You Win Some...
New 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
You Win Some...
Ed Parsons helped Aekie through the upper hatch. There seemed no purpose in her joining him, but it pleased him that she would want to be with him. Then moving together away from the hatch and clinging to the exterior handholds against a twisting wind, they heard Ernie Shaw.
Ed! The water's already above the centerline!"
"Damn!" Ed cursed. They seemed to be slowly sinking in the watery murk. They might have to abandon the enclave!
But it was a decision that he never had to make. For hydrogen gas swirled about the enclave, making little moment of its presence. It shifted and meandered its way into the enclave with no thought of announcement. With people moving about inside the enclave, the hydrogen had occupied almost ten percent of the volume.
Hydrogen gas explodes with exceptional force at a concentration of seven percent.
All it needs is a spark. Metal hitting metal, an electrical arc, a match, any flicker of fire.
Where the spark came from, who was responsible, or just when it happened is of little importance -- for they never knew.
Instantaneously the whole of the enclave had become a raging fire, an exploding holocaust, an inferno, its hatch the mouth of a volcano -- in the process, extinguishing all life within.
Slowly the steel rubble lifted as Richard Small and Sally Hammond struggled to lever an I-beam off Jim Lomas' legs. Nancy Lomas, her head still stained with dry blood and mud, quickly stooped and began to pull at Jim's arms. Little Cheryl Scott crawled toward Jim and, grabbing his belt, pulled with all her strength. Jim yelped in pain then seemed to pass out as the steel beam released its pressure point and blood rushed back into his legs. As if signaling that Jim's legs were free, the steel and ruined structure gave way, causing Dick and Sally to knuckle under the weight.
For several moments they collapsed against the rubble and lay motionless, trying to recover their strength. The wind blurred their vision and stung their eyes and nostrils. They ached from the pounding of their bodies and hunger and exposure gnawed at their insides. A chance to rest and recover seemed essential.
That is but for Nancy who had to draw on even greater efforts. Frantically she tried to control the bleeding from her husband's mangled legs. Sally, raising her head slightly, still struggling to catch her breath, realized what was happening. Dragging her body, she fell toward Jim's outstretched body and tried to put her fingers where the flow of blood would be reduced. Cheryl Scott, hoping to help, slowly lifted Jim's head and laid it in her lap. Even Caron Lomas, sensing the urgency, moved closer to her father and sat close to Cheryl. Caron did not know what to do but she knew she must be close by.
After several frantic moments the bleeding was stopped. Nancy, almost in a faint, wiped the sweat from her forehead. Almost she relaxed, but only for a second. There was too much to do.
Looking up at Sally, she tried to tell her that they would have to get a medical locker. The wind distorted the words but Sally seemed to understand. She yelled back that she'd try to build up some shelter from the wind. Nancy acknowledged and turning to her young girl, began to try to reassure her. Then she moved away, guessing at where the medical supplies might be.
Sally turned to Dick Small to tell him to help build a shelter. Then she saw him; laying back, his head and shoulders propped up slightly by the rubble, his eyes staring into the wind. He seemed lost and bewildered, the wind and heat and dust were almost beyond comprehension.
Nudging him with what little strength she could muster, Sally finally got his attention. He watched her hands and tried to understand her yelling, and slowly understood. Meekly he assented and started to crawl up to his knees. Still in a daze, he moved slowly and hesitantly, quietly seeking direction. Sally stared at him just for a moment, wondering if he was also hurt.
Then she started to try to piece together some sort of shelter. With metal plates, wire and rope, they managed to fit together a low slung tent-like structure. They used lockers to help brace it and then to provide some storage. The only remaining blankets (two) went to provide warmth and comfort for Jim, who was now sleeping fitfully. Nancy had found one of the medical lockers and had managed with Sally's help, to drag it to the shelter.
Finally they were able to all get inside the improvised shelter and for the first time get relief from the wind and dust. With the heavy metal flap to the entrance in place, they suddenly realized that they could hear each other. The noise was still roaring, but it was now slightly subdued. Sally and Nancy looked at each other in relief. Totally exhausted, they nevertheless felt a surge of hope. Even the children sensed the difference as Caron crawled nearer her father's head and softly asked, Daddy?
Nancy touched her daughter's shoulders to again reassure her and quietly said, It's okay, sweetheart; he's asleep. With this question seemingly resolved, the small girl cuddled up near her father, her gaze intent upon his face.
Richard Small sat braced against the entrance, his arms and hands limp beside his legs. He gazed intently at the others in the diffuse and sporadic light, but without comprehending the meaning. Slowly a thought formed in his mind and he realized the girl's concern for her father. In a world without form and alien to any aspect of his life, he could comprehend Caron's actions. Affection for a loved one was real, but a world of reddish fog roaring in the wind could never be. Slowly his mind dismissed the environment and reached out for the familiar. That was when he realized what he must do.
Twisting his body in the cramped space, he began to shift the metal flap at the entrance. As the wind began to whirl into the shelter, Nancy looked up and asked, Dick, where are you going?
Dick turned, not really knowing why. He looked at Nancy and then started to turn away, I'm going out to bury them.
Nancy did a double take, as if his answer made no sense. Sally only slightly quicker on the uptake, said, "Dick, it's not necessary now. There are too many. For a brief moment she remembered seeing Connie and Arthur March struggling to reach each other as portions of the steel enclave crushed them. Little John Lomas nearby had been killed as well, his body only inches from where his father, Jim, had had his legs trapped. Sally had seen Larry Thomason killed, but they had not even found little Patrick Scott at least not yet. But more to the point was the loss of Dick's wife and two children. His apparent disconnect with reality seemed almost justified. Sally tried to reach out to him, We've got... "
Dick turned slowly, his hand slightly raised to prevent her words. "I'm only going to bury Carol and the children. And maybe Connie and Arthur.
"Dick, please. It can wait. Rest. We'll all do it later.
The strength of her voice caused Small to falter. Then, with resignation, he murmured, "Okay. We'll do it later." Then he slowly closed the flap.
George Harvey carefully repacked the small inner compartment of the medical locker. Piecemeal he worked his way around the enclave, checking each compartment and repacking quickly in case of more tremors or explosions. He glanced over toward Yasaitis, who was trying to help check the supplies. Only he seemed preoccupied and slightly out of touch. The death of five members already had unnerved the man -- at least temporarily.
But as George watched, he saw Yasaitis glance over at his wife, Mildred. She sat easily on a hammock, her eyes covered by the gauze bandages. The explosion that had killed Tom Griffith, Leonard French, Jim Wells, and little Timothy had also taken its toll of those inside. Mildred had had her face burned, although the burns seemed less severe than the blindness. Shari Harvey had been burned as well, in her case on the back and right shoulder. But it was Mildred that Darrel watched. Despite her discomfort and fear at the possible loss of eyesight, she was holding Maureen Griffith and quietly telling her a story.
The sight of Mildred, with her obviously serious problems trying to comfort and provide for the youngest member, seemed to give strength to her husband. Gaining determination, Yasaitis returned to his task with new energy. George watched him for just a moment, then let out a sigh. The group had already suffered so much that they could not afford any more problems.
George glanced around the enclave, evaluating the strength of the survivors. Penny Griffith was preparing a meal for everyone. A hot meal, George thought. And then he smiled, Penny was the best thing going he decided. Two days ago she lost a husband and a son. Now she was putting in extra effort to provide a morale boost for the others. Even with the occasional pain of her foot, she seemed capable of lending strength to the group.
Ida Wirth helped Penny, but George realized she was limited. He suspected that her fears were bottled up and she fought her struggles within her own mind. But he also guessed she would win most of them. And, even if she could not share her reserves of courage, she would at least not be a handicap. And if her husband Tom Wirth could regain his balance as well, the couple could easily pull their share of the load.
The real hope, though, seemed to lie with Larry Scott. Despite the myriad injuries, or perhaps because of them, Scott had seemed to grow in stature. He had somehow assumed command of their group, without any thought of a declaration to that effect. Everyone had more or less automatically turned to him for direction and, with no apparent thought, Larry had accepted the responsibility. Briefly George wondered if Scott was even aware of his defacto position. He seemed to be doing what was necessary and accomplishing the essentials without even considering if he had or needed the authority to do so.
Perhaps it was logical. With only four men left, Larry may have become the leader by default. Tom Wirth had been too shaken to step into the vacuum when Griffith was killed. Yasaitis had not fully recovered from his late return to the site. And, George thought, doctors make lousy leaders -- how can you cure someone in one minute and then order a necessary punishment in the next? So Scott was the only immediate possibility. There was not even a single woman who might have taken charge.
Penny Griffith had possibly the credentials but was hurt, as was Mildred. Pat Wells had no chance since she had early-on demonstrated her selfishness. Even now she sat on a hammock comforting her ten-yearold child. George frowned. Perhaps ten-year-old brat' was a better description of Linda Wells. And it was obvious that Pat had made her daughter so. Neither of the two would contribute much.
Of the remaining adults, that left only Shari, George's wife. Her burns were a great deal more serious than Mildred's and it was evident that she was in considerably more pain. In addition, she had received an earlier wound on her side which George had had considerable trouble in controlling. It was Shari's condition that most worried George. She was badly hurt, in great pain, and her husband/doctor could do so little about it. In fact, perhaps all he could hope to do would be to prepare to lose her. And, suddenly, he thought, prepare his daughter for the same thing.
George's sixteen-year-old daughter had brought him the only real comfort that he had garnered in the last days. She had responded well, accepted the deaths and injuries in stride, and had been ready and willing to do her part. With a profound silence, she had acknowledged grief without ever yielding to the temptation of indulgence in a self-serving sorrow.
Even now Monica was with Scott outside the enclave, trying to gauge the extent of their predicament. It had become apparent that the enclave was partially submerged in a grimy, scum-laden lake. The water was less than five feet below the level of the upper hatch, and Scott was concerned that they were very slowly sinking in the muck. If so, they would have to abandon the enclave and Larry and Monica were now trying to find an escape route.
George shuddered internally as he thought of abandoning the steel spherical shell which shielded them from the suffocating heat, gale winds, and which deadened the roar of the earth's after pains. He had little hope that they could salvage much of the contents, much less transport it any great distance. And without the enclave there was much less hope for the wounded. His vision blurring, George turned to his wife. She was still in pain.
The hot meal was ready but Penny hesitated. She did not want to begin without Scott, it would seem particularly inappropriate. And yet how could she hold the meal? The food was ready and everyone needed the respite that it would offer.
She was contemplating going out the hatch to look for Scott and Monica when she heard the hatch bolts being thrown off the latches. Penny smiled as she realized that they were back.
Within minutes, the entire group was eating their first hot meal since before the collision. The dinner talk and occasional smiles seemed to forego their predicament and momentarily set aside their worries. Then, as Penny looked up from her meal, she saw Scott, already finished, looking at the others. He seemed to be appraising each of them, trying to gauge a reaction.
Then he saw Penny watching him and smiled. "We needed that! Great meal, Penny.
Penny smiled appreciatively. "You should thank Ida, she did most of the work."
Turning, Larry acknowledged, "Then thank you, Ida.
Ida said nothing, only smiling at the somewhat unwarranted praise. She knew that she had only helped Penny but had no idea how to make the point. Reluctantly, she avoided the question by a silent, slightly smiling response.
Then Yasaitis, feeling a responsibility to ask the question that was on everyone's mind, gathered his courage and asked, "What's the situation outside?" Gulping slightly, he added with an attempt at levity, "Any problems?"
Scott was silent for just a moment. None that we can't handle. Larry was suddenly sensing a need for himself to sound confident and purposeful. He must give heart to the people gathered about him and they seemed to expect it. But he also wanted to be truthful and completely candid. His natural candor urged him to blurt it out without window dressing, as he had briefly done with Monica Harvey a few moments ago. She had accepted it easily enough and seemed more than willing to do whatever he thought best. But, even if Monica could place her complete trust in Larry, the attitude of the others made him question the wisdom of telling the facts in quite so blunt a fashion.
There had been no questions when they entered the enclave, only an announcement of dinner. They seemed to be avoiding whatever he had learned, avoiding the realization of the unknown for fear of what it would yield. The same need for hesitation had been reinforced during the meal, as each person tried to build a common facade behind which they all could hide. Only Monica had not joined the small talk. She had eaten her meal quietly, sitting close to Scott, as if ready to answer any need he might have. Perhaps she could be told facts in blunt, straight language, but the others appeared to want Scott to realize the truth alone and provide them with the truth in a more diplomatic and easily digested form.
Larry suddenly realized that his casual, off-thecuff manner of telling it like it was would have to be softened into a more carefully designed exposition. Larry could give them their truth on a need-to-know basis, but the possible dangers and the unknown factors he would have to bear by himself. Or perhaps with Monica's help.
The thoughts rushed through his mind and he answered in a casual, but guarded, manner, "Looks like the old story of good news and bad news. The bad stuff is that we're probably going to have to move the bulk of our equipment out of the enclave, just in case it continues to sink. The good news is that we've found a place to go.
A mixed sense of relief and anxiety went through the group. On the one hand was the thought of leaving the enclave, but an unconscious relief of realizing that Scott was leading them to a known destination softened the loss of their shelter. Penny was the first to seize upon the hopeful aspect. "What all did you find out there? Can we get to solid ground?
"Oh yes, it's not more than thirty yards away. Of course, we went in all the wrong directions before we found it. There was a slight laugh. "But there is good solid stuff within easy striking distance. Plus I ran across the remains of some sort of concrete structure. It won't provide much shelter, and at best it's only temporary, but I think it can serve pretty well for a depository of our supplies. It can give us a better base to scout for more permanent lodgings.
"There's no question that we have to leave the enclave?"
"There's still a chance we can stay. But the water is rising and, even though it doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry, it is pretty constant. Monica kept a pretty good watch on it while I was scouting and it looks like it's just a matter of time.
"Probably plenty of time, maybe a couple of days. Scott silently shivered at the exaggeration. "But there's no reason to figure on the rate we're sinking in this muck to be constant. I think we'll have to play it safe and be ready to abandon our temporary home pretty quick. So we'll want to move most everything that can survive the wind right away. Then we can wait ourselves a little longer. Scott tried to make it light, but it didn't quite take. He was only now beginning to realize that leaders can't always joke around. For the followers the import of his words were too important and they couldn't always be sure of what constitutes a joke and what is deadly serious. But he coughed in a humorous vein to lessen the impact. Quickly taking stock and backtracking, "But, seriously, we'll have to get on it right away.
As everyone acknowledged the marching orders, Monica looked up at Scott. From him she gained strength and confidence. In return she promised her total self: her strength, her will, and whatever else he might request.
Yasaitis called it 'The crossing' and the name seemed a good idea. Even the others had begun to use the moniker, as it seemed to create a better mental atmosphere for everyone while the group fought the winddriven, turbulent waves to ferry across the supplies. A small rubber dinghy was used which, with a load, went fairly well. But on the return trips, the crosswind constantly caught it and threatened to blow it clear of the single lines connecting it to the enclave and shore.
It was Tom Wirth who thought to add chunks of concrete from their new temporary home to weight the light craft down and stabilize it on the return trips. The chunks could then be tossed overboard as provisions and supplies were added to the raft.
Perhaps more important than this technical contribution was the effect on Tom himself. Penny's remark on the cleverness of the idea had given Tom an essential lift. His confidence was beginning to rekindle itself. He had even started to unconsciously picture himself as the second in command. And, with Scott, Darrel, Monica and Pat Wells on the other end of the ferrying life raft, Tom felt an in-charge attitude for the enclave itself. George Harvey seemed preoccupied with caring for his wife and the others who were hurt and Penny seemed to graciously support Tom in his efforts. Even when she disagreed with him, it was done with tact and never approached a question of his apparent position. Tom now felt that, given a fixed direction, he could pull his share of the load.
But while Tom's confidence was subtly increasing, George Harvey's thoughts were becoming more troublesome. George had taken only one long look at the stinking, cruddy water whipping at the enclave, with the dusty turbulent wind confusing all sense of direction, and he had begun to lose heart. For, first of all, he was a doctor and cared for his patients. Both Penny and Mildred Yasaitis would have it very rough outside the enclave and it was becoming all too apparent that they would soon have to leave. The water was rising even faster that they had expected.
But even worse was the fact of Shari's condition. George could see no possibility of his wife ever being more than a paralyzed invalid and a temporary one at that. With the fact of her increasing pain, it seemed a violation of humanity to continue.
George's difficulty was that the alternative appeared to be the greater of the two evils. And he must soon decide, for better or for worse.
Chapter Three -- A World in Chaos
Chapter Five -- Rising to the Top
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