Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sufficiently Advanced


Art by Rene Aigner, Click picture to enlarge.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur C. Clarke


 Albert was the one who brought up the idea of making a side trip to Yeager Air Force Base. About five members of our group were outside the darken motel we had taken refuge, sitting around a campfire built in the middle of the parking lot. We didn't need a fire, it was still warm enough to sit outside without building one. In fact some in our group relished the ability to see the stars without dealing with the now gone light pollution from countless buildings and cars. But the fire served a more primal purpose, it called to the human need for safety and togetherness that stretched back to the beginning of our species.

A little over a year had passed since the event our small group of twenty-nine people collectively called the Disappearance had occurred. As a rule we rarely talked about the event or what our lives were like before it. I truly don't think the couples that naturally formed as we came together talk about it amongst themselves in private. The event so violated our concept of reality that to acknowledge it would be like surrendering our sanity.

“I served at Yeager for over five years.” Albert said while staring at the fire revealing more about himself with that statement than in the five months since I linked up with them. “I was a satellite photo-reconnaissance specialist, my group could redirect any of the assets we had in orbit and take clear, detailed pictures of everything from the license plates of Russian military vehicles to women sunbathing naked on the beach.”

Albert an African-American male in his late twenties who, like the other survivors, joined the group seeking the reassurance and companionship everyone desperately needed in the wake of what had happened. To me, he seemed a little nerdy, especially since I noticed he was constantly taking measurements of the weather conditions and keeping it logged in a journal.

“Why are you telling us this, Albert?” Cynthia asked in her normal irritating manner. I really didn't care much for her, Cynthia was in her late fifties and one of those upper middle class hippy types who threw hissy fits about gluten and GMO veggies in the grocery store. Now, she complained about not having the benefits of civilization like electricity, running water, taking a relaxing crap inside a warm house, along with instant access to her psychiatrist.

Albert took a deep breath and used a stick to poke the fire before saying anything. “There's a chance I can get the emergency generators working and with power I can download the stored data in the satellites. That way we could see what happened on that day.”

I didn't say anything at first. Our group was camped for the night at one of those motel/restaurant/gas stations conglomerations just off Interstate 40 outside Oklahoma City. Our destination was Willow Creek, California where a group of about 600 west coast survivors had begun to assemble. If the short wave broadcasts we had with them were true, the small town had access to electricity supplied by a combination of windmills and hydroelectric power.

Albert's idea was intriguing and if our group didn't consist of nine kids from the ages of three years-old running up to a pregnant girl of fifteen, he and I would definitely go check it out. But Agatha Higgins, more or less our leader, would not be keen on the side trip. Being a pediatric nurse before the Disappearance, right now her life was dedicated to getting the kids to Willow Creek before another winter hit. The price the rest of us adults paid for riding along was unqualified support of Agatha's efforts.

“Gregg is the person I'd talk to about that idea, Albert.” Wilson Banner said while sitting next his partner. “Agatha is in Jean's room watching over her, so there's little chance she would pay you any attention.” Jean was the fifteen year-old pregnant girl who Agatha was watching like a hawk given her age and condition. With Agatha preoccupied, that would allow Albert and myself a straight shot at Gregg.

If Agatha was the leader of our group, Gregg Mason was the second in command. He also held the position as Agatha's love interest. Given the nature of the Disappearance, it goes without saying that their relationship didn't start until after the event. They were a curious couple, Agatha was a statuesque black woman in her forties almost supernaturally dedicated to the welfare of children. Whereas Gregg was a short, truly ugly white guy of about the same age possessing the talent of coaxing in all things mechanical back to life. Like I said, we really didn't talk about our lives before everyone disappeared so no one really knew how they came together in the aftermath.

While still not saying anything directly to Albert that I had a growing desire for this trip to happen, I follow him up the outside stairs to the second level of motel rooms we had taken. It wasn't late but as Albert and I passed the open rooms occupied by the kids, we could tell they were asleep. Something that came naturally to us all really with electricity now gone.

We found Gregg wide awake in he and Agatha's room sitting at the desk next a battery-powered lamp going over a ledger, probably a list of our supplies and what we should look for along our travels. Albert quickly spelled out his idea and how he could possibly bring the satellite control center back to life.

“So you want to do this as well, Rick?” Gregg asked me as he reached for a bottle of Gatorade on his desk.

“Yeah, I'd like to know just what in the hell happened that day.” I replied. “Albert can't do this by himself and then there's the question of security.”

That question went both ways, the one element of my life that everyone knew about was that when the Disappearance happened I was a staff sergeant in the United States Army stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After linking up with Agatha, Gregg, and the others I essentially became the chief of security.

Along the way after that I had played a big role protecting the kids, mainly from dogs that had gone wild and from a small group of lions someone had obviously let loose from a zoo. Luckily, a few rounds fired in their general direction from the .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the roof of the Humvee I drove sent them running. The world was clearly up for grabs with humans now an endangered species, but I didn't want to kill those beautiful animals.

“Do you think Ralph and Laura can fill your shoes?” Gregg asked about the two people who more or less worked under my command.

Both had served in the military and I found that I could honestly answer yes to Gregg's question. As long as they could tear themselves away from each other. The two screwed like sex starved rabbits when not on duty.

“Then take one of the SUV's and go,” Gregg said instantly. “We all hope Willow Creek is the promised land but if you get those satellites up I want you two to look the place over.”

***

The trip to Yeager Air Force Base sucked about as much a journey can without someone getting killed. Before the Disappearance it should have taken two days at best to cover the distance from Okie City to the outskirts of Colorado Springs. Instead it took six with Albert and myself stupidly deciding to cut across old U.S. Highway 87 which ran between I-40 and I-25, which then took us into Colorado Springs. Turned out US 87 had been washed out in numerous spots since the Disappearance and then there was the problems with finding supplies.

For those of us remaining on Earth after the Disappearance, life revolved around foraging the leftovers of civilization. As we passed through the dozen or so small towns on our route, we found nearly all the gas left in the underground storage tanks contaminated. That required us to use the technique Gregg developed to filter out the water, which took hours. The grocery stores, reeking of decaying meat in the dead refrigerators, still held plenty of canned and packaged goods but it was clear another bunch of survivors had already passed through going God knows where.

We finally arrived on the outskirts of Yeager on our sixth day and quickly found the building that housed the satellite control facilities. Given my army background, I somehow expected Cold War era/Terminator movie-style harden bunkers with twenty-ton steel blast doors. While the actual control facilities were in an obviously well guarded subbasement of the building, the place reminded me more of a commercial call center than military redoubt.

The real fun began as Albert lead me through a long series of pitch black access tunnels to what he called “one of the emergency generator rooms.” We both carried several spare flashlights, but the entire time we were down there I realized that if they all somehow died getting back out would be a near impossible task.

Luckily, Albert easily found the door to the generator room and just when I was about to ask him how we would get inside he began typing something on the recessed keypad next it. The sound of a loud click followed by the door opening slightly and lights coming on inside the room itself was deeply reassuring.

“Albert,” I begin whispering for no reason I could think of, “just what in the hell were you in the Air Force?”

“Honestly,” he replied while walking over to a control panel that looked like a piece of the bridge of the starship Enterprise, “satellite reconnaissance specialist like I said. But after leaving the Air Force with the rank of captain, I worked at the NSA.” He finished obviously happy with the stunned look I had on my face.

“Jesus dude, you could have told me you were an officer.” I say upset since his quiet demeanor with the group and on our way to Yeager suggested he was at best a NCO like myself while in the Air Force.

“No worries,” he tells me while working through a complex array of commands on two different computer screens. “You're an experienced infantry soldier while I never even slept outside more that two nights in the service. One of my worst struggles during those years was being deployed to Afghanistan for six months and having to eat at an army mess hall.”

Whether Albert was telling the simple truth or attempting humor I had no idea. Although, I could understand, army mess halls were crap when compared to Air Force cafeterias.

About an hour later we walk into the now fully functional satellite control room. Now it was everything I imagine with giant video screens showing maps of different sections of the planet in front of several long rows of computer terminals sitting side by side.

“So it's this easy to gain access to a highly classified government facility?” I ask Albert as he takes a seat at a supervisory terminal.

“Not for anyone who shouldn't be here in normal times. The system was designed with multiple redundancies in the event of national emergencies so proper personnel could bring it back up. But I admit, having the vast majority of the global population simply disappear was not one of the scenarios they envisaged.” Accessing the satellites and downloading the stored data took longer than Albert expected. He blamed it on an operating system upgrade but eventually he was able to show the end of the world.

The data was completely anticlimactic compared to what those of us who lived through it on the ground. From the perspective of the satellites, planes fell from the sky and all telecommunications stopped at the same moment. Of course the electric lights of cities seen from the night side of the planet stayed on anywhere from several hours to a couple of days but even they died. We found absolutely no reason for the Disappearance, no orbiting alien space ships harvesting unsuspecting humans nor an army of winged angels whisking worthy souls up to heaven.

Silently Albert continued to scan the downloaded data and even redirect satellites in an effort to get an idea on what the rest of the world was like before the power died. He even got several high resolution scans of Willow Creek and intercepted a couple of radio broadcasts local to the area. At least it was turning out to be the sanctuary Agatha, Gregg, and everyone else hoped.

As the hours passed, I had long since wandered off searching for food when the building intercom screeches to life. “Rick,” Albert's voice yells through the speakers, “get back in here, I found something.”

***

We were three weeks into Mexico driving to a totally middle-of-nowhere spot in the state of Durango when I begin to doubt the sanity of both Albert and myself. While the post-Disappearance weather and years of neglect before that had taken their toll on American roads, those in Mexico were even worse. Backtracking became a hellish daily activity, along with foraging fuel and food from locations we were simply not familiar. But somehow we made progress with an Air Force GPS device we stole from the base slowly ticking closer to our destination.

We first saw it at a village we camped at several miles away. It was just an unimpressive bump on the horizon but given that we were a good distance from the nearest thing that could be called a city, it was a large structure that had no business existing. It wasn't the only one on the planet, Albert had fished around with the satellite surveillance data and discovered bizarre large structures appearing on every continent the same time most of humanity vanished. What gave them away were the satellites recording extremely high electromagnetic radiation emissions when they popped into existence, then nothing.

The structure we were about to visit was North America's. The one for South America was almost dead center in the Amazon rain forest, while Europe's was in Hungary. Asia got two, one in eastern Siberia and the other in northern India. Africa had two as well, with the northern one just a few dozen miles from the Giza pyramids and the other in the jungle of southern Congo. For a reason I couldn't describe that seemed almost funny, Australia's missed the entire continent and was located on the island of Tasmania. Even Antarctica had one near the South Pole, its function more of a mystery than the rest since there were so few people on the continent.

Neither of us said anything the next morning as we started the final leg of our long journey. The structure slowly grew higher and larger as we traveled across the desert plain. I'm not sure about Albert, but I expected some sort of activity as we approached. I believe the lack of any response filled me with a dread far worse than if the structure had been guarded by murderous aliens or rage-filled demons.

I stopped the vehicle just a few dozen feet away from the structure. It was rectangular in shape standing over thirty-stories tall with the four sides about forty-five to fifty feet wide at the base. Looking at it just a few feet away, it appeared to be a crudely cut block of stone. Pictures of ancient Stonehenge came to mind, except that this was far more massive. Then there were the vein-like filaments running up and down its length that coursed with a pale blue light. The structure was so alien, so utterly unearthly the reptile part of my brain wanted to drop everything and runaway. It took a conscious effort to walk towards it for a closer examination.

Albert on the other hand was enthralled, obviously the structure appealed to his highly analytical mind. He was already touching it while I was still deciding whether or not to flee.

“The Sentinel,” Albert said touching the structure.

“What are you talking about?” I ask edging closer.

“Remember the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith that appeared to the hominid creatures and the one on the moon and later in orbit around Jupiter.”

Albert was right, while the structure wasn't a dead ringer for Arthur C. Clarke's fictional monolith, the one in front of me sure as hell was even more enigmatic.

“A shape for something that had no shape,” I said repeating the lines from one of the characters in the sequel made a decade or two later. That's when I snapped, my mind was flooded with memories of a wife I lost to pursue my military career and my seven year-old son I probably held less than ten times when he was a baby. With no apparent culprit to hold accountable for their disappearance, I had put all the emotions and guilt I felt towards them in a box and pushed it away. Seeing the monolith in front of me caused that box I wanted to ignore and forget about to explode.

“Rick, what the hell are you doing?” I vaguely heard Albert say before I grabbed the pickaxe from inside our vehicle and started taking swings at the monolith. Albert tried to stop me after the first swing but I pushed him away.

While my first swing glanced off the side of the monolith, on the second the pick dug deep into stony material of the monolith. In fact, a rather large chunk broke off and fell to the ground. That's when everything really went to shit.

***

I'm not sure what happened all I know is that everything went both totally dark and utterly silent. Hell, during that period I don't even know if I had a body. What I do know was that I could sense the presence of numerous powerful minds or just one massive entity. Truthfully they seemed to merge, split apart, and then repeat the process. Attaching human equivalencies would be ridiculous but I would guess that is how they communicated with each other. They didn't try to communicate with me, if one thing is certain I was less to them than bacteria are to us. But somehow my fear and anger affected them much in the same way bacteria can make us sick. They had to neutralized me to prevent their monolith from being damaged further.

What these entities did though was allowed me to sense some minuscule portion of their existence. The first thing I could discern was that the monoliths weren't things that allowed shapeless beings to have a form. No, the best human term for the structures would be that they are test leads or probes used to measure not just physical conditions like heat and humidity, but all life and how it interacted.

Earth was an experiment to them, whether their endeavor was planned out from the birth of the solar system or that they noticed the conditions of the young planet met their needs and decided to make use of it, I have no idea.


What I could tell was that our concepts of good and evil held no meaning to them. They aren't heavenly beings but neither are they purposely cruel, it gets back to the same way we humans look at bacteria. Yes, they are responsible for the Disappearance, and I don't know if everyone they took was erased, stored away like music on a CD, or now safely living in some paradise-like realm. I did learn that it was pure accident that some of us were left behind, their abilities and technology, hell their very reality are all way beyond our comprehension but they're not gods.

At some point those beings released me, because just as suddenly as everything went dark I found myself leaning on the monolith with Albert asleep inside our SUV.

***

“You were gone for over five hours,” Albert tells me after I crawled over to the SUV and woke him up. Now that I was back in the world, my body screamed my time away was much longer. I felt like I haven't eaten in days which is only surpassed by my thirst.

“Where did you go, Rick? Did you meet the beings that made the monolith?” Albert asks me as I finish off a second liter bottle of water.

We camped next the monolith for the night and I told Albert everything I learned. He in turn just listens saying nothing but somehow I could tell my experiences were concepts he already grasped. I finish by saying there was nothing we as a species could do to change the way the monolith entities view humans. They could easily wipe the remaining humans and the planet itself away. 

“I don't know about that,” Albert says looking towards the monolith. “The second you disappeared the blue light running through the veins stopped. I'd bet money you did that and the entities have disengaged from our planet.”

Just to be sure, the next morning I used the pickaxe to break off several more pieces of the monolith. Nothing happened, as far as this monolith was concerned, and I somehow knew all the others were just as dead.

With nothing left to prove or discover I just stood in front of the monolith staring at it. It was Albert who pulled me back to the world of the living.

“We're done here, Rick. Lets start heading back home to Willow Creek.”

4 comments:

sage said...

Kind of a “Left Behind-Sci FI-Dystopia” genre?

The Bug said...

Very cool short story!

Beach Bum said...

Sage: Yeah, the picture associated with the story tickled my imagination.

The Bug: Thanks! I actually still playing with it. So elements might change over the next couple of days.

Pixel Peeper said...

Holy shit - I'm finally catching up with your blog and come across this story. I think this is the best you've ever written!