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The world ended on December 3, 2030, with the impact of the meteor, Ragnarok, in the American heartland. When the world ended, a new one began – one which most of humanity didn’t live to see.
Most did not die in the impact, but in the months following it. The meteor dust clouded the skies, filtering sunlight. As infrastructure collapsed, billions died from lack of food, medication, and shelter. Violence and gangs rose from the ashes of civilization, skirmishing for control of limited supplies.
Within a decade, only a tiny fraction of the world’s population remained. The dust lingered, sending global temperatures plummeting, heralding the beginning of a new Ice Age few would live to see.
The U.S. and Canadian governments, pooling their resources before the impact of Ragnarok, constructed 144 underground installations within their borders to survive the apocalypse.
Only the brightest, wealthiest, and highest-ranking individuals were allowed inside, which collectively contained room for thousands of people, complete with anything needed to sustain large populations for an extended period. When the dust settled, bunker residents would reemerge to rebuild society.
But life underground was fraught with unforeseen difficulties. Disease, rebellion, and internal breakdowns took the bunkers offline, one by one. Surface dwellers and roving bands of raiders overran the bunkers out of desperation for shelter and supplies.
And on the surface, unknown except among the scientists and administrators of Bunker One, a new threat was evolving. For Ragnarok was not merely rock and dust. A long dormant form of alien life was buried within the meteor. Vast fungal blooms sprouted within the vicinity of the impact and spread at an alarming pace, completely unchallenged.
By 2048, the denizens of Bunker One, located in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, would learn the true threat Ragnarok posed.
Samuel Neth ran alone through the corridors of U.S. Bunker One, his footfalls rattling off the metal surfaces. He panted, breathless, thinking a prayer for deliverance over and over.
Let them be home. Let them be safe . . .
From behind came a hideous, inhuman screech, distant but terrifying. The sound was like nothing Samuel had ever heard. That screech was shortly followed by another scream, this one human.
After that, silence reigned, the only sound being Samuel running home as fast as his feet would carry him, to the wife and children who still didn’t know about the threat above.
People were opening their doors to look at the source of the disturbance. All of them watched Samuel as he ran by, as if he could have made a noise like that. Some of them cast him dirty looks.
“Hide!” he shouted, cutting off their questions. “They’re inside!”
There were shouts and questions as he ran by, but Samuel had done his part. He had warned them. Those . . . things . . . had overrun the surface agripods, cutting their way through the sheer plastic with serrated pincers. The cold air of the surface had rushed in, and the openings had revealed the monsters’ three glowing white eyes, each of them set in angular, insectoid faces. Just remembering them made his skin crawl, the way those tongues flickered out, or how their sharpened mandibles clicked as they opened and closed, the scuttle of their spindly scorpion legs. He still heard his friends’ dying screams resonating in his mind. He could hardly believe what he’d seen. It was beyond reality, but he couldn’t deny it: monsters were invading Bunker One.
Samuel was one of the few lucky ones to get to the elevator before the doors closed, shutting out the screams of his falling comrades. Once inside Bunker One itself, Samuel saw no signs of alarm. The corridors were empty, save for a few patrolling security officers, which themselves didn’t seem to know what was happening. Some of the escaped workers went to warn them, but Samuel only had one thing on his mind: his family, sleeping and unaware. Several of those officers had tried to accost him for breaking curfew, but Samuel was too fast. They would soon be drawn off for more pressing things, anyway.
Samuel’s apartment was clear across the Bunker, on L20, near the bottom. Maybe there would be time to get to his wife and kids. He kept expecting to see one of those monsters at every turn, but there was nothing but silence.
Samuel turned into the final corridor, which was a dead end, and ran to the last door on the left. He and his family had been a last-minute entry into Bunker One, and as such, their apartment was small and out of the way. He had hoped they could move to a larger home as his family grew, but his appeals were always declined by Bunker Admin. As an agriculture worker, what he had now was probably the best he and his family could ever hope for.
Now, his home’s isolation was a blessing. If those monsters were as fast as they seemed on the surface, then they would be devastating the upper east wing by now. That was where Security was. While only a few of those creatures had invaded his agripod, he got the sense there were many more out there in the Wasteland, waiting to pour in.
If there were, Bunker One might not last the night.
The lights of the corridor flickered a moment, and then steadied. Samuel scanned his card on the reader, and the door slid open. He turned on the lights to reveal his children, Makara and Samuel, blinking drearily from the bed they shared, while his wife, Violet, lay in their shared bed across the room. She stirred at her husband’s entrance, looking at him first with confusion, and then second, with alarm.
“Samuel,” she said. “What are you doing home so soon?” Then, she noticed his face. “Has something happened?”
He had left not two hours ago for the night shift. Never once had he come home early.
Several screams sounded from the corridor outside, to which the door was still open. Samuel hastily scanned it shut.
As he watched Violet’s frightened brown eyes, her kind face, he almost immediately broke down. But both children were staring at him, wide-eyed. He looked at little Makara, who was seven, and Samuel Jr., who was eleven. Samuel couldn’t bear to tell them the truth, especially Makara, who clung to her threadbare panda plush with sad, droopy eyes. She had named the bear, appropriately, Panda.
He walked to his wife and embraced her tightly, trying to hold back the tears that wanted to come. He was afraid; for himself, yes, but mostly for his family. He needed to be strong for them.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” Makara asked.
“What’s happening, Dad?” Samuel Jr. asked, his voice cracking a bit.
Samuel closed his eyes. “We need to stay in here, kids. There’s been an emergency at the agripods. We need to stay in here and be very quiet.”
Violet pulled back from his embrace and looked at him fearfully. “Sam? What’s going on?”
“Why?” Samuel Jr. asked.
Samuel ignored his son and looked into his wife’s eyes. “You would never believe me.”
“After everything we’ve been through?” Her eyes became stern. “Tell me. Tell me right now.”
Samuel sat on the bed, trying to ignore his two kids staring at him. They would know soon enough, and that fact alone was almost enough to make him break down right there. All the same, Samuel couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud. He had hoped his kids might remain blissfully ignorant.
But Violet had to know. She wouldn’t accept anything less than the truth.
“Monsters,” he whispered in her ear. She stiffened in his arms, but Samuel continued. “They’re fast. We’ll never outrun them, so we have to stay in here. Let Security take care of it.”
It was a long time before Violet responded. She must have been full of questions and doubts. There had long been rumors that there were things more dangerous than gangs out there in the Wasteland, things Samuel and Violet had never put much stock in.
It appeared now that there was something to those rumors.
Violet whispered back. “Okay.”
“What are you talking about?” Samuel Jr. asked, with rising frustration. “What’s going on?”
“We’re staying here for a while,” Violet said, in a firm voice brooking no argument. “All right?”
“What was that screaming outside?” Samuel Jr. asked, looking at his father. “Dad?”
“I’ll tell you later, son,” he said. “For now, be quiet.”
Either from the way Samuel said that, or the expression on his face, neither of his children argued against it.
The Neth family waited.
Samuel played cards with the kids, feigning interest, while Violet brewed a pot of tea on the apartment’s tiny stove, taking care that the water didn’t boil and cause the kettle to whistle. There were no more sounds from outside, but Samuel’s eyes nervously darted to the door in between hands. He anxiously watched the speaker mounted to the wall for an announcement.
But there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was almost as if he had imagined the whole thing.
His wife kept looking at him nervously, while forcing a smile for the children’s sake. Makara was getting into the game, even giggling and forgetting the tense atmosphere, but Samuel Jr. still knew something was wrong, and seemed angry at not knowing what that was.
Violet poured a cup of tea for her husband, then herself, and took a seat on the children’s bed.
As Samuel got ready to deal another hand, a bead of sweat made its way down his forehead. A sudden crackle from the room’s speaker caused his hairs to stand on end.
“Announcement,” Samuel Jr. said, his dark brown eyes hungry for news.
Samuel closed his eyes, bracing for impact.
There was only silence for a moment, even though the line to the other side was open. Voices then argued, indiscernible, somewhere close to the mic.
“Err . . . sorry about that. Everyone’s under orders by President Garland to stay in their homes until further notice. Bunker One is on full lockdown. Remember your drills. We will advise you when it’s safe to come out. Once again, we are on full red alert and lockdown. If you are out of your homes, proceed to the nearest auditorium, café, or gym, whichever is closest. There is no need for alarm or panic, this is simply a drill . . .”
Someone cursed in the background, and then, there was a horrendous screech, followed by the automatic fire of an M5 or M16. Violet raised her hand to her mouth, her face a mask of horror, while Samuel Jr. stared at the speaker intensely. Little Makara dropped her cards, her smile completely gone, while she reached for Panda.
Thankfully, the P.A. clicked off, leaving the Neth family in uneasy silence.
Everyone looked at Samuel. He swallowed, then wiped the sweat from his brow.
“We’re to stay here,” he said, so quiet that it was almost a whisper. “Await further orders.”
Both children nodded while Violet took hold of Makara, who was shaking.
The following silence stretched for at least two more minutes. Samuel wasn’t sure what comfort to offer his family. He had seen those monsters. Whatever comfort he had was a lie. He had taught his children to never lie, and he had never lied to them. It was a point of pride, but he might have to break that commitment tonight.
“Maybe Security will take care of it,” Samuel Jr. said. His small voice was hopeful, but to Samuel, that hope sounded forced. The kid was smart enough to know this wasn’t a drill. Those screams and gunshots were too real to be faked.
“Maybe so, son,” Samuel said.
“What was that scream, Daddy?” Makara asked. “I don’t like it.”
Samuel didn’t like it, either. Violet watched him, her eyes afraid. They seemed to say, Don’t tell her. Don’t be honest this time.
“I don’t know, Mak,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”
He thought about dealing another hand, but neither child seemed interested. Samuel Jr. was staring at the door in fascination. To his mind, something exciting was finally happening.
Samuel Jr. was still so young.
“Come here, son,” Samuel said, nodding toward the corner farthest from the rest of the family. Though it was farthest, the Neth home was so tiny that it was only about twenty feet away.
Samuel Jr. followed him there, and his father held his head close.
“You’re going to need to be strong, son,” he whispered. “For your sister. You’re going to have to protect her.”
“What do you mean, Dad?” he asked, loud enough for the rest to hear.
Samuel’s stern look warned his son to be quieter. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. The situation is dangerous. This isn’t a drill, like they said.”
“What’s going on?” Samuel asked. “Is it . . . is it a rebellion?”
It had happened once before, when Samuel Jr. had been all of four years old. It was probably one of his son’s first memories. That had been terrifying, but it was nowhere close to this.
“Might be worse than that, son,” he said.
Samuel Jr’s eyes widened. “How can I be strong, Dad? I don’t even know what’s going on. You won’t tell me.”
His son’s voice had risen, and once again, Samuel struggled about whether to tell him the truth. It always tore him to say something that would threaten Samuel Jr’s innocence.
He had thought his family would be safe in Bunker One. When they had won the lottery to be assigned here, he couldn’t believe it. He’d thought they’d live down here a few years at most before reemerging on the surface above to start a new life.
But here the family had lived for eighteen years. Both of his children had been born in Bunker One. And if tonight went the way he was afraid it was going, both would die here, too.
“I always wondered why they never let us out of here,” Samuel whispered to his son. “Soon enough, you’ll know the reason, too.”
“Are the rumors true?” the boy whispered back.
So, he had heard them, too. The government always insisted the surface was still too dangerous — too cold, too desolate, too many roving looters and gangs. Only authorized military personnel were allowed on recons.
The rumors had seemingly originated from Bunker One’s lower Lab Levels. The meteor Ragnarok, having crashed just eighteen years ago, had not only brought widespread devastation to the planet, but something else. Demons now prowled the world above, and it was for this reason alone that the U.S. government had never given the order to vacate the Bunker, as had been the original plan.
“The rumors are true,” Samuel finally said. “They’re true, son.”
Samuel watched his son’s face remain neutral, if a bit paler than usual, and was relieved to see him nod. Samuel Jr. accepted the news in stride and seemed to be the calmer for it. His son knew what the threat was, to an extent, and was ready to do his part.
“Be strong, son,” Samuel said. “I’m going to need you. Be ready to take charge. Makara can’t know.”
At the mention of her name, his daughter looked up. She had been playing with Panda, twisting its arms around and making it do flips.
“Be strong,” was all Samuel could manage to say.
Both father and son returned to the center of the room.
“We’re going to eat,” Samuel said. “And pack. But before that, we’re going to push all our furniture against the door.” He looked at everyone firmly, to make sure his instructions were understood.
“Okay,” Violet said.
The family set to work, even little Makara helping in her own way by moving the family’s smaller possessions to the far corner of the room, freeing up the furniture — the two beds and the one wardrobe everyone shared — to be pushed in front of the door.
Once done, Violet cooked a meal and the family ate. No one was hungry, but Samuel insisted they eat anyway. They might need the energy for later.
After eating, they packed. All they had for this purpose was the luggage they had brought with them into Bunker One eighteen years ago, two large wheeled bags covered with dust. Most of the things they had brought in had been confiscated by Bunker personnel or traded away. But the bags had remained. The family filled them with clothing and food, as well as the cards they had played with earlier.
Samuel also took the heavy, cast-iron skillet his wife had just cooked in. It was still warm from the stove and soapy water she’d used to clean it. He felt foolish, picking it up and feeling its heavy weight. Would its heft be enough to smash in one of those monster’s heads?
It was better than nothing, he decided. No one said anything as he set the skillet in his lap and sat against the wall with the rest of his family.
There, they waited in silence.
Samuel faded in and out of sleep. He couldn’t help it. Working the agripods was backbreaking labor, and the adrenaline of running had taken its toll. Violet kept watch, drinking more tea to stay alert.
He felt her hand pinch his shoulder, and his eyelids fluttered open.
She raised a finger to her mouth. Samuel nodded to show he understood. Both children were asleep. Violet then nodded toward the door.
At first, Samuel didn’t hear anything. His hearing wasn’t as good as Violet’s. Years of working around the pods’ hydroponic recyclers had somewhat deafened him. But soon, the sound was loud enough to where even he couldn’t deny it.
Click. Click. Click.
It sounded as if it were coming from the hallway outside.
Makara stirred, and her eyes drowsily opened. As soon as she heard the noise, she looked confused, and then frightened.
Samuel hastily covered her mouth, while Violet raised a finger to her lips to keep her daughter silent.
It was quiet for a long time. Samuel Jr. let out a snore, and Violet woke him to cover his mouth, too.
Click, click, click, click . . .