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Death’s Dream Kingdom*
“I can’t breathe!”
Youngblood’s lungs strained to inhale the last of the thin air but drew in only an empty breath. His heart pounded against his hollow lungs. His fingers stretched wide and then clenched.
The last faint echoes of whining machinery died away as the fading glow of emergency lights sputtered out.
He opened his eyes wide trying to make sense of the dark confined space.
Where am I?
Lying on his back in pitch black, he reached up and touched a smooth encapsulating surface without seams or latches.
Banging against the case, a raspy cry escaped his mouth, “Helppp.”
He scratched with fingers until they bled; he smashed with fists until they bruised.
His face was a bulging purple mask with a protruding red tongue. Gory hands wiped away oozing goo dripping from his nose. Each passing second was a countdown toward imploding lungs.
Coma and death were fast approaching—causing a spasm of raw cold fear—a deep primal terror like the first great scare a child experienced when his nightmare turned ‘real’ and the claws of a hideous monster squeezed his throat.
“Air! I’ve got to have air,” he begged in a whisper.
He balled his fist and punched him. He kicked. Again, and again.
A small fissure created a loud hiss as air trickled into the confined space.
Finally able to inhale, Youngblood’s chest rose and fell with each precious breath.
The visceral threat of suffocation lessened, but the injuries continued to throb.
He pulled out some of the needles that feathered his body.
It’s a hibernation chamber.
They were supposed to revive him when they found a cure.
Did they find a cure?
For a moment, he opened his mouth and raised his eyebrows, then . . .
This wasn’t a normal recovery. There were countless things wrong with this. Was this a random system failure? Someone should have been monitoring.
His brain screamed.
Why isn’t there an alarm and an attendant?
They might all be dead.
He tried to break out of the case. The straining structure moaned as he pressed against it, but his debilitated joints and impaired muscles lacked the strength to free him.
As he continued to welcome the incessant wheezing of cool air filtering into the cocoon, he waited, but no one came.
The only sounds of activity were the sparks of electrical wires far off in the distance.
With stiff fingers, he massaged his sore arms and legs, but all his efforts to break out of the coffin-like container failed.
He dug his fingernails into his palms to escape the deadness that gnawed inside him. Dark destructive thoughts flooded in. The future that was supposed to augur health had turned into a nightmare.
His mind stretched back to something very painful, a filament-thin memory,
I was eighteen when the debilitating effects of the illness began. Father said hibernation was the only solution. I trusted him. Lies! All his words were lies . . . he just wanted to be rid of me.
Lingering on the ghost-like memory as it waxed and waned, it was the end of hope. At that moment, everything came crashing down inside of him.
The chamber grew claustrophobic.
He closed his eyes.
He let the minutes pass, hoping the pain would end, wishing he would end . . . but neither did.
Finally, he opened his eyes and took a deep breath. Focusing his thoughts, he pushed back against the black despair.
No! I won’t give up. I’m going to survive . . . somehow.
But it was undeniable, he needed immediate medical aid, or this chamber would become a coffin.
He screamed when he yanked out the rest of the needles. He cast away the trailing tubes that had sustained his life for . . .
No way of telling.
You can do this. You must.
He pressed against the case once more. It creaked and groaned like a living thing and it took many more tries before, at last, it broke open enough to allow him to squeeze out. Leaning over the edge, he shifted his weight to let it carry him over the side. Hitting the floor with a thump, he began to crawl. It took an hour to reach the wall a mere twenty yards away. There were other chambers along the way, but none appeared operational.
“Is anyone there?” he called out—repeatedly.
There was never a reply.
In a moment of raw honesty, he understood:
No one else escaped.
Moving along the wall until he reached a door, he wobbled to his feet and managed to stand and press a button. It slid open.
He tried to walk, but his legs were unwilling. Leaning against the wall, he let his body slide down to the floor like a sack of sand.
There was a dim glow of light at the end of the hall, but crawling took an interminable effort. The light was coming from a control console inside a small room. The dark surroundings offered little information about the devices inside. Exhausted, he hoisted himself into a chair and listened to the rhythmic sound of blood drops smacking onto the floor like a drum beating Taps.
As his face blanched, he trembled with dizziness and nausea, his tunnel vision narrowed, the room blackened and spun . . . and then . . . nothingness . . .
Youngblood woke in a cold sweat. His head throbbed but the room had stopped spinning. He was still sitting at the dysfunctional control panel though only a few dials remained lit. As a computer science major, he thought he should make sense of them, but they were as foreign as a Gödel puzzle.
His fist smashed into the console.
He heard the distinct sound but couldn’t pinpoint its location.
With every sense alert, he sat waiting . . .
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The cold dark concrete walls and poured concrete floor echoed his words but offered no response.
There were a couple of doors further down the hall.
He stood up. Simply stretching his body took all his effort. His entire body hurt, but slowly he managed to shuffle toward the doors.
The first door was locked.
The next one was too.
He twisted around a corner, but a misstep caused him to fight his own momentum to forestall crashing headfirst into the unyielding wall. The impact to his shoulder knocked him back and whirled him around. Reaching out, he grasped a handle and yanked it to steady himself.
The door opened.
A storage closet?
Catching his breath, he strained his eyes against the dark shadows to identify several large cardboard boxes and a few wooden crates. The largest box was next to a cabinet with symbols he didn’t recognize. Yet, a Red Cross sign was visible on the furthest crate. He stretched his hands toward the old dirt covered wooden crate and pried open the thick heavy lid with his fingers.
The cry of anguish was from his own mouth. He placed his suffering hands under his armpits and squeezed until the strained fingers returned to normal.
After several minutes, he pulled the lid away and let dirt rattle down into the container. He reached inside to grab a medical package.
He used the meager emergency rations to stop the bleeding and applied analgesic wherever he could reach. The medication flowed through his veins, stifling the shock and blood loss.
He started to relax but his parched throat cried . . . water.
He was unable to make out the markings on the other boxes, but he opened the nearest one and groped inside for something familiar.
The last cardboard box . . .
Yes. A bottle of water.
Taking great gulps, he guzzled what seemed a treasure from an extinct world. He looked for more. There was only one.
He tackled another wooden crate. Inside was a flashlight, but it didn’t work. There were batteries on the bottom, but they leaked acid goop. Yet, a few seemed OK. He tried them and felt like a rich man when the flashlight lit and offer the first real peek at his surroundings.
There was a nearby room with more defunct hibernation chambers. Another room had medical equipment for reviving patients.
But there were no windows anywhere.
It’s a bunker.
But why put hibernation chambers underground?
Putting the puzzle aside, he dug deeper into the storage containers. There were useful items; a butane lighter, a compass, nylon line, a hatchet, a shovel, a hacksaw and lots of basic tools for repairing electrical and computer equipment.
He found a workman’s jumpsuit coveralls hanging from a hook on the closet wall and a pair of large black boots.
These will come in handy.
He moved on and found another closet full of boxes. These were sealed with a plastic wrap, but there was no auxiliary power system visible.
There’s got to be a communication device somewhere.
He returned to the console and found a diagram framed on the nearby wall. It appeared to be a network of underground tunnels connecting bunkers. An annotated alphanumerical system designated this bunker HB11. Several others had similar designations, but there were also two unique identifiers, YO and SP. The HB might be for hibernation, but he had no clue what YO or SP might represent, nor could he guess how to access the network of tunnels.
As he stared at the tunnel map, memorizing the layout, he imagined all the places he could travel to and the places he might visit. What kind of facilities were at each stop along the way? Maybe someday he will find out.
He examined some instruments on the console which still had power. The computer system seemed functional, but there wasn’t any written material or operable viewscreen that could offer him instructions.
The instruments were as complicated as a spaceship’s and when he attempted to patch into the AI system, he heard a noise.
He held his breath.
Is someone coming?
A humming sound continued from a device in the next room. He must have activated it with his random actions. The machine was marked with English letters and symbols that indicated it was a medical treatment apparatus. He could read several tags on the valves and dials and guessed it was a rejuvenation machine. It took several minutes to surmise how it would work.
I’ve got to try this.
He climbed naked into the rejuvenation tub and opened a faucet. Synth-fluid and hot medicated elixirs filled the vat. Setting the timer for two hours, he lingered while the potions treated his many superficial ailments.
A shame this can’t cure my disease.
He relaxed during the treatment while it invigorated his frail body.
He dragged his body about and toured the bunker, returning to the original room. The flashlight shone on dozens of forsaken hibernation chambers. There was a twin room across the hall, but it too had become a graveyard.
A tragedy. I should commemorate them . . . later.
He considered revisiting the closets and the locked doors, but that could wait.
He looked for more water.
The next decision would be critical for his survival. He wanted to use the rejuvenation machine while he restored the power and computer systems, but how long would that take? He had no food or water.
Besides, even though he had been a computer whiz, this equipment was far beyond his expertise.
Questions exploded in his head like a string of fireworks.
Should I stay here? Should I go exploring?
Running his fingers through his long shaggy hair, he concluded there was no choice.
Putting on the coveralls and boots, he stuffed computer instruments and tools into his cargo pockets. He filled a backpack with survival items and even though it was heavy, he was chafing to get started.
Where are the people?
“I’ve never seen a sky like this,” said Youngblood, as he climbed out of the bunker’s hatch.
His eyes took a moment to adjust to the bright sun peeking between a few windswept clouds.
“Noon,” he mused and let the hatch drop down.
Birds flew overhead, and a glimpse of motion alerted him to a nearby rodent, but there were no roads or worn paths visible.
“There’s life, but where are the people?”
Originally, he had been placed in hibernation in California’s Stanford Hospital. He had no idea where he was now, but it stood to reason he shouldn’t be too very far away.
He surveyed the landscape around him. To the east, he saw a prominent hill rising about a mile away. It was surrounded by scrub brush poking out between a few scattered pine trees.
“Hmm . . . a good vantage point.”
He swung around and noticed similar regions to the north and south.
But things were far different to the west.
Where the sky kissed the horizon, blue turned into a mosaic of red, brown, and purple swirls, and the silhouette of a city’s barebone skeleton rose in the distance like a faraway mirage.
An acidic stench of smoke and ash invaded his nostrils forcing him to cover his mouth to suppress a spasmodic cough. A brownish yellow haze floated on the hot dry air and dark soot settled on his coveralls.
His mouth could barely speak the words, “I can’t believe they actually did it.”
A single tear ran down his cheek as he brushed the barren residual ash off his clothes.
Anyway, it’s better to die in a flash . . . than suffocate.
He licked his lips and swallowed to relieve his parched throat.
His fear . . . Where are the people?
Became . . . Are there people?
Swinging the backpack over his shoulder, he faced east and started forward. A slight cooling breeze sent him on his way as he marched toward the hill. He walked only a few hundred yards before he had to stop and rest. The process repeated itself until his muscles cramped and screamed. He wiped the perspiration off his forehead with his sleeve as he passed areas of dead trees and fall branches. He remained alert for a flash of color, or movement, or any sign of smoke.
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