The bunker was indeed far enough outside that the mask was necessary for me to survive getting there. It was buried into rock about a twenty-minute walk outside of Conversant's oily atmospheric purifiers, or whatever it was he did to preserve his city. I'd resigned myself by now to knowing that the technology they used was beyond my understanding, and included parts that I couldn't perceive. They would always be talking behind my back about something, probably often me. That thought, fortunately, didn't make me feel paranoid; unfortunately, it just made me feel left out. Alienated, I guess.
Palavar did make an effort to keep me up-to-date with their musings, informing me of each street we passed as we circled around the hills and, most of all, a running list of what the bunker supposedly contained (aircraft and other vehicles, food, navigation equipment, some sort of communications equipment, water and water filtering devices, camping supplies, records and instructions left by the builders, and on and on; I didn't really understand the details). Their comments also often took the form of needling Conversant as though he couldn't hear our basic speech. I didn't feel like annoying Conversant to the extent that Palavar clearly did, so I just nodded and agreed and said "huh, interesting" whenever Palavar mentioned anything that sounded particularly interesting.
Palavar didn't seem able to tell the difference between feigned interest and real interest, although, considering my interactions with the Surgeon thus far, I probably wasn't able to either. It felt a bit mean, but not mean enough that I stopped doing it. It was definitely best to try to stay on Conversant's good side, at least inside his city. Outside... I had no idea how he would act outside.
To tell the truth, while vehicles and survival supplies all sounded fantastic, it was the communications equipment that I really wanted to get my hands on. I suspected that it might let me tune into the invisible messages that Conversant and Palavar were sending each other. I'd finally know what sorts of private jokes or arguments or observations they were sharing.
I know that seems very petty in comparison to important considerations like 'being able to breathe' and 'not dying from thirst or starvation,' but I hadn't died of either of those problems yet, and Palavar and Conversant had already settled several matters without me even knowing what was being settled, so the immediacy was clear to me. Even if it ended up always coming out to two against one, I wanted a say in my own future!
"Here it is," Conversant announced, loudly, over Palavar's monologue of types of seeds supposedly stored in the bunker. I suspected he was exactly as irritated about Palavar speaking around him as they wanted him to be. "Incidentally, Palavar, there are no longer any seeds or other archived life-forms in the bunker. I retrieved and stored them all decades ago. Had they remained here, I have no doubt that they would be unviable for future use. As you can see, the atmosphere of Earth has, as projected, not stabilized enough to allow the growth of organics. You may be unaware, but the rain, which I do not allow to fall onto the buildings, is heavily acidic."
It was Palavar's turn to frown. Their frown was cute and a little pouty, which was a fact I’m sure they were both aware of and absolutely hated. "But I've filtered water! Ywain drank it, and he's fine! We could grow the old seeds and start a garden. Then you can get fresher seeds for your stupid collection from living plants."
That was the moment I realized that no one else had ever drunk the water Palavar had given me before. Suddenly I wasn't sure if my stomach hurt from hunger, walking, or drinking acid rain that had been poured through some rocks Palavar found on the ground.
"I refuse to allow the seeds to be exposed to potential rot and damage. Suppose they don't grow due to unforeseen environmental concerns? Then what? No garden, no plants, no record. You've driven hundreds of thousands of species to extinction with your feckless optimism. It's better to have the possibility of the garden, preserved, safely, than to risk failure. Now quit chattering and get inside."
In my mind, the word 'bunker' vaguely conjured up an image of a squat concrete building set into a cliff or hill. I wasn't even sure if they had doors. This bunker... well, it might have been concrete and squat on the inside, but all I could see of it from where we stood was the door, a hulking, metal, circular seal which had at some point been painted a matte beige to match the rocky overhang it was set into. At a smaller size, it would have resembled a bank vault, but at this scale it mostly resembled the facility I'd been in…
…and that the Surgeon and I had escaped from.
At Conversant's order, the door shrieked. I jumped, searching for the source of the noise, terrified that it was the Doctor's tank returning to kill us all, until I knew it was the door. Neither of my companions seemed to mind the earsplitting growl. Dust, paint, dirt, and rust poured down across the entrance. When Conversant said he'd retrieved the seeds decades ago, it must have been the last time he'd bothered opening the place.
"Why are there multiple doors?" I yelled, over the noise.
"Escape routes," Palavar said, leaning back behind Conversant so I could hear them more easily again.
"Why were they plastered over in the city, then?"
"Politics," Conversant said. "They were right, anyway. They lost the access codes, and then no one had the chance to use them."
"Uh..." Here it was. My chance to ask the big questions. "...how did everyone die?"
"The usual ways."
"Can you be more--
"Yes, yes. The humidity allowed for an explosion of fast-acting fatal epidemics, the severe weather caused famine and widespread infrastructure damage, and, as if to add a last ironic insult to injury, on top of this self-created global downspiral, the asteroid they were attempting to relocate to save them knocked the Earth's moon apart. The combined collisions took care of the rest. We recall vividly the slow decline in the number of transmissions over those last few years.”
"You should have seen the city a hundred years ago. There was so much particulate in the atmosphere that one couldn't see further than a foot or so ahead. In the visual spectrum, of course. We're in the recovery and cooling stage now. I would give it another hundred years. I hope this helps explain why I'm unimpressed with Palavar's garden or your surgeon and doctor's dogged recreation of the creatures that caused this disaster in the first place. It's all far too soon. Does that satisfy your inquiry?"
I looked down at the ground, the arid, lifeless, dust-covered wasteland. I was the last human alive, a recreation of a doomed species. Maybe they'd all had thoughts, doubts, and fears like I had. The bunker's construction made it clear that they'd seen their own end coming, and they hadn't been able to stop it. It was the buildings that were left. My memories, which I now suspected had been scavenged from some repository of information similar to Conversant, informed me that coral reefs were structures constructed by tiny water animals who died and left their homes behind like little concrete skeletons. Conversant's city was like that, for humans, on Earth.
It had seemed somewhat comforting before, proof that other humans had existed-- but now I imagined it hung behind us as a tombstone. A marker of their mistakes and their death. I wasn't sure I wanted anything to do with them. Maybe Conversant was right, and humans were better off dead.
"...yeah," I said. I wanted to wipe my eyes again, but not because they stung from the air this time. “That’s… plenty. Thanks. I guess. Let’s go.”