Sentinel Island

Submitted into Contest #196 in response to: Write a story involving a portal into a parallel universe.... view prompt

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Indigenous Science Fiction Sad

This story contains sensitive content

A single act of violence. Imaginary destruction.

“Do you want the job or not?”

Such a question always had only one answer. Funny how that goes, you think you have choices in life, but how often is that really the case? He’s got me where he wants me.

“Of course,” I coughed, clearing my throat. Such dim lighting in this room, I’m thinking. Perfect for diodes and lights, monitors, and readouts. No one else is paying attention, all hunched over their consoles. Hardly right that. I knew what they were thinking.

He’s in the hallway, my chief tormentor. All bright lights and good cheer. Slaps me on the back with that too-big hand, “Hey, there Thomas! Everybody’s heard! Finally going to redeem yourself huh?”

I want to walk by him, but he blocks my way. “Leave me alone, Lewis!” I snarl. He relents as I stride away. I see him snickering with some others, talking about me.

***

“This is great! Reinstated! Full pay! And the mission looks outstanding. You are going in with a crew on something important!” My wife hands the briefing papers back to me. I crumple up the printouts instead of folding them. I’ll fold them later after I am successful.

“I don’t know why they gave it to me.” I sink down into a couch. “Why would I be selected? It makes no sense.” She sits down near me; in that easy chair, we bought so long ago.

“Does it matter, really?” She yawns. “It’s late. I have to put the kids to bed.”

“Ok. I’ll join you soon. I get on my laptop. Then I think, she might come back. I go into the den and shut the door. Mission ZX-132. Such an easy number for a difficult task. ZX stands for portal and 132 for the latest mission, of which there have been more than a hundred. You’d think, no big sweat. One in a hundred, right?

***

“Prep ZX-132!" In a dim stat room of my own at work, small and cozy, room just for a few more. Hansen joins me. Sue, “Where’s Skidmore?”

“Uh, he’s sick, boss.” That Hansen, always talking for everyone. “Never mind. We’ll do the run-through on trial visual only.”

Sue sighs and pouts while she puts her helmet on. “I like the smells you know. You guys are always so macho. Enjoy the scenery for a change!”

I ignore her. “Run through 1A, mark!”

It came up really quick. I was surprised. New hardware? And the colors, are so bright. The things that we can do now. Touch, smell, visual, and artificial reality in AI is better than real life. More fluid, freer. I wanted to shield my eyes, but that would be too stupid of course. Helmet controls, I fumble for them. There. Better.

“What’s your reading?”

“Good to go,” replied Hansen. “Everything optimal.”

“Execute trial visual only ZX-132.”

***

It’s always new, this stuff. You never get used to it. Virtual Reality was a thing so long ago, but this is truly insane. I never liked full-on missions. Maybe kids like Sue liked it, but it would be like I couldn’t think, the sensory stimuli were too great. You need distance from things to make decisions.

“Coming up on portal now,” Hansen says. “Sue?”

“Profiles are good, medical stat good. You’re breathing heavy captain.”

She always calls me captain. I smile. She wasn’t with me the last time. Maybe she’d call me something else if she had been.

“Ready everyone?” I say. “Open Portal.”

Green grass, blue sky. A village in the distance. And we’re all dressed in black. I shake my virtual shoulders. Good guys wear white.

***

“Run through 1D, mark!”

I was not getting used to this. Each trial run just makes things worse. When would I get my sea legs back? Today we would initiate simulated contact.

“Skidmore, you’re on point.”

“Right up there captain, like a Star Trek expendable!”

Sue laughs. “Hey, try not to take yourself so seriously!”

“Hansen, pay close attention to that signal, please. If something is going to go wrong, we’ll know about it today.”

“On it.”

I just wish command would give me access to everything. Simulations run off real-world data. Then neural nets extrapolate possibilities. Every day I ask for this real-world data and someone new puts me off.

We were about a klick from the village when it started. A hum, followed by a whine, then garbage interference.

“It’s not serious,” says Hansen, looking at his simulated readout. “Recommend continuing.”

“Noted,” I say.

Skidmore starts acting up. “Want me to shoot at it, Captain?”

“Stand down!” Hansen shouts.

A little girl runs up to us, out of a field. She looks so frightened. Skidmore slings his weapon. I motion to Sue, check her out, my unspoken wish.

The little girl is talking, but we can’t hear her. “Captain, we’re on visual only,” Sue says.

“Noted,” I sigh. “Keep her talking, maybe we can make sense of the video later. This interaction won’t happen again.” But then the little girl runs away. She can’t hear us either.

***

I’ve had enough. I’ll camp out at the major’s office until she sees me.

“Come in Thomas,” she frowns. “You’ve been sitting there a long time. What can I do for you?”

We settle in at the comfortable end of her office. The part with the overstuffed chairs and coffee table. I explain the glitches and the lack of information. I complain about the lack of support and the fact that no one talks to me. No one asks us for updates. I feel cut off, like I am an experiment.

“Well, you do remember what happened the last time?” she suggests. “Thomas, it’s just a final mission. Small. Anything else?”

“Ma’am.” I wanted to say so much more, but she looked around like she had more important things to attend to. I get up to go.

“Something big is in the works. We’re just tying up loose ends,” she said as I was leaving.

***

Final Simulation. Fun and games are over. I break out what we are supposed to be doing. Our orders are to speak to the head of the village and gather information about their military capability. I guess the higher-ups are disappointed in our twin world beyond the portal. Not enough hardware to trade for.

But this doesn’t make sense to me. After over a hundred missions, we knew everything there was to know about these people. Their world is very different from ours. Not technological. Religious. Indigenous people with some early medieval farming. What was the point?

Lewis traps me in a service bay. “Go for it, Thomas! Skip the final! I’ll set you up right here, right now.”

“Lewis, what is your problem?”

“You went over to them before, went off mission. You’ll do it again.”

“I’m not discussing that with you!”

“I’m serious. You’re a waste of space. Your team agrees with me. Suit up and get this done now!”

“I don’t report to you!”

“Some day you will. Remember that.”

***

That part about my team doubting my competency to lead really bothered me. Of course, people would doubt my ability. It was part of the problem of coming back from a mistake. Command knew I was going to have to take some flak. I knew it too. So I told Hansen that I would evaluate him for command of a team and offer him suggestions on his performance. I needed space. Take some of the heat off me. ZX-132 was not making sense and I wasn’t any closer to figuring things out.

This time, we’re walking into the village, and it’s wrecked. That wasn’t supposed to happen. What could the neural nets be trying to tell us? And worse, I knew that when I report my findings from this mission, just like the others, no one will care.

“Sue, signs of life?” Hansen asks.

“One little girl in that hut.” She points and we follow her.

Then the humming and glitching start again. We can’t get near the simulated hut. It starts skipping away from us like some video game glitching out.

“Recommend abort,” I say.

“Noted,” says Hansen. “Proceed.”

We finally make it to the hut.

“She’s sick!” yells Sue as she examines the same girl we saw last mission. “We need a medivac, stat! She’s just a child!” Sue is close to tears, tearing through her simulated med pack.

You can’t do first aid in a VR simulation, I thought. I wanted to abort. I would have aborted the mission by now.

“So, there’s no one else here?” asks Hansen.

I check Sue’s readout. “Deserted, nothing to report.”

“Abort mission.”

***

I would have gone to the major again, but it was pointless. In my mind, it would be a replay of our last meeting. There was only one thing I thought I could do. I would program my own mission and execute it myself. I couldn’t give it a code name. I would have to decouple the projection from the data stream. Then somehow, I would hack the system to make it look like none of this ever happened.

I’m alone at station, late at night. “Execute special 1”

Nothing happens. I try again. Same result. It should work. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, it does.

“Let it run,” says the major. She’s in her own stat room, much bigger than mine, unknown to me.

Lewis is running the show.

***

Achan greets me. “Where have you been?” he says. He’s standing there in the middle of the village square, right where he was the last time we met. My universal translator is working fine. The village is pristine. Children are playing. A couple of girls are laughing at me, making remarks about my black outfit. No skipping, glitching, or humming at all.

I’m shaking my head. “Achan, the last time I was here, your entire village was destroyed.”

He frowns. “That cannot be. We are well.”

“Where is the transponder?”

“Over there,” he says simply. We walk up to something buried in the ground, off to the side of the road leading out of the other side of the village. It’s an odd pulsating blue color, shaped like a huge ship’s anchor, the one thing that connects our world to this one.

***

Unknown to me, all the brass are having a meeting.

“The anomaly with our neural nets is getting worse,” reports the major. “It seems to me that it is trying to send us a message.”

“What sort of message?” asks another major.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure. The system checks out, hardware and software, but you never know with neural nets. They can be tricky. I let an unauthorized mission take place and there were no glitches or problems at all. It seems that the problems are targeted at our regular military operations.”

“How can a neural net send unauthorized messages? This is clearly unacceptable. Take it offline.” says yet another.

“We need it for our operation. None of our systems can operate without it.”

“Well fix this thing damn it!” says the general at the head of the table. “Or there will be hell to pay, I can guarantee that!”

***

The next day, I was under no illusions. My unauthorized mission was in my log file. My attempts to delete it or hack it out of existence had failed. It was hard to walk into the base and wonder if I would ever walk out again. Lewis greets me outside my office.

“Come with me.”

For some reason, I comply. No sense in fighting anymore. I take a seat in his office. He shuts the door.

“You’re in a lot of trouble!”

“No kidding!”

“I tried to help you and you weren’t listening at all! Get the mission over with, I said. Get your butt out of the frypan was what I meant. Were you listening? No!”

“So, what do we do now?”

Lewis sits down. “The brass are too upset to cut a deal now. We’ll have to wait. That much is sure.”

“And?”

“Proceed as if everything is normal. Except don’t talk to the major. She knows everything.”

***

It’s getting hot. The simulations are good, but it’s the little things they don’t get right. Sweat. Tears. The grit on your face mask. Real-world can be unexpectedly real.

ZX-132 real world is live and the things I used to notice are a blur to me. I don't notice that Hansen has this look on his face like he could do my job any day now. Skidmore could care less about anything. Sue is distracted, discovering things that don't matter.

We’re suiting up and there is so much activity near the portal. A big “push” could be hidden from the enemy, but never from those soldiers who had their wits about them. We were on the last mission. What waited to jump off after us?

Walking to the village, like black smudges against an infinite sky and deep green, I could see all the preparations, the attack hardware at the ready, neatly stacked, running through checks and getting instructions. Smoke curls lazily from dotted huts, the tinkling of cow bells, and the laughter of children. In we went, talking like we were out for a walk. Like all the simulated missions meant nothing at all, the village's impending destruction a mirage.

“Did you know there is actually an island off the coast of India where there is an untouched tribe that lives the same life they always did even thousands of years ago?” It’s Sue, laughing.

Skidmore scoffs. “No way! Don’t missionaries and government people change everything?”

“Not on Sentinel Island. The Indian navy patrols around and ensures no one has contact with the stone-age people living there!”

I look around helplessly, getting more and more desperate. Sound the alarm! Go, run! Leave before it is too late! But people are going about their lives, fetching water, kids running up asking for treats. A beautiful day, all is well. How could life be anything but what it has always been?

An entire people waiting, waiting, with no clue at all about what will happen. I reach the transponder, a grenade slipping into my hand. It felt hard and cool, a solid perfect certainty, my solution to what could not be. Off it went, gliding through the air so easily, clanking on down, down, to the base of the transponder.

Skidmore fired his rifle, Hansen in command. Sue beside herself. They arrest me. One life for so many. The portal is in ruins, there will be no attack. Neural nets speak through me.

May 04, 2023 03:01

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4 comments

Pene Worth
23:36 May 10, 2023

Excellent sci fi story.

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Joe Smallwood
00:26 May 11, 2023

Thank you Pene! This story means a great deal to me.

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Mary Bendickson
05:58 May 04, 2023

I am having de ja vu. I have read and commented on this before but can find no proof. Is it neural nets?

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Joe Smallwood
06:13 May 04, 2023

;o)

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