Kate looks as much troubled as she does annoyed. She can’t explain how I got in here, but she knows that she’s going to have to think of something quickly. And I must have the same look on my face that I did when Mum caught me hunting in her wardrobe for my birthday presents. That guilty look of somebody who knows that they’ve just been caught red-handed and knowing that they have some serious explaining to do.
Fortunately, Kate speaks first.
‘Dan, we’re really disappointed to find you in here,’ she begins.
Darn, she used the ‘disappointed’ word. I remember everybody wheeling out that one when I was having my problems at school.
‘The incredible thing is that you seem to have full clearance across the bunker,’ she continues, ‘so you are in fact authorized to be here.’
Phew, advantage Dan. She doesn’t want me here, she doesn’t like me being here, but it appears that there’s not much that she can do about it.
Time to go on the offensive, but she gets in before me.
‘We need to explain what’s going on, Dan. I’m sure you must be shocked to find your family like this?’ she says.
Kate is good. In fact she’s very good. She has this knack of seeing what’s going on in my head, then dealing with it in a way that answers all of my questions. Yet it leaves the biggest questions unanswered still.
How does she manage that? I think back to Dad and his rants about the HR people at his work. ‘People must make a living out of this,’ I think to myself, ‘of saying one thing, then meaning another thing entirely.’ Maybe politics will eventually make sense to me after all.
‘Your Dad and your brother and sister are in stasis,’ Kate explains.
I decide to let her say what she wants to say, uninterrupted. I hope Dad can’t hear this, I wouldn’t want him to think that this ‘not interrupting’ thing is going to become a habit anytime soon.
‘They were exposed to the darkness beyond the blast doors when the sirens went off. You were all caught in the corridor.’
‘So was I!’ I interject.
‘Here’s the strange thing, Dan,’ Kate continues.
She’s doing that ‘Dan’ thing again. It works every time with me.
‘We checked you out thoroughly in the MedLab and you’re absolutely fine,’ she explains, raising another mystery rather than solving any.
‘Your family and the bunker staff from the cottage may have got caught by the darkness as they made their way into the bunker when the sirens went off. It’s essential that they remain in the pods for BioFiltration, it’s for their own health – and safety,’ she adds at the end.
‘Health and safety,’ I think. ‘Even at the end of the world we have to do a risk assessment!’ I keep my thoughts to myself and ask, more intelligently I hope, ‘What is BioFiltration?’
‘Great question!’ Kate replies.
She knows she has won this exchange by engaging my curiosity. Have you ever noticed how brilliant you feel when someone says ‘Great question?’ It happened to me at school quite a lot. I’d put my hand up, ask something pretty obvious, like I was paying full attention. And the teacher would enthusiastically reply with a ‘Great question!’
Now, don’t get me wrong, I knew it really wasn’t a great question. It was a diversionary technique I’d mastered many years ago. Be proactive with questions that you control, that way the teacher will see that you’ve participated in class. And when it comes to them asking questions over which you have no control, they’ll pass you by. After all, you've already contributed. Diligent student that you are. But the ‘Great question!’ reply always works on me. It always makes me feel as if I’ve just done something amazing. When I know I haven’t.
So while I’m patting myself on my own back for my great ‘What is BioFiltration?’ question, Kate gives me the answer.
‘We don’t have full information yet about what’s happening outside the bunker, as you know, Dan, but we do know from the medical teams that the darkness itself is not harmful.’
Okay, so far so good, once again. She’s very skilled at this reassurance lark.
‘However, all of the people in this room were partially exposed to the darkness, when they’re supposed to be either fully exposed, as with the people outside the bunker, or not exposed at all, as is the case with those of us who were inside all of the time. These BioFilters are removing the contaminated elements and restoring all vital signs to normal levels.’
Wow, I actually understand all of that. Maybe I am cut out to be a futuristic bunker worker after all.
‘So in summary, Dan, your family are fine; all of the people in this room are fine. They just need to stay here for a little while longer while the process is completed. After that, we’ll wake them up and you’ll all be able to chat.’
‘Great news!’ I think to myself, and to be completely honest, although everything that’s going on here is completely unfamiliar to me, I’m still not unduly worried. What Kate tells me all adds up. What I hear and what I see makes sense, I’ve no reason to doubt it.
We’ve all been standing still while we’ve been having this conversation and at that moment the movement-sensitive lights turn themselves off again. It’s only a moment until somebody moves and they’re back on again. But for the few seconds that the lights are out, I catch a glimpse of something. I’m sure that I saw a faint light where Kate’s neck was in the darkness. Unusual, because it appears to be pulsating.
I can’t see it as clearly now the lights have come on, though I am pretty sure that I’ve just seen it in the darkness.
It’s a pulsating, faint light just at the side of her neck and it’s coloured red.
He stood up at his terminal and walked towards the exit. Nobody seemed to notice him. They saw him moving, but they were unable to detect the significance of what he was about to do. It was an unusual situation in the Control Room. They just seemed to be waiting.
They were waiting of course. The full mission briefing was coming in the next few hours. They knew that the assignment was connected to that. They knew that their loved ones beyond the doors would be fine. They’d had the advantage, they had been able to engineer things so that their families were at home when it began. Their initial instructions were simple. Just like they’d practised in training. Familiarize yourself with your workstation. Perform the routine tasks on your initial work schedule. Basic things such as ‘Check the perimeter’ and ‘Ensure all terminals are operating correctly’. Then, use the time to familiarize yourself with the bunker layout and other team members. It was a simple holding pattern, prior to the full briefing taking place.
There was an atmosphere of hesitant expectation in the building, but assurances had been given, training had been thorough and all was as it was supposed to be. Except for James or ‘Roachie’ as his closest friends called him. He now had a personal mission which had to be completed secretly. This mission hadn’t been communicated via his terminal or through any of the routes that were considered ‘normal procedure’. James’s actions were taken as a consequence of the device that was faintly pulsating beneath the skin on his neck. Barely perceptible unless you were looking for it. Its blue light seemed to suggest that information was being transmitted in some way. Unknown, invisible, undetected. James knew what he was doing, but he didn’t understand the implications of the solo mission that he was about to carry out.
Had his consciousness been entirely under his own control, he would have known to alert his Control Room colleagues as to what he was about to do. He would have registered his whereabouts on the staff rota terminal as he left the Control Room. And he certainly would not have disabled the surveillance cameras and the alarm systems connected to the main bunker doors.
If you could see through this blackness, you would have been able to view the lives of millions of human beings paused, as if somebody had just stopped time. The darkness was impenetrable. It was neither liquid nor gas, yet it crept across the surface of the Earth in a dense cloud and it sat in the atmosphere as if it were a heavy shroud.
If you ran your hand through the blackness you would feel nothing, neither would it be displaced, as it would have been if moving through smoke. It was dry to the touch, even though the atmosphere around it was not devoid of moisture.
Most striking of all was how dark it was. You could not see anything through it. It was all consuming, there were no gaps, no chinks of light, no areas untouched. And it just sat there, awaiting the moment when its purpose would become clear.
She’d barely had a career in the Army before she was made redundant. It came fairly quickly after the incident. So while the HR people called it ‘redundancy’ she knew that there was really another reason why. Probably because she didn’t do what she should have done. What else was she supposed to do?
She was a recent and very raw recruit, she’d had limited training and had received very little in the way of guidance from her superiors. She had just reacted on instinct. An ordinary, average person doing extraordinary things in a situation that they’d never encountered before. Most people would have been given a medal for what she did. But whatever it was that she’d done wrong, it must have caused a lot of trouble higher up. And look at the personal price she’d paid on that terrible day eighteen years ago. Not that it mattered of course, just look at her wonderful family now. Still, in spite of what happened and all of the fallout afterwards, at least there was one great result from that day. One thing that she’d never regretted, in spite of it all.
She’d saved a man’s life that day. James was still alive because of her.