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When Time Should Have Stood Still, a Sci-Fi Short Story

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

When Time Should Have Stood Still, A Sci-Fi Story

“How did you get this shelter past the planners?” Lee asked Kenyon.

Kenyon grinned, a beer in each hand, looking as if he had been eagerly waiting for someone to ask that question. “Just put in the request after a nearby terrorist attack, and they’ll consider it. Had my panicked, dementia-at-risk Mom put in the request so they’d think it was panicked reaction. I signed the payment order, so they approved it without bothering to ask her details. When she bothered to ask what went on, I said we were putting in a tornado shelter or fixing the leaks in the basement.” He grinned at his own cleverness.

“Expensive way to settle down an old lady,” Joel remarked. He sat down by Kim and wrapped an arm around her, noticing that she’d winced at Kenyon’s remark.

“The permit was a hefty fee. The installation took some construction work, so it was billable work for local income taxes. No, no problem.”

“It’s spacious,” Lee said, slowly taking in the details of the shelter.

“Are all the cell phones off and outside?” Kenyon asked. Everyone assented but Kim, who shook her head.

“What about my pager?” Joel asked.

Kenyon laughed, "Isn't that old tech?"

Joel shrugged. "Smart devices tend to get hacked, violate privacy, and so forth, so we're back to low tech, at least to notify me that I need to come in to work or check my messages on a smart device."

“No electronic devices inside of any type. I want to demo something,” Kenyon replied. “None.”

“I’m a medic, Ken, and I get paid for being on call. I can’t just dump it.”

“You said it’s your day off, Joel. Don’t you get a real day off? Do you ever stop working, being on call?” Kenyon challenged. Joel pulled out the smart-pager and reluctantly handed it over. Kenyon opened up the hatch and tossed it on the grass along with the other PDAs, smart phones and Kim’s dumb phone. He couldn't understand how they had become status symbols, carrying electronic antiques that belonged in a museum. Then he closed the hatch. “Now for the big show.” Kenyon walked past the two bunk beds and two week supply kit and air filters.

“That’s the equipment side,” Lee remarked. “You asked me lots of questions to put in that yourself.”

“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.”

“If you lock us in here without cell phones to call for help, I will beat you up,” Lee said. “And for every hour it takes to cut us out, I will add to the pain.”

“You can’t do that,” Kenyon commented.

“Yes, I can. We got Mr. Genius Doctor here.”

Joel became oddly self-conscious. “I’m a medic, not a doctor.”

“Dude, you are a legally usable med-tech in pharmacy, physical therapy, nursing, surgery … anything I’m missing?”

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Kim added, “Psychology. He also passed psychology.”

“And your skill set, I believe, is lab work?” Kenyon asked Kim.

“That’s why I needed Joel. He’s the all around medical guru. Kim, you can make meds for anything from anything, based on your resume. And you’re with Joel, who’s a good friend of mine.” Kenyon turned to Lee. “Lee, you’ve got tech ratings on everything from computers to hardware to HVAC.”

“So show me your surprise, Ken,” Lee demanded, “before I push past you to check the air supply before you use it up lecturing me.”

Kenyon sighed. Then he opened the equipment panel that was at least two meters wide. With an old mechanical button and a lever, a meter wide door opened. “Here’s stage two.”

“Stage two?” Kim asked.

“My grandfather’s parents built the house not long after World War 2. Scares of nuclear bombs and such. They built a high end shelter. My grandmother’s family re-did it with more comforts and longer lasting food supplies around 2000 or 2012, I can’t remember which end of the world hysteria around the turn of the millennium. Mom never did much with it. I spent a lot of time down here with her Dad.”

“I thought the radioactivity from the dirty bomb Jihad was before you were born,” Joel stated.

“It was. But Dad – well, Granddad, really,” Kenyon corrected, “He always did preparedness.”

“How did you get this place past the inspector?” Lee asked.

“The entrance foyer of this was always here. I showed it briefly while saying I needed to upgrade it a lot for habitability, safety and such. And it was easy to get that through a bureaucrat’s head when it is someone old enough to remember the Jihad wars. So that wasn’t bad. It was the budget for building the official shelter while refurbishing the old one that got tough.”

“What did your Mom say?” Kim asked.

“Dementia got formally diagnosed half-way through the project.” Joel and Kim both winced. “And since she was younger than average, her quality of life score was too low for the board.”

“I don’t get it,” Lee remarked.

Kim answered. “If you’re old with dementia, you can get months or even years of care - if you can afford it. Otherwise, it’s euthanasia. Young with dementia, you’re reasonably healthy - and are a hassle to take care of. Quality of life score is lower. So it’s euthanasia once the diagnosis is confirmed.”

“That’s one hell of a way to keep a secret,” Lee said quietly.

“I didn’t off her, Lee. I didn’t want her dead. I wanted her alive longer, so I could learn more about this stuff.”

“Learn more? How do you not know much?” Lee asked.

“I know a lot, but it’s from when I was a kid. I wanted her alive to ask a lot more.”

“She had dementia,” Lee challenged.

“Dementia takes recent memories and interferes with formation of new ones,” Kim corrected. “Her memories of her early life would have been unaffected for years.”

“I thought you did drug manufacturing,” Lee challenged her.

“I met Joel on some … psychology related work.”

“Oh,” Lee said in a non-committal tone.

“Lee, go get a beer.” Lee started for the hatch. “No, I want the door closed so that no accidental GPS or radar map gets a reading of this place. I want them to just see the main shelter. Don’t open the main door to outside while this one is open.”

Joel held up his hand. “Why don’t they know about the older shelter? Especially if the newer one is registered?”

“Old records lost. New one looks like equipment fills in the old space. And with all the concrete in its walls and the steel shielding, it could easily pass for equipment. Do you want to see real retro?” Kenyon held out his arm in a theatrical flourish. “Here’s to the greatest in the latest of old fashioned safety.”

Lee delayed long enough to jog a few steps to grab the six pack of beer he had brought down. Then Kim, Lee, and Joel walked into the older section. Kenyon closed the door. “It’s actually better to have the new shelter there for other reasons. It adds extra shielding. It provides more air filtration and quality recycling if the two sections are open.”

“If there’s a zombie attack, you can close off the outer area and stay well hidden in the inner one,” Joel remarked. He laughed a little at the comment.

Kenyon grinned. “I knew you had a sense of humor in that genetically enhanced all-too-perfect exterior.”

Lee blinked a few times. “You’re gen-gineered?” he ogled.

“Yes,” Joel said, a level tone from much practice in addition to his innately calm and boring personality. “How did you think I did so exceedingly well on all my exams?”

“Uh, Jewish and doctor seemed a likely combination.”

“Yeah,” Joel admitted. “There’s Jewish in there. That’s why they did the genetic healing.”

“So you’re smarts are natural?” Lee asked.

“Since they could only afford one kid fixed, I can’t say they didn’t add in a few extras,” Joel admitted.

Lee flicked his eyes over to Kim. “I hope this doesn’t break you two up,” he said.

“I already knew,” Kim answered.

“Oh, good, no freak-outs,” Kenyon remarked. “And here I was just worried about claustrophobia. Uh, Kim, how are you on that?”

“Claustrophobia isn’t my problem,” Kim said.

Kenyon started to run down different technical specifications of the shelter. Air and water for a few days until recycling became necessary. Food for weeks. Power for that long from geothermal equipment installed under a green energy grant, along with thermal regulation from that same line to the house. As he rattled on, Lee became bored. “Open the door,” Lee demanded.

If you enjoyed this short story, read Tamara Wilhite's anthology "Humanity's Edge". Available in paperback, Audible audio book and Amazon Kindle formats.

If you enjoyed this short story, read Tamara Wilhite's anthology "Humanity's Edge". Available in paperback, Audible audio book and Amazon Kindle formats.

“What for?”

“I need another beer.”

“What for?” Kenyon demanded. “I’m still talking.”

“Fine. I’m claustrophobic.”

“You never said that before.”

“I’m saying it now.”

“How does a beer help that?”

“Beer’s the cure for my claustrophobia. Now open the door.”

Kenyon relented and started toward the controls to the outer room. A bright radiant light then swept across the port hole to the outer chamber.

“Damn, what’s with the special effects?” Lee screamed.

Joel whistled softly. “You could have put that in earlier in the lecture and reduced the boredom factor.”

Kenyon whispered, “I didn’t do that.”

Kim got an odd look on her face. “Is it a scan?”

“Uh, GPS scans and deep Earth radar don’t make light,” Kenyon answered. “What do you think it is?” he asked her.

“I got an odd interference,” Kim said.

“Interference?” Kenyon asked. “From what?”

Kim blinked a few times against an internal confusion. Joel answered, “Mood regulator. Pre-schizophrenia screening requirement. Gives off beta or theta wave bursts through electrodes to the brain, as needed.”

“She’s crazy?” Kenyon nearly shrieked.

“No. There was just a verifiable risk factor. The implant was mandatory. If they truly thought she was crazy, they would have done a surgery cure that left her a harmless drudge or mandated euthanasia. And she wouldn’t be working in medical manufacturing.”

“Damn it, I said no high end electronics!”

“It’s cyber. And it’s medical.”

“And there’s a freaking tracking device in it if it goes off too much or if she goes too far!” Kenyon’s fists were tight to his sides.

“Kim, is that true?” Joel asked gently.

“Yes, I have an implant,” Kim said.

“Not the brain wave manager. Is there a tracking device?” Joel asked.

“I don’t remember that detail of the specification.” Her voice was mechanical.

Kenyon sat down. “How long?” he asked.

“She was diagnosed before 20. I guess in the past year.”

“How long before the trackers find her?” Kenyon asked.

“Scans for missing people don’t make light like that,” Lee asked. “Locating fugitives and missing people are all innocuous – doesn’t even make local GPS flicker on personal devices. It’s almost silent.”

“So what was the light?” Kenyon asked.

Lee shook his head. “I don’t know if you don’t know.”

“Can she tell if the tracking device is working?” Kenyon asked Joel.

“Even if it went off when she was sealed in this shelter, the scan for it would have been nearly invisible to us. Or we would have heard a social worker banging on the door. Nothing so … weird,” Joel answered.

Kenyon sighed, resigned to the loss of the secret he’d made. He opened the door to the outer shelter. “Lee, go get your beer.” He let Lee stagger out, half blind from looking directly through the porthole.

Kenyon then closed the door to talk to Joel. “Damn, if Kim costs me this shelter, I’m going to be pissed,” he said.

“Please don’t blame me,” Kim said. “You’re the one trying to hide from the law. I wanted to live within it. I wouldn’t be allowed to live, otherwise.”

Joel shrugged. “She’s right.”

Kenyon slammed a fist into a wall. It reverberated with a dull thud. “If there was another war, I knew I’d want you with me … I thought maybe she’d be a good addition but wanted to know –“

Another wave of light started on one side of the outer shelter, casting a radiating secondary glow through the port-hole. Those inside covered their eyes. Lee began shrieking in higher octaves and volume.

The light subsided a minute after the bright light finished passing the other side of the shelter. Kenyon rushed to the port-hole. Joel tried to follow him in an effort to help Lee. Kenyon wouldn’t open the door. He wouldn’t even move to allow Joel to open the door. Joel became increasingly irate before screaming, “Open it up! Move and get out of my way! He needs help!”

“He needs a doctor or way more than that,” Kenyon said in a flat voice.

Kim asked in a more personable tone, “Do you have an emotional regulator, too?”

“OK, I’m a doctor! Let me help him! Will that let you let me help him?” Joel begged.

Kenyon deliberated. “I thought you couldn’t get riled up.”

“He was screaming in agony! I’d have to be inhuman not to care.”

“You’re just gen-gineered,” Kenyon challenged.

“Yeah. Just. So just get out of the way so I can help! Just like you said you wanted me around to help,” Joel added.

Kenyon opened the door. Joel rushed through without looking. Then he stopped dead. The sight of Lee’s body was disconcerting to both men. The smell of the burned flesh made both of them ill. Joel tried to process it all. His face became a distant and confused expression, not far from Kim’s prior cybernetic activation to prevent the extremes from dominating him. Then instinct took over and he retched. His illness was still under a medic’s mental control; he vomited in a blanket on a bed, not the body.

Lee let out a piteous moan. Joel’s brain tried to process the information. Kenyon could only stare at it, his mind unwilling to comprehend what may have happened. Of all the weapons he had studied, none could cause that degree of tissue burns underground and inside a shelter. If he had not been in the inner shelter, he would be the burnt to a crisp form there on the floor. The Jihadi Wars were officially over, but that didn’t mean a new strike couldn’t happen. But wouldn’t that have to have been right on top of them?

Another corner of his mind wondered what radiation level they were now exposed to. Seizing for any kind of information, he walked over to the antique Geiger counter. The radiation level was nominal, not much above modern background level.

Kim asked, “What kind of sensing device is that?”

“Geiger counter.”

“What for?” she asked.

She sounded almost normal. Almost like she previously had. Kenyon wondered about her sanity. “I though there was a radiation spike.”

“Like another suitcase nuke?” she asked. The fear was palatable on her face. The device started to kick in. He could see the changes in her expression and especially the eyes, dampening both to an artificial neutrality. Anything that would make her panic or go crazy could set off the controlling device. At best, she’d be rendered unconscious and only use up air. At worst, she’d do something crazy in the name of artificial sanity – by a government that was crazily dictatorial in the name of managing the chaos. And what if the implant drove her crazy? What could he do to prevent that?

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Kenyon admitted. “I want to check levels, just to be safe. Do you want to be safe?” he asked.

“Yes” was the immediate answer. Echoes of her and the machine were both present.

“Stay here, stay there, while I check things out,” he ordered her.

“Where’s Joel?” she asked. That was the girl, her alone.

“He’s taking care of Lee.”

“What? Who?” Kim asked. It wasn’t quite registering. Did the device interfere with her memory? She’d been introduced to him minutes ago ...

“Lee got burned. Joel is taking care of him. Please, stay here,” Kenyon insisted.

“Never interfere with a doctor taking care of a patient,” she said. All machine tones. Was this what drudges were like? People-machines, working diligently at stuff normal people didn’t want to do? Then how the job making drugs? Drudging around in mucky, boring labs? Or high-tech gleaming stuff that only super-smart people did, thus getting the chance for an implant instead of a final sleep and on to the final recycling of organ harvesting?

“Yeah. Stay here.”

“Joel will come back for me,” she said. Partly her, partly machine-made.

“Yeah, once he’s done.”

The girl got a damned idea. “Shall I call for help?” Kenyon paused, thinking of what may have happened to their devices outside the main shelter. “Or has that already been done?” she asked.

“Oh, everybody knows. But he’s really hurt. He needs Joel now.” Kenyon took two steps back and through the port. After a pause, he closed the door. It wasn’t really made to lock someone in, but he blocked the door handle on the outer shelter side enough to keep her from wandering out. There was too much uncertainty to risk her going outside for a cell phone.

Joel was kneeling beside Lee. Lee was still alive, Karma and Nirvana knew how, wheezing a horrid sound. Joel had a hazmat bag around his vomit. He had medical gloves on. He had a modern med-kit opened and primed. And he did nothing. His face had a disconcerting and distant, almost alien look, as his lips silent moved.

“Joel, don’t tell me you have an implant, too.” Kenyon muttered.

“I’m praying,” Joel answered.

“Ah, what?”

“In Hebrew.”


“He’s dying.”

“Help him!”

“Scan says the damage is to his inner organs as much as the outer tissue. I could have him on an ER table with a surgical team and they’d do nothing. Maybe not even euthanasia because he’s so close.”

“How about mercy!” Kenyon screamed.

“I’m praying! Isn’t that merciful enough?”

“Painkiller!” Kenyon belted even louder. He turned away from Joel at the impulse to pound his only doctor. Kim had stood up at the screaming. She saw the dying corpse on the floor through the port-hole. Then he watched her fall back. Sitting down or fainting he couldn’t tell. He couldn’t care. Kenyon turned his attention back to his friend. “Painkiller, doctor, medic, only guy who knows where his veins are! Help him!”

Something in Joel’s mind switched from mechanical recitation from memory to troubled professional. He reached for this and that and combined them before injecting it into Lee’s body. The wheezing stopped.

“Now what should I do?” Joel asked him.

“I don’t know. I don’t even know what I should do.”

“Haz-mat for the bio-hazard,” Joel said.

“I can’t exactly bury him,” Kenyon replied.

“No, worry about the living, not the dead. Get the air filtration rate up so we can all breathe,” Joel answered.

Kenyon felt his fists go tight, eager to hit the man again. Then a voice in his head not unlike his barely remember grandfather rattled off a lot of sayings. Air for three minutes, water for three days, food for three weeks. They’d need air. Air without stink of burned flesh. Radioactive air, maybe, even. Kenyon marched to the mechanical controls and manipulated the air flow until a sharp flow sucked out a lot of the stench.

After Kenyon felt like doing anything again, he turned down the air controls to not use up all their power and air filtration capacity. Joel could be heard praying. Kenyon turned around with his fists balled up again, but he saw Lee wrapped in a blanket. Joel had actually done something in the interim. Maybe for the better, too, so that Kim couldn’t see the body.

“Joel?” Kenyon asked.

“What is it?” Joel answered.
“What the hell happened to him?” Kenyon asked.

“I do not know,” Joel answered.
“Gimme a best guess,” Kenyon asked.

“Partial molecular degeneration of outer tissue layers at the area receiving direct exposure. Deep tissue burns all the way through. However, the floor and all equipment appears … functional.”

“Gamma radiation?” Kenyon asked.

“Do you have a radiation detector?” Joel asked.

“The radiation levels are all about normal.”

“What did you use?” Joel asked. Kenyon showed him the device. Both men, interested in the old device, talked limited shop on radiation detectors and radiation damage. It was the kind of talk Kenyon had wanted to have with Joel all along, along with a talk on bio-warfare methods and strains. Joel then asked, “Do you have a more modern detector? This might be a radiation kind you can’t sense with that.”

“Logical,” Kenyon said. “But I don’t have anything higher-tech than this except in the house.”

“Get it,” Joel said.

“I can’t. If the radiation was that bad in here, what’s it like on the surface?”

They both hesitated. Joel then asked, “Where’s Kim?”

“Where?” Joel demanded.

“In the inner shelter.”

Joel rushed to the door. He became furious at the blockade attempt. “What’s this for?”

“She was going weird at the radiation! How weird would she get with Lee burned to a crisp – and you, Mr. Engineered to calm perfection, threw up! What happens to Miss Crazy enough to need a sanity implant?”

Joel was torn between pissed off at the insults to relief that Kim was safe. Kenyon wondered if he berated himself, too, for not thinking of her while they had debated radiation monitoring and effects for at least ten minutes. Kenyon opened the door for his friend. Once the genetically engineered man was inside, Kenyon blockaded it again. He needed privacy, and this was the best he could do.

Joel heard the locking mechanism or jamming attempt. That didn’t matter to him. Nothing mattered except Kim’s unconscious form on the floor. He kneeled down beside her. An image of Lee’s charred corpse flashed before his eyes before it was suppressed. He had to admit that Kenyon was right. The engineered mood balancing he had been born with was not far from Kim’s mood management implant. His mental system was biological and yet flawed. Her biology was flawed while the mechanical implant was closer to ideal. They were an odd match. They were attracted to like-personalities that were nearly opposite in cause.

He picked her up and cradled her. His mind couldn’t process all the possibilities of what it might be both inside and outside. Left with nothing else, he recited prayers memorized from a far too early age. Repeating them verbatim as a young child had garnered him praise from many generations of his family, even as his recitation of medical texts before the board had garnered him perfect grades. Only his parents’ decision stood in the way of the high end medical career he had dreamed of, they had all expected of him. He was too close to perfect in too many ways.

Yet the rare seizures that extremely odd situations his mind could not digest, as happened in inner city ERs with drug addled people turning crazy during his internship, cost him that dream. He could only be a secondary helper now. His dream of saving so many lives and earning adulation and respect of everyone was lost forever. He could only be doing dreary heart attack resuscitations until someone came by with a transport to the life-saving ward or euthanasia drugs. He could wander around hospitals in the longer term patient management, tending to bed sores and lacerations as they waited to improve enough for advanced treatment or deterioration to the point of death. He’d seen Kim around, concocting all the specialized regimens for patients between life and death, sustaining them even as he sustained them. Her dispassionate and efficient manner reminded him of how he should be.

And unlike him, she didn’t have the mark in her record of “genetically engineered” or other genetic undesirables. It was only later that he learned of the implanted device. But by then, it didn’t matter. They were two of a class of people in which there were too few. And now they were alone.

Her eyes fluttered awake. “Where are we?” she asked.


“There was a smell,” she said.

“Burn victim.” Her face wrinkled. “Taken care of,” Joel added.

“Did you get help?” she asked.

“He was beyond it,” Joel said.

“Am I hurt?” she asked.

“You fell,” Joel replied. Simple answers would be best, he realized.

“Did you get help?” she asked.

“I am the help,” Joe answered.

“You aren’t allowed to practice medicine by yourself,” she answered mechanically.

“I can’t get other help right now,” Joel said.

“Why not?” Kim asked.

“We’re locked in a War shelter,” Joel answered. Her face grew confused as she tried to process the information. “I’ll get qualified help when we get out.”

“Call for help,” she answered.

“We left the phones outside, remember?” he said.

“That’s crazy,” she remarked off-handedly.

“Yes, it is.”

“Where’s everyone?” she asked. It might have been a habitual question or actual memory of when there were four present here.

“We’re the only ones in here right now.”

“I thought I heard something,” she said.

“Kenyon and I had a fight. He locked me in here with you.”

“That’s crazy,” she answered. Joel couldn’t think of anything to say. “He’s crazy.” Joel intentionally remained silent this time. He could believe the war hypothesis, a new radiation weapon that could burn people to death even inside shelters. Whatever had happened, Kenyon’s paranoia had been correct on at least this issue. The timing, he thought, was divinely inspired. Or a very astute man’s analysis of political events. Either way, Kenyon had to be respected for bringing them to the safety today.

Joel said, “I’ll try to talk him into letting us out.” He needed out if only to get the modern medical kit sitting on the floor by Lee’s body in order to help Kim. As he removed Kim from his lap, there was a loud rumbling around them. Kim squealed and curled up. Joel tried to get to his feet as the shelter actually seemed to move. The door moved, too. He saw through the port long enough to see Kenyon desperately trying to remove the barricade and then open the lock, trying to get in. Things shifted again, and Joel followed Kim’s example of the earthquake drill they had all practiced as children. The world stopped moving.

Joel waited ten breaths before moving. Kim remained still and curled in the safety position. “Kim, are you all-right?”

“Is the quake over?” she asked in a normal voice.

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the risk of after-shocks?” she asked.

“No idea.”

“Check your pager for news.” He sighed, resigned to the fact that her short term memory must be impeded from all the mood modulation attempts from the implant. She got up and went for the door. “How do I open this?”