A vee of Canada geese passed across the slot of sky that ran east to west between two nine-storey walls. It was late August, and they were heading south, early migrators, the machine of instinct persisting, despite the day’s heat, despite enormous changes in the prairie landscape.
Sergeant Elisabeth Sharpcot had heard them, their plaintive honking, moments before they shot overhead, lit by sunlight, and she could hear them long after they vanished beyond the south wall.
For a moment she let herself pretend that everything was all right, that the world was fine, and birds flew south, and her daughter Lana was safe with her dad, and there’d be something to watch on TV tonight.
But two young privates under her command were dead, and in front of her stood a wall, 28 metres tall, over 90 feet, composed entirely of watering cans. Not just a wall, but a solid block that extended an unknown distance north. Watering cans. Millions of them.
Watering cans in every colour imaginable.
Watering cans decorated with flowers, vegetables, hearts, animals, scenery, checkerboards, stripes, polka dots, abstract designs, or words: Garden, Gardener, Flowers, Grow, Breathe, Home, Love, Friends, Happy, Mom, Nature, Peace.
Watering cans made from wood, plastic, acrylic, aluminum, glass, brass, bronze, tin, copper, clay, ceramic, stainless steel, and every other material humankind has ever used to produce containers for hydrating plants.
Watering cans with vessels smooth, ringed, embossed, rippled, dimpled, peened, distressed, galvanized, and plated.
They came in every style: art deco, Edo, mid-century modern, Minoan, Victorian, Etruscan, Jalisco, Ming, Delft Blue.
They ranged in size from miniatures for a doll’s house to enormous novelty cans the size of rain barrels.
And they represented every conceivable form: cylindrical, bell-shaped, bulbous, conical, spheric, cubic, cuboid, dodecahedral, icosahedral, or made to look like frogs, cats, dogs, rabbits, pigs, sheep, mice, hedgehogs, elephants, ducks, geese, fish, whales, honeybees, snails, chameleons, dinosaurs, garden gnomes, and Mickey Mouse.
Handmade 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia or manufactured last month in a Guangzhou factory.
Old, new, corroding, shining, cracked, smashed, crushed, or crazed.
And all of them arranged, Tetris-like, to fit together in the most efficient, compact manner and to form a wall that was essentially flat, aside from the protuberances of the cans themselves, handles or spouts or the curved flanks of their vessels, from ground to sky.
All of it held together without any detectable bonding agent, the formation maintained by friction and gravity and some unknown force that kept the mass of the ones above from crushing those below.
A wall of watering cans stretching away to the left and right as far as the eye could see. Millions, hundreds of millions.
The sight of them, the very idea of them, was nauseating.
And if Sharpcot turned 180 degrees, she would find herself facing another wall, of precisely equal height, and assembled with the same method and precision, and no less imposing, no less sickening, and yet producing an entirely different optical effect due to the smaller scale and colour, size, and shape of the compositional items: bottle openers.
Bottle openers with handles made from tin, zinc, aluminum, nickel, chromium, titanium, iron, copper, silver, brass, polycarbonate, glass, stone, bone, horn, and wood; in myriad colours, with a plate reading Las Vegas or Niagara Falls and accompanied by a flamboyant vista; manufactured from flat steel, engraved with Pabst Blue Ribbon, Trinkt Rathaus-Bràu, Meredith Public House, World’s Best Dad, Kirsten & Ron 2015, I ♥ Beer; many fashioned as a novelty item: anchor, hand, fish, skull, dog’s paw, bicycle, ninja, violin, bullet, key, Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus; some shiny and new, most used, and many old, rusted, cracked, broken, or so ravaged by time and exposure or lying buried in a landfill or the ruins of a lost village or shipwreck on the sea’s bottom that they were little more than an outline, a few joined fragments, strands of matter.
Like the watering cans, they numbered in the hundreds of millions, probably billions, packed together to form a wall of the same height as the watering cans and likewise representing a block. Those walls extended east and west until they each ended at an intersection with passageways that ran north and south, and beyond which stood countless monuments made from other manufactured goods, all similarly stacked nine storeys high.
Sharpcot and her section of soldiers — previously eight, but now, after an incident of sudden, horrific violence, six — found themselves in a passageway four metres wide, 14 feet, between watering cans and bottle openers.
She glanced wearily at those walls.
The chime of an entrenching tool filled the passageway. Standing knee-deep in a hole, the brawny form of Corporal Owen Tse jabbed the tool into the earth and tossed soil onto a growing mound.
A few paces away, Sharpcot’s second-in-command, Master Corporal Dorian “Jack” Wakely, squatted in the grass with his back to the watering cans and smoked his last cigarette, smoked it down to the filter — the last one ever, barring an unlikely encounter with the block that held them all. The Cigarette Block. He knew it was out there, somewhere on the prairie. It would be nine storeys tall, vast, and, if they reached it soon enough, still fragrant of tobacco, the scent instilling a delight he used to feel after he’d quit, after Daisy had begged him to quit. Those times he’d suffered a lapse in resolve: emerging from a corner store (crazy now to think of shops crammed with varied goods) clutching a fresh pack. He’d strip off the cellophane and pop the lid and part the foil and bring the tips of the paper-wrapped barrels to his nose for a prolonged sniff. It was like coming up for air after weeks underwater.
He watched Sharpcot drink from her canteen before she joined Tse in the hole. He thought about getting up, sparing her the labour, but she shrugged off her jacket and went fervently at the digging. Psychotherapy for her failure. For the deaths of her recruits.
But it was his failure too. He flicked away the butt he’d been rolling between fingertips.
“Take a break, Corporal,” he told Tse, who nodded and dropped the shovel, wiped his brow, and climbed from the hole. Wakely stepped down beside Sharpcot and took the tool in his grip and chopped at the hard dirt while his body cried sweat.
Wakely arrived into this nightmare also through digging, but digging from below, out of the earth. A pinhole of daylight appeared, an aperture that opened as he poked at it with the entrenching tool, soil in his eyes, his mouth, and the opening grew to an oval of pink sky, and he worked until it was big enough to cram his shoulders through. His head at ground level, noticing the world was awry but not yet allowing himself to determine how, he worked his arms out and pressed his forearms against the earth on each side of the hole and grunting and kicking hauled himself up. Dusted the soil from his hands and shook it out of his hair and off his shoulders, wiped his nose. Spit a gob of muddy saliva.
He stood on prairie grass beside the hole. It was dawn and he inhaled to the peak of his lungs, the air splendidly fresh after the stale atmosphere of the bunker.
He faced an enormous wall of toilets.
He lit a cigarette and took a long drag and leaned over the hole and called down.
“Private Bronski. Go get the boss. Pronto.”
Three weeks before, the eight members of Three Section of Two Platoon of Bravo Company of the Second Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had gone reluctantly into a defunct nuclear bunker, an abandoned complex of office space, strategy rooms, infirmary, communications centre, and dorms, recently stocked with food, water, batteries, and equipment.
The order to go below came without explanation. The group of course had theories: it was a psychological experiment; it was punishment for their lacklustre performance during infantry exercises. But Sharpcot knew by the brusque way Lieutenant Blake ordered them into the bunker that he had no idea why it was happening.
Sharpcot had heard rumours, crazy rumours, spooky rumours, none plausible.
Of one thing she was certain: selection of her group for this duty came from high up, from Base Commander Wenz himself. Because he hated her.
So on a hot August morning, they passed through the bunker’s doorway with full rucks, ready for combat, rifles and ammunition stowed in the weapons locker, crates of supplies to keep them fed for weeks. They brought paperbacks and tablets and e-readers, playing cards, board games.
They dined each evening in a cafeteria with a tile floor and suspended ceiling, the walls painted institutional beige, fluorescent lighting replaced with low-power LED pot lights. The food came in cans and pouches. Afterwards, they would assemble in the lounge with its tattered 60s-era furniture, to play a game or watch on the old CRT television a movie selected from a cardboard box and its meagre collection of VHS cassettes: The Breakfast Club, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, A Room with a View, Mystic Pizza. They watched them so many times they could recite whole scenes, Private Abigail Deeks eerily adept at imitations and accents.
At night, or when they wanted to be alone, they retired to one of the two dorms, split by sex, each with 24 iron beds.
Sharpcot remembered Blake’s unreadable expression, how he wouldn’t meet her eye. “See you when I see you,” he grunted, before he and a skinny corporal she didn’t know closed the stainless steel blast door, a foot thick, tapered to nest in its reinforced frame. She cranked the wheel at its centre, sealing them in.
After three days Sharpcot sent fireteam Charlie, Privates Kyrylo “Loko” Boyko and Abby Deeks, to check on it. They ran down a tunnel ribbed with reinforced steel, through a hard right turn to a small lobby where the door stood as shut as they’d left it. The pair lingered, wondering if their task required more than simply looking at it. Boyko put a hand on the wheel, at which Deeks uttered a tsk, and Boyko withdrew. She put her ear against the steel and listened, heard nothing but the flux of her own circulation. She stepped back and they looked at each other, and Deeks would report later to Sharpcot that a change of expression manifested on Loko’s face, “like he’d slipped on ice and just caught himself,” though they were each standing motionless. They raced back up the tube to report. Sharpcot glanced up from a Nordic crime novel.
“We’ll check tomorrow. Go back to what you were doing,” she told them, and they did, Deeks to re-reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Loko to battling Leader Brawley for a Knuckle Badge in Nintendo Pokémon Omega Ruby.
Every day that Sharpcot sent runners to check the door increased the section’s anxiety, and when they reached eight days, Loko started to go, to use Deeks’s term, “wiggy.”
There was no room for wiggy in here, and Sharpcot let Loko know it. He said he’d try harder.
A day later she found him kneeling in a corridor banging his head against the floor. She ran to fetch her bottle of lorazepam, which she’d brought but hadn’t yet used. She tapped one into her palm and pressed his shoulder.
He sat up and glared at her with bloodshot eyes, muttered, “I don’t care. I don’t care.” But when he spotted the pill, he seized it and swallowed it dry. After half an hour he melted on the cold linoleum into a fitful slumber.
Not long after that came the Great Divide, as Abby Deeks coined it, when the group split into factions according to sex.
On Sharpcot’s side, quippy Deeks, outspoken activist Adonia Virago, and the odd Cheree Leclerc, all of them growing increasingly cranky, sarcastic, and — she hated to say it — catty.
On Wakely’s side, wiggy Loko, cool Corporal Owen Tse, and perpetually aggrieved Travis Bronski.
Victims of rage to date were the Monopoly board, torn in half by Bronski when he landed for a third time on Virago’s well-appointed Park Place, and a glass cabinet in the bunker’s medical lab, again Bronski, who hurled a rotary-dial telephone through it. Someone had also festooned a conference room in ferromagnetic tape, but Sharpcot chose to see that as an act of artistic expression rather than vandalism.
She so invested herself with the conviction that expressions of anxiety were normal and expected that she became unnerved early in the third week, when all of it stopped, and lethargy descended on the group.
A distant chirping woke her one night, bringing relief for its novelty. While not the hoped-for arrival of their liberators, it offered a break in the routine, a problem to solve.
She set out with a flashlight and followed the sound to a storage cupboard that housed a series of 24-volt gel cells. One was sounding a low-voltage warning. She checked a few of the others, and all displayed dwindling charges. She didn’t know the exact implications — days left, hours, minutes? — but she silenced the alarm and looked at her watch. It was just after 3:30 a.m. She went to the kitchen for coffee, heated the kettle on a gas ring. She was stirring in the sugar with a plastic spoon when Wakely appeared, looking his usual trim and alert self even at this hour.
“Morning,” he said.
“Not quite,” she replied. “But there’s hot water.”
He made himself a cup and leaned against the counter, blowing steam and taking short sips, and asked, “What’s the problem?”
“The batteries,” she replied. “We got to get out of here, Jack.”
“Air’s going stale too,” he said, and though she hadn’t noticed, his saying so made it apparent.
“Don’t mention that around Private Boyko. I’m almost out of pills.”
They debated briefly how and when to go about it: after breakfast, collect their things, bring the whole section down to the lobby, open the big door and return to the world of wind and sky, whatever the consequences. In the end, they let everyone sleep and carried their mugs down the long tunnel to stand before the blast door. She set a hand on the wheel, but before spinning it said, “It’ll be dark out.”
“Not as dark as in here,” he replied, and she nodded and cranked the wheel. It spun freely, drawing the dogs through the cylinders. She pushed on the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Wakely stepped forward and they each put their weight against it, without effect.
“Something’s against the door,” he said with aggravating calm.
The bunker, a buried, one-storey concrete box, lay with its entrance set into a shallow hillside and sheltered within a corrugated steel vestibule, with the blast door opening outwards, to resist the force of a proximate nuke.
“Could a landslide cover the door?” Wakely wondered.
“I’d think it would be engineered to avoid that, but anything’s possible.”
“I guess that’s what the alternate exit is for,” Wakely replied, and they sprinted back up the tunnel.
Wakely clambered up the ladderway, and with Sharpcot’s flashlight clenched in his teeth, rotated the crank and pushed on the circular hatch. It moved, but only a millimetre. He pushed harder, and the amount of travel, while minor, along with the soil that sifted from around the seal, managed to mitigate the dry chill of claustrophobia churning in his belly.
In the dark at the foot of the ladder, Sharpcot heard dirt hit the floor. “What about it, Jack?”
He came down with his face set calmly.
“There’s some play.”
He wiped the flashlight and handed it back, and she cast it on the floor to a scatter of soil.
“You think it’ll open with some force?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’ll open outright, but it’s a step,” he replied.
“Let’s get Corporal Tse. And not tell anyone else yet,” she said.
Tse squeezed his powerful frame up the ladder tube, and Sharpcot and Wakely heard him throw his shoulder into the hatch a dozen times, each stroke accompanied by a grunt, followed by a spill of grit and gravel.
He came down rubbing his shoulder, said, “That’s all I got just now.”
“Might be enough,” Wakely replied, and mounted the ladder, skipping every other rung, and he pushed on the hatch to find that it lifted an inch, enough to drive his fingertips into the dirt and draw more inside. He heard it crackle on the linoleum below. He ran fingers along the opening, dug until he’d excavated a small cavern. Then like Tse he rammed his shoulder repeatedly into the hatch, each blow accompanied by a cascade of soil from the opening. When he pressed it upward again he got his entire hand into the gap and swept it around and clawed out handfuls of dirt.
He worked until his fingers were raw and his arms ached, and descended the ladder filthy with soil, and he dusted his hands and told Tse, “Keep at it. We’ll get help.”
He and Sharpcot ran to the dorms. Sharpcot turned on the lights and winced when she considered the power they sucked from the dying batteries.
Private Leclerc swung her feet to the floor and immediately began to dress, but Sharpcot had to yank blankets and coax Virago and Deeks awake. She heard Wakely’s voice from the other dorm, shouting Bronski’s name. She imagined Loko emerging from his benzodiazepine funk.
When they assembled in the hallway outside the dorms, Loko stood hunched, eyes ringed in violet. But when she asked if he felt fit enough to participate in their escape, he nodded emphatically.
The top of the ladder could accommodate one worker at a time, and they switched frequently, using bare hands at first, better still with gloves, and then someone grabbed a handful of cutlery from the kitchen and they went at it with serving spoons. The others collected the dirt mounding at the foot of the ladder into buckets and carted it off to the radio room, with its charts and decrepit transmitters, and dumped it there.
The hatch’s travel increased as they toiled, until it could swing fully into the cavity excavated above it. The labour accelerated, pairs of workers using entrenching tools to dig vertically into the dirt, boring towards sky. When the ceiling became unreachable they lifted a stepladder into the hole and worked at the top of that.
By day’s end exhaustion shut them down, and they reluctantly abandoned the labour to rest.
Wakely rose early the next morning and as punishment for various incidents the day before recruited Travis Bronski to accompany him. Bronski was nodding off on the floor below the ladder when Wakely broke through into the dawn and hauled himself to the surface and called down for the private to summon Sergeant Sharpcot.
Dorian Wakely stood beside the hole facing a wall of toilets, nine storeys tall by his estimation, which stretched off in both directions as far as he could see. Perspective merged it with the wall that ran behind him, a wall composed of rough workstations of some sort, made from steel and painted black and red and blue, a scattered few in orange and yellow and lime green. Most had a motor mounted horizontally across a bench, with hand cranks, vices, knobs, and dials. He stepped back for a wider view. A few were clean and new, but most looked hard-used, grease-stained, scratched, dusty, rusty. Some held a plate mounted above the console or on the motor itself: “Model C9370 Brake Lathe” or “Precision Combination Brake Station” or “QUALITY BRAKE SERVICE built by RELS MANUFACTURING.” He scanned the stack, taking in brand names: Ammco, John Bean, West, Ranger, National Auto Tools, Jori Machine, Hunter, Bosch, Luzhong, DBL-Smart, FMC, Auto Pro-up. He took another step backwards and bumped into toilets and spun and returned to the middle of the alley. He took a drag on his cigarette, studying the scene, this narrow alley four metres wide, nearly 30 metres tall.
A magenta sky in the east, scrimmed with cirrus, darkened to deep blue above.
He speculated on what this could be. A practical joke? Act of terrorism? Experiment to test response to a visual non sequitur? A dream? But he could reconcile none but the latter. Except he always knew when he was dreaming, because of the Afghan boy and the wired artillery shell. The boy hadn’t missed his dream cameo in seven years. Wakely squinted up and down the passageway but did not find him. Was he finally banished, to be replaced with toilets and brake lathes? And what could encountering these in a dream signify?
“What in hell?” he heard and looked to the hole to see Sharpcot stalled halfway out of it, gazing around in disbelief. “Are those toilets?”
“Yeah,” Wakely replied. “And brake lathes.”
She cranked around and looked.
“Used in auto shops,” he added. “When you take your car in for brake service, the mechanic will use a break lathe to resurface your rotors—”
“Right. Mansplaining. Right. Sorry.”
She climbed up and moved to the lathes, reached out tentatively to touch a motor casing. She turned one of the cranks, flicked a switch from “Disk” to “Drum.”
“Toilets are real too,” Wakely said. “I’m pretty sure because I backed into them while taking in the lathes.”
She sniffed, and the smell beyond Wakely’s cigarette was auto garage meets public washroom.
They stood for a long minute, regarding it all, until their eyes met.
“What the hell’s it about, Jack?” she asked.
“No idea, Sarge,” Wakely replied. “I don’t even know how this could be arranged.”
“You think maybe it’s a . . . maybe it’s a dream?” she asked.
“Best explanation,” he replied, and finished his smoke, ground the butt under his boot.
“Yours or mine?”
“No kid and no artillery shell. So definitely yours.”
She squinted at him. “Or a test? The whole thing, the bunker, then this. To see how we react.” She lifted her eyes, ran them along the walls, the toilets, the lathes. “You spot any surveillance? Better keep cool.”
“Roger that. Keeping cool,” Wakely acknowledged.
“What the fucking fuck is this shit?” a voice strained by hysteria cried out. Sharpcot and Wakely turned to see Bronski peering from the hole, head swivelling around in panic.
“Cut that right now, Bronski,” Wakely ordered. “Go down and bring up the manpack.”
“But what the hell is it?” he called, climbing out. “Where are we? What are these fucking walls? Are those goddamn toilets?”
Wakely moved towards Bronski, who flinched and put his hands up, retreating to the hole.
“And do not, repeat, do not mention any of this to the section. Get the radio and come right back, got it?”
“Master Corporal, sir!” he replied and took one last astonished look before disappearing down the hole.
“Screw this,” Sharpcot muttered after a moment, reached into a pocket and pulled out her phone. She gave a glance to Wakely before turning away and powering it on. After a breathless minute, at the upper left of the screen, “No Signal.” She waited, then took a step away from Wakely, lifting the device. Nothing. She went into the settings, opened the Wi-Fi tab. A wheel spun as the phone hunted unsuccessfully for a network.
“Anything?” Wakely asked. He had his own phone out, held it aloft like a torch. “I got zero.”
“Walls must be blocking the signal.”
“Sure,” Wakely said, and Sharpcot shot him an irritated look. “What?”
“Just — stay cool.” She gazed around, looking for a surveillance camera that would be recording their responses. She saw none, but that meant nothing.
Bronski came up wearing the radio backpack and Wakely and Sharpcot stowed their phones. Wakely went behind Bronski and got out the aerial and microphone and screwed them into the ports, handed Sharpcot the mic. She turned the radio on, keyed in the band, brought the handset to her ear. “Opal Journey, this is Shark Belly at location November Juliet Quebec seven-niner, over.” Static answered back, and after a few seconds Sharpcot repeated: “Opal Journey, this is Shark Belly transmitting from November Juliet Quebec seven-niner, come in please.”
“Toilets,” Bronski said in a dazed voice as he studied the wall in front of him. He turned his head to the brake lathes, and as Sharpcot repeated the call a third time he muttered, “The fuck are those?” Then back to the toilets. “I mean look at how those fit. There’s like no space between them. It’s a huge fucking game of Tetris. And somebody got a goddamn high score.”
“Bronski, shut it,” Wakely said.
“Shutting it, Master Jack, sir!” Bronski yelped and stood at semi-attention, arms at his sides, head wheeling around. The rising sun struck the highest toilets and cast a glare into the passageway. A cool dawn, but Bronski was sweating. Sharpcot continued to call into the radio, tried different channels, got nothing. Bronski noted no chatter on the other frequencies, didn’t know if Sharpcot or Wakely had noticed.
“How about our position?” Wakely asked.
“We’ve got to be exactly where we were,” Sharpcot snapped. “Obviously the bunker didn’t move.”
“Obviously,” Wakely replied.
“Fine. I’ll check the Dagger.” She seized a strap on Bronski’s backpack and cranked him about and dug around until she came up with the DAGR in its camo case. She turned it on and the little screen lit up and she watched it intently, waiting for a GPS lock.
Wakely studied her as she squinted at the screen. “Nothing, right?” he asked softly. When she didn’t reply, he said softly, “Elsie.”
She turned and walked a dozen paces down the passage, holding the GPS above her head.
Bronski looked at Wakely with raised eyebrows. Wakely said, “Radio waves can be dodgy. Jamming or interference or malfunction.” Or everything’s been fried by an electromagnetic pulse, he thought. EMP, from a nuke. Though that would hardly explain walls made from toilets and lathes. “Straighten up, buddy. You slouch.”
Bronski sucked in his gut and straightened.
“Permission to speak, sir.”
“I keep telling you, Bronski, I’m not ‘sir.’ I work for a living.” Wakely glanced at Sharpcot, still fiddling with the GPS. “Go ahead.”
“When can we make some calls? You know, with the baby coming any day now.”
“Really, Bronski,” Wakely said. “Really. Your wife is pregnant? I didn’t know that. I had no idea. I guess I missed it when you told us every minute of every day for the last three weeks.”
Sharpcot returned, and Wakely didn’t need to ask to know she’d got nothing on GPS.
“Let’s get everyone out,” she said. “Make our way to HQ.”
He checked his watch’s digital compass, shook his head. “All that steel,” he said, nodding to the brake lathes.
She looked at the sky, stepped to the hole, and peered down.
“The radio room is at the northeast corner of the bunker, and judging by the sun, I’d say this — alley? Passageway? Whatever you call it, runs east-west. The base is north-north-west from here, say a track of 345 degrees.”
“Sounds about right,” Wakely said.
“Which would be — thataway.” Sharpcot pointed at the wall of toilets, her finger almost perpendicular to its orientation.
“Yeah,” Wakely replied. “I’d call that route problematic.”
“We’ll go west. This stack can’t go on forever, right? Let’s see what’s past it. Distance to HQ is less than four klicks, as the crow flies.”
“I could take some people and do a recce.”
Sharpcot considered this as she regarded the walls, then looked each way along the corridor.
“We won’t have radio contact through all this. Makes more sense to stay together, don’t you think?”
“It’s a sound idea,” he replied flatly.
“Looking for real advice here, Jack.”
“I agree, Sarge. If we split up, we’ll lose contact.”
“So we evac the bunker. Pack personal effects for later pickup. Travel light, move fast.”
Wakely stepped close and dropped his voice. “Protocol?”
She thought a moment, glancing at the walls, considering what would happen if this was a practical joke and they showed up armed and armoured. But whether this was a test or the real thing, they had no contact with HQ and had to assume a hostile situation.
“Full Fighting Order.”
She hated the idea of some of the section — Bronski and Loko — walking around with live rounds and grenades. It was always the dudes who gave you trouble. She sighed.
“Combat situation. FFO, like I said.”
“We should post a guard.”
She eyed the tops of the stacks, suddenly aware there could be combatants nearby and she hadn’t secured the area. This was a bad place to be, in a hallway with no exit other than a hole in the ground. Unarmed and basically in her pyjamas.
“Private Bronski, you will stand watch while the MC and I get our things.”
“Me? Alone up here? I’m unarmed!”
“Not true,” Sharpcot said as she stepped into the hole and began to descend. “You have your wit.”
Bronski walked an agitated circle and let out an anguished moan as Wakely followed her into the hole.
While Sharpcot visited the women’s dorm to wake the others and collect her things, Wakely stepped into the men’s and turned on the lights and called loudly, “Gentlemen, anyone who wants to see the sun today will make themselves combat-ready. Full battle rattle.”
Tse was already on his feet, pulling on pants and boots, lacing up. Wakely cast a glance to Boyko, who’d needed a double dose of lorazepam to calm down after last night’s digging failed to yield an exit. The kid was sitting up, clutching his blanket, eyes dark-rimmed and wide as drugs fought adrenaline. Wakely went to his own bunk and unplugged his iPad and shut it off to conserve the battery. He’d got through a bunch of novels in the last three weeks, had just started a new one, a J. G. Ballard dystopic about a flood, which he was reading to appreciate the climate crisis. He liked novels that provided practical information.
He pulled armour over his T-shirt, followed it with his TAC vest. He took the photo of Daisy he kept pinned at the head of the bed, tucked it into the vest’s map pocket, stowed shaving kit, cigarettes, lighter, iPad and charger, a bag of yogurt-covered raisins, mostly empty, into his kit. He hated the idea of leaving his valuables here for someone else to pick up but knew they had to travel light and quick.
“Private Boyko,” he called as he grabbed his helmet. “I need to see you on your feet.”
Boyko swung his body around and planted his feet on the floor, stood up, and made a show of stretching.
“Jag on, Private. You have five minutes to pull yourself together. Tse, you’re with me.”
They went into the hallway, turned a couple of corners and stood before a steel door, where Wakely fished into his collar for a key on a string, unlocked the door, and went in. It was a stationery supply room, still stocked with yellowed foolscap and manila envelopes. Propped against the room’s cabinets were the section’s weaponry: six C7A2 rifles and two C9 light machine guns. From a clamp for a broom hung two holsters, each containing a Browning 9mm pistol, and below it on a shelf labelled “File Folders,” ammunition for each. A couple of crates of C7 magazines, as well as boxes of ammo. Cartons of C9 ammunition. Boxes of frag and smoke grenades. There were also bayonets, PTTs, and NVGs, but he didn’t consider those for this short expedition. Let the CO send a squad of grunts to collect it all later.
A couple of small cartons on a shelf caught his eye, and he studied one. The word “Dosimeter” in five languages, brand name “SOEKS.” Considering the possibility of an EMP, he tore it open and pulled out the device, smaller than a cigarette pack. There were a couple of AAA alkalines in the box, and he popped them in, switched it on. He glanced at Tse standing in the doorway as it booted up. A bar on the left side of the screen climbed, and large digits appeared: 0.09, and below that, the word “Norm” in green.
“All good,” he said and looked at Tse, who nodded. Wakely left the device powered on, tucked it in a vest pocket, stepped out of the room to admit Tse into the space to collect his C9 and ammunition. The big man donned his helmet to free his hands, secured the extra barrel to the back of his vest, collected boxes and belts, and arranged the machine gun for carrying, collected and stored grenades. Privates Abigail Deeks, Adonia Virago, and Cheree Leclerc arrived in their vests and combat jackets, toting helmets. Wakely sent them in to retrieve their rifles and ammo, helped them cram magazines and grenades into their vest pockets.
Wakely sent them up to relieve Bronski, then gathered his service pistol where it dangled in its holster, dropped the magazine and checked it, put on the holster, and seated the weapon. He found his rifle, ran a quick check, hung it on his shoulder, and loaded his vest.
Sharpcot stepped into the doorway in armour and vest, helmet on, carrying her rucksack. “Where’s Boyko?”
“Dragging his ass,” Wakely said, passing pistol and holster, her rifle, then handing up mags one at a time as she filled her pockets.
Bronski and Boyko arrived together, the former looking jumpy and scared, laden with his pack and an orthopaedic pillow he had insisted on bringing below. Loko with wide, bloodshot eyes.
“You ready for sunshine and fresh air, Private Boyko?” Sharpcot asked.
“I heard it’s all fucked up,” Boyko replied in panic. “Sergeant.”
“You couldn’t keep your mouth shut for five goddamn minutes, Bronski?” Wakely demanded.
“I thought he should know, sir. Didn’t want him to suffer a shock.”
“So the telling didn’t shock him?” Wakely spat.
Bronski laughed uncomfortably, then slapped Loko on the shoulder. “Was it a shock, buddy?” Loko’s eyes bugged out and he looked queasy and fearful. Wakely snapped, “Bronski, get in here and collect your rifle and mags. Then bring your pack and that godforsaken pillow and leave it in the commissary.”
Bronski complied, and Wakely handed Loko his rifle and mags, sent him on his way.
“I’m going up, Elsie. Anything you need to do here?”
“Gotta collect my things. I was too busy pressing the women to do my own kit. See you up top.”
Wary of leaving the section alone even briefly, Wakely hurried to join them at ground level.
Sharpcot returned to her bunk and gathered and wrapped in a rubber band three novels, shut her daily planner — filled more with point form thoughts and feelings than plans — and packed a picture frame with three photos of Lana, 14, and who, in the girl’s words during their most recent encounter, hated Sharpcot’s “guts, gizzards, entrails, and viscera.” She regretted the gift of a hardcover thesaurus the girl had requested for her last birthday.
She gathered toiletries into a pouch decorated with yellow cats, got her phone charger, and slipped into a plastic bag a small spider plant she had grabbed from the CANEX when they’d stocked up on snacks, consumed long ago, to bring below. A dose of greenery which had sustained her underground. She brought her rucksack and the plant into the cafeteria, where the other kits had been scattered on the floor and tables. She spent a moment arranging them in neat rows, ready for pickup. Bronski’s pillow on top of his pack.
She hadn’t eaten today, unwrapped a granola bar, got a flashlight from her kit, and headed for the power room, taking bites as she walked.
Low-battery warning lights blinked as she hunted for the master switch. She found the lever, pulled it. Stood in pure darkness, recognizing that she should have turned on the flashlight first. The ventilation’s cease left a deep silence. She traced a thudding sound to the beat of her own heart. This was the last moment of peace she would ever experience, of this she was certain. Something big had happened up there, and however hard she tried, she could not fathom what it was or how it had come about. Or what it meant for the world.
Excerpted and adapted from A Tidy Armageddon by B.H. Panhuyzen. © 2023 by B.H. Panhuyzen. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. www.ecwpress.com
Purchase link: https://ecwpress.com/products/a-tidy-armageddon