Sunday, February 18, 2018

Entering the Lion's Den - Part Two


 The Handmaid's Tale fan fiction


After the briefing Amanda and I were rushed off to another building where the details of the rescue operation were being planned. The person we were being sent to retrieve was Dr. Jennifer Burgess, probably the top mind in the world on human reproduction. Before everything went sideways she had been picked by the United States government to lead the team researching the causes of the fertility crash and to come up with a way to counteract it.

But things did go sideways starting with the Mayday Attacks, which lead to martial law being declared, that in turn became the “Transition” and finally the five-month civil war between loyalists and the new regime. During the chaos, Dr. Burgess fell off the map with everyone figuring she was just another intellectual the new regime murdered and then cremated with the ashes being dumped in a landfill. Once I was settled in New Zealand ignoring the outside world, especially what was happening in North America, became a bit of an obsession for me. But I still couldn't avoid the pictures that were somehow smuggled out of Gilead showing the bodies of intellectuals ranging from college professors to scientists stacked on rolling pallets heading to a crematorium. In a fit of gallows humor, one of the Hawaiian shirt wearing CIA spooks organizing the mission called the elimination of all the smart people the first instance of a brain flush instead of a drain.

Elements of the resistance inside the country had turned up intel that Burgess was being kept in a glorified whorehouse run by the Gilead government and called Jezebels. Despite the founders of Gilead claiming they had the inside track on God's idea for righteous living on earth, for various reasons they had established numerous Jezebels all over the former-U.S. These establishments catered to the sinful carnal needs of the Gilead elites and people they wanted to impress. If the information was correct, Dr. Burgess had been sentenced to work the sheets of whomever her overseers wanted to impress. Which for the Charleston Jezebel facility meant international tourists that the Gilead regime eagerly milked for foreign currency. Having Dr. Burgess in Charleston was fortuitous for Amanda and myself since it actually made entering what was now an extremely totalitarian country somewhat easy.

***

Eight days after arriving on Johnston Atoll, Amanda and I are on a Lufthansa Airlines flight from Berlin heading to the exotic destination of Charleston. To everyone on the plane we were an adventurous German couple with a penchant for vacationing in bizarre locations. Being out of the spycraft trade for five years, I tried not to the think about the twenty-something American kid a few decades back that decided a vacation in North Korea was a good idea. He stole a poster off the wall of the motel, was arrested, sentenced to hard labor, and was beat to death a few months later by prison guards.

What was really strange on a personal level was the blue dye job done on Amanda's hair and the cosmetic device used to hide the scar running down the right side of her face. It was more than enough to change her overall appearance, which meant unless someone was looking directed for her she would be just another European on the tour group. For me, all I could do was shave my head and wear contact lenses that changed the color of my eyes. The one high tech disguise we left Johnston Atoll with were the synthetic skin gloves glued on our hands. They completely changed our fingerprints and even left DNA samples that were linked to a German database should the Eyes of God, the Gilead secret police, decide to check us out.

Luckily, after the flight landed we received only the most minimal of hassle from customs. That came from the basic fact that Gilead wanted foreign currency and to annoy the rich tourists was counterproductive. Both Amanda and I did a lot of smiling at the skinny kid looking over our passports and asked a lot of questions about his life. It's always good to try and connect with the locals but what really sealed the deal was the low cut of Amanda's blouse and her touching his hand several times. He quickly cleared us for entry with only the extreme blush on his face confirming that the guy had never gotten laid. While leaving the airport was easy, the drive to the hotel in downtown Charleston was a different matter.

The armed muscle of the Gilead regime was called the Guardians of the Faith. It was the result of a merger of the old United States Army National Guard and numerous right-wing militias. Their presence was everywhere with roadblocks and watch stations located every couple of miles. Heavily armed squads of six appeared to be the usual that often included armored Humvees with .50 caliber machine guns mounted to the roof and I even saw a couple with automatic grenade launchers. The icing on the totalitarian cake though were the billboards and sides of buildings displaying propaganda messages.

Most were images of happy, white, families either going to church or sitting at a formal dining room table overflowing with food. These messages declared that Gilead had the favor of God and that prosperity was around the corner for the truly faithful. Others showed dark-skinned monsters wearing the uniforms of American Armed Forces, which meant the Remnant U.S., threatening young, white, babies but who were being protected by a glowing Jesus welding a massive sword.

Both the armed thugs and propaganda disappeared when we entered the lower peninsula of Charleston around the Battery. There a surreal normalcy dominated with the stately mansions looking excellently kept with residents strolling along the sidewalks. Hell, even the horse drawn carriages were still prowling the streets and old black women could be found in Battery Park weaving sweet grass baskets.

Our hosts stopped the bus at Battery Park several blocks away from our hotel and let us disembark. Our guide, a guy in his thirties who seemed stiffer than a telephone pole, worked hard to keep us organized and on a particular track. It was obvious he wanted us to interact with as many of the basket weavers, casual artists painting pleasant scenes, and food vendors as possible. The intention was clear, happy and entertained tourists go home to tell friends and family that nasty Gilead wasn't the nightmare it seemed.

While munching on a hot dog, I admired an old man sitting by himself painting a scene of a sailboat on the ocean. Our conversation was cordial with me saying in my best German accented English how much I liked his work. His response was exceedingly polite but his eyes darted around like he was expecting a rabid bear to come charging out of nowhere. His fear was so palatable I wanted to say something reassuring, but the danger that he was just a well trained Eye agent looking for foreign troublemakers was real.

The same held for the old black women weaving sweet grass baskets. The Gilead regime was inherently racist, but since it desperately wanted to discredit the Remnant U.S. and be accepted by the rest of the world, it made a minimum effort at playing nice. The sweet grass weavers placidly sat under small shade shelters and did their craft. While no Antebellum task master stood over the ladies with a whip, I noticed that they paid special attention to all the people around them. I couldn't help but feel it was a talent that was connected to America's original sin.

***

Our hotel was what was once the Calhoun Mansion Museum, appropriated by the Gilead government it was now simply called the Palmetto. The 24,000 square foot structure still looked the same inside from what I remember of a school field trip a lifetime ago. Except for the staff which, like the artist and the sweet grass weavers outside, all clearly understood they were living in a nightmarish Potemkin village. A bellboy, another skinny kid that should have been worrying over college exams instead of being tied down by a mutant society, escorted us to our room while carrying our luggage.

“If there's anything I can do for you sir, just ask.” The boy said standing at the doorway. A wave of pity washed over me seeing him stand there wearing what had to be the most ridiculous uniform ever conceived. Making matters worse, the uniform was about three sizes too big giving it a comic appearance.

“Here's the deal, young man,” I said being careful to keep my fake German accent. “My wife and I have particular tastes in entertainment and we've heard there are activities here in Gilead we can partake.” I said while slipping him a ten euro note.

The boy immediately lost his comic tinted look of innocence. “Yes sir, I know exactly what you mean and that can easily be arranged. What time would you like for someone to pick you and your wife up?”

“You can arrange this for tomorrow evening after dinner.” Amanda answered for us both before disappearing in an adjoining room. I found something in her certainty a little unsettling.

The next morning I woke up on the couch, Amanda's orders, while I heard her in the bathroom. Being summer in the northern hemisphere, I was quickly reminded of Charleston's humidity as I stepped out onto the long second floor porch that looked down upon the gardens. People were already walking around enjoying the statues, fountains, and flowers. For a moment I found myself imagining that Gilead was just some nightmare that I would soon shake off. All that ended when down on the street a large SUV came into view flying a tiny flag of Gilead on the hood with several body guard type Guardians jumping out as soon as it stopped. I almost jumped back inside the room until I remembered I was just a harmless German tourist taking advantage of the morning air.

“We've got to move quickly,” Amanda said coming out onto the patio. “Our contact has arrived early.” She said after turning and reentering our room.

“What's the play, Amanda?” I ask grabbing a fresh shirt then changing into a pair of pants that would be presentable to the public.

“The Jezebels meeting is up in the air. But our contact will be strolling in Battery Park seemingly out to meet and greet the tourists.”

“Can I assume the VIP vehicle that pulled up a minute ago is our contact?” I assume that was a given. What I didn't ask was how Amanda was communicating with this person. She was carrying several electronic devices like a camera and a cheap computer tablet. Tech wizards back on Johnston Atoll could have easily integrated hidden text functions into the circuitry of either device.

Amanda paused giving me a stern look clearly debating on how much I needed to know.

“Listen, I've played the good junior spy.” I said getting upset. “Tell me what this means Amanda because I could easily slip out of this city and disappear leaving you here alone.”

Several second later the expression on her face softens. “Just be prepared for a surprise Ryan, our contact is not helping us out of his desire to overthrow the Gilead regime. I've got the bastard by the balls and your appearance and reaction to seeing him will undermine his already damaged psyche.”

Leaving the Palmetto, Amanda was playing the affectionate wife as we made our way to Battery Park. She even made a point of stopping our stroll several times to give me a passionate kiss. To the local onlookers it was a display of affection that was forbidden in any other place in Gilead. When your a spy, you automatically know such behavior is for the benefit of people watching. She wanted to shock someone, but I didn't have a clue who that person might be.

Oh, I eagerly played along, since she had been nothing but cold to me from the day I found her in my New Zealand cabin. From the corner of my eye, I saw the VIP approaching us and saw that he was wearing the suit of one of the Commanders of the Faithful, it looked like a regular business attire except for a series of patches on the sleeves and other trinkets attached to the lapels. I never was into fashion, especially since formal attire for me consisted of my navy dress whites uniform, so the outfit to me looked ridiculous. But what the guy was wearing was the clothes of Gilead's ruling class.

I'll give the guy credit, when Amanda and I finally got within handshaking distance we recognized each other. The shock that registered across his face was extreme but also brief. Instinctively, his eyes began darting around like the old man the day before looking for that metaphorical rabid bear.

I on the other hand went cold, the man standing before me should have been dead. He was the senior aid to the late Senator Laura Claiborne of California, who while not in the Capitol at the time of the first Mayday Attack was one of several assassinated in their offices. He was also Amanda's husband, Andrew Maddox, the man who upon learning of the affair I had with his wife tried to end my career.

Killing him wouldn't have been an issue. His two bodyguards standing a few feet behind him looked like overweight thugs. My mind played out several scenarios where I killed them, took their handguns, and murdered Andrew before anyone had a clear idea what had happened. But being the good spy I stuck with what I thought was Amanda's script.

“Hello Andrew,” I said pulling his ex-wife close to me. “Good to see you somehow made it through the attacks.”

Andrew was silent, frozen in place, it was Amanda playing the master manipulator that defused the situation. “Now boys, we're here to do business. Andrew, you provide the assistance we need and nothing will bother you again. How about we step over to one of the nice benches, have a seat, and talk.”

End of Part Two

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Entering the Lion's Den - Handmaid's Tale Fan Fiction



(See author's note at the end.)

My days are simple now. They are a set routine of mundane events that vary only slightly over the course of a year. What doesn't change though is that after waking up I take a quick shower before eating my breakfast while listening to the news on the radio. It is during those few minutes that I feel some solace in the fact that the world has finally calmed down, somewhat, after having nearly everyone's preconceived notions radically overturned. Its been five years since the events that historians are saying marked the end of Western Civilization and even now I can tell no one still believes it actually happened.

Except for me, I saw the juggernaut speeding down the tracks bearing down on the distracted and self-adsorbed nation oblivious to the danger it faced both from forces outside the government and the cancer inside. I tried to warn my superiors, men and women with real authority but who were so part of the institutional mentality that they could neither see the mutating landscape nor the corruptive forces lurking in plain sight. The darkly funny thing that still needles my soul is that while the winners and losers of the life and prosperity columns switched hundreds of millions of innocent souls since the end of everything, above it all a tiny minority sailed through the chaos unscathed as usual.

That's all in the past now. With breakfast finished, I turn off the radio and begin to prowl the small portion of the Earth I can call my own. During the summer months I keep occupied working in my garden and doing repairs on the small cabin I call home. But it is now during the harsh winter months here on the South Island of New Zealand that I am forced to accept the fall of the United States of America and the establishment of the Republic of Gilead.

The day is misty with heavy gray clouds sealing up the sky from the sun. With no real chores, I go for a short hike through the hills. There is comfort in the forest, a solitude that allows me to imagine a much different world, one far wiser and more adaptable. That morning however, I feel old instincts stirring. Someone is watching me, probably several people off in the distance.

In the early days of Gilead it would have been their secret police, curiously called the “Eyes of God.” A combination of former CIA or former military types who were either Christian extremists or well disciplined and trained serial killers that didn't have any guiding philosophy. They made a point of hunting down people around the world the Gilead government had declared were “unredeemables”, American dissidents who refused accept the new regime or quietly fade into the society of whatever nation they were taking refuge.

With the world dissolving into chaos the Eyes had free reign for months. That is until the Remnant United States, a government in exile consisting of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico launched six nonnuclear cruise missiles at the Texas compound where the “Leader” of Gilead resided when he wasn't in Washington. The Remnant U.S. had possession of all the workable nuclear weapons and long range delivery systems once held by American Armed Forces.

The missiles killed hundreds of the most fanatical participants of the new government, which the propaganda arm instantly turned into martyrs. The attack missed the Leader by a couple of hours, but he got the message and ended all overt assassinations.

If my not so well hidden observers wanted me dead, I'd already be laying on the ground in a growing puddle of my own blood. So, with nothing left to do I begin walking back figuring they wanted to talk with me. The only questions remaining being who are they, and what do they want. As I approach my cabin I notice the front door is wide open. I can't help but feel a growing curiosity combined with a great deal of worry as I stepped threw.

When it became apparent no one in the doomed U. S. Government was listening to my warnings, I skipped the country with money and a new identity. For several months, I jumped around the world looking to avoid the hundreds of assassins the Gilead regime had dispatched to short circuit anyone forming an organized and effective resistance.

But once the Eyes were called back home, I settled on the South Island of New Zealand. In normal times unless you were a legitimate refugee or very rich, the Kiwis were always stingy about allowing outsiders into their beautiful country. As far as the Kiwi immigration ministry was concerned, I was a rich entrepreneur who just happen to become a permanent resident right before the Mayday Attacks that overthrew the United States government. When the world was thrown into chaos because of that event, New Zealand along with every other stable nation was forced to take in tens of thousands of displaced former Americans.

For that reason, New Zealand didn't put up with any shit from alien residents. Even a minor crime committed by a stupid teenager could result in the entire family being deported on the first available tramp freighter. At best the family would end up in the Remnant U.S., probably Alaska where they would end up working the mines or oil fields. At worst, Gilead itself in one of the toxic interment camps they called “colonies” where life expectancy is usually less than two years.

I liked New Zealand, I felt at peace here and the last thing I wanted was to cause any trouble or be noticed by the local constabulary. For that reason, I had my hands up as I entered the cabin curious about who had finally found me.

“Hello Ryan, its been too long.” The beautiful redhead sitting at my kitchen table said. “I'm reforming Section Thirty-One, and you're one of the band members I just can't do without.”

***

While the roar of the cargo plane's massive jet engines were canceled out by the headphones I wore, escaping the clamber of my thoughts was something far more difficult. Seeing Amanda was one of the absolute last things I thought would ever happen again in my life. Thinking back on it, having an affair with her while she was married to a high-ranking aid to a powerful United States Senator as well as being my boss was a really bad idea.

On the face of it Amanda Carter was the poster woman for dynamic feminism. After graduating West Point she became a member of the Criminal Investigation Command working in intelligence gathering. Her exploits in Afghanistan and several other dangerous locations around the world cleared her a pathway to joining the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team and eventually commanding it. From there she fell in love and married Andrew Maddox, senior aid to the now deceased Senator Laura Claiborne.

I met Amanda when we were both recruited for Section Thirty-One, a semi-secret agency created in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When America's commie foe went belly up in the 1990's, a whole host James Bond-like villains were the result. With access to thousands of loose Soviet tactical nukes, deadly biological agents, and other pieces of inconvenient technology the United States intelligence community created Section Thirty-One in an effort to contain and eliminate their dangers. By the time Amanda and I were on the team, its purview had expanded to other threats to the nation. All things considered, Section Thirty-One did a damn good job up until it was sidelined by what was called at the time the “War on Terror.”

They pulled her from the FBI and me from the Navy Seals in 2015 and made us partners after graduating 31's training academy. Several dangerous missions later one thing lead to the other and we became lovers in Vienna while holding up in a safe house. A couple of months later her husband, Maddox finds out with Amanda getting a new partner while I was assigned to a desk in Washington. All told the desk job analyzing domestic terrorist groups was probably a good thing. It gave me a heads up on the Son of Jacob, the radical group planning the overthrow of the U.S. government allowing me to cleanly skip the country when I realized no one in authority was listening to my warnings. Most of Section Thirty-One was assassinated in the months after the Mayday Attacks.

Amanda sat on the other side of plane from me, asleep but in the middle of a very bad dream. She was trying to curl up in one of the seats mounted in a long row next the fuselage. From the moment I saw her in my cabin it was obvious the years since Mayday had been nightmarish. Her face was still beautiful but her eyes were empty, the person she was when we were partners and lovers long dead. Emphasizing that point, was the scar running down the side of her face visible to to me.

After leaving my cabin, she wouldn't reveal the mission she had come all the way down to New Zealand to get me to join until we reached our destination. She did tell me that I had experience critcal to its successful completion. The cold expression on her face all but confirming the idea floating around in my head that I would probably end up wishing I hid from the world a lot better. Later on sitting next Amanda in the vehicle one of her teammates drove, I tried to ask about the scar and her reaction was even worse.

Our destination turned out to be Johnston Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A long time naval refueling station later turned into a testing facility for chemical and nuclear weapons. After the fall of the government, the Remnant U.S. increased the island's size many times by sinking scores of unneeded vessels in the shallow waters and then piling hundreds of tons of material on top from coral dredging. The purpose to provide a highly secure site to plan operations against the Gilead regime. The official capital of the Remnant U.S. was Anchorage, Alaska but brutal experience had taught what was left of the American government was infiltrated with Gilead sympathizers.

One of the few things Amanda did tell me before we departed New Zealand was that being admitted to Johnston Atoll meant that the Resistance leadership was sure you were not the enemy. Something I told her I appreciated since I was the goddamn person who tried to warn them in the first place.

***

The building we were taken to after landing while prefab had obviously been hardened to the point of absurdity. My guess was to withstand tropical storms and the disturbing possibility that Gilead, or its Russian ally, might try to attack the place. That is if anything they threw at it could get by the several cruisers out in the nearby waters or land-based missile batteries scattered about the island.

Amanda and I were quickly ushered inside and to a conference room filled with a collection of military types from all the military services. Mixed in where a few intelligence spooks wearing actual Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants. They looked like irate insurance salesmen who had missed the flight to Vegas for the annual convention and were about to lose the reservation deposit at their favorite whore house.

After taking our seats in the far corner of the room, a four-star army general entered the room and took up position behind the podium.

“Good day ladies and gentlemen,” he said while organizing his papers. “For those who don't know me I'm General Robert Okamoto director of continental insurgence. We are here today to begin plans to extract a high value prisoner trapped in Gilead. The president himself has approved this operation not just for how it will hurt the Gilead regime but the target is also a highly trained scientist who was researching the fertility crisis before the Fall.”

To say I was nervous about how I was supposed to be critical to this mission was an understatement. I had been part of at least a dozen hostage rescue missions in my career, but never one to what was supposed to be my home country. That it had become a totalitarian state dominated by a freakish religion only made the situation more bizarre. Nonetheless, I stayed quiet and waited for the other shoe to drop.

General Okamoto continued on for a several minutes before revealing the location of this vital individual. I began to understand why Amanda had come for me the second I saw the map. It was a map of Charleston, South Carolina, my hometown, a place that as a kid I thought I would never leave. But now one I wouldn't have bet money the day before I would ever dare to return.

I turned my head towards Amanda and found her looking intensely at me. The person next me was not my Amanda, she was long dead. But the expression on her face was one I was familiar with after being her partner and then lover.

“What piece of information are you not telling me, Amanda? I whispered to her.

She ignored me and just turned her head back towards General Okamoto.

End of Part One

(Author's note: For reasons that should be obvious I'm in a really dark mood right now. I honestly feel our country is just a few small steps away from a true nightmare. What history I've read seems to suggest any people that come this close to giving away their freedoms and rule of law have only a few fleeting opportunities to make them safe again. That the elements seeking to institute authoritarian restrictions have the advantage in pursuing their goals while the good guys are often at odds with themselves. Those of us in the “Resistance” can only do our best and hope.



This story is crap, but I have based it on the Hulu series, not the book or movie, and have done my best to expand the landscape of that excellent production.)

Monday, February 5, 2018

Weekend at Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort

Explaining the existence of the Disney Hilton Head Island Resort is often a difficult thing. No, it's not a theme park, which is something that seems to cause a lot of confusion. Yes, it is a resort in the sense it has nice rooms to rest and activities to keep people amused and entertained. Then there are the "old folks" like me who just enjoy the quiet and solitude its location provides. Opened in the mid-90's, I believe Disney's idea was to open similar resorts across the country. There was even rumors that Mickey's handlers had their eyes on the old Myrtle Beach Air Force base property.

Per my usual habit I went to the resort's beach house to watch the sunrise last Saturday morning. Located a little over a mile away from the main resort, which is on the marsh, the beach house has its own pool and activities.

While both resort pools are heated to over eighty degrees, neither Dragonwife nor I decided to get wet last weekend. Saturday had a lot of bright sunshine but was quite cold. Our afternoon visit to the beach house was purely perfunctory, although had we been able to stay to Monday we would have attended the wine and cheese tasting the staff had scheduled there.  

Sunday was rainy but was no where near as cold. My other habit when we stay at DHHIR is to grab a cup of coffee in the lobby and go walking around the Shelter Cover Marina. You never know what you might see or hear around the yachts and sailboats. On one of those vessels that morning someone should have put out the watercraft version of "If this van is rocking, don't come a knocking." No, the vessel wasn't rocking but sounds carry over calm water.

Rainy weather didn't prevent me from attending the sunrise Sunday morning. But as usual, given that my wife and I had to go home just a few hours later I was feeling a bit melancholy. While cold weather limited the number of early morning beach walkers Saturday morning, the periodic heavy rains the next day gave me a totally empty beach as far as my eyes could see. My only company were a flock of seagulls and the disturbing thoughts that I sort of envied them. My reason being that they get to live on a beach while my big brain and opposable thumbs means I have to keep a job and live in a location I really don't like. Seagulls nasty reputation not withstanding, I think they're getting the better end of the existence bargain.

Last picture before my wife and I headed home. The pier stretching out into the march on the main resort property. Not all is lost, we're heading back to DHHIR sometime in July.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

We're All Residents of Omelas


 Over the years numerous works of fiction I have read have left a lasting impact on how I look at the world. Not sure what this might suggest about my reading comprehension or general mental ability but quite frankly even though the subject and circumstances are still remembered, I have forgotten the authors and/or titles on some of these works. The best way explanation is that when I see a similar situation in real life through some torturous route in my miswired brain, I am able to recall the plot of some novel or short story from years ago. I tend to think of it as an emotional echo since these works hit me on a gut level.

That is not the case this time after hearing about the recent passing of the famous Sci-fi author, Ursula LeGuin. One of her pieces of fiction entitled, Those Who Walk Away from Omelas seriously overturned the very basic foundations of how I view human interactions and even how our civilization works.

Those Who Walk Away from Omelas is generally classified as a short story but upon a little Wikipedia-based research it can also be called philosophical fiction since it doesn't really have a plot and deals with the price people will pay to live in utopia.

LeGuin's Omelas is a Utopian city with no kings, soldiers or slaves. The inhabitants are intelligent and highly cultured, free from all worries and concern like money and disease. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who describes Omelas in ways that make it sound like a hippy paradise. The scent of drooz hangs heavily in the air, beer is plentiful, and there are hints of semi-religious orgies taking place.

Like most of the utopias I have ever read about there is one huge catch. The price for all this abundant happiness and spiritual contentment rests on the misery of one young child. Le Guin makes sure the reader understands this happiness includes everything from the wisdom of their scholars, the amount of food they harvest, and even the good weather. This child is kept locked away in a dark, tiny room in the basement of one of the city's buildings living in filth and fear. The unnamed narrator telling us the story says the child is about ten but looks younger because of malnutrition and neglect. Even worse, the narrator explains the child didn't always live in that room. It remembers sunlight and the reassurance of it mother's voice. Occasionally the child will cry out saying, “I will be good” and “Please let me out” suggesting it has no idea why it is being treated that way.

In what seems a well established ritual, once the inhabitants of Omelas reach a certain age, between eight and twelve, they are brought to see this child who has to pay the price for their society. The narrator explains that those being exposed to the child are at first shocked and sickened by what they see. They want to help the child but the city elders explain that the minute that happens all the beauty and abundance of Omelas would “whether and be destroyed.”

Over time the vast majority of these new initiates accept that their happiness rests on the continued misery of that child. So they accept the injustice and go on dancing in the streets smoking drooz, drinking beer, and slinking off for those rumored orgies. However, a few both young and old can't bear the wait of this sin and leave the city, never to return. The narrator describes them going towards the mountains to a place even less imaginable than Omelas.

Conservatives have tagged the term “social justice warrior” as a dirty pejorative, at best comparing it to the old bleeding heart liberal who has more heart than sense or at worst something akin to being a traitor. The reasoning for the latter being that in their minds America is Awesome and anyone who dare criticize society is a commie/atheist out to tax them into slavery, take away their guns, and force them to accept all manner or hideous progressive ideas. Assumptions are bad but from what I heard from such people they generally assume poverty, and the misery associated with it, is the result of laziness and bad character.

For those reasons, whenever Those Who Walk Away from Omelas crossed my mind for whatever reason I tended to lump conservatives in with the hippy-like inhabitants of that fictional Utopian city. Something I am sure they would not like since that while Omelas has plenty of pot, beer, and free sex the lack of any need for weapons would drive them insane.

It took me time to climb off my liberal high horse and realize that everyone in the United States and even all the inhabitants of the posh and overweight First World nations have accepted a Omelas-like deal to keep our way of life. The first example that comes to mind is the ubiquitous smart phones we love, which are made in Asian factories that unless things have greatly changed are not far removed from concentration camps. The same can be said for the other cheap junk like televisions and countless other pieces of consumerist crap which sends Americans into near riots on Black Fridays sales after Thanksgiving. We all bitch about good paying American jobs disappearing but freak out at the idea of paying a worker here in this country a livable wage.

In more general terms, we all have come to accept poverty all across the planet and the sad plight of refuges who have fled their war torn countries due to the machinations of powerful men playing their geopolitical games. A starving kid in South Sudan might move a few to donate money to an international charity. And the average person might feel bad for the Arab family risking drowning in a leaky boat fleeing ISIS terrorists and bombs being dropped from Syrian and Russian jets, but do not bring their asses to America. Those terrorized Muslim children might shoot up classrooms, stores, and outdoor concerts when they grow up. We have more than enough heavily armed Caucasians doing that already.

In an effort for full disclosure, I'm not leaving myself out of the criticism. My wife and I regularly give to charity and come to close to shedding tears at the plight of the oppressed. But in all honesty, we should be doing far more. But like most of the citizens of Omelas, they know about the plight of the small child but have come to accept it as the price of living. I will give myself a little credit, there are times I am overwhelmed by the despair and greed that runs rampant in our world. The urge to leave this shit behind and just walk away seems like the only responsible choice to maintain sanity and avoided being tainted by our species behavior. The problem though is that there is just really no place to go.


Certain philosophers and idealists throughout the ages have asked the question just what would a mature and responsible human civilization look like. The easiest first sign of just such a stage in our development would be the realization by the majority of people that allowing the exploitation and suffering of others is intolerable. That while utopia isn't really possible, to deny the basic needs and freedoms to anyone is a crime akin to cannibalism. No, I'm not expecting such an awakening to happen anytime soon. In fact, if you want to know the truth, so far all signs suggest our species is moving in the opposite direction.       


Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Center Ain't Holding




Political corruption is as old as human civilization. Going my usual speculative route, the underhanded and corrupting nature of politics will certainly be a permanent fixture until humans agree to turn over the running of our various institutions to computer-based artificial intelligence. Which hopefully, will be benign administrators that lack any desire to have a sexual relationship with porn stars or run private businesses while in office.

One of the worst forms of political trickery and corruption that plagues the United States is the gerrymandering of districts. In a country that acts like an obnoxious a-hole to the rest of the world extolling the virtues of democracy, far too many American politicians at all levels of government are able to pick their constitutes instead of the voters choosing them. I admit, gerrymandering districts is a form of art given the way differing populations are carefully divided and watered down to the point a political party is able to maintain an iron grip on power.

To be sure, neither political party is free of the sin of gerrymandering. And it must also be said that there are occasions where a certain political party is so dominate in a district or state that a viable two-party election contest simply isn't possible. Sure, non-partisan groups should be in control of drawing up representative districts but democracy is a terribly flawed system requiring constant vigilance to keep it from descending into forms of government that are far worse.

For the informed and rational American, of both political parties, gerrymandering is a betrayal of the very principles our country is supposed to believe. But what amounts to another sign that our society is severely screwed another form of political corruption worse than parasitical gerrymandering is raising its head out in California.

A group out in California has recently published a declaration of independence and want to break the most populous and liberal-leaning state apart. Their proposed new state would be called “New California” and be comprised of most of the less populated, and curiously enough far more homogeneous rural counties. This of course would leave the much more heavily populated and ethically diverse coastal urban counties in “old” California.

This New California group call the current state of California a “tyranny” and blames it on over taxation, excessive regulation, best of all, “mono-party politics.” Word of advice to the New California folks, I personally think the use the words like “tyranny” and “mono-party politics” are heavily telegraphing your inherent racism and angry white people views. Reminds me of the metaphorical petulant brat on the playground that's going to take the ball and leave since the other kids don't want to follow his rules. You might as well just come out and openly say that since you don't want to share the state with Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, and numerous other ethnic groups you want a white homeland.

Now as an “oppressed” political minority living in a state so red the sighting of a Democrat out in public is akin seeing Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Loch Ness monster combined, I personally like your idea about splitting California apart. There are plenty of Democratic-leaning areas down here in the American South but through gerrymandering they are at best contained to token districts. Maybe we should copy your efforts and start carving off our own states since we too are tired of the bullshit that comes from the mono-party politics that dominate our lives.

I can only imagine the charges of treason, sedition, and political terrorism that would erupt in the right-wing controlled state capitols all through the South if a lefty-version of the New California movement were to take root.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Automation of Joe Sixpack




Like most guys, I really don't like shopping. In most instances crowds bother me and when you throw in having to navigate around some soul trying decide whether he or she wants “Spectacular Brand A” or the “Magnificent Brand B” when both are the same thing down the molecular level you can easily come to doubt overall human sanity. Just because I'm in a particularly bad mood, I'll regurgitate the tired fact that dealing with the locals where I live often makes me wish there was a massive earthquake fault running underneath the town long overdue for a release of energy. After years of confinement in this inbred, suburban dystopian hellhole, shopping around them is the crap icing on a cake made of week-old roadkill.

For those reasons, and probably a couple of dozen more equally childish, I tend to shop early in the morning after I get off work. These retail runs always involve picking up milk, bread, eggs, and a few other must-haves. The biggest question connected to these relatively quick visits to a grocery store involve just where I will stop. Since I clock-out from work earlier than most people assigned to the night shift my choices are narrow.

I can hit the newest upscale grocery store to the area which nicely offers financing on all items. In other words while it offers excellent service and merchandise, the place is quite expensive. Its chief advantage for me being its awesome signature sandwich bar and its variety of beers so large it makes me want to shed tears of joy. Equally important is its location close to one of those small express gyms that is either open twenty-four hours or so early it might as well be. On almost every early morning milk run there are several extremely attractive ladies doing their own shopping while wearing skin tight athletic attire. No, I don't quite make a fool of myself having long mastered the ability to gawk using my peripheral vision. Now don't ask me how many times I stumbled over a floor display while quietly lusting in my heart.

The only problem with the expensive upscale grocery store is that I still have to pay for things like electricity, water, and the mortgage. For those reasons my lovely spouse recently laid down the law saying I have to do the milk and bread runs at Wally Mart.

Walking into Wally Mart is like visiting purgatory. It's not hell, but the ungodly long aisles inside its cavernous, badly lit warehouse-like building suggests what that place might be like. Adding to Wally Mart's sad nature for me is the fact it is lacking in attractive women walking around in skin tight athletic attire. No, during the early hours of the morning what you see there is Mary Lou and Joe Sixpack lining the shelves with new products and pulling pallets of cheaply made crap out of the stock room.

In an attempt to be reasonable and give the Devil some credit, Wally Mart's products are by in large decent and cheaply priced, but that is where things get complicated. See, everyone should understand by now that Wally Mart keeps things cheap by purchasing the vast majority of its merchandise from overseas. An unfortunate fact that is certainly copied by all other major retailers because their chief desire is to squeeze every last possible cent of profit out of their customers. And to be fair spoiled American consumers say they are patriotic and want to keep our country strong. But not enough to pay extra for a television or a winter coat so corporate bigwigs just might think twice about sending jobs out of the country.

Their other avenue of corporate revenue enhancement is by paying their workers, the aforementioned Mary Lou and Joe Sixpack, as little as legally possible. This where I begin to share my “steady intelligence”-- notice the play on words there-- and get to my main point.

For those who frequent Wally Mart, and many other retailers including regular grocery stores, self-checkout terminals have grown increasingly important in the bottom line calculations done by management. Usually installed in a cluster of six off to one side from the normal manned registers, self-checkout terminals allow the customer to take on the task of scanning each item in their cart and then bagging it on a small platform that includes a weight scale. Combined with close circuit cameras aimed at the shopping cart that watch for any customer malfeasance, computers integrated with the bagging platform scale know the weight of each item and make sure the store gets every penny coming to it.

Want to utterly freak out the little silicon-based brains of the self-check out terminals? Scan an item and not place it on the bagging platform. A pleasant but panicky synthesized voice will instruct you to do just that with increasing urgency until you comply. I imagine noncompliance would eventually result in the manager being alerted and calling the cops.

Well paid and expertly dressed toads who work in advertisement have crafted nifty multimedia messages to their customers saying self-checkout terminals are a service to them so they spend less time in line and more with their precious loved ones. It doesn't take much in the way of IQ points to figure out that self-checkout terminals are really just technology grocery stores use to avoid paying a person to be a cashier. What's slightly funny though at this particular moment in time is that Wally Mart has yet to remove the multitude of unused manned checkout lines at the front of their stores. Sort of reminds me of an ancient drug store in my hometown back when I was a kid.

While this establishment still filled medical prescriptions and sold over the counter things like cold remedies and shaving razors, the seriously old fashioned soda stand/lunch counter had long since been closed and permanently blocked off. For a kid of about five or six years-old pondering the use of all the dusty gizmos and devices, the soda stand/lunch counter took on an air of mystery like a newly discovered Egyptian tomb.

You don't have to be a science and technology geek to know robotics and automation systems are advancing at such a rapid rate that some futurists are at a minimum freaking out about the disappearance of the jobs people like Mary Lou and Joe Sixpack depend upon. I could define those types of jobs in a tactful way and just call them “blue collar.” But we're in the twenty-first century so lets face it, those positions are the modern version of such jobs as blacksmith, telegraph operator, elevator operator, or “Soda Jerk” for those who once behind drug store lunch counters.

In fact, while I have never been in one of the”wish fulfillment centers” Amazon runs, I've heard such places are already heavily automated. They can be viewed as Wally Mart without the need for any customer interaction. We're essentially talking stock room management and distribution of merchandise to proper departments so they can be shipped. Something current robotic and automation technology can do with ease. Without being delicate, that is exactly what Joe and Mary Lou Sixpack were doing a few morning ago as I rushed in to buy milk and Captain Crunch.

If this is the case you maybe wondering why Wish Fulfillment Center human employment is so large. That's a result of the facilities being so freaking mammoth. The ultimate goal of such retail companies is for further automation technology to be incorporated into the running of their facilities allowing for a reduction in the human payroll. When a low or semi-skilled job is on the verge of being eliminated, there is absolutely no reason to pay decent wages.

The problem I'm personally seeing here is not evil overseas factories stealing American jobs, nor Skynet-like robots and automation systems working hard to make basically honest humans obsolete. The problem quite frankly stems from Joe and Mary Lou Sixpack. Before anyone loses their mind from my hideous attack on simple folks who just want to Make America Great Again just stifle your outrage and read on.

I've worked around people who easily qualify as Joe and Mary Lou Sixpack all my life. While I am in a bad mood, I can write in all honesty that such people lack the most basic imagination and willingness to push the boundaries of their knowledge. As long as their basic needs like beer, satellite television with companion sports channel package, and a job that pays for the electricity to keep the beer cold and the video feed going, they are happy. It really doesn't matter if that job is the employment version of a dinosaur grazing on grass oblivious to the five-mile wide asteroid about to slam into the planet.

In a limited sense, the Sixpacks do understand the world is changing. Hence the instinctive fear of newly arrive immigrants and the desire for a savior to make all the bad stuff go away. Learning something new is hard and it upsets the mental apple carts of the Sixpacks when they discover some aspect of their preconceived notions are wrong. That's probably why such cable channels like History and Discover, which started out with lofty educational goals, have mostly devolved to simplistic shows involving cars and wilderness survival.

There is one positive aspect of this situation. Believe it or not the United States faced a similar situation at the beginning of the twentieth century. At one point during that time forty percent of all jobs in the United States were agriculture related. But automation technology like gas driven tractors and numerous other devices have reduced that percentage down to two percent. All those displaced, barely educated farm workers just didn't disappear, they became part of the “High School Movement” which gave them the abilities to move into factory jobs.

Throw in the labor unions that stood up to the corporations and forced them pay decent wages and respect their workers, and you pretty much have what did make America great.

Yes, we have numerous technical schools and community colleges that are the modern equivalents to those early high schools. But two factors are limiting their ability to produce a well trained work force. The first is cost, while there are scholarships and aid programs for needy students, far too many for various reasons can't get access to them to attend anything after high school. Some do fit between that bizarre space where their parents make too much money to qualify for aid but not enough to pay for their kids post-high school education.

Going to get nuanced here, but the second reason revolves around our lack of vision or understanding that the world is changing. Technical schools can churn out HVAC technicians and certified electricians like machine guns can fire off rounds but it means nothing if such individuals do not understand that there is more to the world than just keeping a building cool or tracing out a faulty ground wire. The High School Movement just didn't mean job opportunities, the diverse academic curricula pushed students to have a worldview wider than just the county or state they lived. More importantly, these schools were free and, with glaring exceptions for race and gender, open to everyone.

Even if everyone decided tomorrow that our society should offer free technical schools and community colleges, and it should, nothing will improve until the Sixpacks and their slightly more educated kinfolk, want to do more than just wish for the good old days and wait for a savior. The rest of the developed world is not waiting for us to pull our MAGA heads out of our ignorant asses.

Check out the Ted Talk for a much better explanation of my point:


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 everyone else, joined the group seeking the reassurance and companionship everyone else 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, and 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 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 what passed a the break room 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 vane-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 vanes 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.”