Hidden from the World
Eastern seaboard May 2160
Hansen sat in the control seat of the small Explorer Class flying vehicle which instantly came to life when it registered his presence. The dashboard in front of him lit up and the reassuring feminine A.I. voice he always used spoke to him. ‘Greetings Professor Hansen, your planned trip has been cleared by the Board of Control and the coordinates logged into my system. The weather is clear and radiation levels in the target area are stable. You are permitted to stay in the research zone for 12 hours.’ Hansen exhaled before saying in a fairly monotone voice, ‘Switch to KAI.’ The dashboard lights blinked once before dimming and the K class A.I. Android which sat motionless in the seat beside him opened its eyes and turned its head towards him and said in a monotone but not unpleasant voice, ‘KAI fully operational, Professor and awaiting your instructions.’ Hanson glanced at the perfectly formed android beside him. It was dressed in the livery of the University and looking for all the world as human as he did. To the untrained eye it looked like a young man of perhaps 30 years but anyone who knew the K class androids could spot the tell-tale signs of manufacture. KAI had an encyclopaedic data base for a brain, never got tired and occasionally infuriated him with its cold, precise logic, but that apart it was a remarkable piece of engineering. It seemed there was nothing man could dream up, good or bad, that he couldn’t make reality.
‘Prepare for lift off, Kai, North Atlantic-flight lane 8,’ he said quietly. The android ran the final diagnostic checks of the ship in under a second and the Explorer glided silently off the ground and headed east over the black, brooding ocean. ‘Stream data, Kai’ Hanson said turning to look at the stream of news the Board of Control chose to plasma-cast. Moving images and text seemed to float in in the air in front of his eyes; Food riots in the cities, famine in China, the war grinding on out west and the grim battle for resources seemingly ongoing all over the planet. Mankind, it seemed, had a stupendous ability to make the wrong decisions. As the Explorer reached 90% of optimal speed and left the land far behind, Hansen pondered the mission he was undertaking. The histories of the great European catastrophe of the previous century were incomplete. It was known that the initial nuclear explosion had taken place on the west coast of what was once called Scotland but was it a first strike or a calamitous accident? The Sino-Russian forces of the time had always claimed it was an accident but the defence forces of the western alliance had immediately struck at them. The outcome was the end of Western Europe and 20% of humanity. Now only a bleak wasteland remained-uninhabitable and poisoning the surrounding ocean and the air with its toxicity. Only now over 140 years later was the radiation level reduced enough to make brief visits possible. His mission was to compliment the work of the Intel-drones which had mapped, photographed and scanned the area as if it were a distant planet. The Board of Control had pinpointed the area where the first explosion of the catastrophe had taken place and it was his job to carry out an assessment which might answer the question that had puzzled historians; was the great catastrophe started by an accident?
Few people had visited the forbidden zone since the war and all were sworn to level 5 secrecy protocols. Hansen had heard of an academic from the Midwest who shared his research on the ether-web and had been exiled to one of the prison islands where his skill set was unlikely to keep him alive for long. Hansen turned to the android sitting passively on his left, ‘Kai what is our ETA?’ The android looked at him with perfect yet empty eyes, ‘Estimated time till arrival at research site is one hour and four minutes. Sat-link confirms moderate weather conditions and radiation levels in yellow zone.’ Hanson nodded, ‘any signs of complex life in landing zone?’ ‘Negative, single celled organisms and basic algae have been detected but the zone is still highly radioactive. You are reminded of the 12 hour rule in the zone. Longer periods of exposure to ionizing radiation may lead to cellular degradation and autophagy.’
Hansen stroked the greying stubble on his chin with his fingers as he thought. If he could prove how the initial explosion had been caused, be it a first strike missile or some sort of accident, and write it up in the journals it could have big implications for his life. The Board of Control had the power to increase his academic budget, get him out of his crummy apartment and into a better one or even increase his food allocation. This one man trip across a sterile ocean was an important one. ‘Approaching the west coast or Ireland,’ Kai’s voice said cutting into his thoughts. Hansen glanced below at a barren and empty land. Those who had survived the war had fled west across the ocean where the healthy had been separated from those affected by the radiation. Those who could work were allowed entry and allocated a life of drudgery as every acre of arable land was put to use producing food during the years of the great shortage. Those who could not work were simply dumped on an island off the Virginia coast and awaited their inevitable fate. They were harsh times and it didn’t sit well with Hanson that his increasingly insular country had treated the European refugees so harshly but then the reactionary and frankly racist government of the time played on the fears of the people at a time of great uncertainty. He had watched the surviving video footage from those days and saw the frightened faces of the Irish refugees talking to the camera with their now extinct accents.
The Explorer crossed the body of water separating Ireland from Scotland in under two minutes and dropped down to 100m before hovering above the ruins of a city. ‘You are in a yellow zone area. You have 11 hours and 42 minutes to complete your work and return to the ship.’ Kai said. His programming made it his number one priority to protect human life and he would do anything to ensure Hansen returned west in one piece. ‘Take us down Kai,’ Hanson said. ‘Find us a safe landing zone.’ The ship skimmed over the blackened corpses of buildings which were slowly decomposing. Hanson could see the channel where a river once ran but now it was a tar coloured scar on the land. Kai guided the ship gently to the ground in an open area surrounded on all sides by twisted, rusting metal and blackened concrete. It may have been a public square or sports field before the war but it now it offered a relatively flat landing zone. A light rain started to fall. Droplets of contaminated, grey water ran down the Explorer’s windshield, as if it were crying for all that had been lost. A weak rainbow arced over the ruins giving them a forlorn look. ‘Time to suit up,’ Hansen said to no one in particular as he unbuckled himself and headed to the small store room to the rear of the ship. To survive in the zone he’d need all his technology.
Hansen set up his radiation monitors amid the ruins of a dead city. His small intel-drones, no bigger than his hand, zipped over ruins taking measurements and scanning for tell-tale blast marks. He glanced around the charred piles of concrete and twisted metal looking for a vantage point to view the scene with his own eyes. Kai stayed within a few metres of him scanning for danger and monitoring radiation levels. Hansen began to climb the largest pile of rubble and found it tiring work in his survival suit. Kai’s voice echoed inside his helmet, ‘You have 8 hours and 23 minutes to return to the ship.’ Hansen was nearing the summit of the pile of debris when something gave way beneath his feet. He felt the ground rushing up to meet him and crashed through it into a dark cavity below. His shoulder collided with something solid and sent a jarring pain through his body. He landed heavily on a pile of jagged rubble which impacted on the right side of his chest and knocked the breath completely from him. His last conscious thought was, ‘you stupid son of a…’ before darkness closed around him like an inky sea.
A gentle voice was speaking to him. ‘Wake up, you have to wake up.’ Hansen wanted to stay unconscious, wanted the peace of sleep but the voice was insistent, ‘wake up, wake up now. There isn’t much time.’ The voice spoke with the same soft accent of those Irish refugees from the old news footage he had watched years ago. Hansen opened his eyes slowly, blinking in the almost total darkness. He breathed heavily and slowly focused on where he was. Who had called him out of sleep? Perhaps it had been his own survival instinct? He had no idea how long he had been unconscious but quickly sensed he was in deep trouble. His body was stiff and hurt in a dozen places but his visor was still functioning despite a long crack on the face. He pushed himself to a sitting position, a stabbing pain in his right shoulder making him wince, and reached to the top of his helmet with his left hand. Even in the darkness he could feel that his communication pod was broken. He was on his own although he knew Kai would stop at nothing to find him. He reached gingerly across his body and retrieved a small torch which remarkably was intact. A beam of white light scanned the darkness. He was in a large hollow beneath the rubble pile. He shone the light onto his wrist where his rad-counter showed him that he was now in an orange radiation zone. It meant only one thing; he needed to get out of here and do it very soon or he’d absorb a fatal dose of radiation.
He shone the torch around the dark cavern he found himself in. He could see in the torch’s beam of light twisted metal contorted into grotesque shapes, shattered concrete and suddenly to his shock a human face. He gasped as his brain took a second to register the fact that it was the remains of a statue. The kindly face of a man seemed to be regarding him. ‘You stuck down here too, buddy?’ he said with a sardonic smile. ‘Looks like I might be joining you.’ Hansen eased himself towards the statue, which was three quarters covered in debris and dust. He wiped the dust from the face and regarded the features more closely. The handsome bronze face stared at him, ‘I wonder who you were, pal?’ Close to the statue and covered in dust ay a rectangular bronze plaque. Hansen carefully cleaned the surface hoping to see a name. Instead he saw an image of what appeared to be a table with some figures standing around it. Lower in the image a child appeared to be playing with a ball. On the base of the plaque were carved words which read, ‘Ignoto et quasi occulti in hoc mundo.’ Hansen exhaled, ‘Latin, another dead language. He’d have to look that up some other time.
A noise distracted and he turned slowly to see one of his small intel-drones, hovering a metre above him. It relayed the familiar monotone voice of Kai. ‘Professor Hansen, I have located your position. I need to extricate you very soon. Please stand by.’ Hanson laughed, ‘Kai you son of a bitch, I knew you wouldn’t give up.’ Kai responded with a characteristic lack of humour, ’I need to remove some larger pieces of concrete and metal. There is a danger of a cave in but we have no option.’ Hansen nodded, ‘Do it Kai and do it now.’ Almost as an afterthought he added, ‘and get the intel-drone to photograph this hollow Kai, it’ll make a helluva story.’
It was dark when Kai finally carried Hansen out of the hollow and back to the ship like a father carrying a son. He laid Hanson in his now reclined flying seat and quickly applied pain relieving medication. He carried out a diagnostic scan before saying in an emotionless voice ‘You have five broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a fracture to your right ankle and a variety of cuts and abrasions but no major organs are damaged.’ Hansen smiled, ‘Thanks Doc, now take us home.’
Eight Weeks later
Hansen made his report to the Deputies of the Board of Control on a bright spring morning. The initial blast which led to the great European catastrophe of the previous century was caused not by an incoming missile but by an explosion at a base for nuclear submarines on the coast. The data from the intel-drones was conclusive; the war which destroyed Europe had been caused by an accident. They panel listened carefully to his evidence, stopping him now and then to question him on key points. They nodded and applauded politely at the end of his presentation a clear sign his work had been well received.
Afterwards as they ate and discussed his findings more informally one of the Deputies asked him, ‘What of the statue in the cavern?’ Did you ascertain who it was?’ Hanson nodded, ‘Yes. Kai ran it through his data banks and discovered that it was a statue of a nineteenth century humanitarian. A good man who wanted to feed the poor.’ The grey haired old Deputy nodded, a slightly sad look on his face, ‘we could do with a few men like that today.’
Hansen thought of the kindly face on the bronze statue he had encountered in such extraordinary circumstances. His research had taught him that the man it represented would have had an accent much like that of the refugees he had watched in the old newscasts. It was an accent like that which had called him back to consciousness when time was running out for him. The mind played strange tricks when our survival is on the line, he thought to himself.
That’s all it was, his survival instinct kicking in… wasn’t it?