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