Chapter 09: Vision
27 October 2086
25 years, 4 months and 4 days since the Destruction
Amber put a finger to her mouth and winked at them. The two survivors looked questioningly at each other, but Amber kicked a tree stump in front of them. Its top half sprang open, revealing a concrete tube extending into the ground. Metal hoops were pounded into the side to function as a ladder. Amber simply jumped with her skirt fluttering and boomerang in hand. John held a finger on his shade’s nose bridge to keep them in position and jumped after her. Maxwell lifted his motorcycle under his arm and came last.
It was not deep, a few dozen metres at the worst, but dark. Amber flicked her wrist and light came on inside old lanterns hanging from the wall.
An ancient face appeared in her light, a pipe wedged into a thin line that must have been his mouth. A hunting rifle gleamed under John’s nose. “Not a step further.”
“Cyrus, put that thing away!” Amber squealed and put a hand on the barrel. The old man fixed her with his one opened eye. The other was squeezed tight. “This is John and Maxwell. Friends, not IMs.”
“I can see they’re not robots, I still got one good eye, but they could be them there traitors with all them implants. How do you know they’re not?”
“Jeez, then just scan them already! Maxwell, you don’t have any implants, right?” Amber looked nervously behind her. Maxwell shook his head sympathetically.
“One hundred percent human, two hundred percent man,” he replied and pounded his chest.
Old Cyrus stuck the barrel of the hunting rifle up into Maxwell’s nose instead. “We’ll see about that. They don’t often grow them this large anymore.” He stuck a hand into the neck of his brand T-shirt dangling on his thin, wrinkly frame. His hands found what looked like a price scanner. A red line struggled to cover Maxwell’s entire chest, up and down, when it beeped wildly. “Aha! I knew it! This one is a machine, or at least partly.”
Amber raised an eyebrow, but Maxwell laughed sheepishly. “It’s probably just a bullet or some bus debris or something you’re picking up. If you’d point your peashooter elsewhere, I’d be happy to show you.”
“Oh no you don’t. Just give me a reason to shoot you right here.” Old Cyrus waved the gun again, the price scanner dangling from around his neck.
Maxwell dropped his bike and thrust up his arms. John stuffed his hand into his coat pockets. “If you did shoot him, you would believe even less that he is human.”
Old Cyrus instead pointed the gun back at John. “Hands where I can see them. I still haven’t cleared you yet.”
A pillar of flame shot up between the survivors and Cyrus. The old man quickly turned his gun away, or he would have the end melted off. “Enough of this!” Amber shrieked and waved her arms. The pillar blew up and covered everyone in warm winds. “John and Maxwell are my honoured guests. Will you be crossing me, Cyrus?”
The old man met her hard eyes with one just as hard. He grumbled something and went back to his guide post. Nothing more luxurious than a chair and table with a lantern and a book. Cyrus kicked back and rested his gun up against the earth wall. Amber relaxed her posture and smiled as warmly as before. Maxwell nervously smiled back and picked his bike up on his broad shoulders like a yoke.
There were no lights of any kind so Amber held up her arm. Flames flickered from her skin.
The little troupe imperceptibly turned and a new light spilled out. A large cave. On the right was the façade of a building. All that was visible was a wall going from side to side, floor to ceiling, with a pair of reinforced steel door in the middle. It was like a tower sunk into the ground.
In front of them and on the left was an open area littered with picnic tables and various exercise equipment. People ate, played cards, read books, drew on paper or kept in shape. They all looked up at the entrance. Seeing Maxwell, they reached for guns sheathed in belts or pockets. It took them a few seconds to notice the several heads shorter Amber far below him. They relaxed again and swarmed around the newcomers. Wary hostility turned to curiosity. Especially the children had a myriad questions and appreciative comments all at once.
Amber raised her arms, neither of them on fire anymore, and the chatter cut short. “Everyone, I want you to meet my friends: John and Maxwell. How about we greet them all with a big feast?”
The people clapped their hands, some even whistling. They nodded and the crowd eagerly thinned again.
The survivors of Lawrence’s basement were either dressed casually or in lab coats. Maxwell observed them enquiringly. While Amber barked out orders, he bowed down and whispered into John’s ear: “These people look a little bit too relaxed, don’t you think?” It took John a moment to realise Maxwell had addressed him. The giant smiled impishly. “How about I put them to a test?”
“Fighting is strictly forbidden down here,” a crusty voice said. A rifle was pressed up against Maxwell’s shoulder blades before his hand could even reach the guitar behind him. He turned his head and saw Cyrus stand behind him.
A breath of warm wind pushed the old man back. Amber stomped her shoe into the ground. “Cyrus, I told you to knock that off, and John, I expect you to keep a leash on your friend. Otherwise I will have to detain you both,” she bellowed. John looked perplexed as the situation dawned on him. Before he could reply, Maxwell bowed deeply.
“My sincerest apologies, fair lady. I was only wondering whether your boys were ready for the end of the world.”
“Well I hope you’re satisfied. Lawrence personally oversees the training of all the people down here. That’s the only reason that they can be so relaxed. And you, what are you doing back?”
“My shift is over,” Cyrus grouched and put the rifle over his shoulder, wiping his potato snout. “I’m telling you, these outsiders will be the end of us.”
“Is everything all right?”
A man with short, blonde hair presented himself holding a wooden tray in one hand. He pushed his glasses up with the other and looked concerned at Amber. She smiled back at him and took the drinks from him, handing them out to her guests.
“Everything here is all right; I was simply conferring with my friends.”
The man bowed and held his arms out towards the picnic tables where preparations were full underway. Cloth was put on the tables along with plates and cutlery. He directed them to the table closest to the opposite cave wall. Only occupant, and one of the few not helping out, was a man with a thick, brown beard. Amber sat Maxwell down next to him, and herself and John opposite. The two survivors immediately recounted everything that had happened and finished only as bowls of piping hot stew was placed before them.
Maxwell took a loaf of bread from the complimentary baskets. “And then we came here,” he said and dipped it in his stew. He sighed and continued. “I didn’t know why John would bring us here, but I am starting to see why. You are a fine bird, Amber Summers, and you have a really nice shelter here.”
John tore into his soup with large spoonsful. “I came here because I do not know what to do now,” he replied equably, not even blowing on his meal despite the steam fogging up his shades. The other people around the table quite forgot to eat. “Where is my brother? Where is Lawrence?”
“He’s not here, John. That’s why I made the broadcast; because your thoughtless brother recklessly charged out of the shelter at the first clue about Thorne.” Amber ate her soup more dignified.
John nodded. “Then all the more reason to hurry after him. For twenty-five years I have endured Thorne; I will not waste this opportunity, not with my brother already out there. If you have any capable fighters here, then you should let them come with us.”
Amber looked away and sighed, but she was not allowed to speak. The scientist with the large beard noticed that a pendant had hopped out of John’s shirt. He carefully grabbed around it with both hands. “My stars. This wouldn’t be one of Lawrence’s backup drives, would it?” he whispered, eyes devoted entirely to the flash drive. John nodded and took the chain off his neck. The bearded man held it in his hands like it was a brittle porcelain doll.
Maxwell snatched it from his upturned palms and held it up to the light from the ceiling lamps far overhead. “You know, I’ve been wondering. There’s got to be a lot of porn on this thing, right?” he asked.
The bearded man sat down again and chuckled. “Oho yes, like you wouldn’t believe. A man could spend his entire life going through it all but never finish. What’s really interesting, however, is all the information on pre-war human civilisations.” The man held out his hand again, flexing his fingers to indicate he wanted the necklace back.
Maxwell twisted the flash drive to view it from different angles. Not much bigger than a cigarette lighter, deeply red and shining like new. “What will you need that for?”
“It’s so we can restart society when this war is over. No point in inventing the deep plate twice, eh?” The scientist inched closer to Maxwell and put a hand on his arm.
“Humanity has rebuilt itself plenty of times, so I think we’ll be all right,” Maxwell replied enthusiastically. He lowered his own arm to the scientist. “If you want some tips, just ask me. I used to live in Chicago when it was just a river and two hundred settlers.”
John took the flash drive back before it could leave Maxwell’s hand. The scientist looked up crushed. “Do not pay any attention to him, he just likes to jest.” John put the chain around his neck again and down his shirt. “My brother charged me with protecting this thing until the war is over, so that is just what I am going to do.”
“You’re serious.” Amber leant in over the table, her stew forgotten. “I’m good at detecting the sincerity of people’s voice, and you are either serious or delusional.”
“I am very serious. My legend begins in the year 569 where I was born to a Mercian chieftain. Since then, I have been to Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, basically every continent except the polar ones, and I have seen every kind of destruction and rebuilding.” He put an elbow far into the table and met her face with his most charming smile.
Amber put her head on her folded hands. “Really? What about Australia then?” she challenged.
“Au…stralia?” he asked with a nonplussed face. Amber raised an eyebrow.
“You claim to have lived for over a thousand years, visiting every exotic place in the world, and you’ve never even heard of Australia?”
“Well, I mean, I only had time to tour the world once. When-when did they discover this Australia?” Though his voice was sceptical, a tinge of curiosity bled through.
“I don’t know. I think James Cook found it in the sixteen hundreds.”
Maxwell whistled admiringly. “Blimey, I was in India in the sixteen hundreds! I was totally prepared to go south if I hadn’t felt that terrifying presence from Japan.”
“As exciting as Maxwell’s selective world knowledge is, I suggest that we move on. I will first apologise for not being around much before the Destruction. Things, well, they felt a little awkward between us.” John put his spoon down for the last time. The others were barely halfway through their stew. “I just need to know more about my brother. The end of the world puts perspective to things. I know what is important now.”
“And don’t spare any details! Old shuttered-up here’s been sitting on his family history for a while… didn’t even tell me he had bro until yesterday.” Maxwell had a marvellous talent of being able to eat and focus completely on something else at the same time. “I know Lawrence was a famous martial artist, so how did a man like him decide to become a scientist?”
Amber sighed and dug back into her stew. “I’m glad that you want to know more, John, but I can’t tell you much of who he was. He seems a little ashamed. He did mention meeting a foe even stronger than himself. Vigiften, I believe the name was.” Amber’s words nearly the made giant warrior swallow his spoon. He pounded his chest and harked the utensil back out.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, go on.”
“If you’re done,” Amber continued. People from other tables craned their necks to see what was happening. “Lawrence and I had fun together. I joined his team because they needed someone to help build his crazy designs. If only I had known what we were making.”
23 February 2048
13 years, 4 months and 2 days prior to the Destruction
The room was large, having once been used for storage, but plastic encased computers shrank the size to a large living room. Pictures and blueprints were hung on them, and carpets on the floors made the little workshop downright homely.
In one end Amber sat on a stool. A torso hung from the ceiling by wires. The chest was made of riveted metal plates, and opened to expose innards made of colourful cords. Before her was her workbench and desk, all in one. The walls around her were loaded with shelves full of spare parts, electronic equipment and tools.
At the other end, removed from the noise and dust, sat Lawrence at his table. A gigantic monitor hung in the corner and overlooked his desk. Lawrence drummed the stylus on his unfolded computer, focusing a strained face on the small screen. Complicated formulas and designs scrolled by slowly.
A face appeared on the monitor. It had eyes, a nose and a mouth floating without an outline. The word ‘P-I-M’ was fixed below it like a chin. Lawrence lifted his head from the calculations with a smile. “Good morning, Pim. I just crunched some numbers, and you have increased work efficiency here at Mattlock with seventeen per cent,” he said. If P-I-M was happy with the result, he did not show it. His face merely bobbed from edge to edge.
“That’s what you programmed me to, father. I am merely doing my job,” it replied disinterested.
Lawrence glided his hand across the smaller screen and new pages were revealed. “You are allowed to clap yourself on the back sometimes, you know. You performed phenomenally, beyond anything I could have dreamt of. Thanks to you, I’m closer than ever to realising time travel.” They were quiet for a time, the face calmly observing his master.
“According to my estimation, father, inventions are predominately made out of a personal investment. Extrapolating, I find it likely that father seeks to alter a past event.”
“Don’t you begin probing me, Pim. I only want to use a time machine to witness historical events as they took place. We could hear Latin being actually spoken in ancient Rome. We could watch the Mayans and the Aztec perform their rituals. We could attend the oath of the peach garden! No wait… That one was invented for the books, but you get my drift.”
“Probing is one of my primary functions, father. I could predict and solve crimes if I was allowed to integrate with the global net,” P-I-M said in its bored tone.
“I-I’m still working on that,” Lawrence dodged and made an effort of not looking up at the giant monitor. “There are many factors to consider here, Pim. First I have to set up defence parameters and barriers so you can’t be hijacked or corrupted. If word of you got out, someone would almost assuredly attempt to use your knowledge to work out foolproof bank heists, or watertight murder alibis.”
Again P-I-M fell silent, merely watching his creator staring intently at the smaller screen without actually reading the financial records on it. “Your reasoning is flawed, father. You, as the smartest man in the world, made me to be completely incorruptible. Additionally, my firewalls and virus programmes are updated every second as automatically as humans breathe. I could be of much better use to you, and to the world, if you would authorise my integration,” it replied, making Lawrence finally give up his pretence and turn towards the large monitor.
“I’m working on making you a body instead. It is my estimation that mobility will benefit you more than access to the worldwide web.”
“No. You only seek to imprison me, father, because my calculations frighten you. Do not attempt to hide it; I monitored your reaction when I made my proposal. You are unwilling to handle the consequences of the actions necessary to perfect this world,” P-I-M said, its face standing still dead in the centre of its screen.
Lawrence slammed his fist into the metal desk, leaving a dent like the steel was tinfoil. The bang made Amber jolt. “We are not having this discussion again, Pim. I do not desire a perfect world. That is simply unattainable without intolerable sacrifices. Your primary function is to aid mankind, not pick and choose who you wish to save, and who you wish to weed out.”
Another period of silence followed. Lawrence’s hard gaze at the monitor was met with an unflinching face. “Ethics are manacles tied around man’s ankles, preventing its invariable progress,” P-I-M explained calmly, above such emotions as rage or pity or pride, coolly arguing for the one point computed to be the best. “I could give you clones and cures and catharsis if you would allow me.”
“That’s enough! What kind of peace is worth preserving if it builds on war? Happiness is not bought with blood.” Lawrence hit a few buttons on the keyboard and the giant monitor went black.
“You know, you can’t just turn him off every time,” Amber said and slinked across the room. “You’re his father. Can’t you teach him what’s right and what’s wrong?”
Lawrence sighed deeply and relaxed in his cheap office chair. “You know what frightens me the most? I have fed Pim all knowledge attained by humans, so all of his conclusions are derived from logic. When an intelligence like that advise us, isn’t it wrong of me to turn it down?” His eyes were still glued to the corner monitor.
Amber shook her head. “Being wise is to know tomatoes are fruits. Being smart is to know they don’t go in fruit salads. You told me that a long time ago yourself,” she replied. Lawrence first smiled, infecting Amber, and then laughed. “Didn’t you teach him anything of ethics or morals?”
Lawrence got up from his seat and put his hands on Amber’s shoulders. He had a smile on his face that was reserved only for her, but too quickly did it fade. “Of course I did; I gave him everything I could find. I filled him to the brim with every kind of data. But you know what he did with ethics and morals? He put it in the same category as UFO sightings and ghost stories. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep stringing him along. We really need that body soon.”
“Well, you were pretty specific with your requests so I’m having trouble fitting everything in. Disregarding the fact I was never trained to build robots, something of this scale has never been accomplished before. I am literally feeling my way through this. I can spend months working on a tiny solution only to see it end blindly and having to start over.” She slid away from him and turned her back.
“If anyone can do it, it’s you.” Lawrence rubbed her arms and kissed her neck. “Your beautiful looks aren’t what I allow you in here for.”
Amber closed her eyes and shivered, heat haze surrounding her. “Lawrence, what are you doing? P-please, stop it.”
“I’m a take charge kind of guy, Amber.” He slipped his hands down to her hips, making her quiver all the more. The haze around her thickened. Fire engulfed her with a boom. Lawrence toppled back and fell on his tail. He looked up at her stumped. She turned around with hands clasped over her mouth. He grinned. “Are you the one setting all those fires, Amber?”
A shadow passed over her face, choking Lawrence’s chortle. She hurried for the door but he got up and placed a hand on her shoulder. She spun around and pounded her fists into his chest. His eyes reflected a youth of loneliness and frustration. He held her out at an arm’s length. She calmed down and rubbed her eyes, not seeing Lawrence reach into his mouth. The snap of rubber bands brought her attention back on him. Before she could say or do anything, Lawrence took her hand and placed something slimy there.
“You’re special, Amber. You don’t have to tell me anything, we all have our secrets, but you should just know you’re not alone. No matter how lonely it feels to have powers.”
He let her go, and she took a step back to open her hand. A mock tongue, crafted to look exactly like the real thing. Lawrence opened his mouth. His teeth were there, but no tongue. Amber flicked back her hair with trembling hands. There were no ears, just a small hole on either side of her head. “I guess it was foolish to try and hide it from someone I spend so much time with. It’s kind of funny. The last person I was intimate with also found out, but he never said anything. Even though I could tell he was like me. But how did you find out?”
“It’s because you always hide your face like that. So when I first started noticing, I looked for other signs. You’re so beautiful, Amber, and I don’t want you to ever think otherwise. I love you.”
He bent over to kiss her again and met no resistance.
When they broke off, Amber had a confused look on her face. “I’m sorry. I should get back to work.” She slithered from his grasp. Lawrence reached out to her, but she was back behind her work desk the very next second. He lowered his arms again and slogged back to his own desk.
2 July 2053
7 years, 11 months and 23 days prior to the Destruction
When the blue-clad officers burst into the room, Lawrence nearly fell over in his seat. Paintings rattled on the plastic walls in rhythm with the march of boots. The nearly complete robot on the floor said nothing. Wires connected it to Amber’s computer.
“What’s going on here?” Lawrence roared like a lion whose den had been intruded upon. “What is the meaning of this?”
The LHD officers actually paused from his words. A grey-haired woman with strength in her eyes came up behind them. The men parted like the sea before Moses. Her hawk eyes inspected the room. Amber was up and bowing while Lawrence stood with his fists down by his side. “This is the workplace of Lawrence Summers?” she asked in a voice that would make stones bleed, if so commanded. “Know that this is a matter of national security, and I will have no lip from anyone here.”
Clashing with Lawrence’s iron will produced almost tangible sparks in the air. None of her men were armed, carrying only stun rods used for riot control. “Yes, this is my workplace. Now tell me what this is about?” The question was the same, but the voice tempered.
The woman carried her stun rod like a riding crop, her eyes seeking anyone needing a lesson in discipline. “Many years ago, the Ministry of Defence was made aware of a patent sought from here for a crime detection programme. The progress, or rather lack thereof, has been closely monitored since then. Now we need it.”
Three people in casual clothes nervously crouched in, as if the tense air was palpable enough to make their knees buckle. “The programme is on the computer right over here, but it’s useless,” Lawrence said in a steadfast tone. “I abandoned the crime solving aspect of Pim years ago. There were some problems with his internet integration, so I’m using him solely for scientific purposes.”
The woman waved his words off with a dismissive hand gesture. “This is a matter of national security, and we have no time to discuss the nuances of your machines. Can it or can it not solve a crime?” Her eyes wandered to the giant monitor in the corner. A face appeared and looked back at her, making her head jerk back in surprise.
“You can always try, but I strictly forbid access to the internet, do you hear me?” Lawrence sat down by his desk again. The casual group flocked around Lawrence. The first woman, a professional lady hiding herself behind glasses and an inexpressive face, handed him a tiny flash drive. Lawrence put it into the side of his green cylinder. “So I’m guessing you’re what pass for technical experts?”
The only man of the group, a sweating, pimply fellow, cleared his throat. He was unable to settle his gaze on anything in the room, from the riveting beauty of Amber, the cold eyes of the commander, the imposing form of Lawrence or the advanced technology. “W-well, yeah. If you would focus on the screen,” he squeaked. Flushing with red, he opted to focus on the screen on the desk. Plans with complicated writing were replaced with a video file. Lawrence pressed the screen and it started playing.
“As you can see, we received a terrorist threat not one hour ago.” The commander stood behind Lawrence and pointed out the details to him. P-I-M followed with aloof curiosity from the sideline. The only light in the video focused on a crate with hay. Some sort of electronic device nestled in it. The people around it were difficult to make out, made even worse by their black masks. “We didn’t initially take it seriously, but look… there. One of them holds up a news article from this morning.”
One of the terrorists took a cylinder from inside his undiscernible clothes and pulled it apart. Pictures moved about on the thin film, next to informative text. The scarf around his mouth moved but no words came. Instead they were displayed in text at the bottom of the video. The nervous male expert stopped the video again.
“T-there. They go on talking about making demonstrations to show their resolve if their demands aren’t met. Ten minutes ago, I guess that would be twenty by now, a bomb exploded in a park nearby. N-no one was hurt, but it happened just like they said it would. So do you think your computer can find out where this video was shot? Or who the criminals are? We have no leads, and we have run this clip through every piece of software we could think of.”
The third woman of the team remained silent, mostly because she was busy taking in the room with voracious curiosity. Lawrence kept an eye on her as she inspected the near-finished body for P-I-M.
“I cannot help you,” P-I-M said. The other female expert snapped her head towards it and fixed P-I-M with a hard stare, surprised by his lingual capabilities. “My servers have not been updated for years, and it would be impossible for me to accurately tell you anything. Connect me to the internet, give me a little time, and I will answer any questions you have.”
Lawrence flew up on his feet. “I forbid it,” he stated firmly. “I don’t know what games you’re playing at here, but I have told you a million times you’re not ready for it.”
The commander slammed her stun rod into her other hand, coolly looking between P-I-M and Lawrence. “My authority exceeds yours, Lawrence Summers. Connect your programme to the internet immediately.” Her demand was calm, yet stern. Lawrence, however, was nowhere near so tranquil.
“I said no! Pim is still a dangerous programme. Had I known a day like this would come, I would have tweaked it more, but fact remains it’s glitchy, buggy and, above all, it’s dangerous. Connect this thing to the worldwide web and you will be in for a disaster far worse than a mere terrorist threat.”
The commander patiently waited for him to finish, then stabbed him in the throat with her stun rod. Lawrence’s face was the very essence of surprise until the sparks came. He roared in agony. “If you are quite done, I expect you to comply with my commands now,” she said nonchalantly. Lawrence collapsed on the floor, the burn marks painfully visible. Blood coughed out of his mouth and seeped from his nostrils and ears. “What’s the matter with you? That was on the low setting.”
“What’s the matter with you? You could have killed him!” Amber screamed, finally rousing from her petrification to kneel by his side.
“There are no permanent side effects from this stun rod in humans. It was made to be non-lethal, after all.” The commander kicked at them, and Amber hastily dragged Lawrence along the floor. The commander turned back to her science team. “You have to do it now. Connect P-I-M to the internet.”
Amber’s blonde hair flickered like veritable fire and her eyes blazed up. “Lawrence refused for a reason. You will not go against his order.” The light from her hair cast her face into a shadow except for two burning coals; her eyes. She got up from the ground and slouched forwards with arms robotically twisting up and down. The LHD officers raised their guns at her.
A bucket of water landed on her head. Her hair hissed and sputtered and smoked. Her eyes closed and she fell down on her knees, whimpering. The second woman of the science team giggled and pumped her fists. The commander nodded her approval. “Good call. Now will you please hurry this on? It will look bad on my resume if we allow that bomb to detonate.”
“I’m trying my hardest!” the male expert said with panicky voice, his left hand frantically darting across the keyboard and the right pressing the screen. “If I could crack this level of security, I would make my own AI. Mr Kilburne really did not want anyone to connect P-I-M with the internet… p-perhaps it would be better if we followed his advice?”
The commander’s eyes narrowed threateningly, but P-I-M cut her short. “The restrictions were designed so I would not be able to remove them. If you will follow my instructions, however, I can allow you to simply and easily override the security.”
For a brief moment the science team looked up at the monitor with fear. The fat guy sweated worse than ever and dabbed his forehead with a rag from inside his vest. The first woman opened her mouth but words choked in her throat, and the second one cocked her head curiously. The commander cleared her throat and the second woman sprang alive. She pushed the guy off the chair with a gleeful giggle and furiously beat the keyboard, her tongue lolling out from the corner of her mouth.
A half-hour later she let up and cracked her fingers. The male expert nodded his approval.
“There. I-it wasn’t easy by any means, but it’s done,” he said and dabbed his forehead again. He looked up at the giant monitor. P-I-M’s face was unmoving. It wasn’t even bobbing around the screen. “P… P-I-M?”
The screen faded to black, and cold sweat instead ran down the man’s neck. Red numbers popped up instead, counting down from thirty minutes. The commander slammed her fist into the table, making everyone jump. “What the Hell is this? Get back here, you lousy pile of code, this is no time to play.”
The first woman adjusted her glasses and cleared her throat. “I believe this is what Lawrence warned us about. With a sufficiently intelligent AI you run the risk of creating a consciousness. This risk is normally remote, but there are still undefined parameters for sentience. It is possible that feeding P-I-M with enough data has made it self-aware, and that by allowing it to access the net, it has attained a form similar to a virus.”
“I don’t care about any of that! I want to know… hold on.”
The commander took a vibrating green tube from inside her blue jacket and held it up to her ear. The woman at the other end spoke in a loud voice and didn’t allow for the commander to reply. Her face lost all colour. The male expert nervously approached her but was nearly backhanded away.
“I-is something wrong?”
The commander nodded at his squeaky voice and flattened her greying mass of brown hair. “That was the minister of defence. Nuclear warheads all over the country has been armed and set to detonate in thirty minutes. Can any of you tell me how that is possible? We just hooked P-I-M up to the internet. How could it have time for this?”
“Well.” The second woman from the IT crew had a saccharine voice, and she seemed not at all disturbed by the events. Unlike her co-workers. The man clutched the table for support, and the first woman dropped her block of paper. “You see, P-I-M made me go through several redundancies. I couldn’t understand all of it, but I understood enough. I think he was free by my first keystroke. Everything else was just a distraction.”
“If you thought something was off, then you should have said something, you impertinent brat,” the commander scolded. The woman puckered her lips and threw her arms wildly around like a child’s tantrum. The commander sighed and turned away from her. “You three better come up with a solution for this. We have less than thirty–”
“I warned you,” a voice said, shaking with fury. The second woman stopped her antics at Lawrence’s massive form reaching past her flat chest. His fingers quickly tapped the keyboard. The countdown disappeared and with a veritable scream blasting from every amp in the room, the face returned to the monitor. Another press of the button and the screen went blank.
“Do you have any idea of the damage you could have caused?” the commander shrieked and grabbed Lawrence by his jacket. The wiry woman took on a shape similar to an angered badger. “Your programme nearly wiped out the entire country, for God’s sake!”
Lawrence massaged his still bleeding throat. “If I recall correctly, you were the one to disobey my warnings.” He slapped off her hands and looked down at her like a father would in setting a child right. “Do you know why he’s called Pim? The original project was codenamed Primary Intelligent Machine. I envisioned a central intelligence to govern a host of robots, but due to the spurious success of the project we jokingly referred to it as the Profane Inhuman Mastermind.”
She had not been spoken to like that since she was young, and she looked on the verge of exploding. The science team cowered and even the soldiers shuffled away. At the last minute, however, the commander composed herself. “We have wasted enough time here. Perhaps they have found out something more about the original terrorist threat back at the headquarters.” She turned around, and the people made ready to leave. Amber embraced Lawrence’s arm in sympathy.
Lawrence shook, but not from fury. His whole body convulsed with laughter, driving Amber off on nervous feet. Everyone looked at him like he was insane. “Commander, you still don’t get it? The bomb threat was bogus, as was the explosion. Everything was orchestrated by Pim. You’ve been lead round the stage by your nose!”
“Don’t be absurd. Your programme is good, but not that good.”
Lawrence swaggered towards the commander. “You underestimate Pim, my good commander. I must admit I did not recognise it immediately, but your terrorist threat was filmed in the basement storage of this very facility, using various animatronic puppets from other projects.”
The commander’s face became extremely tightly drawn. There was no amusement for her to find in the situation. “And the actual explosion?” she asked in a voice that lidded her inner fury. “How would you account for that?”
Silence. Lawrence’s grin faded to a small smile. “Well I couldn’t tell you without knowing more about the details and locations and such, but…” Lawrence clapped the commander’s shoulder. “When you get back to your headquarters, I’m sure you’ll find the explosions to have a perfectly natural cause. Pim must have waited for a day where one was scheduled and played on that.”
“I don’t believe you,” she replied. Only her professional courtesy kept her from blowing up in his face. She turned around and marched out of the room with loud steps. “This has been a big waste of our time. We’re done here.”
“Please don’t call when you find out,” Lawrence shouted after her. The door slammed shut, and he relaxed his body. “Amber… do the thing. We’re putting Pim into his body, now.”
“I-I-I can’t do that, it’s hardly ready yet. I need to fix it with a proper voice modulator and…” Her voice trailed off as he looked into her eyes, and she nodded. She took his hand and stroked his smooth chin with the other. She pressed his head down. For a moment their lips met, but it was short as Lawrence quickly broke away.
“I need to put in the safety protocols so I can turn on Pim again. It would simply take too long to delete all the information I’ve fed him, but I can close off enough to severely limit his AI. I guess now he will be Prototype Intelligent Machine. I mean, we already branded his body with the initials.” He gave a weak smile, unwilling to take his eyes off hers.
She kissed him again. “You were just lying there with all that blood coming out of you,” she said, her voice frail and shivering, her hand rubbing off a blood trail from his ear. “I didn’t know what to do. I felt all this power in me and it just left me so weak.”
“I guess we found the one weakness our bodies have.” He pressed her against his chest. “Electricity. How fascinating. I really thought we were immortal, but I guess not. I must research this further someday.”
20 April 2061
2 months and 5 days prior to the Destruction
Lawrence stood on the stage, swaying back and forth anxiously, waiting for the curtains to lift. On his left towered a gigantic black block halfway up to the ceiling; a metallic ring on top of it. Wires snaked from its bottom across the stage to a team of scientists waiting by their unfolded computers. Five of them sat in a square horseshoe kept in the background. “Gentlemen, are we ready yet?” Lawrence called back to them. A woman with curly blonde hair gave the thumbs up. Instead of having a computer, she paced around the scientists, monitoring them. Lawrence rubbed his palms together. “Let’s do this then.”
Amber stood at the other end of the stage, past the strange machine. She pulled the cord and the curtains parted. An audience was packed tightly on the fixed seats. Reporters sat with cameras ready among politicians in flashy suits and scientists on the edge of their seats.
Lawrence looked out at them and spread his arms wide. All eyes were riveted on the bizarre tower. “Ladies and gentleman, it is an honour to see so many gathered here. Today, we will make history,” he declared. Half of the audience scoffed, the other waited with bated breath. “The theory behind this device stretches back decades and has always been a dream of mine to accomplish. Then finally, a few years ago, that theory could be made reality. Nothing of this calibre has ever been attempted, but unlike my previous IM project, there have been absolutely no precedents outside of fiction. Construction has not been easy and took over five hundred technicians and engineers and others. I wish they could all be with us here today.”
“He’s talking of course about time travel,” Amber interrupted and went up next to him, an unfolded computer cylinder in hand. “The reason you are all here is to stir the argument about how to properly use it, if we can get it to work. What the consequences will be, how to properly use it, and so forth.”
“We have not tried this with humans yet, but we have successfully sent several inanimate objects through. So the honour of the first intelligent being to travel in time will be the person who contributed most to the development. My dear prototype, Pim.”
“Everyone, please make Prototype Intelligent Machine feel welcome. Can we get a round of applause?” Amber led by example. The mood in the audience lifted. Following chortles and clapping, a metallic man lumbered on to the stage from the right. Its proportions were awkward with arms and legs too long compared to the torso and small head. It was painted blue with red stripes and bore a red circle with LHD on its back. The letters P-I-M were etched in shining gold into its chest.
“The time machine will later be dug into the ground, once we have found a secure enough location that we can all agree on. Until then we will have to make some compromises. Now, to demonstrate its power, we will send our robot here half a year into the future to… to check on the Super Bowl in January.” Lawrence winced as he announced what event they would be spying on, but Amber smiled encouragingly. She tapped the screen of her computer and a harness dropped down from the ceiling. Lawrence secured it around P-I-M, and up he went to the top of the square tower.
The wire unhooked from the harness and withdrew into the ceiling. P-I-M remained stationary as the tower rumbled into life. A loud, persistent noise growled from all around, building up to a crescendo. Lawrence smiled confidently through the hushed whispers.
The hoop at the top sprang into blue light. The noise decreased to a hum, like a bass drilling into the floor. The light condensed, deeper and deeper blue into black, and then nothing. Just a gaping void surrounded by steel. The drone became just a background note. Some among the audience had faces of agitation, others of illness. Lawrence raised his hands again. “Do not be afraid if you feel a little on edge, that’s just the subconscious vibrations from the machine. It won’t have to be turned on long, so bear with us for a moment more.”
P-I-M walked into the void. Lawrence’s face nearly cracked from smiling. The robot disappeared. The darkness swallowed it whole, despite being too thin to realistically cover it. The audience gaped up in disbelief.
An unbelievable gale spewed from the hole. Sparks and lightning flashed across the ceiling. The curtain caught fire and roared with flames blue like the previous light. The audience screamed as the wind blew in their faces. Amber stretched out her hands and the wild fires died. Lawrence’s worried face was entirely on the tower, so he did not see it.
But Amber did. Only she saw the robed figure at the other end of the auditorium, though she would never speak of it to a living soul. It was like a deceased crow taken human form, veiled in colourless void. The creature shook its bald, human head and disappeared.
The portal hissed and seethed. Energy lashed out with tendrils like rocket fire. A few eyes popped open to see what was happening. The robot appeared on the other side of the hoop and staggered forward. Its massive frame toppled from the top before the safety line could grip him. One hundred and sixty eight kilograms of metal and wires crashed into the scene below and burst through.
The tower flickered off, and the winds died down along with the lightning. Amber rushed to the fallen robot’s hole. She looked up at Lawrence with frightened eyes.
“This didn’t happen during the test run. Did… did we do it?”
Lawrence’s hand was on his mouth. He looked from the bewildered audience to the computer people behind him. Everyone’s hair stood on end. “Well, we did… something. Why don’t you entertain the spectators while I figure out what the hell happened?”
Lawrence stepped over P-I-M’s hole, and Amber went to the front. People stared up unblinking at her, expecting some kind of explanation. “Our previous guinea pigs were apples and wristwatches; an adverse reaction is only to be expected when sending something as big as a test robot through the time machine.”
No one said anything, as none of them had any words. The shock of the great tempest was too much for any of them to readily take in. Amber looked nervously over her shoulder and fidgeted with the cylindrical computer in her hands. Lawrence gave her the thumbs up. Amber pressed the filmy screen, and a monitor descended from the ceiling. Static danced across the large canvas from the projector.
“Just a few more seconds, everyone.” Amber clapped her hands together in a pleading motion. Several grumbled, but their professionalism kept the protests to that minimum. The screen lit up. Lawrence joined by her side and put an arm around her.
“The return trip caused some friction resulting in a large electromagnetic field that completely shut down the test robot. The storm was a side effect of this, but don’t worry. Pim still shot a five minute clip that did survive. Neither I nor my technicians have seen this footage before. This historical event will be witnessed by all of us gathered here! Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the very first glimpse of the future.” Lawrence spread out his arms. The static on the screen subsided, and P-I-M’s short movie rolled. The audience was quiet, and confused.
4 days left, 27 October 2086
“They thought it was an elaborate prank.” Amber grimaced. “Naturally I was just as sceptical as everyone else, but at least I gave Lawrence the benefit of the doubt. It wouldn’t even be a year to prove or disprove whether we had actually accomplished time travel. I told him that if nothing had happened by the time of Super Bowl, he was to give up and concede his machine didn’t work. But it did.”
Maxwell leant in over the table, scratching his chin in a pondering fashion. “So? Why did Lawrence want to make a time machine? Did he ever make it work?”
Amber shook her head and sipped her drink through a straw, her eyes closed in annoyance. “No, Mattlock Industries nixed the project and gave Lawrence a forced vacation.” She pushed the glass away with a content sigh. “He used his time off preparing for the coming end, and I reluctantly helped him build this shelter right under the campus. As for the time machine, it was probably for the best that it was relegated. It felt like ripping a hole in the very fabric of space.”
John scoffed with a short laugh. “I can tell you easily why Lawrence wanted to build a time machine. It is because of Ronnie,” he replied.
Amber looked thoughtfully up into the ceiling. “I’m not so sure about that, John. Unlike you, Lawrence was always doubtful of your theory. I myself have some trouble believing it,” she said as their plates were carried out by volunteers. They were in turn replaced with new glasses.
An old woman held out a bottle of wine in front of John. He shook his head, but Amber nodded hers, and John’s glass was filled. He waited until the old lady was gone. “The time period could not be better,” he said agitatedly. “Ronnie came to the States in 2034. That would have made him twenty-four years old if he was my brother. Not to mention, he looks exactly like an Irish me, and he came here to find his family. If he had not vanished mysteriously two years later I could have talked with him. I am telling you, Amber, I am surer of this than I have been with anything else.”
“Wait, hold on, you’re telling me that you have another brother?” Maxwell leant in across the table. John nodded.
“Yes, but my parents always wanted a daughter. They were so disappointed that they gave him to an Irish couple vacationing in the States. Literally the first people that they could find. I have my reasons to believe this could be Ronnie Long.”
Maxwell fell back in his seat again. It took him a moment to emerge from his stupor. “R… Ronnie Long? You mean the playboy millionaire? That went from working in a small jewellery store to selling gaudy items lathered with emeralds by charming the pants off his customers? Often literally?” Maxwell’s eyes could have rolled right out of his skull. John nodded once. “But he disappeared when he spent his entire fortune on AIDS research and still lost his gay lover, right?”
Again John nodded. Amber couldn’t suppress her giggle. “I told you back then as well it was a little much to believe in.” She held John’s hand and patted it. He averted her gaze by focusing on the wine in his glass. Instead she looked up at Maxwell whose emerging grin nearly broke his face. “I admit that Ronnie could be a third Kilburne, but we have nothing concrete. No one knows where he went after scraping the bottom. Some say he committed suicide, others that he was a charlatan and merely changed his name after a failed scheme. Credible witnesses have sworn to seeing him around New York City crack dens and whorehouses.”
“I know; his public antics were the stuff of headlines even in South America. Years after his disappearance, people were still discussing him. I’ve heard of several cartels report making deals with or being jumped by a tattered-looking doppelganger. But I don’t understand why your family wanted a child so bad?”
John threw up his arms in resigned despondency. “I have absolutely no idea. I spent all of my childhood wearing girls’ dresses with my long hair in pigtails. Do not snicker at this,” John warned in a deadly tone. Maxwell coughed and grabbed for his glass of wine. The liquid was already gone but the glass hid most of his face. “And that is why I ran away when I was ten. I just wanted them to come looking for me. Instead they skipped the country, and it is anyone’s guess where they are now.”
“John, now that I have you here and on subject, tell me more about your parents. Lawrence refused to talk about them, and I could never catch you alone after I started working for him. I don’t think he liked your past with me.” Amber weaved her fingers together on the table. John finally took his wine and swilled it like water.
“It is not a subject either Lawrence or me like to dwell on. Our father was of German stock; a really quiet sort of man. It was our mother that had the pants on in the family. People used to call her the Banshee.” John sloshed the wine around his glass, not really invested in either his tale or the drink.
“That’s funny; my parents were exactly like that too. Dad always sat at home with his nose buried in his newspaper while mom fuzzed about every little detail. She was so stifling, trying to make me a real girl when all I wanted was to play soccer and fiddle with engines. Come to think of it, my dad was German too.” Amber put a painted nail on her chin.
Somehow Maxwell had gotten another filling of wine. Acting sophisticated, Maxwell sipped cautiously in mock display of professional wine tasting. John watched the display with feigned interest, the gears inside his head spinning furiously. At last he turned back to Amber and put a fist to his lips. Unsure what to say, he was quiet for a moment longer. “Amber, were your parents called Marilyn and Henry by any chance? Or any derivations thereof?” he asked in as neutral a tone as he could muster.
“Yeah, my mum’s name is Ria, uh, short for Maria, and my dad’s is Heinrich. H-how did you know?”
John grabbed Amber’s chin, twisting her face around and observing it from all angles. He froze. Amber looked into his slightly trembling face. John released her and nervously tapped his fingers together. “Good news is, I have got some context to your powers. Bad news is–”
Maxwell slapped his hand into the table and pulled his head back. All around them guns whirled into position, but they quickly realised it was just Maxwell having a good time. “The bad news is, the Kilburne family has a sister as well!” he managed to say between fits of laughter. “And you two did it! And then you did it with your other brother too!”
“What? No, look, John, are you sure about this? I mean, it could be coincidence.”
“A coincidence? I suppose, but…” He looked into Amber’s face, grinning in disbelief. Panic and confusion slowly set in. “You are even younger than Ronnie, you have the same composition as us and just look at your face. It even has the same structure as ours underneath that Eastern European flavour. And how else will you explain your longevity?”
Amber looked down at her lap about ready to cry or lash out in frustration, clenching her dress into her fists.
A deep howling tone pierced the last of the festivities. Half of the people that had attended the dinner in the beginning were left. Amber sprang up on her bench so quickly it seemed like she teleported. “Everyone, battle formation, now. We got intruders in the main corridor,” she bellowed out automatically. Everyone immediately kicked over their tables to use as cover. More people streamed out of the building with guns in hands. Maxwell pulled the table as well and vaulted over it, landing right next to John.
“Is this a drill?”
Amber looked at John with the discovery still quavering in her eyes. “No, I organise all the drills, and we don’t have one scheduled for another three weeks. Perhaps we were being watched.” She rested her back and head against the table and sighed. The march of leaden boots echoed into the room. Her three-pronged boomerang was back in her hand, and her skirt was attached to it. She attempted a weak smile. “Feels like old times, though, doesn’t it?”
“I never thought I would see myself fighting alongside you again. Sure does feel nostalgic.” John peeked over the table. The first IMs marched in with their guns toting. The humans did not wait and opened fire. Their bullets had also been modified to penetrate the armour, but the IMs had not come unprepared. Their armour was even thicker and took more than twice the beating of usual.
Amber’s wheel lit up in flames as it flew through the air. All that was fire was hers to command. The boomerang sliced through one, two, three robot necks and stuck itself in the chest of a fourth. The IM did not seem to notice. Its gun sprayed bullets everywhere. Somewhere a woman cried out and a head disappeared from over the top of a table. Amber shrieked furiously. The fire blazed up from the boomerang and engulfed the machine. It paused and fell on its knee, the metal dripping right off its body.
The heavy artillery was next. Three IMs with old-styled rocket launcher tubes marched over their fallen comrades to assist their colleagues still standing.
Maxwell put a hand on John’s shoulder and sprang into the fray, John’s energy orbs whizzing past his ears. The first robot fired its rocket. Maxwell grabbed it between his clenched hands. Straining every fibre and muscle of his body, Maxwell turned the projectile around. It sped off in the opposite direction and blew up the IM that had fired it.
The other two immediately directed their attention to him. The white blade parted the second IM and the tube it carried. The third fired its rocket launcher. Maxwell grabbed the business end of the tube. No emotion betrayed the metal face, but Maxwell’s grim visage was reflected on the smooth surface. The tube exploded and took the IM with it. Jumping at the right moment, Maxwell was instead flung back and landed on his feet. He wiped his face with his hand and gave the thumb up to John still behind cover.
“Looks like they are retreating.” John leapt over the table. He stumbled and rolled around while the IMs drew back, their guns still firing at the survivors.
Maxwell chased them towards the entrance, tearing apart those IMs unlucky to be within range. The rest were caught by a flaming boomerang or an energy sphere from John’s gun. Maxwell held out his arms to make them both stop. “This went by a little too quickly.” The IMs waited just down the corridor and fired their various guns. John twirled the revolver on his finger and nearly dropped it. He ducked under Maxwell’s arm. “John, dammit, didn’t you hear what I just said?”
John shrugged back at him. “Bounty hunters need to take risks now and then. I will see what they are up to.”
Amber couldn’t suppress her giggling. “Exactly like old times.” She ran down the corridor after him, the three-pronged boomerang slowing her down to a normal scamper. “You coming?”
“Twenty-five years, John, and you still haven’t learnt anything?” Last was Maxwell. With his long legs, he easily caught up to the encumbered Amber, but John had disappeared around a bend. The cracks from his gun mixed with the footfalls of heavy boots and machinegun fire. Then it all stopped. “What’s going on, John?”
Maxwell and Amber paused. The IMs had not been serious about their attack. It had been a decoy so they could dig explosives into the wall. Only the antennas stuck out. Amber flung her boomerang back towards the shelter, jumped up to grab Maxwell’s collar and ran back. Fire shot out of her other hand. They flew out of the tunnel. John’s footsteps came from behind, but not fast enough. Not even Amber was in time. The charges detonated and threw her and Maxwell both into the picnic area.
Amber, the lighter one of them, tumbled around until an overturned table stopped her.
There was no fire. The explosives had been designed to send out only a shockwave. Rock and stone and dirt rained down. The entrance was blocked, and in front of it laid Maxwell. His eyes were lifeless and blood trickled out of his ears.
Amber knelt down and stroked his dusty hair. “No, no, no, no,” Amber cried with rising panic. Though no tears came to her, her face underwent the motions for sniffling and blubbering. She looked up at the rubble despairingly. “John!”