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Once and Future

by Virginia Chandler

 

I was rushed that morning in December. Balancing coffee, bagel, and keyboard, I hurried to check my e-mail before I had to rush off and play teacher. I had one e-mail. One. No subject and no return e-mail addy. Of course, like any good Internet addict, I opened it.

"Why should a man die, who has sage in his garden?" Anon, Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum

I blinked and read it again.

"Why should a man die, who has sage in his garden?" Anon, Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum

Ahh, some very insightful quote for the day from one of my many clever Internet friends. I thought for a moment, decided to use some of my Medieval background, and hit Reply:

"Men who give up the common goal of all things that exist, thereby cease to exist themselves." Boethius, "The Consolation of Philosophy"

I hit Send and went to work. How could I know what that day would bring to humankind on Earth?

*    *    *

I got home at the usual time that afternoon. The dogs were, as usual, dying to get to the park, but I was also jonesing to check my e-mail. Between promises that we would soon go, I changed clothes and turned on the PC. Still no mail. Not even a reply to my clever quote from Boethius. I went out to check my home page. It was gone. In its place was the ugly non-background of a poorly prepared Web page. In black text in the middle of the page:

"Why should a man die, who has sage in his garden?" Anon, Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum

Of course, I completely went into a panic. I had been hacked! I went to check some of my other pages. The same Anon quote on every one. I clicked Favorites and attempted to open the "Report Violations" page for my ISP. I was a bit taken aback to find that THEIR page was identical to all of mine:

"Why should a man die, who has sage in his garden?" Anon, Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum

I wen to the AP Wire page out of habit. Same thing. CNN page. Same thing.

I was cold inside and out, bewildered, and convinced that the hacker groups had succeeded in taking over the virtual world. I leashed my dogs and made way for the Park. I needed some air.

The sun was already casting its last shadows on the city's skyline. I was enjoying the brisk chill of the air, letting my dogs run without their leashes for the last trek of the jaunt, and contemplating what the hacker invasion might mean. Without warning, I heard a loud HUM that made my ears buzz, as if an insect had flown into my inner ear without my knowing it. Of course, being afraid of bugs of any kind, I frantically began swatting at my ears, both of them, and jumping around as if that would help somehow. My dogs ran over to see what was the problem, when the HUM became so unbearably loud that they began to howl painfully. I fell to my knees, clutching my stomach as a wave of acidic nausea passed though me. I don't know how much time passed. It couldn't have been too long, though, because when I was able to raise my head, after the HUM had nearly dissipated, the sun was still throwing a few pinks and grays towards the city.

I still could not get off of my knees, though. Wave after wave of nausea knotted my stomach until I finally surrendered and began to vomit violently. Yellow and brown bile burst from me as I gasped for air between each ejection. I looked around and was alarmed to see that my dogs, too, were vomiting nearby. Finally, my stomach was emptied and I could respond to the nausea no more. I struggled to my feet as I wiped the cold sweat from my brow. My head was throbbing and my hands and legs shook horribly. I walked over to where my dogs had last been, but I could find them nowhere. I whistled and called their names, but I received no wagging of tails or anxious licks. It was getting darker. I turned to make another sweep of the area, when I glanced up at the skyline again to see how much twilight I had left. I stopped in stunned amazement. The entire skyline of the city was covered with round, bright objects. I squinted. They weren't just dancing lights, they were maneuvering and some were landing.

I was afraid to move. It all made sense now: the HUM, the vomiting, my dogs howling, my headache. They were here. They were probably everywhere. I heard one of my dog's barking then, and it jerked my attention behind me for a moment. I spun around to see my male Cocker trying to run towards me. He was faltering, though, and couldn't seem to keep his balance. I moved towards him and swooped him up in my arms. He was hot, too hot. He panted as he tried to greet me, whining and squirming in my arms. I guessed that the HUM that had left my range of hearing was probably still within his. I covered his ears with my coat, pulling him closer to me, and then determined to find his sister. I stepped forward a foot or two and nearly tripped over her. She was completely still, but breathing. I couldn't carry both of them. I glanced back at the sky and saw that the lights of the skyscrapers were going out one by one. Too, the streetlights a few blocks up from me were also extinguishing. Panic again struck me hard. I had to get away. My family rushed through my mind, but they were hundreds of miles away. I was on my own.

I had no reason to believe that whatever the ships contained was evil, but I wanted to be the one to make the decision about whether I wanted to meet them or not.

I put my male pup, Bradford, on the ground and attached his leash; he seemed better and even rubbed his nose against my leg as if to comfort me. I then picked up Sydney, his sister, and hoisted her onto my hip. We were getting out of there and fast.

Both Bradford and I stumbled a good bit as we crossed the park towards home. There was no one in the park; no one. It was eerie how silent the city was. There were cars in the street that had people in them. They all looked as if they had been stung into immobility: I tried to knock on a few windows to wake them or jar them, but they were definitely in some state of unconsciousness. I couldn't understand why I, too, wasn't just lying face down in the park, but then I determined to forget that thought. The only thing that mattered was that I was still conscious, and that I was getting out of the city. Fast.

The apartment building was, of course, dark and silent as well. The elevators weren't working and my dog was getting a bit heavy to carry. My heart was pounding so that I thought my chest would burst. I still had one thought: I wanted out of the city.

A hard grip on my right shoulder and a sudden clamping of my mouth with something wet and clammy nearly did me in.

"·we've got to get out of here and now!"

I swung around and nearly cried with relief when I recognized my neighbor, Marty. He was pale, eyes wide, and for several eternal moments we simply stared at one another. I wanted to really wake up from this nightmare. I finally found my voice. Marty stared wide eyed at me.

"You were right," he said quietly.

"About what?" I asked, peering past him at the darkness outside.

"UFOs... aliens· all that weird stuff that you used to talk about in your drunken stupors." He managed a weak smile.

I shook my head. "Oh great, just what I wanted to hear."

"So, what now?" he asked.

"Get the hell out, don't you think?"

He nodded. "But, don't you think that they'll see us?"

I stood still. "Let's go down to the garage and see if the car will even crank. If not, we'll find an alternate plan. You got some clothes and things?"

Marty shook his head and held up an overstuffed backpack. "Just the bag that I had packed in my car for sudden overnighters. Toothbrush, toothpaste, underwear."

"Okay, we can stop somewhere and grab some food and gas, if we need it. Grab Sydney and let's go."

We headed for the stairwell as the night continued to glow with the light from the hovering discs.

*    *    *

The car, of course, wouldn't crank. We were going to try and hoof it somewhere, but as we began to emerge from the garage into the street, we noticed the aliens for the first time. They were swarming the streets like insects. And they were frightening to gaze upon.

Tall, lanky, pale, and shiny. A milky white skin that looked like shined rubber. Black, bulbous eyes and huge heads that wobbled as they searched the streets. Naked. And silent.

We decided not to venture anywhere just yet. Instead, we waited until our street cleared, shot across to Marty's building, and headed for the storage basement. Along the way, we went through his apartment, grabbed his cellular phone, some food, and blankets. I had no intention of walking the streets anytime soon.

Three days later, Sydney died. I cried quietly, tortured by guilt and fear, but thankful that we, at least for now, were undisturbed. No one, and no thing, had tried to enter our humble abode.

It was quiet during those three days. If you've ever lived in the city, then you know what I mean. There wasn't a sound in the entire park or surrounding homes. No alarms, horns, engines roaring, or people talking. No dogs barking. Quiet.

On the fourth day, we crawled to the bay window in Marty's living room to take a look at the park. What we saw was incredible: The entire park had been dug up. The dirt had been turned over in a thousand or more places. There were small heaps of dirt everywhere.

"They look like graves," Marty whispered.

"I think that's exactly what they are," I whispered back.

We looked at each other for a few moments. "I'm going to take a look. You see if the TV or cell phone works."

Marty's mouth fell open in shock. "You're going out there?"

"We can't stay in this building forever, Marty. We need to make some sort of plan. I think that plan begins out there." I pointed to the world outside his window.

Without another word, I got up, opened the door carefully, then shot across the street and into the park as quickly as I could. The mounds of dirt were literally everywhere. They had something sprinkled on them; something odd, pellet-like, and it stank.

I looked around, took a deep breath, and began to dig with my hands into a mound that was close to the road. I did not have to dig deep, Two or so feet down, I saw a human hand. I uncovered just a bit more of her, just to satisfy this morbid curiosity that was dwelling within, and confirmed that she was a human. In fact, she had lived in my building. I continued to dig: Near her feet were her two cats, she was naked, her jewelry was on, in fact, she had on LOTS of jewelry.

I hurried back to Marty's apartment. I walked to the kitchen and began to wash the dirt from my hands.

"You dug one up?!", he exclaimed, coming to stand beside me. Bradford, my surviving dog, was tagging along as usual.

"Yep," I replied, drying my hands. "We were right. They're burying us."

"Geezus," Marty whispered. "Well, the TV works. Sort of. It's one broadcast across all channels, but I can't make sense of it."

"Show me," I said, following him into the living room.

Every channel, with one broadcast: A black screen that faded into a picture of three planets, none of them Earth, or even a solar system that looked like ours. That picture faded into one of the aliens speaking some sort of gibberish that remotely resembled wheezes and grunts. Then, the alien seemed to speaking seriously, almost with a regretful tone, as he or she held up a book. The book clearly was an Earth book. It was old, tattered, and because of the alien's long, stringy fingers, I couldn't make out a damn word on the cover. Surrounding the alien, as it gestured and the camera panned, were books from every language and culture.

"Wait," I said, "turn on your VCR. Record it."

We recorded the segment. Playing it back slowly, I could just make out a bit of the book's cover:

"RTH DENING"

That was all I could see.

*    *    *

Two days later, we were running out of food. Marty was never much of a cook, and we were running out of Pop Tarts to munch on. We decided to hike across the park that night to the strip mall on the other side and rummage through the grocery store over there.

The journey across the park was eventless but grotesquely eerie. I was afraid that Bradford might try to do some digging of his own, but he seemed as anxious as we to get across as quickly as possible.

As we approached the strip mall, I saw figures moving on the sidewalk. I jerked Marty down to his knees and yanked Bradford's leash. We waited and watched for a moment. They were humans.

*    *    *

Three weeks later, we had all moved into Marty's building. There were eighteen of us, and at that moment, being close together and hearing other human voices was all that mattered. The droning on of the aliens' TV transmission was still on every channel, but we had not seen any sign of them since we had all met at the mall. We discovered that the cars would start about two weeks into our new communal living. Some of us talked of leaving, driving West, some North. I urged no one to leave until we found a way to long-distance communicate and could report to each other what we found. The aliens may have left Atlanta, but they might well have taken a liking to Denver or New York.

Three days after that, I discovered that the Internet was still running. With the power back on, I had walked to my building and took the elevator up to my place. I had wanted to see if the Internet was working. That was when I remembered the e-mail and Internet message.

The ONE available Web page had changed its message and I had a new e-mail. The e-mail and Web page now contained two quotes:

"The Lord hath created medicines out of the Earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them." Apocrypha, Ecclesiastics 34:4

"The Great Spirit is our father, but the Earth is our mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives us likewise." Big Thunder, North American Indian

I blinked. I read the page again. "...that which we put into the ground she returns to us·."

I got back to Marty's out of breath. I put in the VCR tape of the aliens' message to us. I paused it on the book cover. "RTH DENING" was there again. I looked closer. There seemed to be an R before the D.

RDENING

On the left side of the alien finger, it looked like another G.

G_RDENING

"Gardening," I whispered. "Earth Gardening."

*    *    *

"So," Marty said, soaking it all in, "are they planting us for OUR sake, or theirs?"

I shrugged. "That I don't know. My guess is that they planted for harvesting. They have mentioned medicines and healing in their messages to us. Marty," I said quietly, "I expect them to come back."

Marty swallowed and nodded. "I don't care to be here."

"Then I suggest you leave soon, it's been almost a month."

"You're not coming?" he asked.

I shook my head and grinned. "Call it morbid, but I want to see what they do when they come back."

*    *    *

Two weeks later, there were four of us left in the building. Marty and the others were making a caravan to scout around the country. They promised to return within six months and let us know what they found.

The aliens came back with the New Moon of January. They diligently harvested the buried humans in the park. They had no interest in the living. One of them saw me as I watched them from the window. It did nothing save continue with its work. Within a week, they were gone again.

After their departure, I logged onto the Internet to find a series of new messages in my mailbox and on the page:

"Hic iacet inclitus rex Arturius In insula Avallonis sepultus" Glastonbury grave of Arthur

"Like a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation for another man to build upon. Let each see how he builds." I Corinthians

Just for the hell of it, I sent a Reply message:

"My king and conqueror, Utopus by name, A prince of much renown and immortal fame, Has made of me an isle that erst no island was, Fraught full of worldly wealth, pleasure and solace. I, the one of all without philosophy, Have shaped for man a philosophical city. As I in me have nothing dangerous to impart, So better to receive I am ready with all my heart." Thomas More, "Utopia"

Surprisingly, I received a response almost immediately.

"But when a prince acquires a new state that, like a member, is joined to his old one, then it is necessary to disarm that state... with time and the appropriate opportunity, must be rendered weak and effeminate.·" Machiavaelli, "The Prince"

I applauded their timeliness and clever rebuttal. I sent another Reply:

"Ingenuity over rage Will take up arms; and the battle will be short. For ancient valour In Italian hearts is not yet dead." Petrarch

A few minutes dragged by. Then it came:

"They detest and abhor war or battle as a thing very beastly, although by no kind of beasts is it practiced as it is by man. And contrary to the custom of almost all other nations, they count nothing so inglorious as glory gotten in war."

I recognized that as from More's "Utopia". So, they did not wage war and found us despicable for having done so. I replied,

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Hamlet

"Is thy master stirring?" is what they sent back. MacBeth.

I took a deep breath.

"And which is worse, all you have done Hath been but for a wayward son, Spiteful and wrathful, who (as others do) Loves for his own ends, not for you." MacBeth

Their reply was this:

"Truth in our hearts. Strength in our hands. Consistency in our tongues." Motto of the Fianna Warriors, Ireland

I was impressed and slightly amused. I sent back:

"Use the Force, Luke."

Their final reply:

": ) There is no try, only do."*

  

Story copyright © 1999 by Virginia Chandler <DragnHawk@aol.com>

Artwork "The Future Once" copyright © 1999 by Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>

 

 

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