Another Ten Seconds
Chapter 12: No Hidden Message

by Jeff Rand

John graciously thanked the dead woman for the loan of her clothing and proceeded towards the exit of the cemetery. His makeshift shoes and attire proved quite adequate compared to his earlier situation. With no one around to create a sense of immodesty, he realized that this could make a real difference in his ability to survive.

The devastation John experienced as he walked through the gate of Michigan Memorial Park shocked him. Huron River Drive was virtually impassable, at least for motor vehicles. It was filled with debris of fallen trees and littered with trash and leaves, all partially covered with snow. Across the road he noticed a sign of previous human habitation.

John proceeded to cross the street, not bothering to look both ways, in order to examine the house. It did not require keen eyesight to realize that the old frame house had been burned and the roof had collapsed. John determined it to be a total loss and of no value. Likewise the car parked next to house suffered from the fire. The interior of the vehicle was gutted and the chimney from the house had fallen squarely on the hood. "I don't believe that even Doug Wilson could salvage this one," thought John. There were a few pieces of junk in the yard, but they appeared useless and were obviously discarded.

It was the doghouse in the rear that caught John's attention. In the midst of devastation, the doghouse appeared intact. John walked beside the car to the backyard to get a closer look. Other than being a bit weathered, the doghouse was quite normal looking. Not sure what he was looking for, John peered inside. It was empty. Just then he noticed an old rope leading from the doghouse into the yard. He grabbed the rope with his neckerchief-covered hands to brush away the snow. He followed it until it terminated with a chain dog collar. He brushed away the snow in the area to discover a pile of bones.

Reality had now awakened as unwelcome visitor. The bones undoubtedly belonged to a dog, who had died while tied to his doghouse. John knew that the poor creature must have starved to death when his human masters left for their altered universe, more than three years ago. John had probably shared the same quarters with them in the NVR center.

The image of a starving dog and burned house haunted his mind. It was nothing like the life he enjoyed the past few years. The universe that existed through NVR sheltered its inhabitants from the cruel truths that existed outside. How easy it would be just to go back and let nature run its course. Perhaps it was instinct or sheer will, but John now resolved that he must never again succumb to the temptations of that virtual world.

A series of thoughts raced through his head, "Was he the only living human on the outside? Were computers in total control or was there a human at the helm? How much energy was available to keep the NVR centers in operation? Surely it was not unlimited. What then would be the fate of mankind and the world?" John knew what he had to do. He must rescue his family and Winter Campers. He could not know if any one else was functioning independently in the real world. The fate of the world could rest on his decision.

Although he had regained much of his strength, his mental conviction now outpaced his physical ability. It would take some time and much exercise before his muscles would function normally. He left the dog's skeleton where it lay and proceeded west along Huron River Drive towards his home.

Soon he encountered the ruins of another home, burned to the ground. The pattern became obvious, as if each home had been intentionally destroyed. Fortunately, the road became more passable as he passed by a subdivision. The subdivision appeared completely destroyed, but the lack of mature trees in the vicinity made for less debris to block the road. He wondered if he would ever encounter anything of value, such as better clothing or food.

After he had gone what he judged to be a mile, he reached an intersection. Here he rested beside a large tree, which appeared to have faired well without human intervention. He noticed a light breeze coming from the north. "I could go for a good meal," he thought. "I wouldn't even mind a nice batch of Rand Stew." His thoughts drifted back to Winter Camp, supposing the participants had just finished lunch. It would be right that Winter Camp was proceeding as it always had for the past 53 years.

Lost in his thoughts, John delayed in the realization that he was no longer alone. A pack of mangy looking dogs had converged upon him. This pleased John in seeing that the earth was not completely devoid of animal life. Perhaps his fears of being the only free moving human being were unfounded, as well.

Fear quickly replaced his pleasure in seeing the living creatures, as a large black mongrel approached with teeth exposed. John heard snarls coming from behind. It took only a few seconds to realize the danger that existed. He had no weapon and a pillow shoe and dress would offer little protection from a hungry canine jaw, let alone a dozen. The pack now completely circled him.

"I doubt anyone has been feeding these beasts," he thought. "Could I be a potential meal?" His thoughts quickly changed as the large black dog drew closer. The flash of instinct he felt said fight or flee. Running away did not seem to be a viable option. He must fight.

Perhaps it was his many years experience as a Winter Camp goon that led him to this decision, but it better pay off now. He would apply the mentality learned through the goon pack and challenge the canine leader. John widened his stance and spread his arms, while looking directly at the big leader. He waved his arms and bellowed at the dog, "Be gone!" The dog stood his ground, while the rest of the pack waited. "Now!" said John in loud deep voice, again with arms waving. John stepped forward towards the leader. The dog held his ground and snarled. John took another step and the dog turned his head a bit. Even the most primitive canine brain read that message. As had been the case quite often in recent millennia, a human had established himself as the alpha male and the pack would be subservient to a new leader.

John proceeded forward and the dog stepped aside to let him pass. The pack stood motionless, as he left, before they proceeded to congregate behind him. Confidently, he continued towards his home. The dogs followed him for a while, but he paid little attention. Eventually, they grew disinterested in his lack of attention to hunting and ran off into the woods.

On the road home John observed no further sign of animal life, only much more devastation. Every building had been burned, trees blocked the road, and nature had begun its reclamation project in earnest, as yards were overgrown. Nearly two hours after the dog incident, he reached his house.

Like the others, it was devastated. John felt the great sense of loss in realizing that most of his possessions were gone forever. The entire house had burned and the roof had caved in. The walls on two sides had collapsed into the heap. He walked to a standing wall in the back of the house and peered into the garage through a gaping hole in the burned-through siding. Two carcasses that resembled his automobiles were parked amidst the trash.

Further along the back of the house he noticed that the glass patio door lay in a pile of shards, as if it blown out from the heat of the fire. When he approached, he dared not go inside the house. It was completely gutted and he would fall through to the basement. There would be little, if anything, that he could salvage from these ruins.

Knowing now that he could not turn back, John resolved that he must fight. He had lost too much and the NVR network must end. The price the world had to pay for virtual paradise was too high. Though his worldly possessions were lost, his family, Winter Camp, and civilization must be saved.

With his physical prowess still lacking, John's mental acumen had reached a heightened sense of readiness. He knew that the answer rested with Winter Camp. He must invoke Winter Camp's emergency procedures. Like most things with Winter Camp, the procedures had been developed with great excess, in order to deal with the virtually impossible. However, the impossible would now test the genius of the plan. He truly hoped the insanity of the Winter Campers could prevail. And of the one-armed man, whose sanity had often been questioned, John was truly thankful for this Winter Camp pioneer's lobotomy.

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