May 2012


It was really exciting. After all those years of chasing bizarre and obscure radio stations with his transmitter and receiver, John was ready to see what they were saying.

Amateur radio had been like a gateway drug, and once he could receive broadcasts from far enough away John had discovered numbers stations. They were mysterious, high-frequency transmissions that repeated buzzes electronic tones, numbers, or letters, and the other amateurs John consulted with agreed that they were probably used for espionage. If a spy in the field had a special sheet called a “one-time pad” with the decryption key, which was truly random, as big or bigger than the message, used only once (and destroyed after use), and kept totally secret.

The code was literally impossible to break without knowing the key on a one-time pad.

And the envelope that John had just received in the mail had a warped and bubbled one-time pad that had been supposedly recovered from a sewer pipe.

John turned the transmitter on at the appointed time, which he had carefully researched beforehand. A metallic, artificial woman’s voice began reading phonetic letters after a brief musical tone: “Bravo, Echo, Hotel, Juliett, Kilo, Mike, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Whiskey, Zulu.”

For each letter, John used the appropriate space on the one-time pad, and gradually a message began to emerge:

JOHN T GUNDERSON WE KNOW YOU ARE LISTENING

I’d had my share of tough video game bosses before. Oozerip the Resurrected from Genesis Dragon, who could only be beaten using a sword that took nearly 100 hours to craft in-game. Cindersoul from Revelation Song, who could only be made vulnerable to damage by completing an epic series of 99 sidequests. Larakoxe from Velocity Skipper, who could only be damaged one out of every 100 rounds. I’d beaten them all.

Even Cycoss, the legendarily tough optional boss from Oblivion Power who had one billion hit points (in a game where the maximum damage was 9999) had fallen to me.

But the Shadow Lady, the hidden final boss of Past Beta VIII, was tougher than them all. Apparently invulnerable to all damage, her first attack struck for more hit points than the player could possibly accumulate.

In fact, as far as I could see, she had never been beaten without the aid of a cheat, which in my mind robbed the endeavor of all its noble qualities. I resolved to beat the Shadow Lady the old-fashioned way.

As I sit here on the rubble which used to be my parents’ house, I wish I hadn’t.

“Look at these people. Would you deny them their bright neon future of peace and social justice based on a few errant bits of data?”

“It’s not one piece of data, nor a single simulation or sample. Do you think I’d be so hasty or stupid as not to check my work? The System will lead to economic and social collapse and either anarchy or autocracy.”

“The idea that a theoretical model knows better than our politicians, our political scientists, our think tanks…it smacks of technological heresy.”

“Theorists are human. They’re invested in a way that a data model never can be. The System is inherently flawed, and would be disastrous to implement.

“Don’t you see? The System is immortality.”

“Where am I?”

“A place for the refuse of the refuse, the junk of the junk.”

“So…a junkyard?”

“No, no. Below that. Strata below. We’re so worthless that even trash throws us away, and there’s no going back. Welcome to the Underjunkyard.”

I cut through that alley a lot on the way to work. It was in the arty part of town, near the college, so there wasn’t much danger of being jumped by toughs. The biggest annoyance was the occasional graffiti, either by some “let’s all group hug the world” hippies or wannabe gangsters trying to throw up old school to disguise their middle-class origins.

For as long as I could remember, there had been a splotch of red paint on one of the brick walls, left over from when one of the dumpsters had been recolored. One day, some wisenheimer had chalked a body outline around the paint, making it appear that the red was spattered brains from a murder (ignorant of the fact that real cops haven’t used chalk outlines since the 60s).

I didn’t think anything of it—well, I guess I did chuckle a bit in a moment of weakness—until a few days later. On my way through the alley I saw that the chalk was still there despite a recent rainstorm, and someone had added a message in red paint of the same shade as the “brains:”

THE CHALK OUTLINES ARE SPREADING.

It did look a little spooky, like a framegrab for a bad, low budget horror flick. But I quickly dismissed it as some anti-war granola-shitting peacenik trying to be edgy with the color that best reflected their political leanings.

The next day I saw another chalk outline, complete with a dab of red paint on its “head,” on the sidewalk near my house. Later in the week I noticed another one near my shop. When I cut through campus on the way to the pharmacy on the first of the month, there were dozens, each contorted into a unique position.

I read in the paper that the cops were trying to catch whatever macabre graffiti artists were behind the outlines, but the thing that began to unnerve me was that they persisted despite frequent rains and the occasional effort to wash them away. The outlines were chalky to the touch and my fingertips came away white, but they resisted removal.

By the time I couldn’t take a step on the sidewalk without standing on a chalk outline with red paintdaub, I was officially freaked out.

The Domepi sisters had always been close. Identical triplets, their birth had rocked their tiny Maine hometown. From a young age, they were trotted out at everything from banquets to bank openings, much to the distaste of their extended (and patrician) family but much to the delight of their parents.

When “triplet fever” eventually cooled around the time the sisters graduated from Noahton High, the three sisters–Diane (Di), Sarah (Sally), and Augusta (Gussie)–turned down their grandfather’s offer of legacy admission to the University of Maine in Orono. The Humecroft side of the family had never approved of the triplets’ father Giuseppe Domepi, but when he abandoned the family shortly after the girls’ 16th birthdays they were brought back into the fold and were the beneficiaries of multiple legacies from older family members.

With a comfortable standard of living assured, and no desire to be separated, the triplets soon became reclusive, associating only with family members and servants. The few visitors they entertained were reportedly unsettled by the sisters’ apparent ability to communicate wordlessly and their propensity to talk rapidly among one another using a personal language of gutteral sounds and sighs.

By 1985, the 70-year-old triplets had run through their trust money and dismissed their servants. Still living in the ancestral Humecroft manor that their grandfather had willed them, they were reduced to drawing water from the town well, growing vegetables in a small plot, and subsisting on donations from the few aged family members and family friends they had left.

“Oy! You there! Hands off them morsels.” Figures emerged from the valley mist; Gertrude thought they might be rescuers until she could make out their features with clarity: pale, bruised, and rotten.

The living dead of another sort.

“Look, I understand that you need them, but we do too,” the lead bloodsucker said, diplomatic if only because he and his buddies were outnumbered. “Not a lot of blood left after you’ve dismembered one of the poor sods.”

“And there’s not any bleeding flavor left in them morsels after you berks suck it dry,” the living dead leader croaked, maggots writhing in his gums. “Or worse, make it one of you. D’you know what happens when we try to eat one of you wankers?”

Gertrude had heard that the living dead would swell up and explode like liver sausages if they tried to snack on a bloodsucker, but she’d never seen it.

“Oh, you’re one to talk about spreading the love,” the bloodsucker retorted. “How many of your bosom buddies over there started off as a meal?”

“You’d best use your loaf, berk,” the living dead leader said. “You’ve bloody near run out the lot of morsels in the valley, and unless there’s an understanding betwixt us we’ll be having a butcher at bleedin’ starvation.”

As the creatures argued, Gertrude struggled to loosen her bonds.

“So we’re to just give up our meal to you, which we ourselves caught after a fortnight of sucking on field mice? If anyone’s got to go on a blinking diet for the cause of undead harmony, by rights it ought to be you!”

The partisan leader Artyom Ramanchuk was, to put it mildly, a legend. A printer’s assistant before the Great Patriotic War, he had taken up arms after a Nazi Einsatzgruppe had slashed through his village, executing his boss (a Jew) and his father-in-law (a commissar).

From late 1941, he’d forged a disparate group of Belorussians into a potent fighting force. They blew up railway lines, sabotaged Nazi supply convoys, and established broad “liberated” fiefs far behind the front lines, places where the invaders would only travel in great numbers and in direst need. Ramanchuk even founded a number of partisan collective farms in forest clearings and other unoccupied lands to provide food and meat for his growing force.

Always a dedicated student of Lenin and the Revolution, Ramanchuk used what spare time he had studying Marxist theory. Using his experience as a printer, he made and distributed several underground books in which he detailed a new form of collective farming based on the Jewish kibbutz and ways in which the Soviet government could adapt its large and unwieldy structure to become more responsive to the needs of its people.

Those books proved to be his undoing. When his area of operations in the Byelorussian SSR was overrun by Red Army troops in 1944, Ramanchuk expected his force of nearly 10,000 partisans to join them. After all, they had aided Operation Bagration considerably through behind-enemy-lines actions. Instead, the NKVD rounded Ramanchuk and his officers into a Minsk stockyard under the pretense of taking a snapshot.

The ranking commissar read a note declaring the men anti-Soviet reactionaries, and they were gunned down to a man by a heavy machine gun nest concealed, appropriately, in a nearby slaughterhouse. The remaining partisans and their families, including Ramanchuk’s common law wife Darja Maysenia and his daughter Tatsiana, were shipped to Siberia.

S’Mad had been a fixture of the independent and underground music scene in town for years. The proprietor for many years, Nathan Rostop, simply maintained that after setting the little marquee for the joint’s first act (The Bynched Sea, a jazz trio led by SMU professor Sam Bynch), the S, M, A, D and apostrophe had been the only characters left. The fact that the odd name seemed to draw people in was, according to Rostop, a bonus.

Still, from its humble 1978 beginnings as a drain on Nathan Rostop’s UAW pension and disability fund, S’Mad eventually expanded to include a full cash bar (in 1983) a complete kitchen (in 1986) and eventually its own microbrewery (in 1998). Regional and local acts of every genre and stripe kept the house at least moderately in the green, from The Bynched Sea jazz trio to The Rescinded League folk metal to the Antique Threshers ska group.

When Nathan Rostop died in 2002, reportedly during a performance of The Highest Constable electro-pop group, the books were opened on S’Mad and it was found to be drowning in red ink, with operating costs and gig fees largely paid directly out of the cover fees in cash.

“What’s that you’ve got there, Dr. Näher?” a student asked.

Näher looked at the circuit board, dotted with lights and switches, under his arm. “Oh, just a piece of a little science project I am tinkering with in my spare time.”

The student smiled. “Like the Tesla coil you showed us in class?”

“Something like that, yes,” Näher said, tapping his nose.

Inside the campus superconductor center, Stanley the security guard called out a friendly greeting. “Dr. Näher! More bits and bobs for your hobby project?”

“Yes indeed, Stanley,” said Näher. He flipped the guard a candy bar from the vending machine downstairs. “No need to tell Dr. Kuntz about my hobby work, as usual.”

“If you say so, Doc. Ask me, worst he’d do is tell you to take it home.”

Outside Näher’s lab, one of the custodians was buffing the floor. “Any chance of getting in there to clean, Dr. Näher?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not, Emily. The danger of static contamination, you see. I’m sure you understand.”

“All right, but you know I’m going to keep asking until you at least let me go over it with a lint brush.”

Näher shifted his circuit board to his other hand as he fished for his keys. “I have no doubt, Emily,” he said with a smile. “I have no doubt.”

Once inside, he strode deep into the bowels of the device that had consumed nearly every waking moment of the last ten years. The circuit board slid easily into the last open space in the master control panel; the lights and switches glowed to life as power coursed through them.

“And now, at last,” Näher laughed. “To unleash it.”

He flipped open the clear cover on the master button. It was bright red, glowing, and had a simple label: DOOM!

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