Another Ten Seconds
Chapter 35 "Soylent Green"
by Jeff Rand
A cool northeast breeze blew across the Detroit River announcing the morning believed to be September 5, 2031. Robert Hartwig had been particularly busy during the past few days attending to seven newly extricated NVR refugees: Mark Bollman, Ken Horn, Roger Horn, Alex Howey, Kyle Howey, Paul Kupser, and Lou Pezet. All had been brought back to reasonable health and mobility, save for Roger. He refused to accept the undesirable reality of Zug Island.
Speaking with John Howey and Doug Wilson, Roger said, "Look John, I've worked all my life and built my fortune. I still don't know what kind of head games you are playing, but I refuse to accept the fact that the our earth has been reduced to this slag heap on Zug Island."
"Roger, believe what you want. This is that we know. The rest of mankind, that is all who remain alive, are vegetables in Neural Virtual Reality," said John, quite animated. "Now, we subjected ourselves to great risk to rescue you because we believed you would be of help to others. If all you want is wealth, I'll take you back to the nearest NVR center and plug you back in, where you can live in virtual opulence during the weeks remaining until your food supply is exhausted. I am sure your death will be all that you could want."
Wilson, too, became agitated over Roger's lack of appreciation for their efforts. "Look, Mr. Horn, I'll clarify the truth for you. Have you ever studied physics?"
"Well sure, I had an introductory course in college. Most of it seemed to be a bunch of concepts that applied only to a perfect world, such as a vacuum. The earth I know is not quite so simple."
Doug said, "Mr. Horn, you missed the point. There are a few simple physical laws, which remain true, no matter how complex the system. One such law is the conservation of matter and energy. To put it economic terms, you can't get something for nothing."
John interrupted and spoke as if he had prepared a speech for a world assembly. "Roger, my friend, it took me most of my life to learn the truth. And I don't think it was just our recent incarceration with Neural Virtual Reality that proved it. Throughout my life, I pretty much had things handed to me, as did you, I suspect. Think of the time we were born. We had great machines and conveniences; unheard of in the thousands of generations that proceeded us. Our children had it even better, in that very little was expected of them in return for great riches. You know the score; show up at school and then pass to the next grade or sit in class and get the badge just because you were there. Where is it written that 'I am, therefore I deserve?' You and I were deceived into believing that we had earned great wealth, simply because we born Americans. But did we truly contribute in proportion to these wants?"
Roger spoke again, "John I can't speak for everyone, but I don't think I've been lazy."
"Perhaps not. But think of all the energy that it took to supply your needs. You and I and most other people lived the good life because we borrowed from the earth's bank. I refer to the fossil fuels, minerals, and other resources that we depleted at an alarming rate. Then when NVR hit the scene we were all too quick to embrace it because it gave us even more. Now you've got a virtual tunnel running underground 50 miles from your house to D-A. How long would it be, if you had to dig it yourself?"
"It wouldn't happen," said Roger. "But can't we enjoy the fruits of man's ingenuity through NVR?"
"There are some things that are more important," said Doug. "Wouldn't you agree that freedom falls in this category? And we've said nothing of spirituality and belief in God. I'm not sure God approves of the hedonistic world of NVR."
John continued the point in a loud voice, "Roger, we are now hunted by machines because we are free! The machines must be destroyed and soon!"
Horn said nothing more, reluctantly accepting the truth. As the others had learned, he knew that he must focus all of his energy towards a common enemy. His comfortable life had ended. He would adjust to the survival conditions outside the Net and do everything possible to save his family.
The food supplies brought from Creighton would be insufficient to sustain the eleven-man army more than a few days. With the potential of additional refugees in the near future, a plan was implemented to supplement the food stores and begin the next phase of rescue operations.
Although there had been some differences of opinion among the members of the group, John again assumed the mantle of leadership. He assigned his son Kyle to assist Paul Kupser to set up a fishing operation on the Detroit River. Roger and Ken Horn agreed to leave Zug Island and scavenge food and supplies in the ruins of the City of River Rouge. Two of the senior citizens, Doug Wilson and Mark Bollman, were more than happy to remain on the island and improve the army's quarters and hideout.
Finally, on the cloudy morning of September 6, John and the others left in the truck to return to his former NVR abode in Michigan Memorial Park. Although he really wanted to rescue his wife, he convinced the others that this would be a good location to secure food and fuel. This NVR center had some problems during construction, he explained, which resulted in using a conventional hydrogen fuel cell power plant instead of nuclear power. The hydrogen fuel cells, he reasoned, could be useful with their war efforts. They could do little with enriched uranium.
John felt certain trepidation when he first sighted the NVR building. During the previous winter, he had his first cruel experience with the real world at this spot, and it had not been an overly pleasant experience ever since. "If only I...," began John's thoughts.
"Dad, we need to stash the truck before we get spotted by a helicopter," said Alex Howey.
"We'll just put the truck in one of the burned out garages on Huron River Drive. It will be a long carry for us, but we best be safe at this point," said John.
John and Alex Howey, Bob Hartwig, Alan Wilson and Lou Pezet moved through the cover along the Huron River towards the NVR building. For this operation, Lou Pezet had graciously agreed to serve as "bazooka man" with John's cannon. Once the NVR center had been penetrated, Alan and Lou would move to the power plant about a quarter of a mile downstream. There they would extricate a tank of hydrogen, if possible. Alex and Dr. Bob would assist John at the NVR building to rescue Jamie Howey. In addition, they would fill four five-gallon jugs with intravenous food solution.
Upon blasting a hole in the exterior wall to room judged to be the control center, Alex began to crawl through. A sudden blast knocked him back outside. The helmet that he was wearing likely saved his life.
Allowing Alex a moment to recover from the shock, John spoke, "It looks like the Net has prepared for our invasion. We'll have to use another tact. Since I know where I escaped from this building, we'll assume that Jamie is in the same room. We were fortunate to be housed in a room with an exterior wall on the first floor. I guess it's just luck on where 'Howey' fell in the alphabet. We'll need our gas masks and armor. You can be sure that everything will be electrified, so watch your hands."
John led the others to the far side of the building, where Lou took a shot at the emergency door that John had once used for his escape. Given the level of security encountered, the group decided to remain together for the rescue, as all five cautiously entered Chamber #150.
"It's so warm in here," remarked Alex.
"Yes, I suppose it's regulated to be about body temperature," said Dr. Bob. "As a result the residents are kept naked, mainly for reasons of sanitation. But, it also cuts down on the food needed for metabolic activities."
"I am surprised at how empty it is in this room," remarked Dr. Bob. "I'd guess more than half the beds are empty."
"Yes, I'm afraid so," said John. "I believe it was full when I left."
Jamie Howey was found in bed 77, looking quite emaciated. John placed a large block of wood covered with rubber next to his wife, as a security measure to prevent electrocution should the ceiling mechanism move in her direction.
"She's so thin!" remarked Alex, shocked at the condition of his mother.
Dr. Bob examined Jamie, being careful not to disturb any of the attachments to the Net. "She's severely malnourished," he said. "We best get her out of here soon."
John wasted no time in removing the IV and other tubes that were attached to his wife. He twisted the cable connecting her to NVR to remove it from her skull. He yanked, nearly pulling out the entire socket.
"Careful," said the doctor. "We don't want to cause any brain damage."
"My God, Bob, her skull is loose around the socket."
"I know. I'm afraid she's lost a lot of bone mass. Let me help you."
Dr. Bob helped John remove the cable from Jamie's head. He then covered her face with a mask attached to a small oxygen cylinder, as a precaution against poisonous gas. John covered her with a robe.
"Let's get her outside," said John.
"I wouldn't do that right now," said Lou, shouting across the room from his station by the door. "We've got a helicopter hovering just outside the door."
"Can't we shoot it down?" asked John.
"John, I have only two shots left for the cannon. We may need them elsewhere."
"Okay, then we'll take her into the hall, get some food, and find another way out of here," said John.
Alan Wilson took the lead and broke a small hole through the block wall into the hallway. He poked his gloved hand through the hole to check for any other barrier beyond the wall. Suddenly, gunfire was heard on the other side of the wall. Alan fell back in agony. Blood was gushing from his hand. His glove fell to the floor.
Doctor Bob rushed to the scene, grabbing Alan. Alan's hand had been blown off, leaving a jagged stump where the wrist had once been. Blood poured from the severed artery. Dr. Bob applied direct pressure to ease the blood loss. "I need a tourniquet!" he shouted.
John dropped his wife and ran to the doctor. "Here, use my T-shirt," he said, momentarily out of breath.
Dr. Bob tied the T-shirt with an overhand knot just above Alan's severed wrist. The closest "stick" he could find was the crowbar, which he tied in place using a square knot. Then he twisted the crowbar several turns, tightening the bandage until the bleeding subsided.
"This won't be pretty," said the doctor. "Help me put him on a rack so that I can operate."
John helped Dr. Bob lift Alan onto an empty rack. Fortunately, the doctor had come prepared to deal with battle wounds should such mishap occur. From his pack he removed a bottle of ether, which he poured onto a large gauze pad. Temporarily removing Alan's breathing apparatus, he placed the ether-soaked gauze below Alan's nose. "Thankfully Alan won't have to be conscious," he said.
The rest of the operation went quickly, as the doctor sutured the severed artery, cleaned the wound and removed any flesh that dangled below the wrist. He sutured the skin to close the gap, forming a stump at the former location of Alan's right wrist. Dr. Bob applied a sterile dressing and released the tourniquet. Alan remained unconscious.
"I'll stay with Alan until he regains consciousness," Bob said, looking at John and Lou. "Alex can look after his mother. Why don't you two find a way out of here?"
"We don't stand a chance with that helicopter," said Lou, discouragingly.
"We'll just have to face the thing in the hall that shot Alan," remarked John
"Do you think there is somebody else in the building?" asked Lou.
"I hardly think so," John responded. "It's just a damn machine."
John and Lou decided on a two-point attack and used their sledgehammers to bust through the wall into the adjoining chamber #149. John returned to the site where Alan had been wounded so that he could enlarge the hole and escape into the hall. Lou proceeded with his sledgehammer to break through the wall between the other chamber and the hall. As John enlarged the hole, two more shots were fired from the hall, but he stood to the side, making sure that he was out of the line of fire. Lou, also, had two shots fired in his direction.
The outline of a human moved through a hole that had been created in the block wall separating Chamber #149 from the service hallway. At once, the robot standing a few feet from the opening fired a projectile squarely at this target. On its way through the body, the projectile caught a piece of the spine, adding bone fragments to its leading edge before exiting the backside of the body. When the human remained upright, two more shots fired at close range removed pieces of heart and lung.
Another robot fired upon a human emerging from the wall with Chamber #150. It fired two shots into the chest and one into the head, causing a splattering of brain material in the back of the skull.
Remarkably, both humans remained standing. Following a brief silence, a hand reached around the human figure standing before the hole to Chamber #149. As if by the work of a sick mind, an object was tossed and made a clanging sound as it hit the robot sentry. Shortly thereafter, the burning fuse terminated in an explosion. A second explosion occurred in the hall outside Chamber #150.
Cautiously, Lou and John lowered the human shields, which they had used to formulate the attacks. It had been a desperate act, but casualties were a part of war. They did know the strangers, whom they extricated from their beds to place in the openings to accept the certain deadly force from the drones in the hallway. Normally it might be considered murder, but in the desperate logic of war, it was a sacrifice of survival. Once again, Lou was troubled by his complicity in an event that resulted in the death of another human being.
"Alex, come help me now and grab your pack," shouted John.
"My God, there's blood everywhere," cried Alex, visibly shaken.
Looking at the stranger who lay before him, John responded, "I'm sorry, but he would starve to death soon anyhow. This way his sacrifice will help the survival of mankind. Alex, it is unfortunate, but the real world is not a pretty site. Now let's get on with the mission."
In the hallway, John and Lou quickly moved to the disabled robots. They kept low so that they could use the robots as cover, in case they encountered other such sentries. Alex monitored their activities from the hole in the wall.
The robots were actually pear-shaped contraptions that looked like small cement mixers standing on their bottom sides. Obviously they were designed to very stable, which was evidenced by the fact that they remained standing even after the impact of rather sizeable pipe bombs. They were cylinders about three feet in diameter at the base and two feet in diameter at the top. Four wheels attached to the base, provided their mobility. The cylinders themselves were about four feet long. Two large metal arms stretched above the top openings, reminding Lou of a ringer above an old washing machine, such as seen in museums or Doug Wilson's basement. Equally spaced, in three locations extending from exterior of the cylinders, were three short pipes, which appeared to be the defensive cannons that had fired upon the intruders earlier.
Lou examined an object that extended from the opening in the top of the cylinder. "Oh, there's a human body in here," he said.
"Forget about it," said John. "Let's remove the weapons from these robots. They may come in handy later."
"Watch out!" screamed Alex, noticing two more robots moving into the hall about 100 feet from Lou. "Get down!"
Lou felt the impact of the shot hitting the robot, which shielded him from the others.
Wasting no time, Alex lit and tossed four pipe bombs in the direction of the moving robots. The last of the throws arced too high and hit the ceiling, causing it to fall short of the intended target. It exploded about 10 feet in front of Lou.
"Damn, that was close," shouted Lou.
"Let's get their weapons and move," cried John.
Lou and John were fortunate that Alex's pipe bombs disabled the two new robots. They found that the robots' weapons were actually electric pistols with storage sleeves above them, made to hold about three dozen shots. They removed all six weapons from the first two robots and did the same with the other two.
Alex, John, and Lou were able to salvage two batteries from the robots and make two of their new pistols fully functional. With the push of a button, they could fire a substantial projectile from one of the fully automated electric pistols. With the addition of pipe bombs, conventional rifle, and bazooka cannon, they now had a fair chance of defending themselves.
Searching through the NVR center, they encountered ten more robots. Though the robots were obviously well equipped with sensors and firearms, they lacked the mobility of the human invaders and were readily defeated, adding still more weapons to the stockpile of their enemies.
With a few victories now behind them, the invaders became more deliberate in their investigations trying to discover the weaknesses of the building. They had been unable to gain access to the whole eastern end of the building, reasoning that this was the location of food storage. Apparently huge steel doors and reinforced concrete walls separated the food storage facility from the rest of the building. Lou was forced to fire one of the two remaining shots from the cannon in order to break through the reinforced concrete.
The food storage facility was immense, stretching more than 100 feet in each direction and the full height of five stories. However, most of the space was filled with 30 large cylindrical tanks, each about 25 feet in diameter and 50 feet tall. Two more robots were encountered in the food storage area near the far end of the room. Both were disabled near a large metal box that looked like a trash dumpster.
"Oh no, both of these robots were carrying dead humans," Alex said.
"That's only part of it," said Lou, peering inside the dumpster. "There are more in here and this appears to be a trash compactor."
"One with a conveyor system," remarked John.
John walked to the back of the dumpster and climbed upon the conveyor, which angled up from its bottom, as one would expect in a grain elevator. He climbed the conveyor until it terminated above an open tank, which was about 10 feet in diameter and 15 feet tall. He shined a flashlight into the tank.
"What's in it?" queried Alex.
"Look's like mostly water," responded John, obviously holding back.
"Is that all?"
"No," said John, as he paused.
John continued, "I think there is a layer of hair floating on top."
"God help us!" said Lou.
A closer examination of the proximity of the mixing tank revealed other interconnected tanks of various sizes. A pipe just above the surface of the liquid led to another box similar to the dumpster. It was filled with dried hair and other debris. From the bottom of the main mixing tank, a pump was connected to a pipe leading all the way to the system of pipes on the ceiling connecting the 30 large storage tanks.
"Let's find a way to get something out of one those large tanks and get out of here," said John.
"I don't think we should," cried Alex.
John spoke sternly, "Look son, your mother has probably been living on that stuff for months. We can discuss ethics later."
Two defensive helicopters responded to a large explosion on the north side of the Michigan Memorial Neural Virtual Reality Center. Seconds later, four men carrying two injured people, 4 jugs of intravenous solution, and their weapons made their way to the cover along the Huron River south of the building.
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