Harry Aston felt a strange sensation overtaking his attempts to understand where he was, and for a moment long enough to remind him how selfish he was being, his grief hit him and struck him hard. He had left his wife at home to pursue this ridiculous idea that the government were behind the death of his little girl, and he found himself sitting in a van with people he had always either avoided or exploited throughout his career.
‘I’m going to switch to a live feed,’ the reporter reported...because that’s what they do. She turned around to look beyond Harry to her cameraman. ‘Jerry, give me the camera,’ she demanded. ‘I’ll upload the footage I took later and we’ll stitch it together on the lunchtime news. But I want this to go out now.’
‘You want what to go out?’ Jerry argued as he gathered up the camera and pushed past Harry. ‘There’s nothing out here.’
‘Isn’t that enough?’ the reporter argued – we won’t worry about her name. She was probably pretty. She had to be. ‘I mean...since when was there a barren wasteland just outside the city?’ she continued. ‘The people have to see this.’
So the live feed began as the van continued into the unknown, and people in every city in this world gradually tuned in as they sat eating their breakfasts or getting the kids ready for school. The camera was just picking up Janet Russell’s car in the distance, but then something happened which soon had everyone switching on their TV. There was a flash of light and Russell’s car vanished from sight. ‘Did you see that?’ the driver shouted. ‘What was that?’
‘That was news, people!’ the reporter cried happily. ‘I’m gonna have my name up in lights!’
‘Yeah, well...as long as we don’t all vanish after the light...’ Jerry put in. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’ Now, we all know that this line is as clichéd in such moments of mystery as the guy who says it suddenly being grabbed from the shadows as everyone else heroically runs away. If there had been a talking dog in this van full of intrepid mystery seekers, it might at this moment have said, ‘Rots rong, Raggy?’ as it addressed its human mirror image. You know...the guy with the name that sounds like he either never washes or gets a lot of action. I’m pretty sure the two can’t go together. If they do, I’m throwing away the soap.
Jerry didn’t get grabbed into the shadows, however, and not just because there was no room for the old janitor or gardener dressed up as the thing from the swamp to hide in the back of the news van – the guy who would eventually blame his incarceration on ‘those meddlesome kids’; no, Jerry didn’t get grabbed because we’re on a mission here to avoid clichés. Well...from this point on, anyway. Harry brought them all back to reality as he reminded them of their jobs. ‘Ah...aren’t we live right now?’ he whispered.
The reporter’s eyes were wide with the realization of what she’d just said on air, but she quickly gathered herself. Hundreds of thousands of people in every city in this world were watching their TVs as she began her report: ‘We are outside Carston City, heading...’ she looked around as, one by one, the men around her shrugged their shoulders. ‘Well, we don’t know which direction we’re heading...’ she resumed, ‘or where exactly we are. This should be the road to Jackson, but as you can see, there’s nothing out here. Everywhere we look there’s nothing but dust and rock, and we had been following Councillor Janet Russell until her car literally vanished from sight. For those of you out there who aren’t aware, our investigation revolves around the mysterious death of little Becky Aston, and her father is here with us. We’re not sure exactly what’s going on or how any of this relates to the devices which more and more people are finding buried inside them, but...we will keep following this road until we know more. And until then...I urge you all to do something which might sound crazy.’ She paused – the old dramatic effect again – before saying, ‘Go outside your cities and take a look around. I think you’ll be...unpleasantly surprised.’
The news channel switched to commercials as the camera kept rolling. In the network control room, the channel crew were speechless. Calls went up to the boss, which went up to his boss, and so on until they reached the Network CEO. See what I mean? Everyone likes to defer responsibility. And in cities all around this world, people were getting into their cars and heading out of town.
In a privately-owned laboratory, a blood sample was being analysed by a man in a white coat, which is exactly what you would have expected in a laboratory. As we’ve already noted, the pens-in-the-pocket rule applied to this guy. You wouldn’t be able to see the pens, though. Just their tops. He had a blue one for making notes, a black one for signing his name and a red one for when he made mistakes or was particularly excited. The blue one was almost empty, the black one had only a little ink gone out of it, and the red one had yet to be used. It would seem that this particular scientist didn’t find excitement in his work. But at least his boredom was absolutely correct.
The centrifuge went ‘Ping’ – or possibly ‘Ding’...it wasn’t entirely clear – and the sample was taken out in its little sealed vial as the report automatically printed. The scientist reached for his red pen – it was an exciting moment – and took the top off. A ‘Eureka’ moment may have been anticipated, because the people who took Frank’s blood in the police station had ordered the scientist to ensure that his findings remained secret. But as the scientist pulled the paper from the printer and set his red pen hovering over the results of the test, he couldn’t find any words. He made the call, lifting the phone and pressing speed dial ‘1’. The phone rang once at the other end: ‘Yes?’ came the eager response.
‘You were right,’ the scientist reported.
‘He’s not one of us.’
There was silence for a moment, and the scientist became painfully aware of his own heart beating, until, ‘Gather your findings and meet us at the Exit Point. We’re going with them.’
Paul stared at the cloudy emptiness for a short while, and then decided that he probably shouldn’t hang around until the sky cleared. He kept his eyes fixed on the place where Harding had last stood, and he tentatively walked towards it. The farther he walked, the more the clouds rose up around him, until he was walking through a heavy fog. His eyes began to water and his throat became dry, until he was coughing and crying in the whiteness. He pushed on, trusting against all instincts that his feet would find a solid surface with every step. Eventually, that trust paid off, as the fog began to clear and some definition of his destination appeared. He wasn’t entirely should what he had expected, but whatever it might have been…this wasn’t it. A great wall of aged and rusting metal reached up to what should have been the sky above him, but instead was some indefinable darkness. The wall stretched away to either side, so that he was ultimately humbled by its enormity. If someone had asked him to describe the edge of the world, this would not have been the first image to spring to mind. The cliff edge back before the clouds might have fit the bill to some degree, but this…what was this?
‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ Harding noted as he materialized from the fog behind Paul. Paul swung around with shock, and lost his balance. His left arm reached out to stop him from falling, coming into contact with the metal wall. Harding visibly cringed as a dull humming sound began, and a red glow emanated from high up on the wall, disappearing into the darkness on either side. He closed his eyes and seemed to be seeking for some unfelt inner calm. ‘What’s happening?’ Paul asked, stepping back from the wall. ‘What’s that noise?’
‘That noise, Paul…’ Harding replied, ‘would be our cue to run!’ There was a heavy clanking sound as a mechanism inside the wall activated, and Harding grabbed Paul’s arm, shouting, ‘Let’s go!’
Paul struggled to look behind them as they ran along the length of the wall and a massive door opened where they had been standing. ‘What’s going on?’ he shouted. ‘Why are we running? I thought these were your people!’
‘They are!’ Harding snapped back. ‘But they’re not the ones I work for. And you had to go and ring their doorbell!’
Behind them, four men in pristine black suits were stepping out through the door and the first of them caught sight of their annoying neighbors. There was nothing worse than someone knocking on your door and running away. Had Paul been able to see the last of them stepping through the door, he would have noticed with some measure of unease that the black suit was momentarily transparent, and that the innards of something which was not human could be seen. Of course, Paul wasn’t able to see this, so perhaps this wasn’t the case.
One could forgive Frank for believing at this point that he was dead, even if his concept of that state of being did not correspond with that of everyone else in this world. He woke suddenly, shouting in resumed terror – because he had only taken a little break from the experience – to find that the fall had stopped. The car was apparently suspended in mid-air, surrounded by what appeared to be clouds. The engine was still running, and Frank reached out to turn it off. He didn’t turn the key all the way back, though, because he still wanted to put the windows up. It was imperative, in these ‘all too common’ situations…when one’s car is floating amidst the clouds, that is…that one closes the windows. Frank had heard of greenhouse gases and how they were destroying the atmosphere, and anything that could make tomatoes grow in the winter was not something he wanted to be breathing in. The window slowly moved up as he flicked the switch on the door, but a cloud was drifting towards the door and it looked terribly sinister in a fluffy sort of way and Frank was panicking and praying that the window would close and shouting, ‘Come on! Come on!’ and he eventually got it closed and the evil cloud dispersed across the glass and Frank took a while to catch his breath. As you probably need to do after that panic-induced sentence.
There was a thud against the undercarriage and Frank was jolted in his seat. Then something heavy struck the roof, and it creaked a bit like it might cave in on top of him. In the corner of his right eye he saw something moving, and he turned to see what it could be. But there was nothing definitive, no solid shape. And then he realized that everything was moving…towards him. It was as if a sheet of glass was pushing the clouds towards him and he saw the same phenomenon occurring to his left. The clouds began to disperse as he understood what was happening. The car was being encased in these sheets of glass. ‘No, No, God, NO!’ Frank screamed. ‘Help! Help!’ He was looking around frantically, possibly hoping that a harp-playing cherubim might happen by and see his trouble. But the car was encased, and then it began moving again. This time, it was going forwards, carried within its glass box like a collector’s item as the clouds cleared up ahead to reveal a gigantic wall of dark and time-worn metal. Frank, thinking this might be his afterlife punishment for arriving in Heaven in a stolen police car, sat rigid in the seat, his chest rising and falling in horror as he was taken inside the wall.
Rachel was silent. Absolutely silent. Her father had explained everything to her, and she was in that aftermath stage of asking herself, ‘Hmm…Am I really better off for knowing the truth? I mean…were things really that bad before?’ Wright had taken her back to the Operations Room, and she was sitting on a chair next to his which didn’t really go with the furniture. It was like when the restaurant was full and a fifth, uninvited party-crashing friend turned up to the four-seater table, so the staff had to get one of those low stools from the bar, which meant that the party-crasher had to reach up for their food like a child. And the rest of you sit there thinking, ‘You look like an idiot. That’ll learn ya.’
Wright asked for an update on the escalating situation and found that the escalator had by this point reached maximum speed and taken on a life of its own. In the shopping mall of life, everyone had been catapulted up to the top floor, home of the really weird stores that most people never bothered with, and they were all in a big pile wondering how much the crap up here cost. ‘They’ve taken Frank,’ someone reported.
‘Paul’s outside the wall,’ someone else called out. ‘They’ve got Hunters after him.’
‘A reporter out of Carston City is heading this way,’ a third operative informed him. ‘They’ve got a live feed to every city!’
Wright was shocked. ‘Every city?’ he asked. ‘How?’
‘They must have outside help, Sir,’ came the reply. ‘We thought there might be another agenda out there. A rebel faction.’
‘So what does that mean for the reset?’ Wright wondered. He looked down at Rachel, who was still motionless. He found himself trying to recall if he had taken the truth in much the same way. But there was little time for reminiscing. ‘Open a door and grab Paul. Get him out of harm’s way.’ Rachel responded to that, looking up gratefully at her father, but he didn’t see her. Instead, he added, ‘And if our mystery man is still with him…kill him.’
‘But…Sir…’ the closest operative argued, ‘he could be on our side. This could be our chance to change things.’
Wright shook his head, and looked up at the countdown on the monitor. Less than twenty-one hours remained on the clock. ‘We’ve already run out of chances,’ he said.
The wall to Paul’s left was nothing compared to the wall he was about to hit. He didn’t have the stamina for this sort of thing, and he was on the verge of collapse. Harding tried to keep him vertical as he risked a glance back at their resilient pursuers, but the younger man just couldn’t continue any farther. His legs had gone out from under him and his knees just wanted to go home. Harding turned and drew a gun from his jacket, opening fire on the four suits in the distance. One of them went down with a bullet in the chest, but the others kept coming as Harding tried again to get Paul to his feet. ‘I…can’t…go on…’ Paul gasped.
‘Yeah, I can see that,’ said Harding, tempted to leave him there. But there was the sound of a door mechanism close to their position and Harding turned to see a team of heavily armed men and women jumping out to engage the suits and approach him and Paul. Bullets flew over their heads as he stayed down with Paul, but as he was about to thank their rescuers, the butt of an automatic rifle introduced itself with considerable excitement to his face. As Harding collapsed unconscious, he was dragged away and Paul was lifted to his feet. Paul was too exhausted to care who was rescuing him, but a part of him recognized that all of this was getting more and more complicated by the minute.
You’re probably wondering by this stage what happened to Janet Russell and her sidekick, George, and why they disappeared. Well, sometimes, certain characters or events are necessary in order to facilitate the progression of the story towards a specific point; or in order to add purpose or reason to the movements of another character; or to explain with a greater sense of appreciation the unfolding of a plot-line. These characters or events are known as ‘literary devices’, and they sometimes leave people wondering what they were doing in the story in the first place. The Janet and George sub-plot was a literary device, facilitating the Harry Aston sub-plot, which in turn allowed for the live broadcast of the events outside the cities to take place. That’s the important bit, not the characters who made it happen, which is why Janet and George just disappeared. Just as their story wasn’t going anywhere, neither did they. Don’t worry about them, though. Once the reset happens, they’ll be fine.
The car in which Frank was sitting in terror and something which smelled similar to terror was lowered to a metal floor of what he thought resembled a warehouse. The glass, or whatever it was, vanished, and Frank began a critical reassessment of his situation as he opened the door of the car and stepped out. He was far from entertaining the possibility that he might wake up in his own bed, look around him and say, ‘You were there…and you…and you…’ to his empty beer bottles, a stray dog and his wall-sized Miss July. And he had also moved beyond his imaginings of Heaven. Heaven was not an old warehouse on the far side of the clouds. And if it was, he wanted a refund from the collection plate. All that cash and not a clue about interior décor. It was positively blasphemous.
Unless, of course, he was in…
‘No, Frank, you’re not in Hell,’ a collection of voices told him at once. It was the ones from his head, except this time they were on the outside. He wasn’t sure which he preferred, but at least now he could put a face to…oh, wait…maybe not a face…
There were four of them, shimmering and rippling and waving and making Frank feel slightly seasick. They were only slightly taller than him, with long, thin white legs and a reddish glow to their skin. A bit like an Irishman on a beach.
Frank stared at them for a moment, not sure whether he should be amused or afraid. He took the middle road and went for confused. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘We are the Foundation,’ they replied. Which was suitably unhelpful. But Frank found himself recalling his capture and things began to make sense. ‘You brought me here,’ he realized. ‘You took me from…home.’
‘We took you from the planet you call Earth.’
‘Because you believe.’
They all moved towards him as one, floating across the metal floor. Their red eyes seemed to look right through him as they replied, ‘You believe in God.’
Wright decided to keep Paul away from Rachel for a while. She was still in shock from what he had told her and what she knew was coming. Paul was getting his breath back and drinking some water when Wright entered the large white room with the tables and chairs neatly arranged in four rows of four. Wright took a chair from one of the tables and turned it around to sit opposite Paul at his table. ‘It’s good to finally meet you, Paul,’ he said.
‘Who are you?’ Paul asked. ‘What is this place?’
‘My name is Karl Wright, and this is…’ he grinned. ‘This is the White Room.’
Paul looked around ironically. ‘I’d never have guessed,’ he mocked. ‘Care to elaborate?’
‘Of course. This is where everyone who works in this facility was tested.’
‘We all sat our psych evaluations here. They test us to see if we’re capable of doing…what has to be done.’
Wright leaned back in his chair. ‘Well, you see, there’s the problem. We were under the impression that we would be following a list of instructions in order to check our…loyalty, I suppose. As well as our humanity.’ He chuckled darkly, adding, ‘Or lack thereof.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘And I don’t blame you. You see, it’s like this.’ He leaned forward then, and looked Paul straight in the eyes. ‘We’re supposed to turn off the switches.’
Paul moved back from him in shock, his chair scraping on the tiled floor. ‘Why?’
‘It’s all one big experiment. Anyway, none of it matters now, because they changed the game.’
Paul was horrified. ‘The…game?’
‘My apologies. Bad choice of words. My point is this. We were told that we’d be given a list of people who live in the cities, and the codes for their switches. Everyone has codes. But when we got here, there were no lists. We think they just wanted us to sit here helplessly and watch.’
‘Wait a minute!’ Paul got to his feet. ‘Who are ‘they’?’
Wright smiled apologetically. ‘That’s too much for you to deal with right now.’
Paul stared at him. ‘Then give me something I can deal with. I mean, what’s the point of the switches? Why would they want you to kill people like that?’
‘You’re a nurse, right?’
Paul hesitated. ‘What’s that got to do with it?’
‘Have you ever seen someone die and think…that’s just unfair? Did you think it wasn’t their time? Or ask yourself how such a thing could happen?’
‘Of course. But that’s just the way of the world. Accidents happen. Bad people kill good people…and sometimes bad people too, if we’re lucky.’
‘And if we’re lucky…’ Wright put in, ‘we’ll live our natural lives and die old, right?’
‘Right. The way it’s supposed to be.’
‘What if it’s not supposed to be that way, Paul? What if it’s supposed to be random…chaotic? What if the things that kill people are things we can’t see…or account for? What sort of questions would you ask then?’
Paul laughed nervously. ‘That’s ridiculous. How can something we can’t see kill us? And why would it be random? People are born, they grow old and die. That’s the way it’s always been.’
‘Yes,’ Wright agreed, ‘it has. Although we don’t know for how long, but…we can come back to that. I want you to think about it for a minute. If Fran Redmond had just died in her car...and little Becky Aston had just dropped dead in her backyard…and no cause of death had been found…’
‘You mean if you’d killed all the witnesses to finding the switch?’ Paul snapped.
Wright nodded. ‘Sure. But what if there had been no switch? What if…there was no apparent reason?’
‘For us here, yes. In this world. But just for a moment…imagine a world where people die from natural disasters or freak weather or from what’s known there as disease. Or where people could just die at any age from defects of the heart…or the brain. Or even just to die suddenly for no apparent reason whatsoever. Imagine that world, Paul.’
Paul wasn’t sure what was going on here, or what he was being asked to do. But what he was sure of was that such a world must be a horrific place. He met Wright’s gaze and whispered, ‘Is there such a world?’
Wright nodded solemnly, and said, ‘So what questions would you want answered if you lived in that world, Paul? If people were dying like that and there was nothing anyone could do and it all seemed so random and chaotic…what would you ask?’
Paul thought for a moment, allowing himself to be drawn into this terrible game, before replying, ‘I’d want to know if there was someone to blame. Someone behind the scenes.’
Wright smiled ironically. ‘You mean, like, someone…pressing buttons or…flicking switches, perhaps?’
Paul nodded, feeling like he was finally getting somewhere. ‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘I’d want to know who was in control.’
‘I don’t know what ya mean,’ Frank was saying as he backed away from the creatures. ‘What’s believing in God got to do with anything?
‘We wanted you to be a catalyst in our experiment, Frank,’ the creatures told him. ‘Things were moving much too slowly and some of our people were getting…impatient.’
‘Experiment? This place is an experiment?’
‘Yes. The world in which you’ve been is not real. You are, in fact, many light-years away from home.’
Frank laughed aloud. ‘Ah, I’m starting to make sense of all this now, man. Yeah! Ha!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Aw, it’s obvious! I just went and fell asleep with the TV on after a few beers. Must be some Sci-fi crap on!’
‘I assure you, Frank, that this is very real. Perhaps if you understand the experiment better, you might appreciate the situation you’re in. It’s absolutely vital if you’re going to escape the reset.’
Frank laughed again, dismissing the confusion of it all. ‘Hey, bring it on, fellas. This is a good one!’
‘This is not a dream, Frank. If it was, we wouldn’t be able to do this.’ That was the last thing Frank heard before he was switched off and he collapsed unceremoniously to the metal floor. And with just as little concern for his well-being, they dragged him away.
As Paul anticipated a follow-up to his insight, Wright looked around the white room. ‘I remember coming in here for the first time and feeling the excitement of being exposed to a secret world,’ he said. ‘We were tested…given choices…options apparently designed to discern our characters and assess our morals. We had no idea what it all meant.’ He looked back at Paul, who waited as Wright added, ‘It was all real!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They weren’t testing our morals or character. They were testing our memory. The options were designed to see if we remembered what had happened the last time round. Anyone who remembered were given special assignments.’
‘Look…you’re losing me again,’ said Paul. ‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’
Wright sighed and held his face in his hands, talking through them at first as he explained: ‘In less than twenty hours, Paul, the world you just came from will be reset. As far as we can tell, everyone will be switched off and their memories will be erased. They’ll start the experiment again. At least…we hope they will. They may decide that they no longer need us.’
‘Yeah…once again…who are ‘they’?’
‘They call themselves the Foundation. They’re not human. And they’ve been watching our home planet for a long time.’
Paul got to his feet, almost apathetically. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he sighed. ‘You’re talking crap.’
‘I wish I was,’ Wright told him. ‘The world you know isn’t our planet. It’s a facility designed to experiment on us.’
‘Really?’ Paul was not convinced. ‘So what’s the experiment? And what’s the point of it all?’
‘You remember I said that we thought we’d be given lists of switch codes when we started working here?’
‘Well, like I said, there were no lists. The system had been set to ‘Random’. They wanted you all…us all…to experience the sort of chaos that exists on that other world. And that other world…in case you’re not keeping up…is the place they took us all from in the first place. They’ve manipulated our DNA, our minds and memories…everything. And all to see how we’d react to the random nature of death.’
‘To what end?’
‘You already got there, Paul. They wanted us…all of us…to ask those sort of questions about who was in control. They wanted to see if we’d create for ourselves the illusion of someone or something…’ Wright gestured vaguely, ‘…out there. Not like me and my people here in some tangible control room, but something else.’
‘Like what? What else could there be?’ Paul laughed. ‘Some CEO of the world in control of absolutely everything?’
Wright shrugged. ‘Apparently…on the planet we come from…the people there believe in something pretty similar.’
Paul frowned. ‘No wonder the place is in chaos,’ he remarked. ‘Doesn’t anyone take responsibility for their own actions?’
‘I’m really not sure how it works,’ Wright admitted. ‘But we’ve been altered so that we don’t experience this…disease. We don’t have natural disasters because…well, because this place isn’t natural, for a start. This is an environment designed to work to…well, to a design, I suppose. A plan. It would seem that it’s the apparent absence of a plan which gets people asking questions about who designed the plan! I’m not entirely sure, but I think the experiment is over. And I think it failed.’
‘It failed? What do you mean?’
‘The hope was that we here in our perfectly ordered world would be forced to look beyond ourselves for blame when people died for no apparent reason. But the experiment was compromised by the discovery of the switches in Fran Redmond and Becky Aston.’
‘There were others?’
‘Oh, yes. We’d cleaned them up nicely, but there hadn’t been enough incidents for people to start looking for intangible reasons. There was no…pattern of randomness, if you like. And with the switches exposed, there never would be. The people would have something tangible to blame. The experiment was supposed to keep going indefinitely, until we either started showing signs of thinking the same way as the people on that other world, or they determined that we never would.’
Paul looked around the white room. ‘What happens now?’ he asked. ‘I mean…if the experiment has failed.’
‘Two things,’ said Wright. ‘First of all, they deal with us here. Which means a reset, as I said. It may be that we’ll be immune to it in here, but…I can’t say for sure. The other thing…well, that’s something completely different. From what we can gather, the experiment was about human nature and its apparent…irrationality. These…creatures who built all this are extremely logical and methodical, and they would have considered co-existence with the people on our home planet if they could convince them that this…external controller they believed in just didn’t exist. If the experiment proved that human nature wasn’t necessarily predisposed to that idea, they’d have their leverage to do that.’
Wright shrugged with resignation. ‘Well, now they won’t consider co-existence,’ he said. ‘And they’re on their way to that world as we speak.’
‘What will they do?’
‘We’ve no idea. Wipe them out…subjugate them…who knows?’
Before Paul could respond, a uniformed young woman entered the white room and looked to Wright. ‘Sir, we found Frank Billings,’ she reported. ‘They just left him on our doorstep.’
The Frank Billings on their doorstep was either dead or doing a very good impression. The absence of a heartbeat and no sign of him breathing was a particularly nice touch. Wright’s people were bringing him in through the door which Rachel had earlier tried to open, and Paul ran to his side as they laid him on the floor. ‘What happened to him?’ he shouted. ‘Did you lot do this?’
‘It wasn’t us,’ Wright assured him. ‘Our friends outside had already taken him.’
‘So they killed him? Why?’
‘I’ve no – ’ Wright was cut off as Frank woke suddenly and screamed at the top of his lungs. It was as if a defibrillator had been left charging too long before being placed on his chest. Paul was thrown back from him, and he scrambled back across the floor. ‘What’s happening?’ he shouted.
‘I think they just switched him back on!’ Wright exclaimed, clearly surprised. ‘I’m not sure why.’
Frank was looking around in terror and shock. ‘They said…’ he was still catching his breath and trying to calm down. ‘They said…it wasn’t…a dream. They said they wouldn’t…be able to…’ And then he realized what they’d done. ‘I was dead,’ he gasped. ‘Jesus…Christ…I was dead!’
Paul had no idea who Jesus Kryste was and he found himself looking around the room. Maybe he worked for Wright. ‘It’s alright now, Frank,’ he told him as he returned to his side, satisfied that Jesus Kryste was nowhere to be seen. ‘You’re safe now.’
In the background, Wright made a sound which saw the humor in that remark, and then he asked Frank, ‘Did they tell you why they brought you here?’
Frank stared at him for a moment, wondering how he could have known. ‘They said it was because I believed in God!’ he eventually replied.
‘What?’ asked Paul.
‘Exactly!’ said Frank, wide-eyed with exasperation. ‘I didn’t get it either!’
‘No,’ said Paul. ‘I mean…you believe in…god? What’s that?’
Wright stepped up. ‘I think that’s the name they gave your CEO, Paul.’ He looked at Frank with curiosity. ‘This must be the reason they put him in.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Paul.
‘Yeah, what do ya mean?’ asked Frank. ‘And who the hell are ya?’
Wright smiled, hearing the word that didn’t belong. ‘Yes, definitely,’ he said. ‘He was put in to speed up the process. A sort of…catalyst for the experiment.’
‘I’m not following,’ Paul admitted, helping Frank to his feet.
‘Simple, really,’ Wright replied. ‘It looks like some of them were getting tired of the experiment. They wanted to get on with things.’
Frank was nodding his agreement: ‘That’s what they said. Some of them got impatient and I was supposed to speed things up.’ Frank was clearly disturbed by the entire situation and Wright approached him and rested a hand on his shoulder, saying, ‘You’ve done nothing wrong, Frank. Don’t be frightened by all this.’
‘What did they want him to do?’ asked Paul.
Wright shrugged. ‘Probably just to get the ball rolling. He was using words like ‘hell’ and ‘god’ and invoking this ‘Jesus Kryste’ person. I’d say the idea was just to get people asking him what he was talking about and letting him explain as best he could. That way the idea of this ‘god’ would be out there and people could start using it to explain the random deaths.’
Paul thought he was finally getting it. ‘So the switches set to random were supposed to be like this…god?’
Wright shook his head. ‘The switches set to random were supposed to be like real life in the real world. People die for no reason all the time where Frank comes from. There’s no pattern, no plan.’ He looked at Frank. ‘Life is unfair there…right, Frank?’
Frank nodded. ‘So you guys were supposed to guess whose fault it all was.’
‘Exactly,’ said Wright.
‘And I was supposed to give ya the answer,’ Frank continued. They all lapsed to silence for a short time, and Frank wasn’t exactly feeling like any kind of prophet or savior. He had always believed in God, no matter his lapses in moral behavior. It was lucky that his religion offered forgiveness, because he could do whatever he wanted so long as he was sorry after it. It was a religion designed with sinners in mind, and it had always attracted them. But now, amidst the enormity of what he was supposed to do here, he realized something which rocked the foundations of his faith. ‘You’re better off not believing,’ he said.
Wright, Paul and the others in the room looked at him and listened as he continued: ‘Where I come from, people twist what it means to believe in God and to worship him. We’re supposed to share our faith and love and respect each other and look out for the poor and do whatever we can to keep the world peaceful.’ He shook his head in despair. ‘Instead, people got their own ideas about God and what he wants, and they use ideas that don’t fit anymore to spread their hatred and to explain their violence and prejudice.’ Frank’s eyes were moist, and he experienced a rush of emotion as he continued. ‘My life isn’t good,’ he explained. ‘I get drunk a lot, and I sit wasting my time, sometimes thinking of ending my life so I can go to the place that my faith says is waiting for me when I die. It’s a great idea sometimes, that place…but I don’t think it’s there to attract us to it. I think it’s there to help people like me deal with their lives…to give us something to look forward to when it seems like there’s no hope. Problem is…sometimes ya can forget to look forward to anything else. I guess…ya can forget to live. You guys don’t have that here. If ya believe that this is all ya got, you’re gonna make this as good as can be.’
They still hadn’t said anything. The ideas were alien to them, but they made a lot of sense. ‘And then there’s the guilt,’ Frank continued. ‘We get bogged down with guilt cos we believe this guy in the sky is looking down and judging everything we do. Sure, we need laws and rules, but he sure as hell didn’t make them. We did. And only cos we want to keep everyone in check. People should be afraid of the cops, and prison, and execution, sure. But making them believe they’ll suffer for the rest of time…’ he shook his head. ‘That’s just evil, man. Ya shouldn’t do that to people.’
Paul was grasping the alien idea, and making a lot more sense of it now. ‘So when people die…suddenly…before their time…what do you guys think about that?’
Frank shrugged. ‘Some people believe the person deserved it,’ he replied angrily. ‘If they get sick, it was part of God’s plan. If they die…they musta done something wrong. They musta angered God. Sure, there’s disease and natural disasters, but…a lot of people blame that on God too. See…if ya wanna believe that God controls everything, ya gotta believe that everything is his fault.’
‘What about the good stuff?’ asked Wright. ‘Can’t be all doom and gloom, right?’
Frank grinned ironically. ‘When it’s good, it was him too,’ he laughed. ‘Ya musta done something right! I mean, most people only remember God when it’s gone bad, but…some still thank him for the good stuff. I guess that’s okay, but ya probably shouldn’t rule out good old-fashioned luck or accountin’ for the work ya put in.’
‘Sounds confusing,’ said Paul.
Frank laughed again. ‘It is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. Ya got people the world over feeding the poor and treating the sick and saving lives in God’s name, but…I guess I don’t see why we can’t just give ourselves the credit for it. We might actually start feeling better about ourselves.’
‘Maybe this…God fella doesn’t want you all getting too cocky,’ Wright remarked.
‘That might just be it,’ Frank agreed. He turned to Paul. ‘Like you said, man…it’s confusing.’
Reluctant to break up this truly fascinating conversation, one of Wright’s staff interjected tentatively. ‘Ah…Sir…’ she said. ‘The countdown…?’
Wright chuckled ironically. ‘Ah, yes…the little matter of the reset.’
Frank suddenly remembered the words of the creatures before he’d been switched off: ‘They said I’d escape the reset!’
Wright was pleasantly surprised. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘That must mean all of us here will. There’s just one more thing we need to figure out before it happens.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Paul.
‘Your friend Harding,’ he replied.
Harding was no longer in a black suit. In fact, he wasn’t even in human form. Red-eyed and white-skinned, all legs and arms, he was every inch the alien creature in the glass room to which Wright’s people had moved him. Paul, Frank, Wright and an armed escort stood looking at him as he stared right back. ‘There’s not much time left,’ he told them quietly.
‘We’re aware of the reset, thank you,’ Wright replied. ‘We’re more interested in you right now, and what your deal was in this mess.’
‘I’m not talking about the reset,’ Harding explained. ‘I’m talking about the invasion of your home planet and what my people have been doing to stop it.’
Now this was something Wright wasn’t prepared for. His job had always and only revolved around this world and the immediate implications of his actions. Now that the entire game had changed, he was beginning to feel out of the loop. ‘So you must be one of the rebels we heard about?’
It was hard to discern a smile in that white face and on that tiny mouth, but Paul thought he saw one as Harding replied, ‘Not one of them. The leader of them. And the longer you hold me here…the more you risk messing things up.’
‘What are you planning to do?’ Paul asked.
‘We’re taking people with us. A lot of people. We’re going to get them off this world and bring them to your home planet.’
Paul and Wright exchanged glances, and Frank asked, ‘And then what?’
‘Then we fight back,’ Harding replied. ‘My people won’t allow the extermination of an entire species.’
‘How many people are you taking?’ asked Wright. ‘And how are you getting them out?’
‘We facilitated a distraction. The Foundation will be too busy dealing with the hundreds of thousands of people streaming out of the cities to see what’s going on out here that they either won’t notice or won’t have the resources to deal with the nearly ten thousand people we’ve got heading towards pre-arranged exit points.’
‘Ten thousand…’ Frank whistled, and then grinned with excitement. ‘Now that’s something I want to be part of!’
‘Oh, you’ve played a big part already, Frank,’ Harding told him. ‘The people we’ve been gathering to our cause didn’t believe us for a long time. But then we told them about you, and how you were different to the rest of them. It took a blood sample taken from you to bring them round to the truth. They know you’re not from here.’
‘Why did you want the switch?’ Paul asked. ‘What does it matter now?’
‘I kept telling you, Paul,’ said Harding. ‘I want the people to know the truth.’
‘But when the reset comes,’ Wright argued, ‘they’ll have forgotten everything.’
‘Out here, Paul won’t be affected by the reset. That’s why I brought him here. He’s going to go back out there with this…’ Harding opened his hand and showed them the switch taken from Fran Redmond, ‘and he’s going to reveal the switch program. You, Mister Wright, are going to find a way to counteract the switch controls and facilitate a rebellion here on this make-believe world. And I, with ten thousand people on Earth, will be fighting the Foundation there. We’ll bring them down on two fronts.’
They all thought about this for a while, until Wright gestured that the glass room be opened and Harding be released. The alien gave Paul the switch, that fateful switch from that average girl whose death was about to change the world…two worlds, in fact. Well…one fake one and...you get the point.
Wright took Paul aside and said to him quietly, ‘There’s someone else waiting to talk to you, you know.’
Paul looked at him and then suddenly remembered. ‘Rachel!’
‘It’s okay. She’s fine. I’ll take you to her.’
‘I can’t believe I forgot!’
‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,’ said Wright. ‘You see, there’s something else you should probably know…’
Paul and Wright left the room, leaving Frank and Harding amidst the armed staff. Harding changed back to his human form, with the pristine black suit, white shirt and black tie. Frank shivered. ‘That’s just freaky, man,’ he remarked. ‘How the hell do ya do that?’
Harding smiled. ‘Oh, you’d be amazed what my people can do. That’s why it’s vital you’ve got us on your side.’
Frank looked around the room, and felt an overwhelming need to pretend that none of this was happening. ‘I think I’ll go take a rest somewhere.’
Harding nodded. ‘Might be a good idea. The reset’s coming soon and we’ll be moving out during it. You’re gonna need your wits about you.’
Paul was brought to the Operations Room, where Rachel had been sitting staring at the wall full of monitors and the huge countdown clock. There were just short of eighteen hours remaining before the reset. ‘Someone here to see you, sweetheart,’ Wright called to her.
Rachel turned and got to her feet, gasping and smiling as she saw Paul. She ran to him and threw her arms around him as Wright headed back to his seat. ‘I thought I’d never see you again!’ Rachel exclaimed. ‘Are you okay?’
Paul held her close to his chest and kissed her hair. ‘I’m better now,’ he told her. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘Feels like forever,’ she replied, pulling back and looking up at him. ‘Do you know what’s going on?’
He nodded. ‘Wish I didn’t.’ He looked at the countdown. ‘Is your Dad positive we’re all going to get through this…reset thing?’
‘My…Dad…’ she grinned, ‘thinks we’ll be fine. Guess we’re gonna have to trust him.’
Paul thought about that, and then looked mischievously down at her. ‘Well…just in case this really is the end of the world…’
She smiled, took his hand and said, ‘Let me show you my room.’
Frank had also found a room, but his reality had long been solitary. He lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to make sense of it all and then feeling the mental exhaustion of everything that had happened. It may have been a dream, but Frank had stopped trying to figure out the difference:
He heard their voices calling him until he said, ‘I can hear ya.’
‘Good, because you must listen carefully. Everything now depends on you.’
‘I don’t like the sound of that. I’m sick of people depending on me. I just wanna be left alone.’
‘And you will, once you do this one last thing for us. When you do, and only then, we’ll return you home. We’ll make your life the way you always wanted. There will be a big house for you, a wife…children. You’ll never want for money and you and your family will live long, healthy lives, free of illness and pain. You’ll have a career unlike any other in the world. Your life will be perfect.’
Initially, it was a no-brainer, the sort of decision which suited Frank right down to the ground. Sure, he might have been talking to the Dark Lord himself right then, but with all this talk of God and what believing in him was about to bring to the human race, Frank was thinking of switching his subscription. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘One simple task, Frank. One moment of your life to determine your fate. Say that you’ll do as we ask and we’ll give you everything you ever dreamed of.’
‘Alright, alright! I’ll do it. Just tell me what it is, will ya?’
There was a short silence, as is to be expected in these conversations. ‘You must take the switch…’ they told him, ‘and you must kill Paul.’
Hundreds of thousands of people were indeed filling the spaces of wasteland between the cities, and Harry Aston and his merry band of investigators had no answers for them. The news van had reached a cliff edge which seemed to go on for miles to their left and right, and the drop was so far that the clouds were hanging around at the top to watch who might fall over. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ Harry despaired, as he sat with his feet dangling from the open door at the side of the van. ‘I should be at home with my wife.’
‘Oh, come on!’ the reporter argued, turning away from the camera to face him. ‘You trying to tell me that if you were at home with your wife, you wouldn’t come out here to see what all the fuss was about? Everyone loves a mystery!’
‘Yeah, well…we wouldn’t be out here at all if it wasn’t for me.’
‘What do you want…a prize?’ she sneered. ‘Get over it, Mister Aston. The world’s moved on. News happens every day!’
Harry’s eyes widened and the driver saw it coming. He decided to oblige Harry, stepping aside as he stood up from the van and lunged at the reporter, shouting, ‘Moved on? Moved ON?’ He grabbed the camera, snapping it from Jerry’s hand as he roared, ‘I haven’t moved on, you glory-seeking bitch!’ He threw the camera towards the cliff edge, and the people who had gathered nearby watched as, almost in slow motion, it performed an arcing somersault through the air towards the gathered clouds. But it didn’t fall, as everyone expected. It could be heard hitting something solid, and then the clouds cleared a little to reveal it laying there on some transparent surface which may have been glass. The broken camera sparked a bit, and something resembling an electrical current exploded outwards across the clouds in every direction. It burned away the clouds, revealing the surface in all its glory. Like an endless glass drawbridge, it could be seen connecting the cliff edge – the end of the world – to what was gradually revealed on the other side of the higher bank of clouds.
A giant wall of dark metal, old and rotting and looming over everyone all around the world as the clouds vanished informed the people of the cities that things weren’t quite right here. ‘What in the world…?’ Harry looked up until he got a pain in his neck, and not in the proverbial sense. The wall was enormous.
‘Great!’ snapped the reporter. ‘The biggest story of my career and I’ve got no camera!’
Harry swung on her, realizing that there was another kind of pain in his neck.
An alarm sounded and Wright sat bolt upright in his seat. Time was flying by now, and he was feeling the exhaustion leeching at him. ‘What’s going on?’
‘The causeway was exposed somehow,’ someone reported. ‘The people are starting to cross it.’
Wright got to his feet, feeling slightly dizzy as he did. ‘Put us on full lockdown and get guards at every door. We can’t let anyone else in.’
Although there was no sense of how long it had been since the last reset, Wright had a gut feeling that things had never before been so messy. He just hoped that his people wouldn’t have to deal with the clean-up after this one. Putting hundreds of thousands people back into the cities before they were switched back on would be a logistical nightmare. The lockdown was initiated and the countdown kept…counting down. There was nothing they could do now but wait. Harding was busy arranging the extraction of his rebel recruits, Frank was considering his place in the universe and Paul and Rachel…well, Wright was trying not to think about what they were doing.
One of his most trusted members of staff approached him, sitting down on the chair which had been brought in for Rachel. ‘I was just thinking about something,’ she began.
‘Oh, probably not a good idea, Liv,’ Wright quipped.
She grinned. ‘I was wondering how many times we’ve done this.’
Wright laughed softly. ‘Like I said…not a good idea.’
‘I mean…we were all tested after the last reset, but…only to see if we remembered specific things. And we don’t know how long after the reset it was ‘til we were tested.’
‘You’ll drive yourself crazy, you know.’
‘Don’t you wonder?’
He smiled and leaned closer to her. ‘Every day,’ he whispered. ‘And I’m nuts!’
Liv laughed aloud. The sound came as such a surprise to the staff that everyone looked around. Some smiled, but some of the faces looked at her as if she’d broken some sort of rule of engagement. When Wright burst out laughing, it relieved the tension and there were more smiles. He stood up and addressed them all. ‘Why don’t we all take a break?’ he suggested. They looked at him like he had two heads. No one had ever just taken a break in this job. ‘Come on,’ he told them. ‘Drop what you’re doing and get out of here. I’ll give you a call when you’re needed.’
They didn’t need to be told twice. With the reset coming, none of them were sure if they were truly protected or whether they’d remember any of this. Only time would tell. As they all streamed out, Wright looked back at the clock. There were ten hours left.
As the time went by, the people outside the walls tried to find entrances and explanations, but nothing was forthcoming. No one knew how Harding was getting the people out, but he was busy orchestrating the whole thing and the hours ticked by with thousands of people leaving the experimental world. While Paul lay entwined with Rachel, Frank lay entwined with his conscience. He wanted to go home, he wanted a better life when he did, and he didn’t want to be a victim of whatever the Foundation were doing. But he had come to like Paul in the short time he had known him. Still, these…creatures…were powerful, and probably had the means to bring Paul back to life if they wanted. If Paul was outside the wall, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But Frank knew that there was no way he’d get him back out, even if he wanted to go. Harding had Wright convinced of his motives and, if Paul was part of the plan, he wasn’t going to give him up so easily. But one thought and one thought alone dominated Frank’s reasoning at that point. He wanted to go home.
And it wasn’t like Paul was the same as him.
It was getting dark, and Harry was sinking deeper into despair. Not the sort of despair gripping the reporter because she couldn’t broadcast all of this. The sort of despair that could only be allayed by someone you loved. His wife may have been out in this melee of people, trying to figure out what was going on as well as trying to find her husband. But Harry knew her better than that, and figured that it was more likely she was at home, waiting by the phone for him to call her, with one eye on the door in case he walked in. And she probably had her favorite picture of Becky on her lap.
What an idiot he’d been. All the answers and comfort he needed were waiting right there at home for him, instead of redirecting his grief towards this mad goose chase. He decided suddenly that he was going to go home, and he stood up. Before he could do anything, however, sounds of screaming in the distance changed his mind and altered his fate. He looked into that distance, just as those around him did. It was difficult to see at first, but the pattern took shape as the event moved closer. It was like a gigantic game of human dominoes, as people appeared to be dropping one by one amidst the massive crowds gathered at the giant wall. Harry knew what it was, for he had seen it happen before. A terrible wave of fear swept over him first, followed by one of resignation. But then he thought of his beautiful little daughter, and everything suddenly made sense. It was all so clear to him. He would see her again. He would be with her, somewhere…somehow. Nothing could ever take that away from him.
As the switches brought the people down by their hundreds and their thousands, Harry Aston felt a great sense of peace embracing him and he experienced the world in that moment like no one else in that world ever had before. The experiment hadn’t failed at all. Harry put his arms up and closed his eyes as people closer and closer to where he stood were switched off. ‘I’m coming, Becky,’ he said quietly. Before he fell to the ground.
Wright and his staff were back in the Operations Room. ‘The reset’s underway,’ someone reported. Cameras high in the walls watched the people dropping en masse and it was a horrific sight. ‘Where’s Harding?’ asked Wright, as Paul, Rachel and Frank entered the room.
‘He’s gone,’ said Paul, as he held Rachel close.
Wright nodded. ‘It’s up to us now.’ He smiled, looking at Frank. ‘Maybe we should thank your God that we’re safe in here.’
Frank shrugged. ‘Could do no harm.’
Wright noted that the man was sweating and looked increasingly nervous, and he misinterpreted. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told him. ‘We are safe.’
‘Not all of us,’ said Frank. He stepped up to Paul and put a gun to his head, and Wright’s people raised their weapons.
‘Wait!’ Wright shouted, as Paul pushed Rachel away and then stood perfectly still. ‘Frank, what are you doing?’
‘I have to!’ Frank cried. ‘If I want to go home…I have to do this!’
‘But Harding could have got you out!’ Paul snapped. ‘Why didn’t you go with him?’
Frank shook his head. ‘They said this was the only way. They’ll put me back in if I don’t do it. And Paul’s going to tell everyone the truth!’
‘No…he won’t,’ said Rachel desperately. ‘Right, Paul?’
‘Right,’ said Paul. ‘I’ll leave the switch here…and I’ll go back out and…and I won’t say anything.’
Frank thought about it for a second, and moved the gun back a bit, allowing everyone a bit of breathing space. But then he pressed the gun against Paul’s head again, saying, ‘No! I can’t trust you to do that. You won’t be able to do it. When people start dying, you’ll want them to know why. If Rachel dies…you’ll tell people.’
Paul tried to shake his head, but it was difficult with a gun pressed against his skull. ‘I won’t,’ he whimpered. ‘Please, Frank…’
Wright saw the look in Frank’s eyes and he knew that there was no going back. He gestured to his people to take Frank down, just as Frank was squeezing the trigger…
© Ronald A. Geobey 2018