Zero Node: Chapter 37: Another Ten Seconds
by Jeff Rand
Without divulging details in the text of this chapter, one can be sure that it describes some final battles between the central characters and the Neural Virtual Reality network or more fittingly, the PROGRAM. Although the battles may not end with the most positive results, some groundwork is set for the sequel.
A unique literary approach is used in this chapter, which cannot be revealed. It must be learned through reading.
September 7, 2020
Need a refresher? Here's the Another Ten Seconds chapter
Wilbur was not ready to give-up and gathered the persons who were not engaged in the surrender talks with the enemy. They entered the ceremonial chamber where the recent visitors had been introduced to the Infinite Wisdom. Here they would participate in what he described as "The Last Ceremony."
Wilbur became fascinated by the stories from Mike Osvath, when Osvath assumed the role as the Infinite Wisdom. One such tale involved a special ceremony that Osvath first observed in 1976. Although the details might be different, this ceremony would now apply to the current situation faced by everyone in the earth. Wilbur asked Doug Sutton to perform the speaking part.
Wilbur guided Michaela and Leu to the ceremonial chamber, along with Jeff, Ron, Tom, and the Jeddo sisters. The space was lit by three smudge pots defining a triangle, surrounded by vegetation in the form of bushes and small trees. Wilbur seated the group facing the apex of the triangle. Suddenly the bushes they faced disappeared as a fire ignited in the new clearing. A figure covered in a shroud stood before them.
My name is Amikas Towalla. Tomorrow, humanity may cease to exist. Yes, the species has reached the end of its dominant role for this planet. Although society and its institutions crumbled some years ago after an unrelenting decline, followed by disease, the species was preserved through Neural Virtual Reality.
I suppose the reason why we have reached the end is really quite simple. A brief analysis of recent history will yield the answer. As indulgences became the norm, humanity separated itself into two factions - those who were vain over their power and possessions, greedy for more, with lust-filled lives; and those with less who were envious and angry. When sloth and disease prevailed, it was time for change. Neural Virtual Reality, although sarcastically referred to as a Moral Reform, offered an answer where one could pursue such hedonistic pleasures without consequences.
At one time free roaming people numbered more than eight billion souls. Now, all but a few exist independently, with the rest in Neural Virtual Reality centers. Yet, these imperfect folks are about to be annihilated.
My friends, I refuse to let the world be destroyed. I realize, however, that I, alone, cannot accomplish the task. For that reason, you have been chosen and are my hopes for the future. I am begging you to set aside your personal cares and enter a life of cheerful service.
Please! Help me!
You may ask, why am I covered by a cloth hiding myself from you. I am using this cloth as a disguise so that my true identity will not be discovered. You, too, must approach the coming battles with such anonymity.
Doug was about to proceed with the ceremony, when the surrender team entered the room, interrupting the gathering.
"We have met our foes. Please join me in the theater for further instructions," declared Mike Osvath.
Wilbur was not eager to end the ceremony and responded, "Infinite Wisdom, we are here for the Last Ceremony. It is our way to organize resistance. Must everything be destroyed?"
"Wilbur, the truth will be revealed," Mike countered.
Back in the theater, the entire population of Zero Node gathered. Steve Donohue stood before a black wall to address the group. Donohue spoke, "I am about to show the images of our friends in Colorado. Yes, I mean friends!"
Remarkably, during his brief time in Zero Node, Steve learned some of the intricacies of its various technological functions. He approached the dark wall and waved his hand to activate a chromite-produced image. Two faces appeared. Beyond the surrender team, the faces were not recognized, except from Michaela.
"Let me introduce our friends, the ones called Chingachgook and Uncas. We know them as Winter Campers Gabe Church and Brian Mann," declared Steve Donohue. Both Gabe and Brian had been Winter Camp regulars prior to humanity's move to the virtual world.
Gabe addressed the group, "Hello friends. I am pleased to see others who are not imprisoned in Neural Virtual Reality. And I say imprisoned to suggest its ultimate outcome. However, I do not want to suggest any plan to destroy the NVR centers or their residents. Yet, the fate of these centers is not very positive. I'll let Ozzie give some background."
Osvath continued the explanation, "We know that virtual reality grew in popularity in the 21st century. But it was not until the advent of Neural Virtual Reality developed here at Zero Node by the ancestors that it had significant impact. When world pandemic struck in 2020, followed by severe economic strife, NVR offered the best hope for the future. Yes, there were folks taking advantage of it to pursue their favorite sins, as you suggested, Doug. But for many, the NVR experience offered the best chance to maintain and improve their lifestyle, avoiding the economic collapse and social strife in a tattered world. What could be more appealing than to pursue one's greatest interests with minimal effort? Once the PROGRAM was fully functional, it took control of NVR for the prescribed betterment of humanity. When everyone joined the World Unity Celebration, there was no longer any need for a reality beyond that of NVR."
Gabe proceeded to describe the sad truth of NVR, "It would be great if we could live full enriching lives in Neural Virtual Reality pursuing our greatest desires. However, Brian and I discovered the true facts. While there were sufficient beds to house 8 billion people in NVR centers across the globe, there was little room for expansion should the population increase. We soon learned that this would not be a problem, as there would be no physical way to unite gametes for the production of progeny. Human offspring produced through perceived interactions in NVR would develop simply as virtual manifestations."
"Wouldn't that mean the end of the world?" inquired Michaela.
"Yes," responded Gabe. "But that is not the worst of it. For such an advanced environment, the automated systems in the NVR centers were not fully effective in delivering the babies from the pregnant women who entered the centers, even with the drugs administered in the days before the World Unity Celebration to delay these deliveries.
"Then what happened to the babies?"
"Some survived and are growing-up as children in Neural Virtual Reality, never to experience the real world.
Leu engaged in the conversation with a question, "That is terrible. Will everyone be dead in a hundred years?
"Actually, it will be much less," Gabe responded. "For two reasons: The sedentary lifestyle of an NVR existence causes a degradation of body functions. Most muscles atrophy, and there is no need for a working digestive system. Although the NVR centers provide extensive monitoring of bodily functions and medical attention in a disease resistant environment, laying around constantly does not encourage a long lifespan. This is similar to the increased mortality rate experienced by baby-boomers who spent an inordinate amount of their free time glued to the boob tube or a computer screen."
"The second reason is more significant and requires action if the species is to survive. To put it simply, we are running out of food. To support the vast NVR network, millions of algae ponds, grub hubs, and termite factories were constructed to meet the nutritional requirements of eight billion people. These worked well in constituting the solutions injected into the NVR inhabitants to keep them alive - at least for the first two years after humanity's formal migration to the centers. As time progressed, though, these food centers became less productive as they suffered from external environmental forces. The system was forced to distribute a lessor amount of food to the NVR inhabitants. The eventual collapse of the food supply has been delayed through recycling of biological materials from the humans into the food system, including the remains of the dead."
Now it was left to Steve to conclude the presentation with even more chilling remarks. He began, "On the surface, NVR appeared to be the best solution to the problems humanity faced, especially when the world faced increased possibilities of ongoing pandemics. It was developed for, perhaps, noble purposes. But you must know that while it was originally conceived by thinking minds, it ultimately became the product of the PROGRAM. Although this artificial intelligence controls many functions here in Zero Node and is not necessarily directly destructive to people, it has some flaws. We know that it will do everything to protect the NVR network, as we experienced as free roaming humans. But there is something more frightening!"
"What is that?" cried Michaela expressing the fear from everyone present.
Steve concluded his remarks, "As biological creatures, we have the desire to reproduce and perpetuate the species until doomsday. The PROGRAM has no such purpose except to keep its charges functioning. Early next century or likely sooner, there will be no one left alive."
"We must save the world!" he shouted.
The best minds were now at work to implement the plan to save humanity. The plan was simple - control of NVR must be taken from the PROGRAM. Defeating the PROGRAM would not be simple.
Work would continue around the clock with constant communication between Zero Node and the Cheyenne Mountain complex. Keith and Steve led the effort at Zero Node, working fervently to gain control of the PROGRAM, which they believed to operate from Zero Node itself.
Gabe had shared the concept with others at Cheyenne Mountain, involving the 12 missile commanders, formerly from the USA, Russia, and China. They would implement a part of the plan that had been many months in the making.
Although Steve and Keith were not successful in gaining any direct control of the PROGRAM, they continued to learn much of the network. Zero Node might be the central control, but the vast network of individual NVR centers, food distribution processes, and defensive systems could operate independently of the PROGRAM. Keith made a significant breakthrough when he learned that he could affect various sensor readings within the network. In turn, this would cause reaction from the PROGRAM, typically adjusting the environment. Steve learned that the PROGRAM could be terminated once there were no longer any living persons connected to NVR, persons it referred to as Mental Units. He made one more significant discovery - in that the PROGRAM could be copied. He proceeded to download this vast software package to the server in Cheyenne Mountain, perhaps one of the few capable of holding such significant content.
Brian and Gabe had spent nearly four years probing the NVR network from the sanctuary beneath Cheyenne Mountain. Their first real breakthrough came just a year ago, when at the beginning of the virtual Winter Camp LIV, John Howey suffered a momentary disconnection from the neural interface plugged into the side of his head. During the moments of disconnect, the PROGRAM was closely monitoring the situation and moved the termination apparatus in place to electrocute John should he become conscious and try to escape. Gabe was able to take advantage of this situation and create a direct link to John thus affecting John's perceived reality. Fortunately, John never gained full awareness and with a slight turn of the head, the neural interface locked back into place.
In the days that followed, Gabe and the Colorado team were able to have a continuous effect on John's perceived reality, while their presence was unknown to the PROGRAM. Further, the computer system in Cheyenne Mountain had sufficient storage capacity to record all the events.
Though it was a great triumph to have the direct mental interface with John Howey, but Gabe could not cause any physical reaction. When Brian suggested that they try to locate and connect to others, the project assumed an expanded scope. In the months that followed, they were able to introduce their own virtual characters and experiences to interface with a growing number of people. Initially, there was much confusion, as perceptions did not always overlap. By summer they were better at managing perceptions in the virtual world, particularly for those believing that they had escaped from the NVR centers.
All efforts were eventually directed at a single perceived reality, when Doug Wilson was added to the mix of those who believed they escaped from NVR. Unfortunately, this changed the situation to a more unpleasant shared virtual experience, especially when son Alan joined the perception. Throughout these perceptual experiences, Gabe continued to record the events, even deaths and disasters that may not have been the reality for the victims.
For more than four years, relative peace prevailed across the earth. Aside from the recent incursion of rogue mental units discovered on Howland Island, the PROGRAM maintained this peaceful harmony. True, while deaths were beginning to accelerate and there would be many more soon, the PROGRAM was able to maintain the virtual perceptions of these individuals for those still alive. In a few years most would be dead, and when no one remained, the PROGRAM would be finished. That end was on the horizon.
The plan, though simple in scope, had to be carefully executed and required careful coordination between Zero Node and Colorado. All was set to execute at 10:55 PM, Colorado Time on December 21, 2031.
Gabe and Brian started the process with a replay of the recent perceptual events, starting with John's disconnect and escape from the Brownstown NVR center. This was followed by other perceptions from an array of Winter Campers, culminating with a series of rescue operations from various NVR centers, some resulting in casualties. The whole of events was directed as an attack on NVR itself. Five virtual minds reconnected themselves to Neural Virtual Reality for the final siege.
It took just ten seconds to replay the series of perceptual events that had actually spanned many months. This resulted in a detrimental feedback loop for the PROGRAM. Further confusion occurred when Gabe and his Colorado colleagues launched the full arsenal of the world's nuclear missiles.
At the controls in Zero Node, Steve sent signals to the PROGRAM indicating the launch. Using a carefully choregraphed strategy from the missile commanders in Colorado, he activated sensor readings throughout the NVR network to record the time of detonation of thousands of nuclear explosions, effectively destroying the entire network and the billions of souls who were still alive.
Having no further purpose, the PROGRAM was concluded. Like the human population it had once controlled, it could not discern between physical and virtual reality. Perhaps the team under Cheyenne Mountain had the ability to launch a massive nuclear strike at one time, but this was no longer the case. Fortunately, a virtual launch and the resulting detonations were sufficient.