Authors: Steve Alten
My father had known, which is why he left his tenured position at the University of Virginia and moved us to a small rural community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No Internet connection, no cable TV. We went from being a normal modern-day household to twenty-first century pioneers, gradually inching our way off the grid. None of us was thrilled; my mother had contemplated divorce, my younger sisters labeled Dad the new Unabomber and threatened to run away from home. As for me, if my father had told me a flood was coming then I would have been outside with him building an ark.
It had been shortly after the first mushroom cloud bloomed over Tehran that my father explained his motives.
“Robbie, life is a test, and humanity is about to face a big one. Unfortunately, when it comes to facing the unthinkable, most people prefer to remain in denial. You saw the movie
, right? When the ship hit that iceberg, some passengers headed for the lifeboats, while the majority of people were so convinced the ship couldn’t sink they either stayed in bed or went back to the bar to have another drink. When you get older you’ll learn two hard facts: You can’t save people who don’t want to be saved; and preferring to remain ignorant when faced with a catastrophe demonstrates a lack of intelligence.”
Dad could have added human ego to the equation.
I’d grown up in a world of bank bailouts, recessions, unemployment, collapsing economies, and endless wars; my country embattled in a perversion of democracy where corporations had been granted the same rights as citizens. Corruption overruled any sense of justice, the radicalization of the political system preventing the few true representatives of the suddenly impoverished masses from enacting solutions that could have reversed the eventual collapse of society. As my father said,
“Human ego created these problems, and human ego will drive us over the cliff. The world would be better off if a computer ran everything.”
Computers.… The next computer I own will be implanted in my skull.
A sound! My heart skipped a beat. It was an animal, approaching the creek from the thicket to my left.
Quietly, I wiped fresh sweat beads from my already moist brow and palms, shifting my body weight to aim the pistol, my eyes focused on the clearing. It was a deer, a young male, maybe eighty pounds, as anxious and as thirsty as yours truly. My hand trembled as he glanced in my direction, my body shook as he turned, offering me a clean shot at his flank.
I hesitated, drawing a breath, suddenly fearful of the gunshot and who might hear it …
The buck collapsed upon its forelegs in silence, the arrow having appeared seemingly from out of nowhere, its tip passing cleanly through the startled animal’s spine and out its chest cavity.
Leaving my makeshift hunting blind, I approached the dying beast. The angle of the arrow’s entry indicated the archer had shot from the trees.
“Touch the venison and you’ll die where you stand.”
I turned slowly, my heart racing as she emerged from the forest like an erotic female warrior from a Luis Royo painting. Her ebony hair flowed nearly down to her waist in a curly tangle camouflaged in twigs and leaves, every inch of her flesh concealed in green and brown paint or beneath a skintight matching bodysuit. Ten paces away and I could smell her scent—a heavy animal musk. She looked about my age. The quiver was strapped to her thigh, the muscles of her upper body taut as she aimed the graphite bow’s arrow at my heart.
I was as stunned as I was smitten. “The deer’s yours. Take it.”
“I intend to. Drop the piece.”
“The what? Oh, the gun. Seriously, you can have it. I doubt I could even shoot the damn thing straight.” I lowered the weapon, placed it on the ground, and backed away. “What’s your name?”
“Shut up.” Quivering the arrow, she grabbed the gun, expertly ejecting the clip to check the chamber. Reassembling the weapon, she shoved it into a satchel concealed around her waist, hoisted the dead deer over her shoulders, and was gone.
Alone again, I waited thirty seconds, then followed her through the dense brush, losing her trail within minutes.
Who was she? Was she alone? Part of a group? Her attitude suggested otherwise. My guess? When the lights went out and the grocery store shelves were rendered bare, she had fled to the mountains—or more likely her family were mountain folk. Whatever the case, she was everything I was not; ruthless, cunning … a hunter who showed no mercy.
And yet she had spared me.
Well, dork-wad, you did give her the gun. Practically curtsied as you laid it on the ground.
I paused again to listen to the forest; heard nothing.
By her scent, I knew she lived in the woods, probably a cave. Heading for higher ground, I followed a path of ferns and moss-covered rocks that emptied into a clearing of tall weeds.
To my left, the Blue Ridge Mountains caressed the setting sun between its peaks and valley. With darkness a mere ninety minutes away, I had to choose—the woman or sanctuary?
It had been twenty months since I’d carried on a conversation with another living person. I might be an introvert by nature, but listening day and night to the voice in my head had been maddening, leading to the creation of these recorded journal entries. But seeing her … she was a thunderbolt, a goddess. I knew I had to find her, even if it meant risking an encounter with the SS.
Pausing at the edge of a clearing, I retrieved water and an apple from my knapsack, consumed a quick snack, buried the evidence, and continued my trek up the mountain.
After three hundred feet the woods began anew. The shadows of pine trees were closing in, dusk coming fast. For half an hour I wandered through a maze of trees, until the night was upon me and I accepted the fact I was hopelessly lost.
Hearing men’s voices, I quickly hid.
There were a dozen of them, more in the cave.
The dogs had found the woman’s lair, its small entrance concealed by brush. I figured now they would stake out the area, waiting for her to return.
I smelled her as she moved through the shadows to join me behind the bushes. I felt the gun press firmly against the left side of my ribcage. “I need a place that’s safe.”
“Get me back to the main road.”
* * *
The motorcycle was hidden in a ravine behind mile marker thirty-six. Six months ago, I had replaced the engine and fuel tank with an electric motor and rechargeable truck battery, rendering it fast yet whisper quiet. We waited another hour before heading south, my night-vision visor illuminating any nocturnal predators that might venture near the highway.
My family’s suburban neighborhood had long since been abandoned. Our house stood alone among burnt-out foundations on a cul-de-sac. I had cleared the surrounding terrain to expose anyone who approached. Every window was bricked up, the house and matching eight-foot wall that surrounded the backyard’s concealed acreage painted to appear like charred cinder.
The lawn was covered in sheets of metal—hundreds of car trunks and engine hoods, planted flat into the grass and welded into a giant jigsaw puzzle. Climbing off the motorcycle, I instructed the beautiful huntress to follow precisely in my footsteps, my night-vision glasses revealing a preset path that turned and twisted to tall shrubs that camouflaged a subterranean side entrance. Once we were inside the house, I bolted the steel door behind the woman, shocking her by turning on the lights.
“You have electricity? How?”
“While other people were searching for food and water, I was busy collecting car batteries and solar panels.”
“And car hoods. What’s that all about?”
“Security. Step onto my property and you get zapped with ten thousand volts of electricity. By the way, my name’s Eisenbraun, Robert Eisenbraun. Most people used to call me Ike.”
“Andria Saxon.” Dropping the deer carcass on the floor, she roamed the house, taking inventory. “Air-conditioning … a working refrigerator and stove—pretty impressive, Eisenbrain. What else do you have here?”
“A running shower and soap for starters. And it’s Eisenbraun.”
“Tell you what, I’ll handle the brawn, you handle the brains and maybe we’ll manage to survive this mess.”
The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
“You make love like a freshman.”
“And you make love like a woman breaking in a wild stallion.”
We had lived together in my parents’ home for three weeks, sleeping in separate bedrooms, which we kept bolted from the inside. She taught me how to target shoot from tree limbs while I educated her on how everything worked in our shared fortress, but we rarely engaged in conversation about our lives before the Die-Off.
And then late this afternoon, she turned to me while we picked apples in the orchard and kissed me.
Within minutes we were in bed, naked and entwined; the two of us entering an exciting new world.
When we were done, Andria climbed off and lay beside me, the flesh on her tan back and buttocks sporting a series of scars. “Scratch.”
I accepted my duties, restricting the urge to hug her from behind lest she crush my windpipe with an elbow to the throat.
“You may have noticed that I have control issues, Eisenbraun. I guess it comes from being on my own since I was fifteen. A little lower. Now harder, use your nails.… God, that’s good. So what’s your story? How’d you learn to do all this?”
“I studied a lot. You know … lack of a social life.”
“Funny, I pegged you as a jock. How tall are you? Six foot five? Maybe two-twenty? Bet you played basketball.”
“Track and field. Mom was a natural athlete, I inherited her foot speed. Did some long jump and the hundred meters in high school until the varsity football coach forced me to try out as a receiver. I couldn’t catch a cold, let alone a football. ‘Stone hands Eisenbraun,’ they called me on the field, ‘Jew bastard’ off it. Things changed after they switched me to free safety and found out the Jew liked to hit.”
“Chip on your shoulder, huh? That makes us kindred spirits. Did you play ball in college?”
“I wanted to, but the Pentagon ordered me not to play. Guess they were afraid of concussions damaging the old noggin.”
“My uncle was a general, a bigwig with DARPA. When I was fourteen I created an algorithm for a video game that ended up being used to train gamers to fly military drones. Three years later my uncle was placed in charge of a top-secret initiative, called Omega. I left school during my sophomore year in college to work with his team.”
God, I was blathering like a little girl.
“And it’s top secret. Now you tell. Where are you from? Who taught you to hunt?”
“I’m part Seminole, and don’t change the subject. Tell me about Omega. And no bullshit about it being top secret. The world’s in the shitter because of assholes like your uncle.”
“My uncle wasn’t an asshole and Omega wasn’t a weapon. It was actually an initiative that could have averted the Die-Off. The Omega Project was a $750 billion energy program, seeded in secrecy by the Pentagon during the Obama years to replace fossil fuels with fusion energy.”
“Just what the world needs, more nuclear waste.”
“No, no, that’s fission. Fusion is clean energy that’s released when two hydrogen atoms are merged together. The technology’s biggest challenge was that the sunlike temperatures required to generate a chain reaction also released neutrino particles which destroyed the reactor’s vessel. The solution to the problem required fusing deuterium with helium-3, which stabilized the process.”
“To stabilize fusion required helium-3, an element that originates from the sun. The problem was that only a few cups worth of helium-3 ever reaches our planet thanks to Earth’s dense atmosphere. The moon, however, possesses over a million metric tons of the stuff, enough to generate energy for the next thousand years.”
“So, Omega was a secret mission to mine helium-3 from the moon?”
“But you mentioned the Pentagon. Why involve those warmongers?”
“First, because the dysfunctional assholes in Congress would never have considered funding such a radical energy plan at a time when politics was focused on unemployment, even though the program created a lot of jobs. Second, because the Pentagon not only had access to the money, they also had the ability to operate the program in secrecy without congressional oversight. Still, the scientific challenges were considerable, requiring NASA to design new lunar shuttles to transport the helium-3, plus a habitat that could safely house a mining crew—don’t forget, each astronaut required large supplies of food, water, and oxygen.”
“I thought there’s water on the moon—scratch my butt.”
“There’s ice, so yes, there’s water. There’s also moon dust, which became a major challenge. Moon dust particles act like glass shards, making them a constant threat to the astronauts’ skin and eyes. There’s also limits on what the human body can endure, especially when it comes to long-term exposure to gravitational forces one-sixth that of Earth. Between the health concerns and the costs—about a million dollars per astronaut per day—my uncle decided to go in a different direction … drones.”
“Drones?” She rolled over, positioning her head on my chest—her right hand casually stroking my penis. “Keep talking.”
“By, uh … drones, I meant replacing the lunar astronauts with mining equipment that could be remotely operated back here on Earth. All that was needed to do the job was a supercomputer to operate the drones. The way my uncle figured it, if a computer could remotely operate everything from a passenger jet to a surgical appendage performing brain surgery, then why not a mining operation on the moon? That was the reason my uncle recruited me for Omega, to join the best and brightest scientists in designing and engineering GOLEM.”
I sucked in a breath as her lips kissed my stomach. “GOLEM? It’s an acronym that stood for ‘Geological Offsite Lunar Excavation Machine.’ Whoever made it up stole it from a Bible story about a soulless being, created by man, to serve his needs. See, GOLEM wasn’t going to just be a supercomputer, it was going to be the ultimate in artificial intelligence—a machine that could think and adapt in order to control complex multilayered tasks a quarter of a million miles away.”