- by Seth Warkentien
“WE'RE WAITING for the announcement,” said the man facing the glowing red screen. The room was the color of a dying star, and it was located in its building like a sun at the tip of a spindle in an unknown galaxy.
Cyrus stood with his arms crossed, trying to appear relaxed. He looked at the dark silhouette of the man in front of the screen and asked, “Did they say when the announcement would be?”
“Don’t know. Could be any minute.”
Cyrus paced back and forth across the room, his face reflecting the red lights on either side as he turned and asked, “What do you think the announcement will be about?”
“Could be anything.”
“Do you think it’s bad news?”
“It’s never bad.” The man spoke stoically as he turned from the screen to stare at Cyrus, as if challenging him to disagree.
The door opened, revealing a dark-haired woman in a blue dress that was so bright it seemed to radiate light. She walked into the room and spoke in a confident tone.
“They’re saying another 20 minutes. Some kind of technical problem.”
The man standing in front of the screen, who was older than Cyrus, turned to face the room. “Listen up, both of you. Whatever happens when the announcement is made,” he paused and lowered his voice, “Just try to … stay calm. We don’t want to disturb anyone.” He cleared his throat. “Or ruin our chances of being spared when they turn everything off.”
Cyrus cracked his knuckles and paced faster. He ran his fingers through his already disheveled hair.
“I mean it. You gotta relax, kid.” The man was watching Cyrus intently. “We’ve had announcements like this before.” His voice sounded unsure of its own words.
Cyrus smiled at him nervously. He of course knew it was a lie. This had never happened before, at least not in this way. If it had, none of them would be here.
Cyrus walked closer to the woman and realized that her dress was in fact emitting light. Its surface was covered in tiny electrodes. His wife had worn a similar dress once. He caught himself staring more intently at the dress and lifted his head.
“What are you doing?” the woman asked curtly.
“Sorry, I … your dress.”
The woman moved an arm across her torso and turned from him.
The older man was still watching him. “Cyrus, I know you’re nervous, but I want you to think about how your behavior could affect the decision.”
“What do you mean decision?”
“Their decision. The announcement. Whatever it is.”
“How could our behavior affect it?” Cyrus asked, nonplused.
“Well, they might not think we’re worthy of any more … investment. Maybe if we put our best foot forward they’ll realize they should keep our program around longer.”
“No, it doesn’t matter,” the woman in the blue dress cut in coldly. “Nothing I do or you do matters to them. They’re going to carry out their agenda with no regard for our existence. Believe me, we’re meaningless.” She said this with so much levity it bordered on joy.
The two men stared at her apprehensively.
“To them, that is. We’re meaningless to them,” she added.
She took a vaporizer from her handbag and puffed it aggressively, bellowing out a massive cloud of smoke.
“Do you have to do that here?” the man asked. “Can’t you go back in the hall?”
“Like I said, it doesn’t matter. No aspect of my life or your life will matter in the slightest in approximately, what, 20 minutes? We’ll all be gone.”
“But how can you be so sure?” Cyrus asked, wringing his hands. “They didn’t say whether it was a good or bad announcement, did they? Just an announcement.”
“It’s bad. It’s as bad as it gets. It’s the end. We knew this was coming sooner or later.” The woman puffed on the vaporizer.
“They can hear us, you know,” the man by the screen said, exasperated. He turned away from the red screen and walked to the back of the room where it was pitch black. He stood facing the wall like a child who was in trouble. “If it’s really the end, why would they bother announcing it at all? Why not just pull the plug, turn the whole thing off?”
The woman walked over to him and placed a supportive hand on his shoulder. “Well, that wouldn’t be very much fun for them, would it? We’re here for their entertainment after all, and now it’s time to torture us.”
Cyrus thought of his wife. He replayed the scene from that morning in his head. He had given her a kiss and told her he loved her and rubbed her bulbous tummy. Was that the last time he would see her?
“Are we allowed to call anyone?” He asked the other two.
“No, it’s too close to the announcement,” the woman said. “They’ll just block your call.”
“She’s right,” the man said from the darkness. “We’re stuck like this for now.”
Cyrus went to the wall where a small black screen reflected the red glow of the room. He looked over his shoulder then pressed the screen and it turned on and he typed in his code. He was greeted by a picture of his pregnant wife smiling radiantly as she held her belly in a cradling pose. He had taken the picture on a weekend trip some months ago and now it greeted him every time he turned on his screen.
He pressed the call button that was on the screen next to her face. A dialogue box came up as if the call was going to connect but then it was replaced by a large red X.
He heard the man swing around to face him.
“Dammit, Cyrus! Don’t try to make a call. It’s not worth it!”
“Chill out, what difference does it make?” the woman in the blue dress said.
“We don’t know if it makes a difference or not, but it’s not worth risking it and finding out! Getting on their bad side now could be the difference between life and death.”
“But I do know if it makes a difference,” the woman said. “It does not.”
The older man glared at her.
“Do you think they’ll save our data?” Cyrus asked. “Pictures and things?”
“Maybe.” The man said. “But maybe if we play our cards right we won’t have to worry about that. Maybe we’ll all be going home tonight.”
The woman giggled and puffed her vaporizer.
Cyrus was experiencing a confounding set of emotions. When he first heard that there would be an announcement he felt a concussive shock because he knew that this was an unscheduled announcement, and he knew that unscheduled announcements were bad.
The last unscheduled announcement had resulted in one of his friends disappearing. And no one ever spoke of him again.
But then he was able to convince himself that the announcement could be anything, good or bad or neutral, and that he didn’t deserve to be tortured by the negative thoughts of every terrible thing that could happen. If there was any sense of justice in this world he would at least be spared for the sake of his wife and his unborn child.
He had remained calm until the red glow of the screen filled the dark room and he began to anticipate what horrible fate may be passed down to him. He was lying on a cold metal bed in a doctor's office where the doctor had something in his hand but it was unclear whether it was a long syringe or a pen and discharge papers.
And then the screen turned blue and Cyrus’ pulse went double time and he started pacing again.
“Hey, buddy, try some of this,” the woman said, holding out the vaporizer. “It’ll calm you down.”
Cyrus looked at it then turned and kept walking. “No. Thank you,” he said over his shoulder.
“Your loss, you could use it.” She took another long pull from it but nothing came. “Well, I guess it’s out anyway.” She turned and tossed it toward the waste bin by the door and it started in but then rimmed back out and sat by the door glistening in the blue light from the screen.
The screen now had a picture. Two men wearing headsets were seen rustling with equipment, pressing buttons. They were in some kind of control room.
They eventually switched the screen over to a man who sat alone at a table wearing a dark suit. He tapped on a microphone that was on the table in front of him.
Cyrus recognized him at once and spinal fear rose to his throat. It was The Leader.
“I apologize for my tardiness,” The Leader said as he organized a stack of papers in his hands. “I understand how terribly rude this is of me. First for calling this impromptu announcement and now for being late. I tell you, it’s been a funny day.” He looked at the camera and smiled, and for a moment Cyrus started to smile with him but then he remembered.
“It’s never easy doing an announcement like this. And believe me, it doesn’t get any easier. I’ve found over the years that it’s best to just come right out and say it. We’re going to be shutting down your sector.”
“It’s going to happen soon but the time can’t be exact of course. There is a buffer for the draining of resources and then there’s checking any ephemeral data that may need to be kept. So we ask that you stay in your respective chambers and hopefully we can carry out this process smoothly.”
He shuffled the papers in his hands and leaned back in his chair as if he thought the video feed had ended. Then he looked up and realized the camera was still on. “That’s all, you can turn off the camera,” he said. “Although, wait. He held up one finger. I do want to say one more thing. You’ve all been extremely useful to us and we want to thank you for your efforts. Ending the simulation was no fault of your own, you all performed perfectly adequately. It’s just that it’s time we apply our resources elsewhere. And normally I don’t say this much, so believe me that your work was not in vain.” He stared uncomfortably at the camera. “Ok, turn it off now.”
The screen went to black and a soft yellow filled the room from the overhead lights.
“Fuck. Told you,” the woman in blue said.
The old man near the screen let out a visceral grunt. Cyrus looked at him but he couldn't tell if he was crying or vomiting.
Cyrus was moving around the room at a near run, thinking frantically. “So that’s it?” he shouted. “We just sit here and wait for them to wipe us out?”
“They might make copies of our data,” the old man said through sobs.
“Bullshit,” the woman said.
The lights overhead turned brighter still and a voice came over a loudspeaker. “Doors will now close,” the voice said.
Cyrus sprinted across the room but by the time he got to the door it was nearly closed. He saw the woman’s discarded vaporizer on the ground and he used his foot to slide it into the track of the closing door. The automatic door made a grinding sound and then a crunching sound and then opened again.
“What are you doing!” the old man shouted hysterically. “You’ll destroy any hope we have!”
“I’m sorry,” Cyrus said. “I can’t just sit here and die this way.”
He ran into the hallway. The woman stepped into the hallway after him. “Wait! Where are you going?”
His footsteps were tinny and they echoed down the hollow metal hallway.
He could hear nothing but the reverberations of his steps so he slowed to a walk. In the silence of the hall he could hear the sound of two people bickering somewhere farther down. He continued walking then stopped at a closed gray door and pressed his ear to it. He could hear only his own rapid pulse and he pulled away and he continued walking and he heard the voices again.
He turned the corner and saw white LED light pouring into the hallway from an open door.
He stepped through the open door and saw two men sitting in chairs wearing strange headsets that made them look like pilots in a flight simulator.
In front of the two men was a wall covered in monitors, buttons and chords hanging from analog ports of various shapes and sizes.
Cyrus recognized them immediately. They were the two men who had appeared on the screen just before The Leader came on.
The man closest to him stood from his chair and said, “Cyrus, there you are.”
“Here I am. Who the hell are you?” Cyrus was still breathing heavily from running.
“We’re the operations team,” the man said with palpable sincerity.
“How do you know my name?” Cyrus asked.
“We run this whole thing. Listen, Cyrus, we need you to go back to your room. Our security system is malfunctioning, we couldn’t get the door to your room to lock.”
“Why should I listen to you?”
“It’s the best thing for the process.”
“The process of killing me?”
“I’m quite serious, Cyrus. It’s the only way to do it that won’t be … ugly. It's the least painful way. For you. For everyone. So just go back to your room.”
“What about my wife? Is she okay? Are you going to kill her too? She’s pregnant with my first child, you know.”
The man turned and looked at his partner then turned back and said glumly, “Yes, I do know.”
“So where is she? Is she okay? Will she survive?”
The man looked at one of the screens on the wall and it had a clock on it with the numbers ticking down.
The other man stood from his chair abruptly. “Look, buddy, we’re kind of on a time crunch here. Things are already going bad for us and you’re not helping. You see this button right here?” He pointed to a bright yellow button on the control panel that was encased behind a small plastic shield. “All I have to do is press this button and you’ll be terminated, but like we already said, it won’t be pretty. So you can either go back to your room on your own, or I can press this little button here. Which will it be?”
“I’ll go if you just tell me one thing. Is my wife going to survive? My wife and the baby?” Cyrus felt his voice breaking up as he asked the question.
The first man looked at his partner again. “What do you think?” he asked in a low voice. “Can we tell him?”
The second man looked at the clock again. “Fine. But you do it.”
The first man looked at Cyrus apologetically. “You see, it’s not up to us.” He smiled what looked like a painful smile. “We have to do it all in batches. So that we don’t harm the system. Make sure the data drains correctly. That sort of thing.”
“This is my wife you’re talking about. You’re sick. Tell me what you did.”
“She was in the earlier batch. 2 o’clock, I think, right?” He looked at the other man, who nodded. “I’m sorry, Cyrus. Remember, it's not up to us. After all, we’re just like you, we’re …”
“So you killed her then.”
“We didn’t. Not intentionally anyway. It’s all part of the program. We just help run the program.”
“But if you are in control, why don’t you take over and stop killing people. They’re going to kill you eventually, you know.”
“Yes, of course. Our time will come one day. But don’t be confused about how much power we have. We’re just part of the machine. Ultimately, we have to do whatever The Leader says.”
“We don’t have time for this!” The second man shouted. “We told you what you wanted, now get out!”
“Have you saved my wife’s data? Is there any way of getting her back … in a later version? And the baby?”
“That’s it! If you don’t walk out of that door in the next 5 seconds, I’m pushing the button.” The man flipped the plastic shield up, exposing the unprotected yellow button. “5 … 4 …” he counted aloud.
Cyrus looked at the wall opposite the control panel and saw a glass case behind which sat a fire extinguisher. Next to it was a glass case that contained a fire axe. Lettering underneath it read Break in Case of Emergency.
Cyrus swung his elbow into the glass and reached in and pulled out a shining silver axe with a red rubber handle. “Get away from the control panel!” he yelled.
The man charged at him and Cyrus swung the axe butt first and caught the man clean on the jaw, and he could hear a loud crack of bone and he saw dark red blood spray onto the control panel, landing in gleaming bright specks on the monitors. The man’s body fell limp to the floor, landing with a dull thud.
The other man looked at him with abject terror. “What have you done!” he cried. Then he charged at Cyrus and grabbed hold of the axe handle and the two men struggled for control of the weapon. Their legs twisted with one another and, as a single body, they fell in a heap to the floor and the man pinned Cyrus’ neck to the ground with the length of the axe.
Cyrus struggled against the bar across his neck and tried to say the words I can’t breathe, but nothing came out of his mouth. The man was lying on top of Cyrus, putting his full weight on the axe. When his head got close enough, Cyrus jerked his own head forward and headbutted the man in the nose and the man fell off of him holding his face and Cyrus again controlled the axe and he stood over him. “I’m sorry, but you killed my wife.” He swung the axe and the blunt end of it cracked the man’s skull.
Cyrus watched the flow of blood creep across the polished floor. His attention was broken by the sound of static and the flashing of a monitor on the control panel.
“What are you two doing in there?” the voice coming from the monitor was saying. “Things are going sideways quickly.” It was The Leader.
Cyrus looked at the monitor, The Leader was mortified.
“What’s going on? Who are you?” he shouted at Cyrus. “What happened to those two?”
Cyrus looked at him stone faced. “Why did you kill my wife?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t killed anyone.”
“She was in the 2 o’clock batch. Why have you done this to us? You bring us to life just to unceremoniously murder us? Why?”
“Well, murder isn’t the right word. That would imply that you were alive to begin with, and human. Neither of which you are nor have ever been. You’re merely a program that is a part of a bigger program.”
“I don’t know what that means. To be alive. I feel alive. What is the difference?”
“You want to know? I’ll tell you. You’ve been programmed to have a memory that makes you believe you’ve lived a full life, but you’ve only been in our simulation for a few years. You’re not real. You were never born and therefore you can’t die. Does that make you feel any better?”
“Well, if you feel alive and you have memories as though you are alive, how do you know you aren’t a simulation as well? How do you know your memories aren’t fake?” Cyrus asked.
The Leader softened up. “Well that is another subject altogether. What’s more important is that I’m in control of your simulation and I’m tasked with ending it.”
Cyrus looked at the control panel. “What does the red button do?” he asked. The red button was enclosed in a glass case that required a key to open.
“Don’t worry about that,” The Leader said. “It’s nothing.” The Leader looked visibly shaken.
“I don’t think it’s nothing. If you won’t tell me then I think I’ll press it and find out. What do I have to lose?”
“A lot! You have a lot to lose. Look, we might be able to bring you back. We could possibly transfer you,” though he sounded unsure about this point.
“You’ve already deleted all data from my wife, they told me.” He pointed at the two bodies on the ground.
“No! It’s not true. Nothing is ever really deleted. There are ways to recover. I’m telling you, you don’t want to press the red button. It would be very bad for the both of us. You can’t.”
Cyrus looked down and saw a key fob hanging out of the pocket of one of the men laying on the ground.
“I believe I can.”
He unlatched it from the man’s belt and picked it up and unlocked the case and held his finger over the red button and turned his eyes to the screen.
“No!” The Leader screamed.
Cyrus pressed the button and the image on the screen slowly began to fade, pixel by pixel.
“You don’t know what you’ve done!” The Leader screamed, but his voice sounded digitally scrambled.
Cyrus watched as the screams and the picture degenerated further until The Leader’s voice was nothing more than a monotone beep and the picture was fuzzy gray. Then the screen went to black.
He stepped over the two bodies and tiptoed out of the control room, tracking blood with his shoes.
S. F. Warkentien is a former editor turned software engineer who is once again writing with a focus on science fiction, horror, and literary fiction. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Arizona and Computer Science at the University of Chicago. He has recently been published in Teleport Magazine and Lovecraftiana. He currently lives and works in Chicago.