James Rumpel’s “Survival Pod 300”
In 2018, after 35 years as a high school math teacher and coach (tennis and wrestling), James Rumpel retired. Since that time he has greatly enjoyed spending time with his wonderful wife, camping, and training for half-marathons. In addition, he has had the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream by using some of his free time to try his hand at writing short stories. He has been lucky enough to see nearly one-hundred of his works appear on the internet or in print, though, to be honest, he finds his greatest joy in simply being able to turn some of the odd ideas circling his brain into stories.
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:
Survival Pod 300
Tom Jacobson kept his eyes closed. The alarm insisted that he rouse from another restless night. He refused for as long as he could. It would be so easy, so desirable, to just lay there for the rest of time. However, somewhere deep inside him, a spark of hope still existed. “One day at a time,” he thought while he pulled himself to a sitting position.
He looked around the room; the same room he had seen every minute of every day for the last six years. The S-Pod 300 had promised to provide a comfortable domicile for however long it was needed. The furniture remained sturdy and comfortable. The appliances in the tiny kitchen section still performed all of their duties admirably. The visual screen showed any number of beautiful scenic views from all around the Earth, views that Tom had seen far too many times.
The S-Pod had lived up to its promise, at least physically. It was Tom’s emotional existence that had reached the point of being nearly unbearable. Six years can be an incredibly long amount of time, especially when locked inside a twenty-foot by twenty-foot living space. Tom now understood that mankind was a social animal. He wished he had known how difficult his isolation was going to be before he purchased the Survival-Pod he found himself imprisoned in.
Tom finally found the will to rise and move to the small bathroom alcove. There he showered and brushed his teeth. The S-Pod featured a water purification and recycling system. Water was extracted from the surrounding soil as well as from the used water tanks. It was then cleaned and stored in the large holding tank buried deep below the pod. Tom had never run short of water during his stay.
After getting dressed in one of the seven heavy-duty jumpsuits that S-Pod Incorporated had provided, he made himself breakfast. The company had stocked the lower deck storage area with, what they claimed to be, a ten-year supply of dehydrated, frozen, or preserved foods. Unfortunately, Tom had found about half of the food to be either tasteless or worse. He had eaten almost all of the foods he enjoyed. His freezer was now devoid of chicken nuggets, onion rings, or anything else that he enjoyed eating. He was stuck with powdered eggs and canned beef. The lack of enjoyable food only added to Tom’s malaise.
For the briefest of moments, Tom considered a short work out on his S-bike. He had been neglecting his exercise program of late. Who could blame him? A simulated ride along the rim of the Grand Canyon or through Sequoia National Park would only make his confinement more intolerable. He had finished washing his plate and glass when the familiar beeping sound of an on-line guest drew his attention. He smiled slightly. Maybe some of his S-Web friends could put him in a better mood. They had helped him through other periods of depression. Maybe they could do so again.
He sat down to his computer link and activated the monitor. The smiling round face of Arry Showlman filled the screen.
“Hey, Tom,” said Arry, “how about we play some Super Brawl?” Arry was in his early twenties, about ten years younger than Tom. With his youth came an incredible tolerance for the monotony of video games. Gaming together had been very good for Arry early on. The young man’s family had failed to make it to the S-Pod. It had taken Arry a long time to overcome his grief.
“Nah,” replied Tom. “I’m really not in the mood. Let’s just talk for a bit. Have there been any announcements about liberation? We’re over a year past the initial estimates.”
“Are you gonna concentrate on that again? No, I haven’t heard anything. Dr. Roland is supposed to be doing a live webchat this afternoon. I’m sure he’ll have all sorts of answers.”
“I hope so,” said Tom.
The computer beeped again and the picture on the monitor split into two halves. A pretty blond woman occupied the new half. She bounced a small infant on her knee. The child stared, wide-eyed, at the screen and extended its tiny hand trying to touch Arry and Tom through the monitor.
“Morning, Amy,” said Arry. “I think we need to do some damage control with Tom. He seems rather down again.”
“I’m not down,” countered Tom, “I just think we should be out of these damn Pods by now. Any residual radiation was supposed to be long gone by now.”
Amy smiled. “We are all feeling locked in,” she said with a motherly tone. “I feel for how lonely it must be for you. I have Mickey and Joe to talk to.”
“Hey, Tom has me, you, and any number of other folks on the S-Web.” Arry’s half of the screen changed to a scrolling list of thousands of other S-Pod survivors. A simple click would link Tom to any of them.
“Let’s talk about something else,” suggested Tom.
“Or we could play Super Brawl. Are you in, Amy?”
“Sure, why not? Of course, I’m at a huge disadvantage since I’m holding a one-year-old on my lap.”
Tom let out a long sigh, “Okay, I’ll play. It’ll give me something to do until Dr. Roland’s chat.
“Radiation levels continue to fall but very slowly. It is very difficult to estimate when we will be able to return to the surface.” Dr. Ethan Roland’s face filled the top half of the monitor; his serious expression emphasizing the direness of the situation. “We will start coming around and extracting you from your S-Pods as soon as everything is safe. Trust me, we want out of the bunkers as much as you do.”
The gallery of ten observers that occupied the bottom half of the screen changed every twenty seconds; replaced with a new set of faces. Most of the other S-Pod clients appeared content to Tom. He wondered if he was the only one going completely stir crazy.
When the Doctor opened up the meeting for questions, Tom immediately put his query in the queue. After sitting through about a dozen mundane inquiries about exercise bike repair, food preparation, and other meaningless drivel, Tom’s monitor beeped. He was going to have the opportunity to ask his question.
“We were only supposed to have to wait five years before we could return to the surface. The type of radiation from the bombs was supposed to fade quickly. What changed?”
“I’ve answered this question many times already,” replied Doctor Roland. “The enemy did not solely use the neutron weaponry we expected them to employ. In addition to the neutron bombs they used many other atomic bombs. The radiation from the second type of bombs takes longer to fade. That is what we are waiting for.”
“How do we know your readings are accurate?” shouted Tom.
“We only have the best interest of S-Pod owners in mind. We will get you out as soon as we can. Don’t panic. Don’t do anything drastic. It will only be a short time longer.”
Tom began to ask more but his screen changed and an older woman replaced him on the screen. “Are the air filtration devices going to last as long as we need?” she asked.
Tom didn’t wait for an answer. He snapped off his computer and began pacing back and forth in his tiny living space.
About a month later, Tom made his decision. He couldn’t take staying in his S-Pod any longer. He honestly did not care whether he could survive on the surface or not, he had to get out of his scientifically advanced tomb.
Each day he made preparations for his escape. He read and re-read every S-Pod manual. He discovered, with great difficulty, that there was a fail-safe that would allow a user to open the Pod from the inside. It was not easy information to locate, but with the help of his computer skills, Tom was able to uncover the necessary details.
He also used the computer to find the locations of the S-Pod nerve center as well as the homes of Arry and Amy. He made certain not to tell his friends about his plan. They would assuredly try to talk him out of it. If his plan succeeded, he would find their Pods and get them out also. Like Tom, they both were located in Minneapolis, or at least whatever remained of the city. The fact that S-Pod Incorporated was headquartered there made it reasonable to assume that many of the purchasers resided in the area.
Tom modified his exercise bike to be used for transportation. The S-Pod and all of its equipment had been designed to allow the owners to survive on the surface after the danger had passed. In a small alcove, Tom located a backpack filled with survival gear, including a portable shovel, an air-filtering mask, and a flare gun.
The more Tom did to prepare for his liberations, the more certain he was of his decision. No one had intended the S-Pod owners to be trapped underground. Something was wrong. He was going to find out what, or die trying.
The day before his planned escape, Tom was reviewing the process for opening the S-Pod and clearing a path to the surface. The lead-lined bunker had been buried ten feet underground. Getting to the surface was not a simple task. Once he had done so, he would be unable to safely enclose the Pod again.
His computer began beeping incessantly shortly before noon. He was not surprised to see Amy’s face when he turned on the monitor.
“I just wanted to check up on you, Tom. You seem to have been pretty out of sorts recently. Are you doing okay?”
Tom tried to put on his best smile. “I am fine. I’m just bored with being locked up in here. I can handle it though. I’ll get by.” Even if Amy agreed with his plan, he did not want to risk her telling anyone else. He worried that the S-Pod management would try to stop him. Someone freaking out and trying to escape would not be good for business.
“If you want,” continued Amy, “I can put you in contact with one of the S-Pod psychologists. They worked wonders for Joe when he was down in the dumps before the baby was born.”
“No, I don’t need that. I have you and Arry to talk to if I need someone.”
“Are you sure?” she replied. “It is very easy to get in contact with their mental health department.”
“Really. I’m good,” lied Tom. “I’m going to have to let you go now. I’m going to hit the exercise bike for a while.”
“Okay, but I think I might see if I can have someone . . .”
Tom turned off the computer without listening to the end of Amy’s sentence. She just didn’t understand. He couldn’t take being locked up any longer. He had to get out.
Tom woke up early the next morning. He double-checked to make sure he had everything he would need. He planned on taking the bike and a large backpack filled with necessary supplies. Once he opened the hatch, he would detonate a small explosive that was designed to clear a path to the surface. It might prove difficult to climb out using the makeshift ladder he had constructed from pieces of furniture and torn bits of cloth. If he had to, he would leave the bike, though he hoped that would not be necessary.
Setting the pack, bike, and ladder down in the hall, Tom climbed the short stairway that led to the hatch’s chamber. He had spent a great deal of time in that small space during the last couple of weeks. He would sit and stare at the closed hatch for hours each day, contemplating just what he was getting himself into.
His computer started beeping. Someone wanted his attention. He ignored them. There was no changing his mind.
He unscrewed four wing nuts and opened the control panel adjacent to the hatch. He carefully removed the panel facing to get at the hidden escape control that was tucked behind it. Removing the front panel revealed two large red toggle switches. The one on the right would open the hatch. The other would ignite a small explosion directed upward from the Pod. If everything worked as it should, the explosion would clear the ten feet of sand and dirt that separated the Pod from the surface. Tom understood why the S-Pod company had made the process of escaping from within so secretive and difficult. There should have been no reason to ever want to leave the Pod without the aid of the company’s trained specialist.
There was no going back once someone attempted to leave in this manner. Most S-Pod owners would never have taken the time and effort to find out about the escape feature. They would wait for a company representative to release them. Tom had reached a state of desperation that the other owners never would.
Tom took a deep breath. He, for one final time, reconsidered his options. Maybe the company would allow everyone out in another month or two. Could he wait that long? Would his shaky sanity hold? The answer became obvious when the thought of death didn’t scare him. It was more important for him to get out of this antiseptic crypt than anything else.
He put on his air-filter mask. It would not be of any help if he was crushed under an avalanche of rock and ground, but if he did manage to open a passage it might save him from poisonous gasses. He had no idea what he would find above. Again, he was amazed by how little he cared about the possible danger.
In a single motion, he flipped both toggles and dove back down the short flight of stairs. The explosion was not as loud as he expected. The sound of dirt falling into the Pod through the open hatch was just as noisy. Was the Pod hatch going to be blocked by debris? Tom tried to look toward the opening. A smoke-like cloud of dirt and dust made it impossible to see anything. He turned away, buried his face in his arms, and waited.
The sound of falling dirt slowed to a trickle. The dust began to settle. The white acrylic which had covered the floor and walls of this part of the S-pod was now a rusty brown color; a layer of dirt plastered to the surfaces.
Tom was glad to be wearing the air-filter mask. It might not have been protecting him from poison, but it was preventing him from breathing in a bucket full of tiny sand particles. The dusty cloud settled even further and Tom was able to see sunlight, glorious sunlight, shining through the open hatch. A three-foot-tall, cone-shaped mound of soil filled most of the alcove, but there was an opening. Tom would be able to climb to the surface.
After pushing as much of the dirt aside as possible, he set his makeshift ladder against the side of the crude escape tunnel the explosion had formed. He was happy to discover that his bicycle would fit through the newly created passage. He carried the backpack up first. He planned to return for the bike after exploring what remained of his world.
He found himself pausing longer than he wanted before reaching the surface. What if he found nothing but barren, lifeless desert? What if the world had been destroyed beyond recognition? It didn’t matter, anything was better than sitting in his isolated bunker day after day. He pushed upward, emerging into the daylight.
His eyes adjusted very quickly. The S-Pod had been equipped with sun-light simulation lighting. What he saw resembled a scene from some Middle-East war footage. There was terrible devastation but not total anhelation. What remained of his house was directly in front of him. Three-quarters of the roof and one wall had collapsed. The lawn that had once been his pride and joy was nowhere to be seen. The yard was nothing more than a two-acre expanse of reddish soil. The rest of the neighborhood appeared to be in approximately the same state. Some houses were completely flattened. Others looked ready to collapse at any moment.
Tom wondered if he should investigate the inside of some of the sturdier-looking buildings. What would he find? The deathly silence gave an unquestionable clue. He would find nothing but emptiness and death.
He just stood there for an extended time. He had not immediately died, which was a good sign. He didn’t remove his air-filter, though his gut told him that the device was not necessary. For all he knew, he would be dropping dead due to radiation exposure any minute. To his great surprise, he found himself laughing. He had made it out of the S-Pod. That was what he wanted and this was his reward.
He was about to climb back down the ladder to retrieve his bike when a wisp of color on the north side of his damaged house caught his eye. There, shaded by the north wall, was a sparse patch of crabgrass. Something had survived. It may not have been thriving, but a form of life had outlasted the apocalypse. What else had made it? Who else had made it?
He had a little bit more energy in his step as he returned to the hatch and climbed down to get the bike. What else would he find?
Tom spent the day exploring his old neighborhood. He came upon a few more patches of grass and weeds. The growth he found by what had once been Andy and Heather Grace’s home could almost be called a small field. A smile formed on Tom’s lips. Wouldn’t you know it, even at the end of times, Andy had a better lawn than him.
There were no signs of any other living humans. He never worked up the nerve to enter any of the buildings. He was certain that he had seen a skeleton while peering through the glassless windows of a severely damaged split-level.
The street was nothing more than broken and shattered concrete. He could ride his bike but it was a difficult task. The bouncing and shaking caused his back to ache after only a few minutes.
As evening approached, he thought he caught a glimpse of movement near the hollowed-out shell of a convenience store. Something small, maybe a rat, might have scurried around a corner into the growing shadows.
He decided to return to the S-Pod for the night. After he rested, if he wasn’t overtaken by radiation sickness, he would set out to find his friends’ S-Pods.
The small room that had been his home for the last six years felt even tinier that night. To his great chagrin, his electronics, including his computer, were no longer working. The blast must have severed some connection between the generator and the equipment. He had wanted to tell his friends that he was coming to see them, now it would have to be a surprise.
Using data downloaded before beginning his adventure, Tom had a pretty good idea of where Amy and her husband, Joe, lived. He expected to find their Pod in a suburb only a few miles away. He had driven by the neighborhood often while commuting to and from work. Little had he known that one day Amy would be one of his best friends without having ever actually seen her.
The landscape was noticeably different. The bombs had wreaked havoc on this part of the city. Six years earlier he had been hunkered down in the S-Pod watching the initial news reports of devastating attacks. Both sides had launched enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the Earth. Only those wise enough to be prepared had any hope. The reports had stopped suddenly that night. If anyone on the surface had survived, they had other things to do than broadcast news stories.
After nearly eight hours of searching, Tom located what he believed to be the correct address. He had printed an old city map and brought it to aid in his search. After carefully counting five streets south of the freeway exit and four houses in, he was certain he had reached 567 Mallard Avenue.
The house was in a worse state than most of the others Tom had encountered. Only the front of the building still stood, giving it the appearance of scenery on a Hollywood sound lot. Tom headed toward the backyard, assuming that was where the S-Pod would have been installed. He tried to decide what course of action he would follow. He knew that the Pod could be opened from the outside and then resealed. Those instructions were readily available. He fought with the idea of opening Amy’s Pod. Amy and Joe did not want to leave the safety of the Pod without the consent of Dr. Roland and the company. However, he had been outside for nearly two days and was not experiencing any symptoms of radiation poisoning. The fact that grass was starting to grow was another clue that it was safe to return to the surface. The S-Pod scientists might have been mistaken.
The question of whether or not to access the Pod was answered the moment Tom turned the corner and had a clear view of the backyard. Tom froze. He stared at the sight before him, confused. Where the S-Pod should have been buried was a deep crater. It appeared that a bomb had exploded directly above the spot. Tom ran to the edge of the hole and looked down. He saw the all too familiar outline of an S-Pod living area. Everything in the room he looked down on was demolished. Where the desk and computer would have been he saw a few scraps of wood and twisted plastic. The kitchen area featured a deformed hunk of metal that could have once been a refrigerator.
Tom stepped back. This devastation was not a recent event. This S-Pod had been destroyed during the initial bombing. Where were Amy and her family? He had just spoken to her the day before. Maybe the S-Pod where they resided was somewhere else. Maybe he had not found the right address.
Shaken, Tom decided to move on. He could return to his Pod by dark and begin a new search in the morning. If he could find Arry’s Pod, the two of them could contact Amy and solve the mystery.
Finding Arry’s Pod proved to be a very difficult endeavor. Again, Tom had an address and a map to go by. However, the devastation near Arry’s home was greater than any other area Tom had investigated. It took nearly two days before Tom felt confident that he had located the correct home.
Tom had spent the previous night sleeping in the empty husk of a rusty hunk of metal that had once been a BMW. He had not slept well, but there were no encounters with any animals or mutated monsters. He was now four days into his surface journey. He had quit wearing the air-filter mask two days earlier and showed no ill effects to the air or possible radiation. He was convinced it was safe to be on the surface.
There had been a brief rain shower near dawn. Tom worried that it might have been acid rain, but he examined the puddles and found nothing obviously wrong with the water.
He paced off one-hundred feet from the remains of the house and using the shovel, began to dig in the loose soil. There was an outside access buried somewhere a few feet below the surface. Hopefully, he could find it and it would still be operable.
Two hours and dozens of fruitless holes later, Tom felt the jolt of his shovel striking metal. He quickly cleared the surrounding dirt to reveal a three-foot by three-foot square made of black metal. Tom pushed some dirt aside until he could read a message engraved on the square. It read: S-POD 400 Series #1726 ACCESS.
In the center of that square was a silver box. Six bolts held the box’s cover in place. After removing the bolts, Tom found a power switch set in the off position. To his delight, when he flipped the switch, he heard a mechanical hum. Slowly, the metal square began to rotate upward, moving sporadically. Soon a dirt-filled tunnel leading downward was revealed. To get to Arry, Tom was going to have to dig down another seven or eight feet.
Tom dug with renewed vigor. He was minutes away from being able to be face to face with another living person. It had been too long. Finally, he reached the end of the entrance tunnel. Another hatch blocked his way. Next to the hatch was a transmitter. Tom held down the button and called to the inside. “Arry, it’s me, Tom. I am fine out here. Is it okay if I come in?” He waited but received no reply. Two more attempts failed to get a response. Perhaps Arry was sleeping or too engrossed in a video game. Tom announced, “I’m coming in.”
Again, he was forced to remove some bolts to expose the opening mechanism, but he did so with relative ease. Tom found himself, once again, flipping a switch. This time the machinery ran smoothly and the door opened inward. He immediately noticed an odd smell to the air. He had gotten used to breathing fresh, outside air. He lowered himself into the bunker. This Pod was not as well-lit as his own. A bulb or two had burnt out and never been replaced. Leave it to Arry to be too busy gaming to take care of simple maintenance.
“Arry, where are you?” called Tom.
He walked down the access stairs and through the short hall to the main living area. His heart fell. In the center of the room, hanging from the ceiling by a leather belt was a rotting corpse. Whoever this was, had taken their own life years ago. This couldn’t be Arry’s Pod.
Tom stood there, motionless. Slowly he began to look around at the rest of the room. On the desk, next to the computer was a handwritten note. Tom picked it up and read: “To Whoever Finds This, I just couldn’t go on without my family. What right do I have to live here in safety while they died on the surface? I miss them so. I am sorry.” The note was signed by Arry Showlman and dated just a year after the attack.
Tom resisted the urge to scream. What was going on? He had been talking and playing games with Arry for the last five years.
Arry’s computer beeped. Tom wanted to run; to go back to his own S-Pod. He wanted everything that had happened during the last few days to be a dream, not reality. Instead, he turned on the computer.
“Hello, Tom,” said Dr. Roland. His expressionless face filled the entire monitor. “I assumed it was you who entered this S-Pod. I am sorry that you had to view this terrible scene.”
“What’s going on?” asked Tom, tears welling in his eyes.
“Unfortunately, you are the only person to survive from the initial attack until now. Most S-Pods did not survive the initial bombing. That is what happened to your friend Amy and her husband. Other Pod’s generators or air-filtering systems failed as time passed, trapping their owners within. Still others, like Arry, could not take the isolation from human contact and committed suicide.”
Tom shook his head furiously. “That can’t be. I talked to them. I saw hundreds of people during the video conferences and web chats.”
“Those are all simulations designed by me to make it easier for you to deal with the situation. The actual Arry took his own life only a few days after you first met him on-line. I continued the relationship in the hope of you forming a bond and finding solace in his company. I simulated Amy and her family to give you a motherly, yet attractive, female companion. The other people were all generated from owner’s profiles.”
Tom used the back of his hand to wipe the tears that were rolling down his cheeks. “But what about you? You’re still alive. You survived.”
“I am not an actual person. I am the Roland 2000. My programming required me to do what was best to ensure the survival of as many Pod owners as possible. I, unfortunately, have not been very successful. I wished to keep you alive in your Pod for as long as I could.”
Tom could not bring himself to believe that he was the last person on Earth. “There were thousands of S-Pods sold. Someone else has to be alive.”
Dr. Roland replied, stoically, “I constantly monitor all S-Pods. There are no other surviving users.” Tom was surprised that he had never noticed how robotic the doctor’s voice sounded. How had he been fooled for so long?
“What about other survival companies? Surely, there were other bunker systems purchased and used.”
“I am aware of no other survivors.”
Tom turned off the computer. He had heard enough.
He leaned back in the chair and glanced up at the rotting corpse above him. Arry seemed to be smiling, laughing at the ridiculousness of Tom’s situation.
It took Tom several days to snap out of his sadness and horror over what Dr. Roland had revealed. He returned to his S-Pod. Sitting in the darkness, he considered his options. Every possible plan of action seemed futile and doomed to failure. He was alone and there was nothing he could do about it.
He jumped from one painful emotion to another. He was angry over the lies Dr. Roland had told him. He felt guilt over the fact that he alone survived. The overwhelming sadness over the loss of all of his family and friends never went away; never weakened.
He ate sparsely, never enjoying the taste of his food. His days were spent sleeping or staring at the darkness. This was his new life.
After weeks of despair Tom finally broke down and returned to Arry’s S-Pod and turned on the computer.
“Welcome back, Tom,” said Dr. Roland. Tom couldn’t believe that he had not detected the inhuman qualities of the voice earlier. “What may I do for you?”
“I want someone to talk to,” answered Tom. “I’m just so lonely.”
“I would be happy to keep you company. Do you wish to talk about your feelings?”
“No,” replied Tom, “I don’t want to think about anything. I want to forget.”
“Would you like to play a game of Super Brawl? I promise to compete at a level equivalent to your skills.”
“Sure, why not?”
The game instantly appeared on the monitor. “Do you wish to play best two out of three?” asked the computer.
“Let’s make it best four out of seven,” replied Tom. “I’ve got nothing but time.”