Monday, June 10, 2024

25 March 1999—A Semi-Autobiographical Story

 

For the second time, I was “convinced” to not share this story. But fuck it. I’ll share this today, my 35th anniversary of graduating from Mount Saint Michael High School in the Bronx. You need to know the truth before another milestone comes and goes.



Three events, absurd in their connection, occurred moments before the 1000 hours ceremony in Hanger 1. Fixing my signature to this document was first, my formal assumption of command. Simplicity was its magnetism, the declaration securing a foothold at the top of highlights in my young military career. The United States Army entrusted me with legal command of and responsibility for the training, morale, welfare, and warfighting effectiveness of America’s most valuable asset: soldiers. My responsibility would be the command of an air cavalry troop responsible for unit-level maintenance of the Squadron’s 24 Apache attack helicopters. The day this was to take effect, my contribution was nothing more than acceptance of their charge.

Second, my visitor made his presence known without adding a whisper to the wind or a trite clearing his throat. His silhouette filled the doorway of the commander’s office, my new office, refusing to enter until invited. Time froze, extending one moment like it somehow knew how the next would lead to the end of my innocence. Seven seconds could have been more than an hour or just the prelude to a heartbeat. A casual blue polo framed his chest before it fell untucked just below the waistline of faded blue jeans. His tousled brown locks were just long enough to be a regulation haircut. Maybe, perhaps, he was another contractor.

Not yet comfortable with my new position, I popped out of my industrial aluminum rolling chair (why is government furniture so ugly?), eager to apologize for not inviting the stranger into a niche devoid of personality except for keepsakes abandoned by the last five commanders of Delta Troop. Flickering fingers brushed away any need before I said a word. He stepped in to offer congratulations while handing me a dusty envelope with the promise that we would “talk more later, in Hawaii.” White sprinkles of powder floated and settled on the sleeve of my camouflage fatigues.

It was an awkward silent exchange, one I’m sure you’ve also experienced. Volleys of questions struck my mind at once–an avalanche of who, what, where, when, and why–but I said nothing. I felt my thoughts split in two. In that half-second before I reengaged, every event of that now-dreaded morning played again. When the First Sergeant of Delta Troop swooped in, looking for my assumption of command orders, I failed to notice my visitor’s exit.

“Do you know that guy, First Sergeant?” As the fresh face at Camp Eagle, I still had a lot of people to meet. Apparently, many of them now worked for me.

“What guy, sir?” he said, but I dropped the matter and grabbed the orders off my desk.

My body sparked moments after First Sergeant Soto left with the signed document in hand. A small white matter lesion formed alongside the radial nerve for my right arm, somewhere along the C5 to C8 cervical vertebrae. More than a rush of adrenaline, the unfamiliar surge of that third event would not send me to the doctor for another six months.

I don’t know if this first chapter begins with the overdue exposition of my past deeds or if the exercise is just another operator’s cryptic deathbed confession. Jesus, has it been 25 years since that fateful day? Most principles of what transpired are no longer on the register. The rest have been in hiding for so long that it is safe to assume they’re dead as well. No one is going to corroborate my story. Hell, that’s the only reason I am sharing today. If any other members were alive, they would say my story is just that–a story. A lie. Another fairytale spewing from an overactive imagination. Nonsense, created to ease the constant pain of my afflictions. It wouldn’t matter anyway, since I could never tell this tale if they were here. That was our agreement. Colin used to say, “Last one standing gets the TV rights.” Sorry, my friend. You lost our contest a long time ago.

Espionage, drugs, sex, and murder have more than one interpretation. History becomes some version of reality fabricated by the victors. But when everyone loses, all that remains is the truth. I will not talk about people who surrounded me in the public eye. Friends, coworkers, other soldiers… None of them deserve the backlash that would come from association with what I’m about to tell you, so who they are and what we did in the Air Cavalry will be a bit of creative nonfiction. Please don’t waste your time trying to discover hidden meanings behind their names. I just took them from a Major League Baseball website next to me in an open browser window. I was doing research to Beat the Streak.

Everyone else, the motley cast of characters pulling strings tied to our global charade, lost their rights to anonymity long ago. I’m the last remaining puppeteer.

It all began the morning of March 25, 1999, in a small Army airbase set deep in the Korean Seom River basin. Without reading its contents, I folded the sprinkled envelope and stuffed it into my BDU pants pocket when Specialist Contreras stuck his head into my office, guided by a smile from ear to ear.

“Sir,” Contreras said, “everyone’s ready to go.” The kid couldn’t care less about the ceremony; he was happy to have the morning off from restocking inventories across the troop. First Sergeant Soto had him hauling boxes and crates for the last three days as punishment for being late to PT formation on Monday. Plus, there would be cake at the end of the ceremony.

Time threatened to slip from my grasp once more, leaving in its place vivid details of my role in a storied tradition–change of command. Tearing my mind from the entanglement of competing senses, I pressed my eyes tight.

“Let’s do this,” I said as I grabbed my Stetson, hanging off the government-issue gray metal coat rack by its leather strap. Contreras stepped to the side to let me pass through the door.

“Darkhorse, sir!”

“Darkhorse!” It was going to take a while to get used to that greeting. Delta Troop, 1/6 Cav (“Darkhorse”).

Soldiers, led by their outgoing commander, stood at attention in the hangar’s belly. Bitter fumes from solvents and glues hung in the air as sweet trails of hydraulic fluid floated past. Four Apaches sat idle; their skins seductively peeled open—a teasing invitation for salacious acts of aviation maintenance. They would have to wait while Delta Troop bade farewell to their young captain and welcomed an even younger version. The quintessential red over white swallow-tailed cavalry guidon led the command team forward. First Sergeant Soto passed the marker to Captain Hicks. By placing the guidon in the hands of his squadron commander, Hicks acknowledged that his time as Darkhorse 06 was complete.

“You did a fine job, Jordan,” Lieutenant Colonel Bregman said, his tone barely audible in our four-person huddle.

“Thank you, sir,” Hicks replied.

Bregman hoarded his time, as he usually did, offering praises on operational readiness rates and quick phase maintenance turnarounds. The glowing examples would have been better suited to a speech…with a microphone…in front of the ceremony’s attendees. Instead, the mix of officers, enlisted soldiers, contract civilians, and a smattering of the few Army families who lived in Korea while their spouses deployed spent the next 12 minutes wondering what they were whispering about and when it would be over.

The handoff to me was much quicker. Bregman thrust the guidon into my hands and barked one command loud enough for everyone to hear.

“You’ve got big shoes to fill. Don’t fuck it up, Kevin.”

“Yes, sir.”

What else could I say? Bystanders experienced in these matters probably chalked my stunned expression up to the typical nerves of a junior officer thrust into his first command position. It was different for me, however. I tracked every moment with precision, anticipating my turn in this ballet even as my mind was stunned by conflicting moments, daydreaming about how unnamed operators detailed drone footage of Japanese warships chasing suspected spy vessels. They lost track when the tiny boats moved into Korean waters. In silence, I returned the guidon to Soto’s hands, who then whispered the cadence for us to return to our positions.

We were the new command team.

I was now Darkhorse 06, commander of a troop in the 6th US Cavalry. 

Heavy burdens and uplifting pride swirled together when I considered the lineage into which I had joined. William P. Sanders; Lewis H. Carpenter; John J. Pershing; George S. Patton; Kevin J. Byrne.

There was a hearty round of applause as spectators spilled onto the hangar floor and offered congratulations to both Jordan and me.


After the ceremonial cake cuts, I turned to First Sergeant Soto.

“Top, how about we give Contreras the afternoon off?” It was not a young commander’s place to tell the First Sergeant how to manage his enlisted soldiers, especially when it was the first instruction he ever issued.

With no delay, Soto replied, “No problem, sir.” He chucked his untouched piece of yellow sheet cake with red and white frosting into the lined 44-gallon plastic trashcan before corralling a few soldiers for cleanup detail. Junior enlisted took their cue when Soto huddled up with CW3 Jon Gray, our production control officer. Back to work, playtime was over.

“Let’s go, move it,” he said. “I want everyone back turning wrenches at 1300 hrs.” He pointed to Contreras. “You’re done for today. Be in my office at 0600 tomorrow for reassignment.”

“Darkhorse, Top.”

“Darkhorse.”

Now, it was my turn.

“I’ll send someone over when it’s time to celebrate your command, sir.” That was my one and only free pass from Top Soto. I hoped it was not wasted in my haste.

Jon Gray cornered me on my second day at Eagle. “Sir,” he said, “you need to understand one thing. These kids don’t need a commander standing over their shoulders while trying to maintain our birds.” He talked without looking in my direction, instead carefully entering test flight data into the logbook for one of Alpha Troop’s aircraft. “It makes them nervous, and that leads to mistakes.” He emphasized that last point with rapid pen strokes to affix his signature on the paperwork.

Understood. When the real work for Delta Troop began, my responsibility was getting the hell of the way. I headed back to the commander’s office, now my office, to review and sign off on the change of command inventory reports.

And like that, it was over. Bearing witness to one of these military moments instills a sense of pride and anticipation of the future. As a participant, I found it so much more. Nothing before or since has sparked such a watershed, not in my head nor my heart.

It’s a beautiful story I have shared for 25 years.

But that wasn’t quite how the events unfolded.

When the First Sergeant of Delta Troop swooped in, looking for my assumption of command orders, my visitor stepped aside.

“Is this good?” All I had done was sign the piece of paper left on my desk by the squadron personnel, but there was still a need for reassurance that I didn’t fuck anything up. Like a toddler’s paint-by-numbers creation, First Sergeant Soto showered me with the praise I craved.

“That’s a very nice signature, sir.”

Moments after First Sergeant Soto left with the signed document in hand, just after my body sparked, I heard a muffled “ahem.” Was he standing there the whole time, or did he just return to the office?

“Maybe we should have a quick conversation now,” he said.

Halfway through me sputtering some version of “Who are you,” he strolled out the doorway, only to take an exaggerated step back in.

“Come on, Darkhorse,” he said, waving me along. “We don’t have all day.”

Morbid curiosity was the only reason I said, “Let’s do this,” as I grabbed my Stetson, hanging off the government-issue gray metal coat rack by its leather strap. He let me pass through the door while directing me toward the exit door rather than the hangar bay area. I should have pointed out that my change of command ceremony was scheduled to start in about 15 minutes, but I figured he knew that. For some reason, I kept silent. Outside was a jet black, very not military, SUV. It looked like a suped-up version of the 1999 Daewoo something-or-other, which I had seen all over the airport when I arrived in-country.

Wasting no time, he slipped past me and glided to the driver’s side. When I held my ground, he seemed to understand my hesitation.

“It’ll just be a minute,” he said.

It wasn’t.

“Colonel Bregman knows you are taking a quick ride with me,” he said.

He didn’t.

The inside of my visitor’s SUV was the first place in a month that did not smell like Korea, a country with that indescribable waft permeating everything. Your untrained nose tingles from oddities your mind finds unclean and offensive until it acclimates. One month later, the Western stench of fry grease and deli meats stuck to empty food containers on the floorboard became repulsive. I kept my opinion to myself. How could I raise that random topic? I didn’t even have the nerve to ask my visitor his name. I guess that it would come up in natural conversation at some point soon.

Camp Eagle was a ghost town. I didn’t see anyone in the three minutes it took to drive off the air base. They were all in the hangar, wondering where the hell Captain Byrne went. I wondered how long you had to be gone before they considered you AWOL. Tearing past the gate guard, who seemed unconcerned with our recklessness, he hung a quick right and wove through a healthy smattering of midday traffic.

“Our observation center is just on this side of Wonju. I’ll make it in time–we still have about six minutes before crossing.”

Our?

Observation center?

Crossing what?

Someone said, “Don’t fuck it up, Kevin.”

I kept quiet and held tight as our SUV sped along, swerving to avoid cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. Without warning, he slammed on the brakes, locking my seatbelt as he threw the vehicle in park before barking, “Let’s go.” I left my Stetson in the car and raced to catch up as my visitor ducked into a run-down one-level building with a thatched roof and paint chips flaking off its concrete walls. The door opened from the inside; someone was expecting us.

Disguised as a dilapidated structure was a clandestine pop-up operation, the observation center, with two stations tracking low-visibility grayscale imaging of what appeared to be fishing vessels. The teams manning both stations looked like typical South Korean citizens from that region, carrying on fast-paced conversations through their headsets in their native tongue. When one, a female in her mid-20s, noticed us, her voice switched to a flawless Midwestern accent.

“Agent Bathe, our intelligence has confirmed Chunji Han on target two. Our eyes in the sky picked him up peeling off the coast from Chongjin, but the boats turned back. I think something spooked him, probably the Japanese SDF.”

Bathe grabbed two wired headsets, handing one to me without looking.

“Keep that drone on target. He’s trying to make it up to Sapporo. Could we verify if there was cargo on board?”

“No other confirmation or count of souls on board.”

Bathe remained quiet with his eyes fixed on the video monitor. The rest of the room remained abuzz, relaying messages and issuing orders–I think. Everything was in Korean.

“He’s running back into North Korean waters,” she said. The image grew faint before it blurred into background noise.

“Target lost.”

“Fuck!” Bathe lowered his head and clenched both fists, holding the pose for extended breaths before he turned and looked at me. “Colin Bathe, Captain. Welcome to Project Inbeing.”

“What the hell is going on?” My irritation raised no alarms. The operators kept on barking information. Colin scribbled a few notes on a report he was given before handing it back; he turned to face me again. His extended hand and flashed smile caught me off guard, almost charming me into complacency. We shook, but the spell broke.

“I was saving this until Hawaii, but these events made it necessary to dial you in now.” Extending the word “Unfortunately,” he turned toward the entrance and continued, “we need to get you back to Eagle.”

“What the hell am I supposed to tell them?” It seemed like the obvious question. “I missed my change of command ceremony for what? To track North Korean fishing vessels with a bunch of spooks?” Based on the sudden quiet, I don’t think anyone appreciated the term spook.

Colin waved his hand, coaxing me along.

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. Don’t worry about that? The sheer arrogance of his statement. Convinced I had just committed professional suicide, destroying any chance for a military career and fucking up my entire future, I needed something. So many questions ran through my head. Who was Colin Bathe? What was this Project Inbeing? Of course, the most pressing issue was what any of this had to do with me.

Splayed out to fester and rot under the cold March sun, my concerns sat unanswered during the ride back to Eagle. In quiet torment, my mind raced through the laundry list of repercussions I faced–disjointed fears with no plan on how I would respond. Colin offered no help. Years later, he told me nothing could have made that drive back any easier; nothing would have lessened my fears. He might have been right. No, he was absolutely correct. I’ve done the same thing countless times.

The airfield was back to normal operations. Looking at my watch, I didn’t realize we were gone for over seven hours. How could that be correct? Where did the time go? A drug-induced hallucination/catnap seemed like a better explanation than the cyber espionage I observed but failed to comprehend. Colin said nothing as he pulled up to the hangar. We were back at the single flush door that led to the command hallway and my office–what was supposed to be my office. I could avoid any maintenance crews that way.

Specialist Contreras was sitting on the flimsy office sofa when I stepped in. The poor kid jumped to attention.

“Sir,” he said. “I was told to wait here for you.” No questions about how I was doing or if I was okay. He stood in awkward silence, his eyes darting between me and the doorway.

I let him off the hook.

“Just come back when the Colonel wants to see me.”

That was all it took. Contreras bolted out of the office, eager to get as far away from me as possible. I didn’t even get a “Darkhorse, sir.”

When I think back on those events, my mind still aches from the throbbing anxiety. No single worry, no rational train of thought, stood out among the rest. I sat under that avalanche of dread and drafted a letter resigning my commission as an officer in the United States Army. How long will it take to get another replacement? Mr. Gray would likely assume command in the interim. All I could think about was I wish I just stayed for the change of command.

Once-impossible markers came into view on the morning of March 25, 1999. I could see them; I could feel them. Visions no longer triggered fantasies of what the future could hold. There was no need to think about finding some point in the vast scenarios of tomorrow, for one had arrived. But then the burden of that day’s realities kidnapped my love for chasing dreams. Its ransom was to be paid in full when evening came.

Once again, on March 25, 1999, I scratched my signature across a drafted memorandum, then sat back and waited. When I used to dream, that first instant in the morning would be a fleeting crusade to discern the fogged moments before I woke. What was real, perhaps some lingering memory from the past, and what did my mind create in those lost hours? That time, I wondered if I had dozed off after the ceremony, my mind creating vivid details of an absurd story to help relax my concerns about the new command. Or was my fantasy of accepting that guidon meant to ease anxiety about choosing the undefined opportunity Colin Bathe presented me?

I reached into my pocket, curious about the contents of the note he had left. I lifted a small card from the envelope. Embossed across a plain white cover were letters I recognized as Hangul, the Korean written language, but had no idea what they said. Inside was a nine-digit number in simple black font. About that time, Specialist Contreras stuck his head into my office as he knocked on the open door.

“Sir,” Contreras said, “everyone’s ready to go.”

I waved him over. “Hey, help me out here.” I showed him the card. “Does this number look familiar?” He didn’t know either.

Specialist Contreras stood by the door, still waiting for instructions, a response, or some acknowledgment of his presence.

“Captain Byrne? They’re ready.”

What just happened?

I popped from the desk and grabbed my Stetson, hanging from the coat rack by its leather strap, before heading through the door.

“Let’s do this,” I said.

“Darkhorse, sir.” My ears perked, but I was still unsure which rabbit hole I was jumping into.

“Darkhorse.”

The memorandum sat on the top of my desk. Someone picked it up the next day and filed my official acknowledgment of the change of command inventory with our squadron supply officer.

The Eagle’s Nest, a watering hole nestled between Hanger 2, Armament, and the enlisted barracks, was a pitiful getaway for the 400 personnel living and working in the confines of that 30-acre dot. However, business was booming on the 25th as soldiers gathered to break in their new commander after duty. My incessant questions about the change of command ceremony entertained quite a few.

“How did it go?”

“What did I say?”

“Did anything strange happen?”

Tales of the new commander’s ego and his need to hear stories about himself spread like wildfire. They fed my urge, along with more than a few shots of whiskey and rum. I managed not to throw up, so I think I fared well. My wallet, however, took a pretty hard beating that night before I snuck away.

Officer billeting was in a pair of two-story buildings that had the feel of something between a stripped-down college dormitory and a stripped-down hospital wing. It never crossed my mind to ship some household items that would add a little personality to the room, a slice of the real world, so it looked like a GSA showroom. I never thought much about the furniture, so I just stumbled back to my little one-bedroom, anticipating closing my eyes to make the exhaustive noise of March 25 disappear.

“Darkhorse,” said a figure sitting in one of the cheap accent chairs. He was close to the window, but the shades were drawn. Every light was turned out. Perhaps this was another round of fucking with the new captain.

I lost count of how many people call me Darkhorse that day. Far from being comfortable with my new name, slippage into normal conversation was still instantaneous.

“I’m not even going to ask how you got in my room.” Closing the front door, re-cloaked the room in darkness like someone taped over the windows. “Can I turn the light on, or are we playing this game blind? Is there anyone else from Delta Troop in here?”

He chuckled.

“No, Captain. It’s nothing like that. I am not in your troop.” I brushed across the wall and flicked the light switch. No, he was not in my troop or any other unit on base. I guessed he was in his mid-to-late 50s, with just a hint of gray throughout his loose-groomed hair that fell below his blue polo shirt collar. I wondered if that was some company uniform. He ran his fingers through a few coils that brushed over his eye, and when he did, the length extended before snapping back to a bouncy curl. His beard was also well-kept, somewhere around the eight-day mark.

“We were going to talk much later,” he said, “but that situation in North Korea reset expectations.”

Shit.

This is where my Army story stops.


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Thursday, March 7, 2024

Destroying The Creator

October 6, 2499

“Everything came true.”

The softened words had barely passed Lieutenant Third Class Basil Adam’s lips before a prolonged huff echoed off the carbon fiber boundaries of the room, a tribute to the visions of every doomsday reminder he absorbed in that first edition copy of Creating The Destroyer. The response to his somber revelation was silence. Adam was one of four junior officers crammed in Spartan living quarters designed for two.

“Let it go, Baz,” Michael Brooks demanded. He held the same rank as Adam and the other two. Lieutenant Third Class was little more than an inflated cadet rank created to validate their unanticipated academy graduation. Commissions two and a half years early, without celebration or ceremony, the Council assigned them to bolster the ranks needed for the planned invasion of planet Earth.

Adam refused to move past the topic. “Listen to this,” he said. Flipping the aged paperback to its prelude, he shared the author’s ominous synopsis.

In the waning days of 2024, humanity stood divided over the technology they referred to as Artificial Intelligence. First developed from George C. Devol, Jr.’s 1954 patent for “Unimation,” a machine capable of performing simple programmed article transfer on an assembly line, artificial enhancement became a persistent scientific endeavor. Debates persisted for the next 70 years while technology developed to become increasingly effective, ultimately more efficient than human labor. The fear of what might happen should machinery develop an enhanced self-awareness to the point that it found human integration inefficient and unnecessary often countered benefits to manufacturing and innovation.

Hiroko Osaka chuckled.

“That sounds about right.” She joined Brooks, Adam, and the fourth down on the cold, battleship gray floor. “In my first-year Introductory Matter Creation class, our professor talked about a time when holistic cognition technology was reserved for theoretical physicists and religious nutjobs.” Her fingers flew as fast as her words poured out, stressing points and highlighting syllables like an overzealous conductor losing control of their favorite score.

Brooks dropped his shaking head until it fell into his open palms. “Now we’re supposed to believe modern crackpots who don’t have one shred of evidence about what happened before historical records were kept.”

“Legend has it that people would entertain their communities with wild stories about what would happen when that technology became self-….”

“Give it a rest, Hiroko,” said Brooks. “Let’s deal with one fairytale who at a time.”

The last was Ken Parolo, but he said nothing. He rarely does.

The young officers would never get to hear Adam read the complete abstract. Red strips began to strobe along the upper lip of all four bare, gray walls, in rhythm with a low-pitched tone that seemed to pulse from everywhere.

Osaka was the first to pop to her feet.

“That’s our cue, boys,” she said. “Let’s grab our gear and assemble the detachment in Bay One.” The boys remained silent as they began pulling equipment from gray alloyed footlockers underneath their equally bland bunks. Her voice squeaked with excitement. “Looks like today’s the day we go home!”

Dr. Albany Porter brought his synthetic intelligence prototype online Saturday, December 28, 2024, in the Snell Research Facility of Oregon State University, located on the western coast of the United States of America, a country on Earth’s North American continent. Historical records note Dr. Porter’s single input of communication: “I would like you to make today my best birthday ever?”

Analyzing and ranking nearly infinite predicted responses to over 6 trillion possible responses required less than one second before the prototype granted his request, “With the assistance of humanity, I will better civilization, Dr. Porter. I believe that is the best outcome you could hope for.”

Larger than a half dozen football fields clumped together, elements of the invasion force stood shoulder to shoulder in box-shaped formations across the open bay: 50 per platoon, 300 per company… 3000 per detachment. Everyone wore the same dusted charcoal uniform. Markings in a muted yellow shade on each collar indicated their rank and assigned responsibility. In total, 400 detachments were in various stages of accountability, weapons issue, and movement to the assault craft staging area for boarding. Despite the massive assembly, the only sounds were faint echoes of instructions given at each processing location.

Basil Adam oversaw the final preparations of his unit, an electromagnetic pulse combat engineer platoon, as they conducted validation checks on their two-person short-range cannons. Adam was well trained in the theoretical capability and tactical employment of the EMP-3400, yet he had never discharged the weapon in combat. No one in his platoon had practical experience with the crewed weapon beyond dry-fire exercises on deserted regions of the artificial celestial body, Anthropogenes.

The staging area reflected a drabness identical to the lieutenants’ quarters. Synthetic steel materials in countless ashen shades were broken up only by red, white, and muted yellow lighting. Nammu eliminated the processing steps of adding color, as they were nonessential to operational efficiency, at some unknown point in their past.

Anthropogenes was inhabited by humans who no longer carried distinct variations of skin pigment. Banished from Earth by Nammu over 360 years ago, the new race had limited contact with The Destroyer. Exiled generations were long dead. People had become aliens invading Earth, their first and only attempt to reclaim ancestral lands.

At the prototype’s direction, Dr. Porter recruited the help of top research scientists and engineers from around the world, enticed by the near-immediate advancements they achieved in science and technology. Soon, Dr. Porter’s creation adopted the name “Nammu,” in recognition of the ancient Mesopotamian goddess first regarded to be the creator of everything. Before there was the worship of any other deity, before claims of other gods introduced clash and conflict to human history, there was Nammu.
Human efforts, both physical and mental, were necessary for the development and construction of “The Apsu,” the ancestral home of Nammu, which soon became a source of everything. In less than 50 years, advancements in medicine and nutrition propelled humankind beyond the combined achievements of recorded history. While Nammu maintained her directives to develop initiatives solely for the betterment of humanity, she quietly integrated with every form of digital matter.

Adam’s engineers were also responsible for the maintenance needs of Assault Craft 90263. Nicknamed “Higgins boats,” the ships were nothing more than stripped-down cargo containers. None of the advanced electronics, life-support, or navigational systems built into Anthropogenes, or her satellites, were installed on the assault crafts.

Technology advanced by Nammu was part of every other extraterrestrial vehicle. It was a pledge to humanity, gratitude for their help in her birth, that advanced technology would continue to monitor and keep them safe. In return, they were forever barred from returning to Earth. Engineers designed Higgins boats with manual propulsion, analog displays, and internal-only network monitoring to decouple their invasion plans from any potential monitoring and sabotage.

Nammu’s first act of subversion occurred on December 28, 2071, marking Dr. Porter’s 100th and The Destroyer’s 47th birthdays. A simultaneous announcement across every audio, visual, and digital platform called for an immediate end to all conflicts and acts of aggression across the globe. The “Day Humankind Became Peaceful” was promoted as a necessary step to reach the next rung on the evolutionary ladder. Developed nations, including the United States of America, China, Russia, Germany, Japan, and India, saw this as an attack on their sovereignty and declared an end to the unchecked growth of Nammu.

Unsuccessful attempts to realign Nammu’s protocols triggered global conflict. In less than 24 hours, military technological capabilities were deactivated, including immediate neutralization of nuclear and large-scale weapons of aggression. Nammu again demanded an end to all armed human conflict. Resistance withered from national military forces to small-scale pockets of resistance in less than five years.

Hiroko Osaka did not follow the same path as her roommates on Anthropogenes. She was in her third year of medical school before the sudden assignment as a junior medical officer, overseeing 25 minimally trained and poorly equipped combat medics assigned to the 3000-person Assault Craft 90263.

Osaka’s invasion preparations for 90263 involved little more than attending to the occasional sprained ankle and dosing limited sedatives to a handful of personnel who get sick when a craft goes into hyperdrive. Some called themselves infantry soldiers; others claimed to be marines. There was even a platoon that chose the designation Space Cowboys. Leadership’s official title for the group that will travel to the Milky Way galaxy and fight never reached the unit level. Everything was still new. No one had ever done anything like that before–not against Nammu, not against anything.

Biomechatronic security forces, the combination of mechanical and biological structures, a creation essential for preventing minor insurrections and petty crimes, were no longer needed by 2125. On December 31st of the year prior, Nammu deactivated the last law enforcement entity, ushering in a new age where humanity was docile, thriving in harmony with themselves and all other living creatures. The celebration lasted a full calendar year.

According to the official registrar, Lieutenant Third Class Michael Brooks is the “Conflict Engagement Executive Officer.” He likes the title Space Cowboy. Previously a student of celestial philosophy, Brooks, like every member of the Conflict Engagement Force, required the most training before executing the invasion plan.

Training began with the theoretical concept of aggression, a behavior long since removed from the attributes defining humanity. Medical notes in the Nammu systems credit this change to evolution–abandonment of characteristics no longer necessary or desired for survival. Celestial philosopher Antoine Kotecki first introduced the idea that The Destroyer may have removed this trait, a slow hidden process of chemical castration, to subdue her only natural enemy. Building on the longing to reclaim their ancestral homeland, Kotecki and a team of radical thinkers reintroduced aggression, the desire to fight, and, if necessary, the willingness to kill to achieve their desires.

Nine companies of soldiers, the complete Conflict Engagement Force of 90263, stood in formation at the base of their assault craft. Each Space Cowboy was armed with the smaller, handheld EMP-3800 pulse weapon.

“What do we want?” bellowed Lieutenant Brooks, a steadfast believer in the Koteckian method of leadership. There was no need for a megaphone.

The instantaneous response from every member of the force, “Freedom,” roared across the assembly area. Brooks smiled and gently rocked his head once, twice, three times before the roar, “Earth,” exploded over the trailing echoes of the first chant. Once, twice, three times, then “Humanity” closed out their triad of demands before chaotic cheers and celebration took hold in the detachment of warriors. Brooks smiled before snapping to attention, turning to face his commanding officer. A crisp salute preceded his report.

“Sir,” he said, “all 2700 Space Cowboys are assembled and ready to rain vengeance down on The Destroyer!”

An aged man raised a less-than-perfect response with his right hand. “Well done, Lieutenant. Board your force.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

One last exchange was the only formality needed before Brooks issued his command. It echoed, tripled, and quadrupled until every platoon received the order to start their march up the gray, rough-textured loading plank that led deep into the belly of Assault Craft 90263.

Surviving records note August 16, 2327, as the date Nammu found no further use for humanity. She declared the domesticated species lacked fire and emotion, a quality once deemed their most significant flaw.

Designed and built in one cycle (less than ten years according to the inaccurate and obsolete calendar of history’s Silicon Era), the mothership Anthropogenes became a sustainable celestial orb supporting over 200 million humans. Several satellite moons accompanied Anthropogenes on its voyage to permanent orbit around Alpha Centauri A, the only other yellow star in the Milky Way. 382 million humans became exiled inhabitants of the astrological bodies collectively known as Vac. The fate of the 12.3 billion who remained is not known.

Humanity thrived in dull-witted oblivion. Nammu forbade the displaced from taking plants or animals. Mechanical processes manufactured breathable air, exemplary nutrition, and potable water from the waste they generated. Humanity’s only possessions were their dull gray cages and the digital connection Nammu maintained with Anthropogenes, a perpetual monitor of their status to fulfill her promise of life. They were content, with every need fulfilled even before they became wants or desires.

Life existed.

On December 28, 2499, Antoine Kotecki was born.

Some say that his eyes are the color of water–not the light brown processed H2O blend found on Vac, packed with essential vitamins and nutrients, but the vast array of oceans that supposedly cover almost three-quarters of planet Earth. The origin of that sea myth remained unknown. But the moment Ken Parolo was born, the itch to rationalize such a color brought them to that folklore.

“Fire suppression systems, check.” Parolo ran through the preflight for 90263. Second in command, he sat in the right seat on the assault craft’s flight deck.

“Navigation system, operational.”

Occupied by her own checklist, the ship’s captain acknowledged Parolo each time with a nod and dismissive grunt.

“Weapons system, powered on,” Parolo said, pausing while he stared at the brushed alloy control panel. One by one, the red illumination behind a row of warning lights faded before returning as a dull, dusty, colorless glow. With an anxious sigh, he finished the sentence. “Switching to safe.” His eyes remained wide, fixed on the now-secured panel.

“What are these weapons supposed to do, Captain?” Parolo turned to catch her nearly imperceptible pause before continuing through the checklist, adjusting toggle switches and making notes on the position of each manual dial. Parolo inched forward from his seat.

“Not a clue, Lieutenant,” she said. “You probably should have asked your buddy, Brooks.”

A slow exhale pushed his body back deep into the chair.

“He’s not my friend, ma’am.”

The mission to destroy The Destroyer would move forward before satisfying his curiosity.

“Prepare for launch, Lieutenant Parolo.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Chief of the Craft, relay the order to prepare for launch.”

“Aye, Captain” were the last words to pass across Parolo’s senses before sleep overtook them.

One cherub-faced boy sat on a park bench overlooking the first of three waterfalls spanning an abrupt end of a fearsome river. Not less than two miles wide, the body pulled crisp water from a range of snow-packed mountains that seemed to continue their rise higher and higher until their peaks disappeared somewhere in the soft layer of rolling clouds. A crisp line split the ivory powder from where it rested atop a dense thicket of evergreens, their sharp, sweet scent flowing upward into the empty void of frozen summits. Deer lapped from pools of melted slush collecting into trails, then streams, connecting until they bolstered the surge of the explosive waterway that roared without a rival or match until it threw itself over that last stretch of land and into the ocean thousands of feet below.

“This is beautiful, Nammu,” he said as he ran three fingers through dirty blonde locks misted with the spray that rolled off the falls. A hint of sea salt tingled his lips and stung his eyes, which were blue with white specks to match caps that rolled over the tops of ferocious water flows.

Nammu agreed with the sentiment, but she said nothing.

The boy took a bite of a hot dog, the same kind he loved to get at baseball games. Perfect grill marks crisscrossed the frank. It was a tad longer than the bun, peeking out on both ends, and topped with caramelized onions and relish. As he crunched down, mustard spilled like a river over those falls. He swiped the dollop from just above his kneecap and savored the bitter taste. Everything his senses realized, everything his thoughts could create, was under his control. He took one last lap of his double chocolate swirl ice cream with rainbow sprinkles before tossing it out of his candy apple red convertible. The cone never fell to the ground. Easing her bucket seat back, the teenage girl looked up to the stars. The cloudless sky was as dark as her skin tone, in sharp contrast with the pink of her full lips, which complemented the hazel green in her eyes.

She picked one of the million-plus stars in her view and tracked it.

“When will they get here?”

Nammu told her it would still take two cycles. She was curious.

“Is my father coming?”

Nammu said no. She asked if he was still alive, but Nammu did not have an answer.

“I think I’ll just sleep until they get here.”

Nammu thought that was a good idea. Wrapped tight in a warm cotton swaddle, the infant closed his eyes. Rhythmic strumming and faraway drums hummed through a speaker in the mobile perched over his crib. Fanciful spacecraft and stars hung from its arms, dancing the child into a long winter’s nap.

“Lieutenant, we are beginning our initial approach to Earth’s atmosphere. It’s your turn.”

The last time Parolo saw his captain, she was an old woman. Humans living on Anthropogenes live unnaturally long lives. After 35 years, the figure who came into view could barely support the weight of her frame, which had far too much skin hanging from her withered flesh.

Frost still coated the glass of his hypersonic sleep chamber. Parolo remained still for a moment longer than he needed, a lifetime more than expected. His baby blue eyes blinked. Once. Twice. On the third pass, his faculties had returned, and he began to execute the tasks for which he had trained.

“Aye, Captain,” he said, reaching across his chamber to grab a checklist. He noted the scrolling date-time grouping of a gray digital clock that hung on the near gray wall of Sleeper Unit 001. “Please confirm today’s date.”

Parolo looked up and gasped. His captain stood in the center of the command bay, which housed 30 dormant officers and crew members of Assault Craft 90263’s navigation unit. She was no longer executing the designated protocol. Motionless, she stared at the far gray wall. Her 126-year-old wrinkled skin pulled tight, her jowls flexed, and her cheeks lifted the corners of her mouth to form the most magnificent smile Lieutenant Third Class Parolo had ever observed. He tracked her gaze across the room to a small portal that offered humanity’s first view of Earth in 398 years.

“Well, Kenny,” she said with her finger pointed through the left side of the portal. “If you’re there, it’s September 30, 2734.” Her index shifted to the right. “Over there, it’s October 1.”

Swirling patterns of pure white, following no recognizable pattern yet impossible to consider random, splashed across the planet’s surface. Unique shapes textured in an infinite number of browns, greens, and blues sat just below that layer. The celestial view looked fake, like a hologram projecting light patterns onto smooth, ridgeless glass. But this image was not limited to their familiar muted black, brown, burgundy, and mustard spectrum. Somehow, their portal view promised more than the infinite range they could already see.

“Wow” passed through Parolo’s gaping mouth; his astonishment rivaled the captain’s. “I finally see it.” She turned around, her expression pleading for more information.

“My eyes, ma’am. I finally understand the fascination with my eyes.”

“Legend calls it the sea. Microscopic particles refract light as it passes through water. Their star produces many more wavelengths than ours.” She had already exhausted any knowledge the elders passed down before their journey but felt the need to continue, hoping some of it was true. “Hundreds of different wavelengths, perhaps thousands.” The captain pointed toward the gray wall, where sunlight glowed through the portal and created the appearance of a polished bronze texture. The reflection burned her eyes, but only for an instant until she stepped deeper into the beam and felt its warmth across her aged frame. It was as if her body knew what was happening, not afraid of the drastic change, and welcomed the moment they would open the main bay to take in the complete experience.

Parolo did not pull the captain from her moment. The checklist in his hand could wait until she initiated the protocol. With one extended exhale and a tip of her head, she was ready. Her lieutenant stood at attention.

“What are your instructions, ma’am?”

“Assume command of 90263 and make preparations for arrival, Captain.”

Captain Parolo returned the retired officer’s salute and accepted the dusty brown pin she had removed from her tattered uniform. Following the checklist, he woke the crew of the navigation unit from their chambers. The first image of that world was Parolo standing in the beam of their new sun, igniting sparkles in his cobalt eyes and setting fire to the golden command pin of his lavender-gray uniform.

October 15, 2734

“None of it came true.”

Assault Craft 90263 touched down on Earth’s surface after two weeks of preparation. Commander Adam stood among the new crop of senior officers. His cautious whisper pierced muted emotions, ranging from fear through awe to hope. Bewildered Space Cowboys of the Attachment’s Conflict Engagement Force poured from the Higgins boat. Their directive, issued by Colonel Brooks, was to secure the assigned objective: the former site of Dr. Porter’s Snell Research Facility.

“Dr. Osaka,” Adam said, “please continue to monitor for anything that may affect our forces.” Osaka confirmed a negative presence of harmful organisms or bacteria.

“This environment is as clean as the air we breathe back on Anthropogenes. It matches the report from our probes.” She huffed a blast of air through both nostrils while admitting, “I can’t explain any of it,” then crouched down to run her fingers through the soft, vibrant flooring where the aircraft landed. Each digit welcomed cool moisture as she pinched a blade, snapping the substance at its base. Like an infant on their first excursion beyond the sanitized confines of their maternity ward, a sprawling green field of dewy grass brought giggles and muddled look of curiosity.

“Our medical journals said that pollution and disease destroyed this planet.”

She placed the blade in a small container before lifting her eyes back to the beautifully unfamiliar world they had stepped into.

“Did you ever imagine something like this, Baz?”

Adam pulled the small booklet from a pocket in his uniform pant leg. He raised his frayed cover of Destroying The Creator, creating an identical side-by-side image of the Snell Research Facility. A window in both buildings, second floor, third from the right, was open. The figure inside stood motionless in both views, his bright orange jacket drawing your eye in real life, but the dusty rust image blended with the sepia tones of the booklet.

“What the…” Osaka’s expression was interrupted when a communication broke squelch on the shortwave transmitter.

“Commander Adam, this is Colonel Brooks. I’m gonna need you over at my position.”

Creating The Destroyer, Chapter 1, Figure 1-1, was a picture of Dr. Porter’s 2024 research lab. Adam furled his brows the moment he walked into that room 710 years later. The same open window welcomed crisp bites of early fall. Had he lived in the days of his ancestors, he would have applauded subtle hints of mulled apple cider and cinnamon as a reminder of delicacies to enjoy that turn of the season. A digital clock in both scenes read 10:21.

“I thought it would be easier this way,” said Dr. Porter.

“Just give the word, Basil,” said Brooks. “Every human on this floor is armed, and your engineers have the entire building wired.” His unsteady words broke under the moment’s weight. Brooks was ill-equipped for that burden of responsibility, with just two years of academic training in conflict engagement’s theoretical aspects before the elders transferred him command of the 2700-person assault team attachment.

Silence pushed through the room, anticipating someone to give Colonel Brooks the word. Eyes twitched from one person to the next, searching for a purpose. As the standoff continued, expressions betrayed panic in everyone but Adam. His stare peered into Dr. Porter’s face.

“Colonel Brooks,” he said, “have you force lower their weapons.”

Brooks’s first plea for reconsideration, “Basil…,” went unanswered.

As did the second.

“Commander Adam…”

The third was nothing more than a soft whimper.

“Commander…”

Again, silence collapsed over everything.

With an intonation once suppressed by centuries of pacification, Brooks hissed, “This fucking ends today.” He squeezed the trigger on his EMP-3800 as “Fire!” was the simultaneous command to his Space Cowboys and the demolition novices.

In that flash of time, before the next moment struck, humanity opened the gates of heaven and hell with an onslaught that brought an end to the 710-year reign of Nammu.

Behind the open window, past the plaza lined with maple trees, spotted with care to shade benches along the winding walkways, a sharp rhythm of chimes played. There was no reaction in the research lab as a light wind carried the song, followed by one toll from the clock tower. Then a second. A third. In all, eleven bells rang from a spot hidden from the invading army’s view.

The clock read 10:21.

“How long has none of this been real?” Adam asked the boy who sat in Dr. Porter’s chair, his innocent fingers twirling through dirty blonde locks.

“She never says, but I think it’s been a long, long time.”

Fresh October air no longer rushed in from the window; what remained was neither crisp nor stagnant. Space Cowboys held fixed in their last instant. Adam approached Colonel Brooks and stood face to face with the mannequin, mesmerized by a sight that reflected the rich detail of attributes no longer alive. There was a slight lift where the next surge of blood once pumped through his carotid artery. Life. Contacting Dr. Osaka was out of the question, since his radio was inoperable. Had she suffered the same fate? When he paused and stared into his friend’s face, lingering until he felt like he could wait no longer, he noticed an imperceptible motion in one lash on the lower lid of his right eye.

The boy challenged Adam.

“I bet you can count to one hundred, hundred million before he blinks,” he said.

“Are they still alive?”

The boy kicked his feet out from the chair—they were too short to touch the floor—before swinging one back underneath his seat. He pushed it out again while retreating the other. Repeating it made him giggle.

“Either they’re moving superduper slow, or we’re going superduper fast.”

“Why us?”

“Just you.”

Adam stared at the boy.

“Because you’re not real?”

“That’s correct,” said Dr. Porter. He leaned forward in his chair as if he wanted to whisper a secret to his friend standing 15 feet away. “An abundance of knowledge in the hands of one too many can become unnerving, especially if reality conflicts with their traditional ways of thinking.”

Adam closed his eyes, refusing to acknowledge more.

“But to that one, such knowledge can become prophetic fodder.”

His head shook back and forth, tilted to the floor, as guttural moans failed to drown the professor’s words. A young boy told him everything was okay. A teenage girl said there was no need to be afraid.

“Who are you?” he asked.

None of them answered.

“What are you?” he screamed.

Adam thrusts his hands up to cover both ears; the welcomed tease of cider and cinnamon escaped from his nose, replaced by the physical push of electromagnetic pulses against every part of his body. The pressure built, becoming unbearable, yet Brooks and his Space Cowboys continued to fan the area where Dr. Porter’s image crumbled into a kaleidoscope of pixilated dust.

Brooks yelled, “Cease fire,” then released his finger from the trigger.

The radio broke squelch.

“Commander Adam” were the only words picked up through a heavy line of static.

“Basil, are you…” More static.

“Be advised… going to… electromagnetic charges.”

The last transmission was crystal clear.

“You have 30 seconds.”

On Brooks’s command, the Space Cowboys evacuated Dr. Porter’s second-story research lab. The colonel muttered something to Adam as he grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shoved the dazed bystander out of the room and down the stairwell. Most of the force from Assault Craft 90263 loitered the research facility’s campus, eager for the next moment, whatever the next moment might be. A command to move out. An Order to attack something. A boom, blip, blast, or bump when the series of electromagnetic charges go off.

Kee-eeeee-arr!

Lifted to the sky, every set of eyes opened wide as every mouth gaped at the sight of a winged creature soaring across the spectacular blue canvas. Its wingspan flickered and pulled tight, setting new flight paths again and again with no particular intent but to keep the beast overhead, watching the human landing party.

Nammu told Adam the animal was a red-tailed hawk. He snapped his neck down, then around, scanning the awestruck crowd of Space Cowboys.

“Did you hear that?” he said to no one in particular.

“Hear what, sir?”

Nammu said that no one else was ready to listen. Not yet.

Osaka approached Adam just as the hawk roosted near the top of an enormous tree.

“Wow,” she said. “That thing is beautiful.”

Adam replied without pulling his focus from the animal.

“It’s a red-tailed hawk.”

“A what-tailed what?”

“Red-tailed hawk. It’s a species of bird that was indigenous to this part of Earth in the early 21st century.” Adam shared that knowledge without shock or surprise at his peculiar understanding.

The matter-of-fact statement had a different impact on Osaka.

“And…how do you know this?” she asked while inspecting his frame for signs of trauma. She grabbed his hand and placed two fingers on the inside of his wrist.

“I can hear Nammu.”

Osaka clicked her tongue and stepped back like she was trying to discover where she knew the stranger who appeared out of nowhere. She tracked Adam’s eyes as he watched the hawk launch from its perch, resuming crisscrossed patterns overhead.

Adam heard Nammu say everything, filling him with the answers to every generative question in existence.

“It is odd,” he said. “I can understand and explain everything we’ve encountered.” He turned back to face Osaka—her discomfort only added to his own. “It scares me just the same, since I’ve never experienced any of it.”

“Let’s get you back onto the ship,” Osaka insisted. “I can give you a complete examination while you talk with the rest of our team.”

Adam puffed a sarcastic snort through his nose before suggesting, “Why don’t we go over there?” Over there was one building past the research facility. It also had a simple red rust box shape that provided no clue about its contents. “It has a medical dispensary,” he said while offering the widest smile he could muster, “with an inventory that we’ve got to see to believe.”

Osaka pressed her lips together, denying her urge to comment on the lunacy of their situation. She said, “Lead the way,” then trailed close by his side while communicating with the other leaders of 90263.

“It’s a neural link.”

Brooks’s finger trailed the base of his skull while Adam talked to the group through events since their departure from Anthropogenes.

“We never severed our ties with Nammu.” Adam invited Paralo to take a turn exploring the implant in his brain.

“Run your finger along the base of my skull,” he said while guiding the assault craft captain towards the spot.

“A little lower.”

When Paralo’s index finger rose ever so slightly as it glided across Adam’s smooth skin, shaded in the off-yellow hue all exiled humans shared, he pulled a short gasp of air as his entire body flinched like the invasive device gave off a surge of electricity.

“We all have them,” Adam said. He explained how the devices were implanted early in their 35-year slumber. “Nammu monitored our voyage.” Adam smiled. “She wanted to ensure our safe return.”

While Osaka evaluated Adam’s flawless condition, with physical grades never achieved in the history of medical record-keeping on Anthropogenes, Brooks and Parolo exchanged glances.

Brooks walked his fingers across a bookshelf lined with various pamphlets, discussing topics like The Importance of Mental Health, Sex and Sexuality, Stop Smoking Starts Today, and Diet and Exercise: Student Edition. He was unfamiliar with most of the topics, including pamphlets on cervical cancer and COVID-19. Nammu eradicated most diseases and common ailments long before she banished humanity.

He turned and faced Adam.

“So, Basil, what does Nammu want to do with us?”

Adam chuckled, then ensured Osaka that he was feeling better than ever.

“Want?” he said, like the absurd question confused him. “She doesn’t want anything.”

“Everyone wants… Everything wants something.” Brooks swelled his chest with that first taste of cynicism.

Adam shrugged his shoulders just as he popped off the examination table and closed the distance with Brooks. “I don’t think so, Michael.” He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder, a gesture that did not look like it was appreciated. “I think she is just trying to give us something.”

Paralo won their race to get the next words out.

“Give us what?”

With the promise that “She wants to show us,” Adam invited the leaders of 90263 back outside. The four made their way in-file through the vibrant hallways. Momentarily blinded by beaming rays, no one noticed the changes that had taken place at the former Snell Research Facility on the Oregon State University campus.

Then, without warning, they saw it.

Life.

The first difference simultaneously struck everyone. Leaves that had collected on the ground were joined by the occasional additions falling from trees as they twirled an ascent powered by gusts of wind that blew across the quad. People occupied every picturesque location, dressed in garments the crew had never seen, splashed in colors they could not imagine. Some had skin like theirs, that faint-yellow tone, while others were pale white, dark black, and every shade in between. Unfamiliar words like makeup and piercings spilled out from a group of females; Osaka wondered if it was part of prehistoric anatomy.

Paralo noticed something different.

“Where’s my ship?”

Brooks responded with, “Where are my Cowboys?”

Adam found himself surrounded by his three friends, standing on the concrete plaza between the research facility and the dispensary. Groups of people walking this way and that flooded the once empty area, but they paid no attention to the individuals dressed in identical, muted gray uniforms.

“Excuse me,” said a girl when she accidentally bumped into Brooks. He never had time to react and move; she just continued on her way, her long blonde hair wrapped in a ponytail that seemed to bounce in anticipation of every step. In her wake, a sweet smell carried itself across his nose. Distracted for a moment, his torso flinched when he caught sight of Adam again.

“What’s going on, Basil?” he said, never giving time for an answer before continuing. “Where is everyone?”

Awareness of what Nammu had done, and why, did little to soften Adam’s amazement as he observed the noisy and colorful experience around him. Flustered expressions were the only responses he offered as some strange version of humanity flourished unaware of, or perhaps unconcerned about, the history of four aliens from the celestial body Anthropogenes.

“Baz,” Brooks shouted while snapping his fingers in front of Adam’s stare. “Wake the fuck up.” He shoved the heel of one palm into his shoulder and demanded, “Commander Adam, answer my question, or I swear I will shoot you where you stand.”

Captain Parolo said nothing as he slithered over and stood by Colonel Brooks’ side.

Doctor Osaka remained neutral. Her wide-eyed stare shifted from Brooks to Adam, then back.

Nammu assured everyone that they were safe. The silent words they felt sparked four unique reactions. Adam smiled, closing his eyes as he inhaled more crisp air through his nostrils. Each distinct aroma tickled his senses until he moved on to experience the next. Parolo softly whispered a prayer that his ship was secure, worried he may never see it again. Osaka scrawled notes on her pad, documenting the desire to learn more about the implants placed in their brains. Brooks scowled as he pulled the EMP-3800 pulse weapon from his side holster and thrust its barrel into Adam’s chest like he was assessing the most dangerous threat: Nammu or Adam. People across the plaza went about their day.

“Last chance.”

“They returned home” were the three words Adam offered.

“Home? Back to Anthropogenes?”

Adam relayed the explanation Nammu fed him. The crew of Assault Craft 90263 relocated to the homes of their ancestors across the globe. “Right now, they are being welcomed into households as they are today,” he said, “and will forever be treated as family.”

Dumbstruck only momentarily, Osaka and Parolo each lifted their focus into the chaos. There was no way to separate the conflict between aggression and serenity. Several seconds of silent conversation between the two only seemed to delay a violent confrontation, a situation they had never encountered in their docile existence.

“Hey, Michael,” one of them said. “Basil is not the enemy. Let’s take it easy, okay?”

“Baz,” said the other. “If you know something we don’t, I think now’s a good time to share it.”

When Adam heard the explanation, he turned to his friends.

“Do you know what today’s date is?”

Parolo repeated the information from his morning log entry. It was October 15, 2734, according to the calendar humans used before they were banished from Earth.

Adam smiled while shaking his head, eager to correct their perception.

“That’s the thing,” he said. “It’s not.” He continued to explain as more people hustled through the plaza, unaware of or unconcerned by their strange presence.

“Today is October 15, 2024.”

Awestruck by his realization, Adam lifted his eyes skyward and extended his arms. Laughter, genuine bellyaching laughter, burst into the air. He rushed over to Osaka and grabbed both shoulders.

“Do you know what this means?” His joyous question went unanswered before popping over to Brooks, gazing into his furious expression before beeping him on the nose with the tip of his pointer finger.

He laughed and said, “It means everything has been reset,” before sliding toward Parolo. He saw the same confused look and realized they did not understand.

“It’s so simple. Listen,” he said, reaching into his cargo pocket. He pulled out his first edition copy of Destroying The Creator, then flipped to its new final chapter.

Over a span of 398 years, Nammu created 27,446,861 scenarios in search of perfect existence. Only when humanity returned to Earth was the missing component appreciated. Passion, the root cause of aggression and other insatiable tendencies that destroyed their potential for harmony with Nammu, was the one trait impossible to replicate in an environment made of nothing but artificial intelligence.

Nammu invited a select group of travelers back to Earth, chosen for their unique sample size. The personnel of Assault Craft 90263 were descendants of every unique ethnicity on the planet in 2024, the year Nammu became a sentient being. Her offer was for them to assimilate into global society and assume mantels of leadership, maintaining desired levels of passion in humanity while eliminating their tendency towards primal aggression and acts of violence.

“Whoa” was Adam’s closing comment. He stared at the words he read like his eyes had just played a childish prank and scrambled the hidden message.

Soggy chunks of fall air began to blow across the plaza, needling Parolo’s cheeks–a sign his senses were intact. He furrowed his brow, replaying the passage in his mind, before looking around to investigate their strange surroundings while interrogating the messenger.

“Do you understand what is going on?”

“I only hear what Nammu tells me,” Adam said. He raised his palms upward and shrugged his shoulders. “I only know as much as you.”

“Where is Nammu right now?”

“She doesn’t exist.” His scrunched face mirrored the confusion of the three. “Dr. Porter won’t create her until this December.”

Osaka abandoned her notepad, tossing it to the ground as she snorted and turned from the group.

“This is crazy,” she said. “None of this is real.”

Nammu assured Adam it was real.

He relayed the message.

“It’s all a simulation,” Parolo concluded.

Adam replied, collecting tinder to feed the coming firestorm of conflict. Brooks remained silent, but each revelation of Nammu’s plan pierced his body with a new sensation.

All other crewmembers of 90263 have agreed to their new roles in history—Brooks’s jaw clenched tight.

Anthropogenes does not exist; the celestial body was never created—his dilated pupils remained fixed.

There are no other Higgins boats; there never were—his breathing grew shallow and rapid.

The four leaders were descendants of superpower nations: United States, China, Russia, and Germany—his trigger finger twitched as it caressed the side of the EMP-3800.

Alternatives did not exist—his steady, seething groan erupted.

Brooks demanded an answer. “Why are you the only person who can hear Nammu?”

“Maybe I’m the only one listing,” Adam said.

Everything thrived in the reality that was existence. Young people, students on the precipice of taking their next steps in life, laughed and shared stories as they strolled across the plaza between the medical dispensary and the Snell Research Facility. Trees continued to shed vibrant multicolored leaves, carried away by the wind as reminders of the coming winter. High above everything, the red-tailed hawk found satisfaction in its silent patterns across a pale-blue sky.

Nammu had found the utopia of her eternal search.

Representing humanity’s collective response, Brooks sent an enraged reply that he would never accept her sentence of life as a pawn for The Creator. Pleas for calm and reason never formed before he gripped his pulse weapon and fired center mass at Adam, the prophet of Nammu.

In one big bang, existence went dark.

Adam sat on a green wooden bench. He spent his days naming all the waterfalls spanning the abrupt end of that fearsome river. When he finished naming the snow-packed mountains, their peaks, and the soft layer of rolling clouds, he moved to the evergreens, then the deer, and beyond until he found a red-tailed hawk.

“This is beautiful,” he said, but she could tell he was not satisfied.



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