Tremors - Short Fiction


Murali Kamma
Sequestered in the cabin all day, as he worked on his book, J didn’t catch that morning’s sensational news—and when he stepped out for dinner, shortly before darkness fell, he still wasn’t aware of it. The sky was a bold mix of gold, pink and blue. The pretty scenery made an impression, but as J drove along the weaving ribbon of mountain road leading to the nearest town, he was also struck by the silence and the desolation, as if the local population had decamped, and he hoped a hot meal would be available somewhere, even if it was fast food.

But everything was closed. It wasn’t much of a town, really—J passed an auto repair shop, with dented cars parked in the front, an elegant church that had seen better days, a few shabby buildings, even an abandoned mine—and there wasn’t a single person or a moving car on what he took to be the main street. Some of the shops and restaurants appeared to be permanently closed, although he didn’t get out to take a closer look—the place was too spooky, filling him with rising dread. Where were all the people? The only gas station he saw was also shuttered, but fortunately, his tank was about half-full, enough to take him back to his home in the suburbs. He wouldn’t starve either, even if the thought of eating his cold leftovers was depressing.

Just an hour earlier, he’d been feeling grateful to his neighbor, who had invited J to use his cabin. Thanks to him, J had been able to sit alone for several hours without any distractions and do serious writing, the kind of meaningful work he wished he could do more often. The neighbor had given him the keys over a week ago, but it was only when J’s wife and kids left town to visit her parents that he seized the opportunity, even altering his work schedule so that he could head to the cabin in the middle of the week and make progress on his long-overdue book. Even if nobody wanted to publish it, or read the entire manuscript, he’d have the satisfaction of finishing the project to the best of his ability. That would be an achievement in itself, perhaps.

The first day had been productive—but now, the exhilaration gone, J was hungry and creeped out. He hadn’t expected the mountain town to be so bleak, so empty, even before it became dark. Should he head back to the cabin for another night, or should he go home?

J pulled into the parking lot of a charmless, unfinished strip mall—where were the houses, he wondered, not having seen a residential street yet?—and took out his cellphone, which he’d forgotten to switch on before leaving the cabin. It had felt good to disconnect from the world, but now J was eager to get in touch with his wife and children, whom he wouldn’t be seeing for another week.

There were six messages, and he noticed that his wife had tried to call him several times.

Alarmed, J pressed ‘play,’ and heard his wife’s breathless voice. “Did you hear the news, J? I know you don’t have internet service or a TV. Call me. Nothing to worry about, probably….” The message ended abruptly.

Skipping the other messages, J punched his wife’s cell number on the keypad.

“Hope I didn’t scare you, dear,” she said, answering on the first ring. “Did you listen to all the messages?”

“No, I didn’t. What happened, honey? Is everybody okay?”

“Yes…yes. I don’t know if it’s true, but they’re saying that we’re receiving signals from a…from a vehicle. An alien vehicle. I know it sounds absurd, but it’s all over the news. There’s also a lot skepticism, with scientists demanding proof. That’s why I left more messages…to tell you not to worry. Don’t know what to believe these days. Some say this is momentous news; others think it’s a hoax.”

J was flabbergasted. Aliens! How did they know it was an alien vehicle, and what sort of signals were they receiving? Was that the reason for the wasteland, the bleakness, he saw around him? All the residents of this town must be at home now, glued to the TV as the words ‘BREAKING NEWS’ flashed on the screen and they watched the endless, mind-numbing coverage of aliens who may be on their way, even if they were still far off from the earth. Seemed like a joke. Or the premise of a new TV series everybody was talking about, except that J didn’t feel like laughing. His hunger—not to mention the eeriness of the quiet, deserted town—was making him a little agitated. Thanks to the aliens, he’d now have to return to the cabin and eat his soggy half-sandwich and chips. Why hadn’t he at least brought some fruits and bars?

Back at the cabin, J didn’t stay long. Having decided to head home rather than spend another night in what now felt like a cold and lonely place, he ate his sandwich quickly and packed his things. J drove a little faster than usual on the empty highway, which lit up—slowly at first, then rapidly—as flashes of white light, without the accompanying sound, streaked across the sky. Heat lightning? The weather had been clear, but perhaps a storm was on the way now, a storm he knew nothing about. So much for being off the grid for just a day!

Hoping to catch the weather report, J stopped the jaunty music he’d been listening to on the CD player and switched to the radio. A program was already in progress, and the host was speaking. What J heard had nothing to do with the weather; it was about aliens, a topic he desperately wanted to avoid. But this was the only topic that mattered now, he realized.

For days now, the host said, some observers had been recording powerful signals emanating from a massive object hurtling towards us, although it was so far away that it wasn’t going to reach the earth in our lifetime, going by an estimate of its current speed. The signals were indecipherable, and the object didn’t resemble anything the researchers had seen before. The host didn’t elaborate. J wondered if these observers were associated with the SETI Institute—but he couldn’t tell, having missed the beginning of the program.

            Nobody alive now would be around when this alien vehicle—if indeed that’s what it was—arrived on the earth from another world. The news was so alarming that the researchers tracking these signals had been reluctant to say anything publicly and cause mass panic. They’d been hoping to do further analysis. Perhaps not surprisingly, somebody had leaked the information to the media, forcing the researchers to announce their findings prematurely.  

            J’s hands started shaking, unexpectedly. Stopping the car on the shoulder, he turned off the radio and pulled himself together. It was the desolation, no doubt, and the flashing in the sky that made him nervous, rather than this news—which sounded so bizarre, so hokey, that he wondered if it was an elaborate ruse. In the age of social media, when people were inclined to believe anything, maybe this was the mother of all viral stories. Perhaps this news, or so-called news, was the logical end in the era of mass sharing.

            At the same time, J felt a chilly uncertainty leak into his bones. Surely, it was his imagination that was making him uneasy, even afraid to be alone on the road. He picked up his cellphone to call his wife, but there was no reception. Turning on the radio again, J resumed his journey and increased the speed. The host, returning from a short break, introduced his panel of four people—S, T, O, P—and asked them for some perspective.

            S: “To be blunt, I think this is the biggest hoax we’ve ever seen. We live in a world where it has become easier to dupe large numbers of people. I can’t believe we’re not being more skeptical, more rational—”

            Host: “So you think it’s fake, that we’re being deluded on a mass scale? It’s still early, of course, because we didn’t know anything before today. But do you really believe there are folks who can pull off such a hoax…in this day and age?”

            S: “Yes, that’s exactly my point! People are gullible, and given all the social and technological changes we’ve seen in recent years, deceptions can happen more often now. Even mass deceptions—”

            P: “Wait a minute. Some may say I’m pessimistic, but we can’t dismiss such a threat. We have to take it seriously, even if we can’t do much now. Just because something like this has never happened, we can’t say it won’t happen in the future. And we cannot close our eyes and trust the government to deal with it. We’ve to be prepared for any outcome.”

            O: “I disagree that we cannot do much. Optimism cannot hurt. We just have to overcome our divisions and confront the threat as a unified force. The outcome depends on us. Let’s avoid cynicism and negativity. We cannot be resigned—that will be our downfall. We should trust our government, not question their capacity or motives. We have to give them a chance to prevent an alien invasion. Ultimately, they’re looking out for us.”

            P: “Well, while I agree that there’s too much political correctness today—and identity politics has run amok, creating divisions—I’m not convinced that Big Government is the answer. They overreach. Often, instead of providing the right solutions, they create more problems. First of all, they don’t even say “aliens.” What’s wrong with that word? They say “possible threats from outer space,” which to me sounds vague, as if they’re afraid of offending somebody. How can you tackle major issues like this if you’re so—”

            Host: “Folks, let’s not lose our focus here. What do you think, sir? You’ve been quiet so far. You’re a spiritual teacher, a guru.”

            T: “Thank you. Teacher is fine; I don’t know about guru, which is intimidating. I think we’re missing the most important threat facing us. We’ve to address that first. It’s not the alien object—which, if it gets here at all, will arrive after we’re gone.”

            Host: “That’s assuming it doesn’t speed up. But what’s this other threat you’re talking about? Climate change?”

            T: “No, it’s even more fundamental than that. The biggest threat we face is ourselves. We’re our own worst enemies, and if we don’t alter our ways, we’ll destroy ourselves before any aliens reach the earth!”

            Host: “Good point. But while internal threats—and I include climate change—are not new, what we’re dealing with here is totally different, totally unexpected, and we don’t even know what to make of it, let alone come up with a good response.”

            O: “That includes assuming it’s a threat. Why jump to conclusions? The problem with the way we live now is that we need answers right away, as if all the relevant information is already available. Let’s give it time, let’s find out more. Think of the potential benefits if we can partner with beings that have superior intelligence.”

            P: “That’s if they don’t destroy us first! How can we be so credulous, so hopeful?”

            T: “I don’t think I’ve made myself clear. When I say internal threats, I’m not referring to the danger posed by other people or the changing climate. The biggest threat we face is inside each one of us. Unless we transform ourselves, alter our consciousness, we’ll not be able to confront external challenges. Outward change can come only after inward change.”

            S: “And I’d say that understanding ourselves includes avoiding the creation of false enemies. We don’t need scapegoats. Making the other—whether you want to call them aliens or foreigners—the source of our problems may feel good, but it won’t bring us together or help us move forward. Creating bogeymen won’t solve problems; it will make them worse.”

            P: “Are you saying that this external threat doesn’t exist, that it’s a conspiracy theory?”

            S: “What I’m saying is that we should question everything. We knew about SETI, but we hadn’t even heard about TREMORS until this morning. Don’t we want to find out more?”

            Host: “Let’s quickly remind our listeners that TREMORS stands for Threats and Responses Emanating from Mapped Out Regions of Space. It’s TREMORS and not SETI that started receiving these strong signals. As most listeners know, SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

            S: “Exactly. TREMORS, it’s been pointed out, has been secretly conducting mass surveillance. They were going to be outed, so they changed the story to hoodwink us, distract us and scare us into submission. TREMORS sounds absurd…we don’t even know the real name.”

            Host: “Now aren’t you also indulging in a conspiracy theory?”

            S: “I admit that I may be just as susceptible. Sadly, that’s the world we live in, a world where it’s become harder to distinguish between fact and fiction. What’s real about those ubiquitous reality TV shows? As for our beliefs, we form them first and then find the reasons for believing them. And our echo chambers, so accessible in the digital age, reflect and amplify the divisions in our society. We like our safe zones, where it becomes easier to disregard and demonize and damage people we don’t agree with. We have strong likes, and strong dislikes. But I’ll also say this: We like to be constantly entertained. And what could be better entertainment than this? Trust me, it’s not going to end anytime soon. Before any aliens can kill us, we are—as an observer once put it—amusing ourselves to death. Now he was a sage.”

            Host: “On that note, folks, let’s take a break. When we come back, we’ll take some questions from listeners.”

            J switched off the radio. The flashes in the sky had stopped, and in the sudden absence of the chatter, he heard the patter of rain, which was now coming down faster. Soon, it turned into a furious, blinding downpour. But J wasn’t worried. In fact, he felt strangely elated, liberated even, now that he had to focus entirely on his driving. Though the visibility was poor, making his wipers useless, and he had to reduce his speed to a crawl, J didn’t mind that he’d be on the road much longer, even without stops. He was no longer in a rush to get home. 

1 comment :

  1. Quite interesting .It made me to read without stopping to take a break which i do when i read anything for more than 10 minutes
    SETI and TREMORS are very creative stuff .It is a good read
    Rajan

    ReplyDelete

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