Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Machines at Ellison

by Glenn M. Diamond




From somewhere amidst the rustling of a breezy spring evening returned that mysterious voice. Start listening to the voices in your head. Eight simple words formed a disturbing command that Daniel Winters perceived with a chilly flood of fear. This was the third such event in ten days. The voice was English; that part was real enough, but delivered with a mechanical, androgynous quality. He hadn't the faintest clue what it was, yet couldn't shake the notion it was created inside his own head. Reflexively covering his ears, the undiminished message repeated several more times before stopping abruptly.

This was the worst episode yet, leaving him with mild nausea and an itchy tingling within his sinus cavities. Daniel was a rational young man of twenty-one years plus one day; and while emotional problems were widespread inside the razor-wire perimeter of the Sanctuary, disembodied voices were not. The sounds might be part of a waking dream or vision, but those explanations failed on several grounds. Dreams were vague and random, visions were symbolic, but this felt specific -- even intentional.

Insanity was much more likely. Why not? Life here was unprecedented and utterly paradoxical; several thousand people "safely locked" in a strange high-desert lifeboat that had been effectively adrift for years. The only reason the suicide rate wasn't higher was thanks to the unspoken efforts of the authorities to reluctantly ensure a trickle of alcohol and drugs were always available, whether creatively produced inside or scavenged during scouting trips to the Frontier.

Daniel assumed his own thoughtful recognition of the matter allowed him to rule out insanity -- for now. But that didn't leave much, only another cryptic message heard on a blustery spring evening where the only true sound was the wind swirling among the overgrown trees that danced against the twelve-story silhouette of the darkened Ellison building.

There was also the matter of the shifty old man, Corbett, who suddenly appeared out of nowhere the last time Daniel was here. Anxiously he made a visual sweep beyond the immediate area but saw only a blend of dim outlines and shadows. Daniel was alone.

Facing the bank of three Autoclerk machines, he considered his tendency to come here at night; was it for solitude, or something else? From this spot, it was a mere hundred yards to the fence beyond which began the Frontier. Momentarily, he gazed into the night and imagined himself a solitary goldfish slowly drifting along the glass boundary of its protected liquid world, drawn to the mystery of the Edge.

Daniel hadn't told Emily about the voices or the old man, but he disliked being secretive and would soon remedy that. In light of his father's dark legacy, her reaction would be predictable; fear mixed with a kernel of suspicion. What if the acorn really didn't fall far from the tree? Even though he trusted her, there was little privacy inside the Sanctuary and Colonel Piper had a way of knowing anything of importance.

Ancient monochrome screens bathed the small courtyard surrounding the kiosk in a fuzzy, emerald-green luminosity. The rest of the Ellison area relied on improvised low-voltage lighting, as much of the Sanctuary did. All those brightly-lit nights of metal halide and mercury vapor were long gone, their power sources crippled and fused into useless slag nearly a decade ago by the Great Pulse.

Daniel set his personal code using the heavy toggle switches and waited for the machine to respond with his work assignments, food distribution schedule, and news bulletins. He took a measure of pride in knowing that his father had been part of the ingenious project that scavenged undamaged pieces of old systems and transformed them into a functional network of solar-powered Autoclerk kiosks. In a society so utterly removed from its previous immersion in the daily miracles of instant communication, the machines not only served administrative purposes but could also be a type of village newspaper that offered a vital sense of cohesion to what otherwise might resemble, aside from the modern architecture, a dreary isolated hamlet from the 19th century.

Once known as Angel Canyon, New Mexico, the Sanctuary had been a vast defense research installation. One quarter of it was underground, protected -- to varying degrees -- against everything from electromagnetic pulse to bioweapon attack. For both logistical and security reasons, the remote facility was conjoined with a small residential community for the workforce, all surrounded by a common security perimeter.

In the beginning, Angel Canyon also served as a second-tier hub for the Continuity of Government Program which meant it held large stores of emergency supplies and medicine. As a result, many of the three thousand people who worked there had survived along with their families, while countless millions died mercilessly in the famine, disease, and lawless mayhem that erupted across North America in the months following the Pulse.

Similar places were known to exist but were widely separated and cut off save for the rare military patrols that might travel between them once or twice a year.

Daniel transcribed the few simple messages from the screen into a tattered notebook, reset the switches, and watched the image return to a single blinking cursor. Taking a deep breath, he mounted his bicycle when that same disturbing voice hit him again, only this time the message was much more personal:

"Happy Birthday, Daniel. Want to see the Frontier?"

***

"You're. . . hearing voices?" Emily Babbit was curled up on the ancient sofa inside the tiny dwelling she shared with Daniel. She spoke barely above a whisper, as everyone did inside these cramped dormitories that had once been office cubicles and conference rooms. The stubborn musty odor of decaying carpets and dirty ceiling panels was just another reason Daniel enjoyed spending so much time outside.

Hung haphazardly on the walls were the ambiguous expressions of Emily's stunted life inside the Sanctuary; a talented series of pencil drawings done on irregular sun-bleached panels cut from old cardboard boxes. It could be debated whether the most accurate analysis of Emily's work belonged to the field of psychiatry or sociology, but her creations bothered Daniel. The images were of common sights, and whether it was a low building in the shadow of tall trees, or a curvy jumble of playground equipment in the village park, there was always one common element that said so much; a small section of the perimeter fence, backlit by a setting or perhaps rising sun.

She and Daniel grew up here together, their relationship forged through trauma, loss, and survival. Several hundred Pulse orphans were brought into the Sanctuary like lost pets rescued after a flood, but these rescues weren't entirely driven by compassion; the need to securing future breeding pairs was tacitly recognized within the emergency command structure.

Emily's starving parents, residents of a nearby town, had voluntarily turned her over with the idea of returning for her later. Most likely they died as refugees harboring misguided hopes of traveling to a place of safety, food, and electricity. Daniel's mother had been in Chicago when the Pulse hit, leaving her stranded in a doomed urban landscape that descended into horror and death on a massive scale. Not a day went by that he wasn't haunted by visions of her myriad possible fates. Although he knew it was unlikely she'd survived, he kept that hope alive if only to construct a plausible reason, in light of the loss of his father, to reject the alternative of unrelenting despair.

Daniel sank onto the floor next to the sofa, slowly removing his worn boots and staring at the frayed cuffs of his pants, blackened from years of rubbing against his bicycle chain.

"I don't know how to explain it; a voice, but . . . not human. I thought maybe it was coming from one of the machines, but they don't have speakers, and it was just as loud when I covered my ears."

"You were at Ellison again?"

Daniel nodded sheepishly.

"Why can't you use the machines at the main complex, during the day like everyone else? Ellison at night is just wrong, Daniel. It's dark and creepy and it looks bad, like you're sneaking around. Don't you understand? They're probably watching you."

"Because of my father." He didn't even bother phrasing it as a question.

"Why else? I'm sorry darling, but it's been two years and you still haven't faced it," she took a deep breath and sighed. "Frank Winters was . . . a terrorist. He tried to sabotage the command center. He fled the complex and . . . ."

"And so they chased him through the canyons and he was swept away trying to cross the Rio Grande. Baby, I know the story, but I never believed any of what Colonel Piper claimed. Dad's gone, that much is true. So here we sit, locked up in this . . . terrarium, with our meaningless work assignments, fed and watered like hamsters. Why? So we can make baby hamsters? Damn it, Emily. It's been almost nine years. This is no way to live. It's time to reclaim the Frontier."

Emily frowned, but leaned over to gently stroke his hair. After everything they'd been through, why did he always seem so ungrateful? "You're right, of course, and that day will come, but it's a long way off. We're safe here. The fences are only there to protect us. The Frontier is still dark and still dangerous. Anyone alive is just an animal . . . a heavily armed, crazed, and probably diseased animal. There just aren't enough of us. Someday it will be different, but for now . . . Survival is the New Freedom." Now she sounded like Piper in one of his 'camp chats.'

"No," Daniel was shaking his head. "Survival is the lowest common denominator. Is a hamster 'free' because there aren't any snakes in his cage?"

It was late. This sort of talk always made her uncomfortable so she tried her best to deflect it. "Oh maybe not, but . . ." she smiled meekly and swept her arms around to encompass their meager surroundings, "these hamsters get hot showers once a week."

***

The details varied, but it was always the same dream. Nine-year-old Daniel and his parents were camping in the backcountry somewhere in southern Colorado. He and his mother, Liz, had gone for a short hike while Frank, his bearded, cuddly grizzly-bear of a dad was back at the campsite preparing dinner. Daniel was mesmerized by his mom's soothing voice, the sharp scent of the pines, and the lengthening cool shadows of a late summer afternoon. Life was a wonderful gift, and it stretched out in front of him like the limitless stars he'd soon gaze upon from the warmth of his sleeping bag.

He could always tell when they were approaching the camp because he'd hear the sound -- faint at first, then louder, of his father's old harmonica. It was a rich, complex sound produced from a simple instrument, and no matter what came out of it, to Daniel it gave the world a rolling melody which resounded inside his young soul, hopeful and alive.

This morning, inside the Angel Canyon Sanctuary, the dream-harmonica slowly blended with an ugly shrill tone; the discordant klaxon on the Alert Tower. Emily was already awake. She kissed him on the cheek and said "It's Tuesday, darling, only a drill."

Over breakfast he'd finally told her the rest of it. The second time he heard the message -- Start listening to the voices in your head -- was when he encountered the old man. Daniel thought he was alone, but loitering near the trees about ten yards away was a disheveled figure, mid-sixties, tattered clothing, just grinning at him with several missing teeth. It was late and the man's presence was disturbing, yet there was something in his eyes -- a glimmer of intelligence -- and for some reason Daniel didn't feel in imminent danger.

"What the hell . . . who are you and what voices are you talking about?" he demanded. The old man just held that unsettling half-smile. "It was your voice, wasn't it? Answer me, you old bastard, or I'll press this." Daniel's finger hovered over the emergency alarm button next to the machine.

"Relax, sonny boy. You must be hearing things. The name's Corbett. Charlie Corbett. I'm just out for an evening stroll, minding my own business."

"Bullshit," Daniel was fully apprehensive now, "I've never seen you before. How do I know you're not -- from the Outside." His finger began to twitch.

Corbett laughed, but with an edgy tone that revealed a hint of condescension. "You've got a lot to learn, Daniel. Obviously, you don't know all the inmates inside this prison."

"This isn't a . . . wait a minute, how did you know my . . ." WHAM! The voice . . . again! Start listening to the voices in your head. Corbett's lips never moved. Daniel spun around and stared at the Autoclerk machine for a brief time, but the screen displayed only a blinking cursor.

"When I turned back around, he wasn't there."

Emily's face sank, her blandly peaceful morning lost to a sour wave of unease, and she briefly buried her face in her hands. "W-why didn't you report him? What if he's a spy? And . . . how did he know your name? Daniel, what is this all about?"

"I don't know baby, but it's time for some answers and I think I know where to look for them."

***

Deep in the hardened portion of the complex, Lt. Colonel Riley Piper leaned back in his well-worn task chair, feet up on the desk in his windowless office, and clicked absently through the day's reports on his monitor. Piper had been a major in the United States Army, one of a handful of Pentagon liaison officers assigned to Angel Canyon over a decade ago, but the Pulse gave him a hasty promotion over a failing communications link.

Someone had to be the ranking officer. It wasn't a very desirable job and his number two, the more bellicose Major Davis Teeglin, always felt it should have gone to him. In the early pandemonium of martial law, Teeglin excelled in tracking and cheerfully shooting the vermin who roamed the hill country preying on the weak with vile acts of rape and murder. Over time, the chaos subsided. Finding fewer enemies, Teeglin and his men eventually shifted their restless focus to internal security.

By contrast, Piper was more of an administrator. He'd been on the fringes of some action in Syria, just enough to clue him in on the abhorrent nature of armed conflict. He made a reliable commandant, but possessed neither the imagination of a visionary nor the borderline psychopathy of a cold military strategist.

The dreary, stagnating existence of Angel Canyon was partially a reflection of Piper's narrow mission, which grew more dubious with each passing year. Water seeks its lowest level, but most individuals do not. There had already been one power struggle inside the Sanctuary, and Piper didn't think he could handle another one. Increasingly, he prayed to be relieved of his post by a higher authority -- whether in this life or the next -- and the latter option sounded more attractive with each passing day.

Presently there was a knock, and he looked up to see Teeglin approaching his desk through the open door.

"Something interesting, Colonel. Have you seen the civilian scouting assignments for this month?"

Piper shook his head and sat upright to get closer to the screen. "Hold on. Let me page down." Teeglin waited until Piper's eyes landed on the curious entry for five days hence:

"Ah. You must mean this one. Scouting assignment -- May 10, local recon, solo, Winters, Daniel."

Teeglin nodded. Piper again leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and squinted slightly at the Major. "The Winters boy? That is a little odd. Care to explain?"

"Not my doing, sir. The assignments are still randomly generated by the Autoclerk system. There are 658 eligible civilian males in the scouting pool, so it must be a coincidence. But I don't like it. He turned twenty-one only two days ago, and solo assignments don't usually go to first-time scouts."

"You suspect some . . . interference?"

"Not specifically, but . . ." Teeglin lowered his brow and focused on Piper for a few extra seconds before adding "I'll send someone out to keep an eye on him."

Piper scrolled once more through the assignments before stopping again on the entry for Winters. "Have you checked the Autoclerk logs?"

"Affirmative. I've checked his logs, plus the ones for his roommate -- the Babbit girl. Nothing unusual. Like I said, Colonel, it could be a coincidence."

"But you don't believe that."

"Do you?"

***

Daniel kept to his normal routine. Leaving the dormitory at 10 p.m. on his aging mountain bike, he wove through the darkened walkways and trails of the complex. Other than a handful of people sitting on steps smoking or drinking near open doorways, he observed little activity. A short time later he coasted to a stop at Ellison and was soon enveloped by the familiar soft green radiance of the kiosk. Despite a keen sense of anticipation, Daniel wasn't prepared for what followed.

As the Autoclerk displayed the words "scouting assignment," Daniel immediately recalled the anomalous voice mentioning a visit to the Frontier. A possible explanation came to mind, along with a fresh mystery. Although a scouting assignment was unusual, it didn't rise to the level of receiving telepathic messages. As a practical necessity, Angel Canyon was not hermetically sealed, and occasionally people did receive authorization to venture outside the fence for short times and for various sanctioned activities. Even Daniel had been outside twice before, but only for closely supervised brush clearance. Nobody dared to violate the rules when outside the fence, because to do so might mean official banishment -- a virtual death sentence in a society sick of death but still requiring an ultimate punishment.

Puzzled, he wondered if he'd gained a fascinating but useless precognitive skill that would soon deliver mundane messages about laundry duty. It was an interesting thought, but it didn't last more than a few seconds before that awful mechanical voice again invaded his skull, stunning him like a sharp cramp or cold slap on the face. The voice had attained a more demanding tone, as if everything prior had only been to prepare him for the real message. What followed was a bewildering stream of words along with a dire warning about absolute secrecy. And although the evening was mild, Daniel began to shiver with alarming intensity.

The Autoclerk showed only a blinking cursor while Daniel furiously wrote, listened, and wrote more, helpless to ignore the irritating sound. When two pages of clumsy transcription were completed, Daniel stood motionless except for a shaking hand and pounding heartbeat, so overwhelmed that he failed to hear the approaching footsteps of the old man who now stood only ten feet behind him.

"Hearing voices again, Daniel?"

Gasping involuntarily, Daniel spun around to face Corbett. Off balance both mentally and physically, the notebook hung open from the clenched grip of his left hand, his fresh notes cloaked only by the murkiness of the dim green light. Him, again! Whatever was happening, Daniel finally understood this geezer wasn't just some burned-out Pulse refugee.

"Maybe I am," Daniel answered roughly, "and maybe you know something about it. You can start by telling me exactly who the hell you are and how you know my name."

Corbett smiled, nodded, and pointed to a small cement bench between the kiosk and the building. "Why don't we sit down? Over there, away from these machines."

Daniel glared at him for a few seconds before nodding reluctantly. They sat, and Corbett promptly extended his right hand and smiled feebly. "Charles Corbett, MD."

Daniel hesitated before returning the handshake. "You're a doctor?"

"Research psychiatrist, actually. Never had much of a practice, especially after the Army got me. No humanitarian legacy of healing for Dr. Corbett; my biggest regret, I suppose. I was recruited by Angel Canyon decades ago. The work was interesting, and we pushed the boundaries of science, and maybe ethics too, but the pay was good, plenty of perks, top secret clearance, no malpractice insurance. It was glamorous in a way, and we never ran out of justifications for the types of things we did here.

"I met a lot of interesting people, even crossed paths with a man named . . . Frank Winters. I respected him quite a bit, but we were never close friends. I don't think he ever trusted us folks over in Psi section. Your father was a very smart man."

"They said he was a terrorist."

"That's ridiculous, of course."

"Then what happened to him?"

The scientist turned to face straight ahead. "I really wish I knew. He ran afoul of Teeglin and Piper and that was enough to seal his fate. We're still under martial law and they could have done whatever they wanted with him. Teeglin is famous for tracking people and . . . dealing with them. One thing I know for sure. If Frank was a terrorist, then I'm a ballerina."

"So . . . you worked together?"

Corbett wasn't going to make it easy. "Well . . . I can neither confirm nor deny any working relationship with Frank Winters, but I might be able to help if you tell me what is going on in your head -- voices or otherwise."

Daniel noticed Corbett eyeing the notebook lying on Daniel's lap, so he reacted by placing his hands firmly on top of it.

"You're the psychiatrist; why not tell me? How about telepathy, or maybe precognition? Do they actually exist?"

Corbett persisted. "I'd really like to hear about the voices."

"Sorry, Doctor. Not tonight."

"Huh. Okay, suit yourself. Let's see . . . telepathy and precognition? Sure, I've always believed they are real to some extent. In the 1930's, it was studied exhaustively by a legitimate scientist, J.B. Rhine, of Duke University. Rhine used good science and got positive results. But make no mistake, it's one thing to remotely observe some wavy black lines on a hidden card, and quite another to hear dictation that can be written into a notebook. It doesn't work that way."

Daniel grew impatient and responded sharply. "No? Then what does work that way?"

Surprisingly Corbett didn't hesitate. "Offhand, VTS is the best method, and it's been around for nearly 50 years." He sounded glib enough to have been discussing types of toothpaste.

"VTS?"

"It's an acronym for 'Voice -to- Skull'. Effective, but harsh. It generates complex microwave signals mapped to an individual's brain patterns. You can even project it at a distance; pick someone out of a crowd, influence their moods, their thoughts; you can even make people believe they're hearing voices. I'm told it's a very uncomfortable sensation. Funny, isn't it? People used to joke about wearing tin-foil hats. Fact is, a two-millimeter copper mesh screen works a lot better. Maybe I can find you one."

So, that was it. Daniel's only reaction was disgust as he suddenly postulated several ugly explanations for the voices, the messages, everything. They all boiled down to the same ugly reality -- these army bastards were playing with him. Whatever reason existed for this sick game, Daniel was determined to find it. But his anger was palpable and now he only wanted to flee this sinister Doctor.

Corbett sensed it, and rose from the bench to face Daniel. "I told you, Son, we pushed the boundaries of ethics. Angel Canyon was built for military research, but that's all over now. Let me tell you something else. I've never been religious, but I do know that man is a deeply flawed creature. Technology just helped us sin more dispassionately. Maybe the Pulse was a type of redeemer, cauterizing our transgressions with a few blistering gigawatts of salvation. Good night, Mr. Winters." Corbett nodded politely and shuffled off down the overgrown tree-lined path.

Daniel remained for several more minutes, buffeted by crosswinds of confusion, anger, and excitement. Finally, he checked that the notebook was securely inside his jacket and headed home.

***

The sum total of what Daniel had experienced in the past two weeks finally had a face, albeit blurry, of a military psy-op, presumably to test some hardware or maybe recruit him. Angel Canyon field operatives were a fact of life, and why shouldn't he get dragged into it? He was young, healthy, knew the area, and officers like Teeglin could use the Frank Winters scandal as a way to pressure Daniel to cooperate. There might be more to it, but the basic facts must be roughly correct.

That evening, with Emily in their aging concave bed, he succeeded in telling her only about the scouting assignment; nothing about Corbett, the dubious VTS technology, or the frightening "extra instructions" he got at Ellison. She was worried, plain and simple. He was going outside, and that was bad enough.

"When do you go?"

"Day after tomorrow, by eight."

"Why are they sending you out alone?"

"It's . . . just the way the system assigned it, plus it's an easy job -- looking for edible plants, wildlife, that sort of thing. They don't think I'll see anyone near the complex, but they'll give me a pistol, binoculars, a map, compass, and some food and water. It's like an old-fashioned day hike. I'll be back before sundown."

Daniel lightly stroked her upper thigh, "I sort of wish you were going too . . . there must be a dozen meadows within a mile of here." It didn't make her feel any better, but she smiled and leaned over to kiss him anyway. Maybe he'd return safely and stop hearing voices and life would return to normal. In a painful moment of clarity, she reflected on their life inside the sanctuary and, for the first time, wondered if it really was pointless like Daniel always tried to tell her. How could anything pointless be considered normal?

***

"Do you understand the rules and accept the risks of this assignment?" Greer, the aging army sergeant, sat at a small metal table inside the drab main gatehouse where Daniel stood, fidgeting nervously with the straps of his backpack. He looked at Greer and nodded. "Yes, Sergeant. I understand the rules."

"Remember -- you've got to be back at this gate before sundown or you'll be considered a rogue and may be summarily banished. And don't go outside the scouting perimeter," Greer's face shifted to a sneer, "or you might be mistaken for a bandit and get shot by a military patrol. Now, sign the consent form."

Daniel leaned over to sign the paper, checking Greer's once-again bored expression out of the corner of his eye. Wasn't this all a charade? After all, wouldn't Greer have been briefed on his assignment?

A few minutes later, Daniel Winters was through the main gate and beyond the perimeter of the sanctuary. He gazed back at two armed sentries who now regarded him suspiciously, as if crossing the border instantly made him a threat. Daniel nervously waved to them with an awkward smile.

The first part of his route took him a half mile east along what had been the entrance road but was now a fractured stretch of abandoned asphalt; torn from above by blistering summer heat and frigid months of snow and ice, and heaved from below by the steady progress of mesquite and creosote bushes. Daniel never looked back to see who was following him, but he was certain someone was. Or perhaps that person had been sent out earlier. Regardless, he wasn't a fool; he planned on doing everything he'd been "told."

Twenty minutes later he was beyond the view of the facility and truly felt the intoxication of true solitude. The sensation was invigorating. He could feel himself a boy again, surrounded by the familiar canyons and scrub plateaus of his pre-Pulse innocence. His senses reeled from the growing disorientation of actually being in the Frontier, and was nearly overcome with anxiety rising from conflicting thoughts and images; Emily, Corbett, his evening rides, the safety of the sanctuary, the loss of his parents, the years of numb survival, and finally these few hours of glorious freedom and the completion of his strange mission.

Regaining his focus he picked up the pace, wanting to pad his schedule in case of problems later. Even if he really was acting on their instructions, he couldn't be sure what would happen if he was late. He pulled out his notebook and made a superficial attempt at some crude notes. He doubted if anyone would read them, and at this moment he wasn't interested in counting rabbits or deer scat or locating prickly pear or cholla. He'd do that on the way back.

The Ellison instructions relied on basic dead reckoning -- compass direction + speed + time -- but some of it was guesswork and he updated his estimated position frequently.

After an hour, the moment of truth arrived; Daniel would be leaving the official scouting area. From this point on, he'd technically be committing a serious violation of Sanctuary rules. Daniel took a deep breath and pushed on, now climbing a winding trail towards the crest of a craggy mesa dotted with scrub oak and pinion pine.

With deep breaths and heavy exertion, he leaned into the hill and steadily ascended, resisting the absurd nostalgic contradictions of traversing such familiar territory -- not freely but as a kind of nebulous interloper. He was losing grip on his own identity. If only things weren't so terribly broken and still made sense and life equaled purpose and hope, the way they did before that awful moment when they flipped the switch on America. A sickening wave of fear nearly unbalanced him, so he paused to gather his nerve in the shade of a rock outcropping and listened to the vast soothing silence of the New Mexico hill country. He could see a portion of the Angel Canyon complex from this high vantage point, and believed he had to be very close, perhaps only a few hundred yards to his first objective. He'd finally know if this were all real, or if he'd really gone off the rails two weeks ago at Ellison.

Daniel reviewed his barely legible notes and briefly panicked that he'd gone the wrong way. He cautiously followed a crooked narrow slit through the rock outcroppings and his heart leapt as he emerged into a wider area matching the description in his notes. Proceeding around some huge boulders he arrived at a place where a large overhang of granite created the appearance of the mouth of a cave. Peering inside, his pulse racing, he saw it parked there in the shadows, an old 1970's Honda trailbike. A broad smile flooded across his face along with the realization his sanity was no longer in doubt. He eagerly inspected the old dirt bike and found it to be in remarkably good condition and holding nearly a half tank of fuel.

When the machine purred to life on the first kick he wasn't surprised, just puzzled. If they wanted to recruit him for intelligence work, why not ask? If they were testing their crazy VTS equipment, why was it necessary to leave Sanctuary?

No matter. A narrow trail led to the west down a bowl-shaped valley and up a similar slope to another craggy ridge perhaps a mile away. With the binoculars, Daniel could see an even higher ridge beyond it, marked by a distinctive statue-shaped formation that could only be the one called 'Liberty Rock.' He clicked the gearshift lever and sped down the trail.

***

The woman must have watched Daniel approach well before he saw her. The instructions said: Sit down on the north side of the rock facing west. Daniel complied.

That's when she revealed herself, emerging from behind some trees along the ridgeline. She was a striking, brown-skinned woman, possibly Apache, early 40's with long jet black hair, dark eyes, and a tall, slender build. Daniel was utterly transfixed; aside from sandals, her only garment was a simple linen dress, threadbare and nearly transparent. She had a .22 rifle slung over her left shoulder, and approached Daniel slowly with a gentle smile.

"Well, well. Most amazing. You actually got the message even though he programmed it over two years ago. Come with me. It's just a little ways from here. My name is Faith. I've only been here two months, but it already feels like home. Oh, and happy birthday. I know you can't stay long, but there's quite a present waiting for you."

And so she led him, wobbly and speechless, down the steep slope into a narrow canyon that bottomed out before rising again towards a clearing sheltered on three sides by sheer rock walls. There he saw the outline of a cabin with smoke rising from a chimney. As he got closer, his eyes filled with tears while his ears were flooded with the sounds of a familiar harmonica.

Epilogue

The morning sun breached the eastern horizon a mere minute earlier than yesterday, but today carried an extra warmth and brightness that signaled the approach of summer. Piper was in his office early, getting briefed by a rather chilly Major Teeglin who had already interviewed Lieutenant Redfield, the one sent to follow Winters.

Teeglin couldn't understand why Winters wasn't being interrogated, instead of resting comfortably in his quarters ever since returning yesterday a half-hour before sundown.

"Did Redfield have any idea where he went on the motorcycle?"

Teeglin sighed. "Redfield had a hunch. He caught sight of Winters heading straight northwest along a trail that eventually climbs to a local landmark -- a rock outcropping that resembles the Statue of Liberty."

"And the motorcycle is still where he left it?"

"Affirmative. Redfield confirmed it before following Winters back in."

"What I really want to know is how he got his information."

"Then why don't you let me pick him up? I'll see he tells us in about three minutes."

Piper ignored this, but let Teeglin continue. "You can bet it was Frank. Whether he survived or not, somehow he left a message in the system two years ago, probably triggered by the boy's birthday and concealed in some sort of code. But exactly how he did it . . . ."

Piper finally responded. "Fine, Major. But if you want to pick someone up, go find Charlie Corbett. Who knows what he and Frank might have cooked up in the Psi lab. I want you to leave the boy alone. As far as he's concerned, we believe he was out there counting rabbits. I can assure you he will soon be speaking with us most candidly, but there's something I need to do first."

Piper went to a tall metal locker in the corner of his office and quickly spun a combination lock until it clicked open. Teeglin watched nervously as Piper removed a backpack, a holstered pistol, a belt, and some small equipment pouches.

"Colonel, the man is our enemy. We have every legal right to go up there and clean him out. I don't understand."

So here it was; a simple challenge that signaled the arrival of a defining moment not just for Piper or Angel Canyon, but perhaps even a Rubicon, beyond which the fractured remains of a nation might finally cross. Piper had lost any reason to continue this charade of fear, control, and the sacrifice of freedom that represented its unsustainable cost. Piper looked at Teeglin, not as his commanding officer, but as someone who just needed to express the truth.

"I'm sorry Major, but you're right. You don't understand. It's not Frank. It's us. We're the ones that don't fit. Don't you see? There's nobody coming to relieve us from our post. The war is over, Teeglin. The future is out there, not in here. It's time to open those gates.

"Two years ago, Frank Winters was planning to organize a rebellion with those damn machines. We knew he might succeed, so we -- took action. Now, I wonder. Was he just too early? Look, if he's out there, he's already survived two years on his own. He knows this area better than anyone. He's a visionary and he's got guts. If we ever expect to rebuild a free society . . . no Major, I'm not going to 'clean him out'. I'm going to ask him to come back." Teeglin looked stunned as Piper finished with his gear, turned his back, and walked out.

Now only a hundred feet from the main gate, Piper felt the curious sensation of his life being detached from the many familiar comforts of position, authority, and security. It wasn't complicated; he merely had a new task to perform, one that carried risks no worse than what any solider is expected to take. Yet he paused and reflexively felt around the extra pouches on his belt, the ones containing just a few extra supplies of medicine and ammunition, plus a tiny handful of small mementos -- just in case he wasn't allowed back in.


THE END


2016 Glenn M. Diamond

Bio: Mr. Diamond has a background in electrical engineering and currently lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and daughter. His first published short story "The Cleansing" appeared in the Huffington Post. His last Aphelion appearance was It's Only Routine in our May, 2016 issue.

E-mail: Glenn M. Diamond

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.