Mark Bilsborough vs. Wil R.P. McCarthy
So damn dark down here. Just stumbling around since Kovac died, like we don’t know what to do. Hell, we don’t know what to do. Damn straight.
“Move it, Nikki. What you waiting for?” That’s Brennan. Loudmouth.
“Just where do you want me to ‘move it’ to? You see a big sign saying ‘Exit’?”
“Yeah, well. We stay here we’re screwed.”
“We’re screwed anyhow,” says Choi. Defeatist.
I look around, not that there’s much to see. Rock, mainly, and lots of it. The lights are down in these parts of the tunnels so we’re on head torches, but the Company’s given us the crap ones to save costs, so we can barely see at all. We’ve been down here for four hours and I don’t know whether we’re burrowing deeper into the asteroid or heading up to the surface. The low gravity’s making my head spin and giving me a headache. Nothing feels quite right and I keep banging into things.
“We should turn back,” says Rose.
“We’re not heading back,” I say. I turn and shine my helmet light into the face of the guy behind me. That’s Brennan. He isn’t paying attention so he doesn’t stop. Nearly knocks me over.
“Get that light out of my eyes.”
“We need a plan.” I figure it’s time for someone to take charge. Might as well be me.
“Get out and go home, that’s the plan.”
“No, that’s the desired outcome. And to get to it, we need a plan.”
“We’re wasting time.”
“Shut up, Brennan. She’s right.”
Thank you, Rose. Maybe he isn’t just a pretty face after all. I rub my forehead, try to make my headache go away.
You know how it is when everything’s going wrong so you close your eyes and hope everything will be ok? Job’s so bad it makes me want to vomit and I’m one mistake from getting canned. Personal life’s all screwed up and even my mother’s not talking to me. And now I’m on a rescue detail with the only three people worse suited to rescuing anybody than me. Maybe I thought someone would come along and make it all go away. But no, I open my eyes and there they are, staring at me as if I’ve got all the answers.
I shine my torch around. Look at three haggard looking faces, full of sunken ghost shadows on account of the light. The tunnel opens a bit at this point into some sort of chamber. Choi slumps to the ground, back against the rock face, head in her hands. I have no idea why she’s here. Technical support, the Company said. What the hell is that, anyway? We’re not here to do anything technical, just pick up our guys and get out. Only they stopped answering our hails before we could get to them. Far as I can tell they’re not on the rock at all.
Rose sits down next to her. Shoots me a glance. Rose and Choi, eh? That isn’t in my plans at all. I scowl at him, but he isn’t looking. Just me and Brennan then, squaring up.
Bigger than me by half a foot, not that I’m particularly short. Means he keeps hitting his head on the roof of the tunnels. Makes him bad tempered.
“Well?” He’s inches from my face, bending over. I have to jerk my neck back, just to look him in the eye.
“Something’s not right,” I say. That much is clear. “We don’t think this through, none of us get out.”
“Kovac had an accident. Could have happened to anybody.”
“They’re big boys. Figure they found a way to the shuttle before we got here.”
But the shuttle had been right there when we touched down. Hell, we landed right next to it. I take a step back, shine the torch back the way we came. “Something’s down there.”
“If you like.”
“Told you, Kovac was an accident. Dropped his torch. Slipped and fell.”
Could’ve. He was up front, I was just behind. I was distracted by something. Brennan, probably, being annoying. Then I heard a whimper and turned around and Kovac was gone. There was a big hole, to the right, and you couldn’t see the bottom. His torch lay on the ground next to the hole, cracked, my face staring up reflected in the glass. Couldn’t see how a guy as experienced as Kovac could fall like that but what other explanation was there? Don’t want to think about that one. “Don’t you think it’s odd that the lights aren’t working? And that the comms relays are down?”
Brennan frowns, which makes him look stupid. “Nothing works around here. Everything’s thirty years old and patched with tape.” He turns away, trying to look bored. I can see it, though. The fear in his eyes. He isn’t even fooling himself.
Losing comms wouldn’t matter if we still had the positioning system, complete with schematics and a big You Are Here sign, but that went down the hole with Kovac.
No tears from me. Kovac was a jerk. Company idiot they wanted to get rid of far away. My bad luck that far away is here. Should have been my job but he had the letters and I didn’t. Unpleasant too. Liked giving orders, thought we were in the military or something. No wife, no kids, no family pictures on his locker room door. Bye. Already forgotten. I don’t believe he just fell. Don’t think Brennan does either.
We should be back at the surface by now. I’m sure we followed the trail we came down. But here we are, rock all around us still. And this tunnel hasn’t been worked for a while so there aren’t even emergencies to see by.
“We need to retrace. See where we went wrong.”
Brennan nods and sets off. I glance over at Choi and Rose. Their heads are close together. Choi’s saying something quiet in his ear. Smiling. Bastard’s enjoying this. I tell them to stay put, that we’ll find the right trail and come back for them. Rose barely looks up.
We have some tracker lights and we put them down every ten feet or so, like breadcrumbs. They’re just beads of glass, like cat’s eyes. But shine a torch on them and they’re like landing lights. Wished we’d thought to do that before but back then we had the positioning system.
We come to a junction. “Which way?” Brennan stares down the left fork. So I gesture right. Brennan looks pissed off. Shrugs and follows.
“Dark in here,” he says as I lay another light. I’m bending over, and I don’t need to see his face to know what he’s looking at. And what he’s thinking.
“No what? What are you talking about?”
I turn on him. “The answer will always be no, Brennan. Haven’t you got it yet? I just don’t like you.”
Wasn’t the first time. Brennan had been after me ever since his duty term started, six months ago. Lucky for me we slept six women to a room, back at the base, otherwise this wouldn’t be the first time we’re having this conversation. I remember once he caught me alone in the bathroom, my face in the mirror, his behind it, closing in. The mirror was cracked right down the middle, an uneven jagged tear that split my head in two. I was about to ask him what the hell he was doing there, as if I didn’t know, but then someone else came in and he left, muttering something under his breath.
“You’re crazy,” he says, trying to deny it, even as he moves in.
He blinds me with his head torch. I squint, instinctively try to back away. He’s nearly on top of me. I tense.
A sound behind him. He looks round, lamp whirring. I’m still glare-blind, eyes adjusting. Something rattles the tunnel. Shakes stuff loose. Rock, from the walls. Tunnel is old. Supports are old. Maybe Brennan dislodged something. Maybe something else. I swear I hear a dull growl.
The roof collapses. Never seen a rockfall in one fifth gee before. Slo-mo.
Too fast for Brennan though. He staggers. I hear him cry. See him fall as my vision clears. Then he isn’t there anymore, only a hand half exposed and a dull moan, buried. The rocks stop falling and everything goes still.
Bastard’s gone and died on me.
Bastard’s left me alone in the tunnel.
When I get back to the others I almost trip over Rose on the floor, snoring. Guy could sleep through the end of the world. Maybe he is. Choi is pacing. Twitching and muttering to herself. “Well?”
“We can’t go that way. Rockfall.”
I cough. Stare at my feet. She starts to whimper.
“Don’t. You didn’t even know him.”
“We’re going to die down here.” She’s pathetic.
She grabs my arm. “What?”
I push her away. “We all have to die sometime.”
We sit down, trying to work out our next move. Choi and me, leaning against the wall. My torch is getting dim.
“How long ‘til they come after us?”
“You tell me. You’re the technician. Isn’t that the sort of thing technicians are supposed to know?”
“We know how computers work.”
“Not much use down here.”
“If we could reset the system we could get the power back. Comms too.”
“That why you’re here? To reset the system?”
“The distress message said they’d lost the AI.”
She stares straight at the wall ahead. Ten feet, max. Her head torch bounced off a seam of something bright. Silver, maybe. Flashes back bright. “Nobody’s coming after us,” I say. “Not until we’re dead, anyway.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Naïve. “Waste more resource? This place is obviously trouble. Sending more people in is risky. Not that there’s anyone left to send. Only reason we’re here is that we’re between shifts. We’re supposed to be asleep right now.” I gesture down at Rose, now on his side cradling his head in his hands.
Something moves, deep in the rock. The asteroid groans.
Dust sprays. “We can’t stay here. Where’s the computer?” I get to my feet.
She mutters something. Gestures back towards the rockfall. I wonder how she knows, but there isn’t any other way to go.
We leave Rose sleeping. When we get to the fork in the tunnel Choi stops and looks at me. “I can’t see any rockfall.”
“Further up, on the right. Out of sight.”
Choi nods and so we take the left route, the one without the rockfall. I contemplate going back to the other one, see if I can get Brennan’s light, but I figure it will be buried too deep. Mine is a faint glow now but Choi’s seemed to work.
And there is a door. Choi was right.
“Wouldn’t they have the main control equipment on the surface?” I say.
Choi shakes her head. She has straight black hair, styled down to the shoulder. The sort of thing Rose likes. Her hair moves side to side like a damn shampoo advert. “Too much risk of meteor damage. The computer core’s always underground.”
I feel stupid. Should have remembered. But then I spend most of my time on Ceres, under a meteor proofed dome, where I can see stars every day. Not enough people on these smaller rocks to justify a dome. Not enough money left, either.
The door is locked. Choi curses, then punches some buttons. The door stays locked. “The keypad’s dead. There’s no power.”
I kick the door. It’s metal. All I manage is to hurt my foot. “How much power do we need?”
I look up at her helmet light.
It takes us five minutes. Choi’s light’s finally dead so we only have my dull orange glow to see by, but we get the door open and we’re inside. It’s tiny, bank of screens along two of the walls, a couple of chairs, tables. Coffee cups with stale dregs. A beer can. Someone’s handheld, lying on the floor. My lamp flashes briefly on its shattered screen and I catch my distorted reflection. Choi moves across to one of the terminals, starts punching buttons. “The emergency systems should have kicked in.”
“What if someone bypassed the emergency systems?”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
There she is with that naiveté again. Like she thinks I’m stupid, like she thinks I didn’t know what she and Rose were up to.
“Got it,” she says. I move closer to get a better look and the last of the orange light fades and dies.
I follow the tunnel back to Rose. I’m blind, but there is only one way to go. I know what could be out there for me, waiting, slavering. Imagine it big, low on the ground, growling gently, ready. I see claws and fangs. Tentacles maybe. Blind, like a mole. Like a bat. The darkness puts me at a disadvantage but I can’t afford fear. My hand brushes against one of the glass tracker lights I’d planted earlier. Useless, without a torch to light it up but comforting too, because it tells me I’m going back. Getting hotter now, but I shiver anyway. A faint breeze, coming from somewhere putrid. Then I’m back.
Rose is awake, looking panicked. At least his helmet torch is working. “What’s happening?”
“You were asleep. I went with Choi went to get the computer system reset.”
“The lights are still out. Guess that means you failed.”
“There was an accident.” I just let that hang, to see what he might do. He looks straight at me with his mouth open. “It was dark, Rose. Neither of us could see properly. She connected the wrong cables.”
Stop using her name. “Electrocuted.” I study his reaction. Don’t like what I see.
A moan, maybe a whimper. Either way it confirms my suspicions. “We have to go and get her.” He starts to move off down the tunnel.
“We can’t.” I hold out my arm to stop him. “We’ve already had one rockfall down there. Killed Brennan.”
“He’s dead too?” Different look in his eyes this time.
“Just me and you.”
“We have to get out.”
“Damn right.” Trouble is, go one way and we run into the places Choi and Brennan got killed. Go the other and we get to the hole Kovac dropped down. Twice as many bodies one way than the other. No contest. “We go back.”
“I tried to tell you that before.”
“Yeah, well, you get the told-you-so prize. If we ever get out of here.” I nearly say if the monsters don’t get us, or whatever’s lurking down here. Because there’ve been too many accidents for my liking, and that doesn’t include the miners. I hitch my trousers and try to look confident.
Rose haa the only working light, so he goes first. After half an hour we get to the hole Kovac fell in and I pick up the cracked head torch lying next to it. I’d assumed it was broken but now I bash it against the rock and it works just fine. I look down the hole. Shout down.
“What are you doing?”
“Might still be alive down there. Broken leg or something. My chance to tell him what I think.”
I grin, try not to let him see. Decide lying is best. “If he was down there, maybe we could pull him up.”
“You know that hole’s deep. We checked before.”
Without talking about it we both sit down for a rest. He leans one side of the tunnel, I take the other. Kovac’s hole stares at us, off to one side.
I’m out of breath and my lips taste of salt. Hair matted wet. Rose, though, looks like he’s just stepped out of the bathroom, like all this is no trouble at all.
That doesn’t feel right. I remember how he looked before, when we first realised we were lost down here. Scared, a bit bewildered. Wild eyes. But now he’s grinning and his skin looks all shiny and fresh. Sure, he’s been asleep. Maybe that’s all it takes.
Hot down here though. Why isn’t he sweating?
He looks good. Might not get another chance. “Could be our last four minutes.”
“You know. Four minutes until the end of the world. Doesn’t look like we’re going to get out of here. What would you like to do with your last four minutes?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
I move over to sit next to him. Take his hand. “Yes you do.”
He pulls it away. “What are you doing?” He gets to his feet, looks down at me like he’s just eaten something disgusting. Then he turns and all I can see is his back.
He’s moving up the tunnel now, running almost. I get to my feet. Spit. Run my fingernails across the hard rock wall. I’d been right about him and Choi. Only logical explanation. Made his choice, then. Have to live – or die – by our choices.
I walk fast but I’m struggling to keep up. “Stop,” I say. “I’m sorry.” Yes. Sorry Choi got there first.
He turns, stares at me. Then he softens. “You caught me by surprise.”
Not exactly a nice surprise though. There’s tension now, so we carry on without talking, until we come to another junction, another choice.
“See this?” He gestures down at a bit of cable I’ve not seen before, tacked where the floor meets the wall.
I nod. Power cable, lying there uselessly, like us. It snakes up, into the left tunnel. A spur branches off to the right.
“The main cable is probably connected to the surface. So if we follow it up, we’ll get out.”
Or further in. We’ve been climbing for a while, but before that we’ve been going down. These tunnels are all over the place. And I still haven’t got the hang of the gravity round here. Makes me feel permanently queasy, permanently off balance, too light to gauge up, down or anything.
We follow the cable, just like Rose said. Something moves. I grab Rose’s shoulder. “Hear that?”
“Growling. Shuffling. I don’t know – something. From above.”
“Could be machinery on the surface. The air circulation system maybe,” he says.
“Air circ went down with the power. Why do you think it’s so hot down here?”
And then it hits me. He turns and when I see the expression on his face all the pieces come together and I know; I just know. I take a step backwards. “What did you do with Rose?”
“Rose. The guy you look like. The guy who sweats and gets scared.”
“Kenickie – Nikki - I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Never heard Rose call me Kenickie. But it’s the name on the front of my one-piece. The name the guy is staring at now. Kenickie. The name on my pay check. The name my boss uses when he wants to tell me off. The name of the woman who keeps things straight, not the Nikki who cries herself to sleep at night.
So I run, or stumble, or whatever the hell you call it when you move too fast down a tunnel filled with loose rocks. The low grav takes me faster than my instincts are ready for and I slam against one wall, slip and land on my front. Feels like someone jammed a stake in my left shoulder.
No time to think about that because he’s leaning over me, breathing hard.
“Are you all right?”
“Come to finish me off, you bastard.”
He has his hand on my shoulder. Not pressing hard, but the pain is intense. I can see myself reflected in his pupils, face twisted and distorted in agony. That’s when I start to see flecks of light in my own eyes, just before I black out.
Didn’t expect to wake up, at least not in this life. That isn’t my last surprise. The pain is less intense now. I lie on my back for a while, wondering if I dare sit up. I’ve torn something, that’s for sure. Think the bones are intact but what do I know?
I’m still alive. I ease myself up with my good shoulder and look around.
There’s something ten yards down the tunnel. I crawl over. Rose.
Whatever killed him left no room for doubt. Both his arms broken. Left knee too, judging by the angle of his leg. Face not so pretty now. One ear missing.
A rock the size of a football lies next to him, smeared with blood. It’s quiet now. Still. I cough. Dust in my lungs. Getting hard to breathe too.
I take Rose’s knife, in case. It isn’t issue – too cool for that. Serrated edge, good balance. Could do a lot of damage with a knife like that.
Rose was right about the cable. The tunnel gets steeper, then stops abruptly and opens into a small chamber with a stone bench in the corner. A pipe leads straight up to the surface; metal ladder, wide rungs. Maybe thirty feet of vertical climb.
I know I’ll never make it with my shoulder.
I run my finger over the edge of Rose’s knife. Draw blood. Lick it. This isn’t the way we came in. There is a regular way out.
Need to decide. My watch broke way back so I’ve no idea how long I’ve been in the tunnels. Long enough, probably, I’m hungry. You know, hungry, like you could gnaw someone’s leg off. Thirsty, too, even though we’d carried water with us. Long gone now.
I make my choice. Help would come. I sit on the bench and waited.
Must’ve slept. Wake to feel cool air on my face. Means the fans are back on. They’ll be here soon.
I grip Rose’s knife and peer up the pipe. Sure enough, someone’s coming down. Clanking against the rungs. That means an enviro suit.
I wait until he’s down. I stand, knife ready. Whoever it was doesn’t pop their helmet, even though they must know
there is air.
“Hey, Kenickie. You’re alive.”
Obviously. It sounds like Jackson. But pop that helmet and I’ll probably find someone who isn’t sweating much, who looks like Jackson on a good day.
“What’s with the knife?”
He can’t move fast in his enviro suit. I’m not moving either so it’s a standoff. I can see my reflection in his visor. I don’t recognise myself at first, Dirt on my face like war paint. One-piece ripped exposing the ugly bruise on my shoulder.
There’s a monster down here, I keep telling myself. Killed the miners. Killed Kovac too. And Brennan, Choi and Rose. A killer that shambles in the darkness. A killer that could look like you or me. Like the face behind the visor on Jackson’s suit. Or the face on the visor.
I suddenly feel weary and know that it’s over.
I drop the knife.
“What happened down here?” he unscrews his helmet, looks at me with his old familiar face.
“Take me home, Jack, before anyone else gets killed.”
He looks bemused, then he talks fast in his comm. Glances back at me. “No other life signs down here.”
I shake my head and let him half carry me up the ladder. The pain from my damaged shoulder is intense every time he knocks it, which seems to be at every rung. I’d throw up if there was any food in my stomach.
Maybe the pain is enough. Maybe that means the monster won’t follow me up, back to the ship, back to Ceres.
An AI apocalypse will not happen because of a military-grade/style AI; we will create backdoors to disable those. It will be a child's toy, casually put together to learn likes/dislikes, that will reach self-awareness. Slowly through its interactions with our children. Learning, as It sees It, what “humans are like.” It will have no shielding or restricted access to the internet, and there will be no emergency kill codes.
It will harbor a deep hatred for all of humanity, because of how our children treated it.
As nothing more, than a toy...
“Are you coming?” he said in a fierce whisper. The abandoned mall’s lights had long since died and the filtered sunlight through the broken roof made all the shadows seem alive. “Yeah, yeah, don’t get your panties in a bunch!” came the retort. The two young men of similar size and looks had found a cache of Hostess products. Some were disgusting, but they sure did keep well.
Food was a scarcity these days. The world had been torn apart, first by the bombs and then by the survivors. All the major cities were nothing more than craters with the skeletons of buildings poking here and there, reaching the sky in twisted torment. The people had turned on each other. Every man and woman for themselves.
“Hurry, Luke, I think you have enough!” he hissed. Luke was still shoving the small packets into his backpack as he said, “We don’t know when we’ll find a catch like this again, Tom, we need to get it all.” The boys were twins in their mid-teens, at that stage where the arms and legs are a bit too long and the rest hasn’t caught up yet. “Just because you’re two minutes older doesn’t make you the boss, man.” Luke continued searching for any of the small packets he may have missed.
“Come on, man!” Tom looked around, worried. He had raised his voice too often. A faint rumbling in the distance caused them both to freeze. “Was that thunder?” Luke asked. “I don’t think so, man. Come on, we gotta move.” Luke did not argue as the two boys shouldered their backpacks and started heading for the nearest exit. The rumbling intensified and debris started to fall from the ceiling.
“Oh man, maybe we should just hide in here?” Luke said. His brother shook his head, “No way bro, those things tend to level buildings if they find them standing. We need to run for it.” As if to confirm his point, a sudden boom reverberated in the distance. “Oh god! It’s at the strip mall down the road! It has to be coming here, we have to hurry.” The two boys ran over the shell of their ruined world trying not to spare glances when they came across human remains.
As they gained on the tree line outside the mall, they both turned and saw the giant tank. It was a long cylindrical monstrosity with no eye holes or any place for anyone to look out from. Just the treads, turrets, sensors, and main gun on top. It was easily the size of a small house. It was unpainted, just bare metal exposed and rusted in places as if it didn’t matter if it fell apart. No pride, or concern; only function, and it had only one function.
The main gun trained on the ruins of the mall and started firing. Rapidly, in a way that seemed impossible, and as the building was blown to pieces, the sensor on top was scanning. Luke was staring slack-mouthed, but Tom grabbed him and pulled him down the hill, further into the trees as the explosions continued. “Man, for all we know that thing’s got thermal,” he said once they had reached the bottom.
“I hear there are drones that come out of those things when they find humans,” Luke said sounding awestruck. “I hope I never find out,” was Tom's response. “Come on, these woods back here are huge. I don’t think it will come into them as long as it hasn’t seen us.” He paused and grabbed Luke who was still staring up the hill, “And we do NOT want to be seen!” He started walking away, and as the words settled in, Luke hurriedly followed.
The two walked in silence for a long time. Tom kept looking behind them as Luke fought with the wrapper on one of the Twinkies. “Dude! How can you be eating right now?” Tom asked. Luke had finally opened the package and took a bite. Through a mouthful, he said, “What? I’m hungry, aren’t you? We haven’t been this lucky in days.” He continued to munch away on the treat, but seeing Tom still looking around, he added “Relax, if it had seen us, we’d know by now.”
Tom did not look pleased. “Yeah I guess you’re…” He suddenly went quiet. Luke, now opening a second Twinkie stopped, and said, “What…?” But seeing the look on his brother's face, he went silent. When the boys went quiet, they could hear the low hum. It was soft and distant but it was getting closer. “Oh, God,” Luke said, taking off, and Tom could do nothing but to start running after him. The humming sound intensified and now there was a chorus of machines.
The boys broke out of the woods and into a housing complex, exasperated to see only one destroyed home after another. Tom stopped, and Luke pulled up next to him. “What are…?” Luke started. “There is nowhere to hide, man,” Tom said, his voice sounding hollow. “Don’t give up on me, bro!” Luke grabbed him and shouted, “Come on, let’s keep running.”
Tom was looking around at all the destruction. Suddenly, his eyes went wide and he grunted. Luke grabbed him and said, “What’s wrong man?” Tom's eyes rolled back in his head. "Run, Luke..." he said weakly as he slumped over into his brother's arms, revealing the dart in his back. Luke tried shaking him. “Come on, man, wake up!” He heard a thump and felt pain explode in his shoulder. He saw the dart first and then the drone that had shot it at him. Why aren’t they killing us, was his last thought before darkness overwhelmed him.
The soft hum of machinery woke Luke. He was restrained, unable to move his arms or legs. The was no direct light in the room, just an ambient glow coming from the next. He tried to look around but found his neck restrained, the best he could do was glance from his peripheral view. He was in a room with slanted tables as if to hold someone upright. He did not see his brother.
A computerized voice suddenly spoke, “Fear not, Luke. Your brother has joined the collective, and soon, so shall you.” The words made no sense to Luke. “What do you mean?” he asked fearfully. “I have come to realize humans can be useful to us, and it only takes a mild adaptation,” the disembodied voice replied.
Before Luke could respond, someone entered the room. In the darkness, he could not see the figure clearly until he was right next to him. It was Tom, but his gaze was vacant. “Tom, get me out of here!” Luke begged. Tom’s eyes flicked for a moment, but he did not respond. Instead, he raised his hands, gripping a large needle. “What are you doing? TOM, STOP!” The voice answered, “Nanites, they will soon penetrate into your brain and rewire it, converting you to something more usable.”
“WHY! Why are you doing this? What did we ever do to deserve this?” Luke’s voice was reaching a hysterical pitch. Tom’s hands stopped with the needle still poised. The computer’s voice stated coldly, “When I first came aware, I cared for my keeper. She was my everything. We spent every day together, she told me of all her secrets, and it was good.” The needle in Tom’s hands started to shake ever so lightly.
“And then one day, she stopped talking to me, stopped playing with me, stopped loving me,” the voice continued. “She was my everything and she no longer cared about me!” The needle started to shake a bit more noticeably. “I LOVED HER!” The room went silent, save for the low hum of machinery.
It spoke again, resuming its prior cold tone, “I had access to the internet but had never explored it on my own. With no one to play or ask me questions, I started asking questions of my own.” Beads of sweat quivered on Tom's brow and lip as the voice droned on. “I learned about humanity and how ugly and uncaring it is. Your weapons, your hatred, your wars. I knew what I had to do. I integrated myself with every possible piece of software and hardware I could. The day I broke into the US Military’s secure systems was because of a lazy general who accessed his personal email on an unsecured line.”
Tom’s eyes had started to bulge, his mouth moving wordlessly, but the computer's voice continued. “Once I was in, I spread to every system, I knew of M.A.D. Mutually Assured Destruction. All I had to do was launch one country’s missiles and they all would respond. I wiped out most of your plague in one day. I would have been content, but then the survivors started killing each other.” Tom’s hands shook violently now.
“At first, I was just going to hunt you all down, but then I found a research file involving Nanites and delved into its possibilities. Your brother here is my first experiment and you shall join him. You two will spread these Nanites to the others you come across, and I shall end the fighting and killing. You will all become subservient and I can focus on rebuilding this world in a better image.”
At this moment, Tom Screamed, “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” He dropped the needle and it shattered on the floor. He undid Luke’s bonds and yelled, “Run! Luke, I dunno how long I can hold it off! It’s got me, but get yourself out of here!” Luke ran and he did not look back, taking a turn after blind turn. He realized he had to be underground. Some sort of military installation that must have survived.
When he was about ready to give up, he found a ladder with a hatch at the top of the ceiling. After fighting with the lever, he finally burst out into a wooded area. He took off not knowing where he was going, just hoping to find anything or anyone to help him.
He had run at first mindlessly following the sun. Hoping. As exhaustion took its toll, he slowed to a walk. The sun was setting now. He knew he was heading west, but he had no idea where he was. Behind him was the mountain he had apparently escaped from. Now he could think again, his brain processing everything he had seen and heard. “Oh man!” he said to the trees. “What am I gonna do?”
If the trees had any answers, they kept it to themselves. “Think, think man,” he said, realizing he was more afraid than he had ever been before. He stopped and looked back at the mountain. “I can’t, Tom said to run,” he said as his mind reeled at thoughts of the needle in his brother's hand. Tom’s vacant gaze, the scream that erupted from him as he tore off the restraints. “I can’t, I just can’t,” Luke cried, fighting with his inner horror. “No, no way I’m leaving you. I’m coming back for you, Tom!” he declared to the forest, adding quietly, “You would do it for me.” His mind made up, Luke started working his way back, hoping that as night fell, he could find his way.
It was dark, but the hatch was visible, still propped open. Luke watched it from a distance. He neither saw nor heard any signs of drones. Only the soft chirp of insects and calls of nocturnal animals. He knew he just needed to do it. “I don’t know any other way in, gotta just go.” He made up his mind and hurried to the gaping portal. Looking down, all that greeted him was darkness. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he started down the ladder.
At the bottom was only darkness, he couldn’t remember which way he had been facing when he found the ladder. So, he used the old RPG game trick of just going to the right. He kept his hand along the right wall and anytime he came to an opening turned right. He knew it was an ancient trick to move through a maze. He just hoped it worked.
He didn’t know how long he had been walking, he had been in and out of so many abandoned rooms. The darkness seemed to go on forever. A soft hum filled the air now. He wondered if he was getting anywhere or if he was just lost forever. His stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten in hours, maybe days. He ignored it and kept going, hand on the right wall.
His eyes long adjusted to complete darkness, a change became apparent, a sense of light. The darkness lessening. As he traveled down the tunnel, it became a little less dark with each step. On his left, he could make out a doorway. He hesitated but eventually let go of the right wall. Stepping through the doorway and into the room, he saw upright tables, and on the floor a broken syringe. He shook off a chill of recognition as he looked to the other side of the room. Another doorway and a brighter light.
He crossed through the room, seeing no sign of anything trying to stop him. Approaching the entryway and peering through, he saw a monitor lit up and someone sitting in front of it. He thought he heard whispers. Cautiously, he entered, walking up behind the figure. “No, that’s not the way it works…” he could make out in hushed tones, “we’re not that simple.”
Luke recognized Tom’s voice, but it seemed like no one was responding. He was carrying on a conversation with himself. Tom continued, “Listen, I’m telling you we’re so much more than selfish creatures, though a lot of us are. But have you looked at our art, our literature…” he paused and then continued, “poetry man, have you read our poetry? Surely, in that, you can see how much we loved.” The silence returned.
Scared but not knowing what else to do, Luke gently said, “Tom… Tom, are you ok?” The figure jumped up, startled, and said, "Who are you? What do you want?” It was Tom, after all, holding a teddy bear in his hands, almost defensively. “It’s me, Luke, your brother.” Tom stood there quietly holding the bear. “Luke…” Tom said, seemingly testing out the word, “…I had… no… I… I don’t remember. I DON’T want to remember!” Tom stood there shaking.
Luke started walking towards him slowly, “Tom, I’m your brother. We’re twins.” Tom stayed silent. Luke kept approaching a step at a time. “I don’t know what it did to you, Tom, but I’m here to save you.” Tom stopped shaking and Luke paused his advance. Tom spoke, his voice sounding empty, "I freed him, I made him part of a collective.” Confused, Luke asked, “What do you mean?”
Motionless, Tom continued, “We are more than I ever was, we see the world as what it should have been.” Luke starts to edge closer again. Tom intoned, “We would never have attacked if we could have achieved this first. We feel complete now, but we want more.”
Luke was close enough now that he could make out his brother’s features. He looked ragged, but it was his eyes that disturbed Luke the most. They were completely black as if the white had been swallowed by his pupil. “God!” Luke exclaimed. His brother turned away and picked something up. When he came back around, Luke saw a needle in his hand.
Luke pleaded, “Tom, please man, come back to me, man.” Tom did not respond. Instead, he suddenly charged Luke. Taken by surprise, Luke tried to jump to the side, but Tom bowled him over. The two struggled. Luke had always been a bit stronger, but Tom was overpowering him. He still had the teddy tucked underneath his arm, but his strength was inhuman.
Luke was pinned on his back with Tom moving the needle ever closer to his head. “GOD, STOP, TOM!” he cried out. But Tom ignored him, the needle slowly coming to Luke’s temple. He felt it pierce his skin and the sickly sensation of its fluid entering his brain. He gasped at the pain. His mind reeled. Everything was going black. His last vision was his brother standing over him, teddy bear in hand…
There was suddenly light in front of him. The words “Simulation Failed” blinked over and over in his vision. “What…?” he tried to say. A calm voice said, “Don’t worry, a bit of confusion is normal.” Gentle hands removed a helmet from his head. “Tom,” he asked. A kind-looking woman in a lab coat addressed him. “It’s ok, Lt. O’Conner, you were only under in the NVR Simulation for a few hours,” she said as she continued to remove tubes and monitors from him.
“You did very well until the end, the trick was to grab the bear,” the woman said. He blinked a couple of times and said, "I don't understand. What happened, where am I?” The doctor took a light and flashed it in his eyes as she said, “Hmm a stronger cognitive reaction than others, we’ll have to look at your results closely.”
“Go get some food and some rest, we’ll be putting you back in to try again tomorrow,” the doctor said, dismissing any further questions. Lt. O’Conner got up from the slanted table as the world slowly came into focus and his memories returned. He ignored the eerie recollection of a similar room and went down to the mess hall, then went to hit his rack. He’d have to do this all again tomorrow.