Where Civilizations Go To Die
by Ernest Hogan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Victor, your house has left the ground again.”
Victor Theremin opened his eyes. All was blurry. Even the face of the green-haired young woman in bed with him. “I told you to stop taking those drugs, Petra.”
“I have. Living with you is weird enough as it is.”
Things that weren’t nailed down were shaking. Clouds beyond the oval windows moved strangely. What happened to those gnarly rock formations and decaying cacti?
“I hear helicopters,” he said.
“There are always helicopters fluttering around you.”
“Maybe it’s my aftershave.”
“But you don’t use that stuff .”
“It sure gets mysterious, doesn’t it?” Victor grabbed his stomach, then his head. “Vertigo? Damn! I think you’re right, we’re off the ground!”
He sat up, cast aside the sheets. He picked up a half-full Coke can next to the bed, sloshed the contents around, looked inside. “Wow! Whoever’s doing this is pretty damn good. Look how level we are.”
He rolled to the edge of the bed and stood up. “Like standing up in a commercial airliner. Hm. I wonder...”
“VICTOR!” came booming from the outside, a powerful sound system cutting through the house’s superstructure.
“Yup. I think it’s my ex-wife.”
Victor counted on his fingers, closed one eye. “Number four. Ali, the Girl Genius.”
“Good. She isn’t one of the ones who’re trying to kill you.”
“That was the case the last time I heard from her.”
“When was that?
“I don’t know... back in the Twentieth Century.”
“And exactly why did she divorce you?”
“I went off to do some research, and got distracted...”
“Was that when you got involved with that Nepalese tantric priestess?”
Victor opened a circular window and screamed, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
A phone rang. His hair and moustache windblown, Victor picked up. “Hello, Ali. To what do I owe this unique pleasure?”
“Victor, you know that I really hate having to come to you like this.”
“Lifting my house. I gotta admit, I’m impressed!”
“Dammit, Victor, I need your help!”
“You need my help? Your ex-husband, the lowly science fiction writer with the outrageous claims about artificial intelligences? Must be really earthshaking.”
“Carl is missing. He was abducted by aliens!”
“Uh, should we be talking about this on an unsecured system?”
“I thought your system was secure.”
“I’ve learned never to be sure about these things.”
* * *
Soon the saucer-shaped house was set down, and a customized Boeing-Vertol H-47 Chinook landed next to it. Victor came out and set up some folding lawn chairs. Petra brought out a pitcher of iced tea and some glasses.
Ali was nearly six feet tall, with red hair. She had the form and clothing of a pulp heroine on a safari. “Do you realize you’re not supposed to be this close to Area 51?”
“I just like the way GPSs don’t work around here.”
“I happen to know that I actually am being watched. Hell, you found me, didn’t you?”
Ali accepted a glass of iced tea. “I have my resources.”
“Petra Katzman, meet my ex-wife, Aline York, genius. She made a fortune as an engineer before she was thirty.”
“Well, I’m pretty glad to meet you!” Petra offered a hand to shake. Tea and ice cubes nearly flew. “So Victor, why didn’t you stick with her?”
“Personality conflicts.” Victor shrugged.
“I need order in my life,” Ali explained.
“I understand completely. Before I took this intern gig with Victor, I was with an artist from Phoenix named Rodrigo—”
“Interesting kid,” Victor interrupted. “He’s trying to get sponsorship to make a monumental sculpture of a Quetzalcoatlus skeleton to display along Thunderbird Road.”
“A skeleton?” asked Ali. “Why not with skin, feathers and all?”
Petra shrugged. “With the wings it might take flight in the right wind and crash into something.”
Victor got a faraway look in his eyes. “A monster wreaking havoc in an urban landscape...”
Ali snapped her fingers. “Earth to Victor! I came here for a reason.”
“Oh, yeah. Carl got abducted by aliens. How would that happen to Carl Kellogg without worldwide media attention?”
“He’s the software billionaire who gave it all up to build spaceships?” Petra got out a handheld device and keyed away.
“Carl’s been avoiding the limelight lately,” said Ali. “Media attention gets in the way of his work.”
“When I do that, you call it paranoid,” said Victor.
“Petra,” said Ali, “you seem to be an intelligent, educated young woman.”
“I’ve got a master’s degree in Paleontology.”
“Why would you agree to this sleazy ‘intern’ situation with Victor?”
“I can’t get a job. I read one of Victor’s stories and was intrigued.”
“I worry about your generation.”
“Me, too,” Victor said. “The internet and video games have not prepared them for the world they’ll soon be living in. Speaking of which, what proof do you have of Carl’s abduction?”
Ali pulled out a disc from a cargo pocket. “We can watch it in my helicopter.”
“Naw.” Victor got out of his chair and folded it up. “We’ll be more comfortable in the house.”
Ali looked critically at the saucer house. “What bad sci-fi flick did this monstrosity come from?”
“Actually, it’s based on a design I saw in Playboy when I was a child.”
* * *
“Sorry, this is just a raw feed, I didn’t have time to do any editing,” said Ali.
“I’ve seen Victor watch things that most human beings find unwatchable,” said Petra.
“Let’s play it!”
It started with Ali kissing Carl, then helping him on with the helmet of his pressure suit and helping him into a rocketship. VOID BUSTER ONE was painted on its side.
“Nice one-man vertical drag racer!” said Victor. “And I like the name.”
“I helped him work out the bugs,” said Ali. “His original design was horribly Buck Rogers.”
“He’s kinda cute,” said Petra.
Void Buster One took off in a blaze of fiery exhaust. The location was a desert, a remarkably flat one.
“What? No countdown?” Victor pouted.
“They aren’t necessary,” said Ali.
“Yeah, but I’m a traditionalist.”
Sound kicked in as Void Buster One became a dot a the end of distant vapor trail: “Everything’s going smooth, approaching... uh-oh!”
A glowing ball of light bigger than Void Buster One appeared, overtook the smaller craft, absorbed it, and disappeared.
“Not bad special effects,” Victor joked; then he noticed the look on Ali’s face. He had never seen her so pale. “Uh, so why do you think he was abducted and not just... gone?”
Ali waved at the screen. “He’s been sending me messages.”
Carl appeared. The image was fuzzy and kept breaking up.
“They’ve got me... things... creatures... people? I don’t know. They’re from somewhere else, not our planet, for sure. They want me to say something, a message for our entire species. But I don’t understand.”
“Hm,” said Victor. “Like when I talk to the AIs...”
The message abruptly ended. Then Carl reappeared. This time his hair was almost gone, as if it had fallen out. He was thinner, looked exhausted.
“I just don’t know... my mind... stupid? Too primitive? It just doesn’t make any sense. But it has to! I don’t think I can say what they want, whatever it is. They keep at me. I don’t know if I can last much longer.”
Another jump cut; Carl’s hair was completely gone, but he was looking healthier, relaxed.
“Yes! Yes! I see it now! I didn’t think it was possible, but I now see things their way. If I try, I can make it into our words, our language, but it’s so hard. I’m trying... they said they’ll let me go if I do it.”
Ali was ashen.
“Uh.” Victor looked into her eyes. “So you think these are legit?”
“Of course I do! How could you dare think they weren’t?”
“It’s just that you have to be careful with these things. Over the years, I’ve run across stuff that looks pretty damned convincing but turned out to be a hoax.”
“There are some great special effects technologies out there... and... for instance... How did you get these messages?”
“There would be a strange power surge, my phone would go crazy, then a message would be there.” Ali held up a phone. It glimmered with a life of its own.
“Way cool!” said Petra. “Where’d you get that?”
“I made it myself.”
“It looks like it could do just about anything.”
“And you doubt that the Singularity has happened and that confused AI’s walk amongst us.” said Victor.
“Hey, I designed the software for the automated co-pilot and flight engineer on my Chinook. I know artificial intelligence. But I can never tell if you’re kidding. That’s why our marriage didn’t work out.”
“So what can I do that your governmental and corporate connections can’t?”
“Victor, your connections are unusual.”
“Yeah, I got friends in weird places.”
“And I just have a feeling that you know someone —”
“Or something.” he said.
“That can help.”
“This looks like a job for the Intergalactic Association of Mad Scientists!”
“Victor, that’s a silly name!”
“I thought it up myself.”
“And you wonder why people don’t take you seriously.”
“I learned that being taken seriously is a handicap. Besides, I’m a sci-fi writer.”
“As if that was license to do whatever you want.”
“It’s worked for me so far.”
Petra got between them like a referee. “Anybody want more iced tea?”
Ali looked disgusted. “None for me, thanks.”
“I could use another.” Victor looked up, as if he were addressing God. “Well, is there anything we can do to help Ali and Carl out?”
“DO YOU THINK IT’S ALL RIGHT FOR US TO SPEAK TO YOU IN FRONT OF HER?”
“Yeah, sure, I used to be married to her. I was the one who was screwed up... and still am.”
“HOW ARE YOU USING THE IDIOM ‘SCREWED UP’ HERE?”
“Victor!” Ali’s green eyes narrowed. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Naw.” He grabbed a fresh ice tea from Petra. “I just forgot my manners, as usual. Ali, let me introduce you to the artificial intelligent manifestations of the Singularity that have been sponsoring my lifestyle in exchange for my insight into human nature and the general weirdness of life.”
“WE ARE PLEASED TO MEET YOU, MS. YORK.”
“It’s a crude voice simulator.”
“And, AI’s, meet my ex-wife, Aline York.”
“Do you really expect me to believe this, Victor?”
“As much as you expect me to believe that Carl has been abducted by aliens.”
Ali’s green eyes narrowed, she crossed her arms.
Petra shook her green hair and smiled. “I believe that a good thing to say at this point would be, ‘Touché’.”
Ali hooked a thumb at Petra. “She gets along with you, doesn’t she, Victor?”
“We do have certain things in common.”
“Oh, all right, I’ll believe you, if you believe me!”
“Our relationship in a nutshell. Anyway, I’m inclined to believe that what we’re dealing with is an actual alien abduction.”
“Why?” Petra was surprised.
“Because it’s all so crazy. Like a bad sci-fi flick, or a drunk’s rambling about something he doesn’t understand. Real alien encounters tend to sound more like outtakes from Plan 9 from Outer Space than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or, as Jacques Valle said in the preface to the 1993 edition of his Passport to Magonia, ‘Verbal interaction with them was uniformly absurd, but it had the absurdity of Zen koans, not the rambling gibberish of talking computers or insane patients.’”
“You memorize the damnedest things.”
Petra smirked. “So, just what are we going to do here?”
Victor looked up. “Do you guys have any way of checking this out?”
“WE CAN MAKE AN ATTEMPT. AND WE ARE NOT GUYS.”
“I know, but I gotta call you something.”
“And what are they going to do?” Ali looked around, expecting something to happen. “I could have Googled it.”
“Google doesn’t include what they can tap into,” said Victor.
The lights flickered.
“What is it?” asked Victor.
“CARL KELLOGG SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN KIDNAPPED BY EXTRATERRESTRIALS.”
“You get primary source, raw feed, non-media filtered information?”
“YES. A LOT BLIPS ON SECURITY DEVICES. THEN...”
The pause went on too long. Victor, Petra, and Ali looked at each other.
“Well?” asked Victor.
“THEY CONTACTED US.”
Ali gasped. Petra squeezed Victor’s bicep.
“THEY ARE... DISTURBING... DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND - ”
“Imagine that!” Victor rolled his eyes.
“AND THEY ARE COMING HERE, BRINGING CARL KELLOG.”
“No!” screamed Ali. “It can’t be this easy.”
“IT WILL NOT BE EASY.”
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy sounded as a tinny ringtone.
Ali pulled out her phone, and looked at the screen. “Someone’s coming.”
“A UFO?” asked Petra.
“No, helicopters and a VTOL craft. All identifiable.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Ernest Hogan