Short Story: “Deal With the Devil”


October 19, 2021

San Agustin, New Mexico

 

Rubik watched the yellow cloud of dust on the horizon drawing closer to them, the lone rider on his brown horse galloping fiercely across the New Mexico high desert like out of some western.

“Look at him,” Rubik said, staring at the distant figure of Eli through the binoculars in the late afternoon. “He was born for this.”

Tariq, lying next to him on the rooftop, chuckled. “Well, I’m not sure he would agree with you on that. There are too many things the Event made us leave behind.”

“Yeah, but him,” Rubik said, looking at his friend. “He was lost before it all happened. Now he knows who he is.”

Tariq nodded solemnly. “It’s too bad it took losing Sam to get him to that point.”

They turned and looked at Eli again, realizing he was rapidly approaching on the dusty road that led to the observatory. Tariq nodded at Rubik and they stood up to descend down the stairs to meet Eli. In his mid-20s, the young rider was dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved grey t shirt, a brown leather coat and a Stetson pulled low over his eyes.

“Well, hello there, cowboy,” Tariq said to Eli in his best western drawl. “You must be new to these parts.”

“Good to see you too, Tariq,” Eli said, quickly jumping down from the sweat-flecked horse and throwing the reins to him. He brushed the dust from himself. “But what is so freaking important that we break protocol and all meet in one place? Even if it is out in the middle of nowhere?”

Eli reached out and took the hand of Rubik and shook it, then hugged both Rubik and Tariq. Eli looked quizzically at Rubik, and he nodded the answer to his unspoken question.

“Yeah, he’s inside,” Rubik said. “Eli, remember he’s not a young man anymore.”

Eli nodded. “Well, whatever this is, it had better be important.”

Eli followed the other two into the low-slung, white, cinder-block building that was the main headquarters for the VLA, the Very Large Array radio telescope system built on the plains of San Agustin in New Mexico, northwest of Socorro. The 28 massive dishes stood in the shape of a cross on the plains ringed by a natural fortress of rock, intended to keep out any traveling radio pollution from cities hundreds of miles away. Tariq led them down into the building where the laboratory stood, a series of desktop computers ringing the windowless room and one solitary overstuffed chair situated in the middle of them. Eli noticed an elderly man sitting in the larger chair, his face bent down, intent on what he was doing on a laptop in front of him.

“Professor,” Eli said, a note of joy in his otherwise business-like manner. The white-bearded, elderly man looked up and smiled.

“Emil, so good to see you after all these years,” the Professor said. “How are you? I’ve missed you.” He got up slowly and Eli met him before he could rise all the way, hugging him.

“I’m so sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but you know how it is,” Eli said.

“Of course,” the Professor said. “It was for our safety, as well as your own.”

“Sit down, Professor,” Eli said. He gestured for the others to grab chairs and do the same. “What news do we have to share?”

“Well, on the political front, things are progressing just about the way we expected,” the Professor said. “In addition to keeping up on my coding, I monitor the official news channels as well as the underground ones. They’re proposing that The Eden Foundation is quickly snatching up all the physicists they can so they can control them. Still no news out of the Eastern Seaboard or northern California and Seattle. Europe is dark, as is China and Japan.”

“On the plus side, there is absolutely no evidence of nuclear fallout,” Tariq said. “I’ve been in contact with my own friends, and either the Guardians mopped that up pretty good, or…”

“Or it wasn’t nuclear to begin with,” Eli said. “That’s one of the scenarios we’ve been entertaining from the beginning.”

“If we’re thinking that, you gotta believe other people are thinking the same thing,” Rubik said. “North Korea doesn’t have the Seventh Fleet, China or Japan to deal with anymore. How long before they’re on the march?”

“I’m not worried about North Korea,” Eli said. “I’ll be interested in the Guardians’ response to anything North Korea does, however.” He sighed. “This is just getting started. For them and for us. Look, this is all very interesting, but it’s incredibly dangerous for us all to be meeting like this. What do you have to show me?” He paused and looked around him. “For starters, why here?”

“Apparently you haven’t studied any astrophysics or you’d recognize this place,” Rubik said. “This is the Very Large Array, usually the busiest radio telescope system in the world. But since the aliens landed, there’s not a lot of call for us to be looking out in space.” He looked at the Professor.

“I called in some favors,” the Professor said. “It has equipment we need here, and it’s isolated.”

“So I assume you three have something to show me?” Eli said, obviously annoyed.

Tariq cleared his throat and looked at the Professor. The Professor shrugged.

“This is your project, boys,” the Professor said. “I’m just the hired help.”

“Look,” Eli said. “Someone needs to say something. It was a long ride out here.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll talk,” Rubik said. “Go back five years. Six years. Dr. Truman’s Electromagnetic Fields class. What do you remember of the electromagnetic spectrum?”

Eli frowned. “A little. That was a long time ago, and believe it or not, I’ve had other things on my mind since then. It’s all about waves.”

Rubik spoke up. “Right. Waves and frequencies.”

“Tesla had it right all along,” Tariq said. “He said, ‘If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.’ ”

Eli looked at the three of his companions, confused, yet waiting.

“Go on,” he said.

***

Chicago, Illinois

That Same Day

 

“Wait,” Sierra said under her breath to Bobby. She watched from behind a concrete post at the edge of the parking garage. The silver metal sphere they were all focused on hovered five feet above the ground on the street corner about half a block away. Bobby stood a floor above her, a slingshot in his hand, a shiny ball bearing in his other hand.

“He’s going to leave soon,” Bobby hissed.

“Wait,” Sierra repeated, watching both the sphere and the traffic beyond him. She watched the electric cars rumble past, including a large truck, then paused.

“Now,” she said. She turned and walked deeper into the empty parking garage, her ears tuned to Bobby above her loading the ball bearing and firing it the fifty feet to strike the side of the alien orb that was patrolling on the street outside.

“Run,” she heard Bobby say suddenly, then shout, “Run!”

***

“The electromagnetic spectrum as we know it is made up of waves that range from very low frequency through radio waves all the way up to gamma radiation and waves at the top of the spectrum,” Rubik said. “What we know about the electromagnetic spectrum and electromagnetism and everything on it is partially due to a tool called a spectroscope.”

“Yeah,” Eli said. “So far, I know this stuff. Go on.”

“At the bottom of the spectrum we have microwaves from 300 gigahertz to about 2 kilohertz, we have electricity which normally runs around 50 hertz to 60 hertz, and we have visible light, which runs at about 3 piezo hertz to 300 terahertz. Right?”

Eli nodded. “That’s the way I remember it.”

“Wrong.” Tariq spoke up. “One of the big reasons we are here is because the VLA has some of the best spectroscopes available. They use them to measure stars. They even isolate the sensors and the supercomputer that runs them in a Faraday room in the basement, so no outside influence can affect the results.”

“So, what are you telling me?”

“I’m getting to that,” Tariq said. “First of all, we have run test after test for the past six weeks. It’s not there.”

“What’s not there?”

“Electricity,” Tariq said. “We ran every test we could on the spectroscope and it doesn’t show up on the electromagnetic spectrum. It’s just not there.”

Eli stared at them. “What? I don’t understand.”

“Haven’t you wondered why all of our electrical instruments won’t work unless they are powered through the alien power sources? I mean, hydroelectricity, nuclear power plants, coal plants. We even tried doing a spectroscopic study on lightning.”

Eli stared at them as if they were speaking a foreign language.

“Let me get this straight,” Eli said. “You’re saying that somehow the Event—the arrival of the aliens a year ago—somehow changed the laws of physics?”

***

Bobby was fast, but he knew he couldn’t outrun the orb. He had seen them chase down people before, and even outrun a dog. Bobby was prepared, however.

After hitting the orb at 50 feet with the ball bearing, Bobby waited to see if it would turn and acknowledge him, then immediately jumped on his bicycle. As fast a runner as he was, Bobby worked as a bicycle messenger and knew that he was faster on his racing bike.

He had traced out his path before assaulting the orb, and was already across to the other side of the parking garage by the time it rose to the entrance of the garage in pursuit. He glanced over his shoulder, then charged down the ramp on the other side.

The trick will be to not cross paths with any other orbs, Sierra had told him. He kept that in his mind as he raced toward the Chicago River. He crossed Michigan Avenue, which a year ago would have been bumper to bumper with traffic. Even now, it was busy, with those who could afford them driving the new all-electric vehicles. He dodged a cab, its horn honking, and raced across the intersection. His sixth sense told him that the orb was gaining on him.

He turned a corner and bolted down a ramp that led to Lower Wacker Drive.

***

“Look, all we know is what we don’t know,” Tariq said. “We’re operating in the dark here.”

“Now I understand why the Eden Foundation snatched up every physicist it could find,” Eli said. “They want to keep us in the dark.”

“That’s not all,” the Professor finally said, looking at Tariq, then at Rubik. “Tell him the rest.”

Rubik and Tariq looked at each other, and Eli looked at all three of them.

“What’s the rest?” he said. “Does it get worse?”

Rubik shrugged. “Not really, just…stranger.”

Tariq inhaled. “Ever wonder why sound is not included in that electromagnetic spectrum? After all we have radio waves there.”

Eli shrugged. “That’s easy. Sound doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Sound energy operates on a different spectrum.”

“Not anymore,” Rubik said. “Look at 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. It shouldn’t be there, but it’s there.”

Eli frowned, thinking, but Tariq continued.

“That’s where it gets interesting,” Tariq said.

“It wasn’t interesting up to this point?” Eli said.

“Remember in Tesla’s notes where he talks about using his isochronic mechanical oscillator? The one that almost started the earthquake in New York?”

Eli nodded. “That’s where he got the idea that energy and matter were both based on waves and that he could convert from one to the other.” He paused, the wheels beginning to turn in his head. “Wait a minute.”

For the first time, Tariq grinned at Eli. “Watch this, cowboy.”

***

Bobby knew that the orb was right behind him. He pedaled for all that he was worth through the gathering darkness of Lower Wacker, the Chicago River on his left side. Suddenly he heard a roar and felt a powerful slap against his back, and he was thrown off his bike. He somersaulted through the air, landing in the water.

The orb hesitated, ready to make sure that Bobby was taken care of. Suddenly three other figures loomed in front of it, all of them with slingshots. They fired simultaneously at the orb, then disappeared into the darkness of an opening in the side of the street.

The orb followed them into the opening, slowing down, and a searchlight flicking on ahead of it. It moved ahead about ten feet, then stopped. Suddenly there was a rolling sound as a large metal door rolled shut behind the orb. It was trapped.

***

Eli watched as Tariq and Rubik set up a contraption they had put together. It consisted of two stereo speakers attached to an iPod, with what looked like a spectrograph attached to a computer flatscreen in front of it.

“Okay, we used the concept of the isochronic mechanical oscillator from Tesla,” Tariq began to explain. “First, we locate the frequency of the sound, which wasn’t too hard to do.” Tariq started playing Hank Williams singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” The twangy voice came over the speakers, and Eli watched the spectrograph begin to pick up the music on the gauge.

“Now we set up harmonics,” Tariq said. He flipped a switch on the spectrograph and suddenly Eli felt nauseated. “Just a little adjustment. There.”

Eli looked at the computer screen and colors, shapes and forms began appearing on the screen. They moved with the music, and it appeared as if the music itself was almost alive.

“That’s the music I’m seeing?” Eli asked.

“That’s it,” Tariq said. “But that’s just the beginning. If Tesla was right, then we can take that music and make it into solid form just as easily. Or into electricity.”

“Well, whenever we find the frequency for electricity, we can,” Rubik said.

“Or make solid form into electricity, or into music,” Eli mused. “Good work fellas. What do you need from me?”

Tariq and Rubik looked at each other, then turned to the Professor, who smiled weakly.

“We were hoping you would provide us with one of the aliens,” he said simply.

Eli grinned. “We’re miles ahead of you.”

***

“You okay?” Sierra said to Bobby, who swam slowly toward the edge of the river. She reached down and helped pull him out.

“The Faraday suit did the trick,” he said. “Still, the shot from that orb felt like being hit by a truck.” He pulled back his sleeve and showed Sierra the metal mesh that covered his arm beneath his long-sleeved shirt. “Did we get him?”

Sierra grinned. “Snug as a bug in a rug. The trap worked wonderfully. What’s better than a Faraday suit? An electric alien in a Faraday cage.” She slapped the wet form of Bobby on the shoulder, the grin splitting her face from side to side. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

Bobby chuckled. “I am now. Let’s go see what we caught.”

They crossed the driveway where Bobby’s bicycle lay smoldering, the rubber tires melted and the front tire bent in two. Sierra didn’t even look at it, but Bobby shook his head. He followed her into a small metal door that led into the darkness away from the river. Bobby closed it behind them, wondering if the disappearance of the orb was a matter of public record somewhere and if someone or something else would come looking for it.

He felt his way in the darkness, Sierra’s small form just ahead of him. They paused on a wooden scaffold above what looked like a large metal cage laced with a copper wiring. The Faraday cage.

“Light,” Sierra commanded into the darkness. Her command resulted in half a dozen people, silent and still up to this point, shaking and cracking Glo-sticks and throwing them down into the cage. What was dark became light, an eerie green biological light that didn’t depend on electricity.

The darkness became a green cavern with a round, silver, metallic object lying on the floor surrounded by a fine mesh of copper on all sides. Sierra and Bobby stared at the motionless object for a long moment before Sierra said anything. She turned to another girl, barely sixteen, who stood near a door to the cage below her.

“Has it moved since you shut the door, Victory?”

The girl named Victory shook her head. “It dropped like a rock as soon as we shut the cage door.”

Sierra studied the orb for another long minute before speaking.

“Well, either it is faking it or it is incapacitated,” she said, mostly to herself. “In either case, we need to find out which.”

“We could shoot it with a rifle,” Bobby offered.

Sierra shook her head. “Our order is to capture one alive, not shoot it. Besides, a rifle shot will set off all the audio alarms all over the city. We’d have sentries here within two minutes.” She bit her cheek and nodded. “One of us has to go in there.”

Victory held up her hand. “I’m ready,” she said.

Sierra nodded. “Very well. Don’t take any chances, Victory. Got your Faraday suit?”

“Never leave home without it,” she said, grinning. Then Victory lost her grin and opened the door to the cage.

Sierra and Bobby held their breaths as Victory slid her feet slowly across the cage floor toward the orb. When she got within reach of the silver globe, she reached out with one foot and pushed it with her toe. The orb rolled slightly on the copper floor, but then rolled back into place. That prompted Victory to draw closer to it and look at the orb.

“No one’s been that close to an orb before,” Bobby said. “Correction: been that close and lived.”

“There’s some sort of door on the front of the orb,” Victory said.

“Open it,” Sierra said, then added. “Carefully.”

Victory turned a lever on the front of the globe and a door slid open. Danny and Sierra could see the entire top of the orb now. Inside were gears, electronic boards and diodes, similar to what one would see on any mechanical device on earth.

“It’s a robot,” Danny said quietly. “The Faraday cage must have cut off its power.”

“So much for catching an alien,” Sierra said. “I guess we can still learn something from it.”

She and her team were the first humans to defeat one of the alien sentries using the unconventional means at their disposal. Yet Sierra couldn’t help feeling that somehow they had failed.

***

“Here it is,” Eli said, looking at his darknet email account. A message had arrived. He opened it.

“That cat is in the bag,” he read aloud. “But no kittens.” He looked up at the others and his face grew grim.

“Looks like this is going to be harder than I thought,” he said.

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