CHAPTER 1 -- VISITOR
The death of the Earth took nine days, and not a living soul survived. Not a single person, not an animal, not a plant, not a strand of DNA. The destruction was total, utter and absolute.
Death has always lurked above our heads, cloaked in the dark of the night sky. Flying unseen through our Solar System are asteroids, comets and other debris. These typically shoot past the Earth or fragment in the friction of our atmosphere, but the larger bodies can reach the surface intact, impacting the ground at enormous speeds and releasing massive amounts of energy. Their effects are deadly, but localized.
Very large objects, miles in diameter, sear through the skies and strike with such force that they drive deep into the earth, producing impact craters hundreds of miles wide, shooting shock waves far across the land. They can expel enough rock and dust into the atmosphere to block the sun’s light and trigger new ice ages, changing the entire world’s climate for decades at a time.
Any object larger still would be a planet-killer.
During the later decades of the twenty-first century, NASA and the European Space Agency created the Earth Defense System, an agency whose brief was simple: protect the Earth from danger in the sky. EDS quickly launched an array of telescopes into orbit to scan the heavens and examine all debris approaching Earth’s neighborhood. In the case of a high-risk object, EDS would focus a bank of lasers to nudge the body onto a non-intercept course. Over time, these activities matured, and eventually the process became routine.
On an otherwise normal day near the end of the century, EDS detected a foreign object approaching from the direction of the constellation Hercules, bound on a hyperbolic course around the Sun. An unusually high speed and a high angle of approach above the ecliptic indicated that the object was an asteroid of interstellar origin. It was immediately logged and formally labeled K89FF7K based upon its order in the catalog of such objects.
Significant variations in the asteroid’s measured brightness indicated that it was elongated and rotating end over end, like a thrown tomahawk, and among the science community the object quickly acquired the nickname Tom. EDS calculated that although Tom was between five and six hundred miles long, about the size of Cuba, its trajectory would take it clear of the Earth by a quarter of a million miles. Tom was assigned a low risk factor of only two on the Torino collision scale, denoting a routine discovery and no cause for public concern, so observers turned their attention to academic study of the object’s structure.
But soon, secondary calculations demonstrated that although Tom would indeed miss the Earth, it was instead on a course to strike the Earth’s Moon. Unlike the Earth, the Moon has no atmosphere to moderate the impact of such collisions, hence its pock-marked surface. This new scenario was more complex, and much less predictable. But, fundamentally, Tom was not on a collision course with Earth… as a result, Tom was never upgraded to a higher risk factor.
EDS moved into its next phase and, over a period of weeks, bombarded Tom with its lasers. But the asteroid’s unusual rotation meant that most of its bulk remained untouched, and as it neared the inner planets the pull of the Sun’s gravity caused it to accelerate.
After an eternity of benign travel through the stars, Tom came to a catastrophic end when, traveling at a speed of one hundred thousand miles per hour, and unimpeded by any atmosphere, it struck the Moon’s far side, driving its thinnest point deep into the Moon’s surface. A small amount of peripheral rock and dust was impelled into the sky, creating a thin corona detectable only through instruments, and the Moon’s basalt crust and mantle absorbed Tom’s entire momentum.
It was the ultimate worst-case scenario.
All objects in the Solar System occupy positions of delicate equilibrium, where the forces of attraction are balanced in subtle harmony. Tom’s initial effect upon the Moon’s position was tiny, but it was enough. Like a billiard cue striking a ball, Tom diverted the Moon’s course very slightly inward, by the merest fraction of a degree. And as the Moon circled around the Earth, its orbit began to narrow, at first slowly, and then more quickly. Like a marble spinning down a funnel, around and around and around, the Moon continued in ever decreasing circles, spiraling closer and closer to the center. It took nine days.
During the first few days there was immense social upheaval as a terrified population watched the Moon’s familiar face grow bigger with every passing moment. And as it loomed larger and larger, displaying in the sky the very inevitability of mankind’s last days, the people knew the apocalypse was upon them. Society collapsed, infrastructure disintegrated, riots erupted, laws evaporated. Chaos reigned.
As the Moon drew closer still, its gravitational influence upon Earth grew dramatically. Every low tide fell lower than its predecessor, every high tide rose higher. First the coastal areas flooded, then the plains, then the mountains. The water covered it all, destroyed it, swept it away.
And as the oceans were emptied and the lands were engulfed, the people died in screaming clawing masses. And the creatures of the land died, and the creatures of the sea died. Within a week, every trace of civilization had been eliminated.
During the last days, as the Moon swept huge across the sky, it dragged along a single massive tsunami. Ten miles high, the wave surged around the globe at a thousand miles an hour, obliterating all before it. Carrying within its body the splintered fragments of the Earth’s crust, it ground the surface into a charnel of seeping salt flats.
When the Moon finally struck the Earth, it was the archetypal planet-killing event. But there was no-one left to witness it.
The violence of the impact shocked the planet to its core. The Earth broke and buckled, and split along its tectonic plates, the edges soaring high above or diving deep below. Enormous rifts heaved open, and gouts of magma rose from thousands of miles beneath, spewing high into the sky, falling back to form vast lava fields flowing across the Earth’s surface, scorching the air, frying the land, boiling the sea. And as the planet revolved, the last remnants of the superheated atmosphere were swept away, admitting the cold unrelenting radiation of space. Nothing survived.
The shattered Earth and Moon spun away from each other, altered forever, to find new orbits around the distant sun, and not a shred of evidence remained to demonstrate that humankind had ever existed.
CHAPTER 2 -- ENTRY
It was a good day for big decisions, he thought, watching the sunlight dance across the windshield. Then he saw the sign, fringed by evergreen shrubs, text black on white, one of those that could light up from within. It was subtle, but impossible to miss.
He slowed for the turn, then pulled off the road between tall stone pillars, rumbled over the entrance cobblestones, and eased along the driveway. He admired the glistening blacktop and the green lawn with its impeccable borders. Rounding a gentle curve, he saw the main building ahead, square and solid. Six floors of white stone and mirrored glass, clean and precise.
In the distance, beyond the building, he could see an ornamental lake. In the center rose a high thin fountain, spray dancing in the breeze, with the hint of a rainbow.
He pulled smoothly into a small parking lot with barely a dozen spaces, all empty. Obviously for visitors only. He wondered where the staff parked their cars. Behind the building? Underground parking, more likely. The blacktop here was new too, the white lines straight and pristine.
He checked his watch. Ten minutes early. Good.
Stepping out of the car, he stretched briefly, and paused to feel the sun on his face and the warm breeze. He gazed up at the bright scattered clouds and watched them for a moment, enjoying their lazy evolutions. Yes, he thought, a perfect day for big decisions.
As he crossed the flagstones to a revolving door, he watched himself in the mirrored wall. “You look fine,” he told himself. “Relax.”
The door hissed softly as he pushed through it. He stepped over a metal grid and entered a hushed atrium, six floors high, flooded with natural light, the ceiling and front constructed entirely of glass. In the middle was a marble counter and behind it a receptionist, watching him. Beyond, a mezzanine level, beyond that even more windows.
He crossed the atrium, footfalls echoing, and when he reached the counter, he saw her properly for the first time. She was slender in a black oriental jacket with soft buttons, high at the neck, with dark-rimmed glasses and dark hair in a French braid. She remained motionless, looking at him with her chin raised, comfortable in herself. He became aware of a beating in his temple.
On her jacket, to the left of center, was a small nameplate that read, “A. Bentley.” He wondered what the A stood for. Anna? Abby? Alex?
She was still looking at him. She still hadn’t moved.
He straightened his shoulders and drew a breath. “Hi, my name’s Jack Cole. I believe I’m expected.”
She lowered her gaze beneath the level of the counter, consulting some notes perhaps, or a computer monitor. Stillness for a heartbeat, and when she raised her head again, there was something new in her eyes, something evaluating, something appraising.
And at that very moment an errant ray of sunlight broke through the clouds, refracting through the high glass walls, lancing through the foyer, illuminating the small space between them. Motes of dust drifted gently in the air. Their eyes met and held for a long second. Then the clouds moved again, transient and fickle, and the beam was shut off.
She spoke in a soft voice and said only, “Thank you, Mr. Cole. Please have a seat.”
He smiled at her, then turned and re-crossed the lobby to where a black sofa and a grey table sat low together near the entrance. No ornaments, no magazines, no books.
The silence was thick, but he had the impression of huge activity humming behind the high stone walls. “Are you really going to go through with this?” he asked himself softly.
He gazed slowly around the atrium and stole a glance at the reception desk. He could see the top of her head. She still appeared not to have moved. He wondered what she did on a Saturday night, and was just beginning to speculate further when the elevator pinged. He looked up to see the door slide open, and a man emerged, crossing to him, hand outstretched. A tall man dressed in a conservative grey suit and white shirt, wearing a powder blue silk tie in a Windsor knot. Broad shouldered. Hair blond but turning to grey, cut short but not too short. Healthy, but not tanned. Grinning a wide grin, he grasped Cole’s hand. “Mr. Cole, I am Herman Peterson. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Please call me Jack.”
He felt his hand grasped in a firm grip, his wrist also encircled by Peterson’s left hand in a gesture of welcome. Peterson exerted a brief touch of strength, a warm familial friendliness, and held his hand just the correct amount of time, before releasing it and stepping back. It was the perfect salesman’s handshake.
Peterson was smiling broadly. “I trust you had no problems finding us.”
“None at all.”
“I am so glad to hear it.” Peterson extended his arm toward the elevator. “Please come this way,” he said, and led the way across the smooth marble.
With the enigmatic Miss Bentley still on his mind, as they passed the reception desk Cole turned his head to thank her, and she acknowledged him with a cool smile. He grinned a little self-consciously, then hurried after Peterson. The elevator door had remained open, awaiting them, and they stepped into its dark interior.
“Thank you so much for coming. How was the drive?” asked Peterson, leaning forward and brushing his index finger over the number 6.
As the doors swished closed, Cole realized that Peterson’s blue tie had been the only spot of color in the entire foyer. “Great,” he answered, “My GPS said an hour, and I’d added a few extra minutes, so I got here in plenty of time.”
“Do you always build in contingency?” asked Peterson with a smile.
Cole thought for a second. “I guess I usually do,” he answered.
“I thought so. Most of our clients are the sort of people who value contingency. It is why they come to us.”
He pondered that, as he watched 4 become 5, and 5 become 6.
The door pinged again, slid open, and once again Peterson was ushering him forward gently, arm extended.
They crossed a hall with immaculate white walls, and Peterson showed him into a long grey conference room, a large table in the center circled by a dozen high-backed swivel chairs in black leather. In the middle of the table, a set of polished stone coasters rested in a polished stone box. The opposite wall contained a single outsized window with horizontal blinds. A jug of water sat in a recess. Beads of condensation cooled on the jug’s side.
A folder, it too in black leather, lay before the chair at the head of the table. The folder’s corners were perfectly aligned with the table’s edge. Peterson laid his hand casually but possessively over the back of the chair. “Please sit anywhere you like, Mr. Cole.”
Cole rounded the table to the window spanning the length of the room, overlooking the same lake he had spied from the driveway. He placed his right index and middle fingers between two blinds and made a vee. Peering through the enlarged gap, he could see that a statue had been incorporated within the fountain. A human figure, copper green, male and sleekly muscled, arms upstretched, reaching for the sky. The water plume shooting into the air cascaded downward in waves over the statue. The figure was impressive, the effect hypnotic, and he wondered idly if Peterson had chosen this specific room for that reason.
Peterson spoke from behind him. “We are very proud of our fountain. It is a replica of the Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland, Ohio. The figure represents mankind escaping his history of conflict and reaching for eternal peace. We think it rather appropriate.”
There was something unusual about Peterson’s speech patterns, but Cole couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. He tucked the thought away.
Peterson lowered his voice conspiratorially. “We believe it imparts a sense of permanence. This principle underpins our philosophy here at Proconnesus. By definition, we deal in permanence.”
He watched the fountain for another brief moment, then turned and continued to the chair at the end of the row, nearest to Peterson’s. “What does the name Proconnesus mean?” he asked.
Peterson smiled. “Not far off the coast of Turkey lies an island named Marmara. In ancient times Marmara was known as Proconnesus. In mythology, about seven hundred BC, on this island there lived a man named Aristeas, and according to legend, this Aristeas lived for several hundred years. Aristeas of Proconnesus is the earliest documented immortal in literature.”
Cole nodded. “I like it.”
“Plus there are other phonetic connotations that the name suggests,” added Peterson.
“The French verb connaitre means to know someone. Also suggestions of pro-fessional, pro-active, conn-ectivity, etcetera. As I said, it imparts a sense of permanence.”
They were still standing facing each other across the table. “May I offer you something?” asked Peterson, “Some coffee? Water?”
“No, thanks,” answered Cole.
With an open palm Peterson gestured at the seat Cole had chosen. “Then shall we sit?”
Cole rotated the chair on its axis, lowered himself into it, and rotated it back to face the table. Peterson waited politely until Cole was seated, then he sat down himself.
Cole reached forward and picked up a coaster. He turned it idly in his hands. It was light grey in color and bore a logo in darker grey. A large circle surrounding a small square with one side missing. He spun the coaster around in his fingers. Was it a square letter C? He spun it again. A square letter U?
Without expression, Peterson reached into his pocket and removed a small silver case. Popping it open, he removed a business card from inside. With his index fingers he slid it across the smooth surface of the table. Cole leaned forward and looked at it. Printed on the card was the same logo: the large circle containing the small square with one side missing. It was the bottom side that was missing.
“It’s pi,” said Peterson, “the Greek letter pi, in upper case. P for Proconnesus. We love its solidity and simplicity, and we love that there is so much more beneath the surface.”
Cole put down the coaster and picked up the card. It was made from thick woven paper, heavy, creamy, almost fabric in its quality. He glanced at Peterson again, and turned the card over. The reverse side, in simple black type, read:
t h e f u t u r e i s y o u r s
Herman L. Peterson
Vice President, Customer Service
No telephone number.
“Vice President?” said Cole, “I’m honored.”
Peterson allowed himself a humble smile. “It is a small thing. I merely coordinate the activities of some very bright people. Their success has become my success. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Cole doubted this were fully true. He asked, “Do you handle all your clients personally?”
“Alas no, Mr. Cole. That is impossible. We receive hundreds of inquiries every week, and we have a sizeable office staff to handle those interactions.”
“Please call me Jack.”
“Of course. We also have a team of very competent specialists who deal with complex questions and process genuine applications for membership.”
Cole noticed the qualification. “Genuine applications?”
Peterson nodded. “While the concept of our service appeals to many people, the reality can sometimes be too much for them. Although the final destination is attractive, they do not always fully consider the road that will lead them there. A road that can be quite . . . graphic. When confronted with the details, many of our potential clients change their minds, and they back out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It is their prerogative. And in our line of business, it is inevitable.”
Cole’s brow furrowed. Peterson’s sentence structure definitely seemed odd, clunky, and Cole repeated it silently to himself, “It is their prerogative. And in our line of business, it is inevitable,” and suddenly realized that both times Peterson had specifically said “it is” rather than “it’s”. Peterson was fully enunciating all of his words, without using any contractions. It made his speech very unusual, but also very precise.
Peterson was waiting, and Cole forced his attention back to the conversation.
“Joining Proconnesus requires making a substantial commitment, Mr. Cole. A moral commitment. A lifestyle commitment. A commitment of faith. We understand it is not for everyone. It takes a certain kind of person.”
He wondered if it would be rude to say for a third time that his name was Jack, and chose to let it go. Although Peterson hadn’t asked a question, a clear challenge seemed to hang in the air between them, so instead he just said, “I haven’t joined yet.”
“No indeed. But your mind is open. And when someone comes to visit us, takes the time to visit our facility, then it is my great pleasure to welcome that individual personally.”
“Thanks. I was curious.”
“It is my privilege. Now, is there anything about which you are particularly curious?”
He glanced outside at the statue, enjoying the play of water cascading over its surface. “I’ve read everything on your web site, but I still have some questions. You mentioned your service. I’d like to understand that better. If you don’t mind.”
He was not being as articulate as he would have liked, but Peterson just steepled his fingers and replied earnestly, “On the contrary, Mr. Cole. We certainly want you going into this with your eyes wide open. This is an important decision. Truly the most important decision of your life.”
Cole thought that might be an exaggeration, but nodded nonetheless.
Peterson placed his palms on the black folder in front of him. “Well then, let us start at the beginning, with an overview of our product suite, and take it from there.”
Peterson leaned back in his chair for a moment, staring at the ceiling, as if preparing his words. It was an understated but effective performance. Then he sat up again and looked straight at Cole. “Immortality, Mr. Cole. We offer true immortality, and nothing less. Not in any abstract way, but in a perfectly real and physical way. If you choose to join our family here at Proconnesus, you will become immortal. You will live forever.”