(SCI-FI) – Barry’s normal morning routine is quickly steered off course by an impossible scene. Cars are blocking his path on the highway, but it isn’t the normal traffic. These cars are all empty—running, and placed in drive, but empty. Soon, Barry finds himself on a search for answers—fueled by the persistence of his closest friend, Rachel—and what they find is beyond what either expects…
Barry blinked fast, then held his eyes wide open. His ears rang and his head felt stretched, as if he left some of it behind at home. These sensations lasted a millisecond and then were gone, replaced with the steady hum of the car’s engine. Barry shook his head and gripped the wheel more firmly as he moved his cherry-red 1967 mustang down the tree-lined street of the neighborhood.
It was a nice, sunny morning and the clock on the dash read 8:05. Barry felt a strong sense of deja vu in that moment, but as always with that sort of feeling, he couldn’t connect a reason for it. It was just deja vu.
He rolled his window down, taking in the cool morning air of Spring, admiring the scenery of the Arbor Estates neighborhood. They did a great job with this place. The layouts of the homes, parks, and streets were perfect. Even the water and sewer systems were of a unique design and construction, not that anyone else living here would notice. But that was the point. Invisible function. These things did there job, but in the background, out of sight. Like the street lamps. They lit up at night, but no wires were seen, poles blended into the trees. Invisible function.
Barry tipped his hat, mentally, to the architects who designed it. He didn’t feel jealousy at the fact that others created this neighborhood, when he didn’t. He saw it as inspiration to be a better architect, and so he always began his morning commute by driving through the neighborhood he wished to live in, but missed the chance.
He turned out of the Arbor Estates neighborhood to head towards the highway. Then, he quickly had to hit the breaks and swerve to the left, narrowly avoiding a car stopped in the right lane.
“Gees! Come on…” Barry said as he steadied his car and his nerves. He looked back in the rear view mirror. He could see now that the car wasn’t stopped, but moving forward very slowly—crawling. Barry rolled his eyes, looked away, and made his turn onto the entrance ramp of the highway.
“What in the name of…” Barry had to, again, hit the brakes and maneuver past another crawling car. This time on the highway. Fortunately, the highway was unusually empty for his morning commute, otherwise he was sure that it would have ended in a crash. These people are going to kill someone, he thought, breathing out with frustration. Then, two seconds later, now well past the crawling car, Barry’s brain did a double take. Did he see what he thought he saw? Of course not, he reasoned, and shook the crazy thought out of his mind.
Yet, shortly after, Barry slowly brought his car to a crawling stop on the highway. At first, he thought he finally found the normal morning traffic. But, that thought, that reasoning, was fleeting. That wasn’t traffic ahead, it was chaos. Barry pulled his car to the shoulder of the highway and got out, running up to the nearest car. It was empty. Keys in the ignition, the car running and placed in drive, yet no one was in the car.
Barry kept moving, running to the next car. Empty. He continued on, moving frantically from car to car, inspecting each in turn. They were the same. Empty. Some cars were bumping into each other, others stuck slowly grinding against the concrete divider in the highway. It got stranger still as one car seemed to be cut in half—the whole back missing—yet the car engine still ran, keys in the ignition, with no one behind the wheel. The front wheels slowly tried to pull the car forward, the metal of the car grinding against the asphalt as the car lurched forward an inch.
What is happening…? he thought, fear gripping him. His heart raced, only partly from his running. He brushed the sweat from his forehead, and ran his hands through his messy blonde hair. Nothing he imagined could explain this, but whatever was happening, was beyond terrible, and only one thing mattered to him in that moment.
He ran back to his mustang, and hit the speed dial on his phone. The line rang, and rang, and then the voicemail message began. Barry hung up and started calling again, while putting his car in drive. He wove his car slowly through the others, trying not to damage his mustang too much, but at the same time—for the first time—he didn’t care about getting a scratch or a dent in his door. His phone rang to voicemail again. He cursed and put the phone on the passenger seat, focusing on the road.
More than once, Barry had to get out of the car to steer an empty, but running, car to the side of the road so he could get past. Occasionally, he’d reach a clear stretch of highway, like a pocket in the traffic, and he’d allow himself a glance away from the road at the Washington Monument growing nearer on the morning skyline. After a much longer drive than usual, he reached the exit and again picked up the phone to dial.
“Come on,” he said to the phone, but again reached the voicemail.
As Barry drove through the heart of Washington DC, the crawling cars were as prevalent as they were on the highway and he had to continue to maneuver around them at a slower speed than desired. Just as on the highway, the cars were all empty, yet running and moving forward. Some cars had crashed into each other, or into store fronts, or hydrants. The sounds of metal grinding metal, grinding brick, stone, and concrete. Alarms blared all around and water from hydrants gushed into the sky and street. Some cars were missing back halves, or front halves of the car. The rest just coasted forward like someone put the car in drive and stepped out to let the vehicle find its own way.
He parked his car across the street from the J. Edgar Hoover building, the headquarters for the FBI, and before he could get out, with a mind to barge through the front doors, he tried her phone one more time. She finally answered.
“Hey B,” Rachel said, her voice heavy. Dozens of ringing phones sounded in the background. “Crazy out there, huh?”
“Yea,” Barry said, relieved. “I didn’t know if you… what’s going on?”
“No idea… and it’s good to hear your voice too. Sorry I didn’t see your calls. Phones have been ringing off the hook here. All about missing people, and there’s like five other agents in the whole building right now.”
“Have you seen all these cars out here with no one in them?”
“Have you seen the Starbucks that’s just not there anymore?”
“Yea, it’s been a strange morning to say the least. Where are you?”
“Outside your building.”
“Whoa… a bit presumptuous are we?” Rachel spoke with mock indignation. “What? You think I’ll just let some outsider—with no clearance—enter one of the most secure buildings in the country?”
“Hoping,” he said. “Maybe I just want to be with my friend during whatever apocalypse this is…”
“Oh, don’t get all sappy on me,” she said, and Barry laughed. “Come on up. There’s no one at security, so hop over whatever you need to. I’m on the third floor.”
“See you in a minute.” Barry hung up, feeling relieved, until his eyes found the empty space between two storefronts where a Starbucks used to be. Impossible, he thought, but his mind knew the truth all the same. The rules of reality just went out the window.
The elevator doors opened on the third floor to a scene that blended chaos and stagnation. Sounds of ringing phones blared in all directions, a chaotic rhythm, mixed with the sight of a near motionless space, the only movement coming from Rachel. Glass walls divided up the floor into conference rooms, private offices, and what he would call the bull-pen—an open area in the middle, enclosed in glass, filled with cubicles. He saw Rachel standing, hunched over at one of the cubicles with a phone to her ear, taking notes on a pad. Her long brown hair was in a tight braid, resting along her back. Barry opened a glass door leading to that middle area. Rachel looked up and held up a finger. Ten seconds later, she hung up the phone, and stood straight, looking him over, a small smile forming.
“Pretty annoying, isn’t it?” she said, waving to the ringing phones. “All—damn— morning with this. From the moment I walked in.” She looked at her watch. “I’ve been at it for an hour, but I don’t think I can take much more of it. Not like these calls are helping anything anyway.”
Barry moved closer. “Any theories?” He gestured around to the ringing phones. Rachel’s mouth opened, and then closed, the small smile on her face fading as whatever joke she was going to utter died on her lips.
“Honestly,” she said, “I have no idea. Haven’t had much time to think… but, how can I explain this? Missing people by the hundreds, probably the thousands, overnight, or somehow all at once.” She snapped her fingers.
“Terrorist attack?” Barry offered.
“What kind of attack could make people disappear in the middle of their morning commute? It’s like people were plucked from their cars or something.”
“Yea, I guess the aliens had a hankering for Starbucks too. Don’t be ridiculous, B.”
Barry shrugged. Those were the only ideas he had, because she was right, what could cause people to disappear like this?
“Hold on a minute,” she said, holding up a finger, and then she disappeared out of the bull-pen and entered the elevators.
About ten minutes later, all the phones stopped ringing. The silence filling the room was eerie, but welcome. Good idea, Rachel, he thought. At least they could think now. He paced the bull-pen, awaiting Rachel’s return, admiring the flow of the third floor’s space. Well-designed. Open for the natural light, yet the offices and conference spaces could be closed off with blinds for privacy when needed.
Now, Barry thought, if they used black out glass instead of blinds… that would take it up a notch. As it was, it wasn’t quite invisible function, but function was better than the alternative. He approved, taking another moment to enjoy the peace and quiet. The silence was so heavy that he heard the elevator door ding through the glass enclosed area. Rachel soon returned, smiling.
“I can’t tell you how good this silence feels,” she said. Barry went to respond, but she held up a finger, closing her eyes for almost a whole minute. “Amazing. I was jumping out of my skin. A whole hour of that.” She paused again, taking in the silence once more, then continued. “Just killed this floor’s phone lines. Re-routed them to the first. No one’s there, but not much good we can do answering the same phone calls over and over.”
“Ok, so what do we do?” Barry said.
“Ah… did the FBI just get a new recruit?” she quipped.
Barry laughed. “I think the FBI needs all the help it can get.”
“You’re not wrong. Ok, Probie… What we do is we get ahead of this. I’ve just spent and hour answering calls, telling people what I know… which is nothing. It’s time to make our own calls, get some of our own information.” Rachel walked over to one of the desks and sat down at the computer. She typed and clicked and then pointed at the screen for Barry to look. “Here’s the list of all the FBI headquarters across the country and their direct lines. Call each of them and see if they’re experiencing the same thing we are. I’ll contact CIA and so on, and then whoever finishes first will start calling international. We need to get a full picture.”
“Do you have a map?” Barry asked. “I think we should plot this out. See if there’s some kind of a pattern—places where it’s not happening at all—places where it’s happening more than others… we need a visual.”
“Good idea,” she said, and pointed to a conference room in the back left corner. “There’s a big, wall-sized, world map in there. Charlie’s team was working on some case, but do whatever you have to do. Pull out pins, put new ones in…” Her face dropped for a moment. “No one’s around to mind, anyway…”
Barry put a hand on her shoulder, but didn’t know what to say. They stared into each other’s eyes for a long three seconds. Then, Rachel’s face shifted back to focused FBI agent.
“Let’s get to work,” she said. Rachel moved away and took a seat at one of the other desks, picked up the phone, found the number she wanted on her own computer, and began dialing. Barry needed no direction, and followed suit.
* * *
A few hours later, Rachel and Barry stood in the conference room, looking at the large map of the world tacked to the wall. Their eyes focused on the United States. Pins of red and blue littered the country, in a clear pattern. Their work had morphed over the last few hours towards Rachel handling more calls, writing notes for Barry, who then took them to fill out the map. From their phone calls, it was clear that whatever was happening, was more firmly concentrated in this hemisphere. Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, all had their share of disappearances, but not at the scale they were dealing with here.
“The red pins represent the offices that answered their phones,” Barry said. “They are all experiencing the same level of phone calls we are here. Roughly at least.”
“And the blue?” Rachel asked.
“The blue are all the places where no one answered even after several attempts. So, I think we can assume things are even worse there.”
The pattern was clear, obvious, blaring. A sea of red pins encircled an area of blue. There was a hole where the FBI, at least, were non existent.
“And what’s this green pin?” Rachel said, pointing to the one pin at the center of it all.
“That call just didn’t go through at all. Not, no one answered, but the phones are completely dead. No ring, not busy, just… nothing.”
“Then that’s where we’re going.” Rachel started towards the conference room exit, grabbing up her jacket from a chair.
“Wait a second,” Barry said.
She turned around, fire in her eyes. “There’s no time to wait, B,” she said. “All my colleagues, my friends are gone. Most likely dead. We can’t assume anyone else is able to do anything, because they might not even exist anymore.”
Barry understood, but just wasn’t used to this level of action. He was a planner, a designer. Overseeing all the possibilities before making a final decision. He was out of his league, clearly, but if there was anyone in the world he’d place his trust—his life—it was Rachel. So, he nodded, and straightened up.
“How are we getting to Texas?” he said.
Rachel looked at him with surprise. “Have you forgotten who you’re dealing with?”
“Right… former Captain in the Air Force.”
“Nothing former about it,” she said. “I may not fly F-16’s anymore… but I could.”
“Fair point. So, what are we going to do? Steal a plane?”
“There’s no one around to steal from,” she said. “And I think the situation supersedes any moral high ground regarding theft at the moment. I hate to say it, but the law is moot at the moment.”
“I need something to eat before we go…”
“Sure. We can steal that too.” She grinned. “Can I drive your car?”
Barry scoffed. “Not. A. Chance.”
“I’ll let you fly the plane for a bit…”
Barry shook his head, laughing. I mean, like she said, the law was irrelevant at the moment. He took out his keys and tossed them in the air. Rachel grabbed them with wide eyes. “Just treat her with respect,” he said, and before Rachel responded he cut in. “And, I say that because I know exactly who I’m dealing with.”
Welcome To The Machine
Barry and Rachel were up in the air within the hour. That was partly due to the fact that there was no one who cared to stop them from commandeering this very nice private jet, and partly due to how fast Rachel drove his prized mustang through the streets and highways of Washington DC. The nervousness of being in the passenger seat as Rachel wove between and around ghost-cars still hadn’t fully left him as Rachel brought the plane to altitude.
“Ok, there we go,” she said, taking her hand off the lever and wheel. Rachel gestured to the controls in front of Barry, who sat in the co-pilot seat. “A promise is a promise… she’s all yours.”
Barry looked to her, confused. “Well… what do I do?”
“Simple. This here will control our speed.” She pointed to the throttle in between them. “I’d say you keep that where it is. Then, that in front of you controls your basic motion. Pull back to go up, forward to go down, and obviously turn left and right just like a wheel to change our pitch.”
Barry began by turning the plane slightly, dipping the left wing down pulling them that direction. Then, leveled out and pulled them back to the right. He pointed them down and brought them back up again. It felt something like a roller coaster, but not quite as exhilarating. He figured there was nothing to really feel unless they were really diving—accelerating and getting some g-force.
“This isn’t as exciting as I thought it would be,” he said.
Rachel smirked. “Well, it’s not going to get more exciting than this unfortunately.”
“‘Cause I’m not suicidal, B. Not about to give a noob the chance to plummet us to our deaths.”
“Fair enough… although, the trade to drive my mustang was clearly not fair.”
“All is fair in love and war.” Rachel turned and gave him a comically wide smile. She took the controls back, Barry having had his fill, and set them on course.
“How long of a flight to Dallas? Three hours?”
“I think we can get there a little faster…” Rachel pushed the plane’s throttle forward, and Barry felt himself sink deeper into the seat for a few seconds. Rachel grinned, in her element.
* * *
As they approached Dallas, Texas, Rachel dropped them lower, below the clouds to see what they could make out below. Perhaps a visual clue as to the source of all this. A visual clue is exactly what they found, and they both gasped at their first glance. Rachel dipped the nose of the plane further down so to see more. The landscape below was a giant, circular wasteland. Barry imagined this is what a nuclear bomb would leave in its wake. Dallas, which they could only make out roughly from the plane’s instruments, looked like nothing but dirt for miles in all directions.
The hole they saw in the map back in D.C. was an actual hole. A massive circle of… nothing. As his eyes moved outward from the center, the circle of dirt and debris slowly bled into life. Fields, homes, buildings.
“Some kind of bomb?” Barry said, but he knew it couldn’t be.
“No crater…” Rachel answered, saying what Barry already knew, but still had to hear. “We’ll find out when we get closer.”
“But… but what if… whatever the cause… is still active. Like, if we go down there, we’ll disappear ourselves. Some sort of intense radiation…”
“It’s a thought.”
“A thought?” Barry said, his eyes wide.
“Yea, it’s a thought, but, B… what choice do we have? You called me, remember. You wanted answers whether you admit it or not. Sometimes, getting answers means dropping yourself into the middle of the trouble.”
I wanted you, not answers, Barry thought, almost saying it aloud. But she was right, too. He knew who Rachel was, and where this would probably lead. Her determination to do what was right was precisely why he liked her so much. Loved her, he thought.
“You’re right,” he said. “We have to do something, because we can.”
“We hope we can. But, we’ll try anyway.”
Rachel looked him in the eyes again with that intensity, and after a moment, the intensity wavered into a smile. Barry smiled back, mustering his courage. It was the end of the world, it seemed, so what was the point in playing it safe any more? In love or in war. Barry’s heart raced as he went to speak, but before he could say anything, Rachel had turned back to the controls and plunged the plane towards the center of what was once the city of Dallas.
* * *
They exited the plane, dirt and debris filling the air like a cloud. Rachel aimed to land as close to the center of the anomaly as possible. At this level, there was no telling how well she hit the mark, but Barry knew better than to think she hadn’t landed them perfectly in the middle. Despite his initial fears, Barry was now overcome with a sense of curiosity and determination. The devastation all around mustered the desire for answers, to stop whatever this was from spreading.
They both walked around, searching for something. The ground was lifeless with bits of concrete, or metal, speckled throughout. Rachel and Barry’s eyes met from several yards away. Her expression firm, determined.
Suddenly, about twenty yards behind them, a noise of something mechanic filled the otherwise soundless area. The ground shook near the source of the sound and then a metal door opened up to the sky. Out came a dozen soldiers with machine guns all aimed at Barry or Rachel. Barry’s hands were up in a moment, Rachel’s hand remained steady at her side, grasping the handle of her gun. They were surrounded in a moment, and Rachel had no choice but to surrender her weapon, and the two of them were ushered to the hole in the ground.
A shimmer in the air covered the passage below ground. As Barry passed through it, he felt nothing, but the shimmer was clearly there. A wide staircase of concrete, lit with bright white lights on the concrete walls, led them down what must have been several stories. Barry kept glancing back over his shoulder to Rachel. The soldiers weren’t rough or doing anything harmful to either of them, but the instructions were clear: follow us, or else.
The staircase ended and opened to a metallic tunnel, leading to a large opening ahead. A man in jeans and a white, button down shirt leaned against a metal railing, waiting. As they approached the man, Barry could see further behind him. Past the railing was a giant open space, large enough to fit a rocket. Hovering in the air, seemingly untethered to anything at all, was a small, black cube with glowing blue markings all around it.
The soldiers dropped Barry and Rachel off to the man. He had a scraggly, grey beard. His eyes, small and dark.
“Welcome back, Barry… Rachel,” he said.
Past & Future
“What did you just say?” Rachel snapped.
The man with the scraggly, gray beard smiled. “I said, welcome back. Truly fascinating.”
“Mind explaining yourself?” Rachel said.
“Don’t worry, I will. You’re not in any danger while you’re here, I promise.”
“Where is here?” Barry said. “And what have you done?”
“Ok, ok,” the man held up his hands. “I get it. You have a lot of questions. I have the answers. Just follow me and I’ll explain it all… again.”
Rachel and Barry looked at each other, confused. The man moved along the walkway that encircled the large space where the cube hung in the air twenty feet above. There seemed to be walkways like this on every level, going up several floors, and down several floors as well. Corridors, like the one they were escorted down, branched off from the walkway every ten feet or so. He stopped before the third corridor they approached.
“First,” he said. “I guess I should say that my name is Albert. Dr. Albert Gleis. I’m in charge of the operations here. Feels weird to introduce myself again. Come on.”
He walked down the metallic corridor. The place felt cold, although the temperature was just fine.
“Some time ago—about three years now—I was working in my lab in California.” Albert turned right at the end of the corridor. Rachel and Barry followed. “I detected a strange energy signal. I worked with SETI, looking for alien life, alien signals sent to Earth.” They entered a staircase, and they climbed up. “The signal was unique, and there was a strong likelihood it was alien. However”—he paused on the first landing of the steps to face them—“the most interesting part of the signal, was that it was coming from Earth. Somewhere in the Guatemalan jungle.” The man’s face was full of awe recounting the story. He continued climbing up the next flight of stairs. “So, I gathered up a team and headed to the source… what we found was a room. Almost like it had been locked and hidden until the moment it began releasing that signal we discovered—calling us to find it. The room was a perfect cube, all made of a black stone, and it wasn’t of any material we’d find on Earth we later found out.” They continued to climb the stairs, up another level. “On the stone walls was some sort of writing, written in a blue ink. Not carved into the stone, and not really marked with ink, but almost as if they wrote by changing the molecular structure of the stone. In the middle of the chamber was a small cube, with similar writing around its surfaces.”
Albert walked them out of the stairwell, and down another corridor. Ahead, the walkway that encircled the open space also had a walkway going across the middle. Hovering just above that walkway, was the black cube with blue writing. Albert brought them right to it.
“The writing on the walls,” he said, “helped us translate the writing on the cube and the rest of the walls. The message was shocking. We didn’t believe it until about three weeks later, when our friends in Australia detected an anomaly emanating from our Sun. They detected exactly what the alien writing told us we would find. It didn’t make sense, but a few weeks of further study and it couldn’t be denied. Our Sun was about to die in some spectacular fashion… only a few billion years off our estimates.”
“Are you saying that the reason for all the missing people has something to do with the Sun exploding?” Barry said. “How does that make sense?”
“I’m almost there,” Albert said, his voice now devoid of the excitement of a scientist discovering an alien signal. His voice was tired. “Our Sun dying was not supposed to be something we needed to worry about. But, the evidence was clear, and more over, we couldn’t trust our science anymore. How could we be so far off the mark? There must be something we don’t understand about stars, and whatever that something is, it must be a challenge to know it. I say that, because of what these aliens left us.”
“A way out,” Rachel said.
“Not exactly,” Albert said. “This cube, which we affectionally call, The Machine, is a time machine of sorts.”
Barry laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
Albert ignored Barry’s laugh. “It creates a time loop. You live out your day, and tomorrow, you forget everything and live out your day again. Everything gets reset. Everything except for the space inside a little bubble this cube creates for us. So, yes, to answer your coming question. Both of you were here yesterday. And the day before that too. Which is fascinating. The odds of the same choices being made… amazing.”
“That doesn’t explain why people are missing,” Rachel said.
Albert sighed. “To reset time, requires time and energy be paid. Like all things. Those who are missing, the grass and trees, the buildings all around, all reduced to energy. They’re gone. So, when time resets, they’re just not where they were when we began the time-loop.”
“Like they’re missing from their cars,” Barry said, “but the car could still be there, running.”
Albert nodded. “Everything closest to where we are is hit the hardest, hence the wasteland above, and then it seems to be spreading out from there… random in a way, from the reports we’ve intercepted.”
“And what are you doing about this?” Rachel said. “There must be millions of people gone, dead, and you say it’s been years? What are you all doing? And why here… in Dallas, TX?”
“What do you think we’re doing?” Albert said, frustrated. “We’re trying to figure out how to get us off our planet. Find a new planet to travel to. Then, we can break the time-loop and take everyone to safety. And we’re here, specifically, because this was a secret Nuclear launch site, bunker, nuclear testing lab. We were given this place to test out the technology, and we just kept the test running… as we needed to do.”
“Are you close to some answer?” Barry asked.
“I wish we were,” Albert said. “We were decades, perhaps centuries away from such leaps.”
“From what we’ve seen,” Barry said, “this planet doesn’t have decades to give you to figure this out. Surely, if aliens left us a way to create some time-loop, they also would leave us a way to get off our planet. They’d clearly have that kind of technology. The time-loop should be a last resort.”
Footsteps sounded on the metal bridge. They all turned to see a short man, with large square glasses approach. He was smiling brightly, looking from Barry to Rachel, and back to Barry.
“You know, that’s what you said the last two times,” the short man said. “When I heard you two were back, again… I felt like I was waiting for it.”
“What else did we say last time?” Barry asked.
The short man and Albert connected eyes for a moment, as if deciding whether they should explain or not.
“What happened?” Rachel said. “Obviously we left this place. Otherwise we’d have been here, not in the time-loop? Correct?”
“Then, what happened?” Rachel said.
“Tell us everything,” Barry said.
“I’ll show you,” the short man said, pushing his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. Then, he turned around and walked away.
Barry locked eyes with Rachel. This was all a bit much to handle, to comprehend. Time-loops, a dying Sun, aliens. At least one mystery was solved, though. Why millions of people were dead and gone. Simply reduced to energy. All to power a machine that locked the rest of them in a loop—a cage. Yet, instead of staying here yesterday, safe from that cage, Rachel and him had left. Why would we do that? he thought. Out there, it was a game of Russian Roulette. In here, was a guarantee of tomorrow.
Without thinking, Barry took Rachel’s hand, and she grabbed his in return. Together, they began to walk the bridge to follow the short man with glasses, to get some more answers.
Into The Unknown
“I’m Greggory, by the way,” said the short man with glasses, finally stopping at the entrance to a room. “And, I am happy to see you both again. I hope you stay this time.”
Then, he opened the door and they entered a square room, all except Albert who remained in the doorway. Greggory said nothing further, letting Barry and Rachel inspect the space on their own. The room’s walls and ceiling were covered with white paper. The pages were all lined up, one next to the other, covering nearly every square inch of the walls and ceiling. They were all full of writing, but a whole sentence wasn’t confined to a single page. The writing seemed to be organized in large columns, four feet wide, going across several sheets of paper, before going down to the next line.
“A recreation…” Barry guessed, “of the room Albert mentioned?”
“Precisely,” said Greggory. “Not an exact replica, as this room isn’t a perfect square, but it is close.”
“You brought us here yesterday?” Rachel said.
“And the day before…” Greggory said, nodding his head, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Per your request.”
“I did want to see the writing for myself,” Barry said, reading to get the general idea of the message.
The first panel was just generic writing, a spattering of words and letters to help translate the rest of the writing. On the next panel, the writing began to describe why the room presented itself, what they would detect from the Sun. The writing continued to tell the story of a dying star, not why it was happening, but what would come to pass. On the final two panels were the instructions to operate the cube, The Machine, and what it would do.
“Rachel,” Barry called across the room. “Did you read this last bit here?”
She didn’t answer, but walked over and began reading silently.
“It talks about the time-loop,” Rachel said. “But, they talk about it like it’s part of the solution.”
“Exactly,” Barry said. “This line here, ‘this is not the end, but the beginning.’”
“That can be interpreted differently,” Greggory said, interrupting them. “It doesn’t mean, as you believe, that there’s more to their message. It could simply be a message of encouragement to our species. Not our end, but the beginning of something new.”
“Or… it could mean there’s more to their message!” Barry insisted. “Why wouldn’t there be? Why would an alien race leave us the ability to create a time-loop without leaving us other answers?”
“It could merely be a fault in their assumptions of our race,” Greggory said. “Perhaps they thought that if we could detect its signal to find the room, we would already be capable of faster-than-light travel.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Barry said. “An alien race leaving this information behind, it comes with a certain care for our lives. Concern for the continuation of our species. Why would they risk leaving us with only part of the solution?”
“It could be a question of worth,” Albert said from the doorway, his voice filled with that tiredness. “Only the worthy races shall continue on. Only those capable of the scientific feats required shall survive. Those who are ready can use the time-loop to gather their people and prepare for a mass evacuation. Those who aren’t ready, will waste away slowly.”
“That’s… no I can’t believe that. I mean, did you at least look, did you—”
“Of course we looked,” Albert cut in. “We looked for more, having the same thoughts you are having now. The same thoughts you had yesterday and the day before that. There was nothing else there.”
“What did you do to search?” Rachel said.
“First, we scanned,” Albert said, a certain annoyance in his voice now. “But, we found nothing around the square room, so we went further, hoping the alien stone was just hard to detect. That would make sense when creating a hidden room. So, we dug. We dug completely around the room and there was nothing else. No branching tunnels, no other rooms, nothing. We looked for more signals, hoping there were more rooms to discover somewhere else. Nothing. We had linguists and code-breakers stare at the writing for weeks, and still years since, searching for some hidden meaning we missed. Some hidden instruction. Nothing. We left no stone unturned.”
The room went silent. Barry’s mind racing. Rachel pacing.
“One more question,” Barry said. Albert rolled his eyes and nodded, annoyed. “Why not turn The Machine off? If you’re not near finding an answer, why keep it on?”
“Simple. We don’t know when the Sun will die. The calculations say we have weeks or months, but we might need that time just to gather people and transport them off world if we find a solution. We need all the time we can hold.”
Barry nodded. It made sense. They thought of it all. Yet, it also didn’t make sense. Aliens wouldn’t leave them a life-line like a time machine, but have the line tethered to nothing at all. It was like dangling a carrot out of reach. Barry looked at Rachel, and he thought they were one mind.
“The solution has to be there, in that room,” Barry said. “Not here.”
“Fascinating,” Greggory said. “The same conclusion every time, with the same… resolve…”
“As fascinating as it may be,” Rachel said, “people are dying every day you don’t find a way out.”
“We’ve done all we can at that place,” Albert said.
Rachel walked over. “You’re just scared. Scared you’ll be caught out there with the rest of us. Locked in a loop, up for grabs to be taken as fuel for this Machine.”
“If you go now,” Greggory said, “as I know you want to, it would be suicide. You won’t have enough time to make it back here. I’ve done the calculations. Sure, you’re here a few hours earlier than last time, but why not just wait a little longer. Wait until tomorrow, at the beginning of the loop. Then, you’ll have a full twenty-four hours to go to Guatemala, study the space, and return in time to try again if you find nothing. You’d only have a few hours there today at most.”
“And have you done the calculation,” Rachel said, “of how many people die every time The Machine resets the time-loop? Is it hundreds or thousands?” No one answered, and they stood in silence for a long pause. She turned to face Barry. “Wheels up in ten?”
Barry didn’t know what to say. He knew the answers were out there, not here, but he didn’t intend for that conclusion to lead them away from the safety they had just found here. Greggory’s argument made sense, and so did Rachel’s.
“What makes you think,” Albert interrupted, “that you’ll find some secret answers a team of scientists could not?”
“Because our lives will depend on it,” she said. “Because we’d bring fresh minds, fresh perspectives, and… because there’s no other choice.” She turned to Barry again, speaking to him directly. “If we stay here, we’ll be condemning people to die, B. It’s not suicide going out there… it’s slaughter staying here.”
Barry’s mind was swimming with a mix of fear and determination, and he felt rooted, stuck, unable to move forward.
“Albert,” Greggory said. “What if we do turn the machine off for one day to allow them—”
“No,” Albert said. “We’ve been over this already. We can’t make an exception. Every day we can save is important—necessary.”
Rachel continued to look at Barry, and there he found his resolve. She was right. Every day wasted was another potential family torn apart.
“I’m with you,” he said, his heart racing. The risk of it all flooded him.
“Wheels up in ten,” Rachel said again, unable to hid the smile on her lips.
Flying at night was a different experience. It was basically a lesson in trust. “Trust the instruments,” Rachel had said, and Barry simply trusted her. They followed the instructions and coordinates given to them by Albert, and had copies of their findings to review during the flight. Although they refused to join them, they were at least helpful to their mission. They didn’t care what Barry and Rachel did, as long as they were safe in their little hole in the ground.
Rachel landed the plane as close as she could, but at night, there wasn’t a chance to fly around and look for an open field nearer to their destination. A dirt runway was their only option. After an uncontested jeep hijacking, and a little over an hour drive through the forest, they found themselves, according to their GPS, at the entrance to where The Machine had been discovered. They searched the area, lit by the car’s headlights and their own flashlights, and found what Albert described. A single, small, unobtrusive rock to mark the entrance below ground. Barry tossed the rock aside, and together, he and Rachel cleared the brush that covered a black, stone door level with the ground—like a trap door.
“Here we go,” Barry said, and lifted the door, Rachel’s flashlight illuminating a staircase and walls of the same black stone.
“So dramatic,” Rachel said, smirking.
“You gotta seize those moments,” he said.
Rachel took the lead, and together they descended about fifteen feet below, entering the square chamber. The room was as Albert described. The black stone walls and glowing blue writing covering every surface except the floor. In the center of the room was a small, squat pillar, where The Machine once sat.
“Where should we begin?” Barry said. “I don’t even know what to look for.”
“We begin like any investigation,” Rachel said. “Fresh. As if no one has been here before. Check over everything. Catalogue it like a crime-scene. See what details could have been missed, or cast off as irrelevant.”
They began to pour over the walls together. Rachel taking pictures, taking notes like the FBI Investigator she was. Barry was doing the same, but then started drifting off course. He wasn’t an investigator after all. He wasn’t a mathematician, or a scientist either. He was an architect, and figured the best way for him to uncover anything here would be to look at this place like he’d look at any other structure—at the design.
They created this one room, which makes sense. If you’re trying to keep the ideas in here a secret—until they’re needed—you wouldn’t want a large footprint where this place could be stumbled upon…
Barry walked around, inspecting the walls of the chamber, while he continued to muse over the design. The purpose would be to save us, he thought. To deliver us the answers to save our species. To convey a ton of information in a small space…
“Hey, B,” Rachel called from the other side of the chamber. He turned around to face her. “Here’s a detail they never noted. Not sure if it is important, but it’s interesting. Feel the walls. Glide your hand over it.”
Barry did so, and then froze, pulling his flashlight and eyes up close to the wall. “It’s like a mosaic,” he said.
“Exactly. Again, not sure if that will lead anywhere, but it is strange, right?”
“Definitely,” Barry said. “If your goal is to write messages on the wall, to pass along information, why not choose bigger panels of stone?”
“That’s what I was thinking. Interesting…”
Rachel went back to her work, but Barry remained rooted to the same spot, staring at the wall. The black stone was cut, very precisely, into one-inch square tiles. An odd design choice, to say the least. Or, maybe it was the material. Maybe it couldn’t be cut into bigger pieces? That thought died quickly as Barry inspected the floor, where the stone was cut into larger slabs. It wasn’t all the mosaic tile. Only the walls and—after stepping on the squat pillar, craning his neck—the ceiling, too, were of this mosaic cut. Everywhere there was writing.
Assume they’re smart, he thought. Assume these aliens are not doing anything by accident, or making some weird design flaw. There’s purpose to this.
They met in the middle, around the pillar.
“If you were to pass along a message,” Barry began, “to another species, how would you do it?”
“I’d give them a computer,” she said with a laugh. Barry laughed too.
“True,” he said. “But, how do you know they’d be able to work one?”
“Ok, sure, I’d want to make everything intuitive. No need to think.”
“But, maybe that’s the problem.”
Rachel cocked her head. “Explain…”
Barry’s heart raced, he felt he was on the precipice of something. “Your first thought was to give a species a computer. It makes sense with what we know, with what is general knowledge to us. But, what if these aliens made a similar mistake? They assumed that something basic to them, would be intuitive to us. Something obvious to them, that’s not so clear to us… invisible to us.”
“Yea, that makes sense, but it doesn’t make it any easier to find—“
“Yes it does!” Barry moved back to the walls. “Think like an alien. How do you pack a lot of information into a small space. A computer might be too complex, so you write it on the wall. But, let’s assume there’s more…”
“That’s what we’re hoping, yea.”
“Where could it be? There’s really only one option…” Barry rushed to the entrance of the room, a connection forming—a possibility… “Come here!” he shouted.
Rachel rushed over. Barry had his light shining on the edge of the entrance into the chamber. The spot where the wall of the chamber met the wall of the stairwell.
“It’s not mosaic tile,” Barry said, pointing to one square on the chamber wall, and tracing his finger over its corner, to the stairwell wall. “They’re mosaic cubes.”
“Cubes have six sides, Rachel. What if we are only seeing one side in the chamber? What if these aliens could make six rooms out of the space of one room? Wouldn’t that be a great way to convey a lot of information in an ‘easy’ way?”
“It’s like some giant Rubik’s cube…” Rachel stood up and began looking at the wall more closely. “But, that still leaves the how… there’s no writing on the side of the cube facing the stairs?”
“Maybe the writing only appears when facing the right way…”
“That still leaves how?”
“Some sort of switch, or keystone perhaps?”
“Ok, then… let the search begin!” Rachel rushed to the middle of the room. A good starting place.
It took another half hour for them to find themselves back where they started, back at the chamber entrance. Rachel had checked the pillar, Barry checking the stairs and entrance into the stairwell. That’s where he’d put a light-switch at least. The entrance into the chamber was the last option.
“Ok,” he said, holding onto hope. “Keep feeling around for something like a switch…” A moment later, Rachel squealed with excitement.
He turned in a flash, and his jaw dropped. Yet, he didn’t need to turn around, as whatever Rachel did, had altered every single stone in the chamber. One-inch cubes were now floating inches off the wall, as if to give each cube its space from the others.
“I just did as you said,” Rachel began, “and this stone just sort of wiggled. So, I pulled it out and then…” Rachel waved to the room to the floating cubes.
It was as he hoped. A keystone. Move one, move them all.
“Turn it,” he said. “Turn that stone in any direction, then put it back in place.”
Rachel did. As she turned the keystone, all the cubes matched its motion. When she pushed it back into place, clearly guided by some force or energy field, all the other cubes followed. Soon, the chamber looked like a chamber again, except…
Well, he was no linguist, but he could tell the writing on the wall had changed. This was a different room now. A brilliant way to create six chambers in a small space. Invisible to any, until you needed it. Perfect function. Beautiful.
Like There’s No Tomorrow
There wasn’t much time remaining before the sun would rise on a tomorrow that would simply begin another today. Together, Rachel and Barry had catalogued the rest of the chamber. That part was easy. Turn the keystone, and the cubes that made up the walls and ceiling flipped accordingly. Then, go around and take pictures and a panoramic of the space. Send those to Greggory and Albert, who were simply dumbfounded when hearing of their discovery.
“It can’t be,” Albert had said. “I thought we left no stone…”
“Apparently, there was only one stone you needed to turn,” Barry said, just a little annoyance in his voice.
Rachel and Barry risked it all coming here, and even still, even after they might have just discovered what would save the world, Albert stuck by his principles to keep The Machine running. No exceptions. They needed all the time they could hold onto. Barry was prepared for as much, but still, it made him furious.
Sunlight was crawling its way through the branches of trees outside, bouncing around off tree trunks and leaves, until a few beams began to sneak down the steps leading into the chamber. Their job was finished, though. Less than an hour remained until The Machine would seek out sources of energy to fuel its purpose and reset everything that remained to where it was yesterday morning. Soon, if he was lucky, he would be sitting in his mustang on his way to work, and Rachel would be walking the sidewalk on her way to the FBI headquarters in DC.
“What do we do now?” Rachel said, standing at the entry to the chamber, looking out and up the staircase.
Barry sat on the pillar in the middle of the chamber. He stood and made his way over to her. Barry wrapped his arms around her, and put his head on her shoulder, glancing out to the sky and the tips of trees getting steadily brighter.
“Since there’s no tomorrow for us, either way, I feel no fear in telling you—”
Rachel turned around quickly and put her hand to his mouth. “There’s never been a guarantee for tomorrow, B. Never. Just an opportunity for one, and the opportunities of today.”
“Then I’m a fool, aren’t I? A fool who’s been waiting for tomorrow.”
“That’s right,” she said, but she was smiling. “Now, shut up.”
Their lips met with the same knowing that their hearts felt. That they belonged together, in this moment, and in the next moment too, but also that the Universe threatened to tear them apart. They kissed as if fighting against The Machine to remain in the present, to create a tomorrow.
They lost track of all but themselves. Some time later, sunlight filled the chamber as they lay on the floor, staring into each others eyes and then Barry’s mind stretched…
Opportunity of Tomorrow
The news of their dying Sun, years stuck in a time-loop, and the lives paid by millions of people, had only been released a mere week ago. Yet, now, Barry stood, alone, in a sea of people shuffling towards a new world. He couldn’t comprehend it. Here, at Dulles International Airport was a passage through space-time to another planet. These passages had apparently been set up at all the major airports in the world. There were no tickets for this journey, you just needed to bring what you could carry across—no time for two trips. They were a species of refugees now. Even the animals were refugees.
It seemed like a logistical nightmare to Barry. How long did they have to get everyone and everything across? And, how much could they transport, realistically, to another planet? Parts of Earth would surely remain behind, lost, forgotten, or deemed unimportant, left to die with our Sun and our planet.
Barry followed the crowd through the airport as if they were all going to catch a flight. People were crying, some looked excited, but most were just silent. They were all guided out onto the tarmac, and everyone’s eyes were fixed ahead, at their clear destination. An upright square, as tall as two people, made of some black stone lay ahead. The walls of this square were about a foot or two thick on all sides, but the middle of the square was where the eye went. A shimmering, pulsing, liquid-like blob was contained within the black, stone square. Metal stairs led straight up to it. Soldiers guarded the area, as a short man with glasses attempted to ease people’s minds and usher them towards it to walk through.
There was a crowd of people outside, with more filing in behind them. No one approached the portal. Indeed, it looked frightening, and it filled the air with a low humming sound that vibrated the bones. Barry looked around him, and then stepped forward. He pulled his suitcase through the crowd, emerging at the front, and kept moving.
The short man with the large glasses walked up to him, smiling.
“It is good to see you,” the man said.
“I’m sorry?” Barry responded, looking down at the man, confused.
The man opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again before speaking. “Nothing,” he finally said. “Just… need that one person to start them off is all. Every group is the same, and it’s good to see you stepping up.”
“Sure,” Barry said, and he went to continue forward, eyes fixed on the portal ahead.
“Can I ask…” called the man. He waited for Barry to turn back and look at him before continuing. “Can I ask why you are stepping forward? Running away from something, or towards something?”
Barry thought for a brief moment. “It’s the idea of waiting,” he said. “I’ve done enough of that…” Barry gave the man a smile, but behind it was pain and regret; an intense sadness of loss. But as he just said, he was done waiting, and made his steps towards the portal, towards a new world and the opportunity that lay ahead.
What Did You Think?
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