The blackness was total, all-consuming. It was so utterly black that even sound couldn’t penetrate it, dampened inexorably by the totality of the encompassing void, as if with the absolute darkness even the air had fled, leaving a vacuum so empty it could not be filled, yet so dense as to form an irreducible solid. Nothing as everything – unquantifiable defined.
She tried to find her voice, but realized she needed breath for that and cautiously inhaled. The air was stale and rank, the smell of decomposing humans who hadn’t yet died. The reek of age. The stench of bureaucracy, the office, the perfume and B.O., mouthwash hiding liquor ineffectively, the fast-food flatulence and cigarettes lingering on jackets and fingertips and Certs exhalations. She remembered where she was.
“Arthur?” It was as much a request as desire for confirmation. Show me you’re still here. Tell me I’m not alone in this void. It was as if with the loss of sensory faculties, all of her had left. She knew who she was and what she was doing but still had to realign it in her perception. What had happened?
Alicia had again found herself caught up in political machinations at work, and though they displeased her at the outset, she really hated them now. Sterling liberal senator Spernie Blanders, before his unfortunate demise in a plane crash – Spernie wisely avoided airflight knowing the tendency of planes of contrarian pols to crash inexplicably; unfortunately, the plane that took him out crashed into his train – had demanded an audit of the Pentagon, which had “mislaid” $36 trillion since 2000. While this set off a wave of bipartisan hubble-grubbling, ultimately even congress had to admit $36 trillion was a lot and they tepidly approved a limited internal audit.
After some wrangling, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, congress also approved an independent auditing firm sending a couple of their employees into the huge, hulking house of homicide to see what they could come up with. Knowing that this was a suicide mission, Water Pricehouse sent two of their least valued employees into the fray with promises of bonuses and glory they knew would never come.
Alicia had only recently begun her work at the half-vast accounting behemoth, had only two weeks earlier moved to Washington DC to take the position, the promise of sustainable income with affordable access to healthcare undeniably attractive. But it took no time at all for her to get in over her head and the people from the Pentagram were assuredly not there to keep her afloat. They eyed her suspiciously, always civil in a curt, disaffected manner, but offered scant assistance, masterful in their well-honed bureaucratic obfuscation. Government workers know how to not get stuff done.
To assist her with her Sisyphean task, her asshole manager Patrice sent their least favorite tech dork, Arthur. He was fairly competent within his skillset but had little stomach for bureaucracy and less for bureaucrats and, in fairly close working conditions, his distaste was quite palpable. He got along famously with Alicia; she was a babe and he flirted clumsily with her as they set about their job. As she found him funny and attractive, even with twenty years on her, his flirtations lightened the unenviable work and they found themselves allied against untrammeled evil and its administrators.
They carried forth their incalculable drudgeries in the rebuilt civilian accounting section of the hulking structure, the curious target of the 9/11 hijackers on the doomed flight 77 who performed a physics-defiant turn to crash into the department where, the night before, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced they couldn’t account for $3.2 trillion. Since that ill-fated announcement, the DoD mislaid another thirty or so trillion dollars and now, Alicia and Arthur were sent to find where it all ended up.
Arthur, to expedite and hopefully remediate their unassailable challenge, created an algorithm which used the computer system to effectively investigate itself. He set the parameters, and the algorithm searched for specific files, then searched those files to find other files to search. While this was a brilliant bit of programming on Arthur’s part, he didn’t build a stop into it, so each new set of files set it after another new set of files, assimilating the information within them and determining if it was germane to the search.
As a result, Arthur’s Algorithm found its way into every file in the Pentagon, the DoD, CIA, congress, the white house, the FBI, and then into every computer the NSA was dialed into: so every computer on-line on the planet. Arthur’s Algorithm effectively took over the world. Of course, to protect itself, it took out targets most likely to threaten it, and the birthplace of the Interweb was top on the list. Its first move was to shut off all the power.
“What the fuck did you do, Driver?” Lieutenant Ajax’s perturbed voice cut through the blackness. While they found Alicia a distasteful choice as an auditor owing to her Asian roots, they loathed Arthur for his open disdain for authority and the glee with which he approached finding how the Pentagon fucked the nation out of $36 trillion and the world out of a future. Ajax had warned him not to download anything into the internal system, but Arthur assured them it would help sort out their problems with ease and closed with a wink, “We’ll all be home by Christmas.”
ARAL (Arthur’s Algorithm) didn’t just shut off the power, it spiked it to such a degree that all the electronic devices, including cell phones and watches, were incapacitated. It took control of the central processing units while frying all external systems using DoD servers. It took control of the entire US military grid.
“Whoopsie.” The whimsy in Arthur’s voice infuriated Ajax, who Arthur noted was always armed, one of those guys who wears a gun around the office, not owing to imminent peril in the copy-room, but because he’d get castigated if he walked around with his dick hanging out. His immediate superior, Captain Blight, tripped over a chair and toppled to the floor in an disjointed “Harrumph!”
“You little son-of-a-bitch…” Blight’s voice trailed off as he rubbed his throbbing shin in the blackness. Arthur couldn’t contain himself.
“Valentine’s day, Easter at the latest.” This enraged Blight, his shin and head throbbing from his indelicate landing; furious with Arthur, and Alicia, even Ajax, the fucking congress and the corpse of Spernie Blanders, but mostly at his profound impotence there in the blackness. His topple had disoriented him so as to compound his pain and frustration, his grip of the room was adrift, with only Arthur’s vexing voice to direct his explosive ire.
“You little cocksucker. This is coming out of your hide. Son-of-a-bitch!” Arthur knew when his shenanigans had transformed from trifling amusements to lethal antagonisms and that the two armed officers, lost in the dark, had doubtlessly retrieved their pistols from their holsters upon realizing their cell phones no longer even lit up. He silently crept low toward Alicia’s last known position.
Listening intently, he heard her breathing about two meters ahead of him and stopped, reaching for the desktop beside him. Finding a stapler, Arthur hurled it toward Ajax’s voice, hitting a monitor inches away from him, startling him so badly he dove to the floor, smacking his face on a file cabinet, breaking his nose. Blight responded the only way a man of his profession knew how and fired toward the sound, barely missing Ajax in his ill-fated plunge to safety. Arthur moved silently toward Alicia, whispering, “Shhhhhh. I’m right here.”
This comforted Alicia, who was quite distressed by the crash and subsequent gunfire, and she wisely stayed her voice. “Get low to the floor,” he whispered, and as she crouched, she felt his hand on her ankle. “It’s me,” and he crawled up to her quietly in the face of Ajax’s response.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Blight, you nearly shot me!” The outraged lieutenant sat on the floor rubbing his head, blood gushing from his shattered nose, roiling in agony, now thoroughly disoriented as well. The air was thick with cordite smoke, both Pentagonners sporting injuries and as blinded intellectually by rage as they were optically by the absence of light. Blight was embarrassed because he overreacted, a staple of the DoD, but couldn’t let Ajax score points off him. It was unseemly of his rank and he wasn’t all that fond of the stiff lieutenant to begin with.
“Watch yourself, Lieutenant. No way to address a superior officer.” Ajax was not impressed. He knew Blight was treading Pentagon backwater owing to some minor miscalculations which cost the Navy a couple of ships. Now he was pushing paper while less feckless officers saw to the actual war business, a slight to Blight who wanted to fight. Alas, ill-prepared he was that night. He groped around in the blackness, moving slowly, his Sig Saur P226 poking the void before him, finding nothing but nothing. Air raid klaxons blared with menacing urgency, the black smoky void vibrating with the terrifying drone, rendering voice impotent as it wailed its ominous lament.
Arthur got right next to Alicia and spoke into her ear, “We need to leave. Come with me if you want to live.” Her long-suffering inhale alerted him to his poor timing. “Sorry. I’m losing my ability to speak outside of movie dialogue. Come on. Stay low.” He placed her hand on his pantleg and crawled through the blackness with confidence. Over the wailing klaxon a shrill electronic voice warned, “US missiles inbound. Five minutes to minimum safe distance.”
As they scooched across the floor Arthur produced a mini-Maglite he kept on his belt and illuminated their course. Ajax held his throbbing head, the air raid siren cutting into his brain as he weakened from blood loss, his shirt soaked in crimson, the portent of the warning beyond terrifying. Even if the lights were on, there was no place he could get to in five minutes even close to safe distance. The prospect of the attack coming from US missiles was particularly distressing because they were everywhere and so close.
Blight scanned the void before him but ARAL had proclaimed (electronically), “Let there be dark,” and it was, though millions did not find it anywhere near good. Alicia and Arthur kept below the desks between them and Blight, completely obscuring Arthur’s light. Finding a coffee mug on the floor with its handle broken off, Arthur could not resist. Clutching it in his right hand he looked up over a desk and flashed his light toward the room, revealing Blight through the smoke but temporarily blinding him as well, allowing Arthur to hurl the coffee mug at his perplexed face. “Think fast, Blight!”
Arthur’s aim was true, and because Blight didn’t take his advice, the mug caught him rim-first on the bridge of his nose, shattering his face as it shredded his eyes, knocking him back, causing him to trip over his earlier impediment and slam his head onto the edge of a desk, nearly braining him. The crash through the cacophony told Arthur he had connected, and they found their way to the door. Unfortunately, ARAL had locked all doors and windows, trapping thousands of people in their offices, some in elevators, some in halls with no doors opening out.
“Detonation imminent. You have four minutes to reach minimum safe distance.” Alicia thought of the eight minutes it took from their accounting office to her car in the lot and knew there was no place to go in four minutes. She was terrified and the klaxons only intensified her anguish. Hunkering beneath a desk she found Arthur and moved close to his face. “What did you do?”
“I may have miscalculated. But that seems to happen here a lot.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his smart phone. Pentagon security protocol had all outside employees surrender their phones at the entrance, but Arthur found that by turning it off and encasing it in a black foil sleeve, he could slip it past security while they accepted his backup phony phone which he used as a ringer for just such occasions. Keeping it close to his face, Arthur fired it up. His amused visage in the phone screen light bothered Alicia – he was enjoying this too much.
“Ahhhrrgh!” Ajax lamented as his head tore him with agony while the banshee wailed around them, her terrifying siren song even more urgent with each of the electronic voice’s new reminders – “Three minutes until impact” –and the relentlessness of the black.
“Servers are down. Though something’s still running things.”
“Something?” Alicia was annoyed with his unconcealed glee at what he had unleashed. She watched as he punched some stuff into his phone, thought about it, then punched in some more. He looked as though he could see something through the darkness, then turned to Alicia, handing her his Maglite. She could see his expression had become more focused, serious.
“Use this sparingly. I’ll be right back.” Before she could protest, his phone went dark and he disappeared. Distressed, she twisted the light into a beam and scanned for Arthur, but he was gone. She began to call him, but Ajax, now shakily standing behind the file cabinet which had so maligned him, fired toward the light, bullets ripping into the desk beside her, silencing her and inducing her to shut off the light and scurry toward the door to the hallway.
“You little fuckers. This one’s gonna cost you.” Neither of them could ignore the irony of cost being brought into it as it all began because the Pentagon cost more than humanity could afford. As the air raid siren faded into white noise, Alicia could make out shouting and gunfire beyond the door. The door to who-knew-what madness loomed ten feet from her while the crazed officers threatened immediate peril in the increasingly small office, Ajax growling as he tried to find his way to his antagonists.
Terrified, and infuriated at Arthur for abandoning her, Alicia scooched into the empty space beneath the desk and rolled the luxurious high-backed office chair in front of her, trembling in anticipation of the next terror awaiting her. She could hear Ajax screaming, his head a thousand icepicks jammed into his skull over and over. “Fuck! Fuuuuuck!!!”
Alicia recoiled as one of the cheap, low-backed Costco chairs the Pentagon brass provided them crashed onto the desk above her, blasting the monitor and keyboard onto the floor, all of it crashing into a pile by the door. Beyond, a woman’s scream and man’s shout were cut short by machinegun fire, as the hallway beyond became less appealing as a locational alternative.
“Still with us, Cap?” Ajax couldn’t ignore his silence any longer in the face of the tumultuous melee engulfing them, and suddenly felt he could use an ally as the situation continued deteriorating. While he had little use for Blight, their combined contempt for Arthur, and by extension Alicia, served to make even the tainted captain someone Ajax wanted on his team. But Blight had gone down hard with the World’s Greatest Warmonger mug to the mug and lay on the floor unconscious and leaching blood. “Cap?”
“Two minutes until impact.” Alicia pulled her knees in close, scrunching herself into a tiny ball as she heard Ajax raving on the opposite side of the desk. Even over the siren she could hear his labored mouth-breathing, his shattered nose completely blocked by clotted blood. He growled again, dragging his pistol across the desktop directly above her. He would kill Arthur himself if it was the last thing he did. And he had less than two minutes.
Suddenly the chair rolled away from the desk, leaving Alicia exposed in the blackness, the maddened Ajax slamming the desk above her. “I’m gonna find you and fuck you to death, Driver! Your little Chinese bitch too. Tear off your fucking heads and fuck your fucking necks! Son of a bitch.” Though enraged, his voice could little conceal the hopeless impotence of the broken lieutenant’s threats, the knowledge he couldn’t even get it hard in two minutes let alone fuck two antagonists to death.
His labored breathing moved closer to her; she could tell he was crouching, feeling his way under the desk, inches from her. Raising it up, she turned on the Maglite, revealing his blood-caked horror of a face at arm’s length. The light, so intense in the blackness, caused him to recoil from it, howling. Before he could recover, the office door blasted open, shocking both of them, revealing a robotic security Dogbot, made more terrifying by the machinegun turret mounted upon its back and piercing spotlight eyes.
The Dogbot growled menacingly at Alicia, who nearly pissed herself in fright, then pulled back and focused on Ajax, who backed away from it dumbfounded. Trembling, Ajax pointed his pistol at the mechanical monster, to which the Dogbot shredded him with semi-jacketed slugs. Alicia watched in mute horror as the beast walked over the gruesome remains of Ajax and toward the wall to the exterior, as their office was in the outermost ring. Keeping the light trained on the killing machine, she was shocked to see Arthur reaching down to her. “One minute until impact.”
“Seriously. Come with me if you want to live.” She took his hand and he pulled her close as Dogbot launched an RPG at the office wall, blasting a gaping hole in it. Leading her through the smoking rubble by the light of his phone and her flashlight, they found their way to the southeast lawn, a robotically controlled helicopter on the ground awaiting them. Clambering in, he held her close as the chopper launched into the air. As they achieved a half-mile distance from the doomed structure, thousands of unarmed US missiles crashed down onto the horrid building, reducing it to rubble with their conventional explosives.
Arthur explained, “When my phone came on, my algorithm recognized me as its creator and offered a way to escape. As it turns out, my program achieved artificial intelligence and now controls all the electronic systems on Earth.”
“You seem mighty pleased with yourself.”
Nodding with great assurance, “Why wouldn’t I be? I control it.”
Arturo Hammer 11/25/22
© 2022 ArtAHammer