Inside the buried spaceship, an ancient machine intelligence continued its relentless vigil. It followed the commands set by its builders, long before the recorded history of mankind. One of the core instructions was for it to remain hidden and to maintain the ship in optimal condition.
Above it, on the surface of the planet, the human race spread and advanced. From their humble beginnings as weak cave dwellers, they progressed and evolved into a technological society. Making breakthroughs in science and in their understanding of the wider universe; launching satellites into orbit, and even reaching their planet's closest celestial companion, the Moon.
The intelligence controlling the ship did not care at all about them; they were not within its mission parameters. Time meant nothing to it; left undisturbed, it would have remained right where it was, until the Sun turned into a red giant, five billion years down the line.
However, after thousands of years of dormancy, one of the spaceship’s proximity sensors detected an anomaly. Secondary routines, never before activated, took precedence—the machine intelligence within had no option but to act.
That was the first thing that came into Michael's mind after waking up.
He was hiking through the dense woods up the side of the mountain, an hour’s walk from the cabin. It was a heavily forested long slope that led to the towering steep cliffs, which rose majestically into the blue sky. For Michael, this was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the world, somewhere where he could come to think about his life without the constant distractions of urban living.
He was just crossing a bright little clearing in the woods, when the earth beneath his feet moved. Before he could take another step, he was already falling down. For a few moments there was a sense of weightlessness, and then… nothing, similar to turning off a TV.
In this kind of life-threatening situation, some people see their life flash before their eyes; they even see the faces of loved ones. The only thing Michael’s mind could come up with, before shutting down, was “Oh shit, I'm gonna die!"
One Day Earlier
Michael smiled as he was driving towards his grandparent’s cabin, the place that always made him feel good. Thirty-five miles away from the closest town and with practically no neighbors in the area. Many would call it the boondocks, but for him, it was the only place that felt like home, and he needed to unwind.
His grandfather bought the property after returning home from the war with a serious case of PTSD, not that anyone was calling it by that name, or even acknowledged it at that time. The unspoiled 2500 acres of a predominantly mountain terrain was just what he needed to fulfill his dream from the war—a place where he could have some peace and quiet.
He fell in love with a secluded mountain valley and got it for pennies on the dollar, from the estate of some wood Baron that went bankrupt, and it was the place where he planned to build his home. The beauty of the valley was accented by a small lake on one side, and a healthy stream coming from a higher elevation that created it. Until the end of his life, he told everyone how he had never tasted a purer or sweeter water than from that stream.
After hiring a local contractor to clear an access road and put gravel on it, he built a log cabin with his bare hands. In a way, all that hard work was therapeutic for him; he was still dealing with horrific frequent nightmares and memories of brutal battles.
By that time, his nest egg was about tapped out, but as luck would have it, that little mountain stream brought down more than just fresh water… It brought down gold.
Not a million-dollar gold mine amount, but enough placer gold deposits to make sure one would not go hungry in the winter. What’s more, he never told anyone about his find, knowing that if the word got around that ‘there is gold in them hills’, a flood of prospectors would destroy his peace and quiet.
Finally, with the house finished, he brought Michael’s grandmother there. She was one of those uncompromising women of the past, prepared to wait for her man no matter how long it took. They were high school sweethearts, and she waited four long years for them to be together. First, to return from the war and then an additional year it took him to build their home. Besides, accepting a life in the boonies without the amenities of urban life, you would be hard-pressed to find a woman like that these days.
Michael’s father, Robert, was born soon after, but he never really liked living so far from society. Maybe it was the long rides to school, or children picking on him for not being a townie. He moved in with Michael’s great-grandparents when he started high school and never really returned to the mountain. Robert Freeman enrolled in one of the most prestigious universities in the country on a full-ride scholarship, far away from his family and their rustic way of life. He graduated top of his class and was immediately headhunted by one of the most prominent research laboratories in the country. He met a girl there, and things took their natural course, but fate would be cruel to him. Two years after they got married and Michael was born, his wife died from breast cancer, leaving him alone, distraught, and with a small child.
Robert didn't know how to raise his son, and work demanded sixty or more hours a week. So, he did the only reasonable thing he could think of and gave Michael to his parents for them to raise him. He visited whenever he could find time and sent half of his salary to his parents, but all who knew him could see a deep sorrow hiding behind his eyes. After two years of a happy married life, he was left alone, so he buried himself in work, the only refuge from the pain he could see.
Michael had a happy childhood, his grandparents made sure of that. Growing up in a loving environment he thrived in their little mountain valley.
Some of his most cherished childhood memories were spending time with his Grandfather, panning for gold from that mountain stream. It was their family's little secret, and for all those years nobody found out. His grandfather went on short trips every few months to exchange that gold far away from their home. Michael asked him once why they never bought bigger equipment to expand the operation.
“Well, Mike… that would most likely destroy our little piece of paradise and this gold is just fine where it is. If we took more we would have to put it in a bank, people would find out, and I trust this stream much more than a bank. There would be additional taxes we would have to pay. By my reckoning, if the taxman wants a piece of it, he might as well grab a shovel and do the work himself.”
His grandmother passed away peacefully in her sleep. That was a sad time for the both of them; she was the kindest, most thoughtful person in Michael’s life, and her death was a hard blow to their way of living. Nevertheless, life goes on, you have to accept the loss of dear ones, and treasure their memories.
One of the biggest arguments with his grandfather ensued when Michael finished high school and decided to enlist. His grandfather, knowing personally what war did to people, told him that he was too young and tried to talk him out of it. He was certain that his grandson would end up in the thick of things… he had raised him too well. For all that, Michael was young and filled with all the idealism of youth, or as his grandfather said, filled with piss and vinegar. But his mind was made up.
When his grandfather saw that there was no way of changing that decision, he sat him down and gave him some worthwhile advice on how to behave in certain situations, how to act toward his superiors, and particularly how to get out of trouble, if it couldn't be avoided. All the lessons he had to learn the hard way when he was serving his country.
On one sunny summer morning, his grandfather drove him to the bus stop, where they said goodbye to each other. It was a new direction in Michael’s life, one that would reinforce the core convictions of freedom that the man who raised him ingrained in his very soul by living a good example.
The army life was in part the most exciting thing Michael ever experienced, and in part incredibly monotonous. Of course, those that govern the military know that an idle mind is the devil's playground, so there are activities that keep young people busy, but most of the time it was hurry up and wait. Moments of an adrenaline rush, and prolonged periods of boredom.
Always an avid reader, he now read obsessively, it was the best way to kill time. He even bought an e-reader, filled it up with hundreds of books, and spent countless hours looking at the small screen. Mostly science fiction; let’s face it, when you are in some godforsaken overseas hellhole, where the natives are mostly hostile to you, mystery or romance are not on top of one’s list. You want something to get your mind away from reality, a place where you can escape to for a few hours. That changed how he looked at life in general, broadened his horizons, and put a seed of an idea that humanity should strive for more. We should try to better ourselves instead of indulging in these conflicts and disputes he was experiencing first-hand. At the same time, he understood that he could do nothing to enact a big change; he was just a cog in an enormous machine, and his voice too insignificant to make any difference. Regardless, he could make sure his actions would make a difference on a smaller level, making a positive change with the people he interacted with personally. He soldiered on, year after year, filled with a sense of purpose in his vocation, firmly believing he was doing some good, making the world a little safer for others.
After four years, he applied and was accepted into Delta Force, the Army's elite special operations and counter-terrorism unit. They polished some of his hard-earned skills and then threw him into the deep end, but Michael was good at staying afloat. Soon, missions became more target-specific; he was often in civilian clothing, far away from his home, doing everything he could to protect those dear to him from threats. His teammates became as close as brothers; guarding each other’s backs in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
In his third year with Delta Force, he received the news that his grandfather was killed in a car accident. He was visiting Michael’s father in the city when a drunk driver ran a red light at full speed.
That was like a strong punch in the gut, as if one of the few remaining strings connecting him to his past was cut, making him flounder in the wind. His commander delivered the news in a compassionate way, even arranged for a leave of absence and fast transportation for him to attend the funeral, but Michael saw everything through a fog of pain; the man who raised him was dead.
The funeral, as all of them are, was a somber affair, with people coming and offering their condolences. He went through the motions, accepting their kind words and well wishes. The only thing that almost broke his composure was when his father enveloped him in a bear hug, and whispered into his ear, “He was so proud of you son.”
Lying in his old bed that night, he thought of the years he spent with his grandparents and how grateful he was that they were part of his life.
A few days after, an attorney gave him the deeds his grandfather bequeathed to him in his will. It seemed his Grandfather used the gold money, and piece by piece bought most of the mountain. Leaving it all to his grandson, and making sure that nobody but Michael would know about their family secret.
He went back to his unit, burying himself in work, just as his father had done 23 years ago, but unfortunately, his soldiering days would not last much longer. A few months later, an unfortunate encounter with a suicide bomber placed him in a hospital bed. He considered himself lucky, the shrapnel only messed up his knee and gifted him with a limp, it could have been far worse. After several reconstructive surgeries and extensive physical therapy, he got a nice “thank you for your service, here are your discharge papers.”
That was it, eight years of military life cut in an instant.
Still recovering from his injuries, Michael decided to enroll in college. Uncle Sam was footing the bill, and he had no idea what to do next with his life.
He didn't really go through a standard college experience. On one hand, he was almost a decade older than most of the other students, and couldn't relate to their carefree view on life. On the other hand, he was too serious for them, a grown-up, and they had a hard time relating to the gimpy ex-soldier—as he thought of himself. Michael didn't blame them; he wasn’t exactly the life of the party. Time spent in the military changed him, made him look at the world with more cynical eyes. Instead of going to parties and enjoying himself, he studied; buried himself in his work again and finished his degree in computer sciences a year ahead of his peers.
Michael still didn't know what to do with himself, there was no goal to reach. The military made him feel as if he was doing something with a purpose and now that was gone. It was one of the reasons he went to college, to give himself time to find a new purpose. Three years later, he felt he was at the same place with no direction. So he did the most logical thing—he got a job at a mid-sized but promising IT company. Even if he was not really hurting financially, sitting on his ass and doing nothing was pure torture for him. Besides, there were still bills to pay and money to save for the inescapable retirement.
Years started going a little faster, and somehow, without him really noticing it, almost an entire decade snuck upon him. Maybe that caused what happened next. The grinding monotony of going to work every day to a boring job he grew to resent, and all those years of burying that feeling of aimlessness.
He snapped, all things considered, it’s surprising it didn't happen sooner. Life as a company drone was slowly killing that fighting spirit he used to have. Finally, his new boss, a fat young idiot with a full-blown superiority complex, placed in that position by merit of being born as the company owner’s son, crossed the line. Trying to cover for his own mistake, he chose Michael as a scapegoat, yelling in his face, pushing at his chest and finally taking a swing at him. Old instincts flared back and Michael almost killed him. Well, he wanted to; instead, he grabbed him by the suit jacket, pushed him against the wall, and held him there while the dweeb’s feet were dangling above the ground. Michael could smell the acidic scent of urine because the little shit actually pissed himself; that calmed his anger, made him laugh uncontrollably instead. His boss's eyes were wide open in fright, seeing for the first time that inner warrior Michael repressed for years.
The company settled the whole thing without going to court; both parties had grounds for a lawsuit, and the owner did not want any bad publicity to smear his inept offspring's reputation. He was shown the front door, although, with nice severance pay as an incentive not to make any waves.
Consequently, his current girlfriend broke up with him, which he didn't mind that much as she was not someone he could imagine growing old with. She was the last in a long line of the wrong ones, and if he was being honest with himself, brainpower was not what was most attractive about her. She was always nagging him how he wasn't ambitious enough, and losing his job was the last straw. In fact, she had this crazy idea that she could ride him to the top, figuratively and literally.
Michael felt empty inside, that place where deep convictions and purpose resided still resonated with hollow silence. For most of his life, he had something to strive for; at first the urge to make his grandparents proud of him, and later, the desire to help in guarding the safety and freedom of his country. Now, he looked at himself as a 40-year-old burnout with a bum knee, with no wife and children to give a new meaning to his existence, and with no goal to achieve.
With no more ties to the life he led for the past decade, he went to the dealership and exchanged his city car for a used 4x4 Ram Power Wagon that was still in excellent condition. Then packed his bags and put most of his stuff in the new truck. He told everyone that he would be out of contact for at least a month, and set his direction to his grandfather's cabin. An isolated, out of the way haven; not even cell phone signals could reach it due to the terrain configuration. A perfect place to unwind and figure out what to do next with his life.
The final stretch of the road to the cabin was not easy; years of rain had washed some of the gravel from the surface, and one had to be very observant while driving to avoid an accident. At last, he came over the rise and saw that peaceful valley, with the cabin that held many good memories. Over the years, the place had so many add-ons and improvements done, it resembled more a rich man's retreat than a cabin in the woods. Michael made an effort to keep the place in good order whenever he could grab the time, he even installed a dozen solar panels on the roof to supplement the old hydro generator that his Grandfather put in years ago.
As soon as he unpacked, a wave of tranquility washed over him. It was as if all his problems were pushed to the back of his mind and he felt at peace. No job, no significant other, and still no clue what to do with the rest of his life, but for the moment that was okay—he was home. That night he had the best night's sleep in a long time. The next morning, he decided to hike up the mountain and visit some of the places where he and his grandfather used to pan for gold.
Some decisions, however small, tend to fundamentally change your life.