The trouble with searching out and opening old fallout shelters was that you were never sure what you were going to find. Sometimes they'd never been used. Sometimes they were empty, and the one in the back blocks of Somersby that had been completely empty, even of dust, had been straight out creepy. Esel had heard the stories, they all had, of places in North America and northern Eurasia where they'd found bunkers concealed under bunkers, and going down for kilometres. Sometimes there had been people in there, it was best when it was clear they'd chosen to open up and leave when it had become safe outside, and sometimes their preparations hadn't been enough. Last year a search team in Mosman had found an unbreached bunker that still had people inside it; Esel had been told that they were adjusting to Now very slowly.
This bunker, the one Esel was looking for now, was mentioned in a list the archive divers had found in a bunch of documents from the False War. Esel couldn't have stood to do that job herself, but she was glad that someone was prepared to go through the desiccated papers left in official buildings and glean the gems of clues that led to stashes of unvaried treasures and fresh bloodlines. The latter was important; because each of her grandparents had come from a different bunker, Esel was considered to be a blood relative of seventy-five percent of people on the east coast between Yamba and Eden. Sometimes the people who were found were....difficult, but most were happy to find that the world above their heads wasn't dead, and that there was no maniacal overlord in charge.
Occasionally you heard about one who was disappointed that there was no maniacal overlord and a distinct lack of mutated monsters, but Esel had been lucky enough not to meet someone like that. She hoped that her luck was going to hold.
The paperwork had talked about two levels of an underground carpark being sealed off and fitted out, so Esel's first task had been to work out where the papers had been talking about. Now she'd done that, and trekked for two days with her equipment to get to the hillside in question, the next thing she'd needed to do was find where the carpark and its entrances had been. The ruins of the buildings left on the site didn't seem unusually large, and Esel wondered why a building of that size had warranted a four floor carpark in the first place. Of course, if it had been built just before the False War, then it would have been after the three years of continuous solar storms - her history classes had taught her that those had made people very conscious of underground safe spaces.
There was one exit/entrance to the underground levels, and Esel checked it carefully for traps, both deliberate and incidental. Sometimes the people who retreated into a shelter made it hard for people to after them. Sometimes natural wear and tear just left a big piece of concrete ready to fall on the head of the first passer-by. She didn't find traps, she didn't find tracks, but she did find an area that looked like someone had been trying to conceal the signs of their passage. Dirt didn't sit like that on its own, someone had been brushing at it.
Esel went for a walk to find the local creek, and then she had a look along it to find out where and what had been drinking from it.
Her second approach to the building was from the slope above, and this time she was looking for vantage points. The one she would have picked to keep watch on the valley hadn't been used. The one she would have used for overwatch of the site had a smell of urine off to one side, but from there she could see the beginning of tracks leading from the old driveway off to the creek and into the stands of tall, straight trees that stood on the slope just above the ruins.
Someone was around, and she didn't think it was someone like her, part of Survivors Network Alliance. It could have been an independent, they existed and tended to be a bit weird, but this person didn't seem to have their usual level of bushcraft - she wouldn't have expected someone like that to have let those tracks even begin to show. If it was a newly emerged bunker dweller, then it wasn't really Esel's skill set; ideally, she'd go and get someone else who was good at dealing with those issues. On the other hand, she didn't want this person to die of something before anyone could make contact with them.
The questions were, where were they right now and what did they think of other people?
The answer to the first turned out to be waiting at the bottom of her route down from the lookout spot, with a crossbow. Which he looked quite prepared to use on her. Esel raised her hands to show that they were empty. She said, "Hello."
He was skinny, and slightly sunburnt, with evidence that the sunburn had been worse. His voice sounded rough as if unused, "Who are you? A Monegasque?"
Esel recalled from her history classes that Monaco had spent the False War telling a lot of people not to be stupid. She replied, "Uh, no. My name's Esel, and my grandparents came out of the bunkers at Blackheath, Jenolan, Armidale, and Bungendore."
He seemed diverted, and asked, "There was a bunker at Bungendore?"
"Of course there was. If you're interested, Monaco is sort of busy helping Gibraltar and Verona sort out southern Europe and its cybertank problem." Esel tried smiling.
The crossbow didn't move. "So why are you here?"
"I look for lost shelters and bunkers. It's safe to come out now, but lots of shelters don't have any way of telling, and some of them have all sorts of broken mechanisms." Esel smiled again, "So I'm sort of a rescue and salvage service. Your place came up when some of our people did a search through some old planning paperwork." He didn't move so she asked, "Where's everyone else?"
"I'm the only one." He snarled. " The last of the others died of appendicitis - that's supposed to be fixable, but I couldn't save him. Where were you, rescuer?"
"I have known that there might be something up here for five days, and a day of that was spent figuring out where here was. Then it took me two days to walk here. I think I was given a copy of the paperwork the day after the archive divers found it." Esel added cautiously, "I'm sorry about your kinsman, and everyone you lost before that, but we simply don't know so much - particularly when people's ancestors were trying to hide." He didn't say anything, so she asked, "Was losing him why you came out?"
"I went down first, to the lower level," he said flatly. "We were supposed to be guarding them, but when I cracked the hatch, down there was empty. They were all gone too."
"I'm so sorry." In a way this was worse than finding a bunker where everyone had suffocated, starved, or died of disease years ago. "Could you tell from the bodies what went wrong?"
"There weren't any bodies. Anywhere." He looked puzzled and the aim of the crossbow dropped a few inches. "We buried our dead in the garden until their soft tissues were gone and then moved the bones into the ossuary, but there should still have been one set of bones somewhere else, shouldn't there?"
"I'd expect so," replied Esel, "but they could have chosen to die in the ossuary. I've heard stranger things. Would you like me to help you check?"
"Yes, let's." He gestured with the crossbow for Esel start moving towards the ruins, but the thoughtful expression on his face made her think that he didn't mean to be threatening. She was walking back in front of him and he said, "You can put your hands down, but please, don't do attack me because I will shoot you if you do."
Esel replied, "Fair enough," dropped her hands to her sides and kept walking. All the time she was thinking, "I'm probably doing this all wrong. It's all my fault if there's tears before bedtime."
She stopped when she got to the carpark entrance. Behind her he asked, "Why have you stopped?"
"Because this is the entrance to your home, and I'm a visitor." She turned in place and smiled at him. "Besides, quite aside from the good manners thing, I don't know the way from here."
"I'm sorry, that didn't occur to me." He scrunched up his face and asked, "Is there anything else that I might have missed? Meeting people wasn't something-. Well you're the first new person I've ever met."
"Unless you don't want me to know it for some reason, you could tell me your name," offered Esel. "I did tell you mine, but I understand that there might be reasons that you don’t want to share yours."
"I can see that would be a thing to do," he said gravely. "My use name is Charl."
"Please to meet you, Charl," Esel replied equally gravely. "So, where to from here?"
The answer was down. First around the debris throughout the first parking level, down the ramp to the second level where they needed to use torches, and then across to a stairwell in a corner. Charl opened a locked door concealed by a fire cabinet in the stairwell wall, and then they went down another level after Charl had locked the door behind them. He unlocked the door at the bottom of the stairs, and ushered Esel in.
It was a concrete bunker, like a lot of such things that Esel had been in. There were lights on, which became brighter when Charl flicked a switch, and there were background hums from both lights and air circulators. "This is our place, mine now, I suppose. Jerom and I were the last two on this level, but we always believed the others were still down below. But when I went down there...."
Esel sniffed, then inhaled deeply. "Your air's good, " she commented. She was interested in his power plant too, but that sort of information might be more than he wanted to hand out.
"Thank you," he took it as a compliment. "Perhaps you'd like to see around up here later? I'm sorry if it's rude, but I'd really like to see if I missed anything when I was down below before. The entrance is like the one upstairs, but the first generation put seals on it to stop anyone opening it without good reason. It took me three days to get through them when I decided to ask for help." He opened the fire cabinet that matched the one of the floor above, and revealed another door, this one with the remains of reverse biohazard seals around the edges. "I don't know what the design on the seals means, if it means anything."
"It means that they thought whatever or whoever was on the other side of the door needed to be protected from this side," Esel told him. "I think one of the things they were worried about back then was biological attacks, but I was always taught that they didn't happen."
"So, all of this, five generations down here, was for nothing?" Charl looked around sadly.
"I didn't say that," pointed out Esel. "Lots of bad things happened that made being in a place like this a sensible idea. Just not a biological attack, and a few years after I think your people locked themselves away. Besides, the trick was to be undercover in time. I've seen more than enough of these places that never got used because the people who knew about them died first."
"Oh," Charl looked a bit better. "Knowing that actually helps. Thank you. I locked the doors again, it's probably silly but...."
"No, it's not silly," replied Esel, as she stepped out of the way so he could unlock the door. "There's a lot to be said for keeping your routine ticking over while you cope with big changes, and if part of that is having certain doors in your home locked, well, why not?" She could think of a couple of other reasons to keep the doors to the lower level locked, but there was no reason to give Charl uneasy thoughts if he didn't need them.
They went through the door, and down the stairs in silence to the door at the bottom. Charl opened it and said, "This is how I found it. Dust and everything."
Esel looked down and saw footprints in the dust on the floor, one set going and one set coming back. There was less dust in the stair well than there was on this floor. "So, you've just been down here the once, right?"
"Oh, yes." He nodded solemnly. "I did a circuit and went back upstairs." He stepped through the door and toggled the light switch. "I'll show you where I went, and then you can suggest anywhere else we should look."
"Okay." Esel stepped out of the stairwell to stand beside him, and take a sniff of the air. "This is certainly mustier than on your floor. Show me what there is to see?"
Charl took her on a tour of the lower floor, and showed her where he'd been on his earlier trip downstairs. There was only ever the one set of footprints in the dust in front of them. Under the dust, Esel couldn't make out any signs of wear or use. The dormitories were empty of personal items. There were no ornaments or decoration other than a few murals on common area walls. Finally, they walked through the entry pantry into the kitchen, and Esel got Charl's permission to open the cupboards and drawers. They were empty.
"That's strange," said Charl slowly. "I mean, the pantry would be empty if they ran out of food, but what did they cook and eat with? There's nothing here."
Esel looked around and asked, "Is there anywhere we haven't been yet? A doctor's office, the garden, the ossuary?"
Looking worried, Charl said, "This way. Uh, Esel, my experience has all been here, but this isn't adding up, is it?"
"It's not telling the story you were told," agreed Esel. In her mind she added, "Assuming you've been telling me the truth as you knew it." To Charl she went on, "That doesn't mean it doesn't add up to something."
The equivalent of the sick room on Charl's floor was empty of everything but built in furniture, and the storage space in that was empty. In the garden room, a space that must have taken up a quarter of the floor if the two car park floors were a useful guide, the growing lights were off, the hydroponic tanks and lines were dry, and Charl pronounced the contents of the soil tubs to be, "Dust, just heavy dust."
Looking down at the dusty floor, Esel checked, "Charl, you didn't come in here before, did you?"
He looked up at her from the tub that should have been full of soil. "No. Why?"
"So, you didn't turn off the growing lights, they were never on." They looked at each other for a moment, then Esel said quietly, "Let's check the ossuary, shall we?"
When Charl opened the room, it was empty, except for settled dust. He turned to Esel, swallowed hard and said, "I was beginning to expect this, but what's going on? Did the First Generation lie to the Second? If they didn't, where did everybody go?"
Esel looked around the ossuary. "I have to say, if they came down here, then they didn't stay. If anything, they took everything that wasn't nailed down with them. The question is where would they go?" She walked around the inside of the room, and commented, "If there's any sort of exit it, either it has to be through a wardrobe or under a bed in the dormitories, or here. If it's here, then it can't be in the walls because they're not thick enough. Where ever it is, it might be powered but there must be a manual option in case the power goes off. It can't be in the ceiling because we know what's overhead, and there isn't room."
"That leaves the floor," said Charl quietly.
"It does," agreed Esel. "Can you turn the lights down again, please?"
Three tiles making the points of a large, segment-shaped triangle on the floor fluoresced in the returned near darkness. Presumably they’d had the lights turned up just long enough to trigger the fluorescence.
Esel knelt down beside the two points closest together, and pressed on the far edge of one of the tiles, and it flipped up. She repeated the process on the other glowing tile next to her and it did the same thing. She looked at Charl, and asked, "Could you please go around to the other tile and press down on it while I push?"
Charl walked around the room to kneel beside the third tile. As he pushed down on it he asked, "What are we doing?"
Esel pushed forward on the two upright tiles, and a large, round section of the floor slid smoothly away from her and under the floor beneath Charl's knees. There was a round, yellow-bronze disc about two metres across set in to a concave section of concrete below the floor level. What appeared to be lucite threads glowed in the concrete. "Finding out where the people you've been guarding went. Down there, it seems."
"How do we get it open?" Charl looked at her eagerly.
"We don't." Esel looked at the man deflate like a kicked puppy. "They're designed to only open from the inside. I've only seen one of these before, and that's the one at Bungendore. I've seen pictures of three more, and one of those is still sealed. Whoever your ancestors were with, they had some very high-grade hardware, and we need to worry about whether they had the defensive systems to go with it."
Charl asked, "What do you plan to do?
"Take you, and everything of yours we can carry, a safe distance from here so I can call for help. Some of the people I work with might be able to contact the people down below and convince them to come out." Esel hope Charl was going to agree. She really hoped that he hadn't been lying to her, about anything.
The thin man looked dubious. "What sort of defensive systems?"
"The sort that send hunter/killer drones after anyone using a radio within a kilometre of the bunker entrance," hissed Esel. "The sort that have sortie entrances for their drones, and other cyber units. Can we please go right now? I suspect there are 'safety features' in this room and I really don't want to trigger one."
Charl looked around carefully. "Oh, shit."