Another Ten Seconds
Chapter 30 "The Queberites"
by Jeff Rand
John Howey and Doug Wilson arrived back at Camp Agawam in the old 1983 Ford pickup carrying Alan Wilson and Dr. Robert Hartwig in its bed, in clear violation of Camp Policy.
"Doug, Look up!" shouted John, pointing towards the helicopter hovering above the pickup truck.
"Oh no! I don't think they're here for a friendly visit," Doug responded. "We must get out of here fast!"
"To the maintenance building?" queried John.
"No, to the pit," said Doug, referring to the buried concrete latrine vault that he had discovered about 100 yards east of the building.
The vault was the remains of an old outhouse, without the above ground wooden structure. Doug had discovered the well-hidden vault and removed the access cover. It was a 5 x 7 foot chamber, with a depth of about 6 feet. The top was sealed where the seats had once been, but Doug's perseverance had broken the seal at the access cover. Whatever human waste it once contained had dried decades ago to become benign earth.
In spite of the bumpy ride in the back of the pickup, both Alan and Bob had gone to sleep following their extrication from the Lapeer NVR Center. The commotion brought them into a state of semi-consciousness, but neither had the ability to move on his own accord.
Doug grabbed Alan, as John reached for Bob. Doug attempted to pull Alan over his shoulder, but the old man did not have enough strength to pick up his son. Briefly he considered dropping his pack of supplies and trying again, but opted instead to drag Alan to the vault.
The younger John Howey decided to leave his pack and make the carry with Dr. Bob first. Remarkably he made quick progress, arriving at the pit just a minute later. He dropped Dr. Bob rather abruptly through the access hole and ran (as much as he was able) back to assist Doug.
Before assisting Doug, however, John grabbed his pack and brought it back to the pit. John turned around at the edge of the hole at the moment of the explosion. The percussion knocked him forward over the rough edge of the pit.
Doug could see through the trees John standing at the vault about 75 feet away. He had dragged Alan more than 300 feet at pace far beyond the expectation of his years, stopping to rest a few seconds -- a few seconds too much. The rush of wind and heat threw him backward on top of Alan. The whole right side of his body caught the force. Though his brain hesitated to register the horrendous pain, the hot gas and debris melted the right sleeve of his jacket. The flesh underneath and on the side of his face suffered severe burns.
The shock wave from the blast passed abruptly, only to be replaced by a raging fire. The fire spread quickly and engulfed the entire area. Three more blasts further away shook the ground.
John had no time to think. Instinctively he ran through the smoke and flames towards Doug and Alan.
"Look! They got the woods on fire!" blurted Doug, slurring his words. "Oh John, please take Alan. I'll make it. Just help save Alan!"
John flashed an expression of terror when he saw the right side of Doug's face. He obeyed Doug's wishes with exceptional strength and speed, as he carried Alan through the flames to the vault. Alan, it seemed, was unhurt and semi-conscious. Yet John could do nothing more than drop him in the pit.
Doug attempted to crawl over the rough ground, with no success. A wall of flame and a thick choking smoke surrounded him. Soon, like the woods, he would feed the flame with his own flesh. Days earlier he had saved John. Now his fate depended entirely upon John.
"Doug! Doug! Roll over!" screamed John. "You're on fire!"
Doug could not oblige John's request.
John grabbed him and rolled him enough to snuff out the flame. John gasped and coughed. The progressively softer life that he had enjoyed for sixty-two years had come to an abrupt end when he became disconnected from the Net. Until that time his body and soul had never been put to the test. Though, if he had just a moment to think, he would realize the futility of rescuing Doug. He lacked both strength and time to move Doug the required distance. They both would die. Alan and Bob would die too in the pit. Rational thought required that Doug be left alone. John simply ignored rational thought and rescued Doug despite the impossibility.
Two minutes later John was a different human being, as he pulled the lid shut to seal the pit from the firestorm outside. Now, inside the pit the four humans breathed the 200 cubic feet of air that represented their slim chance of survival.
"Doug, how are you doing?" asked John, breaking the dark silence.
"I'm alive," responded the old man, obviously in great pain. "You must take care of Alan and Bob. They'll run out of oxygen and they'll die."
John spent his fullest physical and mental effort in getting Doug to the relative safety of the pit, now realizing that its safety was most temporary. The fire would soon deplete the oxygen above and the precious air in the pit would sustain life for a few minutes at best. Perhaps Doug would know how many liters of air a person might consume in a given period, but it was not a question John would ask. The mental capacities now present, best be put to immediate work in devising a solution. He reached inside his pack and found a flashlight. Next he located the tube and propane cylinder that he had used as a breathing apparatus when he and Doug had entered the NVR center to rescue Alan and Bob.
Doug had fashioned a breathing apparatus for himself and John to use when they entered the center. He used old rubber bicycle tubes and propane cylinders. He managed to refill the cylinders with air by using a bicycle pump, likening his creation to scuba gear. They were designed to be simple, yet effective safety aids for a rescue operation in an NVR center with a defense mechanism capable of gassing an invader. Always a cautious individual, Doug decided to fill two extra cylinders in case the operation took longer than expected.
"Doug, do you still have your breathing gear?" asked John.
"Yes, it's in my pack."
"I have an idea. We can share the gear among the four of us and use the extra tanks."
"John, is that you?" spoke the feeble voice from Bob Hartwig.
"Yes, Bob, it is."
"Where are we?"
"We're at Camp Agawam."
"Yes. I'm afraid that we had a bit of a problem in our rescue attempts."
Now more alert, Bob continued, "I'm sorry. I must have blacked out. I feel so weak. I can't move at all. How's Doug? Did he make it?"
John coughed. The air was getting worse. It surprised him that Dr. Bob inquired of Doug, as he seemed to be less than alert during recent events.
"Bob, I'm here," said Doug, trying to add strength to his weak voice. "I may need some help when you're up and about. I'm afraid I've suffered some nasty burns."
Bob responded, "Oh, I'm sorry. I want to help. I just don't know what happened to me. I must have been hit with something - perhaps some chemical agent. And I'm finding it hard to breathe."
John said, "Bob, there's a pretty bad fire raging above ground, but we're safe here in the vault. I'll give you some oxygen with this special apparatus that we made."
"Funny, I don't remember making an oxygen mask. Just how long have I been unconscious?"
John hesitated to answer. Bob's comment made no sense. A discussion of whatever reality that Bob thought existed would wait. John knew that more immediate problems required their focus. "Here, take some oxygen," he said. "I think we need to treat Doug. Just tell me what to do."
John placed a tube in Bob's mouth and allowed him to take a few breaths before bringing it to his own face. He took two deep breaths before closing the valve. Sooner or later he realized they would have to breathe exclusively from the tank. Now the cool sweat air brought a moment of pleasurable relief from the stale air in the vault.
John shined his light on Doug and proceeded to describe his condition to Dr. Bob with a clinical lack of emotion. John's first aid knowledge was sufficient to identify the second and third degree burns on the right side of Doug's face. The clothing looked to be melted and fused into the flesh on Doug's right shoulder, but John hesitated to give a full description.
"John, what do you have in the line of first aid supplies?" inquired Bob.
"I think we might have some gauze - not much else."
"Is there any pure water available?"
Doug surprised John and responded himself, "I stashed a five gallon container in the pit, but I'm not sure how pure it is or what was in the jug when I filled it. We should save it for drinking."
Dr. Bob said, "I would advise using it to clean your wounds, but only if the water is very pure - very, very pure."
"Well I'm afraid we don't have that option," said John curtly. "Now what else can I do?"
"Any way to purify the water?" asked Bob.
"I don't know. I suppose I could just go outside in the fire and boil a pot," said John hopelessly.
"Let's just leave it be for now," said the doctor. "We don't want to introduce infection. Burned tissue is very susceptible and sometimes best left alone. It may take a long time to heal, but people have recovered from severe burns without medical attention."
"What about ..."
"We'll look it later," interrupted Dr. Bob. "How you doing Doug?"
"It's very painful," responded the feeble patient.
Bob offered encouragement, "To be expected. Your mind has more important matters to address. We need your help."
The conversation stunned John and he sat silent. If Dr. Bob expected Doug to help with their survival, then as the ablest John best assume his responsibilities. He would continue the challenge, however certain he was of their impending death.
"Bob, I suggest you concentrate on moving your fingers. I found that if you can regain use of a small part of your body, you can eventually achieve full mobility," said John.
Bob agreed and turned his thoughts to his own situation.
John moved his attention to Alan, who had yet to offer any sign that he was mentally alert. Alan sat propped in the opposite corner against the water jug. Shining the light in his face, John was surprised to see that Alan's eyes were actually open. However, Alan's lack of response to the light indicated an Osvath-like state of delirium. John crawled over three sets of legs that filled the cramped quarters. He proceeded to slap Alan's face repeatedly and offered a chorus of obscenities to shock him into consciousness. Slowly Alan became more alert.
Minutes later Bob spoke, "John, I think I could use some more oxygen. I'm having trouble concentrating. I think the carbon dioxide level is getting dangerous. We could drift into a coma before we realize it."
At once, John realized the gravity of the situation. He had seen Alan move his eyes and respond to his actions, but only momentarily. During the last few minutes Alan became less alert and John himself had lost interest in trying to wake him.
"Bob, we have two sets of breathing gear, but I don't know how I can handle four people," said John.
"Why don't you put one on Doug. We'll share the other among the three of us. First, I suggest you get some air yourself."
John crawled towards Doug, struggling to concentrate with his oxygen-starved brain. Fortunately he was able to get some air in time before becoming unconscious. Now attached to oxygen, he moved the other apparatus to Doug, who had already drifted into a sleep.
The mask unit of the system was actually like a snorkel and required the person be conscious. It consisted of a bicycle tube that ran from the tank into one's mouth. One end of the tube was tied to the valve on the tank and the other was formed into a torus as a mouthpiece to be held in place with the user's lips. In addition, the lips were used to control the flow of oxygen by clamping down on the tube. The user was to exhale through his nose, clearly a conscious act.
Carefully tilting Doug's head back, John assumed a posture similar to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He pinched Doug's nose and held the tube to his mouth. After watching Doug's chest expand, John released hold to allow him to a chance to exhale. Twenty times John repeated the process, while at the same time trying to control his own breathing, which he learned best be in rhythm with the operation on Doug. Eventually Doug became alert and capable of using the mechanism on his own.
Quickly John moved to Dr. Bob, who also had lost consciousness during the minutes he spent attending to Doug. Now John would not be able to service two unconscious victims and breathe himself, with only one apparatus.
"John," came a voice from the opposite side of the pit.
"Why don't you cut the bicycle tube in half," said Doug, temporarily releasing himself from the breathing apparatus. "The tubes won't be as long, but we can have four tubes and can all breathe simultaneously. I think I can operate mine without the mouthpiece, if you can."
John understood immediately and cut the tube from his tank. He put the shortened tube in his mouth, less the torus mouthpiece and breathed effectively, although it required greater effort with lips and teeth to keep hold of the tube. He did the same with Doug's breathing tube, before he tied the excess pieces to the two spare tanks for Bob and Alan. He revived Bob relatively quickly, thankful that Dr. Bob could move his mouth and lips to control his air intake.
Minutes later, John placed the fourth tube into Alan, who was still propped in a sitting position against the water jug. He released the flow of oxygen and looked to see a rise in Alan's chest. Nothing. Frightened, John felt Alan's neck for a pulse. A faint pulse existed, he believed. With the next attempt he opened the air valve wider, while pinching Alan's nose. This time he saw the chest rise. In the process John had lost track of his own breathing, realizing that he was breathing bad air through his nose. He nearly passed out.
Ten times John forced air into Alan's lungs. Ten times more he did the same. Then he did so ten more times, before he saw the chest rise using its own strength. Alan was alive.
An hour elapsed, perhaps two. John and the others, confined in the darkness of the vault, breathed from the small propane cylinders, in constant knowledge of their slim chances for survival. He dared not speak or move, hoping to use as little of the precious air as possible.
Doug and John had used some of the air supply in their tanks during their previous rescue attempts in the NVR center. Now John's was the first to run dry.
"Bob, I'm out of air," he said, flicking on his flashlight.
"We can share," said Dr. Bob, surprising John when he moved his hand to grab the tube.
John moved to take a few quick breaths from Bob's tube. Then, like an underwater swimmer holding his breath, he escorted Doug beside Alan. This exercise, though extremely painful to Doug, brought the old man where he would be able to share oxygen with his son when the time came. This ingenuity inside the would-be group coffin now extended their lives some more minutes.
In all too short a time, John sensed the rapid decline of air pressure in the tank he shared with Bob. One tank would not sustain four humans. No creative solution would save them. Years ago, like many others, John had strayed from his Catholic roots. While he would always call himself a Catholic, recently he had thought less about matters of religion and faith. Not surprising, his time in the vault had changed that and faith he knew was all he had left.
With no discussion necessary, as if a true communion existed, John rose to squat in the anaerobic conditions of the vault. The others watched him push the small circle of concrete that sealed the opening to the vault.
John pushed the slab up and over just a few inches through some ash and debris. A dim light flickered. Perhaps a fire still burned in the distance. No fire, it appeared, existed nearby. Winter never favored fire and the fuel supply in the vicinity was perhaps not concentrated enough to produce a prolonged burn. John inhaled the relatively fresh air that now displaced the carbon dioxide in the vault. He could hear a helicopter overhead.
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