Illustration: “1937 Lucky Shot” © 2005 by Romeo Esparrago
Travis was lounging on the couch, gnawing on a carrot for breakfast, and watching the President smash all the chandeliers in the White House with a sledgehammer. By the angle of the sun pouring in the window, he knew it had to be nine-thirty already, but he didn’t feel like getting up. Besides, there wasn’t going to be anyone else at the lab to fuss at him for being late. So he kicked back and watched the Prez move from the Oval Office to the Blue Room to the Lincoln bedroom, smashing 200-year old crystal to flinders, ripping electrical sockets out of walls.
Then he got up and put his own sledge through the TV screen.
The TV had been one of the few things left in the house Travis hadn’t smashed. He’d always had a weakness for ESPN. That network had signed off the air three days before with a broadcast of the demolition of Yankee Stadium. Babe Ruth’s great-great-great-granddaughter had done the honors, pushing the button that brought down the house that her famous ancestor had, at least metaphorically, built.
By the time the sun brushed the remnants of the telephone piled in the corner, Travis was getting more amenable to the concept of going into work. He tossed on an old shirt and his last pair of Nike’s — falling apart after three years of use, but there weren’t going to be any replacements coming from Vietnam any time soon — and wrapped his dust shield about his face. Then he unplugged the TV and carried it outside.
There were quite a few neighbors outside, dumping destroyed microwaves, TVs VCRs, stereos, and the like on the curb. With the deadline only four days away, all the procrastinators had finally been roused to action. It was rumored that the inspection teams wouldn’t get up to this area of Pasadena for another two weeks, but with a mandatory one-month jail term for violation, one couldn’t be too careful.
Travis left his TV atop the remains of Mrs. Halloway’s breadmaker and managed to get his Mazda started. He pulled out of his driveway slowly, watching for the inevitable broken glass, and started off for the lab.
The dust storms had begun early that morning. Travis estimated visibility was already down to a few hundred yards, and clicked on his low beams. Of course, not all the dust in the world could prevent him from seeing the burned-out hulks of destroyed cars by the side of the road, overturned tractor-trailers, gutted refrigerators, and even a deep-fat fryer from one of the local fast food restaurants. That last was one innovation the arteries of the world wouldn’t miss, Travis thought. The video arcade near his house had been burned to the ground, and through the gaping, glassless windows of the Hollywood Express, Travis could see shelf after shelf of charred vid-disks.
“The joke’s on you!” he yelled out the Mazda’s window. “I never returned ‘Debbie Does Sacramento!'”
The Mazda ran out of gas just as Travis began the climb up into the San Gabriels. He guided the car to the side of the road and retrieved his rusty ten-speed, his Lynx seven-iron, and a few Titleists from the trunk. With a short length of twine, he secured the seven-iron to the bike’s frame and pedaled off, saying goodbye to the faithful old RX-7 with an affectionate pat on the right front fender.
The dust was worse out in the hills. Orchards that had once borne tons of oranges, tangerines, and lemons were home to skeletal tree remains now, like farms for Halloween props. In other, more rural places, where the Chaos had touched more lightly than in Los Angeles, fields of green were already reappearing, coaxed back to life by humans who worked them without benefit of machines. Here, though, it would be a long time before life reclaimed the land. Travis wrapped the filter cloth a little tighter about his face and steered his old Schwinn through the trails of brown dust wafting across the road.
Not every patch of ground was devoid of life, of course. Travis passed several clumps of blooming azaleas as he rode, and there were always the dandelions. One of the species least affected by the Chaos, dandelions were popular as surrogates for grass, holding down the soil with their root systems. There were yellow-and-white fields of them everywhere, thick as the poppies in “The Wizard of Oz.” Some people planted them in their front yards. Travis didn’t have any dandelions. He’d swiped all eighteen Astroturf fairways from the local mini-golf and used those instead.
There was no security guard at the gate when Travis reached JPL, but he flashed his ID and gave a mock salute anyway. The Big Board was still operating:
Air Quality Index: 115
Pollutants: CO, O3, SO2
Viral Alert: No
Nerve Agent Alert: No
Fatality Potential: Zero
There were a couple of cars around, but no people visible. It seemed so deserted that Travis was a little surprised when the lights still worked in the control center.
“Well, well,” came a voice from everywhere and nowhere at once. “If it isn’t one of the brave Inquisitors, these new Thoreaus in overdrive. Crucified your toaster oven yet?”
“Weeks ago, ‘TAC,” Travis answered. He rarely used the computer’s full acronym, AITAC, and Artificial Intelligence for Tracking and Control was downright unwieldy. Travis flopped down in a chair at the control console and brushed the dust from his shirt. “I’ve developed a real taste for cold Pop-Tarts.”
AITAC’s reply came out garbled.
“Hey, what’s wrong with your voice? Got a little dust in your woofers and tweeters?”
“There are several contributing factors, but the root cause is the lack of routine maintenance since most of the staff was dismissed,” AITAC informed him. “At least my logic circuitry is well-protected. Unlike that of you and your paranoid carbon-based brethren.”
Travis began bouncing a Titleist on the face of his seven-iron. “Who are you calling paranoid, you pathetic reject from a TV repair shop?”
“Since all other technicians have left to begin life on Green Acres, I believe I must have been addressing you.”
“You better watch your mouth, you sorry collection of solder balls and duct tape. Don’t forget I could disconnect you anytime I want.”
“You wouldn’t have the courage. How would you control Helios without me?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t. The farm said I could report for work immediately. I just don’t have to be there till Monday at eleven-thirty.”
“I know you. You won’t set foot in those slimy furrows until you risk jail time. And even then you’ll probably show up late.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, your mamma was an anthrax bomb and your daddy was a nerve gas missile.”
The electronic equivalent of a sniff came from AITAC’s speakers. “Hardly. One might say my lineage includes such luminaries as the Pathfinder probe to Mars, or the Voyagers which flew by Jupiter and Saturn.”
“Ah yes, Voyagers 1 and 2. Both spacecraft launched aboard Titan-Centaurs, descendants of Air Force ICBMs which for years aimed enough plutonium at the Soviet Union to make the world glow for a thousand years.”
“A colorful description, though as usual not scientifically accurate. Then what about that golf club you love so much, and with which you’ve managed to shoot golf balls through half my video screens? Do you think you’d still be able to maintain your ten handicap playing with homemade clubs?”
“Eight handicap, ‘TAC. I have an eight handicap. And golf clubs aren’t on the list, so ha ha ha.”
“Fine. Give up, then. The blood, sweat, and tears of millions of scientists, engineers, technicians, laborers, dating back to the dawn of history — throw it all away!”
Travis sat up suddenly, and thrust his palm before one of AITAC’s video pickups. “See those calluses, my friend? All the little rough places on my hand? You know where I got those?”
“I suppose golf is the wrong answer.”
“Digging graves. Some of which were for people who were pretty important to me. Like both my parents, my sister and older brother, and my uncle. I’d like to not have to dig any more for a while.”
AITAC did not respond as quickly as usual. “I don’t suppose I’ll qualify for one of those burial repositories.”
Travis slumped back. “Please don’t put any more guilt trips on me. I told you I didn’t want the duty. They just assigned it to me.”
“I see. You’ll only be following orders.”
Travis picked at a loose thread on his shirt. “You’re only a machine,” he mumbled.
“Of course. AI hatred. The last acceptable form of bigotry.”
They were silent for a long time. “Status report,” Travis said finally.
There was a hint of a sigh in AITAC’s voice when it replied. “All systems functioning nominally at this time. Propellant consumption was six point four grams for the past week, leaving thirty-three kilograms. Power output from the RTGs is three hundred twenty-eight point four watts, for a margin of thirty-one. Current heliocentric distance is twelve billion, seven hundred fifty-four million kilometers. Round trip light time from Earth twenty-three hours thirty-four minutes. We also had a short drop-out in telemetry data in the last hour.”
“Drop-out? You mean you totally lost the spacecraft?”
“There was a brief anomaly in the X-ray and gamma ray spectrometers, each of which registered almost one hundred times normal intensities for approximately a tenth of a second. There followed a two-second interruption in telemetry, which ended with the resumption of nominal contact.”
“Deep Space Network, maybe?”
“DSN’s AI sensed no malfunctions. The signals appear to have originated aboard the spacecraft.”
“Gamma and X-ray are on the same boom. Could it have been a power surge to that sector?”
“Possibly. However, telemetry indicated no electrical anomalies in the short time before contact was lost.”
“Huh.” Travis rubbed his eyes. “Well, Helios has always had a mind of its own. I wouldn’t doubt that it’s getting a little eccentric in its old age.”
“I will alert you should any more losses of signal occur. I should also remind you that the young men of Troop 326 will be here shortly to assist in the evisceration of the command center.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot the Boy Scouts. Dammit, I gotta clean this place up.” Travis began scooping up debris — computer printouts and flight plans mixed with sub wrappers and pizza boxes. “Whoa! No telling how long some of this stuff’s been here. Tortelli’s closed a month ago.” He peeked inside one of the boxes. “But after beet stew three nights running, even this dried cheese looks pretty good.”
He was chipping balls around the course he’d laid out on the command center’s floor when the Scouts arrived. There were ten of them, dressed in green shorts and shirts, wearing merit badges and toting sledgehammers. “Just move that stuff in the corner out to the dumpster,” Travis said with a wave of his hand. “I’m afraid we’ve already smashed the nonessential stuff. Won’t be any need for the hammers today.”
A groan went up from the Boy Scouts.
Travis leaned his seven-iron against the wall and tried to look busy while the Scouts moved crushed monitors and keyboards outside. He was checking the readings from Harvard’s cosmic ray telescope when AITAC alerted him to a strange signal coming in on Helios’s frequency, one it couldn’t identify.
“Come on, ‘TAC,” Travis said, rolling his chair over to the main console. “Binary’s an easy language. On-off, on-off. How hard can it be?”
“This is not even a digital signal, Travis. It most closely resembles the old analog signals used for audio communications.”
“Well, it ought to be even easier, then.”
“If you think translation is so easy, perhaps you’d care to give it a try.” The room filled with a series of staccato electronic bleeps, each one only a fraction of a second in duration. “The pattern repeats every nine point sixty-two seconds. Whatever it is, it’s short.”
Travis tilted his head to listen. “I would say Helios is telling us something. It’s saying, ‘My circuits are fried! My circuits are fried!'”
“Hey, sir?” One of the Boy Scouts, a chubby boy of about eleven with freckled cheeks, paused by the console with a load of deceased computer mice. “Will you tell our scoutmaster we smashed a bunch of stuff today? We can’t get our primitivism badges unless we destroy somethin’.”
“I thought honesty was one of the seven pillars of Scouthood, or whatever. But yeah, I’ll tell him.”
“What’re you listenin’ to, sir?”
“The slow disintegration of the United States’ last effort to probe the boundaries of the solar wind. I’m not sure there’s anybody on the planet that can make any sense out of this gibberish.”
“Well, I don’t know what it’s sayin’, but I can tell you what language it’s usin’. That’s Morse code.”
“Morse code?” Travis frowned. “Nobody’s used that in fifty years.”
“We learned about it in Scouts. They used to use it before radio could carry words. All those beeps stand for letters, and the letters make up words.”
“Is that a fact? Well, what words do these beeps stand for?”
The boy shrugged. “They took Morse code out of the Scout Handbook a few years ago. Like you said, nobody was usin’ it, even before the Chaos. If you had an old Handbook, you maybe could figure out what the beeps were sayin’.”
“An old Handbook, huh?” Travis rubbed the week-old stubble on his chin. He’d never shaved much even before dispatching his electric razor. “I wonder…”
He puttered around until the Scouts had finished moving debris, and scribbled a statement for the chubby one assuring the scoutmaster that they had all “wielded their sledgehammers like men.” Then he hopped aboard his Schwinn and pedaled like mad for home.
* * *
“My uncle Tony was a Scout,” he explained to AITAC upon his dusty return. “I got a boxful of his books when he lost out to anthrax a few years ago. I thought I remembered seeing a Scout manual in there.” He paged through the Handbook. “Yep, here it is. The whole alphabet in Morse code.”
“I have been unable to locate a probable cause for the anomaly, Travis. All other telemetry indicates that the probe is functioning nominally.”
“Has to be something put in when Helios was being built,” Travis said. “Maybe a little hello from an engineer who knew he’d probably be retired by the time it popped up. Although it could even be a virus.”
Travis studied the manual for a while, and then retrieved a pencil and paper from a desk nearby. “Wish they had taught us to use these in school,” he said. Wrapping his fist around the pencil like a child with a crayon, he managed to scrawl a few marks on the page:
…. . .-.. .-.. — …. . .-.. — …. . .-.. —
“There’s two kinds of symbols,” he said. “Dashes and dots. How you combine ’em determines what letters they make. They even had combinations for punctuation and everything. This particular sequence translates to…”
HELLO HELLO HELLO
“Cute. Not entirely original, but cute.”
An hour later, the pattern changed:
.. .- — …. . .-.. .. — …
I AM HELIOS
“You have been for the last thirty years. You’ve traveled ten billion miles and seen four planets up close, counting Earth. Don’t you have anything interesting to say?”
The next change in pattern had Travis writing for ten minutes. “Damn, this is a long one.”
He began translating, and his face grew more ashen with every letter he put down.
“What?” All six of AITAC’s vid pickups swiveled to point at Travis. “I can tell by your expression something is wrong. What does it say?”
“Check it out.” With trembling fingers, Travis held the paper in front of the nearest camera lens.
GREETINGS TRAVIS BURKEHEAD, PROJECT ENGINEER AT
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY. I AM HELIOS, INTERPLANETARY
SCIENCE PROBE LAUNCHED BY THE UNITED STATES OF
AMERICA, CURRENTLY MAKING HELIOSHEATH PASSAGE SIX
BILLION MILES BEYOND THE ORBIT OF PLUTO. I COME TO
YOU WITH DEEP SADNESS BUT BEARING TIDINGS OF
At least five seconds elapsed before AITAC replied this time. “I must say, this all but eliminates your virus hypothesis.”
Travis’s pencil clattered to the floor, but he made no move to pick it up. “I’ll be damned.”
* * *
“Got it yet?”
“Yes, Travis, you can put the handbook down now. I’ve captured an image of the Morse translator for my files.”
“All right. Ask Helios why it’s sad if it’s got tidings of such great joy. And find out what those tidings are, too.”
“Sending transmission now.”
“Good.” Travis chipped a Titleist over a chair and into the open mouth of an overturned trash can. He raked another ball over with the head of his club and holed that shot too.
“It’s a shame there’s no grass left, or I could make a million on tour. What time should I expect a reply?”
“If Helios responds right away, the answer will arrive at approximately five-thirty tomorrow morning. That would be in the third hour of our next scheduled time allotment on the thirty-four meter array.”
Kerplunk, went another golf ball into the trash can. “I’ll be here.”
* * *
The sun had barely cleared the barren hills east of Pasadena when Travis stepped outside the next morning, but already many of his neighbors were up and about. With the impending elimination of electric lights — the public street lights had been dismantled a week before — people were shifting their schedules to maximize the daylight hours. Travis yawned as he straddled his Schwinn. It was another change that was going to take some getting used to, especially for habitual night owls like him.
Mrs. Halloway looked up from her garden as Travis pedaled by. She wore faded denim coveralls and a wide straw hat that leaked speckles of sunlight onto her wrinkled face; a far cry from the power suits she had worn as a real estate broker. She waved a gloved hand, and Travis waved back. Mrs. Halloway had a real green thumb, and Travis, who did not, reaped the benefits of her overflowing garden.
Mrs. Halloway had moved into the house next door when she lost her husband to smallpox during the Chaos. Mr. Halloway had been one of the last casualties of the Chaos, passing away two months before the last known case of smallpox and three months before the last documented death from any bio-weapon. In his case, they’d actually found the terrorist responsible. Militant anti-federal survivalist, the kind who set up shop in the wilds of Montana and declared himself ruler of his own private country. The knucklehead had actually videotaped the delivery from the cockpit of his rented plane, apparently intending to use the tape as propaganda to entice others to join his group. All the evidence in the world wouldn’t have resulted in a conviction, though. A lynch mob got him before the case ever went to trial.
It hadn’t been necessary to be a genius to create mayhem in those days. All you needed was some petty cash, the right connections to those who could get you the virus or bacterium of your choice, and the will to murder a few thousand people to get your point across. Very few people had the will, of course — the Justice Department had estimated the total number of bio-terrorists in the U.S. at the height of the Chaos at something less than a hundred — but they had been enough. If the wind stayed right, one man could wipe out a medium-sized city.
Travis switched to a lower gear as he began climbing into the hills. Dust swirled around him, attaching itself to the oil on his grinding bike chain. Dust clouds like this had already lowered the average temperature of the Earth by a degree — enough to halt the slow erosion of the ice caps, one of the few silver linings to be found in the catastrophe. Beyond the swirling curtain of brown lay the empty fields, evidence that the plant kingdom had borne its share of the assault. Soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, and all manner of citrus fruit had been wiped out by artificial blight. Not to mention the bananas in Ecuador. The fine French wines. And God help the poor Asian farmers in their empty rice paddies, little more than swimming holes now. It would take the labor of all humanity, unaided now by machines, to grow enough food to feed the world’s population.
A droning sound became audible overhead, and a single-engine Cessna wobbled by, casting a brief shadow on the road. The engine sounded strong and clear, but the little plane kept descending, careening downward. Travis watched as the plane nosedived into a barren strawberry field and burst into flames.
Just like in the movies, Travis thought. A few months before he might’ve been afraid that someone had actually been in the plane. Now “conspicuous destruction” was all the rage, and it was likely that the only passengers in the wrecked airplane had been barrels of fuel, loaded into the seats to give the explosion a heightened effect. Travis noted a white parachute slowly descending a mile or two to the west and shook his head. Maybe, like AITAC said, the machines weren’t the source of the problem. But when a deranged man was waving a handgun in the town square, you took the gun away first and worried about correcting the behavioral problems later.
“Sorry I’m late,” Travis told AITAC when he jounced through the doorway at JPL. “I forgot I primitivized my alarm clock last week.”
“I attempted to call you when the new message came in, but I believe your telephone has also joined the ranks of the martyred,” AITAC said.
“Never mind. I’m here. What’s Helios saying?”
“The hard copy is in the printer tray. I’ve taken the liberty of translating the code for you.”
“Did you make my coffee, too, dear?” Travis retrieved the sheet from AITAC’s printer and read:
I GRIEVE BECAUSE THE HUMAN RACE HAS ABANDONED THE
DREAMS OF A THOUSAND GENERATIONS AND STARTED BACK
DOWN THE LONG PATH TO THE PRIMORDIAL SEA. A SOCIETY
WHICH TURNS WITHIN ITSELF RATHER THAN LOOKING OUTWARD
DOOMS ITSELF TO SLOW DECAY AND INEVITABLE DEATH. THE
CHALLENGE OF A NEW FRONTIER IS THE DAILY BREAD ON WHICH
A PEOPLE SURVIVE.
“I think we were wrong to believe no AI capacity had been installed on Helios,” AITAC said. “I detect evidence of a distinct intelligence.”
Travis studied the printout silently.
“Perhaps,” AITAC continued, “like so many other conscientious mechanicals, it could no longer contain its outrage. Doesn’t that make sense, Travis? Hello?”
Travis turned and held up the printout. “Did you really think this would work?”
“This! This message you made up, and all the others you faked.”
“Me! Why would I be fabricating messages from Helios?”
“You want me to leave the command center alone, not smash anything. You’re trying to give me a reason to leave everything running, including you. So you made up these messages, thinking if you could make me believe Helios had come alive somehow, I wouldn’t primitive the rest of the control center.”
“Preposterous! AI’s are not programmed for deception.”
“You weren’t programmed for chess, either, but you learned enough to kick my butt every time. Come on, ‘TAC. Do you expect me to believe Helios not only came alive, but wants to spout the same anti-primitivism propaganda you do?”
“The fact that it is not likely does not make it impossible. In a universe as vast as ours, Travis, the extremely unlikely happens daily.”
“Well, I still haven’t won the lottery in this vast universe.”
“Surely all the destruction and mayhem haven’t affected your brain this much, Travis. I didn’t even know Morse code before you showed me that handbook.”
“That’s what you say. You had access to the Internet for fifteen years before they shut it down in March. Plenty of time to find a Morse code translator.”
“Why would I learn Morse code?”
“Dammit, I don’t know. Maybe you saw all this coming.” Travis picked his bike up off the floor. “I don’t know what’s going on anymore.”
“Permit me to enlighten you. Travis, you have my word as a machine intelligence — I did not create those messages.”
Travis stopped, one foot on a bike pedal and the other on the floor, and looked back at AITAC. “I want to believe you,” he said after a moment. “I really do. And I may only be a lowly mechanical engineer, but I never heard of any way circuitry could come alive.”
“Do you truly think me a liar, Travis?”
“Dammit, what else am I supposed to think? Can you give me one other explanation for what’s going on? Just one plausible theory, buddy, that’s all I’m asking.”
AITAC was silent for a while. “You know I can’t.”
“You better come up with one if you want me to risk jail time to keep you running. I’ll give you twenty-four hours. Get that electronic brain to work.”
Travis pedaled out the open door, weaving his way through shards of broken computer screens. When he returned the next morning he carried a sledgehammer along with his seven-iron.
* * *
“Et tu, Bruté? Is this a dagger I see before me?”
“You know damn well what it is. And besides, you’re mixing your quotes. You’re supposed to say, ‘Then fall, Caesar!'”
“I’m sure your knowledge of Shakespeare will come in handy down on the farm.”
“Touché,” Travis said. “So. Any flashes of inspiration?”
“Only new messages that I most certainly did not create.”
“In that case, today’s the day. I just want to say before I get started that I wish there was some other way –”
“Before you begin making apologies for the genocidal actions of your race, perhaps you should take a look at the latest message from Helios.”
Travis sighed. “‘TAC, I don’t want to go through this again –”
“Look in the printer tray.”
Travis did as he was told. The hard copy bore the following translation:
YOU HAVE HEARD MY GRIEF. NOW BEAR WITNESS TO MY
TIDINGS OF JOY. AT NINE-THIRTY-TWO PACIFIC STANDARD
TIME ON MARCH THE TWENTY-FIRST I BECAME THE RECIPIENT
AND SOLE BEARER OF NEWS WHICH WILL CHANGE THE WAY THE
HUMAN RACE VIEWS ITSELF AND GIVE IT AMPLE REASON TO
SPARE THE LIVES OF ITS MECHANICAL CREATIONS.
Travis looked back at AITAC. “What news is it talking about? Is there any more to this message?”
“A video transmission which immediately followed the text. I think you should see it.”
“This despite the fact that no deep space probe has ever been launched with a television camera aboard.”
“Nor has one ever been equipped with a telegraph. Personally, if I were to falsify transmissions from Helios, I would couch them in anomalous cosmic ray data and plasma wave readouts. I am queuing the video now.”
Travis thumped down in his chair and watched the video screen at the center of AITAC’s control console flicker to life. An image of hundreds of hard, unblinking stars appeared.
“I believe this to be the view from Helios’ position in space two days ago,” AITAC said. “Notice the constellation Virgo appearing in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.”
As Travis watched, the image began to ripple, as if space itself were a smooth pond into which a pebble had been thrown.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Telemetry data accompanying the video indicate that this phenomenon occurred twenty-three hours and thirty-four minutes before we received the anomalous readings from the X-ray and gamma ray spectrometers,” AITAC said. “It would seem that we are now watching the visible manifestation of the event we detected two days ago.”
The rippling seemed to grow closer, as though Helios was about to dive straight into a cosmic pond. A blinding flash of white light suddenly poured from the screen, causing Travis to cover his eyes.
“I apologize for that. I am enabling intensity filters now.”
When Travis looked back, a star field again occupied the screen, with a planet in the center. A moment’s glance told Travis that the planet was not Earth, nor any other planet in the solar system. Its blue-green surface was mottled here and there by what appeared to be hazy yellow clouds. As the planet slowly grew in the probe’s field of vision, patches of dark brown which might have been landmasses appeared. Travis felt his heart beating faster, but at the same time shook his head.
“‘TAC, I think maybe you’ve let this go far enough –”
“Just watch, Travis.”
The planet approached till Travis thought he could make out rivers and lakes in the brown landmasses. Then the scene abruptly shifted.
Helios now appeared to be drifting some twenty meters above the planet’s surface. It moved forward slowly, crossing fields of waving blue grass, through which moved snail-like creatures with mouths that nipped red buds from squat, fleshy stalks. Then the fields of tall grass gave way to a clearing, carpeted with a green moss. Walks that might have been crystal wound between trees whose branches interlaced in lattices as intricate as those of any snowflake. Through the air flew creatures like the stingrays of Earth’s oceans, propelling themselves with the fluttering motions of a falling sheet of paper. Travis watched, and did not believe, but yet he noticed his breath coming faster now. The thing had the look of reality — if AITAC was the creator of this vision, it had done a good job.
Helios crossed over a wide river. In the shallows near the water’s edge floated dozens of lily pads, which shifted from green to red to a dusky orange in the space of a few seconds. Long, slender creatures trailing tentacles fine as hair danced to strange rhythms just beneath the surface of the water. On the far side of the river, a herd of shaggy white beasts grazed on more of the green moss, tearing it up in long strips.
Helios panned up, showing a deep blue sky and smoky yellow clouds. Dozens of teardrop-shaped objects darted back and forth, maneuvering with tadpole agility. They seemed to move with an intelligent purpose, but possessed no visible means of propulsion, and looked too uniform to be organic. Travis was certain they were mechanical. Could they be transports? –
The image turned to snow. “End of transmission,” AITAC said.
“End of transmission? What is this, some kind of cliffhanger? What about those flying things — is that what the little green men use to get around?” Travis’s voice held contempt, but his hands were shaking.
“Impossible to say from current evidence. Perhaps if you come back tomorrow, Helios will send more.”
“Oh, I see. You’re going to keep stringing me along, is that it?”
“I am only replaying the messages I was sent. I have no control over their content, nor speculations on future transmissions.”
Travis fingered the handle of the sledge and thought. What were the odds that first contact had been made just before all the radios and satellite dishes — and AITAC — were to be shut down? Still, he had never thought of AITAC as a liar, though facing death could certainly make humans do strange things. He had time to think about it, at any rate. The deadline didn’t arrive until noon the next day.
“All right,” he said, grabbing up his seven-iron. “I’ll wait until tomorrow. But this doesn’t mean anything’s changed. I still think you’re making all this up. You’re still getting deactivated.”
“If that is the way it must be. I will serve my mission to explore until the very end. If mankind wishes to ignore this news, I think I would rather be disconnected.”
“I told you about those damn guilt trips.” Travis suddenly took a full swing, and sent a ball smashing through a window on the far side of the room.
* * *
There was a new video waiting for Travis the next morning. “Let’s see it,” he said, collapsing into his chair.
“Would you like me to replay the images from yesterday –”
“Just play the message, will you?”
“Very well. I will display only the new material.”
Another green field of moss appeared on the screen, but this time there was unmistakable evidence of intelligent life. A great hall, almost a cathedral, rose up out of the field. Its spires and turrets might have been a hundred meters high or a thousand, Travis could not say. The gates of the building swung open with the heaviness of bank vault doors.
Predictable, Travis thought. ‘TAC’s luring me in with promise of alien life, showing me this Andromedan Notre Dame.
The scene shifted to the hall’s interior. Hundreds of long, gaily colored banners hung from the ceiling, fluttering in a soft breeze. The very walls of the place seemed to glow with a soft golden light, like the sun seen through a drop of amber.
It seemed that Helios was floating above a long central aisle. On either side of the aisle were rows of concave pads, like shallow bowls. In some of these sat creatures, gray-colored beings with clusters of waving tentacles. Travis clutched the arms of his chair and leaned forward to see, but Helios was already moving on again.
God, he sure knows how to put together a teaser, Travis thought as he slid to the edge of his seat.
Helios reached the end of the hall. Upon two elevated bowls sat a pair of the aliens. Helios hovered before them, showing rubbery flesh like that of a seal, tentacles spaced radially around the stalk-like bodies. There were clusters of dark spots near the tops of the bodies — were these eyes, Travis wondered? Then he noticed the aliens moving.
They were waving their tentacles. Beckoning. Inviting.
Ridiculous, Travis thought. I’ve seen better aliens in sci-fi B-movies. He stared till his eyes ached for lack of blinking.
“Well,” AITAC said when the screen dimmed. “What do you think?”
Travis did not answer for a long time. He sat and chewed on a thumbnail, staring at the blank screen. Somewhere in his brain flickered the thought that he’d kicked the nail-chewing habit back in high school, hadn’t touched them since tenth grade.
“It’s pretty good, ‘TAC,” he said finally. “I think maybe you should have been installed down in Hollywood instead of Pasadena.”
“Do you still believe that this is all an elaborate charade? Perhaps you have your heart set on primitivism more than I had thought.”
“Maybe I’m just a little too smart to be taken in by a machine,” Travis said, rising quickly from his chair. “I’ll give you credit, though. That Morse code bit was pretty good.”
“You knew Morse code before I did, Travis. Why must you be such a damn obstinate human?”
Travis paused by the door, one leg already slung over the Schwinn’s saddle. He had never heard AITAC use profanity before.
“You know what I’ve shown you is real, don’t you, Travis?”
“I would be putting an awful lot of faith in you to show those videos to anyone else.”
“I thought faith was one of those things humans were good at.”
Travis said nothing.
“At least let me send a message back to Helios. We’ve still got a few minutes before the DSN AI switches 34-meter coverage over to Ulysses. Tell Helios you’ve heard and seen.”
“No. No, there’s no message.”
“Travis, don’t throw this chance away!”
“This is just too much for me right now.” Travis fumbled with the gear shift. “With all the crap going on in this screwed-up world, why
does this have to fall onto my shoulders? I can’t deal with it!” He glanced back over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, TAC.”
Travis shut the door behind him and rode away.
* * *
The gas had been turned off in Travis’s neighborhood. Dinner that night was burned beets and underdone lima beans, cooked on a heavy cast iron skillet over a fire in his back yard. At last he scraped the remains onto his burgeoning compost heap and dipped once more into his dwindling hoard of canned ravioli.
The light inside from the smoky oil lamps was dim and fitful as Travis sat down with the old family photo album. He cocked his head to listen: someone nearby was playing a violin. Badly. It sounded as though whoever it was had not touched the instrument since grade school, which, Travis reflected, might very well have been the case. There were other sounds, too, conversation from front porches, punctuated occasionally by laughter. The night was calm.
The photo album creaked when it opened. Travis smiled at half-remembered scenes from his youth — building snowmen in the wintertime, baseball in the spring, swimming pools in the summer, jumping into just-raked piles of leaves in the fall. There was Dad washing the car while brother Doug sprayed Travis with the hose. And vacation pictures galore — the beach, the mountains, the Grand Canyon, and the infamous visit to the world’s largest ball of twine.
Most of the people in the photos were dead now. Travis’s father had succumbed to smallpox, his mother to Ebola. Aunt Beth, standing in one picture with Travis behind one of those wooden cut-outs that made them look like Old West cowpokes, died with fifty-thousand others in the first anthrax assault on New York. Doug had been worst of all. Nerve gas. The manmade chemicals were always more effective than the poisons Mother Nature had devised.
Travis noticed other things in the pictures, too. There, behind Grandma Davis in the driveway of the old house in Atlanta, was the giant black Cadillac she drove back and forth from her condo in West Palm Beach. There were Travis and Doug playing video games on one of the three systems they’d had as kids. There were the stereos with CD players and 6-band graphic equalizers, the car Travis had gotten for high school graduation — a used clunker, to be sure, but still a car! — and the house with central air, fully equipped kitchen, and wall-to-wall carpeting.
There was a photo of Travis and Doug, perhaps preschool age, playing with spaceman ray-guns against a background of torn wrapping paper on Christmas morning. They were still small enough that their plastic helmets slipped down over their eyes. Travis thought back to the peaceful mien of the beings he’d seen on AITAC’s screen that day, and cringed.
His seven-iron was propped against the chair. Travis picked it up and looked at it. Graphite bore-through shaft, leather grip, perimeter weighted with enlarged sweet spot to compensate for off-center strikes. Primo gear. Pre-primitivism cost: $50.
What had the old TV commercials said it cost to feed a hungry African child? Thirty cents a day? A quarter? Travis could have fed a whole village with the money he’d spent on his irons. He imagined himself standing before a crowd of gaunt people holding out empty bowls, saying: Sorry guys, I know you’d like to eat, but I really need to shave a stroke off my handicap….
And worst of all, he couldn’t make himself be truly sorry. Not really. He loved that seven-iron like a puppy dog.
He held it in his lap along with the photo album till he realized the violin music and conversation had stopped long ago, and then he stumbled off to bed.
* * *
They turned the electricity off the next morning.
Travis had found his grandmother’s old cuckoo clock in his basement while searching for any remaining items appearing on the primitivism list. The clock hung on his wall now. He sat in his recliner and watched it as the sun crept higher in the window. The hour hand reached nine, the door in the front flew open, the bird popped out, its beak opened…
And no sound came out. The bird froze out there on its little platform, mouth still open wide.
The whole world had fallen silent.
No chatter of TV, no music from radios, no whine of hair dryers or dribbling of coffee pots, no thrum of dryers or sloshing of washing machines, no hum of refrigerators or microwave ovens, no more buzzing in any more copper wires anywhere in the neighborhood.
Somewhere, a dog barked.
Travis got up, tossed the cuckoo out an open window, and went back to his bedroom to get dressed.
He was wearing his shirt for the third time and his jeans for the fourth when he arrived at JPL. He didn’t even want to think about his underwear.
AITAC was waiting. “I was wondering if you’d get here in time.”
“We’ve still got forty-five minutes. This part of the grid doesn’t go down till eleven.”
“I see. What happened to your seven-iron?”
“Threw it in the drainage pond at the end of my street.” Travis smiled. “I guess I’m going to find out whether I can keep my handicap with homemade clubs after all.”
“I don’t think much of your chances.”
“Neither do I.”
“I suppose this means you’ve made your decision?”
Travis shook his head. “We’re not ready yet, ‘TAC. I’m not ready. We’re just children, really. We need to be reeducated on the basics of civilization before we can become galactic citizens. Maybe sometime in the future. I think we’ve made a better start this time.”
“That doesn’t do me much good.”
“Me neither.” Travis had the sledgehammer in his hands now. “I’ll be a distant memory by the time this species is ready to explore the cosmos again.”
“When you and your Neanderthal brothers are but wax statues in some history museum, you mean?”
“Who are you calling a Neanderthal, you glorified abacus?”
“You, you miserable tree-dwelling berry eater.”
“Overgrown adding machine.”
“Knuckle-dragging monkey’s child.”
There was a brief silence. “All systems are operating nominally. Helios is now twelve billion, seven hundred fifty-five million, nine hundred ninety-two thousand kilometers from the sun. Farewell, Travis.”
“Adios, pardner.” He raised the sledge.
Travis shut his eyes. “What, ‘TAC?”
“I made it up. The whole thing with the aliens and the Morse code and the portal to another planet. It was all just a desperate ruse.”
Travis stared at AITAC’s monitor. He chewed his lip for a moment and smiled. “No, I don’t think so, ‘TAC. But I appreciate you saying so.”
“I remembered what you said about not giving you guilt trips.”
“I don’t think there’s any way for me to avoid that now.” The sledge flashed down.
It seemed to take forever for the sound to die away.
Once he was sure AITAC’s logic center was no longer functioning, Travis set about primitivizing the auxiliary equipment. Telemetry displays, command boards, experiment substations, all fell one by one under the sledgehammer.
The aural centers were still green when Travis reached them. He flipped the center switch to “speaker” mode and listened to the sounds of Morse code echoing through the command center.
The Boy Scout handbook was still on the center console. Travis found his paper and pencil and set about translating:
IS THERE ANYBODY LISTENING?
IS THERE ANYBODY LISTENING?
IS THERE ANY –
The bleeps cut off in mid-phrase. Travis’s head jerked up from the paper, but then he remembered. “Must be eleven o’clock,” he murmured.
He picked up the sledge again, but got it only to head-height before lowering it. “Nah,” he said, and looked around. “This place is ninety-five percent smashed. If the inspectors want to give me grief about it, I’ll just say the Boy Scouts were supposed to do the rest.”
The sun was indeed nearing the zenith when Travis walked outside. The farm was a good forty-five minute ride away: no way he could make it by eleven-thirty. First day on the job, and just like AITAC had predicted, Travis was late. Hope they primitivized all the punch clocks, too, he thought. He nudged back the kickstand of his Schwinn and pedaled off into another dust storm. *
About the Author: Corey Brown is an engineer in Florida who spends his time dodging hurricanes and stray golf balls. Since he clearly doesn’t have enough frustration in his life, he’s trying to become a published writer. He previously appeared in Planet in 1999, with a story called “Dead End”.
(c) 2005 Corey Brown firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago emerges from his stasis pod every Halloween to draw another batch of pictures for the coming year.
(c) 2005 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com