By: Karl Miller
The anhinga, its knifelike beak prepared to strike, perched on a low branch, and stared down at the dark water around the mangrove roots beneath it. As dusk enveloped the Everglades, the long greenish-black bird studied the scene for any small fish swimming unknowingly into danger. After a few minutes, something unusual caught its attention. Across the water, about a hundred meters away, a strange light appeared and hovered over the ground. The anhinga knew enough of humans to be wary, but this beam was not like any it had seen people use before. Instead, the light seemed to float on its own, a column hanging in the air with nothing near it, and
was pleasantly, irresistibly inviting, giving off an overwhelming feeling of safety as the bird stared at it.
The anhinga rose into the air and flew across to the island where the light shone. It stayed at a distance, flying in a circle twenty meters above the column, examining the area. Seeing no sign of danger, it descended and landed five meters from the object. The anhinga looked it over and saw the pillar was two meters in height and a meter wide, hovering two meters above the ground. It could see no source for it, no sign of people or anything else that could explain it.
Cautiously, the anhinga moved closer. It stopped three meters from the beam, looking up curiously at the column of pure white light above it. After a moment, the bird relaxed and unfolded its wings to dry in the warmth.
The anhinga had been standing motionless for about twenty minutes when a disturbance showed in the water by the edge of the island. Bubbles broke the surface, followed by the snout of a ten-foot-long alligator, teeth showing in its slightly open mouth. The anhinga did not move or acknowledge the presence of the visitor as the reptile emerged from dark water and clambered up the bank of the island.
The alligator moved forward, its clawed legs propelling it toward the pillar. As with the anhinga, it stopped short of the beam, the light shining dully off its rough skin. It remained still, its normal predatory urges submerged in the deep sense of calm.
When a white-tailed deer approached the spot warily thirty minutes later, neither of the two animals already present reacted. The deer, its large eyes fixated on the beam, gingerly took a place across from the anhinga and the alligator. Its normal skittishness faded, and it relaxed in its spot so that all three were equidistant from each other in a rough circle below the pillar.
As the night progressed, other animals approached and watched the light from a distance. One by one, they stood on pieces of dry land around the pillar, focusing on the column and ignoring what would ordinarily prompt them into their normal behaviors. Gradually, they moved into spots around the beam, each oriented with one of the three in the original circle. Over the next few hours of the night, animals took positions farther and farther from the column, the most distant–a heron–standing a kilometer away. At regular intervals, when one left its spot, another of the same type would arrive to replace it.
As they assumed their places, they stopped making any sound. All the usual cacophony–grunts, cries, calls, songs–faded away. When the first rays of the morning sun began breaking the darkness, that area of the Everglades had become almost entirely silent.
For the first time she could remember, Alice Hargraves woke without the grating help of an alarm, ten minutes before the 6:30 call that normally dragged her into a new day. She swung her six-foot-two frame off the bed, reached over to open the blinds, and peered out at Biscayne Bay, at the lights shining from the buildings that peeked over the seawall, and at the lights that shone from the boats that lay at anchor. For an instant, she recalled Waikiki from her childhood and half-smiled at the memory.
After a twenty-minute workout session in the apartment gym on the ground floor, Alice showered, got in her late model Ford, and drove south past the unBalanced ghetto and onto Federal Highway. Half an hour later, she went past the Everglades National Park entrance in Homestead and drove onto the ranger parking lot.
Ed Gonzalez, balding and in his late fifties, leaned back in the chair behind his desk as Alice walked into the administrative section of the park’s main visitor center.
“Aloha, Ivy,” he said, grinning.
“Never gets old, does it?” she said back with a laugh.
“Well, not many Ivy league grads from Hawaii here in Florida. Definitely not many living the high-paying life of the National Park Service.” He hesitated. “Seriously, you’re wasting your life here. I know your research and everything, but you could be teaching at a university somewhere, living the soft life. You’re young–enjoy it. Or one day you could be old like me, sitting behind a crappy desk here.”
She smiled. “Maybe one day. Not today, though. Today I’m taking one of the airboats and heading out to good old Monitoring Station 19.”
“Well, bring this along,” he said and tossed her a Gatorade. “It’s a hot one.”
“Thanks, sir,” Alice said as she bobbled the catch then grabbed the bottle before it hit the floor.
“You’re supposed to be an athlete.”
“Volleyball, remember? You’ve seen it, right? We don’t catch. We hit.” She winked and walked out the back door of the ranger station and down a wooden ramp to the boats. Alice went to the first airboat, its dented aluminum hull sitting still in the shallow water and climbed aboard.
She untied the lines and jumped in the front seat. When Alice turned the key, the electric engine quietly came alive. The caged fan behind her started spinning powerfully into a low hum and the boat began moving. She steered toward the main channel that led deeper into the wetlands.
A mile from the ranger station, she turned the boat down a side passage and cut the engine. As the fan slowed to a stop behind her, the silence immediately struck Alice. She had never heard the Everglades so quiet in the entire five years she had spent there.
When the boat drifted forward a dozen meters, Alice noticed a change to the landscape-a column of light hovering on its own above the ground. She saw nothing projecting it and was stunned to see animals standing motionless around the beam. Alice quickly pulled out her comm to record it. She panned out in her recording, doubly startled to see another motionless ring of animals a few meters back from the first trio.
Alice quickly sent the images to the station, then audioed Gonzalez.
“Can you believe this?” she asked.
“No. No, I can’t,” Ed responded. “They died in place, just like that?”
“I don’t think they’re dead. It seems like they’ve only stopped, frozen like that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I can see them breathing.”
“I’ve been here 40 years and never seen anything like that. And what is that light?”
“The light? I don’t know. It was there when I got here. And I can’t see how it’s being done.”
There was a pause. “I’m on my way. Just stay in the boat.”
After the call, Alice dropped anchor, took out binoculars, and started surveying the surrounding area more. She saw still more animals, forming nearly perfect concentric circles as far as she could see. Alice took more footage and waited.
Twenty minutes later, Alice saw Ed Gonzalez’ airboat approach. He switched off the engine and drifted alongside her. Grabbing the line she tossed, he pulled the boats together.
“Here,” she said, handing over the binoculars and pointing past the second circle of animals. “It keeps going.”
The older ranger spoke while he gazed through the binoculars. “I’ve never seen a deer and a gator stand that close to each other. This is creepy.”
“It is. Definitely. It’s like a spell was cast on them.”
“Maybe they’re modified? And implants make them respond to the light?”
“It’s possible. I’ve never heard of implants getting wildlife to act like this, though. This is a whole higher level of sophistication.”
“I’m sending a report up the chain. Let them try to figure it out.” Gonzalez sat in the bow of his boat and took additional video, then closed his eyes to engage the comm and add explanatory text. After five minutes, he opened his eyes.
“OK, that’s sent. I want to get closer to the light. But not with that gator standing there loose.” He studied the situation again. “I can throw a noose around its head then tie it back.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“I’ve done it a bunch of times.” He smiled grimly. “Well, not really ‘a bunch.’ But no problem. I’m sure I can do it,” Gonzalez said, grabbing a thick wire line and fashioning a loop at one end. He also retrieved an air rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts and handed it to Alice. “In case he wakes up,” he said, with an abruptly serious expression.
He untied his boat, and, using a long wooden pole, pushed it toward the shore.
A few pushes later, the boat touched land. The animals remained still.
“Wow,” she said ironically and checked the gun. “You’re sure, Ed? We can wait until they leave?”
“Don’t worry. It’s fine. I really have done this before,” he said as he eased over the side and onto the island. He walked cautiously behind the alligator and gently tossed the line over its snout. The animal didn’t move. Gonzalez bit his lip, then slowly eased the line around the snout and pulled it until it was snug. He wrapped the other end around the trunk of a bald cypress and tied it off.
Keeping his distance from the alligator, Gonzalez crept between the anhinga and the deer, neither of which reacted. He carefully approached the beam and started taking video. Gonzalez tentatively waved his left hand below the light. He hesitated then touched the pillar and pulled his hand back quickly.
“It’s fine –a little hot,” he yelled to her. “Come on over.”
Alice raised the anchor and brought her boat alongside the other on the shore. Eyeing the alligator, she delicately walked past the other animals and joined Gonzalez. She reached up cautiously and touched the edge of the column.
“Careful,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s fine,” Alice responded, and put her hand fully into the beam then withdrew it.
“Whoa–doesn’t that hurt?”
“No. It’s actually pretty cool.”
“Really? How is that possible?” Gonzalez said, staring at the pillar curiously.
A tone from his comm interrupted them. He closed his eyes to receive the message.
“I don’t believe it,” he said in a shocked voice and opened his eyes.
“I’m sending to you now,” Gonzalez said.
An instant later, Alice closed her eyes and began receiving.
The first story began with aerial footage of the Gobi Desert. As a drone circled the area, Alice saw concentric rings of animals around a column identical to the one she found. The narration began in Mandarin with English subtitles: Early this morning, authorities reported an unusual phenomenon occurring in the northern Gobi Desert. Tribesmen found wild Bactrian camels had organized themselves into circles stretching out hundreds of meters around an unusual column of light. At this point, the drone descendedand gave a closer view of the animals which stared fixedly at the pillar. The camels showed a stunning lack of reaction when tribesmen approached them. The piece ended with a shot of the beam, which appeared completely identical to the one Alice had found. Scientists are on their way to examine the matter further.
A moment after the China video stopped, another began from Nigeria. At six thirty local time this morning, Gashaka-Gumti National Park witnessed an unprecedented sight. As with the Chinese footage, a drone filmed high above the ground and showed a savannah lined with rows of wild animals organized into circles. Elephants, buffalos, wild dogs, and even a few lions all formed themselves into an apparently deliberate pattern. At the center of the pattern–a strange light hovering above the ground. Park scientists say this behavior is completely unlike any in their experience, and suspect banned scientific activity as the cause.
Lastly, a video from Spain began, again subtitled in English. It showed a plain northwest of Seville on which sheep and cattle had arranged themselves around yet another pillar. The television host, a well-groomed, cartoonishly handsome man in his 30s began: In an apparent display of incredible training, a rancher near Castilleja del Campo has his animals arranged in circles in his fields. An equally improbably attractive brunette laughed. I wonder how long that took! The footage showed only animals and made no mention of the beam.
Alice opened her eyes and glanced at Gonzalez.
“The stories were all buried down the page,” he said, scanning the animals standing like statues around them. “It’s probably not going to stay that way for long.”
“No, it’s not,” Alice answered. She went to the boat and grabbed a hard aluminum case then walked back to the anhinga. Taking out a syringe, she extracted blood from the bird and then from the deer, neither of which flinched or changed position at all.
She had just stood to walk back to her boat when Gonzalez engaged his comm. He was quiet for a moment then opened his eyes.
“They’re on their way,” he said simply.
Less than ten minutes later, two aircars approached from the direction of Miami. A pair of dots in the sky, they gradually grew more defined as the distance closed.
Gonzalez studied them. “Two squad carriers,” he said. “Probably half a dozen agents in each. Someone is taking this very seriously.”
A moment later, the two craft hovered quietly above the water then dropped down onto the surface and moved alongside the two airboats. The front of each opened with a ramp dropping down onto land. A dozen troops emerged in adaptive camouflage that adjusted quickly to the green and brown of the Everglades. At their lead was a tall man in his early 40s, dressed in a black polo shirt and khaki pants.
“Jim McGregor,” he said, walking toward Gonzalez and Hargraves. “Appreciate the heads up on this–and especially for tying up that big fella,” he said, gesturing to the alligator.
Carefully, he slipped past the deer and went up to the light. “This is truly amazing,” he said, peering curiously as he withdrew a small black semiautomatic from a pocket holster and waved it below and around the column. He frowned. McGregor slowly brought the barrel of the gun to touch the pillar and dropped it on the ground. “Son of a bitch! That’s hot! Went right through the gun to me.”
Hargraves and Gonzalez glanced at each other in surprise.
McGregor shook his hand in the air then turned back to Hargraves and Gonzalez.
“We’ll take things from here.” He paused. “Obviously, we need complete secrecy on this, at least until we get an idea of what’s going on here.”
“What are you planning to do?” Alice asked.
“We’ll examine the light and the subjects thoroughly to see what is causing this, then respond appropriately.”
“What does ‘examine’ mean?” she asked pointedly.
“Right,” he said, with a slightly bored tone. “Alice Hargraves. Native Hawaiian mother. Japanese-American father. Undergrad at Hawaii–Manoa. Starting outside hitter on the volleyball team all four years. Ph.D. in Animal Science from Cornell. Dissertation on impact to North American wildlife from bioweapons in 2W3.” He stared at her. “We know about you. You’re one we will definitely want to talk to. For now, you and Mr. Gonzalez will please go back to the ranger station. Maybe even think about taking the next few days off.” He stepped aside and motioned to the airboats.
“You’re going to euthanize these animals?” Alice asked with a disbelieving tone, her dark brown eyes glaring.
“After running as many tests as we can on them alive – hell, yes. Presumably, you’re aware this behavior has started happening around the world. We need to find out who is behind it and what their intention is.”
The Balance began to flash in her prefrontal cortex, warning her that it was about to reduce her emotional level.
“I’m trying to be polite here,” McGregor said. Please get in the boats and leave.” His voice darkened. “Now.”
Gonzalez touched Hargraves on the shoulder. “Come on, Alice.”
Alice scowled past the soldiers and got in her boat. Gonzalez gave it a push from the edge of the island then walked over to his own boat.
Before she turned on the motor, Alice watched soldiers walk to each of the three animals and fire darts into them. She shook her head angrily as the animals twitched for a moment before stopping, then she powered up the boat and waited while the soldiers quickly loaded the specimens into their craft.
Alice noticed another anhinga begin to circle the area. McGregor watched it warily as it descended and landed in front of the soldiers and walked to where the last anhinga had stood. Immediately afterward, another alligator crawled up from the water and, ignoring the soldiers, went into the same place as its predecessor. Its eyes on the light, a deer then walked carefully past the soldiers to take up its position.
“Take these, too?” a soldier asked in a stunned voice.
“No, not all three.” McGregor said. He looked at Alice. “Just the bird will be enough. Leave the gator and the deer alone.”
The soldier fired into the anhinga, and it collapsed on the ground before being scooped up by another soldier who put it on the boat with the prior samples. It took less than a minute for another bird to descend and take its place.
“No way,” McGregor said, watching in amazement.
“Sir?” the soldier asked, gesturing to the new bird.
He called to Alice across the water. “I know you don’t get it, but we’re doing what we have to for the country’s safety.” McGregor turned to the soldier. “We’re not going to kill every damned bird in the Everglades. We have enough.”
As Alice headed away, she turned back for an instant and saw the carrier with the specimens power up and begin to rise while the other stayed to monitor the situation.
When Hargraves and Gonzalez reached the ranger station, they stood on the wooden dock and watched while a boat went past them and headed in the direction of the light. A moment later, two more boats followed.
“They seem like government boats. No doubt they’re shutting the area down,” Gonzalez said.
Alice shook her head angrily. “I still can’t believe they’re going to kill those animals like that.”
“I know, Alice,” Gonzalez said sympathetically. “Go home and take the rest of the day off. We’re probably not going to be allowed to do much but sit at our desks anyhow,” he said, studying the two men in camouflage who stood by the doorway into the ranger station.
“You’re probably right. I’m going to give my Balance a workout if I stay here. I’ll be in early tomorrow.”
“You may want to work remotely a few days after, too, if this goes the way I think it will,” Gonzalez said ominously.
Alice drove to her apartment. She took the elevator up to her seventh-floor apartment, turned on the vidsys and started searching through channels. Over the next two days, despite the main news outlets trying to minimize the story, it began to dominate the alternate forums until the large media couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Tourists soon overran the Spain site, leading the Guardia Civil to cordon off most of the plain. Still, immense crowds stood behind ropes at the restricted areas, watching as the animals kept their positions, and as they changed places with one another, typically at sunset and sunrise. Some of the visitors held signs for animal rights groups, others raised placards assuring a presumed audience of watching aliens that humans were peaceful and well-meaning. A scattered few held rosaries.
Nigeria was essentially the same. As expected for the world’s most populous country, massive crowds invaded the national park. Unlike the people in Spain, though, the Nigerian pilgrims were overwhelmingly Catholic and chanted prayers quietly and reverently near the wildlife. Video feeds were plentiful and spectacular, showing the wildlife moving in and out of their places in the pattern.
China was a different matter. Due to the more remote desert location, few visitors showed up. The Chinese military undiplomatically sent away the reporters that made the trek, threatening several European media representatives with arrest. Rumors circulated about reporters from inside China being beaten and detained. Consequently, the only footage was from a satellite, capturing the concentric circles-with soldiers surrounding them.
Similarly, it didn’t take long for the Everglades to shut down. The day after the encounter with the agents, Gonzalez called Alice to let her know the Homestead entrance to the national park was now closed to visitors, a fact the media was allowed to corroborate a few hours later. The coverage blamed a contaminant that had made its way into the water and was affecting wildlife; potential harm to humans led the government to take the precautionary step. A flotilla of government boats and flying drones completely isolated the area, the machines buzzing around the oblivious patterned animals.
While most of the relevant governments were tightlipped about the phenomena, a biology professor from the University of Florida published an analysis, explaining that the circles of animals were identically spaced in each location. Three stood in the first circle, six in the second, twelve in the third, and 24 in the fourth. Even more unnerving – the distance was identical: in each place the first circle was three meters from the column, the second was thirty, the thirty was 300 and the last was 3000. He offered no explanations.
By the third day, Alice began receiving prompts from the Balance, gentle messages when she closed her eyes, suggesting that she may want to elevate. When Alice opened a bottle of Riesling, the internal control took on a chiding tone in its cautionary message. And when Alice drank her third glass, the Balance flashed large red letters–LEAVING RECOMMENDED EMOTIONAL RANGE. Despite the potential of contact from a government technician, Alice switched the system off, closed off the windows, and curled up on the sofa. She turned on the vidsys and called up footage of the war.
Even though she had watched it hundreds of times, she stared in dull, mesmerized terror at the 2W3 video of the Pakistani news host’s voice running straight into panic when she announced Iranian missiles were inbound to Islamabad, her fear caught forever in that last interrupted image that got out to the world before the broadcast abruptly stopped. Alice had another glass of wine and watched satellite footage of Tehran receiving the retaliatory strikes, its sole response missile rising away from the glow before it was struck down by hypersonic drones.
She went ahead and watched the insanity happen again, the great drone battles over Europe that culminated with the limited exchange of nuclear weapons between China and the United States. The misguided submarine attack off Florida that led to the destruction of the northern third of the Everglades happened when a Chinese missile meant for a military base near Tampa went off-course. Alice watched the aftermath, the pathetic sight of all those animals running from the blast, flailing, and smashing into each other, finally falling together in massive piles as the fires overtook them. Then she looked at a video of the world leaders announcing passage of the Balanced Act, a measure that would ensure technology would rein in any further displays of the worst of human behavior. She shook her head and finished the bottle.
When she awoke, the vidsys was still on, reminding her to return her Balance to operating mode. Alice did so and saw a message waiting from McGregor. “Hello, Dr. Hargraves. We’d appreciate you stopping by at your convenience to discuss the, uh, phenomena at the park. Also, I noted your Balance is having some issues. Hope that’s all sorted out quickly,” he added with forced pleasantry.
Alice immediately called Gonzalez but his comm was down, and strangely not even allowing messages.
She sighed then confirmed a 2 p.m. meeting with McGregor. Alice showered, dressed, and headed to the ranger station. Half a mile from the entrance, the two-lane road had a checkpoint where two soldiers with automatic weapons stopped vehicles and turned them around. When Alice arrived, they checked her ID and then passed her through.
When she walked to the station door, another soldier directed Alice to McGregor, who was now in Gonzalez’ office. He again wore a black polo and khakis.
McGregor stood when Alice arrived at the door and gave a brief smile. “Dr. Hargraves, have a seat,” he said and gestured to a plastic chair in front of the desk. “Glad to see your Balance is back.”
Alice gave an exasperated sigh. “You’re in law enforcement. I get that you’ve already tapped into everything so you should already know all you need.”
“Maybe not all,” he answered and paused. “Hey, let’s try to get this off on the right foot. I’m not here because I want to be. I’d much rather be at my much nicer offices in Miami. But we need to find out what is going on here–and so far, we haven’t come up with much.”
“The animals you killed didn’t help?” Alice asked sharply.
“No, no they didn’t,” McGregor answered. “The tests all showed perfectly normal, unaltered physiology. No sign of any mutation or alteration. Or any difference at all from any other wildlife. Which makes this even more troubling.”
“Why do ostensibly perfectly normal animals start behaving like this?”
“I have no idea. The first time I saw it was happening was the morning Ed Gonzalez reported it. By the way– as I’m sure you’re aware –his comm is down. Have you been in touch with him?”
“Not recently. We spoke a couple of days ago but not since then.”
Alice gazed at him skeptically. McGregor ignored her expression and continued.
“I read your dissertation and read over your current research records. It’s interesting that someone with your background and obvious interest in wildlife welfare is so close to this event.”
“Are you insinuating I did this? Or had some role in making them behave like this?”
McGregor was silent and looked at her, his light brown eyes examining her reaction.
Alice shook her head. “It would be one hell of a trick to get them to do this. I care about animal welfare obviously, but I’m no saboteur or mad scientist.”
McGregor continued to stare without speaking.
“Is there something else you want me to be saying? If you read my research, you know it’s benign. The dissertation was about mutations in Everglades wildlife populations in areas affected by the last war. My current research concerns the extent to which any such mutations have spread.”
“And your findings?”
“Nothing significant. A few abnormalities here and there but not enough to create a pattern. Which, if you read my records, you already know.”
“I apologize–to an extent–for going through your records, but do you get the issues at play here? However this is being done, it has the potential to do a lot of damage. If this behavior is harnessed on a large scale, think about what could happen. Animals trained to take out a school full of children, to attack a town, to assassinate? I have actually spoken with the Secretary of Defense on this. He said the President is extremely concerned and needs us to get to the bottom of this right away. They’re viewing this as a preview, a threat, being done on our soil to embarrass us.”
“But it’s happening other places, too,” Alice responded.
“Right, and one of those players could well be the culprit, trying to shift blame.”
“Well, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say.”
“What do you feel could be causing this?”
“I couldn’t say. Maybe someone has figured out how to use mass hypnosis on wildlife. Maybe there is some trigger in the light, a frequency possibly, that they respond to?”
“We’ve checked into that. It’s possible we just haven’t found the right cue.”
“What have you found out about the beam?”
“That’s another strange part of this. It’s of no particular frequency and there is no discernible source. We’ve shared data with the other locations, and they found the same thing. They also found that it does interact differently with each person.”
“Some people find the beam extremely hot. One soldier– an idiot–put his hand in all the way and it was completely burned off. Cauterized cleanly at the wrist. Others find it cool and completely harmless.”
“Right. For me, it was room temperature. Nothing happened.”
McGregor sat and reflected for a moment. Finally, he stood. “You can go. We’ll be back in touch if we need you.” He paused. “One other thing.”
“The Florida professor was right about the circles being consistent. But he missed a crucial aspect of the phenomena: the rings are contracting. Each day the rings are tightening. We didn’t notice it right away since the motion is so slight in the first circle. The circles are moving closer to the beam by exactly ten percent each day.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’re concerned it’s a type of countdown.”
“We’re not sure,” he said simply and shook his head. “They’re just animals.”
As Alice crossed the causeway from Key Biscayne on her way home, she was surprised to see Miami as busy as always, a different world than the ominous happenings a short distance away. She stopped at El Rey de las Fritas and ordered a frita cubana to go. While she waited, she tried Gonzalez but again was unable to leave a message.
Back at her apartment, Alice watched the news as she ate dinner, thinking the whole time about whether she should go to the media, how she’d do it if she decided to – and whether they’d even act on her information. She tried to distract herself by doing some work on her comm for a while then tried to watch a comedy on the vidsys but it failed to engage her. Alice started to fall asleep but stirred and went to bed to read the latest issue of the International Journal of Zoology.
She had been reading for twenty minutes when the Balance began sending occipitally. PLEASE ELEVATE flashed in large letters. Alice ignored it but a few moments later, the same message showed again, then a third time. It was then she noticed a veiled woman sitting on a mahogany chair in the corner of the room.
“What . . .” Alice started, trying to make her voice sound more normal than it felt.
The woman turned toward Alice. The scientist stared in shock at noticing a faint glow under the veil.
“Things are about to change,” she said simply, sounding surprisingly young and with a trace of a Spanish accent.
“How did you get in here? Did the landlord let you in?”
The woman ignored her. “You are going to be part of it. You are already part of it.” The glow grew more pronounced.
“Who are you?”
“In a different time, in a different situation, I was someone like you. Someone called to play a role.”
“A role? You mean in the . . . “Alice stammered again.
“It’s not what you think it is. It’s not what the government thinks it is.”
“What is it? Why is it happening?” Alice asked, her voice barely at whisper level.
“It will come to you. Be patient.”
The sound of the journal slapping the hardwood floor startled Alice. Stunned, she found herself alone in the room. Then she stared at the corner chair.
She found herself unable to stop herself from walking to it, her heart beating increasingly rapidly as she approached it. Tentatively, she reached forward–but stopped.
“Don’t be afraid.” Alice heard the same woman’s voice whisper, this time directly behind her. She spun around to see her room as it normally appeared but now much different. The air felt somehow invigorated, almost pulsating, and her mind seemed sharpened. Alice touched the chair. The mahogany was warm. She sat down in it and was startled to find herself starting to cry, a few tears at first that became deep, heaving sobs that warnings from the Balance couldn’t stem and she kept crying until her chest hurt, then she took deep breaths until she could relax before trying to sleep again.
At 4:03 a.m., Alice’s comm toned. Groggily, she saw it was Gonzalez and connected to him.
He was outside. It was dark and his face, illuminated by the comm’s light, looked frightened. Gonzalez spoke in a whisper. “Alice, listen to me carefully. I’ve been hiding in a kayak in the tall grass. Once I send this, they’ll be on to me. I’ve been watching them. They’re about to do something big. Watch out for yourself.” Behind him, faint yelling grew louder, with the flashing of drone lights breaking up the darkness around him. He peered around in fear before glancing back at the comm. “Aloha, Ivy.” The comm fell and the screen cut out to the sound of automatic gunfire. When she tried him back, his comm replied THIS USER IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE.
Alice sat up in bed, now fully awake. She went to the bathroom, turned on the light, and took out a pair of tweezers. She put her shoulder-length brown hair into a bun then, with the tool in her right hand, she used her left to guide it to the small metal dot at the base of her neck. Alice positioned the tweezers and firmly grasped the dot.
Immediately, red letters showed in the comm. WARNING–DO NOT INTERFERE WITH THE INSTALLATION OF THE BALANCE.
An alarm began to sound in her head.
Alice took a deep breath and pulled outward.
The alarm grew louder. STOP IMMEDIATELY–PHYSICAL INTERFERENCE WITH THE BALANCE CAN CAUSE PERMANENT INJURY OR DEATH.
Alice pulled harder and felt a sharp pain. Blood began to flow from the dot as it pulled out from the skin.
STOP NOW–YOU ARE AT RISK OF IMMEDIATE DEATH.
The alarm was deafening.
Alice started to get lightheaded but gave the tweezer one more pull.
It came free of her skin. Hands shaking, she dropped it and the tweezer to the bathroom tiles as nausea enveloped her. Alice grabbed the edge of the bathroom sink and steadied herself. She took deep breaths for a full minute until she felt calmer. Alice looked down at the Balance, the small dot leading to three short wires that had rested on her cerebellum for most of her life. She picked it up with tissue paper, wiped up the blood from the floor, and flushed it all down the toilet.
Using a towel, Alice cleaned off the blood and put a bandage over the wound, which was surprisingly smaller and less painful than she thought it would be. She went downstairs to the parking garage, powered up her motorcycle, and headed toward the park.
A mile outside it, she saw a caravan of government vehicles heading away quickly from the park. Curiously, they didn’t try to stop her as she went past. Alice saw McGregor in the backseat of one vehicle, shaking his head as he stared back at her.
As she approached the park gate, she heard an alarm, louder and louder as she approached “Evacuate the area,” a recorded voice repeated ominously.
Alice saw the flash a split second before she heard the roar.
She felt the ground lift as she flew over the handlebars and into the brush along the road, her motorcycle sliding away into the gravel.
When she regained consciousness, she sat up and peered through smoky air at the mushroom cloud that rose a hundred meters over her, a light gray against the darkness. Ears ringing, she coughed to clear the smoke out of her lungs and shakily got to her feet. Burnt pieces of the Everglades drifted down all around her–leaves, branches, bits of what had just been animate matter. Alice found her bike resting on its side a few meters from her. She pulled it upright, checked it over, sat in the seat, and switched it back on. Full of dread, she rode slowly on the grass by the broken road past the wrecked metal gates that hung askew at the entrance.
When she reached the ranger station, she dismounted and wandered in a daze through the ruined grounds. Near the dock, she saw a deer lying on the ground. Its front legs broken, the deer was bleeding from its mouth. Unmoving, it watched her warily.
Alice sat down next to the animal and cradled its head on her lap. She stroked its neck for a moment then spontaneously started whispering soothingly until the deer’s eyes closed and its body sagged in her arms. She laid the deer down on the ground then stood and stared at it for a long moment.
She walked back to her bike and headed back to Miami. As she crossed the bridge, she turned into the unBalanced ghetto and rode down a side street with boarded-up storefronts until she found herself at a rundown park. Alice got off the motorcycle and sat on a bench for half an hour, trying to decide what to do next. Finally, she stood and began to wander through the decrepit zone. She saw no one. After two hours of walking, she turned down a side street and saw a two-story white stone building with a wooden door and a sign that read SERVANTS OF THE HEART OF GOD.
Alice walked to the door and knocked. A moment later, a nun in her early thirties and dressed in a brown habit with white trim appeared. When she saw Alice, she smiled like she was seeing someone she knew.
“So nice to meet you,” she said before Alice could say anything.
“OK,” Alice replied with a puzzled tone.
“Please come in,” the nun said and opened the door wide.
Alice walked inside a room furnished simply with a set of three wooden chairs by a narrow window.
The nun had her wait for a moment, leaving and reappearing before inviting Alice to follow her. “Our director would like to see you.”
Alice trailed the nun to an office at the end of a hallway lined with pictures of what she presumed were the past directors, some austere, a few smiling. The current occupant of the office had her door open and was waiting by it. She was in her mid-60s and wore a habit identical to her younger associate.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said, taking Alice’s hand. “I’m Sister Alex. I’m sure you want to sit after what you’ve been through.”
Alice sat in an old wooden chair in front of the director’s oaken desk as the other nun departed.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said with a confused tone. “You both seem to know me?”
“I guess you may not know,” Alex said with a small smile. The director switched on a vidsys in the corner of the office and Alice was startled to video of herself holding the deer.
“A drone captured that moment – and that moment seems to have captured the world. Quite a storm going on outside-and you’re the face of it.” The director flipped through a dozen channels and nearly all had Alice’s image.
“What happened?” Alice asked.
“Well, two of the governments apparently felt they could stop the countdown by destroying it, so China and the United States used bombs–non-nuclear, they carefully specified–to destroy what they felt was an unknown but imminent danger.”
“What about Nigeria and Spain?”
“They declined–so the animals there continue to converge around the beams.”
Alice sat quietly for a moment. “I don’t mean to offend,” she said abruptly, “but I’m not a believer.”
“And why not?” Alex asked softly.
“Again, I’m trying not to offend, but the notion of God seems primitive, like a fiction to explain away a world for people who can’t handle the idea of randomness and time.”
“Does that approach make you happy?”
“I’m happy enough,” Alice said, slightly defensive.
Alex made a skeptical expression before continuing. “Can randomness and time explain what happened the last few days?”
“Probably. The scientists just need more facts and the time to analyze them.”
Alex smiled again. “They can have all the time they want with these facts–I doubt they’re going to adequately explain it.” She was quiet for a long moment. “Why do you think wildlife respond like this to these beams?”
“I’m not sure. Probably some frequency we’ll crack eventually.”
“Or maybe it’s because they’re the only ones left clean enough to get the point?”
Alice shrugged. “I can see someone like you believing that.”
“I don’t expect you to accept this, but I knew you would be coming here. Several days ago, in fact.”
“What?” Alice said skeptically.
“I didn’t know your name, but I knew you’d be coming here.” She paused. “I get that you’re not big on faith. But think about this for a moment. We are a small order. Founded a hundred years ago for a narrow purpose-to help those who became impoverished because of new technology and their refusal to accept it. In the whole world, we’re only fifty nuns in four locations. And do you know where those convents happen to be?”
Alice shook her head, waiting for a point.
“Interestingly, they are each within an hour of where these mysterious beams appeared.”
“That’s odd,” Alice said. “Not inexplicable but I’ll grant you it’s strange.”
“You may not accept it as such, but I take it as a sign that maybe our mission should expand, that we should take care of the wildlife that keeps arriving. And they are, you know, continuing to come. Watch this.” Alex played a grainy drone video from the Everglades site showing an anhinga descending through smoke toward the beam that was still visible on the ground, unchanged despite the blast. “Inexplicably–to some–they keep aligning themselves with the light, despite the circumstances. And I sense that will not change, regardless of how humans react. I believe it wasn’t any countdown, but rather a rhythm instead.” A longer hesitation this time. “Let me tell you something else. The reason I knew you would be arriving was a visitor I had.” She searched for words. “You ever have a dream that is so real you’re not sure if it crossed the line into reality?”
Alice didn’t reply but felt a pang of uneasiness.
“I had one of those dreams a few days ago. About four in the morning, a woman was just sitting in my room.”
The uneasiness began rising.
“I knew she wasn’t one of us because her habit was different. She wore a veil, and there was a weird light, like a glow, behind it.”
The uneasiness engulfed Alice completely.
“She told me you would be here. And she told me she would visit you, too.”
“How are you doing this?” Alice asked, voice full of confusion-and wariness. “No one knew about that.”
“So, she did visit you?”
“How did you do that? Did you holo her into my place? Why would you do that?”
“Did it seem like that, like a trick of technology?”
“What else could it be?” Alice said, a touch of anger in her words.
“Why would I send a holo to some random scientist days before an event no one saw coming? Is that logical to you?” Alex sat back in her chair. “I can’t tell you what to think. I can only say what I believe. And I get the sense, deep down, you know what all of this means.”
Alice slumped in her chair. “I . . .” she started and stopped.
“I don’t want to throw too much at you, but my visitor said something else.”
“Like more was needed?” Alice said, with a tone of defeated irony in her voice.
“She said you’d be staying. Maybe even leading this little group one day.”
Alice looked up.
“Not right away,” Alex said with a laugh, “but at some point down the road.” She paused again, watching Alice. “In any case, that’s enough for today.” Alex stood and crossed from behind the desk.
“So, what do I do?” Alice said, standing.
“It’s your life. You decide what you will do with it.” Alex opened the door. “Down the hallway to the left is the exit. To the right is a room I had made up for you last week. If you decide to leave, I understand and wish you the best.” She led Alice to the door, gestured down the hallway, and closed it gently behind her.
Alice, alone in the hallway, stared at the row of doors and walked down the corridor. She waited by the exit for a moment before finally turning and stepping into a bare room with a full bookcase, a crucifix, and a narrow window.
She sat on the simple bed and exhaled, then breathed in and out again, and then again, every second becoming increasingly aware of the silence growing into a sort of warm magnificence around her.
As far as my background: A Best of the Net nominee, Karl Miller’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals; he also wrote the plays A Night in Ruins (Off Off Broadway, 2013) and Afterward (LA, 2021).
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