Happy Sixty–Short Story
by Eland Robert Mann
David Mann woke up at dawn on the morning of his 60th birthday, walked to the basement workshop of his modest suburban home, and dug through a stack of old belongings until he found the never-opened chest he had locked 40 years previous to the day. It was a wooden chest no bigger than a shoebox, with a rusted latch and padlock. He had misplaced the key in the intervening years, but the lock responded to the judicious application of a hammer. There inside was the gift given to him on his 20th birthday; the gift that had remained unopened for 40 years; the gift from the stranger, who was at once both mysterious and familiar. He referred to that man as a stranger, but every time David looked in the mirror he saw his features becoming more and more like those of the old man, and less like the young man who’d turned twenty years ago. The old stranger had brought David the mysterious chest as gift, as well as a torrent of jumbled words. The words the old stranger spoke had sounded incoherent at the time, but over the decades he had discovered they were predictions about the course of his life, accurate with a startling intimacy; accurate in every detail, and never wrong. David hovered over the unopened chest. After 40 years, he’d finally discover what was inside. He opened the chest.
David Mann—known in the community as Dr. Mann, gifted surgeon and teacher—was a family man. He and his wife Heather had successfully raised two kids into adulthood. Soon after the nest became empty, David and Heather retired to sail the Caribbean. Friends and family saw a couple happily living out their hard-earned dreams. But only David knew the truth. Everything since his twentieth birthday had been done in adherence to a strict plan.
He unwraps a present from his grandmother—a paisley shirt. He’s twenty years old today—September 9, 1973—and home from college for the weekend, happy for the company and the home cooked meals. His family insists he wear the shirt. The collar is itchy. Ever since he graduated high school he’s found the house increasingly stuffy. He steps outside for a moment onto the back stoop to get some fresh air in the cool September evening.
The sky is clear, but David senses a growing electrical current in the air. The sound of chirping crickets dies out. Then, a flashing burst sears his eyes. A soundless bolt of lightning strikes the clothes line in the backyard. David, stunned, blinks his sight back as the crickets’ chirping returns. From amongst the line of drying sheets a bald, old man in a lime green jumpsuit tumbles to his knees. David runs to help. The old man, gasping for breath, thanks David as he gets up.
“You ok old man?”
The old man smiles. “There you are, David. How about that.”
“Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” said the old man. “But you must listen to me, there’s not much time.”
The old man picks up a small wooden chest from beneath the clothes line.
“A birthday gift, for you.”
David looks at the old man cross-eyed. “Who is it you said you were?”
The wind returned to the old man and an unexpected energy issues from his being. “In this chest is a gift, but you must not open it today. It is a gift for you on your 60th birthday. Until that time there is much you must do.”
“Wait a second—”
“No!” interrupted the old man. “Listen carefully. You must save the world, and your family.”
“What are you talking about?”
The old man grabbed David by the collar with a surprising strength. “Graduate college. Go to medical school. Residency at Cook County. There you’ll meet your wife.”
“What are you telling me?”
“I’m telling you your future, dammit! Now, you’ll wander around a little after your residency—Ohio, California, elsewhere—but you must take the job in Madison!”
“Yes, Madison! Then flying lessons, get an airplane; sailing lessons, get a boat. You’ll raise two kids—a boy and girl. Take care of the family. Travel as much as you can. Be healthy—take special care of your heart.”
“Why are you saying all of this?”
“Because you’ll need it! Every bit of it. Manage your money right and at 55 you retire. Move onto a boat. Become a captain. When you’re done sailing, volunteer for the Red Cross. Make sure the boy leaves D.C. after college, and the girl leaves New York. Stay in Madison. Then, on your 60th birthday” he said, as he handed David the chest, “you may open this box.”
Forty years later, after a lifetime spent following the shadow of the old man’s predictions, David stood in his basement workshop staring at the open chest. Tucked inside squishy foam, as if it was a firearm, was a single, matte black, rectangular object that looked like a hardcover book. He withdrew it from its casing and discovered the object was much thinner than he expected, rounded on the edges and quite smooth to the touch. There was the silhouette of an apple in the center. He turned it over and saw a large screen. It couldn’t be.
It was an iPad 5, which weren’t even released yet. A charger was beneath it at the bottom of the chest. He plugged the iPad into the wall and pressed its lone button. The face of the old man appeared on the screen.
“Welcome, David,” the old man said. In the video, which appeared to have been recorded on a webcam, the old man sat at a desk in an office. He wore the same green jumpsuit, as if the video was made just before they first met on his 20th birthday.
“If you are watching this video that means you have followed my instructions over the past 40 years. Congratulations. Happy Sixty. But now, finally, your true moment has arrived. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but let me confirm it for you—I am you, at age 75. In the year 2028 I traveled back in time to visit you, when you were 20, to give you guidance so that you can change the horrible events of the future. Today I must give you your new mission. Our entire lives have led to this.”
David wished he had made a pot of regular coffee before he decided to open the chest.
“In July of 2014,” the older David continued, “a little less than a year from your current time, the Event occurred. The Event was so cataclysmic as to destroy millions of lives and alter the balance of power and stability throughout the planet. It has killed everyone we ever loved. For fifteen years I have been working to gain access to a time machine, so that I could change the past and stop the Event. Now the moment has arrived, and it is up to you.”
A slideshow of future news articles and photos of mass destruction appear one after the other on the screen. “As far as we know, this is what happened. In the early summer of 2014, Hurricane Corrine hit the Chesapeake and DC Metropolitan area. The devastation was enormous, hundreds of lives lost and billions of dollars—but this was nothing compared to what would come only days later. The world did not know it, but the greatest loss during Hurricane Corrine was the failure of the electrical infrastructure of a secret military installation in Northern Virginia, near Fort Belvoir, known only to a select few circles as ‘Area 10.’
“At the time of the natural disaster, the commander of Area 10—a Major Watts—was vacationing on Roanoke Island. Due to the highly important nature of the installation, his duty was to return as fast as possible. However, the extent of the destruction, and Major Watts’s own personal injuries, meant he was delayed by a day. One day too many. You see, the installation was a brand new, top secret, officially non-existent Defense Department supercomputer. After the hurricane, other leadership decided to switch the operation of the nation’s defense network back to the former computer, which had been scheduled for de-operation. On July 3rd, as our nation was preparing to celebrate its independence, the entire defense network was returned to its former home run by the outdated supercomputer. Unfortunately, the former supercomputer had been compromised in the interim. A large team of veteran hackers based in the Middle East—we think Iran—were already inside. Once the network was transferred, the hackers gained access to a goldmine of top secret data. They were only inside the mainframe for two minutes before their presence was noticed and the entire network was sent into its default emergency setting, but hackers had enough time to absorb about 5% of the most sensitive information on the planet. The Iranian hacker team intensely analyzed the data and within 24 hours discovered a US program that itself was also hacking into the network of another country’s nuclear defense program: Russia’s.
“The US plan—in the event of nuclear war—was to hack into Russia’s network and use their arsenal against them. Simple and safe. The problem was Russia’s computer defense network was always several weeks behind the latest hacking developments. With a little time and effort, it was possible for the most elite hackers to peek inside Russia’s network—and maybe even take it over. That’s exactly what the Iranians did on July 4th, 2014. The US and the rest of the world were completely unprepared. The hackers remotely launched 4 ICBM’s from Pervomaysk, all of which hit their targets. Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington, DC were leveled, 10 million dead, before Russia pulled the plug.
“As a member of the Red Cross I was one of the first to respond to the disaster. The Third World War ensued over the next 2 years, but I spent that time helping to evacuate the east coast. I had nothing else to do. It took me years before I was sure, but I know now that my daughter died in the destruction of New York, and my wife and son in the destruction of DC.
“During those first weeks in the aftermath I tended to a man by the name of Adams, an Army Captain who was sick with fever after surviving the blast. In his delirium, he revealed he was a responsible for the administration of a top-secret installation in Northern Virginia. He mumbled frequently about ‘Area 10.’ As he healed, word got out about what had likely happened. Area 10 was revealed to the world. In his undying shame for his part in the failure to uphold national security, he told me everything. Over the following years I learned what a principal role Major Watts played in the slew of rash decisions which led to our destruction. I told myself if I ever got a chance I would go back in time and help Major Watts; to save my family, and stop the Event from ever occurring. Little did I know, I’d one day be in the position to do just that. Or, rather, it is you who is in position. Finally.”
12:06 PM. July 2, 2014. Roanoke Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina.
The wind is picking up. The news tells us the tropical storm might turn into a hurricane, but it will only briefly touch land, and well north of here. I know different. Yesterday I went hang-gliding at a local rental shop. Major Watts and his wife were in my group. Once the hurricane strikes, I’ll make contact.
The wind is raging now. I’m well inland, underground beneath the staunchest house on the island. But even if there wasn’t an impending hurricane outside I couldn’t sleep. To think, the East Coast may be ravaged by a nuclear holocaust in less than three days. Well, not if I have anything to do with it. At least my family will be safe. But I must make sure the world is a safe place for all of us…
At last—this heroic talk is making me sleepy. I’ll call it a night. This is my last entry in the diary before my mission. If all goes well, nobody will ever read it.
The hurricane bombarded the island for four tortuous hours. When it was done, the Island resembled a ruined sandcastle, destroyed by the tide and the feet of an impish god. I grabbed my stocked backpack and ran into the wind. A mile down the road was the beach hotel where Major Watts was staying. I discovered the hotel roof partially caved in when I arrived. Inside, about 30 people were huddled together in the kitchen of the hotel restaurant. Major Watts was weeping over the body of a woman reclined on a countertop. I ran to them.
“Major Watts?” I asked.
The man turned around, devastated but uninjured.
“I’m Dr. Mann. I’m with the Red Cross. I’m here to bring you back to…to Fort Belvoir. There’s an emergency.”
“A doctor? Please, you must help.”
“Where are you hurt?”
“It’s not me, it’s my wife,” he said, swaying above the woman on the countertop.
I looked at her and saw a lot of blood on her left side. A makeshift tourniquet covered the wound but wasn’t doing much good. Her eyes were closed, but she was still breathing, if laboriously.
There was internal damage and she required immediate surgery. Major Watts acted as nurse. I used the supplies in my bag and in a couple hours the internal bleeding was stopped and her breathing returned to normal. I left Major Watts with his wife and went to the bathroom to wash up. Major Watts walked into the bathroom a few minutes later.
“Dr. Mann, right?”
“Fort Belvoir, you say?”
I nodded. “Area 10.”
Major Watts peeked outside to make sure nobody was eavesdropping and then locked the door.
“I figured I had to get back there, but I couldn’t leave my wife behind, not like that.”
“That’s what I’m here for. The region has been hit pretty hard. Hurricane Corrine touched the mainland as a Category 5, with a direct hit on the DC area. We were just at the edge of the worst of it.”
“We have 12 hours to get back to base. There are some in the administration who are talking about relocating the network back to its former home in the old supercomputer.”
“What? But that’s being deactivated. The system has been open to compromise for weeks.”
“Then we’ve got to get back. But hell, the bridges have been destroyed.”
“Then we need a boat.”
On the leeward side of the island Dr. Mann and Major Watts found a small, sturdy sailboat in a dry-dock garage. It was the last boat left intact on the island. They sailed across Albemarle Sound from the Outer Banks to the mainland. Three hours of heavy winds threatened to capsize their boat several times, but David’s nautical experience made up for the Army Major’s naval greenness. They landed in Davis Bay, south of Elizabeth City, a stone’s throw from the regional airport.
“Let’s hope it works,” grunted David.
The wreckage of hangars and aircraft were strewn about the runways behind them. David and Major Watts stood just inside the entrance of the one large, blocky concrete hangar left standing. An old National Guard modified Beechcraft Baron twin-prop was inside the hangar.
“Find some fuel!” David hollered as he ran to inspect it. “We’ve got 6 hours left before we’re too late. Flying this thing will take at least a couple hours, so let’s move it!”
An hour later they were a mile above the ruins of North Carolina. David consulted the flight charts in his bag and positioned their course to the Davison Army Airfield. Major Watts looked approvingly as David adjusted the dials.
“A surgeon, sailor and pilot? Is there anything you can’t do?”
“I’ve been lucky to have some training. But I can’t do everything. When we get there, it’s up to you to keep our network safe. They surely won’t listen to me.”
The Major nodded. “I appreciate everything you’re doing, Dr. Mann.”
Major Watts looked out the window and smiled. “We’ll be there with plenty of time.”
“We’re not there yet.”
Minutes before their destination the plane’s left engine began to sputter. David looked sidelong at it and watched a foul black cloud burst as the propeller came to a full stop. Major Watts’s eyes widened.
“Don’t worry,” David said, “we’re fine as long as we have one engine.”
The control panel popped and fizzled and in seconds the second propeller lurched to a stop.
“Oh shit.” The plane began to descend into a heavy nosedive. The airfield was nowhere in sight. Beneath the plane, the DC suburbs stretched for miles.
“We’re going to have to set it down on a street.”
“God help us!” shouted the Major in terror.
“Come on,” said David. “We knew it couldn’t be that easy.”
The plane rattled and threatened to spin, but David held it steady. Right before they nosedived into the ground, he pulled back as hard as he could. The front tilted up and they crashed on the plane’s belly. It ricocheted down a long street, losing a wing to an oak and flipping completely over before it came to a stop. The cabin of the Beechcraft Baron miraculously remained intact.
Dr. Mann and Major Watts unbuckled and dropped to the ground.
“You alright?” David asked.
“I’m fine, but how close are we to the base?”
“I’d say it’s still miles away. We’re running out of time.”
“Dammit!” shouted Major Watts. He paced around, breathing heavily. “Who knows what could happen if we don’t get there.” He grimaced and clutched at his chest.
Oh no, David thought. Major Watts fell to the ground. David rattled something from his bag.
“Here,” David said, pushing two little white pills into the Major’s mouth. “Take these.”
Major Watts ate the pills as he writhed on the ground, groaning in agony. But the fit passed as quickly as it had come on. The major, covered in sweat, sat up and looked David in the eye.
“Hot dog, you thought of everything, didn’t you? What were those?”
“Aspirin,” said David.
“You brought those in case I had a heart attack?”
“No,” said David, “in case I did.”
Major Watts chuckled and looked around. The entire residential neighborhood was destroyed. Few houses and trees were left standing. Something silver glinted in David’s eye amongst the wreckage.
“How do we reach the base now?” The Major asked, wincing as he spoke.
David looked at the shining burst of silver—a 1978 Porsche 911.
“Follow me,” he said.
They reached Area 10 with an hour to spare. The personnel at the base had split into factions, and outside leadership was threatening to pull rank. Major Watts ended any discussion of that. The network of the Defense Department was saved. The Major called David later to thank him.
2:00 PM. September 9, 2014. Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
David approaches the podium. A medal is pinned to his chest. Words of thanks are spoken which will never be spoken again. There are no reporters. The medal is then withdrawn. Area 10 does not exist. David leaves the Fort with nothing more than he came with. His wife, son and daughter are waiting for him at a hotel in DC. He enters the room, the old stranger in the lime green jumpsuit drifting further from his mind every day. Happy sixty-one, they sing. And many more.