I had lost track of the days. The first hint that I was near my destination was the glimmer of the plastic sheets flapping in the desert breeze. It was still early — I tried to do most of my walking in the small hours, and sleep through the burning heat of the afternoon.
I first heard about the colony some years back. In fact, I had been at Christchurch College, Oxford, with the founder, Tom Novak. He had been a physicist in those days, whilst I was studying medicine.
Both of us had squandered our early promise. I had simply refused to ascend the career ladder, knocking around various physician jobs on cruise ships and in hotels.
Novak, meanwhile, had left England for the United States after graduating. He finished his PhD. at UCLA in two years and took up a research post in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Soon after, during at a conference at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, he walked out one night and vanished into the Nevada Desert.
My alumni magazine even ran an obituary a few months before he re-surfaced as the leader of a newly formed cult.
Novak’s group rejected anything that ran on electricity. Their literature consisted of hand-written leaflets on thick, homemade paper. They had a surprisingly wide circle of sympathizers who would distribute them in Las Vegas, beneath placemats in restaurants, under hotel pillows and so forth. From Las Vegas, the leaflets found their way into the wider world, and hence onto the Internet.
Novak attracted some attention, most of it derisory: Of all the unusual beliefs held by cults, opposing electricity was one of the most ridiculous. People would have understood Novak’s point of view if it had been five years ago, when everyone was worried about the amount of coal and oil and gas we had left to burn, and what the byproducts were doing to the atmosphere.
But to object to electricity just at the point when we were about to get a limitless source of clean, wireless energy was just perverse.
Gleam was a technology developed by a private multinational corporation. It promised to make our old system of cables and plug sockets as antiquated as dial-up. It involved two major breakthroughs.
The first was a method for generating power from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. The second was a way of transmitting this power, wirelessly, across vast distances. The technology was safe, clean and durable; the manufacturers estimated that once an ocean station was set up, it could run for over fifty years with minimal maintenance.
Like everyone else, I was initially skeptical of Gleam. It seemed like a distraction from the real issue: How were we going to manage what we had? Chasing after another version of cold fusion or the perpetual motion machine struck me as a frivolous distraction at best, or downright obstructive at worst.
But then, who was I to complain? I was happily installed as the hotel medic for 2525, a new casino on the Las Vegas strip with a kitschy 1950s futuristic theme. My employer was running up some of the biggest electricity bills on in town, against some pretty stiff competition.
The first tests of Gleam exceeded expectations, and soon the industrialized nations agreed to pay a massive lump sum to install and operate Gleam across the globe.
The advantages were obvious; it would solve climate change with no need for anyone to alter their lifestyle. Gleam-driven desalination plants would solve the water crisis. Old power stations could be shut down, kept as tourist attractions perhaps, like the stately homes of England.
Traditional cars were scrapped, and sales of new-build Gleam vehicles provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the automobile industry. Cable-free electrical items became common in the shops.
Within a couple of years, the world had entirely switched over to Gleam, and luddites like Novak, stuck out in the desert with his pitiful colony of cranks, were entirely forgotten about.
Everyone has a story about where they were when Gleam went wrong. This is mine.
I had been working late in my office, inputting body mass indices, smoking status, alcohol intake and so on into my computer. I finished at last, rubbed my eyes, and turned off my desk lamp.
I say I turned it off; what actually happened was that I flicked the switch on my desk lamp, and it stayed on.
I made a mental note to get it fixed the next day. Then I shut down my computer. The screen darkened and the fans clicked to a halt; there was less than a second’s pause before the machine made a soft ping and started up again.
Annoyed with myself for pressing restart, I tried again, making sure this time that I hit the “shut down” button.
This time, it didn’t shut down at all. I decided to leave it, like the lamp, for tomorrow. After all, it could hardly do any damage to leave things switched on these days. I put on my jacket, went to the door and touched the light switch. The light didn’t go out. I added it to my ‘to do’ list.
I made my way back to my room. 2525 was like all Vegas hotels — to get anywhere, you had to go via the casino floor. It was around eight o’clock at night, but it could have been eight o’clock in the morning, or any time in between.
There was no natural light; neon and lasers provided a constantly changing display, bouncing off the chrome surfaces. Waitresses in short metallic skirts, see-through plastic tops and silver wigs carried drinks from table to table. They had to shout to make themselves heard over the din of conversation and pumping electronic music, punctuated by the occasional downpour of coins from the mouths of the slot machines.
I caught sight of Mary, someone I’d been involved with in an on-off Vegas way for a few weeks. She pulled a plastic ray gun from her holster, pointed it at me and pulled the trigger theatrically, mouthing the word “pow.”
I didn’t know what that meant, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out. I was still irritated by the problems I’d had with the electrics in my office. Gleam had made me take technology for granted; everything had become so reliable you almost stopped noticing it was there. A glitch like this was unsettling.
I gave a quick wave and a complicated shrug that indicated I had somewhere to go, and walked swiftly between the machines, tables and tourists, away from the cacophony.
The night before I reached Novak’s colony, I had become aware of a flickering, ghostly light behind a ridge up ahead. As I approached, I heard what sounded like a babble of voices, music, white noise, all competing with one another, like a party before you find your friends and tune into a single conversation.
When I traversed the ridge, I found a large stack of television sets, all switched on and flipping themselves rapidly through the channels. I moved closer, to see if I could find one broadcasting anything useful. It was impossible to distinguish any individual voice, and in any case, the channels were changing every couple of seconds.
My room in 2525 was on the ground floor. Casino medics pooled their evening duties, and it was one of my nights off. I decided that I would have a quiet night in, ask the kitchen to send me a pizza, and watch a couple of movies on TV. I swiped my card in the lock, and the green light flashed.
I walked in. All of the lights were on, in both the main room and the bathroom. So was the TV.
This had happened before. The chambermaids had plenty of rooms to get through, and they tended to neglect the ones occupied by staff. It wasn’t unusual, in fact, for me to come back and find more evidence of a coffee break taking place in my room than of any actual cleaning.
I pressed “mute” on the remote control, walked across to the bathroom, and slid my finger over the touch-sensitive pad that controlled the light. The light stayed on. I wondered if there was a manufacturing fault with the switches in the hotel, causing them to all pack in at the same time. And what was wrong with an old-fashioned rocker switch, anyway?
The television suddenly burst into life.
“ — electrical fault affecting some rooms. Engineers have been called and are trying to resolve the problem as soon as possible. Meanwhile, why not unwind with the Rockettes in our Launch Pad Lounge …”
It was the hotel TV channel, presented live from the casino floor by an actor who had played Flash Gordon or possibly Buck Rogers in a re-vamped show that lasted about six episodes ten years ago. I opened up a beer from my fridge, slipped off my shoes and sat down on my bed.
There was a crumpling sound as I reclined against my pillows: I lifted them, and found a thick, brownish piece of paper, foolscap size, inked in neatly printed black letters:
“GLEAM: SOMETHING FOR NOTHING? THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS!”
It was another leaflet from Novak. I skimmed through it and put it in the bin.
“— other hotels on the strip may be affected by this problem, which we expect to be fixed within the next hour or two,” the television said.
I flicked it over to a movie that looked like it didn’t require too much attention. I called for my pizza, and opened another bottle of beer.
I fell asleep before the end of the film, and woke up to find the TV still on. It was a little after seven. The noise was competing with a news report coming out of my clock radio. I tried to switch off the TV, failed, and then attempted to mute it. The sound cut out for just a second before coming back on.
I tried to hear what the man on the radio was saying. His voice sounded serious and urgent. I threw my duvet over the television, muffling it.
“— affecting not just Las Vegas, but cities across Nevada,” the radio said.
It was difficult to judge distance in the desert, and my initial burst of energy on seeing Novak’s settlement soon dwindled. By the time I reached the first huts, I was exhausted and thirsty, and my head was pounding. I had not taken enough water when I started my expedition, and I was running seriously low. In the previous twenty-four hours, my sole intake had consisted of a mouthful of lukewarm, plasticky water, washing down a melted chocolate bar.
There were no signs outside the encampment, no gates, no guards. I counted around two-dozen huts and a couple of caravans. The majority looked new and clean: evidently the size of Novak’s camp had swelled significantly over the past couple of months.
A woman dressed in a blue pinafore was playing with a small child in the dusty yard around the front of one of the cabins. I waved at her. She looked up, squinting into the light, and adjusted her red headscarf.
“Hello!” I said.
“There’s no need to shout,” she replied, primly.
Had I been shouting? I supposed I must have got used to raising my voice before I left the city.
The sole distinction in my medical career is probably this: I treated one of the first casualties of Gleam.
I was listening to the news report, which continued to say not very much, when my phone rang. Someone hurt in room 401, blood loss, ambulance dispatched but I was needed to hold the fort until it arrived.
This wasn’t the kind of thing I was used to as a hotel doctor. The majority of the work involved treating emphysema and heart failure in the numerous elderly patients who used the cheap room rates, plentiful food, daytime activities, and ever-present company to turn the casino into a viable alternative to an old folks’ home.
I grabbed the orange emergency holdall and hurried out of my room.
The casino floor was filled with people milling around in last night’s makeup and yesterday’s clothes, smelling of stale alcohol, their faces vague and distant as if they weren’t fully aware of their surroundings.
In other words, things were still normal.
I headed for the lifts. There was, however, a crowd around the doors, and as I watched, the chrome dial indicating the floor the lift was on flipped back and forth like a Geiger counter.
I took the stairs at speed, the bag getting heavier on my shoulder as I approached the fourth floor. Fortunately, 401 was situated near the stairwell, and there was a steward standing in the corridor to point me to the room in question.
I hastened in and threw the bag down. A middle-aged man, dressed in a bathrobe, lay flat out on a bright red rug; a darker, brownish puddle of red was welling up over his right shoulder.
There was a tang of cordite in the air, and a substantial dent in the metal cabinet that the television rested on. The television itself was still on.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I couldn’t turn off the damn TV,” he yelled, “so I decided to shoot it out!”
This was, I would soon discover, a typical reaction to Gleam’s malfunction.
The woman in the pinafore directed me to a large, silver caravan in the centre of the settlement. I walked up the steps and banged on the door. I rested my hand on the metal; it was warm to the touch.
The door opened to reveal a man in his early thirties. His blonde hair was long, with streaks of silver; he brushed it away from his face, revealing a pair of thick glasses fixed and fixed again with duct tape. He was wearing navy polka-dot pajamas and a tartan dressing gown.
“Nick?” he exclaimed, and extended his hand. I shook it; in the years since we had last met, it had become rough and calloused.
“Two Englishmen far from home,” he said.
By the end of that first day when nothing would switch off, Gleam had malfunctioned across the whole of North America. The rest of the world soon followed.
2525 responded with a special announcement, made by ex-Flash/Buck. It played end-to-end on the hotel channel. Guests were reassured that the government and the Gleam Corporation were working to resolve the problem. Guests were advised not to try deactivating hotel electrical items themselves; management would remove these on request.
These arrangements broke down after about a week. Staff were becoming exhausted constantly shifting television sets and light bulbs back and forth; the lifts had been forcibly stopped in a daring rescue mission by the fire service and were beyond repair; and there were hints that the Gleam problem was getting worse.
The air conditioning was now being driven full blast, so that people were either walking around clad in blankets or breaking windows to let in some warmth.
The infrared-controlled taps in the washrooms were permanently on, and there were worries about a potential drought.
All airplanes were grounded, and cars were beginning to have problems with their electrical systems.
Everyone was going to have to stay in Vegas, at least until Gleam was fixed.
Novak opened a hatch set into the base of his caravan, and pulled out a thick glass pitcher, with large droplets of moisture running down the sides.
“Iced tea?” he asked, then added, apologetically, “Well, not iced, but cool at least.”
He poured me a glass of the brown, clear liquid. I drunk it greedily, savoring the taste of citrus and tannins.
“It took me a long time to devise a way to cool tea to just the right temperature,” he said, “but isn’t that the way it should be?”
“I read your leaflets,” I said.
“It made everything too easy,” he said, “electricity.”
It was as if he was talking to himself. He scrutinized me. “You used to wear glasses.”
“I had my eyes lasered.”
“You see what I mean,” he said, “it makes things too easy. Things are meant to be difficult sometimes. We need to make choices – so much effort for so much reward.”
“Are you talking about Gleam?”
“No. Not specifically. Gleam was just the latest example. The idea that everything in life should be easy. It’s like being addicted to a drug.” Novak got up and drew back the curtain over the main window. The morning light shimmered off his glasses. “Right now, everyone is going through withdrawal.”
The hotel tried to run a new system of “on” and “off” suites: you would have two sets of rooms, one with everything plugged in and switched on, the other with everything removed.
Soon the news came that a flotilla of Navy submarines sent to destroy Gleam installations had been lost without trace.
I reckoned things wouldn’t get back to normal, not for a long time, perhaps not ever.
I cleared a space on the table amongst the papers and candles, and put down my glass.
“What happened to you, Novak?” I asked, ‘“why did you come out here all those years ago?”
“I had an evening off at the conference. I played the slots.”
“I put in one dollar, and I made one hundred.”
Novak topped up my glass with the rest of the iced tea.
“I thought,” he said, “what if everyone in this casino could do what I just did? What if everyone could make a hundred dollars that easily?”
“It couldn’t be done,” I said.
“Now you say that.”
I stood on the strip, and looked at the city for the last time. Arcs of lightning fired between the pylons, and the air hummed and tingled against my skin.
The street was deserted apart from a few people; looking closer, I saw that they walked with the awkward, silent-movie jerk that indicated their nervous systems were now under the control of Gleam.
I could smell something acrid and synthetic, like melting tires. The sky was a burnt orange colour, and the stars were invisible.
I hitched my rucksack onto my back, and walked out into the desert.
Niall Boyce lives and works in London. His stories are gathered at his website, Strange Powers.