Another Ten Seconds
Chapter 31 Open Enrollment

by Jeff Rand

Although a sliver of light shined through the small opening that John had left when he moved the access cover, the short winter day soon turned into long hours of darkness. Thoughts turned inward during the ensuing hours leaving each to his private suffering. Bob Hartwig and Alan Wilson sat in opposite corners on the far side of the vault, while Doug Wilson stretched across the vault lengthwise. John remained on the side near the opening absorbed in his thoughts.

"What happened?" spoke an unsteady voice.

"Alan?" said John.

"Yes, What's going on?"

"You're awake. I'm so glad," said John.

"I am weak. I can barely move. But, yes I'm awake," replied Alan. "Now tell me what happened."

"Alan," interjected Doug, in a hoarse voice.

"Dad?"

"Yes, it's me. We're safe right now in a pit," Doug explained.

"I am sorry I don't remember what happened. How did you get here?"

"John rescued me," replied Doug, speaking in a barely audible voice.

"John rescued you? How? You weren't there when we tried to rescue you. Doctor Beast suffered a severe head wound during the attempt."

Just as Doug was about to speak, John interrupted, "Doug, you need to rest. Let me explain. Alan, I rescued Doug four days ago from the NVR center in Farmington Hills. The following day, Doug and I extricated Mark Hunt from Pontiac. Earlier today we rescued you and Bob Hartwig from the Lapeer Center. To my knowledge no one else has escaped the confines of the Net. The entire human population of the world has been connected through Neural Virtual Reality for the past 3 years, including Ron Donohue."

Puzzled by John's response to Alan, Dr. Bob joined the conversation, "I'm sorry John, but I think you got it a bit confused. Alan and I escaped on our own."

"Bob, I assure you that neither of you escaped on your own. We barely made it here alive trying to rescue you."

Alan countered, "It doesn't make sense, John. While I can't explain how we got here in the pit, the events of the past few days are very clear in my mind. Bob and I woke up on our own and met you at the Last Ceremony Site at D-A. We took refuge in the BC Building, before Tom Ray joined us the next day. Two days later we met Ron and learned of his escape from Ottawa, Ontario. By my math that makes five who escaped from the Net. Though I can't explain how my father got here, that means at least six people have escaped."

"Then tell me Alan, Why did you wake up after 3 years?"

"John, you know it was because of you. You escaped and introduced the strange virtual characters to the Net. Our NVR universe became shattered with the death of the Goodman manifestation. Finally, the strange incarnation that Belmont killed caused enough shock for some of us to realize the truth."

"Certainly I had hoped to have that effect when I reentered the Net through the virtual characters. But, it didn't work. Indeed I did return to D-A, but no one else joined me."

"John, I think you've suffered some trauma," said Bob.

Doug had listened patiently, now deciding to reject John's suggestion that he rest, "John speaks the truth. Bob, you're a physician. Can you explain why it is difficult for you to move? Why do you think that John encouraged you to begin deliberate exercises a couple of hours ago? Do you think if you woke up after three years connected to NVR that you would just waltz right over to D-A?"

"No," said Bob, as the implication became clear. "I just hoped it would be easier than this."

Alan and Dr. Bob did not require any further explanation. Doug had exposed the awful truth. They realized that this was their true awakening and that their belief in a prior escape from Neural Virtual Reality had been just another NVR induced experience.

"I have just one question," said Hartwig, "Where is Mark Hunt?"

"I'm afraid we left him in the maintenance shed when we went to rescue you and Alan," said John. The maintenance shed was located about 300 feet from this latrine vault."

John's reference to the shed in the past tense exposed a somber truth that neither he nor Doug had been eager to admit. With nothing more said, each one present mourned in the silence.

Several minutes later John turned on his flashlight to better assess the current situation. It took a moment for all eyes to adjust to the sudden change.

Alan turned his attention towards his father. Never one to show great emotion, he sighed as if truly shocked by the sight. The side of Doug's face was severely burned. Pus covered his right eye forcing it shut. It appeared that the synthetic fabric of his jacket had melted and fused to his shoulder.

John sensed Alan's shock and spoke, "Whatever you thought real was just the reality you wanted. Real life's a bitch."

"Why John? Why did you have to disrupt our universe? Life inside NVR was fulfilling enough. All of our desires were satisfied, even a desire to escape. Now here we are wallowing in an excrement pit. Soon we will starve to death or face annihilation from the attack helicopters if we venture outside. If there were room to move and I had the strength I would just lay down and go back to sleep, hoping to wake up back in NVR. John you sentenced us to death."

"Alan!" barked Doug. "You know better than that. I, too, cursed John for bringing me back to brutal reality, but I understand what's at stake."

"And what might that be?" Alan inquired.

"Freedom."

"Freedom? What kind of freedom do we have in these decaying bodies? Am I free to explore a neighboring galaxy? Can I visit Winter Camp One? I think not. The physics of the Universe will not allow it. But where my mind is free so am I."

The dialog noticeably agitated Doug and in his current condition, Alan thought better of pursuing any further thoughts on the matter.

John interrupted the brief silence, "Agreed no one is ever free, but how can you justify a captivity from the truth? Isn't life's journey a path to discover the truth? Weren't you more fulfilled when you learned that the earth wasn't flat?"

"I suppose."

"Alan my son, I cherished the day you were born. Will you have such a day to greet your new son? You are still young and you know that us Wilsons tend to be older before we produce offspring. How long do you think you will last in NVR?"

"I should think we might live a very long time in NVR, perhaps thousands of years," responded the younger Wilson.

"A moment ago you spoke of physics, but forgot the first law of thermodynamics, that is entropy is always increasing. It might be nice to think of NVR as a purely mental universe, but it requires computers and human bodies rooted in a more conventional universe, a universe that is burning itself out."

"I understand that dad, but I seem to recall one of the bizarre stories written by your friend Jeff describing a Winter Camp Universe that was that was sixteen septuagesimo-centi-bi-millillion years old. Now I think that is long enough for me."

"Alan," said John, "How much food do you think is available at the NVR centers?"

"I don't know? Isn't there some kind of replenishment process?"

John continued, "A hair follicle on a bald head has a better replenishment process. You know my company had a government contract during the construction of the NVR centers to design the finger and toenail maintenance systems. Now I'll let you in on a little secret that I learned while involved in the project. The government had a goal to have four years supply of IV food solution in each of the NVR centers. I am not sure that this goal was met everywhere, though I doubt that any center has much of a surplus. You should also know that there is no way for the centers to produce an additional supply."

"You mean that world will run out of food within the year?"

John did not need to respond.

Hours passed, during which John encouraged Alan and Bob to concentrate on regaining control of their arms and legs. Doug said very little, save for an occasional sigh, which alerted the others to the fact that sleep evaded him to his suffering pain.

By morning John had drifted into a fitful sleep, while Alan and Bob continued to coax each other towards greater mobility. Around midday John rose from his rest and endeavored to move the access cover to get a look above ground. Though he did not get a line of sight, he heard that unmistakable sound of a helicopter, which brought the realization that he dare not show himself. A least one helicopter was still patrolling the area and it likely contained sufficient firepower to burn him to a crisp. He left a small gap between the lid and the vault to allow some airflow.

emarkably Doug had made it through the night and Alan was able crawl over to sit beside him. "We'll get out of here dad. At least they haven't found us."

Doug cleared his throat, "You're right about that. If they knew this pit existed, we'd be charcoal right now."

Dr. Bob had been the most upbeat during the hours in the vault, now joined the conversation with a more pessimistic attitude, "I agree, but we still face a formidable foe. The Net has tremendous computing capabilities and the ability to draw upon the resources of eight billion minds. I'll bet there are thousands of people connected to NVR right now engaging in a mental war game where they are searching a burned out landscape for enemy survivors. What chance have we against a thousand military geniuses?"

"Our lives are at stake," said John.

"Yes, but so is the existence of the Net. Because we escaped, a real threat exists to it. That threat must be eliminated and I'd guess that this area will be patrolled for days, if not weeks and years, just to be sure we're dead. The Net will take into account every conceivable possibility and take actions accordingly."

"Then why not just nuke this whole area?" asked John. "Bob, obviously you've been thinking about this all night."

"Indeed and I do see a missile attack as a real possibility, which leads to me to conclude that we must devise an escape plan."

Dr. Bob took inventory of their supplies. The food provisions inside the crowded vault consisted of five gallons of water, one small can of beets, a can of dog food, and two jugs of IV solution. Fortunately each of the inhabitants wore decent winter clothing, since the only other covering of any sort was the painter's drop cloth which was now covering Doug Wilson. There were, of course, the two breathing masks and spent air cylinders. Inside John's pack was the small survival kit, now consisting of a lighter, jackknife, a pair of pliers, a length of wire, some duct tape, and one 12-foot piece of rope (worth at least a dollar). John also kept the group's LED flashlight and replacement batteries he found in the maintenance shed, which were guarantied through 2009.

Doug had an additional item in a small pouch that he had tied to his left wrist. It was a 1962 silver dime, which he indicated was there just in case he had to make an emergency telephone call. Actually his mother had given him the dime nearly seventy years earlier when he was just six years old to teach him how to save. Doug vowed never to spend the dime and knew that he would never be broke, not realizing at the time the impact it would have in encouraging a habit of thrift. Miraculously, he was able to keep the dime in the pouch on his wrist during his years of incarceration in the NVR center.

John had naturally assumed that he would take leadership of the situation in devising the plan of escape, knowing the Doug would not be able to contribute much to the effort. He did not expect much of a challenge from Alan or Bob. However, Bob had other ideas, forcing an argument with John. John favored rationing the food and water, while Bob said that proper survival practice suggested it was better to use the water rather than try to ration it in small amounts. When Dr. Bob cited his Ph.D. in Winter Camping from the Winter Camp University, Alan said that he would accept Bob's advice, forcing John to capitulate the leadership role.

Alan and Bob ingested some of the IV solution orally. Neither vomited, but it was not a pleasant experience for their stomachs. With their hardier digestive systems, Doug and John consumed the dog food and beets during the afternoon of January 8, 2031, approximately 24 hours after entering the vault. By evening a gallon of water had been consumed.

Several escape plans were discussed, but none seamed to offer even a slight chance of success, so it was decided to spend another night in the vault. Since it was pitch black in the pit during the long night and nearly so during the day, a rotating sleeping arrangement was developed. Doug would remain prone, while the others would take shifts with two being awake and one sleeping. Fortunately the pit was just big enough for two people to lay down, if they bent their knees a bit. John took the first sleeping shift, giving Alan and Bob a chance to discuss further escape options. During this time they continued to exercise their muscles, even attempting to crouch in the dark and cramped conditions.

"What was that!" shouted Alan, startled from his sleep. He had finally taken his turn to get some sleep during the afternoon of January 9th, nearly two days after he entered the vault.

"I think it was a flame thrower shot from the helicopter," said John. We had at least two helicopters close by all day. One of them probably detected an animal nearby and fried it with the flame thrower, just in case it was one of us."

Doug, too, was awake, but he said very little. Dr. Bob took the opportunity to examine him and commented that he did not look like he was getting any worse, suggesting that the cold conditions might just be helping retard infection. Doug thanked him for the hopeful comment, only suggesting that he hoped he could survive the pain. Having no painkillers available, Dr. Bob gave him some water and asked him to think of a plan for building a hideout after their escape. Doug took the hint, trying very hard to keep his mind occupied on matters other than his pain.

On January 11th freezing rain pelted the top of the vault throughout the day. John poked his fingers through the small opening to verify the layer of ice that had formed on the surface. In spite of the stormy conditions, he could hear periodic activity from the helicopters, so he dared not move the lid for any more thorough examination of the area.

By evening the survivors had consumed the last of the food and water, save for about of liter of the water, which Bob indicated would be used for the surgical operation he was about to perform. Everyone else was shocked, most especially Doug who had survived days of excruciating pain hoping for some quick surgical remedy.

Incredibly, despite the long odds, Doug had survived the ordeal by lying on his back for the past four days, being careful not to touch any of his burned flesh. Actually his face had begun the healing process, although the right side was horribly disfigured. It was Doug's right shoulder that worried Dr. Bob.

"Bob, you know we're out of food and since I may not make it, you really don't need to do anything more for me," Doug said.

"Doug, you've made remarkable progress," responded Dr. Bob.

"I was only thinking you might use me to keep the others alive when the time comes."

"No!" came a shocked response from Alan, sitting in the opposite corner.

Disregarding the implications, Bob continued in his most professional manner, "Doug, I'm worried about your shoulder. I need to clean the wound and remove the remnants of clothing. It is not at all healing and should have attention before it is too late."

Dr. Bob directed that Alan and John sterilize the knife and pliers with the lighter. Then he requested that one of them urinate in the tin can formally containing the beets, which now served as their pee bottle. He suggested that when it was about a quarter full, they should use the lighter to boil the urine, if possible. He asked them to swish it around a bit to fully clean the can, before they dumped it out. He requested another deposit of urine be heated to boiling, whereupon his surgical tools of knife and pliers be cleaned with the boiling liquid. The ammonia in the urine, he explained, would serve as a disinfectant.

"John, could you reach outside for some ice and fill one of the milk jugs," said Dr. Bob.

"Bob, it is now snowing outside," said John probing the surface near the small opening to the vault.

"Better yet."

Dr. Bob asked John to place the snow-filled jug against the left side of Doug's face.

Doug complained bitterly about the cold.

"You just suffer with the wretched cold and hope for the moment that you are warm again!" exclaimed the Doctor, as if he had no bedside manner.

With a few hand gestures, Dr. Bob directed Alan to be his surgical assistant and hold the flashlight and can of urine-soaked tools. First, the doctor grabbed the knife and cut away the jacket from Doug's right shoulder, being careful to make no direct contact with the flesh. He returned the blade to his homemade disinfectant.

Next, Dr. Bob used both knife and pliers. He started his cutting on the upper shoulder, closest Doug's neck. Doug screamed in pain.

Bob glanced at John, as if saying, "ok you're the anesthesiologist."

John took the hint and responded, "I'm going to freeze your face, Doug."

"You wretch!" shouted Doug.

Bob continued to cut and pulled slabs of charred skin and chunks of melted nylon from Doug's shoulder.

"No! Please! No!" screamed Doug.

John stuffed a handful of snow in Doug's mouth.

Again Dr. Bob cleaned his tools, before starting his second cut on the arm itself. Doug shook violently and it took both John and Alan to hold him still. In spite of these protestations, the doctor continued his work. The knife was not as sharp as he had hoped and he had to do more ripping rather than cutting in a couple of places where the nylon had fused into the flesh.

Doug's scream became more of a whimper when Bob washed his wound with some of the remaining water. When Bob directed John, his anesthesiologist, to remove the jug from Doug's face, Doug was hyperventilating, though he remained conscious. "Doug," the doctor exclaimed, "you've made it through surgery. Now we're not going to apply a dressing, but we'll still protect the wound."

Bob took the milk jug, now empty, and cut a section in the shape of a half cylinder, about eight inches long. He rinsed the piece with the remaining urine antiseptic. Cautiously, he cupped the piece over Doug's shoulder, being careful not to make direct contact with the wound. Pieces of duct tape were used to attach this makeshift shoulder pad to Doug's back and chest.

In order to provide suitable clothing for the patient, Alan graciously offered the pile jacket that he was wearing. Dr. Bob cut a slit up the right sleeve so that he could get Doug into the jacket without disturbing his arm and shoulder. He patched the sleeve back together with some pieces of duct tape.

The night of January 11, 2031 was long and miserable for the four starving men hiding in the vault of a former latrine that once served a Boy Scout Camp near Lake Orion, Michigan.

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Light snow fell through the night and into the next morning. The intensity increased during the afternoon of January 12, becoming a full-fledged blizzard by evening. As it turned out, the blizzard had an unexpected effect on the refugees in the vault. It actually lifted their spirits causing them to commence preparations for their escape that evening.

The plan was simple enough, they reasoned. It would be virtually impossible for any aircraft to maintain visual contact with the ground during the storm, especially at night. Auditory sensors, too, would not have little chance in detecting their presence among the chaos. Their efforts would be directed at avoiding infrared detection.

After five days underground and more than 3 years captivity in NVR, Alan Wilson was the first to emerge from the vault. This well-clad individual lay down headfirst and buried himself in the snow, as if he were a mole. He crawled forward on his stomach, being careful not to expose any flesh to the surface. The snow was nearly a foot deep and because of his low profile, one would have to be right on top of him to observe his presence. Alan had taken great care to be sure that his backside and head were well covered to minimize the possibility of any detectable heat loss. Being especially diligent with his breathing, Alan exhaled face down directly into the snow bank, in an attempt use the snow to cool his breath before it rose above the ground.

Five minutes after Alan's successful escape, John and Bob helped move Doug to the surface. Doug would be unable to move himself, but they had constructed a sled by cutting the five-gallon water jug in half and piecing it together with wire and duct tape. John attached the precious rope to pull Doug and the sled, as he slithered forward face first in Alan's mole trench. Special care had been taken with Doug, as he remained wrapped in the painter's cloths. His head was stuffed in a pack filled with snow, both to muffle any screams of pain and to properly cool his exhalations. Dr. Bob secured the lid to the vault and helped push from behind.

On the morning of January 13, four helicopters continued patrolling the ruins of the former Camp Agawan. Fifteen inches of fresh snow blanketed the grounds.

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