Bobby watched the bugs smash against his windshield one after the other, and each “KUSPLUTCH” they made as they exploded on his windshield was more satisfying than the last. He liked the way they sounded crunchy and liquidy all at the same time. Like his momma eating Frosted Flakes. He waited until he could barely make out the bright headlights on the gravel road, and right before the point where the windshield was totally obscured by bug offal, he would turn on his wipers to create a kaleidoscope of colors. He giggled as the wipers made a bigger and bigger mess.
When he couldn’t see the road in front of him at all, Bobby relented and squirted some cleaner on his windshield. After it was partially cleared of bug guts, Bobby lost patience and abandoned windshield-cleaning, and instead, he decided to reach down into the passenger-side floorboard to get himself another beer. He knew he still had four left in his Igloo lunch cooler, but it was so damn dark he couldn’t really see around the inside of his truck. He made a mental note to have Wade fix the lights on the instrument panel — and maybe the interior light too, depending on how much the criminal charged him for the gauge lights. Bobby stretched down as far to his right as he could, while still holding on to the steering wheel with his left hand. He practically had to lie down in the bench seat to reach the floorboard. As the truck bounced around he made a mental note to get Wade to check his shocks, too.
His fingers fumbled blindly in the floorboard. Work boots. Nope. Gloves. Nuh-uh. CD cases. Move. Empties. Gettin’ warmer. There. Cooler. Open…ah ha…un-opened beer.
Just as Bobby began knocking the ice off the top of the beer can, the steering wheel spun out of the grip of his left hand, he felt his truck lift off the ground, and suddenly, everything became all light and floaty.
And then crashing chaos. The tumbling truck tossed Bobby around in the cab like a cat in a clothes dryer, and in a point of irony that Bobby would never begin to understand, beer sprayed all over him as the truck entered the “tumble dry” mode of the crash.
And then stillness. The drip-drip sounds of leaking fluid. The squeak-squeak of a still-moving wheel.
Bobby knew the truck was upside down because when he looked up he saw the accelerator pedal. He felt sweaty, but he worried that the stickiness he was wiping off his forehead was something other than sweat and grime. He hoped it was oil. He knew it probably wasn’t. He couldn’t really make out where the side windows or the windshield had been, so Bobby aimed for the largest opening in the twisted, beer soaked metal and began inching his way towards it.
It took Bobby a good ten minutes to squirm and writhe out of his wrecked pickup truck. It had landed, after several balletic spins and flips, upside down and in a muddy ditch. Bobby plopped down in the brown, rancid water with a splash and stared at his mangled truck. He had heard people say that drunks usually walk away from violent car crashes without a scratch on them. He said a little prayer of thanks to Jesus for letting him be drunk. And for being sleepy. He felt sure his drunkenness and sleepiness had kept him relaxed and loose through the crash. The wreck may have shaken him awake, but Bobby could feel his sleepiness returning. His head hurt so damn bad. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands until he saw white spots. He could actually hear his brain throbbing, and an undulating pressure pushed at the back of his eyes.
Bobby laid back in the muddy water. The water covered his ears and almost went over his eyes. But his nose and mouth were above the surface of the brackish liquid, so he figured it was okay to take a little nap. Just long enough for his head to stop hurting.
Bobby awoke staring directly into the brightest light he had ever seen. It was so blindingly bright, he found he couldn’t even close his eyes to avoid looking at it. He opened his mouth to scream, but he discovered he was unable to make any noise at all. Bobby felt a pressure that was both pushing and pulling his body simultaneously, and he dug his fingers into the mud at the bottom of the puddle to steady himself. Bobby didn’t want to vomit, especially at a moment when his mouth refused to open. Eventually the undulating pressure in his head stopped, his nausea resided as quickly as it had came, and he felt the light pulling him out of his muddy bed. As he floated, he imagined that the mereungie on his gramma’s pies probably didn’t feel as light as he did. Right before he floated passed above the tops of the trees that embowered the wreckage of his truck, he passed out for the second time that night.
Bobby regained consciousness before he regained his sight. He felt frigid, and he realized all his clothes were gone. All the hairs on his body were standing on end, but his hands and arms were rigid at his sides. He tried to bolt upwards, but despite his muscles contracting in the correct manner, his limbs refused to move. He tried to yell for help, but his mouth wouldn’t open. His body remained as still as a statue. But on the inside, in his mind, Bobby was thrashing and screaming in pure terror.
Finally Bobby’s eyes opened. He wished they hadn’t. He tried to close them immediately but they were held open just as they’d been held shut a moment before.
Bobby found himself lying, on what he assumed was a table, in the middle of a stark white room. And Bobby wasn’t even sure the room was white because he couldn’t see walls or a ceiling or any solid shapes at all. It was just a sense of “whiteness” that Bobby felt more than actually saw. He head wouldn’t move to look at his sides, but Bobby moved his eyes and looked to his right has hard as he could. In his peripheral vision, just before the blackness that occurs at the corner of the eye, Bobby could see that he was only one person in a row of people. And these people, who were all naked, were simply floating several feet off the white floor.
At that moment, Bobby truly knew terror.
Bobby heard an excruciatingly loud humming noise in his head, and in start contrast to his rigid and unmoveable limbs, his mind became a whirling tsunami of gibbering, manic horror.
And then, suddenly and without warning, the terror began to slide and melt away as if coaxed by a hypnotist, and his inner-self became as calm and subdued as his limbs were motionless. He felt the pressure return in his head again, but this time he didn’t care. It was gentler this time, and Bobby felt as if the humming presence in his head was flipping through his thoughts and memories like a child playfully fanning the pages of a flip-book. The feeling was distinctly pleasurable. Bobby finally relaxed, and just as he began to drift off, he felt the chilly touch of metal fingers exploring his naked, mud-crusted body. As the last bit of consciousness drifted away, Bobby wondered if he would ever see home again, or if he was, in fact, dying. He said a prayer to ask Jesus for forgiveness for his wicked life just in case.
Rlyeh sat in his chair, lethargically staring down the long conference table, dreading the upcoming meeting. He tried to form what he could consider to be an acceptable explanation for his team’s failure, but he simply couldn’t. He knew that no one on the Rejoinder expected anything more than a detailed report on his initial findings, but he had begun the preliminary survey with such high hopes. The room felt chilly, even though he knew it wasn’t. He felt like the empty chairs were mocking the ambiguity inherent within his report. He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing in slow, methodical breaths.
The noise of people filling the room jolted Rlyeh awake. Chairperson Hojannes took her seat at the head of the table, and the people began to settle down and organize notes in preparation for the meeting.
Hojannes cleared her throat and addressed the room, “Okay everyone. We need to get started. Before we delve into your respective reports, the Navs have told me that tomorrow we’ll need to begin prepping the stasis chambers an hour earlier than originally planned. They’re afraid a solar wind maelstrom will affect the Rosen fields, so they want to get an early start. Please inform your teams accordingly.”
“Now, who would like to start us off?”
For a split second, Rlyeh started to volunteer to go first to get the whole thing over with, but just as he began to speak, Investigator Simon cut him off. “I’ll take the lead, Chairperson Hojannes,” Simon said in an authoritative voice. He cleared his voice and stood.
“As you all know, pre-mission hypothesis stipulated that the CO2 level in the atmosphere had risen to such a degree that, over a long period of time, the biosystem of the planet incrementally and gradually became harsher and eventually uninhabitable. The commonly accepted timeline as predicted by modeling for this gradual system failure was in the 2-3 hundred year range. We are now fairly certain that while the biosystem was, in fact, slowly changing after the industrialization paradigm shift, a massive biosystem breakdown occurred sometime around 2170. Up until that point, humankind was still able to survive on the surface, but my team posits that after that 2170, humanity would not have survived anywhere except underground or many meters under what was left of the oceans.”
Investigator Simon typed a string of commands into the workstation in front of him and said, “Let’s take a look at this model my team designed. Hopefully it will help to illustrate the effect of both the gradual and the massive biosystem events.” The lights in the cabin dimmed gently, and floating several inches above the center-point of the table, a shimmering, 3-D image of a blueish planet appeared. Rlyeh sighed inwardly. While immensely competent, and quite friendly to boot, Investigator Simon bored Rlyeh to sleep. Since the lights were already dimmed, and everyone in the room was concentrating on the model in the middle of the table, Rlyeh decided to close his eyes for a moment. Just for a moment.
When Rlyeh opened his eyes, he was shocked to see everyone staring at him. He was confused. Chairperson Johannes looked irritated. “Investigator Rlyeh, I asked if you had any thoughts on that?”
Rlyeh inhaled deeply and rubbed his eyes. “My apologies to everyone, but especially to you Investigator Simon. I certainly did not mean to drift off during your presentation. It’s just that I was up with my team all night trying to construct a hypothesis robust enough to accommodate all of our data. I realize that is not an acceptable excuse for falling asleep.”
“You not only slept through Investigtaor Simon’s presentation, but through Investigator Prin’s presentation as well, Investigator Rlyeh,” said Chairperson Hojannes in a flat voice. “She didn’t realize you were napping, and she asked you why you think the human population, at the beginning of the 21st century, seemed so dead-set on finding a single precipitating cause for the changes they were noticing in their global environment?”
“Despite the fact that even the most elementary scientific mind should have realized that a myriad of occurrences affect the biosystem,” added Investigator Prin helpfully.
Rlyeh shuffled his materials anxiously and replied, “Well, again, I want to apologize. I truly didn’t mean to fall asleep, but after everyone hears my presentation I hope that you will all understand my frustration, if not my exhaustion. First, let me say that the phenomenon observed by Investigator Prin and her team is something that my team continues to struggle with explaining as well, but unfortunately, I’m not sure I can offer any theories. Just observations and supposition.”
“First, let me detail our data set. My team and I procured one thousand subjects from a one hundred year time span. Five hundred females and five hundred males. We obtained brain maps of all the subjects, as well as comprehensive verbal and psychionic evaluations.”
Investigator Simon raised his hand. “Initially, the academy was concerned about the verbal evaluations because of the archaic nature of their language. Did that pose a problem?”
Despite the interruption, Rlyeh was pleased the question came up so early into his presentation. “No, Inspector Simon, it did not. Linguistically, their language does not differ significantly from our own. Remember, our language is but a variation of theirs, and since the phonology remains fairly constant between our language and the older languages of the test subjects, we had little to no trouble programming a translator to communicate with them.”
Investigator Simon looked satisfied, so Rlyeh continued: “All subjects came from mid to low economic status, and all subjects possessed mid to low education. Of course, all metrics are based on averages of the time period in which the subject resided.”
“One thing that came as a surprise to myself and my team, and this is something that we have yet to factor into a final analysis of the data, is that 90% of the subjects believed in,” Rlyeh scanned through his notes. “A kind of post-life. Details differ from subject to subject, but essentially they all held this belief.” Rlyeh looked back up at his fellow investigators’ confused faces. “I know. We were confused, too. Both verbal and psychionic evaluations revealed a belief in this premise. Essentially, these subject believed that after they died, some intangible portion of themselves would…go, for a lack of a better term, somewhere else. The location and the details of this other place differed according to the subject’s region of origin, but the belief was essentially ubiquitous.”
“Do you suppose there was an error with the translator?” asked Chairperson Johannes.
Rlyeh shook his head. “No Chairperson. We checked the code and the running program. Several times, in fact. No, eventually we came to the consensus that this was simply symptomatic of an intrinsic flaw in their cognitive processes. The test subjects were able to hold two opposing beliefs simultaneously. All one thousand subjects suffered from this cognitive disability.”
At the opposite end of the table from Rlyeh, Investigator Landry looked up from his notes. “My team has also encountered this phenomenon while constructing a history of our pre-diasporic ancestors. In fact, they had a term for this themselves. ‘Cognitive Dissonance,’ I believe.”
Rlyeh nodded at Investigator Landry. “Indeed? Appropriate title.” Rlyeh quickly scribed the term into his notes for later review. “Thank you, Investigator Landry. Well, our preliminary findings show that this phenomenon influenced the subjects to such a degree that their survival was doubtful even if the planet had remained habitable. Again, through our verbal and psychionic evaluations, we observed the subjects holding two or more opposing ideas simultaneously, and thus, preventing rational thought. 13% of the subjects were aroused by homosexual stimuli, such as probes or pornographic images, yet they proclaimed homosexual behavior abhorrent. 65% stated that it was morally wrong to provide financial support to economically indigent humans, and yet, all of our subjects were economically indigent themselves. 97% denounced what they considered to be fanatical notions of the post-life, and yet all the subjects held fanatical ideas of the post-life themselves. These subjects are, excuse me, were, the most inconsistent and hypocritical beings my team has ever encountered.”
Rlyeh paused to take a drink of water. He nodded toward Investigator Prin and said, “Now, to address your question. I feel quite sure the scientists of that time knew that there were mutually exclusive factors that were mutating the biosystem of their planet, but taking into account the data gleaned from my team, I feel quite sure that it was,” Rlyeh looked at his notes for Investigator Landry’s term, “”cognitive dissonance” that your team observed, as well. According to our evaluations, 765 subjects investigated had heard of the term “global warming,” but only 22% understood the term on even an elementary level, and of those 22%, only 3% believed it was something that humankind could reverse. Accordingly, it’s no wonder this group died off, and again, my team feels sure that on a long enough time-line their erratic and overly violent behavior would have led to extinction anyway.”
Chairperson Hojannes raised a finger to pause Rlyeh. “Is that feeling supported by modeling, or is it based on conjecture?”
“Very Well. Continue,” said the Chairperson.
“My team and I are actually amazed that our ancestors were able to make it off the planet at all. Frankly, the subjects in this sample are representative of the leaders of the population of Earth from the 20th century onward. I know our mission here aboard the Rejoinder is the first of many, but I feel confident enough to state that the subjects we examined are one of the primary reasons for the destruction of our species on the planet Earth. Granted, when this system’s star left its G2 stage and became a Red Giant, then human life on the planet would have ceased regardless, but these subjects accelerated the destruction of our species on planet Earth by roughly ten million years. And that is a conservative estimate. When we began this mission, I felt sure my team could formulate a robust theory which would explain these test subjects, but unfortunately, much more research is warranted if we ever want to fully understand this group of pre-diasporic humans.”
Investigator Simon stopped taking notes and asked, “Despite your initial trepidation regarding your report, I find your results simply fascinating, Investigator Rlyeh. Other than the category ‘test subjects,’ have you categorized these humans in any meaningful way?”
“Yes, Investigator Simon. Just a moment.” Rlyeh scanned his notes. “For the sake of simplicity, we actually began using the same name they use for themselves: Republicans.”