Zero Node: Chapter 30: "Control Center Invasion"
by Jeff Rand
The lead character and three others find themselves crammed in a latrine vault. What could be worse? How about suffocating from lack of oxygen due to a firestorm raging above. Their ingenuity and will to survive is put to the test.
Queber is a Hebrew word in the Bible meaning grave. This led to the term "Queberites" which entered early Winter Camp lexicon and could be interpreted as grave-dwellers. It became popular when Winter Camp pioneers explored the utility tunnels beneath the massive main lodge at the former Charles Howell Scout Reservation. The fear of being trapped when crawling through animal remains in these dark tunnels may have induced necrophobia and ultimately thanatophobia in these explorers.
May 25, 2020
Need a refresher? Here's the Another Ten Seconds chapter
In the days that followed, Steve and his fellow travelers grew more comfortable in Zero Node. The encounter with the Infinite Wisdom allayed their fears but they were still concerned for their families and what remained of humanity outside Zero Node. There were still many questions, and Osvath remained unwilling or unable to answer most of them.
The new temporary residents had a chance to explore more of this unique structure embedded deep in the Pacific Ocean when Mike Osvath assumed duties as their tour director. Besides the Great Space and the surrounding agricultural levels, a massive chamber filled the space above. Here, several acres of ocean covered its extent with an average depth of fifty feet. Yet, it was totally within the confines of Zero Node and experienced none of the extreme pressure that 20,000 feet of ocean exerted on the outside. This mini sea held a multitude of lifeforms that provided food and other necessities for the intelligent beings. An island in the center served many purposes for the sea creatures and the inhabitants. Osvath helped the visitors collect some shells to make buttons for their new clothing. This enclosed sea and all of Zero Node were devoid of the microplastic fragments that covered the bottom of the earth's natural oceans.
Access to the island came from an elevator and stairwell at its edge. At the other edge, a cylinder extended to the ceiling. Mike explained that this contained the ladder that Steve and the others used to enter the Zero Node from the submarine. There was also a large elevator in the tube that they had not seen when they first arrived. Other than the parked submarine and the entrance, none of the structure of the Node broke through the floor of the sea. Any explorer might find the submarine, but it would be very difficult to locate the passage to the great structure below, let alone believe it could possibly exist.
Besides the ceremonial chamber where Mike Osvath, the Infinite Wisdom, was introduced, there were several other chambers below the Great Space. These could be categorized as the industrial center providing manufacturing, storage, and a multitude of environmental functions. Leu became especially interested when Mike led the group to the generating station. "Like the submarine, Zero Node, is powered by nuclear fusion," he explained.
"What do you use for fuel?" asked Leu.
"We extract deuterium from the sea water to fuse the atoms as in a hydrogen bomb, producing a tremendous amount of energy. Helium is the waste product."
"Do you use it to fill balloons?"
"You can do that," said Mike. "But you'll have to make your own balloons using latex extracted from our plantation of rubber trees."
When Mike led the visitors to what they believed to be the lowest level, they circled a large structure at its center, as the various chambers formed a torus around it. When they nearly completed a circuit, he showed them an opening cut through this metal-like structure. "This passage snakes through walls that are at least 100 feet thick, ending with a door to the control center," said Mike. "However, you will not be able to enter. That knowledge was lost with the death of the original Infinite Wisdom before he could pass it on."
"And we thought you were running the place," joked Steve.
Not catching the joke, Mike replied, "I would be very careful here. We believe this controls much more than Zero Node."
Knowing that he was free to explore more of Zero Node, Keith had only one objective in mind - to gain entry to the control center. Next day he set about gathering supplies for his break-in. He had no trouble locating a crowbar and sledgehammer but had to be careful in 'borrowing' some of Osvath's homemade gunpowder.
Keith proceeded to what he had determined as the lowest level of Zero Node, arriving at the passage to the control center. Before entering with his tools, he explored it a bit and believed he had not been detected. The passage cut through the solid wall, being nearly a tad in height and a third of a tad in width. As Osvath had described, it was not straight but had several bends as if weaving through a maze. He had taken about 20 steps, not yet reaching the end, when he paused for a moment.
Suddenly, a series of bars dropped quickly from the ceiling, just inches in front of him and behind him. They were close enough together to seal him in a cell so small that at best he could barely sit in his new prison. It was dark, save for the flickering light from the whale oil lamp he carried. He gasped for breath and realized there was no more oxygen in this passage. Having no oxygen to sustain the flame, his lantern was extinguished. In the few seconds that followed, he prepared himself for death. The last few years had been a real adventure, where he had expected that he would be finished many times. After his recent experience, he wished he had not pushed his luck to have his life end now. He wished he had told Michaela and the others of his plans.
Keith made no attempt to breathe the toxic air for the next minute, assuming it would be better to simply suffocate in the darkness. However, his involuntary reflexes were beyond his conscious control, and he gasped again. To his surprise the alveoli in his lungs were rewarded with oxygen. Once again, he escaped death, at least for now.
Keith cried for help. Yet his pleas were muted and would doubtfully reach any ears. He waited some minutes and tried again. Then after a bit, he screamed again.
He had been standing in terror for at least two jiffies, when the wall in front of him illuminated itself with a message. "K2, you have attempted to enter a restricted chamber with explosives. You are advised to not try this again." it read.
The message was indeed shocking, especially since he was identified with his Winter Camp nickname, no less. Perhaps Osvath was really watching him and was upset over the theft of his gunpowder. Therefore, Keith felt inclined to respond by extending the middle finger of his right hand.
With that action, the wall flashed a new message accompanied by audio, "K2, if you make another attempt, that finger will be amputated. Any further indiscretions will result in the removal of additional body parts until you are rendered inert!"
Keith continued to harbor the hope that Osvath was in control but chose not to pursue further provocation. After several minutes, the wall went blank and total darkness returned. Keith crouched and extended his legs through the bars. Though not particularly comfortable, it was the best he could do to avoid standing until help arrived - he hoped.
He had no means to measure time since the battery in his watch went dead years ago. When he realized that there would be no replacement, he discarded the watch. Now he wished he had brought Steve along with the mechanical wristwatch that he found in Siberia. The hours passed slowly, and his thoughts became progressively more distressful. He wanted to sleep but he could not assume a prone position, forcing him to sit on the hard floor wedged against the bars.
With his diminished mental capacity, Keith began to believe that he would eventually lose consciousness and probably die before he was found. "How long had he been here?" he asked himself. "At least half a day, more than 50 jiffies," he shouted. He was very sleepy, but his thirst and hunger were increasing too. His full bladder needed relief. Lacking any other choice, he proceeded to micturate directly on the floor. This act, though creating a poor circuit, was enough to jolt him from an electric shock. "Was there no end to the torture?" he thought.
More time elapsed as his suffering continued. Eventually he decided to use the small pack holding the gunpowder as a receptable for the waste products of his bodily functions.
It had been more than a day or two days he reasoned, when the passageway became illuminated. He forced himself to stand, only to find Wilbur on the other side of his cell.
"Hello, Keith," said Wilbur.
"Are you finally here to rescue me," said Keith, quite hoarsely.
"You will be released. First, I must expand on the warning and give you explanation." Wilbur lifted his shirt to reveal a scar on his abdomen. He continued, "A few years ago, I, too, sought entrance to the control center. However, I made no further attempt after my second failure. Like you, I was encased in the bars. After a prolonged period of suffering, I was greeted by a mechanical apparatus which strapped me to the bars. I was given a local anesthesia so that I could be conscious during my appendectomy."
"How is that these solid walls can light up with these warnings?" asked Keith.
"Many surfaces in Zero Node, including what appears to be glass, are covered with transparent chromites, which can emit light of primary colors, including those outside our visual range. The properties of the chromites are impressive as each individual cell is no bigger than a picotad.
Keith awoke in his quarters after a long rest and recovery from his night in hell. Michaela dutifully gathered the others to join them on the balcony overlooking the Great Space. Mike Osvath joined the gathering. Everyone was concerned over Keith's disappearance, so he thought best to give the full story. Osvath denied any involvement and reiterated the warning to stay away from the control center. It was evident that they were both guests and potential prisoners in Zero Node.
Michaela shared her recent attempt at making homemade bread as a light snack after her father completed the explanation. Unfortunately, the stress of her father's disappearance had diverted her concentration, and the bread was more like Winter Camp "cave loaves."
As they were attempting to break through the hard crust, the dome of the Great Space turned bright red, accompanied by a piercing siren. Momentarily it began flashing a message with some frightening symbols, also in English, saying "Warning - Invasion Underway!" This was followed by a second message, "The PROGRAM has been compromised!"
Now Keith was more concerned. Had he done something to affect the system in his attempt to break into the Control Center? Were the lives of the folks in Zero Node now in jeopardy? And more significant, was this a threat to neural virtual reality and all of humanity?
The warning message on the dome was now replaced with another, "Source: Colorado Springs, United States of America."
END OF PART III