(SCIENCE FICTION) – RICK thought he could leave it all behind, all the fighting, the war, the violence. Yet, in the peaceful and serene Sequoia National Forest, an ancient war, and a secret technology of world-ending proportions draw Rick back into a life of conflict. Soon, he’s forced to make a choice: stand by his convictions and leave the fate of the universe to chance, or do the thing he swore to never to do again–kill in the name of saving life.
IN THE FOREST
“Rick…” Belrie said in his soft voice. “I know this must be incredibly strange for you–seeing your dead body through my eyes, talking to your own lifeless self. At least there’s the positive that you’re now able to see it.”
Rick agreed, of course. It was an eerie feeling, though, an insane perspective. He had experienced life through Belrie’s point of view before, but looking down at himself, dead, a large charred hole in his chest, was something else entirely. He didn’t remember dying, but clearly, he must have done so. Yet, like Belrie said, the positive: he was somehow alive again.
Belrie continued, “It has been a true honor to have had a transference with you. Knowing your life, your struggles, and your doubts; your beliefs, your loves, and your convictions. We are of different worlds, yet I feel we are, in many ways, the same. Which is why I know you won’t like the task I must place upon you now. It was to be my path, supposed to be, and now it must be yours. For the sake of all we hold dear, you must not fail. I’m sorry, my friend, that I must give this task to you, but I’d rather you live with one more regret than die without the chance to live with the peace you so deserve. The fate of this world, and all worlds, rests upon the decision you make now. It says a lot of what I think of you that I would leave such an important decision to a man I’d met just six hours ago…”
* * *
Fire! That’s all Rick could think, and he moved through the red-wood forest at a run, like he once ran towards the dangers of war, hoping without hope that he was somehow wrong. The glowing light in the distance filled the gaps in the giant trees and the spaces between their branches and leaves; it blanketed the forest floor like a golden carpet over green ferns and dirt paths; and, it did so in a way that sunlight could not be the cause. Rick continued forward at a run, sweating and breathing heavily. Then, the air seemed to ripple like a lightning-fast mirage rushing through it, directly at him. The leaves and branches remained un-rustled, and Rick only felt a slight tingling sensation—barely perceptible. He stopped and turned to see the ripple continue through the forest and out of sight. Fire doesn’t do that, he thought. And then, in his moment of pause, he noticed two more details: the glowing light was yellow and had hints of violet or blue, which was not like a fire at all; and, there was a low hum in the air that made the hair on the back of his neck stand at attention. There was nothing he could think of to explain it, but he faced the unknown and walked towards it.
The glow ahead began to diminish, and the hum vanished. Rick continued towards the mystery, and as soon as he thought it was over, it all started again. The spectacular light, followed soon after by a pulse-like ripple in the air, and then the hum, which now felt more potent than ever—he was getting close. The light was fading again moments later, but Rick could see it coming to a point ahead, and then diminish behind one of the red-wood trees.
As his line of sight made its way around the tree, the cause of the event was made clear. Fifteen feet from Rick, standing statuesque against the backdrop of the grandest of trees, was a tall thin figure with human-like features, but it was most definitely not human. Its skin was black as onyx stone and appeared equally as hard and as polished as that same stone. The features were incredibly thin but also sturdy. Rick moved towards the creature slowly, as if entranced. The eyes, bright and white like glittering diamonds, followed Rick’s motion. Rick’s eyes moved to just beyond the creature where a spacecraft rested in front of a different red-wood tree. It looked old and banged up as if its last landing didn’t go so well.
The area began to glow once more, but it was brighter than before. The light engulfed Rick, and he had to close his eyes. He felt the slight tingling from the ripples in the air, but it seemed to go on much longer than earlier. The pulsing, humming noise began, and then the light started to dim. Rick opened his eyes. He looked around as all the giant trees around him were coated with light. Rick’s eyes locked onto the nearest tree as the glowing light that wrapped around the trunk began to move and collect towards the front of the tree, and then downwards. The light that hugged the tree became glowing marbles of molten glass rolling along the trunk, and then glowing globs until it amassed into one giant column in front of the tree. Slowly the glowing column took shape, and then the glow faded to reveal another creature in its wake–skin of black onyx, eyes of glowing diamonds.
Rick spun in a circle. He was now standing with five of these beings surrounding him. There was nothing to say, for no words could speak the feelings he had. There was nothing to do, for no action came to mind. For the first time in Rick’s life, he was frozen. The first creature he had seen stepped towards Rick. In a few casual, long strides, it covered the distance between them, and it was now face-to-face with him. Rick stared at the alien face made of stone, noticing that its features moved like that of any human’s soft and flexible skin; wrinkles made of marble about the eyes and forehead were clearly visible. Suddenly, its hand shot out towards Rick, and before he could react, its stone-like hand rested atop his head. A flash of light and heat seared through Rick’s mind and body, reaching into every cell and atom in his entire existence, as his life began to flash before his eyes.
Timothy Churdish was a soft sort of man. In the same way that the letters of his name combined to create a sound like a puff of wind of little significance, so did the man’s features combine to create something equally unmemorable. He had a soft, round face, small beady eyes, and his hair was thin and an extremely light blonde color. It would be perfectly reasonable to have spent a day with the man, and then the following morning, forget everything about it. Churdish knew this about himself, and yet he was in a position of high authority, the product of a need to keep a secret.
He walked into the central command room of the underground facility and took in the scene while sipping his coffee from a plain white mug. About fifty desks were spread throughout a large open area with a very high ceiling. Large lamps nearly thirty feet up gave the impression below like it was a sunny day inside. One wall had a display of twenty screens that formed one giant collective image of a world map. A row of people sat before a console with various buttons, knobs, and keyboards, and smaller computers of their own. It was like a NASA control room, mixed with an office. Churdish turned towards a woman who was leaning far back in her chair, her feet on her desk, staring at the ceiling.
“Straighten up, Karlie!” Churdish commanded to the woman. “Now’s no time for slacking off.”
The woman named Karlie did so and began typing code into the computer with swift strokes of the keyboard.
“There’s a lot of heat on us right now,” Churdish continued, sipping his coffee with a slurp. “And we need you on your game. This stupid ‘rush Area 51’ thing is putting more attention on us than I like.”
“I’m on it,” Karlie said, pausing to look up at Churdish. “No one will be able to find a thing.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Churdish said, and then he walked away.
Karlie watched him move over to the wall with the large display of screens. Once she saw him in discussions with the operators there, she turned back to her computer and erased everything she had just typed. Then, Karlie leaned back in her chair again as the work she needed to be doing required a bit of slouching and ceiling staring. A minute later, the answer she was looking for came to her, and she sat up straight and typed more furiously than earlier. Soon, she was reading everything over, checking her code for any error, and then with an energetic hit of the “enter” key, put the code into action. Time for a coffee break, she thought. Karlie got up, taking a tablet from beside the computer with her, and made her way towards the exit of the command room. Before she reached the doors, though, an alarm filled the room and red flashing lights.
Karlie turned to the wall with the tv screens, and Churdish was yelling something to the operators, spilling his coffee as he waved his arms around in panic. The screens showed a blinking dot on the giant map of the world. They zoomed in on the map and the blinking red dot. One of the operators got up and took off at a run, following Churdish’s pointing arm, towards Karlie and the exit doors. Almost at the same time, the doors opened, and a man wearing a black military uniform walked in, flanked by other soldiers. The man had a streak of gray around the sides of his immaculate military haircut.
“Major Kritch,” said the running operator, out of breath, upon reaching the man with the gray-streaked hair. They were now right in front of Karlie.
“What do we have? Wandering hikers?” said the Major.
They started walking together back towards the screens and back towards Churdish.
“No,” said the operator in his breathless voice. “This could be something real—a surge of electromagnetic energy we’ve never seen before—nearby—in the Sequoia National Forest.”
WORLDS LEFT BEHIND
He was seeing what he didn’t want to see: the scene that haunted his dreams and lived under the surface of his very skin, always present, always aware of it like an itch that can’t be scratched. Rick walked through the flattened village, fires burned steadily using the homes of innocents as fuel, the smoke filling the air with the putrid smell of burning flesh. He covered his nose and mouth in the crook of his elbow, but he didn’t cover his eyes as he stepped over another dead combatant in the dirt-paved street. The dead bodies were all around; some were in the street, some ducked behind walls and doorways, and others hiding in the shelter of their home that was now a pile of smoking rubble; some were holding machine guns and hatred, others were holding onto each other and Rick didn’t dare try to name the emotions that matched their embraces. Whose bombs and mortars caused this? Us, or them? Whose bullets ended the lives of that family? Us, or them? Rick’s eyes were red and bloodshot from the smoke and heartache. He stood still for another moment, looking around, then dropped his gun on the ground and walked away.
“Rick?” came a voice from somewhere outside of him. It felt distant, but Rick followed it as he would follow anything away from that memory.
Rick opened his eyes, and he found himself sitting on the forest floor leaning limply against a red-wood tree. A pair of white, diamond-glinting eyes stared back at him, a smile etched across the creature’s stone face.
“There you are…” said the creature in a slow, soft voice. “I apologize. I believe it was all a bit too much to experience, not only your first Transference but five of them in a row! You are fine, though. You are not hurt.”
“What…? Who…?” Rick muttered, still slightly dazed.
“My name is Belrie, and I am—as you might have surmised—not from your world…”
Rick was suddenly taken away from the view of the forest again, and from Belrie, into another memory. The scene, though, immediately told him it was not his own memory, but one of the aliens’; and, without much thought or effort, he knew he was viewing the world as if he were Belrie. He was inside of a small spacecraft, strapped into a seat against one of the walls. Ostra sat beside him, and Embrat and Rrelsi across from him. They all looked to him with the same expressions: hope and sorrow. He unbuckled the straps and stood up. Streea, in the front seat behind the controls of the craft, looked back over her shoulder at him with more hope than the others, and less sorrow. He nodded to her and then walked towards the window in the back. A planet of red, green, and blue was shrinking slowly into the distance. Placing his hands on the walls, he leaned closer to the window and to his world. He longed for it, and for those he left behind, yet it was their decision to leave it all. The conviction he’d felt over the last few hours was fading to doubt, and his focus shifted to his own reflection in the mirror. Belrie’s white eyes, and his face of doubt, stared back at him.
The shock of it brought Rick back to the forest again. “What was that?” Rick said, and he called his strength back, slowly getting to his feet, using the tree as support. “Some sort of mind game? What did you put in my head?”
“Nothing intentionally,” Belrie said. “Just a by-product of The Transference. You’re probably seeing some of our memories is all.” Belrie pointed to the other four standing behind him like a flanking guard. They all looked like naked mannequins, but as if they made a mistake in the factory, for no skin could be that black, and no person could be that thin. “This is Streea, Ostra, Embrat, and Rrelsi.”
“Yes, I know who they are,” Rick said and then paused. “How do I know who they are?”
Belrie’s smile was a constant fixture. “Because we’ve just absorbed the very history of your bones, your brain, your cells, your life. We’ve learned all you know, and even some you have forgotten. And just as energy never flows in only one direction, some of our own lives, our memories and knowledge will have leaked over to you.”
“Yea ok,” Rick said skeptically. “Then, what’s my birthday?”
“September 18th,” said the youngest one, Streea.
“My first pet’s name,” Rick shot back quickly.
“Slug,” said Ostra, and before Rick could sound another question, Ostra continued. “A cocker spaniel. All black, with a white spot on its chest. Peed everywhere.”
Rick went silent, his heart beating fast. “How is this possible?”
“It is an ancient technology of our race,” Belrie said. “Every cell in our bodies is imbued with it, surrounded by, what your people would call, a nano-technology. This enables our cells to bond with the cells of anything else.”
“Keep going….” Rick said, still feeling confused, and wanting answers, slightly afraid that he might be losing his mind. Yet, at the same time, he had this irrational desire to trust everything Belrie said.
Belrie continued. “As our cells bond with another, we can copy their information, effectively absorbing its history. From someone’s personal history to the history of a mountain. That is what we call The Transference. We can also bond our cells with other life forms, like these trees, and in a way, hibernate inside them. We absorb enough energy from the cells of the tree to keep our own cells from growing or aging. Then, when we’d like, we may exit and live as if not a second has passed.”
“You were in the trees…” Rick said, as a statement and also with a hint of a question in his voice.
“Yes,” Belrie said. “For a thousand solar cycles, as was our craft.”
“Why would you do that?” Rick said.
Whatever the reason, Rick never heard the answer. They had all frozen and looked around, as they all heard it: the sound of a low flying plane. Belrie turned to the others and put his arm around Streea and Rrelsi to bring them into a huddle. Rick couldn’t hear what they were saying, but his focus was on the treetops anyway. The sound of the plane morphed into a choppy beating of the air. Helicopter, Rick thought with assurance. Sure enough, within the minute, the treetops were in a gale, the leaves and branches of the canopy bending down from the force of the helicopter blades. Armed soldiers in all black, with full masks, helmets, and goggles, descended on ropes into the area surrounding them. Belrie and the others all got to their knees and raised their hands in the air.
Rick looked around, and as the soldiers came closer, he knew they were not Army, or Marine, or Air Force, or wearing any military uniform he recognized. Upon each of their left arms was a symbol stitched in fluorescent green. It was a number, 51, outlined in a triangle. They all stopped, creating a ring about 10 feet away from Rick and the others, guns aimed at the center. The circle opened, and a man wearing a similar uniform, but with no face-mask, walked a few steps inside directly across from Rick. They stared at each other. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, with a perfect military haircut, a stripe of gray hair wrapped around the side of his head like a band.
“Major?” called one of the soldiers.
The man with the gray stripe of hair glanced over and gave a casual hand gesture towards Rick. The soldier’s gun shifted, and something instantly slammed into Rick’s chest. The initial pain of the impact immediately began to dissipate. Looking down, a dart of some kind protruded from just below his shoulder. Before Rick could reach up to remove it, he was falling into blackness.
Rick woke with a pain in his chest and an energy of astounding proportions. He inhaled deeply, like drawing the first breath after being underwater for too long, and went to stand as the energy coursing through him required motion. But he was stuck. His hands held him down, chained to a table in front of him. A man sat across from him at the table with a fat, sluggish smile that seemed to require too much effort to take form, yet it was full of a definite pleasure. A syringe and a small bottle of adrenalin rested at his side. By the door, an armed soldier stood at attention.
“Sit down, please, Mr. Greene,” said the man with the fat smile.
Rick hesitated and then did as he was instructed.
“My name is Timothy Churdish, and I run this facility.”
Rick’s peripheral vision caught the soldier’s eyes roll behind Churdish.
“Let’s see,” Churdish continued, holding up a tablet before him. “Perhaps I should call you Mr. Ranger… Former Army Ranger, and now a Park Ranger. What? Do you just like the title?”
“It’s got a ring to it,” said Rick through clenched teeth.
“Well, Rick, how would you feel about picking up the Army Ranger title again? In a way… Put aside the care of trees and animals, and continue your service to your country. What do you say?”
“I haven’t picked up a gun in two years, and I’m not going to start under the threat of one.”
Churdish’s face contorted into a thoughtful expression. Rick felt an urge to slap him.
“I had a feeling that would be your response, but I told the Major I would try… regrettable, I guess, but collateral damage occurs, unfortunately.” Churdish slapped the desk with his two hands as if to say, “glad we had this chat,” and made to stand.
Rick looked to the soldier behind Churdish, and the man’s eyes locked onto Rick’s. His face was stoic and without expression.
“What’s regrettable?” Rick called after Churdish.
Churdish turned back, but said nothing and left the room. A few minutes later, the door opened once more, and another soldier walked inside. One kept his gun on Rick, while the other unchained Rick’s hands and re-cuffed them behind his back.
“Let’s go,” said the newcomer, and he dragged Rick forward by the arm.
Rick couldn’t believe he was about to die like this, but at the same time, he felt no desire to fight it. No desire to resist. Hadn’t he earned it after all? He thought. They moved down a narrow hallway with no one else in sight when the lights suddenly went out. Rick heard a door open behind them and then the sounds of two tasers on each side of his neck. The sound of shocking electricity filled his ears, and sparks of blue light filled the hallway—Rick’s neck tingled. Then, two loud thuds sounded beside Rick as the soldiers dropped to the floor. Rick turned around slowly. A woman, her face aglow in the light of a tablet held before her face, stood between the feet of the two fallen soldiers. She tapped the tablet with a finger, and the lights in the hallway were suddenly back on, and she looked at Rick with a stern expression.
“Come with me if you want to live,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Ha! I couldn’t help myself—but seriously—let’s get those cuffs off, and then we gotta move.”
“Who are you, and what’s going on?”
She began fishing in the pockets of the fallen soldiers, “Action first, questions later… got it.” Rick could hear the jangling of keys. “Here, turn around.”
Ricks cuffs soon fell to the floor, and she turned through the only open door in the hallway, the one where she had clearly appeared from. He followed closely, rubbing his wrists.
“Are we still in action mode, or can I get some answers?” Rick said.
“I’m Karlie,” she replied, her head buried in the tablet before her as they walked down a deserted corridor. “I’m saving your life, and aliens exist. What else needs answering?”
“Good enough for now. Thanks…”
She tapped on her tablet, the door on her left made a clicking noise, and she opened the door. Karlie turned back to him with a smile, holding the door open. She was definitely older than him, her short hair was completely gray, and she had pronounced wrinkles around her eyes and mouth; yet, the way she carried herself was as if someone forgot to tell her she was getting older, and so her actions mimicked an energetic teenager, unencumbered by the trials of life.
“After you, Mr. Ranger,” she said with a smirk and a raise of her eyebrows.
“How did you know that guy called me that?” Rick said.
Karlie rolled her eyes and held up the tablet as her answer, then nodded down the new hallway. “Keep moving.”
Rick walked through, and then she closed the door, tapped her tablet again, and he heard it click, locking behind them. They continued like that for the next few minutes. At random moments, Karlie would tap her tablet a few times and turn through a newly opened door and then lock it behind them. Sometimes, she would pause in the corridor, just staring down at the tablet waiting, then give it a tap, and they’d continue through the nearest door.
“What are you doing?” Rick asked.
Karlie spoke without turning to face Rick, “I’m creating a path for us. Keeping certain doors locked from anyone who might come looking for you and keeping ours open. Also, making it so anyone else on my team won’t be able to figure that out. I’m making a false trail, so they’ll see a different set of doors opening and locking and leading you out of the building. It’ll buy us some time.”
A minute later, she opened a door that was their clear destination: a small office that looked as if no one were using it. It could have been the small interrogation room he just left, except for a file cabinet and a wall of empty shelving.
“We’ll wait here for a bit,” Karlie said. “Then, we’ll have to figure a way out of here for real.”
“Where exactly are we?” Rick asked.
“Area 51… well, the real one. Not that other place everyone thinks is Area 51.”
“Very funny, Miss Terminator, really…”
“No joke. You’re in the most secret and secure place in the world right now. The only people who know about it are the people who work here. Most Presidents never even learn about it.”
“How can that be possible? Conspiracies don’t exist… you couldn’t keep a secret this big from people.”
“Oh, please,” Karlie said, laughing. “It’s super easy.”
Rick looked at her skeptically.
“The rules of maintaining a cover-up”—Karlie spoke like reciting from a textbook—”First, you never deny the secret to the public, you simply don’t even acknowledge that it’s a possibility. I mean, aliens? That’s crazy, right? The conspiracy is never a possibility, which instills doubt in most, and reluctance to believe in the rest.” Rick went to say something, but Karlie kept going. “Second, misdirection. Information is bound to leak, so you flood the world with far more stories that are clear hoaxes to further the belief that conspiracies are just stupid, or to just get people looking away from where you don’t want them to look. Like, give them a real place—Area 51—for them to obsess about, and if anyone ever looked closely there, they’ll find nothing. I mean, you can look at Area 51 on Google Maps—how can people think that’s the real place? Like we’d allow ourselves to be on Google Maps!” Karlie was on the verge of laughter. “If they only knew the actual Area 51 is maybe fifty miles west…”
“Ok… wow,” Rick said, taken aback by Karlie’s energy and explanation. “So, Area 51 exists, aliens are real… how long have they been real?”
“That’s a weird way to ask it, but I get what you mean. We’ve known about aliens for a couple centuries, but we haven’t had much contact. We mostly cover up older evidence of ancient alien contact. This is the first time I’ve actually seen real ones!” Her excitement was apparent as she paced the room.
“So, you’ve seen them too?”
Karlie just held up her tablet and gave it a shake again.
“Right,” Rick said. “So, how is it you came to work here… is it always an offer at gunpoint?”
Karlie looked up, “No, that was something I’ve never seen before, which is why I felt I had to do something. Churdish and many of the others are sort of born into it. The best way to maintain the secret is to make this place its own city… which it is. I’m one of the few exceptions. I sort of hacked my way into a job offer.”
“Go on…” Rick encouraged.
“I didn’t need to see this place to believe in conspiracies. I was after more information for years, when I basically figured everything out. Perhaps I demanded to work here, and they really had no choice but to accept.” Karlie laughed to herself and then went back to staring down at her tablet. A moment later, Karlie shrieked with excitement. “Ah! Here—we—go… come look.”
She never picked her head up to see if Rick was coming over, but he, of course, did. When he was leaning on the desk at her side, she began pointing and explaining.
“Ok, the majority of those… creatures—”
“They’d prefer, Observers,” Rick said, shocking himself with the knowledge that came from somewhere in his brain. Karlie didn’t catch his surprise with himself and kept explaining.
“Ok, Observers… they’re being held here in this lab.”
Rick could see, on her tablet, the Observers, minus Belrie, behind a thick glass wall huddled together with a few guards standing in front.
“Except for… one of them,” Karlie said. She went on tapping her screen, then typing commands, and then there he was: Belrie, seated in a chair like you’d see in a dentist’s office, but his arms, legs, and middle were bound to the chair with metal braces.
MESSAGE FROM ABOVE
A cold metal door swung open, and two figures walked through heading directly towards Belrie, locked tight in his chair, but not fighting the braces.
“What happened, Major?” Churdish said, walking a step in front of Major Kritch.
“Someone incapacitated my men, and the Ranger is missing,” Kritch answered. “And it seems we’ve been hacked.”
“Hacked?” Churdish said, stopping in his tracks, turning to the Major. “Has there been information leaked?”
“Not that I know of. I just know the hacker made a path for this Rick Greene by unlocking doors, and locking others to thwart our pursuit, and knocking out our cameras as well.”
“That should be impossible”—Churdish turned until he spotted a soldier standing beside Belrie—”You. Come here.” The soldier obliged. “Go find Karlie and bring her here, now!”
The soldier nodded and was off. Churdish and Major Kritch walked forward towards Belrie, who looked back with a stoic expression.
“Two hours is an awfully long time to keep a guest waiting,” Belrie said with a smile. “And as comfortable as this chair may look, I assure you it is not.”
“Who exactly are you?” Major Kritch began.
“My name is Belrie, and I’d like to know where my friends are? Are they safe?”
“We’ll ask the questions,” Churdish chimed in. “Mr. Bell-ree, what is your business here?”
“It was to simply remain out of sight, which we have obviously failed. Where is our craft?”
“Being looked over,” Major Kritch answered.
“Please,” Belrie said, showing the first sign of agitation. “Do not do anything to it. You should not start its engines, you should not play with things you do not understand.”
“You’re on our world,” said Kritch. “You’re an intruder, and as such are in no place to make demands. I have the safety of our planet to consider.”
“Then, what you are doing could destroy it all!” Belrie exclaimed.
The door opened, and Karlie was brought into the space flanked by a soldier.
“Karlie,” Churdish said, frustration in his voice. “What happened?”
“I got the alert of a breach in our systems,” Karlie said, trying to appear surprised and shocked, “and I’ve been trying to find it.”
Churdish’s eyes moved to the soldier behind her.
“She was in her quarters, at her computer when I arrived,” he said.
Karlie tried not to smirk. After seeing Churdish demand to see her from her tablet, she left the office room at a run, leaving Rick alone. She got to her room with thirty seconds to spare and tried to pretend to be surprised when the soldier showed up to collect her.
Churdish turned back to Karlie, “And?”
“And, I’m not sure what’s happened… yet,” she said.
“You’re supposed to be protecting us from exactly this kind of incursion, and beyond. You’re supposed to keep this place invisible, so no one even knows that there’s something to hack into here. I thought you were the best, or do we need to find this other hacker to replace you?”
“No, I’ll find them.”
Karlie’s tablet suddenly beeped in her hands, and she held it up to study the screen.
“What is it?” Churdish asked. Karlie didn’t respond right away, and Churdish grabbed the tablet from her hands. “What… what does this mean?”
Karlie carefully pulled the tablet back into her hands while she spoke. “It’s showing a disturbance in our upper atmosphere.” More beeps issued from the tablet. “There’s… there’s been an attack on the ISS. It’s been destroyed.”
Major Kritch moved to where they were in a deliberate stride. “What was the cause?” he said.
“The cause, Karlie?” Kritch repeated. “From Earth, or not?”
Churdish chimed in, “Just fake the signals from the ISS to NASA and the other space agencies until we know. Make it seem like nothing has happened until we know what’s happened.”
“I’ve already done that,” Karlie answered, still typing into her tablet.
“You turned the ship on.” Belrie’s soft voice sounded over Karlie’s one-handed typing. They all turned to him. “If you have. Two hours here is more than enough time.”
“Enough time for what?” Kritch said.
“There’s a transmission coming from the ISS,” Karlie said.
“Redirect all transmissions here,” Kritch ordered.
“Already done,” Karlie answered. “Here it is.”
A scratching noise filled the room from the speakers above, and then, after a minute, the soft sound of breathing.
“Greetings, humans.” The voice was old and had a scratchiness to it that matched the poor audio quality. “What is in your possession is the remnant of a War you know nothing about. Perhaps with this craft you possess, you might also be harboring the five war criminals that stole it. The option before you is simple and plain. Allow us to take these criminals, and this craft without struggle, without question, and without debate… and we will be on our way. Or you can interfere, and you enter our war, choosing the side of these criminals. You have five minutes to make your decision.”
The voice cut off, and the static noise in the air died with it. Nothing remained but silence, as everyone in the room turned to face Belrie.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
“Just hear me out,” Churdish said, staring into the Major’s hardened face. “We hand everything over as they said, but we try to negotiate a little. Try to keep some of this technology. It could spring us into a new renaissance!”
“At what cost, Churdish?” Major Kritch said. “These people—”
“They call themselves, The Faction,” came Belrie’s soft and clear voice.
“You’re not a part of this debate,” Churdish said and turned back to Kritch. “What do we have to lose to just try and talk to them?”
Kritch seemed to be controlling his emotions. “Listen. They might see your negotiation as interference like the message said. If we interfere, we open ourselves to attack from an alien species clearly superior to us in technology and, most likely, weaponry. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“So, we just give up?” Churdish said. “We just hand over the best stuff we’ve ever found?”
“Yes,” Kritch said. “That is our best strategy. And you and your science lot have that minimal time to learn as much as you can. So, you better get going on it, because I’m not risking the lives of our people on a desire for smarter phones.”
Churdish’s eyes went from Kritch to the armed soldier standing just behind the Major. “That is a good point, Major. Ok, I say we learn as much as we can while we can, and we agree to their terms—Karlie!”
“Yes, I’m right here,” she said from right beside him.
“Send them a message of our agreement to their terms. Ask for an hour, and we need a place to meet… we can’t bring them here.”
Major Kritch took a small step forward. “We’ll take them to the fake Area 51 in Nevada,” he said.
“Ok, I’ll let you know the response I get,” Karlie said, and she began typing.
“Good,” Churdish said.
A chime sounded on her tablet almost immediately.
“They’ve agreed,” Karlie said. “One hour.”
A DECISION TO MAKE
Karlie walked through the door of the office, and she looked serious.
“What’s going on?” Rick asked.
Karlie paced the room in front of Rick for a moment before speaking, “Apparently… your Observer friends are on the run from their world. War criminals, the message said, but I don’t know…”
“Yea, more aliens—took out the ISS and gave us an ultimatum. Kritch and Churdish decided to hand over your friends in an hour.” The room went silent, and then Karlie turned to Rick, “We have a decision to make.”
Rick’s mind flashed away from the office, back into another memory. Suddenly, he and the other Observers were looking to Belrie. They were in a laboratory of some kind, with instruments Rick had never seen before, but in this moment they fit and made perfect sense. He knew what each device and machine did.
“We have a decision to make,” Belrie said, speaking softly, in a mere whisper. The language was unlike anything Rick had ever heard, but he understood it all the same. “You know that I’ve solved it—despite my best intentions not to. I’ve figured out what The Faction wants, and I can’t un-think it.” Belrie looked angry with himself. “The guards will be here by nightfall to absorb our thoughts, and so the decision must be made now. There are two options. You destroy my body, beyond the atoms—”
“No!” Rick shouted, but it wasn’t his voice.
“Streea,” Belrie said, with a warning in his hushed tone. “It may be the only option…”
“What’s the other choice?” Streea said, and Rick felt the emotion, the love, and the pain coursing through her, through himself.
Belrie took a deep breath and on his exhale spoke. “I run. I try to hide and never be found”—Belrie raised his voice slightly and raised his hand to stop Streea from interrupting—”but there’s a big risk to that.”
“What is the risk?” Embrat spoke stoically, like a statistician trying to absorb all the facts.
“If I am found,” Belrie said, “then my first option may no longer be a possibility. I may not be able to destroy myself in such a way as is necessary. They will get the information, and all will be lost.”
“Ostra…” Streea pleaded. “Rrelsi… someone back me up.”
“Streea,” Belrie said with a fatherly tone. “We must remove the emotion. We must decide this purely on the numbers, so to speak. What is the best way to keep The Faction from destroying our world, and countless others?”
“Perhaps…” Ostra said, and Streea looked to her with pleading eyes. “Perhaps the decision must be made not on the science and numbers, but on the very philosophy we employed to never deliver such an answer to The Faction.”
“Meaning?” Belrie said.
“We would not give such knowledge to those who would cause destruction with it—for our conviction to preserve life. And so, in your decision now… perhaps we should speak of preserving all life, including your own.”
They all paused to think, to absorb. Streea held back her desire to speak, and Rick could feel it, hoping the silent thoughts would turn in her direction, in the saving of her mentor’s life.
Embrat spoke, finally breaking the silence. “The numbers can not be ignored. One life, for trillions. It’s unfortunately as simple as that. If it were you, Streea, who held the discovery in your molecules, would you not give your life for Belrie’s? For our world?”
A sparkling tear escaped Streea’s eye, and Rrelsi came over and put an arm on her shoulder.
“What do you say, Rrelsi?” Belrie asked. “You’ve been silent.”
Rrelsi looked into Streea’s eyes and smiled, then back to Belrie with a contemplative expression. “I do not believe your self-sacrifice is a requirement, Belrie. I do believe Ostra is correct that the goal of saving life has no exception. I also agree with Embrat that the numbers must be taken into account.”
“Your conclusion?” Belrie said.
“Alter the circumstances to make the numbers work in our favor,” Rrelsi said.
“How might we do that?” Embrat said.
Rrelsi looked back to Streea. “We all know, if Belrie chose to run, young Streea here would be by his side. And so must we. If we all go, The Faction will not know which one of us contains the secret, and we may also better control our circumstances to remain in hiding indefinitely. Five minds can tip the odds, the numbers, in our favor.”
Streea read the room, and the energy was shifting towards Rrelsi’s conclusion. They would run. She closed her eyes in relief…
Rick was looking at Karlie in the office again, and it didn’t feel like much time had passed if any.
“We can decide to help these Observers,” Karlie said. “Or, we can simply get you out of here and let the aliens work out their stuff. We just stay the hell out of it… that is, of course, assuming this Faction—very ominous-sounding name by the way—will truly leave our planet once they have what they want… what do you think?”
Rick turned away from Karlie, his mind racing. He was confused. He was filled with the emotions and the pull of Streea’s desire to save Belrie, plus a feeling of overall connection to all The Observers that he couldn’t separate from himself; and, then his own promises pulled at him to leave all violence behind, all intervention into the conflicts of others behind, for all that had ever brought him was death and heartache. Maybe there’s a middle ground, he thought and turned back to Karlie.
“I want to help them, but”—he paused and then looked at Karlie intently—”no guns, and no killing anyone in our attempt to do so. I will surrender or even die if my only other option is to take a life. “
“Who do you think I am?” Karlie said, trying to hold back a smirk. “Some sorta Terminator?”
A heavy glass door opened, and Belrie stepped inside, prompted by a small shove in his back. The door closed shut immediately behind him. The fact he was locked up didn’t matter now that he was with his friends, the sight of them all brought him relief. Streea was the first off the floor, running to him and hugging him tightly.
“We didn’t know whether…” Streea began but trailed off.
“I’m fine, but our plan has failed,” Belrie said.
Embrat was immediately standing before Belrie. “What happened?”
“The humans turned on our craft, and for too long,” Belrie said.
“They’ve found us,” Ostra finished.
Belrie looked to Streea now and put his arms on her shoulder. “We tried.” Crystalline tears began to form in Streea’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Belrie,” Embrat said.
“We know what this means. First chance we get,” Belrie said. “If we get it. You must take me to the craft, and my atoms are to be destroyed.”
Streea stepped away, and Rrelsi took her into an embrace.
Thirty minutes later, two soldiers in their typical black uniforms, black masks, and helmets came to escort Belrie and the others from their captivity. Each, in turn, held out their arms as a soldier placed metal shackles on their wrists that closed electronically. A soldier in the lead, The Observers in the middle, and another soldier in the rear marched down the hallway. Belrie’s eyes darted around to the soldier in the back with his machine gun held at the ready. Belrie focused on the doors that lined the corridor, trying to find a way out for them all; or—not wanting to even consider it, but he had to—if there was a way for just himself to escape and elude The Faction for a little longer, he’d have to take it.
At the end of another hallway, the leading soldier paused before a door and pulled out a tablet. Belrie only got a brief glimpse, and then they were walking through into a vast aircraft hangar with helicopters, airplanes, and other cars and trucks. It seemed to be a mile long with a clear runway down the middle. Belrie looked up to the ceiling, which may have been a hundred feet above, but he was still looking up at a ceiling.
The lead soldier paused in front of a helicopter and gestured for them all to get inside. Belrie and the others do so. The rear soldier climbed into the front behind the controls, and took his helmet off, pulled his face-mask down and turned back to Belrie.
“We’re going to get you out of here,” Rick said.
Belrie was flushed with relief, and the sight of Rick’s face brought a tear to his eye. There was hope yet. He turned to the others, and they echoed his relief in their expressions. The lead soldier revealed herself, and she smiled at them in a slightly different way. There was wonder, and excitement, like a child first tasting ice cream.
“I’m Karlie,” she said, and then with a few taps on her tablet, the shackles on their wrists opened and fell with clunks to the floor of the helicopter. “That’s better.”
“We are deeply grateful,” Belrie said with a smile.
“Let’s get out of here first,” Rick said, and then turned to look at Karlie. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Belrie went to interject, but a loud rumble filled the air, silencing his thought. They all looked up towards the source. The ceiling began to part, and sunshine poured in below. Rick immediately turned to the controls and started flicking the switches he needed to hit to get the blades moving. Nothing happened. He did it again, and just as the first time, nothing happened.
“Karlie,” Rick called back to her. “Something’s wrong. This isn’t starting. Did you deactivate this one as well?” When he heard no reply, he turned full around in his seat to see Karlie frantically tapping and typing on her tablet. The rumbling from above continued as the doors opened wide enough for any aircraft in the hangar to be able to leave. “Karlie!” Rick said again more urgently.
She stopped typing and looked up at Rick with worry in her eyes. “I’m blocked out. I didn’t open the ceiling. I can’t do anything. Someone wormed in behind me.” She looked stunned as if that were more impossible than sitting next to aliens.
“Who could do that?” Rick said.
“No one,” she answered.
The hangar began to fill with shadow as something massive obscured the large opening in the ceiling. A giant spacecraft slowly descended into Area 51.
The spacecraft took up nearly half the hangar’s length and barely fit inside the width of the runway. The edge pressed up against several airplanes and other vehicles either displacing them to the side or crushing them slightly from the weight. Rick stepped out of the helicopter, as the soldiers of Area 51 were mobilizing and forming defensive positions. He saw Major Kritch enter the hangar, directing his men around. The front of the ship opened, and a large platform, with a group of aliens holding foreign-looking weapons, floated out and then descended to the floor of the runway. When it touched down, the members of the platform spread out as the central figure stepped forward slowly.
“Sumblach,” Belrie whispered. Rick turned to see him standing by his side. “One of the leaders of The Faction.”
Sumblach definitely looked older, as his posture was slightly bent forward, and the luster that Belrie’s skin had was missing. All was silent as everyone in Area 51 took in the new arrivals. A commotion by the main entrance to the hangar drew the attention of Rick and the others.
Churdish had entered the hangar and was heading towards the craft and towards Sumblach. Major Kritch was calling after Churdish to stay put, to come back towards the fortified position he’d established, but Churdish just waved him down casually as he walked on. Kritch looked as if he were debating running after him, picking him up and carrying him back, but instead turned his focus towards his men. He gave an order, and two groups of soldiers split to position themselves around the sides of the hangar. Only a couple helicopters stood between one of those groups, and Rick and the others.
“Now, I thought we decided on a different time and location,” Churdish said, holding his arms open as if talking to an old friend. “This is most unexpected.”
“Silence,” Sumblach uttered in a scratchy, whispery voice. “The craft, and the runaways.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Churdish said. “The ship is on the other side of the hangar.” He pointed to somewhere behind The Faction’s ship to the far corner.
Upon hearing this, Rick heard Belrie let out a sigh. He turned to see his upset face.
“What’s wrong?” Rick asked.
“We were so close,” Belrie said. “If we knew, there might have been enough time before they arrived to end it all. Now…” he shook his head in acknowledgment of a critical error.
Sumblach spoke in a language Rick didn’t understand. Then a few of his men disappeared behind the craft and returned a minute later speaking to Sumblach in that same unidentifiable language.
“Good,” Sumblach said, turning to Churdish. “And the runaways…?”
“Oh, they are in here somewhere,” Churdish said, rocking on his heels nervously. “We will, of course, have them brought to you, but I wonder if we might talk for a moment.”
“There is no need for speaking, human,” Sumblach snarled.
“Well, now,” Churdish continued. “I just wondered if we could make a sort of trade. We’re being awfully helpful to you, and we wouldn’t ask much in return, just a—”
It happened so quickly, Rick didn’t have time to process until Churdish hit the floor, smoke rising from his chest. Sumblach gave a simple nod of his head, and then there was a nearly silent blast, a flash of green light, and then Churdish falling backward.
“Enough talk,” Sumblach said. “I know you’re all here… somewhere—come forward, or everyone dies.”
The Faction soldiers around Sumblach all raised their weapons, and without warning, Belrie shouted. “Here! We’re here.”
Everyone in the hangar turned towards the helicopter they were hiding behind, and Faction soldiers were soon upon them all. Belrie turned back to the others, but no words of comfort left his lips.
Rick and Karlie, and all The Observers were escorted to the platform that Sumblach, and the other Faction soldiers, stood upon. Then, the platform floated up several feet before stopping. Sumblach looked from one of The Observers to the next.
“Tell me,” Sumblach began. “Who figured out the secret to reverse aging our cells, and no one needs to die. Otherwise, I can kill you all, and simply take the knowledge from one corpse at a time!”
“It was me,” Belrie said simply.
Sumblach looked at him with a scrutinizing gaze but then smiled. “I admit, I would have guessed Embrat to be the one. Yet, clearly, a more creative mind was required.”
“Sumblach, please listen—”
“No! You listen to me! I did not have the luxury to sleep in stasis for a thousand years, Belrie. A century here, a century there. But, now my clock is running out, and you have the solution to making me young again! How could you betray your people? You would deny us all a life of eternity, for what? A difference in political opinion?”
Belrie’s face looked angry for the first time. “You are the one, and your Faction, who betrayed our people. You enslaved us, forced us to work towards your goal, so you could live longer.”
“It was for all of us, Belrie. The result would be that we would all live forever! A small sacrifice of freedom, for a life full of it afterward!”
“Our technology, our ability to sleep in stasis, was never about living longer, but about understanding the Universe. The ability to observe shifting continents, changes in planetary orbits in one lifetime… that was the gift.”
“Our ancestors,” Sumblach retorted, with a scoff. “They simply lacked the true sight into the potential of such a technology. Observers, they thought themselves… but they did not observe what we did—the potential of a life indefinite. We can halt our life as we sleep, but when we wake, The Observers would study rocks, when we could be studying how to go beyond stasis, beyond stopping aging, and into reversing it.”
“Please, Sumblach, forget it. To die is natural. You know how energy works. It can not be created. It must be taken. To reverse aging is to effectively travel backward in time, and the energy cost, the energy that must be taken, would inevitably destroy this universe. The cost is too high!”
“The cost is irrelevant!” Sumblach said with a snarl. “We are superior to every race we’ve encountered. Smarter. Better in every way. We should have a life-span that reflects our stature in this universe! We should not die the same way as these… humans will die. It is an insult!”
“To live against nature requires death, Sumblach!”
“Then, the death will be yours!”
Sumblach shouted an order in his alien tongue, and instinct kicked in as Rick grabbed Belrie’s shoulder and threw him back behind him. Then everything went into slow motion. A flash of green light from the gun of the Faction soldier filled Rick’s eyes, and he watched the laser-like bullet reach his chest. Rick was propelled backward into Belrie, and together their bodies tumbled off the floating platform towards the runway below. Rick felt nothing, no pain or sensation at all. As he fell, the sound and lights of gunfire from the Area 51 soldiers filled the room. Before he hit the ground, Rick’s last site was looking into Belrie’s shocked eyes, and then nothing.
A DECISION TO MAKE II
“Rick…” Belrie said in his soft voice. “I know this must be incredibly strange for you. Seeing your dead body through my eyes, talking to your own lifeless self. At least there’s the positive that you’re now able to see it.”
Rick awoke with a start, and the first thing that hit his senses was the extreme quiet, and the eerie dark. The ceiling in the hangar was again closed, blocking out the sun, and the electric lights that previously illuminated the giant space were few to find working. Some lights flickered in the ceiling and from the walls, others seemed dimmed, and most were shattered. Suddenly the memory hit Rick. His hands shot to his chest, and he looked down to inspect his body.
The black Area 51 uniform he was wearing had a giant hole in it, exposing his pale chest and back, but all was fine. He felt undamaged. Then, he began to look around at the result of what was a clear battle. Most of the airplanes and helicopters were now piles of scrap metal, smoking. Lifeless bodies littered the floor everywhere, only a few of which were Faction soldiers—easily distinguished by their thin figures. The sound of footsteps behind him brought Rick’s attention to the moment, and he was on his feet and turned around, ready for anything.
“At ease,” said Major Kritch, strolling towards him, zigzagging through his fallen men. More soldiers followed behind him. Everyone bore the signs of the battle: ripped uniforms, blood and dirt filling their faces.
“What happened?” Rick said, but he already knew. The memory of the battle, as seen through Belrie’s eyes, played in his head.
“I’m not sure what to tell you,” Kritch said. “Last I saw, that hole in your stolen uniform”—the major pointed at Rick’s chest—”was a hole in you as well. After The Faction left, that Belrie character asked for a minute alone with your body. Then, I watched him disappear into some sort of glowing dust, and the next thing… you’re sitting up.”
“The answer to immortality…” Rick said in almost a whisper…”to live against nature requires death.”
“When you’re done with the poetry,” Kritch said, “there’s a problem that this creates for us.”
“The fact that Belrie can’t answer the threat of this Faction, which puts the fate of this world in question.”
“What’s their threat?”
“Belrie must turn himself in. That Sumblach said he doesn’t need to chase him anymore. I think that’s because they made a point to blow up their ship before they left. And if he doesn’t turn himself in, Sumblach will kill one of his people and also destroy a city every hour… starting with Los Angeles.”
Rick’s mind flashed to Belrie’s memories, staring down at his own lifeless body again. “I know you won’t like the task I must place upon you now. It was to be my path, supposed to be, and now it must be yours. For the sake of all we hold dear, you must not fail. I’m sorry, my friend, that I must give this task to you, but I’d rather you live with one more regret than die without the chance to live with the peace you so deserve. The fate of this world, and all worlds, rests upon the decision you make now.”
Rick looked at the Major. “I need a minute to think.” Then, he turned away.
“By all means, take your time…” Kritch said in a sarcastic tone, but Rick ignored him.
There was more to the message from Belrie, more to the memory before he gave his life for Rick’s. So, he sat down alone to dive into it. He thought back, and it all came forward instantly like he’d known how to do it all along: the sight of his dead body, Belrie’s voice speaking to him.
“…The fate of this world, and all worlds, rests upon the decision you make now. I know I am forcing your hand, but I do believe the only option is for you to destroy Sumblach, and that it has to be you. If not, we leave this world and all others to certain destruction. This is my plan and why it will work…”
Rick followed Belrie’s idea in his head, and knew, by also having Belrie’s entire life inside of him, that the plan would work. But, Rick hated the idea, and Belrie obviously understood that Rick would react this way by his next words:
“Perhaps you will think this to be lazy thinking—the same lack of thought that leads your world into constant war before exhausting all other alternatives. But, I am no lazy thinker. I would gladly sail among the stars, running forever; but, that would only leave Sumblach, and The Faction, on my tail, and the destruction would follow me. To run is to leave a wake of pain and suffering behind me.
“I think it is truly noble what you are trying to do with your life, and your effort to stick to your convictions, but sometimes life opens a door when we did not even knock. It is a door we can not ignore, and we must see inside, walk beyond, and confront what is there. This is one of those times. Perhaps, I am wrong, Rick, and there is another way… I just do not see it…”
Perhaps there is another way, Rick thought, and maybe I can see it. He listened to the rest of Belrie’s argument, to his final words, and then was back to looking at the hangar. Belrie’s desire for Rick went against everything he believed and vowed, and he felt angry. How could Belrie even ask me to do it? he thought, even though he knew the answer. There has to be another way than the death of some to save others…
Several minutes had gone by, and Rick came to his conclusion. Without a word to Major Kritch, he walked across the hangar towards the helicopter they almost left in earlier. It looked mostly intact. Rick had all the knowledge and experience of Belrie’s life inside him. He had the power to end it all inside him. Rick began sifting through the broken pieces of the helicopter until he found what he was looking for: Karlie’s tablet, and it was still working.
Rick stood in the open space of a desert valley, above the underground city that was the real Area 51. Mountain peaks encircled him as if he were inside a volcano, the various shades of browns and reds of the rocks were occasionally streaked with greens and purples. Standing in the center of such a scene, back in his Park Ranger uniform, filled him with strength and confidence.
From somewhere in the distance, the sound Rick had been waiting to hear reached his ears. The end was approaching. The vast spacecraft of The Faction appeared over the top of the mountain peaks shooting towards him like a meteorite. It landed in a cloud of dust. Rick couldn’t help but see the comparison to the meteorite again—how the valley they were in looked similar to those left by past impacts—how those meteorites crashed to Earth and left behind their devastation—how they left behind the death of some, and the complete end of others. Fittingly, Rick knew the end had now arrived for some, one way or another, brought by this meteorite of engineered metal.
The large doors opened, and the platform floated out and down as it did inside of the hangar earlier. Rick could see Streea, Ostra, Embrat, Rrelsi, and Karlie all staring at him with confusion. Sumblach stood in the front, flanked by several armed guards. More dust lifted into the air as the platform touched down, Sumblach now mere feet from Rick.
“I seem to remember being able to see through you last we met.” Sumblach smiled a crooked smile.
“That’s exactly why I’m here,” Rick said.
“Belrie…” Sumblach answered. “He not only knew the secret, but he actually created it!” Sumblach looked excited beyond words, and The Observers all looked at Rick with faces of betrayal. Belrie clearly never told them he had done so. Then, Sumblach’s face turned to anger and disgust. “And he wastes the greatest technology in the universe on a simple-minded human.” Sumblach stepped forward, nearly stumbling off the platform in his anger, forgetting his age. He slammed Rick in the chest with a stony finger. “Where is he?”
“He’s gone, but you don’t need him,” Rick said.
“He told you that to create life requires death.” The Observers all looked at Rick in shock, and Streea’s eyes began to fill with tears.
“He gave his life, his energy, to save yours?” Sumblach looked more disgusted than ever. As if to utter the words left him physically dirty.
“Yes, and now the answer you want lives in me. The secret is based on the same technology as The Transference. So, when Belrie saved my life, when he gave his life for mine, he also left the secret of how to reverse the aging process inside of me.” Sumblach didn’t say anything, but his white eyes widened and seemed to glint with an extra sparkle. “He expected me to continue his mission. To run, or to try and kill you, but I don’t want anything to do with this. I won’t take a life again, and I don’t want to see my world get punished for the sins of another—for a fight that’s not ours.”
“Certainly not,” Sumblach said, in a mock understanding voice, as if he were speaking to a child.
“I came to surrender the secret. I know you can simply take the answer with a touch of your hand, but I came in good faith, that you would leave once you had it. That you won’t use it here…”
“A reasonable request,” Sumblach answered. “Now…”
Sumblach stuck out his hand and placed it on Rick’s head, holding him secure. Rick was soon consumed with the light and hum of The Transference, but it was different than when Belrie did it in the forest. This time, it was over in an instant, and Sumblach was stepping back with a broad smile.
“Yes! So… so simple,” Sumblach said to himself, giddy. “Yet, so brilliant. Like a software update!” Sumblach laughed.
“That was so quick…” Rick said, unable to help his curiosity.
“I only took what I needed,” Sumblach said. “I would not taint my mind with more of your primitive life than is necessary.” Sumblach turned away from Rick, and stepped onto the platform, walking towards The Observers and Karlie. He seized Karlie by the back of the neck and brought her forward closer to the edge of the platform, towards Rick.
“You said you wouldn’t use it here!” Rick shouted.
“Quiet, fool,” Sumblach snarled. “I said no such thing. I said you gave a reasonable request, and I am reasonable, indeed. Your people killed three of mine, and so—I shall be reasonable.”
Karlie looked to Rick with fear in her eyes as Sumblach placed his hands on the side of her face. She kicked, but then screamed from the pain it left her. Suddenly, light filled the air, emanating from Sumblach. It looked like The Transference, but the hum in the air was louder. Sumblach’s greedy smile could be seen through the brightness, but then it turned. He looked over to Rick, bathed in light, eyes widening in fear. Sumblach’s feet began to break apart into beads of light. It moved like a wave in slow motion up his body. Sumblach, not Karlie, was being torn apart. The wave reached up, and Sumblach stretched his neck in a futile attempt to escape. He began to yell a scream that didn’t have time to entirely leave his throat, as his whole being was now billions of beads of light hovering in the air before Karlie.
Sumblach hadn’t searched deep enough into Rick—as Belrie predicted—hadn’t questioned Belrie’s solution, hadn’t imagined that Belrie would sabotage the tool of virtual immortality. Rick knew, though, that as one went to use the technology for themselves, it would automatically do the opposite. To save Rick, Belrie actually had to attempt to steal the life in Rick’s cells. And as Sumblach tried to take the energy in Karlie, he would be forced to give his own instead.
The beads of light that were once Sumblach encircled Karlie. Then, they seemed to absorb into her very skin, and she glowed from the inside. The hum in the air died after a long minute, and the light from inside Karlie faded.
All went still and quiet, everyone frozen in shock. Karlie stared over into Rick’s eyes. It was the same woman, but she looked to be a teenager of sixteen now—de-aged by forty or fifty years. Karlie studied herself in awe. Felt her face, and her body, laughing to herself in amazement.
“How about that!” she exclaimed.
The Faction soldiers began to move without a clear purpose, clearly unsure of what to do, but just as they did so, all around the platform, doors opened in the ground of the valley floor. Fifty soldiers in black, led by Major Kritch, stepped out from the underground passages of Area 51 with their guns aimed and ready to fire. All as Rick and the Major had planned. All as Belrie had planned.
“Put ’em down!” Kritch ordered.
Embrat stepped forward and spoke in his foreign tongue to the Faction soldiers. By his gestures, Rick understood Embrat was just relaying the Major’s orders. Guns were dropped, and then Embrat continued to speak to the aliens, pointing back at the ship, at The Observers, and into the sky while he did so. He seemed to be speaking with great passion.
Streea walked over to Rick wearing the same look that she gave to Belrie in their craft as they left their home planet: hope and sorrow, with the balance swinging towards hope. She nodded towards Embrat and The Faction soldiers who were listening intently to Embrat’s words. “It is the start of a revolution.”
Rick looked at Streea and felt a desire to hug her and console her like a daughter, but he knew the desire didn’t come from himself. “Belrie loved you very much. I feel it…”
“I know it,” Streea said, a crystalline tear crawling down her sleek black cheek, resting in the curve of a smile.
Karlie and Rick sat on the valley floor, watching the giant spacecraft retreating into the darkening sky. A long black streak, and then a dot, and then nothing.
They had said their goodbyes just moments ago, and Rick was still feeling a strange longing to be with them. Like he belonged up there, and not on Earth. It had taken a great effort to not let the idea take over him while in their presence. They had all stood together in an almost huddle.
“It was a true pleasure to share your mind, Rick,” Embrat said with a short bow.
“You’ve done us all a great service.” Ostra added.
Rrelsi smiled, placed a hand on Rick’s shoulder, and her presence was calming and serene as she spoke in a voice that echoed the same feeling. “Belrie gave you a great gift, Rick. Use it well…” Her gaze said something more than her words, like the gift was more than just his physical life. Rick knew it, and bowed back, emotion battling to surface.
“Visit us anytime, Rick,” said Streea with a smirk, and then bounded over and embraced him in a hug.
Soon the platform was rising, and the doors to the spacecraft were closing. Rick felt a small invisible ball blocking his throat from speaking or opening his mouth. The connection he felt to them burned through his body, into his eyes. He couldn’t move from the spot, and just slowly sat down on the sandy ground as the roar of the engines fired.
The Observers now somewhere beyond sight, Rick looked over to Karlie’s sixteen-year-old self. “What will you do now you’re young again?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Ranger,” she said. “I have never been old.”
Together they laughed, which felt like the first time he’d done so in years. The wall of emotion that The Observers’ absence left in him suddenly came down, no longer consuming him, but existing as an echo.
After their laughter died, Karlie said, “I suppose I’ve got a pretty incredible opportunity here? A life reset. Not sure I’m even ready to think about it.”
“You’ve got time…” Rick said, and they laughed again.
“So, what about you, Mr. Ranger? Back to the Forest?”
Rick looked up in thought, and Belrie’s final words came into his head. He was again looking down at his lifeless body.
“…Perhaps, I am wrong, Rick, and there is another way… I just do not see it. And maybe that is the best we can strive for—to simply aim to be good—to search and seek for something better, yes, but we can only do our best today with what we know right now. And, now, we can not wait until tomorrow. You must act with what you know today. I am sure I have made many wrong decisions, yet I give my life knowing I did my best. All my great intentions have led me here, being able to save a good man, and stop a bad one… I consider this a good end.”
Rick looked at Karlie, smiling. “I’ve got an aim… I’ll figure out the rest along the way.”
Thank you for listening to today’s story!
I also want to say an extra special thank you to my international audience today. This past month I’ve seen downloads from Australia, Hungary, Russia, Canada, and the UK. I’m really grateful to you all for giving a listen, and I hope you left feeling good.