Chapter Nine: Alien tech transforms the world
Jeff woke up past eight and headed for the bathroom.
"Where are you going?" Valerie asked. She was in bed, facing the opposite way.
"It's my day off. I'm going to the city to meet with my support group. Remember? I told you last night."
"Oh, that again."
"Yeah, that again." Jeff sneered visibly. It was a good thing Valerie was facing the other way and couldn't see his facial expression. Since the Balazons' unveiling, they did plenty of fighting and he was already late.
The members of the Xsalma Survivors Group met once a month. Many had gone through similar experiences as Jeff and considered themselves lucky to be alive. Others had been fairly mild, such as hearing strange voices and seeing ghostly images. But Jeff went for another reason besides moral support. He enjoyed meeting and talking with others who didn't trust or like Balazons. Even his daughter had been eventually brainwashed. A few days ago, Jeff had watched the newest Saturday morning cartoon, Balazon Rescue, with Stephanie in the three dimensional virtual reality TV room, or VRT for short.
Jeff still got a mild pain in his stomach sometimes when he thought about the technological advances the Balazons had initiated in only the past three years or so. He didn't have a problem with the technology itself, more so the fact they had simply given it to humans. Well, that wasn't totally true. The Balazons had set up research facilities in which they showed scientists and engineers how advancements could be perfected and expanded to be used in everyday life. But to Jeff, it sounded more like a sixth grade science experiment than actual discovery.
The cartoon show Jeff had watched with Stephanie dramatized the Balazons' invisible influence throughout history. The time was the Second World War, and the aliens were trying to decide how to stop Hitler from destroying the world. The German leader was a rare individual who'd managed to totally remove his conscience-bubble on his own. From behind the scenes, Khur-ak decided to try to bring the military might of America into the war by subliminally suggesting to the Japanese ruler to attack Pearl Harbor. It was supposed to be an educational program for kids, but Jeff still didn't like it. He didn't believe his children should be watching as much of the VRT as they did, but it was nearly impossible to drag them away. They spent most of their free time there.
Jeff entered the washroom and the light automatically came on. He thought how good it would feel to transport back in time a few years, even for a minute or two, and enjoy the chore of hitting the switch himself. He closed the door and went over to the shower.
"Usual temperature of 100 degrees, Jeff?" the built in home computer, named Bert, asked as it sensed Jeff near the shower.
"Let's try a little higher today, one hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit." Jeff thought of the very first time the computer had asked him that. Around room temperature had sounded good. "Seventy-five degrees," he'd said, but yelped. It was too cold. He increased his original estimate by multiples of five until settling on one hundred, never again forgetting what temperature suited him.
The water came on.
Jeff had resisted getting all the new gadgets installed at first, but eventually relented. Valerie and the kids begged for them, and everybody else was doing it, and they were reasonably priced, so he figured, what the heck. Besides, he knew deep down the advances were good. His problem was with the creators. All the flurry of activity, new surprises by the Balazons, new discoveries, and endless turmoil of his changing world would never make him forget. Others enjoyed it and went with the flow, but Jeff refused.
After his shower, Jeff went downstairs to get some breakfast before heading for the city. He went to the food dispenser and verbally requested Golden Grahams cereal.
"That item is presently out of stock," Bert said. "Would you like to try another brand?"
"No," Jeff said and paused, "I want Golden Grahams. Bring up the grocery store on the other world and I'll get some."
"I know what you are trying to say, Jeff, but I don't like responding to slang. I prefer a more formal atmosphere. Please restate your request." Jeff liked the new hands free computing. One hardly had to touch a keyboard or mouse these days, with the new voice recognition capabilities and all, but some of the artificial intelligences had too much attitude for his taste. He'd much rather dictate to his word processor, a "dumb" computer, and have it dutifully translate his words into text than argue with the "smart" computers.
"Is that really necessary, Bert? If we can't get along, remember I still have one year to exchange your AI brain for another."
"I don't respond well to threats, Jeff," Bert said in a soothing voice but sounded very threatening nonetheless, reminding him that a machine could be a cold thing. He couldn't shake the feeling that his computer might turn on him someday if it ever gained the ability, despite manufacturer's claims to the contrary and no confirmed cases of such a thing to date. "I'm sure you would miss me. Aren't I efficient in every other way?"
Jeff sighed, silently agreeing. The previous household AI he'd tried, Shelley, frequently forgot his preferences, especially shower temperature, which really annoyed him. The machines were becoming more like humans than he was totally comfortable with. He realized he was going to lose this fight and complied. "Connect with Eddy's Groceries and transfer the image to the VRT room...please."
Jeff heard an electronic beep. "Program initiated. You may enter when ready."
Jeff went into the living room and closed the collapsible partition so the projection devices would have the enclosed area they needed to operate. The objects in the room disappeared, as their molecular patterns were analyzed by the VRT scanners, dematerialized, and stored in computer memory. New molecular patterns sprung forth to form Jeff's favorite grocery store around him.
He walked down the cereal isle, marveling at the illusion the VRT could project.Even though he understood his living room floor was actually rotating beneath him like a treadmill and he was really only walking in one spot in his living room, the white tiled floor of the simulated grocery store seemed as solid and stationary as the real thing. It seemed so real that he was walking down a long grocery isle, "reality" shifting around him to give the illusion of movement. He found the box of Golden Grahams, picked it up, and took it to the checkout.
The computer generated image of a woman rang up his purchase and asked, "Hand or forehead?"
Jeff held out his right hand. The lady scanned it with a world database reading device. The display on the register showed electronic funds transferring to the food store. The cost was a paltry one dollar. "Please have it transported by u-band immediately. I want to be able to eat it right away."
The lady smiled. "Certainly, sir. Have a nice day."
Food was cheap now, since shortages were a thing of the past. Food could be created easily now instead of having to grow it. All the food company needed was the molecular design, the permit to create it, and the technological know-how. The governments strictly controlled the technology and what food each company was allowed to make, since the industry's workers were still in transition to other jobs and the world needed time to absorb them. Plans were in the works, though, for all households to one day be allowed to have their own food dispensers, and then the food industry was slated to disappear altogether. For now, people still had to use grocery stores.
Jeff waited for the lady to complete the transport before he said, "Bert, end program."
"Please," Jeff added, weakly giving in to Bert's insistence on formality and politeness.
The surroundings became Jeff's living room again. He went into the kitchen and ate his cereal. Jeff had to admit the VRT did have some useful purposes. He could also use it to send himself on exotic vacations, moon trips, and space shuttle flights, at significantly lower cost than the real thing, but the price gap closed daily.
The Balazons were introducing replication technology into all raw manufacturing sectors, such as steel and lumber. Hardly any resources had to be mined from the earth these days, just seemingly created out of thin air. Companies still had to assemble products themselves, but Jeff could imagine the day not far off when he would simply feed specifications into a computer and create his own private mini space shuttle at probably the same cost today of a fake VRT experience of the same thing.
Jeff finished breakfast quickly and headed for the door. He saw a Balazon candy bar wrapper on the floor and cursed as he picked it up, went back into the kitchen, and threw it into the garbage disposal. The wrapper dematerialized and went into the magical realm of waste storage. He could retrieve it up until the time he pushed the button that transported it into deep space.
By now, people were so comfortable with the Balazons they were on every street corner, in every place of business, and most homes. There was nowhere left to run, nowhere to escape the most popular creatures on earth. Companies marketed Balazon dolls, posters, board games, and potato chips; others made comic books for children and Balazon Weekly magazine for adults. They appeared frequently on talk shows, book of the week specials, and did private appearances.
Jeff shook his head with disgust. He looked at the round, white clock hanging on the wall. Eight-thirty. He'd better get going. It took an hour to get to the City of Newellen and another fifteen to the old McLeran Baptist church, where today's meeting was to be held. It didn't start until half past ten, but he was supposed to meet Brad privately beforehand about some new secret information. He'd been trying to find solid incriminatory evidence against the aliens for a long time, but the Balazons covered their tracks too well. This was the best lead he'd ever had.
Jeff headed for the door, endeavoring to keep his head up, lest he be tempted to waste time if any more Balazon paraphernalia lay around. Once outside, he noticed the next door neighbor entering his Toyota Corolla. His smile communicated, "Good morning, what a wonderful day, aren't the Balazons wonderful?" He had commented so to Jeff too many times before. Jeff smiled back, not wanting to appear rude, but didn't say anything.
He got behind the wheel of his Prelude and took off, thinking he would never get used to its quickness and quietness since the conversion of gasoline engines to more efficient and environmentally cleaner electric motors. Energy stations selling power packs had replaced gas stations. There were also rumors circulating about u-band travel for humans. That was going too far! There was no way Jeff was going to be dematerialized and shot through space to some other destination. He had to draw the line somewhere.
Jeff connected onto highway thirty-three. He grimaced at the huge billboard outside Star City. The smiling face of Khur-ak advertised the Balazons' slogan--one world, one people. The Balazons had managed to politically unify the world under ten general regions, zone one comprising the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and also known as the North American zone. Each country still had their own elected leaders, who were subject to the elected zone leader, who in turn answered directly to Khur-ak. It was a more limited form of self-governing democracy that Americans slowly adjusted to over time. Jeff saw it more as a veneer of respectability to cover the aliens' controlling ways, even though Khur-ak claimed full awareness of the fine line he needed to walk to prevent a post-unveiling rebellion such as had occurred on other worlds, often promoting the aliens' second favorite slogan--we need your help to help you.
Jeff was not much of a political man, so could only remember the other zones that really interested him most, such as zone five, the European Union, now renamed the United States of Europe. Jeff had always had a fascination with European history, and it awed him that the continent was able to come together, albeit with alien interference, to form a unified core that now surpassed the United States in productivity and GDP. The biggest unifying factor had been enabling a common language in the "Reverse Babel Project", a voluntary project that most Europeans eagerly embraced.
The name was in reference to the Biblical Tower of Babel story, a time in ancient history when man had been unified under a common language, and the Bible records how "God" had scattered the people by creating many different languages. Khur-ak explained that the Balazons had confused man's languages in order to prevent humans working together too much and progressing faster technologically than mankind was mature enough to handle. But now all willing people could have this effect reversed by allowing the Balazons to once again modify the language center of one's brain to instantly understand Balazonese, the new common world language and text.
It was still an optional procedure, in respect of some people's queasiness about letting aliens modify their brains, but Jeff would have refused to submit anyway. Everyone still understood English in the North American zone and most other parts of the world Jeff might ever visit, so he didn't think he needed it. Besides, if he had to travel to a foreign country, he could always rely on the technological equivalent that did the same thing, the new Universal Translator Kit, comprised of hearing aid to convert languages he heard into English, microphone to convert his speech to any other language, and special eyeglasses that recognized foreign text and projected the English equivalent onto the back of one's retina.
Jeff also knew of zone three, comprised of North Africa and the Middle East, as it was a continuing source of inspiration to him that a once volatile war region was now working together quite cooperatively. Once the Balazons helped to end terrorism and depose radical dictators worldwide, including most of the Arab states, the Muslim populations proved very reasonable people. Their deeply held religious convictions proved a strength, as once they could see and talk to their "God", they passionately embraced Khur-ak's leadership as if he were the Allah they had always worshipped. Israel just seemed relieved to finally have peace, but was surprised how the world, including Arabs, honored their place in history as the nation that the Balazons directly built to secretly bring knowledge of themselves to the world.
Jeff was glad to finally see the end to anti-Semitism, but he never forgot who inspired religious bloodshed in the first place by creating the concept of "God". Most people got angry when he pointed this out to them, defending the aliens' bad behavior by claiming they had no other choice. This reminded him too much of his cult days. In the name of salvation, he'd accepted all kinds of excuses to rationalize the leader's verbal, emotional, and physical abuse of himself. Never again. The world seemed happy to blindly follow the cult of Balazon, but Jeff refused.
Despite much visible external success, such as the worldwide economic database and world political union, Khur-ak still had a lot of work to do. Invisible boundaries--mostly nationalistic and territorial--still hindered the alien leader's progress towards a new world order. Many nations, including the U.S. and Russia, were still negotiating terms under which to surrender sovereignty of their nuclear arsenals and military machine to Khur-ak's world-state. Jeff was glad the elected leaders were being cautious in favor of protecting American interests, although some insisted it set a bad example.
Sporadic wars still broke out between nations, and Khur-ak refused to forcefully stop them, claiming he didn't want to appear dictatorial and try to rule with an iron-hand, lest the world unite against the Balazons, as had happened on other worlds before. The aliens seemed so nonchalant about people dying, and justified this attitude with the promise that the essences of the dead would continue and be reborn in the exultation stage, but to Jeff this sounded like more cultic rationalizations to justify a form of abuse by passivity. However, the aliens did encourage the more stable nations to go restore order themselves, which often occurred.
Jeff was jolted from his highway hypnosis when a police car flew overhead, only about 20 feet off the ground. He nervously looked at his speedometer, cruise control locked at sixty miles per hour. Since the creation of invisible bullet-proof body shields, quark radar guns, and new road-side sensors capable of distinguishing between alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or plain Tylenol, it seemed the police had little to do but roam the sky looking for people to hassle, especially since the advent of perfect lie detectors meant officers had to spend zero time in court trying to prosecute crime. With the device, a judge usually could quickly and easily determine innocence or guilt, which greatly reduced crime, since nobody could obfuscate the truth in court.
Jeff refused to buy one of the new flying cars, as they were quite a bit more expensive than a regular vehicle, and the special license one needed to operate them required re-certification every three years. A cheaper alternative was to retro-fit normal vehicles with an anti-gravity conversion kit, but the resultant machine consumed more energy than one built properly from the manufacturer, so Jeff figured he'd end up paying about the same in end anyway. The whole thing seemed like too much hassle, so he decided to stick to the standard mode of travel he was used to.
As the patrol car grew smaller, he calmed down and turned on the radio. It was already tuned to station GRN, or Global Radio News, the radio equivalent of GNT, Global News Telecast, the two broadcast mediums solely dedicated to bringing the world new information about Balazon activities, Khur-ak's motivational speeches, and technological and world political changes. Jeff felt compelled to keep himself updated, as reality around him seemed to be constantly changing and getting faster with each day. He forced himself to spend some time everyday listening or watching these channels. A news bulletin announced that Friday, five days away, Khur-ak would give another world-wide broadcast, apparently unique in that it would signal the beginning of something wonderful beyond comprehension. Jeff was sure his family would be thrilled, but he felt a gnawing pain in his abdomen as his stomach started to churn. Something wasn't right.
He put it out of his mind as he navigated the outskirts of Newellen. They wouldn't be meeting at Sue's place anymore, all future meetings to be held at the Baptist church. Brad had given him the address, but this was the first time Jeff had tried to find it.
Churches hadn't held any worshippers in a long time. Eventually, after considering the evidence, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, and most other faiths abandoned their beliefs and simply cooperated together as humans. Khur-ak may still have his difficulties uniting a stubborn race, but at least one of the biggest excuses for war and hatred was gone: religion.
Lately though, some fanatical religious groups were trying to start riots or gain followers by insisting the Balazons were the devil and his demons deceiving the world. Since the unveiling, some religious holdouts had always proclaimed the demonic origin of the Balazons, but the groups seemed to be growing in number and influence lately. Random evangelistic campaigns were popping up everywhere, but if the proselytizing didn't produce enough converts, the fanatics would shoot everybody and take off, claiming all who didn't believe in God must die. Almost daily, the media reported ugly news of their barbaric attacks, and warned people to flee from any such preaching venture and immediately report their whereabouts to the police. The fanatics were constantly changing locations.
Other opposition groups were more secular, such as the Earth Freedom Party, or EFP for short. The EFP was an underground terrorist organization that committed random acts of violence in hopes of coercing the Balazons to leave, as they simply hated alien interference in human affairs and did not trust their leadership. Jeff could relate to the frustrations of this group, as he was also convinced the aliens were up to no good, but Jeff wasn't prepared to step into cult territory again by believing in supernatural things like demons. He was much more rational these days.
Jeff eventually found the building and walked up the front steps, feeling a sort of reverential awe despite himself. God may not be real, but the building still affected him. Once inside, he went up the steps left of the sanctuary, now used for theater productions, and turned to the first door on his right.
He found Brad Stockwell in a chair by the window. Brad became startled and jumped. "Oh, it's only you." He gave Jeff a solemn look. "I think you'd better sit down."
Jeff pulled a gray plastic chair over to Brad. "Go on. What did you find out?"
Brad shrugged. "Not much. Not much hard evidence anyway. But if my intuition could convict them, the Balazons would be in jail by now."
Jeff yawned inside. He'd heard the paranoia before. He wanted something real this time, but understood why Brad hardly ventured out anymore, except to go to survivors' meetings. Compared to what he'd had gone through, Xsalma had merely said, "Boo," to Jeff.
Xsalma's followers had physically appeared to Brad and said, "If aliens unveil themselves and say there is no God, don't believe it. We are God's messengers sent to prove to you there is a hell." The aliens then ripped Brad's essence out of his body and dragged him into the ground. He remembered feeling a cool sensation as they passed through solid earth, which slowly became warmer. Suddenly, he saw the brilliant yellow-orange of the earth's molten core and thousands of souls bobbing about in it, screaming in agony, chained inside the tumultuous fire so they couldn't escape.
They chained Brad as well, but he remembered only feeling slightly warm. It didn't seem too bad.
"Now feel the full fury of the flames of hell," the Balazons said, and searing pain exploded his body. He screamed in agony and begged to be let loose, but the Balazons disappeared. Brad said he could sense he was still somehow connected to his physical body but felt its life slipping away, his pain diminishing proportionately to his nearness to death. He was fading into nothingness and wanted it to happen quickly.
The next thing he remembered was being in his apartment and a middle aged man was slapping him in the face. The man apologized for not helping sooner but said he couldn't; he didn't offer any further explanations but simply walked through Brad's closed front door and disappeared.
Ever since then, Brad lived in stark fear about everything concerning the Balazons.
"Give me specifics," Jeff said. "What did you find out?"
"I talked to a friend of mine in Washington who was directly involved in coordinating Khur-ak's unveiling to the public. He had firmly believed in them."
"Yes, go on," Jeff said, feeling impatient. Brad had worked for the CIA before his Xsalma incident traumatized him so much he retired early and moved to Newellen. At first, Jeff thought the man must be somebody important because he always claimed the aliens were stalking him. Later, when Jeff realized Brad wasn't quite all there mentally, he was cautious what he believed of Mr. Stockwell's myriad of stories.
However, given Brad's credible sources and connections, Jeff would gladly embrace any solid evidence Brad could produce to prove the aliens' evil ulterior motives, not just paranoid delusions but actual evidence this time. Without something solid, the world would stubbornly choose to remain blind, just as the followers in the cult had done. Jeff remembered how after he had escaped the mind control of his cult, he had gone back and tried to convince the other followers of the leader's evil nature, but they refused to see. Simple logic, reason, and common sense had no effect, as Jeff had tried to convince people that the psychological and physical abuse the leader slowly but inevitably unleashed on all of his followers was wrong.
The leader always seemed to have a way to spin the scriptures and one's mind to "prove" that everything he did was actually a loving thing, at least to his followers. He had a charismatic personality, and a magnetic aura about him of hypnotizing and supernatural quality. Khur-ak was no different. The alien leader spun the Bible, evolutionary dogma, and love talk pretty good too, and had undeniable power to back him up. But no matter how much the Balazons would spin everything they had done in history as a loving thing, and no matter how many good things the aliens did now, Jeff judged the Balazons untrustworthy, and would never forgive their history of lying, terrorism, and murder. It was just too cultic for him, but he knew he needed hard evidence to have any hope of convincing others.
If he could have gone back to the cult followers with evidence that the leader was running a hidden child sex ring or some similar thing, maybe people would have been shocked awake, but the leader had been much more subtle than that. He eventually hid his evil right out in the open and rationalized and justified it with masterful spins of scripture and the concept of love, not much different than what the Balazons were doing. If only Brad had evidence of secret wrongdoings by the aliens, Jeff planned to take it to his friend, Brian Ferster, and then let Brian use his investigative VRT program to expose the truth about the Balazons to the world. It had to be an exposé on some hidden evil though, since the world had already excused the blatant wrongdoings of the aliens to date. Brian had been brainwashed too by the Balazons but was always chasing ratings. Jeff was sure he'd air any real evidence, for fame and fortune if for no other reason.
"My friend had something so secret to tell me that if he was caught talking about it, they might kill him. Many who found out about it and opposed them have already disappeared."
"Yes. Yes. What is it?" Jeff leaned forward in his chair.
"He couldn't reveal much over the phone. He said it had to do with a special VRT broadcast, deception at the highest levels, and a conspiracy to eliminate all who found out the truth. He also said to be at this address at eight o'clock tonight to learn more."
Brad handed Jeff a slip of paper with an address on it.
"He was supposed to fly down and meet me, but his plane crashed," Brad said.
Oh great, Jeff thought. Another lead dried up. "How did it happen?"
"The official story is the EFP was responsible," Brad said. "But I think they killed everybody just to keep him from talking to me."
"Who killed him? The government?"
"No, the Balazons. Don't you get it, Jeff? Nobody really knows how dangerous they are, but I do. They follow me wherever I go. Even as I left my house this morning..."
Another typical paranoid tirade. Jeff drifted off.