Help me! Help!
I’m being crushed.
When I try to breathe, all that comes in is dirt and I end up coughing it straight back out. My eyes are on fire—which is weird, because they’re flooded with tears, too—and my throat feels like somebody’s shoving a scrub brush down it.
I’m going to die.
Great Selene, I’m going to die crushed and choking on dirt.
I have my sister, my parents.
My dog Brewster. If I don’t get home, who’s going to feed him? What if nobody realizes I’m dead until it’s too late, and he starves to death, alone and forgotten. What’ll he think? That I abandoned him?
I’ve gotta get outta here.
I flex my arms, but there’s nowhere for them to flex. I claw my fingers, and thick, dry dirt squeezes through them, but … I can’t move. The weight on me, I’m immobilized.
Ah! Ow! Damn. More weight just fell on me. Please, stop. This is already too much.
No, wait. Something’s moving above me.
The weight, I think it’s getting less … I think … or maybe I’m losing consciousness.
I was dreaming. The worst dream I’ve ever had. I’d been in DC, and somehow I’d been trapped underground when an earthquake hit and I’d been buried under a ton of dirt.
“C’mon, Lori, wake up.”
I open my mouth and… what’s that taste? It’s like a mud pie, but dry and gritty and… my body shudders. I’ve got something in my throat, and when I breathe in--blehgh.
“Roll her over, quick.”
I’m on my belly. Or not quite. Somebody has their hands around my waist, keeping me from lying flat.
I convulse and vomit. It hurts! Oh Selene, it hurts! And not the normal way vomiting hurts. Oh no, this is far worse. Like somebody’s ripping my insides out.
“She needs water.”
I keep vomiting and coughing, and it won’t stop. I try to fight it. I need a chance to breathe, but my body doesn’t want anything getting into me.
I go on like this forever and I want to die. I don’t care. If it’ll make this stop, I don’t care. Let me die. Let this end.
At last I’m able to breathe. When I do, the air comes in a rough, jittering stream, like a car AC that’s on the verge of dying. The back of my mouth tastes hot and vile, and my throat burns.
But I can breathe.
Thank the Goddess, I can breathe!
I try looking around, but my neck twinges at the slightest movement. I have to twist my waist around—that still hurts, but it’s a dull, manageable soreness.
I’m in the dark. The only light is coming from a phone in the hand of a dark and shadowy figure.
“You okay?” His voice is familiar. My boss at the gift shop. I grope for his name. I should know it. We’ve been working together three, four days a week for two years, but all that’s coming up is ████.
“No,” I croak. “What happened?”
“I dunno, an earthquake or something.”
I vaguely remember that. Everything had started shaking and then—the others? Where are the others? Where’re … where’re … their names aren’t coming to me either. ██████ and ████ and █████████. I can see their faces in my head, but why can’t I think of their names?
“I found another one,” a woman says. It’s … it’s … oh Goddess, what is her name? My co-worker, she’d been in the gift shop earlier. “Gimme a hand.”
“Here.” ████ hands me his phone, then he gets on the ground with the girl.
There’s another phone lying on the ground, its flashlight on but shining at the ceiling where it doesn’t do much good.
I hold ████’s phone up to shine the light on him and the woman. Yes, that’s definitely her, my coworker. She’s facing away from me, but the way she’s crouching reveals the tattoo on her lower back, a Native American Thunderbird with its wings stretched out over her buttocks.
There’s another person next to her—██████! The cutie from my group. He’s alive.
The tunnel in front of them is filled with dirt that’s fallen in from the ceiling. Is that what I’d been under? No wonder I feel like a piano fell on me.
“C’mon, pull.” My coworker’s gotten a figure half uncovered, and now she and my boss are pulling him out. It’s that science guy—my mind’s blanking on his name, too, though I do remember that a lot of people called him by his initials … BLT? LGBT? No, those aren’t right.
“He’s not breathing,” Coworker says. “Brad, can you CPR him?”
Brad! Brad! That’s my boss’s name. How could I not remember something so simple?
“Yeah. I’ll try,” he says.
They’ve got the science guy loose now, and they drag him down the tunnel a ways. I have to step out of the way to let them pass.
“You get back to digging,” Brad tells Coworker and Cutie. “Lor, get the light up so I can see.”
I hold his phone as high as I can get it. Brad presses his fingers to the science guy’s throat for what seems like an awfully long time.
“Nope,” he mutters, and repositions himself. He presses his hands onto the guy’s chest and pumps them up and down. I’ve only ever seen CPR in movies, and the way Brad’s doing it is nothing like that. In the movies, mouth-to-mouth is the main part, with the actors spending whole minutes blowing into the victim’s throat, then getting up to do a couple pumps. But Brad, he keeps pumping on the guy for close to a minute before going down for the mouth-to-mouth part, which he only does a couple times before restarting the chest compressions.
He switches back and forth three, four times, but Mr. Science doesn’t—no wait! His eyes just twitched. Or maybe I was seeing things. It’s so dark in here, and if my arm moves in the slightest, it makes a hundred shadows dance. But no, Mr. Science is moving. His eyelids flip open for a moment, then snap shut against the light of the phone. I bring my arm down and angle the light towards the ceiling.
Brad leans back. He’s slick with sweat and panting for breath. He wipes his face on his shirt, though all that does is smear the sweaty grime around.
The science guy rolls onto his side and hacks for air, but he manages not to vomit. After a few moments he pushes himself into a sitting position. “Where’m I?”
“You don’t remember?” Brad says.
“I was … on an airplane. Going to DC? What happened, we crash?”
“No, you got to DC.”
“I don’t—wait, yeah. The premiere. I remember that. And a party afterwards? I had a couple drinks but … not enough to blackout. Did I?”
“No. Not that kinda blackout at least.”
“Ah, Christ,” Coworker says from down the tunnel.
“Something wrong?” Brad calls.
“We found another one,” she says.
“They need CPR?” Brad says.
“That’s not gonna do her any good.”
Me and Brad head back towards the dig, leaving Mr. Science to himself. As we approach, my light flashes across an arm sticking out of the dirt—a woman’s arm. I recognize the rings on her fingers, but her name—████—is as much a blank as everyone’s. She hadn’t quite been our leader—we’re anarchists, after all—but she’d always kept us organized. She collected phone numbers and email addresses, made sure people knew when our meetings would be. She referred to herself as our facilitatrix.
But she’s not that anymore.
She’s not anything.
Coworker’s only been able to get the left side of her body exhumed so far—her arm, her shoulder, and … her head.
It’s not pretty. A piece of concrete must’ve hit her, cuz her forehead’s dented like a soda can that somebody’s pressed their thumb against too hard. The side of her face is black with blood that’s mixed with dirt. Her eyes are still open, and when my light passes over her face, her pupils remain glassy and wide.
We keep digging, taking turns at it, everyone except … except … dammit, I’ve forgotten his name again. My boss. ████. Since he’s the only one here who knows CPR, we tell him to sit to the side when he isn’t needed.
He hasn’t been needed so far.
The mound of dirt we’re dealing with is huge, and we’re barely making a dent in it. In the last half hour we’ve found one more body, a museum bigwig, but like ████ he was as dead as dead gets—a piece of rebar had gone through his chest; there was no way for Boss to perform CPR on him.
At this rate we’re not going to get anyone else out alive. Anyone who’s under there has probably suffocated by now, and even if there’s an air pocket somewhere, it won’t last long enough for us to get to it.
Maybe if we had help—a team of diggers, paramedics with medical gear—we might have a chance, but when Mr. Science suggested we go and find some, Coworker had said it wouldn’t do any good.
“After you guys left, the cops showed up and made me open the backroom. I let them back there and went back to the counter. I rang up one customer, and then the store was empty. Then, about five minutes later, the fire alarm starts blaring. Freaked me out at first, and I was about ready to run out the store, but then it occurred to me that maybe the cops had decided to go back to the loading bay. Sure enough.
“I followed them back and tried to yell at them—‘You’re gonna be in so much trouble for this, you just caused a major museum to be evacuated’—but they ignored me. Like my one chance to get legitimately angry at a cop and they blow me off.
“Anyways, they noticed the stairwell door was ajar and headed over that way. I told them it was off-limits to anyone but museum personnel, but again with the ignoring.
“The alarm was still going off, so I figured there was no harm in leaving the store unattended. I followed them down. I dunno why, honestly. Seemed a thing to do, y’know.
“We’d barely reached the bottom of the stairs when everything began shaking. We heard something crash down in the tunnel and the lights went out. I’m like, ‘Shit, gotta get outta here,’ but, y’know, no lights, can’t exactly go anywhere.
“Once the rumbling stopped, the cops pulled their flashlights out and ran back up the stairs—one of them damn near pushed me over the stair rail, asshole. I didn’t know what to do—should I go look for you guys in the tunnel (I figured that’s where you were) or get the hell out. I decided to get the hell out—sorry, but yeah.
“When I got to the top of the steps, the cops were already gone, and the emergency exit—the one for the outside—was wide open. I was going to jump out, but when I got to the door … I dunno what happened, but it sure as hell wasn’t a quake. Looks like a fire swept over the Mall, and when I tried my cell, couldn’t get a signal.”
Part of me wants to go up and see for myself, but I know we can’t. Not while there’s a possibility that people—my friends even if I can’t remember their names—are still alive under this dirt. We have to keep going as long as we can.
I dig my hand into the pile. I have to be careful. There’s rebar and chunks of concrete mixed in with the soil, so if I scoop the dirt away too fast, I risk mangling my fingers. I work at a steady pace, but in the ten minutes I’ve been doing this, I haven’t cleared enough dirt to move forward even an inch. Maybe if we had shovels, we could improve our pace—but even then we’d have to be careful not to injure anyone who’s trapped down here.
Mr. Science is next to me, taking his turn at the digging. For an old guy, he’s managing pretty well, and his bigger hands allow him to clear more dirt than me, but even so, he’s barely made a scratch in--
Whoa, what just happened? Everything’s black all of a sudden. I can’t even see my hands.
“Ah crap,” Boss says.
“What is it?” Coworker says.
“My cell’s down to twenty percent battery, went into power saving mode. Damn, I had a full charge this morning.”
“Did you put it in airplane mode?” Cutie says.
“That explains it. If there’s no signal, it’s going to burn through the battery trying to get one. Add in the flashlight, yeah, that’ll do it.”
Coworker has her phone out. “I didn’t charge mine last night. It’s at thirty-five percent.”
“That’s not good,” Mr. Science says. “I don’t know about you folk, but I’m not keen on getting stuck down here in the dark.”
“No,” Cutie says.
“Don’t we have a flashlight in the store?” Coworker says.
“Do we?” Boss says. He fiddles with his phone. After a couple seconds, the light comes back on.
“Yeah,” I say. “In the drawer with the stapler and tape and all that stuff.”
“I’ll run up and get it,” Coworker says.
“Grab some spare batteries, too,” Boss says.
“What, just off the shelf?”
“If the surface is like you say, who’s going to care?”
“If you’re going up,” Mr. Science says, “think you can scrounge up some food? I dunno about you guys, but I haven’t eaten since eleven this morning. I am starving.”
“I could go with some eats,” Boss agrees.
“Yeah.” All I’ve eaten today was some avocado toast this morning and the nacho’s I’d appropriated from the taco truck. “Something vegetarian.”
“Well yeah,” Coworker says in a tone that suggests I’m an idiot. “I ain’t cooking anything—if the gas is even working—and any meat that’s been left out is gonna be cold by now. I’ll see what I can find, but it’s probably gonna be cold fries and candy bars.”
“I can live on that for now,” Boss says.
“Why don’t I go with you,” Cutie says, “give ya a hand.”
“Sure,” Coworker says.
They disappear down the tunnel.
“So how long you want us to keep digging?” Mr. Science says. He scoops his hand into the dirt and tosses it aside.
“As long as it takes,” Boss says.
“If we haven’t found them by now, there’s not much hope,” Mr. Science says.
“People have survived under rubble for days.”
“Rubble, yes, but this isn’t rubble. Rubble has air pockets for people to breathe in. As far as I’ve seen, this is solid dirt. Unless they’re megadriles, nobody can breathe under this.”
“That may be so, but we can’t give up. Not this quickly.” Boss checks his watch. “It’s not quite five-thirty yet. Why don’t we keep this up until seven? We’ll have an hour of daylight left. We can check things out on the surface and figure out what to do. I’ve got a van, plenty of room for everybody. If the streets are in good condition, we can drive outta here.”
“Drive where?” Mr. Science says. “If things are like the girl says, we have to face the prospect that there’s been a nuclear war. Is there anywhere to get to?”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “There hasn’t been a nuclear war.”
“What?” Boss and Mr. Science say in unison.
“Why would there be?”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Boss says. “Weren’t you protesting this?”
“We were protesting the corrupt, fascist regime.”
“Which was going to start a war with North Korea,” Boss says.
“A war, sure, but the kind with tanks and planes. The capitalist interests would never let the President go nuclear—too much risk to their precious assets.”
“I … don’t think that’s how it works,” Boss says.
“No,” Mr. Science says.
Of course they don’t. Boss, just like Coworker, comes from a comfortable bourgeois background, and Mr. Science is part of the Hollywood-Military complex—he’s always on TV hyping NASA, when anyone who does the least bit of research knows that 90% of NASA’s work is military in purpose. The Space Shuttle was designed specifically to carry military satellites into orbit—the Hubble Space Telescope is a spy satellite with the lenses flipped around so the public thinks NASA does actual science.
Boss and Coworker and Mr. Science are sheeple. They support the system. They don’t think it’s wrong. They think the President is a deviation from what’s good and proper rather than the logical end point of Republicrat government. I’m kinda thankful the guy got elected. Yeah, he’s evil, but only marginally worse than his opponents. People are only upset because he says the quiet parts loud.
“That’s naiveté talking,” I say. “That’s—” I break off suddenly. My hand’s plunged into the dirt, and it’s found something soft and fleshy—and, more importantly, warm. And there—a muscle just flexed beneath my touch. “I found someone! Get the light up.”
I clear away the dirt as fast as I can, revealing a dark elbow—naturally dark, not just because it’s covered in dirt. █████████! I can’t remember her name, but I know it’s something suave and sophisticated, and she insists that we pronounce it with a French style, but everyone shortens it to something simpler—something like Mike or Rob or—I know it’s a man’s name like that, but it won’t come to me. Damn. I can see her face in my mind. Why can’t I come up with her name?
Mr. Science joins me, and we’ve soon discovered which way her arm’s going. We ignore the lower part and dig towards her shoulder, towards her head. But then we encounter an obstacle, a huge chunk of concrete that fell out of the ceiling. It’s slanting diagonally—there must be an air pocket underneath. That’s how she’s alive.
But this means we have to be careful. If the concrete slab comes loose, it’s gonna crush her. We have to slow the pace of our digging. We excavate around the side of the concrete, digging down to get at the underside, open up some air to Frenchy. If we can do that, we can relax a bit.
There—there’s a tiny, dark gap open between the concrete and dirt.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“Lori? Thank God. I thought I was gonna die in here. Yeah, I’m a little busted up, but just cuts and bruises. Nothing feels broken. But Leslie’s in here too, and they haven’t moved since the quake.”
“Okay, we’re going to dig you out,” Mr. Science says, then he looks to me. “As long as we stay towards the middle of the slab, it should be stable. I think we can make a gap that’s big enough to pull them out.”
We get to work, moving as fast as we dare, but there are chunks of concrete mixed in with the dirt, and when we come across them we have to dig them out and toss them aside. Though some of them are too big to toss. We find one that has two pieces of rebar sticking out of it, and even with both of us lifting it, we’re barely able to move it. We carry it far enough it’ll be out of our way, and then set it down.
“I thought rebar was supposed to make concrete stronger.” I’m panting and sweating even worse than when I’d been running around in the heat outside. I sure hope Coworker and Cutie get back soon with some bottles of water, or else I’m gonna shrivel into a husk.
“It is,” Mr. Science says, “but this tunnel is over a century old, and metal fatigues over time. If I had to guess, we’re under a street here. A hundred years of cars and trucks driving over it probably stressed the metal to the point it couldn’t withstand a major earthquake.”
“Guess we’re lucky there haven’t been any aftershocks,” I say.
“Knock on wood,” Boss says and taps his head with his fist.
“That’s a superstition,” Mr. Science says. “There’s no reason to believe knocking on wood could affect the outcome of events.”
“Oh. I never realized that.”
“We hear all kinds of things as children that we integrate into our worldview. It’s important to evaluate those ideas, so they don’t distort our understanding of reality.”
“Right,” Boss says.
“What the hell’s taking them so long?”
Boss gives voice to what I’m thinking. Coworker and Cutie have been gone for—well, I don’t know exactly, I don’t have a watch on, but long enough that my hand is seriously sore from all this digging. I need a break.
How long does it take them to find food? The flashlight should’ve been simple—they could’ve gotten that and been back in five minutes, I’m sure—so the food must be what’s taking them. But the food court is right there in the lobby—just grab some bags of chips and some bottles of water and soda, maybe some candy bars. Nothing fancy.
“Something wrong?” Frenchy’s voice has an echoey effect to it, like she’s talking through a toy megaphone.
“No, nothing important,” I say. We haven’t told her what Coworker saw on the surface. No sense in freaking her out yet. Let’s get her free first.
At least that’s what common sense says, but Mr. Science butts in. “We sent some people up to get food and extra flashlights, they aren’t back yet.”
“Food and flashlights? Why aren’t they calling for help? Hell, as long as I’ve been under here, shouldn’t we have firefighters up in here by now?”
Mr. Science opens his mouth, but I don’t let him get a word out.
“There seems to be some trouble up above, too,” I say.
“What kind of trouble?”
“We don’t know yet. We’ve been busy down here. You think you can get out yet?”
We’ve cleared a gap about two feet high and wide. Frenchy’s skinny enough, she should have no problem getting through there.
“Yeah. But what about Leslie?”
“Let’s get you out first,” Boss says, “then we’ll worry about … her?”
“Them,” I say.
“Leslie’s a gender nonconformist. They prefer to be addressed with they/them/their.”
“Ah … okay? We can do that.”
“I’ve always felt that third-person singular creates unnecessary ambiguity. I much prefer ve/vim/ver from Greg Egan’s—”
“Yeah, well Leslie likes ‘they’. Could you guys move, yer in my way?” While we were talking, Frenchy’s crawled through the hole up to her waist.
“Here.” I offer her my hand and haul her out. She’s covered in dirt from head to toe, and her hair, which she normally keeps in a cute puff, has frizzed out like a mad scientist’s.
She stumbles over the mound of dirt and has to steady herself against the wall. She grimaces and bends over to rub her calf.
“You okay?” Boss asks.
“Cramp. When I was under there, my leg was bent funny and now it’s …” She inhales sharply. “Ohhhh.”
“Do you need a muscle massage?” Mr. Science asks.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “It’ll be gone in a minute.”
I kneel next to the hole and peer inside, but all I can see is blackness. “I need the light.”
Boss comes over to me and holds his phone up.
“I’m down to twelve percent battery.”
“The others should be back soon.”
“I sure hope so. But while you guys have been digging, I’ve been stuck with nothing to do but think.”
“Crazy stuff. Like, if what Amy said is true, something pretty bad must’ve happened upstairs. What if … I dunno. What if something happened to them?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean, and that has me terrified. Who knows what’s going on.”
While we’ve been talking, I’ve been examining the inside of the hole. There’s a wedge-shaped chamber beneath the slab, maybe five feet by six across, and three feet at its tallest. Leslie—I’ve gotta remember that name—is on the farthest side from me, curled up and facing away. They don’t look injured, but if the slab had conked them on the head as it fell, they could have a concussion and we couldn’t tell.
“You’re the smallest one here,” Boss says. “If me or LLGB try to get in there, we’re gonna have to enlarge the opening first.”
We’re gonna have to enlarge the opening one way or another to get Leslie out, but if I go in, Boss and the others can work on it while I’m moving Leslie. Les is big—maybe eighty or ninety pounds heavier than me—but I can manage.
I grab the side of the opening and pull myself in. It’s awkward to do, and once I get my upper half inside, I have to walk on my hands until I get my waist through. But at last I’m inside.
The concrete slab had served as an umbrella against the dirt, leaving the floor mostly clean, though a bit has spilled in from the sides, some of it onto Leslie.
I start by dusting them off, then try to rouse them. They don’t respond.
Should I turn them onto their back? I know you aren’t supposed to move somebody who might be concussed or have a spinal injury, but that assumes there are paramedics on the way who can do things properly. We don’t have that luxury.
I grab their shoulder and pull them over. They’re breathing, steady and deep. That’s good, right?
“Leslie. Hey. Come on, wake up.” I poke them and lightly slap their face, like people do in movies, but to no avail. Guess I’ll have to do this the hard way.
There’s not enough room to stand up in here, so that constrains my options. I try to drag Leslie away from the wall, but I can barely budge them the way I’m crouched. I flip myself onto my backside, and that works a little better. I lift them up and wrap my arms under their shoulders, then pull them towards me. They slide across the ground an inch at a time.
After a few tugs, I have Leslie sitting up against me. I scoot out of the way and leave them propped against the wall, then turn around.
Boss and Mr. Science have widened the hole a little, but not nearly enough for Leslie to get through even if they were able to move on their own.
“Get back,” I say.
The guys do as I tell them and I lift my legs up. One good kick explodes the top of the dirt pile. I try again a little lower, but this time my heel hits against a piece of rubble. A jolt goes up my leg. That’s not gonna work, so I try applying a steady pressure against the block of concrete, shifting it out of the pile.
Thup. Thup. Bop.
The block tumbles loose.
I make a couple more kicks, and at last the hole is wide enough that we can move … move … ah dammit, their name’s gone. It was right there a moment ago. ██████. Shit. Is there something wrong with my brain? Is that it? Is this going to be permanent?
I think about my parents, my sister… but no names are coming. My best friend from high school, my first boyfriend, my college roommate—all blank.
I dig through my brain. There has to be a name in there somewhere. The President and First Lady… the Speaker of the House… who I voted for in the last election… the host of The Young Turks… the princess from Star Wars… nothing’s coming.
Then I remember when I was really little, like three or four, watching TV in the mornings. Sesame Street and Square One Television and … Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood! Mr. Rogers! Yes. Never have I been so grateful to an avatar of white patriarchy!
Other names come now. I Love Lucy, and ALF and Ally McBeal. It’s like I can remember names when they’re in a title, but not when I try to associate them directly with people.
“Yo, Lor. Earth to Lori.”
“I’ve only got eight percent,” Boss says.
Oh, I was spacing out there. Can’t do that. We’re in an emergency.
“Yeah. Okay. I think we can get ‘em through now.”
I push Leslie to their side so that they’re lying against the mouth of the hole. Boss and Mr. Science reach through and grab them by the shoulders.
“Try and lift her waist,” Boss says, “that way she isn’t scraping her back when we pull her out.”
“They,” I say.
I get my arms under ██████ and lift ‘em up as much as I can while Boss and Mr. Science haul ‘em through the opening. They’re too heavy to make a go of it all at once, so we go in fits and spurts, moving ‘em a couple inches at a time. We’ve got ‘em out to their waist when--
“Uh, we got a problem here,” Mr. Science says.
“Wha—oh, shit,” Boss says. “That’s not good, is it?”
“Very not good.”
“Mind filling me in?”
“We’ve got water leaking through the ceiling,” Boss says.
“… okay?” Not seeing how that’s a huge problem. Annoying, sure, but— “So?”
But he doesn’t answer. Neither does Mr. Science. Instead they grab ██████ and haul ‘em through the hole without waiting for me to help.
“Come on,” Boss says as soon as ██████’s shoes disappear over the lip of the hole. “We gotta get outta here.”
What? But the look on his face tells me this is no time to be asking questions. I pull myself through the opening. As I’m coming out, a trickle of icy water falls onto the small of my back—I let out a yip of surprise and whang my knee against a chunk of concrete. I nearly faceplant, but Boss grabs me and pulls me up.
Mr. Science is already dragging ██████ backwards, and Frenchy pitches in to give him a hand.
“What’s the matter?” I say, still not sure why they’re panicking.
Boss jerks his head towards the ceiling rather than answering.
I turn and look up. There’s a steady stream of water leaking out from the top of the dirt pile, about as much as my bathtub faucet on full blast. But that’s not the real problem. Boss flashes his phone across the top of the tunnel. When the roof had collapsed, a ton of dirt had fallen in here, but there are many more tons still above us. The dirt up there is turning a darker brown as water builds up behind it. In places it’s so saturated that it’s turning into runny mud and flowing on its own.
A water main must’ve busted. Somewhere up there, a pipe must be spewing water into the soil and slowly eating it away. We’re looking at a sink hole from the underside, and it’s only a matter of time—hours? Minutes?—until it collapses. We still have a partial ceiling over us, so the whole tunnel shouldn’t fill up, but that semi-liquid mud will flow in here like lava. If there’s anyone else alive under that mound, there’s no way we can dig them out now.
“I’m at six percent,” Boss says. “We need to move it, like now.”
I turn and head down the tunnel. We pass the bodies on the floor, poor ████ and the museum bigwig. Will the incoming mud cover them up again, or are they going to be left like this? I know it doesn’t matter, not really, but I’d rather they get covered up. Maybe that’s my parents’ Christianity poking through, but burial seems more natural.
The loading dock is deserted when we get up there, but the door into the store is propped open with a trashcan. Other than that, there’s no sign of Coworker and Cutie.
“Whoa. Amy was not kidding.” Boss is over at the emergency exit, looking outside. I go over to join him. There’s no wind outside, not even the slightest stir of a breeze, but after the stuffy, stale air of the tunnel, even the humid soup outside is a relief.
We don’t have much a view from the doorway—the parking lot outside is sunken beneath the level of the main entrance, so mainly all we can see is a retaining wall around the edge of the lot, though there are a few bushes and trees visible over the top. They’re burnt bare, every one of them. My heart skips at the sight of the ruin. It’s one thing for people to die, but such beautiful plants… that’s a far deeper tragedy. Oh Gaia. I don’t know what humanity’s done to you now, but I’m so sorry.
To our right there’s a break in the wall where a staircase leads up street-level, and through the gap I can see the Smithsonian Castle. The main structure is still standing, but several of the towers have broken off.
“Check it out.” Boss points to the left. At first I can’t tell what he wants me to see, but then, through the blackened branches of trees, I catch sight of the Capitol. Or what’s left of it. The dome’s cracked clear through.
“What the hell happened?” Mr. Science says.
“I got no idea,” Boss says. “But this doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.”
“They went and did it, didn’t they?” Frenchy says. “They blew it up.”
“I don’t know about that,” Mr. Science says. “This is bad, but a nuclear bomb would be worse. Maybe… I dunno, a gamma-ray burst?”
“What kinda bomb is that?” Frenchy says.
“Not a bomb. It’s a stellar phenomenon. We aren’t sure what causes them—we mainly observe them in distant galaxies, too far away to see in detail—but one theory is they’re caused by colliding stars. If one were to occur within a few thousand lightyears of Earth, and if the gamma-ray emission were aimed in our direction, it would be extremely bad.”
“Yeah, I saw that Discovery Channel special,” Boss says.
“There you guys are. I was just coming to look for you.”
We turn and see … see … ah damn, I had her name for a second, but it slipped away. Something with an “A”—Amanda? Allison? Alicia? No, not quite, but I think Amanda is close. So close. My brain aches as I try to remember Coworker’s name.
She’s standing at the door to the store. Cutie’s not with her, and she doesn’t have any of the supplies we wanted other than a flashlight.
“Where the hell were you?” Boss says.
“Sorry, we got a little sidetracked. You guys better come see this.”
“See what?” Mr. Science asks.
“It’s … really something you gotta see for yourselves. I don’t even have the words.”
“What about Leslie?” Frenchy asks.
They’re still unconscious. We had to carry them out of the tunnel, but I don’t know that it’s a smart idea to keep hauling them around in this state.
Boss is thinking the same thing. “Somebody should stay with her—them. Sorry. You wanna do it?” he asks Frenchy.
She shrugs. “Yeah. I can. Gimme a chance to sit down, wrap my head around—that.” She points vaguely towards the parking lot.
“We’ve got chairs in the break room, you wanna grab one,” Coworker says.
“That’d be nice, yeah.”
While she goes to grab one of the plastic chairs, the rest of us head into the store.
Nothing’s changed since we were in here earlier, except the lights are all off. That’s one giant exception, though. Even when we close up at night, there are always a few lights that remain on so whoever opens in the morning isn’t bumping into things when they get here. Right now the place is pitch black except for Coworker’s flashlight and a bit of sun filtering in from the lobby. Makes the place creepy, like something out of a zombie movie.
“Remember I said how after I let the cops into the backroom, I came back here and rang up a customer?” Coworker says.
“Not really,” Boss says.
I vaguely recall that. It was hardly the most noteworthy part of her story, and we were preoccupied with digging people out at the time.
“Okay, so the guy I checked out, he bought a bunch of puzzles—the big, thousand, two thousand piece kind.”
“O~kay?” Boss says.
I’m not seeing the relevance here, either.
Coworker leads us out of the store. “Well, check this out.” She points her flashlight down the lobby, though there’s enough light coming in from the entrance that the beam gets washed out. Still, we get what she’s pointing at. In the middle of the floor, there’s a pile of shoes and clothing with a plastic bag next to it. And a puddle of … something.
“What is that?” Mr. Science says.
“Take a look in the bag,” Coworker says.
I don’t particularly want to go over there. Something about the puddle is … I don’t wanna get near it.
Boss, though, he goes. Mr. Science too. They approach cautiously, like there might be a cobra hidden in the clothes. Boss toes the bag open.
“…” he says.
“What is it?” I ask. I think I know, but I’d rather somebody put it into words.
“There are four boxes of puzzles in here.”
“That’s…?” I say.
“Yeah,” Coworker says. “I knew it was him right away, even before I peeked in the bag. I recognized his shirt.”
“What could do this?” Boss says.
“That’s a very astute question,” Mr. Science says. “I suppose, maybe, a gamma-ray burst might, but… I don’t know.”
“There’s more,” Coworker says. “We checked out the food court and found a couple more of these puddles. And… it’s not just people. The hamburgers are melted the same way, and the veggies on them are crisped like the trees outside. Only thing intact are the buns.”
“Hell,” Boss says.
“Okay, hypothesis,” Mr. Science says, “whatever happened affected cells—and it did so regardless of whether they were alive or dead. Animal cells simply burst, whereas plant cells burned—probably because of cellulose, though I don’t understand how. But we were protected because we were underground at the time—the soil over our heads must’ve had a canceling effect on the phenomenon.”
“Dirt canceled it, but stone and concrete didn’t?” Boss says.
“I don’t claim to understand. I’m merely stating my observations.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.” Boss looks to Coworker. “Now what happened with the guy you came up here with?”
“After we saw this, we decided to do a little more exploring,” Coworker says. “Went upstairs to look around. It’s more of the same. The main lobby is a real mess—everyone was trying to get out because of the fire alarm when the … whatever happened. The floor up there is virtually covered with this sludge. Once we saw that, Duncan said I should go back and get you guys, he was going to look around further.”
Duncan! I have to remember that name.
Duncan. Like donuts. I’ll think of that when I see him, maybe that’ll help.
“Hey, did you hear that?” Mr. Science says.
“Sounded like a car unlocking,” Coworker says.
Nobody says anything. We simply take off for the entrance all as one.
The glass on the doors has shattered outwards, but the stampede bars prevent us from simply stepping through the door frames. Boss pushes one of the doors, but it only opens partway before it jams on the broken glass outside. He pushes again and it lurches a few inches further. Mr. Science tries a different door, but this one barely moves at all.
“C’mon,” Boss says.
Mr. Science and Coworker join him and shove. Glass grinds against the concrete as the door inches open. At last the gap’s wide enough that Coworker can slip through. She goes around and kicks the glass loose until the door can swing freely.
We pour out into the heat. The inside of the museum had been sweltering, but at least it held the lingering residue of air conditioning. Out here we’re getting the double whammy of being broiled by the humid air while the light of the sun bakes our skin. I have to close my eyes for a moment it’s so bright. When I open them again, Boss is shading his eyes and Mr. Science is putting on a pair of sunglasses.
“I don’t see anyone,” Coworker says. “You guys?”
“No, I—over there!” Boss points towards the street.
There’s a gold SUV pulling away from the curb. The sun glints off its window, leaving a dazzle across my vision. I blink several times, but a smeared afterimage remains.
“Hey! Hey! Wait!” Coworker shouts and runs for the street, but it’s too late. By the time she reaches the sidewalk, the car’s halfway to the Capitol. She chases after it, arms waving, but the driver never sees her.
“Well, we know we’re not the only ones left alive,” Mr. Science says.
“If you’re right that being underground protected us, then anyone who was in the Metro…” Boss says. “What’s the closest station?”
“Federal Triangle and Smithsonian, they’re both about the same distance,” I say.
“We can split up, check them both out,” Mr. Science says.
“Sure, but we need to find…” ██████. I’m blanking on the name again, it hasn’t even been five minutes. But this time I remember it has something to do with donuts. Donuts? Chocolate? Sprinkles? Bavarian cream? Dunkin’? Dunkin’! That’s it. “Find Duncan first, that way he’s not wandering around looking for—”
I stop. I thought—yes. Voices. Coming this way.
“…they run off like that?”
“My sister, who knows.”
Across the dead lawn, there’s a group of five or six people—it’s hard to tell with the sun glaring in my face—coming up the driveway from the employee parking lot. They stop dead when they spot us.
“Hey!” Boss shouts. “Are we glad to see you.”
“Yo,” a guy says.
The group comes towards us. There are indeed six of them—a South Asian woman and three white guys who look to be college age, a Rubenesque woman around my age, and an older South Asian man, though he doesn’t look related to the woman.
“Have you seen a girl?” the South Asian woman says. “Seventeen, dark skinned like me, with her hair in a braid.”
“Sorry, no,” Boss says.
“She was with a cop,” one of the young men says, a generically handsome guy in preppy clothes. “Middle aged guy, red hair, fish-belly white.”
“There were a couple cops around here earlier,” Coworker says, “but they am-scrayed right after the quake.”
“No, this would’ve been in the last few minutes,” the preppy guy says.
My stomach’s sinking. I can tell exactly where this is going. “We haven’t seen them, but when we came out here, we saw a car take off.” I point down Constitution.
“Oh fuck,” the second white guy says. He’s potbellied, with long sideburns and a goatee.
The South Asian woman dashes out to the street.
“Wait! Shreya!” The preppy guy takes off after her.
The rest of her group looks at each other, but nobody follows.
She runs most of the way to the end of the block before the futility of what she’s doing hits her. She stops abruptly and sways on her feet. The preppy guy catches her before she can fall, and she leans against his chest.
“You think the guy actually took Vina?” the Rubenesque woman says.
“Who knows,” the South Asian guy says.
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Cops, man, you can’t trust them,” the guy with sideburns says. “’Specially not in DC.”
The preppy guy comes back with the South Asian girl leaning limply against him.
“Why would he do that?” She sniffles. “Why? And what was she thinking, going with him?”
“He musta lured her out somehow, tricked her,” Preppy Guy says.
“He’s a cop. He’s got a uniform and a badge, and, well, Vina’s not exactly streetwise, you know,” Sideburns says.
“Question is, how do we get her back?” This is the third white guy, who’s been silent thus far. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says something about sarcasm. “He could be anywhere by now, and we’re on foot.”
“I’ve got a van,” Boss says, “and Amy, you drove in today, right?”
“With two vehicles, we can cover—”
“Like that’s gonna help?” Sideburns says. “He could be in Maryland already, halfway to Baltimore, or doubling back to Virginia, or holing up two blocks from here. We’ve got no idea. Where would we even start looki—”
“Nick, shut your mouth,” Preppy Guy says.
The South Asian woman’s started crying harder, and Preppy Guy pulls her tighter against him.
“Sorry,” Sideburns says. (Sideburns—as in he’s afraid of nicking his cheek shaving. Nick. Shaving. Gotta remember that.)
“What’s going on?” The door to the museum grates against glass as Dunkin’ comes out.
Boss gives him the rundown on the situation.
“What color was the SUV?” Dunkin’ asks.
“I know exactly where it is.”
We’re jogging down 12th Street towards the Mall. In the distance there’s a throng of people streaming towards the Potomac. As we get closer and my field of vision expands, I can tell there are a couple thousand of them at least.
“I found a window up on the top floor—” Dunkin’s explaining as we go.
“Wait, there aren’t any windows in the public parts of the museum,” Boss says.
“No,” Dunkin’ says. “I forced a door into the research area. Sue me. The point is, from up there I could see all this—” he gestures at the crowd.
“Okay, but what does that have to do with my sister?” the South Asian woman says.
“Well, as I was watching, I saw this gold SUV come down Independence Avenue. Only vehicle I could see moving about. But as it was about to pass the Washington Monument, it spun out of control and crashed.”
“Oh my God,” (cut himself shaving) Nick says. “Not only a kidnapper, but fucking incompetent.”
“Don’t worry, I saw somebody get outta the SUV—passenger side—and go running towards the crowd. Your sister should be safe.”
“Hey, what’s that down there?” Mr. Science says.
We’ve come around the corner of the National History Museum now and have a view out to the Washington Monument—or what’s left of it. The tower’s broken off a quarter of the way up, and rubble lies on the dead grass. But that’s not what Mr. Science it talking about. There’s a line of motorcycles and black SUVs stopped on the road in front of the Monument, their path blocked by the crowd of people.
“Holy shit, don’t tell me that sonuvabitch lived through this,” (cut himself shaving) Nick says.
A sound like somebody letting off a firecracker echoes across the Mall. The guys on the motorcycles react instantly by dismounting and drawing guns.
“Vina!” the South Asian woman shouts and takes off running towards the Monument.
“No! Wait!” Preppy Guy tries to grab her, but when she slips his grasp he runs after her.
“Aw, shit,” Coworker says. She turns and hightails it back towards the museum.
So does (cut himself shaving) Nick.
“Come on,” Dunkin’ says. He reaches behind his back and pulls up the hem of his shirt. There’s a gun poking out from his waistband. He pulls it loose and flips a switch on the side.
“Where did you get that?” I ask, but he’s already running towards the motorcade.
Boss follows, then Mr. Science and the South Asian man. That leaves me and the Rubenesque woman standing on the street corner.
A second explosion echoes around us.
“We should get outta here,” the Rubenesque woman says.
Yeah, but where? Back to the museum, or--
The men on the motorcycles open fire on the crowd.
To Be Continued...
-by Sean O'Hara