The dusty car slowed to a stop over the faded lines in the parking lot. When was the last time he had a visitor? A week, a month, a year? It did not matter. The lot had spaces for eight cars but the only time it had more than one in it was when his replacement came in. Always waiting for the call.
Twelve hours on, twelve off, two weeks at a time followed by two weeks off. It was not a bad gig, just a little lonely. Maybe a little boring at times. That boredom was a little more intense right now since George, his normal replacement, was on leave. Rather than switch out crews it was just easier for him to stay on duty the whole time. Back to back twenty-four hour shifts were no problem. He turned up the audible warning in the vault, no one could sleep through that, not even Bill.
The main mission was to wait for The Call, but meanwhile there were the other duties as assigned. Validating the comms, computers, and phones of most units on the whole base. Sporadic at times meant slow at times. In fact, it was slow most of the time.
Looking over the car the hill dropped off into a forest. A short distance away was the beach with the glistening water reflecting the early morning sun. Turning back to the building he headed in. To either side of the lot were steel and concrete fighting positions, two more completed the perimeter circle on the back side of the building. As he headed to the door he glanced at the large metal doors to the south. One blew partially open then closed with a bang in the slight breeze atop the hill. The bays obscured the view to the west. As the door swung open again, this time further, he could see the meter high weeds growing in the cracks of the asphalt inside. Long gone were the vehicles set up for advanced preparation. Deterrence, protection, time-wasting, all things that had been done from this location. All while waiting for the call.
Grime covered the window to the door. No one cleaned the building anymore, the last contract for housekeeping services had expired and not been replaced at least three years before. The poorly lit hallway inside beckoned. Radio and antenna parts were strewn about the office to the left while the empty room across the hall remained vacant. Most of the building looked the same. Computer parts, dismantled server racks, phone handsets, and various other communication equipment were arranged in non-homogenous piles at strategic intervals throughout the building. The classified comms room was the only location that mattered. No one let it get dirty. The trash was taken out, the floor swept and mopped, it was seen dusted once a week by the watchers on the hill.
No one would call it esprit de corps. At least not any more. It once was. Before he retired. Back in the day when this place was really manned. Fifteen years before units rotated every month. A different firing battery from three battalions of air defense artillery. They set up shop and conducted exercises while waiting on the call.
The Patriot and later Stinger missile systems parked and deployed inside the bays. Hidden from prying eyes, radar detection, and even First Sergeants, the soldiers acted just like they were in the field. The fighting positions outside were leftovers from that time. Back when the weeds were trimmed, the walls were bright, and the windows glistened like the water behind him. The heyday of the facility, when the expectation of the call was greater and the enemy known.
Then the wars started. One battalion deployed, another moved permanently. The last one deactivated ten years ago. By then the civilians had come in.
As the last platoon sergeant from the last battery before deactivation Bill Patrick had the inside line on the job. It was no surprise he got it. The surprise was that he was still here a decade later. Still waiting on the same call.
A stack of laptops in the vault waited to be validated. These were headed to DRMO for disposal or re-sale. Wipe the hard drives, remove the encryption, then shift them to the side and wait until they were all done to bring them down the hill. A mindless, simple task to do by rote. Hours on end.
So he did. For an hour, maybe two. It mattered not. Then he heard the sound.
He paused and heard it again.
Putting down the screwdriver he was using to remove the hard drives he cocked his head to one side. There it was again. It was like the sound of the bay door banging, and yet different. Without hurrying he headed for the door. Absent-mindedly without even thinking he locked the vault door and walked toward the bays.
A lock secured the sliding bolt but he had the keys. The door opened onto a raised deck with a post and chain for the guardrail. Concrete steps led down to the weed filled asphalt below. He saw the door swinging. Open and shut with a bang. Open and shut with a bang. But that was not the noise. As if to verify this time the noise happened while the door swung open.
He hurried down the stairs and to the big metal door. Pushing it open he heard the noise again. Three fast steps and he was at the corner of the building. Where he could see the smoke.
Smoke rose to the south and west of his building. Flames consumed trees directly south but the building was in no danger. Another explosion appeared in the vicinity of the flames. Without thinking his old training kicked in.
Ducking down he scampered in the direction of the far fighting position. Dead leaves and thick mold covered the floor and walls as he slipped inside and cautiously poked his head above the wall to see through the slits. There were no planes overhead, so the shelling must be from artillery, but the impact area was in the opposite direction from where the explosions kept coming.
Listening now he could hear a lone vehicle headed up the long drive. Too deep-throated a noise to be his replacement, clearly it was a military truck. Probably with troops on board. Minimizing his profile he again ducked until he could just barely see through the slits. The engine got louder as the truck crested the hill. In the back was at least two squads of PDRA soldiers. He was unarmed and unprepared for any action. There was still at least a minute before the truck got to the top of the hill.
Exiting the bunker he sprinted to the door. Each step seemed slower than the one before as if in a dream. He opened the door and fumbled for the keys to lock it. How many doors were on this building? At least three plus the bays. But the bays were all bolted and padlocked. Running to the far end of the hall he could hear his heart pounding.
Another explosion sounded down the hill and a window blew in from the blast. The truck noise was as clear as the fact that locking the doors would not stop anyone. Abandoning the plan to lock the doors, he ran out the back door.
The grass was tall and dry. It had not rained in weeks. To his left was another fighting position with a view of the road circling up from the bottom. Ten years was a long time but he kept the roof of the position between him and the opening in the trees as he sprinted to the right for a copse of trees. They were not much, but they had grown up in the last decade. He dove into them and turned with the thickest tree to his back and glanced up the hill. The truck rounded the last turn but he only had a glimpse of it before the building blocked his view. He turned and ran as fast as he dared until he lost his footing and slid.
Rolling down he caught himself and scrambled behind another tree to look up the hill. His boots left a long gash but at this point the only way they would see it would be if they were already looking for him. His breath was fast and raged and his heart was still pounding. From here he could not see either the road or the building. It was as safe and hidden as he could get. Pulling out his cellphone he unlocked it.
Carrying it into the vault was frowned upon but not explicitly illegal. It was the closest thing he had to a weapon. A weapon with no ammunition, there was no signal on this side of the hill. Gunfire sounded from the top of the hill. Just the sound of discharge, no thud or thunk to indicate something had been hit. Soldiers that had never known combat thrilled with a victory blowing off steam. No more than a few rounds, probably straight in the air.
As the sound died off Bill could again hear his own heartbeat. He lay back against the hill to wait for it to quiet down but turned his head to look up at the hill. Ten years and he gave it up without so much as a fight.
Another wave of nausea and dry heaves racked Groh’s body in the dark bunker. The bile and fear flavor had numbed his senses to the point he simply shook. Whimpering he drooled. His training had not been for this, others were the killers. The strategic, ten thousand foot level stuff was his forte. But as debilitated as he was there was still training engrained in him. Feeling along the floor his fingers slipped through vomit. Then across untouched floor to the base of the wall unit. He pulled himself to his knees nearly hitting his head on the shelf that jutted out. Still, there was a familiarity with the equipment and a skill from repeated training.
The location of this bunker was secret. No one knew it existed. The contents of the bunker were classified. No one knew what the bunker that failed to exist contained. No one knew the mission or the significance of the equipment here or on the hill it was connected to. And no one knew Groh was here. Well, few at least. A very select few, numbering in the single digits.
Reaching for the switch he turned on the radio. Even without power the battery held enough for a warm green glow to emanate. Just enough to light the inside of the bunker. There was a knob, but only one station was hard-wired in. Groh turned the stiff knob to the right position and reached for the mike. Allowing himself a smile he spoke, “Hill, this is Groh, come in, over.”
A pregnant pause turned into silent response. No static, no squelch, and no response. He called again, “Hill, this is Groh. Come in. Report, over.”
On the hill ebullient boys tossed computers around the room. In another room radios smashed against the wall. In the vault a single red light blinked while a needle moved. But the boys could not enter the vault. Instead they smashed what little there was. The kitchen was trashed, the remaining rooms of the nearly abandoned building were already half dirty. No one had cleaned them in years and now the dust and mold was stirred only by carousing soldiers celebrating an empty victory.
A gust of wind shook the aerial. The large metal door again broke loose and clanged against the wall. The celebration stopped. Those near their weapons grabbed them and crouched. The rest scurried like rats to where they had set their ow weapons down.
Outside the windows the trees shook, then hard, heavy drops of rain began to patter against the walls and roof. A gust blew open the door as a soldier was about to exit in search of the sound that was the door. Instead a bolt of lighting struck the lone car in the lot temporarily blinding and deafening him. As he fell back the fury of the storm took hold.
Down the hill Bill knew he was in trouble. There was no shelter beside the tree. Frantically searching the hills he looked for anything. A gust of wind blew a branch off the tree behind him and carried it away. As the rain began to fall the thick carpet of leaves and pine straw muffled the drops. They would become slick shortly so Bill crouched again, preparing to skirt around the hill further. Not sure where he was going he groped blindly in the stiff breeze and pounding rain.
The clouds had darkened the sky but the lightning briefly lit the forest. He was paralleling the hill now, not daring to go back up but still too scared to go down. Then, on the south side he saw a clearing. A clearing and a decrepit old pavilion. Long ago a tree had fallen and taken out the uphill side of the pavilion. Downhill was a brick barbecue grill. Not safe from the storm, but it was at least out of the rain. He ran for the shelter as rain continued to drench him.
Three paces from the end his foot found a hole. He fell, stumbling foot stuck in the hole. Pain shot up his leg to his hip as he skinned his hands on the ground. Rolling over he tugged. Using both hands he pulled his leg and now useless foot from the hole. Pulling himself along he slid the remaining few feet to the edge of the shelter.
Bill pulled himself in pushing with his good leg while the other throbbed. Catching his breath he surveyed his surroundings. The ground had been leveled and gravel added but no concrete flooring. Two picnic tables with attached benches were still beneath but mold, mushrooms, and rot had compromised their structural integrity. The whole pavilion was a 20’ by 10’ rectangle but being out of the rain was still a comfort. There were leaks and drips but near the grill he found a spot of relative dryness.
The grill was large, five or so feet wide and well ventilated. The grill itself was rusted and falling, some of the mortar had crumbled as well. The cubby below the grill had been intended for firewood or charcoal but was mostly full of leaves and dirt. With nothing better to do he dug it out. It was a big grill and when he had cleaned as much of the debris out as he could he was able to pull himself in for a bit more relief from the storm.
Being on this side of the hill he pulled out his phone. It was weak, but there was a signal here. One bar, but better than none. He punched in his relief George’s number. George had left the island for a vacation but he might still have his phone handy. Dialing, connecting, still connecting. Bill noticed the E next to the weak antenna signal. Enterprise network. That did not bode well for a call connecting. He gave it a solid minute then quit. Opening his browser he checked the weather.
It was not unheard of for a drought to be ended in a deluge. This, though, was quite another story. With nothing better to do and nowhere to go to do it Bill browsed the weather sites. From seemingly nowhere this storm had blown up and rapidly became one of the fastest growing, slowing moving hurricanes to appear. The hurricane season had not even opened yet but here it was. Blowing and dripping causing destruction on the tiny island nation.
Taking a break from his weather search Bill looked around. Trees bent and waved, branches broke, debris whirled below him on the hill. While it did not make a bit of difference to Bill where it headed next he searched for that, too. Most of the models had it moving on towards Florida then off harmless into the Atlantic but Bill’s amateur status of meteorological predictions told him a different story. To Bill it appeared to be headed deep into the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps headed to New Ixeveh itself. Long had the town been worried about their levee system, this could be the big one that overtopped them all.
Alas, before his prediction could be finalized the screen went blank. The wind whistled through the gap in the grill as the rain pelted the rusted roof of the pavilion. Dead battery.
“It can’t be,” Groh whined in the lonely darkness of his precious bunker. Literally years of planning had gone into making sure that the exact thing happening now would not happen. No one had anticipated an attack, but under no circumstances was there ever to be a lapse in communication that would allow any emergency to go on here that was not sent on to the Hill, and to those who needed to know. And yet, there it was. Turning in the dimly lit bunker, Groh looked for the door. He didn’t want to walk through his vomit, or the blood, and definitely did not want to again touch the former human life he had eliminated with his own two hands not just in close range but by physical contact. Extinguishing and eliminating the life of another. But he had to get out. Claustrophobia was not a problem he had, but knowing the bunker was sealed made his collar feel tight around his neck.
Slowly he shuffled toward the door without picking up his feet. He reached the hinge before his foot stopped. It was him. Deep breath and he leaned over to reach for the knob. He had deliberately not spun the knob when he came in so it should remain open. Reaching for the lever he hit the knob. The slight click echoed, not just in the bunker, but in Groh’s memory. It was pointless now but he still tried. Sure enough, he had locked himself in. He strained his ears to listen for any sound outside or even the whir of electric fans that would mean the ventilation system was on, but nothing. Just the sound of one man’s panic.
The sound of a truck accelerating woke Bill. He had no idea how long he had slept, or even when he fell asleep. From the sound of it the truck was going downhill. Slowly. He maneuvered his head to see outside. Louder and louder the truck noise grew. Until he saw it.
Without moving his head the truck entered his field of view. Eight men in the back, but he could not tell how many in the cab. The road was 75 meters away through thick forest and downhill but the storm had knocked over trees and cleared out branches. If they were looking closely he would be spotted, not moving was his only defense.
None of the soldiers looked his way. They were too busy clearing the road of trees. Only enough for their vehicle to get by it seemed. Finally, the truck disappeared around the corner but the sounds of the slow movement went on for another half hour. Only then did Bill begin the long walk back up.