Theodore managed to get the heavy door to the bunker shut, despite the weight, the force of the wind outside, and the sharp throbbing in his lower left side. Even once the steel door had clicked shut with a low, echoing finality, the pervasive cold lingered, forcing Theodore to move further back into the bunker to find warmth. It was thirty below outside the door, and according to Theodore’s watch it was only nine in the evening. There was plenty of time for the mercury to drop even further, and he wondered if he would wake up in the morning to find a record-breaker on the readouts.
He found his way to the bunker’s kitchen and lit a couple of the emergency lamps. They were significantly dimmer than they had been the day before, and he knew that he would need to crank them before he went to bed or he would be forced to light his way with the generator. He rummaged through the pantry, looking for anything that looked appetizing. There was plenty of food, and with just one person in the compound it would likely outlast him. Another stabbing shot of pain ran through his right side, causing him to grimace and grip the cold edge of the Formica counter; he counted to ten and the pain subsided. He returned to his rummaging, although he moved slower afterwards, tiptoeing through the giant’s palace to avoid waking him.
None of it looked particularly satisfying to him, but he chose out a can of beans and a tin of preserved peaches as a sort of dessert. He took the food and the emergency lamp to the entertainment room and flipped through the available books and magazines before settling on a somewhat recent copy of National Geographic. He read articles by the dimming light of the lamp while he spooned cold beans into his mouth. The fourth one he came to was a photo essay on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea after the December Revolution caused Seoul to capitulate. He cast it aside and finished the last scoop of beans in the can. He picked up a Jack London novel to peruse during his peaches; its depiction of frozen landscapes was much closer to home.
After eating, he walked through the bunker to check on everything; the rooms were exactly as he’d left them, and when he returned to the kitchen he had a sudden sense that he was merely slipping between two-dimensional surfaces that were just static still shots of actual life. He was a ghost in a photograph, a spot of light for some future scholar to pore over in wonder. He cranked three of the lamps for fifteen minutes each; by the time he was finished, his arm hurt and that spot in his side was causing him to wince continuously.
He slept but only for a few hours; he awoke at some indeterminate point in the night with the feeling that the winter wastes outside the bunker had gotten inside and were causing him to freeze. He sat up on the hard mattress and shivered; he kicked the thick military blanket off of him and groped in the blackness for one of the emergency lamps. He switched it on and staggered out into the hallway, intent on finding the breach in the wall and fixing it by any means necessary.
He made it only twelve feet before a wrenching pain struck him in the lower right abdomen. He doubled over and vomited a brown stew onto the stainless steel wall of the hallway. When he finished ejecting the contents of his stomach, he lurched backwards and collapsed against the opposite wall. He continued to shiver, although now he felt as though someone had lit a fire near him.
“Shit,” he croaked, “already?” He waited until the pain had subsided somewhat and made his way unsteadily to his feet. He made his way down hallways step by slow step, stopping every few minutes when the pain became too much. What seemed like hours later, he arrived in one of the three scientific research rooms and collapsed into a seat next to the atmospheric readout machine. He stared at it, breathing heavily, and waited for the sickening throb in his right side to die down. When it fell below an acceptable level, he leaned forward and began requesting test results from the area.
He’d rigged the machine to sound an alarm if the atmospheric radiation levels around the bunker grew above the safety limits, but he supposed that anything was subject to either machine or human failure. As he pored over the readouts, however, he saw that the level of radiation in the area of the bunker was normal, not even elevated. It was as though nothing at all had happened. Slumping back in his chair, overwhelmed by how hot it was in the research room, he remembered the argument he’d gotten into with Korlosov, shortly before his government had recalled him. Korlosov had held firm to the belief that the Coriolis Effect would not distribute fallout around the world, killing everyone in existence. Several bottles of liquor, consumed in the teeth of a spring blizzard, had done nothing to budge him from this position. Eventually Theodore and Korlosov had struck a bet, in the event of the unthinkable, with Theodore taking on the crow-role of the doom crier.
Good old Korlosov he thought, his head swimming. I wonder what’s happened to him? The thought was good at first but quickly became maudlin. They’d struck the bet in a currency divorced from either of their countries, but he doubted that either of them would be collecting their winnings in lira anytime soon. Still, it had been two weeks now, and the rotation of the earth was such that he should have been detecting some elevated levels of fallout around the bunker. Perhaps Korlosov had been right after all, or perhaps it was just that Antarctica was the last stop on the extinction tour. Either way-
He leaned forward and threw up on his feet; the vomiting was accompanied by more pain in his right side, pain that resembled a sharp knife being thrust into his side and twisted. The smell came up at him all at once, and he recoiled in disgust, sending the chair rolling backwards into another machine.
If not radiation poisoning, then what? he wondered. Were the cans off? Is it botulism? Or has my appendix decided it’s time?
He first staggered, and then crawled, his way into the next room, which contained a number of reference books, including a medical reference. He flipped through to the entry on botulism first, holding the page in a shaking, pincer-like grip. Weakness he read, trouble seeing, trouble sleeping, chest and arm pains. Not usually accompanied by a fever. He frowned at this, trying to turn it all over in his mind. He wasn’t having much trouble seeing, once you eliminated the dimness of the emergency lamps and the difficulty of concentrating through the pain. He was definitely running a fever, though; he was shaking like a dog that had just been pulled from an Alaskan river, despite feeling like his feet were standing on a furnace grate.
He flipped over to the entry on appendicitis and his symptoms were all there laid out easily for anyone to read. Fever, pain in the side, vomiting. It all fit too well. He stared at the page, a slow feeling of dread washing over him.
He got up and rummaged through the other reference books. He found that one of the American doctors had left an anatomy textbook behind, and for this he was profoundly grateful; if it had been a Soviet text that had been donated to the station, he would have been lost. He cracked it open and despaired; his concentration was on climate and related effects, and he realized that for all of the English throughout the text it may as well have been written in Cyrillic. He found the appendix, and studied it and the surrounding area for a long time. At one point he woke up suddenly and realized that he had nodded off; the pain in his lower right side had subsided to a dull roar and there were beads of sweat on his forehead. He wiped them off, his mind feeling clearer, and returned to studying the abdomen with greater focus.
After some time he got up and walked around the research rooms; he could walk without too much pain and his legs felt thankful for the stretch and pull of muscles that had been too long without an exercise. He checked his watch and saw that it was nearly five in the morning. One of the rooms contained the bunker’s large radio set and he fell into the chair in front of it. Once it was powered on, he began slowly making his way through the frequencies, hoping to find something that he could hone in on and try to make contact with. Many of the frequencies were howling static, akin to the snow-blown wind that crashed unheard into the exterior walls of the bunker. Some were smooth, bland silence, as though there were powered transmitters but no one with anything to say. Once he thought he heard an odd, irregular sound, like Morse Code pounded out by someone with a stutter to their fingers, but try as he might he was never able to find the right frequency again.
He switched to broadcast, and set out a message on a long-range bandwidth, hoping to catch anyone with his emergency plea. He gave his name, Dr. Theodore Missandra, and his position, on the coast of Antarctica directly south of the Diego Ramierez Islands. He mentioned his list of symptoms and his suspicion that he was suffering from appendicitis. He repeated the message, and then recorded it and set it to broadcast every fifteen minutes. He slumped back in the chair after he finished, his energy spent and the pain creeping back up his side.
Theodore tried to go back to sleep but awoke soon afterwards with shooting pains in his right side again. He crawled out to the research rooms again, stopping to vomit on occasion, and grabbed the anatomy text with shaking hands. He flipped it back open to the section on the abdomen and relocated the appendix. He stared at it, trying to figure out where it was in relation to his own body. The radio turned out to be of little help; the broadcast continued to go out in fifteen minute bursts, but there was no activity on any of the frequencies he scanned. Theodore found it unlikely that the southern portion of South America would have been a target for either side, and he found the continued silence from both Chile and Argentina to be maddening. Once the pain subsided, he took the anatomy text and brought it out to the bunker entrance.
With agonizing slowness he put on the insulated suit that hung near the door and wheeled open the heavy steel entrance. The faint glow of dawn hung in the sky, and the snow had settled down around everything in the compound. The temperature on the readout near the door read -15, which was uncomfortable but not particularly dangerous for the short trek that Theodore had in mind.
He plodded through the snow towards the other end of the compound, where an unassuming Quonset hut sat buried in pure white snow. The wind rose and fell as he walked, pushing him here and there; if there had been anyone to observe him, they would have thought that he had crossed the field in a state of advanced drunkenness. When he reached the door of the hut he leaned against it, breathing heavily and trying to will down the serrated throb in his side.
Inside, everything was dark and smelled of must. He tried to think of how long it had been since the equipment had been used. Dr. Croning had gotten glass in her palm back in March, before the incursion into Thailand and the serious deterioration of the international situation. Had it been that long? He used the emergency lamp to find the electrical panel and threw the switch on the generator. There was a minor sputter and then everything roared into life; the fluorescents lining the center of the roof flickered on, and the monitoring equipment surrounding the surgical bed beeped and flashed through their boot sequences. The sound of the generator made him nervous; to his mind it sounded like fuel being used at a rapid pace, and there wasn’t a lot of it to go around in the first place. There isn’t anymore being made, either he thought, but he pushed that to the back of his mind. Time enough to worry about the world later he told himself. You’ve got enough in hand in the here and now.
He got out of the snowsuit and found a clean set of surgical scrubs to dress himself in. He put the hair net and the mouth-mask on, and went searching for the rest of the things he could think of. He found the scalpel, a needle and suture thread, a small hand-held mirror, and a bottle that was marked off as a solution of novocaine in English. Working through a severe attack of abdominal pain, he brought a small metal table next to the surgical bed and laid the anatomy text out on it. He put the mirror next to it and tried to figure out if he would be able to hold it in his left hand in a good position while still using his right hand. After a moment of puzzling over it he decided that it didn’t matter, he would have to at least try.
He took a walk around the hut, trying to build up his courage for what was to come. There was a mirrored surface to one of the monitors and he stared at his reflection in it, studying every edge and shadow of his face. He stared for so long that his own face in the end became unrecognizable to him; what stared back at him was haggard, worn, and bright with fever.
“It’s your call, doctor,” he said aloud, and his voice surprised himself with its weakness, and with the rasp that seemed to infect it. He grinned shakily at himself and it looked like the stretched visage of a skull.
“No time like the present,” he croaked, and climbed onto the bed. As he picked up the scalpel he heard, from far off, a deep rumble in the sky, like the engines of an airplane approaching the coastline. He listened for some time until he wasn’t sure what he was hearing: the sound of an approaching engine, or the pounding thrum of his own heart. His appendix was now a lump in his abdomen; he traced his finger along the ridge of it, and then picked up the scalpel. He held it in the air, looked over at the text, solidified the map of the area in his head, brought his attention back to the lump in his abdomen, and swallowed hard.
Theodore brought the scalpel down quickly and decisively, like the fall of a guillotine.
Trevor Zaple is a Canadian author and Music Editor at Seroword. His work has appeared in Play With Death’s Nightmare Collective anthology and his first novel, Disappearance, is available on Amazon and other major booksellers.