Zero Node: Chapter 38: Winter Camp LV
by Jeff Rand
The results startled Steve and Keith, as they sat in the control center. They had entered the control center deep in the bowels of Zero Node to activate the detection of thousands of nuclear strikes to NVR centers throughout the world. Once the PROGRAM had verified the strikes, it would begin the process of shutting-down. Of course, there were no actual explosions. Yet, like the humans that it maintained in Neural Virtual Reality, the PROGRAM could not differentiate a virtual universe from a real one.
Keith had been amazed at the clarity of the images produced by chromites on various surfaces in Zero Node but had not realized their extent. When Wilbur had told him that chromites covered many surfaces in Zero Node, it was a bit of an understatement. Now that Keith observed the display on the surfaces circling the control center, he came to believe that chromites covered every wall, floor, and ceiling. Given that it would take a row with 100 million chromites to mark an inch, by quick calculation he determined there should be more than a septillion chromites covering the surfaces in Zero Node. The images surrounding the control center were small, perhaps no bigger than a square centimeter. Yet they were arranged in rows and columns to provide an image of every Neural Virtual Reality center, with individual detail defined by a quadrillion pixels.
The first virtual missile attack reached 162,000 NVR centers. Keith watched intently as thousands of images of NVR centers showed the effects of a direct hit with a characteristic mushroom cloud. Others were swept by destructive firestorms. Steve and his Colorado accomplices launched a second attack at 29,000 remaining structures. Their timing was perfect, and although the vast sensory network of the PROGRAM detected the nuclear explosions directly or indirectly, Gabe and the missile team had actually exhausted their nuclear capabilities with the two missiles sent from North Korea. Had they still maintained the ability to control the arsenal, the stockpile was less than 15,000 warheads. Fortunately, these facts were unknown to the PROGRAM.
Steve and Keith watched as the images of the NVR centers disappeared, only to be replaced by a series of messages in the strange language. These were accompanied by an audio transmission. It was a voice of indeterminate sex, presumably expressing the same message.
"I think we better find Doug Sutton," said Steve. "He might understand the message."
Keith rose from his seat to exit the control center. As he was about to leave, save for the central panel, all images disappeared from the walls and ceiling. Not only did the detailed images vanish, but so did the color and structure of the wall itself. Keith stepped forward to approach the wall to realize a thick wall still surrounded the control center, only it was now transparent.
Steve was happy when Keith returned with Ethan and Doug holding a book. "This may help," said Doug. "My father gave it to me before he died. Although I did not find any use for it at the time, it will now help in the translation. Something tells me that I best learn more of this language."
Steve had a knack for being a quick study, and although he was 68 years old, he had not lost his mental acumen. He grabbed the book from Doug and scanned the pages on numerology. "It is as I thought," he declared, turning his attention back to the control column. "This is a countdown timer. I don't know its purpose, but it uses a numbering system of base sixteen."
"Perhaps I can help with the math," interjected Ethan, having held a successful career as a licensed actuary.
Ethan and Doug went to work on deciphering the message and the countdown timer, while Steve and Keith continued to probe the software. The line of communication remained open with Gabe and Brian in Colorado. A key to understanding the message and its implied deadline involved understanding time itself. The best minds were now working to determine the conversions between three separate systems - the standard twenty-four hour days common to most civilizations, the Universal Measurement System with its 100 jiffy prodays being used by the inhabitants of Zero Node, and this new system using base sixteen. Although they knew that the standard earth system was the least logical, it was the best understood and was accurately represented by time-keeping devices inside Cheyenne Mountain. The final measurements had an agreed starting point in Colorado of 11:11 Mountain Standard Time, December 22, 02031. Based on Ethan's calculations the countdown timer would reach zero at 13:00 MST on December 31.
"I have translated key aspects of the message," declared Doug. "It says the PROGRAM controlling Neural Virtual Reality is terminated. But there is something more related to the countdown."
"What is that?" asked Steve.
Doug responded, "Given the end of most sentient life in the earth's biosphere, the MISSION will be completed. Be prepared to discontinue all field activities and move yourselves to the Corporeal Passage at the conclusion of the countdown."
"Yes, it is below this room. Steve, apparently the control panel you are facing moves to provide the opening," responded Doug.
Steve called the group together in the theater. Live feeds displayed Gabe Church and Brian Mann on the wall. "I have some good news and some bad news and some that I don't know if it is good or bad," he said.
"First some bad news - The PROGRAM controlling Neural Virtual Reality has ceased to function when it determined that most NVR centers were destroyed by nuclear missiles. You know that there were no real missiles. Nevertheless, the people who are still connected to NVR will die!"
"That's just about everyone!" cried Michaela.
"There could be a few dozen still alive."
Oh great. I guess you expect me to be the mother of the next generation."
"You did not let me provide any good news," Steve continued. "We have given control of the vast NVR network to our friends in Colorado."
"It is true," interjected Gabe. "We are now monitoring 262,144 NVR centers and the vast distribution network. It is a risky undertaking, no doubt."
"OK. You said there was some other news," said Wilbur.
Steve responded, "Yes. I don't know what it means. There is a countdown timer and it will reach zero in a few days. We deciphered a message indicating that the MISSION will be completed, and we should report to the Corporeal Passage at that time."
"That does not sound good. I think we should leave," said Wilbur. "I don't want to die here."
"I would hope that it is not a self-destruct process. Yet, I agree - we should leave Zero Node," Steve declared.
"It sounds like we have a few days to decide. Leu and I were making plans for Winter Camp LV. Given the challenges we have overcome, it is only right that we do not fail to hold Winter Camp before we leave." Michaela stated.
"Daughter, what are you thinking? We can't have Wintercamp. We need to leave," said Keith.
Not one to push decisions, Ethan felt obliged to offer his insight, "Michaela is right. We have enough time to hold Winter Camp. Has it not kept us going through the trials of the past few years?"
Brian Mann spoke from the Cheyenne Mountain bunker, "Those of us in Colorado would be happy to conduct our own activities to be part of Winter Camp LV. In fact, we have learned that one of our friends here, Lieutenant Fujimoto was inducted into the Order of the Arrow."
"Great. We will gather food and supplies to proceed. I formally declare myself as advisor," Michaela stated with no further argument.
"I will be the youth leader again," said Leu.
"Will we be able to participate?" asked Danielle, directing her question to Leu.
Leu was about to offer a snide response, but the glare from his father caused him to mutter "yes."
During the day they determined as December 24th, Steve helped Leu and Michaela gather the supplies for a Zero Node Winter Camp. Ethan worked with Brian and Gabe to align their schedule with the festivities. Mike worked to prepare the veterans of Zero Node for the Winter Camp experience.
Keith joined Wilbur to prepare the submarine for a quick departure when the time came. "Do you think this thing can hold thirteen people and their pets?" he asked Wilbur.
"Oxygen will be tight, but we only need to make it to the surface."
"A surface where there was a nuclear explosion?"
"We won't rise directly into it. We'll survive."
Christmas approached and Ethan held a midnight mass. He was surprised, following the mass, that the Zero Node veterans were prepared for a Christmas celebration and had decorated a room overlooking the Great Space. Later, there was a feast and an exchange of homemade gifts. Ethan asked Mike Osvath about the knowledge of Christmas exhibited by these veterans. Mike assured him that the customs and more importantly, the spiritual understanding of Christmas, predated his arrival eleven years earlier.
Zero Node was well set for Winter Camp. When the first activity commenced with four-way volleyball, no preparation was needed since the court was ready to go. It took more effort to set one in Colorado, but those who had been trapped in Cheyenne Mountain for four years were all to happy to get outside again. Bread baking was a natural for those in Zero Node, but the Cheyenne Mountain crew was forced to make beer batter bread in lieu of having no packaged yeast.
The second day of Winter Camp began when Ethan conducted a Scout's Own religious service. That was followed with golfing. Rather than a single hole in Zero Node, a hole was prepared in each of the six ecosystems surrounding the Great Space. The Colorado folks were a little more ambitious as they developed a full course of 18 holes amongst the rubble outside Cheyenne Mountain. That evening, Ron hoped to enjoy the Caveman Dinner that Mike had described. However, Advisor Michaela King overruled any attempt to conduct this deranged activity and opted for the Emily Post Dinner instead.
On December 29, service to others became the theme for Winter Camp LV. There was no shortage of opportunities. Those in Zero Node selected one of animal husbandry in attending to the needs of the livestock for fear that these creatures may have to fend for themselves in the future. Of course, there were numerous clean-up tasks in the area around Cheyenne Mountain. That evening, Steve Donohue introduced the gamefest.
When it came to conduct the activities on December 30, there was variation between the two sites. The folks in Colorado had some snow but opted for war games and shooting competition. In Zero Node each person was to select a favorite. To no one's surprise, Ethan held Uncle Ethan's Craft Hour. After Keith conducted a hatchet throwing contest, Ron insisted that lunch be a gluttony exercise.
The evening's festivities involved a gathering at the Zero Node campfire circle and a simultaneous one held in a fire ring constructed on the side of Cheyenne Mountain. There were stories of Winter Camps past, including the outlandish virtual experiences Steve recalled from his incarceration in the Yakutsk NVR Center. Toward the end of the campfire program, Steve produced a metal container, while Gabe had the same at the Colorado gathering. "We asked each of you to join our tradition and bring an artifact for the time capsule," said Steve. "These time capsules will be buried at the site of D-bar-A Scout Ranch, when we are able to return to Michigan."
Each person had carefully selected something for the time capsule. Unbeknownst to Steve, the Zero Node folks had decided to start their own tradition and wrap their contributions to keep them hidden until the time capsule was opened in the future. The last one to offer his object was Wilbur who stated, "I will diverge from our new tradition and offer my gall bladder, which had to be removed several years ago." This shocked both those present and the folks gathered in Colorado.
Wilbur handed Steve a leather portfolio that appeared to be too thin to contain a gall bladder. Wanting to disprove Wilbur's assertion, Steve opened the portfolio. It contained two objects. The first was a handwritten journal from Wilbur's great grandmother, Amelia Earhart. To most folks, this would be a priceless possession. However, Steve was more intrigued by the second object. It was a photograph of six young men sitting around a wooden table with green benches attached, eating pizzas piled with pepperoni. Two of the faces in the picture were teenage versions of folks present at the campfire - Mike Osvath and Steve himself.
Steve was about to speak when Doug Sutton rose to address the group, "Next day we will conclude this Winter Camp. It has certainly been a worthwhile experience, and I hope it can continue until the next hell freeze. When we conclude this event, the countdown timer will reach zero and it will be time to leave. For some, it will be a chance to return home and find your families. Yet, for those of us who are the Zero Node veterans, we have no homes or families that we know beyond this place. Therefore, we will not leave and will take our chances in the Corporeal Passage."
Steve and the other new arrivals were shocked and speechless. Finally, Michaela looked at Wilbur and posed a question, "Does that include you?"
Wilbur rose and approached Michaela, "I will be leaving with you on the submarine. You need me as your pilot, and I hope to find my roots."
It was the morning of December 31 in Colorado and the conclusion of Winter Camp LV in Zero Node, regardless of how one determined the date. The zero point on the countdown timer would be reached shortly, and preparations were nearly complete to conclude Winter Camp and depart or enter the unknown. The submarine was loaded and ready to receive its crew and now, its reduced crew. At least oxygen consumption would no longer be a limiting factor.
Doug and the other O Node Vets, as he called them were ready to proceed to the control center and enter the Corporeal Passage. Previously, he had discovered the mechanism to open the entrance.
Steve and Mike joined Wilbur along with the other newcomers at the entrance to the elevator for the submarine. Leu pulled his father aside. Ethan was not at all prepared for Leu's next comment.
"Father, I am not leaving!" declared Leu.
"When did you make this decision?" asked Ethan, as if his son were joking.
"I guess I've always known - even before I was born."
"Okay. We can talk about it on the submarine."
"I will not be there. This is hard. While I might be just a kid, you taught me well. You always pointed me in the right direction, making me a real hiker. So much so that people tended to change my name to Louis Hiker Rein or Leu H. for short."
"You are serious!" cried Ethan.
"I really want to see the rest of the family soon but must finish the journey."
"Then I can't make you leave on the submarine," concluded Ethan.
"I don't know what lies ahead for these veterans of Zero Node, but I will stay with my friends," said Leu H, "O Node Vets."