Lights Out

Published 31 January, 2018

It was just a regular day at the office. Then the power went out. When your office is right at the bottom of a top secret bunker in the middle of nowhere, well, let’s just say that’s not good.

Technically, it wasn’t a top secret bunker. It was a COSMIC secret bunker, which is two full security levels above top secret. Even the term COSMIC is top secret. Plenty of people knew of the bunker’s existence, but not many knew where it was. I could tell you its exact location, but then I’d have to kill you if I could. You get the picture.

I was sitting at my desk at the primary control pod, the office that was the beating heart of the bunker, when everything went dark. One minute the lights were on, the next they were off. As was everything else.  Everything. What made this interesting was that above me was a ten storey building, each floor twice the size of a football pitch. Above the ten storeys was another couple of hundred feet of solid earth, and above that, the doors to the outside world, the surface. There wasn’t any heating this far down. There was no need; the earth itself heated it. All we had was air conditioning, and that had to work pretty hard to keep things bearable. I sat there in the dark and listened, but as I couldn’t hear anything other than the beating of my own heart, I figured that the air conditioning had gone the same way as the lighting and everything else.

The bunker was the United Kingdom’s bolthole for pretty much anything from a nuclear attack to an extinction level event. It housed the important people who ran the country, and some military grunts like myself to look after them. There was room above me for hundreds and hundreds of guests, everyone from the Prime Minister, the Royal Family (but only as far down as fourth in line to the throne), to some of the brightest and best scientists in the country. Enough supplies to keep them alive for years. Everyone who would be needed to get what was left of the country back on its feet had a place somewhere in here. The greens on the golf course outside doubled up as helipads, and the private airfield next to the golf course had a runway large enough for the biggest military transport planes. When the balloon went up, the area outside the bunker would get very busy, very quickly and any surviving civilians soon moved on.

I sat in my chair for a few seconds, waiting for the backup generator to kick in. Power outs weren’t that unusual and were in fact one drill that we ran regularly. At the back of my mind was the fact that when the primary power went out, people working in the bunker shouldn’t even notice as the secondary power had enough juice to keep the facility on line without interruption for months. Long enough for us to fix the primary anyway. It wouldn’t do for the Prime Minister to lose half a written e-mail because his computer shut down, now would it? The whole bunker, the entire system, had redundancy upon redundancy. That was the main reason I was sitting there in the bunker’s primary control pod. I was in charge of the whole place.

There were two of us below decks altogether. Me, and Sergeant Gordon. I was the officer, he was the enlisted man. I had no idea what his real first name was as I only ever knew him as ‘Flash’. Although he had to call me sir, and salute me when he walked past, down here he was just Flash and I was just Jamie. We were the maintenance crew, tasked with keeping the bunker alive just in case. Everything from the nuclear reactor even further below my feet to the oxygen recycling system built into the walls was designed to be maintained by only two people. Flash and I were one of three teams who rotated through the bunker, two weeks at a time, looking after a mothballed bunker.

“Status update,” I called into the darkness. The voice recognition system, normally like Siri on steroids, remained silent. “Status update?” I repeated, louder. No response. I knew in front of me there was my keyboard and lots of monitors, all now useless. There was also an emergency phone, and as I figured that this probably counted as an emergency, I decided to use it.

Blinking, I put my hand out on the desk in front of me, sweeping aside my lunch debris. Even though there was no natural light anywhere, we still stuck to a normal daily routine to help when we changed rotations. Otherwise it would take a week to readjust on the outside. I learnt that one the hard way after my first rotation when I was keen as mustard to be the officer I’d been told I could be. Our timekeeping meant at least I knew what time it was. Just after lunch.

My hand found the telephone just where I knew it was. Eight inches to the left of the computer screen in front of me. It was red, not that I could see it. I picked it up expecting to hear a ring tone, but there was nothing. That didn’t make sense. The phone line wasn’t linked to the electricity supply, or any of the other life support systems. It was just a phone line. For emergencies only. I found the thing you press on the top and rattled it a couple of times. Nothing.

“Flash?” I shouted. “Flash? Are you there?” I knew he wasn’t, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been heading ‘up top’ to do the daily checks on the access doors to the bunker. There were two of them, far above me, both at least five feet thick. Both five thick feet of metal and concrete. The opening of the main door was huge, large enough to drive a four tonne truck through. We knew it was because which we drove through it in four tonne trucks all the time. The other door was big enough for a man, but no bigger. The metal sills of both doors were angled and countersunk to resist under and over-pressure such as from a nuclear explosion, and they would only ever open outward. Never inward. They would even stand up to a direct hit from a nuke, according to the Americans who’d apparently tried it with the same model of bunker a few years ago. Nothing if not secure, but the complex locking mechanism still needed checking and oiling every day.

I felt around for my rifle, which was leaning up against my chair. Never further than two feet away from me at all times even though there was no one else down here. Regulations were regulations after all. Picking it up, I slung it over my shoulder as I did countless times every day and got to my feet. I took one step back, and three to the right. Inching forward with my left hand to my side, I felt the edge of my desk just where I’d hoped it would be. Next was six steps forward which would put me in front of the emergency cupboard. It was designed and equipped for pretty much anything, including a complete power outage. I put my right hand out and winced as I stubbed my fingers. The cupboard was a few inches closer than I thought. Opening the cupboard, I grabbed the heavy rubberised torch and pressed the button to turn it on.

One of the weekly checks we did almost without fail was to ensure that the emergency cupboards were all fully stocked. With three cupboards on each floor, this took a while which is why I say almost without fail. This cupboard was different though, as it was in the primary control pod. I’d checked this cupboard just after breakfast only a few hours ago, so I knew it was up to scratch which is why I was surprised when I pressed the button. The only thing that happened was a click from the button. No blinding beam. Not even a glimmer of light, just a quiet futile click in the darkness. If I didn’t have any light, then I couldn’t read the standard operating procedures. Some procedures, the SOPs, were fixed firm in my head because we exercised them all the time. If the reactor core was overheating, I knew what to do. The same if the oxygen systems went down. But a complete power outage? No idea at all.

I reached back into the cupboard for the back-up batteries. Working carefully so as not to spill them as I opened the packet. A battery rolling away into the darkness would be no help at all. Working by touch, I changed the batteries in the torch. Still nothing. Remembering the induction training I’d had, I started to get a sinking feeling in my chest. The only thing that would knock out all the power, even down to the batteries in the torches, was an electromagnetic pulse.

What really bothered me was the knowledge it would have to be an EMP large enough to penetrate through hundreds of feet of soil and rock, then ten stories of metal lined floors and ceilings. It would have to have enough power left after all that to knock out both the primary and secondary power sources in the bunker, and of course the batteries in the cupboard. That would have to be a massive EMP. I could feel the weight of the bunker pressing down from above, and I started to feel claustrophobic in the silent darkness. I could see nothing, smell nothing, hear nothing but my own body. I took a few deep breaths and tried to quiet my inner panic. No EMP could be that powerful, I reassured myself. It had to be something else. Reactor failure perhaps. An unexpected exercise to test our response. Both much more likely.

I put the useless torch back into the cupboard, followed by the batteries I’d swapped out. Think, think, I told myself. I closed my eyes to see if it made any difference, but it was just as dark on both sides of my eyelids. The only thing I could think of to do was to head up and find Flash. Two heads were better than one, and Flash was more experienced than I was. He would know what to do. I frowned, trying to bring up the layout of the bottom floor in my mind. There were stairwells dotted about the place, but most of them only went up one or two stories. The stairwell I needed was the emergency stairwell in the far left corner of the floor if I remembered the plans correctly. Those stairs went all the way up to the surface. I remembered Flash waving this morning as he headed over to them. The only time we ever used the stairwell was for the surface checks as the landing floors and steps were made of steel grids. This meant that if you looked down from the top, you could see all the way to the bottom. Hundreds of feet. Thousands of stairs. Even people who never suffered from vertigo grabbed onto the handrail when they looked down, knuckles white on the steel.

I put my hands out in front of me to find the door to the control pod. Pulling it open took much more effort than it had when the power was on, which didn’t make any sense to me as the door was hydraulically assisted. It was only when the door seal broke and I heard a subtle hiss that I realised the pressure inside the control pod was higher than the pressure in the larger office space outside. Either the pressure maintenance system wasn’t working, or the bunker itself was losing pressure somewhere. I’d have to check with Flash when I found him; that was much more his area than mine.

By the time I inched my way to the outside wall of the bottom floor, I was sweating. I tried to remember where the nearest fridges were but gave up on that when I recalled the water crates at every third floor within the stairwell. I had a few false starts as I worked my round the exterior wall, such as opening a cleaning cupboard and walking into a pile of mops and buckets, but I eventually got to the bottom of the emergency stairs. Pulling the door open was the same as the control pod door. Harder than it should have been, and accompanied by a hiss of air. I walked through the door and almost slipped over on the wet floor. Swearing, I steadied myself and rearranged my rifle on my shoulder. Why was the floor wet? Had some water crates burst? I crouched down and put my hand to the floor. The fluid on the concrete was much thicker than water. As I took an experimental sniff, the copper tang in the back of my nose told me what it was. Blood.

“Flash?” I called out under my breath. He was the only other person in the whole complex. “Flash? Are you there, mate?” No response. With my foot I tapped my way round the bottom of the stairwell until my worst fears were realised. There was a body lying at the bottom of the stairwell that could only be Flash’s. It wasn’t the first dead body I’d come across. I was a soldier after all. But Flash was my friend. I swallowed hard, telling myself I could grieve later. Once I was out of the bunker.

The air got fresher as I climbed the stairs, but even so I had to stop to get my breath every few flights. I was in good shape, so I told myself it must be stress. I was sweating profusely, which didn’t help my grip on the handrail, but I kept going. I had no idea how Flash had died, whether he’d been killed or had an accident, but I wasn’t planning on hanging around to find out. The inevitable service enquiry would find all that out. I kept going, upwards and upwards. Past the VIP floor where the Prime Minister and the Royals (but only up to the fourth in line) would live. Past the laboratories where bizarre looking scientific equipment I would never understand stood in the darkness. Past the accommodation floor where Flash and I had both lived in our duty bunk rooms, complete with X-Boxes and large screen televisions. As I got to the accommodation floor, I paused. In my bunk room were photos of my wife and kids. I could pop in and get the pictures, but as I thought about it I realised that I had no idea where my bunk room was in relation to the emergency stairwell. Not in the dark.

I kept going upward until I reached the top of the bunker. I knew it was the top because I walked into a wall, winding myself. I had started off keeping count of the floors, but after a while I could only concentrate on climbing and trying to ignore the lactic acid build-up in my thighs. I stood there for a few minutes, catching my breath and waiting for my heart get back to normal. There was a crate of water in the far corner of the room I was now in, which I chugged from gratefully.

Finding the wall of the large room at the top of the bunker was easy, as was following it round to find the entrance door. I ignored the large door, the one big enough to drive trucks through. The electric motors needed to open it wouldn’t be working, so I felt my way past it to the smaller door. I reached my hands out to find the large metal handle like an oversized steering wheel that secured it. Grunting from the effort, I turned it counter-clockwise, and felt the metal cylinders inside grind in their channels. Remembering how much heavier the doors downstairs were when I opened them, I was wondering how I would get this much thicker door open when the wheel was snatched from my grasp and the door flew open.

A column of air smacked into my back like a giant fist, and I fell through the door and onto the concrete pan outside. As I went over the lip, my foot caught on the surround and sent me sprawling to my knees. The only thing I could hear was air rushing from the open door behind me, but the sound didn’t last long. The air might have kept rushing out, but both my eardrums bursting took any sound away. Isn’t that supposed to hurt, I asked myself as I looked up at the sky. It was pitch black when it should have been bright blue. Stars so bright they hurt my eyes peppered the dark sky. But it was lunchtime? I gasped at the sight, red hot air searing my lungs, but I couldn’t scream. I looked over at the golf course where I could see columns of water streaming up into the sky from the lakes and ponds that frustrated golfers every day. The skin on my face and hands prickled and I felt it start to burn and crack as the periphery of my vision greyed out. The greyness got darker and the tunnel I could see through got smaller and smaller until everything faded to black. Just before I lost consciousness, a line from one of the SOPs came into my head.

“In the event of an extinction level event, NEVER open the bunker door.”

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the following writing prompt: It was just a regular day at the office. Then the power went out.

I hope you enjoyed it – please let me know in the comments if you did!