entirely convinced yet that this is a good idea.”
Jane was about to launch into a vigorous defense, but he held up his hand and said, “But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll get the key and we’ll open the door and take a radiation reading. And if it’s too high, we’ll close it again and forget the whole idea. Deal?”
“And if the reading’s ok,” said Jane, “we’ll head for freedom. Deal?”
“Deal,” he said. Then he took her in his arms and they enjoyed a long and tender kiss.
“So let’s have a look at what you’ve packed,” he said, “so I can tell you what you’ve forgotten.” He was grinning again as he ducked her playful slap.
That night Barry had no trouble getting the key box from the safe; his authorisation was his cover. And no one stopped him from using the workshop tools to get the box open because, as an engineer, it was normal for him to be working late at night. So in less than thirty minutes he had extracted the key for X13 and replaced the key box in the safe.
At one AM, as arranged, the young lovers met and headed for the exit tunnel.
The passageway echoed too loudly to the soft fall of their feet as they made their way towards the large steel door. As he walked, Barry fingered the key that would let them out into the world that had not known people for more than thirty years (or had it?). And during the silence he began to wonder again about the knocking on the door. Was it really someone trying to send a signal of hope to those locked inside? Or was it a cruel trick of fate, falsely raising all their hopes.
In the cold dim light of the tunnel Barry also began to have second thoughts about their plan. His resolve was beginning to crumble.
As if sensing the mood of his thoughts, Jane reached out and took his hand in the semi darkness. He looked across at her and smiled, but the doubts lingered on.
When they reached the end of the tunnel, he opened one of the small bags they were carrying and removed a portable radiation counter. He stood up and put his ear to the door, but (not surprisingly) there was no sound at this late hour.
Barry inserted the key in the lock and was about to turn it, when Jane put her hand on top of his. She looked solemnly into his eyes as, together, they ceremoniously unlocked the gateway to another world.
He looked back at her and smiled. “Would you like me to carry you across the threshold too? After all, you were in such a hurry to go on the honeymoon, we didn’t have time to get married.”
She grinned back at him and he spun the wheel which unlatched the massive internal mechanism. There was a loud snap. The thirty year old seal was broken at last.
As the door swung slowly inwards, two things happened in quick succession. One: they were surrounded by a cold gush of air from the outside that filled their nostrils with strange and unfamiliar smells. And two: they were startled by a shout from two people who had just entered the passage two hundred metres behind them.
“Hey, what’s going on?” one shouted.
“My God, they’ve opened the door!” said the other, as they both began sprinting towards the escapees.
The startled young couple hesitated on the brink for a moment. Barry looked back at the approaching runners and then out at the unknown blackness. Then Jane suddenly swung into action. She grabbed the nearest bag and shoved it into Barry’s arms. “Move!” she shouted. He followed her command without question; jumping through the open door, not thinking for a moment about the consequences. She followed right behind him, clutching the other bag.
“Stop! Come back!” shouted their pursuers. But Barry and Jane were now racing down the hill, away from the security of their old sealed home.
As soon as the other two reached the door they swung it shut with frantic haste. There was a very final sounding thud as it fell back into place, followed by the roar of the filtration system, as it exhausted the outside air which had just entered the Colony.
As Barry and Jane stopped running, they gasped. Their eyes had finally focussed on something they had never seen before: infinity.
“Oh Barry, look! Look at the stars!”
They were awestruck and could say no more for several minutes as they took in the totally new experience of space, space and more space. Since birth they had lived in the tunnels of the Colony where there was always a roof not too far above their heads, and the greatest distance they knew was measured in hundreds of metres, not light years.
Barry was still looking up at the stars when the significance of where he was standing suddenly struck him. He quickly looked down at the radiation counter that he still carried. He waved the sensor in a wide slow arc, watching the dial as he moved. “Well, what do you know,” he said. “Only a little above normal background level. We’re safe! We’re safe!” He could hardly believe it.
“Oh darling!” she cried, “I knew it!” She flung her arms around his neck and they ended up on the ground, laughing hysterically, as the tension of the last few hours was finally released.
That night they slept in a hollow in the ground, not far from the door and in the morning they awoke to an absolutely unbelievable sight. They were on the side of a gently sloping mountain range and stretched out beneath them was a glorious green valley, dotted here and there with small shrubs and trees. A meandering stream cut through the centre of it and sparkled in the early morning sunlight.
The initial radiation levels had killed everything on the surface of the war torn planet, but years later the seeds that had been buried deep in the ground had sprouted and spread. Many of the species were peculiar mutations of their former selves, but they were none the less green and leafy.
“Oh Barry, it’s magnificent. I would never have believed…”
But Barry was unable to speak. He just sat and stared out across the vast expanse, looking at a thousand and one things he had never seen in real life before.
Forty years later, Jane sat in the same spot with six of her grandchildren. Her hair now had a touch of silver mixed in with the red, but her green eyes still flashed with vibrant life.
She gazed contentedly over the tall treetops to the thriving township below and felt, once again, the thrill she had experienced that first morning many years before.
She had just finished telling her grandchildren the story of how she and their grandfather had come to be the first people to emerge from the underground colony and how they had founded a new generation of the human race on the outside.
“But Grandma,” said six year old Lucy, “what about the one who was knocking on the door? Wasn’t he the first one on the outside?”
“Yes, I suppose you could say he was,” she said, looking back at the old steel door that now stood wide open. “When we got up that morning we went back to the door over there and looked for footprints, but we couldn’t find any. Then the wind sprang up and we heard the same knocking sound again, but this time it was much louder.
“Now, do you see that old double nut tree by the door? Well, forty years ago that was just a small sapling, bearing fruit for the first time. You kids see double nut trees all the time, but you have to understand that they’re a new species, created by mutation. No one in the Colony had ever seen one. So they couldn’t picture the pairs of large hard shiny nuts that hang from the branches. And that’s what was knocking on the door; just a couple of big old nuts swaying in the breeze.” She laughed as she recalled that discovery forty years earlier.
“The outside radiation counters had stopped working, but Nature still found a way to tell us that there was life on the outside once more and that it was time to come out and join in the fun. The other people in the Colony came out eventually, but your grandfather and I were the first to dare.”