Friday, August 23, 2019

The Monolith by James Rumpel

An extraterrestrial monolith appears in a forgotten corner of rural Wisconsin, and a citizen must be chosen to carry out its message; by James Rumpel.

There are many forsaken highways in rural Wisconsin. Briar Creek Road was as lonely as any of them. When the highway department built the interstate in the 1950s, they decided to forgo an exit to Briar Creek Road. Instead, they simply closed the road on both sides of the freeway. From the north or south, the final half mile of Briar Creek Road was an abandoned stretch of blacktop, serving no purpose other than occasionally collecting jettisoned beer cans and McDonald's wrappers. Days could pass without a sole traveler making their way to the abrupt dead end. The only person who regularly visited this unused stretch of road was John Warren. Big John, as his friends called him, was the snow plow driver for the town of Baldinville. In all honesty, he wouldn't bother to plow that waste of a road if his superior didn't insist that every inch of highway be plowed any time there was a measurable snowfall.

On this morning, John made a shocking discovery on the north side of Briar Creek Road. A barbed wire fence marked the end of the unimportant town road. The expanse between the dead end and the freeway was occupied by a copse of large evergreen trees. The sixty-year-old pines stood straight and tall, like soldiers preventing the little road from even dreaming of someday being aligned with the interstate. It was near the run-down fence that Big John spied something very strange. There stood an enormous black cube.

The cube was about 20 feet in length, width, and height. Upon inspection, John discovered that it was constructed of some form of polished stone, maybe marble. John wondered how it had gotten here. Was it some sort of prank? If so, it would have been an expensive practical joke. The gigantic cube had to weigh several tons. Not sure what to make of this imposing arrival, John started to climb back into the cab of his plow. His plan was to radio his supervisor and tell him of his discovery. As he reached for the door handle, his attention turned to the cube which was now producing a rather loud and annoying popping sound, much like the sound a defiant teenager makes when chewing gum. As John watched, letters began to appear on the face of the cube, starting in the upper left corner. These letters were not broadcast onto some sort of screen or marquee; they seemed to be engraved in the stone.

PLEASE ALERT YOUR LOCAL LEADERSHIP THAT AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE WILL APPEAR AT THIS LOCATION AT EXACTLY 8:00 AM CENTRAL STANDARD TIME TOMORROW

John would later tell the mayor that he was slightly unnerved by the magical appearance of the writing. This was not true. He was shaking in absolute fear. He didn't take the time to consider his options. Haphazardly driving his snowplow at unsafe speed, he proceeded directly to the city municipal building. Baldinville was little more than quaint burg and, therefore, did not have much of a city hall. In fact, John's plow took up nearly half the parking places in the hall's lot. He leaped from the plow, sprinted into the building, sped past the receptionist, and burst into the mayor's office.



Mayor Thomas Shoemaker was a businessman and not a politician. When he retired from his accounting firm he ran for mayor so that he could occupy his suddenly expansive free time. His skill with numbers and money management had been advantageous during his two years of service. He was excellent with budgets and working with the Chamber of Commerce. Thomas was not prepared to deal with the issues that were about to be thrown in his ample sized lap.

John had barely started to get his story out when a commotion erupted in the reception area. Looking through the open door Thomas saw four soldiers in fatigues enter the office and stand, straight and unmoving, two on each side of the door. As they stood at attention, a man in a military dress uniform sauntered in, arms behind his back. He carried himself with an air of supremacy. His physical appearance, in contrast, did not command authority. His uniform indicated he was a general, but he did not look like your stereotypical military leader. He was short and skinny. Devoid of the traditional military crew cut, his hair was actually fairly long, tucked awkwardly behind his ears. His oversized glasses sat precariously on the one feature that gave this man any semblance of toughness. It was pretty clear by the bumps and crookedness that this man's nose had been broken more than once. Overall, he looked more like a high school student dressing up for an AP History presentation than a high-ranking military officer.

The general nodded in the direction of the receptionist and said, "I am going in to see the mayor." He didn't ask for permission. He didn't ask if the mayor was in. He simply announced what he was going to do. Followed by two of the accompanying soldiers the little man entered Thomas' office and introduced himself, flashing an official-looking badge. The symbol on the badge matched the emblem on the General's uniform: a question mark with the bottom period being the planet Earth. "Mayor Shoemaker, I am General Randolph of the UAM division of the AICA."

John, who was a tiny bit upset about having his amazing story interrupted, blurted out, "The what of the what?"

The officer prepared to berate the snow plow driver, but then noted the man's size. Instead, he simply answered the question. "The Unidentified Alien Monolith division of the Alien Interference and Contact Agency." He went on, "The government doesn't like to advertise our existence but we investigate incidents of alien contact. Specifically, I manage the operation when a monolith cube is found."

The mayor was extremely confused. This conversation was more befuddling than trying to follow an episode of the soap opera his wife religiously watched. "What's a monolith cube?" he asked.

"That's what I was trying to tell you about when this guy barged in," replied John.

The general nodded towards John, "Go ahead, tell him now. I want to hear the details myself. We picked the cube up on satellite at about eight hundred hours this morning. We have dealt with these before, but I wish to know if the scenario is consistent."

It took John about ten minutes to share the story of his encounter with the black cube. He left out the part about his panicking, but he shared every other detail. Being the center of attention worked for John.

Once the story was concluded, General Randolph turned to one of the soldiers in the room and said, "Yes, this sounds like another one of our cases. Mark this down in the log as Monolith 34. Enact all protocol immediately." With a snappy, "Yes, Sir," the soldier saluted and left the room.

Randolph turned to the mayor, "I want to set up a meeting with you, your police chief, your high school's principal, and the guidance counselor. Get on the phone and set that up immediately." Turning to John, he continued. "You may return to your work. Do not go near Briar Creek Road and do not tell anyone about what you have seen. If we so much as hear a rumor of you breaking this secret you will be charged with treason. You got it?"

John nodded and left without saluting or saying, "Yes, Sir."



There were eight people sitting at the large oak table in the city council board room. Half of the worn, squeaky conference chairs were occupied by military personnel: General Randolph and three of his aides. One of these aides was taking diligent notes on a keyboard. A second aide was recording the meeting on a tablet. The third sat next to Randolph with a prodigious stack of papers, prepared to distribute whichever was requested by the general. The civilians at the table were Mayor Shoemaker, Chief of Police Carl Chapin, the high school principal, Jordan Seller, and Mary Edwards, the high school guidance counselor. The military contingent all had stern expressions on their faces. The non-military people all looked confused.

General Randolph addressed the representatives of Baldinville. "Your city has received an extraordinary gift from a higher intelligence. To be honest, we don't know the origin of the black monolith. We believe it is of alien origin. There are some who think it an offering from some deity. It really does not matter. You have been presented with an opportunity to improve the world or, at the very least, our country."

So far, Randolph had done very little to alleviate the bewilderment. He continued, "These monoliths began showing up in the late 1950s. They have appeared in many different locations throughout the world. We are very happy that this one, the thirty-fourth, is in the United States. Believe me, when they show up in other countries, they are much more difficult to deal with."

"Tomorrow at 8:00 AM the mayor is going to go to the monolith and he will receive a message explaining what is to be done next. Here is a copy of that message for each of you." As Randolph finished, the paper-handling-aid began handing each of the Baldinville residents a small, clip bound packet. "As you can see," the general continued, "the message is rather long and detailed. It is very important that you follow the instructions exactly. Failure to do so will result in the loss of this opportunity and make me very upset." Randolph glared at the mayor in a manner that made Mayor Shoemaker understand why Randolph's nose looked the way it did.

Chief Chapin spoke up, "How do you know these are going to be the instructions? And how do you know we have to follow them precisely?"

"If you've been listening," the AICA officer answered with a pained expression, "I stated that this is the 34th monolith we have found. The message has always been the same. The reason we have made it to number 34 is that in the 33 previous encounters the directions were not followed sufficiently. In the cases where the monolith has been found in a foreign country, we took actions to ensure they were not followed. In the cases here in the US we have," Randolph paused and took a deep breath, "made mistakes. I feel, however, that we've learned from those errors and that we now have an excellent idea of exactly what needs be done."

"Done, why?" asked principal Seller. "What is the end-game here?"

The military officer gave Seller an exasperated look. "If you read the instructions you will learn what. But, since, apparently people in this town don't want to read, I will tell you. The monolith, or more precisely, the power behind the monolith, will grant one wish. We don't know why this is happening. It might be a test of humanity's worth. It could simply be that the power behind all of this is truly benevolent. It doesn't matter. Think about it, if we do this right, we could cure diseases or world hunger. We could have undeniable power. We could have anything we want. But there is a catch. Now, please read the instructions that the Mayor will be given tomorrow so we can begin to make the preparations necessary to guarantee the wish is granted; a wish that will change the world for the better."

The people sitting around the table read the instructions carefully. There was much they did not understand, but the general's attitude proved a deterrent to their voicing any questions. It turned out that they really didn't need to ask because General Randolph constantly interrupted them with details. The monolith was going to tell the mayor that he had ten hours to find a child to make the wish. Past failures had found that the definition of child was someone under the age of seventeen. The child had to have no idea that he or she was going to make a wish and could not be influenced as to what wish to make. Failure to follow that requirement had led to many of the previous unsuccessful attempts. The AICA had written their desired wish on a note card for one child. They had tried putting a hidden microphone on the next. They had given a list of suggestions to another. All of these attempts to predetermine the wish had resulted in the monolith giving a stern message that instructions had not been followed and then, disappearing.

After the General explained this, Miss Edwards had to speak up. "You mean you want to trust a teenager to make a wish that could change the entire world. This whole story is unbelievable to start with. It is insane. But to trust a seventeen-year-old kid with that kind of power is the craziest thing of all. They could wish for anything. We have students walking the halls of our school that would wish for the world to be one giant beer party."

Chapin joined in, "Yeah, this whole thing seems like a bunch of hooey. Is this some kind of hidden camera show? I don't believe a single bit of this. Our time is just being wasted."

"I thought the same way," said Mayor Shoemaker, "but before you got here, I got a phone call from the Governor telling me to give full cooperation to the AICA. Now, the Governor didn't sound like he was joking. He has no reason to play a prank on me; he doesn't even know who I am, other than that I am the mayor of the city where a giant black cube showed up. I think we should cooperate. Sure, it's weird, but what else are we supposed to do?"

"You could hold out for a call from the President." Seller suggested, a wry smile on his face.

"That could easily be arranged," was Randolph's reply. "but we are just wasting time. Back to the question about how can we trust a child to make this wish. Well, we have to. The decision has been made that we are not going to pass up this chance. I have fought hard to give us this opportunity. Yes, there is a risk but that is why we want to be proactive and start looking for the right child immediately. That is the reason we have the school officials at this meeting. I need you to come up with a list of three or four intelligent, mature, trustworthy students. They should be smart, but they also need to be reliable. We want someone who will recognize the chance to do something great and choose wisely. We assume the power that brought the monolith chose this town for a reason."

The principal glanced over at the guidance counselor. They both had the exact same expressions on their faces. It was basically the face someone makes when they are asked to do something which they are not certain they can or want to accomplish. Sort of like the face most people make when someone asks them to watch a dog for a week. "Three or four? I can maybe think of a couple," said Principal Seller.

"We should look at class rank, ACT scores, and advance placement classes." Suggested Edwards. "The National Honor Society roster might be a good place to start. Those students have to apply to be a member. They also have to do community service. They are likely the most mature students we have."

"Make your choices quickly and bring those students here within an hour," Randolph ordered. "We have a series of assessments they will be given. We also have a panel of psychologists who will interview them and go over the tests to select the best candidate. Remember though, you cannot tell them what is going on. We've had success in previous cases by telling them they have been nominated for a prestigious award and scholarship given by the armed forces. Now get going. The more time we have to make the correct selection, the better.



Brad Whitten sat in the back seat of Principal Seller's car, wondering what was going on. Next to him sat Cliff Helman. The passenger seat adjacent to Seller was occupied by Allie Wormack. It was exciting that they were all finalists for a special award, but it seemed weird that they hadn't heard about it before today. It was also strange that they had to go take tests and be interviewed right now. Brad was going to miss basketball practice, not that he played much, but he had a responsibility to the team. Principal Seller had even said they might not get home until late and had personally called their parents to get permission. All Seller had to do was mention a full-ride scholarship and the parents were quick to agree to let the school official have the kids as long as he needed them.

Apparently, the interviews were going to be held at the city municipal building. There were so many military vehicles in the parking lot that Seller had to park his car down the street. As they walked up to the door, they were greeted by a short man wearing a fancy military uniform. "Welcome, Brad, Cliff, and Allie. I am General Randolph and I am in charge of overseeing the selection process. You should all be honored at having been nominated for this award. We are considering students from all over this great country and it is very impressive that three nominees are from the same school. Our selection process is very intense, but the reward is well worth it. Please do your best. Answer all questions with complete honesty. Good luck to each of you."

After that introduction, the students were each sent off to a different room for testing. Brad was not confident in his chances. Cliff was much smarter than him. Brad was taking a few advanced placement classes and had solid grades, but Cliff was on pace to be valedictorian. Cliff was taking Calculus in tenth grade, two years ahead of the rest of the class. On the other hand, Allie was the most popular person in school. She knew how to make friends and influence people. She was pretty and fashionable. Everyone liked Allie.

The first test Brad had to take was a standard knowledge assessment. It was much like the standardized tests he had been taking since second grade. He was a little confused by the large number of questions about US History and current events, but Brad felt confident that he had done well. The second assessment was much stranger. This seemed to be more of a psychological exam, packed with loaded hypothetical questions. There were questions like; "Do you feel a responsibility to your country for all the gifts and rights you have here?" and "What is more important, personal gain or the good of everyone?" Brad had no idea how performed on the second assessment; he was just glad to finish.

Next Brad was interviewed by a panel of four officials. Brad found it interesting that two of these interviewers were dressed in military uniforms and the other two were wearing lab coats. To Brad, this felt more like a visit to a psychiatrist than a scholarship interview. A feeling that became even stronger when one of the lab coat-wearing interviewers administered a Rorschach test. It was nearly eleven o'clock at night when Brad and the others were finally allowed to go home. Cliff was slightly upset that he had missed his Dungeon and Dragons game, but he had enjoyed the tests so he didn't complain. They were all under strict instructions to not talk about the questions or the tests. After all, other students would be taking these same tests. All three students agreed to keep quiet, though Brad thought it was strange since they were the last students nominated and the award would be given tomorrow. Principal Seller told them they could all stay home from school the next day and that they would be informed of the final decision in the early afternoon.



The next morning General Randolph rode with the mayor to the site of the monolith. When they arrived at the site, mayor Shoemaker was in for some surprises. First, the interstate had been shut down. Randolph explained that all traffic was being diverted to the south in order to keep the monolith's existence secret. Police Chief Chapin had been appointed the responsibility of making sure no one traveled this part of Briar Creek Road and a roadblock was in place, nearly a mile from the position of the giant black cube. When the General's vehicle pulled up to the monolith, the Shoemaker was surprised to see that a large canvas structure, resembling a circus tent, had been erected. The General explained that the monolith was inside and the tent was an attempt to keep it hidden from airplanes or satellites. The mayor was beginning to understand how important this matter was.

At two minutes before eight, the General told Shoemaker to enter the tent. Once inside the mayor got his first look at the large monolith. It was just as John Warren had described it. Up until that very moment, Shoemaker had not really believed the story. Now he believed.

His belief was further enforced at exactly eight o'clock. As the mayor watched, the original message on the cube disappeared and was replaced by a new, much longer message. Each letter appeared individually with an irritatingly loud pop. The message began in the upper left corner of the front face of the cube. After a short time, the message had reached the point where it was printing directly in front of the mayor. A closer examination showed the lettering to be pristine as if engraved into the surface by an expert craftsman. Every detail of every character was perfect.

Mayor Shoemaker read the entire message, which, by its completion, covered over two and one-half faces of the monolith. He already knew the message, since it matched the one Randolph had provided. The only difference being that the final sentence actually said: "THANK YOU, THOMAS." The mayor found this to be rather flattering, though at the same time, a bit disturbing. He wasn't sure he wanted the power behind all this to know him personally.



Principal Seller met with General Randolph and a pair of psychologists shortly after one o'clock. The meeting was brief and Seller was nothing more than an observer. He watched as the AICA committee decided which student was going to be given the chance to make the wish.

"So basically, we are going to have to go with Brad Whitten," announced the General. "He had the best scores in civic responsibility and personal maturity. To be honest, I wouldn't trust the other two. The other boy, Cliff, did have the highest intelligence scores, but frankly, he scares me. If he had his wish, we might all end up fighting off dragons and orcs with swords. The girl, according to her scores, has to be disqualified because of her overall selfishness. She would likely make a self-beneficial wish. We don't need another pop star. Brad's not the best candidate we have ever had. I worry about his imagination score and he is very slightly paranoid, but he is the best we have to work with right now."

"If none of the candidates are perfect," interjected one of the psychologists, "why don't we just wait for the next monolith."

"That's not an option," answered Randolph. "Who knows when or where the next cube will appear. He is still a very good candidate. As I said, he is mature and responsible. We should be able to get further in the process than we ever have before. I want to make this happen. I am going to get this done."

He then turned to Mr. Seller. "It will add credibility if you join me when we inform Brad of his selection and take him to the monolith. We don't want to pick him up too early. So, we will go to his house about an hour before his wish is due. We have some scholarship documents to give him, stuff that will satisfy his parents. Brad will be told that he has to go to a special facility to get his award. The kids usually eat this up. We tell them there are going to be some official pictures taken and some TV coverage."

Seller nodded his head. He liked Brad. He believed Brad was a good choice, but that didn't mean he wasn't concerned about this entire endeavor. Literally, anything could happen in the next few hours.



Brad's parents were ecstatic when they were informed that he was selected the winner of this prestigious scholarship. They were a tiny bit disappointed about not being allowed to accompany Brad to the presentation ceremony. However, they didn't want to make any sort of fuss. They didn't want to jeopardize Brad's honor by complaining.

Brad was also bewildered by the fact that he was to attend the ceremony alone. He was even more puzzled about the fact that the ceremony was going to be held out on some dead-end stretch of road. Brad was a smart, respectful young man, but he was a bit of a worrier. His nervous tendency was not so extreme as to cause the psychologists to red flag it, but when put in an odd situation, Brad could imagine some scary possibilities. As the car carrying him, Mr. Seller and the weird General pulled to a halt a half-mile from the ceremony site, Brad decided to voice his concerns.

"Why are we stopping so far away? Why do I have to walk there by myself?"

The General gave him a veiled answer. "It's hard to explain. I really can't give you all the details. You are the recipient of an amazing honor. Just know that by following directions you have a chance to make your country, your world, a better place."

Brad, tentatively, nodded. He understood that with the college education paid for by this scholarship he could, possibly, have a positive impact on the world. He thought the General was being a bit overdramatic. Different scenarios ran through Brad's thoughts. Maybe he was going to be kidnapped. This seemed like an awfully complicated procedure for that, however. Brad also trusted Mr. Seller, so the abduction theory was unlikely. It might be that the government was doing some kind of experiment on him. They could be testing to see how trustworthy and committed he was. Whatever the case, Brad decided to cooperate. His parents would be upset if he didn't come home with that scholarship.

The General told Brad to walk to the large tent at the end of the road. He was to wait till exactly 5:58pm before entering. They even synchronized their watches to be sure that Brad had the correct time. Brad was to remain in the tent for at least five minutes, even if no one was there. The General then sent Brad on the way with a thumbs-up gesture and the words, "Remember your country has made this possible for you and good luck."

As Brad started down the icy road, he couldn't help but wonder why he needed luck.



Brad didn't know what to expect when he entered the enclosure. He, definitely, did not expect to see a giant black cube. He noticed writing engraved into the cube, but just as he started to read the message, it miraculously disappeared. Fighting the urge to turn and run, Brad remained. Many different explanations came to him, but none really made any sense.

Popping sounds drew Brad's attention back to the monolith. With each pop, a letter appeared on the face of the cube. Soon a complete message was etched into the surface before him.

WELCOME BRAD. YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO RECEIVE THE GREATEST GIFT POSSIBLE. YOU HAVE UNTIL 6:10 CENTRAL STANDARD TIME TO SPEAK A SINGLE WISH. THE WISH MUST BE SPOKEN OUT LOUD. YOU MAY WISH FOR ANYTHING AND THAT WISH WILL BE GRANTED. THE ONLY LIMIT IS THAT YOU MUST ONLY WISH ONCE.

Brad believed what he read. He inspecting the lettering and found the symbols to be carved into the smooth surface. As impossible as that seemed, it was true. This was not some hoax or prank television show. There was some power behind all of this, and Brad had to accept that it could do anything. He believed it would be able to grant his wish.

While considering what to wish for, Brad's suspicious imagination made itself heard. Whatever was behind this wish was clearly of great power, but was it benign? Was there any guarantee that the creature making this offer wasn't the devil himself or something just as malicious? Brad had read enough in English classes to know that wishes always came at a cost. Maybe whatever he wished for would be twisted into something negative and evil.

All sorts of scenarios came to Brad. He could wish for world peace only to have the entire human population of Earth extinguished. That would definitely bring peace to the world. In fact, that might be the only way to bring peace to the world. Brad considered wishing for an end to world hunger. But, couldn't the hunger problem be eliminated by drastically reducing the population.

Time passed quickly as Brad continued to come up with possible wishes only to also derive a catastrophic way of granting them. A cure for cancer could introduce a different, much worse, plague. Giving the US or its leaders unlimited power could lead to his country becoming an evil empire. Unlimited wealth could be rendered useless in many different ways. He remembered the picture from his AP History book of the German citizen needing a wheel barrel full of currency just to buy bread.

Who was he to have to decide on something as important as this? Maybe the best course of action was to not make a wish. Could he really pass up this opportunity? He could make the world better or he could accidentally destroy it. Even in the cool winter night air, in an unheated tent, sweat formed on Brad's brow. He actually found himself shaking, not from the cold, but from fear. He had no idea what he should do. Glancing at his phone, Brad noticed the time to be 6:09.



As Brad emerged from the tent, a half dozen vehicles came racing down Briar Creek Road. Soldiers rushed past Brad and entered the tent. They would find it empty. The monolith had simply disappeared at 6:10. When the General's car pulled up, Randolph leaped from the passenger seat and ran up to Brad.

"Well, what happened? What did you wish for?" The General grabbed Brad by the shoulder, the expression on his face a conglomeration of fear, excitement, and hope.

Brad looked down at the ground. He took a deep breath before speaking. "I wished for world peace, but the writing on the cube typed out 'WORLD PEACE IS NOT POSSIBLE.' Then the cube disappeared."

General Randolph's face now only showed one emotion: disappointment. He gave Brad's shoulder a tight squeeze but then released it. After a couple of minutes, he spoke again. "Alright then, let's tear everything down and let's get out of here. Maybe we will have better luck next time. I really thought we had it. Brad, you are going to be taken back to the city hall for debriefing. After that, you can go home. We would greatly appreciate it if you told no one what has happened here. We will get you a scholarship and take a photo of you receiving that award after you are finished debriefing. If we find out you told anyone about these events, we will take the scholarship away and, probably, much worse. I know you tried your best." At that, Randolph turned dejectedly back towards his men. As the driver directed Brad to the back seat of the car, Brad could hear the General snapping off commands toward the soldiers. It was very clear that General Randolph was not a happy man.



It was well after ten o'clock when Brad got back to his home. He had been asked to repeat his story innumerable times. Eventually, the military officials had released him. Back at his house, he showed his parents the scholarship certificate and explained that it had been a rather lengthy ceremony. He told them they should be glad they didn't have to be there since it was very boring.

Brad went to his room. He closed and locked the door behind himself. Making a quick scan of the room, Brad spied what he was looking for sitting on his nightstand. There, next to his bed, was a large Chicago style pizza.

3 comments:

  1. That's a great story. Good ending. Very realistic characters. And good rationalization for Brad's choice. I wonder why the aliens wanted a child?

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  2. A bit of '2001 A Space Odyssey' combined with Kurt Vonnegut style humor. My wish would be for ten more wishes! That way I could order pizzas for all my friends. Fun story.

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  3. Very thoughtful decision by Brad. Just have to wonder though...might there be a consequence even for such a seemingly benign wish?

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