The Last Laugh (2003)
Summary: The ad called it “an invigorating insight into the human mind”. An intriguing experience, but William had applied for the money. They all had. In the end the cost was too high.
Warnings: Suicide, suicidal thoughts, murder, cannibalism, angst, despair, experimentation, explosions, survival, starvation, death
Sarah was the first to go.
It was shock, but not the kind that really hits you right away. It scared us, it seemed to represent our own deaths, our mortality and that was something none of us were ready to face, perhaps we still had hope. It had already been sixteen days since we last heard from the Controller, since we last had any idea of what was happening, since we had any supplies. I missed my family, we all did. But then we all knew what we had signed on for. An experiment, they had called it, an experiment into the human condition. The catch line was – “an invigorating insight into the human mind”.
All from different walks of life, the only thing we had in common was that we all applied for the programme, we all wanted the $150,000 all participants were guaranteed on completion. The rules, we found were written on one of the walls in the main room of the bunker that was to be our home. Next to the rules hung a clock, denoting when our next food parcels would arrive and when the Controller would speak to us. It had all started as much of us had expected, sitting around sharing stories and getting to know each other, carrying out the daily tasks the Controller set us. We supposed they used them to study our reactions and responses to the tasks and each other. By the ninth day I was not the only one to notice that they were causing a rift in the group. It didn’t matter what we did to try and bridge this gulf between us, daily we were given more reasons, more suspicions. Things got increasingly worse, an uncomfortable situation to be in.
It must have been around the twelfth day that the Controller contacted me. This in itself was not out of the ordinary, he often chose to speak to individuals, though this was the first time he had done so with me. I went to the Control room, a small booth where communication took place. I sat down and leaned forward to press my thumb into the identification panel, it beeped and the light came on behind the window, showing the silhouetted figure of the Controller looking through at me. His voice came through the speakers in that eerie and off-putting way that he had always spoken to us, cold and emotionless.
“Hello William. I hope you are well.”
I shifted a little uncomfortably in my seat, I didn’t really like the Controller. We weren’t supposed to.
“I feel fine.” I answered. There was something about the Controller that made you want to be as clinical with him as he was with you, suspicion maybe. I waited for his questions.
“I have asked to talk to you William, to ask your opinion on the current state of affairs in the bunker. Is there anything you would like to talk about as far as this is concerned?”
I shook my head, there wasn’t really anything I wanted to say. I was hating it but there was nothing I could do. We had been told at the beginning that if we experienced any kind of unhappiness we could ask to leave, but also that if stress was observed you could be removed at the discretion of the Controller. And that would mean forfeiting the payment.
“Not really. I think I’m getting along with everyone.”
“You realise William that you are in a unique position. You are the only one in the group that can bridge the gaps. Born to a struggling working class family, the government paid for your University education. Once you achieved a higher degree in Engineering you were able to better yourself, your designs brought in great amounts of money. You married, one can only describe as incredibly well. However three years ago your wife, Moira, died in a car accident and you have been left to care for your children. You lost your job due to your family commitments, times have been hard…”
It was the most dramatic I had ever heard the Controller, but at the time my main response was anger, nothing he said was false and yet the way he said it, tauntingly, made me feel sick.
“I loved my wife!”
It seemed like a futile gesture but I had to say it, I needed to say it to remind myself. I had loved her, but I was resentful. Why did she have to die and leave me? No money, children that I could barely control, as much as I loved them. I blinked some old tears from my eyes and looked back to the screen. The Controller was waiting for me to speak.
“Is that why I am here? To bridge gaps? What do you want me to do, be a mediator and pull the two sides back into one group? Are you testing me?”
“This is a test for you all, William. How you deal with it is up to you. However, it must be said that there are things were are hoping you will help us glean from this current experiment.”
“You're not going to tell me exactly what they are though!”
I could feel his sadistic smile hidden in the silhouetted shadows. The lights went out behind him and the screen went blank. I was still in. I had been scared at the time that I would be ejected, and though I wasn’t happy to hear that the Controller was specifically charging me with some sort of task that I didn’t fully know or understand, I was glad to be here. That was then. And every night in my dreams I replay that moment and wish I had asked to be let out, told them I missed my kids and I wanted to go home, I would get money from somewhere else.
It was over the next few days that things got worse, the tasks seemed to separate us more. I could do nothing to bridge the widening gap and in the end I just kept to myself, out of the growing war zone. We were all suffering, everyone was on edge, you could see it in their eyes – furtive, suspicious glances seemed the only form of communication between the two groups. I was also treated with such attitudes. It was on the day that I thought they might finally turn on me, stop me from taking part in the tasks, when it happened.
It was about 5 am. The bunker was rocked by a huge explosion, we had all been asleep. By now the sleeping arrangements had changed, we had gone from the four dorms that encircled the central activity area, housing five each of us, to a much more territorial set up. After the divisions it had not been long before the groups, wary of each other had moved rooms and by now only three of the four rooms were occupied. The first and second rooms were occupied by the two respective groups, they faced each other over the large central activity area, one now housed ten beds, the other nine rather than just the original five. I myself had taken to sleeping in one of the remaining rooms, though it was far from empty, it seemed to have become a dumping ground for any equipment we had been given by the Controller to complete tasks. On this particular morning it didn’t take long before we were all standing in the activity area, looks of suspicion replaced with those of concern and fear. After the initial shock another followed a few minutes later, this one was much closer and many of us were knocked off our feet. The lights in the activity areas turned red and an alarm started to sound, an electronic voice began reciting a warning to evacuate the complex, within seconds this wound down and died, as did the lights. We sat in the dark for some minutes, nobody spoke. I was the first to move, I went to the communication panel, the only thing in the room still lit with an eerie green glow. I hoped that meant it was working. I pressed the communication button, the way we were to contact the Controller if ever we needed to. It was dead air, there was nothing at all on the other end. The clock had stopped counting down and was frozen at 3 hours, 12 minutes and 56 seconds. I could hear the others had started to move and some had begun to gather around me at the panel.
“What happened William?” Jake said my name but I knew the question wasn’t really aimed at me, I knew that what he really wanted to know, what they all did, was had the comm worked? was there anyway to reach someone? I shrugged.
“Sounded like an explosion, the comm isn’t working… well if it is there’s nobody at the other end.”
Finally there was talking, it seemed everyone at once. Questions about what had happened, they asked themselves, what was the explosion? Who would rescue us? Would the Controller contact us? How would we get out? As they all stood around, I decided there was only one other thing to try, I went to the eighth door. Other than the four blue doors marking the bedrooms, the two yellow doors marking the bathrooms and the red door to the Control Room, there was the eighth door, pure white like the rest of the walls, to seem less obvious though we were all too aware of it. With its small panel to the right, this was the door we had entered, the door to the outside world. I pressed the panel, nothing happened. I hit it. It made a noise and then flickered into life, the new light drew some of the others over like moths, from their attempts at the communication panel.
“Code Please.” Asked another electronic voice. I pressed some of the buttons and had the words repeated over and over. One of the others, a big man, a construction worker called Stan pushed past me.
“I’ve had enough of this shit.” He announced as he pulled back a fist. Before he could slam it into the panel someone from behind grabbed his arm, it was Louis.
“For Christ’s sake Stan don’t be an idiot, this might be our only way out and I don’t think it’s going to work too well with a hole in it.” Knowing Louis was right but wanting to save face Stan shrugged him off violently and grudgingly walked to the back of the crowd. Sarah appeared, with candles.
“These were in the store room.” My bedroom, she meant.
We had used them on a task we had been asked to carry out in the dark, team building the Controller called it, though as with all the tasks it was really the opposite.
“But no matches.” She handed me the candles, somehow I had gone from being the outsider to the leader, I wondered how long it would last, and if I had a choice. But, hoping to live up to such a position I had an idea. Carrying the candles back over to the Communication Panel I placed them on the floor. Using my pocket knife I was able to remove one of the smaller side panels. As I suspected, inside was a tangle of wires and few switches, I cut through some of the wires and sparked them together, getting the idea Sarah held one of the candles close and we were able to light the wick using the sparks.
We ended up all sat around the table in the middle of the activity area, lit by a few of the candles. All twenty of us sat there for the first time in what now seemed an age. In the middle we had the provisions we had gathered amongst us: a very small amount of food that had been saved by chance, the remaining candles that might need to be rationed, a few tools we had between us. The only one that appeared of any use was my pocket knife.
Sitting off centre, I soon realised that all the eyes in that dim light were turned expectantly to me. I breathed deeply in and then cleared my throat.
“Well, its no use summing up what’s happened, as none of us know, all we can really do is guess.”
I hadn’t meant it as an invitation but some voices sounded in the near dark. Many spoke of faulty wiring or some sort of chemical explosion. After all who knew what else they were up to in this complex, but then one voice seemed to raise above the rest.
“Probably the Eastern Coalition, finally decided to use those weapons they’ve been developing.”
Silence settled over us. It was a sobering thought. Nuclear war, after the Atom War of 2033 it was something that always hung in the air, some people called it the New Cold War. But perhaps they were right, maybe the talking was over and actions had begun. If that was the case it meant there was probably nothing to escape the bunker for. The radiation outside the complex would be lethal, and it meant that our families and friends were gone, we were possibly the only people still alive in the Western Union.
My kid's faces came to my mind, my beautiful children. I had thought it would be tough, being without them for twelve weeks of the experiment, but faced with the thought that not only would I never see them again, they had died gruesomely at the hands of a heartless enemy… I couldn’t think of it, tears were welling in my eyes but I knew I had to shrug them off, now was not the time to grieve, not until we really knew.
“All valid suggestions, but right now lets work on the premise that it was some sort of problem in the complex.” They all knew what I was saying, don’t think about it, don’t even wonder if you have a family anymore, do not give up.
Emily spoke. “Does anyone have any suggestions, how to work the door, or another way out?”
I smiled over to her in thanks for her support. Mutters bounced over the table, ideas, some impossible. We knew we couldn’t ram the main door, it was steel and as far as I could remember from our arrival it was at least six inches thick and secured with internal metal bars.
Finally a possibility arose. The Control Room.
I was the one to go and check it out, with Stan and Martina, another engineer, specifically from the Space Programme. The three of us just fit in the Control Room with a little space to spare and three candles giving almost but not quite enough light. After an hour or so we were able to remove the screen, it revealed another room behind. We were thankful for this, it had been feared that it would be nothing more than the plasma screen and we were just seeing the Controller’s image. Martina, being the smallest of us was first to climb into the room, I passed her a candle and she lit the room for us. It was no bigger than the Control Room itself, but there was a door. Martina glanced over at us first and then headed for the door, I climbed over in to the room leaving Stan holding the candles behind us. Martina tried the door to no avail. I tried it, almost desperately, but there was no give. Martina ran her hands over it, then to the side feeling for hinges, there were none just as the main door.
“Who wants to bet this one’s made of six inch steel as well.” Martina said, knocking on the exit with a clunk. Stan grunted and kicked the wall.
“Maybe we were stupid thinking it would be that easy.” I said turning back to the Control Room.
I was right, it seemed there was no way out, and within a day it got worse, there was no food and the candles were burning low, quickly arguments set in. The rifts were starting anew. But worse, no matter how hard I tried to keep us all together. It started like before, small things at first, people were making the effort to stick together but the things that had come before the explosion kept coming back up, the rift continued and got wider. Within the week even the attempt to work together stopped for the most part. There seemed no hope at all.
With the help of Martina I had managed to use some of the task equipment and the wiring both from the Communication Panel and the area beyond the Control Room to make a simple detonation device. We tried it on the door in the new room hoping that it may not be as thick as the main door, whether we were right or not it was to no avail, it didn’t leave so much as a burn mark. On the third day after the explosion Stan and some of the others had managed to pull the part of the Communication Panel off over the unit that supplied the food. After getting right inside it and pulling it apart they were able to find at least a week’s total ration stored in the automatic mechanisms, if we strung it out we knew we could make it last two weeks or more. It was a relief at first, but the feeling didn’t last long. We had food for a little longer but we were all too aware that we were still trapped with no way out and no idea what was going on, on the other side of the door.
The darkness didn’t help.
The only light, though it was increasingly seeming dimmer as the time passed, was from the Communication Panel, half of which had now been removed showing some bare fibre-optic cables, not that it was any better. I think we all started to become a little detached, thinking too much about what might be going on, whether the people on the outside were still alive. On the fifteenth day after the explosion the food was at the last again, and it was then that Jack, usually a quiet man, spoke out. In the real world he worked for the Western Union Emergency Services.
“I have experience of dealing with facility emergencies, even government facilities.”
He had wanted to say this for a while I was sure, but even now it was hard for him to get the words out, knowing what it was he was telling us. Facts: hard and cold.
“If this were just an explosion then they would have got to us by now, whatever it was it was not a localised event. I think it is possible that there has been some sort of multi-regional disaster to effect a complex this size.”
That was as harsh as he could bring himself to say it but we knew what he meant. There were silent nods in the fading light.
The next day when we found Sarah had killed herself.
It was no real surprise, not that it had been expected, but somewhere along the line I think we had all become too numb to truly register what had happened. We were all at our lowest, but we didn’t realise it could get lower. When the fighting broke out between Stan and Louis we figured it wouldn’t get much further than Stan giving him a knock down and then moving on. None of us really thought that Louis would try and fight back. We all felt guilty for his death, it went too far and perhaps we should have stepped in.
I should have stepped in.
I could feel the blood on my hands as if I had caused his death myself. He had gone down hard and hit his head, the blood seemed to be everywhere even in the dark. Stan just stood there shaking his head, looking at his hands and saying he didn’t mean for it to happen. Others were in shock. It took Jack to point out the chilling if obvious - we had to put the bodies somewhere, clean up the mess, get rid of the smell. It was as I helped move Sarah’s body into the new room, where we figured we could put them then board it back up again, I wondered how long it would be before someone suggested that we turn to these bodies to stay our hunger. The thought turned my stomach.
Soon we were all asleep again, there was little else to do but sleep. I could hear the shallow breaths of these human beings. What had we been reduced to? Suicide, murder, it seemed cannibalism might be next. I shook my head, was this the human condition?
No, this was survival, but then some would say that of life. I sighed. Quietly picking myself up off the floor, we had all taken to sleeping in the activity area near the Communication Panel, but now, as the light was almost out, I stole silently into the Control Room. I took the supplies I had earlier stashed and began work. I didn’t know how long it would take but I hoped that the others would remain sleeping. I knew this was the only way out but I was sure that many of the others wouldn’t see that for another week or more, but what could happen in a week? More death and starvation, or worse. I pulled the panel back and climbed into the new room. There was the smell of death emanating from the bodies. I tripped over one trying to get to the control panels. I had worked this out earlier, but I hadn’t told anyone, not even Martina though I had wondered if she thought my plan would succeed if I told her.
We would soon see. Now was my last chance, if I waited much longer there might not be enough power left, I began the modifications.
I must have fallen asleep. I woke to find two people standing next to me, Martina and Riley. I looked up, I had finished, but it wasn’t over yet. Martina looked over my shoulder, kept looking closer and closer in the remaining candle light, disbelieving.
“You can’t have done that. It’s not possible.”
“What?” Riley asked.
She shook her head and stepped back, almost stumbling over the bodies.
“How do we stop it.” She cried, reaching forward again she grabbed my shoulders. “William what were you thinking. How do we stop it?” She shouted. I shrugged.
“I don’t know. I didn’t mean for it to be stopped.” I told the truth.
“Dear god.” Martina grabbed at Riley and then climbed back through the panel space into the Control Room, running then back to the others, waking them. I followed at a slower pace.
“A bomb?” Stan asked. Martina explained. Not a bomb. I had rerouted the remaining power in on itself. I had created an exponential power build-up and once it reached fatal capacity the entire facility would be nothing more than a crater. It was the one last thing I could do. To save our dignity, stop us becoming something subhuman. There was no other way out.
“How long?” Martina asked me, grabbing my shoulders again, this time shaking me as violently as she could. Once again I shrugged.
“A few hours maybe, it depends on how much power is left.”
Shoulders seemed to slump, heads hung low. No more questions. Resignation.
For three hours or more we sat around the remaining candles, ate the remaining food and talked. There had been the shouting at first, recriminations, but then it had sunk in, and like Sarah and Louis’s deaths it was accepted. We talked about our families, friends, pets, our jobs and houses, irksome neighbours, childhood sweethearts, elderly aunts. We shared more than we had in the past weeks.
I rolled my pocket knife over in my hand, in the dim light I couldn’t read the inscription I felt beneath my fingers but I knew it by heart anyway. To my darling fixer, carry us with you always. She had given it to me only weeks before she died, from her and the kids for my birthday. I fixed it, as I always did. Fixed the situation and made it better.
We were blinded when the lights came on.
I could see nothing but red as if I had been staring into a light bulb. I could hear ticking, squinting my eyes open I could see the clock had reset itself and begun again. A voice blared over an intercom system.
“Congratulations participants. We have been monitoring your progress during this fall-out simulation and, despite the unfortunate deaths of two of your party, we are glad that you reacted as we suspected you would. Cash commendations will be awarded to those who discovered the Controller Room and those who discovered the hidden food rations…”
The voice continues…
So now I sit here, thinking back on the whole experiment and I try to justify my actions. I was right, wasn’t I? At the time it seamed the right thing to do, how were any of us to know? Martina’s crying now, I’m trying to see her properly through my blurred vision, is it relief or sadness? I look down at the pocket knife still in my hand, and I smile. I wasn’t really to blame. Maybe things worked out for the best. I’m coming to you Moira. I closed my eyes, I could hear the voice over the telecom.
“Finally, congratulations to William, for your ingenuity. However, now that the simulation is over please proceed to the Controller Room where you will be met by a tech team who will help you undo…”
Now, searing pain. My eardrums bursting. My body feels like fire. I’m coming to you Moira.