His death imminent, he thought back to how it all began. . . many decades ago.
Mrs. Eliza Fotheringay is a “planner” or, as her ex-friend Mildred Hunnicutt would say, a worrywart. When Mr. Weaver from Survival Shelters, Inc. came to see Eliza, she was naturally interested in what he had to say.
“For the ultimate in protection from a thermonuclear war between the superpowers,” Weaver recited from memory, “our self-sustaining models give the consumer the best of everything. The SS-4, our state-of-the-art shelter, can safely feed and house a family of five for 87 years – seven years longer than scientists’ best estimate of how long the world would need to recover from such a cataclysm.”
Eliza was sold. Weaver did not need to go on with his sales pitch, but he did.
“The SS-4’s self-sustaining systems include electricity, air, food and water, waste disposal, and even entertainment.”
Then, knowing that Eliza ran a daycare center, Weaver hit upon her soft spot: Children.
“Even during times of peace, the SS-4’s master computer can be easily programmed with the pictures and text of every children’s book ever published. You can pick any voice for the computer you like – from an ultra-high-pitched soprano to the deepest of basses – to read to the little ones.” He chuckled lightly and said, “Wouldn’t that be a life saver on those days when you simply can’t read about another fuzzy bunny?”
And so the sale was made.
Within 24 hours, workmen from Survival Shelters, Inc. arrived and began fitting Mrs. Fotheringay’s modest home with the SS-4.
Eliza rested easily once the work was completed, knowing that she had planned. On that inevitable day, she, her husband, her son, and her two daughters would be protected from the arrogance of the politicians who dared to press those deadly launch buttons.
What Eliza didn’t count on was what happened six weeks later:
Her husband was at his office; her children at their respective schools in the valley. She instructed the master computer to read a story to her four daycare children (in the motherly voice she had selected) while she went out to her garden to pick a tomato for supper.
“Ah, there’s a beauty,” she said, spying a ripe one. “It will make a wonderful sauce.” The alarm bell sounded as she bent and plucked the fruit. It rang loudly for several seconds before a deep, authoritative voice spoke.
“This is a level-one warning,” it said. “An incoming missile strike has been detected. There is no need for panic. Self-sustaining systems have been activated. Blast shields will seal in thirty seconds.”
Mrs. Fotheringay could see the children’s confused faces through the windows. They knew something important was happening. After allowing herself a moment of sorrow because her family would not survive this attack, Eliza consoled herself that her daycare children – two boys and two girls – would live. The future belonged to her and them.
She ran towards the house, still clutching the newly plucked tomato.
“Fifteen seconds to blast shield closure,” the master computer said.
It was very unfortunate that Eliza tripped on a stone and fell to the ground, knocking the wind out of her.
Seconds before the missiles hit, she watched the tomato roll to a stop as the shelter’s blast shields lowered and clicked into place, turning her home into a radiation-safe cocoon for four children for the next 87 years.
The grandkids, Jody and Karen, would not leave Grandpa Martin alone. “Tell us again, Papa. Please,” Jody begged.
“What was it like?” Karen, the younger of the two, asked.
Their father, Donald (Grandpa Martin’s son), tried to calm his children down. “Now, kids,” he told them, “I think you’ve made enough demands on your grandfather for one day.”
“But he’s the only one who was alive back then,” Jody told his dad.
“Still. . .” Donald began.
Martin waved Donald off. “It’s OK, son,” he said.
“But you look tired.”
“I’m never too tired to tell my grandkids how things were before the war.”
“Oh good!” Jody exclaimed.
It was Karen’s turn to ask him a question. “You mentioned birds last time, Papa. What were they like?”
Martin’s eyes grew distant, as they often did when he was wistfully remembering better times. “Birds were little animals that could fly on their own wings,” he explained, “and they sang the prettiest songs.”
“They could talk?” a surprised Jody asked.
“Not like people,” Martin clarified. “They tweeted.”
“Tweeted – like this: Tweet, tweet, tweet.” The children giggled at his imitation. “It was music to the ears,” he added. “All of them had different songs, different sounds, different tones.”
“Did they die when the bombs fell?” Jody asked.
“Yes. Yes, they did. . . along with everyone and everything else,” Martin answered his grandson, choking up. “That was a long time ago, back when I was your age.”
“You were a boy once?”
Martin chuckled. “Many years ago,” he said.
“OK, kids. I think that’s enough for now,” Donald told them.
“But I didn’t get the chance to show Papa my drawing,” Karen complained.
“Drawing? What drawing?” Grandpa asked.
Karen turned, reached into a stack of papers on the table, and pulled one out. “This one,” she said, handing it to her papa. Martin looked at the crayon drawing: Birds flying happily over a green field, the sun shining. In the foreground, one house – the Fotheringay house – with the SS-4 undeployed.
He could feel tears welling in his eyes as Karen explained, “The last time you told us what it was like in the before time, I listened really carefully. That night, I drew this picture of what you said.” She smiled at him and asked, “Am I close?”
Martin couldn’t look at the drawing anymore. “Very close,” he praised her, giving back the picture.
“So that’s what the shelter looked like from the outside?”
“No one knows,” Papa told her. “No one’s been outside for a long time.”
“I wish I could have seen what things looked like back then,” Jody said.
Martin had to fight his emotions again. It seemed to be a day for that. “I wish you could have too. . . both of you.”
“It’s time to go,” Donald told them.
“OK, Daddy,” Jody replied. “Goodbye, Papa.”
Martin kissed his cheek. “Goodbye, little one.”
“Goodbye, Papa,” Karen said, kissing her grandpa.
“I’ll see you soon.” Both children ran off. “They’re good kids,” Martin told their dad.
“They’re fit and healthy. That’s important.”
“And surprising in this iron and steel coffin.”
“I’m sorry if they tired you out,” his son apologized.
“Don’t worry about it. They’re curious what they missed out on, and I am the last of Mrs. Fotheringay’s original daycare kids – though I’m far from a kid anymore.”
“You’re doing pretty well for your age.”
“You wanted to talk? You said something was concerning you.”
“Yes,” his son began, obviously worried. “For the past several nights –”
“You’ve heard the scratching too?” Donald was surprised that Martin had guessed what was on his mind.
“It’s like something is. . . clawing at the airlock,” he said, “trying to get in. . . But that’s not possible. Nothing could be alive out there. Right?”
“It certainly sounds like something is,” Martin added. “Who knows? The outside cameras and master computer are long gone. We’re blind in here.”
“Couldn’t Mr. Bishop rig things so we can see outside? Even a glimpse would –”
“You know the answer to that as well as I do. Jim deserves a medal for keeping this place operational and a safe haven for all of us. He’s got the control panel jury-rigged eight ways to Sunday to make sure we get the absolute essentials. That’s why we’ve lost pleasantries like the master computer. If he tries to switch things around – even briefly – he might not be able to get them back to the way they were.”
“We are taxing this place,” Donald stated.
“It was made to shelter five people for 87 years. We’ve got fifteen people. We’re lucky that it’s worked for as long as it has.”
“Mr. Bishop mentioned,” Donald continued, worried, “that it might not have. . . much time left.”
“He told me that too. Maybe just a couple of months.”
“And then?” Donald prompted his father.
“I don’t know. We could stay in here and hope to survive or. . . go outside.”
“But nothing can live on the surface!”
“Except for whatever’s been scratching at the airlock the past few nights.”
Donald paced briefly and asked, “Is it possible the Earth has already recuperated enough to support life again?”
“I don’t see how,” Martin said. “I remember the early news reports from the master computer. The superpowers spared no expense in launching their missiles. The destruction was on a scale never seen before.”
“Then we’ll have to stay here. . . somehow.”
“We need to know our options. We need to know what’s going on out there.”
“But we’re blind – just like you said.”
“We still have our eyes.”
It took the son a moment to realize what his father was implying. “Are you
suggesting. . .”
“One of us needs to have a look. I’m the logical choice.”
“I’ve lived the longest.”
“Precisely why you shouldn’t go. Your knowledge is invaluable to us.”
“Who would you ask then?” Martin queried him. “Jody? Karen?”
“Of course not!”
“Because they’ve barely had a chance to live. No, son. I should be the one.”
Donald sighed, realizing the validity of his father’s logic. “We’ll wait until the scratching stops.”
“Because it could be dangerous.”
“And if it gets in here – what then?”
“Why do you think it’s going to stop? It wants to get in. We can’t wait. I’m going. . . now.”
“But, Dad –”
“Case closed!” Martin said, putting an end to the discussion and standing. “I’ll take every precaution. We still have a couple of functioning rad suits. I’ll be protected.”
“What about the thing?” his son asked him. “What will protect you from that?”
No one had visited the airlock in years. Martin checked and donned his rad suit. Everything was functioning. It was a little tight, but it would do the job. “Dad, come in,” he heard his son say over his helmet’s speaker.
“I’m here,” he replied.
“What shape is the airlock in?”
“Not bad – some dents but it looks intact.”
“Any sign of. . . it?”
“No, but I haven’t opened the hatch yet.”
Martin reached out to the control panel beside the airlock and pressed the necessary buttons with a gloved hand. There were several loud clangs and scratches as the rusty door slid sideways on its long-disused tracks.
“I don’t. . .” Martin said at the scene that appeared before him.
He walked out onto green grass. Puffy white clouds floated by on a blue sky. The leaves on the trees were starting to change color. Autumn. Birds sang their happy songs from the limbs, as playful squirrels skittered among the crunchy fallen leaves on the ground.
“Dad?” Donald called urgently.
“I’m alright. I. . .” Martin was so taken by the impossible scene before him, that he didn’t hear the footsteps.
“Good morning, honey,” the sweet voice said, touching his shoulder through the rad suit. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
He squeezed his eyes shut and open hard inside his helmet. “Mrs. Fotheringay?”
She was lovely, as she had been when he was a boy. Her long red hair – hair that he remembered being fascinated by – fell to the middle of her back. Her blue eyes sparkled as they always had. She had not aged a single day.
“Martin, it’s good to see you,” she said nonchalantly. “My, how you’ve grown!”
“You’re. . . young.”
“Thank you,” she replied, blushing a little.
“But it’s been years.”
“You can take your helmet off.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“I’m breathing, aren’t I?”
Cautiously, Martin turned off his oxygen supply and removed his helmet. The air was clean and good. He took a deep breath of it. “I had forgotten what fresh air felt like. It tastes. . . sweet.”
“Marvelous, isn’t it?”
“I. . . I don’t understand.”
“There’s a secret,” she teased. “Do you want to know it?”
“Follow me,” she said, starting to walk away. “I’ll introduce you to my. . . benefactor.”
“Here we are,” she told him with some pride, pointing to a large hole in the ground likely made by a decades-past missile strike. “It goes very far down – down to the bowels of the Earth. That’s where he resides.”
There was a loud clap of thunder, and a goateed man dressed in a red three-piece suit grew out of the hole, like toothpaste being squeezed from a tube. He quickly reached his full form.
“The Master,” Eliza said by way of introduction.
Martin chuckled uneasily. “You can’t be.”
“Don’t you believe I exist?” he asked.
“I believe in God.”
“Then you believe in me, His opposite. You can’t have the good without the bad.” The Master walked closer to Martin. “I exist and He exists, but He’s not interested in the Earth anymore. I am.”
“You brought Mrs. Fotheringay back to life?” Martin asked.
“A parlor trick,” the man in red said dismissively.
“When did it happen?”
“Not long ago,” Eliza replied. “A week, I think.”
“So the years have passed?” Martin continued.
“Decades,” Eliza said.
“I restored her to the age she was when she died,” the Master told him.
Martin gestured around the three of them. “You did all this,” he inquired, “the birds, the trees?”
“It’s an illusion. A very sophisticated, very sensory, very safe illusion.”
“How did you get in my head?”
“Not you,” Eliza’s benefactor clarified. “It’s the school marm’s illusion. I’m sharing it between your minds. Do you have something else you’d rather experience? I offer a wide variety of –”
“What do you want?”
“What do I always want? There are souls to be had in your shelter – the last ones that will ever be. I’ve been trying to get to them for the past several nights.”
“So that scratching was you?”
“In another form, yes. I was hoping it would lead to this very encounter.”
“Why would we give you our souls?”
“For this,” the Master replied, his arms open wide.
“It’s as real as anything can be now. Your own senses are telling you that, Martin. You can hear the birds chirping. You can feel the warmth of the sun on your face. The others in the shelter can experience this same illusion or whatever else might please them.”
“For the cost of their souls?” Martin said, aghast.
Martin turned to his old daycare teacher. “Surely,” he started, “you didn’t –”
“Of course she did! How else would she be alive now?”
“You can’t understand,” Eliza explained, ashamed, looking down at her feet. “You and the other children were safe in the shelter. You didn’t feel the agony of your skin bubbling and burning away, your brain melting like a candle.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Life is precious,” she concluded, “and I wanted it back.”
“Wasn’t your soul already in –”
“The Master has ways of making his wishes known anywhere. I learned of his offer and accepted it.”
“You. . . You gave up paradise for an illusion?”
“Time for lunch!” the Master called out. With another clap of thunder, a large banquet table appeared before them. It was laden with meat, fowl, vegetables, fruit, wine, and succulent-looking desserts. Martin sniffed at the air. Roast turkey! “Go have a look,” the man dressed in red suggested.
“You’re not tempted. . . after all those years of rations?”
“I’m tempted, but I’m not going to give into you. I’m not selling my soul for an imaginary turkey leg.”
“It will fill your belly just like a real one would.”
“I said ‘no.’”
The Master sighed. “I didn’t expect such stubbornness,” he said. “Perhaps the other members of your intrepid band will feel otherwise?”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
“I have much else to tempt them with.”
“And as we were,” he continued proudly, the show over for now. “I can provide all of you with anything your hearts desire. I’ve been doing it for years. You’d be surprised how easily humans surrender their souls.”
“Maybe some humans,” Martin told him.
“You won’t disclose this opportunity to your friends?”
“I didn’t say that. They’re all capable of making their own decisions.”
“This is a limited-time offer.”
“What does that mean?”
The Master walked very close to Martin, nearly nose to nose. “I know that your shelter’s systems are failing,” he said. “Before long, it will be incapable of supporting life. Then what will your choices be? As much as I desire new souls, my offer will end before the shelter fails. I urge you and yours to choose my way.”
“And if we don’t?”
He turned and took a few steps away, before facing Martin again. “Here’s a small sample,” he said, “of what it’s really like out here.”
All the beauty of nature vanished. Martin fell to his knees in blazing fire. He could feel his skin bubbling, his brain melting. His lungs burned as he gasped for nonexistent oxygen. With another thunderclap, the pleasant autumn illusion returned. Eliza was beside him, offering him her hand. “No harm done,” she told him.
Martin ignored her offer of help. He stood slowly on old, weak legs, catching his breath. “Neat trick,” he said sarcastically.
“See how painfully you and yours might die?” the Master added.
“Please,” Eliza begged, folding her hands before her. “Please accept.”
“Like I said,” Martin continued, “I’ll tell everyone. It’s up to them.”
“Are there. . . children in the shelter?” the Master asked, an evil twinkle in his eye.
“What if there are?”
“I haven’t received a child’s soul into Hades for some time,” he said, nearly salivating at the idea. “It will be a pleasure.”
The final adult left the room. “Unanimous,” Donald said to his father. “I’m surprised.”
“They’re sensible people.”
“So we stay here after the systems fail,” he went on grimly. “We won’t last long. The air will –”
“Would you rather go to the surface?”
“It’s not much of a choice, is it?”
Martin rose from his chair and paced for a moment. “There is a. . . third possibility.”
After a long pause from being unable to form the words, he finally said, “Blow the place up.”
“I’m sure Jim Bishop could rig the place to explode.”
“Mass suicide?” Donald questioned.
“I’d hardly call fifteen people a ‘mass.’”
“But then we’ll be playing right into the Master’s hands!”
“Suicide means an eternity in Hell.”
“Under normal circumstances, but this is hardly a normal circumstance,” Martin offered. “I’m sure we’ll be forgiven.”
The door was flung open. Jody ran in at full steam, out of breath and red in the face. “Dad! Dad!” he called.
“Jody, what’s wrong?”
“It’s Karen! She didn’t show up for lessons. Miss Wainwright and I searched, but we can’t find her. We’ve looked everywhere.”
“I’m sure you just missed her,” Donald said, trying to calm his son down.
“No. We looked and looked. She’s not here.”
“Go back to school, Jody,” Martin told him. “We’ll find her.”
“I want to help.”
“You can help by doing what I said.”
“OK, Papa” the boy answered, sighing and dejectedly walking out of the room.
“She’s probably playing hide and seek,” Donald said, shaking his head. “Worrying everyone sick.”
“There’s another possibility,” his father added, hating to even think of the idea.
One of the junior rad suits was missing. “I’m going to the surface!” Donald exclaimed.
“No. I’ll do it,” Martin said.
“I’m her father.”
“But I’ve been out there already. I know what to expect.”
“Dad, I –”
“I’ll bring her back. I promise.”
The same autumnal illusion greeted him. As he removed his helmet, the breeze blew a piece of paper in his direction. He managed to grab it.
She was standing stock still on a patch of green grass, looking into the sky, her helmet at her feet, a big smile on her tender, young face. The Master was beside her, looking pleased. “What’s wrong with Karen?” Martin asked angrily, approaching quickly.
“She’s enjoying her illusion,” he was told.
“What illusion? She’s six years old.”
“In her mind, she’s in an enormous candy store. The shelves are overflowing with sweet treats – and she can have anything she wants.” He chuckled slightly and said, “You see how happy I can make your people.”
“How dare you bring her here!” Martin exclaimed.
“The child came of her own accord.”
“She did, Martin. She did!” Eliza said, backing up her benefactor.
“Why would she do that?”
“I have no idea, but I am very glad to see her.” The Master smiled at the idea of getting a child’s soul. “Have you made your decision yet?” he asked.
“What have you been doing since we spoke?”
“Looking for her.”
“You’ve found her. Decide!”
“Let me take her home.”
“But she’s having a wonderful time in the candy store.”
“She does not seem to mind.”
“The decision isn’t mine to make,” Martin explained. “We all need to talk.”
“You’re stalling,” the Master said angrily. “Yes or no!”
“No one’s going to decide anything until Karen is safe in the shelter. Let her go.”
“And get nothing in return? Hardly.”
“Twenty-four hours,” Martin told the man in red. “Let me have her, and you’ll have our decision in 24 hours.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“You’re wondering if you can trust me?”
“Take her!” the Master said angrily. “Do not attempt to deceive me.”
“Why, Karen?” her father asked.
“I heard about what Papa found outside. I wanted to see it,” she answered, near tears. “That’s all.”
“Don’t ever do something like that again. It’s not safe.”
“But I only wanted to make sure my picture was right.” She frantically looked around the room. “My picture!”
“Right here,” Martin said, handing it to her.
She took it, relieved, and gave it a good look. “It’s pretty close, isn’t it?”
“Yes. You did a good job.”
“Run along,” Donald told her. “Miss Wainwright is expecting you.”
She ran off, closing the door behind her.
“She did it for me,” Martin said, choking up. “For me.”
“Dad, while you were on the surface, I told everyone about your plan.”
“They agree it’s the best thing to do. . . the only thing to do.”
Martin sighed. “I feel sorry for the kids most.”
“It’s best for them too.”
“So I keep telling myself.”
“Are you sure, Papa?” Karen asked. “It seemed so real.”
“I’m sure, dear.”
“There was no candy store?”
“No. It was all pretend.”
“No birds? No trees? No sunshine?”
“What about the pretty lady?”
“Her I’m not sure about,” Martin answered under his breath. He pulled his granddaughter tight and said, “I’ll tell you a secret if you swear not to tell anyone.”
His old bones protesting worthlessly, Martin hoisted his granddaughter onto his lap. “Soon there will be candy,” he said.
“There will be?” she asked, excited.
“Yes. And birds and trees and sunshine. All of us will experience them together.”
“Will Mom be there? I’d like to see her again.”
“Yes,” Martin said, “and Nana too.”
“Do they like candy?”
“You’ll have to ask them.” Her hugged her tight, grateful she couldn’t see the tear rolling down his cheek.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in!” Karen called. Her father entered.
“Go play, honey. I have to talk with your Papa.”
She kissed Martin on the cheek and jumped from his lap. “Goodbye, Papa.”
“Remember, sweetheart,” he reminded her, putting one finger to his lips, “not a word.” She smiled, feeling important that he had entrusted her with this secret, and ran from the room.
Donald closed the door. He handed a small box, about the size of a deck of cards, with one red button to his dad. “From Mr. Bishop,” he said. “Press that button and the shelter’s systems will overload. In less than a minute, everything – everyone – will be gone.”
The Master was growing impatient as he stood by the outer airlock. “He’s late.”
“It’s not quite 24 hours yet,” Eliza told him.
“Are you contradicting me?” he asked her angrily.
“No, sir. I’m simply stating a fact.”
The airlock creaked open. Martin exited in his rad suit, holding his helmet, the detonator hidden in a pocket. “Well?” the man in red asked, getting right to business. “What’s your answer?”
The detonator was ripped from the pocket of the old man’s rad suit and sailed into the Master’s hands. He looked at it and grew furious. “You were going to kill yourselves. . . play me for a fool!”
He dropped the detonator to the dirt. “How dare you!” he bellowed. With a bony finger, he pointed at Martin, who quickly fell to his face on the ground, screaming in agonizing pain. “I’ll get the other souls!” the Master hollered. “I will!”
Martin tried to focus on his old daycare teacher. She was pitifully looking down at him writhing on the ground, shaking her head and attempting to keep from weeping. “Mrs. F-Fotheringay,” he spoke weakly.
“Martin?” she asked, surprised he could speak at all.
“The red. . . button. . . Press it.”
“Ha!” the Master screamed. “She belongs to me, old man – me only.”
“For what. . . we once were,” Martin choked out. “Please.”
“You’re a fool!” the Master said after a chuckle. “A dying fool.” Seeing that her benefactor was occupied, Eliza scampered along the ground for the detonator. “No!!” the Master – her master – screamed as she pressed the red button. There were several loud explosions. The shelter burst into flames and then collapsed into the dust, the fire still reaching for the sky. Eliza looked down at her former charge. He lay dead on the ground, his skin slipping from his bones, his pain over.
“How dare you!” the Master screamed, angrily approaching her, the detonator still in one of her hands. “You were supposed to get me their souls – the last souls on Earth. That’s why I brought you back!”
The tears she had managed to hold back earlier fell freely now. “I. . . I couldn’t let –” she started.
“I’ve had it with this whole miserable planet!” the man in the red suit called out. With a loud clap of thunder, the Earth returned to the flaming, radioactive globe it truly was. Eliza screamed in the fire, trying unsuccessfully to breathe. In anguish, she fell to her knees on the glowing rubble beside Martin’s skeleton. With a sizzling sound, her skin quickly bubbled and burned off her bones. Her brain liquefied and dripped out of her nostrils. She screamed once more and died.
The Master looked at the desolation all around him. “After all my work!” he lamented. “Time to write this planet off entirely. It’s of no use to me now.”
After a few angry steps, he noticed the lone green weed sprouting through the rocky debris. “Life in this wasteland? I won’t have it!” With a stare, the weed ignited and crumbled. “What I could have given those people in exchange for. . . for a mere trifle,” he complained. “Mankind. They’ll never learn now.”
With one last thunderclap, he was gone for good.