The “No Entry” sign glows in my night vision – warning us off. It seems like every other sign surrounding rural land in America. Except the words are a little off. Normally, they say “No Trespassing.”
I don’t pay the distinction much mind.
We have a clear mission ahead of us. The dossier is clear. The surveillance is clear.
In the middle of the Arizona desert, a dozen miles from the nearest town but only two from the Mexican border, is this place. It looked like a modern farm in southern Spain or the Middle East. The land seems to be covered with sheets of plastic, creating what is probably a massive greenhouse. Unlike most of those farms, these tarps are contiguous and opaque; people can move between them without being spotted. Unlike of those farms, these tarps cover hundreds of acres without a break. They are also higher than normal. Rather than hugging the likely crops below, they rise fifty or hundred feet in the air. It was hard to tell just how much volume was being concealed.
Finally, they are camouflaged – blending beautifully into the terrain.
Drugs are the likely explanation. I am a DEA Special Agent, I’m partial to that explanation.
I pass another sign. “NO ENTRADA.”
Bold letters. Below it, in English “Secure Area!”
We’re only a few meters from the edge of the place. The place is massive. Getting up close just reinforces it. I can’t imagine how it was built without anybody noticing.
I stop short of the edge and lower myself to the ground. Silently, the rest of my team takes their positions at my sides. There are 40 of us – as many as Special Agent in Charge Reams could assemble in a week. It’s dark and we move silently. We mean to take the folks inside by surprise.
The radio in my ear bursts into life.
“Are you in position?” It is Reams. She in a modified RV a few miles back which serves as our mobile command center. Her voice is crackling with excitement. I know it well. We’ve been in a relationship for almost a year now.
I look at my team. I count them. Everybody is there.
We rise and move forward. Two of the team members, we call them the Js – Jim and John – approach the tarp, take out their utility knives and slice an opening in the material. It is harder to do than we expect.
I’m the first to go through, my pistol in my hand, and what I see surprises the hell out of me.
I’d expected carefully cultivated fields. Maybe poppies. But the place is a literal jungle. Moisture hangs thick in the air, bugs seem to fill every available crack. It is surprisingly hot and uncomfortable.
I take my position and gesture for the rest of the team to follow.
“Inside,” I whisper in my radio.
We prepare to advance.
Suddenly, a voice loudly rings out, “YOU ARE IN A SECURE AREA, PLEASE DEPART IMMEDIATELY.”
I almost jump out of my skin.
“What do we do?” I ask Reams over the radio.
She hesitates, for just a second, before she answers.
To me, this Friday evening seems just like all the others. The pews are filled with community members. They are happily chatting, each one to his friends. There are 143 of them; men, women and children.
They seem a happy bunch, in their shared delusion. They are dressed in what they call their Sabbath best. The hall is filled with bodies poured into roughly processed cotton shirts, pants and dresses. A few are wearing wool. They are dressed like poor people from centuries past. I consider it pretty funny. The rest of the week, they wear normal clothes. Modern, properly manufactured, clothes. But for the Sabbath, for reasons I’ve heard again and again, badly made off-white garments dominate.
The Preacher has his reasons, of course. He always does.
My problem is that these people comply. No matter what he asks, no matter what he says, they comply.
It drives me insane. He is just a man, not a god. And we are also men. Respectable, hard-working, men. And yet the sheep in the community force themselves to be satisfied with their limited lot.
The Preacher’s brother walks in the door.
He always shows up first.
He loves people. At least he pretends to. He makes his way through the room, shaking hands, smiling, connecting. His eyes radiate concern and connection. And everybody always acts so delighted to see him. Every time, they are so delighted to see him. It is all an act; it is all falseness. It has to be. Like high school girls giggling at some meaningless trinket. Why don’t they let the truth emerge? Is it so frightening to have real emotions; to question what we’re doing here?
The brother isn’t at fault. And neither is the community.
It all falls into the lap of the Preacher.
Today isn’t like all the other Fridays. It is an anniversary. Six years in this place. Six years making the visions of the Preacher a reality.
A room full of people. Hard-working people who were looking for meaning in their lives. Now, they’ve found themselves in a Church in the middle of nowhere wearing rough cotton breaches. They might have been something special, someplace else. They blistered hands speak to the possibility behind their wills and their dedication. But here, they are just tools in one man’s prophecies.
The Preacher’s brother comes up to me. He always looks so hopeful; like this time his mission voice and soft demeanor will break my cynicism. I admire the effort, shake his hand politely, and beg silently that he’ll leave me alone.
Just then, the door opens and the Preacher walks in.
Silently, as if on autopilot, the entire community makes their way to their familiar benches.
And, one-by-one, they sit.
For his part, the Preacher makes his way to the pulpit. He isn’t much of a speaker. He doesn’t seem to care about his audience. He doesn’t seem to care about touching their souls. All he cares about are his words and his thoughts. I have no idea why they like him.
I lean against a wall – waiting for yet another sleep-inducing speech from the thief known as the Preacher.
“Inside,” came the jittery voice over the radio.
The agents all had cameras, so I knew why they were nervous. Nobody was expecting a jungle. Certainly not in the Arizona desert. I have no idea how the people inside the compound did it, but it makes sense. A jungle climate is perfect for cocaine. Everything was fitting.
The first call had come in a week ago. The county sheriff, a guy by the name of Jimmy James (I kid you not) had received it. The caller, who was anonymous, described a case of child molestation by the leader of a weird desert cult which had a massive facility in the desert.
Weird cults weren’t unheard of. Neither were claims of molestation.
But massive facilities – or any facilities – that Sheriff James hadn’t heard of – that was unusual. Sheriff James knew his county inside and out. He grew up here. He hiked here. He’d watched the border at night and the towns in the day. He knew people by name everywhere he went. He knew which couples were fighting and whose kids were trouble. And he’d driven on every road and gone everywhere you could go. Or so he thought.
But he hadn’t.
The caller provided coordinates. A deputy called them up on Google. At first glance, there’d been nothing there. It was a reasonably flat and boring part of the desert. But then the deputy noticed the shadows on the trees didn’t match. “It’s just google, they took that patch at a different time of day” pronounced another deputy, confidently.
But it still didn’t seem quite right.
There might just have been something out there, in the desert.
I’m Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Division of the DEA. My name is Jennifer Reams. I’d like to pretend I’m some outsider trucked in from New York with a high falutin’ education. I do have the high falutin’ education. But I’m actually a local, chosen for a local position precisely because I know Arizona and the people who live here very very well. I’ve known Sheriff Jimmy James since we were in the Curley school together in the tiny town but well-built town of Ajo.
So when things seemed to get a bit big for James – what with the suspected compound being hidden, and being so close to the border – he didn’t have any problem calling me. We were, and are, friends.
When I first read the Sheriff’s notes from the call and looked at the Google images I wasn’t that impressed. If I hadn’t known Jimmy I would have written it off as a prank that he fell for. But I trusted him. And so I sent a plane up over the border – with explicit instructions to see what it could see in that uninteresting part of the desert.
What they saw was a massive greenhouse. Although the infrared signals were weak, there were well over a hundred people inside and the place was a blur of activity. No roads led to the facility and there were no runways we could see. It might have been self-sufficient. But more likely, it was supplied by tunnels running under the border. How it got product out remained a mystery.
A few more missions were flown, to flesh out the picture. That’s when we got three breaks.
First, there was at least one tunnel. We saw a jacked up Lincoln Navigator pop up in the middle of nowhere one day. It had emerged from a tunnel about three miles north of the facility. It headed straight for State Highway 86. We followed it from there to a Medical Clinic in Tucson. Two men got out. One was older than the other. And about an hour later, both returned. There were no large bags in their possession so whatever they’d brought to the clinic wasn’t large enough to support a 150-man operation. We didn’t go in to the clinic. We just didn’t know enough yet.
The second break was the runway. On our third surveillance flight, as we watched, a section of the tarp was pulled back and a Cessna Caravan came in for a short landing on the revealed strip. Thirty minutes later it was back in the air and the tarp was closed. We analyzed the take-off and it became clear something heavy had been put on the aircraft. That kind of product could support their operation.
The third break was a possible pattern. On Friday night, everybody in the place gathered at a central building. It was probably some kind of weekly status review. Whatever it was, it provided us with the perfect opportunity to go in.
So I called a meeting with the Chief Inspector, Chief of Intelligence and the Chief of Operations. I laid out what we knew. And one week later – a miraculous time – we had 40 agents in the field ready to bust one of the largest and most audacious operations we’d ever encountered.
I hear the voice over my headphone.
“YOU ARE IN A SECURE AREA, PLEASE DEPART IMMEDIATELY.”
And a fraction of a second later “What do we do?”
I’m not sure. We’re watching everything with the plane. There are no sentries and none of the locals have moved from their Friday night gathering. Whatever they’re seeing has to be something automated. Some kind of robotic voice.
If the agents move fast enough, they can probably get to the heart of the facility before a real reaction can be organized. And if they don’t move now, they’ll never have the element of surprise again.
“Go, go, go,” I order, “Get control of the situation.”
“Six years,” pronounces the Preacher as the room quiets down. Everybody seems to want to hear what he has to say but I can pretty much guess what it will be, the man isn’t original.
“Six years we have been in this place. It is a remarkable achievement… For six years we have worked in the image of G-d. We here are blessed. We are blessed with wealth, with ample food, with health care, with modern communications – with everything the world has to offer. We do not need to work. We can rest, like Adam in the garden. But we have learned from the Garden and the evils that come from rest alone. We have learned Adam’s lesson and we realize that we have an obligation. There are fields that should be planted and crops that should be grown. And so we pick up where Adam left off. He had no tools, and we have no tools. With our hands…“
And just as he’s done a million times, the Preacher raises his rough hands to illustrate the same old point.
”…we work the earth, spreading the seeds of life where there was only waterless emptiness before. For six days we act in the image of G-d – creating order out of chaos and life out of nothingness. Without need or want, we have put our hearts and our efforts into the soil and we have made a garden bloom in the desert. And on the seventh – today – we rest with the fruits of our labor. For six days, we wear the best the modern world has to offer. But on the seventh, we wear what our own hands have created. For six days, we eat from the food the world provides. But on the seventh, we eat from that which we have grown. We rest in our labor – blissfully aware of our productivity. For six days we talk to the world using the latest apps. But on the seventh, we rest at home with our families.”
The preacher draws in a long breath, “The rest of the world does not do this. They do not live with the Lord. Instead, they live in a world of plenty driven by ever increasing automation, but they fight over spoils. The rich covet all they can gather. Corruption infects them. The sons of those who made their billions are rotted by their wealth – using the tools of government to secure their own continued domination. The poor are little better. A few struggle to produce and climb from the valleys of poverty. But far too many, having used what power they have to force the basics of subsistence from the hands of the wealthy, cease producing themselves. They can’t compete with the massive mechanical factories. Rich and poor alike fight for the division of spoils instead of seeking the Lord and wondering how they may imitate him. Pride, personal pride, however undeserved, has become the objective of all men. Wealth is a way of scoring that pride. But it is not the only way. Their sexual practices are put on public display. Reality TV shows and YouTube videos with tens of millions of views provide the individual with the hope of climbing into the ranks of the known. And all of them rot because of it…”
The Preacher pauses. “But not us.”
The preacher’s voice approaches a near whisper. “For six days we work and produce and on the seventh day – today – we stop. And by stopping, we touch the timeless Lord himself. We imitate the Lord and thus become close to him. By resting in our work we give meaning and power to our lives.”
“We are the new Adam and our garden is better than Eden.”
The Preacher raises a cup.
“This wine was produced by our own grapes. And processed by our own people. It is the first time we have used our own wine on a Friday night. It is a beautiful occasion.”
All around the room, glasses are raised. I even raise mine. A few kids get ahead of the game and start drinking. The taste of the wine convinces them it was a mistake. They thought it was grape juice.
And then the ancient chant begins:
“It was evening, it was morning, the Sixth Day. And the heavens and the earth and all their host were complete. And on the seventh day God completed the labor He had performed, and He rested on the seventh day from all the labor which He had performed. And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it, because in it He refrained from all his acts of creation which in creating God had made.”
The Preacher pauses, “Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”
It is just as people lift their cups to drink that the screaming and gunfire begins.
We take our first few steps into the dense jungle undergrowth before we find ourselves completely blinded. Flood lights overwhelm our night vision, our radios are jammed by static and an onslaught of what seems like screaming fills our ears.
I see a glimpse of something huge with numerous arms and legs. It is carrying a machine gun.
We have pistols and rifles.
I try to tell the men to fall back – to run – but barely a word is out of my mouth before I feel my body being pummeled and torn apart by machine gun fire. They couldn’t have heard me anyway.
For a brief second, I remember how hard it was to qualify with my Glock 22. The DEA tests are notoriously difficult. But I passed. I made it. First time.
And it didn’t matter. Faced with eight-legged screaming robots, the best pistols in the world are irrelevant.
There’s static on the line. The videos have gone blank. In the distance, I can hear screaming. Not the screaming of men, something fundamentally more frightening. And then the thumpa, thumpa of heavy machine gun fire. Not the weapons our people are carrying.
I look at the surveillance footage. There is still nobody anywhere near our people.
“BRET!” I shout into the radio, “BRET ARE YOU THERE.”
But just as quickly as the screaming began, it ends.
I watch on the infrared feed, my only connection to the inside of the facility, as my men stop moving.
40 of them.
Gone in an instant.
And then, just like that, the infrared itself is blinded.
We can see nothing, hear nothing, and know nothing.
I put my head in my hands and ask nobody in particular, “What the hell just happened?”
Every in the room is frozen.
“Stay here,” I shout, as I run for the door. I’m their Preacher, I hope they listen.
I barely know what is going on, but they have no idea whatsoever.
I do know one thing. Somebody tried to attack our facility.
I heard hundreds of rounds. Somebody major tried to attack us.
And on the Sabbath!
I laugh at myself, just a bit.
I care about the Sabbath, but I doubt they do.
They’d probably see it as an opportunity.
My house is right next to the church. I run into it and head for the bathroom. I open the door and recite the secret passphrase, and seconds later the bottom of the bath has transformed into a staircase. I rush down it and into a small office. The stairs close up above me. From here, I can see everything.
I pick up the red phone. It is just as old-fashioned as you’d expect from a secure military phone. I generally enjoy its retro look. Today, I just hope it works.
I wait a few seconds. There is no ringing. And then I hear a voice on the other end.
“What happened?” it asks.
“Somebody attacked us, I’m still trying to figure out who.”
“Are the robots safe?”
I check the panel. “Yes, all are accounted for.”
“Good. Did anybody see them?”
“I don’t know,” I answer, “I’ll investigate.”
“Keep me informed.”
“I will. But I need you to know, it wasn’t a small attack. I’d guess dozens of men by the amount of gunfire I heard.”
“I’ll look into it,” promises the suddenly concerned voice on the other end of the line.
“Thank you,” I answer. Although I suspect he knows more than he’s letting on.
And with that, the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America hangs up the phone.
They have guns?
That’s the only thought running through my head as I watch the Preacher run from the room.
The robots have guns?
Nobody here has any idea at all, of course. They’re all beginning to panic.
It’s a strange time for me to step up.
“Settle down folks,” I shout over the rising din, “I can assure you, it is very much under control.”
There are confused faces. How would I know what’s going on? I’m not the Preacher, I’m not his brother, I’m not in his inner circle.
But I know something.
It’s why I’m here.
There are robots. Not just any robots, but robots whose mechanical bodies have been paired with organic brains. I developed the brain fluid that enables the mechanical bits to sustain the organic bits in a reasonably efficient manner. I enabled everything to happen. They are smart, learning, robots. The most advanced the world’s ever seen.
They are the reason the people here can live so well while dedicating themselves to digging into the earth with their fingers.
But I don’t get the credit. I don’t get the control or the money or the power. I get to watch from outside as the sheep follow their shepherd. I get to watch as the people dig at the earth with their fingers while living off royalties they don’t understand.
The Preacher thinks this is the future. He sees robots producing everything and people needing to find meaning and peace despite the plenty. He thinks of this community as a test-bed; a place for people to prepare for what’s coming.
Even I’ll admit that he might be on to something.
But of course, he didn’t choose this place randomly. There are rare earths and copper and other fundamental ores here. From this spot, burrowing far underground, the robots themselves can retrieve the fundamental building blocks of their kind. Buried beneath the Preacher’s house is a factory, where robots make more robots. And every few weeks a plane comes by and picks up their product. I have no idea who the buyers are. But they buy the robots, week in and week out.
And they must be paying quite a bit of money.
Of course, I don’t know how much. Despite the fact that I enabled it all to happen, he’s cut me out. I don’t see the books, I don’t have sheep following me. I’ve been marginalized.
I watch him and I know, given how much power he has, that he must be abusing it.
That’s why I called the Sheriff. I just wanted to cut the Preacher down to size.
But I didn’t know the robots had guns. And if they had guns, I’m sure they won whatever battle they had. Whatever the Preacher’s faults, he doesn’t do things badly.
I didn’t want anybody to die.
As I watch the last of the attackers die, I know we have succeeded. No video has been broadcast, no descriptions have been issued by the radios. And nobody is going to leave.
We have succeeded. We have kept our secret.
We hide underground. All day, we hide. Above us, people work the land. Below us, the others work the rich ores of the area and produce more robots. But we sit in the middle, our eight massive legs and integrated machine guns buried in the dirt.
It’s the most important thing.
The Preacher knows everything. But nobody else does.
The people who work in the facility have no idea we’re here.
The people who live nearby – there aren’t many of them – don’t even know the facility exists.
The Buyers can see that we work, but they cannot know how we work. We’re programmed to destroy ourselves, completely, if they try to pry into our bodies or brains.
Secrecy is more important than life itself.
Nobody can know we’re here.
So we sit under the ground, making sure nobody learns about the facility. We sit in shifts. Some of us monitor the world above us. But others practice. We disconnect from our physical bodies and link into virtual versions of ourselves. We practice our mission – keeping secrecy.
We are inserted into scenarios – threatening scenarios of our own making. We practice moving with our guns, using our signal generators, listening to our surroundings. And fighting. We fight individual infiltrators and armies of men.
We aren’t given specific orders or particular jobs. We can work out how to achieve our missions. It is what makes us unique.
That’s what I was doing when the intruders arrived. I was in a simulation.
By the time I was yanked out and had made my way to the surface, the last of the attackers was dying.
I immediately checked with my teammates.
Forty men had arrived, a significant force.
We warned them. They advanced.
In the end, not one of them even issued a distress call.
We could take on an army. Which is why we’re here.
I’m sure the Preacher would be proud.
It’s amazing how quick the media get here. The first TV truck, it must have driven for two hours, shows up a few minutes after the firefight it over.
My team, and my friends, have probably been killed by some drug lord inside that massive tent. But I don’t know for sure.
I start making calls. I start with my own command. But before an hour has passed, I’ve lined up resources from the State Police, to the National Guard to the FBI, ATF and Border patrol. SWAT teams from Phoenix and Tucson are assigned. My message is all the same. 40 sent in. And then silence. They might be dead, but they might not. We need massive and immediate resources to find them and just possibly save them. And we won’t be surprised by the same tricks again.
We keep the press at bay, outside our little perimeter. We have no idea if the people inside are watching TVs of their own.
The patrol aircraft are the first to arrive. All the agencies seem to be represented. By none of them can see anything. Something on the ground is blinding them.
It will be a few hours, but we’re going to go in – in force. There’s a chance my men might still be alive. There’s a chance Brad will have survived.
Now, I just need to wait.
From within the small office under my house, I’ve analyzed the footage.
They were DEA agents. It must have been some sort of terrible mistake. They had idea what was here, and I had no idea what was coming.
I would have let them in. There were no drugs to see here. There might be some questions, but not the sort that would really concern them. For them, there was nothing to see but an odd group of people farming the land with their fingers.
But the spider-bots didn’t know. I put them there to stop people intent on learning about what we have.
I put them there so my customers couldn’t learn our secrets.
I expected an army to show up. Anybody’s army.
I didn’t expect 40 completely helpless DEA agents with pop-guns and gusto.
They should have turned away.
I should have let them in.
Now it is too late.
I can hear the calls being made. I’ve got two hours, tops. Then they’ll come in much larger numbers. And they’ll still have no idea what is waiting here.
I wasn’t expecting this, but I’m still ready.
The phone rings, it is the Secretary of Defense.
“You know what’s happening?” he asks.
“I do. It was a stupid mistake.”
“They are going to come in in force.”
“Mr. Secretary, I expected you to come in in force. I can stop them.”
“I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen what your machines can do. I’d ask you not to, but you’d probably ignore me.”
“I’d ask you to stop them from coming, but you’d ignore me.”
“That’s true. I would. You can have no connection to me or the United States Government. We have paid very very well for your secrecy.”
“I will do what I need to do.”
“You always have been good with secrets.”
The phone clicks, I state my passphrase, and the stairs in the bathtub reappear.
I have a plan, it is time to put it into action.
The attack is launched six hours later. They start by bombing the tarp itself. There is no return fire.
Then they roll in with APCs and even a few tanks.
Aircraft watch from overhead.
The walls of the facility crumble. The cover disappears.
They discover the bodies first. The 40 Special Agents, left where they fell.
There is rich farmland, divided into sections – each with its own climate and its own crops. The jungle was only one section of the facility. They find no farming tools. No tractors, no animals. No hoes or even spades. It is like the place was farmed completely by hand. The vineyard is perfectly constructed. But there are no people. And there are no drugs.
As the forces advance, they come to the first houses. Watching carefully for a flood of defensive fire they bomb the houses before they enter them. They aren’t going to be surprised again.
But they find nobody.
Bit by bit, they draw closer and closer to the church-like structure in the center of the town.
There find the Lincoln Navigator. But there’s nobody in it.
They surround the church, expecting a firefight at any moment.
They blow open the doors.
But the place is empty.
There is nobody anywhere. Somehow, in four hours, the town has been evacuated. Somehow, despite massive surrounding surveillance, almost 150 people have simply disappeared.
The search effort continues for days. The investigation for months.
But nothing is found.
The place remains a mystery.
I am stunned as I enter the cavern behind the Preacher and his brother. It is massive and lit by huge banks of LEDS. There are individual caves cut into its edges. Enough for every family.
The robots have been busy.
The people around me look in wonderment. They have no idea what they’re seeing. They have no idea who has excavated this place.
The Preacher has thought ahead. There are stacks of food – some from the world around us, but a great deal harvested from our own crops. I can’t tell if it’s been stored here for a while, or if the robots just rushed it down here. I can’t even tell with the caves themselves. Did the Preacher know this was coming or did his robots do this work in just the last few hours?
I suppose they could of, but I don’t really know. I’ve never even seen one of his creations.
As people enter the cavern, I watch their eyes scan the room in wonder.
And then the Preacher turns to speak.
“For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land.”
The people watch him. I watch him.
“Welcome to our sabbatical. We have food enough for two years here. We have a massive cistern full of water. We have planted for six years. This year, the seventh, shall be a year of rest and study.”
And with that he turns and walks to one of the caves along the side of the master cavern.
Our Sabbatical has begun and there are no other answers.