Monday, December 5, 2011

Duck and Cover - Part 1 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton
After the Japan nuclear plant made everyone concerned about radioactivity, I dug out my Geiger counter and did daily counts for fun.  I also, just as an exercise, wrote this story.  The house is my own.

Duck and Cover
They were half-way to Lake Granger when the sky lit up.
"What is that?" Ginger screamed.
Clark didn't reply.  He immediately swerved off the highway and drove the Jeep across the ditch and through a wooden fence.  As soon as he had a hand free, he shoved her down.  "Stay low!  Don't look at it!"
Ahead was a deserted farmhouse.  He ignored the wood-frame building and pulled the Jeep up next to the brick and concrete shed next to it.  Only when he stopped and saw the shadows moving on the ground did he realize there was another one.
Ginger's eyes were wide with panic.
"Come on."  He held out his hand and pulled her out.
"Clark, what's going on?"
He made her huddle down with him next to the concrete.  "Nukes.  One in Austin, the other north.  Maybe Fort Hood."
"Oh, God!  We're going to die!"
He held her close, trying to put his own thoughts together.  The two of them, dressed for boating and picnicking on the lake, were caught in an open Jeep with no shelter in sight. 
"We'll make it.  But first we've got to wait for the shock waves."
"What do we do?"
"It'll all be ..."
Before he could complete the sentence, a tornado force wind blasted through the area from the south.  They huddled tighter into the shelter of the wall.  He kept his arms around her.
"Duck and cover," he laughed.  The air was like opening an oven.  But although it was still filled with dust and debris, it passed.
"I'm wishing for a school desk, like in those old Civil Defense films where school kids ducked under their desks."  It had appeared funny then, but it wasn't now.
"That was the Austin blast.  The other shouldn't be too long."
"But what about the fallout?  Won't it kill us anyway?" she was shivering.
He patted her shoulder.  "Two more minutes.  Then we'll head for shelter."
The shock wave from the north was severe, but less so than the Austin one.
"Come on.  It's time to move."
He checked the Jeep.  It had rocked, but the wall had kept it from flipping.  The engine was still running.  He hadn't thought to turn it off.
"Check the radio.  See if you can find anything."  He glanced at their picnic supplies in the back seat, but the ice chest and the basket were still intact.  He wrapped the towels around the basket.
He'd probably thrown the wheel alignment off when he'd jumped the ditch, but it got back up to highway speed with no more than a slight wobble.  There were cars off the road, some overturned, some burning, but there was other traffic, going in all directions.  Ginger pulled out her cell phone, but there was no signal.  He suspected the system was down.
There wasn't a good choice on which way to flee.  He'd seen two blasts, one upwind and one downwind, but the weather could change at any time.  If there'd been just one blast, he'd head cross wind as far and as fast as he could manage, but there were two.  Two meant that this was a widespread and co-ordinated attack.  San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and any number of other cities were likely showing their own mushroom clouds.  Fallout would be widespread.  He couldn't outrun it.
"Where are we going?"  Ginger was staring at the car radio.  It was scanning, and scanning, and scanning.  All the stations were off the air.
"My Uncle Fred's house."
She nodded, and switched from the FM to the AM band.  Shortly, she found a broadcast--an announcer saying what they already knew.  Many cities had been hit, all at once.  There'd been no missiles, no warning.  No one knew who did it.
The back-country roads were filled with hazards, and other cars racing, like him, at dangerously high speeds.  There was smoke everywhere, as either accidents, or blast effects had triggered so many fires that there was no one to put them out.  Dangerous gray clouds were high in the sky, and although they weren't glowing any more, Clark knew they were deadly.
"Ginger!" he yelled over the road noise.
"Make a breathing mask.  Make one for me too.  Fallout will be coming in minutes.  We don't want to breathe in that stuff."
She nodded, looking relieved to be able to do something.  She dug into her bag and ripped the sleeves off of a blouse.  She wrapped one around her face, and then carefully, she did the same for him as he drove.
The house he remembered was not too far.  He crossed the creek and found the cross-road.
Soon he was bouncing down the long gravel driveway into the five acre property.  There was no car in the driveway.  He hadn’t expected one.
"Ginger, we're probably already dusted with some of the fallout."  He led her to the back porch.  He pointed to the swimming pool, still as blue and inviting as he'd remembered before.  The property was down in a little valley and much of the force of the blast waves must have passed by overhead.  "Our clothes are contaminated as well as our skin and hair."  He pulled off his shoes and then his shirt. "Strip down and wash in the pool."  He didn't look her way as he stripped to the buff and jumped in.  Her splash came a few seconds later.
He scrubbed hard at his hair, and then pulled himself out.  She was doing what he'd asked, even if there was a suspicious look on her face.  "Leave your clothes on the porch, and come inside."
He dashed inside.  His uncle had never locked his doors, and this time was no different.  Padding with wet footsteps, he went straight to his uncle's office and rummaged until his found what he'd remembered from a visit three years before--a little Geiger counter.  The battery was dead, but there were replacements.  He had it clicking after a minute.
Ginger was waiting, her arms bundled across her chest.  He came up and ran the little device over her.  "You've still got some in your hair."
"Back to the pool."
"No.  There's still probably some water pressure in the lines.  Go use the shower and shampoo.  I've got to get the food out of the car."
It was uncomfortable to dash out into the sunlight naked, but there was no time for anything else.  He moved the ice chest and basket to the back porch.  With a garden hose, he rinsed them off and checked them with the counter.  The basket was still hot.  He unpacked the wrapped sandwiches and tubs of food and rinsed them separately.  After another dunk in the pool, he moved everything he could inside.
All the windows had been closed, and for that he was grateful.  The fallout hadn't gotten inside.  
But that didn't mean the clicks on the counter weren't climbing dangerously high.
He found Ginger and confirmed that her hair was clean.  "Good.  I'd hate to have to cut it off."
He pointed to the closets.  "Find clothes for you and me.  We'll be stuck in tight quarters for several days.  I've got to find the most secure place in the house."
This was Central Texas, so there was no basement in the house, and it was much too late to dig a fallout shelter.  He surveyed the house.   Centrally located, with no exterior walls, was a second bathroom.  With the electricity out, it was dark inside, but he stoppered the drains and started filling the tub and sink.  They would need all the water they could hoard.
He looked at the central air conditioning cabinet.  There was a cozy, if dusty, space under the actual air conditioner equipment.  It might be good enough.
Ginger arrived with a bundle of clothes.  She'd already dressed in an over-sized shirt.  "There weren't any women's clothes."
"Sorry."  He stuck the Geiger counter inside the air conditioner vent and the clatter of clicks dimmed a bit.
"Do we get in there?"  She didn't sound happy.
"We need to find the place that has the most mass between us and the outside.  There's no fallout inside, but it's already getting deadly hot outside, and those clicks are blasting right through the walls.  Every wall, or box or brick we can put between us and the dust will make us live longer.  This hallway is not good enough, not for the next few days.  The bathroom is better, and so is this air conditioner cavity."
"Is there any place else?"
He considered.  On the other side of the wall common to the bathroom and the hallway was the garage.  But he'd better check.
"Stay here in the bathroom and turn off the faucets when the sink and tub gets full.  We're collecting water."
"Put this on."  She handed him one of his uncle's khaki shorts.
"Sorry."  He slipped them on.  They were a little loose, but they'd work.
He kept the counter on, wincing at the clicks when he went through the laundry room to get to the garage.  But the garage was interesting, a warehouse so full of boxes that no car, nor likely a motorcycle, would be able to get in.  And there was a stairway up to the attic.  
Don't go there.  He wanted to go down, not up.  He wanted mass over his head.  But climbing over some boxes, he found the corner closest to where Ginger was waiting on the other side of the wall.  There, under the staircase, was an untidy little room that contained the hot water heater.  It might be tight quarters, but not as bad as the space under the air conditioner.
He checked with the counter.  Good.  This is it.
He pushed aside some boxes to make it easier to get in and then dashed back to get her.
She'd found a flashlight. 
"Good.  We'll need that.  I found a better place."  He led her to their shelter.
"How long are we going to be here?"
"Get inside and we'll talk."  She went in and they crouched in the dark.  He checked the clicks and showed her the scale.
"I really wish I knew all the answers, but I never thought I'd actually have to deal with it.  I remember just a few things.  One is that the exposure adds up.  See, inside here, we're in the blue range.  So it'd take us...two weeks or so to accumulate a fatal exposure."
"So we're still not safe?"
He took her hand.  "The thing is, the fallout peaks.  It burns itself out.  In a hundred hours, it'll only be one percent as hot.  Something like that.  I don't remember exactly.  But in just a couple of days it won't be deadly.  We'll probably only have to hide in here for three or four days to be safe.  And by that time, the fire department and the government people with all the fancy protective gear will be out in force, and we'll probably get better instructions on the radio.
"All we have to do is stay safe for just a few days."
He was telling her the most optimistic version, but they needed to keep hope alive.

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