Six months into an experiment to prove self-sufficiency is possible at the bottom of the sea, a war breaks out and soon after the five hundred specialists lose contact with the surface.
Palov Kilchinski stared the length of the room, his eyes fixed on the top of the stairs.
Seconds earlier the whole world had seemed to momentarily jump and, as his senses tingled painfully on high-alert, an explosion followed by a rolling roar impacted the twin doors leading into the basement.
Triggered by a sharp shot of adrenaline, his blinkered, tunnelled vision focused on the timber. As the wood visibly billowed, swelling and straining against the lock and hinges, Palov instinctively stepped away – but it did not crack and the frame held.
Fine dust escaped the base as the doors shuddered back into their seating, ballooning down the stairs to amass in a slow moving eddy until a dense shard-filled fog blocked the exit.
Escape was not Palov’s concern; nor were the alarms which warned the building was ablaze, or the screams of survivors from the floor above.
He scanned the basement for structural damage. At the far end of the room two wide cracks had appeared. One snaked down the wall to almost floor level; the other ran the length of the concrete ceiling, splitting the basement in two.
He turned to his colleague. “Check the seals are intact.”
Mikile Brunev – the only other in the building who was privy to the true nature of the facility – crossed to a touch screen on the right of a heavily fortified metal door and studied the readings. Positioned at eye level it was equipped with a line of LEDs, all of which were mute – bar one.
This single red light, glowing like a ripe autumn berry, indicated that the internal pressure within the chambers had fluctuated slightly. It happened from time to time and was not an automatic alert that something was faulty, since even a minuscule change would be registered.
The noise upstairs intensified as the search for survivors began. Muffled calls, stifled by the basement’s extraordinarily thick walls, intermingled with screams when limbs were released and the injured moved. Equipment, upended then dropped, loosened more dust from the ceiling and widened the fracture further.
The two men, focusing on their task, were oblivious to the chaos above.
Mikile entered a string of commands on the screen. He hoped to balance the pressure and extinguish the LED, but instead it seemed to have an adverse effect when a second diode began to glow, followed immediately by a third. He looked over his shoulder. “There are three lights on,” he gasped.
“It’s all right,” Palov replied, the calmness in his voice hiding a barely-controlled terror. “Anything less than five means the chambers remain hermetically sealed.”
When Mikile returned his attention to the screen he found a further LED had sprung to life. “There’s now…” he stopped as another lit. “No!” then a sixth and a seventh, “Please God! No!”
By now Palov could see for himself the string of pulsating red beads that adorned the safety panel and, as his self-preservation shut down, his thoughts went immediately to his family and loved ones. He knew what had to be done and it had to be done fast. Prompted into action, he crossed the room to the phone.
“Go and see what’s happening upstairs,” he instructed as he dialled an outside line, but when his colleague never moved, he screamed: “Mikile!. No-one must be allowed to leave; you know what you must do!”
Mikile was also ex-army and it was only discipline that kept him going now. Tearing his eyes away from the safety panel, he grabbed an Uzi and two spare clips from a cupboard then hurried towards the stairs.