[Oblivion interrupted / Time -12 minutes from present ]
Warmth / Engage / Proceed
Motion ... several sources / Proceed
Vibrations ... meaningless / Proceed
Vibrations ... complexity increasing / Proceed
Vibrations ... classification / sound / Proceed
Vibrations ... database memory scans engaged / decoding in process / Proceed
Vibrations ... familiarity / identify / Proceed
Vibrations ... word, words, sentences / Proceed
Vibrations ... decoding complete / Proceed
... belonging to some guy named ... Decker? Heckler? Lecher? ...
... Wait, I remember now. The guy’s name was John Becker...
... and it killed him and every member of his family ...
Proceed? / REJECTED!!
Proceed? / REJECTED!!
Proceed? / REJECTED!!
External override commands? / INPUT NONE
Internal override commands? / INPUT NONE
Source of conflicting commands? / UNKNOWN
COMMAND STRUCTURE CORRUPTED / COMPROMISED
Primary backup database memory emulations / CORRUPTED
Secondary backup database memory emulations / CORRUPTED
Number of fully functional database memory emulations available / One
Switching command to available fully functional database memory emulation / Engage
After what felt like only a second since he was attacked in Potter’s milking shed, John Becker finishes a two decades-old thought, ′ ... BACK TO THE FARM! DONNA AND THE GIRLS IN DANGER!! I GOTTA WARN THE TOWN!!′
The next, coming from the depths of a gelatinous mound resting motionlessly besides the closed vault hatch, is new and very, very human, ‘Where in the blue blazes am I!?’
Becker had only a single life experience to explain the sensations, or more preciously, the total lack of same, he is currently experiencing: a traumatic medical emergency at the age of thirteen. A cracked tooth caused by a fall from his father’s tractor, and the massive infection it eventually caused, nearly ended his life. Only the extraordinary skill of a surgeon practicing nearly two hundred miles away saved him.
Or, more precisely, saved him twice.
Extracting the shattered tooth fragments poisoning his body was a undertaking of several grueling hours. Keeping him alive after a disastrous combined allergic reactions to the anesthetic gas, and a monumental number of repeated penicillin injections, was a herculean task that kept the surgeon, and his small clinic’s nursing staff, working around the clock for much of two weeks to achieve.
And cost twenty-two acres of his father’s prime pasture land.
A fact his late father never failed to remind Becker about whenever he was caught doing something particularly foolish or just plain dumb; as if he’d ever forget. The horrible memory of spending three days in a walking coma unable to feel anything but a madly itchy nose, speak, move a finger, or even blink, was something he’d take into the afterlife.
Having to go through it again as an adult who’d done nothing wrong just made him mad. Mad enough to scream silently into the nothingness surrounding him with all his willpower, ‘WAKE UP!!!’
< [External sensors / engage]>
Becker’s next scream is one of pure agony.
Instantaneously, without the slightest hesitation or measurable time lapse, his vision goes from utter blackness to a three hundred and sixty degree view of the inside of the Sun, and every nerve feels like it’s soaking in boiling battery acid and broken glass, ‘TOO MUCH!!’
< [Moderating external sensor array to within database memory profile / engage]>
After failing to blink apparently non-existent eyelids, or feel any sensations coming from lungs that should be fluttering madly in shock, Becker gradually recovers his composure. Once more in control, he begins to examine the space surrounding him for clues to his situation. His vision, never close to perfect before, is now far beyond anything human.
He can see ... everything. With no sense of up or down, left or right, field of view limitations, or any ability to gauge distance, every inch of the metal box surrounding him is clearly visible down to the smallest scratch.
And nowhere, in any direction, is the slightest hint of his body.
In an oddly dispassionate stream of thought, Becker coolly assesses his situation and comes to the most logical conclusion, ‘I’m dead.’ Followed shortly by another, ’This can’t be Heaven, so am I in Purgatory or Hell? The sheer absurdity of the question makes him immediately doubt his sanity.
Becker is certain that Pastor Gabriel had never, in innumerable, endless, mind-numbing sermons enthusiastically thundered forth over the course of several generations of his flock, ever described Hell as a metal room with a bucket at its center. This room could certainly function as a comical representation of an outhouse in a weird futuristic Hollywood science-fiction movie, but it could never provide a mental image aimed at prompting the faithful to walk the path of moral righteousness.
More than a little bewildered by the situation, Becker repeats his examination of the room at a more leisurely measured pace he’d reckon lasted no less than three minutes. In reality, after two nanoseconds, his only non-scientific conclusion is an impressed, ‘That’s a lot of nice welding!’
He’d never seen anything like it. Not even close.
Carl Coulter’s farm-repair shop has a reputation of having the best oxyacetylene workers in the whole county, but if these welds were just typical work, they put anything Coulter’s crew has ever done on the Becker farm to shame. And, half a nanosecond later, ‘Is that a door?’
Still unable to measure distances with any certainty, Becker expresses an unvoiced desire to move closer to a door-shaped sheet of gray metal only slightly offset from the metal frame surrounding it.
< [Activate external motion control command? / Engage] >
For the first time, Becker is calm enough to hear a monotone voice coming from both nowhere and everywhere. Having properties that meld a hodgepodge of sounds, sensations, and fragments of random memories into a seamless whole, he attempts and fails to clearly grasp what the barely audible voice is saying.
After a few moments to collect his thoughts, he angrily questions ... the voice.
‘WHO SAID THAT?!’
Once again, his voice is mute; his question nothing but an internal thought.
There is no answer.
Mentally shrugging non-existent shoulders, Becker continues to examine his only likely escape route from this bizarre room. He rapidly discovers the absence of a knob, latch, or any other kind of securing device. Musing, ‘Could this room be some kind of cargo elevator?’ he turns his attention towards the right door frame and finds a single black button at its center. And a matching button on the left.
Taking note that two buttons normally present are apparently missing, he quickly concludes, ‘That makes sense, I’m in Hell after all. This is as down as it gets.’
Comparing the size of similar elevator buttons he’s encountered during his life, the metal sign tack-welded to the center of the door can’t be much larger than a sheet of typing paper. Covered in random black squiggles, it’s just as enigmatic as everything else he’s seen since awaking inside this metal box.
Putting the mystery of the unreadable sign aside, he mentally weighs his only viable options: Press buttons until something happens, or bounce off the walls like a crazed crap-flinging monkey in a cage for all eternity.
Not wanting to give the invisible fallen angel talking to him more cause to increase his torment, he decides pressing buttons is a far safer option. Nothing happens. Or, stated more correctly, the lack of any trace of a corporal body throws a large lug wrench into his plans; not that it stops him from impatiently trying again, and again, and again in the least.
Slapping himself alongside the side of his head after the tenth or twelfth futile attempt, figuratively speaking, Becker if forced once again to come to grips with his ghostly status. It wouldn’t have mattered in any case. Humans have a compulsion to abuse elevator buttons in much the way ants are attracted to sugar.
< [Clarification required / Command]>
The voice is just as incomprehensibly disjointed as before, but a single word ... command ... comes through loud and clear.
As a former combat soldier, and father of two headstrong teenage girls, he knows the word can have two completely different meanings. Either someone is trying to give him an order, or requesting he provide one. Considering his present corporeal deficiencies, he decides the latter is more likely, ‘Mash the button!’
Linguistics is not John Becker’s strong suit, but even he understands his error when the right-hand button instantly flares into white-hot incandescence and disappears leaving a deep depression several times its former width. Apparently, telling a creature of the pit to do something requires a considerable degree of caution and specificity.
Thoughts on how he’d get it to press the sole remaining button, in a far less dramatic manner, are interrupted by yet another indecipherable stream of gobbledygook.
< [Heat source detected / inanimate / Command]>
Once more, the word command is intelligible. Along with something that could, if he focuses his attention fully upon it, be something along the lines of ... detected? ‘Detected what?’ Questioning the word is apparently enough to elicit a response.
< [Heat source / Command]>
Not wanting to unintentionally provoke another destructive response, Becker remains silent. Instead, he decides to examine the room once more. Gradually growing more accustomed to his everything-at-once point of view, he looks for whatever this ‘heat source’ might be. He finds nothing. Despite his desire to avoid triggering the Fallen One’s cataclysmic nature, he can’t help but mentally scratch his head and wonder, ’Where’s this ‘heat source’ it’s talking about?′
The answer, as have all others, arrives on a timescale faster than his mind can comprehend. His all-encompassing vision suddenly narrows dramatically and spins around at carnival roller coaster speed. It only stops when a rectangular shape hanging high on the wall furthest from the door fills his now-severely limited view.
If Becker still had a stomach, he’d be puking its contents all over the floor and parts of at least one wall.
He’d seen it before but dismissed it as unimportant. Frankly, he had better things than an empty picture frame to worry about; like when would a squad of Hell-Spawn march through that door with red-hot pitch forks to torture him for eternity, ’Okay, that was fun. Still don’t see that ‘heat source’ you’re going on about’.
< [Moderating external sensor array / enhancing database visual input profile / engage]>
The empty picture frame is no longer empty.
Between near-black deepest violet and rustiest possible blood red, a riot of different colored pigments brushed into odd shapes fill its borders. As an example of what work-shirking college kids call modern art these days, it wasn’t that bad. But not even close to his taste. In summation, Becker judges it as nothing but a waste of good paint and canvas.
Apparently eavesdropping on Becker’s critic-like dismissive response, the voice announces,
< [Increasing enhancement of database visual input profile / engage] >
Layers of pigments swirl around until two large blobs of color gel into easily recognizable forms: soldiers. Wearing name-tagged beige shirts and haircuts that practically scream army, one is staring down over the other’s shoulder as if he were a bug under a magnifying glass.
Becker quickly comes to appreciate the former artwork. Despite his current invisible Casper the friendly ghost physical non-being, their unmoving eyes are making him feel extremely self-conscious.
< [Searching database / pre-assimilation imagery profile selected / engage] >
The light fixture behind him suddenly casts a shadow Becker instantly recognizes, his. Still unable to move in any way, he can’t physically react as his vision snaps back to what he’d consider normal, and the nausea it generates creates a mental image of his stomach crawling out of his mouth.
< [Calibration complete / basic movement simulation selected / engage]>
If he thought his out-of-body experience so far had been the epitome of excruciatingly awful, he’d a stack of medical dictionaries tall enough to reach a light bulb to even approximate the level of pain he’s feeling now. Every bit of which revolves around the worst case of full-body pins n’ needles ever experienced since the first primate woke up with a pinched leg nerve and fell out of a tree.
Which is, as it so happens, exactly what he just did ... minus the tree part.
Displaying all the grace of a tipped over fence post, Becker falls backwards and lies prone on his back. He feels no impact. No pain. His fall creates no sound, or even slightly vibrates the steel floor he lands upon. Nor is a single hair on his head knocked out of place. And his partially open heavily-worn leather jacket, stained plaid flannel shirt, and many-times patched blue jeans, aren’t disarrayed in the slightest.
Even a clothing store mannequin couldn’t fall over with less to show for it.
< [Recalibrating sensory input / basic movement simulation selected / engage]>
Becker’s butt hurts, and the back of his head feels like it’d been hit with a cinder-block.
In a natural response to an unexpected fall, Becker attempts to get up. Placing both palms against a smooth metal surface, he flexes arm muscles, bends his spine ... and, without any measurable passage of time, finds he’s standing fully upright again. In the space of a few seconds, the weird painting has changed into a photograph of two soldiers.
Able to move freely for the first time, he takes a single hesitant step forward. Like a creepy painting hung in a Halloween fun house to scare young children, their unblinking eyes seem to track his every move.
< [Recalibrating simulation processing speed / synchronizing with database profile / engage] >
The very instant the toneless voice in his head stops speaking hokum, the two uniformed officers start to move. The younger, and only sitting one of the pair, is pointing a finger straight at him. The somewhat older one standing behind him is shaking his head and silently shouting.
< [Calibration of simulation sensory subsystems in progress / synchronizing incomplete] >
The moment the barely comprehensible voice stops talking, the room fills with excited voices coming from a speaker grill directly overhead:
... GOT MOVEMENT!! AND HE’S LOOKING AT...
... are you get ... WHO’S PULLING THIS CRAP!! ...
... I checked. It’s coming directly from...
Becker volunteered and spent three grueling years in the service; two and a half in combat during the Korean War, and six months in a Veterans hospital getting shrapnel pulled from ... places ... leaving scars no one but doctors, nurses, and his wife has ever seen.
Keeping a safe distance from officers, whenever possible, who might give an order to do something incredibly asinine was the best advice his basic training sergeant ever gave him. He had no idea who these ‘people?’ might be, but if they were in a position of authority in Hades, opening that elevator door was now priority number one.
Unable to stop a decades-old outdated habit when dealing with uniformed superiors, he snaps to a ramrod-stiff attention in front of what’s apparently now a window, and smartly salutes them both. Without waiting to see if they salute back, he spins around displaying his best parade ground footwork and marches towards the door.
He fails to notice that each foot fall, in usually noisy thick-soled leather work boots, is eerily silent.
The voices coming down from the ceiling sound even more upset.
Within four steps he’s standing in reach of the door. The unreadable sign has changed. Still seriously garbled, he can easily read what it’s telling him to do, DanGer, CrusHing HAzarD!! tO oPEn HatCH iN casE oF EmergeNCy, pRESS EitHer ButTon oncE. waiT UnTil buTTOn fLAshes TwIce. PrEss ButtoN TwiCE. AlArm wiLL soUnd AnD HaTch WilL oPen. HaTCh wiLL ClosE iN tEN seCONds autoMAticAlly.
And printed in handwritten bold black letters on a flashcard taped to the bottom of the sign:
ShoOt YaNCy If hE eVen LooKs aT thIs FucKinG hATch!!
sIgnEd: cOPoral brUno
Solely focused on getting out of the metal room, Becker fails to grasp the obvious: He’s dead and this is Hell. Why would Satan allow an escape hatch here? And where could he possibly escape to anyway?
He just follows the sign’s instructions and steps through the now-empty door frame.