"John Stellt" by Von Kraemer

 

John Stellt
by Von Kraemer

 

One
"The Drive"

I was lying under sheets when the connections were made. Damaged. I'd been driving with Johnny out in the dessert, the wind in our hair, the radio on…

"Something happened to me James, after my last fall." It was Johnny.

"What is it, Johnny. Tell me, but slowly. The liquor we drank is still in my veins."

"James. There is something inside your head. I can feel it now."

He turned his head. The wind flicked greased hair of off his head and into his eyes. Still he kept driving. Cadillac tires sang on the slick top.

"Someone in my head?" The gun felt gray.

"You won't understand. The entire world has been twisted."

"What do you mean?"

The bullet riddled cactus grabbed my attention. Up went the gun.

"Damn it, James, put that thing down. What are you doing?"

"I'm shooting at cactus. The ladies are waiting."

"Please, James, put the gun down. Listen to me! I'm going to impress your mind."

"I hear what you say John, so can we stop for a quick one? The saloon up ahead is both potent and dry."

"Listen to yourself. I know you are in there somewhere.
Remember everything that I say.
Remember everything that I say.
Remember everything that I say.
Play it back in your mind again and again.
Do it James. Do it now! Remember! Remember!

…cold sheets. Splitting wood shocked my skull. I remembered, remembered…

"Yes."

"Good. I've have your attention. They make mistakes. You're stronger than most, James. More human. I hope you won't cause me any problems. You took a shot in the head. I think its still in there. Do you remember the Bank robbery James? A hundred years ago. Remember, damn it! Remember!"

…I did remember. Johnny and I robbed the bank. The mob was angry. The little girl shot me; I fell. Warm Gray washing the blades…

"I remember Johnny."

"Good. Concentrate. James, how old are you? You don't know. Why have you never asked yourself that simple question? Because you can't. You're being monitored. You're being controlled. You've been programmed. You are inhabited. Neither you nor I know why. James this is the first time I've been able to express my own thoughts for, I don't know…maybe thousands of years. Perhaps longer. Do you understand? Thousands of years. Don't answer you freaking zombie. Just Remember. Do it!"

"I remember. Yes, I remember." The gun was soft and metallic, it wanted to speak.

When was the last time you ate? You haven't, and neither have I. I've never felt hungry in all the time we've spent together. Thousands of years buddy, yes, thousands of years. We are human James. We are supposed to die. But nobody dies. Why not? Remember!"

"I remember Johnny. This…isn't…right," the thought was my own.

"I've been silent for months now since I re-awoke. I believe I've gone unnoticed. The Controllers are not interested in everything. The birds, the reptiles, the fish, and the insects go about their normal business. Why? I don't know. Maybe to keep the ecosystems intact. Maybe the lower animal's minds can't be controlled. Maybe there are not enough of _them_ to inhabit every living thing on the planet. James, where are all the people? This is Earth...or a good copy. Where the hell are all the people? This planet is deserted. Billions of people lived here once. So many people have just vanished. What is this madness?"

"I don't know."

"James there is something inside you. It's still in control. I believe there is more than one controller. The one inside you may tell the others. I won't go back to what I used to be. A zombie play toy. Look James, I have one more thing to show you, so I'm taking your gun."

He reached over between us. He swept up the gun, chambered a round, and shot off his little finger. Windshield Windswept, his pinky tumbled past our heads, blotting the crisp desert air.

"Look you moron! Look! What the hell is this? Humans have blood. Red blood. What is this gray goo running from my hand? What the hell have we become James. What the hell have we become? I'm sorry to do this, but it's for your own good. With any luck we'll be able to talk one on one, not one on zombie. Forgive me."

Then Johnny Stellt blew out my brains.



Two
"The Cabin"

The sound of splitting wood brought me awake. I lay in bed, a horrible pain in my head. The room was rustic; a log cabin. Just how old, I couldn't tell. The wood was very dry, some of it rotten.

I touched my scalp. I was shocked when I didn't feel hair. Instead, I felt soft skin. My fingers felt something sticky and wet. I pulled my hand away and produced a gray soaked, splotchy bandage. Apparently I had put my fingers underneath the crude cloth wrappings.

In the door walked Johnny with a load of firewood. He saw I was awake, and quickly put down the load. I couldn't help but notice his right hand went to his gun holster.

"James. How do you feel?"

"Johnny."

"James. How do you feel? Say something." His hand slipped towards his holster.

"My head hurts real bad. Where are we?"

"What do you feel like doing James?" He had not relaxed.

"I don't feel like doing anything, except maybe going back to sleep. The pain is becoming unbearable. Why the questions?"

Johnny barked loudly, "Remember!"

And I did.

"Damn it Johnny, you shot me in the head."

Johnny relaxed a little. He walked over, and sat down in a portable folding chair next to the bed. He grabbed my chin and looked into my eyes.

"Sorry about that. Had to be done. So that you know the truth. After I shot you, I also rammed a steel flat bar through your skull and severed your hypothalamus. Then I took a sledgehammer to your skull and fractured your cerebral cortex into bits and shards. I cut your corpus collosum in half. While I was about it, I removed random scoops out of your medulla oblongata. You've been regenerating for about a week. Not quite finished yet. I expect in a day or so you'll have your skull back. Hair too. This is what you look like."

From under the bed he pulled out a mirror. I barely recognized myself. My face was so swollen I looked more like an elephant seal than a man. I was covered in gray goo. My head was bald. Part of my skull was covered by skin. The top of my head had no skin at all. My raw brain was exposed. A metal rod stuck out of my head.

"Now I know why I hurt so much."

"A sense of humor, that's good! How reassuring."

"Johnny I remember a conversation in a Cadillac, but I can't make much sense of anything. You called me James, but until you said my name, I didn't know who I was."

"That's to be expected. James, I've literally scrambled your brains. I killed you. We'll sort of. I destroyed your brain as it used to be. I've allowed it to re-grow over the past seven days. I've also modified its structure with the addition of the steel rod I've inserted. The rod runs right through the middle of your brain. I hope my experiment works James, or I'm going to chop you into tiny parts, bag 'em separately, and dump your dismembered body into a lake."

"Why?"

"Memories will return in time. With any luck, not everything will return. If you begin to Zombie out, I'll flatten your skull again. You're the prototype, boy. Your body is doing its best to repair the damage done. It is my conviction that when we are brain damaged severely, a perfect reconstruction is impossible. Especially when a foreign object intrudes, confusing the blueprint. Hence the steel rod. What ever controls us is unable to exert authority if you have a steel rod lodged in the middle of your brains."

"I guess you have one too then." I pondered his cranium.

"You bet'cha sport."

He bent over, parted his hair, and presented a section of rebar sticking a half-inch out of his skull.

"Would you like to listen or would you like to sleep? I'm afraid there is no pain medicine. Though I've read about it. Nothing like that exists anymore. Or if it does, I haven't found it. I don't think it would work on us anyway. We've changed quite a bit."

"I'll stay awake. You make me nervous Johnny."

"I love what I'm hearing. I guess most of your basic personality is intact. To continue...it's a long and complicated story, and I'm not sure where to begin. There are so many variables, and so much of it is guesswork, and conjecture. I'll tell you what I've seen, and I'll tell you what I think. So far it's just me, alone against the world. The days have been difficult. It is my grand hope that your recovery will be a success and you'll be able to help me."

Johnny paused and inspected my scalp.

"Hum…I can only put it this way. We are no longer truly human. I feel human. I look like a human. But that's as far as it goes."

"If we are not human, then what are we?"

"That's the question isn't it? I believe that long ago we were human, or what was then a member of the standard original biology of this planet. Our bodies have been modified. I would hate to use the term improved. But there are aspects of our new being that may be superior to the original. Immortality for example. We also seem not to require nourishment in the traditional sense. We don't need to eat anymore, or on that subject, defecate. If we do by chance happen to eat, the biological processes are mimicked or continue to work. I'm not sure. I hate to admit this James, but you're not my first kill. I've dissected others, and have compared them to some ancient, nearly gone to dust anatomy books. We still have flesh, and bones, and guts, and all of the rest. But we're different at the cellular level. I'm not a biologist. So I'm guessing. The oldest memory that I have is the birth of a child. I believe the child was my own. I remember blood. A red bloody birth. No children are born anymore. It may be a memory from what I call Pre-Change. So much has been erased or destroyed or forgotten. It's even possible that at one time I was a biologist, but that's long dead now. Presently, I wouldn't know how to use the research equipment if I found it still working. But if we have to learn all the old technology from scratch, then that's what we'll do. Because if we can stay free, one thing we'll have is a lot of is time on our hands."

"One question Johnny. How did you lose your…controller?" I looked at my distorted scalp again.

"Abstract thought. Good. I feel more comfortable with you all the time. Understand this though, at the first sign of what I've dubbed Post-Change behavior, I'll blast your head off. I would suggest doing everything in your power to stay human. Sorry James but that's how its gonna be. Me? I was an accident. For reasons I'm still figuring out I had a propensity to jump from high places. The last fall that I took must have been especially damaging. I awoke much like you. I'd forgotten who I was. Over the next month or so my memories came back. I think it was a month, but it is hard to tell. I had no sense of time in the beginning. When I began to make sense of myself, I realized I had been suppressed. I knew that something had changed me into a non-thinking slave, which is presently the average human being. Then there was the rod in my head. I now believe I took a very nasty fall. The consequence of that fall was the accidental lodging of the steel bar in my brain. Moving on to other topics let's simply say, once I became completely self-aware and under my own control, I blended in."

"What do you mean by blended in?"

"James do you remember anything from before I shot you?"

"Yes a little. I've had a series of memories recently. It's hard to express, they didn't seem natural."

My legs hurt incredibly. I tried to move my feet. They didn't work. More than my memories were damaged. Something didn't look quite right at the base of my bed.

"Right. That happened to me as well. Little by little your memories are being reconstructed. If your recovery is anything like mine, you'll remember more day by day. Whatever regeneration process is at work, it's extremely thorough. The mechanism must be fantastically complex. From what I've read lately, the original human brain was made up of billions of cells that worked together. How our brains are repaired is a mystery. Regeneration is another question I haven't answered. But it is high on my list."

"Strange memories are coming back Johnny. You are in them. Is that true."

"Yes James. For who knows what reason, we have been in contact for a very long time. You and I and have had many bizarre adventures together. Some of them I wish I didn't remember."

"Johnny, were we ever together on a rooftop?"

"Yes James."

"And you died."

"Yes…I did."

"Why?"

Johnny looked down at the floor, momentarily silent.

"Why don't you sleep for a while? Rest and recover."

Then he hand cuffed my wrist to the bedpost and walked out the door.

"Try to remember yourself. Sorry about cutting off your feet, they'll grow back soon."



Three
"New Friend"

Johnny tapped me softly.

"Good morning sport, you've been out a while. Too long. Time for a Zombie Check."

"Good morning Johnny. I don't feel like a Zombie."

"Good. How do you feel?"

"Horrible. Please, let me have the mirror."

"Sure."

I was still a wreck, but there had been changes. The swelling had gone down. Skin had grown over the top of my brain. There was a soft depression, a crater ring, directly center, atop my Head. Towards the back half of the depression, a half-inch of rebar stuck out of my scalp. The top was jelly-like still. I suppose bone took longer to regenerate.

"You have a towel or something?"

Johnny pulled a bandana from his vest pocket and handed it to me. I wiped as much of the slimy gray sludge away as I could. While I did this, Johnny stepped outside the door. I heard him grunting. Then he backed through the door. He drug in a young girl who appeared to be unconscious. He pulled her over to the bed next to me and threw her to the ground. When her head hit the floor, it rolled over, facing me. That's when I noticed she had no nose. There was a great gray hole in her face as wide as my fist.

"What's up Johnny?"

"The proof is in the pudding. I want you to see this first hand. We'll need more help if we're going to get any answers. I took a drive yesterday, and nabbed this. Watch carefully, you'll need to learn the procedure."

Out of his vest he pulled a small sledgehammer. He raised the weighty hammer high above his shoulders, and then brought it down on her head. I felt a moist explosive crunch; the mutilated head jerked off to the side. Again and again, blow after blow, he caved in her head. I was looking at gray pulp. Out of the vest he pulled a knife and scalped her. The flaccid top of her head came off. Underneath was pulpy gray sponge, and spittle bone. He tossed the hair and mashed scalp away to his left.

"We'll burn that later with the other bits. Act two."

Hacking vigorously with his knife, Johnny cut out random sections of the remaining pulverized cortex and tossed them onto the 'to burn' pile. He then reversed the knife and held it in a stabbing motion. He plunged it deep, behind her eye sockets, and cut down the middle, dividing the corpus collosum. His cuts veered left at the back. He then brought the knife blade back around to the right in an open crescent. He removed a section of the rear cortex. Dangling below, on a few fibrous threads and membranes, was a hefty chunk of the midbrain itself. Into the pile it went. From out of the magic vest of mutilation, he produced a piece of rebar, which he shoved into the open slit running down the central ridge of her brain.

"There we are. Beautiful. I should have been a surgeon. Prototype number two...ready for closure."

For good measure he scooped up a handful of dirt and ground it into the massive gray wound. Muddy gray sludge schplopped off the tips of his fingers. He shook his hands dry, spattering the floor.

"Perfect. I got her name by the by. James I'd like to introduce you to Kelly. Or what will once again be Kelly, if the operation is a success. Should be nice to have some female company around here. I hope you were taking notes."

"That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen."

"Wrong James. This is far from disgusting. We are saving a life buddy. You and I have done much worse than disgusting. Try words like: vile, foul, and horrific. That's you and me sport. You'll remember eventually. Unfortunately. I think that it's about time to explain a little more of our bizarre existence. In our previous lives, or Changed lives if you like, when we were under control, you and I might have been described at as casual mass murderers. It sickens me now; I have no love for violence. I want to know the reason that something would force us commit these horrific deeds. All sorts of deeds. Murder being just one of them."

"Never mind I don't want to know."

"Sorry sport. Chances are good the whole horrible story will come back to you in time."

"Johnny you mean we killed people?"

"Yes we killed regularly. I couldn't put a figure on it. Tens of thousands. More. I believe some of the murdered regenerated. Others did not, which is another interesting topic. James we're only practically immortal. All the people I've dissected recently should regenerate and recover, but there is a point beyond which regeneration dose not repair the damage. When I've killed recently, it's not the final death, just the temporary kind. No one deserves to die at my hands. Not even Zombie slaves. I have made a few interesting discoveries. There is a point where regeneration will not occur. For instance, I chopped off a gentleman's arm and took it with me. The arm retained its shape and didn't corrupt, but it didn't grow into another copy of the man. However, a time later, when I re-checked the man, he had a new arm. I'm not sure what would happen if you cut someone down the middle. Perhaps twins. Maybe a true death. That is one experiment I can not bring myself to do. James, every one of those poor souls, just like you and me, has been corrupted and deserves to be set free. I don't remember asking for this James. A gut feeling deep inside me says I never would have agreed to this slavery, under any circumstances. I'm going to convince you to join me in this quest or I'm going to kill you. Tell me James do you feel altruistic?"

"Yes, more with every sentence. I have some questions Johnny. Would you try to answer them?"

"I'll give it my best shot...buck'o."

"How come I'm me, and you're you? I mean…you know who you are. I mean…"

"I get ya. Why do we have our base personalities? I've thought about that as well. Perhaps it's our hard wiring. We seem to have been frozen in time, in a sense. I don't remember who I am or how we got here though. I think it's very possible that Pre-Change my name was Johnny or John. When I search back through my eons of existence, I've always been this way. I've always had this personality. No matter what situation I was forced into."
"These situations, the unnatural ones...why?" My head hurt.

"Wow James, that's the toughest question of all. It doesn't make any sense does it? I'm just one man. There has got to be a reason. In my mind I've tried to simplify all this weirdness down to the basics: We have been changed physically; we don't die. We are made to act out bizarre unnatural scenarios, commit unnatural acts. The world has been restructured and rebuilt in a shallow mockery of what once existed. Thousands of years have passed since the Change. Vast portions of the population have disappeared. It would appear that in all this time, no one has objected. Some of the animals appear possessed; they participate in the unnatural scenarios. Also in my limited searches over the Northern Continent, that was once called America, I haven't found anyone or anything in charge. There are some things that don't click. The ruins. They are all over. Vast areas of the planet have been abandoned. The ruins are ancient. I've seen towers that have dropped into mounds of rust and glass. I don't even know how long that would take. In my wanderings I have found dated literature. The most recent date that I've found is the year 2037, June 3rd. I have no Idea what the present date is, but I want to find out. That's about all I know. It's a tough puzzle to figure out James. I'm not a smart man, just an average guy. I have theories on all of the above and I'm not ruling out anything."

My head hurt worse. "I believe you. The world is strange isn't it? You know what I find strange though?"

"What's that James?"

"Well it doesn't make sense that I know what I'm saying. I mean...it doesn't make sense that I'm making sense. The sense of sense. You know what I mean?"

Johnny's hand lowered to his waist.

"NO! Don't pull out the peacemaker. Please, it's not easy to express myself. Hey Johnny, I'm just getting the hang of being myself again. I'm also in terrible pain. Let me try to be clearer. What I am trying to say is this. I understand what you are saying. I speak the language. I know what I know, Like you Johnny. I don't know really who I am, or what I'm doing here, or what has gone on in my past. It is like...I've just woken up from a long nightmare. I just think it's strange that I know the things that I know. Like you said Johnny, I feel as though I have been suppressed. Like a voyeur. Watching my life unfold, not participating in it, even though I know the actions were mine."

"That is the most important thing you've said to date James. Good. I have hope. Why don't you rest and we'll continue later, you're still not whole yet."

I was still cuffed to the bed. Hard to relax.

"I don't like to rest Johnny."

"Why is that?"

"I'm beginning to remember."



Four
"Road Trip"

"Morning sport."

We were on a road, cruising through the desert.

"What's the story Johnny?"

"I felt it was time to split. I don't like to stay in any one place too long."

"What happened to the Cadillac?"

Thought it was best to leave it behind. This SUV is much more practical as well. Its four wheel drive."

We were riding in a jet black SUV. Nice leather interior. Looked like a Ford model. I couldn't tell the year."

"What are we driving?"

"Specs in the glove compartment say Ford Mountaineer, 2036 S-Series. Pretty nice huh. Took me a while to find one of these recent models. Just about everything that still works has an owner. Had to take this one away from the driver. It's not like I haven't car jacked before, according to my memory. Look in the back seat."

"Oh Christ!"

"Scared you?"

"What the hell is that?"

"That's Kelly, remember? She's starting to come around. You looked like that too about a week ago."

The thing in the back seat was flailing about randomly. The girl Johnny had mutilated. He had strapped her into the rear seat with not only the seatbelt but had used rope and tie down straps to help immobilize her thrashing corpse. I looked at her face. Regeneration. The hole in her face, where Johnny had capped her, was closing. One eye was moving around at random. The other eye looked dead, vacant, and dilated. A mannequin eye if ever I'd seen one. Her right arm rippled spasmodically, her left leg jumped off the floor uncontrollably, without rhythm.

There was another body in the back of the SUV wrapped in plastic. From the look of her, Johnny had performed another one of his mutilation-surgeries. One of her arms was sticking out of the plastic. The new girl was a blond if you relied on the arm hair. I would not have been able to identify her by looking at her head. The lower jaw was missing; she had a hole her head from ear to ear. She had been scalped like Kelly. Her brain was a disaster; a steel bar protruded.

Kelly had the beginnings of a skullcap, which had partially re-growing over her brain. Her cortex now fully convoluted and nearly complete. Only the lobes nearest to the steel rod had not regenerated.

"I see you've been busy."

"Yeh. Kelly will be coming around in the next day or so. We hope. She'll need to be restrained until she proves herself. That's gonna be your job James. Notice that I've removed your cuffs. I think you're trust worthy now. We'll see."

"Why is she moving about?"

"That's how the repairs work. As the brain re-grows, it begins to function. The frontal lobes have grown back, mostly, so her limbs are starting to move. I suppose it could be described as coming out of a coma."

"Right I see."

"Watch her carefully. She'll begin to thrash about pretty good soon, as her coordination returns. You almost broke my jaw by accident when I leaned over you once."

"Sorry, I don't remember that."

"Don't worry about it," He rubbed his jaw without thought.

"Hey Johnny I was just noticing, you're older than me."

I reflected on my slowly refining features in the mirror on the visor. Johnny slowed down and turned onto a dirt road heading north. There were no signs of civilization.

"Yes. I would be described as a man in his late thirties; you would be described as a teenager. How old you are is a matter of semantics. We'll probably never know."

"Yeh. That makes sense. I feel… young."

"Remember what I was saying, it's like we were frozen in time."

"Hey Johnny, how come the car works. You said that we've been around for thousands of years. Shouldn't it be a pile of dust? Like the ruins you found."

"Good question sport. Things starting to come back to you?"

"Yeh dog. I still see the most bizarre pictures…when I try to remember. Like dreams, but they're not. Memory fragments. They still don't make sense."

"Yep. All will become clear in time. You should have full recall soon."

"You wouldn't believe the things I remember. The things I've done. It's frightening."

"Trust me sport, I do remember. Yes, it is frightening. Remember when we burnt down Las Vegas?"

"Las Vegas?"

"Don't remember yet, boy? Las Vegas is one of the functioning cities, or… was one of the functioning cities. Just a burnt-out carcass now. You and I torched it while we were Changed. It's hard to say exactly how long it took, but you and I spent years walking the streets burning every last building to the ground."

"So how does it work?"

"What?"

"The car, how can it work?" I tapped the dash.

"Well this is going to sound pretty strange, but some cars are immortal too. Not just cars, but buildings, airplanes, can openers, a lot of things. Roads, wires, T.V. stations, movie houses, stuff like that. Entire cities are in good working order, if you could call the craziness in the functioning cities order. There are repair crews that maintain some things. People that are apparently programmed to service, and maintenance. But it's random. I've seen housewives on road crews, and groups of little boys fixing switchgear. A group of old women servicing a large aircraft. It doesn't make any sense. Nothing does. Why did the Caddy work? I asked myself that too. I would drive it until it ran out of gas. A few hours after the tank was dry, it would fill back up again. I drained the oil out of the motor, and drove it till the motor ceased. Steam came out from between the head gasket and block. Left it alone for a few days and it turned over just like new. So I crashed it into a tree. Damn thing straightened out by itself over two weeks. It was a very slow process that the human eye can't follow. What were once inanimate objects just repair themselves? Most things that still work have this ability of self-reparation. Definitely not normal. It's like food in the refrigerator. Go away and the refrigerator is full. Stuff just grows in it. This is even weirder because we don't need to eat."

I had to roll up my window, it was getting pretty dusty. I reached over and flipped on the A/C. Johnny watched my hand closely as it moved near his gun holster.

"Air conditioning, bro."

"Do me a favor and ask before you touch anything. You still creep me out James."

"Sorry."

"Its OK man." He turned the A/C up to high.

"Hey Johnny, how come we feel? I mean…like cold, and hot, and pain. Stuff like that?"

"Don't know. We just do. Kind of perverse."

"We're not supposed to be like this, are we Johnny?"

"No not at all. Frightens me. Nothing I can do about it. It's like we are machines ourselves. Not machines man could build; Not this complex. You ever here of Nanotechnology?"

"Little machines."

"Yeh, you know the term."

Johnny hit pause on the conversation as we went over some tough terrain. The road was getting worse.

"A possibility is that we're made up of little machines, or maybe they live and work in our bodies, fixing and maintaining. I don't know. It may be a biological force or something else entirely. We're on our way to find out. There is a medical tool called a microscope. We're going to look through one and try to answer some questions. I've found an old ruin preserved out here in the desert. There is some medical equipment in it I hope we can repair, or salvage. Its time to start answering questions. You up for it?"

"Yeh, sure. I'm curious."

"WAAAAAAAH…WAAAAAAAHHHHHH!"

Johnny nearly drove us off the road; I nearly jumped out of my seat.

"Sorry sport, that startled me too. I guess Kelly's mouth is working again.

"WAAAAAAAH…oooooooooooo…AAAAAHHHHHH," right on queue.

"What the hell?"

"Pain James, she's feeling the pain. You screamed too as you came back to life. OK, time to earn your keep. Gag her. There's some rags on the floor at her feet. It's just gonna get worse till it gets better."

Johnny pulled over. Kelly's flailing carcass began to scream so loud it hurt our ears. I gagged her as best I could. We could still hear her though. She must have been shredding her vocal cords. Johnny solved the problem. He reached into a zipper pocket on the side of the car door and pulled out a hand full of little black squares about as big as my thumbnail called _Maxichips_. He told me to clip one into a socket centered on the thin black box above the A/C. Music blasted out of the speakers. The rock was grinding, and once it was turned up all the way, Kelly was pretty much drowned out.

We hit road again. Patches of ancient concrete occasionally appeared under the dirt. Johnny said this was the road that would take us to one of the ruins he had found. He said it was a storage area holding nuclear waste. Most of the installation was underground and had been protected by a large steel door that had survived the centuries.

Johnny said he'd found and read a few books on explosives, and after securing the raw materials, had blown open the door. He had also driven in an immortal earthmover to clear the tunnel. He said that inside were all sorts of artifacts, well preserved. The ruin made him weak. He used the term sick, even though he said it wasn't correct, because no one got sick anymore. In any case, he was only able to go underground about a half an hour at a time. He explained that there was probably radioactivity saturating the site. He suspected that doses of radiation effected Changed People.

After about two hours making our way over the broken landscape we came to a group of low hills, in front of a small range. The progress had been slow. Thousands of flash floods had destroyed large sections of the desert backroad.

Eventually we arrived at the ancient facility. There were a few bunkers, as Johnny called them, dotting the landscape. Many were partially covered by the desert. A few of the larger bunkers were completely intact. Johnny called them old-world tombs. He promised we would break into them as soon as the girls revived.

The site was as Johnny described it. Big door blasted away. At the base of the hills was the big yellow earthmover. Next to the dozer was a big black hole in the side of the mountain, expansive enough to admit half a dozen SUVs, side by side.

We got out of the car. The music off, the only sound was the hot wind, and strangulated Kelly screams. Johnny suggested that we walk up the hill. We climbed up about five hundred feet. Johnny said to turn around and look down towards the base of the mountain. Located adjacent to the tunnel entrance was a huge tilted field of stainless steel, canted so the desert wouldn't bury it. I hadn't noticed it from side on, it was just another hill in my peripheral vision. I thought part of the range.

I gave the monument a good look. It was huge. In the center of the bright stainless field was a representation of the sun. Inside the center of the sun was a relief of what could only be the surrounding mountains. I looked at the monument, and then looked at the mountains before me. They were the same.

There was more to the pictograph. Blasting out from the central sun were what looked like wavy bullets radiating away from its surface. Next was a ring of healthy faces. Men and women, all races, young and old. The reason I say healthy is that the next ring farther out from the center, were the same faces as prior, but they were thin and scary. The next layer beyond that was a ring of skulls, then the wavy bullets again. Each skull must have been twenty feet across. It was a big monument.

"What's that?"

"What do you think?"

"Creepy death sign..." I sat and bemused myself; soaking in the artwork deeply scribed into the giant tetrahedron. "Yeh?"

"Warning sign. This place is deadly if disturbed. I don't think that it really matters now. Radiation was deadly to real humans. Not us, as far as I can tell. Just slows you down a bit. I've been inside. There are a lot of containers under this mountain. Most are probably still radioactive. Plutonium, Uranium, and other toxic by-products. They had to leave a sign that would last as long as the stuff under the ground was dangerous. I suppose this is their pictograph version of universal death by radiation."

"Makes sense, pretty grim. Looks like death from the sun."

"Right. High energy particles, writing says. Kind of primitive-scary, huh? The other side of the monument is another two part sign. The top half shows the Big Dipper. That's a constellation of stars north over our heads at night. It shows the Dipper the way it used to be. Next to that is a skull like the ones you see on this side of the monument, being blasted by wavy rays. Under that pictogram is another representation of the Big Dipper. But the stars are in slightly different positions. Next to that is a healthy face. I guess that is when this place will be considered safe. There are inscriptions in quite a few languages all around the perimeter, warning about the radiation danger. The sign says not to dig here, till the north star has moved 2 degrees from its current position. I'm not an astronomer, but it looks like the stars we see at night now are about half way to the positions depicted on the bottom star chart. I think about half the time has elapsed since The Change, and when this place will be safe. How long this place will remain radioactive is something we want to find out. I don't know how long it would take the stars to move that much. But if we can figure it out, it might give us an idea of the date we live in. Anyway that's for tomorrow."

I looked at the huge stainless door that Johnny had dragged off to the left of the tunnel. Carved in two foot tall, six inch deep letters was the inscription Yucca Mountain Repository.

"Come on, before the suns goes down."

"Right. So what now?"

"We solve this question. I don't think humanity expected the Change. I've been giving it some thought James. Either we, as a race, screwed up big or this is something out of the blue." He chuckled morosely.

In the orange light of the fading sun, he dusted off his pants, popped on a tan baseball cap, and extended a hand towards me.

"So?" He gently lifted me to my feet. We made our way back down the mountain.

"So come on, I'll show you the ruins; I'll teach you what I know. We'll revive the girls and go conquer the world. Get our humanity back, if that's possible. We've got all eternity to do it. Got a better idea?"

"No." We paused before the black hole in the slope.

"Well get your ass in gear boy. Let's go save the world. Ain't nothing else to do!"

I Followed Johnny into the dark tunnel. One step at a time. I think Johnny Stellt was right. I think we screwed ourselves somehow. How could an entire world change and nobody even notice that it had happened? I wondered why the world deserved this abomination. More small steps into darkness.




Story and illustration © 2003 by Von Kraemer killerscifi@aol.com



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