The Caretaker And The Thief


I was 13,000 feet high and staring down the black heart of a precipice. Above me I could hear the distant yawn of thunder. Another avalanche was coming. The mountain had spoken.

Giddy from lack of oxygen and balanced on a thin ledge, I clawed with frozen fingers to hold on, planting my pick deep into the ice. Instinctively, I knew I had to get a surer footing before the snow struck like a tidal wave. I dug my feet in horizontally and screamed ahead to my Sherpa, Gunther. ‘Get the hell back. Its coming. Another one’s coming.’ He looked my way as the words were blown sidewards and carried off into god knows where. It didn’t matter, the fear on my face told the whole story as the world turned white and disappeared.

I awoke, concussed, my breathing slow and heavy. I couldn’t feel my face or fingers. Gunther was standing over me, smiling, dressed in animal furs and makeshift boots. He removed his oxygen mask and placed it over my face. Somehow we’d made it. Gunther must have pulled me up onto the ledge after Id blacked out. He turned away and pointed, mouthing words I couldn’t understand. His accent was strange and his language ancient. I lifted my head to see.

In the distance thick plumes of grey smoke were rising, blackening out the horizon.

‘God damn maniacs,’ I gasped between gulps of air. ‘There’s nothing left to burn but someone has the bright idea of setting fire to what’s left. Savages living out of tin cans. Trying to keep warm.’

It was a city on fire, or what was left of it. Ashen and lifeless like some great fallen concrete monster with nothing to feed on – its lights extinguished and electricity dead. The grid had failed decades ago after the power stations had gone into global meltdown polluting everything and making life on earth impossible. The sun was blotted out by a thick black ash sky. There was no food, no power, and few survivors. Some still clung onto their old lives, their old ways, ruthlessly beating the food and warmth from their fellow man in the dying cities whilst others lived their lives out in the frozen wasteland where nothing grew except the cold. The earth was sick and polluted. Mankind was dying.

‘They’re just a bunch of savages clutching Gucci handbags in one hand and clubs in the other. God help us.’

I stood up and steadied myself against the cliff face. We were on a six foot ledge and Gunther had already made camp. He must have used every muscle in his body to pull me to safety after I’d blacked out. I thought of thanking him but thought better of it; I knew it was pointless. We didn’t speak each other’s languages but had developed a physical understanding. I sat down next to him and drew a fresh breath of oxygen. The tanks were almost empty.

‘How. Much. Further?’ I asked. Gunther stared back at me, his red face blank, his words excitable. He spoke in short sentences, occasionally gesticulating with his arms and pointing upwards. I didn’t understand.

‘Up?’ I said. Pointing to the sky.

‘Up’ he replied, copying my speech.

‘I thought as much,’ then laughed to myself for the first time in as many days. At least we understood each other.

Id met Gunther at Base camp and heard he was the most experienced Sherpa on Mount Bergen. If anyone could get us to the summit, to the hidden mountain entrance, Gunther could. He’d grown up in these conditions and scaled the surrounding mountains many times, his body hardened to the temperatures. Rumour had it that he led countless expeditions, surviving whilst others died, trying to reach the summit. Most tried to enter from the sea level entrance but the army had sealed that decades ago. They had built a 10 foot thick titanium door and blasted the mountain to hide it over 200 years ago. Even if you could find the entrance it was impenetrable.

Gunther was my best hope. He knew the mountains and the mountains knew him. They had an understanding. He would live even if others died.

After gauging the wind direction, we made camp. We couldn’t risk being caught in another crosswind or avalanche. It was too dangerous and we were too damn tired. We rested, ate, and waited out the blizzard until dawn rose.

We started early and worked slowly on, our bodies weighted down by our equipment and lack of oxygen. Every movement made each limb feel like lifting a huge weight; each limb, simply another stone in a sack of flesh walking on the bottom of an ocean. God knows I wanted to stop and rest after every few metres and get my breath back, but Gunther was unforgiving, and kept pressing on. There was no turning back now. Like most mountaineers, I knew that ascending a mountain is the easy part, its the getting back down to the ground that kills most climbers. Going back down alone meant almost certain death and climbing up would mean the biggest score of my life.

For the next few days we worked silently in unison, one man roped to another man like two common criminals tied to the same hangman’s noose; scaling this great stone adversary. One false footing and the other climber would have to hoist their partner back towards safety and surer footing. Like a loyal dog, Gunther had saved my life many times. We pushed on, higher and higher, each day bringing more and more obstacles as the cold sunk into our bones and took root there.

One the fifth day, Gunther died.

I was becoming accustomed to the cold now – the ice clinging to my clothes and turning it to stiff cardboard, the frost forming on my goggles. I was slowing down. I checked the oxygen tanks and the needle was swinging perilously to red.

We climbed the cliff stealthily, picks in hand, and made one final push over the edge and onto the mountain ridge. I lay on my back, smiling, and gasped and heaved for air. Gunther lay next to me and removed the oxygen tanks from his back. Without thinking, he handed me his mask. I breathed deep and the oxygen rushed to my brain and body, relieving all the aches of deprivation. I felt good again. Gunter stood over me and and offered me his hand. I took his hand and pulled myself to my feet as we exchanged a smile and a nod to our success.

I saw my chance and shoved Gunther toward the edge. He slipped and fell.

It was all over in seconds. His face blank as his body sank backwards silently through the air. Falling. I watched fascinated as this grown man seemed to shrink from life almost as if he was living life in reverse and not ageing, but returning to child-size, and then further back into nothing. It was a strange grand illusion; some magicians trick. Up here, with the lack of oxygen, everything was slightly unreal.

His body bounced off the rocks below and disappeared from view.

‘Goodbye Gunther. Thanks for your oxygen, I wish we could’ve been friends,’ I said.

I strapped on the remaining oxygen tanks, wound his elasticated mask around my head, breathed in and made my way along the ridge. On one side was a huge sheer drop of tens of thousands of feet below and on the other, a bottomless gauge in the bowels of the mountain. The ridge was beautiful and perilous. Death stared back in both directions. I marched on, pushed back by forty mile an hour winds that threatened my balance on the snow dusted caps. After three hours I reached the end of the ridge and saw an obscured ledge big enough for a helicopter to land. 

I made my descent as the mountain winds began to sing and soar.

Once on the ledge I began wading into the snow that had built up against a strange unnatural sheer vertical surface. It was a steel door, maybe 20 feet wide. I moved my hands in a circular motion, wiping away the snow, looking for a lock or a key pad – a way in. Slowly, letters began to reveal themselves, forming words. ‘Ahær Personnel Telukkende.’ I continued to uncover more until I found what I was looking for. ‘N – A – T – O.’ I smiled to myself. I was here.

I found a key pad and began to chisel away at its concrete surroundings until it became unhooked from the steel door. Multi-coloured wires darted off in all directions back into the mountain. I cut the red and green wires and fused them together. Nothing. No sparks. No alarms. Nothing. Either the power had long since failed or I was doing something wrong. I tried again, this time cutting a thick black wire and fusing it to the yellow. Still nothing. I slid down to my knees with my back to the door, defeated. Despite the odds, Id made it to the mountain peak and found the hidden door. I hadn’t thought of what Id do if it didn’t open.

I tried one more time to trip the circuit but still the door didn’t open and the ledge was too exposed to make camp. In frustration I pounded on the steel door with my fists until my gloves were bloody. The steel door echoed around the mountain as I screamed at what was left of the world. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t feel my hands and the door was still stuck fast. My oxygen wouldn’t last forever.

I sat myself down in the snow and contemplated my options. The sun was going down and the wind was rising. I could climb neither up or down. Everything had been for nothing – I would die up here alone, frozen for all time like a Greek statue.

Without warning the door mechanism creaked and bolts turned. The door began to slide open.

Dying from cold and exhaustion, I stumbled into the mountain entrance and the door closed behind me. Disorientated, I stumbled forward, whilst red lights flashed all around me as an alarm sounded somewhere in the distance. I removed my oxygen mask and breathed what tasted like fresh air.

Suddenly, a voice boomed in my ears and echoed around the mountain interior ‘Welcome, my friend. Its been such a long time since we had a visitor. How nice. Follow the steps down to your left and join us for dinner.’

I blacked out.

Some time later, I regained consciousness and took in my surroundings. Unless I was dead or dreaming, fresh air really was all around me, filling my lungs and soothing my oxygen starved brain. But it wasn’t recycled air. How was that possible? This place had to have been sealed over 200 years old and yet there was fresh air coming up from below. It didn’t make any sense. Cautiously I made my way down the steps, following the overhead red flashing lights and towards the distant alarm.

I turned a corner and stepped into another world.

I was standing in a vast cavernous mountain interior filled with all the beauty of a lost green world. Forests, trees, grass,fields of corn and flowers blossomed in this great stone greenhouse; full of life. I took a breath and marveled at things Id only ever seen in books or been told about as a child; the colours were breathtaking. I staggered through the vast cavern running my fingers through fresh blue flowers alive to my fingertips.

‘How on earth?’ I muttered.

Vast golden fields of wheat shone the colour of sunlight. There was enough vegetation and beauty here to reintroduce agriculture, fresh food and crops all over the world. I had struck gold.

‘How on earth, indeed! Ha ha.’ echoed a voice. ‘How apt a turn of phrase can be, don’t you agree, Mr…?’

A figure approached. Half my height and silhouetted against the bright cavern lights.

‘Yes, What is your name. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?’

I took a step back, astounded, not quite believing my eyes. Was I hallucinating? Had I gone mad or was I still trapped outside the mountain, dying of oxygen starvation and imagining a better fate.

‘Don’t be alarmed. We mean you no harm…We’re simply curious.’ came the voice again.

The figure whirred towards me, no more than a feet away, carried along by a rusty wheelchair.

‘Is this real…?’ I asked.

‘Yes, everything you see is quite real. We’ve been curating this for 200 years in the event of a global disaster. We have our own generators here. Electricity. Huge hydroponic lights. Fertile soil. Running water. All the comforts of home sweet home.’

‘What you see before you is humanities last hope, a seed bank. A single seed for every plant and vegetable has been safely stored in our vaults. These trees, flowers and crops you see before you are a simple hobby. This is, for want of a better word  – now what is it they used to say – Ah yes, a old fashioned garden fête, a flower show. It helps me pass the time and I’m quite the gardener.’

‘The name’s Wilkins, Professor Wilkins. Pleased to meet you,’ said the man.

I shook the old man’s limp hand and tried to take in my surroundings. The rumours were true. This place was real. A vast environmental complex that harvested seeds from the worlds diverse crops and vegetation. A reset switch ready to be thrown so humanity could start again. It was more incredible than anything I could have ever imagined. One vast emerald Eden.

‘My friend’s call me Stoker,’ I said. ‘But I don’t understand. How come you’re still alive, you’re still here. I thought this place was abandoned years ago. There’s no way anyone could have survived down here for so long…There’s no way in or out’ I said.

A look of tiredness and anger flashed across the old man’s face which he tried to conceal. He quickly regained his composure, and stared silently back at me. His face was grey, wrinkled, his clothes dusty and worn. A single red bow tie completed his outfit. Quite the professor.

‘Now, now, we can talk the details that later. Come, join us for dinner, we probably have all sorts of things you’ve never tasted before. Fresh food for a start. Ha. It’ll be a pleasure to have company after so long. Its just been me and Sebastian; all this time.’

‘Who’s Sebastian?’ I questioned.

The professor swung his wheelchair around and raced off into the mountain chamber. I followed.

Wilkins toured the complex, darting from room to room, staring at faded wall charts and ancient computers. He tapped command strings into green screened computers and muttered about air contaminates and soil samples. He was either the architect of this great vault or its caretaker.  

The professor ushered me to a seat in one of the many stone rooms and I sat down. Immediately, drawers in the walls spilled open, revealing steaming hot, cooked food.

I clawed at the plates with my swollen hands and stuffed different coloured vegetables into my mouth, greedily. I was too hungry to explore the strange tastes and textures and forced plate after plate of hot food down my throat until I could eat no more.

Wilkins eyed me watchfully but didn’t partake. For him food was an abundance and most likely a chore. To me, food meant survival, and had to be consumed like an animal whenever and wherever it could be found. Usually from tinned cans years past their best before date. 

‘Id like you to meet my companion, Sebastian’ said Wilkins.

I looked around but there was no-one else. I assumed Wilkins was either joking or half insane from the endless years of solitude and confinement.

‘Now, now Mr Stoker, don’t be shy. Say hello. He’s already met you. In fact, he’s staring at you right now.’

I lifted my head and saw a security camera above. It appeared to be pointing a me.

‘Sebastian is rather curious – like a child. He wants to know why you’re here. So – do – I.’

Wilkins’ face transformed. His jovial look of friendliness had been replaced by red faced concern.

‘Why are you really here, Mr Stoker? If that is your real name.’

I began to explain that I had been ambushed at the foot of the mountain and had made my escape upwards towards safety. Wilkins looked on, unconvinced, as I reeled off lie after lie. Embellishing my story with pathos as I mentioned the tragic loss of my Sherpa, Gunther, off the mountain edge. I stopped and stared hard at Wilkins to gauge his reaction, his next move.

‘Hmm, that’s all very interesting, Mr Stoker, but Sebastian has been analysing your heart rate. He suspects you may be…how can I put this delicately?’

‘Lying.’

Wilkins circled his chair around the room and headed for the door. To lock me in.

Once again, I saw my chance and took it.

I didn’t care about my fellow man. Humanity had doomed itself. All I needed was one seed from the vaults and I would be the richest man on earth. Politicians and countries all over the world would outbid each other to buy back a single seed to begin restoring their crops, their food source, their survival. The building blocks of life.

Grabbing a fire extinguisher from the wall, I lifted the canister high above Wilkins head and brought it down hard with a dull thud. A crack appeared in his skull as blood ran down his forehead and splattered on the floor. The left side of his face was sliding down, bloody, and torn. A pool of blood formed on the floor as his wheel-chaired stuttered forwards in short staccato bursts. His chair shuddered forwards in fits, his wheels tracing a pattern in the blood on the floor.

‘Sebastian…’ he moaned. ‘Initiate…protocol ninety seven.’

I brought the fire extinguisher down again, hammering the life from Wilkins’ living body as blood and bone shattered inwards, bleaching his white clothes red from the inside.

Professor Wilkins was dead.

I ran back into the main chamber in search of his companion, Sebastian. I searched methodically, room by room, encountering nothing but a festival of ancient computer banks. Lights, read outs and computations, green screens and stonework.

Sebastian was nowhere to be found. I decided Wilkins must have been mad.

Sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself? Who am I? Why am I here? I cant offer any explanations, except to say, like everyone else I was doing it for selfish reasons. Pure and simple. I wasn’t trying to save the world or achieve some meaningful personal resolution. Like everyone else, I was trying to get rich and survive.

But there was a problem. I knew that if I was to increase the seeds value, that I would have to destroy the vast mountain agricultural reserves and  Wilkins’ garden would have to die with him. It was simple market economics. The less there was of something, the greater its value; and I had every intention of becoming the richest man on earth.

I wandered around the complex looking for an accelerant. Eventually, I found an old cellar containing generators, cleaning products, bleach, cloths and printer paper. I set to work pouring the bleach onto the cloths and rolled the paper into a balls. I lit the paper and threw it into the wheat fields, beneath trees, and into vegetation. Whole fields puffed into flames, bursting with colour and smoke.

The overhead extractor fans coughed into life as Wilkins garden burnt on for hours.

I held a cloth over my face and made my way back to the steel door I had entered hours before. It was sealed shut and my technical knowledge hadn’t been good enough to open it in the first place. Someone, or something had simply let me in. I ran back down the steps and tried to find the ground level mountain entrance before remembering it was blasted shut. There was no way out.

Desperately, I headed to the seed vault and tried to open it. Wilkins had mentioned that the vault contained a bio diverse seed crop of over 4 million seeds. All I needed was a single seed. Life’s building block. One man’s fortune.

There was a panel on the side of the vault, Wilkins was dead, and I didn’t know the combination. I removed the key panel and tried to short the circuits and trigger the mechanism. Several times the key code flashed green with a satisfying hum but the door still held fast. I slouched to the floor and cursed my luck. This could take days.

A voice filled the dark.

‘I’ve been watching you.’ said the disembodied voice. ‘You killed Wilkins.’

I turned sharply and looked behind me. There was a pillar of smoke that resembled a person, it slowly thinned out in all directions and then floated off into nothingness, lost in the ceiling. An illusion. I didn’t recognise the voice and it wasn’t Wilkins. But I knew who it was.

‘Sebastian,’ I pleaded. ‘Is that you? Listen to me. We can work this out. Just tell me where you are?’

Silence.

I stammered on, trying to buy time whilst I worked out which direction the voice was coming from. To come up with a plan. ‘Lets talk’ I said. ‘We can make a deal. Split the money from the sale of the seeds. Fifty, fifty. You and me. Rich together. We don’t have to go on merely surviving, living day to day like dogs when we could live like kings.’

Without warning, the omnipresent voice boomed from huge klaxons all around me, bouncing around the cavern. It was loud, alive and seemed to be addressing me from every direction.

‘Wilkins was no more a Professor, than you are. He came here like you. Fifty years ago. A killer. A thief.’

I looked around, disorientated and distraught. The remains of the wheat fields and bare trees smouldered, shorn of life, crisp and dead. I ran from room to room and found no-one there but the voice continued on. Deafening, like the voice of god or a conscience I never had.

‘Now he’s dead I will need your help maintaining the seed bank,’ said Sebastian.

Immediately, I understood. Wilkins hadn’t been in charge. He’d been a prisoner.

‘You are his replacement,’ came the voice.

‘In time, you too, will come to accept your position here and become the man you were meant to be – a Professor Stoker.’

I ran along corridor after corridor, seeking out the source of this insanity, this lone voice mocking me at every turn. ‘I’ll find you and I’ll kill you, wherever you are’ I retorted. ‘You cant hide. There’s nowhere to hide.’

‘You cant kill me. I’m not even alive – but I’m still more human than you are, Stoker.’

I searched frantically in room after room, finding no-one. Eventually, half mad with blood lust and confusion, I discovered a long dark tunnel that led to Sebastian. His lights began dancing on the screen as he spoke. He wasn’t human, he was a giant supercomputer built into the mountain, protected by a wall of unbreakable glass, and impossible to reach. His voice droned on. Unstoppable.

‘Don’t you see? Man has failed where computers can succeed. Computers do not feel primitive emotions such as greed, envy and hunger. We can rebuild the world your ancestors destroyed. And given half the chance, would do so again.’

‘Your humanity must be restored.’

I stood shaking with anger and disbelief, grabbing anything to hand and hurled it towards the glass as the objects simply bounced back, striking the floor.

‘The seed bank has a fail-safe, a time lock. In another two hundred years, when the earth has reached an equilibrium that could support life, the door will automatically open. Then you are free to leave.’

I stood in disbelief as Sebastian’s words echoed throughout the vast impenetrable mountain chamber.

‘Welcome back to the human race.’

Wilkins wheelchair raced towards me independently.

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