The World in Gunnar’s Barn
by Rob Dinsmoor
The whole damned thing started when I finally got around to returning Gunnar’s rototiller. For months, I thought he’d be over asking for it, but then November hit, and the ground turned hard, then spring came, and now summer, and I figured I’d better return it before we both forgot he’d lent it to me.
Rototiller in tow, I went over and knocked on the door to his garage, stepping carefully over an old army surplus gas mask and what looked like a rusted-out Geiger counter.
It wasn’t really a garage in the sense that Gunnar never parked his car in it. He parked it in the driveway, even in the winter, leaving space in his garage for all his “projects.” I use the quotation marks because they weren’t your ordinary projects. Some guys have miniature train sets or build boats they’ll never launch.
A retired middle-school science teacher like me, Gunnar couldn’t be bothered with mundane hobbies. One year, it was a computer powered by pigeon brain cells, but the best he could do was use it to make a computerized Ping-Pong game. He once tried to clone his dog, but the results were too depressing to even talk about.
There wasn’t much sound coming from the garage, but I was sure he was there. Much to his wife’s consternation, I assumed, he spent most of his time out there.
I knocked. When there was no response, I knocked again. This time he opened the door about three inches. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I just wanted to return your rototiller.”
“You can lean it up against the barn,” he said, “barn” being his quaint word for his garage. I supposed it was a barn as much as it was a garage, at least the way he was using it.
“Okay,” I said, leaning it against the wall.
His eyes darted from side to side. “Hey, you know where I can get an electron microscope?” he asked. “I can’t find one on e-Bay.”
“Not offhand,” I said, and I knew what was coming next.
“You want to come in and see something cool?”
Inside, on a large piece of plywood, was a petri dish with floodlights on it. In the petri dish was some kind of soil sample with moss or something growing on it. He had a cheap-looking microscope set up over it, the kind that high school or college students use to look at prepared educational slides of skin cells and such. “Look into the microscope,” he said, insistently.
I looked into the eyepiece. What I saw was some green matter — maybe algae — that was separated by even-looking lines of some other color, lighter, shade of green. These were traversed by wider brown-colored streaks.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, to which he replied, “You tell me.” That kind of irritated me, because he was the one all eager to show me something.
“What are those streaks?” I asked.
“You tell me,” he said.
“They look kind of like rows of corn or something,” I ventured.
“Bingo!” he said. “Not corn, of course, but some kind of crop.”
“Except I’m not sure what those brown veins are.”
“Irrigation ditches?” he ventured.
“Irrigation ditches,” I said, processing it. “Made my whom?”
“By whoever lives down there.”
After he said that, I looked up from the microscope and stared at him in disbelief.
“You have a better explanation?”
“Where the hell did you get this sample?”
“You know that meteor shower we had last month?” he asked, and I nodded just to save time. He opened up one of his cabinets and produced what looked like a rock broken in two with the insides chipped out. “I tracked down the meteor and found this dirt and stuff growing inside.”
* * *
After a few sleepless nights spent reflecting on what was going on in Gunnar’s garage and wondering whether he was pulling an elaborate practical joke, I stopped by again to borrow his drill. When he opened the door, he asked me to come in carefully. Now he had a wide patch of soil with the green moss or mold growing all over some kind of large circle of glass about six feet in diameter. He had a transparent dome over it and what looked like a much fancier microscope on a plastic runner over the dome, held in place by clamps.
Gunnar was enthusiastic. “I bought some potting soil and grafted the meteor dirt onto it. Whatever’s growing there has taken off like crazy! I had to pawn Nicki’s grandmother’s earrings to come up with the funds for this stuff, and she’s going to go postal when she finds out. I want to show you something.”
He moved the microscope along the tracks until he found what he was looking for. Then he had me look through the eyepiece. As expected, I saw the “crop rows” and the “irrigation canals.” But this time, I saw something even more unusual: there were little veins of some kind, and what looked like tiny grains of sand moving slowly through them.
“What the hell are those things that are moving?” I asked.
“You tell me! At first I thought they were like rivers, but when I got this new microscope, I could tell that there wasn’t liquid in there but individual little specks, which all kind of move by themselves.”
“Do you think the specks are our little friends?”
“No, our little friends are way too tiny to see under a light microscope. I’m thinking these are some sort of transport systems.”
“You mean, like cars?”
“Maybe cars, but on the scale these guys are working on, who knows? Maybe some sort of magnetic material or something, but they definitely seem to be going places, and with a purpose in mind.”
He adjusted the microscope again and showed me something else: In the midst of all the greenery, there were what looked like tiny rectangular crystals; some were spread out sparsely and some were clustered together and resting on top of each other. “Buildings! Towns! Cities!” he said. “Civilization is happening right in my barn here!”
“Are you crazy?” I asked, something I’d been asking myself for years. “You’ve only had this thing up for a few days. How is that possible?”
“Whatever life is here under this dome — and I think it’s intelligent life — is happening at an accelerated rate. And I think I know why. Because they’re so tiny, things move more quickly, including their physiology, their progress, and their evolution.”
* * *
That night, I heard knocking on the door. I threw on my bathrobe, and there at the door of my side porch was Gunnar. “You gotta come see this!” he said, his voice bordering on panic now.
Barefoot, I crossed my driveway to get to his barn. He opened the door and led me in. There, the entire dome was lit up in a ghostly blue. I looked down at the algae or whatever it was, and noticed that the light came from thousands of tiny luminescent dots.
“Very cool!” I said. “How the hell did you do that?”
“I didn’t do it!” he snapped. “They did it!”
“You’re saying they just invented the electric light bulb?” I asked, incredulously.
“It could be electric, but they might have just found a way to harness phosphorescent material and use it to make artificial light. And there’s something else. I think I’ve seen them.”
“Did you get a more powerful microscope?”
“Nope. Better.” He picked a tiny portable color TV, circa 1985, off the floor and turned it on. It took a moment to warm up. He switched the channels and what we saw next, in a small square in the middle of the TV screen, was a grainy image of what looked like tiny squid moving around very quickly and making a noise that sounded scratchy, like cicada. “What the hell?” I asked.
“This is the television signal I got from inside the dome. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. If they’re advanced enough for incandescent light, maybe they’re advanced enough for TV. And this is what I came up with.”
“How do you know you’re not getting really messed-up reruns of I Love Lucy or something from a Chinese TV station?”
“Because the signal is coming from inside the dome,” Gunnar explained. “Besides, North American TV has 525 lines. I had to play with the controls because our friends here use only 492. Now watch.” He moved to his laptop. “I recorded some of their transmissions onto a DVD and then figured out how to slow down the playback.”
He pressed the “play” button and now I saw the squid things again. They were trading little tiny specks at a fairly rapid pace while I could hear what sounded like voices speaking Mandarin. Or, more precisely, arguing or haggling.
“Oh, my God, it’s some kind of marketplace!” I blurted out. “It’s like an alien version of the Home Shopping Network!”
“I was thinking the same thing!”
“This is beginning to get a little freaky,” I said to Gunnar at that point. “I mean, how many of them are there down there?”
“I don’t know,” Gunnar said. “Millions, at least.”
“Shouldn’t we be alerting the authorities?”
“The authorities? And who would they be?”
“I don’t know. The police?”
“The Government? The Center for Disease Control? The FBI?”
“Assuming they don’t just think I’m a crank, what could they do? And do you trust them not to exploit something like this? I think we’d better keep this to ourselves, at least for now.”
* * *
It was a few nights later that I realized that things had gotten way, way out of hand. I heard what sounded like a cap gun being fired from next door. Not even as loud as firecrackers, but a constant little pop-pop-pop. I put on my bathrobe and went over to Gunnar’s garage. Gunnar was just coming out of his house as well. “Thank God Nikki’s at her mother’s this weekend,” he said as we went in.
A tiny section along the edge of the dome was lit up like a lightning bug. Gunnar looked through one of the microscopes and said, “Holy... You gotta look at this!”
Through the eyepiece, I could see sparks flying, but they weren’t random sparks. The sparks seemed to be coming from three our four disparate locations and converging on a cluster of “crystals,” which was glowing.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked.
“Looks like they’re going to war, and their weaponry seems pretty sophisticated.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“What can we do?”
“I wonder how many of them are getting killed? How many women and children...” I started to say, but then wondered exactly what sort of life form we were talking about. Did they even have genders or were they self-replicating? Whatever they were, they were clearly an intelligent life form, because it takes intelligent life to engage in something as stupid as war.
Over the next several hours, we watched the war proceed, with one “city” getting trashed and then another getting trashed while the first one got rebuilt and so forth.
But a funny thing happened: The weapons were getting more powerful and sophisticated. Now one city could zap a light beam clear across the dome and reduce another city to rubble. “What happens when they outgrow that thing?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if their weaponry becomes more advanced, as it seems to be doing, then when will they be able to blow open the dome? Blow up your garage? Blow up your neighborhood? And what would happen if these incredibly quickly evolving creatures and their belligerent civilization are set loose on the world?”
“I don’t know... I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Maybe we ought to call the authorities,” I reiterated.
“I think I can handle the situation myself.”
“How? By trying to warn them?”
“No,” he said. “I’d just have to terminate the project, that’s all.”
“Gunnar, those are sentient beings in there. Do you know what you’re suggesting? It’s genocide.”
“Well, from the looks of things, they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it themselves. Besides, if it wasn’t for me, most of them wouldn’t be alive today. If I made them, isn’t it my right to destroy them?”
He agreed to turn over some of the tapes he’d made of sounds within the dome. I knew it was a long shot, but maybe I could figure out their language before it was too late. Then I could pull a The Day The Earth Stood Still kind of thing, telling them to change course before it was too late.
I played the tapes over and over again in my office, trying to identify key sounds that were repeated in order to make myself a kind of Rosetta Stone. But linguistics wasn’t my forte and, besides, I had no frame of reference, no way to match a sound to an object or event.
As I was trying to transcribe some of the “conversations” on my computer (“fosteady bee yee nitro?”), I looked out my office window to see Gunnar bringing big sheets of foam packaging into the garage. For a while, I tried to ignore him and let him do his thing, but curiosity got the better of me, and I went down and looked in the garage.
Using a staple gun, Gunnar was affixing the sheets of foam to the walls. “Nikki gets home tonight,” he said. “If she hears a racket coming from the barn, she’s going to go ballistic!”
“Do you need an extra hand?” I asked.
“Just keep on top of your project. If we’re going to spare these little guys, we have to come up with some kind of plan.”
And so I kept transcribing till I finally fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning.
* * *
I awoke to Gunnar banging on my side door again around daybreak. “Come quick! I need your help!” he said. Before I could even grab a cup of coffee, I was over there in my bathrobe again, now looking at a cracked, charred dome. Underneath the dome was a layer of ash. Whatever had happened in there was very violent, and there were holes in the dome.
“The little bastards just destroyed themselves,” Gunnar said, “and I say good riddance! Now we’ve got to clean up this mess before Nikki comes home and I have a lot of explaining to do.”
I became aware of buzzing. There were at least a dozen flies coming out of the dome, flying around the garage, and landing on windows, tabletops, and various tools. This struck me as odd, because there was no smell of rotting food or anything else the flies might be interested in, just the smell of burnt wood and ashes.
I helped Gunnar lift the dome and carry it out behind his garage to the dumpster he always kept around for when he was done with his various projects. One of the flies landed on my forearm arm and stayed there, even as I swatted at it. I took my reading glasses out of my bathrobe pocket, put them on, and examined the fly.
It was no ordinary fly. It had a metallic luster, like a fruit fly, but without the color. Its wings were not rounded but relatively straight, and its eyes resembled windows of a cockpit. When it finally took off from my forearm, its wings didn’t move; the thing simply hovered into the air.
No, it definitely wasn’t a fly. If it’s what I think it is, God help us all.
Copyright © 2017 by Rob Dinsmoor