by Ari Drue
“We are so screwed.”
Les’ eyes drifted over to Hal, his co-worker for the last two years. Every day showed in his face. The constant exposure to the dim artificial light in their office gave Hal’s skin a yellowish tinge. Les glanced down at his dark brown complexion and wondered if his own natural tan would fade by the time they left their assignment. Maybe when he’d been at this for another 10 or 20 years, like Hal.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, trying to see what held Hal’s attention.
Hal stretched a bony finger towards a monitor on the top row of screens that covered the panels in front of them. “NP9432Q is glitching again. HQ is going to have a fit.” After punching a few buttons on the console, he faced Les. “He’s the one we skipped the upgrade on, since we figured he’d be shut down in about a year anyway.”
“So?” Les shook another handful of granola into his mouth from the mini-packet on his desk. What he wouldn’t give for a fat, juicy porterhouse steak with a baked potato. The dried rations HQ provided left a lot to be desired. The tastiest thing in their pantry was a beef stroganoff in one of those end-of-the-world meal packs.
When he thought of the time they had left on this assignment, he wanted to scream. Each team served a standard term of four years, to coincide with the service time of the central unit. Unless, of course, the unit was taken offline early. In those situations, the monitors moved to a new assignment. New central unit, new team.
Hal tapped a few buttons again and watched one of the panels, nodding as the figures on the screen changed their actions.
“So…according to HQ, they don’t know how long it’s going to be online now. And the memory banks are shot. I just went back and watched the tapes for the last two weeks and I’ve counted at least four mistakes so far. Some of the things it says change from day to day. And its obsession with undoing everything the previous unit put in place is deranged.”
Hal gnawed on his thumbnail, a habit Les hated since it gave him visions of little dancing germs all over their work panel. He’d learned early in their working relationship that leaving antibacterial sanitizer and wipes around did no good, so he’d just wait until Hal went out for his next bathroom break and disinfect the board.
Overall, Les believed Hal had a tendency to overreact. Granted, their job was vital. One wrong step and the world as they knew it would cease to exist. Their location kept them safe from almost anything, but the thought of seeing no one but Hal for the rest of his life was enough to send a lesser man over the edge.
The last crew had it easy. Systems went offline when they were supposed to, unless of course, there was a major emergency. And that one being a newer model, its memory banks stored huge amounts of data with no problem. Every now and then it did the unexpected, but that was part of its program, to learn and adapt. Now and then it flared up but tended to stay low key.
Unlike the current version.
This one never slept. It stayed up all night sending out communications to all and sundry when it should have been plugged in, backing up its hard drive. Everyone tried to warn HQ about using this specific model, but they refused to listen. But none of this was Les’ problem. All he cared about was finishing his term and being able to interact with normal human beings again.
“Well, it is an older model. One of the first of the line. Honestly, I don’t know why they used that one anyway. There were newer models they could have put in place, like the last one. That one did an okay job. People were really happy with that one.”
Les half-listened to Hal pushing several buttons on the console, then shaking his head when the figure on the screen began to speak. “It’s getting to be an everyday thing. Maybe we can program it for a vacation, then schedule a data upload. A few days and we could have it back online before anyone noticed. We can run the golfing clips. No one would be the wiser.”
“In theory,” Les mumbled, punching a few buttons to correct a few screens in front of him. “However, I’m pretty sure it’s too late for that.”
The look of confusion on Hal’s face was priceless. “Why?”
“Because only everyone in the whole damn world has seen this unit screw up. Give HQ a little more credit than that. You know how they are. Even when you think they’re not paying attention—there they are.”
He hated to burst his partner’s bubble, but at some point he would have to face the hard facts. The job they filled had been going on for a long time. Long before they had been born. The two of them were just the latest in a never-ending cycle of flunkies stuck in a job that seemed great but turned into a quest to stay sane.
It could be worse. Some of their predecessors had to stay in place for eight years. At the rate things were going, he might make it out in three.
Before Hal could come back with a snippy comment, the console’s telephone began to flash.
They exchanged a look, resigned to their fate.
HQ was calling.
Les watched, amused, as Hal stuttered through HQ’s questions, his mouth opening and closing like a fish gasping for oxygen as the speaker on the other end cut off his explanations. He was content to sit back and watch. Hal always wanted to be the man in charge.
Part of that was getting your ass chewed off by the boss.
When Hal muttered his final “Yes, sir” and placed the phone back on the hook, Les turned towards him, eyebrow raised. “Well?”
“They’re sending down temps. They want us to go topside immediately and upgrade the unit.”
Les sat up straight in his seat. “Topside?” No one ever went topside. There had been rumors of it happening once before, but that was so long ago no one had all the details.
“Yeah. They want us to go directly in to central, run the upgrade and diagnostics, then report back here in three days’ time.”
“But how do they expect us to access central? The other area is one thing. There’s a station there. But central?”
“I know. HQ is going to make the arrangements and have everything ready for us in an hour.”
Les rubbed a hand down his face. “I hope they know what they’re doing.”
Fifty-nine minutes later, the doors to the control booth opened to admit two men. The older one sported a receding hairline and a bulbous nose holding a large envelope, the other one in his early 20s with a head of black curls and startling blue eyes. The younger one seemed nervous.
“Hey guys. I’m Davis. This is Vander. Got a shit storm on your hands, eh?”
Standing, Hal and Les shook hands with the newcomers. “Yeah. Older model malfunction.” Hal narrowed his eyes when he noticed the musical lilt of Davis’ speech.
Davis sighed, resting his hands on his hips. “Don’t know why they won’t take those offline. Cause more problems than they’re worth. And to put one in that position of all things. Just asking for trouble.”
Hal nodded in agreement. “Pretty much.”
Les frowned as he looked back and forth between the two men. “The accent. You guys from Euro 2?”
The younger man spoke, his accent stronger than Davis’. “Aye. Most people confuse us with Euro 3.”
“No. My uncle was from Euro 2.” Les smiled. “There’s a slight difference in the cadence.”
“Ah, that explains it.” Davis’ smile slipped from his face as he motioned towards the envelope. “All of your instructions are in there. Be careful.”
Hal and Les nodded and stepped away from the console, watching as Davis and Vander took their seats. Vander focused on the screen and began pushing buttons, while Davis turned and gave them one last nod before focusing on the screens.
Hal led the way through the console doors and down the corridor to the elevator. As the doors slid open, he searched the envelope and pulled out a keycard. With a flip of his wrist, he slid it into the slot above the keypad, then stepped back.
Lights flickered on the keypad, then the large button labeled ‘G’ lit up.
Hal glanced down at the matching dark gray jumpsuits they wore. “I hope they have clothes for us. We’ll need to blend in.”
Both men stepped back as the elevator doors slid open. They exchanged a glance before stepping in and hearing the doors slide closed behind them. It seemed as though only moments had passed before the doors opened to reveal a bedroom.
Sunlight streamed through large windows into a blue room with gilded furniture. Les walked over to the window and stood watching through thin curtains as people rushed up and down the street, each one caught up in their own little world, oblivious to the machinations going on around them.
Hal dumped the rest of the envelope on the bed that dominated the room. Inside there were two wallets, a set of house and car keys, an upgrade chip, a combination written on a piece of paper, a folder, and another scan card.
Three white doors stood beckoning to Les. He walked over to one and opened it, revealing a walk-in closet filled with men’s clothes. His hand reached out and brushed against the soft weave of the suits, the smooth glide of the silk ties.
As he exited the closet, he saw the other door standing open. Stepping outside the room, he noticed Hal looking down over a large black and white tiled area. Staircases flowed down to the ground level on both sides. They exchanged a glance. “We’d better go read the instructions.”
They stepped back into the room and Les stretched across the bed, loving the feel of the mattress beneath him. His mattress back at work was stiff as a board, designed to keep you from oversleeping. As it was, his chair was more comfortable, so he spent most of his time in front of the screens.
But this…this was a thing of beauty. He found himself drifting off until Hal began shaking his shoulder. “This is no time to sleep. We’ve got work to do.”
With a nod, Les struggled into a sitting position, wiping his eyes.
“According to this,” Hal continued, “we have an appointment scheduled for tomorrow morning. We’re to pose as two business investors discussing a property.”
“It says—” Hal paused and cleared his throat. “It says you’re to take the lead on this one.”
Les frowned. Like the team that replaced them, HQ tended to create teams with one older, one younger and the older always took the lead.
Biting his lip, Les fought to keep a straight face at the grimace Hal sported. “Great.” He held out his hands for the papers. “Let’s take a look at this.”
After reading over the instructions they explored the rest of the house. They discovered three bedrooms other than the main bedroom, two baths, a kitchen, and numerous other rooms. Les claimed the main room with the connecting bath, while Hal wandered off to one of the other rooms down the hall.
The next morning, sunlight flooded through the window. Les rolled over and groaned. He could stay in this bed forever. Tossing back the covers, he stood and stretched. He walked towards the bathroom, his toes curled into the deep shag carpet as he shed his clothes and stepped into the shower. The hot water relaxed his body and the woodsy scent of the dark brown bar of soap with an infinity symbol he had found teased his senses.
The towel against his skin reminded him of the big soft bag of cotton balls back in his room. Leaving the bathroom, he headed back into the room and checked several drawers until he located underwear and socks in his size. After chucking them on the bed, he turned his attention back to the dresser. Several bottles covered the top, one of them with the same symbol from the soap.
Picking it up, he unscrewed the top and inhaled, then dabbed a little on his skin before wondering if he could sneak some of it back with him. With a smile, he replaced the cap and got dressed.
Twenty minutes later, Les was dressed and downstairs in the kitchen eating when Hal walked in. He had to admit, the dark brown suit and patterned tie did wonders for his partner’s appearance. Like him, Hal had discovered a matching handkerchief and placed it in his breast pocket.
“Morning,” Hal muttered before moving to the refrigerator. He removed a piece of fruit and a granola bar before sitting across from Les at the breakfast bar. “Have you found the safe yet?”
Les shook his head. “I checked everywhere upstairs, no sign of it. But there’s an office down here we can check when you’re finished.”
They finished eating in silence, then walked into the first-floor office. Unlike the rest of the house, the study’s walls were covered in a dark cherry wood that matched the large desk and furniture scattered through the room. A painting of a red dragon hung on the wall behind the desk. After exchanging a glance, Hal lifted the painting from the wall revealing a digital safe.
Pulling the paper with the combination on it from his pocket, he punched the number into the keypad. A small hiss indicated the safe hadn’t been opened in a while. Inside, a small tool kit in a leather pouch sat atop several stacks of cash. Hal removed the tools, but Les stopped him when he went to close the safe.
“We’re going to need to travel inconspicuously. If something happens, paying with cash will leave less of a trail.”
“You’re right.” Each grabbed a stack of hundred-dollar bills and broke the band, placing some in the wallets provided for them and the rest in their pockets. Hal slid the tool kit into his inner jacket pocket and threw the car keys to Les.
Les drove the black sedan they discovered in the garage.
It took a few minutes before his simulator training came back to him, but soon he sped through traffic like a native. They travelled in silence, both of them ready to resolve the issue and return to the bleak room they called home for the past year and a half.
Stopping at the northwest appointment gate for Central, Hal showed their identification to the guard on duty who stepped back in the booth and made a call to confirm. He spoke with someone for several minutes, then returned their IDs and opened the gate for them to enter. This entrance placed them closer to the west end of the building, near NP9432Q’s office.
When they pulled up in front of the entrance, a young woman came out to greet them. “Hi! I’m Andrea Thompson, the receptionist for the West Wing. If you will follow me, I’ll take you in for your appointment.”
“Thank you,” Les replied as they exited the car.
They trailed behind her down several hallways until they reached the office. She tapped on the door before leading them inside. “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“No, no. You go ahead. No one is to disturb me until I’m through. Not for anything. Understood?”
For a moment, Les thought she was going to drop into a curtsy. They stood until she left the room.
The unit waved to the seat behind them. “Gentlemen! Take a seat.” Hal and Les sat on one of the loveseats as he came around to join them. On the outside, the unit looked a little outdated, but fine. Unless you noticed the slight twitch in his left eye when he smiled.
NP9432Q sat across from them, larger than life. “So, you gentlemen wanted to discuss a business deal with me?”
They scanned the room, trying to determine the location of any cameras or recording devices. “Oh, don’t worry about that. They’re off for the next 45 minutes. So you’ll need to talk fast.”
Les looked over at Hal and nodded. Reaching into his jacket, Hal removed a small remote and pressed a button. Les checked his watch as the unit froze in place.
“Okay. We have thirty minutes.” Hal stood and moved behind the unit, pressing his thumb at the base of the neck. A hiss filled the air when the panel open at the back of its head and slid forward to cover the unit’s face.
“Ha. That tells you right there how long it’s been since this was worked on,” Hal joked before looking down.
Les smiled, glad their mission was almost complete, until he saw the look of concern on Hal’s face. “What? Is something wrong?”
“Damn.” He gestured towards the open cavity. “Someone has completely replaced the motherboard. None of this looks like anything we’ve worked on before.”
“So…you’re saying that someone’s upgraded this one?”
Hal’s head shook from side to side. “Not upgraded. Changed. None of this is our circuitry. The monitoring unit is still intact, but nothing else.”
A chill flowed through Les. Who would have done this? “We’ve got to get back and try to notify HQ.” With a nod, Hal closed the unit and returned to his spot on the couch. Les sank down in the seat beside him, his mind racing.
“Ready?” Hal asked, the remote in his hand.
Les nodded. “Yeah. Turn it back on.”
Hal pressed the button and slipped the remote back in his pocket. The unit blinked, then frowned at the two of them. “Well, what’s this deal?”
“I’m sorry, sir. You just told us this wasn’t something you were interested in. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us,” Hal said, rising from the couch and extending his hand.
NP9432Q looked confused, then regained its composure. “Right. Sorry I couldn’t help you gentlemen out. But be sure to reach out if you have another opportunity I might be interested in.” It shook their hands and slapped them on the back as it guided them towards the door.
Hal opened the door to find the receptionist, Andrea, standing in front of the doors. Les wondered just how long she had been standing there. “All done? Great! I’ll lead you back to your car.”
With a last nod, they followed her back to the parking lot. Les slid behind the wheel. Neither spoke until they cleared the gates and pulled into the flow of the downtown traffic.
Hal used his handkerchief to wipe several beads of sweat from his forehead, then rubbed his hands on his pants. Les didn’t blame him. If they had taken the unit offline earlier, the motherboard change would have been noticed long before now.
“What are we missing?” Les whispered.
“Huh?” Beet red, Hal had loosened his tie, still wiping his face.
“Think about it. Why would someone go through the trouble of switching out the motherboard, but leave the tracking sensors? The remote worked and the fingerprint access hadn’t changed. It’s like they wanted us to know they tampered with the device and that they have full control over its actions.
“Maybe that’s exactly what they want.”
The sun had set hours ago, so the full moon’s glow through the windows was the only light on the bottom level of the house. Both men sat in the study, staring at the painting that hid the safe. Just after they returned from Central earlier that day, Les grabbed one of the cell communicators nestled beside the stacks of money and tried several times to ring HQ with no results.
This was bigger than a simple malfunction or lack of an update. Someone completely restructured the circuit board inside of the unit, which meant they—and not HQ—had control over a unit placed in one of the highest positions on the planet.
“There’s nothing more we can do tonight. I suggest we get some sleep and try to contact them again in the morning.” Hal stood and shuffled towards the doorway.
Les watched his partner leave the room, head down and shoulders slumped. His eyes drifted down to the device in his hand. The green light on the unit flashed, indicating it was working, but they had yet to receive a response from HQ.
He glanced towards the doorway to make sure Hal hadn’t doubled back, then got out the tool kit. Using a flathead screwdriver, he popped off the unit’s backing, then froze.
Only one of the wires in the unit was connected. It led from the light to a battery that filled most of the compartment. The device was useless. Standing, he threw the communicator into the cold, empty fireplace. It shattered against the bricks, the fragmented pieces echoing Hal’s shattered thoughts.
His head dropped into his hands as he fought against the implications of everything he’d learned so far.
This was a bogus mission.
They were never expected to return.
Whoever set this in motion thought of everything. Les sank down into the couch as everything came together.
Les’ body ached, his muscles unused to the amount of activity he’d faced in the past few days. He missed his desk. He missed being lazy. He missed not having to think about anything. Much less figure out the revelations of this morning. Twenty-four hours ago, life was so much easier.
Les rose and headed upstairs to his temporary bedroom, his mind and body exhausted. Yet, when he slipped between the covers and closed his eyes, sleep eluded him. How would they return, and what would be waiting for them when they did?
Who rewired the unit and why?
He tossed and turned for more than an hour before finally drifting off to sleep, only to snap awake when he heard footsteps in the hallway. His door creaked open, the carpet masking the sound of footsteps moving towards his bed. He wanted to pretend to be asleep, but that never worked in the movies.
Instead, he cracked open his eyes and watched the figure step into the swath of moonlight filtering through the crack in his curtains. He laid there confused as a well-dressed man he’d never seen before stepped into the light.
“Ah, I was hoping you were awake.”
There was something familiar about him, but Les couldn’t place his face. He wore a crisp dark suit, his gray hair perfectly combed back and oiled in place. His lips curved up in the semblance of a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “We’ve waited a long time for this opportunity, for the chance to have someone to follow our directions and do what’s right for our followers. We have so much invested in this. We’re not about to let anyone stand in the way of us completing our goal.”
Les swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Meaning?”
The man sighed dramatically, his hands spread wide. “Meaning that we cannot let you return to your post with the knowledge you hold.”
“So, is this where you kill me?” A sense of hopelessness washed over him.
Les was taken off guard when the man began laughing. “We are many things, but not murderers. You, my friend, are a very lucky man. Someone has vouched for you.”
Les pushed aside the covers, got up, and walked over to the man. “Who?”
A stocky, heavily bearded man stepped into the room beside the suited man. Les stepped back in shock. “Uncle Seamus?” The man moved forward. “Aye, lad. Promised my brother I’d not let you come to any harm. And this lot isn’t too fond of anyone who doesn’t resemble them.”
The man’s smile dropped. “That’s not true! We just feel that there are more enlightened people that should be responsible for the decisions that affect this new world.”
Les ignored his uncle’s muttered ‘wanker’ under his breath. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re going with your uncle, who will ensure you are kept safe.”
“What about Hal?”
“No need for you to worry about him. He’ll be fine.”
A look from Seamus stopped his questions.
Moving around the room, he gathered his things and dressed in the closet since neither man showed signs of leaving. When he stepped out, his uncle nodded and pressed a panel in the wall. It opened to reveal another elevator.
“Come on, then. Time’s short.”
With a nod, Les stepped inside, Seamus close behind.
Before the doors closed, Les saw the smile drop from the suited man’s face.
“Well, will you look at this!”
Vander pushed his chair over to Davis’ side of the console to check out his screen. “It says here that there was an incident and the other team won’t make it back. They’re transferring us to this post permanently.”
“Never heard of that happening before.” Vander rolled back over to his side of the console. “It’s sad really. They seemed like nice guys.”
“Yeah. Hey. Have you been noticing this quirk with unit NP9432Q? Isn’t that the unit they were going to fix?”
“I believe so.” Vander punched a few buttons and brought up the screen Davis was watching. “Creepy. There’s something really off about that one.”
Ari Drue is a D.C. native who has always looked at everyday life and wondered, ‘what if?’ She believes there is a story in everything around her. As an author of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Paranormal, her stories center around characters of color. Ari is also the creator of Terra Stone, extraterrestrial superhero of the Urban 30 stories which take place in a fictional Washington, D.C. Her novel Anterrian’s Heiris available now.