Zero Node: Chapter 31: "Into Darkness"
by Jeff Rand
The chapter goes through some detail describing how the characters could survive in a latrine vault. Of course, such behavior was illustrated on the movie Schindler's List, as a means to remain alive. It doesn't look good for Doug Wilson, but he continues to live according to his miserly traits.
The chapter title "Open Enrollment" has nothing to do with the story. It is a message appropriate to the time when the text was written. Winter Camp had just chartered its university. Among the colleges offering courses was the College of Winter Camping. At this time new students were being offered the opportunity to enroll.
June 1, 2020
Need a refresher? Here's the Another Ten Seconds chapter
Osvath called everyone together for a hastily arranged meeting in the video center between the toys and games at the edge of the Great Space. The newest arrivals were joined by Wilbur and the other veteran residents. Steve thought there might be other residents yet to be seen, who were working the scenes. But this was not the case.
Ron Olds was the first to speak in his typical young-girl voice. "Everything was fine until you allowed these people to come here," he said to Osvath.
Wilbur, who had done much to befriend the visitors, joined the fray, "Infinite Wisdom, I am sure you know that I was called to rescue Keith, who was trying to break into the control center. Did he do something?"
Mike Osvath became agitated, "You should know that these new arrivals are my friends and have nothing to do with the threat. Steve and I go way back. We were classmates together back as far as 7th grade. I will now show a video, which will surprise both the veterans of Zero Node and our newest arrivals. A portion of it was produced shortly after I came here in 2020."
"Why have we never seen this? Afterall, I have lived here more than 225 blue moons!" complained Ron.
"The circumstances concerning the death of your parents was not something I ever hoped to address. But now we must deal with it, if for nothing more than to protect the sentient life on the earth."
When Osvath pushed a button to start the presentation, several walls moved to create a complete circle around the audience. Although the new visitors had seen a couple of presentations from the video library, they were not aware of the full capabilities of the Zero Node theater. The walls circling the audience were completely covered with chromites, as were the floor and ceiling. The chromites were so densely packed together in producing images of such clarity that it would take a strong microscope to discern an individual pixel. Sounds came from thousands of different locations, but each seat held speakers for a stereophonic projection of the central message. It began -
Zero Node tirelessly fulfilled its mission with support from the Infinite Wisdom. In 2020, according to the standard chronology of that era, disaster struck its inhabitants. The eldest members of its population suffered from a fast-acting illness and died within a short period. Only the youngest generation remained, all of whom had been born here, numbering seven in total. An eighth individual had not been a resident but was rescued from the Pacific Ocean. Although he nearly succumbed to the illness, he survived to become a permanent resident.
With the death of the Infinite Wisdom, the PROGRAM had to assume more control of Zero Node, primarily to protect it and to pursue the mission. Though the youngsters sought guidance from the new resident and declared him as the Infinite Wisdom, this person was not given access to the control center. The others continued to pay homage to him as their new leader. In reality he was of simple heritage, named by his parents as Michael Jon Osvath, having a surname with Hungarian roots.
Scenes flashed on the walls of the older generation engaged in various activities. Most were very tall and seemed to be in good health. Yet the children present with them were easy to recognize and appeared to age little in the last few years. Wilbur was seen too with his parents, but he was a child. The presentation continued -
When the PROGRAM analyzed the situation, it discovered that a fast-spreading virus had infected the older Zero Node residents resulting in their death. Further, this virus had spread to many nations, killing some folks in all parts of the world. Various solutions were implemented with some success. The PROGRAM looked at these solutions and past epidemics to develop its own approach to protect humanity with a simple approach - that of avoiding all human contact.
At the time when this final solution was developed, mankind had been gravitating towards more passive activities and entertainment. The desire for a more comfortable lifestyle in the pursuit of happiness prevailed. Much change was occurring in the methods of delivering entertainment. Among these was the field of virtual reality, still in its infancy. The PROGRAM determined to pursue this field with its solution to prevent future disease and its toll on humanity.
First, the PROGRAM assumed control of the Internet and most computer systems worldwide. This was unnoticed by anyone believing they had control of their software, let alone any portion of the Internet. There were some isolated systems that remained independent, such as a few old TRS-80 computers owned by Winter Campers.
With the information and resources available to the PROGRAM, it moved rapidly to develop virtual reality into neural virtual reality. This had a powerful appeal to everyone, especially when they could realize their dreams that once were impossible. Even those in the most remote and impoverished locations could experience a new lifestyle.
To fully implement neural virtual reality everywhere, the PROGRAM had to seize control of government. Initially, this was accomplished locally through careful manipulation of social messages and media. The interests and motivating factors for every person could be understood and manipulated. Someone could send a message that would be slightly modified appropriately for each intended recipient to meet the needs of the PROGRAM.
As humanity became more enthralled with NVR, many virtual characters were introduced, including the leaders of a world government. This made it possible to direct the world's resources towards the construction of the regional centers to house every living person. World Unity Day brought all of humanity to these centers. Now everyone could pursue his interests with no fear of disease.
In order to protect the human collection in the NVR centers, it was necessary for the PROGRAM to take measures to eliminate any rogue individuals not part of the collective. Fortunately, this need has been minimal. The last detection of such people, fittingly referred to as MENTAL UNITS, occurred on Howland Island. When their boat was found capsized offshore and no remains located, it was determined that they likely perished in a storm.
Keith turned to Osvath, "Ozzie, how is that we are still alive, when the 'program' thinks we are dead?"
Mike responded, "You might think that the PROGRAM is omnipotent or that the young ones here believe me to be all knowing. Neither is true. Although I do not have much control over the PROGRAM, I receive some updates in my quarters as it tracks any rogue humans that may be a threat to the well-being of those engaged in neural virtual reality or to Zero Node."
"You mean Mental Units," Leu offered a correction.
Ozzie continued, "For example, I know that Steve escaped from the Yakutsk Service Center with Jeff Rand but did not know how or if they were helped. After several days, the PROGRAM could not find them and determined with a high probability that they had perished. There was virtually no chance they could survive, let alone make it to the Pacific, during the brutal Siberian winter."
"But then you found us on Howland Island," said Keith.
"Not right away," replied Mike. "The PROGRAM detected your boat on the surface of the ocean directly above us. When it did not move, I sensed a threat and dispatched Wilbur and the boys in the submarine to investigate. It took them about three weeks to find you holed-up in the lighthouse. When they communicated their discovery, I consulted the PROGRAM. It instructed that you be incarcerated in the lighthouse until it made final determination as to your disposition. Because the team was instructed to return to Zero Node at once for further instruction, no provision was made to provide you any food or water."
"After several prodays, hearing nothing more from the PROGRAM, I decided to take the initiative and sent the team back to Howland Island. Shortly after they arrived, they observed Leu escaping from the lighthouse. After a period of indecision, when they communicated with me, the PROGRAM took note and determined you were a threat and would be neutralized. An attack force was to be dispatched from the Marshall Islands. I instructed Wilbur and the boys to return to Zero Node. Then I heard Steve chanting 'Infinite Wisdom' and to my shock believe I recognized a voice coming from an old friend who died months ago in Russia."
"You took a big chance. But aren't we still taking a risk here?" asked Steve.
"Not in Zero Node. I had to identify you as guests. For Ethan and Keith and their children, it was no problem. They were never connected to neural virtual reality. For you, Steve, I just stuck to my old habit and misspelled your name."
Michaela stood in the splendor of the theater. "How did you create this impressive presentation so quickly, projecting from all directions?" she asked.
"I wish I could take credit, but I had help from the PROGRAM."
As Osvath moved to proceed with the rest of the presentation, the theater went black and utter darkness prevailed.