Silence swiftly returns to the cemetery.
Several hours later a slow-moving funeral procession of vehicles arrives. Clad in dark clothing to mark the somber occasion, a crowd of family and friends sits down on waiting chairs to listen as a religious leader recounts the milestones of a lifetime. Who will, if needed, also provide assistance to those who rise afterwards to express their heartbreaking grief, or thankfulness towards the dearly departed for having allowed them to be a part of that life.
Screams of horror aren’t a normal part of these events.
The ceremony having come to an end, an elderly woman still unnerved by an inexplicable event at her church, leaves to commune with interred family members before returning to a nearby retirement community. Her shouts attract others who express similar outcries of disgust at an unconscionable act of vandalism.
Four gravestones belonging to a family tragically lost have been horribly defaced. Inscribed inches deep into each marble surface, as if by a single finger, a shaky passionate scrawl demands but one thing ... TAKE MY FAMILY HOME.
Decades later it’s the fifteenth of June, 1973.
Winter, spring, summer or fall, it’s always the fifteenth of June, 1973 on the Becker farm.
Far behind the protection of sensor-laden electrified fences, and under the constant surveillance of disguised watchtowers, vintage aircraft, and orbiting satellites, family farm routines generations-old proceed with mechanical precision. Rather than let the outside world intrude on this tranquil moment in time, and possibly trigger a catastrophic response, grim-faced armed soldiers from many nations, with their weapons pointed ever outwards, patrol its perimeter knowing any failure in their duties could signify the end of humanity.
The farm they guard is a testament to the genius of bygone metal and woodworking artistry.
For the months it took to complete, highly skilled craftsmen displayed their mastery of tools and building materials from a near-forgotten era. Every building, barn, shed, and animal pen once standing upon this long abandoned farmland is recreated with utmost precision. Countless computer files, private photo albums, defunct newspaper archives, and the fading memories of those living at the time, are carefully collated for critically needed information to correct the smallest imperfection.
No detail, no matter how small, is judged unimportant.
Whether it involves vehicles, farm equipment, phones and labor-saving kitchen devices long outdated, or even clothing bearing the trademarks of defunct manufacturers, all is urgently taken from museum collections and private ownership. When possible they are repaired, or copied in whole when necessary, and only allowed entry when able to pass the closest inspection.
Nothing is left to chance.
The illusion will be maintained.
Not knowing the real purpose of their instruction, the highest acclaimed acting and voice coaches Hollywood has to offer train rooms filled with attentive secret service agents. A handful each year, once deemed ready to move into their assigned farms for months at a time, will provide yet another layer of security within the fence . . . if their every unconscious movement, spoken word, and accent, is unlikely to arouse the interest, and possibly the ire, if judged out of place by a nearby neighbor.
Only the very best are allowed to make actual contact.
Partly selected for advanced training because of their facial and physical resemblance to people long buried, four agents don work-worn coveralls. And, before the crack of dawn, drive onto the Becker farm in rust covered pickup trucks filled with timeworn hand tools. Under the watchful eyes of an attentive observer sitting silently upon his porch, they go about their daily tasks chatting enthusiastically about baseball heroes, or whistling tunes, popular long before the birth of their parents.
Entering barns and livestock pens in pairs, they attend to the needs of all the animals. Each is given a thorough examination, fed, and guided with upmost care afterwards into the appropriate enclosure. If necessary, because of injury, age, or overall declining health, ol’ Doc Julius Morton, the latest agent, and fully qualified veterinarian to carry that name, takes charge.
Under his expert guidance, the animal in question is carefully transported by truck, enclosed van, or trailer, to a military-run animal hospital located far from the Becker Farm. There it will receive the best care modern veterinary science can provide, and, when necessary, gently euthanized. The closest matching animal, from the large numbers raised on nearby farms for this sole purpose, will take its place at the start of the next day.
Other agents attend to the never-ending tasks that keep a farm, any farm, from falling apart.
Building are repaired and painted. Fence posts replaced, straightened and restrung with barbed wire. Vehicles serviced, fields cleared, crops harvested, pens mucked out, feed troughs scrubbed, and, inevitably, animals chased after when they escape and race around in circles seemingly for the fun of it.
At the end of a long day of backbreaking manual labor, the Sun drops beneath the horizon and three of the ‘workers’ pile back into their vehicles. Only one, the farm foreman, walks towards the farmhouse in the fading twilight with a wax-paper covered parcel in his hands.
After tipping his tattered felt cowboy hat respectfully, he lays three bundles of flowers upon the first step of the porch stoop; along with a paper bag containing several ounces of rodent feed pellets, a covered glass bowl filled with fresh water ... and a single grape. The workday now officially done, he tips his hat once more and joins his co-workers until they return tomorrow.
The fifteenth of June, 1973.
The Sun has fully set.
As it does every night, the house fills with ghosts.
In a structure John Becker has not entered since its reconstruction, incandescent bulbs in numerous ceiling, wall, and tabletop fixtures turn on filling ever room with warm yellow light, and the sounds of life comes from every direction.
In the living room ... a large television tube in the center of a furniture-size wooden cabinet glows brightly. As it does every night, canned studio laughter echoes from every wall as Lucille Ball, and her husband, Ricky Ricardo, trade goodhearted comic banter between each other.
In his daughter’s bedrooms ... as if in competition with each other, a small portable radio plays ‘You Light Up My Life’ by Debby Boone in one, as ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ by the Bee Gees wafts softly from another.
No room is more active than the kitchen.
From miniature speakers hidden behind cabinets and baseboards, the metallic and ceramic clatter of pots and plates fills the air with the wholesome sounds of an evening meal being prepared with great culinary skill ... and love.
Outside, somewhere between the pig pen and a parked tractor, a large non-existent mastiff growls, barks, and howls at an equally non-existent moon.
All is well on the Becker farmstead.
None of it is real.
Rising from his chair, the owner of this farm exits the porch. Carefully bending over, he opens the paper bag with his left hand, and distributes its contents in a neat line across the bottom step. A moment later, a mouse appears in the center of his empty right palm and jumps off. After sniffing the food and water, it pounces upon the grape before leaving to commune with its kind for the night.
There’s no doubt it will return, as it has for over a half-century. As an integral part of the entity to which it owes its vastly extended existence, there is nothing on Earth it must fear.
Leaving the tiny animal to enjoy its evening repast, John Becker gathers the flower bundles and walks towards the rear of the house.
A short distance from the back porch, and illuminated by a pair of bright spotlights, four white marble tombstones stand in an equally straight line. There are no dates, no heartfelt sentiments or regrets carved into their smooth surfaces. Just a single plainly carved name.
With nothing but lip movements to silently greet them, he replaces yesterday’s wilted White Snapdragons from the urn atop Linda’s grave, Lilies from Susan’s, and finally, after a moment of hesitation, Red roses stand tall above the empty final resting place of his wife, Donna.
Mouthing the same words as every night, “We will be together soon, I promise.” he opens all facets of his consciousness to the voices currently demanding his immediate attention.
< [Status report / Warning / Mass single-species deployment of weaponry detected]>
< [Observation / Imminent planetary mass extinction event in progress]>
<Observation / Odds of planetary single-species sapient survival / Nil]>
< [Status report / Planetary biota cataloging complete. Updates proceeding]>
< [Status report / Realignment of planetary biota selected /Command]>
Looking up at the twinkling stars above his family’s graves, John Becker silently stretches out his arms begging for humanity’s deliverance ‘SAVE THEM!!’ without any thought for his own ... and ceases to exist for a third, and final, time.
His world follows closely behind.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Incomprehensible devices crafted before life first crawled upon dry land, and hidden in their uncountable multitudes deep below the Earth, and far out into the darkest recesses of the solar system, awaken and die in the same moment.
Following an order to ignore programming that specifically forbids their activation upon sentient-inhabited worlds, some still survive long enough to lose control of forces their creators had shackled to make travel between distant galaxies possible ... and to quicken the seeds of life on barren worlds to mere moments.
The laws of physics are inviolable.
But only in ... this ... universe.
Nothing in Nature guaranteed mankind’s evolution. With a microscopic shuffling of the cards, something other than a primitive proto-primate could’ve been placed on the road to sentience or to nothing at all.
Dragged into the maelstrom of inter-universe chaos, the relatively recent story of life on Earth plays out repeatedly in unimaginable ways ... and a wondrous assortment of sentience-capable beings became home to the billions of minds the last dying devices had safeguarded so well.