The XXX Files

Sunday Stories From The Next Stage — Issue N007

John One

This goes back a few years. When I was still trying to make sense of it. When I still cared. I used to care you know. Now I don’t anymore. I’m just curious.

I went down the whole damn rabbit hole. At least I tried. I went down as far as I could. For nothing. At the time it was for nothing. They stopped me right there and then. As I found out, things were classified.

I shouldn’t have been able to go that far. To know that much. But I dug. Because I cared. So much that I dug deep. That’s what love makes you do. And hatred. I can’t remember what it was that drove me. A bit of both I guess. Some ten years or so ago.

I spoke to John that time. That was his handle. I know that now. A pseudonym. One of many Johns out there. Everyone was a John. Still is. I know that now. At the time I didn’t.

I was connected to the customer service department. That’s what I thought. The manager or something. First I was talking to a friendly blonde helpline voice. I can’t remember her name, only the rhythm of her speech. Mechanical. The typical back-and-forth

“Hello thanks for calling how can I help I’m sorry this happened to you I will look into this for you can you please give me your account number.”

No account.

“That’s not a problem sir I will look up the parts and get right back to you can you please provide me with the unit number.”

“NO20–1325-M1513M1”

Next, I heard nothing. Loud and clear.

When she came back on she said, “please hold.”

I heard a crackle. Then it rang two or three times. Then John picked up.

“Thomas.”

“Yeah, hi, I was just talking to your customer service…..”

“Unit number?”

“NO20–1325-M1513M1”

There was a short pause. Then he said, “Where did you get that number?”

The way he spoke to me didn’t sound like please-sir-thank-you-sir customer service speak anymore. I said, “Look, Thomas, I’m just trying to find out more about this, so I…”

He interrupted me, “John. My name is John. John Thomas. Where did you get that number?”

“From the documentation. The manual. Whatever this is. Look, John, I have no idea. I’m just trying to make sense of this. I found this stack of paper in a shoebox with my dad’s old stuff. Took me a few weeks to sift through all of it. None of this makes sense to me. I found this number. I’m glad this still works. Wasn’t even sure if it’s a phone number. I just dialed and someone picked up. And now I’m talking to you. That’s all I know.”

For a moment I listened to John Thomas think. Then he said, “look, I can’t help you.”

Click. He hung up.

What the hell! I dialed again. The number was printed on wilted paper on the back of the torn-up booklet I was holding. The number that had just connected me to the friendly blond helpline voice. Now the line was dead. I tried again. And again. No ring, no beep, no toot. No tone. No sound. Nothing. As if my phone had suddenly stopped working.

That was that.

John Too

Now I’m sitting here on a worn, plastic-covered, charcoal-colored bench seat in the third row of this stretched golf cart thing. 10 years after I spoke to John. We are whizzing around, through the orangey floodlight of an underground manufacturing plant. I’m sitting behind an older couple. Brian and Dorothy. He looks like a tourist. Wild, white hair, round glasses, light blue Hawaii-shirt with a space-helmet wearing wiener dog pattern print. Baggy beige cargo shorts, dad sneakers, white socks, and a clunky analog camera dangling from his neck. He looks excited. Like a Brian in a Hawaii-shirt store. Dorothy looks like a Dorothy. Her mouth smiles. Her eyes don’t.

Behind me, at the back of the cart, on a bench facing the other way, sits some kind of a security person. Neither his mouth nor his eyes smile. The badge on his belt says, John Thomas.

The driver has a shiny round face. Like a friendly watermelon with a comb-over. One hand on the wheel, the other one casually stretched out along the back of the sticky plastic bench he’s perched on. He has a badge clipped to the pocket of his short-sleeve shirt. The badge says, John Thomas.

“Yeah, you would think that stuff like this blows up in the media. But with all the crazy nonsense that’s become the new normal these days, this is just another blip in the multiverse I guess.” John maneuvers the cart around a sharp corner and we drive down a narrow tube that’s been blasted through the rock. We’re headed towards more orange light at the end of the tunnel.

“You know, they always declassify these things and then nothing happens. It’s really quite shocking when you think about it. Like UFOs. Or cat soldiers. Remember those? See, no one cares.”

John turns his head to check where he’s going before he glances back at us again.

“I think that’s why they’re getting more loosey-goosey with making this stuff public. The public only cares when it’s a secret. I mean, yell the most outrageous truths right into their face and they don’t want to hear about it. Because THAT’s the great conspiracy. Right?”

“Anyway, quality control,” he points to an array of workbenches, soldering stations, and all sorts of other instruments and tools. This looks like a movie set for Dr. Evil. Expect to end up in a shark tank at the end of this tour, I think to myself.

John pilots the cart along the yellow lines on the floor, through a labyrinth of conveyor belts, rows of empty shelves, and machinery covered with dusty tarps. This place is enormous. Like a repurposed football stadium for engineers inside a hollow mountain in the middle of a desert. A stadium with no people in it. Empty. And there’s not much to see. Most of the equipment is covered or removed. But what I’m able to see and hear blows my mind.

“How many did they make?” Brian asks.

John glances at John, then shrugs. “Still classified,” he says, “but to this day, there are about 50 million units left out there. Still roaming around.” He chuckles and winks at us. Brian makes a wow-face, Dorothy smiles with her mouth, security-John just sits, and I take it all in.

Two Johns

“They used what they had and did what they could to churn out these post-war models back in the day, you know.”

We stop for a moment outside a big window of what looks like a battery cage for secretaries. One desk behind another, next to another, behind another, next to another. Each desk has a chair, a black rotary phone, and a typewriter.

“But, you know, what they had wasn’t much. Relatively speaking. Everything went into tanks and planes and ships and that sort of thing. After that whole mess in Europe was over with, it took a while until resources caught up to demand. So, when they ramped up production of these, they had to use what was available. And most of the parts were not meant to go into civil units. Given all that, they held up pretty good, didn’t they?”

That’s one man’s perspective, I think to myself.

We start moving again and John waves at a guy sitting in a perch of sorts, a small room on stilts about 15 feet above the ground, with windows on all sides overlooking the vast orange emptiness.

“I mean, given the technology back then, these units have superb capabilities. And to this day, many of them are in decent working order. Just think about it,” he says while going up a ramp, “they can do all sorts of activities outside their core applications and it’s basically just hardware wired together. They can summarize news headlines, rephrase questions into advice, comment, follow basic conversations, stuff like that. Almost autonomous. And most of their baking modules haven’t suffered too much wear and tear, either.” He laughs.

This is shaping up to be more of a post-mortem sales pitch, “John, I’m wondering about the issues with some of these units…,” I start my sentence.

“Look,” he turns around halfway, talking over his shoulder with his eyes still on the corridor we’re driving up, “this is old, dated hardware, right! I mean, look at a ’49 Coupe de Ville or something. You wouldn’t wanna drive one of those around after going without service for seventy-odd years, would you?”

He glances at me, nodding as he agrees with himself. “So hey, if yours can still bake a decent cake….consider yourself lucky!”

We laugh. Dorothy glances at Brian. Brian smiles at Dorothy. We continue.

“But you’re right. Especially these older models go wacko sometimes. We’ve been tracking some deranged behavior over the years for sure. It’s all in the files.”

He drives up to an enormous metal gate that seals the exit. A card reader on the wall accepts his John badge with a short beep and the huge doors slowly start to slide open.

“Newer models run software. That keeps them functional for longer. And you can service them. Outlasting guys in most cases now. A firmware update every now and then, and you don’t have to deal with fatigued hardware so much.”

He slouches over the backrest of his bench while we are just sitting there, waiting. His hands do half the talking.

“The post-war models, however,” his hand runs across his clammy watermelon forehead, “most of the parts can’t be replaced. It’s like the motherboards in some computers. Everything is soldered onto these things and you can’t switch them out. If anything shorts….well, meltdown galore.”

I can feel the massive gates settle into place with a loud clunk, followed by a long beep like the ones you’ve heard in the movies with the villains in their lairs. John turns around and sets the cart in motion. We exit the dim orange guts of the mountain out onto the bright hot yellow surface.

We drive past abandoned Quonset barracks on a sandy road alongside an old wire fence. On the other side is nothing. Just that.

“They’ve churned them out to get things going again quickly after the war. And no one thought about the fallout when those things go haywire after a few decades. It’s what the government does: kick something loose, and let the next generations pick up the pieces.”

Security John looks over his shoulder and clears his throat. Driver John drives and moves on.

“Anyway, it’s weird how those things pan out sometimes. When you get to the bottom and find out why certain things are the way they are, you know. They just put them out into the wild, and went all hands off when they noticed that some of them are going nuts.”

A wire fence gate blocks our way back around to the main barracks and the parking lot where we left a couple of hours ago. Security John gets up, walks around the cart, and places his badge on a card reader.

“There were all these units out there, deployed into tens of millions of households all across the country and there was no way to fix them. And you couldn’t just say ‘Hey, we have all these moms out there and their circuits are shorting and, by the way, we can’t fix them, so, good luck and sorry.”

John is facing us and makes his point with an exaggerated shrug-like gesture and a sorrowful watermelon frown.

“So leave it up to the people and this great nation to come up with solutions, right?! Whole industries have sprung up to tackle this problem. The upside, I guess, is billion-dollar markets and millions of jobs to fix a problem that we created in the first place. Greeting cards, flowers, pralines, little knick-knacks, stuff like that. Ever wondered why these silly gifts are so big?”

Brian leans forward, Dorothy smiles. This seems to be an effort to inquire in his indoor voice: “What do you mean?”

“The sensors of the units of these generations are wired to a temporary failsafe system. I’m not an engineer but it’s basically their acoustic and their optical sensors that are wired to bypass their switchboards in the event of a system glitch.”

John stops the cart at the front entrance of the military compound where we started our tour and continues.

“Certain visuals or auditory signals will trigger the system to respond in a way that will cause minimal or no harm to other equipment, to the environment, or to people. That’s how a failsafe works.”

“In short: if your mom is a post-war model and a fuse blows, give her some flowers or a little card with some random fluff on it. That should diffuse the situation long enough to get away. It’s not a be-all and end-all solution but works as an emergency measure under most circumstances.”

He steps off the cart and uses his hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

“Alright folks. That’s it, that’s all. Drive safely. And don’t tell anyone or we will have to terminate you.”

The Johns laugh.

About the Author: Nick Lions is a former hero. Now he is middle-aged and tired. He writes Sunday Stories From The Next Stage. Every other week. Subscribe here to get them delivered right to your inbox.

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Nick Lions

Narrative is the code to program reality. I Publish News From The Next Stage. Every other week. — www.nicklions.com