Forty-three thousand, nine hundred and thirty-two feet directly overhead.
Moving at a sedate two-hundred and seventy miles an hour, an F-117 Black Hawk begins yet another leg of the figure-eight course it has been flying above Building Three for over an hour. It’s angular frame bears no identification markings on its flat-black hull, or external lights to mark its presence in a moonless night sky.
It shouldn’t be there.
It shouldn’t be anywhere.
This particular Air Force stealth attack aircraft, serial number 82-0801, named Perpetrator, was supposedly destroyed on August 4th, of 1992 when it crashed due to a mechanical failure eight miles northeast of Holloman Air Force Base; the pilot ejecting safely uninjured.
That’s true, the pilot named in that report is still alive.
Everything else is a lie.
Just one of many surrounding this particular aircraft.
Anonymously, wearing a helmet and flight uniform lacking name, rank, or unit identification, a pilot sits alone with his thoughts in a cramped cockpit that doesn’t exist, officially. Trained and held in reserve for this sole mission, and under orders to maintain radio silence except in an emergency, he stares down at his control panel praying that three lights don’t blink red.
The first will inform him that his cargo, a single B61 one kiloton nuclear bomb, has been remotely armed. The second will instruct him to prep for deployment and open the weapons bay. The third will command him to release his cargo upon the designated target ... an American target ... and quickly escape the near-instantaneous death he’d unleashed upon it.
A far less tortuously-slow ending than those further from ground zero will certainly experience.
His commanding officers have no doubt he would perform his duties admirably.
He also has no intention of living beyond that moment.
“Sir! Permission to contact, Lieutenant Donnell!”
Colonel Forrest, apparently in a staring contest with Becker’s unmoving eyes, replies without turning towards, Lieutenant Lopez, “What for? I don’t see a keyboard* anywhere on this thing.”
Author’s note: keyboard substituted for joystick to avoid annoying nitpicky movie censors.
“My MOS* is military intelligence, Colonel. Artificial Intelligence is more his thing than mine.”
Transcriber’s note: MOS, Military Occupational Specialty code.
MOS35, Military Intelligence Officer (Army)
His eyelids beginning to twitch, Colonel Forrest keeps standing just beyond reach of a very ugly death, and asks, “How so? I’ve never been impressed by his intelligence, let alone a machine’s.”
“Maybe he knows how to reboot it? There’s only twelve minutes left before we have to check in. It’d be great if we had some progress to report before the White House decides to blow us up, sir.”
“Wouldn’t it be faster if you came closer and pressed the button yourself?”
“Ah ... ... - no! He’s the expert. Let him figure it out. Why should I get into trouble?
With his eyes still glued to Becker’s, Colonel Forrest smiles, “It took long enough, but you’ve finally learned to delegate authority. You’ll sleep better not micromanaging everything yourself, and a lot safer for everyone around you. Don’t you agree, Lieutenant?
“I do, sir.”
“Now go make your call. Press nine to get an outside line. His number is on my Rolodex.”
“I’ll be right back. Sergeant Patterson!”
“You know what to do.”
Lieutenant Lopez turns and runs past Patterson. Sergeant Patterson spins until the heavy weapon in his gloved hands is pointing directly at Colonel Forrest, and held steady by a complex web of shoulder and chest straps attached to rings embedded in his ballistic armor coveralls. It will remain so until he’s ordered to stand down.
Colonel Forrest has no intention of giving that order.
Colonel Forrest’s office door is ajar.
It’s also unguarded, and hasn’t been locked since he assumed command.
Just inches above a NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY plastic sign, is a framed Polaroid photograph displaying a single frame from a short film any soldier posted to Building Three knows practically by heart.
Beneath a tortured screaming visage that’s more liquefied bone than flesh, there’s a sentence written by hand within the picture’s narrow white margin, ... He got off easy, you won’t ... followed by Colonel Forrest’s unmistakable scrawl of a signature.
There’s never been an incident when anyone disobeyed that sign.
Lieutenant Lopez is standing silently in the corridor outside this office. His unmoving right hand is hovering in mid-air only inches away from pushing the door fully open. Crushed and heavily wrinkled in the other, is a single sheet of paper covered in hastily scribbled questions Lieutenant Donnell might be able to answer. After a pause of four or five seconds, he straightens his posture and swallows deeply.
He puts crippling memories aside and enters the room.
It’s time for doubt and self-recrimination to end.
He has a duty to perform
The first involves answering a seldom-heard phone ringing loudly within the room.
Standing next to something able to kill without warning is hardly the most auspicious place, or time, for idle chitchat. His military career having provided many similar situations, Colonel Forrest grows bored less than five minutes after Lieutenant Lopez’s high-speed departure, “So, sergeant, was shooting a W27 inside Building Three all you’d hoped?
A muzzle large enough to swallow a fist doesn’t waver an inch, “No sir.”
Familiar with little-known incidents in the soldier’s highly distinguished, but still troubled, service record, Colonel Forrest isn’t surprised, “Really? In what way?”
Patterson’s voice practically drips with regret as it reverberates within his Kevlar helmet, respirator, and face shield, “I couldn’t make it bleed, sir.”
“Yes, that is unfortunate, isn’t it? I’ll see what I can do about that.”
Sounding about as cheerful as he gets, “Thank you, Colonel.”
“Would you like another try? I doubt Lieutenant Lopez with be back anytime soon.”
“No, sir. You might catch a ricochet.
Colonel Forrest’s question was a test. When Patterson initially arrived at Building Three, he would’ve jumped at the slightest opportunity to fire his beloved W27 and consequences be damned.
Colonel Forrest muses optimistically as his eyes remain glued on the thing answering to the name, Becker, ’It’s nice to know he’s finally mellowing. Hopefully ...
“And I got called back before I could reload. I’m only carrying enough for the three of us.”
... AND, THERE IT IS!! Oh, well. Better luck in the future, if we have one.′ Colonel Forrest finishes the thought on a sour note.
“By the way, I noticed you’re out of uniform. Where’s your sidearm, sergeant?”
“I gave it to Private Yancy, sir. He hasn’t been qualified on anything else.”
In mock shock, Colonel Forrest replies, “You gave him a gun?!”
“I know he’s incompetent, sir. And I also know Lieutenant Colonel Baxter regrets pulling strings to get his son into the service, and only sent Yancy here to avoid more damage to the family name. But looking at an unarmed trainee in a combat situation was making me feel sick!”
“Very good, Patterson. I know I can always count on you to make the right ...”
The end of the sentence is crushed flat beneath a lightning bolt of feedback, and a thunderous, “CAN YOU HEAR ME, COLONEL??”
“DIAL IT THE FUCK DOWN, LOPEZ!!” Colonel Forrest screams at the nearest CCTV camera.
“Sorry, sir. Someone changed the PA system presets on the console in the rec. room.”
“What is it, Lieutenant? Anything good to report?”
“Not really, Colonel.
An Admiral Revers called your private line. He wanted to talk to you. I told them you were currently unavailable. I don’t think he liked that answer. He read off the correct code-of-the-day and asked if the vault-fault signals they had received are a glitch. I said no. He hung up before I could explain.
The entire compound has been evacuated. I saw a bus take down the main gates doing around seventy about six minutes ago. I watched it join a convoy of other personnel transports headed due West through your office window.
Due West is upwind, sir.”
“Any other fun facts?”
“I managed to contact Lieutenant Donnell by secure radio. He’s inside the lead transport. I explained the situation. He suggested something and was suddenly cut off. I tried all the emergency freqs. I got nothing but jamming static.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense. What did Donnell say, Lieutenant?”
“It’ll take too long to explain, sir. I’ll be back soon!”
“Don’t hurry on our account. It’s not like anything bad is going to happen.”
There’s no reply to Colonel Forrest’s small attempt at gallows humor.
Feeling movement within his shirt pocket, he gingerly extracts the mouse to find it fully awake. Placed once more within an open palm, it sits up with an intense stare on its furry face that can only mean one thing, “Let me guess. You want another grape?”
The rodent’s response is clearly affirmative. As if preparing for another gooey meal, it vigorously grooms it whiskers while Colonel Forrest whispers to it, “Why not? Everyone deserves a last meal.”
A little over eight miles overhead, a pilot is going though a short checklist. Pushing the throttle fully forward until his plane is moving just beneath the speed of sound, he rapidly increases his distance from a tiny white pulsating triangle in the center of his GPS. He will return when another bright blinking red light on his instrument panel joins the first, and drop far below the minimum safe weapon deployment height to extinguish that triangle forever when the second light is joined by a final third.
It’s the only way to be sure.
Entertaining himself by gently touching the rodent’s ears, and watching how it repeatedly grooms each ear in turn, Colonel Forrest goes down a checklist of his own, “Where’s the rest of your team, sergeant.”
“They must be fully reloaded by now. The majority will report back to their posts guarding the main entrance and critical control rooms. The rest should be just one level down waiting for me to call. Do you want them here, sir?”
Turning his head to look directly at a face completely concealed behind layers of nearly indestructible plastic, metal, and armored glass, Colonel Forrest smiles, “Not necessary. I just need one. A runner.”
His gun sight never wavering more than a few inches, Patterson frees a gloved hand and holds a finger just above a switch sticking out from the left-side of his noise-cancelling headpiece. “What do you want him to get, sir? Do you need a weapon? Some water?”
Patterson’s Kevlar-covered finger drops and Colonel Forrest overhears one side of a muffled conversation, “Send Yancy up to the vault level with a grape. Colonel Forrest’s orders. I don’t know. Check the mess-hall. Move it!”
Anyone, in civilian life, would be instantly dumbfounded by such a strange request made during a life or death crisis. Master Sergeant Patterson and his men aren’t civilians. If their commanding officer needed a hand grenade with a pulled pin, they would unquestioningly do everything in their power to provide one.
Mumbling, ‘Tap … tap … tap … ’ Colonel Forrest resumes his game of how-to-annoy-a-mouse; and, when even that sport grows stale, switches over to bopping it gently on the nose before asking, “Did Lieutenant Carter get to the helipad in time?”
“Yes sir, with about five seconds to spare. Most of the engineering team left with him. It’s been over an hour and a half. They should have reached the Point Oscar bunker forty minutes ago.”
“Good. Were there any problems with the evacuation, sergeant?”
“The Russians insisted on taking the corpse with them. That delayed securing the main lobby doors by two minutes.”
“So you were late sealing up?”
“No sir. Since all the elevators are on lock-down, I used my passkey to activate the cargo lift and carried the body outside myself. From start to end, securing Building Three took nine minutes and thirty-one seconds. That’s twenty-two seconds off our best time this year.”
Sounding surprised, Colonel Forrest momentarily stops playing with the mouse, While still keeping alert for any renewed movement from the statue-like DE, he turns his head directly towards Patterson and asks, “We’ve never come close to beating your predecessor’s old record. How’d you manage that?”
“Training exercises are necessary, but nothing motivates civilians like a DE on the loose. He had that advantage twice during his time here.”
“Doesn’t sound fair, does it?”
“No sir, it isn’t.”
“What about Doctor Everette?”
“He’s barracked inside his quarters. He screamed something about going down with the ship ... and wanting a double-cheese pizza, I think. I couldn’t spare the time or men to break in.”
“Sorry about that.”
“It’s my fault, sergeant. Kelly and Carson have been on my case to ship him out for weeks.”
“I understand, Colonel. Didn’t the previous commander of Building Three recommend you both?”
“Yeah ... all this lab coat stuff goes right over my head. He sent me the best scientist he could find to watch my back. I never expected to see him ... what’s done is done!”
The damaged security door at the opposite side of the room slides opens. A breathlessly screamed, “I’M ... I’M ... HERE!!” accompany heavy footfalls that vibrate the entire catwalk from end to end.
Far beyond the physically ‘plump’ bell curve of the body-mass index chart, an exhausted young soldier staggers towards them clearly focused solely on keeping his wobbling legs moving. Wearing a sweat-soaked uniform barely able to constrain his more than generously corpulent physique, he just barely manages to stop before crashing into the DE when Sergeant Patterson yells, “WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING, YANCY!!”
Turning in Sergeant Patterson’s direction, the young soldier fails twice to find the energy needed to lift his arm before finally managing to extend the grape towards him, “The ... the ... grape, sir!
“Don’t SIR me, Private! He’s ... your commanding officer.”
Barely able to stand, let alone move, Private Yancy struggles to catch his breath and cross the two-foot space separating him from Colonel Forrest, “SIR! THE ... grape ... YOU ... ordered!”
Colonel Forrest plucks the grape from his sweaty fingers, “Good job, Private Yancy. You’re dismissed. Return to your post.”
Holding onto the guard railing for dear life, Yancy performs a sloppy salute and exits the long room at a near-geriatric pace. Master Sergeant Patterson and Colonel Forrest watch every labored step until the white door slams shut.
“In the unlikely event we somehow survive this mess; I’m giving you two months to cut his weight down by a quarter. And I don’t care if chase him around the maze all day and night at the point of a bayonet to do it.”
“Make it three months, sir, and I’ll have it down by half.”
Looking down at the mouse, he’s surprised to see its beady little eyes following the grape in his other hand, “You want this? Here you go. Enjoy.” The mouse pounces on the grape, and, once more, tears through the fruit’s skin with its sharp teeth, “Just let me know if you need a restroom break this time, okay?”
The door on the opposite side of the vault room opens. Lieutenant Lopez has returned.
Holding the handle of a shelved cart topped by a monitor screen, he pulls it across the catwalk’s highly textured non-slip metal surface; it’s tiny plastic wheels screeching loudly as if in agony every inch of the way, “Sir! I’m back!”
Stepping back before turning around, Colonel Forrest intercepts him still several yards away from the DE, “What’s all this for, Lieutenant?”
“It’s everything on Lieutenant Donnell’s list, sir.”
Colonel Forrest closely examines the cart. Just beneath a top shelf supporting a small flat-screen television are two shelves jam packed with CDs, VHS cartridges, cassette tapes, and all the machines needed to play them. And, almost invisible beneath a tangled mass of black cabling required to connect all these devices together, a switching box wired directly into the rear of the small TV.
It takes him all of two seconds to notice what’s missing, “Lieutenant?”
“How exactly do you intend to use these things?”
“I told Lieutenant Donnell everything that happened; from the moment the DE escaped its vault, to when it returned to the Vault room and destroyed all the others.
He said we need to attract its interest, sir. And fast. Any artificial intelligence this sophisticated is likely in command of weaponry we can’t even dream of. If it judges us, technologically speaking, no more impressive than a bunch of naked apes pounding rocks with bones, it could wipe humanity out for simply for interfering with its programming.”
“And what movie or video game inspired this sage advice, Lopez?”
“Ah ... I don’t know, sir. It sounds pretty good regardless.”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing you brought is going to work.”
“Why not, sir? It’s not like we have tons of options.”
With the same hand holding the mouse, Colonel Forrest points at the cart, “Because you forgot we’re in the vault room. The nearest electrical outlet is fifty feet away behind the door you just came through. That’s why.”
“Ah ... I’ll be right back!”
At a pace that would leave Private Yancy in the dust a dozen times over, Lieutenant Lopez races down the corridor and exits the vault room. Colonel Forrest gazes down at the mouse and whispers, “Did you hear what I’ve got to put up with?”
Undeterred by the proximity of a giant potential-predator, the mouse remains totally committed to the urgent task of licking the slightest trace of grape juice from a hind paw.
His headset having both sound amplifying and cancelling properties, Sergeant Patterson answers the question with a mask-muffled, “Yes, Colonel. Do you want me to run him around the maze, too?”
Unwilling to admit he’d forgotten what those headsets are capable of, Colonel Forrest responds, “Let me think about it. Remind me later ... if there is one.”
“Very well, sir. Will do.”