Entry 18 – The Image That Started It All
The sunrise caught us all packing. It's not easy to break a camp but try tearing it down without leaving half of the shit behind.
Nobody slept anymore that night. We had several wounded – mercifully, none of them grievously – and were preparing to move out. The critical stuff first, then everything else. Everyone moved with the sense of urgency normally reserved for the direst of catastrophes or the darkest of fears.
The area was positively swarming with U.S. armed forces units and seemingly endless columns of armor and infantry were passing south of our camp. All of them gave us dirty looks but thankfully no more than that. From what Espinoza said, she managed to raise Murdoch pretty fast following the incident and he immediately got to work, using his military contacts to solve the situation.
The arrival of the first U.S. response units almost ended in another battle but, at the last possible moment, the standoff was concluded with the enraged troopers standing down following a call from a superior officer, which, as far as those of us who heard it could tell, involved a lot of shouting and expletives I'd rather not repeat. Uncle Sam was hurting and was looking for someone to punish. Anyone, really – preferably the guilty, but they would surely settle for us instead.
In the end, somehow (I don't know how) cooler heads and Murdoch's influence prevailed and we were let go, including the loot which – as it turned out – truly was the property of Perihelion.
Later that morning, my breakfast was interrupted by Espinoza waving at me from the still-standing comms tent (we planned on tearing it down last in case we needed it). I sighed, bit one last time into the Chef-MRE-provided sandwich and threw the rest away, realizing I probably wouldn't have the chance to finish it anyway.
Espinoza was with comms officer Abernathy, both tinkering with what looked like a black box made of metal and plastic with some cables attached to it. I am hardly an IT expert, which is why I decided to wait for an explanation while attempting to not look stupid. It was a challenge, especially the last part. After a few seconds, the box whirred and whizzed and a list of symbols appeared on the screen of a nearby laptop. Abernathy frowned.
"It's a drive of some sort, for those of you who didn't know, and it's coded. Obviously."
Espinoza, looking over his shoulder, sighed in response.
"Can we crack it?"
Abernathy sat up, alarmed.
"Should we though? This is Perihelion property. I doubt Miss Ferguson would approve..."
"...of us checking for potential booby traps?" Espinoza smiled innocently.
Abernathy's expression turned sour, just like every time he felt someone took him for a fool.
"That's bullshit and you know it."
"Mark," I interceded. "I appreciate your loyalty, I really do, but we almost got killed. We'd really..."
And I emphasized the word 'really', as in 'there will be consequences if you don't.'
"....really like to get some answers."
He got the message and sighed, shaking his head and pushing the glasses to his forehead.
"I'll see what I can do."
A couple of minutes and several curses later, Abernathy found something.
"I've never seen a code like that," he mumbled to himself. "Let me just..."
The screen of the connected laptop suddenly lit up, displaying what looked like a text menu of sorts that could be navigated using keyboard with the Up and Down keys highlighting different entries. There was a problem with it though; the menu was in a language we've never seen before. It resembled... I wasn't really sure. Egyptian? The symbols were different though, no hieroglyphs, just sharp-edged and rectangular characters without any readily discernable meaning. I suddenly remembered seeing the symbols somewhere else, but could not recall where nor their origin.
Abernathy was just focusing on one blinking line, which apparently represented the most recently accessed entry, trying to decipher its meaning, but this was clearly getting us nowhere. Only one way left to proceed. I leaned over Abernathy and pressed the Enter key.
Once again, the screen turned black and this time, the downtime was significantly longer, as if the box was communicating with something or someone (impossible! we were off-grid!) before finally revealing its secret, which turned out to be another strange video footage.
What seemed like an airship floated over a volcano, but it was unlike any airship I've seen before. Four giant impellers appeared to have kept it afloat but they seemed too small compared to the sheer bulk of the giant thing, its enormous steel body over three hundred feet long.
By our laws of physics, the craft had no right to stay in the air yet there it was, slowly moving away from the raging elemental inferno below it. There was clearly a crew on board – the laptop's speakers played a radio traffic recording from the strange craft, loud and clear, as if captured straight from the source.
No, not radio traffic – those were the unfiltered voices of the crew.
Something was happening.
The world on the screen... simply stopped, as if someone hit a pause button. The recording continued. The bodiless voices were clearly aware of what was going on judging from their surprised and gradually panicking voices. The shock soon grew into terror as both outside and inside of the ship, things started to just... I couldn't find the right word. Disappear would be the obvious first choice, except it wasn't that. For something to disappear it has to exist first but somehow, the events depicted on the screen implied the things gone weren't just gone. It was like they never existed in the first place. In their stead, an indescribable void – a non-color defying any attempts at description.
By that point, the voices were screaming, the minds behind them scorched by the sheer magnitude of the event unfolding before their eyes. Above, the clouds disappeared and the stars were going out, cluster by cluster. The event was clearly accelerating – the mountains, the trees, even the volcano faded away and so did many of the voices and parts of the ship. In the end, there was only one male voice left, a continuous tortured howl of a man condemned to the worst possible fate of the last witness of an entire world dying around him. And then... nothing, just darkness swallowing the scene.
The screen went black again, this time for good. Abernathy and I looked at each other, speechless. It was clearly some sort of a movie, a computer-generated image designed by a twisted mind... and yet... it felt like it wasn't. In fact, it felt oddly real, to all of us – Espinoza especially.
She was quivering, her face pale and eyes closed. I didn't understand why (I would in time but not right then and there) so I tried to put my hand on her shoulder. She barely registered it, refusing to even look at me.
"Are you alright?" I said.
Silence and her rapid breath was the only answer I got, so I turned back to Abernathy, hoping for an explanation. He too was still out, whispering something to himself over and over with the face in his palms.
After the night battle I was getting numb to the weird and uncanny and despite the chills still running down my spine, my mind started to focus on the task at hand, racing with thousands of new questions. None of them got answered before the silence was broken by a cold, imperious voice that did not belong to any of us.
"I believe that is mine."
Murdoch's stern visage was staring at us from a nearby laptop, clearly a connection in progress. Who established and why, I had no idea, but somehow, he KNEW what had just happened. And he wasn't happy – there was something strange about the image, a distortion in perception perhaps, one that made his once friendly face appear... distant, ancient, alien, nothing like the charming businessman I once had the fortune (or misfortune, I realized then) of meeting.
In his place, a tyrant with an aura of power clearly felt in the tent despite him being thousands of miles away. I could not explain what was happening and only later would I realize the thing I was experiencing truly was fear of the primal kind I had never encountered before. I did not know how, I did not know why, but I was completely convinced that the man on the other part of the screen would crush us all like bugs had that been his wish.
None of us knew what to do. Murdoch inspected us one by one with his piercing gaze and finally scoffed as if we were not even worth dealing with, like ants having discovered the secret nature of the universe, much good would it do them.
And suddenly, I could take a breath (I didn't even realize I was even holding it) and I started coughing in a desperate attempt to get as much oxygen into my lungs as possible. I could feel the heat and the sounds of the camp coming from the outside (I didn't even realize they were gone either) and the familiar smell of cold sweat, stale coffee and gasoline. The face on the screen was still staring at us but there was nothing unsettling about it anymore, just an angry boss about to scold us for disobedience. But we knew better now, and he knew we knew.
"I am very disappointed in you, Gail," he addressed Espinoza specifically.
I forced myself to look in his eyes and nod, my teeth still clenched. Espinoza nodded too and the current state of our affairs seemed to have satisfied Murdoch – at least for the time being.
"Now then," he continued.
"Gail, Mr. Thorpe, we have much to discuss. There are helicopters coming to pick you up. They will carry you to a private airport where you will board a plane to Chicago. You are to carry the repository as well as all the other items recovered from the base with you. Do not discuss any of it with anyone. That goes for you too, Mister Abernathy. Are we clear?"
Crystal-clear. Clear as rain. Couldn't be any clearer. Quite frankly, I had absolutely no idea how I could have ever even considered disobeying Murdoch's orders or crossing his path in any way imaginable. The connection broke.
We were slowly leaving the tent pondering what just happened. As we were moving out, Abernathy offered us one last wave and a weak smile.
"Put a good word for me, will you?"
"Sure thing, Mark," I tried to return the smile but it came off as disingenuous so I turned away. We never saw the man again.