"What do you think, Skipper?" Rehearsal said when the children had finally deposited them into the sub-basement bunker for rest. The bunker, known by the children as "Sleepbox," was unexpectedly spacious, though the space was so cluttered that you could hardly appreciate the square-footage. The place was all cavernous and cobwebbed with ancient brick arches supporting the ceiling. Picture the inside of an old-world brick pizza oven, except make it very big and long and add spiders.
The place felt cold and a little wet, and when you breathed in you got the same old mildewy smell you got in your great-grandmother's apartment. Rows of unmade cots lined the brick walls and disappeared into the shadows toward the end of the rectangular bunker—that's how big it was. If someone were standing at the opposite end by the racks of mural paper, you wouldn't be able to fully make out who it was, and if he screamed out his name you might not even properly hear it due to distance and clutter and reverb.
Much of the spaces between the cots and in the six-foot-wide aisle between the two rows of cots, miscellaneous cardboard boxes and dirty rubber storage containers stood in precarious stacks; per Jason, most of these boxes contained canned food supplies that had long ago been part of an ill-fated charity food drive. Mr. Martin had made sure to move all the goods down to the bunker, where they'd be better shielded from the radiation. This act alone may have bought the children an extra year or two.
Fortunately, thought Rowan as he glanced over some of these very boxes, the children seem to be halfway decent at rationing food. Jason had claimed that "crazy" was off-limits once you entered the Sleepbox, which, for Rowan, was even more crazy than the crazy stuff.
Jason had told them a bit more about it. Some of the children still slept there at the end of each day after the final bell rang and the warring was put on hold until the following morning, but most children had by now given up this particular precaution against radioactivity accumulation and sleep upstairs in the hallways, hence the beds our friends had seen when they'd first entered the school.
Mr. Martin's only policies still followed by the children were the keeping of the food in the sleepbox and the daily replacement of their paper togas (though Jason and Billiam didn't require "leadening" any longer).
"I think this is going to be a hell of a job," Rowan said with a tired grimace as he patiently unlocked the fasteners of his helmet.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. You're still thinking we stay here?" said Sands. He made a show of leaving his own helmet right where it was. He didn't look like he was ready to start unpacking anytime soon.
"Well of course. We have no choice. We're committed aren't we."
Sands scoffed, flapped his arms in disgust. "Surely we'd be better off somewhere else, anywhere else. This place is a madhouse! They're liable to slit our throats the minute they quit fawning over Spacekid!"
The mention of his name momentarily caught Spacekid's attention. He'd been off sitting on a cot about ten yards away from the others trying to collect his thoughts and had apparently made contact with an apparently anti-social bespectacled female student, who'd been sort of hiding between the cots. The two had been quietly chatting for a few minutes now. At hearing his name, Spacekid briefly turned back to the others and gave them as sort of shoulder shrug, then gave it up and went back to the girl. Seeing this, Rowan made a mental note to ask Spacekid about what the conversation had been about.
"I'm afraid I agree," Rehearsal said. "In choosing to come here we were expecting nothing more than a handful of drowsy cadavers, which we could have easily neutralized and then had the place to ourselves. We didn't agree to supervising entire war parties of feral children and tending to corrals of active cadavers. I wouldn't even know where to start with these kids."
"They're human!" said Citro as she pulled her helmet from its circular brace and cradled it in the crook of her arm. She wasn't the sort to second-guess a decision once it had been made. "And on top of that, they're just kids. I'm not sure this is even about us anymore. We have to help them."
This was the first time in memory that Citro had taken his side in anything, and Rowan held her gaze for an extra moment, grateful for the backup. It may or may not have been his imagination that Citro offered him the faintest of smiles. Something weird had just happened there.
Then Rowan turned to Rehearsal and Sands, both of whom still needed convincing. Not that this was a democracy, mind you. But it was always nice when everybody clicked on the same page. "We've stumbled upon something miraculous. Against terrible odds, Mr. Martin's precautions have kept these kinds from ripening for two years and counting.
The lead paneling and the paper togas and the low-radiation sub-basement must have taken a bigger bite out of the ambient radiation than anyone had any right to expect. The air is bound to be cleaner inside this school than it'll be anywhere else we're likely to go." He fanned his arms to indicate the room.
"This bunker alone is worth our staying here," he continued. "Taking for granted that the children who still sleep here swap out their irradiated paper togas for fresh ones before settling in for the night—and I'm pretty sure they do—this room is likely to host the cleanest air in the city. In the state. Maybe even the country." He looked Sands squarely in the eyes. "We'd be fools to leave."
"However tidy things were during the golden era of Mr. Martin's reign," said Sands, "discipline has since gone slack. Way slack. These kids had a head-start on the radiation protection, sure, but now the water's hot and they don't bother with the lead pencils anymore. Many of the lead panels have fallen from the windows and nobody bothered to replace them. The kids spend more time fighting each other than looking out for People."
"So we get organized," Rowan said with a slight tremor in his voice, for Citro was helping helping him remove his suit and her hands weren't shy about it. "Feral though they may be, they're just kids after all. It won't be easy, but if we can somehow restore order to this mess, a hierarchy where we're firmly on top, our life expectancy drastically improves. Maybe an extra few years if we're lucky."
Rehearsal and Sands shared a resigned look, then quietly began removing their bulky spacesuits. They were here to stay.
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Sorry for yet another missed week. Was busy on other writing projects. Should be back to a regular schedule now.
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