Chance Encounters of the Great War
By Tom Bostock
I looked out across the barren, desolate landscape. From my hiding place in the remains of the old high school, I carefully surveyed what remained of my surroundings. The burned-out cars looked like smoke-streaked, gaunt skeletons, grave reminders of what had taken place in an instant of global madness. It had happened so fast that no one had time to react to the Great War. ‘Great’ was a relative term, I thought; man’s inhumanity to man and nature.
Those lush green rolling hills, teaming with wildlife, were now nothing more than a faint memory, giant radioactive dust bowls, devoid of any signs of life … except cockroaches and THEM. I thought how ironic it was; the cockroaches and THEY would inherit my planet.
I wondered if I had been lucky, after all, that day, exploring the cave, deep underground with Jeannie, when the first shockwaves rolled through the cavern, ripping massive calcium deposit stalactites, hanging like giant icicles from their thousands of years old perches and plunging them into the fiery abyss that opened almost beneath our feet. It was as if the very ground was protesting what had been done to it; an instantaneous global warming.
I knew that I had to get away. THEY were still out there, with their probing red eyes and giant pinchers; kind of like over-sized lobsters. Jeannie had been so wrong and paid for it with her life. We saw their strange oblong ship landing in the field of what had been our football stadium.
Jeannie, the eternal optimist, knew that THEY were here to help. I tried in vain to reason with her to take some time to see what those creatures were doing before making contact but no. She had always been as stubborn as a mule when she thought she was right. There was no changing her mind. She knew better as she carefully picked her way across the still-smoldering field toward the stadium.
It was so weird. One minute she was waving at one of THEM and the next minute there was a swishing sound as its red tongue-like appendage shot out without warning, like a frog’s tongue catching an unsuspecting prey. She didn’t even have time to scream. She just disappeared into its waiting mouth.
The silence was deafening. I could only watch, dumbfounded. She had never been afraid of anything. I wanted to scream but it died in my throat. If they heard me, I would be next. So strange! There should have been blood, I thought, but nothing. One minute she was there, and the next minute she was gone. I was numb with fear.
“…The cat will mew, and every dog must have his day”
I had been timing their surveillance ships for hours, as they seemed to be scouring the area for even the smallest of living things. I watched a lone rabbit being zapped, as one of THEM leaned out of the smaller scout ship, its deadly weapon of a tongue attacking with unerring accuracy.
If nothing else, THEY were punctual, working in two-hour shifts. I had to coordinate my escape with the afternoon acid and ash rains when THEY seemed to seek the shelter of their mother ship.
The ash had finally stopped falling about an hour ago. I didn’t even want to think about what it was made from. It piled, like a slimy layer of grey snow, covering everything in an ashy blanket of soot, the ghostly remains of a massive, inadvertent crematorium.
I thought my hoodie made me look like a gangster, as I brushed the soot off it; not that there were any more gangsters these days, or anything else for that matter. I had to stop thinking like that if I was going to survive.
Since my exposure to the radiation, after leaving the cave, I knew that time would be my enemy, but I had to at least try to let someone know what was happening. Where to go? Which direction when everything was that same colorless grey, every hint of a landmark obliterated? Think! I had to think. What was here before? The high school had been on a small plateau, surrounded by rolling hills, on the east edge of town.
To the north was that not-so-secret military base, built into the side of a hill. It was the town joke; no one was supposed to know that it was there. It’s not like the daily procession of caissons was any kind of a dead giveaway. Duh! That was it! The hill may have provided the same protection from the blast that the cavern had given us. I was getting excited! Maybe I wasn’t alone after all.
The sudden rush of a scout ship roused me from my momentary reverie and I ducked for cover again, this time, under an old steel teachers’ desk. I remembered how my mom had told me about the drills they had back in the 50’s when school children hid under their school desks and ducked down, holding their heads. As if that would provide them protection from an atomic attack! How ironic that hiding underneath this desk would protect me from THEM. It was unfortunate that they were right about the atomic attack, but several generations too early.
As the scout ship moved slowly over the school, I felt something strange and cloying, as though my mind was being probed. I cleared my thoughts, hoping that I hadn’t been detected. Apparently, THEY were using some type of a probe that only worked at low speeds. Now, I really had to get out of here and soon! As the ship disappeared over the horizon, I made my move. Climbing out from under the desk, I saw my shadow and realized that, if I could avoid being killed or captured, there was a way to locate the military base … the sun!
Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, I should be able to plot north, the direction of the base. I was never happier to see my shadow in my life! After the second hour passed and the scout ship returned to its base, I knew I had to make my move. I climbed carefully down the plateau, the straps of my knapsack from the cavern exploration digging uncomfortably into my back, as I slid, like a skier, in the ever-present ash.
A few minutes later, as I rested behind the remains of a low stone wall, I heard a strange sound coming from the ground below me. Since I still had at least another hour between scout ship sorties, before I would have to find shelter for the night, I decided to see where the sound was coming from. Digging rapidly in the ash with both hands, I uncovered the top of a concrete culvert. The sound was even louder now, like a high-pitched whine.
“Hello,” I shouted as I continued to dig. “Is anyone there?” After clearing about four more inches out of the top of the culvert, I peered into the dark tunnel. From about halfway down the tunnel, a pair of eyes stared back at me. The faint sound of an approaching scout ship energized me even more. I dug until about half of the culvert was exposed and barely dove into it before the ship was overhead. This time the probing was less intrusive, as if the culvert shielded me from its force.
Since the culvert could be home for any kind of an animal, I prepared for the worst, reaching for the folding shovel in my knapsack. To my surprise, a furry brown projectile landed in my lap and began to lick my face. It was a dog! I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“Where did you come from, Buddy?” I asked, as I stroked its back. “Are you hungry?” I asked, reaching into my knapsack for the remains of a sandwich that I had been eating in the cavern when all hell broke loose. I don’t think he even chewed it; it was more like he inhaled it. As soon as I heard the scout ship’s sound growing faint, I pulled more ash into the mouth of the culvert, pushing it behind me to create a space to escape from.
Brushing the ash off my head and clothing, I headed in what I assumed was the direction of the secret base, due north, accompanied by my new friend and watching for the return of any scout ship. The sun was beginning to grow low in the sky now, and I knew that I would have to find some suitable shelter for the night … and soon. An old school bus, lying on its side in the open field like a beached whale, provided the ideal shelter. Forcing the door open, we climbed down inside and prepared to spend the night. Since it was so out in the open, I thought the risk of being probed was probably not very great; it had most likely been probed before.
“Anxiously you ask, is there any way to safety? Can someone guide me?”
Sarah J. Maas
The endless, grey morning came much too soon as I pushed up the bus door and scanned the sky for any sign of the one of the scout ships. As soon as one passed overhead, if they kept on the same schedule as yesterday, I knew I’d only have about two hours to cross the open plains before their return. I estimated that the base was about a two-hour walk, and if everything went according to plan, I should make it there just before their next sortie. That was a big ‘if’, since I didn’t even know if the base was still there.
The sun shone faintly through the cracks in the grey, ash-filled air as I started across the plain, continuously scanning the sky as I walked. I couldn’t afford to get caught out in the open. About an hour and a half later, I calculated that I should be near the main gate of the base. Instead, there was nothing! No gate. No sentry box! No nothing! I was tired. I was discouraged. I was desperate. It would all be over in the next half hour. I was out in the open with no place to hide. Doggie and me were going to become lobster brunch.
I dropped to my knees in the ash, shaking my head. “Well pup,” I said. “At least we gave it the good ole college try.” I started to rub his ears when he began barking and staring out into the smog. There was a mini tornado of ash heading straight for me. Suddenly, out of the fog, appeared a military jeep with several armed soldiers in it. Mounted on the back of the jeep was a machine gun, manned by another fierce-looking soldier.
“Hey Sarge, would you look at this,” the driver said, pointing at our motley little disheveled band.
“I guess that means at least someone survived, beside us,” Sarge noted.
Shouting at me like I was one of his enlisted men, he ordered me into the jeep. Another soldier reached for my dog.
“They should be coming back around at 1830 so we better get a move on it,” Sarge ordered.
The jeep took off like a rocket into the mist. A steel door appeared out of nowhere, and, pointing a remote device at it, the door opened with a pneumatic swish. A greyish green light appeared in the south, moving very fast, and then it was gone. A blaring horn sounded for a few seconds and suddenly, as the huge door swung shut behind us, we were on a macadam road, traveling down towards a row of lights, illuminating both sides of the descending road. We were inside the hill.
Sarge scratched his chin and looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
“How did you know we were out there?” I asked.
“Sensors, buried in the road, were not affected by the blasts.”
“Your turn now,” he said. “How did you survive the blasts?”
I explained that we had been underground in the cavern and then proceeded to tell him about Jeanie and what the creatures had done to her. Sarge listened carefully, particularly interested in the location and the number creatures I had seen.
We stopped with a sudden jolt. The room around me was enormous, with stainless steel this and armor-plated that. Computers buzzed, and lights flashed. A series of tall silos rose like a redwood forest, their menacing shapes overshadowing the tiny people working beneath them.
“Where is everybody else?” I asked, certain that it took a huge crew to run this underground facility.
“Either on leave, liberty or caught on maneuvers when the attacks occurred. We were the skeleton security crew on duty when the world, as we know it, ended,” he added, shaking his head. “There’s not one of us who knows how to fire one of those damn things,” he said, pointing to the huge silos. “Might as well be firecrackers, for all of the good they do us.”
I stared at Sarge, appreciating his obvious frustration. He pointed to what looked like a huge greenhouse, covering one side of the floor of our refuge.
“We have enough food to literally feed an army. Since we make our own oxygen, there is no need to go above ground for anything. We grow all of our own vegetables and fruits hydroponically.”
“Wow,” I said. I was speechless, and “wow” was the only thing that I could think of to say.
“We can live safely here for years if we have to.”
“The ultimate bomb shelter?”
“Yup but there’s no way to tell if there are any other survivors out there.”
The tallest soldier gestured at the communications center and noted, “we haven’t heard anything from the outside world until you were detected by the sensors. There has been no contact with the Pentagon or any other military installation since the first blast. All that we get is dead air.”
“You better believe we got our shots in,” the shorter soldier added. “I bet them commies are a smoldering mess of hot ICBMs right now, wishing they never pushed that button.”
Kind of like us, I thought to myself. Sarge saw my obvious interest in the massive array of computers surrounding us.
“You like computers? Sarge asked. “You know anything about them?”
“Yeah, I’m kind of a nerd,” I said.
“You want to give it a shot?” he asked, pointing to the main control console.
“Sure. It’s not like I’ll ever get a chance to play with a multi-billion dollar play toy like this one any time soon.”
I had worked with computers in the past but nothing as elaborate as the array of control panels, mainframes and other paired computers I was facing now. I wondered how I was going to access the computer but, with typical Army efficiency, a logbook, on the work station, contained the login codes that I needed. Keying in the password, the computer sprang to life.
WE ARE COMING FOR YOU! WE ARE COMING FOR YOU! The computer had been remotely hacked by THEM! The message continuously scrolled across the screen as four pairs of eyes stared incredulously at it. There was no place to hide! They were coming!
“Sometimes surrender means giving up trying to understand and becoming comfortable with not knowing.”
Sarge was the first one to respond. “Those bastards! We’re not going down without a fight. He turned to the other two soldiers and ordered, “break out the arsenal. We’ll give them a ‘lobsterfest’ they won’t soon forget!”
“Do you know how to fire a weapon without getting yourself killed? Sarge asked, turning to me as he prepared his battle plan. “Or kill anybody else, for that matter?”
“I hunted as a kid,” I offered, and “a gun is a gun is a gun.”
“Good enough,” he said, handing me a lethal looking, fully automatic weapon, pointing to the safety release. I shook my head that I understood. “We have enough grenades, shoulder-fired rocket launchers and firepower to hold off an army of aliens for the next century.”
“We’re going to set up 6-hour watches. We’ll take the jeep to the front of the main entry door. Anything out of the ordinary and you sound the alarm and hightail it back down here. Got it?” There is also a Claxton horn that sounds for 15 seconds whenever the door is opened. If it has been damaged, it will sound continuously. It’s a loud sucker, so get ready to hold your ears if you don’t want to go deaf. Any questions?”
Before anyone could speak, he continued, “If they breach the main door and start down here, there’s an escape hatch at the top of the third level, next to the siloes. Someone must be on the top of it, to open the hatch and escape, when and if they breach. Somebody has to survive to tell the world what happened here.”
He said it with such authority and finality that no one even dared to question it … except me.
“Yes,” I said. “I have a question. Who is going to go out the escape hatch?”
He looked at me with irritation and then down at the table we were sitting at.
“The only fair thing to do is to draw straws,” he said, reaching for several straws in the container on the table. He cut the straws in half, and, a single one in half again. I noticed that there were only three straws and started to question it when he barked out, like when he was giving orders, “no more questions!”
He leveled the straws in his hand, concealing the bottom of the shortest one so that they all appeared to be the same length. Each soldier reached for a straw and drew one of the long ones.
“Well, I guess today’s your lucky day. You got the golden ticket,” he said, turning to me. That hatch hasn’t been opened in a long time; it’s gonna take all of your strength to turn the inner wheel that opens it. You might as well start climbing now. That way you’ll know what you’re dealing with if you have to escape.”
“You two find some defensive positions and let’s give em hell,” he said, shaking hands with each of his comrades in arms one final time.
“I got the first watch,” Sarge announced, suddenly pushing his chair back from the table we had been sitting at. He climbed into the jeep’s driver’s seat and drove quickly back up the lighted road to the fortified entrance door.
“When you build in silence … they don’t know what to attack.”
We were all prepared for the attack, but no one was prepared for what happened that next morning. The sequence of events resembled a weird, slow-motion dream. THEY, or rather a single IT, apparently approached the door at 1100 hours. Sarge signaled us that something was about to happen. I heard the Claxton horn sound but there was no shooting, no explosions, only silence. Had Sarge opened the door for them? I wondered.
From my position on the fixed ladder, high above the third level, I tried to turn the wheel on the hatch in anticipation of my escape. It was stuck! I watched the scene below in utter amazement. As IT approached, the soldiers, with guns at the ready, laid down their weapons without firing a single shot and walked, trancelike, toward the creature, disappearing into its waiting maw, without making a sound … just like Jeannie. My new-found dog friend hadn’t barked either.
Feeling a strange, peaceful sensation in my head that seemed to be pulling me down towards the creature, there was a sudden rush of adrenalin, and the hatch wheel began turning in my hands. Pushing as hard as I could, the hatch flew open. I scrambled out into the grey foggy late morning and slammed the hatch shut, making sure that I had firmly secured the exterior locking wheel. I shook my head as though to clear my mind. A single thought remained; I was free and alive, at least for the time being!
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”
To my surprise, the hatch had opened onto a small ash-covered plateau, close to where I had entered the base. Using the same shelters for protection, I slowly worked my way back to the ruins of the high school. Something strange was happening, as if something stranger could even be contemplated. There were no more scout ships! I hadn’t needed to shelter because there had been no two-hour interval sorties.
It was possible that THEY thought that they had caught everyone and had cancelled their searches. This was my chance! I moved furtively, like a mouse trying to avoid a hungry cat, across the plain that separated me from the stadium. Strange! There were no guards; no visible security of any type.
It was surprisingly easy to get into the stadium; I’d once sold sodas during the football games and knew every inch of the grounds like the back of my hand. Climbing to one of the top tier boxes, I looked out on the field at the ship. It was glowing with a pulsing greenish light and seemed almost translucent.
As I stepped out onto the stadium steps, I got a strange feeling that I wasn’t alone in my own mind. A voice said, “welcome, we’ve been waiting for you.” It was as if someone had flipped a switch and turned off my self-control and will simultaneously. Marching like an automaton, I walked down the stadium steps and onto the field. It was as though I knew instinctively how to enter the alien ship.
It felt like I was walking on some kind of a smooth, almost liquid membrane. It pulsed me along toward some unknown destination, propelling me towards what now felt like a welcoming, greenish light. As the light grew brighter, the voice slowly faded from my mind; I regained control of my body.
Turning one final curve, I saw something that astounded me even more than the feeling of mind control. I came to a large, circular hall. In its middle, sitting around a floating metallic table, sat about a dozen little green men. That’s right, little green men! Shades of Martians! Suspended from the ceiling were the lobster creatures, now open, hollow, filled with strange shaped controls. THEY were machines!
What astounded me even more was the presence of Sarge, his two men, Jeannie and the dog, all unharmed, sitting in what looked like bean bag chairs. Noticing my interest in the lobster machines, one of the green humanoids pointed to them and said, “those are exoskeletons that we use for exploration. We employ them to try to salvage the remains of any destroyed planet before extinguishing it. We pick a creature, native to each planet, to instill just the right amount of fear in its remaining inhabitants to aid in our recovery work.”
“But, why, how, uh,” I stuttered, unable to frame a coherent thought.
“All in good time,” the leader assured me. “All in good time.”
After introducing me to what turned out to be his fellow scientists, he explained that he was the leader of an archaeological forensic team, assigned to this part of the galaxy.
“Your planet,” he explained, “is just one small dot in an infinite number of universes and solar systems that is the cosmos. “I’m also sorry that we had to use mind control on you, but we only occupied the smallest portion of your brain to bring you here. There won’t be any after effects.”
“ I was both surprised and encouraged to learn that you are not as warlike as we were led to believe,” he continued. “We have been studying your species for centuries. You wouldn’t believe some of the cultures that we have visited here in the past. The Egyptians were a special challenge. Tamos, here, actually became their god Ra, the sun god.” The reason for that will also become self-evident in a few more moments.”
“Enough of this,” shouted one of the seated scientists. “We have a difficult time speaking in primitive languages like English. Telepathy is so much more practical.” The remaining scientists nodded in assent.
“Now the question is what to do with you and your planet which you seem to have destroyed quite nicely? Thoughts?” The group made a number of unintelligible suggestions which were immediately dismissed by their leader until one mentioned ‘time adjustment.’
“Let me explain,” the leader began. “One of your scientists, Albert Einstein, believed that time was a dimension. He was on the right track. Time is actually a series of interconnected dimensions; changes in one dimension have a ripple effect across all dimensions. Properly controlled, cataclysmic events like your Great War can be prevented.”
“What are you suggesting?” I asked incredulously.
“I’m not suggesting but telling you what is going to happen. It doesn’t matter if I tell you now because, once the change is made, this never occurred. We were never here. We are going to influence a single day in the lives of the leaders of each of the warring nations that participated in your Great War by delaying the single occurrence that, in each instance, led to this tragedy.”
“The scientists rose in unison and then, without warning, they melted. That’s right, they melted, no, more like vaporized right before our eyes. In their place was a series of pulsing energy fields. The ship and lobster-like machines also disappeared in a sudden flash of light. We were left standing on the field of the ruined stadium.
“This is why we chose those humanoid forms to visit you and why the Egyptians worshiped us as Gods,” the voice now inside my head again said. “We have been here before and we will be here again. Hopefully, earth people will have learned from their petty mistakes. In time, this can be you. We have no ships, we are the ships. What you saw is only used to house our exoskeletons and any specimens we want to preserve. You have seen us in the night sky on so many occasions without realizing what you were seeing. Good bye.” With that, the energy forces combined, rose like a lightning bolt and shot into the sky, disappearing in an instant.
“Sometimes you have to lose yourself to discover who you might yet be.”
It was a perfect night; the moon filled the sky with its warm glow. Stars twinkled brightly above. Jeannie and I lay on a blanket in the field across from the football stadium, trying to locate the various constellations in the night sky.
“There’s the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper,” I said, pointing to the star clusters overhead.
“We should get a telescope, Jeannie suggested. “Look, a shooting star!”
We both marveled at the ball of pure energy streaking across the night sky. I couldn’t resist showing off my knowledge to impress her.
“Isn’t it strange to think that this might be the light of a star that burned out several million or even billion years ago. It was so many light years away that its light is just now reaching us,” I lectured, brilliantly, I thought. Jeannie just smiled and watched the shooting star soar across the heavens, following it until it completely disappeared in the night sky.
“What if that was really a spaceship?” I asked.
“Don’t be so silly,” she responded, playfully punching my shoulder.
What a wonderful night to be alive, I thought, staring into those dreamy, innocent eyes.
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
… but you, my dear reader, you now know the truth. Somewhere in that calm, star-filled sky, THEY are STILL watching … and waiting!