Chapter 1: Transformation, sometime in the future
On his way to chemistry class, Jake was confronted with the typical onslaught of fellow students’ and faculty’s trite acknowledgments: “Hey, Jake”, “How’s it going, Jake”, and “What’s up, Jake?” These greetings did not occur solely while he was navigating to his chemistry class; they occurred whenever anyone saw him on school grounds. However, the walls riddled with campaign posters were a good distraction, especially since Jake found the girl running for Class President to be very attractive. Additionally, Jake had wireless earbuds in his ears. While he rarely ever was actually listening to music, he wanted to give the impression that he was listening to music in order to minimize interaction with other students.
Jake was numb to such greetings and desperately wished things could return to the way things were before the incident, when he was only visible to the people he cared about and who cared about him. Although he knew each greeting was an acknowledgment of his heroic act, and regret for what he endured, the incident was simply something he tried to forget until each anniversary of the day on which it occurred. He did not feel he was granted an opportunity to continue experiencing new things and new paths in store for himself; he felt the incident had eminently defined him and stagnated his life.
Next, he knew, Jake was on the verge of falling asleep with his head on his desk in his seventh-period advanced placement chemistry class, and a stream of highly viscous drool hanging down from his lips. Moments before falling asleep, Jake barely heard the words, “Today we’re going to revisit the topic of entropy,,” from Joel Plonsker, his teacher.
“Jake, what is entropy?” Mr. Plonsker asked as a tactic to awaken Jake, although typically Jake was the only student either capable of or interested in, answering any of Mr. Plonsker’s questions.
Immediately jolting his head from the top of his desk as if shocked by lightning, Jake answered, “Entropy is the degree of disorder, or randomness, in a system.”
After fixing the part in his scarce and greasy dark hair in a feeble attempt to combat his baldness, Mr. Plonsker continued.
“And what does that mean, Jake?” Mr. Plonsker probed in an effort to transition Jake away from solely relying on his photographic memory to translating complex concepts into terms that others could understand.
“Entropy serves as a measure of how close a system is to equilibrium, as well as a measure of the disorder in the system.”
“Very good, Jake. Very good!” was heard as Jake looked around to see his classmates rolling their eyes in disgust of his not just being Mr. Plonsker’s favorite student, but all teachers’ favorite student. His uneasy feelings were quickly relieved as he felt a spitball penetrate through the bottom of his light, greasy looking blonde hair and smack against the back of his neck. The spit ball was moistened with the perfect amount of spit to affix itself on his neck until Jake peeled it off of his skin.
As Mr. Plonsker transitioned into his lecture, all Jake could think about was the uncertainty of the future of his relationship with Julie Loren, his high school’s valedictorian and schoolmate since the second grade. They took the awkward leap from being friends to pursuing a romantic relationship at the beginning of his current junior year of high school.
Seeing that Jake was distracted, Mr. Plonsker asked, “Jake, what is absolute zero?”
After a moment of silence, Mr. Plonsker repeated in a sarcastic high-pitched tone, “Oh Jake? What is absolute zero?”
Jake snapped out of his trance and responded, “Absolute zero occurs at zero entropy.”
“Meaning…” Mr. Plonsker inquired of Jake while casting a glare amidst a visual expression of frustration.
“Meaning that no system can exist at absolute zero; I mean, life as we know it cannot exist at absolute zero.”
“Very good, Jake. Very good!” was followed by barely audible moans among Jake’s classmates.
Given that class was nearing its end, and given the angst regarding the current state of his relationship with Julie, Jake blurted, “I need to go to the bathroom!”, stormed out of class, and scrambled to his car parked in the high school student parking lot. Deciding to skip his eighth-period advanced placement biology class, Jake drove his car where he always went when he was troubled, which was Cherokee Park in Louisville, KY, and quickly immersed himself into the nearby deeply wooded area.
“I’m such an idiot! What’s my problem?” Jake said to himself as he skipped a rock in a nearby creek.
Not knowing what was straining his relationship with Julie, he simply assumed it was his fault.
“Why did I ask her to be my girlfriend? I should have just kept things as friends! Hell, we’re both going to college in a year and a half, and at that point, our relationship will have no chance at surviving. What was I thinking?!”
Watching the rocks skip in the water and the ripples they created was very soothing to Jake. The sun was unobstructed atop the clouds and trees, creating a gold glittery canvas atop the water. Its reflection was nearly as bright as it was if one were to look directly into the sun itself. Just as Jake was regaining his composure, he was startled by a stirring noise he heard in a nearby bush.
“Who’s there?” Jake shouted after picking up a flimsy stick and rock from the ground.
There was no response, and Jake started to feel inexplicably dizzy.
“Whooze thur?” Jake repeated in a slurred fashion.
Just then, an elderly woman emerged from behind the bush. She was very pale and appeared to be using all of her faculties to make her way to Jake. She must have been close to 100 years old; she was nearly completely bald with sparse and very long strands of white hair hanging down from her scalp, which was ridden with brown age spots of various sizes. As she approached Jake while crawling along the grass, trying to avoid exposed tree roots, Jake was drawn to her by a force similar to what drives two droplets of water to reunite after being spilled on an impervious surface.
“Whoo ahh youuu? Whatz wong width youuu?” Jake’s slurred speech continued.
The elderly woman uttered no words and continued crawling closer to Jake, culminating in her grasping his hand. Immediately following contact, the elderly woman transformed into a light blue gas. Jake felt a jolt of electricity, immediately became unconscious, and then collapsed to the ground.
* * *
Chapter 2: Discovery
“I don’t mean to appear insensitive, but why is Luallen convening a closed urgent-action meeting in the Pentagon of all places, regarding the commercial airliner crash last week,” Senior Master Sergeant Kent Jacobsen said while rushing to catch a cab.
Kent was more concerned for his job security than he was about the purpose behind Chief Master Sergeant Greg Luallen convening the meeting itself. Chief Master Sergeant Luallen was a real hard-ass; he was one of the leading contributors to the attrition of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, and Kent simply did not want to become another addition to Luallen’s growing list of casualties.
“I have no idea, but I’m sure he has damn good reason to!” Senior Master Sergeant Emily Tyson nervously responded, as she, too, was concerned for her longevity in the FBI. “He’s not one to coordinate these meetings just to see attendees’ pretty faces!”
“Couldn’t he have picked another day for this meeting? It’s pouring outside and I’m buried in fieldwork!” Kent said, trying to convince himself whatever reason Luallen called for the meeting failed in comparison to his continuously growing inventory of commitments.
Emily did not respond to Kent’s rhetorical question; while she shared in Kent’s concern regarding the meeting that Luallen was organizing, she was uncomfortable discussing it with him. Emily did not want to intensify the stress that Kent was already suffering from.
Luallen was not known for coordinating closed urgent-action meetings, let alone ones that occurred at the Pentagon. In the ten years he had held this rank within the United States Air Force, as well as in the two years he had been the United States Secretary of Defense, he had convened only three closed urgent-action meetings. Further, none of these three meetings were located at the Pentagon.
“Hey, wake up! What the hell’s wrong with you?” Kent shouted at the driver.
Kent knew the driver was tired due to the cab slightly swerving, the faltering barrier allowing rain to contact the cab, the interior lights flickering, and the cab slowing down.
“We’re on a schedule here, and today is not a good day to die!” Kent continued.
As if lightning struck the cab, the driver became alert, and all issues were eliminated.
“I’m so sorry,” the driver responded. “I’m new to this technology; while these cars have been available for years, I only recently was able to afford one.”
Numerous advances had been achieved in neurotechnology in the past 20 years. This particular cab, while not equipped with the latest technology, was powered and controlled by the driver’s brain and physiology. This, and other alternatives, needed to be formulated due to increasing radiation interfering with satellite-controlled self-driving vehicles.
“Take it easy, Kent. I’m sure he hasn’t slept for days!” Emily interjected, sympathizing with the cab driver.
Not acknowledging Emily, Kent was deep in the process of self-inventorying in his mind all of the facts he could recall from the crash.
“Boeing 777-200 aircraft with two Pratt & Whitney PW4070/4090 turbofan engines, 326 passengers, of which 12 were Tranquility Airlines crew members. No act of terrorism currently suspected due to reliable preliminary findings indicating flawed integrity of the metal comprising one of the wings of the aircraft, causing the formation of fatigue cracks leading to wing failure. Review of the audio and video flight recorders did not reveal anything suspicious within the aircraft or related to any communications between the aircraft pilots and air traffic control…”
Emily put her hand on Kent’s hand.
“We’re here,” she uttered in a tone similar to one that would be used when entering a movie currently underway in a theater.
Kent’s entire body quivered as if he had just reacted to a frightening scene in a horror movie. While Kent’s inventorying process was interrupted, he was convinced there was no foul play involved regarding the crashed airliner. Kent was convinced that the plane crash was unfortunately due to a manufacturing or human error. This stated, he was very concerned about the reason for Luallen arranging this meeting.
Kent and Emily left the cab and proceeded to get drenched by the rain while entering the Pentagon.
“I hate this place; I always feel like I’m at a cemetery when I’m here!” Kent said as he began shaking the rain off of his clothes.
“You are such high-maintenance, Kent. Sometimes I think you’re the woman in our partnership!” Emily quickly responded.
“This way, please,” A security guard commanded.
“Ok, take it easy. Can’t I dry myself off first?” Kent shouted towards the security guard, more out of embarrassment from Emily’s comment and his inability to quickly formulate and vocalize an effective retort.
After drying himself off, the security guard led them through the main lobby, a security checkpoint, and then into a corridor. The corridor led to a series of elevators requiring very rare security clearance that both Kent and Emily had been granted in order to attend the urgent-action meeting convened by Luallen. With an expressionless face, the security guard gestured Kent and Emily to enter into the elevator.
“Level 12-C? Levels 12-A through 12-E? I’ve never seen that before!” Emily expressed after focusing her attention on the digital elevator panel. “It’s always just been ‘level 12’ from what I’ve seen,” she continued. “You know…”
She was cut off by the tone that sounded; the elevator indicated the level of interest had been reached. The security guard entered a device into a jack that only became visible to Kent and Emily once the device was in close proximity to the elevator panel. Upon entering the device into the jack, the elevator doors opened; the security guard left the elevator, placing his back to the chamber within which the retractable elevator door receded, and he motioned Kent and Emily forward.
“It’s pitch dark in here,” Kent said immediately after leaving the elevator.
“Forgive me,” the security guard responded. A quick succession of three ringing tones sounded from his mobile device, and lights illuminated throughout the area. Kent’s eyes were met with a long sterile corridor. Several hallways extended on either side of him and Emily as they walked through the corridor.
Kent’s stomach sank once he noticed a heavily guarded door since he assumed that was where Luallen’s urgent-action meeting was located. Sure enough, as they became closer to the protected area, two security guards opened the door.
Immediately after entering through the door, Luallen sarcastically greeted Kent and Emily, “Pleased you two could join us!”
Rather than establishing eye contact with Luallen in response to his sarcastic greeting, the first person Kent and Emily saw upon entering the room was the President of the United States; she was sitting at the far end of a multi-purpose table facing them.
“What in the hell is she doing here?” Kent said softly to Emily.
“I’m the President of the United States; I believe that affords me clearance to be wherever the hell I want to be at any time, does it not?” President Elyse Claring responded.
“Please forgive me, Ms. President,” Kent shamefully replied with his head down and him facing the floor.
“Are you going to sit down, or are you going to continue delaying our meeting?” Luallen said in a raised voice.
While making their way to two vacant seats left for them at the table, both Emily and Kent could not help but notice President Claring’s expression. It was reasonable for anyone present to assume that President Claring was upset with Kent’s remark, however, she appeared to be visibly troubled by something else. Seemingly looking directly at Emily and Kent as they made their way to their assigned seats, the President was in a daze, absently looking right through them to some random point along the wall she decided to focus upon.
“This isn’t going to be good,” Kent muttered under his breath to Emily as they both proceeded to the chairs marked with placards bearing of their respective names on top of the dark brown stained mahogany table.
Both Kent and Emily were not only surprised by President Claring’s presence, but also due to the fact that all five of United States armed service branches were represented in person by their respective senior ranking officials, something Kent himself did not recall ever previously occurring.
“I’m sure all of you have pressing questions,” Luallen said tentatively.
His voice cracked during this statement while he appeared to be completely numb with an expressionless, yet severely scarred and nearly entirely callused face ridden with gashes, complemented by his chiseled chin and two partial ears. He was tall and muscular, and slender at the waist; Luallen was a very intimidating person who always commanded a dominating presence.
“Luallen demonstrating signs of shock? Weakness? Unprecedented,” Kent whispered to Emily.
“Is this really happening?” Kent continued.
Anyone who served with Luallen, and all who knew him, were acutely aware of his fearlessness. Statistics would indicate that Luallen should have been killed in action at least sixteen times over. Tour after tour, when seemingly nearly all fellow pilots and soldiers died around him, Luallen inexplicably found ways to survive. While typically prisoners of war do not live to see the day to once again walk on United States soil, Luallen survived being a prisoner of war on three separate occasions.
None of his subordinates ever questioned his judgment, as they knew second-hand from understanding Luallen’s history that being assigned under his command yielded their best chances for survival. Further, all who served under his command never saw Luallen succumb to, acknowledge, or express any fear whatsoever. While neither Kent nor Emily had ever served under Luallen’s direction, they knew plenty about him since he was a living legend. Possessing this understanding of Luallen’s history, and the respect he garnered from all who knew him, made his visible and audible fear that much more disconcerting.
“I am sure many of you are wondering why I have asked you to attend this closed urgent-action meeting. Rather than try to conjure an explanation, I ask each of you to watch this video carefully,” perspiration accumulated just above Luallen’s brow.
While he was always known to convey an unwavering pillar of strength, at this moment he was shaken and uncertain of himself. He had an air about him that gave all who were in attendance the impression that he was second-guessing himself regarding why he had coordinated this meeting.
There was a dead silence that seemed to linger for days, while only a matter of seconds had elapsed.
“Greg,” President Claring said at a heightened volume in an attempt to break Luallen from a visibly haunting trance.
“Yes, Ms. President,” Luallen barely audibly responded.
“This video was captured from the audio-video flight recorder located in the front of the aircraft, whose lens was facing the passengers,” Luallen concluded.
Due to the frequency of airline crashes drastically increasing from 2020 through 2035, the Federal Aviation Administration sanctioned the design and manufacturing of flight recorders that could capture video, in addition to audio, throughout the fuselage and cockpits of all commercial airliners. Prototypes were designed in 2036, and the first audio-video flight recorder was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2037.
The video began approximately 45 seconds before something noticeably went awry with the trajectory of the plane. For reasons unknown, only audio was being captured by the flight recorder throughout the recording up to the point that was currently being broadcasted. Based on the sounds made by the aircraft itself, the plane appeared to experience a series of abrupt and violent jolts. After analyzing data received from the flight recorder, the aircraft was at an altitude of approximately 37,000 feet at this point in the recording.
Screams among the passengers could be heard. Luallen then fast-forwarded the recording 21 minutes following the first occurrence of the jolts and passengers’ initial screams. Shortly after resuming, visible images could finally be seen in the recording. Passengers could be seen screaming, bracing themselves in their seats, and crying hysterically while the plane was completely rotating about its length approximately every five seconds.
Many passengers who did not have their seat belts fastened prior to the plane beginning spinning could be seen unconscious with their bloody and distorted limp bodies violently colliding with seats, other passengers, the floor, and the inner ceiling throughout the aircraft. Sounds of bones and ligaments being crushed and further disintegrated each time a limp passenger’s body impacted a surface nearly outweighed the cries of the remaining living passengers.
The entire interior of the aircraft was engulfed by streaks of blood. In each subsequent instant, the number and volume of cries from the passengers decreased as, one-by-one, they were rendered unconscious. Sensing that everyone watching the video was more focused on the horrifying sounds captured in the recording than on what had been visibly recorded, President Claring addressed the group.
“Did everyone see what just happened in this video?” President Claring asked, noticing that Luallen was not watching the video.
Luallen had already watched the video dozens of times and was visibly disturbed by what he had seen.
“I apologize, Ms. President, but I didn’t see anything of particular significance, other than the horrible pain, suffering, and deaths among the passengers,” Kent said with complete mystery on his face, still wondering why the closed urgent-action meeting was convened.
“Rewind the video ten seconds,” President Claring directed to an FBI data analyst operating the controls of the video recording.
“Pay close attention to these two areas of the screen,” President Claring instructed while pointing to the referenced two areas of interest using her laser pointer.
What happened within those ten seconds was inexplicable. The progression of the video was transitioned to slow motion. Due to the spinning and violent jolting of the aircraft, the line of sight of the video camera changed and new images appeared in the video at the two areas of interest identified by President Claring.
Something alarming soon became visible; in an instant, what appeared to be some type of gas could be seen in the two noted locations within the aircraft. The gas was immobile, contained within a rather small area, and bright blue in color. While the gas was not moving and understanding the crash was due to wing failure, it was difficult to not assume that the crash was somehow caused by these two concentrations of what appeared to be a toxic gas.
In another one minute and 22 seconds, the chilling sound of the impact of the aircraft into the ground could be heard. The silence of all remaining signs of human life was deafening as the projected image became still and lifeless. Within moments, all that could be seen were all of the bodies and other contents of the plane becoming engulfed by flames.
The video was immediately replaced by a still image containing the two areas inhabited by the gas.
“We have confirmed that the crash was indeed due to the flawed integrity of the metal comprising one of the wings of the aircraft, causing the formation of fatigue cracks, leading to wing failure, as has been reported to the public,” Luallen said with a blank face.
“We have also confirmed that the gas contained in the aircraft, as may be seen in this image, played no role whatsoever in the failure of the wing. No terrorist activity is suspected to have occurred. Dr. Agon, please take it from here,” Luallen concluded.
“At the time my team of scientists arrived at the scene of the wreckage, what may be seen in this image as blue gas, we assume had changed into a viscous blue liquid, as you can see here,” Dr. Alastair Agon, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Chemist and former Harvard University professor of Science, said with intrigue and insatiable curiosity in his voice, as he transitioned from one image to the other.
“The recovered liquid consisted of materials that could not be identified,” Dr. Agon said while holding up a transparent glass vial within which the foreign blue liquid was completely enclosed.
“What do you mean the materials cannot be identified?” Kent said dismissingly.
“Um, elements comprising the liquid are not in our periodic table,” Dr. Agon responded after a moment of uncomfortable hesitation and silence.
Nearly everyone at the table looked at each other, absent of understanding what Dr. Agon had just explained.
“We believe this liquid is of extraterrestrial origin,” President Claring uttered faintly, as if she did not want anyone to hear, knowing how preposterous it must have sounded to everyone learning of this assessment for the first time.