THE SOUND OF SILENCE
David Culver sat at the desk and picked up the mouthpiece to the small ham radio. "Hello...Hello. My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for Vault-tec. If anyone can hear me, please respond." He sat back and waited for an answer as the radio crackled dumbly back at him.
How long had it been since the bombs had fallen? Four days? A week? Longer? David didn't know anymore. He scratched his chin as he waited for a response, his fingers rasping through the hair that was growing there. He had shaved the morning the bombs fell, hadn't he? Given the growth, he guessed it had been less than a week. But how could he be sure? He had never neglected to shave for more than a day before, so really had no idea how much time it would take to reach its current length.
He tried the radio again, to no avail. Eventually he got up and left the small prefab office, little more than a plasterboard box with a door, and walked to the mouth of the cave. He looked across the miles between at the smoldering remains of Denver, Colorado. The city had been hit by several missiles and was now a smoking ruin.
He had found the natural cave weeks before, and had his office installed there as he explored the cave system and planned the installation of the latest vault. Culver had always preferred to be alone as he worked, but always on site too, it helped him to visualize as he designed. This vault was to be his finest achievement. It would have been fantastic. The caves sprawled for miles under the mountains and if they were able to tap the natural hot springs running deep underground, this had the potential to be one of the most luxurious vaults ever constructed. The huge natural caverns would provide space for huge auditoriums, exercise areas and dormitories, Culver had even toyed with the idea of a theatre.
Of course none of that would ever happen now, David reflected. The human race had finally killed itself; he just hoped that enough people had made it into the vaults that already existed. They were the key to the future now; it would be up to them to rebuild the world. Of course David had heard the rumors that the vaults were really to be used to experiment on people, but that was just insane. The vaults were the best shot humanity had if the bombs ever fell; nobody was crazy or stupid enough to jeopardize that. Were they?
David ran his dark brown eyes over the horizon once more, nothing moved, not even a bird in the dirty sky. The mushroom clouds that had hung above the city appeared to have dispersed over the last few days, but the dust they were made from seemed to have spread, covering everything Culver could see in a brownish/grey film of dust. The dust would be extremely radioactive, Culver thought, once again wishing he had bought a Geiger counter with him. It was too late for such reflections though. He had no supplies that would be useful outside the caves.
David sighed and returned to his office.
He reached under his' desk and pulled the cool-box under there forward. He flipped the lid off and plunged his hand into the shadows within. After he had pulled out a full bottle of water he shoved his arm back into the box and began frantically rummaging around inside. The full bottle couldn't be the last one, could it? Of course it couldn't, David had bought plenty of water with him, a dozen bottles. He had bought them the last time he had visited the town. The last time he had visited the town... How long ago had that been? To distract himself from his thoughts David reached over and picked up the radios' mouthpiece again.
"Hello...Hello. My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for Vault-tec. If anyone can hear me, please respond." Culver twisted the cap from his' water and sat back, listening to the reply that didn't come.
Culver jerked awake once more and stared at the mouthpiece sitting on the desk. Had someone just spoken? Could it have been a human voice, or was it just static? Worse still, could it have been David's imagination? He lunged across the desk and snatched up the small piece of black plastic and depressed the button on the side, holding it to his mouth. "Hello...Hello, please repeat. I am here, I missed you just then. If you are there then please repeat." David sat back anxiously staring at the speaker, willing a voice to come forth. Once again the only sound he could hear was the steady hiss of static. He put his face in his hands and ran his fingers through his increasingly greasy hair.
He picked up his last half bottle of water and took a small sip. How much longer would this bottle last? How long had it lasted already? He was sure it had been a while since he had opened it, but there was no way he could be sure. He hadn't ventured as far as the mouth of the cave again; the better to avoid the radiation, so he had no idea when it was day or night, or how many days had passed since he had last gone that far. He had a small clock mounted in his office, the hands still rotating meaninglessly round the face. He also had a small battery operated lantern for exploring the caves, but this sat lifeless on the desk to David's right. In order to save the batteries Culver had instead opted to sit in the dark with only the radio for company.
The only light in the small room came from the dial on the front of the radio, the one that told David what bandwidth he was currently using. He had spent the first few days winding the dial from one end to the other and back again pausing every few seconds to talk into the mouthpiece. After this failed David switched back to the frequency he had used to contact his people in the city. He had no illusions that he would contact his boss, or that he would contact Mary, the fetching young blonde that had been so keen to help, bringing Culver supplies whenever he needed them. His reasoning was that if others were likewise trawling through frequencies then if he sat on just the one, eventually they were bound to make contact. This hadn't worked so far, but Culver had been sure it was only a matter of time. Of course time was one thing he was rapidly running out of.
David wracked his brain, he had definitely heard something. It must have been the radio. He had explored the caves extensively and found nothing there. He seriously doubted that he was hearing survivors entering the caves; in fact he doubted there even were survivors who could make the journey. Denver had been pulverised, demolished even. Nobody could survive that blasted ruin and approach his position. As far as David Culver was concerned the entire world had been reduced to him and his radio.
He picked up the small service revolver from his briefcase and looked at it in the near darkness. He turned it over in his hands, feeling the reassuring weight of it. He'd hated the thing at first; Mary had insisted he keep it though. "You never know when you'll run into a bear or something Mr Culver, and if anything happens to you then I'm out of a job." She had pouted at him. He'd told himself he'd kept it to humour her. But now he was here, with only himself for company he admitted that it had been a half hearted attempt to get in her panties. He imagined it now, him the big game hunter standing over the corpse of a bear the next time she came out to drop supplies. Her falling into his arms. Culver chuckled dryly to himself. There was no chance of any of that now.
But still, he turned the pistol over again, watching what light there was catching the angles of the gun, it could still serve a purpose. David Culver wasn't going to die of dehydration.
In order to break this train of thought Culver picked up the mouthpiece and recited the words that were becoming his own personal mantra. "Hello...Hello, My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for vault-tec. If you can hear my voice please respond."
"Hello…Hello," Culver sobbed into the small, black plastic mouthpiece "My name is David Culver…..Please….Please respond. I have run out of water…I'm not sure how much longer I can hold on for." He sat at his desk, his upper body sprawled across its once polished surface. His face lay against the desktop, the wood squashing his left cheek flat and contorting his features into a strange caricature. Inches from his face, directly in front of his eyes sat an empty bottle, his last bottle. Beside that sat the pistol. David wept as he looked at them.
He was going to do it. He had decided, he was going to end his own life. David had thought long and hard about this decision, he had thought of little else since drinking the last of his water. He was surprised at just how much starvation and lonely isolation could focus the mind. He would try the radio one last time. If he had no success then he would use the pistol.
He was still sobbing as he reached out for the mouthpiece once more. Stop crying, He thought to himself, you're wasting water. "Can't afford to lose water now David." He said to himself in a stern, admonishing tone. "Can't drink the tears to put the water back either, too much salt in the water that way. It'd drive you crazy."
He depressed the button and held the small piece of plastic to his lips again. "Hello…Hello. My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for vault-tec. If you can hear my voice then please…Please respond. My water supply has run out. Respond." David's voice was getting steadily louder as he spoke into the mouthpiece. "Respond or I am going to kill myself. I mean it." He snatched up the pistol and waved it in front of the radio's dial. "See, you see that? I've got a gun. I'll use it too. Respond. Respond." He bellowed the last word.
The radio simply sat there, static hissing impassively through the speaker. No answer was coming. No voice was going to speak. David culver was all alone. He picked up the pistol and placed the muzzle against his temple.
Are you sure? A voice within Culver's head asked.
"Of course I'm sure." David cried back. "I'm going to die anyway. I'm out of water. What's the alternative? Die of thirst? Stomach cramps, nausea, hallucinations? Fuck that."
Ok pal. Your' funeral. But you're missing something. The voice sounded smug as it said this.
"What?" Culver pleaded "What am I missing? Please tell me." He shrieked at the darkness.
Culver listened, willing his ears to hear whatever it was the voice wanted him to hear. There was no sound other than the familiar static hiss of the radio. "There's nothing there," he wailed, "Just the radio and me, nothing else."
Well if you're sure of that then you had better get on with it.
Culver took the pistol away from his temple and shoved the barrel into his mouth. He took a final look at the radio and began to squeeze the trigger. He paused. The voice had been right; there was another sound, another hissing. Where was it coming from? He pulled the pistol out of his mouth and looked frantically around the office. There was nothing in there that could possibly be making that noise. The door.
David reached across his office and pulled the door open a few inches. The hissing sound became a dull roaring. Alongside this David could hear a constant pattering, as if hundreds of mice were scampering past. It took Culver a few seconds to place the sound. It was rain.
Culver snatched up his lantern and snapped it on. He stumbled through the door holding the small light aloft. The ring of illumination was smaller than it had been the last time he had switched it on. The batteries were failing. The lantern did however provide enough light for Culver to see the dark trail the rain water had left as it flowed past his office.
David fell to his knees, laughing hysterically. He had been right; David Culver was not going to die of dehydration. Providing he could gather up some of the water. He got back to his feet again and stumbled deeper into the cave, following the flow of water. Eventually he came to a large pothole in the ground. The water had flowed into it, filling it up. David hurled himself to the floor and thrust his head into the hole, drinking deeply. He came up spluttering and gasping for air, and then thrust his head in once more. The water had an odd, almost metallic taste and Culver's mouth filled with grit and dirt from the cave floor. The water also seemed to make the inside of David's mouth tingle. At that moment however, Culver didn't care, this was the sweetest thing he had ever tasted.
"The radio." David spluttered, pulling his head from the water. What if someone had tried to contact him while his head was submerged? He leaped to his feet and dashed back to his office. He kicked the lid off of his cool box and using his left arm he scooped the empty bottles inside. As he did this he plucked the mouthpiece from the desk with his right arm. He held it to his mouth and recited, "Hello…Hello. My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for vault-tec. If you can hear my voice, please respond."
Culver dropped the mouthpiece onto the desk, the black plastic rattling noisily against the wood. Once again he had had no success contacting anyone. He picked up the nearest bottle and took a deep gulp. How many days had it been since the rain? Culver didn't remember. He picked the mouthpiece up once more, only to have it slip through his fingers and fall back to the surface of the desk. He was so tired. He had slept for hours, or what had felt like hours. But this had done nothing to combat the fatigue. David knew that he should probably keep trying with the radio, but at the moment he just wanted to sleep again. He laid his head on his arms and closed his eyes.
He awoke again several hours later. The tiredness had not abated in the slightest and to make matters worse his muscles and joints had begun to ache awfully. He felt feebly week, it hurt him greatly to even lift his head from the desk. But an insistent, nagging pain from Culver's bowels was telling him that he would have to move a good deal more than just his head, and soon. He began pulling drawers open at random and plunging his hands inside, rummaging through the assorted detritus of his work. Eventually his hand closed around a thick bundle. He snatched the pack of printer paper from the drawer and held it triumphantly above his head. The sudden movement sent a white hot lance of pain through David's shoulder, causing him to cry out and drop the heavy bundle onto his upturned face. His nose exploded in a bright flare of agony. Culver clutched at his wounded face, his fingers came away bloody. Sobbing through the pain, David slumped in his chair. He reached down to the floor, his fingers gingerly probing until he found the paper again. He pulled a few sheets from the pack and staggered through the door. He stumbled deeper into the cave, heading for the chamber where he relieved himself.
A short while later he was squatting in the darkness, his pants around his ankles and his back propped against the wall. The lantern still sat atop the desk back in the office. David had decided to leave it there. He was beginning to get to know the layout of the caves around his office, even in the dark and he could easily identify the chamber he used for this particular ritual, simply by smell. As he squatted there David leaned his head back against the wall. He was too tired to keep his head up. Relief flowed through his body as the pain in his neck abated slightly. Now if only he could do the same for his legs. Those limbs were currently throbbing with pain and violently shaking with the effort of keeping himself upright.
In an attempt to distract himself from the pain David tried to concentrate on the sounds of the cave around him. The first sound that Culver identified was the familiar, reassuring hiss of the radio, rasping away quietly to itself in the office. Beyond that David could hear the whistling howl of the wind as it cut across the mouth of the cave. Beneath both sounds, barely audible from his current position was the low bass rumble of the hot spring flowing deep beneath him. Grating across all of these noises was the harsh rasping sound of David's own breathing, his chest was beginning to hurt too. "Just my luck," David said aloud to himself, then took another gulp of water "I survive the end of the world, only to catch the flu."
After he had finished Culver began the short walk back to the office, the paper he hadn't used rolled up in his hand. As he approached the small plasterboard structure David noticed another noise. Not one of the now familiar sounds of the cave, Culver didn't recognize this noise. It was a repetitive, scrabbling, tapping sound. It sounded like footsteps. Could it be a rescue team? Was it possible? Could someone have heard his calls on the radio? "Hello," Culver yelled into the darkness "I'm down here. If you can see my office then wait for me there. I'll be there in a moment." Culver listened, scratching at his cheek as he waited for a response. In addition to the constant aches, David's whole body had begun to itch furiously. Culver strained his ears, willing someone to speak back to him, but no sound was forthcoming. Even the tapping had stopped. David was just beginning to believe he had imagined the sound when the low growl reached his ears. Blind, animal panic seized David Culver. That sound had come from no human throat.
David edged closer to his office, moving as quietly as he could. As he approached the door he was sure he could hear several, repetitive sharp intakes of breath. It sounded like something was sniffing, out there in the darkness. Culver reached the door and quietly eased it open. He quickly stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He slowly sank to the floor, pinning the door closed with his back. The scrabbling sound resumed outside, louder and more rapid now. Suddenly a loud impact rocked the door in its frame. The door opened a couple of inches, the force pushing Culver across the floor. David screamed as he lunged for the desk, snatching up the pistol and the lantern. He pointed the gun at the door, aiming chest high as he frantically searched the lamp for the on switch. He found the button and pressed it. The room lit up, revealing a large Rottweiler padding its way into the room.
The creature looked extremely malnourished, its flesh hung loose around its face and body and its fur had fallen away in places. The fur on the dog's back bristled and the beast held its head low, the deep growl once more coming from its throat. David tried to bring the pistol down to fire at the dog but he was too slow. The beast surged into the room and seized Culver by the wrist, sending the lantern tumbling across the floor. The dog jerked its head to the side, sending another jolt of pain through David's arm and pulling him to the floor. He sobbed in agony as he desperately tried to bring the pistol to bear. The dog was thrashing about too much and Culver's first shot went wide. David screamed and pushed the revolver under the dog's chin, he squeezed the trigger. The terrible pressure on David's wrist increased for a second, then was gone. The corpse tumbled to the floor next to Culver. For a short while David lay on the ground sobbing in pain, clutching his bloody wrist to his chest. How had the dog gotten there in the first place? Was it alone? Culver supposed it didn't matter. The dog was dead and David wasn't, not yet at least.
David rolled his sleeve back down once he had finished bandaging his wrist, the area was heavily bruised but luckily the dogs teeth hadn't punctured too deep and it didn't feel like anything was broken. It was odd, but while he was applying the dressing, David had discovered a red, sunburn like rash spreading up his arm. He didn't think about it much though. He looked at the dog lying motionless on the floor. He now had meat, if he could find some way to cook it. But first things first. He leaned across the desk and picked up the mouthpiece "Hello…Hello. My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for vault-tec. If you can hear my voice, please respond."
David had finished searching his office again, he had meat. David couldn't recall the last time he had tasted meat. He wasn't even sure when he had last eaten. It had been chocolate, he was certain of that. He had found it nestled in the rear corner of the desk's bottom drawer. It had been in a red wrapper with a goofy picture on it. David couldn't recall the name of the candy bar, it had tasted like heaven. But now, now David had meat.
Culver realized he would have to find some way to cook the dog before he could eat it. He stood in his office looking down at the items his search had unearthed. He had lined them up on the surface of the desk. He needed to try to butcher the dog's carcass before he cooked it and these few pitiful supplies were to be his tools. A cheap lighter, a clipboard, the stack of paper, a small letter opener and the desk itself. All the other items, his pens, stapler and other office flotsam had been scooped into a drawer and kicked into a corner.
Culvers plan was to drag the desk out into the cave and use some of the paper as kindling. The clipboard would serve as a fan for the flames. David hoped this would work. He had almost no survival experience outside the cave. He had never even cooked at a barbeque. Before he thought about the fire though, David had to butcher the animal.
Culver switched the lantern on once again and placed it on the desk. He picked up the short stainless steel letter opener and held it up before his face, looking at the blunt blade. He then turned to look at the corpse. The blade was woefully inadequate for the job. When the dog had been healthy it would have been huge, even in it's malnourished state David doubted he could carve the mutt with a damn letter opener. Culver sank to his knees and plunged the four inch sliver of metal into the body. He began slowly sawing the blade back and forth. After what felt like hours Culver had managed to open a large gash across the dog's belly, its entrails spilling on to the ground beside it.
David had moved away from the carcass. He sat in his chair clutching his head, it ached terribly. He was panting in exhaustion as he sat there. Just opening the beast up had left him feeling drained. He ached all over, but he had decided that the itching was worse. He scratched his cheek, wincing in pain as his nail caught a weeping sore that had opened there. More and more of these had appeared over David's body. It was hell. Every time he scratched himself it seemed he would poke or claw one of them. He would flinch at the sharp pain from the skin. The sudden movement would cause David's body to erupt in a fresh wave of pain from his aching joints and muscles.
He wasn't going to be able to completely butcher the carcass. If he continued hacking at the corpse with the pathetic blade, he would leave himself too exhausted to complete the task. He walked over to the desk and took a deep breath, steadying himself. He picked up the mouthpiece again. "Hello… Hello. My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for vault-tec. If you can hear my voice, please respond." He paused for a few seconds, waiting for a reply. When no answer came he held the plastic to his lips again. "Look… I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to unplug you for a while. Please… Please don't go away. I'm sorry." He reached under the desk and disconnected the energy cell powering the radio. The small room was instantly oppressively quiet.
Culver picked the radio from the surface of the desk, cradling it in his arms like a child. He carried it across the room and gently placed it on the chair. David was beginning to panic. The silence was deafening. He quickly retrieved the cell from under the desk and plugged it in again. An angry buzzing shriek of static burst forth from the speaker. "I'm sorry… I'm so sorry," Culver said, fumbling the handset to his lips "I had to move you. I need to move the desk, so I had to move you first. Please… Please stop making that noise." The usual soothing static hiss resumed.
Culver dragged the dog's corpse out of the office into the darkness of the cave. He retrieved the lantern from the small room and crouched over the beast. He plunged his hands into the gaping wound and began pulling out the creatures organs. Several times during this grim task David turned away and noisily vomited until he was hunched over dry heaving and sobbing as he retched onto the floor. Every heave of his stomach was agony. Luckily he still had plenty of water. When he judged he had sufficiently hollowed the animal David pulled himself to his feet and stumbled back into the office. He gripped the desk, one of those cheap, flat-packed numbers, and pulled. His back and shoulders flared in fresh agony, but the desk slid forward a few inches. David threw his head back and, despite the sudden jolt of pain, crowed in triumph. He grabbed the desk and pulled again.
After quite some time Culver had managed to manhandle the desk out into the cave. With a tremendous effort Culver had lifted the carcass of the dog onto the table. He fell to the floor and fumbled the lighter from his pocket. After a few worrying attempts, David managed to coax a small flame. He lit several pieces of paper and shoved them under the cheap wooden legs. He then held the small flame under the tabletop. As the table began to ignite David plucked the clipboard from the floor and began wafting air towards it, trying to feed the flames. After a while the fire caught and the table erupted in flames. The cave filled with thick, black, billowing smoke.
David fled back into the office His eyes were streaming as the fumes irritated them; he was choking and spluttering as he tried to escape the black cloud. He shoved the door closed and fell to the floor, trying to block the bottom of the door with his body in an attempt to keep the smoke out. He picked up a bottle and placed it to his lips. He coughed as he drank and started to choke on the water. Hey lay on the floor, writhing in pain, trying to clear the water from his lungs. Each wracking cough sent a fresh wave of agony through David's body.
After what seemed like an eternity David was able to breathe again. How long had he been laying there? Had someone spoken while he was gasping for air on the ground? Had he passed out? He crawled over to the radio and picked up the mouthpiece. "Hello… Hello." He rasped into it, his voice a smoke ravaged growl "My name is David Culver. I am a vault location scout working for vault-tec. If you can hear my voice, please respond." Once more there was no response. David got to his feet and shuffled back out into the cave. The desk had burned itself out, but the remains were still smoldering. Lying in the middle of it all was the charred remains of the dog. Smoke was still curling from the blackened husk. Culver fell on the corpse and began tearing at the flesh with his hands, burning his fingers. He shoved the meat into his mouth and chewed, crunching through the charred skin and biting into the soft barely cooked flesh beneath. David ate until he was full then lay down in the dark cave. He ached badly again, he was so tired from the exertion. David Culver put his head on his arm and fell asleep on the cave floor.
David sat on the floor of the office, the radio beside him, hissing away to itself in the chair. He had been feeling steadily worse over the last few…Hours?... Days? David wasn't sure. What was left of the dog's corpse had begun to stink, filling the cave with the sickly smell of corrupting flesh. David wasn't sure how long it had been since he had last eaten from the carcass. Certainly not since before the animal had begun rotting, he was fairly certain of that. As he pondered this David scratched at another itch, on the top of his head. His fingernails dislodged more hair from Culver's scalp. This had been happening with increasing regularity and David's once thick, almost black hair now clung to his scalp in scattered clumps.
The aches in his joints had intensified and lances of agony stabbed through David's body every time he moved. David wanted to sit in the chair, but since the radio already occupied that spot, Culver had to make do with huddling on the floor beside it. David didn't really mind being on the floor. The nausea had also worsened. Culver had placed an empty drawer on the floor beside him. It wasn't watertight, but it would contain most of the inevitable vomit until he was able to dispose of it. David had briefly considered moving from the office into the cave until he recovered. He had swiftly dismissed this idea as it would mean leaving the radio unattended for too long. He could almost picture himself hunched over out there in the dark, noisily puking behind a rock as, for the first time since the bombs had fallen; a voice spoke, unheard, from the radio. "Can't have that can we?" Culver said to the darkness around him. He turned his head, wincing at the stab of pain the movement caused, to look at the radio "No can't have that at all."
Another idea, this one even more rapidly dismissed, had been to move the radio out of the office with him. After the noise the radio had made the last time, David wasn't prepared to risk moving it again. So Culver sat in the corner, in the dark, clutching the empty drawer.
Sometime later Culver lay panting on his side, experiencing a strange sense of euphoria. He didn't know how long the vomiting had lasted once it began, but for now at least it appeared to be over. He had crouched over the drawer for what had felt like eons, heaving in the dim light cast by the radio's dial. Every convulsing eruption caused David's entire body to explode in wave after wave of unrelenting pain. Between bouts of this, David had tried to choke down gulps of water. He had discovered that it was marginally better to have something in his stomach to bring back up. It was at least preferable to the stringy green, bile tasting mess that came up when he was dry heaving. But for now, for now it appeared to be over. The elation David felt was beyond compare. He lay there, exhausted by the protracted retching, panting on the office floor.
Once his breathing had returned to normal David remained in his prone position, almost not daring to move, for fear of sending fresh waves of agony through his body. Slowly David extended his arm toward the chair, testing how long the euphoric sensation would last. The dull ache remained, as did the itching. But the white hot lances of agony caused by his movements had lessened considerably, becoming instead a sharp stabbing pain. It was a definite improvement. His hand eventually found the chair and using his fingers David probed for the mouthpiece. After a while he managed to locate the coiled cable attaching the mouthpiece to the radio. He followed this along until his hand closed around the small piece of black plastic. He stretched the cable across and, still lying on the ground, held it to his lips. "Hello… Hello," He rasped into the mouthpiece. "My name is David Culver. I work…" David paused "I suppose that I don't work for anybody anymore do I? Look.. I'm trapped in a [censored] cave. I've got no dog left to eat and if it doesn't rain again soon then my water supply won't last much longer. If you can hear my voice then please… Please respond."
He lay there in the darkness listening to the soft, soothing hiss of the radio. As expected there had been no reply. After a while Culver became aware of a foul smell in the air of the office. He slowly turned his head until his eyes fell on the drawer. He had to get rid of that, if he left it like that for long then the smell was likely to start another bout of vomiting.
Slowly David rose to his feet, wincing occasionally as the pain began to return. He stooped, reaching down and picked up the drawer. The foul mess within hadn't leaked through the bottom of the drawer too much, but now he had raised it from the ground, a thin, revolting liquid began to pour steadily from it. Culver lurched awkwardly towards the door, trying not to spill the contents too much. He fumbled at the handle and eventually managed to get it open. David had managed to stagger out into the cave when he stopped dead in his tracks, dropping the drawer full of vomit as his feet. The impact caused the foul ichor to fountain from the top of the drawer, spraying the door, the cave floor and the front of David's jeans.
Culver didn't notice any of this though. Behind him the radio had exploded into life. A loud, high pitched screech blared out from the speaker for a second, and then was replaced by a voice. A real, man's voice "…. You sure you've got it…" The voice quietly said "Hey Mike," it continued, much louder "Doug thinks he's fixed the handset. Hello… You still there buddy? We didn't get the whole message. Just something about a cave? If you're there then please repeat."
Culver almost fell into the office as he turned and lunged for the mouthpiece. He landed on his knees beside the chair and snatched up the small piece of black plastic. He held it to his lips and called out, his voice a dry, rasping croak. "Hello... Hello." David almost shouted over the radio. "Are you there, please tell me you're really there. I haven't heard another voice since... Since I can't remember."
"Ha," The voice laughed from the radio's speaker, "Yeah, we're still here buddy. How many are with you?"
"None, I'm alone out here. I was by myself when the bombs fell. I haven't seen or heard anyone since the bombs fell. I've been alone since it happened. Where are you."
"We made it to the vault-tec offices in Denver pal. Why're you calling here on your radio anyway?"
"I used to work for them. Before.. Well, before. I'm just trying to find some help."
"Look no more buddy," The voice from the radio stated cheerfully "We're going to come up there and get you, right guys?"
"No [censored] way." David heard quietly from the radio. "You heard him Tim, he's alone and half mad. He isn't worth saving."
"Of course he is." Spoke the voice that David assumed must belong to Tim, in argument. "How can you say he isn't worth it Doug, you heartless bastard. You were alone when Mike and I found you. You saying that you weren't worth helping either?"
The argument between the two men continued to play through the radio's speaker, increasing in volume as they began shouting at each other. Then suddenly cut off, replaced with the usual static hiss.
"Hello," David quickly spoke into the mouthpiece, "are you still there? Please don't leave me here, I'm sure I can help you in some way. Please don't leave me." The last four words were almost screamed into the small piece of plastic as he began to panic. There was no reply.
David dropped the mouthpiece onto the seat and slowly sank to the floor beside it. Tears began to run freely down David's face as the realization dawned on him, the people on the radio weren't coming, He was going to die, alone in the darkness. David lowered his head until it rested in his cupped hands and began quietly sobbing once more.
He had remained like this for almost an hour, the only sounds to be heard were the familiar hiss of static from the radio and David's own hitching breath, then suddenly the speaker blared into life once more. "Hello, you still there buddy? We've talked about it and Mike and Doug are going to come get you OK? We need to know exactly where you are, so you tell us your co-ordinates and they'll be right there."
"Oh thank you. Thank you so much." David sobbed into the mouthpiece, he told the men his location, describing the large Vault-tec sign that had been erected above the tunnel mouth. Even informing them as to exactly what was written on the sign, in case they found and explored the wrong cave system.
"That's great buddy, we've got you on a map here. Doug and Mike are leaving the building as we speak, Mike reckons it's going to take them most of two days to reach you. They're coming on foot, to begin with at least. Everyone tried to leave town when the sirens sounded and the roads down here are absolutely choked with cars now. I suppose they might try to pick one up once they reach the edge of town, but for now they're walking it. So, what's your name buddy? How come you're all the way out there?"
David answered the man's questions then asked some of his own. Over the next few hours the two men continued like this. David learned that the man he was speaking with was called Tim McInnery and that he was twenty six, he had been a sheet metal worker before the bombs had fallen. Tim wasn't sure how he had survived, he said he had actually seen the blast. He had been blinded by the flash as he tried to stumble back into the factory. He was still stumbling around inside two days later when Mike had found him. Tim had been led around the ruined city by his hand for almost a week after that until his vision had begun to return.
David had been shocked to hear that it had been almost a month since the bombs had fallen. He had been all alone in the cave for four weeks, if the dog hadn't found him, David would surely have died of hunger. He told Tim the story of how he'd butchered and eaten the rottweiler, when he finished the speaker was quiet for almost a full minute before Tim responded.
"David, I have to ask you a few questions now. Please be truthful with me here, remember that I'm trying to help you OK?"
"Of course I will, I owe you that much Tim. You already have people on their way to help, just knowing that makes me feel so much better."
"That's great," Tim sounded a little apprehensive as he continued, "OK, Dave are you showing any of the signs of radiation poisoning? Headaches, muscular pain, vomiting, things like that?"
"God yes." David replied. "Itching too, I think that that is the worst. Every time I try to scratch myself I seem to stick my finger right in an open sore. There's hair loss too."
There was a sigh from the speaker before Tim continued. "Yeah, you're pretty sick Dave, but we looted the remains of a chemist a few days ago. If they get to you fast then Mike should be able to dose you up with radaway, provided it isn't too late. Listen Dave, have you been having blackouts at all? Any periods of unconsciousness?"
"Well, yes. A few times. Isn't that something that happens with radiation sickness though? And what do you mean by too late? Too late for what?"
"Maybe nothing Dave, maybe nothing. Like you say, it is a normal symptom of the sickness. One more question Dave, this one is real important, so think carefully before you answer OK. When you come too after blacking out are you always laying down?"
"What? I'm not sure, why is that important?"
"Please Dave just think. When you come to, are you on the floor or are you ever standing or sitting instead?"
"I... I'm not sure. I think that I may have been standing once. I'm really not sure though."
"Fuck," The curse was quietly breathed, "OK Dave. How do you look? Can you describe what you look like for me?"
"Why? What's going on Tim? Why all the questions?"
"I'm sorry Dave. I'm not trying to worry you here. Best you just answer my questions before I tell you any more. I don't want you to panic if there is no need. So, how do you look?"
Filled with dread and worry David fell upon the drawer he had kicked into the corner of his office. He tipped it over, spilling it's contents onto the ground, before sinking to his knees beside the small pile. He slowly began picking through the collected office junk, looking for something with a reflective surface. Despite Tim's wishes, David was close to panic now. What could be the problem? Why did it matter so much what he looked like? If he was, as both he and Tim suspected, in the later stages of radiation sickness, then how did this man expect him to look?
After a while of searching David's hand closed around a soft leather bag, his shaving kit. He had forgotten it even existed, he hadn't been concerned with his appearance once the bombs had fallen. Then his hair had began to fall out, rendering the kit even more useless. But he did keep a mirror inside. David pulled the piece of silver backed glass from the leather pouch and held it up before his eyes. The faint glow from the radio's frequency dial was too weak to illuminate the room however and all Culver could discern was a rough silhouette outline of his head.
He fumbled in the darkness for a few moments before he managed to locate his lantern. He thumbed the on switch, filling the small plasterboard room with a weak glow. The batteries were failing fast, but Culver was sure they would last long enough for his task. He held the mirror up to his face again, then dropped it to the dirt floor almost instantly, a horrified scream erupting from his throat and echoing through the caves. What he had seen wasn't real, it couldn't be real. The creature that had looked back at him from the mirror was the stuff of nightmares.
In disbelief, David slowly stooped and retrieved the reflective glass from the floor once more. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the moment he looked at his own reflection again. He gasped as he looked upon the creature that stared back at him.
All of his once thick, almost black hair was gone now. His scalp instead covered with scabs and weeping sores. His eyes, while still the same shade of hazel, were now sunken. Peering back at him from deep, dark pits. His cheeks were likewise sunken, his skin stretched thin over the now raised peaks of his cheekbones. His lips were rotted, pulled back and exposing his teeth in a horrible rictus grin. His skin was the worst. David had always tried to keep himself fit and for many years this had been reflected in the ruddy glow in his cheeks. The creature that looked at him now bore absolutely no resemblance to the face that had been his reflection for so many years before. This, this thing had pallid, almost white skin, mottled with flecks of green. It was covered with the same lesions and sores that patched his scalp. Between these he could quite clearly discern the blood vessels beneath the skin of his cheeks and nose.
Behind him, the radio crackled with static briefly before Tim's voice returned. "Well Dave? How is it? What do you see?"
"Dave?" Tim's voice rasped through the speaker once more, an edge of concern appearing in his voice. "Dave, you still there? Don't leave me in suspense here buddy. You've got to let me know what you see, ok? Dave?"
Culver held the small plastic mouthpiece to his lipless mouth and lied to his would be rescuer. He felt terrible about it. Even though he had never met the man, Tim was the only friend David had in the world. If he knew the horrible, ghastly truth of what Culver looked like now, he would almost certainly stop talking. He couldn't take it if his world was returned to silence once more. So he lied.
"Sorry Tim." He began. "I just wanted to check myself properly. You sound pretty worried, so I wanted to be thorough." There was a relieved sigh through the speaker before Tim's voice resumed.
"That's ok Dave. I'm just pleased to hear you're still there. I was getting worried that you'd blacked out again. So, what do you see?"
"Um... Nothing really. I mean, I look pretty bad. Very thin, sunken eyes and all of my hair's fallen out. But other than that, I still look like me. Does... Does that help you at all Tim?"
The sigh of relief sounded once more. "Oh God yes. It's a weight off my mind, that's for sure. When I heard how your voice sounds and then you told me about that dog, I'll be honest, I thought you were turning. That would have been bad for you."
"Turning?" It was now David's turn to have a hint of concern and worry in his voice. "T... Turning into what?" He dreaded the answer, but he had to know what was happening to him, what he was becoming.
"Well, to be honest Dave, we don't really know what they are. Best you don't worry yourself now though, so just forget I said anything." Culver was getting close to panicking now. He wanted to know, had to know what was happening to him. He couldn't just let the other man brush the subject aside.
"It's a bit late to tell me not to worry Tim." He gave what he hoped sounded like a nervous laugh. "You've gotta tell me. I hear... Noises in the caves sometimes. What if it's one of these... Whatever you're scared of, is up here with me? You need to tell me Tim, if you're frightened of them then I need to know what they are."
"Ok. You've got a point there Dave." Tim sounded reluctant, but continued to speak anyway. "As far as we can tell, it's kind of like zombies in the old movies, except in reverse."
Zombie sounds about right. David thought to himself. That is exactly what I just saw looking back at me from that mirror. A God dammned zombie. He didn't voice any of this though. Instead he said into the mouthpiece. "In reverse? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly how it sounds Dave. In the movies, you turn and then you start to rot. With these things, it happens the other way round. Doug was the first one to see it. He told me about it later, a few days after Mike and I found him. He found his sister in the ruins of some old building, said she was in a hell of a mess when he came across her. Skin all rotten and hanging off. He wouldn't have recognized her, but she called to him. That's how I mean, in reverse. Doug thought that it was just radiation sickness. She wasn't showing the typical symptoms, but then it's been over a hundred and thirty years since anyone was crazy enough to launch. Well, there was the war with Europe and the East, but we didn't get much info about that since they closed the borders. So he didn't know. She seemed fairly with it. Blackout here and there, but other than that and the rotting she seemed ok." The speaker went quiet for a moment as Tim paused at the other end.
"Well if she seemed ok, then what was the problem?" David asked.
"Well, that is the problem you see Dave. She seemed fine right up to the point where she tried to kill him. The first time Doug knew anything was wrong, she'd bitten two of his fingers off. That's what you've got to be careful of Dave, these things can just attack without warning. If you see one, then take my advice ok. Don't give it a chance. Just put a bullet through it's head, two if you can spare them. The movies got that right at least. Head shots and decapitation work like a charm."
"So, that's it?" David rasped into the mouthpiece. "You just shoot them? What if they are still normal? Is there a cure? Or do you just execute people for being sick?" He felt nauseous. Was this to be his future? If Tim thought there was something wrong just by talking to him over the radio, then how would Mike and Doug react when they saw him? There was absolutely no way he'd be able to hide the way his face looked when they eventually arrived.
"That's right Dave. Best option really. Even if they are acting normal, it's only a matter of time before they do turn. They're fast too, the ones I've seen are anyway. Believe me Dave, you don't want to wake up with one of those bastards gnawing on your leg. As for a cure. Ah hell, who knows? Maybe there is one. But even if there is, who's going to find it these days? It's not an execution though Dave." Tim actually sounded offended that David had described it as such. "It's a mercy. I mean, who'd want to live like that? All rotten and stinking, before losing your mind and trying to kill people? Fuck that. I know what I'd prefer."
"But." David rasped, horrified at what he was hearing. "But what if it can be controlled? What if the people who are turning fight it? Find some way to hold it off?"
"A nice idea. But would you want to take that chance? I think it's like having a piss. Once you get the feeling you need to go, it's going to happen. Even if you fight it and try to hold on, it's going to happen and sooner rather than later. Don't give 'em that chance. Put 'em down before they know you're there, back of the head if you can."
"You'd shoot them from behind?" David couldn't keep the revulsion out of his voice. "Don't you feel bad about it at all?"
"Fuck no." The voice from the speaker snapped. "I wouldn't care if I shot them while they were sleeping. It's not like they're people we're talking about, not anymore. It's for the best to just put them out of their misery. Look Dave, you might not like it now, but if and when you come across one you'll understand."
"But..." David didn't get more than the single word out before Tim's voice cut him off again.
"But nothing. That's just the way it is these days. Bottom line is, you make them like Doug's sister, or they will kill you. Look Dave I gotta go, it's getting dark and I should be thinking about getting some shuteye."
"Whoa, whoa wait. Tim, before you go, what happened to Doug's sister?."
There was a quiet chuckle from the speaker, before Tim replied. "How do you think we know that decapitation works Dave? Doug did it himself after she bit his fingers off. He's still got the fire axe he used too. Carries it everywhere now, you'll be able to see it in the next couple of days. You really are lucky you aren't one of those things Dave. He really wouldn't be happy to get all the way out there only to find he was trying to rescue a zombie. I'll talk to you again in the morning ok Dave, you take care of yourself."
With that the line went dead and the familiar, reassuring hiss of static resumed once more.
"Why." David sobbed as he spoke, staring directly at the radio's dial. He held the mouthpiece before his ragged face, though he kept his finger well away from the button. He didn't want anyone else to hear this. This was between him and the radio. "Of all the people you could have found. You bring me two men with an axe who plan to kill me. Why? I don't get it. I gave you the seat for God's sake. I've been sitting on the floor while you've been cozy and this is how you repay me?" He shouted the last few words while swinging his fist through the air. As it connected with the brightly lit dial both Culver and the radio let out a cry. David's one of pain slightly louder than the static shriek from the speaker.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Culver whimpered, holding up the mouthpiece once more. "I shouldn't have done that. It's a stressful time for both of us, but I shouldn't have hit you. What should I do though? They will kill me. You heard what Tim said. A fire axe? A fucking fire axe? No way, I'm not going out like that." He got to his feet and let the black plastic fall from his fingers. It landed on the seat beside the radio with a soft thump. David began pacing the room, his gruff rasping voice growing steadily louder as he talked. "It isn't fair. I'm not a zombie, I'm just sick is all. You can see I'm not a zombie can't you?"
The shrill whine that the speaker had been making since David struck it gradually subsided back to the static hiss he was familiar with. His voice trailed off as he slowly slid down the wall until he was sitting on the dirt floor beside the door to the office. "What am I goin to do?"
"You still have the gun I gave to you don't you Mr Culver?" David shrieked and cowered away from the new voice. "Remember, I bought it in town and then brought it out there for you."
"Mary?" He gasped as he recognized the voice of his former assistant. He peered across the room at the radio, at the mouthpiece laying beside it, in confusion. "Mary, how..."
"Never mind how." The voice soothingly called from the speaker. "That isn't important now. You do still have it don't you?" Mary's voice was calming, yet insistent as it spoke to him.
"I do, I used it to kill the dog."
"Good," The voice seemed pleased with this. "You can kill them then."
"I... I can?" David's hand trailed across the floor beside where he sat for a moment before scooping up the revolver and snapping it open. "No. No I can't. I only have four bullets left."
Well that's plenty pal. David was sure he recognized this new voice too, but couldn't place it. Two bullets each. Back of the head, just like they'd do to you. Culver quickly hauled himself to his feet and pulled open the door to his office, before leaning out and peering into the darkness, searching for the source of the new voice. Won't find me out there pal. I'm with Mary. I'd get that door shut and work out what you're going to do, while you still have time.
"He's right Mr Culver." Mary joined in from the speaker. "You should close the door. If they see the light from my dial, it will lead them right to you."
Slowly David made his way back inside and pushed the door closed, looking around in confusion. The second voice had said that it was with Mary, but it wasn't coming from the radio. It sounded like it was coming from much closer, from right behind him in fact, but no matter how quickly he turned about, he was unable to catch sight of the hidden speaker.
How long are you going to turn circles like that pal? You know that you look like a crazy person don't you? Just sit down and think about how you're going to handle this.
"But... But what can I do?" Culver rasped in his ruined voice. "I mean, look at me. I'm in no state for fighting. I wouldn't have a chance."
You know something pal? You're a real fuckin' drag. The second voice had taken on a bitter, almost mocking edge to it's tone. Always so fuckin' negative. Oh, poor David's going to die of thirst. Now he's going to starve. Now he's going to sit and cower in the dark, pissing in his pants, too scared to deal with the people who will murder him once they arrive. Why don't you just take that gun and put an end to it now, you fuckin' pussy.
"Fuck yOU!" He screamed in to the dimly it room, pointing the gun at the empty air around him.
"Calm down Mr Culver." Mary admonished him from the radio.
Yeah, calm down pal. I just wanted to see if you still had some fight left in you. I'm on your side. If you can stand up to me, then surely you can stand up to the people who are coming. Can't you?
"He's got a point Mr Culver and he was right about the water. You would have killed yourself if you hadn't listened to him then."
"The water?" Suddenly he knew where he'd heard the voice before. It had spoken to him before, when he'd had the gun in his mouth, about to end his own life for fear of dying of dehydration. He didn't remember exactly when that had been, but it was before his transformation into, into the creature he'd seen in the mirror. He'd survived the thirst, the hunger and the metamorphosis. Why should he just give up now? Mary and the other voice were right. He had the means to survive once again. The aches and pains that had ravaged his body for what seemed like an eternity had diminished. In fact, every time he drank from the dirty pool the voice had directed him to, he almost felt as though he could feel his old vigor returning. As if there was something in the water that rejuvenated him. His eyes had adjusted to the perpetual darkness of the caves, so that he no longer needed the lantern at all to travel through the twisting passages.
That's the spirit pal. You could run rings around them now. Cat and mouse. They'll head right here, the light and the radio will draw them like moths. You need to get them before they get you. You know that right? Back of the head, just like Tim said. They see you first and that's the treatment you'll get. So don't give them that chance. Make sure you get the bastards first. Can you do that pal?"
"I... I think so." David hesitantly whispered.
You better do more than just think so pal. You need to kill them both. Can you do that?
"Ok... Ok, yes. I can do it. I'll kill them both." He snatched up the mouthpiece and, despite the protests of both voices, pressed the send button on the side. "Tim, you there?" He rasped into the small, black piece of plastic.
Put that down. What the [censored] do you think you're doing?
"He needs to be warned. Even if he doesn't know it, he warned me."
"Dave?" Tim's puzzled voice came through the speaker, sounding groggy. "Dave, that you buddy? What are you doing on the line? And what are you talking about? Who needs to be warned about what?"
"Tim listen to me." The urgency in David's voice must have been clear to the man in Denver, because the next time that Tim spoke there was no trace of the confusion that had been there.
"What's going on Dave?"
"You were right Tim." David croaked. "You were right about my voice, I am turning. You need to pack up and get moving."
"They'll kill you Dave. You should have never called us on the radio. As soon as they realize you're a zombie, you're dead."
"I know." David replied sadly. "That is why you should move on. Mike and Doug aren't coming back."
"What do you mean Dave?"
"I mean, I'm going to kill them both."
"Dave..." Tim's voice hissed through the speaker as Culver left the office and moved deeper into the caves. "Dave, are you still there? Don't do it man, run instead. Get out of your cave and just vanish. They're only trying..." The words continued to spill from the radio, the noise echoing around the cavern, but David could no longer make out what was saying. The distance reducing the words to a dim, whining murmur.
"That's right Mr Culver." Mary joyfully called after him. "You men go and talk. I'll keep your friend Tim entertained."
Yeah, let's go talk pal. We've got a lot of planning to do. The voice added as it followed behind him. Your gun might not be enough. I mean, you only hit the dog because you practically jammed the pistol in it's ear. I'm not sure how well that's going to work with these guys. You need to get yourself a backup plan. Just in case. So, what other weapons can we find?
"I..." David rasped into the darkness around him. "I honestly don't know."
You don't huh? Well that figures. The voice still had the same mocking edge to it. Well let me give you some pointers. The letter opener maybe? The blade made a big enough hole in that dog once you got going. If you only wing one of those bastards with the gun then that blade will finish them off. Or... And this one really is kind of obvious. You're in a fuckin' cave pal, look around and find a rock.
Yeah pal, a rock. Y'know, they're kinda like bricks. Big heavy things... Made of rock.
"I know what a rock is. What do you expect me to do with one though?" As David asked this question an exasperated sigh sounded from behind him.
Use it as a doorstop... What do you think I expect you to do pal? Throw it, hit one of them. Hell, down in the lower caves there's stalagmites, break one of those things and you've got a stone club. How's that sound to you? Now, do you have any more dumb questions?
"Just one." David paused for a moment, uncertain how to continue.
Well? Come on pal, spit it out.
"Well, what do I call you?" For a moment there was no reply. Culver began to worry, thinking that somehow he'd offended the voice. Now that he finally had a companion, he truly believed that a return to the previous silence would be too much to bear. He opened his mouth to speak, to beg the voice to talk again. Anything to break the silence. Before he could make a sound however, the voice interrupted him.
Bob. Call me Bob. That'll do.
"Your name's Bob?"
Fuck no! The voice snapped. Do I sound like a fuckin' Bob to you? You ass! My name's David, but I thought that in your fragile state, you might find that confusing. So for now, call me Bob.
Culver simply nodded and accepted this. He hadn't exactly been feeling himself lately and he could see Bob's point. At this stage, two Davids, especially with one that couldn't be seen, could get very confusing. He lost track of time once more as he wandered the sub-terrainian passageways with his companion. It seemed that Bob was filled with ideas, as they walked he listed dozens of inventive ways to dispatch the two men who were approaching the cave. From using the sticky tape in the office to attach the letter opener to a stick to make a spear, to luring them towards the section of the tunnel where he gathered water, an area where breaking a leg in a pothole was a very real possibility in the dark.
More than once, David found himself intimidated by Bob's enthusiasm when he talked of killing the two men. But any talk of backing out was quickly silenced by the voice and it's mocking tone.
You have to do it pal. You do know that right? They will kill you if you don't.
Culver nodded gloomily as he quietly trudged through the winding tunnel. He did know. Tim had made it clear that Mike and Doug wouldn't hesitate to end his life. But that didn't do anything to alleviate his nerves. Other than the dog, he had never killed anything bigger than a bug in his life and now he was plotting to murder two men. The very idea repulsed him, even though he accepted that he had no other choice. What if they were right? What if whatever was wrong with him actually was destroying his mind? If that was the case then perhaps it would be a mercy for them to just finish him off. But then, what if Bob was right? He'd beaten thirst and starvation, survived being transformed into a walking corpse, why couldn't he beat this feral madness that Tim had spoken of?
"You're right Bob. I do have to do it. But..."
No buts pal. Too late for that now. They're here.
"They're what? They can't be"
Really? Well I guess that you'd better go tell them to come back later then pal. They must not have gotten the memo.
"I mean, we haven't been down here long enough for them to get all the way out here already."
You sure about that pal? You definitely haven't blacked out at all while we've been talking? You haven't right? I mean, you'd remember that wouldn't you?