Were it not for physical and mental hunger, I would have remained underground another year. Unfortunately, working in unison, my appetites forced me to surface far earlier than expected. I felt a sudden kinship to the hungry trout who, yearning for mayflies after a long winter, breaches calm lake water knowing that a ravenous osprey may be near.
My needs outweighed any potential danger.
The food reprocessor had given me trouble after the very first month. Acting on its own private bio-mechanical whims, the machine offered a selection of barely edible meals, each one more revolting than the last, as though daring me to consume its offerings.
"The next time the world ends," I vowed, "I'll splurge and get the 'Supreme Chef' model." This, effort to use humor to quell the constant weight of uncertainty and foreboding which were my only companions, became a frequent pre-dinner prayer. Luckily, I had enough tinned food to offer some respite from the sludgy messes emanating from that demented machine. However, being unable to replenish my stock, these eventually ran out.
As to my mental state, it lusted for information. When the radio and television signals stopped it was like losing a limb. I had not realized how much a part of me they were. The endless stream of news had been taken for granted. Now, with only my DVDs
and CDs for entertainment, I found myself longing to hear something about the farce I'd abandoned.
With my stomach complaining and my brain crazily imagining all manner of scenarios, I stood at the bunker's armored door. My gaunt, pale face stared back at me, reflected in the black screen of a dormant security monitor like a long forgotten sibling whose reappearance awoke dormant feelings of loss.
Even though I already knew the what the outcome out of my actions would be, I switched the monitor on and saw only static. The above-ground security cameras, rendered useless several months ago by an unsuccessful invader, served as a depressing reminder of my helpless, uninspiring isolation.
Without further hesitation, I withdrew my pistol and
keyed the door combination. Then, stepping back a few paces so that I'd remain in shadows, I watched intently as the door swung outwards.
I waited a moment and then crept forward.
Instead of facing any immediate vista of terrible destruction or miraculous recovery, such as I had often envisioned, I found myself staring at the rather ordinary and completely intact entranceway to the bunker. This consisted of concrete steps, inclined at a steep angle, leading from the portal toward a rectangle of artificial luminescence at its top. The unnatural light glittered off a white wash of frost coating the narrow staircase's stone walls. It did little to alleviate the oppressive feel of the confined space.
Trepidation and curiosity mingled as I remained at my sanctuary's threshold. The air, albeit refreshing, chilled my lungs as I drew in several slow breaths. After several months
of enduring my own recycled exhalations it was intoxicating to breathe without tasting my own stale odors. The surface level air filters had gone off-line at the same time as the security cameras. I assumed that looters had attempted to breach the system and it had shut itself down in order to avoid contamination of the bunker.
My ears perceived no sound, other than the wind, in the few minutes I was outside. This lack of noise should have emboldened me to mount the stairs, but its absence was far more terrifying. However, my stomach's primitive urges overrode any fear and I began my potentially ruinous ascent.
As I reached the lip, I paused and took another icy gulp of air. From this vantage point, I could now make out the source of the illumination; a grinning giant, nearly twenty stories tall, hung several thousand feet over my head. Her mouth was open, revealing brilliant white teeth, and her eyes sparkled with imitation pleasure.
"Damned ad," I muttered, then gave a short, humorless laugh. The ads were amaranthine. They would probably outlast the cockroaches.
Get it over with, I ordered myself, bounding up the few remaining steps with my pistol sweeping back and forth like an animal sniffing for prey.
Once more I was struck by a strange sense of disappointment at the lack of drama surrounding me. The old colonial style house, apart from a few cracked windows and scrubby brown grass and the dead bushes—the ones I kept meaning to replace—looked
the same. Off in the distance I could see neighboring homes. These were often quaintly referred to as 'hobby farms' by real estate agents, even though few neighbors attempted to do more than grow tiny gardens; the lack of freshwater made more ambitious projects impractical. A couple of the homes had been torched or accidentally set ablaze. Their burnt out shells stood as silent markers to a past which would likely never return.
A fresh gust of wind encouraged me to stop further sight-seeing and I spent the next hour in a frustrating search through my house for anything that might be of use. Apart from a spare battery pack for my thermal suit and old bicycle, I found nothing of value; the looters had been most thorough in my absence.
* * *
Leaving home and cycling part way — before a puncture curtailed that mode of transport — I reluctantly headed for the city in search of unrecycled sustenance, extra batteries, and additional weaponry.
As I neared my destination, the signs of devastation became more obvious. Suburban estates, once the epitome of middle income dreams, had become war zones. Bullet holes riddled many of the few homes still left standing. Lawns that once were meticulously landscaped and pampered, even during water shortages, were torn up by countless tire tracks. One set of these led to the wreck of a mini-van which had slammed into the bay window of a house. The skeletal remains of an arm, picked clean by scavengers, hung limply from the driver's side window. It was clear that there had been a pitched battle between homeowners and looters. From the look of things, neither side won.
I continued past the vacant properties and soon entered the city proper. It was a sight both startling and awe-inspiring. One could quibble at my description of such a catastrophic event. Yet, if I am to be honest, there is something about the sheer power needed to destroy a city that demands respect. It's as though God made one of His rare visitations in order to smite Earth.
The idea of God delivering our final blow did not seem too fantastic as I stared at the ruins. The neverending false daylight illuminated the city in a strange, eerie glow. Crumbling buildings, charred and fissured, looked unreal in the unchanging
luminosity. Rubble, comprised of masonry, glass and twisted metal, filled the streets and blocked off a number of possible paths into the downtown corridor. Each blast of icy wind
threatened to send another decrepit building crashing down in a thunderous display of dust and debris.
I picked my way through the debris, carefully so as to not tear my heated parka on the shards of metal and glass. Underfoot came the crunching of fresh snow and the occasional stomach churning sound of bones snapping. No matter how hard I tried, the sheer volume of brittle remains meant that my arctic boots could not avoid them all. I imagined that a riot or mass catastrophe had claimed many lives at once. The only thing that made it remotely bearable was the fact that the bone fragments were unidentifiable. As long as the possibility of those bones being from rats, cats or dogs, I could continue onwards.
Finally, after many hours of trudging through the dead city, I reached the faculty building where I had taught Social Science. The shattered structure looked as though it had been the recipient of a massive shelling. Large sections of the outer walls were missing, exposing the charred and fractured innards.
I stared at the building for a moment and then, with a weary grunt, sat disconsolately down on the curb.
"It's really over," I whispered. Confronted by the destruction of something that had been a part of my life for nearly two decades, the awful truth became demonstrably clear.
* * *
I knew things were getting pretty badly when a gaggle of leading scientists, their brains tied in knots by promises of research grants, stepped forward to blame migrating Monarch butterflies for the Earth's colder temperatures. These wise men and women appeared on the network news, cable news and community access channels to espouse this theory as well as to debunk any others. Newspapers, e-zines, and cyber-mags carried watered down versions, written in layman's terms, to explain how the winged insects wrought havoc upon the environment.
"Of course," the scientists proclaimed, "we are simply using the Monarch as one example. There are many other migrating animals, birds for example, who contribute to the overall effect."
A snappy name, 'Migration Eclipse', became the term applied to this phenomena. Oddly enough, the band of geniuses failed to note the acronym for their wonderful scapegoat: ME. Maybe, in some subconscious manner, they were accepting responsibility
"In the last century," they explained, as though reading from the same script, "bovine flatulence caused the Earth's temperature to rise. We called it the 'Greenhouse Effect.'
Greenhouse Effect and the Migration Eclipse are cyclical in nature; they come and they go."
Often, with increasing frequency, the media called upon these scientists to explain various phenomena. It usually coincided with a catastrophe of some sort; a loss of human life or the extinction of yet another species. Armed with colorful illustrations showing beautiful Monarch butterflies blocking out the Sun's rays, the scientists revealed to the eager public how the 'orange and black demons' intiated terrible destruction.
Occasionally, a lone dissenting voice tried to argue.
"Animals have been migrating for millennia," the voice of reason would state. "Shouldn't this climate change have occurred earlier? Isn't it strange that it's only happening now? Don't you think the Holo-Ads are the likely culprits?”
To which the scientists responded: "The reason it is happening now is due to the fact that we have eradicated the Greenhouse Effect. Thanks to our efforts, and those of the
major corporations, greenhouse emissions are a thing of the past. Genetically engineered grasses have eliminated the destructive methane clouds which used to come from cattle. Cows no longer flatulate."
"Yes, your incredibly catastrophic farts; but what about the factories and the cars?" the challenger asked. “What of aircraft vapor trials?”
"Hogwash! Compared to the output from a herd of cattle, humans account for such a minuscule amount. Besides, most cars are now clean burning." The scientists always chose this moment to smile proudly.
"Except in the underdeveloped regions of the world," came the retort.
"True. Yet another reason why the corporations need to operate in these unfortunate countries. Only then can we hope to raise their standard of living to the point where everyone can drive nonpolluting cars."
This was usually the point where the anchorperson jumped in to advise both parties that time had run out. These televised debates always seemed to follow a standardized formula as though both sides were reading from a script.
"Thank you for coming. It was most informative," the anchor enthused. "Unfortunately, we have to go to our next story. It seems that Pop Diva, Taylene, is not the innocent she'd like us to think she is. We have an exclusive interview with a man who filmed Taylene actually smoking a nicotine filled cigarette."
From the comfort of my living room, I used to watch and snort with superiority as each sycophant spewed their toxic lies and dictated patter.
Expecting news agencies in any format to run a story containing the truth about Holo-Ads was like waiting for a politician to answer a yes or no question with simplicity or honesty.
Considering that the news agencies were owned by the major corporations who paid exorbitant fees for the airspace and equipment to run Holo-Ads, it was not in their interest to run negative reports on their parent company's main source of income.
Holo-Ads were huge in every sense of the word. There were even rumors about the first Holo-Movie to be sponsored by the Whimperbang Group of companies; it would have had its North American debut last year. According to the hype, it would've been large enough to cover the sky for nearly three hundred miles. Whether or not such an immense canvas would be a practical viewing format was beside the point.
There was little doubt about there being egregious use of Whimperbang products throughout the movie.
How they negotiated the rights to use space already leased by other corporations was a question likely answered by obscene amounts of cash.
Money solved everything. Cash was king.
At least, that's what we were always told to believe.
Looking at the sky back then, covered in gigantic ads created by powerful Holo-Casts, it made sense to believe in the power of money. Evidence of wealth loomed overhead everywhere. Giants smiled down and urged us to buy whitening pills for our teeth. Enormous dogs and cats shamed us into buying healthier pet-food, while robotic animals towered over the skyline offering unconditional love. Fast cars sped across the horizon making us feel impotent without one. Beautiful models promised their bodies to those who bought the right brand of two-ply toilet paper.
No matter where you looked, the Holo-Ads floated in the air. Only in the sparsely populated regions of the Earth could you escape the omnipresent three-dimensional projections. I suspect the lack of potential revenue dictated this decision rather than any perception that the corporations had already gone beyond too far.
With the sky constantly blocked by the Hol-Ads, something had to happen.
At first it was the astronomers who complained about the light pollution. To soothe them, the corporations sent aloft a pair of orbiting telescopes to which the astronomers were given access in exchange for endorsements. Antarctica was made into a Holo-Ad free zone. The corporations also struck deals with the International Space Agency to help defray the costs of exploration. At the same time, because of their generosity, a host of orbital Holo-Casts were sent aloft with the telescopes. Although some astronomers continued to gripe, the public quickly lost interest in their plight.
Then, airlines became leery of the technology. Later generations of the Holo-Cast units produced images of near perfect solidity. This worried the pilots who, even though the
planes basically flew themselves, wanted to be able to see out of the cockpit window and not be confronted by inanely grinning behemoths. Being unable to see familiar landmarks scared the pilots who did not always trust in the infallibility of the Nav-Comps. They demanded to have the Holo-Ads restricted to non-flight paths or they would strike.
The corporations were aghast. Such a limitation to their advertising space would render most of the sky out of bounds.
However, rather than give in to the pilots’ demands, the wily executives resolved the dilemma by staging and broadcasting a prime-time special demonstrating how AI controlled planes were safer than ones flown by humans. In the end, the pilots admitted to being hasty and quietly resumed their seats. Only the psychological need of passengers to have a human in the cockpit saved their jobs.
Many groups formed based on aesthetic platforms to fight the Holo-Ads. They claimed that Holo-Ads besmirched the heavens and ought to be outlawed. These groups contained many famous actors and singers as well as lesser known writers, painters, sculptors and performance artists. For years, they lobbied for stricter regulations but always failed. They could not fight the endless bankroll of their enemy. Nor could they defeat the general public's love of Holo-Ads. What they failed to take into account was the determination of the lowest common denominator to be entertained.
Naturally, the environmentalists spoke up. Their frightening predictions about the future terrified the masses...for a few days. Unfortunately, when nothing immediately happened - no cataclysm occurred - the environmentalist message became a target of derision. That was when the corporate funded scientists marched out and trampled their 'Chicken Little' colleagues.
Well, the sky did fall - in a manner of speaking.
The environmentalists were right, as everyone whose head was not encased by gluteal muscles knew.
Unfortunately, it was too late. Even my own students failed to see the danger despite the fact that I often tried desperately to explain it to them.
"Remember the theories about the dinosaurs?" I used to ask during my lectures. "The asteroid that hit the Earth and sent a blanket of dust into the atmosphere?"
The students nodded; it was an established theory. They'd seen it on the Education channel in all its computer-generated glory.
"The Sun could not shine through the murk. The Earth cooled, plants died, and the dinosaurs became extinct." So far so good, I'd think. My audiences could always follow this line of reasoning. In fact, the students became most interested in my discourse whenever I spoke of prehistoric beasts; dinosaurs have a magical appeal which make people want to listen.
"Well, we've created a technological quilt. A patchwork of images so dense that the Sun cannot get through." Eyes glazed over at this point. Millions of animals being wiped out by a chunk of iron-nickel from outer space was something they could grasp. It was remote and none of my students were required to feel responsible. The Holo-Ads were another matter. Without the public’s compliance they could not exist. This spread the guilt around like a sexual disease no one would admit to having contracted.
"The scientists said it's Monarch migration," a drone would shout.
Damn Monarchs! They were like the dinosaurs in terms of their mass appeal. A strange idea involving nefarious animal malevolence attracts and holds the attention of otherwise blasé listeners.
"We'd notice if something were wrong," some students argued with implacable logic. "It would be all over the media."
"Let me give you a concrete example of the falsehood in that statement," I told them. "When the Earth was threatened by greenhouse emissions, there were many who claimed it wasn't happening. They demanded proof. Droughts and brush fires were on the increase. That wasn't considered proof. Grain had to be shipped to places like Alberta in order to keep cattle alive through long, dry summers. That wasn't proof. Even when Albertan farmers slaughtered their horses by the thousands, because there wasn't enough food for the winter, no one considered that to be a ‘smoking gun.’ Environmentalists insisted that this proved their point. However, the Albertan government, rich in oil revenue, fought the environmentalists with millions of dollars in scare-mongering advertisements. They claimed that any change to the status quo would impact the economy in extremely negative ways. The threat to jobs became more ominous than a loss of wheat fields.
"So please do not tell me about Mankind's ability to see and react accordingly to a danger. We're talking about a species that has destroyed life-giving rain forests and eco-systems, damaged the protective atmosphere of the planet and committed the most heinous acts of violence upon its own members without consideration to the future.
"Yes, people should see what is happening. As a matter-of-fact, I think they do see it. They fail, however, to take the next logical step and see why it's happening. Such a step would require changing a way of life. People fear change."
At this stage, surrounded by zombies, I would stop my tirade and search for some trace of understanding. Every now and then, like finding three correct numbers on a state lottery ticket, a couple of faces met mine with the same anger I felt. Enough to give me the desire to carry on. Sadly, not enough to make a difference.
"How many of you have molar-phones?" I always asked. About twenty percent of the class raised their hands. "Even though studies indicate that molar-phone users have an increased likelihood to develop mouth, throat and brain cancers, you still see more and more people getting the implants.
"Mankind has become too complacent and too expectant. We expect to have whatever we want, when we want it."
"Excuse me, Professor," I recalled one of the female students saying. Her earnest expression made me hope that I might have won a convert.
"Yes?" I asked.
"I wish you would refrain from using the term, 'Mankind,'" she said. "It's a sexist, outmoded term."
That, in a nutshell, was the problem. Major issues were swamped by minor ones. Why concern ourselves with the impending death of our planet when we can eradicate offensive language?
Despite the facts; despite the obvious evidence of our eyes; despite the increasingly prevalent signs, we continued blithely along in the comfortable anesthetized state of Trust. We trusted that the people we put into power could not possibly place our lives in jeopardy.
We ignored centuries of history that proved the fallacy behind such faith.
There were a few with the insight to realize what we faced - a scant, infinitessible few - not enough to prevent what happened.
The orbital Holo-Casts sped up the process faster than any of us expected. The Amazon rain forest, when it died, caused the greatest damage. Carbon dioxide levels rose at a staggering rate, but without sunlight, the Greenhouse Effect did not occur. Instead it got colder as we watched the oxygen levels deplete.
The blame could not be placed solely on the corporations. They received their power from the masses. Only by the general
public's tacit approval could the disaster have occurred.
That was over a year ago.
I went underground as soon as the first riots began, hiding in a bomb shelter until most of my fellow people slaughtered each other in their initial panic.
* * *
I've been in the city for a week and haven't spoken to a single person. Occasionally, there is a glimpse of movement but, whoever or whatever it is scurries off before I can get a closer look. Perhaps, I tell myself, they are too ashamed to show their faces. The destruction of a world is, after all, a heavy burden.
I search the wastes by the light of a twenty-story ad for breath mints. The orbital casters are still functioning perfectly even though there is no one to change them; the corporation HQ's were all burned down when people finally saw what was happening. CEO's were inevitably rounded up and massacred, their empires smashed.
It's damned cold. I forget the last time I found any wood to burn. Most of the buildings have already been looted, although there is still the occasional surprise.
Last week, I discovered a used bookstore that had escaped detection. The shelves were crammed with hardcover and paperback formats of this antiquated mode of communication. At first, I wandered the aisles looking at the spines, smiling sadly at familiar names. Then night fell and the temperature dropped. My thermal suit battery was dead and I had yet to find a replacement.
There was no other option available.
I regret burning the books. It took nearly a week to exhaust the supply, and I tried to read as many as I could before consigning them to the pyre. With each new sacrifice I felt like I was destroying the final remnants of humanity. As the pages blackened and curled, I wept for the loss, recalling the library of Alexandria and how it was burned to heat Turkish baths.
When the books were all gone I wandered the streets once more, searching for more fuel.
That's how I came across this bank. An explosion has torn a tremendous hole in the wall. There are a couple of bodies lying near the hole.
It's crazy, but I think they were trying to blast their way into the vault. What did they expect to do with the money? At least they can take some consolation in the fact that the hole did in fact penetrate the vault.
Bills litter the floor. There must be close to a million dollars here. I shiver and watch my breath dissipate. It feels colder in the vault than outside. My hand reaches into my ski-pants pocket and touches a book of matches. I look at the piles of money, kicking a small mound together with my feet.
Money may not solve everything, I decide. But it will keep me warm for a night.
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