“And the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.” — Shakespeare
by michael c. keith
Channel 64 had been anxiously awaiting the delivery of its new million-watt transmitter from China for over a year. It had taken the remote Arizona public television station five years to win approval from the Federal Communications Commission to dramatically boost its signal. The powerful transmitter was unlike like any of its predecessors. Its design required merely one fifth of the electrical power and space of most conventional transmitters. In addition to those very appealing features, the new Sangwon 507 Sky Blaster configured a broadcast signal that guaranteed non-interference with other stations. Indeed, that had been the basis for the FCC’s approval.
When the transmitter arrived, Giles Bookwaller was elated. For him it was a wish come true. During the fifteen years he’d served as KXOP’s chief engineer, he had battled to keep the station accessible in its most populated signal areas. Between the low power assigned by the FCC and the age of the transmitter, this was a formidable challenge for Bookwaller. The constant harping by the station manager, Bill Fableau, about the lousy reach of the signal kept him in a nearly constant funk. When he had come across an ad for the Sky Blaster in Broadcast Engineering, he felt it could be the answer he had been hoping for. What additionally excited Bookwaller was the transmitter’s price. While it was not cheap–no television transmitter is–its remarkable features made it a bargain.
It took Bookwaller a while to convince Fableau to inaugurate a fundraiser for the transmitter and even longer to accumulate the pledges necessary to purchase it. When the station finally did, it then took even longer than expected to get it delivered. Now, as Bookwaller took apart the wood crate that had carried the new piece of equipment from the Far East, he joined the loud, churring calls of the Cactus Wren that were ubiquitous on the plateau–the site of KXOP’s offices, studios, transmitter, and antenna.
“Whoa, there you are, you beautiful thing!” blurted Bookwaller at the first sight of the Sky Blaster. “Jeez, only about the size of my old desktop computer. Amazing!”
While he had seen its specs in the material sent to him by the Sky Master’s manufacturer, its actual dimensions surprised him.
“You’re about a fifth of the size of Big Bertha here,” he said, nodding in the direction of the old transmitter, “And ten times more powerful. Those Chinese are remarkable. How do they do it?”
Despite a sudden severe and unseasonal lightning storm, Giles decided to fire up the new transmitter. He new it was counterintuitive to test it during an atmospheric electrical disturbance, but he didn’t want to wait any longer. To avoid disrupting the station’s programming, he installed the Sky Blaster after the station signed off at midnight. By four in the morning, he had successfully tested the field strength of the new piece of equipment by calling station employees in far-flung locations of KXOP’s signal area. The results were impressive. The station reached everyone loud and clear.
“Never got the station this good,” proclaimed KXOP’s receptionist, who lived the greatest distance from the antenna. “Whatever you did was magic, Giles. Gonna make a lot of folks happy around here. Want me to call my cousin in Safford to see if she can get the station up there?”
“Yeah, you do that, Helen, and call me right back.”
The signal proved to be strong in Safford, a town that had never been reached by KXOP’s previous signal.
“Hot dog!” bellowed Bookwaller, when he got the news. “Sky Blaster it is. It’s going to change things big time.”
The station was soon flooded with emails and calls from delighted viewers, and before the week was out KXOP’s donor pool had nearly doubled. Bill Fableau was beside himself with joy and promised Bookwaller a salary increase.
“You sure did breathe new life into these old call letters, Giles. I thought for sure our days were numbered with old Big Bertha. This rights the sinking ship. I’d kiss you if you weren’t so damn ugly.”
* * *
However, on Monday of the following week, during KXOP’s live broadcast of its “What’s Up, Southern Arizona” morning show, something truly inexplicable happened. As cohost Marge Lebow was discussing the aesthetics of cactus floral arrangements, a man in his underwear appeared out of nowhere on the chair next to hers. It caused her to jump and strike her hand on the needles of a baby Ferocactus. A loud scream followed. John Cahill, Lebow’s cohost, sat riveted to his seat, his eyes fixed on the unexpected guest.
“What . . . how . . . who?” sputtered Cahill, as the equally befuddled visitor gazed tentatively at his surroundings.
The half-naked man then stood up and ran around the studio, frantically looking for an exit. When he finally located one, he dashed into the desert howling like a coyote.
“What the fu . . .! Did that just happen?” inquired the director in the control room. “Get the cops. Tell them there’s a wacko running around the station. How the hell did he get in? The studio door is locked.”
“Don’t know. It was like he just appeared out of thin air,” replied the audio technician.
Meanwhile, the hosts of “What’s Up, Southern Arizona” sat frozen as their images were telecast to the viewing audience.
“Tell them they’re still live!” shouted the director into his headset.
The floor manager jumped from his stupor and nodded. For the remaining fifteen minutes of the program, Lebow and Cahill pretended that calm and reason had been restored, but their inane dialog suggested otherwise.
“What in God’s name happened?” inquired Fableau, who had seen the bizarre broadcast at home. “Was this naked guy hiding behind the chair, for chrissakes?”
“No!” protested Marge, still frazzled by the extraordinary event. “It was like magic. He just popped up next to me like he’d been beamed in from somewhere. The chair was empty one second and the next this man in boxer shorts was there. I don’t think he even had any idea what had happened. Did they find him yet?”
“The cops are looking but so far nothing,” replied Bookwaller.
“Just some kind of kook. Keep the studio door locked from now on.”
“It was locked . . . always is locked when we’re live,” replied the director.
“So, how the hell did he get in there?” snapped Fableau.
The response from viewers was nominal, most thinking it was just part of the show. A handful called the station wondering about the sudden materialization of the “underwear guy,” as they called him, but no one was really disturbed by the incident. Nothing else out of the ordinary happened until the end of the week when four women suddenly issued forth in the middle of “Cooking Without Killing.” Sally Franz, the show’s host, was in the middle of a diatribe regarding the dangers of high cholesterol cake frosting when joined by the disoriented homemakers.
The women were quickly escorted out of the studio and two were treated for shock. Again, the police were called, but with no reasonable explanation for how they got there by either station personnel or the women themselves, they were merely sent home. Sally Franz was so shaken by the episode that she could not go on with her program. She promptly left the station, speculating that the studio was the site of some kind of demonic portal.
“Lord knows what it leads to or what else is going to shoot out of it,” she shouted back to Bill Fableau when he asked her where she was going. “And don’t expect me to return until it’s thoroughly investigated!”
“Jesus, can things get any worse?” bellowed the station manager as the host of his most popular local program drove away.
Things eventually did get worse.
* * *
Three weeks passed with no further aberrant disruptions, and everyone at the station breathed easier, although the mystery about what had happened never left anyone’s thoughts. Then the dreaded boom dropped. As KXOP was in the midst of conducting its semi-annual fundraising telethon, its phone bank volunteers suddenly found themselves being pushed aside by dozens of instantly appearing strangers. Before long, the station’s main studio was overrun by people in all manner of dress and several in no clothes at all.
“Go to tape, Giles!” demanded Fableau. “This is insane!”
After the studio was cleared out, the flustered station manager met with his staff in an attempt to shed light on the outlandish happenings. No one, including Fableau, could imagine why people were materializing out of thin air during live broadcasts. But there were suggestions about how answers might be found. The station’s program coordinator recommended that the station hire a paranormal investigator to probe the matter. Other staffers said the station should go off the air permanently because it was endangering the lives of its viewers by apparently pulling them from their homes to the studio.
“And most of these people are just disappearing after they show up here,” offered Kitty Maynard, the receptionist.
It was during this discussion that Giles began to connect the Sky Blaster to the incomprehensible occurrences. It’s just been since it was put on line. He decided to keep his suspicions to himself. The idea that the new transmitter was somehow responsible for transporting viewers to the station during live shows sounded too absurd.
When the station signed off at midnight, Giles attempted to open the transmitter to examine it, but its access panel would not budge. He decided to consult its specs, but they were not in the place he had filed them. This is crazy, he thought. It’s like Hal in 2001 Space Odyssey, he mused with growing frustration. No matter what he did, he could not access the interior of the Sky Blaster.
The next morning, Giles told Fableau his theory about the transmitter.
“A teleporter like in Star Trek? Jesus, why would it be doing that? How could it be doing that?”
“I have no idea, and it’s only a crazy theory. But how else can this stuff be explained? It only happens during live shows, so if we don’t air any, we might be okay until this can be figured out.”
“Everything has gone to hell anyway. The telethon is ruined. Cops, reporters, and ghost busters are all over the place.”
“I tried to reach the Sangwon people in China, but my email bounced back. I couldn’t reach them by phone either.”
“Maybe we should just go dark until this thing is resolved. That’s it. Gotta do it. Kill the signal . . . now! This shit has to end,” ordered Fableau.
“Are you sure, boss?
“Damn sure. Pull us off the air.”
Giles went to the transmitter and pressed the off switch, but the Sky Blaster remained in operation. What the . . .. He pressed off again, and nothing happened. The signal continued unaffected. Holy crap! Well, there’s one way to take you down, thought Giles going to the electrical circuit panel. He pressed the breaker connected to the transmitter but it would not move. Son of a . . .. Okay, time to play hardball. He then hit the master circuit and everything went dark, except the lights of the Sky Blaster’s meters. Shit, still on! How the hell . . .?
“What’s going on, Giles?” shouted Fableau. “No power anywhere.”
Giles pressed the master breaker, and the lights came back on.
“We got a big problem, Bill.”
“The transmitter won’t shut down. It’s on auto pilot, and no matter what I do, it sends out a signal.”
“You got to be kidding? Okay, we’ll just put up the ‘technical difficulties’ slide. Screw it.”
“We could disconnect the line to the transmitter,” offered Giles.
“To hell with it. We’ll just air the slide. Better than going dark anyway. You’ve got to go to that manufacturer in China. Get there as fast as you can. Those bastards built this goddamn thing. They can figure out what the hell is going on.”
* * *
Two days later, Giles arrived in Yinchuan, China. He grabbed a taxi to the address of the Sangwon factory. But when he arrived at the location, he was surprised to see only a vacant lot.
“No, no. This is the wrong address,” he explained to the driver, who answered him in broken English.
“Yes, 4211 Tiancun Lu. Is place,” replied the driver pointing to the paper in Gile’s hand.
“Need Sangwon factory,” said Giles. “This is not the Sangwon factory.”
”Sangwon factory? No Sangwon factory in Yinchuan. No such place.”
“There has to be.”
“No . . . no Sangwon factory here,” responded the cabby, shaking his head.
“Okay, let me out here.”
Giles walked down the street and found nothing at all that resembled a manufacturing building anywhere nearby. Get another taxi. Try again. Maybe the guy was wrong or didn’t understand me. After several minutes, he managed to summon another taxi.
“I need to find the Sangwon factory, please. You know where it is?” he asked the driver in what was nearly a pleading voice.
After a long pause, he was told that there was no business by that name in Yinchuan. Giles was about to argue the point, but then decided to return to his hotel. Maybe someone there knows where the factory is, he thought, his level of anxiety rising. His concern would peak when the hotel desk clerk and the manager corroborated the taxi driver’s words.
“See, nothing in business directory,” said the manager holding a thick volume in his hands. “Live here all my life and no such Sangwon. Maybe have wrong city?”
Giles returned to his room and Googled the plant, but this time there was no listing. No, this can’t be happening. Sangwon existed. I had contact with them. We paid ’em. They sent the friggin’ transmitter to us. What in God’s creation is happening? Contacts with nearby cities, and eventually the American embassy elicited the same results–no such factory existed.
Giles spent a sleepless night, and the next morning he flew home completely flustered. He was totally perplexed by his unsuccessful attempt to make a connection with the company that made the Sky Blaster transmitter. His email to Fableau was met with utter disbelief and rancor.
“Christ, Giles, you bought this damn thing. You knew them. What the hell is going on? Didn’t you check their credentials?”
Giles had to admit that he never did any background checking on the company. Its website was tremendously impressive and contained many glowing customer testimonials on its products. Nor had he contacted any of his engineer colleagues about the manufacturer, satisfied as he was with its on-line storefront and other links that purported a positive relationship with Sangwon. Shit, why didn’t I? My bad! My goddamn bad!
* * *
Giles retrieved his car from the Phoenix airport garage and began his nearly two-hour commute home. He planned to stop on his way in Taylor for lunch and check out KXOP TV’s signal. Since he had landed he was unable to access his email, and his cellphone had mysteriously gone dead and would not take a charge. Can anything else happen? he wondered, fearing the answer.
As expected, the television at Daley’s Café in Taylor was tuned to ESPN. He asked that it be switched to KXOP for a moment and was happily obliged. What he saw shocked him. The studio was filled with people moving trance-like from the main door to the fire exit–a seemingly never ending line. Giles asked to use the phone and dialed the station. There was an automated out-of-order message. Giles left without waiting for his cheeseburger.
Just a couple of miles outside of Taylor, Giles discovered something that made him almost swerve off the road. The station’s antenna, which could always be seen twenty-miles away, did not appear on the horizon. He floored the accelerator and shot across the empty desert. Holy shit! he blurted, when he realized that the station building was no longer there. Indeed, nothing remained of the station site. No structures, parking lot, or antenna. No evidence on the ground to verify that anything had ever been there. There was nothing to be seen anywhere.
He drove into the nearby village and found it empty. His stomach churned and he felt light-headed. This is worse than a nightmare, he moaned. Everyone is gone. How . . . how? He sat staring at the ghost town around him and then drove to his house that sat on the hill above it. Exhausted and shaken, he just wanted to sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up and all this will just be a mad dream. Ten hours later he woke up . . . in darkness. There was no electricity in his house.
Giles stood on his deck and looked in the direction of the Petrified Forest, some fifty-miles away. The small towns that checkered the desert no longer broke the solemn darkness with their soft lights.
The wind pressed hard against him as he took in the endless panoply of stars and planets. One object shone a hundred times brighter than any other. But when Giles blinked, it was gone.
(Illustrations: john richen)
Michael C. Keith is the author of several story collections. www.michaelckeith.com More from Michael C. Keith can be found in the Vault of Smoke.